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Kingdom of Ever After by J.A. Armitage

 

Kingdom of Ever After
What happened after the happily ever after? You all know the story of your favorite fairytale, but did you ever wonder what happened after the fairytale ending? Well we know. Not all afters end up happily, sometimes the real adventure starts much later... The final chapter in the Kingdom of Fairytales saga. Who will survive Derillen and have their own happily ever after?

 

Kingdom of Ever After by J.A. Armitage Book Chapter One

 

23rd December
Azia

Fear rippled through me as we walked along the glowing tunnel. Beneath our feet, long-forgotten tracks ran the length of the tunnel, dark and dirty. The tunnel gave up a musty smell of neglect and misuse with an overwhelming odor of urine, although had it been used for the reason it was built, it wouldn’t have smelled any better. The walls, though dark, were free of soot, telling me that the Urbis Subway project had been given up long before the tunnels had been used for their purpose. Every so often, beyond the green glow, I spotted graffiti, probably made by the same people that had given the tunnel the urine smell. People had been down here. I wondered where they were and what had happened to them. The only sound came from the crunch of dirt under our feet, making the whole thing even more ominous. Fear swam through my veins, and I had my sword ready for attack, but it was an attack that never came. We walked hours along the tracks, most of it in silence, each of us caught up in our own thoughts.

My stomach growled, reminding me that I’d not eaten all day, but we had nothing left to eat. We had nothing left at all but each other.

“I’m hungry, Boss,” Lyric finally said, breaking the silence after long hours of walking.

“What do you want me to do?” I snapped, coming to a standstill. “Cook you up an omelet? Take you out to a fancy restaurant? If you haven’t noticed, we are currently in a tunnel. Not a lot of fine dining choices.”

“I only meant...” she was cut off by Deon, who came between us.

“I was going to tell everyone tonight, but I have a few bits of food leftover from the hotel. Nothing fancy. Just some cookies and a few apples. I held them back when we had our picnic by the sea. I figured that we might need something later.”

He held an apple out for Lyric, who took it gratefully.

“Maybe we should stop here for the night?” Deon suggested. “We’ve been walking for hours, and I don’t think anything is going to happen. Derillen obviously wants us to come to her, and she knows we are here. She’ll wait as long as it takes.”

Before I had a chance to reply, everyone sat down along the sides of the tunnel. Deon handed each person a cookie or an apple.

Anger and guilt swam together in a maelstrom of emotion in my gut. Lyric had only voiced what everyone else had been thinking. I carried on walking up the tunnel. A few minutes later, Deon arrived at my side, panting as he tried to keep up with my brisk stride.

“That wasn’t very nice,” he said, running alongside me.

I shrugged, not slowing my pace. “I know. I don’t feel particularly nice right now. Everyone wants me to make the decisions, but when I do, they complain or argue that I’ve made the wrong one. Then they just do what they want anyway.”

“Who is doing that?”

“Everyone,” I huffed, coming to a standstill.

Deon looked at me. I could see confusion in his eyes.

“Back there,” I added for clarity, pointing back down the track to where the others sat eating.

“Nothing happened back there beyond you shouting at Lyric for no apparent reason.”

I sucked in a breath then wished I hadn’t. The urine smell we’d long since left behind. No one traveled this far along the unused tracks, but, despite the vents in the top of the tunnel every so often, the air was thin and gritty down here. I swallowed it back. “Lyric is always asking me what to do. I want to keep moving. There’s no reason to stop, and yet everyone just sat down when you told them they should. Everyone listens to you.”

Deon clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Azia, I love you. You know that, but sometimes you can be so bloody ridiculous. For starters, I only suggested we stay there for the night, not commanded it. Secondly, you never suggested otherwise. I didn’t know you wanted to carry on until five seconds ago when you told me. You can’t expect us all to be mind-readers. What is this all about?”

I felt tears pricking the corners of my eyes, but I refused to let them fall. “I can’t do this, Deon. Everyone is looking up to me, and I don’t know why. I couldn’t keep Halia or Jakon alive. I can’t bear it. What if any of the others die? That will be my fault too. Part of me wants to sit in this tunnel forever so I don’t have to face what I know is coming, and part of me wants to keep going just so we can get it all over and done with and be dammed if we all die in the process.” There, the truth was out—my reasons for being so whiny and petulant. Every time I closed my eyes, I pictured my brothers and sisters dying in more and more horrific ways, and the worst part about it was that some of them probably would die and maybe in worse ways than my mind could imagine.

