In the throne room of the Highland castle, the bishop spoke urgently as Ethan prepared to depart. They marched hurriedly through an elaborately decorated hall.
“Hurry, you should be on your way now, Ethan. You must find the royal necklace before the others.” He gestured emphatically with his hands. “I would like to see you take the throne. The first benevolent ruler of Highland!” Ethan’s lips showed a hint of a smile as the bishop continued. “I don’t doubt Highland would be a better place under your rule.”
As he concluded his sentence, Maddy and Kat emerged from one of the side halls, both with their arms crossed.
Maddy stepped fully into the room, her voice drenched with sarcasm. “Really? That is just fascinating. Don’t you think, Kat?”
Kat glared pointedly at Ethan and the bishop as she and Maddy approached with threatening poise. The sounds of the heels of their boots clicking on the tile floor echoed through the room. “I sure do, Maddy.”
The bishop failed to hide his surprise and guilt. “Maddy! Kat! Well… Well. Well, well, I…” A light sheen of perspiration appeared on his upper lip.
Ethan came to the bishop’s rescue with a charismatic tilt of the head and a tray of chalices filled with wine. “Could I interest the three of you in a drink?” He selected one, then offered out the others as they gathered around an ornate table in the center of the room.
The bishop eagerly grabbed a goblet, grateful for the segue. Kat and Maddy each took one as well with their eyes narrowed.
Hoping to recover some dignity, the bishop raised his glass in the middle of the small circle the four of them had formed. “I’d like to propose a toast!” Maddy rolled her eyes but joined in as Kat and Ethan lifted their chalices. “To the new ruler of Highland, whichever of you fine contenders it may be.”
With a half-hearted chorus of cheers, they all brought their chalices to their lips and drank.
When they had drained their cups, they set them down on the table and stood for a moment in silence.
Disrupting the quiet, the bishop emitted a loud choking sound and clutched at his throat, panic spreading across his face. As Maddy, Kat, and Ethan looked on, his body convulsed with increasing violence until, with spittle dripping from the corners of his mouth, he fell to the floor and was still. The three stared at his unmoving body, mouths agape, then turned their gazes to each other with varying degrees of apprehension and suspicion.
All eyes snapped to Ethan as he began to gag, then grasped at his throat and wound up on the floor just like the bishop.
Maddy and Kat locked eyes, wordlessly accusing each other. After a moment, Maddy let out a tiny squeak, rasped out a strangled, “You!” then collapsed in much the same manner as Ethan and the bishop.
Kat gaped at the limp bodies in confusion before an enthused grin seeped into her features. She turned to face the throne, a rush of power washing over her. She took a few steps toward it but stopped short when laughter erupted behind her.
She turned around again to find Maddy, alive and well, on her feet, doubled over and cackling. When her hysterics subsided enough for her to speak, Maddy chuckled out, “You really thought that you were king?”
Kat opened and closed her mouth as she struggled to understand what had just happened. “Wha- you… You killed the bishop?”
“No, Kat.” Maddy sighed impatiently. “Actually, I think Ethan killed the bishop. I’m guessing he like, grabbed the tray from the wrong side and the cups those two drank were meant for us.” Kat peered shamefully at the bodies. Maddy inspected her nails with ambivalence. “Look, when you’re done wrestling with your conscience or whatever, you should just head on back to your room. Leave finding the stone to me.”
Anger rising, Kat watched with gritted teeth as Maddy swept from the hall.
Rue, who was then back on the ground and attempting to chew through the chain, looked at her with resentment-filled eyes. She spat the chain out and brought her hands to her hips. “Not at night.” She shook her head, annoyed that it wasn’t obvious to her captor. “In case you haven’t noticed, genius, but that’s when stars tend to have better things to do. You know, coming out, shining, that sort of thing?”
