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It had been the drawing of Raum that caught his eye, and then the rest of him, as forcefully as a punch to the gut. 

Most of the time Acton paid little attention to the wanted and warning posters (gods knew he - or things he’d stolen - had starred in them often enough over the years), but there was no denying the pale face that stared up at him from this one. It made him stop in his tracks, motionless save for the way his molten eyes scanned the words written there, the fear and frenzy evident in each sharp slash and thin loop. 

The way his heart began to race, then, was familiar - but the fear that rose in him was wholly new, alien and awful. It seized him like a fist, and it did not leave him as he turned, shouldered his way through the gathering crowd, and made his way through the keep to Isra’s door. 

He was out of breath by the time he got there (why would horses build a castle with so many stairs,) but at least it meant his ragged heartbeat was warranted. He had passed in and out of flickering torchlight, and his skin still felt striped with shadows and flame. For a moment he considered pushing his way through this final door — 

but Acton is not so thoughtless, so careless, as he once was (for better or for worse). For a few heartbeats passed he only listened, his head bent near the door, listening for any sound but his breathing and the candle-flames that flickered in the background, always hungry, always being fed.  

At last, when impatience and worry threatened to swallow him up, he spoke. 

“Isra,” he said, and his voice was as soft as firelight, as dark as soot. “Will you let me in?” 

It did not occur to him to wonder if she thought him another wolf at her door. 


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Isra who wants to feast

"What is inside belongs only to the dead." 

Isra almost thinks it strange that as she's hiding in her rooms, curled upon pillows and blankets and dust, it's not fear that keeps her bones rattling inside her skin. Her skin shivers with the bites of ghost flies and the sting of wilted blades that live only in a place deeper than the real. And her eyes, when she blinks and coats them in darkness, do not run with a river of tears. 

It's not fear but fury that itches just under the surface of her skin. It's rage that boils in her stomach like acid, rage tainted by not fear but something feral. Tonight she doesn't feel like a slave, or a unicorn, or a queen. She feels like something else, something that stretches and moans when it wakes from an almost eternal hibernation.

Isra feels like a monster, a reaper that might open up her teeth and drink down a ghost like fermented wine. 

How dare he, she thinks wildly as her magic reaches out like another feral monster. In a breath it's pillows of chain-mail that scrape against her knees instead of silk. It runs out like oil and rot from her skin, her blood, her soul until it's not her room that she's hiding in but an armory. Isra has told enough stories about heroes that she could make a bible out of what weapons she can name (her fury forgets that she has never used one, never wielded one).

Perhaps it's a blessing that when driven by her emotion her magic fades with the dripping of time instead of blood. By the time Acton scratches at the door with words instead of weapons her room is once more nothing but a room full of books, candles and soft things. 

Isra does not think him a wolf at her door, not when her own skin feels stretched over wildcat bones instead of unicorn bones. Only the chain-mail pillows remain; those she loves enough to keep.

When she finally rises like a war-cry from her bed of armor and lays her cheek against the door it dissolves into ribbons of black silk shot though with pearls. Black and white, she says to herself, black like my rage and white like my vengeance.

Out loud she only says, “Acton.” And for the first time his name doesn't fall like a prayer. It burns like a blood against the back of her teeth and it tastes as bitter as bile when she swallows down the venom she could drown this entire castle in.


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He watched the door dissolve to silk and pearls, a night sky hung with distant stars, and wondered at the way she remade everything she touched. Her magic was nothing like his own - all flash and illusion, nothing but a lie that would dissolve as soon as he wasn’t there to keep it.

For the first time Acton wondered if she was remaking him, too. And if so - into what?

It was lucky she said his name then; his thoughts were leading him down a path he balked at, a spiral away into the dark where he couldn’t see the landing. Not that Acton had ever thought much of leaping before he looked, but things had changed. Like a door into a curtain that parted around him like a dark sea.

Acton thought nothing of the pillows when he stepped into her quarters, his body bright and hot as a new-stoked forge. His lit-fuse gaze was only on Isra, searching her as thoroughly as a doctor’s hand. What he saw there was nothing worse than what he’d seen after a hundred back-alley brawls; how many times had he or one of the other Crows limped home with blood crusting hard, with bruises blossoming like night-blooming flowers? Yet it made the buckskin set his teeth.

