One more installment after this one. Enjoy!
Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII], [Chapter VIII] and [Chapter IX].
Sacrificial, unflinching love—what other counter-curse could there be?
He pushed the stack of crinkled parchments aside, burying his face in his hands. Could it be so simple? It seemed sensible. Only an effective counter-spell or curse transfer might save her, and a transfer demanded the same selfless love on the receiver’s part.
A desperate, almost frenzied euphoria set his blood humming. I will need the right words, and a true heart.
Rafa reached for the top parchment sheet again, his eyes flying over the ink symbols.
Loud footsteps pounded down the hall. He opened the drawer beside him swiftly and threw the papers inside as Demarion surged through the door.
“What is it?” Rafa rose to his feet, alarmed at his countenance.
“It’s Abigail,” he said, and Rafa’s heart leaped into his throat, “she’s awake!”
“Ziva is with her now. Hurry!” Demarion was already turning away, gesturing for Rafa to follow him. His legs numbly complied, carrying him along. “I—I don’t know how long it will last, and how the curse could make such a provision.” He stopped abruptly, flinging an unguarded, fearful look at Rafa. “I am afraid it is a cruel trick of Sela’s.”
I have not cast a counter-curse yet! How could she awaken? Dread mixed with hope coursed through him. He remembered reading that poorly crafted curses could weaken over time until they lost all power.
He suppressed that strand of optimism. Phoenix lore was ancient and complex, particularly concerning the mechanisms of magic. While Rafa had gathered what surviving documents he could find, his knowledge remained pitifully limited.
She was sitting upright in her bed when they arrived. Ziva was coaxing hot broth into her mouth when her eyes found him and Demarion. She pushed the spoon from her lips.
“Rafa!” The familiar high pitch and brightness in her tone sent a thrill through him.
“Abigail,” he whispered, his voice suddenly hoarse. He felt paralyzed in place, uncertain if he should move nearer but unable to tear his gaze away, fearing that the curse would reclaim her again.
Her glance flitted across each of their faces, amusement coloring her expression. “You all look terrified I’ll faint away again.”
Ziva seized her hand. “How do you feel?”
“Fine, Mother,” she replied, half-reassuring and half-exasperated. “I feel as well as I did on my last day awake.”
“What happened? When you were unconscious?” Rafa asked, finding his voice.
“Nothing,” she murmured. “It was a dark, dreamless sleep. Sometimes I knew I was under a curse, but I was not afraid. It was like being in a cage, imprisoned but peaceful because there was nothing around to harm me.”
Demarion stepped over to her bedside and touched her arm. “You are home now. The cage is gone.”
“I know.” She beamed. “Where is Alethea?”
Her question jolted Rafa. He looked at Demarion—why did he fetch him, but not Alethea, when Abigail awoke? A troubled look crossed the Dragon Chief’s face and Rafa felt a tremor in his chest.
“I could not find her. I assumed she was out in the village with Kaede.”
But there was no sign of her yesterday either. Rafa grew accustomed to seeing less of Alethea, given her courtship with Kaede and the bourgeoning tension between them, but it was odd to go without a glimpse of her in so long. A strange, foreboding premonition began to breed in his mind.
“Kaede!” Abigail exclaimed. She flushed as their gazes all returned to her.
“The Sparrow Chief’s son,” Demarion explained quietly. “Much has happened while you were sleeping.”
Uncharacteristic concern fell over Abigail’s face like a shadow. “Tell me everything.”
“You need to rest first,” Ziva insisted.
“I have done nothing but rest for however long I slept!”
Rafa could not suppress a brief smile at her restless and impatient spirit. She spied his expression and turned an imploring look to him, as if she found a sympathetic opening.
“When the curse took you, a famine fell over the Adamaris too, like the Phoenix prophesied. Alethea posed as you and we went to negotiate with Sparrow clan for peace. They proposed a courtship followed by marriage between Kaede and Alethea.”