Jules took a deep breath. “Bitch, this isn’t the sky, you need to catch some Z’s.” She gestured to the land around them. “You’re on Earth now. Coming out is off the agenda. Shining has been suspended until further notice. Oh, and sleeping during the day? Fuck no. Unless you have some magical ability to sleep while you’re walking.” She smirked, lack of sleep lowering her sense of humor’s standards.
Rue rubbed at her temples. “How much of a dumbass are you? I’m not walking anywhere!”
Jules stewed for a moment, then stood in a flurry of frustration. “Fine. Sit in a crater. I’ve had enough of your bullshit anyway.” She crossed her arms. “I was gonna put you back in the sky after I showed you to Anna, but if you’d rather sit on your own in the middle of nowhere forever, suit yourself.”
Rue frowned, taken aback. “How exactly were you planning on getting me back up there?”
Jules gave her a smug look and pulled what was left of her mother’s candle from her pocket, showing it off. “I find the fastest way to travel is by candlelight.”
Rue’s eyes widened as she blew out an impressed breath. “You have a Euphorian candle.”
Jules, who didn’t know the candle was called anything until that moment, feigned knowledge on the subject and responded, “Yeah, I have a euphemism candle.”
Rue laughed before she could stop herself. “A Euphorian candle.”
“That’s what I said.”
“You said ‘euphemism’.”
Flustered, Jules blew past it. “Well, anyway, I was going to give what’s left of it to you.”
Rue eyed the candle stub. “Well, I mean… that thing barely has one trip left.”
Jules raised her eyebrows. “Exactly. So be glad I’m not using it right now to get us both back to the wall.” She cocked her head, eyes twinkling. “Unless you have a better way to get home.”
Rue worked her jaw for a minute, not wanting to give in but ultimately accepting that the candle was her best bet. “Fine!” She thrust her hand out in defeat. “Help me up.”
“Okay, okay.” Jules hoisted her to her feet and did her best to subdue the victorious smile forcing her lips upward. Rue made no attempt to hide her displeasure at having to lean on Jules for support, limping as they began to walk. Jules wrapped an arm around Rue’s waist to carry more of her weight and said, “You are going to have to walk faster than that if we’re going to get you back to Anna by her birthday.”
Rue looked up at her with miffed, squinted eyes. “Don’t push your luck.”
In one of Highland’s rural villages, a boy stood in the yard of a modest farmhouse and struggled to harness a fidgety goat. From the front door, his mother droned at him as she pushed a broom uselessly back and forth over the porch.
Troy’s cheeks puffed out as he stifled the sarcasm that threatened to burst from his mouth.
When he turned to leave, he was startled to find an intimidating young man standing behind him.
Nate flashed Troy a chilling grin. In his hand was a glinting coin, and beside him, a cart just large enough for a single rider.
“Hey, kid. Dime for your goat?”
Troy, thrown off by Nate’s sudden appearance, blinked at him as he registered the situation. “Oh. Well… he’s kinda small to pull your cart.”
Nate glanced between the cart and the goat, considering the boy’s observation. He nodded at Troy. “True.”
Before Troy could speak again, Nate touched his finger to Troy’s face, right between the eyes. In an instant, he was transformed into a goat, matching the one he was supposed to bring to the market.
With a snap of Nate’s fingers, the two goats were harnessed to the cart, and Nate was riding off as Troy’s mother wailed feebly from the yard.
After traveling most of the day, Nate’s cart happened upon a dingy caravan parked in a field. Protruding from the trailer’s interior was a silver chain, identical to the one Jules had received from her mother. Attached to the chain, perched on the side of the caravan, was a small, exotic bird.
Beside the caravan, a silver-haired man by the name of Ditchweed Cal cooked a hare on a makeshift spit over a fire. At the sound of Nate’s approach, he looked up sharply.
“Who goes there?” He looked around, paranoid, as Nate came closer. “What do you want with me, a poor old flower seller?”
