Chapter One

Driven By Whispers

The first weeks of autumn were always stormy, and this night crashed to earth with its fullest tempest. Harsh rains pelted the drying greenery, and the wind screamed at the obstinate stones of the small town's buildings, screeching indignation that they dare stand firm against it. All who had sense were huddled in their homes, while travelers and merchants gathered for gossip and community in the tavern, waiting the storm out before taking to the road.

Only one person dared to be out in such vile weather, running for their life. Under the roar of the wind and the hiss of rain, they thought they could hear the pack closing in. It was a lie, of course; You never heard a Whisper, unless it was far too late. Fleeing the pack, they risked a glance over their shoulder while rounding a bend in the road. The pack was still hot on the trail. It was stupid to run, it only excited the hunt, but if there was a chance for survival the pack needed to be thinned.

One of the Whispers had caught up to the prey, outpacing the rest. Keeping up their hellbent sprint forward until the last second, then spinning to attack. The time for running was over.

In the midst of the town of Ironmeadow, the tavern was bustling. Being right across the street from the Inn made it a natural stop for any merchants and travelers looking for a little gossip and respite. The warmth of candles scattered across the tables cast sporadic patches of light throughout the tavern. Near the bar, the roaring hearth was the steadiest source of illumination. The bartender was a man in his late thirties, practically an elder. With hair just starting to gray at the temples, his otherwise deep brown hair looked almost black in the low light. The rich golden tone of his skin belied a southern ancestor; A rare trait for one living in a remote northern town. He absently wiped a rag over the bar as he listened to the storm rage against the walls of the sturdy tavern. His gaze swept over the crowded room, keeping an eye on the rowdier guests and checking that the maids were handling themselves well. A raised hand from down the bar signaled a pint to refill. As he poured the beer into the customer's glass, the tavern door swung open, catching his eye. All the locals were accounted for, by his eye, and same for the travelers. Who else would be coming in so late?

Though a flash of lightning would have been poetic, only the sound of the storm heralded the newcomer's entrance. The hood of the cloak was pulled forward to shield their face. Waterlogged garments dripped as they stumbled toward the bar, collapsing onto a stool as if their legs could go not a single step further. The tavern had fallen silent. Frowning warily, the barman approached until he stood in front of the newcomer.

"What can I get you, stranger?"

A hand shot out from beneath the sodden cloak, and clenched a fist in the barman's sleeve. The grip was strong, but starting to shake, and blood was smeared down the arm. A voice, exhausted, hoarse and decidedly feminine croaked out.

"Help. Me."

Her strength at an end, she slumped over the counter as she lost consciousness. The barman was still prying off her death grip on his sleeve, when the tavern door opened a second time.

There was no mystery around the identity of this newcomer. Dull silver armor glistened from the rain. The blue cloak clasped to the shoulders and the insignia over the heart on his breastplate completed the uniform the Emperor's Guard. The only part that was not strictly regulation was the medium cut of his hair, which, being soaked with rain, looked black in the low tavern light. Even in his armor he made little sound when he crossed to the bar. His face was handsome enough, with pleasing angles and a chin that looked like it could come away the better for a disagreement with a fist. Except for the nose which crooked to the side one would say his looks were near flawless.

Right now that not-quite perfect face was set in an expression as cold and hard as stone. As he approached the stool that the cloaked woman had collapsed on, he frowned down at the grip of her hand on the bartender's sleeve. Silence rippled through the room as all eyes were on the guard. Without seeming to notice this, and with little visual effort, he pried the hand loose from the bartender's sleeve, then lifted the woman and slung her over his shoulder.

The bartender, though having not spoken more than a few words to the cloaked woman, opened his mouth to protest. Imperial Guard or no, he couldn't watch a woman be carried off without something to say about it. Before it could be voiced, however, the Guard threw down a handful of coins. They glinted gold in the firelight.

"Imperial business." He said, his voice low, but the room was so silent that no one would have trouble hearing. "We were never here." He nodded at the gold coins that had skidded across the bar. "For the house."

The bartender ignored the coins as the bribe they were; Stranger or not, the woman was wounded, and though the presence of an imperial guard made him consider that she may be a criminal, she had asked for help.

"What'd she do?" He asked, nodding to the woman still slung over the guard's shoulder.