Deon pulled me to him, and I felt myself quivering in his arms. So much for not letting the tears fall.

He smoothed my hair with his hand while I used his jacket as a snot rag.

“No one blames you for Halia and Jakon, just as they won’t blame you if anything happens to the rest of us. We are in this fight together, just as we have always been. It’s not just your fight that you pulled us into. We all have reasons to be here.”

I could have stayed in his arms all day. Deon, always the one to pull me from the brink. To give me wise words, not always to comfort me, but to slap me back to reality too.

“I don’t think I’d have gotten this far if it wasn’t for you,” I mumbled.

“And none of us would be here without you. Take me, for example. Had you not come into my life, I’d have spent the last few months enjoying my honeymoon with my beautiful bride and then learning how to be a prince. Probably a dead prince, thanks to the plague ravaging through Floris, but a prince, nonetheless. ”

I slapped his shoulder playfully and snorted, sending more snot in his direction.

“I’m a selfish asshole, I know. I should go back and apologize to Lyric.”

“You really should,” he agreed. “Here, eat this first and decide what it is you want. You want to stay here for the night or keep moving? It’s hard to tell with the lack of light, but I think it’s only early evening. We could probably walk a while longer.” He handed me a chocolate chip cookie, which I took gratefully.

I looked up at the never-ending tunnel where the green faded into darkness. It would take us weeks of walking to get anywhere close to Inner Urbis. What were a few more hours?

“We’ll camp out for tonight and set off early in the morning.”

Deon nodded in the big brotherly way he always did, despite being younger than me. “Come on.” He took my hand, and I let him lead me back to the others. He nodded to Lyric, then sat at the opposite side of the tunnel.

“Hey, Lyric.”

She looked up at me, her eyes full of sadness. She looked so young, but so weary.

“I’m sorry, Lyric. I shouldn’t have snapped at you back there. I’m an ass.” It wasn’t nearly enough of an apology, but it was all I had.

She gave me a watered-down smile. “You know, when I first joined you guys, you all reminded me of the lost boys back home. A family that had kind of come together from other places. Not you. You reminded me of a mother. I never had a mother. I guess I let you fill that void, and maybe I shouldn’t. You never asked for it.”

My heart swelled ten sizes, but the guilt increased too.

“All the more reason I should be better, huh? May I sit beside you?”

“You’re doing better than you think you are. I’d really like you to sit next to me.”

I took a seat beside her and draped my arm over her shoulder. She snuggled into me and closed her eyes. From the other side, Nyre narrowed her eyes slightly, but when Fallon turned to chat with her, she soon forgot I existed. I’d known for a while now that she had a crush on him, though she’d never told me. The flush in her cheeks every time he looked her way was a giveaway in itself. She knew as well as I did that he had a girlfriend, but in that moment, as she rested her head on his shoulder, echoing how Lyric was sitting with me, it didn’t seem to matter.

I had a feeling Fallon saw Nyre as a rather annoying younger sister, and there was no way he was going to give Veda up for anyone, but he let her rest against him all the same. In that moment, between the light and the dark, not knowing what tomorrow would bring, or even if we’d survive it, we all needed the comfort each other brought.

I felt my eyes drooping as I rested my head on Lyric’s. Soft, slow breaths told me she was already asleep. It might have been only early evening, but dragon-fire, I was exhausted. The walking and lack of food had me tired to my bones. I let myself drift off into a cold, uneasy sleep.

I woke sometime later to complete chaos. Derillen’s green magic that had illuminated our path was now flickering like a candle in the wind, casting ominous shadows before plunging us into darkness, then flickering back on again.

Howls and screams echoed down the tunnel as I pulled my sword, steadying myself to fight. Confusing images flashed in the light. My brothers and sisters, Nyre. Something was attacking us, but I couldn’t get a grip on what. There was too much movement, not enough light. The hairs on my arms stood on end as I frantically tried to make sense of what I was seeing. In the chaos, all I could see were shapes and snatches of faces, of arms. And above it all, a low growling. Then came the sound of flesh being ripped as the thing, whatever it was, tore into someone. Who, I didn’t know, but the scream that came from their mouth would haunt me forever.

