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King of Nothing

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A/N: I do not give trigger warnings. There will be content in this story that may make you uncomfortable. The two things I will absolutely never write are graphic rape scenes or pedophilia, but everything else is fair game. You've been warned.

Note: This was written for the tomionekinkmeme Samhain fest on Tumblr. It's basically a The Cruel Prince AU. If you haven't read the book, it's okay. You should still be able to read this fine without having read it. Part two and three will come at some point. Who fucking knows. I don't even try to pretend anymore. lmao Special thanks to AvaSafari for making this sweet ass cover! I love it! Best thing ever!

HAPPY (late) HALLOWEEN! BLESSED SAMHAIN!


 

King of Nothing

Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ

As far back as I can remember, I was always told that I was an unnatural child. Head in the clouds, nose in my books, thoughts contradictory, friend of no one.

What they didn't know, and what I didn't tell them, was that I did have friends. Many of them. At least, that's what I always pretended, because lying to myself was easier than the lonely truth.

When I was a child, I used to see things. The things I saw were never solid, always brief, always blurred, but still there.

I don't remember when it all started, but I do remember that I mostly saw them in the tree line in my backyard. Shadows shifting between trees. Leaves rustling when there was no wind. Songs sounding just for me when there were no birds in sight.

I would leave things out for them as gifts. Treats and little trinkets; things I thought they might like, might use. I soon discovered that they liked strawberries and cheerios, but disliked orange marmalade and any kind of meat. They liked shiny things, but only certain shiny things. They liked pretty things, strange things.

In return, they would leave me presents, too. I had no idea what they were used for, but I loved them. I hung up their gifts made of wood and flowers and antlers and moss in my window, so they were sure to see them.

I remember talking to them, but not with them. I would ask questions, and only get their faint songs in reply. That didn't last long, though.

Because one day, there was a boy.

I'm not sure if I would call him a boy, though. My memory of him is a bit fuzzy, but I thought he was a queer, little thing. With his dark, wavy hair and his inky eyes and his weird clothing and his crown of thorns and his tail.

Yes. That's right. I said tail. If it weren't for that uncommon feature, I would have simply thought he was a child from another neighborhood who'd gotten lost and was wearing a costume. It was getting closer to Halloween at the time, after all. While I cannot remember his face clearly, I can remember our interaction as if it were yesterday.

Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ

I am lying on my stomach in the freshly mown grass, open books strewn about me, when a boy appears out of nowhere and everywhere.

"I command you to stop bothering the subjects of my court with your nonsense," he snaps at me.

No introductions. No kind words. No hello, how are you's.

Normally, I would have been afraid if one of the children from my school was standing over me, glaring at me hatefully, like the way he is. But I stare at his twitching tail and listen to his mature words and strange accent, and only feel curiosity.

"Your court?" I echo.

He looks disgusted that I even had the gall to address him.

"Yes. My court. And you would do well to remember that, mortal."

"You're too little to be a king," I observe critically. He looks not much older than me, and I just turned twelve a month and a half ago.

He doesn't seem to like what I said much, because his face flushes red with indignant rage.

The boy stomps his foot and declares, "I will be king, one day! I will be your king, and you will obey me!"

I scoff. "You're not my king. Queen Elizabeth II is the ruler of England. Not you."

He kicks up a clump of grass, and dirt flies all over my books. Some of it lands in my mouth. I spit it out.

"How does it taste?" he asks me, kicking my books away and crouching down to my level. "Does it taste good, mortal?"

His cruel smirk enrages me more than anything, but I hang onto his last word, distracted.

"Why do you keep calling me that?"

The boy's smile drops. He stares at me closely. "Because that is what you are, Daughter of Dust. You will die, one day. You are rotting down to your very bones, right this second, and you are so stupid, because you go through your life being so happy, so oblivious of your fate, so –"

"I'm well aware of what it means to be mortal, thank you very much," I interrupt him. "I asked why you keep calling me that, not for a definition. Judging from what you've told me, you must be immortal – somehow. And, honestly, if being immortal means being as miserable as you are, I would gladly choose being mortal and happy any day of the week."

His eyes widen, then narrow dangerously. Now, I feel nervous. His sudden calmness is scarier than his anger.

