Through all the years I've lived at Gudgeon Docks, I've heard many terrors. The squawks of white gulls picking through the carcasses of a rotting fish, the wails of a lonely child besieged with an empty stomach, the shatter of glass that could lead to many frights. The stillness that followed lulled me back into sleep every night, but there is no mistaking the nauseating squelch of a blade slicing through thin flesh.
My eyes fly open, my body turning ice cold. I hold my breath and wait for confirmation that the sound was nothing more than my dreams playing a trick on my sanity. Nothing. Silence. I nestle myself deeper within the tattered blanket pulled tight and wrinkled in my fists resting underneath my chin. When my eyes close, I hear it a second time. And the scream that follows.
I throw the blanket back and rush to the other side of the room, careful to avoid the creaking floorboards that usually alert my parents to one of my late-night escapes. When they don't catch me, I sit on the rooftop and stare out at the stars painting illuminate freckles against the black sky. The docks always had the best view, the thatched buildings bow their heads and the ocean, endless and dangerous, reflects night's wonders.
My toe jams into the side of my brother's bed and I hiss through my teeth. Finding his shoulder, I shake hard, and Castiel, never one for having to wake during the middle of the night during any circumstance, groans. Like me, he keeps the blanket and pillows tucked tight against his body like a barrier from the rest of the room. Even in late summer, the chill somehow finds its way in and envelopes us both.
"Go away, Marie," he mutters. "I don't desire any late-night adventures. Too much..." His voice trails off, and in the dark, his head stuffs itself farther into the pillow.
"Castiel," I plead. I shake his shoulder again, in tune with the sound of someone else dying at the hands of whatever terror is nearing our house. Someone's sobs carry through the cracked window in our bedroom and this is the only occurrence I've ever wanted to board it up and have one of those glass windows that doesn't open at all. What a shame—my parents had to purchase a cottage with working windows. The highest of class at the docks. "Castiel, there's someone outside."
He turns to face me, honey brown eyes squinting. They've always held their thin shape over the years and a constant droop of sadness in the outer corner. "We've been over this, Marie. There isn't enough money for everyone to have home-cooked meals. Some have to search through the trash—our trash included."
"This is different." I find his arm underneath the heap of blankets and pillows and tug, but my brother doesn't budge. He isn't older than I am, we share a difference of three years, but chopping wood for a living bequeaths him more strength than cleaning fish at the docks does. My specialty. "I heard someone—"
A scream ruptures through the streets too close and Castiel's eyes fly open. He's up from his bed in a second, nearly knocking me over and sending blankets flying against the wall. A pillow thumps to the floor and he nearly trips on it, not before slamming his hand against the window frame to restore balance.
The tufts of his dark brown hair reflect even darker in the moonlight basking against his face, the only light allowed in the room, and he runs a hand through the knots hoping to fix what sleep ruined. "What do you see?" I ask. My hands wring together without my doing.
"Someone is out there," he whispers so even I can hardly hear him. "They're...lighting the village on fire."
I hardly believe the words that leave his lips. To answer my own question, I shove myself in front of my brother and peek out through the lace curtain framing our window. Towering peaks of flame rise from two streets over, the smoke a beacon for travelers that the docks are no longer safe to visit. I clamp a hand over my mouth to stifle the scream; Gudgeon Docks won't recover from this. Not now and not ever.
"We need to get out of here," Castiel warns. He grabs onto my shoulders and spins me to face him. A look in his eye, a twinkle of fear and determination, tells me all I need to know about my brother's intentions. He stands taller than me, so he bends at the waist to meet my eye line. Though he is younger, the head on his shoulders has more clearance than my own.
Castiel outnumbers me in every way, shape, and form.
"What about mother and father?" I question, gesturing towards the shut door barricaded with the back of a wooden chair. To stop anyone from intruding. Locks are faulty at the docks. The people are fond of stealing what doesn't belong to them. "We must warn them."
"Marie—" My brother's protests are cut off by the sharp bellow of a horn. The warning call starts off deep and slow, rising in the way an avalanche falls down the side of a steep mountain. Slow, then fast and sharp. Castiel turns towards it, knowing very well what that means. Even I know what that means.
In short: get the hell out.
Castiel's pointed ears catch the moonlight, a symbol of our elf heritage, and the dark freckles covering his face are a reminder of our mother's. Somewhere, she remains in the house with our father. Have they heard the calls yet? Why haven't they come to help?
The longer we wait, not knowing what is the smartest thing to do, the more screams of terror flood in through our open window. I don't know what is here, but whatever it is, it doesn't want us to see the sunrise. My heart beats wildly in my chest, thumping so loud I wonder if Castiel can hear it with heightened senses.
