Bells chimed as I pushed open the heavy doors to the chalet, shielded from the harsh wind at last. Outside, the plush snow taunted visitors with its welcoming appearance, only to lure them into a hellish storm.
“Finally back, Vi?” said my younger sister, Jessa. I scowled at her, fighting the urge to reprimand her for refusing to join me on my trip to the store. I only trudged halfway there before falling victim to the icy cold.
Jessa sat with her knees to her chest, the book she had been engrossed in propped on the pillow beside her. I assumed my brother, Archer, remained in the kitchen, experimenting with new recipes. My father had always hoped he would take interest in shooting, fencing, and other forms of fighting, hence the name. But Archer took to the kitchen, his savory dishes rivaled only by his own work. Only the three of us ventured to our chalet this week, leaving my father at home for work.
“I wonder if this weather will ever let up. I don’t see a route home anytime soon,” I observed.
Archer yelled from the other side of the house, “it’s been a week already, and it’s nonstop.” The snow piled up against the house, barely allowing us to open the door. It was only a matter of time until we ran out of food.
To pass time until dinner, I ventured down the creaking stairs to the dark basement, fumbling for a chain to bring light to the eerie room. Save for the old fashioned green sofa, the room was devoid of furniture. To my right, dusty bookcases and boxes full of trinkets I’d rather leave a mystery lined the walls. The wood-paneled walls were heavily decorated with paintings, some of which evoked in me an unsettling feeling that my pride would not allow me to admit. Nonetheless, I approached the sofa and fell back, grabbing the television remote from the cushion beside me.
Sooner than I could get comfortable, pitch blackness overtook the room. The overhead light flickered off and the television ignored my distressed clicking. I could not even see my hand in front of my face, but I could visualize the layout of the room. With no other ideas in mind, I ran for the stairs, grasping the railing, only to find my hand wrapped around thin air.
At the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a small, sparkling light. I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion before slowly moving in that direction. Each step sounded thunderous among the silence, like a foreboding warning. I reached down to find that the faded blue light was simply a ring. I studied it dutifully before wiggling it onto my ring finger, a smile beginning to curl at my lips in awe of its beauty.
The floor shook, sending me to the ground. My head felt like a scramble for a few moments; I couldn’t seem to process my surroundings.
I screamed in absolute terror as a woman of golden skin and gleaming presence stood before me, accompanied by a man to her left. His skin was a tanned brown, his hair a luscious blonde. I gaped in either awe or fear of these two beings standing before me. I wasn’t sure which.
“Vianne, is it,” the woman inquired. I could only offer a small nod, my eyes still as big as saucers. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Cleo.” Her smile stretched from eye to eye, seeming just a tad too wide to be friendly.
“Wipe that grin off your face, Cleo. I’m Blaise.” He gave Cleo an exasperated look as he turned towards me with a smirk. “I see you found my ring.” A voice in my head told me to run, but where to? The stairs were my only escape, and that seemed to be out of the question.
“I hate to be the one to inform you of this, but I don’t think you know what that ring means.” I found my composure and stared into his eyes with a straight face, too stubborn to back down, regardless of his power and unnecessarily handsome face.
“And what does it mean? Are you some ghost?” I scoffed.
“You wish. I am your groom.”
And with a blinding white light, I was whisked away.
When I opened my eyes, I seemed to be kneeling in a palace. Everything around me was composed of black marble, save for the two thrones towering in front of me, both made of diamond ore. Surprisingly, only Blaise occupied a throne, and Cleo stood to his right side. The side of his lip curled up as I finally found his eyes.
“Bowing to me? You’re supposed to be in the seat to my left,” he said, gesturing to the second diamond throne.
“What?” I was dumbfounded. What had happened in the past five minutes?
“Oh, Vianne. Let me explain it all to you.” Cleo waltzed between me and Blaise as she rambled about the kingdom I was apparently bound to rule alongside Blaise. By the end of her explanation, one thing was clear to me. The people of these lands were oppressed. Tortured. And I would have no part in their further demise.
Feelings aside, I remained straight-backed, head high, chin up. When it seemed that they both waited for an answer from me, I simply turned and began walking away.
