All Hallow’s Eve had been a night meant for celebration. Fun. A chance for a court t enjoy the simple things in life—a chance for residents of Velaris to take part in age-old traditions of masked faces, glittering costumes, candied apples, and children daring to be anything they wished. A wish to be a violet-eyed High Lord or a High lady that had saved them all. A chance to be an Illyrian commander or a shadowsinger of a spymaster, wings fashioned from gossamer and wire sprouting from tiny backs.
Cassian and Rhysand had started the night with an ego-boosting wager: a bet on how many of the faerie children would be impersonating them. What they had not anticipated in their bet, however, was the overwhelming amount of children who had opted to dress in a brilliant array of crimsons, golds, and oranges paired with a fiery span of wings. Amren. Gleefully, she had lightened their pockets and claimed her winnings (the Illyrians had tried to argue, but all it took was a single look from the tiny ancient one for them to concede).
The dainty laughter of the Inner Circle’s females floated in the cool night air. Another joke had been made at the expense of Rhys and Cas and the pair tried to argue back against the ruthless teasing of the awe-inspiring trio that was Feyre, Amren, and Morrigan. The males did not stand a chance against the females’ unified force.
From a distance, Nesta hid in an alcove as the party went on around her. An apprehensive look was cast in the direction of the group; torn between remaining hidden or approaching the close-knit Inner Circle. Propriety told her that she should try to take part in the festivities. She should attempt to become a part of the family she and Elain had been adopted into by default. Yet… A heart so guarded raged against the weakness in sharing. This was a night for strange things to be afoot. And it had been quiet this day… Too quiet. The calm before the storm, no doubt. Intuition whispered in the High Fae’s ear that something was doomed to happen. Something was lying in wait to pounce on the hellcat when she least expected it. No. Nesta Archeron would not give them the opportunity to ridicule her this night. Quietly, she would stay hidden. Nothing more than a shadow against a wall while pairs waltzed, drank, and feasted on the festive hors d’oeuvres. She preferred it this way.
The vast hall was alive with electricity for the night. A cacophony of laughter and squeals of children interrupted the dreamy way the music floated amongst the high-vaulted ceilings. Her eyelids were shut tightly, Nesta blocking out the distractions and concentrating solely on that music. The melody had eased her nerves, coupled with the wine she had been savoring.
Eyes of sapphire pools – that at one time or another resembled sparkles dancing across still water—snapped open when a giggling, young couple had stumbled upon Nesta’s hiding spot. Stuttered apologies were made but, like a queen, Nesta ignored them. The tranquility had been ruined and she had no desire to remain anywhere near that utter nonsense. The very tip of her finger traced around the rim of her cup as she stalked away, circling the entire thing before gripping the base of the cup to take a hearty swig of the red wine. It was in passing that she noticed her reflection in the mirror and caused Nesta a momentary pause while she registered how she looked in the costume Feyre had insisted she wear. It was as if one were in the presence of a goddess's mortal body, walking through her room with the grace and beauty equivalent to that of a deity. Her feminine physique was presented with boldness. The cloth that hung worshipfully about her was of a fine quality, warm enough to not take chill in this autumn weather and deliciously smooth. The outfit was that of Night Court fashion with a summer’s flare. The fabric was twined together at the right shoulder, making a thin strap. The left sleeve drooped below her other shoulder. The cloth swooped low, exposing much of the engima’s back. A faint blush had crept onto her high-boned cheeks gracefully when she had caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. It was so… Risqué. Star’s Kiss, Feyre had called her. Nesta felt like anything but that. Or like a whore on display to be mocked and gawked.
Tomas flashed through her mind. Of an attempt made.
She should have been clothed more. Men and males. They were one in the same when it came to predatory intent.
Nesta refrained from shuddering and, instead, she threw back the rest of her wine. Dismissing her thoughts completely—she had been amongst the fae in the Night Court long enough to know better. To know that Rhysand tolerated nothing of the sort amongst his subjects. The penalty for such crimes within Velaris was high.
The eldest Archeron steeled her face and walked quickly from the mirror, intent to refill her cup if she were to survive the rest of this eve.
With her mission of alcohol successful, Nesta had gone to find another corner to hide in as the night trudged on. Her search led her towards the massive balcony, idly wandering and looking at the sights there were beheld. Children gathered around a certain area, giggling and waiting impatiently for their turn at some game. Curiosity crooked a teasing finger, dragging the female towards the area to see what the fuss was about.
She approached within eight paces of the circle of children when Nesta froze. Her glass of wine falling to the floor, shattering and splattering her dress with droplets of burgundy.
Her face blanched as her eyes rested on what could only be described as a horror from her nightmares. Color returned to her face in a matter of seconds as angry red stained her cheeks, “What is that?”