Nate rolled his eyes as he came fully into the man’s vicinity. “Oh, shut the fuck up. I know what you are.” He raised his hands in a gesture of peace. “And I swear by the ordinances of the brotherhood to which we both belong, that I mean you no harm.” Cal’s expression shifted from suspicious to intrigued. “I just want to share your meal.”
Ditchweed Cal regarded him for a moment then assented. “Well, can’t be too careful, you know. I’ll… get you a seat.” He hesitated just a moment, then snapped his fingers, causing the bird by the caravan to transform instantaneously into a beautiful woman. She glared in Cal’s direction, then disappeared into the caravan to produce a small stool, which she proceeded to place unceremoniously at Nate’s feet before retreating back to the trailer. With another snap, the woman was turned back into a bird.
As Nate settled in, Cal took a stick, swatted at each end of the hare, and asked, “So what’ll it be, heads or tails?”
Nate considered then answered coolly, “Heads.”
Cal nodded, removed the hare from the fire, and chopped it in half with a single stroke of a cleaver. He sprinkled some seasoning on it before handing off the designated half to his guest. Once they had begun eating, he asked, “So, stranger, where are you headed to?”
With his mouth full, Nate said in a conversational tone, “I’m after a fallen star. She fell nearby. I’m going to find her and cut the beating heart out of her chest. Then we’ll eat it and my brother and I will be young again.” As he spoke, Nate looked increasingly confused and concerned by his own words, unsure as to why he had shared this valuable information so freely.
Lost in his own thoughts, Cal wondered aloud, “A fallen star? Well that’s some good news. I could stand to lose a couple years myself… So where exactly-”
Nate spat out his food as he realized what had caused his unintentional candor. “Laughing grass! You stole truth from me with laughing grass?” His face darkened, and he stood to address his host even more threateningly. His plate careened to the ground and shattered. “Do you have any idea what a big mistake you’ve made, Ditchweed Cal?”
Cal’s face fell, suddenly washed with unease. “How do you know my… Who are you?”
Nate adopted a terrifying grin and said, “Look again.”
For just a blink of a moment, his face transformed, revealing his true form. For that split second, every detail of his features turned ghastly, his skin underscored by darkness.
Cal, shocked to his core by his guest’s true identity, dropped to one knee, shaking slightly.
“I won’t seek the star, Your Dark Majesty. I swear.”
“Seek all you want,” Nate uttered, looking down upon Cal with scorn. Reaching out with his index finger, conjuring magical energy, he continued, “You will not see the star, touch it, smell, or hear it. You won’t perceive her, even if she stands right in front of you.” As he lowered his hand, Nate shook his head with disapproval. “Pray that you never meet me again, Ditchweed Cal.”
Jules led Rue through the forest, her hand loosely holding onto the chain that was still secured around Rue’s wrist.
As they trudged over dirt and fallen twigs, Rue aired her skepticism. “So, let me get this straight. You think you know we’re going the right way because, and I quote, ‘I just do.’”
Jules turned to her earnestly. “I do, though! I don’t know why.” She turned forward again to hide the fact that she didn’t quite believe the next words she voiced. “Maybe it’s my love for Anna guiding me home… or something.”
Jules glanced back at her struggling companion and relented. “Yes, yeah, sorry.” She halted her progression, and Rue rubbed at her aching leg.
Jules looked to the sky, hoping to explain some of her logic. “Look, we’re heading north, okay? The wall’s north. And if you look up in the sky, even during the day, you can see the… the evening star…” She paused, looking for the marker to which she was referring, unable to spot it overhead. “That’s so weird.”
Rue, looking particularly unamused, crossed her arms from her place on the ground. “That’s funny. Really hilarious, my sides are splitting,” she deadpanned.
Jules gestured to the star’s usual spot in the sky, “No, I’m being-” Then it dawned on her. “Wait, that… That was you? Really?”
With a half nod, Rue dropped to her haunches and took a seat on the ground. Jules stared at her for a moment before she asked, “What are you doing?”
Rue stared back defiantly. “What does it look like I’m doing?” She leaned back against a tree trunk. “I’m sitting down. I’m tired.”
