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CHAPTER 1

Alvis Witt was trouble.


He was almost always at the center of it, and when he wasn’t, trouble was always close behind him. He was a dangerous boy. He grinned at the sight of blood, tossed out bruises for fun, and spent his days searching for people to fight.


At least that’s what you’d think Alvis was like if you went off his dad’s version of things.


No, Alvis did not “grin” when he saw blood. In fact, it kinda made him gag and it was annoying to get out of clothes.


Yes, Alvis “tossed out bruises”, but he’d had his fair share thrown right back, so that one cancelled out.


Oh, and that whole “searching for fights” thing?


Well… maybe that one wasn’t too different from his dad’s account of things.


Still, it wasn’t like Alvis was some thug needing a thrill; he was helping people. So what if once or twice a month he took a few extra back alleys on his way home from work and stumbled upon a robbery? Was he not supposed to apprehend the thief? And maybe he sometimes (okay, always) kept a bandana in his pocket to cover his face if kids his own age harassed a family of Guardians and needed to be knocked down a notch or two. What was so bad about that?


“You need to stop drawing attention to yourself,” his dad always said when Alvis came home with another bruise and bloodied knuckles. “No one in Bellow should have magic. One of these days you’re going to accidentally use your attribute in front of the wrong person.”


“Guardians use their magic all the time.”


“You aren’t a Guardian. You’re one of Ellowyn Clarke’s descendants.”


AKA a “Chosen One”. Around the age of nine, Alvis realized that meant being a sheltered hermit. “What’s the point of having magic if I can’t help people with it? If I join Linless, then—”


The genius mechanic Michael Witt would level Alvis with that look—the one caught somewhere between daring Alvis to finish his sentence and the exasperation that only comes from raising a teenager—and give him some repetitive excuse. Like what happened to Alvis’s mother for being a Chosen One. Or how joining the resistance group was too dangerous. Or that Alvis’s impulsive attitude was guaranteed to ruin missions.


Impulsive. Can’t really argue with that, Alvis thought as he dropped from the fire escape onto a skinny blonde with greasy hair and a knife in his hand. The boy groaned as he slammed into the icy concrete. Alvis dug his heel into the guy’s back, earning him a pained gasp. He looked at the shocked faces of the five other punks who thought ganging up on an older Guardian woman was a good use of their time.


Without bothering to take turns, the kids were on him, weapons and fists swinging. A lucky punch connected with his stomach followed by a knife slashing across his bicep, but he barely noticed, too lost in familiar movements. Dodging, kicking and punching. Grunts, groans, and bodies as knocked away from him. If his fist was making contact, he didn’t care about the details.


“Why are you defending her?” one kid growled, wiping at his bloody lip. “She’s a filthy Guardian!”

The locket flared warm beneath his shirt and against his chest. Alvis tightened his fist, the slight surge of extra power making his fingers tingle. But somewhere between leaping at the guy and watching him fall to the ground, unconscious, regret hit him. Shit, that was overkill.


The gang members didn’t seem to notice Alvis’s extreme use of force; they were too busy gathering themselves up and scattering, dragging their unmoving comrade along with them. They shouted threats of payback over their shoulders as they ran away, and Alvis would have thrown up his middle finger if he weren’t heaving and panting. Adrenaline still flowed through him, setting his nerves on fire and making his fingers itch for more. The wound on his arm stung, but his coat and sweater had taken the brunt of it, keeping it shallow.

Alvis approached the older woman he’d defended, and crouching, offered her his arm, gently helping her from the cold, filthy ground. He never trusted his hands with older folks—their bones were too fragile against his strength.

“Are you okay, ma’am?”

The older lady was barely able to balance on shaking legs, but still she nodded and softly thanked him. Her brown, reptilian eyes focused on him for too long. “Are you a Guardian as well, child?”

Panicked, Alvis gave her a tilted smile behind his bandana and pulled his hood back over his head. “No, I’m just good at fighting.” It wasn’t a lie, not exactly. Whether the woman believed him, Alvis didn’t wait to figure out; he sprinted down the alleyway, tossing her a quick wave over his shoulder. 

The bitter cold stung his lungs as he darted through the crowded streets and dingy back alleys of Bellow. He was already rehearsing his cool, collected, I-did-absolutely-nothing-against-your-rules face for when his dad inevitably noticed the cut in Alvis’s coat and they had that same conversation all over again.