Abigail drew in a sharp, painful breath, her eyes fluttering shut. Demarion reached over and gripped her shoulder in distress.
She held up her hand. “No, I am fine. It’s simply—oh, Lethe, I am sorry,” she murmured.
Rafa shared an anxious look with Demarion and Ziva. “We can continue the story another time,” he decided. “We should find Alethea.”
As if in response, a servant appeared in the doorway, short of breath and flushed from running.
“Chief.” He bowed. “We tried to stop him, but Kaede insists on coming up.”
Demarion’s brow furrowed. “I will see him, but we cannot meet here with Abigail. Is Alethea with him?”
Rafa felt the ominous portent grow in his mind. Was this another rudimentary Phoenix instinct, like the one he experienced when he sensed something awry with Abigail’s flowers? Demarion instructed the servant to hold Kaede in the guest room downstairs until he could meet the Sparrow chief’s son. The servant left in a flurry. Suddenly, Rafa noticed Abigail’s expression grow pale and frantic.
“Abi—” he began, but was interrupted by the growing sound of footsteps. He stood up in alarm, but Kaede was already in the doorway.
His garments were soiled and despite his broad stature and handsome face, the dark circles under his eyes and unkempt hair considerably marred his features. He looked at each of them swiftly before his gaze settled on Abigail and visible horror entered his eyes.
Rafa moved to stand in front of Abigail, though he knew no physical shield could force Kaede to undo the sight he had seen. If he tells the truth to Meike…
“Kaede,” Abigail choked, assaulted by tears.
Kaede leaned against the doorpost, his back bent as if the strength went out of him. “Stars, she did it.” His eyes closed.
Demarion was on his feet now too, and all of them looked from Abigail to Kaede. Rafa felt they stood on the cusp of some terrible realization and he reached for a nearby bookcase to steady himself.
“You know each other?” Demarion demanded.
“Father,” Abigail began, a pleading note in her voice, but stopped when Kaede dropped to his knees before them.
“I am to blame, Lord Demarion. I met Abigail before the curse fell and we began courting. Thus, I saw through Alethea’s masquerade as her sister—”
Ziva gasped, whitening. “Demarion!” Her husband moved to her side and drew a protective arm around her before fixing a stern, unforgiving look on Kaede.
To his credit, the Sparrow did not flinch. “Please,” he said quietly, holding up his hand. “I have more to say. I confronted Alethea immediately.” A distant look overtook him as an unwitting smile crawled up his face. He glanced at Demarion. “She is stronger than you think. She laid the whole truth before me, trusting in my loyalty to Abigail. I agreed to help her. My mother does not know any of this.”
Rafa’s initial agitation began to ease, but another slow, blade-like pain spread through him. So he was the suitor that enthralled Abigail. He could not deny the stir of envy in his heart. He never trusted Kaede, even if he won Alethea and the rest of the family’s faith. It was vain and selfish, but he could not help disliking the man even more now, in spite of his good deeds.
Demarion was kneeling down beside Kaede. “What is there to blame you for then? You have handled this more nobly than me.”
Kaede could not look at him. “I do not know how to say this.”
A tense silence fell over them until Kaede rose and stepped to Abigail’s side. He pulled a pendant out of the folds of his cloak and slipped it into her palm.
She stared at it. “My pearl!” Perplexed, she glanced at him. “Why do you have it?”
Sudden understanding crashed down on Rafa like merciless waves. He let out a strangled sound and moved towards Kaede, thrusting a trembling finger at him.
“You let her take the curse.”
His words dropped like a heavy hammer in the room.
“What? What are you speaking of, Rafa?” Abigail exclaimed.
Kaede’s silence confirmed Rafa’s suspicion. “Phoenix curses cannot be undone.” Each word felt dry and dreadful on his tongue. “They can only be counter-cursed or transferred. You took Alethea to see that witch!”
“Is this true?” Ziva cried.