Trash bins are knocked over, homes and supplies become abandoned, and families try to pick up the pieces in a mess of chaos and destruction. All of it happening outside my window.
We will die. The sickening truth comes into my mind and I can't ignore it. Tonight, we're going to die.
"Don't lose yourself," Castiel warns as if he's able to hear my thoughts. But he can't, no matter how many times I've asked him, the answer remains the same. No, I cannot read your thoughts, Marie. Not yet, at least. He always accompanied the statement with a foolish smirk to reveal his fangs—as if that scared me. It didn't, I have a set of my own. "We're getting out of here whether or not your mind is there."
He grabs a wool coat and throws it into my arms. As he rushes towards the door and tosses the chair aside, pressing his ear against the only barrier keeping us from the rest of the cottage, I catch a glimpse of myself in the vanity mirror shoved against the wall. I haven't used it since I was a little girl, but my mother insists on me keeping it in case I ever want to 'play around' with cosmetics. I don't want to be that girl; I don't have time to be that girl.
From the fits of slumber, my stick-straight hair, the same caramel as Castiel's in the sunlight, mats and knots on the top of my head. The only opposite on our two faces are the portals we see from, sea glass sharpness and clarity—our eyes. I don't know any relatives of mine with jade green eyes; my mother claims it was her mother, but cannot remember since my grandmother died so early in her life. I used to think of that feature as carrying a piece of my family with me, but staring at it in the mirror, I couldn't care less.
Their wide, upturned shape always crowned me innocence from shopkeepers and merchants willing to hand over a second dessert for free. I looked enough like a sad, lost, and innocent child that they wanted to help me. Over the years, Castiel and I learned to master what we could get away with and what we couldn't through the advantage of my young, round face.
They haven't taken advantage of me for it—not yet.
"No one is on the other side," Castiel informs. He opens the door carefully, and I wince when it creaks. It's time to move.
I force my feet across the room after stuffing them in a pair of slippers that belong to my mother. They're too big, but she didn't want them anymore. I hope to see her face again. I hope she's still in her room, sound asleep. We'll wake her. We'll escape as one.
"We'll become trapped if we stay in here too long," I say, trying to give my voice false confidence. I'm ashamed by how weak and cracked I sound. "We'll wake them and escape through the back."
"Let's hope whoever is attacking us doesn't have anyone stationed nearby."
In fact, it appears the terror has headed north, in the opposite direction of the docks. That's a relief, at least. It gives us a chance to escape.
This isn't the first time our docks have fallen to the hands of criminals. And it won't be the last. Castiel and I have tried to sleep off the anguishes of night, but we remember the blood-curdling screams and beseeches for help. The foremen and guards protecting this land, known affectionately as Rivian, tell us there's nothing they can do. Not all corruption can be stopped.
I wonder what our queen, fearless and tactical, would say to that. Her people deteriorating at the hands of those that wish to bring dread to the land.
Castiel takes my hand and carefully walks us down the hall. His hand is warm in my own and already covered in a layer of sweat as if he's preparing for the possible battle he might face in our foyer. My ears strain, but I hear nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary other than the crackling of burning buildings turned into logs outside our door. It won't be long before we're next. Continued tales of death continue to rot away my focus.
A strange silence hangs over the cottage I've called home since birth. Night causes the walls to shove inward to watch our movements; the cold floorboards underneath our feet are another reminder that the world could give out on us at any moment. When Castiel opens the door to my parents' bedroom, the same size our own but with one bed instead of two, I realize the ghost-like silence isn't a result of what I don't want to face beyond the cottage door leading into the street.
Our parents aren't here. Their bed is empty, the sheets thrown back like they left in a hurry. I hear Castiel swallow. His hand tightens around my own; preparing for the inevitable separation he hopes to avoid.
"They're fine," I try to reassure in my position as the older, wiser sibling. "They went to help with the fires. They'll be right back."
Castiel's shoulder tightens when I place my hand on it. He always teased me for being shorter, so short that I must ask for his assistance when reaching the wooden bowls on the top shelf in the kitchen cabinet. Those at the docks, burly in nature and strong by labor, look down on me with their sneers and thoughts of worthlessness in their head. Reminding themselves that I am young and still have much to learn about a thousand-year-old profession.
"We don't have time to wait for them to come back." He shakes his head, and a curl comes loose, resting on his warm ivory forehead. "We'll go to the docks. That's the safest place for us right now."