The stony expression on the guard's didn't falter for a moment. "That's the Emperor's business."

The bartender let him go. It wasn't really his business in the first place anyway. At first he was going to leave the coins where they lay. Only after a few covetous looks from down the bar did he pick them up and place them in a pocket. After all, gold was gold.

It hadn't taken much more than a coin or two to secure the room and the Innkeeper's silence. He didn't really think he needed to be so cautious in a town so removed from Aelhill, but he was still part of the Imperial Guard, and she had her own reputation to protect. He looked down at the woman he had carried from the tavern and laid across the small bed and began to treat her wounds. Now that they were out of the rain again, the smell of her blood indicated that at least some of them were still open.

Starting with the cloak, he unhooked the fastenings holding it closed and slipped it out from behind her shoulders. It seemed she'd been in the storm longer than he; Not only was her cloak soaked, but so was the dark brown tunic she wore underneath, as well as the entire lower half of her skirt. Removing all he dared, he left the corset and long chemise to preserve as much of her dignity as he could. He also had left the silver pendant she wore around her neck. On it's long chain, the disc edge held embedded seed pearls, each one had a faint blue tint to their otherwise perfect color. In the center of the disc was a thumb sized emerald. Though he hadn't seen the necklace in nearly five years, he knew the inscription engraved on the back like it was seared into his heart.

Though the words themselves were in an ancient language from before the empire was formed, they translated into a small poem he'd spent months creating.

By hand of God or twist of Fate

Our lives shall be entwined

Through Soul, Body and Mind

Till we're met at Dark Wood's Gate

He'd given it to her seven years ago, when they stood before a traveling priest and pledged their love and their lives to each other. This they did in secret, due to their respective positions.

For two years they hid their connection, living together in a small cabin outside of a town near the capital city of Aelhill. Whenever they weren't on active duty, they shared the simple seclusion and enjoyed the time to themselves, joking of when they'd be able to retire and begin their family.

He remembered with crystal clarity the night he came home from his latest stretch of duty and found her gone. While on duty, they stayed in rooms kept for them in the castle, and thus it was easy to keep tabs on who was active, on missions or on a break. She was supposed to have started her break two days ago. She was supposed to be there, leaning against the door frame and grinning at him, blue eyes sparkling and her golden brown hair brushing across her shoulder as she flicked it back with a jerk of her head.

But she hadn't been there. She hadn't been anywhere in the cabin or in the forest surrounding it and their small self-sufficient garden. What tracks he found were over a day old, and going cold. In the cabin, he saw signs of both a struggle and a hasty departure. Small things had been packed, and the front door secured. He was supposed to have had a few weeks off duty, and he spent every moment searching for her. It wasn't until a fellow guard found him in a neighboring town, informing him he was required back on duty that he knew the pain of despair.

Thus his hollow heart had twisted in irony, when he returned to the castle only for the Emperor himself to give the order. The words replayed in his mind even now.

"One of my Hearts has disappeared from being off duty. She was supposed to return a week ago."

The pain of that knowledge twisted in his belly, stiffly he had nodded in understanding.

"You are one of the best trackers in my guard, and your loyalty has been unquestionable. If she has been captured, we need to know by who and how much they've learned. I cannot send another Heart, so I am asking you to track her or her captors down and bring her back if able. A purse of 200 gold will be provided for travel expenses."

His back had straightened almost imperceptibly. "Yes sir, right away." Having been dismissed, he tuned sharply on his heel and marched away. A fierce flame of hope burned in his chest. He would find her. With the support of the Empire behind him, he would find her.

Now, five years since he began his hunt, the funds had run low long ago, but he had succeeded. He found her, and he was never going to lose her again. While he'd been thinking back, he'd cleansed and treated her wounds. The gouge down her side, the gash in her shoulder, and what may have been a bite mark had all been dealt with. He'd also seen scars that he didn't recognize. They weren't fresh. What had been she been doing all this time? He skimmed his focus down her form, lingering on her left hand. The simple silver band with a small emerald gracing it's center didn't look like a wedding ring, and that was the point. Those in close service to the Emperor weren't to marry. It made them vulnerable, and that couldn't be allowed. It hadn't stopped them for a moment.