 

CHAPTER 2

With a jerk, Rae woke up with tears on his cheeks and his sister’s face stained in perfect detail behind his eyelids.


He shot up off the thin, tattered mattress, choking on a gasp. Nausea like a tidal wave made his stomach lurch into his throat. He swallowed it back with practiced effort, and folded forward to bury his face into his knees. The tears dampened his prison uniform. The memory of blood beneath his nails made his fingers twitch.


Breathe, Rae reminded himself, breathe like you’re blowing out a candle.


He grabbed at his hair, tugging harshly at the tangles to ground himself. The deeper breaths made the raw wound on his chest scream with each rise and fall. Every uncomfortable stretch of skin caused sweat to drip down his temple. Each slight twist of his body made him want to sob. Blood was once again leaking through the fresh bandages, staining his already filthy clothes.


The pain wasn’t something he had missed these past ten years. 


The Hanah from his nightmare still hadn’t faded. He uncurled himself and tilted his head back, throwing his eyes open to try to banish it. The harsh lights of his cell were blinding, but he resisted squinting against them, letting the white spots in his vision cleanse the darkness he was close to losing himself in. 


Rae’s room was three bare, white walls, and the last a line of metal bars. Empty besides himself and his bed. The cell was freezing like always. The sweat caused his uniform to cling to his back. Goosebumps washed over his skin. Rae shivered, then grabbed the thin blanket from the ground where he must have kicked it off in his restless sleep, and wrapped it around his shoulders. The gentle weight of it made him feel small and weak, but he was used to feeling weak by now.


As Rae shifted the blanket, the shackle around his right wrist slid down his arm. He sucked in a pained breath as it scratched against the fresh gash on his forearm. Rae slid the chain back up. He gently ran his thumb over the bandage. He hadn’t been awake when they cut open his arm to insert the tracking device. Once the injury healed it would join the other, longer scar beneath. It was the last scar he had ever received before being given his gemstone ten years ago.


The old and the new. Both tethered him to the past more than any chain ever could.


“Hey, Bloodied Champion.”


An ugly fury burned in Rae’s chest at the name. He forced his expression to remain neutral.


Metal scraped against the tile floor when Rae ignored the guard’s call, sending a grinding screech into the room. The guard pulled her sword back off the ground. Rae didn’t recognize her. Not surprising as he received a new guard daily. But he didn’t need to look to know she was smirking in the same pompous way Drakons did when one of their own became a “mere fallen”.


“Answer when you’re spoken to.”

With a short, exasperated exhale, Rae finally turned towards her. He kept his face blank, but he tilted his head in a way he knew was calculated as it was condescending.


“You didn’t ask a question.”


For a prison, Trailor was bizarrely bright; the guard had no chance of hiding the angry flush on her cheeks. She hit her sword against the bars, scowling when Rae remained unphased.


“You really are as stuck up as they say.”


Rae remained silent and unblinking as he watched her bravado. When she finally found the courage to step against the bars, her scowl slid into a snarl with barred fangs. Yellow and red eyes flared. One hand gripped a bar and dark smoke began to swell from between her fingers. The heavy stench of iron filled the air.


“You think you’re so important because you were the highest Ranker. But how many of us did you kill, just so you could throw it away?”


Rae’s heart picked up at the accusation. The truth of it struck deep to his guilt. He forced his breathing to steady itself. “Any Gladiator who becomes a Ranker knows the risks.”


“Peera drakon ah!”


That grotesque phrase—Rae wanted to scrawl it across every mansion in Nerwen City simply so he could smash it to pieces.


“You were a symbol of power,” she growled, red scales rapidly covering her skin, glistening when they caught the light.


“It was never my intention to be.”

Under her hand, the metal glowed an angry orange.


“You betrayed us, Bloodied Champion. You betrayed Zen.”


Finally, Rae eyes flashed dark. The blanket fell to the mattress as he stood and walked to the bars with blind intent. The guard was taller than him and still held a weapon in one hand, but Rae could see fear creep onto her face.


“If anyone has betrayed you, it’s Zen itself,” he said, bitter and unafraid of how blasphemous the words were when spoken out loud. He couldn’t care less; he was already going to be executed, hope of escape growing slimmer by the day. There were no risks in declaring his loyalty no longer belonged to the country that had lied, used him, and taken his sister from him, despite every promise she would be safe.