My instinct was to lash out, to thrust my sword at anyone near me, but in doing so, I would no doubt hurt someone I loved. I stood, rocking on my heels, my heart hammering in my chest as the screaming continued. Someone, I think Fallon, shouted out Blaise’s name, but she didn’t answer, which led me to believe she was the one screaming. The terrible noise gave way to guttural moans and then petered out completely until there was nothing but silence. And still, I couldn’t tell what was happening.

“Everyone stay still,” I shouted as the growling continued. “I need to see what happened. Is everyone alright? Blaise?”

“I think something got her,” Fallon shouted out through the darkness. The green light flashed again, and I made out two figures on the floor. One laid out flat, the other hunched over.

“Fallon?” I asked, heading toward them.

He turned, his face contorted with grief. The green light flashed again, giving me enough time to see Blaise on the floor, blood everywhere.

“She’s dead,” he whispered. I barely heard him over the ominous growl.

“Watch out!” someone called out. I turned to the source of the voice, but in the darkness, I wasn’t prepared for the thing crashing into me. We both fell to the ground with it on top of me. I say ‘it’ because fur covered most of its body. It growled as we tumbled over the rocky floor until we came to a stop next to one of the tracks. It was then, I realized that I’d dropped my sword as I fell. Whatever this thing was, it was stronger than me. I pushed against it, trying to keep its teeth from my neck. I didn’t want to end up like Blaise. It growled again, and I realised that it wasn’t the source of the low growls I’d been hearing. That meant there were two of them. Or more.

I kicked upwards at the creature. It yelped as my foot connected with its body, and I was able to roll myself away from under it. I scrambled to my feet and to the wall, feeling my way along it. Somewhere another scream rang out. Another growl. Another growl that wasn’t the low growl that hummed through my brain. It seemed that guessing there were two of them was wishful thinking.

The light flashed again, and I saw the creature briefly. Its head was facing away, but it had hair more human than creature. Long red hair that fell down its back. However, its body was covered in thick red fur with remnants of clothing ripped off of it. It also had a pair of wings, and though I hadn’t seen them, I was willing to bet it had a wicked set of fangs. It was facing away from me. I tiptoed slowly away from the creature with the hope of finding my sword before it spotted me, but luck was not on my side. I tripped over a loose rock, falling backward. The noise alerted the creature to where I was, and it was on me before I had the chance to right myself. I’d gotten it right about its teeth. I didn’t need to see them, to feel the prick of two fangs piercing the skin through my clothes on my shoulder. It bit down, sending a searing pain that rippled out through my body, even through the thick coat I wore. It pulled back and snapped its jaws at me again. This time it went for my neck where there was no coat to save me. It growled, sending spittle down my neck. All around me, I heard growls and screeches and screams straight from my worst nightmares. I wasn’t the only one fighting these monsters. I kicked up again, but the thing was already at my neck, waiting to snap its jaws. With every ounce of strength I had, I pushed upwards, moving the thing’s face from my neck to right in front of me. Someone shouted out my name, but I could only groan in answer. Everything else was too painful and required too much effort. The light flashed again, and the strength went out of my arms. Shock numbed the pain as I took in the sight in front of me. Although the light lasted only a couple of seconds at most, what I saw was guaranteed to feature in every nightmare I was to ever have again. The creature, the monster, wasn’t a monster at all. It was Lyric. Her beautiful face was contorted with an anger I’d never seen in her, and her teeth were elongated into the fangs I’d felt earlier. Her long hair draped at the side of my face, and below her chin, her body was twice the size it usually was and covered in fur. Her ears had moved upwards on her head and tapered to a fine point. Not that I had much time to process any of it. There was a flash of silver and her face, along with her head, pointed ears and all, sailed completely away from her body, spiraling into the darkness, leaving what was left to collapse in a heap and pin me to the tunnel floor. Blood dripped down over my face. I clenched my jaw shut to stop it from seeping into my mouth. Bile rose to my mouth, so I had to turn my head to the side to vomit.