"Castiel, we can't leave. Our parents are out there somewhere—"
He takes my hand before I can finish speaking. Truthfully, I don't know what the right decision is. I've protected Castiel from bullies and a shop owner that accused him of stealing a powdered pastry. The evidence was clear; his entire mouth was coated with white flecks of sugar, lips appearing bloodless, but I still got him out of it without a slap to the cheek. This...something about this night is larger than what I can protect him from.
Always having a stronger hold on the situation, Castiel tugs me through the house, past the dining table I sat at hours ago and through the kitchen where a single pot remains from dinner. The rest of the house is utterly silent, empty, and forgotten.
Out in the street, the smoke clogs my senses. I cannot smell, cannot see, cannot hear over the stomp of boots and slice of weapons. A building crumbles and debris lift into the sky in a tornado of embers and wood chips.
I turn towards the end of the street, towards buildings untouched, and tug on Castiel's sleeve. "Look," I urge, pointing towards the dark presence, the source of this chaos.
He grumbles something underneath his breath and this time, I'm the one to pull him away before we're noticed. I yank him down into the alleyway, turning us into shadow, and wait. The thumping of boots turns into muffled voices and the two sounds of a death-sentence mingle together as the dark army, wearing armor of spikes and swords, marches down the empty, untouched street.
I clamp a hand over Castiel's mouth. The quick beat of his heart ricochets up my forearm.
"Who is it?" he whispers beneath my small palm.
Squinting out into the dark, I can't tell. They march in perfect formation, three soldiers to a line, but their walking bodies don't stop. Armor clanks against their bodies, seemingly against each other, and in unison, they draw their weapons. Long, sleek swords crafted of silver.
"I don't know," I respond shakily, swallowing down my fear. My eyes drift to a puddle of blood too close to our front door to be a coincidence. Unnoticeable before the army, and the moon shed a light on it. I squeeze my eyes shut in hopes of that blood not belonging to my mother or father. Castiel would never forgive himself.
My brother's boot shifts, knocking against a metal can in the alley. There, in turn, slamming against the pipe connected to our house. I shush him, batting at his boot.
"Marie," he snaps. I've never heard my brother so startled; it causes me to tense, my entire body going rigid, and I slowly turn back in the direction he stares into.
One of the soldiers has stopped. Through a black mask of pointed horns and black tusks, he cocks his head at our huddled figures. The others continue to march on in formation without caring for their lost brother.
"Move," I demand. I shove Castiel in the chest and he stumbles, falling back on his hands. "Move!" I shout.
The dark soldier makes a move for us, slashing for my head, but I duck out of the way. Sparks fly in connection with the stone building and the soldier's voice, muffled underneath his helmet, orders others after us. The seal of those helmets, dark and peaked like the treacherous mountains of the Bane King, is stitched to the chest of their armor.
As I run, Castiel at my side, I try to place where I've seen the seal before. When I was a child, and not since. It's familiar, and the dread that comes along with it reminds me of my mother's warnings shared next to the glow of a fire. If you see this, run in the other direction. Do whatever you can to get away. They take no prisoners, only souls.
The world blurs around me, but I catch the sight of destruction. Motionless bodies in the streets, puddles of blood my slippers slip through and splash onto my pants. The cries of the forgotten and victorious laughter of the soldiers.
The army of the soulless.
My mother's voice echoes in my head.
The army of the soulless. Commanded by the Void Queen.
I nearly stop in my tracks if it's not for Castiel grabbing onto my elbow. The fear in his eyes is substantial enough, and I don't want to make it worse. The army of the soulless, known for killings and ruthless magic, will not let us out of their sights. Every corner we take, more wait. The others continue to follow us. They're everywhere.
"Castiel," I pant the closer we come to the docks. The soldiers' eyes glow red. "The Void Queen."
He whips his stare over to me. Ash-filled wind tears at his hair and clothes. "What?"
"It's the Void Queen. The army of the soulless."
Tears prick at my eyes. I've heard of what they've done to other territories in the Void Queen's reign. Many never returned to their former selves and the ones that died...never rose again. Not even to become part of her army. Though she possesses the ability, the evil waste lives just as well.
"I don't care who they are," he tries to make himself believe. "We're escaping this."
I try to run faster, but I'm no match for my brother. The burning desire in the back of my throat, pleading for him to let me stop so he can get away, will not serve me now. Castiel will not allow me to remain while he escapes. That's not what he promised me all those years ago when pirates invaded our village in search of women and gold. They found neither.
We reach the docks, air thin in our lungs, and Castiel skids to a halt, throwing out an arm in front of me to block a further step. And I see why. Standing on the docks, in a place I've visited too many times to count, is the rest of the soulless army. Along with them are village innocents, and at the front, smiling at us, the Void Queen.