“I will not be a hero to anyone who doesn’t realize the puppets Zen has reduced our race to,” said Rae.


The guard’s eyes watered but burned bright with anger at the truth of Rae’s words. Her body began to stretch, her wings slowly pushing their way from her back and hand transforming into a claw. Their hybrid race was far smaller than their ancestors, only occasionally taller than most humans, but they were still strong. Rae braced his feet against the tile, prepared to leap once that claw pulled the bars free of the ceiling.


“My, my!” A voice chided, playful and smooth, like silk curling around every word. The hallway was suddenly so chilled, Rae swore he saw his own breath. “What a fascinating turnaround of beliefs!” 


The guard’s dragon form retreated in a snap, taking Rae’s chance of escape with it. She stumbled back, acting like she hadn’t stupidly put herself within Rae’s reach, or nearly ripped open his cell. She bowed to the approaching figure. “Captain Cian.”


Cian ignored her. He looked the same as always. Skin eerily white and tinted blue, the veins too close to the surface. Yellow and black eyes beneath white eyelashes. Long blonde hair perfectly kept in a low braid. A dark blue, finely pressed suit and silver tie covering his slim build and long, poised limbs. He walked with his back slightly curved in, shoulders pulled back too far to be considered natural. They didn’t loosen even when he stopped in front of Rae’s cell, hands casually in his pockets.


“To think, Rae, little more than a week ago you were so desperately fighting for your country.”


A little more than a week ago, Rae had considered Cian one of his closest friends. Cian knew who Rae spent every match fighting for, and it most certainly had never been Zen. His mocking words were nothing more than fueling the anger against Rae from his fellow Drakons. A reminder that if Rae did manage to escape, he would never find peace in Nerwen City again. The guard sneered, taking the easy bait. When Rae didn’t reply, Cian simply hummed, eyeing Rae’s chest. His smirk nearly reached his eyes when he saw the blood soaking through Rae’s shirt.


“Nine days without your gemstone! How hellish is it without your magic? Without that impenetrable shield? How does pain feel now that you can’t prevent it?”


Unimaginable. Like losing part of your very soul.


“Is it your intention to sound so bitter, Cian,” Rae asked, “or are you simply heartbroken you’ll never be able to fairly win against me now?”


The guard gasped, shocked at the insolence. Rae had barely finished speaking when the door to his cell was thrown open and Cian’s freezing hand wrapped around his throat. Just as quickly, he was slammed him into the wall, head falling backwards with a crack. Rae blinked away the spots blurring his vision, but he was powerless against the thin, sharp ice twisting into needles, pricking his neck. Rae tried to harden his skin, throw up that protective barrier he depended on, but nothing happened. Pride loosened Cian’s frown into something sinister; he had never successfully used his attribute on Rae before. His victorious grin only faltering when Rae’s stoic expression didn’t waver. Cian chuckled, shaky and mirthlessly, and set his other hand against Rae’s chest. The touch was like a caress, gentle and careful, but suddenly the ice surrounding Rae’s neck retreated into Cian’s pale palm, only to slide through the bandage and into the raw hole above Rae’s heart like a hundred papercuts. Finally, Rae cried out.


“Don’t act so irreverent, Bloodied Champion. You should feel fortunate you’ve been sentenced to death, instead of spending the rest of your days without an attribute.”


Cian pressed more slivers of ice against Rae’s chest when Rae tried to push him away.


“You are nothing without your gemstone. A dragon without your magic. A fallen. A Guardian.”


With a sharp yank, Cian pulled his hand away from Rae’s chest, the ice ripping away from the bandage at a cruel angle. Then the hand around Rae’s throat released and he slid to the ground, gasping for air.


Rae felt bruises purpling his neck, already tender when Rae ghosted is fingers over them. They hurt far too much. Why did something so simple as a bruise hurt so much?


“You’re right about one thing, Rae. You won’t die a hero. You will die showing all Guardians what happens when you betray Zen.” Cian knelt in front of him. He rubbed his thumb across Rae’s damp cheeks, eyebrow perking in surprise when Rae didn’t resist. Cian’s manic grin flashed again, drinking in a Rae he hadn’t seen in years. Committing it to memory. Reveling in it.


“Peera Drakon ah, Rae.”