"I could have you eat the pages out of your book, you know. I could speak the words to make you tear the sheets out, one by one, and do so with a smile on your face as you chew the paper. I could make you strip down to your underclothes and dance in the streets," he told me, a cold smile widening his face the more he spoke.

I glare at him. "No, you can't. That's impossible. You can't make someone do something just by telling them to. People have freewill, you know."

He smiles wider, and I think to myself that it doesn't sit quite right on his face.

"Bow down to me," he orders.

It feels like his words twist around my body, around my wrists and knees, around my neck like a leash and pulls me down. My knees are grass-stained, but I don't care. Why would I care? I want to bow down to him. And why wouldn't I? He is my king, after all!

I lower myself with a stupid grin on my face, happy to please my king. It is strange, though, because I am also furious about bowing to him. I don't want to, and I want to. I feel like a puppet on a tight string, out of control. I hate it, don't I? I can't remember why I would hate it.

"Now, lick the mud off my shoes," he commands. I can hear the glee in his voice, and it makes me happy that I am making him so happy.

No! I scream in my head, because I cannot say it out loud.

My body lowers down, down, down, the grass tickling my chin, my neck. I giggle.

Yes, I think. My King's shoes are dirty. He needs me to clean them. It is an honor, a privilege, a -

"Hermione, dear! Supper is ready!" my mother calls from the house.

Just like that, the strings are broken.

Just like that, my fury breaks free.

I jump up quickly and shove him to the ground. His eyes go wide with surprise as I stand over him, my pulse pounding underneath my hot skin. I want to hurt him, to seek revenge on him for controlling me like that. But my mother is just inside the house, and I don't want to get in trouble.

"You are going to be a horrible king, a wicked king. None of your subjects will respect you. None of them will love you," I say harshly, spitting malice. His face turns into a horrible scowl, and I realize something. "That's why they come to me all the time, isn't it? Because they adore me and not you, and it makes you jealous. Doesn't it?"

The boy says nothing from his spot on the grass, but the clench of his jaw and the irritated twitch of his tail tells me all I need to know.

"Go home, King of Nothing. And never come back," I tell him.

He's shaking in fury when he stands again. Part of me is scared, but I do not show it. I am too angry to be fully scared.

"I will come back for you, one day, and prove to you that I am not a King of Nothing. I will make them love me more. I will prove to you, and to them, that I am the greatest king that Faerie has ever seen, and then you will regret your words," he threatens, his face twisting with contempt.

"I'll only be sorry if I ever have to see your face again," I bite back hatefully.

I watch his jaw clench again and his nostrils flare. Then he seems to realize something, and a self-assured smirk twists his features.

"Until next time, Hermione, Daughter of Dust," he warns, then a flurry of green moths the size of dinner plates storm around him, and he is gone.

Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ

I never saw him again after that, and I often wondered if I ever would. As the years went by, I told myself that I dreamed him up. A figment of my overactive imagination.

It didn't stop me from finding out all I could out of our single interaction, though. I checked out every book I could about faeries from the library, and even bought a few books and supplies from a questionable new age shop that everyone else always passed by.

And as I read, I learned a lot. And as I learned a lot, I realized a lot of what I'd learned was complete rubbish.

My obsession with the fae and with witchcraft had overtaken my life. It eased a bit over time, but it never stopped me from carrying an iron dagger around with me everywhere I went. It never stopped me from wearing my socks inside out. It never stopped me from wearing a string of rowan berries around my neck, hidden underneath my shirt. It never stopped me from shoving extra salt packets from the diner into my pockets.

I'd learned that faeries are susceptible to iron – it scalds them, like fire. Wearing clothing inside out protects humans from glamours, which are like optical illusions. Wearing a string of rowan berries protects humans from ensorcellment. And tasting salt is the only thing that cures the dangerous side-effects of their food.

I hate ensorcellment the most. All a faerie must do is put their will into their words and you are under their control. You cannot resist it. You cannot fight it. You are happy to do their bidding, even if it hurts you. Even if you lick the mud off their shoes.

I hate it. I hate it so much that even though I question their existence (and my sanity), I still go through these precautions every…single…day.

Because, you know, just in case.