Jules’ shoulders drooped. “Please don’t do this again. We agreed we’d stop off at the next village to eat and rest.”
Rue adopted a pleading expression. “Jules, come on! It’s midday. I never stay up this late. Just please, let me sleep.”
Jules squeezed her eyes shut and blew out a long breath. “Okay, fine. I’ll just… You sleep. I’ll go and get something to eat.”
Rue smiled gratefully, but let it slip from her face almost immediately. “What are you doing?”
Jules, who had magically increased the length of the chain, circled the tree against which Rue leaned and reconnected the links, effectively securing Rue to the trunk. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m making sure you don’t run away.”
Rue shook her head and curled up to sleep as Jules began to walk away, casting glances back at Rue over her shoulder as she went.
The trail of Maddy’s coat flapped in the wind as she stood, flanked by guards, at the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking a volatile ocean. She turned with a stony face as two of her lackeys approached, dragging along an old man.
“The soothsayer, as you requested.”
Maddy nodded, and the henchmen stepped back and fell into line. She looked the man up and down. Her body continued to face the sea as she spoke in a cold, controlled tone.
“South, you said. So we went south. And still,” she took a step toward the soothsayer, “no stone. So what now?” She gestured to the water crashing up against the stone wall of the cliff, an implied threat rising in her voice. “Are we supposed to start swimming?”
The soothsayer shifted uncomfortably. “Dame Perez, I have merely relayed to you what the runes have told me. That’s all I can do.”
The soothsayer gulped.
“Am I a member of the king’s court?”
The soothsayer closed his eyes and cast the runes onto the rock. All of the pieces landed with symbols showing, and the soothsayer nodded in confirmation.
Maddy nodded in return. “Is my favorite color pink?”
The runes were tossed a second time, again landing face up, and again, Maddy nodded. She crossed her arms smugly and gazed out toward the waves.
“Has excessive begging or pleading ever convinced me to spare the life of a traitor?”
A few small beads of sweat appeared on the soothsayer’s forehead as he tossed the runes onto the rock once more. They all landed without symbols showing. Maddy addressed him again with her eyes on the runes.
“What does that mean?”
The soothsayer struggled to keep his voice steady. “That means no.”
“Good.” She took a step closer to him, threatening in stature despite standing a couple of inches shorter. “Now, throw them again, but this time high up in the air.”
The soothsayer was clearly uncertain, but he complied nonetheless. The runes arced up over their heads. A moment before they landed on the rock, Maddy asked, with grit in her voice, “Do you work for Kat?”
The soothsayer watched in horror as the runes landed with their symbols showing, revealing his true allegiances. Before he could turn to Maddy and plead his case, she drew her sword and drove it through him. He fell to the ground with dark, glittering blood oozing from his body.
Without another glance to him, Maddy took up the runes herself and shook them between her fingers. “So, do we go west?”
Rue woke abruptly, still chained to the tree, to find that night had fallen around her. She sat up a bit straighter and looked around, surprised that Jules hadn’t yet returned.
A sudden rustling just beyond her line of sight caused a nervous fluttering in her heart. She called out, fear evident in her tone, “Jules?”
No answer came out of the darkness. Leaves rustled again in a different spot.
“Who’s there?” Rue hated that her voice had raised an octave. “Jules, is that you?” Leaves rustled once more, this time a bit closer, and Rue attempted to feign nonchalance. “This isn’t funny, Jules.”
Again, the rustling. This time straight ahead. Rue shifted against the tree’s trunk, fully aware of her own helplessness. Her nerves buzzed under her skin. “Jules, come on!”
Her heart stopped for a moment when a figure burst forth into the clearing.
She let out a long sigh of relief when it ambled closer and revealed itself to be a unicorn, a fellow sister of the moon. Rue reached out a hand, and the unicorn closed the distance to nudge her palm with its nose. The sense of mutual trust was established immediately.
