The Onyx Vial (Shadows of The Nine Book 1) (27 page)

A sharp ache punctured Hunter’s chest. That was a bit harsh. “As far as I know,” he muttered, avoiding Harold’s sharp gaze.

“I explained your situation to him,” Bardoc said, as if that made the words sting less.

Hunter kept his eyes on Bardoc, feigned listening with intense focus.

But Harold’s voice demanded attention. “Have something Falken Fyrenn wants.” He raised the dagger, his hand on the blade, and pointed the hilt at Hunter. “
You
—”

Hunter’s heart stopped.

“—can ensure he doesn’t get it.”

Relief flooded him. But it drained out just as quickly. “
How
?” He was already in hiding. He didn’t want to take anything on that would put an even bigger target on his back. And he definitely didn't want to go on some random quest. He was already on one.

“Take this with you to Ruekridge.” Harold eased the dagger hilt toward him.

“A dagger? Wait. Why would Falken be so desperate to get
that
?”

Harold’s jaw flexed. “Not just a dagger.” He tapped the pearlescent stone handle with a fingertip. "A deadly etâmic artifact,
disguised
as a dagger,” 

Hunter tensed, leaned away from the dagger. “And you want
me
to take it?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

“One touch—even a graze of skin against this weapon—spells instant death.”

Hunter leaned farther back, but he met Harold’s eyes. “How can
you
touch it, then?”

A flicker of something—pride? satisfaction?—washed over Harold’s face. “I’m Tierenved,” he answered.

Hunter cross-referenced the race with the list Tehya had helped him to memorize: ‘ar’ in the suffix represented air, ‘m’ stood for water, ‘d’ for earth, and ‘v’ for fire. Harold was Eerden and Fyydor. “If you can touch it, why do you need me?”

“Will kill me in four more days.”

“Ruekridge is eight days away at least,” Bardoc observed.

Hunter’s eyes widened. “So you want
me
to take it and die in four days? No thanks.”

Harold looked ready to flip the dagger over and stab Hunter in the chest. “You,
Tierendar
, will not die.”

Bardoc stuck out his angular chin and narrowed his pale green eyes. “What kind of weapon is this?,” he daringly demanded.

The steady calm that washed over Harold’s face was frightening. Hunter wanted to jump out of his seat and run. But Harold was too close to him. Who guessed what the man would do to him if he tried it.

“Not one you want in Falken's hands,” Harold said. He did not elaborate.

“Are you planning on carrying it for any part of the trip?” Hunter wondered.

“No. Touched it. Time's counting down. Still affects me unless I remove myself from it.”

Hunter cocked his head. “So you want me to travel across Ionia with it on my own?”

“Not safe for others past a day. Not safe for me past three. Yes. You’d go alone.”

Hunter shook his head, looked in his lap. “I can’t. I’m already—” No, he couldn’t tell them he was hiding.

“Wanted by Fyrenn,” Harold finished for him.

Hunter’s head snapped up.

“You know I’m—” he swallowed, his throat dry. “You know. And you’re still asking me… Do you even know what you’re asking me to do?”

Harold revealed no sympathy. “Risk your life.”

“In more than one way,” Hunter retorted, surprised at the fire behind his words. Maybe his dream self was rubbing off on him.

Dreams
. That was why Harold seemed familiar. He—or someone like him—had been in them recently. Again, what did this mean? Was he prophetic?

“Hunter.” Harold spoke with his teeth clamped tight. “You have twenty days. Past that, you’ll be too ill to carry it, but you won't die.”

“Oh, great. Well, in
that
case…” Hunter muttered.

Harold straightened his posture and looked down on him. “Take the dagger to Ruekridge, and your reward will be worth ten times more than your efforts.”

“I don’t want money.”

“Take the dagger and you will have family waiting for you at Ruekridge.”

The room dropped away from him. “You found them? How? Where?”

“You will know when you need to know.”

Hunter sat back. Could it be? His family...

