Elthad held the small glass vial in front of his face. The candlelight shone through from behind, illuminating the single black curl of Irewen’s hair that he’d cut from her head during their embrace the morning following King Gartheld’s murder.
So lost in her grief, she hadn’t noticed when he’s snipped the ringlet from her locks. Grinding most of it into a concoction of her father’s blood and a strand of his own hair, he’d placed the remainder of his harvest in a small phial. Since the princess’s departure from Dürgeld, he’d worn it around his neck as a reminder.
A reminder of the life he’d forfeited and of the monster he’d become.
Now, he stared at his cousin’s curl in a combination of admiration and bewilderment. It had been a part of the brew he’d drank in order to create a link between himself and Irewen so he’d always know where she was—so he could hunt her.
It was a link that had been guaranteed to remain strong regardless of either of their circumstances. The Corrupter had seen to that. But the familiar pulsing of Irewen’s essence no longer coursed through his body.
It’d become such a stable fixture of his life over the past few months that he now didn’t feel whole. The emptiness where Irewen’s essence had been was debilitating. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so desolate—so close to grabbing hold of his dagger. Regardless of the link’s purpose, it’d at least given him a connection to the family he’d loved. Now that it was gone, the finality of his actions hounded him with every breath he took.
His uncle’s lifeless grey eyes stared at him from the clutches of death, berating him for his deeds. He wanted to fall to his knees and beg forgiveness. He wanted to explain that he hadn’t had a choice—that he’d had no control over the hand holding the knife or the mouth ordering his men to kill Irewen.
But none of that mattered. Whether or not he’d had command over his actions made no difference. The outcome was still the same. He couldn’t undo the monstrosities he’d committed. He couldn’t bring his uncle back from the dead. He couldn’t mend the chasm he’d created between himself and Irewen.
His family was gone. Loneliness was now the only company he knew.
«My lord.» Ulennen’s voice cut through his musings, pulling him back to the unwelcome revulsions of reality.
«What is it, Ulennen?» He wanted nothing to do with the elf and wasn’t surprised to find that the spirit he hosted shared the same sentiment. The councilor’s arrogance threatened not only Elthad’s position but also the Corrupter’s mission.
Yet, the Master knew all. No amount of arguments, however sensible, would persuade him to remove Ulennen from the mission. Not for the first time, Elthad couldn’t help but think they were all pieces in a sick and twisted game created solely for the Corrupter’s amusement.
«Have you done something to alter your link to Irewen? You’re no longer sending us her signal.»
There it was—the question he’d been waiting for since the connection with his cousin had disappeared. He balled his left hand into a fist. He couldn’t ignore the fact that the seemingly innocent inquiry had been loaded with accusation.
«No, I’ve done nothing. I’m blind to Irewen’s location as well. My bond with her has vanished.»
«That’s impossible. The Corrupter assured us that while both you and the princess lived, the bond couldn’t be broken.»
«Then perhaps you should take your concerns about the matter directly to him.»
The silence that followed brought a sly grin to Elthad’s lips. The councilor’s fear radiated through his mind. None of the Drulaack enjoyed speaking with the Corrupter, and Ulennen was no exception. The elf may be full of lofty phrases, but it was all fluff. Where the Corrupter was concerned, Ulennen would remain quiet.
«I’m certain the master will instruct you further on the matter once more information is available to him.»
Elthad raised an eyebrow at the response, making a mental note to keep careful watch over Ulennen in the future. «I’m sure he will.» The elf was crafty.
Extremely crafty indeed.
Elthad rolled his eyes at the spirit’s intrusion, knowing the last thought hadn’t been his own. Every part of him itched to tell the spirit to piss off, but doing so would be useless. Until the Corrupter deemed otherwise, the spirit was part of him. And it was here to stay.
«What’s our course of action?»
Elthad’s irritation immediately redirected from the spirit to the elf. There wasn’t a single thing the councilor said that didn’t get under his skin. «Regarding what?»
«Princess Irewen, of course. Without your link, we can’t track her. We have no way of knowing where she’s going.»