McKay stood before a long, ornate mirror in the hall of the lair with an aggravated expression staring back at him. Moments later, his own irked reflection was replaced by Nate’s, whose image had magically appeared in the looking glass.
McKay shook his head at his counterpart, who had summoned this interaction by rubbing the enchanted ring he wore.
“Be careful how much magic you use, bro. It’s starting to show.”
Nate rolled his eyes. “One goat and a small enchantment,” he said, holding up the hands that had become re-covered in liver spots due to the spells he’d just described. “Not exactly drowning in conjured pussy over here.”
“I mean, even the ring is gonna take a toll. You should only call if it’s a deadass emergency.” He crossed his arms. “Why don’t you just use the runes and find her yourself?”
Nate huffed. “I did, I’m not a dumbass. She should be here. The runes are just telling me gibberish now.”
McKay scowled but stalked obediently to the cages that housed the animals. He dragged a reptilian creature out by its tail. In the mirror, Nate waited impatiently.
After a terrible squeal echoed throughout the hall, McKay returned to his brother, hands covered in blood. “Just stay where you are, man, she’s coming to you.” Nate raised an eyebrow and nodded. “But keep an eye out, you’re gonna want to handle it delicately. She’s unhappy and it’s drained her. She’s barely shining.” Nate cocked a head as he considered this, and McKay continued to advise, “Set a trap that’ll make sure her heart is glowing before you cut that shit out.”
Nate smirked, nodded in confirmation, and disappeared from the mirror.
“Oh, you idiot,” she scolded herself, furious at her own blunder.
She dropped the food she had been carrying and slumped against the very tree she’d left Rue strapped to hours before, pulled her knees to her, and buried her head in her arms.
Nate pointed a finger at each of the goats in his charge. “You will be human.”
The goat that had once been Troy transformed into a boyish, attractive young woman.
The other goat grew into a middle aged man with a slender face and abnormally large teeth.
Both of the former goats stumbled slightly, in a daze. Their eyes, already round, grew wider when Nate snapped his fingers and conjured an impressive inn that assembled itself in a flash of green flame. The chariot they’d pulled him in also became momentarily engulfed in flame and resulted in a post sign signaling the inn and tavern to the dirt road that wound past it.
Nate turned to the older man. “You are Rick, the innkeeper. I’m your step-son. And you,” he faced the girl who used to be Troy, who was absentmindedly poking at the breasts that appeared on her chest and were clearly not the likes of anything Troy had seen as a boy, “are my sister.” The two former goats nodded obediently to Nate’s satisfaction. “Now, go inside and get everything ready. Our special guest will be here soon.”
Rue continued, talking to herself, “There’s no way she’s the only person in Highland who could have helped, right?”
She couldn’t be sure, but Rue could have sworn the unicorn shook its mane at her.
Jules’ head lolled on her shoulder as she slumbered against the tree. Her brow scrunched when a voice came to her in her sleep.
At once both in a dream and not, a vision came to Jules as she slept.
The last of us to fall was our mother, Leslie, four hundred years ago.
Jules saw the image of a star’s meteoric descent to Earth. The star, absolutely beautiful, whose physical appearance certainly showed a resemblance to Rue, landed in a crater just as Rue had.
She was captured by the same warlocks who seek Rue now.
The vision shifted to an image of what appeared to be two young men, leading Leslie through a long, dark chamber, clearly having lured her with pretenses of good will.
The warlocks stood over the star, wicked smiles on their evil faces.
They cut it from her chest and ate it.
A flashing glint of a blade, the taller warlock’s head thrown back in disturbing glee.
Jules jerked awake, panic evident on her face.
There’s no time to waste, Gia’s voice continued, assuring Jules that what she had witnessed in her sleep was more than simply a nightmare. A coach is coming. By any means possible, you must get on it.
The coach, driven by a stern-faced Kat, stormed through the forest a half mile away.
