He is entirely covered in crimson. It covers his mask, his arms, his legs. The blades of his weapons have lost their shine in turn for the rustic coating. Douglas turns towards the stand of nobles, his eyes burning bright.
A circle of guards has surrounded the garden, but they don't advance. He thought he heard screaming from the stands the moment he sliced the head off a Hunter, but the roaring of his rage cancels out all thought, and care.
Carnage trails in his wake. Bodies of Witch Hunters litter the ground. Blood soaks the entire garden.
Douglas can see the horror of the king and the dignitaries, but he doesn't care. Some of the nobles have left the stands the moment he started goring Hunters, others decided to stay, too afraid to leave. They watch him with fearful eyes. Delwyn seems to have slipped away from the throng.
There is nothing of his face – nothing of this world. That black fire burns through all thought and feeling until all remains is his rage and his prey.
He walks with a predatorily calm. His feet splashing in the pool of blended blood. He stops before the massive private stand and raises his bloodied sword, the tip dripping red slowly.
"Where is she?" His voice is like gravel, and so deathly calm.
Gregory smiles deviously. His long black cape billowing out around himself like a halo of darkness. "Douglas Highmore, Son to Thomas Highmore, Captain of the Royal Guard, you stand before us, a traitor and a murderer."
Douglas fights to keep his hand from thrusting a dagger through the air and into Gregory's throat. One move, and the guards will be upon him. he needs to find out where they're keeping Kelsey, then he can take care of Gregory. Slowly, ever so slowly until the bastard is begging for death.
Behind Gregory, Douglas feels a pinch of hurt as he finds his father staring at him with horrified eyes. Wide with terror, his mouth agape, Douglas doesn't want to think how he might look right now. He doesn't see Derrick of Deborah.
"You are being tried for allying and spying for the enemy, exchanging valuable secrets, and endangering our city. Our way of life." The king says nothing.
Douglas doesn't say anything. He only keeps his sword raised, his arm unfaltering. He can feel some blood stream down the side of his face.
"We will take your lack of response to mean you do not deny the charge."
Douglas aims the tip of his sword at Gregory. One powerful throw and it will slice his head off.
"Have you nothing to say for yourself?" Gregory taunts.
Douglas' eyes flick to his father, his steel-grey eyes begging him to say something. To deny it. to play the innocent, captive whom was left without a choice. But he doesn't.
"Where is she?" he repeats.
Gregory lifts his chin, his smile widening upon understanding.
"Don't you know you've been deceived, Douglas. Though I suppose I can't really blame you, most men get, sidetracked by a beautiful face." Gregory drawls, beginning to casually pace in front of the king and nobles. "Your little bookshop love has been lying to you through her teeth, Douglas. She lied. In every possible way she lied to you. I'm surprised you don't want to kill her. But not to worry, as your fellow guardsman, I am here to help her, Douglas."
Douglas sheathes his one sword and draws a dagger, more than ready to chuck it.
"Let's not get too excited. I said I'm here to help you. You still have a chance to save yourself, and your reputation, and your family."
He wouldn't hurt his family. He can't.
Gregory raises his hand towards the gate to Douglas' left. "Here, is your final chance. It's time to show you, whom you've been pining for. Who has been deceiving you!"
Douglas angles his head to follow Gregory's hand. There's a large gate that lifts to lead down into the dungeons, as this garden is the one most used for public executions. The courtyard with the guillotine is for private executions.
The gate opens slowly, the sound of the chains croaking and rotating is the loudest thing in the garden. Douglas lowers his arm, daring to take a step towards the gate, turning his head away from the stands. Three Hunters stand on either side in the walkways, bows readied to fire the moment she steps out. He won't have time to kill them all, but he may be able to take out one on each side before they fire . . .
The gate finishes rising, revealing a gaping mouth of darkness. He swears he can see it undulating and churning like ink in water. Silence spreads across the garden, as if the whole world is waiting for . . . something.
Then slowly, a small puddle of blood trickles forth from the darkness. He can feel his own horror rising with the others as the blood breaches the threshold of the shadow and into the sunlight.
Bare feet pad their way through the blood, splashing it forward. He watches as body parts slowly drift out. An arm, an eye, a spine, a fingerless hand, then the fingers, a foot still in the boot, part of a jaw.