“Cleo, please. Please don’t” I heard Blaise pleading. With a slight turn of my head, I saw an orb of light balanced carefully between Cleo’s hands, a plethora of power she could have killed me with, were it not for Blaise’s begging. I was more than happy to leave Cleo, but a tug in my heart ached to walk away from the ruler himself. Short of his excruciatingly good looks, I didn’t know him. But a voice in my mind told me he was a man of a good heart.
I rounded a corner into a new room as steps approached me. I turned to see Blaise’s worried face.
“Vianne. Please stay here. And help.”
“You’re a ruler. You seem to have everything you could ever wish for. Unlike every person you rule over,” I criticized. He cringed as my words pelted him. He seemed to hold my opinion in a high regard for someone he just met.
“You don’t understand. And I don’t expect you to trust me yet. But I’m trapped here. I’m bound to rule. It’s been this way since I stepped foot in that basement ten years ago.” My heart dropped. Ten years. Ten years he had been forced to oppress these helpless people.
“And what would happen if you simply ruled them differently? With kindness maybe. A little bit of fairness.” He frowned. I had not understood. And maybe I had snapped unnecessarily.
“Vianne. It is Cleo who tortures them. She uses me as a scapegoat. The blame falls on me. When little do they know, I’m under the same rule as they are.” My face softened in worry for him. And worry for myself.
“I’m sorry,” I breathed. His whole body seemed to sigh in relief that his words had gotten through to me. Blaise offered a small smile. I wanted to find out more about this power we were dealing with. To regain my composure, I made my way toward a velvet seat near the window, overlooking the city of dread. Blaise chose the seat next to me and studied me through worried eyes.
“Are you okay,” he asked, genuinely.
It was a lot to take in all at once, but unaware of how to explain every feeling, I offered a simple, “yes.” A few moments passed when we sat in a comfortable silence, until I asked a question that I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer to. “What does she do to them?”
“Well, it depends on the supposed crime they committed. Cleo has eyes and ears in every direction. Recently, a man named Leos landed in our chamber after being reported as expressing his distaste for her. Remember that orb of light you saw?” I nodded, engrossed in the story. “Imagine that burning fire all down your body.” He shuddered as he recounted the experience. “And that’s only part of it. Sometimes, she forces me to direct the torture, holding a knife at my back to keep me from hesitating.”
“We have to get you back to the realm you belong in,” I added confidently.
“I wish it were that easy. I wish more than anything that the fire that takes you away would drag me along with it.” He dropped his eyes to where his hand rested upon my thigh, igniting a fire at that point of contact. I didn’t mind it. I might have even enjoyed it.
By no desire of my own, the blinding light overtook me. Once again, I was standing at the foot of the stairs, and the scent of dinner wafted through the door.
As I sat in bed, I debated my options regarding everything that had happened during the day. I could avoid the basement, and forget about the encounter altogether. But what if they could reach me anywhere? And I wouldn’t leave Blaise. A part of me was drawn to him, and knew his freedom might depend on me. A vision of his hand against my thigh invaded my vision. Too much to process. I buried my face in my hands and fell back into bed.
The stairs of the basement creaked as I slowly slid my hand down the railing. Seconds after taking my first steps onto the floor, white light erupted and I found myself tumbling again. My arms outstretched and made contact with a black marble wall. Blaise stood behind me with a troubled expression on his face, slightly relieved when he met my eyes.
I tipped my head toward him in acknowledgement. A fire erupted inside me as I realized the urgency in his tone.
“Cleo has something planned. And it’s not something I want to stick around for,” Blaise warned me.
After gaining my balance, I took a few steps closer to him, until there were only inches between our bodies. I knew what I wanted to say, but hesitated to make so great a promise. I stood tall and brought my lips to his ear, “Then we’ll free you.” His gaze lingered on my lips as I slowly backed away.
“What about my people,” he whispered huskily as our eyes remained locked on each other.
“You and I both know what has to happen,” I managed. His expression grew shocked, then his brows rose as he realized what I meant. The only answer was Cleo’s demise.
“God, you impress me,” he said against my cheek.
Before we could become too entranced, Cleo’s power thundered throughout the palace, forcing us to quickly rattle off a plan.
“Witch’s ember,” he said.
“What about it?”
“Witch’s ember. It’s poisonous to her kind. And banned from this entire kingdom.”
“My brother’s a chef,” I implied. “And no such thing is illegal back at the chalet.”