It's paranoia – plain and simple. He isn't really watching me. He isn't even real. I dreamed him up, once upon a time.

But it doesn't explain the blurred shadows, the shaking branches overhead, the songs always sung just for me. This irrational fear.

The whispering of my name.

Hermione.

Hermione.

Hermione.

Something is going to happen soon. I can sense it, and it terrifies me. It terrifies me to the point where I am making myself mad, making myself ill.

I feel like Alice. I'm falling down the rabbit hole; falling into a world which is upside down and backwards; falling into somewhere I never belonged, somewhere I do not want to go.

But gravity does not care at all what I want, does it?

Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ

People watching is a pastime of mine. Harry tells me that I need to stop being so obvious about it, because it looks a bit weird when I get really into it. But I can't help it. They're all so fascinating.

Who are they? Where are they going? Where did they come from? What are their thoughts? Dreams? Fears? Are they in love?

Sometimes, I like to pretend I know everything about them.

Harry and Seamus are talking about some Halloween party coming up. Maybe. I don't really know, because I don't really care. I'm too busy warming my hands on my paper cup of hot chocolate, while pretending that the man I'm currently watching went to business school when he was younger. I imagine that he was top of his class. Very bright. Very honest.

Too honest.

Which is why he's leaning against his torn backpack, holding up a sign, asking for change. I imagine his name is Christopher. He prefers jams to jellies, is an animal lover, and enjoys nature walks. I imagine that someone controlled him, took advantage of him, that is how he ended up like this. It'll never happen to me. I refuse to let it happen to me. I won't –

"Oi, Hermione? Did you hear me?"

I turn to Harry and blink in confusion. He should already know the answer, so I'm not sure why he asked me in the first place.

"Mm?" I hum, taking a sip of my drink to distract myself from my manic thoughts.

"What are your plans for Halloween?" he repeats.

He should already know the answer to this question, too. But I still answer him. "My parents and I are going to the movies."

"Ooo, seeing anything scary?" Seamus asks.

My nose crinkles. "Of course not."

"It's too bad you can't come to Viktor's Halloween party tonight, 'Mione. It's gonna to be so lit. He booked a local band, and even a catering service. Are you sure you can't get out of going to the movies with your parents?" Harry asks me, hope written across his face.

I shake my head and laugh. "I already promised them. Guess I'll have to miss out on Viktor's 'lit' party, Harry. Sorry."

Harry grins at me good-naturedly. I don't even feel guilty about lying to him about it.

I wonder if maybe I should.

Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ

We stay out all day, walking around downtown until the sun sets. I'm having more fun being with my friends than I've had in a long time, my anxiety pushed off to the side. Maybe it's because of the mischief in the air on Halloween night. Maybe it's because of the four bottles of hard apple cider in my system. I have no idea, but Harry reminds me of my lie, and I almost trip and get caught in it.

Our goodbyes are said, full of drink and laughter. Seamus hollers words at me from across the street, but none of them make any sense. I laugh and mime whatever language he spoke to me right back at him. Harry doubles over in raucous laughter; they're both beyond gone at this point. Part of me wonders how long they'll last at Viktor's party, but I'm sure they'll find a way – they always do.

My fingers are bloody well freezing by the time I get into my neighborhood, so I tuck them in the sleeves of my thick, grey sweater. The streets are filled with shrieking children trick-or-treating, with their parents walking along tiredly nearby. I exchange a friendly smile with a mum who is wrangling her little demon. He's wailing something about wanting to eat his M&Ms early and throws his plastic pitchfork on the sidewalk.

As I continue, I can't help but to think that his costume choice probably wasn't an accident. I can't help but be reminded of someone, once upon a time.

When I look back up from the boy, my world spins. Damn alcohol.

I didn't even drink that much, but I've always been a lightweight. Ron and the twins like to tease me for it, but I always get into the rational discussion of body weight and height differences and varying metabolisms, and then they lose interest quickly; I like that they do, but I also hate it. When my mouth opens, eyes glaze over. It's why I don't open my mouth much anymore.

I lean against a lamppost, pull out my phone, and do my best to make it look casual while I wait for my world to align itself again. No need to look like a lush in front of all these parents and children running amuck.

Hermione.