Jules sprinted blindly. In the distance, the sound of the carriage’s wheels rolling over a dirt road grew louder as she rushed forward. After a few more seconds of running, Jules could see the road and pushed forward, closing the distance.
When she was just a few meters away, the coach that the star, Gia, had mentioned came into sight, and Jules’ heart leapt. She had to get that ride.
With no time to think and her momentum building, Jules reached the road just as the formidable coach passed in front of her, and she jumped.
Her entire body crashed against the side of the carriage with a thump.
As she pulled herself back up after hurtling immediately to the ground, she heard a voice call out “Whoa!” The coach pulled to a stop, and an intimidating young woman jumped down from the driver’s seat wielding a sword. As she approached Jules, blade first, she mumbled something that sounded like, “If Maddy insists on sending a girl to do a woman’s job…”
Jules raised her hands in defense. “No, wait! Please, I don’t want any trouble.” Kat continued toward her, so she continued, “I don’t know a Maddy, I just need a lift.” Kat paused and squinted her eyes but did not lower her sword. Jules pleaded, “Look at me, look at me. I’m unarmed. You really wanna fucking hurt me?” At last, Kat dropped the point of her sword to the ground, so Jules decided to press, desperate to fulfill the task assigned to her by the star. “Please, let me ride with you.”
Kat swiftly sheathed her sword and turned back to her carriage. “That’s not gonna be possible. I’ve got important shit of my own to attend to.” She swung herself back up into the front seat of the coach.
Jules rushed to the front of the carriage after her. “Well, all the more reason to take me! You never know when you might need another pair of hands. Girls have to stick together, right?”
Kat looked down at her for a beat, scrutinizing, then huffily shifted over in the carriage to make room for her new companion. “Get on.”
Jules breathed a “thank you” and scrambled aboard.
Rue walked up to the door of the inn, the unicorn scraping restlessly at the ground with its hoof behind her, both of them had become soaked from the weather that had become hideously stormy. Just before she could reach out to knock on the door, it flew open before her.
Nate stood on the other side, basked in warm candle light. “Well goodness, come in out of this horrible rain!” Rue stepped inside, still limping slightly, and the young man who welcomed her immediately put an arm around her back. “We have food, drinks, and plenty of warm water for a bath.”
He looked out through the door, glared at the unicorn outside, then steered Rue into the main room, which was quaint but devoid of other guests.
“How do you like your bath?” he asked, pointing to a tin tub that Rue hadn’t noticed right beside the glowing fireplace. “Warm, hot, or boiled-alive?” Rue didn’t catch the ominous glint in his eye as he posed the question.
She shrugged, not really knowing what a bath even was. “Honestly, I have no idea.”
“Then I’ll choose for you.” Nate patted her on the shoulder. “And I’ll have my step-dad take your horse to the stable.” He turned over his shoulder and snapped his fingers. “Rick!”
A man, who had been standing idly behind the bar, chewing mindlessly on a rag, hopped up onto its counter, then back down on the other side, and proceeded to shuffle out into the rain. Rue was too exhausted and new to Earth to acknowledge the strangeness of it all.
“Now,” Nate took her over to the tub, “let’s get you out of these wet things, shall we?”
Rue became wary of his watchful eye, but did not want to be ungrateful in response to the kindness he was showing her. He seemed to notice her discomfort and turned away from her to retrieve a pan of water from over the fire while she undressed. The necklace she had found earlier remained around her neck. When the tub was full, she slipped into the bath and breathed a long sigh of relief, the hot water soothing some of the past day’s stress.
Nate took a seat beside the tub, consciously low enough that he couldn’t see her body.
After some time had passed, he leaned against the edge of the bath and asked, “Feeling better?”
Rue stirred happily in the steaming water. “Much. Thank you.” She slid an inch deeper. “The warm water is just…” she made a pleased face and nodded approvingly.
“And your leg?” He dipped a finger into the water and swirled it around slowly. Unbeknownst to Rue, he released a healing spell into the liquid as they admired the ripples. “Any improvement?”
