It was agony, pure and simple. He couldn't believe it. How? How could she not know him? From the moment they met on the castle grounds, she had drawn him. Honey blonde hair, that then had no streaks of color. A lithe build, strong and capable. But it was her eyes that had locked him on his path to her. A blue so dark, that they looked black, save when she smiled.
Now she couldn't even look at him. The fiercest soldier trained in the secondary force, and had knocked him on his ass for weeks before he learned how to counter her favorite attack. The woman who had stolen his breath at the winter ball, then broke his nose when the ale had gotten the better of his tongue. It had taken him months before he saw her beyond the training yard after that. She had joked that he was like a hound on the hunt when he was courting her. It was really like spending years drowning and finally finding the surface. When she left, it was like drowning again.
Now he'd found her, and she couldn't even look him in the face.
"How can you not know me?" He asked. She shook her head, biting her lip to keep from howling.
He took a breath, he had to calm down. There was a story here, and he had to figure it out.
"Where did you go? Where have you been? Can you answer me that?"
Her shoulders hunched, but at least she could think of the last five years without pain. Beyond that... it was unspeakable.
She kept her head down, but she moved her arms so she could speak clearly. He was a stranger, just a stranger. She could talk to a stranger.
"I've been on assignment for the Dark Queen."
He jolted, but she wouldn't look at him.
"Why would you work for the Dark Queen? You're an imperial soldier! One of the Shadow Hearts! You–" His words were cut off by her screams. She writhed on the floor like she was on fire. She rolled and twisted, trying to put out the fire that was consuming her from the inside. He was at her side in an instant, but the moment he touched her, she screeched and flinched away. To his astonishment, bright red marks like fingerprints flared to life on her arm where he had tried to touch her. She was hot to the touch, like a fever running much too high.
He almost reached for her again on instinct, but she scrambled away shrieking "Don't touch me!"
He backed away slowly, watching the way she looked at everything in the room but him.
"What is happening to you?" he whispered, his throat too tight to allow anything else.
A few tear ran down her cheeks as she stared fixedly at the wall. "I wish I knew."
When the man had mention the Shadow Hearts, a memory flickered for an instant. Warm, happy, and bright. Then it flashed into searing heat. She felt invisible flames lick at her flesh, and some ghostly hatched bury itself in her forehead. She writhed, trying in vain to put out the flames in her blood. Out of concern, the man was at her side. She didn't have time to process dread before he gripped her arm. Instantly the flames focused under his touch and she screeched. She didn't see the burns his touch caused, but he did.
He asked what was happening. She wished she knew. She desperately wished that she knew why she couldn't look at this stranger without agony burning in her veins. Why couldn't she stretch her mind back more than half a decade without a splitting headache turning her thoughts away?
Why was this happening to her?
"What have you been doing for the last five years?" He asked quietly. At least if he was sitting across the room, his voice only caused a low smolder.
"I got injured. The Whispers had cornered me. The closest place that had enough Cristle powder on hand was the Dark Queen's barracks. There was a price to her aid... a price I couldn't pay. Now I am in her service in lieu of that payment."
"What was the price you couldn't pay?" He asked, thought she wouldn't meet his gaze, his eyes remained fixed on her face.
She winced, and shook her head. "I don't know. I just know I couldn't pay it."
She managed to sit up, still avoiding his gaze. "So, Sir..."
He interrupted her, "My name's Kerith. You should know-" He shut up as she clutched her head and tried to muffle her scream to a piteous whine. When she stopped whining, she looked up, avoiding his gaze. Her eyes looked bleary and blank. She looked toward him at least, if not directly at him.
"I'm sorry," She said a little dazedly. "Who are you?"
He thought for a moment in silence. Obviously he couldn't tell her his real name without causing her intense pain.
"You can call me Jared."
She nodded, accepting it with as little question as possible.
"What are you doing here, Jared?"
He swallowed, trying to think if his answer would cause whatever curse that was laid upon her to flare up. "I was looking for you."
She glanced at the wall above his head, avoiding looking at him directly. "Why?"
He looked at her left hand. It still held his ring, the one he'd saved every copper for the three years they had courted. It was plain enough. Just a simple band of silver with a single emerald, flanked by the smallest of blue seed pearls to match her pendant. It didn't especially look like a wedding band.
That was the point of it, after all. Soldiers in the Imperial Guard aren't really supposed to marry, and then only after getting the proper paperwork. They hadn't gotten the paperwork, as marriages within the ranks was even more frowned upon. Instead they had a small, private ceremony with a traveling monk officiating. Only the two of them were supposed to know they were husband and wife.