Even though I am surrounded by noise, surrounded by controlled chaos, I hear it – my name. My head shoots up from my phone, and I scan the crowd with squinted eyes. I see no one familiar. I only see little bodies on sugar highs.

Hermione.

The voice sounds hollow. Reverberated. Probably because it's echoing inside my own head, and not out loud in the streets. I exhale shakily. My breath fogs in the cold air, clouding my vision.

Once my breath clears, I see him instantaneously.

There he stands, in the middle of the street, children passing him by. They're moving too quickly, and he's not moving at all. It makes me feel dizzy just looking at the contrast between them. He's wearing a dark leather doublet, and I can see the silver thread of the embroidered leaves glinting in the streetlight from here.

It's so strange; now that I am looking at him again, I can't imagine how I could've ever forgotten his face. In a very frightening way, he is devastatingly beautiful. Even with his stupid guyliner smudged around his eyes. And just as before, I think he's a queer, unearthly thing. With his dark, wavy hair falling into his face and his inky eyes and his weird clothing and his crown of sun-bleached thorns. I see no tail this time, but it doesn't matter. Because he is looking at me – only at me.

As if he hears my anxiety, his mouth furls into a merciless smile – a smile that cuts teeth. A smile sharper than the knife tucked in my boot. A smile that chews helpless hearts out of chests and spits them out, damaged.

I don't think; I run. My house is close, and as much as I want my parents to be home, I pray that they are not, because if they aren't, that means they're safe. Safe from him. Safe from me.

Because, at the end of the day, this is entirely my fault. All of it. I should have never encouraged the creatures of his court. I should have never given them gifts; and I should have never accepted theirs. I should have stuffed my ears with cotton, ignored their ballads.

Should've, would've, could've. Thinking about it now is pointless. It's too late for regrets; they'll only weigh me down.

I race up my front steps, fumble for my keys, and unlock the door. Once I'm inside, I slam the door shut and deadbolt it. I run upstairs to my room, not even bothering to turn on the lights.

Even in my inebriated state, I know it's pointless, but my second instinct is to hide.

My first is to arm myself.

Quickly, I pull dresser drawers open, digging through them in a panic. It's a whirlwind of actions driven purely by my adrenaline, because I'm barely aware of which weapons and items I'm shoving into where.

What I'm mostly aware of is this sudden pressure building in my ears. Like when you drive into the mountains, and the higher you go, the more pressure you feel, until your ears finally pop.

I'm tucking packets of salt into my back pocket when my bedroom door blasts off its hinges, and I'm thrown across my bedroom. The back of my head cracks against something hard, and my world starts fading to black.

The last thing I see before I black out is his dark silhouette eating away at the moonlight.

The last thing I hear is him speak in his queer, echoing accent. "We meet again, Daughter of Dust. Let us see just how worthy you really are."

After that, my ears finally pop, and I am falling, falling, falling like Alice.

Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ

I pull in a loud, sharp breath, and immediately begin to cough. Something smells so horrific that I choke on it. That's the first thing I notice when I wake up.

The second thing I notice is the tingling in my legs. They feel like dead-weight. Asleep. I try to shift them, and find that I cannot.

The third thing I notice is the noise. The pressure in my ears is gone now, but it is replaced by a deafening buzzing sound. It bothers me.

I open my eyes and all I see is a green, blinding light shining down on me. A hole in the ceiling. Once my eyes adjust, I am horrified.

Thousands of black flies are swarming around me, hitting against my arms, my face. The reason my legs are asleep is because someone is lying on top of me. He stares at me with clouded eyes, his mouth twisted into a grotesque, frozen scream.

A fly crawls out of one of his nostrils, and I find my voice. I scream. I push and I kick and I shove him off me, and his rotting flesh makes a wet sound as he slides down, down, down. But he doesn't stop sliding. I watch him roll over a mountain of rotting corpses. Sinew stretching. Skin splitting. Stench strengthening.

And I realize that I am at the very top of this mountain – their unintentional queen.

I cannot get down fast enough.

Each time my foot gets caught in limbs, I scream. Each time I slip in their putrid juices, I cry out. Each time I catch myself from falling by grasping onto their rotting scalps, I dry heave.

