For Beth, who is beloved beyond words and inspired me to new heights of imagination.

~Blue

Chapter One: To Those Capturing the Stars

Lurking deep inside me, furtively controlling me…tearing away at the fabric of my soul and hurling its jagged pieces into the void.

What is this?

What is this monster?

Is it…me?

Is this what I have become?

*.~.*.~.*

Darkness held no comfort, sleep no release from the whispers in my head. If anything, it made them worse.

When I was asleep, the voices had free rein.

I sat out on the balcony railing, staring up at the midnight sky. The moon was nothing but the thinnest crescent, nearly invisible to the eye. The light of the stars was slowly overwhelming it, forcing it back towards the blackness of oblivion. I gripped the dagger I held more tightly and hoped that I wasn't like that moon, beaten back by the light and driven into nothingness, simply for the sin of existing.

"How beautiful you are," something hissed from the shadows. "Like an Guardian of sorrow, tragic and lovely enough to break one's heart."

"Leave me alone, Taker," I said without looking away from the sky. "Your kind isn't wanted here."

"Why so cold, sweet Sacrifice?" A figure took form from the night, and a shadowy man leaned against the rail beside me. I could feel his dark eyes on me, but didn't turn to face him. "I was just giving you a compliment. Isn't that what all girls want? To be loved and praised?" There was a ripple of movement, and he was suddenly right beside me, one arm curled around my waist. His cold breath tickled my ear as he leaned over me and whispered, "What is it that you want, my sweet Sacrifice? For what wish would you give anything…even your soul?"

"Let go of me," I said quietly, but I didn't need to raise my voice. The point of my dagger rested very gently against his side. A touch of pressure, though, and it would slice through cloth and flesh as easily as tearing through rice paper.

In another unseen movement, the Taker was back across the balcony, watching me with glittering red eyes. "My, my. The little Sacrifice has quite some teeth. Careful, girl, or something might…happen to the man in this house. You wouldn't want that, would you?"

"Weak Takers like you shouldn't make idle threats," I said, turning away from him, back to the empty sky. "It just makes you seem pathetic. You and I both know that the only way for you to enter this house would be by shattering the astral stones that shield it. And we also both know that there's no way for you, at your current strength, to do such a thing."

The Taker hissed again. "Chatty little thing, aren't you? Well, this has been fun, but I'll take my leave now." He was suddenly beside me again, his breath so cold it was painful against my cheek. "Besides, we both know, too, that a Sacrifice's power isn't fully matured until they're on the brink of madness." His smile was as cold as his breath, and awful to see, even from the corner of my eye. "I'll be back shortly, when you've finally succumbed. And what a sweet feast that will be, my pretty Sacrifice."

And as abruptly as he had appeared, he was gone again, not even a trembling shadow to mark his passage.

"Damn you," I whispered, when the last hum of his presence had faded from the air. I bowed my head to my draw-up knees, wrapping my arms around my legs. "Damn you. I don't need you to tell me that, Taker."

The dark beauty of insanity and suffering…it lurks so deep within my bones. I feel it there, gathering a bit more strength each day. I feel it coming towards me, implacable and gain ing power. Even now, it's closer than it was a second ago. The whispering, the voices…they never really go away now.

"Grey?" a quiet voice asked, and the curtain behind me parted. A tall, slender man stepp ed onto the balcony and stopped, waiting for me to acknowledge him.

Knowing that he would stand there all night if I didn't, I raised my head. "What is it, Willow?"

"Come inside." His voice was still gentle. I had never heard him speak any other way, this wise, quiet, beautiful man who seemed too perfect to be real and made my heart hurt. "It's getting cold already, and the stones' protection doesn't stretch out here. A Taker might find you."

I didn't tell him that one already had, but slid off the railing with a nod. "All right. Did you finish in your workroom?"

"Yes." Willow took my hand as I approached, and led me back into the house with a kind smile. "You should be more careful, Grey. There are too many things out there that are seeking Sacrifices for you to be careless."

"I'm never careless." Before he could see it, I slipped my knife away. "And I wasn't in any danger. You shouldn't worry about me so much."

Carefully, as though afraid I might push him away, he turned and pulled me gently into his arms. He was warm and vivid, the lone sun in my frozen universe. "Of course I worry. You are a very special person, Grey." He smiled down at me, then let me go and stepped back. "Now go to sleep. Morning will come quickly, I promise." With one last touch of his hand on mine, he closed the door to my room and retreated down the hall, footsteps nearly inaudible even in the silence of the night.

Letting out a heavy breath, I sank down onto the bedroll on the floor and lay back, staring up at the ceiling. Two years. Two years now I had lived in the same small town, with the same kind man who had first taken in a bleeding, barely-conscious stranger. Willow was too caring, too compassionate. He thought nothing of his own safety, taking in a Sacrifice when most of us were killed on sight, or at the least driven away.

I pressed the backs of my hands against my eyes, feeling the voices grow louder. The Taker's words whispered through my mind again. A Sacrifice's power isn't fully matured until they're on the brink of madness. I knew that already. And I also knew just how much—or how little—time I had left.

"So faint of heart," I whispered to the nothingness around me. "You only come out in the dark, and never even show yourselves. Just come out and face me, cowards. You're nothing. Noth ing. And…and so faint of heart."

But so ferocious, something inside me whispered. It was a soft voice, but full of the sweet est poison. Passive, yet pitiless. Craven, yet cruel. We rule you, Sacrifice. You know it as well as we do, our poor little Sacrifice. Another guardian of life doomed by fate—born only to die.

"No," I whispered, sinking my fingernails into my palms. "No. No. I won't live like that."

But you will, little Sacrifice. Another voice joined the first, purring like a giant cat just about to make its kill. Your soul already grows dark. Soon, very soon, they will come for you. And then even your beloved Willow will not be able to protect you. Wouldn't it be better to give in before that happens, and spare him the pain?

You might even save his life.

Almost of its own volition, my hand unsheathed and drew my dagger again, lifting it in front of my face. Even in the darkness, it glimmered strangely, reflecting a pair of pale grey eyes that held a world's worth of madness in their depths. It would be easy, so easy, to let the knife drop. It would turn in the air, striking true, and then everything would be over. It would be…so simple.

But those weren't my thoughts. Disgusted, I sat up again and sheathed the knife along my leg, then pulled off the sheath and slipped it under the edge of my pillow. It wasn't far enough under that I wouldn't be able to grab it while lying down, but it also wasn't sticking out. Disheartening, really, that I knew just how to hide a dagger in my bed.

With a sigh, I lay back down, letting my gaze drift to the curtains that hid the balcony. A soft breeze moved them enough to let me see a brief glimpse of stars. They shone so brightly, but their light was cold. Any fool who reached for them would be burned by that icy fire.

I wouldn't be such a fool, I swore to myself, rolling over and closing my eyes. The voices beat against my skull, wanting to get out, but I ruthlessly crushed them back.

I wasn't fool enough to try and grab something so far beyond my reach.

*.~.*.~.*

He pauses outside the door, looking back, wanting to go back and say what he should have said long ago.

But it is already too late. No matter how he wants to weep for her pain, he cannot.

And so gently, gently, he puts a hand to the door and whispers, even though she cannot hear it, "Be strong. They say this world is engulfed in darkness—but that does not mean there was never any light."

The words flutter out the window like the last, dying leaves of winter, and are carried away forever on the black winds of midnight.