The lump in his throat wouldn't go away. It made his voice more hoarse than he meant it to be, but it couldn't be helped. "I'm a friend. Just a friend."
She frowned. She knew that wasn't right. She didn't have any friends. She told him this, and he seemed to choke back something. Maybe a laugh? She looked as close to him as she could. No, that wasn't working. Maybe...
She fixed her eyes to a point on the wall, then let her vision relax, taking in the whole of the room without specifically looking at anything. Now she could see him. A soldier or guard of the Imperial Court. Dark brown hair kept within regulation length, but that wasn't saying much. She couldn't see what color his eyes were like this. He could honestly almost be any face in the crowd. Except...
It caused her a little pain, but she pushed it out of mind. It wasn't so bad. She could focus on the shape of his jaw. The line of his neck. Apparently she could look at him, just not his face. He had strong arms, with well defined muscled under the armor. Large hands, they were scarred and worn, but they were good hands. She let her eyes roam the rest of his body, not being able to notice that he was watching her face the entire time.
He almost held his breath. For a moment, it looked like she was looking him in the face. But after a moment, he realized he wasn't quite right. She wasn't looking at his face directly, but she was looking at him. He watched her eyes travel down his body, and his breath hitched. She was still so beautiful. Still the woman he had loved for years, and even after half a decade apart, she made him yearn to touch her.
Her eyes traveled ever lower, until they reached near his waist. She seemed to blush then, and without thinking, her eyes darted up to meet his.
When her eyes met his, she had a moment to register the warm brown of them before pain split her skull. It boiled her blood and his presence made the room feel hotter than the fires below Dark Forest. She stumbled to her feet and ran out of the room, fleeing for the storm cooled air. It was nightfall once again, but the storm had passed, leaving the road muddy and treacherous.
She blindly turned down the road and started running, fueled by a feverish voice in her head that sounded whenever the pain got too bad.
Get away, get away. It chanted. Forget him. Ignore him. Get away, get away.
She hadn't gotten farther than the edge of the village when she heard footsteps running after her.
The voice was more persistent now, though the pain was dying down.
Don't look at him, don't think of him. Get away, get away.
She planned on putting on a burst of speed, to make the trees outside the village and lose him among them, but something made her stop in her tracks.
There was a sound she knew better than any in the world, and it made her blood run cold as ice.
A Whisper in the dark.
He was catching up to her, he knew. He could hear her running away from him, and see by the low light of the stars the footprints in the fresh mud after the storm. Rounding a corner in the road, he spotted her and almost called out.
But just as the sound had stopped her, the sight froze him in his tracks. Coming from behind her and to the far side from him, was a Whisper.
Whispers were creatures of dark magic. It was said that long ago there was a great sorcerer, whose heart had withered to dust in his chest. The heartless magician then spiraled into the darkest arts. Amassing a great army of twisted creations, he attacked the Empire. A Hero whose name has since been lost to memory managed to get close enough to defeat the heartless sorcerer. A single slice to the neck proved that even with no heart, he still bled.
From that blood, the rumors say the first Whisper was born. Cooled on the stone of the sorcerer's tower, and absorbing the aura left by the darkest heart in history, the blood took on a form of its own.
A lizard's squat body, with lethal claws. A snake's head and neck, with fangs dripping with poison so quick that death itself has to run to meet you. Last is the tail, whip-like and tipped with a stinger of a different poison altogether. The poison in the stinger and usually laced on the claws has an antidote derived from the Cristle plant. The fangs', however, has no antidote. At least, no one has ever lived long enough for any to be tried.
Now there was one stalking toward them from the woods to the other side of the village. Just their luck. If it called its pack, they were done for.
There was a moment of hope, as the Whisper neared them, but then he heard the tell-tale clicking that was its call to the others.
There wasn't anywhere to run now. All the cristle powder in the empire wouldn't save them if she didn't act soon. She drew her sword. She was faster with her dagger, but she would need the advantage of the sword's reach. She heard Jared draw his sword behind her. She figured he wouldn't be far behind her by now.
They had to dispatch this one before its pack reached them. Whispers worked a little like ants. When one died, besides the scream of its defeat which were the only sounds they made that were louder than their namesake, they produced a chemical or pheromone that told other Whispers not to near that place. They had to kill this one before the others got near. They had no time to waste.
She lunged at the Whisper, slashing with her sword. If she could end it fast, she might make it to the next town. The only good thing about fighting a Whisper is that they hated the smell of their own blood. If she got any on herself, the others would be loathe to near her. The trick was getting close enough to be bled on without dying.