By the time I reach the bottom, I am covered in death. I reek of it. I stumble away from the mound as quickly as I can, and fall to the rocky ground. I crawl on my hands and knees, desperate to get away from them. My jeans – torn. My knees and palms – bloody.

Once I am far enough away, I retch and I gag until everything tastes of bile – until all I see are little, white stars. And I can't even wipe my vomit away, because my sleeves of my sweater are coated thick with coagulated blood.

Spit hangs pathetically from my lower lip as I look up. I'm in a different room now – some sort of cave. There is a soft, green light coming from somewhere, but I can't find the source, and I don't care. I can't tear my eyes away from the crystal-clear spring in front of me.

I don't even think as I tear my clothes off. I don't want them on me anymore. I don't even want them touching me.

Once I am naked, I splash ungracefully into the water and scrub frantically at my skin. There are no scrub brushes here – wherever here is, so I use the blunt tip of my nails to dig away my disgust.

I could be wrong, but something tells me that I will feel dirty for a long while – no matter how clean I get.

After my body is as clean as I can make it, I get out and reluctantly gather my filthy clothing. I really don't want to put them back on, but I can't exactly walk around this strange cave in the nude. I have no idea where he is, but I know he's probably watching me from the shadows, somewhere.

I stomp back to the edge of the spring, clothing in hand, and feel humiliation staining my cheeks. As I am hunched over, scrubbing my underclothes in the warm water, I am intensely aware of how naked I really am. Of how naked I have always been.

I am so, so vulnerable, and I am disgusted by it.

It makes me hate him even more.

Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ

As much as I don't want to, I press forward. There's a narrow passageway leading up an incline, which leads to another small clearing – smaller than the room with the spring. Perfectly circular.

And in the center, a pedestal. And on the pedestal, a large orb omitting a greenish glow, with golden vines twisting around it elegantly. It's breathtaking. It's beautiful.

I don't trust it. At all.

I imagine it is filled with fae poisons. I imagine that it is cursed. I think of how it will devour my hand if I touch it. I think of how it might kill me.

I shiver in my wet, freezing clothes, and I also think of how it might help me.

Holding my breath, I step forward.

Nothing happens.

I circle around it once.

Nothing happens.

I dare to sneak a touch on a golden vine.

Nothing happens.

I am stupid and press my palm against the golden knot in the center.

Something happens.

My eyes go wide, and I jump back in alarm. The vines untangle themselves, then melt away, leaving behind what it was guarding.

Clothing and weapons. For me.

It doesn't make any sense. He's the one who put me here – the one seeking his childish revenge on me – so why would he help me? There must be a catch, or a boon waiting to be owed.

But when I check the leather doublet, it's utterly ordinary. Nothing special. Plain.

Like you, my own voice whispers back to me in my head.

I find that I'm angrier for some reason, and I show it when I yank the doublet over my head, like it will make some sort of difference. Some of my hair gets stuck in my mouth in the process, and I spit it out. I push my arms through the sleeves, and I'm disturbed by how perfectly everything fits me. My soggy packets of salt are tucked into my pocket; my necklace of rowan berries is strategically hidden underneath my doublet; my soaking socks are turned inside out; my iron daggers are cold against my inner thighs.

Part of me doesn't want to think about how terrified I really am, so I test out the blades to distract myself. They're nothing like my little iron daggers. These are larger – much larger, and they curve out elegantly. I trace my finger along the intricate designs and frown.

"Words?" I ask aloud to no one. Glyphs are written along the side in a fae language – one that I will never understand. Faeblades, I decide to call them.

The words on the faeblades begin to glow a fiery red. When it reaches closer to my fingers, it sparks. I squeal, dropping them to the dirt, and pull my little finger into my mouth where it burns. There'll be a blister; I'm sure of it. I stare down at the enchanted blades in wonder, listening to the crackling energy dissipate now that I'm no longer touching them.

I wet my chapped lips, and pick the faeblades up by the handles – safely. The glyphs blaze to life again, but it doesn't scald me this time.

It's not much, but I'm feeling a little less vulnerable than when I first woke up. I'm just waiting for the grand reveal – the moment when I'm thrown into a situation where I'll need these gifts.

I sheath the faeblades in the holster on the belt wrapped around my hips, and feel my anger and frustration disperse, and they are replaced by something new – determination.