The possibility of reuniting with his parents was huge. But so was the risk he was taking. But it was worth it, wasn't it? Keeping a deadly weapon out of the hands of a man who'd sent his childhood home up in flames—whose desire to kill him, if he didn't account for the dreams, was the reason he'd been separated from his parents and raised in that farmhouse in the first place?

“Alright,” he said. “What do you want me to do?”

The corners of Harold’s eyes and mouth ticked up. “Tonight: pack. Prepare your route. Tomorrow at dawn: your twenty days begin.”

Chapter 22

 

The moment the dinner party had stopped to actually eat dinner, Ariana excused herself and slipped out of the house. She thought no one had seen, but as she
ran down the sloping road, Asrea called after her. Ariana didn’t slow.

All the pieces were coming together and the sum of the parts frightened her. She had to see the Strattons. Before it was too late.

“Ariana,” Asrea cried out. “Wait!”

She kept running.

The air around her arm warmed and constricted, tugging as it encircled her wrist. Panic pulsed through her. Then she remembered Asrea’s stunt in the Atrium and realized what was happening.

Turning her focus on the air-manacle forced her to slow her pace, but it had to be done if she wanted it off. Heledian heat and lack of moisture had suppressed her ability so thoroughly that it flowed through her limbs like sludge. “Come on,” she hissed at herself. Her arm was already twice as heavy.

Finally, the etâme crystallized on her palms. Still running, she felt around the solidifying manacle and fused her hand to the thickest part. She pulled. It stretched like taffy until her arms shook, then it burst into harmless particles. The weight lifted. She jolted into a sprint. 

Asrea snarled in frustration. “Ariana,
stop
!”

“Can’t!” There wasn’t time to explain. The Strattons had the Onyx Vial and Bintaro had seen it.

They’d assumed their evidence was straightforward and naturally suspected that Ariana was after the vial. But the portal books were contraband, not Fyrennian, and the documents were Hunter’s. If they knew everything—including Hunter’s connection to Bintaro—they never would’ve brought that murderer into Bolengard. They’d have realized, just as she did, that the
boys
were after the Vial.

And now Bintaro had seen it.

Please don’t let me be too late.

Something slammed into her shins. She hardly got her hands in front of her before the street met her face.

Fire erupted under the broken skin of her arms. “Ow!” She rolled to a sit and checked the scrapes, wishing she’d worn more than an airy short-sleeved shirt.

Asrea’s footsteps came closer.

Ariana fingered the newly frayed knees of her fitted pants, certain a bruise formed underneath. “Gorse it, Asrea. That
hurt
.”

Asrea slid to a stop beside her and planted her hands on her knees. “I didn’t know. What else. To do, Ariana,” she panted. “You can’t just run off like that. I’m still responsible for you.”

Ariana brushed the dirt off her clothes and stood. Her feet itched to move. “I have to speak with the Strattons.”

Asrea straightened. “But you’re not allowed in their house.”

“I
have
to. It’s important.”

Asrea’s face washed with curiosity.

Impatience permeated Ariana’s words. “There isn’t time to explain.” Their eyes locked on each other, Ariana's pleading.

“Fine,” Asrea sighed, planting her hands on her hips. “Go. I’ll catch up to you.”

Ariana squeezed Asrea’s arm. “Thanks,” she said, and took off.

She flew down the streets, skidded around corners, and jerked to a stop as she grasped the handle of the Strattons’ front door.

She burst into the house. “George!”

No answer.

“Harold?” Nothing but deep, stagnant silence.

The front room was still and dark. Both unoccupied bedrooms stared blankly at her. She ran down the hall and into a small, empty kitchen. A clump of cabinets hung over the stone countertop on the back wall. A shallow pantry, its accordion door scrunched open, was tucked on the left side. Dodging the rickety table and antique wooden chairs, Ariana crossed the kitchen and opened the door on the right wall to find a short, dark stairway. It led to a cellar.

“George?” Her voice echoed off the cellar walls.

“They’re gone.”

She whipped around, slamming the cellar door as she backed against it. “Bintaro,” she gasped.