Elthad had to fight to control his temper. «You know exactly where she’s going, fool. She’s traveling to the Light Elves in order to research a prophecy in their archives. Unless you’ve been lying through your teeth, you and your fellow councilors ordered her to take that very journey on her own.»
«I would never lead you astray, my lord. We did just as you said. But something is obviously amiss. Perhaps we should call off the hunt, regroup, and reassess our plan.»
Elthad felt the heat rise to his cheeks; the spirit’s fury burned inside him. The hairs on the back of his neck rose in warning. By his last account, Ulennen and the other five Drulaack were at the most only a few hours’ run behind Irewen. If they intensified their efforts, they could overtake the princess and complete their mission well before dawn.
Instead, Ulennen suddenly wanted to stop the chase and waste time mulling over a new solution when it was obvious that doing so would be pointless. In this situation, aside from allowing Elthad to keep track of his men’s progress, his connection to Irewen was entirely useless. The elf wasn’t stupid. He knew the futility of reevaluating their strategy. Doing so would only ensure Irewen’s escape.
Screaming, Elthad hurled the vial across the room, delighting at the sound of the glass shattering against the stone wall. The bastard wanted him to fail.
«You will do nothing of the kind,» Elthad growled; his ire rose even further when Ulennen didn’t seem the slightest bit daunted by his vicious tone.
«But my lord, surely it’s illogical to continue to Lilendvelle in the absence of the connection between yourself and the princess. She’s clearly found a way to bypass the power of the concoction you drank and disguise herself from your senses. We cannot be absolutely certain she’s continuing her journey to the Light Elves.»
«And where would she go?» he retorted.
Uneasiness began to emanate from the elf, but it didn’t prevent him from arguing his point. « Perhaps she’s decided to return to Silverden. I’m sure she misses both Silevethiel and Laegon. She seems to have developed strong feelings for the prince. It’s quite possible the stress of her situation became too much, and she’s seeking out the safety and comfort of those she loves. Many would do the same.»
«Too much is at stake for Irewen to allow her emotions to interfere. However, should she cave, she’ll be in the capable hands of five Drulaack upon her return to Silverden.»
«What if she’s going somewhere else to hide from our pursuit?»
Elthad had heard enough. «Stop making excuses!» he roared, satisfied to feel Ulennen’s presence recoil. «I shouldn’t need to remind you that in the eyes of the Corrupter, I’m your superior! You take your orders from me! Get your ass to Lilendvelle and finish your job. And if I hear one more word regarding the matter of the missing link, you’ll regret your existence!»
With a pulse of the spirit’s power, Elthad expunged Ulennen from his mind and banned the councilor from reentering. Beyond livid, he paced the confines of his study, hurling insults at the elf the vulgarity of which shocked even him.
Grabbing any free-standing objects he could find, he whipped them across the room. He picked up his chair and slammed it against the floor, laughing hysterically when the wood splintered from the impact.
No amount of damage he inflicted satiated his anger. Searching for something else to destroy, his sights landed on the single candle on his desk; the flame flickered wildly from the displacement of air. He whacked the pewter candlestick with all the force he could muster. Hot wax shot in his face. Clinging to his skin, it trapped in the heat. He inhaled deeply, delighting in the burning like it was the last sensation he’d ever experience.
With his energy finally depleted, he collapsed to his knees. Running his fingers through his sweat-soaked hair, he looked around the room, only then realizing it had plunged into total darkness.
What the hell am I doing? he thought, terrified of the man he’d become. He never used to act so irrationally. Sure, he’d always had moments of frustration, but he’d never lost control of his actions.
He sneered, bitterness rising to his heart. Thanks to the Corrupter, he legitimately wasn’t himself. He honestly didn’t have authority over how he handled his temper. He was a Drulaack. Whatever the spirit he hosted yearned to do, he did.
And he had to live with the consequences.
Closing his eyes, he tilted sideways. Not bothering to break his fall, his head cracked against the stone floor. Completely drained, he hardly noticed the pain.
“Please, just take me,” he whispered, hoping that sleep wouldn’t bring another dawn. Opening his eyes, he stared into the blackness. A tear glided across the top of his nose, creating a soft patter when it hit the floor.
He’d never be that lucky.