1.

I hated the long lilac dress I had on, but it was the closest thing I could grab for the occasion. It had been my mother's, though not as much of a family heirloom as the pearl necklace I wore, or the gold winged brooch I'd pinned in just the right place.

I cringed visibly, looking into the white, full-body mirror in my room. This should have been a happy day for me, but the circumstances that had brought me here were anything but. Two months ago, my parents had both been pronounced dead, and now here I was, inheriting everything they'd ever owned; their precious jewel, their only child.

I took my light brown hair in my hands and tried to twist it up into the hairstyle my mom had been most famous for. I'd done it so many times standing next to her in front of this very mirror and copying her as best I could, but somehow I could never get it right. Even without the bangs I'd gleefully sported as a kid, there was always something that was missing about it.

In the end, I decided to just give up on it and sorted it out as best I could. A few brush strokes later, it was as good as it was ever going to be, or so I thought. I'd just put the brush down when a familiar voice startled me from the door.

"Freya Lovisa," the not-quite-nasally voice intoned. Then, "Hey, stranger."

I turned around, having to be happy with what I'd done so far, and broke out into a grin. "Nate!" I exclaimed in delight. "What are you doing here?"

I practically ran over to him and smothered him in a hug. He was on the shorter side, and I'd surpassed him long ago in terms of height when we were kids. We'd been best friends for years now, connected through our parents at first, then we'd connected naturally on our own.

We broke apart and he ran his fingers through his short, dark brown-almost black-hair. "I'm supposed to come and get you. The ceremony is about to start."

I did a double take. Right. Hence why he was wearing a suit instead of his normal outfit of a hat, sweatshirt, and jeans. "Right," I said, echoing my thoughts. "Okay. I'm ready. Let's do this."

Nate led the way down the hall to the large living room where this was supposed to take place. Already I heard soft music playing, and could smell the unmistakable scent of wine and cheesecake, both of which had been stored somewhere in the house. And the loud chatter of several voices talking at once motivated me to move just a little faster. Surely they wouldn't have started the ceremony yet; not without me, the one it was for in the first place.

"Good luck," Nate murmured in my ear as we reached the door and stood outside it for a beat. I nodded discreetly and let him go in first, so that I could be geared up for my big entrance.

When I entered the room, everything seemed to stop at once. The music trilled on softly, but the frequent buzz of conversation died down almost completely. Everyone had turned to look at me, some in awe, some even in envy, though they had nothing to be envious about. I just stared straight ahead as I moved forward in the room towards the small platform stage. This was my moment, and my moment alone.

Standing at the platform was a man I knew well, Jacob Mulroy. He'd been a friend of the family for as long as I could remember, so having him be the one to conduct the ceremony only made sense. We shared a small, private smile as I walked up to the platform and stood next to him, ready for my big moment.

Jacob cleared his throat, catching the attention of the entire room. For extra emphasis, he stared out at the entire audience, just to make sure they were all paying very close attention.

"Good afternoon," he said, being sure to project his voice. "We're all gathered here today for one reason, as you might be aware." He made sure to glance pointedly at me, the cornerstone of this event. An encouraging yell or two sounded from the large audience, and I couldn't resist a smile. "The future, of course, is an imperative to the continuation of Syndicate. Why do I say that? Well, with our former leaders, Amira and Murvyn, no longer with us, we turn to their sole surviving heir." This time, he gently took hold of my arm and raised it high up into the air. "Behold, the darling of our family, the inheritor of Syndicate, Freya Lovisa."

Jacob let my arm back down, and more cries of encouragement were heard from the audience. Then, after letting them calm down, he began his speech again.

"This occasion is made all the more special now because today, Freya Lovisa is an adult, not just in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of Syndicate." Then he turned to me and smiled. "I have watched you grow into a fine woman for the past two decades. And I think it safe to say, you went above and beyond your parents' vision for you."
I choked up a bit, and he stopped there, sensing my disturbance. For all I thought I was strong, the memory of my parents was still too raw, too fresh in my mind.

"I present you now with the symbol of our organization," Jacob continued, "the first in a series of tests you must face before embracing your destiny."

He produced a small, shining gold tiara from out of nowhere and placed it on my head. It was unexpectedly heavy, but somehow I managed to hold my head up high for all to see. And with that, the first part of the ceremony was complete.

I looked around the room almost proudly now that the worst of it was over. I spied Nate wandering around the room casually, a girl I'd never seen before following him around like a loyal puppy. She was easy to spot, with mid-length blonde hair and a clear infatuation with my best friend.

I turned away then, putting her out of sight and out of mind. Good on Nate, if that was what I thought it was. There'd been a time, a few years ago, when we had made the mistake of thinking that we could make a relationship work between us. It was much better this way between us, as good friends, or so I kept telling myself, on and on until I believed it.

As tradition would apparently have it, Nate was supposed to make a big speech in my honor, since he was the next best thing to family after Jacob. So we exchanged places; as I walked off the platform, he walked onto it, giving me a wink and a shit-eating grin on the way over.

Thankful to have the spotlight off of me for the moment, I went over to the bar area that had graciously been provided and grabbed one of the ready-made cocktails that sat on the counter. Sipping on it lightly, wanting to savor the taste, I turned my attention to where Nate now spoke.