Finally, finally, his eyes found hers, and what he saw there caught him by surprise. Better than anyone he could recognize rage, the want that burned like a fever and cried out for blood.

Acton did not smile then, but neither did he ask the question that had been beating along with his heart - how are you?

Instead he considered her, appraised her the way he might have the Twins after a fight, or Reichenbach, or Raum himself. Instead he wondered if his queen had changed herself, too.

“What did he say?” the magician asked at last, and his voice was still rough with smoke. Within him that fire was feeding and building, and the scent of blood still hung in the air between them.

And Acton wondered where the Ghost was, and if they were still brothers, and if Raum bled, too.


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Isra of the violence

"doused in mud, soaked in bleach"

This time when she lifts her chin and arcs the crusted wounds around her throat into the moonlight it's not shame than runs like oil through her veins. This time it's courage and bravery and pride that lick through her body like small, curling flames of red. The gesture fills the silence more than any chanting of a war-trumpet could.

Look, it says. Look, look. It even yells a little, bugling into the night shadows between them that seem, tonight, as wide as any sea. Look and see what glimmering wealth a crow thought to pick from my bones. She welcomes the sting of it and the pull of crusted blood on tender flesh.

Isra feels like she could carve the words her throat aches with deep into his bones (carve them like a brand).

Instead though, she swallows them all down like that raging acid. She devours everything but a soft whisper that sounds like the sigh of blade though moonlight. “It's not what he told me that matters.” For all their silence the words frost at her lips, air and moisture turned to ice and snow. She's winter steel, hard but brittle and hungry for a fire.

Each step she takes to close the distance between them brings more ice to her lips and the door behind them turns back to wood and closes with the sound a shovel makes against a gravestone. Acton has not come to Isra's room.

There is no Isra here, only rage and fury and righteousness. Now crow will survive the winter of her nor the spring that will rise to fill the belly of every orphan in all of Novus.

“It's what he showed me that stuck.” Isra waits until she's close enough for him to count the holes made in her skin by fang to speak again. She waits until she can count the veins running through the white in the corner of his eyes. And when she speaks again, the single stone between them changes into a flower, barbed and bladed.

Her voice almost whistles through the blades of metal as she lowers her nose to the metallic petals and breathes in pollen made of rust. “Raum showed me that I can have teeth too.”


Woe to the man who showed her the sweetness of violence.


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It should not have taken him until the moment she lifted her chin to notice the scent of blood.

Oh, that is the moment that Acton truly knew he was going soft, that every warning the Ghost threw his way might be coming true. It had been a while since he was reminded what consequences his weakness might hold - even with the gods and the floods and the thunder-birds, he had been living too easy.

But here he was, standing in the moonlight before his queen, who wore dried blood like a necklace of old rubies, a gift from his best friend.

Suddenly things were a whole hell of a lot more complicated.

For a moment he could only stare, and the silence between them crackled the way a fire might, if anything in the room ran hotter than their blood. Acton wondered if he should reach forward and touch those marks - like Thomas, like any man of sin and doubt. In the end he reached his white muzzle for them but only dropped it again, to hang in the air between them like an unfinished sentence. And like any sinner he felt guilty, and angry, and sick.

He said nothing as she spoke, her words like a rebuke, sighing soft as Raum’s blade. How many times had he seen that subtle knife do its bloody work? How many times had he watched it washed clean afterward?

It was Isra who closed the distance between them, and Acton felt something shameful and dark for that, too. Maybe he was no spark, only soot (but the fire building in his belly belies the thought). Each step made clear the rage in the planes of her face, the spiral of her horn finally made a weapon. The scent of blood sharpened as she neared, familiar on his tongue as an old penny. Acton almost did not notice the sound the door made, scraping closed, that made the room a sepulcher.

He did not watch her lips as she spoke; his eyes were again on her neck, the necklace of teeth-marks, the way it rose and fell with each word and swallow. Still he wanted to reach for them (and what? Kiss them? Prove them real? All folly). It was the working of her magic that caught his eye, the spark and shift, and his gaze fell to the floor like a stone, like a flower.

His breathing was very soft, with his eyes on that cutting bloom. One ear flicked forward, to catch her words, as though there was a cacophony around them and not silence like death.

