Chapter 1: In which Illyana does something stupid and regrets it
Illyana wanted to scream at the figures passing out of the city gates. She’d hidden from them the night before, hoping at least the girl she thought of as a sister would turn back or at least look for her. She’d suspected they weren’t too fond of her, but needed to see if that was true. She’d doubted it, and she’d been wrong. The girl she loved did nothing. Neither did the young man she looked up to as not a father or a brother, but as a friend. He wasn’t even that to her. She’d loved them, and they didn’t hate her. She’d thought that was a good thing–a step in the right direction. But they were indifferent. To Illyana, that was worse than any form of hate.
She slammed her fists against the wall on either side of the window, clenching her teeth and wondering why in the world she was holding in her scream. She pounded the wall again and again, harder and harder, hoping it would shatter, hoping the destruction would satisfy her. Her scream wouldn’t come out, but her tears did. In her rage, she didn’t tire until her energy was completely spent and she collapsed. She rested her head against the windowsill and cried.
Was it something she did? She’d eaten their food, sure. She’d taken up one of their horses and the man previously occupying it had apparently been glad to give it to her. Was it because of her race? Dryads were thieves, stereotypically. They could slip in and out of any wood structure like a sticky-fingered ghost, taking anything they pleased with them in or out. They were assassins, thieves, perverts, rapists–though Illyana would have loved to dispute this point, arguing that all dryads were female and therefore, rape wasn’t truly an option. She could admit that her race was generally made up of shady people, though they were at least better than nymphs and blood angels among the fay, and they were especially better than any subrace of fiend.
“Who’s up there?” somebody called from the floor below. Illyana looked behind her at the inn bedroom she’d hidden in. She heard heavy footsteps on the stairs, then the knob shaking on the door she’d locked. She heard the innkeeper fumble for his keys and didn’t stay to hear more. She let herself sink through the wood floor and wall, her head emerging on the outside first. She pulled herself out, flipping around in midair and landing on her feet a few meters below her exit point. It was early morning and very few people walked the cobblestone streets of Sigmora. Nobody had seen her leave in the way dryads usually did. She figured if she didn’t use any of her dryad abilities, she may be perceived as a nymph with her dark hair, olive skin, and amber eyes. None of these traits were exclusive to either race, but nymph and dryad ears were similar in length and point. Dryad ears were vertically thinner, but her hair could cover enough that her ears would only betray her age and not her race.
But she had no wish to be seen as a nymph. She walked through the streets, between buildings, squeezing herself through wood fences and houses if she felt like taking a shortcut somewhere. She walked toward whatever drew her interest, free until a guard or militia member decided to stop her. Even then, she walked directly in front of a few guards just to see how they’d react. None of them spared her more than a scornful glance. She was too young to be a threat to anyone’s safety, they probably thought. Her own perception of their thoughts insulted her, but she decided that it was best not to antagonize anyone. She’d be here for a while. She may as well make a decent impression.
She wasn’t interested in making an impression right away, and even if she was, she wouldn’t know how. She walked straight through the closed wooden door beside the gate, turning around to see the guard stationed outside rolling his eyes and smiling at her. She liked being smiled at, she decided. She’d always loved seeing people smile, especially if she was the cause.
There was a forest just east of Sigmora. It was so close that many of its trees’ branches were cut off to make room for guards to walk on top of the white wall surrounding the city. From outside, Sigmora looked smaller than it was inside. Inside, houses were spaced further apart, doors were larger, and streets were wider to make room for angels to walk. Some dwellings were built without doors on the ground, completely inaccessible to humans. But there were no angels in Sigmora. Just one blood angel, responsible for killing them all.
Illyana met the blood angel as she entered the forest. She was a girl, no older than Illyana. Her wings, rather than the pure white of an angel’s, were dull red, the last three feathers on each wing shining and pointed like blades. Her hair was dark red, like her wings, and her clothes were all variations of red or gray. She sat on a thick branch high above Illyana’s head, turned away from her. Illyana decided to close that gap. She entered the tree and shot up, poking her head out when she reached the blood angel’s branch.
“Hi,” she said. The girl whipped her head around, red eyes staring Illyana back into the tree. She set the paper and pencil she’d been using before on the branch beside her and lunged at Illyana. The dryad ducked back into the tree and came out the bottom before the blood angel even took flight. She waited beside a tree until her new pursuer was within a meter of her, then sank back into the tree. She pulled out the other side and laughed as the other girl sat against the trunk, clutching her head in both hands.
