Ashlyn opened her eyes slowly, squinting at the light bleeding through her window. Though her body felt worn and heavy, she pushed herself into a sit, rubbing her eyes as they adjusted.
“Mother?” Her throat felt dry and weak, and calling out brought pain. “Mother?” she called again, holding her larynx. Moments later, Calda came through the door to Ashlyn’s bedroom.
“Yes, what do you need? How are you feeling?”
Dropping her hands like weights, Ashlyn breathed out a sigh. She remembered everything, and already it weighed on her heart like an anvil. “Where is he? Is he…hurt?”
Calda’s face smoothed into a curt expression as she came and sat on Ashlyn’s bed. “Sweetheart, it is not him you should be worried over right now. He did quite the number on you. We’ve all been monitoring you day and night. It’s a good sign you are awake and moving.”
Ashlyn swiped at a tear that had formed in her eye. “It was my fault.”
“No, you cannot tell yourself that lie. Damien…he was wrong to do what he did. He lost control, not you.”
“I don’t know Mother…he wouldn’t have lost control if I had just–” she paused, choking on her sobs. “I would really like to see him.”
“Ashlyn, being near Damien is not a good idea. For your protection I cannot let you see him.”
“Do you know if he’s alright?”
“As far as I know he’s still recovering from the incident. Mildly conscious.”
Ashlyn nodded, dipping her chin. She could picture Damien lying in a recovery bed with deep purple scars all over his chest and arms. A sleeping tangle of flesh and dark magic. “I’m sorry, Mother. I could have prevented this and I didn’t.”
Calda stroked Ashlyn’s hair. “I do not think that even with your power you could have predicted this outcome. Damien is quite a unique human, and he has grown very protective of you.”
Ashlyn’s hand came up to the side of her neck, feeling the remnants of a broken rune on her skin. Though the memory of it shattering returned to her in bits rather than troves, she was grateful for Damien’s powers in that particular sense. If he hadn’t broken her rune she probably would not have made a recovery in the first place. A cluster of confusion, anger, and regret flooded her being, making Ashlyn cover her face with her palms.
She let out her heart-wrenching sobs, longing to hold Damien in her arms one last time.
Calda pulled her daughter in, pressing Ashlyn’s head against her chest and soothing the top of her mane. “I know it hurts, darling. Caring for someone is a special kind of risk, and sometimes it leaves us worse than we began. But we must move on and start anew.”
It startled Ashlyn hearing her mother speak as though she knew exactly what her thoughts were. “But how do I move on?”
“The same way I did; by gathering up the ashes.” A long silence drifted between them before Calda spoke again. “Darling, you will do such great things in Tauros. You will be a Queen in your own right, you will take this horrible experience and use it for your betterment.”
“But it wasn’t horrible,” Ashlyn said. “I— I suppose there were some frightening parts but…but I loved—“
“Don’t say that word. Once you say that word it will only be more difficult to do what you must do. You are leaving, Ashlyn.”
“But I’m not ready to leave.”
“This is not a negotiation. The King’s escort will be here on the morrow and you will go to Tauros as discussed.” Calda stood and faced the door.
“I will not have it, Ashlyn. You honestly think after what happened that I would support you staying here? That boy is poison to you, in more ways than one. I will not let you throw your future away. Not for him.”
“Mother, I will go. I want to go, but not before I settle all of this. I need to say goodbye.”
Calda pursed her lips. “It is not a good idea.”
“Please, I won’t ask for anything ever again. You will have what you want, just let me say goodbye.”
Folding her arms, Calda sighed and nodded. “I suppose your escort will not be in a rush.”
After she made her exit, Ashlyn turned to face her mirror. Leaning over she could glimpse her face, but what she saw caused her to gasp. Deep purple shadows rimmed her eyes like someone sick with plague, and faint lines scarred her neck, cheeks, and forehead. Undraping the covers over her, she found the same markings on her arms and legs.
Ashlyn blinked, trying to solve the riddle that now presented itself. In small doses, dark magic was like a toxin that took its victim slowly, and with larger ones, a person could die immediately. Knowing that made her question why she was alive after taking in so much. Perhaps it was because her rune had been broken as a side-effect, allowing her powers to heal and protect her body. Or perhaps…she was stronger against dark magic than she initially believed. Whatever the case, she was grateful it had not taken her life.
Hopefully Damien had fared better than she.
