Rouya stormed into her study chambers, nails digging into her palms to contain the fury building within her. Apparently, the entire universe was out to sabotage any effort of order she tried to establish. The time for etiquette and words had ended, and she was determined to set her will through by any means necessary.
Evelyn appeared beside her desk in her combat dress but without the glaive. “You should take some time to relax and clear your mind. Don’t act out of haste. I’ve seen enough summoners over the centuries lose their lives during a rage.”
“I’m not raging,” Rouya said, snatching three books off the shelf and spreading them out across her desk. She flipped opened the first to a segment she had bookmarked, quickly scanning the sheet before moving over to the next. “I’m tired of people taking advantage of me and telling me what to do. I’m going into the Shadow Realm and I’ll find daeva.”
“The coronation is tomorrow, you should rest yourself. You’ve never been there before and I’m afraid to see what it will do to you.”
“Do to me?” Rouya paused to look up from her books. Father kept her out the Shadow Realm to keep her safe but there were hundreds of summoners with captured daeva. It couldn’t be that dangerous or else they wouldn’t have gone.
Evelyn laid her hand on top of hers and gently squeezed, momentarily distracting Rouya from the pressure she felt around her. If Rouya gave it a few days, people would blame her for the weather. Evelyn served her because of the Nazar but she couldn’t help the feeling that there was more than just servitude to the maiden.
“Let me make you a tea to help sooth your nerves and we can talk about it,” Evelyn said. She moved to the silver platter and poured the amber drink. The warm scent of chamomile quickly came to her.
Rouya eyed the cup Evelyn offered her, brushing aside the craving tingling inside her. She shifted her attention back to the books and began memorizing the lines she needed to draw with magic for her to enter the Shadow Realm. Unlike realmwalkers that could open up portals to anywhere in the universe with magic, she’d be following the trail back to its origin. She let her head hang.
“I’m sorry but I have to do this. You said so yourself and discussions aren’t getting me anywhere. What kind of summoner would I be if I couldn’t even capture a single one?”
“You still have me,” Evelyn added. “That’s more than most people could ever hope to achieve. The Nazar binds me and prevents me from entering the Shadow Realm on my own.”
“I’ll just have to summon you when I reach the other side. It shouldn’t be a problem as long as we work together.”
Evelyn gave in and agreed with her.
Rouya practiced drawing magic and performing the spell a few times before she moved into her chambers and dressed into her training gear and light leather armor. She kept her scythe under her bed out of fear someone might attack her in the night.
Hours had gone by since the stars disappeared from the night sky and the sun announced itself on the horizon. She didn’t have much time but needed to show results before the coronation ceremony.
“Be strong and don’t lose focus,” Evelyn said. “You might know several summoners that made it back but there are plenty that ventured forth and never returned.”
Rouya nodded and moved to the center of the room so she would have enough space. The princess finished readying herself and had her long blue hair tied back into a pony. She reached into the Shadow Realm, drawing upon the magic there and letting it wind through her body. She tore her hands to the side and swiftly imitated the motions she practiced before. The lines she traced flared up bright in front of her, casting a cerulean light over her once she finished the spell.
The hairs on her arm tingled and stood up as she leaned in and activated the spell with the touch of her finger at the center cross-lines. The lines vanished with the magic being burned up and left a portal hanging mid-air.
Rouya eased back to give herself some space before leaping in. Fragments of her world drifted with her through space before dissolving into a burst of sparkles in an otherwise gray world. She landed exactly where she was before. After glancing around and wondering if she’d actually gone through the portal or if she’d made a mistake in casting the spell, she rose and brushed off her knees.
It took her a moment to realize that her surroundings appeared dimmer than they had before and Evelyn was nowhere to be seen. Every breath she took was brimming with magic and filled her with adrenaline. Her carpet, trays and books were all positioned exactly the same. The study desk looked just like the one she had in her own room, with the same engravings and material but lacked the personality of her cluttered papers and ink vials. She moved closer, stroking the surface and sighed at the familiar touch. Rouya reached for the Nazar around her neck, her fingers brushing against the smooth glass when a screeching noise drew her attention back around. She hefted the scythe in both hands, preparing for a fight and noticed the man standing in the center of her bedroom.
Her heart fell, and she felt her entire body grow cold at the sight. He had his back turned to Rouya but even so it was enough for her to recognize the white silk and dark hair. The man stiffened, and apparently noticing her now as well, began to turn around. He held a picture, the one she kept on her desk. It had been made from happier days before the Magi wars when Justinian had only been a king and spent more time with the family. She was seven then and carried in his arms.
“Rouya, my little moon,” Justinian said. His hands trembled and he dropped the picture onto the floor. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
Rouya’s eyes welled up with tears she only just kept from spilling free. She ran ahead and into his embrace. “Wh-what are you doing here? You’re not a daeva. You don’t belong here.”