The Whisper dodged, but she caught its shoulder in her slash. Though the wound was not deep, she felt a small thrill of victory. It swiped at her, claws aiming for her throat. She dodged, but like it, she could not dodge quite well enough. It missed her neck, but raked its claws down her left arm. Great, now she wouldn't be able to use her dagger even if she wanted to. She shifted her grip on her sword and renewed her attack.
He'd drawn his sword the moment he saw her reach for hers. He knew the Whispers as well as anyone, and knew the dangers of letting one live after calling for its pack. He was just considering his best move, when Dria threw herself into the battle. She made a valiant first strike, but unfortunately was paid back in kind. His breath hitched. But this was no time for emotions. Locking them down with a low breath, he charged in, Blocking the deadly tail as it whipped around to try to stab Dria in the back. A twist, and the deadly tip was severed.
The Whisper hissed in pain and recoiled, distracted by the second opponent. It was all the opportunity Dria needed. With a spin of her blade he had never seen her use before, she stabbed the blade down with one arm, using her weight to drive it home in the beast's spine. The Whisper shrieked and thrashed, pinned like a bug under Dria's blade. They heard the approaching pack of Whispers, and held their breaths. Would the death screams and scent of the Whisper be enough to drive them away?
His pulse beat furiously, the sound almost drowning out the slithering hint that was the only clue where the pack was. They had stopped just around the bend of the forest. They waited, Dria looked like she was ready to pull her sword from the dead Whisper at any moment. The pack seemed to move away from them, off into the darkness to find an easier meal.
Kerith sighed in relief. Dria's shoulders seemed to slump in exhaustion. It only lasted a moment, though, as in the next, she was dragging her blade from the slain Whisper. She attempted to sheath it one handed, and nearly sliced her fingers.
"You're hurt." Kerith said, and he reached to steady her. She jerked back and swayed slightly from the sudden movement.
"Don't touch me." She said sharply. There was still a trickle of blood running down her arm from the claw marks.
"Your wounds need tending. We need to get you to a healer, at least."
She shrugged, seeming to ignore the pain of the wounds down her arm. She started walking back towards the village. Whispers didn't usually venture into populated areas. They were deadly, but even a pack is no match for a whole village.
She had made it about halfway back to the village before she stumbled on a raised patch of mud she hadn't seen in time. Without thinking about it, he caught her around the waist to keep her upright.
She muffled a whine of pain, but it didn't seem as bad as when he had touched her skin. He let go as soon as she was steady.
"Sorry." He muttered. This was killing him. He couldn't touch her at all without hurting her.
She nodded, and marched on.
After a few more minutes of silence, she spoke.
"You should go. Once we reach the healers. There's no point in following me any longer."
He shook his head. Though the situation she seemed to have gotten herself into cut at his heart, he refused to go back to living with half a soul. It had taken him over a year and a half to find any trace of her, alive or dead. He still remembered overhearing the conversation between the local guards of a small town. Of a Shadow Heart seemingly off of assignment. It was always odd to see them away from the main city. The Shadow Hearts were the Emperor's personal guards and assassins. If on assignment, you didn't see them at all. He knew for a fact that she was the only Shadow Heart that might be off of assignment anywhere but the imperial city.
"I can't do that, Dria." He said, though she flinched at the sound of her name on his lips.
"Why?" She demanded, looking above his face to spare herself more pain.
His shoulders slumped, they continued walking towards the Healer's cabin. Here was the complicated part.
"I have orders. The emperor needs you back at Aelhill. I was given the task of discovering your location and escorting you back to the city." This was the truth. Or, most of it. He had been given the orders of her discovery and escort... two years after she had disappeared. It was his continued search for her that had the emperor giving him the task personally.
Dria seemed confused. Did she know she was a Shadow Heart? He had told her, just before he'd reminded her of his name. He remembered the dazed look in her eyes after the pain had seemed to skyrocket. Maybe it burned away the memories as she encountered them?
"Why would the emperor need me back? I don't work for him." She asked, her uninjured hand going to her head as if to ward off the comings of a headache.
Kerith shrugged helplessly. "I can't tell you. But orders are orders. You have to come with me to Aelhill. Neither of us really have a choice. I can't return without you."
Dria pressed her hand harder into her temple, trying to relieve the pain with the pressure. Finally she looked over his shoulder, as close to looking at his face as she could get.
"Shit." She said in defeat.
She didn't know the half of it.