In the morning, Damien’s eyes opened at the sound of Naelen’s voice coming from his bedside. It was Naelen whom Damien had been hearing these past few days as he faded in and out of consciousness. Several little, brief visits were nothing Damien willed himself to stay awake for, but upon hearing that he had a guest waiting downstairs for him, it made him want to stir.
Groggily, he sat up though it made his muscles strain. A whining moan sounded while gripping his head. “Ugh, how long has she been here?”
“A few minutes,” Naelen answered. “I can tell her you’re not ready, or…indisposed. Whatever you want.”
“Where is Kallus?”
“Oh, my parents went out shopping. Said they needed to pick up more supplies. I can’t blame them for running out of stock while taking care of you.”
Great. That wasn’t what Damien needed in that moment: a reminder of how guilty he should feel. Perhaps it was time to turn the tables. “And you just let Ash in without any sort of…permission?”
Naelen flashed a mischievous smile. “Nope. But honestly…what else can my parents do? You’re already bed-ridden.”
Damien wavered at that thought. “Alright, send her up here.” The task of putting on some clothing was more shaky than he preferred, but he wished to be as presentable as possible. Covering up his scars.
A few minutes later, Ashlyn came stepping through his doorway. In her hand was a medicine of some type. She looked far better than he did. Not only were her clothes expensive and well-made, her posture was…different. Not a trace of dark magic to be found. As she came closer, Damien noticed the faded etching of the rune that once bound her. How long had he been out? The rune was fresh last he remembered, now it was only a remnant.
Damien liked looking at her eyes. They seemed to change slightly with her mood: glowing brighter when she was happy, or growing dim when she was out-of-sorts. Today her eyes were a solid brown, matching her low and melancholy mood.
Damien was not sure how to open the conversation, so he stayed silent as Ashlyn sat down beside him on the bed. Against his best hopes, Naelen stayed in the room with them and posted himself near the door, keeping his arms crossed.
But Ashlyn was enough to capture his attention, reaching out and placing the vial in his hand. “I…brought you some medicine,” she said.
“Uh…thanks but, Calda has already been here a few times. She’s given me troves of medicine.”
“This is my own formula,” she said, looking down. “I fixed it.”
“Remember when I couldn’t find that last ingredient? Well…I found it.”
Damien squinted, straining to remember. Out of courtesy he took the vial and placed it on his nightstand. “Ash…you have been so kind to me since we met. I don’t understand it.” He dipped his chin, rubbing the top of his head. “I certainly don’t deserve it.”
“Don’t say that. This…this was all my doing, you should carry none of the blame for it.”
“Heh,” he scoffed. “If only. I think we are both at fault. If you don’t want me to use my power anymore, I understand. Consider it done. I…wouldn’t risk that again. Hurting you, I mean.”
“Oh.” Ashlyn let out a long sigh, fidgeting her hands. “If anything, I should be making promises to you. I will let you be. This is the only home you have now and I want you to feel safe in it.”
As she stood, Damien found himself moving with her, unable to stop staring. “That’s it? You’re just going to leave and not say anything?”
Ashlyn dipped her chin. “Damien…this is not easy for me. But everyone is right, I need to stay away from you. My journey here is ending. I must answer the King’s call.”
Anger came flooding into Damien’s fist, and he let it out with a smack to his mattress. “I may be a monster to you, but at least I’m not a coward! Don’t leave me, Ash.”
“I must.” She stopped. “And if you keep calling yourself a monster, eventually that is what you’ll become. I will take no part in that. I will not let you poison yourself.”
“I used it for you!” he shouted. “You understand that? How else was I supposed to save you?”
A tear came streaming down her cheek. “I never asked to be saved. My only goal was for you to find your past. I was the one saving you! You destroy everything you touch, Damien…and if I’m the only reason you want to use your power, then the solution is simple: I have to go away.”
Damien fumed as she walked past Naelen and out the door. “Ash!! Come back here!” Pushing through the slowness and the pain, he got to his feet and inched toward the door. His movement sent Naelen into a panic.
“Whoa, hold on,” Naelen braced Damien as he came over. “Just let her go, you’re not helping anyone.” Then Naelen’s expression turned frightened as Damien gritted his teeth. A forceful shove sent the adolescent elf flying into the wall, his back crunching against it. Then Damien’s hand came wrapping around Naelen’s throat, cutting off his air flow. “D—d—” Naelen choked, unable to form a word.
