Timothée should have listened to his sister. He said that a lot. But this time he really, really should have listened to his sister. It was just being surrounded by vampires usually wasn’t the consequence for not listening.
Vivian and Marion stepped in front of him, but it wasn’t necessary. A platoon of guards formed a perimeter around the makeshift stage. And thanks to Prince Darius’s orders to keep them safe, the Greywicks were within that protection.
Timothée clutched Yvaine tight to his chest. She seemed settled for the moment. He’d never seen her act like that. Jumping up and attacking the Prince’s boot—what in the skies had gotten into her?
“Y’know,” Timothée ventured, “maybe we shouldn’t have gone to the festival.”
Marion sent him a withering glare. If he had listened to her, they would have been back at home, unaware of this nightmare. But no, because Vivian and Marion disagreed about everything and he couldn’t make a decision to literally save his life, they were here surrounded by vampires.
Vampires never came out during the day. But like Marion had been saying, it wasn’t day, not anymore. Purple light spilled over the square. The vampires wore heavy cloaks to protect them from the lingering light.
Soon they wouldn’t need them at all.
Panic tore through the crowd like a living thing. Timothée barely heard the shouts of the guards over the rising cries.
“We have to get out of here,” Marion hissed.
“How?” Vivian asked. Guards surrounded the platform, and beyond them was the panicked crowd, and a dozen cloaked vampires.
These weren’t the usual vampires that slunk around Wolfhelm: hunched and weak, bodies broken with protruding bones, more monster than person like the one he’d seen earlier today. These vampires were different, all elegant features and sharp fangs peering from beneath their hoods. Their movements were purposeful. Like they weren’t even hungry.
They were here for a reason.
Vivian’s voice was laced with panic. “It’s like three years ago.”
No, it wasn’t. Three years ago had been a full-out attack, a slaughter. These vampires hadn’t hurt anyone yet. They were closing in around the edges of the crowd, blocking the alleys and the streets. The guards had their swords drawn, waiting for the command to strike.
“Hold,” Prince Darius growled at his guards. Once blood was drawn, there would be nothing stopping these monsters.
“We have to go,” Marion whispered over and over again, her eyes flicking from the vampires to the ever-darkening sky.
There is no moon tonight.
A stillness trembled over the crowd, and it felt as if the air snapped from autumn to winter in an instant.
And then Timothée saw him. The one who had sucked the air from the courtyard, rendered the crowd speechless with fear.
Timothée’s lips moved against the coarse fabric of his scarf as he whispered: “The Dark Prophet.”
“It’s impossible. He’s dead,” Vivian said. She gazed up at the Prince of Andúrigard, who, by the look on his face, had believed the same thing.
Darius pushed aside his guards and stumbled forward. His eyes were wide, horror flashing. “You,” the Prince said.
The Dark Prophet only stepped forward in response. His black cape, which appeared to be made of torn shadows, flowed behind him. He wore armour of black obsidian with sharp pointed edges. A helmet covered his entire face, adorned with bat wings along the side, and painted purple fangs. The vampires herded the crowd back, forming a path that led straight to the stage. Straight to the Prince.
And unfortunately, straight to Timothée.
He clutched Yvaine tighter. “Is it too late to say that you were right, Mare?”
“Shut up,” she said but her voice was shaking.
It was as if the entire world was holding its breath to see what the Dark Prophet would do. The guards started to draw closer, but the Prince stopped them with a flash of his hand. He too must have sensed what the vampires wanted. A show, not a massacre, and he’d play along to protect his people.
Or maybe he just didn’t want anyone to touch the Dark Prophet before he could.
The loremaster, Setviren, looked as if he would expire on the stage. His face went ghastly white, a sickly contrast to the green of his hair. “It cannot be so,” he muttered, eyes as wide as an animal’s at slaughter. “It cannot be so.”
The Dark Prophet paused when he reached the bottom of the platform.
“It cannot be so!” Setviren shrieked and bolted forward.
To escape…to attack…whatever his plan, it was futile. The Dark Prophet whipped out his arm and snatched the frail man around the neck. He held him up until his feet kicked and dangled like a petulant child.
“It’s been a long time, Darius.” The Dark Prophet spoke casually, as if addressing an old friend. As if he didn’t have his hand around a church official’s neck.