He leaned casually against the wall in the opening of the hallway, blocking her only exit, looking far too comfortable. The black pants and loose-fitting beige tunic, sleeves rolled to his elbows, was a far cry from the tightly buttoned, uniform she'd seen him wearing in Gruum. “You’ve called me that name before,” he said.

He would've passed for Hunter, if not for his sun-darkened complexion, the burn-scarred skin—clearly in the shape of the Fyrennian symbol, she could see it now—that stretched from the base of his left thumb to the middle of his forearm, and those deadly grey-brown eyes.

Adrenaline coursed through her veins. She felt like the baby hawk that had flown through her bedroom window when she was ten. Its chest had heaved with the thrumming of its tiny heart and its round black eyes had searched desperately for an escape.

A smirk lurked at the edges of Bintaro’s lips. “Bin-tar-oh,” he tested it out, then nodded appreciatively. “It’s… cute.”

She swallowed the heartbeat in her throat. “It’s a poisonous plant,” she retorted.

The smirk surfaced. He tilted his head back and shook his messy chocolate tresses off his forehead, then lifted one expressive brow. “A handsome and charming poisonous plant?”

Ariana’s stomach churned. He was as charming as slime. “Don’t flatter yourself.”

He laughed. “Don’t have to,” he said, in some way amused by his own response.

He was toying with her; a bored, spoiled housecat batting around a mouse too broken to run, reveling in its misery instead of eating it.

But Ariana wasn’t broken. And Asrea was on her way.

“What are you doing here?” she asked cautiously, troubled by the absence of sound from the vial. “Where are George and Harold?”

He crossed his strong arms. “I told you. They’re gone.”

His vagueness made her tense. He could just as easily have meant ‘dead and gone’ as ‘gone to lunch’. “Where did they go?”

“Your name is Ariana, right?” he asked.

“Where are the Strattons?” she insisted.

He studied her as if deciding something, then shrugged. “I’m not allowed to say.”

“And I’m not allowed to be here—thanks to you. But here I am. You owe me.”

His face was unreadable. He could have been amused or taken aback, but it was hard to tell. “I save you from your own reckless nullity, and
I
owe
you
?”

So he
did
know that was the Onyx Vial.

Ariana glared at him. He was so in command, so unfazed by her, that he made her feel inferior. She hated it. “You didn’t save me. You had me thrown in prison before I could explain. And I am
not
null.”

He shrugged. “I had them grab you so you wouldn't touch it. It wasn't my choice to throw you in a cell. And perhaps not. But what you were doing was.”

“You aren’t my mother,” she snapped.

He flinched.

“What did you do with the Vial? We both know the Strattons had it, but now it’s not here. Did you steal it?”

For a moment, he almost seemed surprised. Then the humor seeped from his eyes. “The Strattons were right. You’re a liability.”

“Gorse it, Bintaro.
You
’re the liability.”

“My name’s actually Killian. But you can—”

“I know what your name is, you
spurge
, just answer my questions.”

He pushed off the wall, suddenly taller, threatening, his eyes as black as charred wood.

Ariana startled, but she held her ground.

He aimed his palm at her chest. A blood-encrusted ruby pendant dangled from a chain she hadn’t noticed doubled around his wrist. “Don’t.
Ever
. Address me like that again.”

A charge filled the room, fueled by a sudden strobing shift in temperatures. Ice formed in Ariana’s veins. “What are you going to do?
Murder
me like your mother?”

Bintaro’s charcoal eyes drained to an ashen grey. His entire body drew taut. He curled his open palm into a fist, and pointed a finger at her. “You
dare
to accuse the Prin—” his face showed, for a fraction of a blink, that he’d slipped—“Property of the Strattons?”

Ariana’s eyes widened. He wasn’t going to say property. He was going to say
prince
. Lawks, the conclusion she’d drawn about him the day she’d entered Bolengard was spot on. She was suddenly, painfully aware of her fear as it gripped her around the throat.