She did not need to yell to be heard. Her voice a lethal, frightened whisper was enough to cause all within the vicinity to stop and stare at the trembling Nesta.
A little girl—brave and innocent in her confusion—patiently explained to the terrifying beauty, “I-It’s a Cauldron. You bob for apples. Y-you can only use your teeth to try and get the apple. It’s fun.”
The girl’s words fell on deaf ears as Nesta was flung back into a hell she had tried to escape for so long.
Black liquid filled her nose, lungs, ears, eyes. Searing, burning, dissolving. It burned flesh from bone; muscle and tendons exposed as the water filtered into every pore that was Nesta. Pain unlike any other imaginable had consumed her—it was teeth gnashing, wailing, the voices of a million souls screaming in her mind and yet, absolute silence. She opened her mouth to scream—but no sound came out. Great and terrible things floated in front of her field of vision. All the earth’s knowledge poured into her brain, sung a song of making over her. The threads of her essence were severed, left frayed and dangling as the Cauldron worked its magic over her. Any trace of humanity was eliminated. Slowly, it begun to weave magic and flesh together. Fae.
The Cauldron wanted her soft and compliant during its work.
She was not. In that inky blackness where time had no relevance, Nesta waged war against a power greater than any mankind had faced before. Alone, she stared down that ancient monster. It was wicked and cunning; cruel and unrelenting. Ah. But she was more so. Rabid, she fought. And won. A thief in the night, Nesta took what did not belong to her. A valiant fuck you as flesh was made new.
Her life was going to hell. And she would do everything she could to take the Cauldron with her.
“L-Lady Nesta?” the child asked, fearfully reaching out to touch Nesta’s hand that was clutched at her side.
Nesta jerked from the child in instinct, staggering back several steps away from the cauldron before she alas turned tail and ran from the demons that tried to drag her back down to that black nothingness. It wanted her dead. The Cauldron still demanded her life for what she stole.
It should have drowned her.
It should have killed her.
Better than to be reduced to this—a quivering coward in the face of water.
Fate determined it best she stay alive.
Nesta ran—pushing past males and females, not bothering with apologies or excuse mes as she shoved. She needed to get out of there. She needed to be free. Far, far, far away from that Cauldron.
From the other side of the hall, Cassian had noted the commotion. Had scented her fear. He moved before he knew what was happening, slipping between crowds to see the flash of white racing away. A princess fleeing at the stroke of midnight—leaving nothing to be traced.
He caught up to Nesta quickly, catching her by the arm only to have his goddess of death turn on him.
“Don’t you dare touch me!” she lashed, her voice absolutely deadly in deliverance, “You did this, didn’t you? You thought it was some hilarious joke, didn’t you? Or was it Morrigan? She’s hated me from the beginning. Well, fuck you.” Her voice was ragged as Nesta said, “Fuck all of you!”
The flush in her cheeks, the fire in her voice. In the fading light she seemed to shimmer and glow like a phoenix in flame. Head haloed by her hair of burnished gold, and that damned dress hugging her body, the life, the spirit in her voice and expression... It was appealing, it was arousing. It was purely Nesta, the Enigma, Surreal Beauty, the wildcat, gleaming with all of her glorious rage against a fiery sunset, one that seemed so much brighter than moments before.
Her hair spilled about her shoulders in an ethereal glow, brushing over her forearms as the woman turned to take the flight of stairs that let her escape from the festivities. Cassian followed after, not letting Nesta escape when she was in such a state.
“Nesta, wait,” he said, following her into the dark library. The library that had become her sanctuary since coming to Velaris.
Silver lined her eyes as she turned onto Cas, losing control of her composure while she trembled, “The cauldron. Why? Why a cauldron of all things?!”
Realization settled deep in his bones. Oh Gods.
“Nesta,” he said again.
She stepped away from him again, evading contact, “None of you know. None of you know what it was like. How long I was there. What it felt like. You don’t know. You never will.”
“Nesta,” he said, voice softening. Cas took a step forward.
“I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve learned I’ll never belong here. I understand it. Tell your High Lord that—tell him his message was made clear.” Her back was against the books now. “I wanted it to happen as much as all of you did; that cauldron should have drowned me. Free everyone of Nesta, queen bitch.”
“Nesta.. Nesta” Cassian closed the gap. Hazel eyes looking down at that beautiful face that had tears streaking down it. His arms wrapped around her, gently, soothingly.
She did not fight him. The human-turned-fae crumpled against the Illyrian’s chest, gripping onto the collar of his shirt as a sob racked through her frame. Only in private would she allow this. Only in front of him.
Protectively, Cassian pulled her from the books and held her to him. Wings wrapping around them while scar-flecked hands stroked her hair, “I’m sorry. I’m here.” Lips brushed against the top of her head as he murmured again, “I love you, Nesta… I love you.”
Broken and afraid, Nesta said, “Don’t let me go.”