“Let him go,” Darius snarled. “You can’t even be real—”
“Did you really think, in all your golden arrogance, that you could have killed me?” The Dark Prophet’s voice was edged with the bitter taste of night, a metallic sound that rattled beneath his obsidian helmet. “One as weak as you, one who cannot defend his own family?”
Three years ago, the Dark Prophet’s cult of vampires had stormed the city, and it was said he himself had slain the King, Queen, and Princess before Darius had defeated him.
The crowd quivered with fear. Darius roared and surged forward but the Medihsan ward, Khalid, pushed him back. “We’re Darius’s family too,” Khalid called, “but I’m assuming based on your ensemble that you don’t get invited to many family gatherings, so maybe you’re a little fuzzy on the details?”
Marion managed a groan.
The Dark Prophet turned to look at the fearful loremaster in his grip. “This man claims to speak for the gods. He only tells you what that woman wants you to hear. Lies for sheep.”
With unnatural strength, the Dark Prophet whipped Setviren across the courtyard. He skidded, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing on the cobblestone, until he landed near the feet of some citizens. His eyes fluttered and his chest rose slowly up and down, but he did not rise.
“Setviren!” Darius screamed, then turned with a snarl to the Dark Prophet. “Get thee gone from my sight, vermin of darkness!”
Somehow, Timothée got the distinct feeling the Dark Prophet was smiling beneath his helmet. “I am here to deliver a message. One granted from the stars above, for I have had a vison.”
For I have had a vision.
Timothée knew those words, words printed in forbidden books he’d pilfered from the library. They were ancient words spoken by the lieutenant of the fallen god Noctis. The lieutenant was known as the Prophet of Stars and it was said that in the ancient wars, he could foresee the battles and his prophecies always came true.
Timothée didn’t really believe that this creature who called himself the Dark Prophet was the Prophet of the Stars reborn, but it was evident Darius hadn’t finished off this impersonator three years ago. The murderer’s words had chilled the crowd so thoroughly, one could hear their collective breath.
“The night sky has shown me the future,” the Dark Prophet said. “He will return.”
There was no questioning who he was.
Noctis, the banished god.
There was a rumble through the crowd at those words, and the Dark Prophet leaned back on his heels, as if the scared whispers were honey to his ears. “In the space between the stars I saw him,” he continued. “Soon, the God of Shadows will return to Thraina. Mountains will crumble, rivers run red, and the sky will weep.”
“You tell lies!” Darius yelled down at him. “Noctis is dead, and you will join him forthcoming.”
“You have dubbed me a prophet because I can read the future in the stars.” The Dark Prophet laughed darkly. “I saw that Noctis and I stood side by side, as we did at the start of his world. We stood on the Isle of Argos as his shadows devoured your precious school. The Celestial Academy will fall and anyone who does not bend the knee to the One True God of Above and Below will feel our wrath.”
The crowd quaked, and Timothée shivered along with them. What he was saying, the crazy ravings of a zealot…it couldn’t be true. A god hadn’t been seen by commonfolk in a millennium, and to foretell the return of a fallen one—it was madness.
A tremor flickered on Darius’s face but before he could move, a Celestial Knight stepped forward. “Get His Highness to safety,” he said sternly.
Murmurs sounded through the crowd: “Ser Dedont, the Blade Breaker.”
He was a soldier of legends, taller and wider than any man Timothée had ever seen. The Prince roared as Dedont pushed him away, and the other soldiers shoved him and the two wards into the tent on the stage.
Dedont walked down the stairs and drew his great axe, as long as Timothée’s arm. He cast a look to the sky. “The stars have not yet awoken,” he boomed. “But it is no matter. I will dispose of this vile interloper with might alone.”
The people, frightened and trapped, gave a weak cheer.
“Magic is fun and all,” the Dark Prophet sneered, “but if you think I need it, you haven’t been paying attention.”
The Dark Prophet drew a sword that seemed longer than himself. At first glance, it looked to be made of the same obsidian as his armour. But shadows crept within the blade, curling like smoke. It cannot be. But Timothée knew from his many late nights in the library there could be only one way to forge a blade of smoke and shadow. Gravastarium, forged from dead stars. The forbidden metal.
The crowd stopped cheering.