The Sparrow only bowed his head. “Yes. We scaled the Adamaris and found Sela. She said the same thing about curses. Alethea insisted on transferring it. I could not convince her otherwise because…I failed her earlier. She told me to respect her choice, to go home and return Abigail’s pendant.”
Crimson agony burned through Rafa, but it felt more like regret than anger. “Why did she not even confide in me?” he murmured to himself.
Demarion, Ziva and Abigail all appeared stricken by the revelation.
“Sela must know this cruel twist cuts even deeper,” Demarion said. “To have both my daughters suffer, and Alethea to go willingly…”
Rafa glared at Kaede. “How could you let her?” Helpless fury mounted within him. “Why did you not take the curse for Abigail, if you love her—”
“Rafa,” Demarion cut him off, admonition in his eyes. Even now, he was still a Chief.
“Her sacrifice was needless!” he exploded, ignoring the warning. “I found a counter-curse!”
All eyes turned to him. “What?” Demarion asked, registering disbelief.
He jerked his sleeve up to reveal his bare forearm and the red phoenix emblazoned there.
“You have been searching the Adamaris for Phoenix,” he said quietly, “not knowing you took one into your care many years ago.”
The silence grew thick enough for a knife to cut. Rafa could sense, keenly and painfully, the spectrum of emotions splattered across each face—disbelief, wonder, a hint of fear, and sadness.
Abigail found her voice first. “Did you always know?” she asked, and he felt a rush of gratitude for her gentle tone.
“No. I thought of myself as a full-bred Dragon since Demarion found me.” He met the Chieftain’s eyes briefly. “A few years later, I began to develop unusual instincts, having vague premonitions and heightened sensitivity to trouble. Then my clan mark formed, and I knew.” Rafa glanced at the phoenix tattoo, recalling his quiet terror. “I scoured for documents and stories to learn about my…abilities. It was hard to find things, but my motivation grew when Abigail was cursed.”
“Oh, Rafa.” Ziva’s eyes crinkled with compassion. “You should have told us.”
“How could I?” he murmured. “You were cursed by a Phoenix.”
Demarion’s hand came down hard on the table. “You think we would have judged you by her actions?”
“No. But someone in the clan would, once news spread. The Chieftain’s family, adopting a Phoenix by mistake?” Rafa looked at him levelly.
They became silent again, and he could imagine this startling revelation settling into their minds, becoming a part of the fabric of their lives. He felt a twinge of distress as he watched them wrestle with their new reality. Though he had prepared for this moment ever since Abigail fell unconscious, it came more suddenly than he expected.
Kaede, while similarly shocked by Rafa’s outburst, accepted it more easily. He did not need to consider years of secrecy, and he returned them to the matter at hand.
“You said you found a counter-curse. Can you use it for Alethea?”
Rafa closed his eyes and exhaled. “It will not work. I designed it for Abigail.”
“Why?” Abigail demanded. “What is it?”
It seems today is the day for laying all secrets bare.
“Apart from transferring the curse to another, I think there is only one viable counter-curse.” He paused. “A love that binds two lives together, for better or worse. A love that will bear anything for another. In some ways, this demands more than taking on the curse in another’s place. It is that, and more. Such love is the only thing powerful enough to restore life.”
Their gazes burned into him, particularly Abigail’s, as understanding dawned over her.
“Oh,” she whispered quietly, and words seemed to elude her. A deep blush crawled over her face.
“And here I thought—” Kaede began, before breaking off, shaking his head with incredulity.
Rafa looked at him, girding himself for a verbal onslaught. He had done no less than confess his heart for Abigail in front of her and her suitor.
And yet, Kaede did not appear enraged or protective. He had expressed no affection, or even relief upon finding Abi awake. Rather, he had seemed almost horrified…
Then, in a final twist to the day’s events, Kaede looked at him with the first glimmer of hope and said, “Perhaps your counter-curse will work.”