Rue felt her previously injured leg and looked at him in astonishment. “That’s… fucking insane!”
“The powers of a nice, hot bath. It’s the least I could do. Glad you’re more comfortable.” He stood, lifting a fluffy robe for Rue to step into. “You seem happier, too.”
“I do feel happier,” Rue said, warmth radiating throughout her body. Her skin emitted a soft, just-noticeable glow. “Less troubled.”
“Awesome. Nothing like a good soak to warm the heart.”
Nate led her up the stairs to a cozy room with a very soft-looking bed.
“Now, I’m only a simple innkeeper,” Nate rubbed his hands together, “but I’ve been told I have a healer’s touch.” He lifted his palms in a modest shrug. “I’d be happy to give you a massage.”
Nate gestured to the bed. “Lie on your back. And go ahead and close your eyes. You’ll drift off nice and easy that way.”
Rue did as instructed. A sinister smile stretched Nate’s lips. With one hand, he reached under the bed, where he had hidden his daunting glass knife. With his other hand, he reached out slowly to open Rue’s robe.
He pulled back suddenly, face awash in frustration, when a pounding echoed through the inn from the front door.
Outside, Kat slammed her fist against the door and shouted, “Hello! Service!”
Jules, shivering in the rain and seeing no movement through the frosted windows, chimed in, “Maybe we should keep going and try the next inn, especially if that stone you’re looking for is as close as your runes say.”
Kat shot Jules a side-eye glance. “Have a little patience, we’ve only been here a minute.”
Jules nodded, conceding. “Sorry. I don’t think I have an attention span for real life anymore.”
Kat shrugged. “I’ll just give it one more try before we move on.”
Upstairs, Nate said softly to Rue, “Stay here and relax. I’ll be back as soon as I take care of this customer.” His fury came through only in a subtle grinding of his teeth and furrow of his brow as he charged out of the room.
In the main hall, Rick finally responded to the knocks on the door and opened the inn to Kat and Jules.
“Ah, finally,” Kat muttered, barely concealing her growing impatience. Rick, whose eyes were verging on being completely glazed over, did not seem to register her aggravated attitude. “We’d like to stay the night.” She pushed past him into the warmth. “If you could just help my friend take the horses to the stables.”
Rick did as he was told and ambled out into the rain mindlessly.
Kat wandered further into the inn, irked that there was no one else waiting to greet her and bring her to a room. When she spotted the still steaming bath by the fire, she followed her baser instincts and stripped off her cold, weather-soaked clothes then and there. She got in the water, closed her eyes, and let out a relieved breath in much the same manner Rue had earlier.
Rue, by then too curious to remain in her room, came down the stairs and was shocked to find this naked woman sitting in the bath she herself had recently occupied. She quickly averted her eyes.
Kat was less concerned with modesty. When she spotted Rue, she called out, “Hi there. I’m used to better service, but you’re awake now, so that’s what matters. I’ll take your best room.”
Rue pursed her lips, unsure how to tell this stranger that she had no power over assigning rooms at this establishment. Before she could come up with anything, Nate swept into the room and took over. On a silver tray, he balanced a ruddy goblet.
“Good evening, I’ll ask that you not bother my guests. I’m the one who runs this inn.” He thrust the tray toward Kat. “Glass of wine?”
Kat eyed the drink for a moment before waving it off. “No, no. Until my adversary is dead, I’ve made a pact with myself to only drink my own wine.” Nate struggled to conceal a scowl. “My friend out in the stables might want it, though.” Nate, glaring, handed the wine off to the girl previously known as Troy and sent her out. When he turned back to Kat, she asked again, “Your best room, perhaps?”
“Of course.” Nate nodded curly and left the room.
Rue, unsure of what she should have been doing, remained standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. Kat, meanwhile, flicked at the cooling water in the tub, unconcerned. Before Rue could excuse herself and head back to her room, Kat launched into some inane small talk, trapping Rue behind a wall of social obligation.