Dedont ran forward, roaring and swinging his great axe, bringing it down upon the Dark Prophet. The murderer stepped out of the way, without a flinch, and Dedont’s axe cleaved open the cobblestone. The Dark Prophet whirled around the bigger man. He was as fluid as a dancer, but as quick as a viper. His sword struck Dedont’s side, slicing through his armor.
“We won’t be able to escape,” Timothée said. “At least not right now. It’s too organized. The Dark Prophet is making a spectacle. We have to hide and—”
“Wait for a little chaos,” Marion finished.
“Exactly. We can escape during that.”
“What about the night?” Marion glanced at the sky.
“I think the people have bigger problems to worry about right now.” Timothée forced himself to breathe as Dedont barely countered a series of lightning-fast slashes.
“There’s no where to hide,” Vivian whispered, eyes wide, hands wrapped tight around her throat.
He grabbed his sister’s hand and squeezed it three times. “I have an idea.”
“What about Darius?” Vivian’s face was etched with fear. “We can’t leave him. We can’t!”
“Yes, we can,” Marion said urgently. “It will be easy. He won’t even notice you’re gone.”
“But—” Vivian protested.
Timothée felt a pang of pity for her. This very well might have been the first thing she’d ever asked for in the last three years. Granted, saving the Prince of Andúrigard when a homicidal zealot dressed in creepy armor showed up was quite the ask.
He set his jaw. “I’ve got an idea for that too. Get down.”
The Greywicks crouched to their knees and Timothée motioned to the stage. They began to crawl, the perimeter of guards shielding them from view. Yvaine padded along beside him. Timothée felt alive. He felt invigorated. A little life and death experience was all he needed to make a decision.
“I thought we would hide away from the target,” Marion hissed.
Timothée sighed. She really couldn’t let anyone else do anything. He ignored her and continued crawling until they reached the base of the stage. Dangling ribbons of blue fabric decorated the base of the platform. He pushed them aside and motioned for his sisters to crawl underneath.
He saw Marion’s mouth twitching with anger before her bottom was even under cover. “Yes?”
“This is your hiding spot? The Dark Prophet is literally right outside!” She gestured, and through the ribbons of fabric, they could see the Dark Prophet and Dedont fighting, feet stirring the earth, back and forth, back and forth.
“The closer we are to danger, the further we are from harm.” Timothée smiled.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Marion grabbed at her hair. Honestly, he was surprised she hadn’t ripped it out by this point.
“What about Darius?” Vivian urged.
“Oh right,” Timothée stammered. “About that.”
He knew this square; he’d walked by it everyday for the last three years. This stage wasn’t just built for the festival. It was always here, just with a different purpose most of the year. Because the only thing the people of Wolfhelm loved more than celebrating royalty with magic was hanging common folks with magic.
The tall beam in the centre, from which usually hung a rope, today had a tent strung up from it. The tent that the Prince and wards were in. And if he had it lined up right in his head, which he thought he did, then…then this might work.
He quickly sketched something in the dirt with his finger, then picked up Yvaine and showed her the plan. “Listen! No more silliness, Yvaine. See this? Push here with your paws.”
Marion pulled on her hair harder. “You’re speaking to a cat.”
“Yes,” Timothée answered. “A witch’s cat. She’s special.” He placed Yvaine down on the ground. “Do this and I swear I’ll give you all the fish you can eat. But we have to save the Prince.”
“Timothée,” Marion growled.
He looked down at Yvaine and sighed. “It’s not your fault she prefers blood-sucking bugs.”
Yvaine just meowed and pranced out from the blue cloth.
“Of all the fates!” Marion threw herself to the ground. “Trusting my life to an ugly cat! You best not come crying to me when your stupid cat gets its blood sucked out.”
“Hey—” Timothée started, but there was no time for arguing. A large creak sounded and tumbling through the open trapdoor was Prince Darius and his two wards.
“Darius!” Vivian cried and stumbled forward to the heap of three Celestial Academy students.
“What in the Three above?” Khalid Ali Bagheeri rubbed his head. He looked up just as the trapdoor closed, shrouding them in darkness again.
“What is going on?” Prince Darius sat up. “Vivian?”
She blinked at him, but before she could speak, Marion answered: “Okay, we’ve got your prince. Now can we escape?”