“A question I haven’t entirely managed to answer myself,” he said, rubbing her back. “I can’t quite remember how I got here. It’s all just so fuzzy in my head.”
“I never believed in an afterlife but I’m so glad to see you again, father.”
“Afterlife. Fravashi, I think,” Justinian began, pulling away from her. He furrowed his brows, lowering his gaze to the ground. “I think I died. Yes, I remember it now. Can still feel the pain.” He touched his jaw, probing the underside.
“What are you doing, father?”
Justinian stiffened. Droplets fell onto the carpet, staining it red. His expression darkened, deep creases forming on his face. “Crowns weigh more than most heads can burden! Death is coming for you too,” he said before bursting into a cloud of ash.
Rouya crumbled to her knees, body shaking and mind growing numb. She remained there, motionless for what felt like five minutes but could have easily been five hours. The sun never rose, and she was perpetually surrounded in a gray haze. She lifted the picture off the ground and brushed away the shards of broken glass.
“Such a sad girl,” a voice whispered in her ear she could practically feel the breath on her neck. Rouya spun around, waving the scythe in the direction, only to find it empty. “Always trying to prove yourself to others that don’t accept you for who you are.”
Rouya leaped to her feet and readied her scythe. “Who are you? Show yourself.”
“A friend in need is a friend indeed,” the woman said appearing out of the shadows from the corner of her room. Her sharp eyes immediately fixed on Rouya. “I’m Mah and I can be your friend.”
“You’re a daeva,” Rouya said, pointing out the woman’s gray skin. She was surprised that she came unarmed and wore a dark harem dress with a narrow hem. “Get back, I’m going to fight you.”
“I don’t want to fight you,” Mah said, moving closer and ignoring the fact that she was within striking distance of Rouya’s scythe. She laid her hand on Rouya’s hip and pulled her closer.
Rouya shuddered at the mix of emotions raging on inside of her. She raised her chin a little higher and forced her breath to steady, only for it to rush out of her at the daeva’s renewed touch.
“There’s nothing back there for you,” she said, leaning in. “Only sadness and betrayal. Stay here and let me show you a whole new world.”
“I have to go …”
The daeva moved in, her lips gracing Rouya’s and shattering the last of her resistance. “I care about you Rouya. Don’t want to see you get hurt again.”
Heat rushed into her cheeks and while she felt ashamed for an instant, it soon became replaced by a longing to kiss her again. Her first kiss was taken from her by a stranger, a daeva no less and she thoroughly enjoyed it.
“Sounds,” she breathed, “great.”
The daeva smiled, twirling her finger in between Rouya’s hair. She never let anyone touch her hair but made an exception this once. She bashed her eyes and said, “All you have to do is draw this and we can be together.” She slipped her fingers through Rouya’s and lifted her hand. Light emerged where their fingers passed and magic spurred through Rouya.
A spell took form in the space between them, the contours growing in strength as she diverted more magic and came closer to completion. Rouya recognized some of the shapes and jumped back, studying the entire piece as it slowly began to fade again.
The daeva rose with her brows knitted and approached her. “You don’t have to make this harder than it needs be. I can give you a happiness you won’t find elsewhere.”
Rouya snatched up her scythe and readied herself for a fight. “You tried to trick me into binding myself to you.”
“That’s not important. You light people always come here demanding of us but never the other way around.”
“I’m looking for supporters to avenge the death of my family. None of your kind actually die. They just come back here.”
Mah rolled her eyes at Rouya. “So you might think but that’s only partially true. In between battles we might return to our homes here but if the light person perishes, we cease to exist. You see, the connection is a lot more intimate than just reciting a spell or drawing a fancy shape in the air. You take a daeva and they are bound to you for the rest of their lives.”
“I never heard of that before,” Rouya said. She knitted her brows, considering what Mah just told her. It didn’t change the fact that she needed the daeva to help her in the upcoming battles. “There’s got to be a way to undo the spell. Once I achieve victory, I can set you all free.”
“A daeva set free, I’m not sure it’s even possible. A bond formed isn’t easily broken,” she said. Mah shrugged and strode through the mirror image of Rouya’s chambers and headed for the door.
“Wait,” Rouya shouted and dashed after her. “You said you care about me. Were you just saying that to bind me to yourself?”
Mah paused and glanced over her shoulder. “We may live in the shadows of your world but we aren’t entirely separate from it. I’ve watched you grow as a young child into the woman you are today. No matter what the light people did here, I couldn’t help myself from admiring you. In fact, I thought we’d never meet but I’m glad we did.”
“Will I see you again?”
“I already told you we’re friends,” Mah said turning back around. She held Rouya’s hand, rubbing her fingers with her thumb. “Friends are with you to the end.”
Rouya flinched at the sudden burn on her hand and pulled away to inspect the wound. An intricate weave appeared ingrained around her ring finger.
“Something for you to remember me by and call upon when in need.”