“All the best things do,” he answered, but he did not smile. Acton’s heart felt cut by the points of that stem, the smooth edges of those silver petals. It felt halved, and neither part belonged to him.

At last he swallowed, and drew his eyes away, out to the window and the black, bonfire night. “But Raum has had them for longer. He’s been a weapon his whole life.” Was there pride, in that statement? Or remorse? Or only resignation?

Like so many things, Acton didn't know.


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Isra forged in blood-fire

"ghosts crowded around you, weeping silver tears, waiting for you with such smiles. "

Isra, for the first time she can remember, is glad Acton never touched her. Her eyes feel like they belong to something else when she watches him reach for her. The bloom of relief that bursts in her heart when he drops his nose terrifies her. If he touched her, Isra thinks, she might had tried to pluck out any crow feathers left in his heart.

She might have run him through with her horn.

“Ah,” She says and there is some great revelation of darkness and fury that shifts like the tail of a dragon across her eyes. It curls into the whites of her eyes and for a moment her pupils might look as black as any ore of the underworld. Isra blinks, hoping that all that darkness might recede back onto sea-foam and scale-shine. It doesn't.

“And I am only a weapon newly forged.” That burst of darkness reverberates in her belly, roaring like a cougar though her blood, the marrow of her bones, and the jagged edges of her soul. Isra wants to tell him that she was born in blood and violence, fear and helplessness. She wants to tell him that she's drank her own blood when the nobles of her homeland kicked in her teeth.

Isra wants to tell him how lungs full of blood can sing and gurgle and sound like the sea.

Instead she only lets the moonlight fall through the windows like snow and cling to the curves of her horn. She almost wonders if the cold light makes her look innocent or cruel, until she realizes that tonight she doesn't care what Acton thinks of her.

“Why are you here, Acton?” The flower at her feet turns to a sword, then a bed of pearls, then a spike of amber with small black specks in it that almost look like charred bones. “Have you come to tell me that he will kill me?”

She doesn't tell him that she's already imagined a hundred ways to bury a ghost and toss the ashes to the wind so there will be no resurrection.

But part of her wants to tell him, if only to see the look in his eyes.


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It is a lucky thing that Acton missed the new-found hunter in her gaze, the warning for him alone. Hard to say what might have come of it if he had caught it. Instead it is only the rage in her voice as he stared at the deadly blossom between them that made his skin prickle along his back.

If he looked up at her now, he would not have recognized her - she was not the thin, fearful girl from the docks, the one who forgot she bore a horn at all. This Isra knew exactly what that weapon was for.

I am only a weapon newly forged, she said, and at last Acton met her gaze again. In the darkness, in the dim moonlight and guttering candles, she looked like something that waited in the deep. She looked like something that could weigh and measure and find him wanting, and all at once Acton was terribly grateful she knew nothing of his long list of sins. Nothing of Bexley, bleeding beneath dusty rubble, the gold of her all tarnished. Nothing of Lysander, beaten unconscious and left to die in the snow, all for the jealousy of a foolish king.

If she knew - oh, Acton wondered if he would be wherever Raum had fled to.

“That makes you the sharper one,” he said, almost absently. He was looking out the window, now, where the moonlight turned the city silver and glistened off the sea. The mountains were all dark, but Acton knew them like a fox knows its thicket, like a crow its nest.

And Raum knew them, too.

Her question once more drew him back, and the flicker of magic at their feet caught him no less tightly. He watched that flower become other truths, and knew if he touched each one it would be a real thing, no illusion like what he wrought. Isra did not deal in lies, no matter how pretty. Maybe it would have always come to this, one way or another.

Acton regarded her, those ocean eyes that promised storms. “No. I figured that you could figure that one out on your own.” He ought to be calmer, now, seeing she had survived, seeing she was too strong to be made a broken, weeping girl by Raum’s attack. But the buckskin was still tight-wound, taut and grim, anxiety crawling like mites below his skin. He was worried, he was furious, he was afraid - but at who? Of what?  

Yet when he spoke, his voice was measured, the consummate performer even now. “I came to - make sure you were okay, I guess. Are you?”


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Isra across the war-zone

"are there any chances left for us?"