But she forced herself to ignore it.

She stepped forward, moving around the table to plant herself two strides away from him. “It’s pretty easy when I know it’s the truth,
Prince
Killian.”

He licked his bottom lip and shook his head. “You don’t know a flaming thing,” he growled, closing the gap between them.

Killian pressed his face to within inches of hers. His deadwood eyes bore into Ariana with such fierce intensity, she started to shiver.

He was going to kill her. What was she thinking, arguing with him? How brash. How null. How… hadn’t she noticed that he’d moved away from the doorway?

A chill of hope swept over her. She focused it into her palms. The effectiveness of a lukewarm wind as a defense against Falken’s progeny was poor at best. But she only had to make it to the street.

She steeled herself and matched his gaze. “I know the people of Bolengard would
kill
to keep you out of this city,” she said. 

“They don’t need to know I’m
in
it,” he replied.

She readied the charge. The wind swirled at the surface of her skin. “Too bad.”

Killian narrowed his eyes. “Why is that?” he asked, his voice a low rumble.

“Because I’m going to tell them.” She slammed her palms into his chest and pushed. An gust of wind rolled over him, knocking him into the kitchen table.

Ariana launched toward the hallway, but Killian’s foot hooked her ankle as he fell, pulling her down with him. Her elbows smacked into the stone tiles, exploding in pain. Memories of the attack in Pabl’s bookstore roiled to the surface of her mind. She scrambled to get back on her feet and reach the hall. A chair clattered to the floor. Killian’s hand gripped her boot and held her back. Ariana rolled onto her back and kicked at him with her free leg, but his other hand stopped her from making contact and locked around her ankle.

He had her in a tight grip.

Using him as an anchor she pulled herself into a sit and swung a fist at his face.

Killian dodged it easily. “Stop!” he demanded.

She swung again.

Killian ducked it and jerked her legs straight, throwing her off balance. Ariana’s back hit the ground, but she kept her head up, sparing herself the concussive blow.

With speed Ariana had not anticipated, Killian was on top of her, pinning her arms to her sides. She howled in pain as his kneecaps dug into the tender healing wounds on her lower thighs. But the sound was cut short.

An invisible barrier of air clamped over her mouth, silencing her.

Her eyes widened in fear. Her heart threw itself wildly against her ribcage. She was the hawk, panting, panicked—the mouse, her tail pinned by his heavy feline paw. 

“Stop it,” he barked. “Stop screaming.”

She couldn’t breathe. The flesh in her legs was going to give and the bones beneath were ready to snap. Too much pain. Not enough air. She wailed through the invisible gag and thrashed beneath him, but she could barely wriggle.

Killian stared into her eyes with murderous intensity. He gripped her arms tighter, pinching her muscles and tendons together. “I don’t have the Vial, Ariana,” he said. “The Strattons took it. They took it and they left.”

His face wavered as tears flooded her eyes and obscured her view. She whimpered and her chest constricted with the effort to hold back the pain.

Killian kept talking, his tone earnest. “It’s in Ionia,” he said. “I don’t have the vial.” 

A loud ringing drowned out his words. She felt dizzy, and her lungs refused to pull in more than short bursts of air. The panic forced the tears in her eyes to spill over. She had to fight him off her.

With every ounce of self control she could muster, Ariana soaked the welling tears into her skin and channeled them to her hands. It was not a lot of water, and she only had one chance before she passed out, but if she hit him just right…

The ringing became a roaring white noise. The air in her lungs was nothing but tingling vapor. But she focused all her energy on the water, and as it seeped from her palms, she froze it, forming two sharp, thin, finger-length icicles.

H
is grip on her biceps slackened. In that instant, she bent her elbows and slapped her palms against his forearms—the only part she could reach. The icicles’ tips lodged into his flesh at the same moment that heat burned from his hands into her arms. 

There was a crackle of static, then a bright explosion of sparks and a shockwave that thumped into Ariana’s chest like the hoof of an Heledian horse. The world went white, and Ariana blacked out.

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