Someone is following me.
I walk faster, my heart drumming, my palms sweaty.
The blue torches flicker and cast a twisted shadow. The shadow of a man.
Lucian emerges from the darkness. "I like you better this way," he says, studying my black hair. "Less Fae. More vampire. More like my wife." He raises an arm, reaching for me.
I step back, my hands curl in fists, my nails digging into my skin. "What do you want?"
His arm falls. His face goes cold. "To tell you I am leaving. Because of your failure during the presenting, I have other matters to attend to. Matters that will take me far from here."
He smirks. "Have you considered why I did not make you my bride?"
My eyes go wide. If marrying him was the only way to save my mother, I don't know what I would have done.
He chuckles. "Do not fear. It is too late for that. I was so pre-occupied with securing my lineage, my legacy, I failed to consider what a… beauty, you would become." His words drip like poison. He strides over to me, touching my chin with his finger.
I push his hand away. "You disgust me."
"I understand," he says coldly. "You're so beautiful, so young and fresh, but when I remember what you are…" he raises his hand, holding it over my head like a claw. He shakes with a rage. His eyes gleam with dark desires. "When I remember what you are, my entire being fills with hate. I want to rip off your face. I want to imagine you are an insect, and when I step on you, I kill your entire race."
I shuffle backwards. "But I thought you wanted peace."
He laughs, and runs a long nail down the wall, and the eerie sound it makes echoes. "I will tell you something, Princess. Something I have told no one else." He turns to me. "I have no interest in peace. No. There is something else I am after. Something much more precious."
I step back. "What?"
His eyes flash to my shoulder, where Yami bats at my hair. "The Spirits."
I clutch the dragon close. He shakes in my grip. Lucian is more dangerous than I feared. I lean against the wall and prick my hand on a sharp rock. My fingers trace the rough stone. "Why?"
"For that, you will have to wait. But I assure you, in the end, it will be glorious." His eyes stare into the distance, into a vision only he can see.
"Why tell me this?" I ask.
He grins, humorlessly. "Because the High Fae once took something very precious from me."
A moment. "Your wife."
"Yes. And I want you to know, that one day, I will take something special from you as well." He looks again in the general direction of Yami, a hunger in his eyes.
"I'll tell Asher. I'll tell everyone."
"Try. Try to call out."
"Asher, I—" Pain grips my throat. It burns my lungs. I fall to my knees, choking.
Lucian steps forward, his shadow a giant over me. "Remember, Princess. You signed a contract. You may not share what you know of me." He smiles. "You may not speak of anything I do."
I tremble, the magnitude of my mistake crushing me. "I—"
Lucian grabs my hair, yanking me up against his armor. His face is close, his breath heavy on my face. He runs a hand down my cheek. "Now Princess, perhaps I will take what I desire—"
"Is something wrong?" Asher appears beside us, his eyes serious.
Lucian lets me go. His eyes glimpse what I drew on the wall with blood. Asher's mark. "Nothing, my son. I was just saying goodbye." He turns to leave. "Remember me, Princess. In the end, when you think everything you set out to do is done, remember me."
He fades into the darkness, and I fall to my knees and weep for the fool I was.
"You can look now, Princess. Welcome to hell."
Asher holds me. For what feels like hours, he holds me. When my crying stops, he finally speaks. "What happened?"
"Your father—" my throat burns, my mouth snaps shut.
Asher trembles. "What did he do?"
"He—" The pain is too great. I bite down on my tongue.
Asher falls back, his eyes wide with realization. "I was a fool. I proposed that contract, and now…"
"Dissolve the contract," I say. "Do it."
"No. Lucian will feel it. He will know something is wrong, and he will return. No. We must wait. We must get you back to Fen. Perhaps one day, I can dissolve it, but… we must be careful. My father, my father is a dark and devious man. He has played this game of deceit and lies far longer than I."
I manage to stand, the pain fading. "So we do nothing?"
"No." Asher stands and grabs my hands. "We unite Inferna and Avakiri. Unite the Fae and vampires. Then nothing can stop us."
I pull back my hands, trembling, a new realization filling me. "If I marry you… this can really happen. We can really have peace. But…" My thoughts drift to Fen, to his arms around me.
Asher grins, and does something I will be forever grateful for. "Now, now, Princess, don't get too hasty," he says. "We must get to know each other first, after all. I do believe it is my month to spend with you." He offers me his arm. "Ready to go back to hell?"
I wipe my eyes, smile, and take his arm. "Definitely."
He guides me through the cavern and into a small cave lit by blue torches. This is not the path I first traveled to reach Avakiri. "How many secret elevators to hell are there?" I ask.