Once upon a time, he said he'd make me regret my words.

Tonight, I think I will make him regret ever being born.

Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ

It doesn't take long for me to realize that I'm in a living, breathing labyrinth.

There are chambers with nothing. Doors that lead nowhere. Gnarled vines that block exits. Halls that echo voices that do not belong to me. Rooms that repeat.

He thinks that I'm not keeping my wits, but I am. I have never felt more alive before this.

After what feels like hours, I come to a large room with crumbled stones and the biggest cobwebs I have ever seen. On the other side of the room, there is a large, oval-shaped stone with fae glyphs written in blue. It lets off a low hum. Full of the same energy in my faeblades.

It's quiet in here. Not even my footsteps echo.

I've never much been into videogames, but I've watched Harry and Ron play enough to know that it's a big, open room like this where something nasty is going to come out and try to kill me.

As quietly as I can, I unsheathe my faeblades. The clean sound of metal doesn't soothe me. I dare to take two steps forward, and I think I could swallow my own heartbeat right now if I wanted to.

There is purple light, and something moves at my feet; I swing instinctively.

I feel stupid when I realize it's only a blooming flower. What I thought were crumbling stones scattered across the ground are actually budded flowers. I don't know why, but when I get near them, they come to life. I crouch low, watching in fascination at the purple light they're emitting, watching specks of glowing pollen float gently to the ground.

When I move my hand over more of the flowers and they bloom, I can't stop the smile that creeps onto my face. The magical things in Faerie are magnificent. More magnificent than I could have ever imagined.

"Curious," a deep, familiar voice with a queer, echoing accent says.

I'm on my feet and my faeblades are out faster than I can think. He's on the far end of the room, leaning against the glyph stone with drink in hand, watching the flowers at my feet with his stupid, pitch-black eyes. The soft glow from the bloomed flowers at his shoes paint him purple; I hate how intimidating it makes him look – how frighteningly beautiful. I wonder if I look the same, but I know I don't, because he almost takes my breath away. Almost.

"Enlighten me," I say, my voice a venom edge.

My acidic tone brings his attention to me, and his mouth furls with a familiar contempt. "Cave flowers only bloom in the presence of magic. Why are they blooming for you, I wonder?"

Air gets caught in my throat. Now he's stolen my breath away.

His dark eyes travel over me slowly, taking in my appearance. He looks bored and displeased, but this is nothing unusual for him, it seems. He takes a long sip from his cup, his eyes never leaving mine. He says, "I see the subjects of my court have aided you, but it doesn't matter. Pixie-made tunics and weapons aren't an antidote for your mortality."

Pixies?

I blink stupidly at his admission, then look at the sleeves of my doublet and the crackling energy of my faeblades. Why had I not thought of this before? Of course, my friends would help me. It fills me with a stupid kind of joy that they still hate him; a petty kind of joy that they love me better.

"How does it make you feel?" I ask, genuinely curious, but mostly vengeful. "To be hated so much by those who are meant to love you?"

In an instant, he is close. Too close. I warn him with my faeblades, and he comes up short, wine spilling. I watch his face slip into nothingness. A mask.

"They love you, because you give into their whims. They love you, because you are temporary. They love you to spite me," he says lowly, his head tilting just barely. "Tell me: how does that makes you feel?"

I glare at him, pushing the long edge of my blade toward his chest in forewarning. "I would rather be loved out of spite than to be hated."

At that, he blinks lazily, as if he is trying to comprehend my words. "Are you telling me that you'd rather be loved falsely than to be hated honestly?"

When he words it like this, I'm not so sure. But I am too stubborn to agree with anything he says.

"Yes," I reply, biting the inside of my cheek. My lie tastes like copper.

His eyes narrow, speculating. "You are exceedingly unusual. No wonder they find you mortals so…interesting."

His words set me on fire. All I feel is rage.

I press the faeblade into his tunic and scream, "Is that all this is to you? A form of entertainment? A game? You really think you can just go around, stealing mortals when you are bored? Throwing them into a maze to fend for themselves? Without suffering any kind of consequences?"

His dark eyes go wide with surprise, and he looks down at the weapon pressed to his chest. Then he looks back at me, a look of wicked enjoyment on his face.

