When the World Falls to Darkness

A kingdom at war, a web of truth and lies, a vicious game of friendship and betrayal, and a world that will kill you, whatever path you take.
When the World Falls to Darkness, nobody is safe.
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Beautiful cover by River_Summers.

(I also promise much more frequent updates starting July, when exams are over. :D)

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25. Dread

Winter woke to darkness.

At first, he thought he was back in the palace in Elveros, and a wave of dread rolled over him. And then he realised that there was fresh air and warmth - which ruled out his room at the palace, if you could even call it that.

He tried to sit, and somehow bit down the gasp of pain that the simple motion forced through his body.

Around him, a bed of feathery plants and moss had been raised from the ground to cushion his sleep - clearly an item of Takahiro's magic. A smile flickered across his lips. It was touching to be cared about.

The elven prince was resting against a tree, with no soft bedding of his own, only feet away from Winter. He'd probably fallen asleep watching over him. The warmth in his chest spread, and for a moment he bathed in its glory before calling Takahiro's name out softly. He didn't even stir.

"Takahiro!" Louder, this time. The elf's head snapped up in alarm, and for a moment he couldn't seem to register his surroundings. Then his eyes fell on Winter, and suddenly he found himself in Takahiro's crushing embrace.

"I was so worried!" he laughed. "How do you feel? You're not badly hurt, are you? You're-"

Winter smiled. "I'm fine," he promised him. A lie, of course, but it might halt even a little of Takahiro's worries, and that would be good enough.

"You're sure?" Takahiro pulled away. Concern had invaded his usually confident features.

"I'm sure. You don't need to worry," Winter said gently.

Takahiro bit his lip and sat back, his features illuminated by one of the fleeting beams of moonlight that had managed to fight its way past the canopy of leaves. "It's my fault," he said slowly. "I shouldn't have made you fight three of them. They're fire dragons... You're ice. I should've thought it through. You almost died."

"Yes," Winter said. "But I didn't. I'm fine."

Takahiro studied him for a moment before sighing and nodding. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess." A pause. And then, "Do you think we should go back now, or should we wait for morning?"

It was a still evening, without heavy rain or battering wind. If they were even later back, they'd both be punished - Takahiro with words, him with pain. Besides, his wounds were manageable. He could still fly. The answer was obvious - but it hurt as it passed through Winter's lips, like rough, splintered wood was grinding against them as he spoke. "We should probably go now." A serpent of dread coiled around his chest, but Takahiro didn't notice a thing.

"Sure!" he agreed. 

And that settled it.

Winter pushed himself from the emerald cushioning beneath him, forcing himself to stand steady, forcing himself not to stumble. He couldn't falter. If he faltered, then Takahiro would worry, and then they'd have to wait.

He started to shift, and the pain subsided as he did so. Bones extending, skin turning to feathers, lips into a beak. But the best part was the wings. His arms snapped backwards, stretching outwards with a strangely fluid motion. Feathers grew with silky elegance, lit by the faint light of the moon as his posture turned to that of a bird. For a moment, he allowed himself to forget the palace, to forget the pain of returning, and lost himself to a fleeting second of freedom.

And then he looked towards the mountains that protected him from the servitude of the palace, and the freedom fled. The ache of his wounds sept back into his body, and he shook his head to stop himself trembling.

He lowered himself to allow Takahiro to climb onto his back. His familiar weight did little to soothe him as he spread his wings, ignored the pain, and launched himself into the inky ocean of the night sky.

 

 

He landed in the courtyard of the palace gardens, the cobbles beneath him cold with the promise of pain. Takahiro slid from his back, and grinned. "You can turn back," he reminded him. Dutifully, Winter inclined his head, and willed his body to return to its humanoid form. The throbbing of his wounds eased slightly, and he drew a breath as the familiar transformation changed his features again.

The relief was fleeting.

Trying not to wince, he followed Takahiro from the courtyard, thankful that the darkness could obscure his injuries. The last thing he wanted was Takahiro's worry. He'd end up blaming himself, or something equally stupid. And the elf was his primary concern. He couldn't allow his own mere pain to stand before that.

Ichiro stood guarding the doors to the palace, and Takahiro grinned a greeting to him as he opened the door to them.

"How're you? Still opening doors for nobility?" he teased playfully, and Ichiro raised an eyebrow.

"Still skipping duties with your father's Guardian?" the guard replied with equal mischief in his eyes.

Winter winced. Your father's Guardian. He hated being called that.

"Winter isn't my father's. He doesn't belong to anybody," Takahiro said firmly. Winter fought the smile.

"Your father would argue," Ichiro pointed out. Takahiro scoffed.

"My father would say many things. Doesn't make them true."

Ichiro shrugged. "I'd agree, but I'm meant to be loyal and all."

Takahiro shrugged. "Whatever. Well, good luck on that promotion."

Ichiro didn't even look at him as they passed through the door. He hadn't looked at him once in their conversation, either, which he should be used to. It didn't make it any better, especially not when everybody opted to simply objectify him. Everybody - except Takahiro.

"You reckon my father'll still be awake?"

Winter bit his lip. "I wouldn't like to stay, though I doubt it. Perhaps we should speak to him tomorrow. He's always more forgiving in the mornings." He spoke from years of agonised experience.

Takahiro shrugged, and they stopped by the door to Winter's room. "Sure. I'll see you tomorrow, then!"

Winter nodded, about to thank him for defending him, but Takahiro was already turning away, already heading back to his spacious chambers, to collapse onto a feathery mattress adorned with silky covers.

Winter pushed open the door to his own room, and padded softly to the pile of straw, heaped carelessly in the corner. He sunk to his bed, and closed his eyes. Needles of straw pressed into his neck as he fell asleep.