“Escape?” the girl from Kirrintsova said. Carmilla Vladi—Vladisomething. She sat up, parting her red hair, and scowled. “Is this some sort of deranged rescue mission? Who are you three?”
“We’re nobody,” Marion said swiftly. “We just want to survive, and I’m assuming you three do as well.”
Darius took a long look at Vivian, and she stared back at him, and to Timothée, it felt like a lot of words without any words at all.
“And how do you propose that?” Carmilla scoffed. “You don’t think those monsters are going to find us as soon as they realize we’re not in the tent anymore?”
“We wait for movement in the crowd,” Vivian said. “You three could make for the castle walls. You must know a way inside.”
“Of course,” Khalid said. “I could sneak inside that place with my eyes closed. The problem is our path is currently blocked by a pack of bloodsuckers. And not the kind your sister likes to keep in her bag.”
“Shut up,” Marion said. “We have to wait for our moment.”
Khalid turned to fully look at her and a smile curved up his face. “Trust me. I’m always waiting for my moment.”
For once, Marion had no reply.
A yell shattered through the night, and all eyes peered out through the flaps of fabric. Dedont had collapsed to his knees, fingers grasping for his axe, as the Dark Prophet circled around him.
Darius gritted his teeth. “I have to help him.”
“Darius.” Khalid grabbed him by the shoulders. Timothée nearly cried out seeing someone touch the future king so carelessly. But a look of familiarity passed between the Prince and his ward. “Listen to me,” Khalid said. “If the Dark Prophet kills Dedont, he kills a knight. If he kills you, he kills all of Andúrigard.”
Darius bawled his hands into fists but did not move.
“Is this all you have to offer?” the Dark Prophet drawled. He held out his arms, his shadow blade like a living tendril of smoke. He didn’t even seem human, his face entirely hidden by that horrible fanged helmet. “Is this the best defense Andúrigard has?”
Ser Dedont struggled to his knees, but blood covered his face. His hands couldn’t get a grip on his massive axe.
Timothée’s throat closed. He’s…he’s the Blade Breaker. He can’t fall!
The Dark Prophet turned away, exposing his back to the knight. An arrogant show. But if Dedont could just grab his axe…
“What a bore.” The Dark Prophet swung out his sword, and without even making eye contact, removed Ser Dedont’s head.
A horrid thunk reverberated through the night. And then the silence was replaced with screams from the crowd.
The Dark Prophet had killed Andúrigard’s best knight, and he hadn’t even needed magic to do it.
Darius shot forward, Dedont’s name upon his lips, but Khalid was faster. He snatched his hand around the Prince’s mouth and pulled him tight to his chest. “Don’t do it, Dare.”
“You couldn’t even offer me a challenge.” A laugh echoed from the Dark Prophet. “I don’t remember you being quite so frightened last time we met, little prince.”
Darius thrashed against Khalid’s hold, breaking free. But Carmilla placed a hand on Darius’s arm like it belonged there. “You will have your chance to fight him. But wait for the right time. You’ve done it before.”
Timothée felt the space between him and the golden prince spread miles, even though their shoulders were close enough to touch.
“You have done it before.” Khalid jerked Darius to meet his gaze. “Remember that day, Dare?”
“I grow tired of these guards,” the Dark Prophet said.
And then there wasn’t just one thunk—there was several, as all around them as bodies fell. Their drained corpses were visible from between the ribbon. Blood began to leak beneath the platform, pool by Timothée’s knees. The vampires were striking.
And they weren’t even stopping to feed.
Vivian let out a shuddering breath and her eyes rolled to white.
Marion wrapped her arms around her sister, not in a hug but a hold. “We have to find a way out. Now.”
But there was no movement beyond the thud of bodies.
The crowd was paralyzed with fear. The panic, the chaos they had predicted—it wasn’t happening. Timothée felt it too. Fear so cold it froze. Vivian drew her knees to her chest, hands gripping Marion’s chain-tight arms hard enough to leave marks. And Marion’s eyes were wide, fixated on the sky, where the stars were blinking awake.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
The wooden stage groaned as the Dark Prophet stepped onto the stairs. Shadows seemed to swoop down from the night and gather around them. The ground trembled and then…began to churn.