The wounds treated, he pulled a rough wooden chair to the corner of the room and sat to wait for her to awaken.

The darkness that drowned her at the tavern started to recede, heralding the pulses and echoes of pain. Chief among the pains was the dull throb in her side. Fucking guard. Fucking Whispers. Fucking everything that was going wrong with this mission. Her shoulder felt restrained by the bandages wrapped tightly around it. The soft bed beneath her, though, was the best thing she'd felt in the last three weeks of travel.

Soft... bed?

She never made it to the Inn. It had been all she could do to stagger through the door of the tavern and make it to a stool, asking the bartender for help in a moment of desperation. So where the hell was she now?

She jolted upright, her hand instinctively reaching for the dagger at her hip. It wasn't there. Nor were most of her clothes. A familiar dread twisted in her stomach. It was going to be alright. She checked herself for any additional hurts, and, for a moment, she thought she heard his cold, lifeless laugh. She found none. No signs anything had been done to her other than her wounds being treated. She sighed in relief. Lost in that moment of thanks, she completely missed the man sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. He shifted, ever so slightly, but it was enough to alert her. Leaping to her feet, she braced herself in a defensive stance. Her instinct was to take in everything about the opponent. However, whenever she tried to look at his face, a white hot pain seared through her head. She stuck with staring at the wall behind his shoulder. It was the only way she could focus.

She knew it was the guard from last night. The one who had been tracking her through her last three posts and hiding spots.

"Who the hell are you?" She demanded. Why couldn't she look him in the face?

He watched her, his hands clenched on his knees. The first moments of her wakefulness had been telling. First the reach for her dagger, that he had expected. She had always been best with a dagger, and the one with the bright green tassel he'd lain across her clothes on the desk had been her favorite. What she'd done next had surprised him. He would have thought she'd check her wounds. The ones on her shoulder and side. But instead she clutched her lower abdomen and around it. Then she'd noticed him. She must be getting rusty not to have sensed him sooner. The leap off the bed was spry enough still, and graceful as ever, but her question ripped at his heart.

"Now, there's a cruel question." He said, keeping his eyes on hers. Eyes the shade of frozen lakes, an abyss in blue. She wouldn't meet his gaze, and that caused his already scarred heart to bleed. Every time she seemed to come close, her gaze darted away with a flinch. "It's been a long time, Dria."

The name surprised her enough that for one instant, her eyes flicked to his. Their gaze locked onto each other, and then she screamed.

No one had called her that in years. Unable to resist, she flicked her gaze to his face. He'd been gazing intently at her, so it was only then that their gazes locked. In that moment, something began to stir in her mind, like a flutter of wings locked behind a door. Then an invisible spike jammed into her skull and lit on fire. Unable to stand the agony, she screamed.

The scream had him lunging out of the chair. She had sunk to the floor, nails digging into her scalp like she was going to pry her skull apart. Thin whines were squeezing themselves from her throat. It terrified him. Just last night, as she had been fleeing from an inconspicuous spot near a tavern in another town, he'd mistook her for an enemy informant and shot at her with his crossbow. He knew it had at least grazed her shoulder, but she kept running. It was only when she had thrown an irritated glance over her shoulder that he'd recognized her, and he'd nearly dropped the weapon.

Dria had been known to be fearless about pain, having once dug the head of a bolt out of her own calf after the shaft had been broken off. But here she was, writhing in agony, with no perceivable cause. He grabbed her wrists to stop her from scalping herself. With a shriek, she flung herself away from him with all the grace of a wounded animal.

She couldn't stand his touch. When he grabbed her wrists the muscle and bone beneath his grip had become live embers. What was happening to her?

"Just leave me alone!" She pleaded with him. The pain in her head had stripped away her pride. "Why can't you leave me alone?"

His throat threatened to close, choked with distress over her pain and his complete inability to help her. He forced the words out, though they sounded strangled.

"Because I finally found you. I've been looking for you for so long. So damn long."

Even his voice caused the pain to spike now. She huddled in defense, legs drawn up and arms wrapped around them. Face hidden against her knees, she fought for the strength to breath through the pain, to no avail.

She, who had endured the tortures of the Dark Queen and her generals, sobbed in the anguish of his presence.

"Why were you looking for me? I don't know you."