Ashlyn heard the struggle from outside and came rushing back in to help. She saw black veins swelling from under Damien’s skin. His eyes were a solid black. It was happening again.
She leapt into action, grabbing the vial off his nightstand and unstopping the cork. But Damien was already aware of her plan. He let go of Naelen to free up both his hands. Ashlyn tried anyway, only to be blocked by Damien who seized both her arms. He was strong. Much stronger than someone his size should be. She cried out as he twisted both her wrists. The contents of the vial began dripping on the floor.
“N—Naelen!” she called, extending her arm as far as she could. Instantly he was there, cradling the vial in his own hands. “It will cure him.”
A nod from him signaled that he understood. Damien now seemed caught between choices. He let go, only keeping one of Ashlyn’s arms tethered to his grip. Turning, he attacked Naelen with his free hand, trying to slap the vial away. “I am not an animal!” he growled. “I don’t need to be tamed. Or cured.”
“Could have fooled me,” Naelen said, darting for an object resting on Damien’s bookshelf. Ashlyn saw him picking up a metal shortsword, simple and fashionable in its own right. The sight of it made her worry, but she stayed quiet and watched as Naelen unsheathed the blade.
Damien seemed to cower in submission. A weak sword with a single elvish rune engraved on its blade did not seem like a weapon he would fear, yet he did.
“Put that back,” Damien ordered. “It’s mine.”
“Let the Sorceress go, and I won’t use it,” Naelen said.
“You even know how to? That rune is advanced, and I know you still haven’t mastered it.”
“Then you better hope I don’t try to.” He stepped forward, facing the rune outward.
Trembling, Damien let go of Ashlyn and put his hands up.
Naelen smirked. “Good. Now take your medicine.”
Damien seethed out a curse, clenching his fists hard enough for his fingernails to dig into the skin. “No!“
Unable to fight back his rage, he leapt toward Naelen, trying to tear the sword away from him. The two of them tangled with each other like children quarreling over a coveted toy. Just as Damien was about to yank the sword out of Naelen’s grip, the rune lit up, passing under Naelen’s fingers just enough for him to draw power. The sound of the rune’s effect popped like a bottle of wine, and then the cry of agonizing pain came ripping out of Damien’s throat. He startled backward, holding the broken bones in his hand.
Ashlyn came up to him as he faded to his knees. “Damien? What happened? I—I don’t understand.”
Damien pointed with his good fingers. “Destruction rune,” he said between breaths. Just like his fingers, his anger also pointed toward Naelen. “Urrg, you bastard!” He came charging at Naelen again, but Ashlyn reached out and held him back.
“Enough already!” she shouted, her eyes glowing white upon instinct. She hadn’t realized her power had come flowing again so easily. Her binding rune had made it difficult to summon mana, yet now there was hardly any strain for it.
Damien craned his head to look at her fully, the pure aura that enveloped her. He wasn’t about to make any more gambles with magic today.
“Let me see your hand,” she said, holding out her palm. Damien did as she ordered, squinting with the pain. Ashlyn closed her fingers around it and shut her eyes. She was not the most gifted of healers. Knitting a network of fractured bones together was a bit beyond her skill, but she let her power flood into Damien’s hand, alleviating the pain and setting the bones for proper healing. She also let her power overcome him with sleep. A practice that was often forbidden by the healers at the Mages Academy.
Damien’s eyes drooped as she let him go. Another tear ran down Ashlyn’s cheek as Damien collapsed on his bed. “Ash…what did you do to me?” His words stammered on as his eyes closed and his arms sat limply at his sides.
Ashlyn sat beside him, cradling his head with one hand. She would miss his face, miss kissing his lips without a care.
“Give me the vial.” She turned to Naelen and took it from him, then poured the contents into Damien’s mouth. She had hoped he would be fully asleep by now, but Damien was a fighter. He creaked his eyes open just a bit, coughing down the liquid. Ashlyn waited until it took effect. Inch by inch, his skin became clean. The scars of dark magic faded away, leaving him spotless. But he was too overcome to move, too weary to respond. He simply shut his eyes again and let her disappear from his world.
Ashlyn pressed her lips to his forehead, lingering for a moment longer.
“You should probably leave now,” Naelen said, placing the sword back. “While he’s out.”
“I know.” Ashlyn pulled away and got to her feet. “I am sorry that got so ugly.”
“You need to stop apologizing for things that aren’t your fault.”
“In a way…it is my fault.” She stole one more glance at Damien before leaving. “Isn’t it?”