"I'm honored to be here tonight," he began. "As I'm sure we all are. Now, I've known Freya since we were both practically babies. She's been the greatest friend I could ever ask for growing up, and this day is something she's been working towards her whole life." He scanned the crowd until he found me again, smiled widely, and raised the glass of whiskey mixed with fruit punch he held in his hand. "Here's to success, Freya," he said.

A loud, emphatic cheer went up from the audience and I couldn't help but feel touched at the gesture. So many of the people here had helped me to get to where I was today, whether they knew it or not.

Jacob smiled at Nate's little speech, having been the one to orchestrate and witness the evolution of our friendship firsthand. He murmured something quietly to Nate, and presented him with a small token, a special pin indicating his new position within Syndicate.

"From this moment forward, this man is Freya's second," Jacob explained, turning to address the crowd. "Her successor, should she step down or become compromised in any way. And he shall be regarded as such."

The audience clapped and cheered along, right on cue. I beamed up at Nate, even daring to give him a slight thumbs-up out of encouragement. He gave a subtle nod back down at me, then took a step forward again.

"Thank you," he said. "This means so much to me. Now, I'd like to welcome the woman of the hour back up here. I'm sure she'd like to say a few words."

I set down my drink and once again we switched places. I looked out over the crowd, thankful for everything that had led up to this moment. I blinked, batting tears out of my eyes as fast as I could.

"First of all," I said, "I just want to say thank you to everyone who helped me to be where I am tonight. I couldn't have done it without you. I'm so proud to be able to continue on with my parents' legacy, and I know…" I paused, getting choked up. "I know this is what they would've wanted for me," I finished at last.

The room erupted into cheers as I walked down off the stage and blended in with the crowd, mingling easily among them. The night became a blur of faces and names, only a few of which I would be able to actually remember without a long list of them in front of me.

The music in the background swelled as I navigated my way through the crowd, eager to get another drink to replace the one I'd finished off before. I could already feel the heavy weight of responsibility settling comfortably down on my shoulders, and wished fervently that I could put it off for just a little while longer.

I grabbed a newly made drink and once again moved stealthily through the crowd. I noticed a few other people, some of whom I'd been introduced to, congregating in a corner of the room, talking very secretly amongst themselves. I would have paid it no mind, but when one or two members of the group caught me staring, they dispersed frantically around the room. I shuddered slightly and moved on, lightly sipping on my strong drink.

Despite the eerie scene I'd witnessed, I let it go, sinking into the moment. I let myself be surrounded by the music and the people, forgetting almost completely about everything else.

After some time, even the never-ending parade of introductions died down, a blessing I was glad for. Even after two drinks I was still somewhat of a recluse, sometimes preferring the company of my own thoughts to that of other people, even Nate. I had to wonder why the role of leader had fallen on me at such a young age, anyway. It was just my luck…

The world shifted back into focus for me, tilting back upright on its axis. I had to wonder if my mind was growing foggy, or if there were more people lurking around just out of sight, like the ones I'd seen before. And the lights...was it my imagination or did the lights flicker once, then twice, then a third time?

It happened so quickly that no one saw it coming. The shots were fired in quick succession, followed by loud screams, mass panic, and two bodies hitting the floor, one right after the other.

In the chaos, I grasped desperately for a familiar face. As luck would have it, I found one soon enough.

"Nate!" I exclaimed as he rushed past me in his haste. I grabbed his arm, needing answers. "What's going on?"

He looked relieved to see me. "Freya; thank God you're all right. I think they might be after you."

I froze, though I knew I couldn't afford to. "Who is?"

Nate pointed a finger shakily at the wall. In large red letters-blood? I didn't even want to think about it-were the words: Vengeance. Power. Justice. It was signed The Shroud, sending a chill running down my spine.

"Let's get out of here," I said, fear wavering in my voice.

"I'm right there with you," said Nate, in complete agreement.

In my state of fear, I didn't notice the person who snuck up on me until he spoke.

You're not going anywhere," he said, and grabbed me, pulling me away from the crowd, and Nate, bit by bit, before I could make another move.

"Nate!" I screamed out in a last-ditch effort to save myself.

My heart stuttered in relief as he started to run towards me, pushing his way through the retreating crowd. But for every inch he gained, my captor pulled me back further.

I let out a choked, "No!" as Nate was abruptly stopped by Jacob. They had a brief conversation; from what I could tell, Nate argued passionately. In the end, he let out one last exasperated protest, but left with the others.

As the two people in the world I was closest to left, I screamed, "No! No! No! No!" The word left my lips over and over again until it completely lost meaning. I only stopped when I felt a jarring kick to my stomach.

"Will you shut up?" my captor complained. "We're almost there. Then we'll be rid of you forever."

Only then did I bother to turn and look at him. He was stern, yet familiar; I'd seen him at the few council meetings I'd been allowed to attend over the years. What was his name? I just couldn't place it.

"What do you want?" I asked, in an effort to buy myself time.

"We want control of Syndicate, of course. That can't happen with you in the way, princess," he sneered.

He tightened his hold on me, as if to discourage me from lashing out at him. I squirmed a bit, though it took everything I had not to try and free myself. I knew that he would get his later; I had to trust in the universe for that. The thought comforted me as he finally stopped in front of a large glass window that overlooked the endless expanse of water below us.

I didn't say a word as he moved me closer and closer to the window. It took until almost the last second for me to say, "Please, don't do this," as meekly as possible.

He didn't listen, having worked his face up into forming a scowl. "Good riddance, bitch," he said harshly, before shoving me right through the window and into the depths of the ocean below.