I pushed up with both my arms and legs until Lyric’s body rolled away. Then, I dragged myself to the side of the tunnel and sat there, my head in my hands. The pain ripping through my shoulder was excruciating, but I’d live. If it wasn’t for my coat, Lyric would have killed me for sure, and if it wasn’t for the person wielding my sword, she’d have ripped my throat out just as she had done Blaise’s.

Shock had me rooted to the spot. I barely noticed when the noise stopped completely, and the lights stopped flickering and came back on.

When they did, I wished they hadn’t. The scene was even worse than anything I’d seen in the moments leading up to it.

Blaise was in a puddle of blood, her neck completely obliterated down to the bone. Next to me, Lyric’s body lay prone, still covered in that ghastly hair.

Ivy sat further down, my sword at her feet, her eyes unblinking, staring out in front of her. She was blood-free, and I could just about make out the rise and fall of her chest, so I knew she was alive. She was in shock, just as I was. Her coat had claw marks, ripped into it. Further down still were another two bodies. One had a huge body covered in fur but with Kelis’s face. Her body was charred beyond recognition, but clumps of fur still clung to it. The one furthest still was a wolf—a giant wolf. I looked around to see if it could have been any of my siblings, changed into a wolf. Castiel was the first that came to mind, but he was standing with his back to the tunnel wall, his head in his hands. Opposite me, Eliana was comforting Nyre, who was in her human form, naked and crying.

The rest of my brothers and sisters were alive, though I couldn’t say any of them were well. Deon dry heaved as Fallon sat next to him, shaking his head. Eliana sobbed softly, as did Ivy. Gaia was the only one moving, doing something productive. I watched as she picked her way over Kelis’s body to the wolf. She kicked it gingerly with her boot, but it didn’t move. It couldn’t move. It had a hole ripped right through its stomach, and half its guts were littering the tracks.

“Do you know this wolf, Castiel?” she asked softly.

Castiel nodded, then shook his head. “I wondered. All this time, I wondered.”

“Wondered what?” Gaia asked, picking her way over to him.

“I don’t know the wolf, but I think I know what happened here. I recognize the signs.” His voice came out between agonized gulps. “This is the curse. Kelis and Lyric were changing. They had become like the feral wolves that turned my people into monsters. Unlike my friends, Kelis and Lyric weren’t wolves, to begin with. Their bodies were partway through changing. That’s why they look so strange.” He glanced over at Kelis’s body, then shook his head away quickly. “The curse made my friends into killing machines. They were hungry all the time, even after eating. They would eat anything—animals, people, their own children.”

I thought back to how harsh I’d been with Lyric when she’d told me she was hungry earlier. She’d never been one to complain before. I should have known something was up. The curse had already begun to get its grip on her.

Castiel continued through husky breaths. “The curse had blighted the wolf shifter population in Aboria for many many moon cycles. It went away when I was born, but as you know, it came back. Everyone just thought it was a plague, a disease, but it wasn’t. It was a curse. Except no one ever knew who had cursed us. I’m guessing it was that fellow there.” He nodded toward the dead wolf. “Derillen must have figured out who was behind it and hired him like she hired everyone else.”

Another three dead for Derillen and another one dead for us. We were uneven again, with Derillen in the lead.

It was easy to figure out what had happened if what Castiel said was true. The wolf had come to kill us, to literally tear us apart. Instead of doing the dirty deed himself, he turned both Lyric and Kelis into monsters to do the dirty work for him. Ivy had found my sword and killed the wolf before lopping Lyric’s head off. Judging by the state of Kelis, Nyre or Gaia must have killed her by fire when she went for Fallon.

“We can’t stay here,” I decided, standing up.

“What about the bodies?” Deon asked, nodding toward Blaise, Kelis, and Lyric. “We should bury them.”

We should. Leaving them to rot would be despicable, but what if another horror was on its way to meet us? We needed to move. I needed to move, to get away from the harsh scent of charred flesh.

“We’ll come back and bury them when this is all over, but for now, we need to keep on our toes.”

No one argued as I picked up my blood-stained sword from Ivy’s feet and helped her up. She walked by my side, her hand in mine, away from the carnage with everyone else following behind silently.
 

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