 

 

It seemed like only seconds had passed before Winter was dragged from his sleep by the resounding knock on his door.

"Get up, filth!"

Winter scrambled to his feet. Oh, gods. If the sun had already risen, he'd be late, and then the king would be even more furious than he was already going to be for their late return...

He swung open the door, and was trapped instantly in the golden glare of the sunlight, streaming in through the window opposite his room. He swallowed the whimper.

"You're late," the guard hissed, shoving him through the corridor and stopping only at the final door.

"Hurry up," he snarled. "Five minutes, and then I'm coming in to drag you out. Lord Toru's waiting."

Winter hurried past him, closing the door as he went. The moment he was inside, he tore the bloodied clothing from his body, abandoning it in a basket on the floor. A servant would collect it to clean it later.

He plunged his hands in the bucket of freezing water, scrubbing them mercilessly before holding his face to the water and doing the same. It was bitingly cold, but warmth was not a luxury he was ever going to be allowed. Certainly not under the king's command.

Biting his tongue to refrain from gasping, Winter forced himself to push his entire head beneath the water. For a few merciless seconds of cold, he cleansed his hands, before finally bursting from the water and shaking his head in an attempt to both warm himself and rid himself of the water dripping from his frost-white hair.

He seized the towel from the hook on the door, rubbing his hair and face. He was still cold, and his hair was probably even messier than Takahiro's, but it would have to do. Time was his constant enemy - today even more so than usual.

His uniform was folded neatly and left by the servants in the furthest corner of the tiny room. It was layered with magic to enable him to transform without it shredding - a lengthy procedure that meant he'd be punished further for ruining the last one. Having a uniform enchanted was little cost for a king, but Toru hated to waste money on a meagre Guardian.

Winter pulled the clothes rapidly over his slender limbs. They made him look like a royal Guardian, but they were itchy and flimsy. Comfort was not a concern.

He opened the door, mumbling apologies to the guard as he was dragged up a fleet of stairs, his feet dragging with fatigue.

"Winter! That you?"

The second Takahiro's voice echoed up the spiralling staircase, the guard released his wrist and stepped away from him. Winter breathed out in relief, stopping himself from smiling as Takahiro and Ichiro reached them.

"You're dismissed," Takahiro said easily to the guard, and he bowed respectfully before heading back down the way he'd come. The prince turned to him. "Good to see you. Ready to go face my father?"

Winter managed a weary smile. "Of course."

Takahiro lead the way up the stairs, and Winter followed him closely. Ichiro tailed them. The safety was brief, but it was enough. Winter found the strength to straighten his shoulders, keeping his eyes fixed on Takahiro's raven mane of hair. He had to get through this. He always did.

They reached the top of the stairs, and Winter swallowed down his fear. They'd be in the throne room, soon, and he didn't want to be seen as weak. Every step dragged him closer to pain, to agony and to humiliation.

Without pausing to knock, Takahiro burst open the doors to the throne room, and Ichiro, as the prince's escort, opted to wait outside.

Winter found himself trapped in the glare of Takahiro's father: Lord Toru, king of elves. From his broad shoulders hung a cape of the deepest red, and protecting him was the familiar golden armour, enchanted both to repel magic and to weigh less than it should. Toru had killed the mages who had enchanted it so that they could never make anything of the like again.

Somehow, Winter bit down the urge to retreat back into the protection of the corridor outside, and forced himself to follow Takahiro into the room.

Toru's face was lined with fury; his eyes gleamed with what could only be the promise of punishment, and his fists were clenched.

"When did you arrive back?" he bellowed, and the force of his words sliced deep into Winter's ears. "Why were you late?"

"We got held back," Takahiro said, and Winter held his breath, waiting for Takahiro, as oblivious as ever, to tell his father of his injuries. "It was my fault," he continued, to Winter's surprise. "I miscalculated."

Toru's gaze did not weaken. "It is the duty of the Guardian to work with any miscalculations," he growled. "I am disappointed that my own should fail to act responsibly."

Takahiro bristled as Winter flinched. "He's not yours. He's nobody's."

"I allow you to use it once a week, and already you take this as an opportunity to speak in its favour?"

Use it. He was little more than a tool.

"Him," Takahiro snarled. "Besides, we used to be able to fight together all week, but then you realised how strong he was. So really, we should be able to do what we want, without you complaining all the-"

Toru slammed his fist against the arm of his throne, and even Takahiro held his tongue. "I will not have my own son speak to me in such a manner. Leave. Now."

For a moment, it seemed that Takahiro would argue, but then he turned for the slightest moment and sent Winter a questioning look. Somehow, he struggled against the urge to beg him to stay, and nodded his head towards the door. The prince's glare returned to his father one last time, before he turned, cloak billowing behind him, and left.

The doors slammed shut behind him. 

Silence.

Winter knew the procedure. Knew what would happen if he went against it. Slowly, he made his way to the throne, pausing before it. The eyes of the guards were on him, but he could only feel Toru's searing glare.

Pain.

A fist to the stomach, and he doubled over, gasping for breath, struggling to stay on his feet but collapsing to his knees. Toru grabbed a fistful of his hair, lifting his head up to glare him in the eye. Winter tried not to tremble, but failed.

"If you ever return so late again," Toru hissed, "then I will see to it that you walk on hot coals." He lowered his voice. "The only person keeping you alive is Takahiro. But fail in your duties to me, and he will do nothing to protect you."

He released his grip on winter's hair, and wordlessly, the Guardian rose, and took his place by Toru's throne, waiting for another task, for another jeering taunt.

Nothing had changed.

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