“I just wanted to say hi,” she said, walking around to the girl, but keeping one hand pressed against the tree. “Or are blood angels too stupid to answer even that?”
The girl glared at her and got to her feet, teeth clenched and lips parted, revealing the fangs of a fiend. She thrust her wings out, the last three feathers on each wing screeching like metal on metal as they slid against each other. So they actually were blades.
“What would you do if you caught me?” Illyana asked. “They call you fay, but you’re just a fiend without horns. Do you eat fay like the rest of them?”
Illyana retreated into the tree as her new foe twisted and slashed at her with the blades on her wing. She came out on a branch about ten meters above. She continued her insults, glad for someone to take her anger out on. “You probably killed your own family to become what you are, didn’t you! Fiends are born bad, but you chose it on your own!”
The blood angel shot up. Illyana didn’t have time to fully dive into the tree. Burning pain cut through the back of her bare ankle and interrupted the concentration it took for her to stay in the tree. She fell out of it and smashed against the soft dirt. Instantly, the pain in her ankle flared up again, disabling her only method of escape. She slapped a hand against the tree she’d fallen from and tried to pull herself into it, but her hand didn’t breach the surface. Her racial ability wouldn’t help her at all.
The blood angel stood over her, one of the bladed feathers clutched tightly in her small, pale hand. She pressed the bladed feather against Illyana’s neck.
“I can cut your throat, snap your neck, or cut off your head. Which do you prefer?”
“Don’t kill me,” Illyana said, her eyes squeezed shut and her teeth clenched below her lips. “Please. Please don’t.” She was breathing hard, her chest heaving and her heart pounding inside it. She’d gone from the childish glee of releasing her anger to being terrified for her life in just a moment.
“Don’t provoke me if you don’t want to die. I’ll just cut your throat and be done with it, all right?”
Illyana rolled away, screaming something that she thought was a word, but came out as just a scream, not a word in any language she knew. She clutched a tree and tried to get to her feet, but the blood angel had cut something major in her ankle. Maybe a tendon? If she even lived, the injury would be permanent.
“Do you fay find it so fun to seek me out just to insult me?”
Illyana turned her head. The girl was walking toward her, blade still drawn. She screamed again and crawled away, fresh tears flowing from her eyes. She was absolutely pathetic. She’d called out one of the most dangerous creatures on the continent without thinking, eager for somebody to take her pain out on, and now the pain was greater.
“Just say sorry and I won’t kill you.”
“I’m sorry!” Illyana cried before she had a chance to think. How pathetic. If she was going to insult this thing, she should have been able to get away with it.
“You are so pathetic,” the girl said, kneeling beside her. Illyana tried to back away, but the girl caught her hair. “Hold on,” she said, her voice way too calm for the situation. She pulled Illyana toward her and looked into her face. “Dryad, of course,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Illyana.” She answered fast, terrified of making the blood angel wait.
“Where are you from?”
“Dakonia. In the south.”
“Where are your parents?”
This was the last thing Illyana expected to be asked, but she answered anyway. “Still there.”
“Why aren’t you with them?”
“I ran away over something stupid about a year ago. I don’t know how to get back.”
The blood angel released her hair, and Illyana scrambled for the safety of a tree. Only there was no safety in it as long as she was in pain.
“I can’t believe how pathetic you are. You’re still a little girl and yet you act half your age.”
Illyana nodded. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, shut up. I hate killing people in the forest, so I’m letting you live. Now go back home or something. I’m trying to teach myself how to write.”
Illyana wanted to, but she stayed in place. She pressed her hand against her ankle, but the blood didn’t stop flowing. She’d left a trail of it from the tree she’d fallen from. As the blood angel took flight again, Illyana pushed a leaf against her wound. She couldn’t leave this forest, much less get home in her condition. The blood angel wouldn’t kill her–not because of some moral standard she still held, as blood angels had no moral standards. She hated killing in the forest. Maybe she didn’t want to have a corpse rotting and stinking in her domain, where the guards wouldn’t come to clear it out.
Whatever the reason, Illyana was alive. She needed to escape the forest and find a place to eat and rest. But that would come tomorrow. She was starting to get woozy and tired, and only after she closed her eyes did she realize she’d just woken up. Terrified, she forced her eyes open and looked down at her ankle. The injury wasn’t deep and it didn’t look horrific or even very painful. But it was both. And she was losing too much blood. She pressed a fresh leaf against it and tied it in place with a long blade of grass, then set off toward Sigmora at a crawl.