“I’ll send you back.” I wondered if he felt the same way I did when he looked at me. A burning connection that felt like two puzzle pieces coming together. A bond that felt set in stone. I began to back away, preparing for the light to whisk me away.
“Wait,” he closed the distance between us again. Blaise gripped my chin with his strong fingers and tilted my head back until my lips were in line with his. I closed my eyes waiting for his lips to brush mine, but I was gone. Before I knew it, the old-fashioned green sofa rested before my eyes once again.
I knew what my first move would be. I had to find Jessa. If anyone held knowledge of obscure facts, it would be her. Shuffling up the steps, through the door, and into the sitting room, I found her perched upon the sofa.
“Jessa, I have a question for you.” She glanced up at me with a smile.
“Anything,” she responded kindly, with no sign of her usual sarcasm.
“Do you know where to find witch’s ember?” I didn’t think the question would warrant any worry; after all, witch’s ember was an herb as common as basil or mint. Jessa explained that it grew so often in the area that most people kept a stash in the cabinets to use for cooking. That was all I needed to know before dismissing myself.
After ravaging through every cupboard and drawer I could think of, I had found nothing. Preparing to tell Blaise the bad news, I descended the steps once again, waiting to be taken to Cleo’s realm. Wait. Lying on the floor next to the towering piles of boxes was a small bag of green herbs. Witch’s ember. This was not the first time someone had come close to killing Cleo.
This time, I appeared in a bedroom of some sort. Still of black marble of course, but with thick dark drapes blocking out any sliver of natural light, and a bed large enough for 4 people. A gasp from behind nearly startled the tray of cheeses from my hands. I turned to find Blaise in nothing but a white towel, long, wet hair draping to his shoulders. Shoulders. Corded with muscle that ran down his arms, intertwining with the veins that fed them. Right down to his abs, shredded with… an 8-pack? Maybe more?
“I- um,” I started. “I brought it. The witch’s ember.” Blaise stalked over to me, my heart racing faster and faster with each step he made.
“You’re brilliant,” he said, flashing his perfect, white smile. “I’ll take it to her. With all of her scheming, I’m sure she’s ravenous.” I chuckled, unabashed by the weight of our responsibility.
“Maybe put some clothes on first. Just a thought,” I added before he could take the tray from my hands. He lifted one eyebrow and looked at my intently.
“Jealous?” I rolled my eyes but couldn’t help from grinning.
After he started his march to her court, swaggering in an irresistible way, I thought to take advantage of the bed while I waited. But I couldn’t shake the adrenaline that pulsed through me. I paced from door to window to door to window to door. What would it feel like once she was gone? How would we know her power had truly vanished? Against Blaise’s orders, I cracked open the door and tiptoed down the hall. I was not familiar with the palace, but I was confident in my ability to find Cleo’s court. The room where she punished.
I didn’t have to guess if I had chosen the correct room. A roaring fire blazed in midair, wreaking havoc on the room. Screams and growls seemed to seep from the tumbling ball of golden light. I finally stripped my eyes away to find Blaise across the room, mouthing words to me. Go! Go now! Me eyes dropped to the table beside him. To the tray with just one block of cheese devoured. And the chair thrown back twenty feet behind. The chair where Cleo had been sitting. It had worked. The poison had worked. But Cleo’s demise might mean the same for us if we didn’t run from this blazing fire.
“RUN,” Blaise ignored my look of awe and grabbed me from the doorway as he sprinted as far from Cleo as possible. Or what was left of her. Even in the midst of obvious danger, I couldn’t keep my mind from drifting to the way his hands gripped my waist, the way his strength held me as if I added no weight.
But we were gone. In one flash of light, we were gone. There stood the bookcases along wood-paneled walls. And Blaise right beside me.
“You’re here.” I shot him an incredulous look, and he smiled as he realized what had happened.
“I’m free,” he breathed, studying his hands, his arms, his legs. “My people are free.” The threat was gone and yet he still held me. Still breathed my breath as the space between us filled with heat. His expression grew more serious as he brushed away a strand of auburn hair from my face. His eyes were pools of honey, studying every curve of my face as he leaned down and his lips finally brushed mine. His hands clasped my own, and the diamond ring spun beneath his touch.
“Ya know,” he began. My eyebrows raised, as if to express my curiosity. “I would take that back” he said, gesturing to the ring, “but I wouldn’t mind for you to be my queen in this realm.”