By J. L. Gryphon
Stars graced her feet,
cheers heralded her name,
but a wolf howled in death.
The assassin made his mark,
the snake offered his fruit,
and her eyes drowned in tar.
A tree sprouted from blood,
the unicorn turned black,
and the Dragon saw the Stag.
—ꜰʀᴏᴍ "Mᴇᴍᴏɪʀs ᴏꜰ ᴀ Gᴏᴅᴅᴇss"
ʙʏ ᴛʜᴇ ᴘʀɪɴᴄᴇ sᴇᴇʀᴇ́ ᴀɴᴀsᴛɪʟ
Two Years Ago
The goddess was screaming. Her wild keen ricocheted off the marble walls of the palace, echoing long and loud down the corridor leading to her bedchamber, but the human slave didn’t move. She cowered at the mouth of the hall, its length yawning in front of her like the maw of a beast. The chill of the floor bit into the soles of her feet, but still she didn’t move.
The ghost would see her if she moved.
It existed as a pale, formless shimmer in front of the double doors, flitting back and forth, but the more it moved, the brighter it became. The center of it glowed white, solidifying in a steady beam, until out of the light came the translucent reflection of a stag. Its hooves skipped onto the marble, a flighty prance she would have thought beautiful had she not been so terrified. Then it saw her. The specter shifted its elegant head, its ears swiveling forward with a dainty sort of interest before it turned its gaze back to the double doors, back to the chambers of the goddess. She screamed again. “Cell! Cell!”
The human jumped as the edge of a cape whipped the top of her head. She peeked over her arms, gasping at the well-dressed figure that rushed past her. The royal vizier, Cell the Veldriss’s Voice. He raced to the double doors as if the thing lurking in front of them wasn’t there at all. Did he not see it? How could he not see it? She watched, wide-eyed, waiting for him to slam into the creature, but he passed straight through it and yanked open the doors, disappearing into the goddess’s inner chambers. The stag stood there as if nothing had happened. It was watching her again.
“H-He—” She gulped, then tried again. “Hello?”
The specter flared its nostrils, stomping its hoof on the marble. It didn’t make a sound, but then a voice echoed inside her head, a warm, deep voice that soothed her terror like a light in the darkest of woods. She didn’t understand.
I have not come for you.
The slave shivered. “Are you . . . talking to me?”
The stag took a delicate step forward, lowering its crown of antlers in what she could only describe as a nod of recognition.
The choice has been made. I will kill this false goddess.
Run, dear one. Run while you can.
She frowned. “What? Run? Run where?”
The double doors banged behind the stag, and it jerked its head to look. It stood, one leg poised in the air, then sprang in a graceful bound down the hall. The human shrieked, ducking as the creature leaped over her head. She had a second to look, a last glimpse of the ghost sprinting behind her. Then it disappeared through a wall. It was gone.
The goddess’s hysterical shouts echoed down the hall again. “Get the assassins! All of them; I do not care! We need to find her! I should never have—” Sobbing now. Terrified tears coming from behind the doors. The human knew she shouldn’t be hearing this. The word “run” echoed in her mind again and again, but she couldn’t make herself move, her limbs frozen to the chilled marble floor.
“W-We need to keep this quiet. No one can know. Go check if . . .”
The doors banged again, and the royal vizier returned. His lightning blue eyes fixed on her. “Did you hear all of that?” he said.
She swallowed, knowing he would just read her mind if she lied. She jerked her head in a feeble nod, looking back in the direction the stag had disappeared. There was still time. She just had to get up and—
“Don’t run,” he said. He let the door fall, and the human slave caught a glimpse of a purple dress flash by the crack. She gasped, drawing back, but the royal vizier stepped toward her, his voice low and calm as he held up a hand. “Don’t be afraid.” He approached slowly, then eased into a crouch in front of her, his silver-trimmed cape rippling across the ground. She frowned, afraid it would get dirty, but he didn’t seem to be concerned with that. Gently, he held out his hand covered in a black leather glove. She hesitated, but he smiled at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and she trusted him. He had always been kind to the slaves. His cool voice whispered to her across the marble. “I don’t want you to run.”
She didn’t run.
“What are you doing, Cell?”
Cell glanced in the direction of the goddess’s call, his lips pulling in the faintest of smiles. “There is a Tressian slave out here. I am checking what she saw.”
“Get rid of her!”
“Yes, my pharota.”
The slave recoiled, but Cell just shook his head. “Please, don’t be afraid. Come with me this way, all right?”
He still offered his gloved hand to her. Hesitating once more, she gazed into his electric blue eyes, and a touch of heat found her cheeks. Her fingers slid into his grasp, and he helped her to her feet, guiding her down the hall away from the goddess’s chambers.
“What happened?” he said.
She shivered, and he pulled her a little tighter against him. “I . . . saw a stag. A white stag. It looked like a ghost. You walked right through it when you first went into her rooms.”
She gave a miserable nod.
“Well that’s alarming, isn’t it?”
She looked at him in shock, about to apologize, but the hint of play in his gaze told her he was joking. She stopped, caught by the look, and a little more heat flushed into her cheeks. She pressed her lips together, a strand of hair falling over her nose. “Um . . . find who?”
“What are you asking?”
“The goddess, she . . .” The human hesitated again, wondering if she should ask such a bold question. “The goddess said she would have to find someone now?”
The royal vizier stopped walking. “Yes. Anäriel Anastil.”
She gasped. “What? But she’s a myth.”
Cell didn’t respond. “Did you see anything else?”
She gulped, letting go of his hand and dropping to the floor. “Holy one, it . . . it called her a false goddess. It said it would kill her!”
Cell sighed. “I see.”
“Is Anäriel Anastil meant to defend the goddess? Is that why she needs to find her?”
Cell gave a distant smirk. “No. Quite the opposite, I think.” He stood quietly for a moment, staring at nothing at all, then smiled down at her.
She trembled in front of him. “W-What are you going to do to me?”
“Sssh,” he said. “It’s all right. I’m going to make you forget.” He helped her up again and escorted her a little farther down the hall, then paused and removed his black gloves. Elegant hands. Long fingers. He cupped her chin in his palm, and she blushed as he smoothed a strand of hair away from her face. Leaning down, his lips brushed against her ear, and his whisper came as soft as his touch.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
He kissed her, and at first she felt cold. Then she felt nothing at all.
[End of Teaser]
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