Out in the stables, Jules was just finishing putting away Kat’s horses by herself. The man called Rick had abandoned her to nibble at a bush on the lawn. She closed the door of the final stall and jumped when she turned around to find a dead-eyed teenage girl behind her, holding a chalice out to her. She steadied herself then took the offered drink.
“Thank you. That’s really nice, thank you so much.” She went to take a sip but remembered her manners before bringing the cup to her lips. “My name’s Jules. What’s yours?”
In a startlingly deep voice, the girl replied, “Troy.” Jules watched silently as the girl lumbered back out of the barn.
With an interested frown, Jules started to lift the goblet to her lips again, when a thunderous boom sounded. The unicorn burst from its stall, rearing up on its hind legs and knocking the chalice from her hands. She looked on with wide eyes as the wine that spilled from it onto the hay sizzled and smoked as if it were acid.
Back inside, Kat was winding down a substanceless story, and Rue attempted to get away, absentmindedly touching her necklace. “Right, great story. If you’ll excuse me-”
“Wait.” Kat leaned toward her, pointing her arm out over the side of the tub she still lay in. “That stone you’re wearing, it can’t be…” Kat’s expression grew intense. “Come here, let me see it.”
The energy in the room shifted. Rue closed her fist around the stone and took a step backward, away from the woman in the tub. Kat’s eyes darkened.
“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”
Nate, upstairs, burst into the room he’d had Rue in, snatched the knife he had stashed under the bed, and stormed out again.
Kat continued to clench her jaw in the bathtub. “I am Kat Hernandez, elite member of the king’s high court, and I demand that you bring it to me!” Rue continued to back away, looking around for anyone to jump in on her behalf. “Bring me the stone! Now!”
Jules charged through the inn’s front door in a panic. “Dame Kat! Don’t touch anything they give you! They tried to p-”
Her voice died in her mouth when Nate came furiously down the stairs, swiftly crossed the room to the tub, and slit Kat’s throat without even a blink of hesitation. Blood poured from her neck, down her body, and into the water like glittering ink.
Jules followed his line of sight to find a terror-stricken Rue. She rushed to her and they embraced. She put a hand on Rue’s cheek, searching her eyes. “Are you okay?” Rue managed a small nod, shaken.
Nate, still holding his bloody knife aloft, stared them down from the other side of the room. “Rick!” he called to the man who had returned to his place behind the bar. “Get the blonde one!”
Rick remained blank-faced but ran out from behind the counter aggressively. Jules pushed Rue out of the way, but before she could take the hit from Rick, the unicorn bounded in from outside. With a grunt, it sent Rick flying back, the impact killing him instantly. His body, having returned in death to his original goat form, slammed against the wall and slumped to the floor.
Rue and Jules ran to each other again.
The unicorn prepared to charge a second time, this time at Nate. Nate, angry and frantic, made a sweeping motion with his arm, producing a fearsome wall of green flame.
Eerily illuminated, Nate began to walk slowly toward Rue and Jules, his knife leaving a thin, sinister trail of blood behind him. The girls, walled-in by flame, had nowhere to turn. Jules instinctively stepped in front of Rue.
As Nate advanced toward them, he said, almost to himself, “The high burning heart of a star at peace is so much better than your frightened bitch-ass heart. Still,” he flashed a menacing smirk, “better than no heart at all.”
Jules’ heart thumped wildly in her chest. An idea struck her, she just hoped it would work. She fumbled in her pocket then turned her head to speak over her shoulder. “Rue?”
Rue clasped a hand around Jules’ arm to indicate she was listening. Jules swallowed.
“Hold me tight and think of home.”
Nate was almost upon them. He lifted the knife over his head, a vicious gleam in his eye. With gusto, Jules thrust her hand, clutching what remained of her Euphorian candle, into the flame at her side.
The echo of Nate screaming “No!” fell away from their ears as they were engulfed in a blaze of light.