Darkness leeched its way from the dirt between the cobblestones, sprouting up in the form of inky black spiders, and long cockroaches, and spiraled worms. They crawled to the surface, drawn to something.
Drawn to the Dark Prophet.
There was the swooshing of fabric and the light fall of it. The Dark Prophet stepping into the tent above them. Then amused laughter. “Think you can hide?”
A large spider with eight hairy legs crawled its way up Carmilla’s boot. Her breath hitched.
Khalid locked eyes with her and slowly shook his head.
Carmilla bit her lip, trembling, as the spider crawled higher up her leg.
The platform creaked. The Dark Prophet was right above them.
Marion slowly released Vivian and inched forward. She snatched the spider by its thorax and unceremoniously dropped it to the ground. Her eyes shot daggers of warning at the Kirrintsovan girl.
Timothée let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Carmilla gave a weak smile and leaned back. Her hand landed on a long centipede. It coiled, tiny legs shivering up her arm.
Khalid rushed forward, clapping a hand over her mouth, but it was too late. There was the rush of boots and then a crisp chill, and Timothée saw it: shadows with marbled purple veins curling around the legs of the platform.
“Dark magic,” Khalid gasped.
Marion looked from Timothée to Vivian. “Night has fallen.”
The stage rose. The Dark Prophet’s purple shadows lifted the entire wooden platform off the ground. Any semblance of protection they had – gone.
Time seemed to slow, and for a moment, all Timothée could see was the Dark Prophet, hard angled edges of metal and magic. And the crowd was still there, trapped by the vampires, forced to watch this horror.
Darius and his two wards stood in front of them. And Marion yanked her siblings back toward the splintered wreckage of the stage, hiding them underneath the cover of the ripped tent, just as Timothée felt the warm brush of starlight on his skin.
Night had fallen and they could not be seen. If he followed one rule of his sisters’, of his late father, it was that one.
Never go outside on a moonless night.
What was there to do but hide under this ripped cloth? The Dark Prophet would kill the Prince first, and then maybe the wards, and after that…after that, he’d probably let his vampires do what they did best.
It would be like three years ago all over again, when the streets ran red with blood. Only this time there would be no golden prince to save Wolfhelm.
“We’re going to die,” Marion whispered and clung to Timothée.
But Timothée peered out from the cloth, watching Darius, how he stepped forward.
“I’ve killed you before,” Darius snarled to the Dark Prophet.
“Dare, remember what happened last time.” Khalid grabbed his shoulder, but Darius shrugged him off.
“Last time,” Darius drew a small shining cube of metal from his pocket, “I wasn’t a Starling.”
Khalid sighed and looked behind him where the triplets hid. “He’s only been a Starling for a month, so it’s really not as impressive as he makes it sound in that heroic voice of his.”
But Darius did look heroic, more heroic than Timothée and his sisters, who huddled against the ruined wood. More heroic than Carmilla and Khalid standing idle in front of them. More heroic than the remaining guards, whose spears shook in their hands. More heroic than the Celestial Academy students, scattered in the crowd, too afraid to move.
Darius stepped out into the square, past the fallen guards, past the shallow breathing body of Setviren, past the corpse of Dedont, and the vampires who eyed him. The Dark Prophet simply waved his creatures down, the way Darius had sent his guards away earlier.
The cube of metal Darius held was pure stellarite: a rare metal used only by Starlings. The stars seemed to crackle, and light shone around the Prince. A soft blue glow surrounded him and the stellarite molded in his hands. It swirled and stretched until it formed a gleaming sword.
Darius turned around. “Don’t follow me.” He was only speaking to one person.
Vivian’s eyes glistened; her lips trembled.
Darius couldn’t have known. There was no way for him to have known.
Those were the last words their father had said to them before he walked down the alley.
How they had waited there, until a creeping shadow stalked toward them.
And Vivian, being the eldest, had crawled out of the lavender cart.
Darius ran forward, stellarite sword drawn. The Dark Prophet raised his cursed blade. A sound like ice breaking rang across the night as their swords clashed. The magic of starlight against the darkness, just like in the tales of old.
Maybe there’s hope after all.
Darius moved like lightning, a flash of gold and blue. And if he had been battling someone else, anyone else, Timothée thought this fight would have ended as quick as all that: a flash of lightning. But he was crossing blades with something akin to a shadow.