Suddenly a torso is chucked from the darkness, the leaking blood arcing through the air. It has no head, no limbs, and the chest cavity has been cracked open like a nut. The organs spill forth and hit the stones with sickening flops.
Then he watches as Kelsey prowls into the garden, her bare feet soaked with blood, splattered across her torn skirt and gore covering her forearms. Dried blood coats her mouth, her short black hair rippling behind her.
His eyes go straight to the thing dangling in her hand. He can feel the eyes of the crowd seize their breathing when they too behold the object she carries in her iron-nailed hand.
The man's face is still set in a scream, the grotesque features made worse from how his eyes have been plucked out of their sockets. She grips his mousy brown hair hard as it swings from her stained fingers.
Douglas face is as pale as death. Flicking his eyes towards the stand, he finds Gregory's face turning green from the slaughter before him. He expected her to some out being hauled by guards and begging for her life. Begging for mercy.
But Kelsey is a witch, and witches don't beg.
Douglas can only stare at her. She's different from the feral creature he has become to save her.
What Kelsey is right now, the edge on which she is balancing . . . gods help them all.
Then Kelsey smiles at him, and it's the most terrifying thing he's ever seen.
Devoid of any warmth, her iron teeth gleam as her lips stretch. She drops the head and her eyes look all around, taking in the people, the stands, the Hunters, and the guards.
Douglas can feel his gorge rise – not just for the bloodletting, the severed head, and her blood-stiffed clothing, but also for the act that he cannot, for the life of him, find the girl he had loved anywhere in her face.
"Kelsey . . ." his lips mumble, but they feel so distant.
As if just noticing him, her hazel eyes flick towards him, still edged with a predatory instinct. Then her smile is instantly gone. For a moment, Douglas fears for his life as she approaches. The men still have their arrows aimed and ready, and they follow her as she walks.
His breathing hitches when she's in front of him, her nose inches away from him. He can smell the carrion on her breath. Tears are running down his face before he even realizes it. She reaches out her hands to touch them. Her fingers are warm, her nails are dirty, bloody, cracked – so gruesome.
Her bloody fingers slide down his face, to his neck. He stares at her, suddenly still. Her nails brush against his exposed throat. He doesn't even dare swallow.
They don't have much time, though.
"Kelsey," he whispers.
Something like familiarity sparks in her hazel eyes. "Douglas?" she rasps.
"You . . ." Gregory says. Without thinking, Douglas turns towards him. "You fucking bitch! Kill her!"
There is a roar of rage that echoes it.
He brings his hand down for the death sentence.
And it is ripped off by a shadow leopard.
It dives forward, Gregory screaming in agony. The people scream and panic. The shadow leopard leaps down the stands and into the gardens. Where he lunges, slashing with claws and fangs, Hunters die. The soldiers surrounding the garden are screaming as he tears into them. he is fury, he is wrath, he is vengeance. Giving himself wholly to the beast whose form he wears.
Douglas breaks away from Kelsey to rush to Luke as he leaps upon the back of a sentry and shreds his spine clean out of his skin.
"Luke! Go! Get out of here!" he shouts, but the leopard snarls after chomping out a chunk of flesh. "What are you doing –?"
Luke trots over to Kelsey, almost, kneeling, before her. She smiles softly a she scratches his ear, gore dripping from his maw. He snarls deeply, hackles high.
One Hunter fires a clean shot for Luke's chest. Douglas knew it would hit home, but Luke does not move. He stays close to Kelsey.
The bolt nears his heart.
And it's knocked from the air by an arrow.
Luke leaps for the guards, scaling the surrounding wall with ease before leaping upon the Hunter's face and shreds it with his claws.
Luke bellows a roar, and becomes a storm of death upon the Hunters.
When Douglas dares to look, it is time to see Delwyn draw another arrow atop a neighboring wall, corpses around his feet. He fires a clean shot through the eye of another Hunter as more start to come from the castle. He's adorned a cowl and cloak, making him unrecognizable to anyone else.
Another roar, deep and bellowing, cleaves the world.
Douglas doesn't know what to think, what to say.
That roar sounds again as a mighty black shape shoots down from the heavy clouds.