Violence crests inside her like waves against the shoreline of her salted, blooded skin. It rises again and again until Isra thinks that if she were to dive back into the sea inside of her she would drown there, and drown the entire world too. There is seaweed tangling inside her like chains and each knot of brine carried with it dead crustaceans and other broken secrets of the deep.

Isra feels like there is another world living in the marrow of her now, cold and void of any color at all. Everything at her feet blackens as the edges and the stone turns to dust that coats the tip of her tail in ash. Her horn feels like it could be made of galena and ore instead of bone (it feels battered and hungry). And it feels like a revelation that her horn would want and hunger and need. It feels black, black as a universe.

The smile that curves her lips is crueler than her horn and more vicious than any monster in her stories. She hates that she can smile like this as much as she loves how it feels like panels of iron armor between them. And she wields it like a weapon, clumsy and violent, as she steps fully into the beam of moonlight between them.  “You're right.” She wishes she could turn her words to blades as easily as she can turn silk into chain-mail. Tonight she would turn the air to shards of glass, bright and sharp and edged in blood.

“I already knew.” Isra knew the moment she dipped her horn and instead of changing oil to water she turned weapons into flowers. Like a dead, dying thing she knew, she knew, she knew.

Each bit of moonlight glints on her like steel and diamonds and slick, bright blood. It puddles like oil in the wounds across her throat and in the hollow curls of her horn. It feels like winter and tonight she wants to be a glacier, deep and impenetrable. “No. I'm not okay. How could I be?” She wants to say she's better, she's colder, she's a sea. Instead she only follows the ghost of his gaze to the place where the mountains bleed dark and terrifying into the night sky.

Something blooms inside her to look into that darkness. It feels like a battlefield between then, black and steep and full of old graves.

“You should go.” The door turns back to black silk and pearl beads and her gaze never leaves the abyss of the night sky.


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He should have expected her short, sharp answers, maybe even shouldn’t be surprised by the smile she wields with all the expertise of a blade. Yet Acton couldn’t figure it, couldn’t square it away with the Isra he knew - the storyteller, the healer, the queen. Clear in his mind was her with the lightning crackling overhead, with a goddess at her back, with a flock of monsters held rapt by her words.

Maybe that was why it stung so badly, why he felt as though he were the one waylaid in a dark alley. No need for her to wish her words were blades; he felt them like a punch to the gut anyhow. He still has not asked how she got away - the magic she performed now, satin to steel and a flower to a blade, suggested enough. He felt sick, and proud, and more sick; he didn’t know what to do, what to say. Acton was not made for fixing things.

But he knew a dismissal when he heard one.

He looked at her once more in silence, the way the moonlight loved the blade of her horn, the hard plane of her cheek. Darkness pooled in her sea-colored eye and darkness crept between them, hand in hand with silence.

The buckskin wanted to tell her he understood - but it would be a lie.

His violence was a different beast altogether - a riot, a wildfire, an eruption. It was a molotov cocktail, a struck match tossed into a barrel of gunpowder. It was quick and hot and chaotic and then it was over. Acton did not understand the fury that moved below the dark of her skin, that made her cold and remote as an old dead star.

It was not a difference he knew how to breach.

And so he did nothing to break the grim silence between them, or try to quiet the frigid waves of her wrath. Like a reprimanded dog he looked toward the door as it melted to ribbons and magic, and his ears were back but he walked toward it anyway. Acton only stopped once, his heart a tightening fist, that undirected anger like a bed of nails he kept sinking further into.

“You will be okay, though,” he said softly, standing at the door, looking over his shoulder at her with his wild hair dark as the silk behind him. He didn’t say it like a lie - he said it like a promise. And then he turned away, and though his steps were measured he still knew he was fleeing like a chastised street urchin, like the boy he had been - but he couldn’t bear to watch her another moment. Not with that cruel counterfeit smile, not with the necklace of red she wore, not with the way she wouldn’t look at him at all.

Acton could hardly draw a breath until he was spilling out into the night again, stars overhead and bonfires below, and then he swore every filthy curse he knew in a stream into the air. Even Reichenbach would have blushed to hear it.

Then he turned toward the edge of town, and the mountains beyond, and a cave he knew was haunted by a certain Ghost.


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