And how could anyone fight that?
“He’s going to get himself killed,” Khalid hissed.
“No one fights like Darius,” Carmilla said.
“And no one will die like him either.” Khalid eyed the crowd, their faces a mixture of hope and fear. “If he’s killed, it’s going to be a bloodbath.”
Carmilla glared at him. “If only you spent more time training and less time scheming. Then perhaps you could actually be a help to our Prince.”
“Oh, love,” Khalid said. “You know as well as I do, I’d only be in the way up there. The Dark Prophet would cut through me like warmed butter.”
The battle raged on, and it seemed like neither side was gaining an advantage. Though Timothée couldn’t help but feel, through some sick sense he couldn’t explain, that the Dark Prophet was simply toying with the Prince.
“When—if the Prince falls,” Marion pulled Timothée’s scarf higher up on his face, and his hat so low it almost blocked his vision, “we run. It’s our only hope. Vivian, hood up.”
Vivian stared at Darius, a gasp upon her lips as the Dark Prophet surged forward, cutting a red line across the young prince’s chest.
“We tried, Vivian,” Marion said sadly. “There’s nothing more we can do. This is so much bigger than us.”
The vampires around them wavered eagerly, hoods flown back as night had fallen. Impatience lined their faces as they watched the battle with hungry eyes.
The Dark Prophet surged forward so fast the Prince fell off kilter and landed on the ground at the murderer’s feet.
This was it. Marion rose to a crouch, still clutching the tent fabric tight around them. She was ready to bolt. The vampires pulled their lips back, fangs glittering white. Vivian turned to her siblings. “Not this time,” she whispered. “I cannot go with you.”
Then she sprung to her feet, running out of the protection of the tent fabric, past Carmilla and Khalid, and right into the middle of the square. She stumbled to a stop, and her whisper of a voice was so loud: “Darius!”
Darius rolled, barely dodging the Dark Prophet’s sword which embedded hard into the earth.
“This is very bad,” Marion murmured.
Because it wasn’t just the Prince and the Prophet staring at Vivian. It was every vampire, every citizen. Because it was a moonless night, when the light of the stars was the strongest.
And Vivian’s eyes were glowing. Glowing as bright and radiant as the stars themselves.
Darius scrambled to his feet. He made a motion with his hand, and again Timothée felt the stars obey. The earth in front of Darius rose, cobblestone forming a circular barrier around him and Vivian. Darius grabbed Vivian, muttered words too low and fast to hear.
The Dark Prophet waved his hand, and shadows gathered in his palm. With a flick of his wrist, they hurtled toward the rock wall— shattering it.
Vivian screamed and Darius held her close to him.
But the Dark Prophet grabbed him, hurling him back. Then he stared at his vampires. “Deal with her,” he said simply, turning his blade against the Prince once again.
No…no…no! Timothée jumped up. Marion yelled something behind him.
A vampire rushed toward Vivian and grabbed her arm. She turned to it, a look of furious determination on her face. And then it started to scream. Red blossomed around its face and down its neck, and great boils formed along its body—like it was burning.
But that wasn’t right…vampires only burned in sunlight. The stars were too far away to hurt them.
The vampire dropped Vivian’s arm and fell to its knees, clutching its scalding face.
It had burned when the light of her eyes cast upon it.
There was a flash of movement and two vampires stalked toward him. They didn’t want anyone breaking away from the crowd.
“Stars, Marion.” He cursed her for covering him in so many layers. He tugged at his gloves, too tight. The vampires were almost upon him. He yanked them off then held up his hands in defense, eyes tightly shut.
All he heard was a shriek. When he opened his eyes, the vampires were burning before him. Burning from the light of his glowing skin.
Because on moonless nights, it wasn’t his eyes that glowed. It was his skin.
“Timothée!” Vivian stumbled toward him.
“It’s hurting them!” he gasped.
“I know,” she nodded. “We can help.” She grabbed his glowing hands.
Timothée looked down at his skin, as if lit from within, and watched the soft glow spread to her. He felt something pass into him. His vision shifted with it, and he knew his eyes were glowing now as well.
“Remember,” Vivian said.
He did, and he turned to the rubble of