A dragon. A dragon as black as night dives for the garden, sleek as an arrow.
And behind it, descending upon the Hunters and guards with wicked delight, flies twelve other witches.
Raven knew that roar. No doubt Ammerith is plunging from the clouds upon the crowd.
Raven sprints through the hallways of the castle, dodging oblivious servants as she tries to find Deborah and Derrick. Why they weren't at the execution, she'll never know. But she managed to sneak into castle, now on a quest to find them.
She's already knocked out Douglas' other friends, much of them herded in the barracks. She didn't want to say they weren't good at their job, but considering how easily she bagged and gagged them . . . they could use work. Douglas' siblings however . . .
Thankfully, with her weeks of spying, she's managed to pinpoint a few spots where they might be. Hopefully together.
The library is out of the option, due to construction. They aren't in their separate rooms.
Goddesses' help her
There! They're both sitting in a living room, the sunlight pooling into the room. The guards outside didn't know what to think before she sliced their necks open as she enters the room.
Deborah and Derrick both stand with their weapons at the ready as she flicks the blood off of her nails.
"Who are you?" Deborah demands, her voice a rasp. Derrick looks ready to bolt for the window.
Raven grins, revealing white teeth, but her iron glints at her fingertips. She gives a dramatic bow, flourishing a hand before her. "Raven Scarletblood at your service."
Douglas recognized the dragon immediately as she plunges from the clouds, twelve other riders behind her.
The Wind Riders.
Luke has taken out most of the Hunters who had their arrows on the red-haired witch closest to Ammerith, her snow-white dragon shrieking a war cry.
The other witches and their dragons unleash hell upon the soldiers, smashing through crowds, chomping big gatherings, buying them a moment's reprieve.
Ammerith and ten others angle northward in one smooth movement, then plow into the panicking Hunters. A wall of fire soon blooms along the courtyards. Horns are blaring, screams are echoing.
The snow-white dragon, Ira's dragon, sweeps for the garden, her dragon gracefully landing behind Kelsey and Luke. A beautiful sea-green dragon follows and Luke leaps down, shifts and spits a mouthful of blood, and pats its snout.
"It's about damn time." Ira calls with a wild grin. Two short swords cross at her back as she approaches Kelsey. "I could smell their leather all the way to the forest."
She reaches into her saddlebag and pulls out a familiar black armor. Kelsey changes in a blink and Ira pulls out a belt of daggers and an exquisite looking bow. "Glad you were able to get the message."
"It's not that hard to miss your voice in our heads, My Lady."
A strangled cry comes out of Douglas.
Kelsey isn't in league with Keelie Scarletblood.
Kelsey is Keelie Scarletblood, Heir to the Scarletblood Witch Clan, and rightful Witch-Queen of Tamarak.
Kelsey is Keelie Scarletblood, the greatest living threat to human kind, but also the one person capable of raising an army that can stand against the Matrons.
As she drapes the cape about her shoulders, everything becomes too real. But it also becomes too overwhelming.
He came here hoping to rescue the girl from the bookstore whom had captured his heart with her innocence and kindness. Instead, he's come to find a gorgeous nightmare who can rip out a spine as easily as offer a sweet smile.
The moments they shared, the kisses they exchanged . . .
"We need a path to get out of here." Kelsey orders.
Ira gives a wicked grin and an incline of her head. "Then we shall clear the field for you."
Then Ira and her dragon soar up, and blast between the walls of the castle and the city streets, spearing for where the others are fighting.
At Ira's approach, the dragons and riders reel back, rising high into the air, falling into a perfect formation. A hammer about to strike.
Everyone knew it. They begin throwing up feeble shields, shooting wildly for them, their panic making their aim sloppy. But the dragons are covered in armor – efficient, beautiful armor.
The Wind Riders laugh as they slam into throng of guards.
When she looks to him, that animalistic instinct is gone, and in its place, is Keelie, not Kelsey. Not the young girl daydreaming and dancing in her bookstore, but a soldier; a warrior with unfaltering command and a passion for chaos.
Kelsey is the Heir of the Scarletblood Clan.
She lied. For months she lied, in every way possible.
Hurt and sorrow flicker in her hazel eyes. She shakes her head.
Douglas sinks to the bloodied ground.
~End of Book One~