"If you think this is a game, Daughter of Dust, you are delusional," he replies, then his fingertips curiously ghost over the soft, round curve of my ear.

I stare at him in disbelief as he steps away from me, his phantom touch going with him. His stare is intense, and I am transfixed.

"There are no winners here in Faerie. No losers," he pauses – a revelation. "Only us."

I blink, and he is gone as quickly as he came.

For some reason, I find that I am infuriated at how I am a slave to his convenience. Infuriated at how easily he can come and go, and how I cannot.

In my anger, I trample some cave flowers and scream. But then I pause when I hear the sound of something wet behind me – the sound of something scraping together. I whirl around and my stomach drops in horror.

A brown and golden spider the size of a large dog is lowering itself from the ceiling by a sticky thread, and all eight of its red, blinking eyes have me in its sight. By the time it is close enough for me to notice the purple venom oozing from the tips of its fangs, it drops elegantly to the dirt and lunges toward me.

On instinct, I throw myself to the right and land in a patch of cave flowers. The air is knocked out of my lungs, but I don't have time to think about it. I roll onto my back just in time to see the spider crash into a wall. It lets out an unnatural shriek that pierces my eardrums, and I can't help but throw my hands over my ears.

It shakes its head and turns back on me, its long legs bringing it stampeding in my direction.

"Shit," I swear under my breath, and scramble up to run away from it, but I know it's pointless. The spider is going to catch me in seconds. It is going to stab me with its venomous fangs, wrap me up in it silk, and turn my insides into goop. I'm going to be spider food.

God, damn it.

No.

I pull out my faeblades and whirl around, my feet skidding in the dirt. I take on a defensive stance and feel entirely feral – so unlike me, but also exactly like me. I am painted with purple and rage.

The spider falters for a split-second, almost as if it is considering that I might be a threat, but quickly throws that thought out the window and barrels toward me.

When it's nearly upon me, my grip on the faeblades tighten, and I drop down and swing at its legs. As I swing, I feel heat and see flames. But I realize too late that I dropped down too slow, and its powerful body knocks into me, throwing me to the ground. I feel an excruciating pain in my left shoulder from the force of the blow, but I don't let it stop me from pulling myself back up – no matter how badly I want to scream from the pain. I'm not going down without one hell of a fight.

The enormous spider crashes to the ground by the stone glyph, letting out a horrendous screech. Green blood spurts out of the two legs I've lobbed off, and the spider wobbles off to one side, uneven. It's at a disadvantage now, but that doesn't mean it's not a threat. I know better.

I go to change to an offensive stance, ready to go in for the kill now that it is wounded, but the movement in my shoulder causes the pain to intensify and I accidentally drop one of my blades. I don't mean to, but I cry out. It feels like fire. Pure fire.

As I reach up to touch my injury, I look down at the same time and I feel my blood run cold. There, jutting out of my shoulder like some grotesque joke, is one of the spider's fangs. The venom sac is still attached, pulsing, pumping more and more purple venom into my bloodstream. I don't know why I didn't notice it before, but I can feel its effects now. The fire in my veins. My body temperature rising. My vision blurring. Delirium setting in.

I'm going to die. It's inevitable. A fact. I cannot control it.

The cave is moving – shifting, but I know it's just the venom making quick work of me. Making me delirious. Making me go mad. I watch the spider stand and turn back on me, and it turns into two spiders, three…wait, four? I don't know how many there are anymore, and I don't care.

I yank the fang from my shoulder and throw it to the ground in anger. If I cannot control when I die, I most certainly can control what I do with my last moments before they're stolen from me. He cannot take that from me. He will never take that from me.

All four spiders let out a piercing shriek and spring toward me.

I scream at the top of my lungs and lunge forward with my single faeblade drawn. The four spiders turn back into one for just a second, but it's all the time I need. I swerve to the right, and when it goes to follow me, it loses balance on its uneven side and topples.

It only takes a second for it to get its bearings again, but it's already too late. I am on its hairy back, screaming until my throat burns, hacking the curved edge of the faeblade into its head, its eyes. I show it no mercy, because I know it would have shown me none.

I keep stabbing its head, although I'm certain its dead now. It's stopped moving. It's stopped screaming. But I'm the one who can't stop. I feel vengeful. I feel angry. I feel robbed.

My heartbeat slows, speeds, slows, speeds – erratic. I don't even realize I'm crying until I slide off the spider's body. I want to get away from it. I need to get away from this. I begin to crawl, but everything is turning to fuzz.

I follow a source of soft, blue light. It's familiar. Warm. Comforting.

My head rests against the hard surface, and I close my eyes. So, this is where I've come to die.

And I feel like I'm almost there – almost dead, but then I hear voices. Distorted ones. Ones I can't quite grasp. Can't quite reach.

I'm too tired to care. Too warm to care. The warmth wraps around me, whispers in an echoing, childlike voice: Awaken, little dustling. Awaken. So much has yet to be done. You mustn't stop now. Look how far you've come.

The venom is making me go mad – I just know it. I don't know who is speaking to me or where they are, but I reply anyway.

"I'm dying," I rasp out, my head lolling to the side tiredly. Breathing is difficult now. "I can't even move. The venom."

There is an antidote, little dustling, but you must claim it.

Where I pull the energy from, I cannot say, but I find that I'm more alert than I was a moment ago. I open my eyes and ask, "Where?"

It is here. In this very room. But first, I must ask you a question: how badly do you want it, little dustling?

I know this is a trick question, even in my feverish state. Receive a favor; owe a debt. The way of the fae.

My jaw clenches and I answer honestly, "I don't want it at all, but I need it."

Silence.

Right when I think the little girl didn't like my answer and left me to rot, she speaks again.

And we need you, little dustling. You've been chosen.

I frown, weakly shifting myself up. "Chosen? Chosen by who? For what?"

The egg sac behind the lorestone. Don't apply it. Drink it. All of it. Every last drop.

"Wait!" I cry out weakly. "What do you mean I've been chosen? Hello?"

The little girl is gone, then I register her last words. The antidote.

My vision isn't clear, but it's well enough to see in my immediate area. My main concern right now is figuring out what the bloody fuck a lorestone is.

Familiar energy radiates behind me, and I turn my head. The oval stone with glyphs written on it. Could this be it? It's the only distinctive feature in the room; well, besides the decapitated spider lying at my feet.

"The egg sac behind the lorestone," I repeat. "Behind the lorestone."

I crawl on my hands and knees, too weak to walk. Too weak to exist, but I make it happen. I have no other choice.

Behind the stone is a white mass made of spider silk. It's pulsating with life. So, what am I supposed to do? Just cut it open and let its little venom babies make a feast of me? No, thank you.

A sharp pain in my chest stabs me, making me double over and wanting to die. But then I remember that I don't want to die. I refuse to let it end like this.

I reach for my faeblade, bring it above my head, and stab the egg sac as hard as I can.

I expect baby spiders the size of tarantulas to come pouring out, but they don't. Green, gelatinous goo pours out, instead. Without thinking, I reach my hand in up to my elbow, feeling around for something – for anything.

My fingers slip against something smooth, and I grasp it. I pull it out, and through the goo, I can see it's a glass bottle filled with a dark liquid. After I wipe as much as I can away from the stopper, I open it, and drink.

It's disgusting. It tastes bitter and metallic, but I keep drinking. I don't stop. I drink all of it. Every last drop.

And when I am finished, I collapse into the dirt. Then I think of how much I have been hating dirt lately and laugh at the irony of it all.

Part of me thinks I was tricked. Given false hope. I feel no different, but I still wait. I stare at the stalactites dripping from the ceiling. It's not like I have anything else better to do.

Time passes, and I am still not dead.

In fact, all at once, I feel better. More than better. I touch my wound, and only find a star-shaped scar. I get up, gather my faeblades, and sheath them.

I feel different. Stronger. I wonder if it was more than just an antidote. I push the low probability of that to the back of my mind. I have more important things to worry about.

It's time to find him and end this. He says this is not a game, but it certainly feels like one. I'm competing for something, but I have no idea what the prize is. No idea what the rules are. He is playing with my life like I am worth nothing, but I am worth so much more.

And I'm going to prove it to him. I will do anything to survive this labyrinth.

Anything.

I wonder if he knows that.

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