“How wonderful to finally meet you, Lydia.”
Aon looked like a nightmare come to life. His suit made him look all at once as though he didn’t belong against the twisted and warped woods, and yet like there was nowhere he should rather be.
Lydia tried not to cry. Tried not to scream or turn and run the other direction. She wanted to do all those things. Her bleeding knee felt like it was on fire, and the rest of her wasn’t in much better condition. Running would be pointless.
Aon stood before her, twenty feet away, the moonlight reflecting off his featureless black metal mask. He had not moved and seemed content to let her decide what she wanted to do.
Lydia could try to turn and run. She could cry or scream. She could fall to her knees and beg. None of them felt right, so everything locked up. There was nothing she could do to stop whatever Aon wanted to do to her. She had nothing. No hope, no power, no knowledge she could bargain with. There was one thing she could cling to in desperation.
Defiance was all she had left.
So Lydia raised her head, straightened her shoulders, and did her best to look brave. Not because she felt brave, but because there wasn’t anything else left to do.
Aon chuckled, a sound that carried easily in the silence of the forest. He began to walk toward her, and although she wavered, she didn’t back away. He closed the distance in slow, long, easy strides, seemingly in no hurry. One of his hands moved to tuck across his lower back, adding to his dramatism as he approached. He was giving her the chance to balk and run from him. He was seeing her bet and raising it, pointedly challenging her resolve.
Good god, he was terrifying. Far more so now that he was real and not a ghost in Lydia’s dreams. Lydia knew her imagination was probably falling short of what that man was likely about to do to her.
When Aon finally got within arm’s reach, he extended his gauntleted hand to touch her face, the sharp claws glinting in the moonlight. Lydia flinched away from his touch, but by some miracle, she managed to stand her ground. Aon let out a small hmm in his throat. He curled his fingers in toward his palm and brushed the backs of the metal fingers down her cheek.
In the absence of adrenaline, she was shaking in the cold truth of her failure and the chill night air. The touch of metal on her cheek didn’t help matters. Aon was pushing her, calling her bluff once more.
Lydia ran through her options again. Sink to her knees and cry. Turn and run. Plead for mercy. Bargain with him for her freedom. Try to fight him. Faint was now solidly high up on that list.
Each one, Lydia scratched off in order again. Not her style, wouldn’t make it ten feet, pointless, pointless, hilariously pointless, and maybe, in that order. With no other option but accepting her fate, she resigned herself to whatever Aon was going to do and let him run his metal-clad fingers down her cheek without any further fuss from her.
“Tell me, what was it I have just witnessed play out upon these lovely features of yours?” Aon said, his voice low and soft but no less dangerous than before. When Lydia sought him with a questioning, confused glance, he tilted his head back. When he spoke again, his voice was a rumble that made her stomach twist. “Indulge me…”
Lydia stammered twice before getting a word out edgewise, but Aon seemed content to wait. She stopped, took a breath, and tried again. “Crying won’t help. Begging won’t work. I can’t run, and struggling will do more harm than good. I…I’ve lost. The only thing left to do is die with pride,” she admitted, and only fear kept her from just shutting her eyes and accepting her fate.
“Mmh, beautiful.” Aon stepped in closer, and Lydia went rigid. The talons of his gauntleted hand stroked through her hair slowly, brushing her blonde waves away from her face and tucking the strands behind her ear. She pulled in a breath and held it. Even if he wasn’t hurting her now, she had already seen firsthand how abrupt his moods could be. “Then you are no fool, my clever child, to see the truth so easily. Good. That will make this far more interesting.”
“If you’re going to kill me, please do it already,” Lydia said quietly, her voice shaking. That was all she could ask of him. Just please, don’t let it linger.
Metal fingers curled under her chin and broke her gaze from where she had fixated on his black-on-black striped tie. “Oh, my dear. Kill you? Why ever would I do that?” He sounded legitimately surprised.
Was he kidding? “I mean, last time…you…”
“Ah. Yes.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his masked face turning away for a moment as if in thought. “I think perhaps I have given you the wrong impression. What I did was merely to teach you a lesson. Hopefully, I will not have cause to demonstrate another.”
Aon turned his face back toward her as he pressed the point of the thumb of his clawed hand against the line of her lower lip. He stepped in closer, just a few inches away. “No, beautiful darling, you are the first unusual thing to happen in this forsaken world in a long, long time. I have no desire to kill you. Far from it.”
Lydia’s world suddenly felt unsteady. The ground tipped and swerved. Her hands grasped Aon’s arms in a desperate attempt to hold herself upright. He let out a curious hmm at her movement, and then realizing she was about to fall, wrapped his arm around her waist, pressing her to him. “Well, now, all you had to do was ask,” he teased.
“I…uh. I don’t feel so good.” Lydia’s world was spinning. She must have hit her head when she fell from the horse, and her fear and adrenaline had only lasted so long. Fainting was now solidly at the top of her options.
“My poor little thing,” he murmured. “It is quite all right. You are injured. Do not fight it. I will take care of you.”
“Edu’s going to kill me,” she mumbled, barely able to get the words out. Her head was reeling, and she felt the soft fabric of his suit against her as he pulled her closer.
“Oh?” The smell of books was there again, like an old library.
“To keep me away,” the world spun dangerously, “from you, Edu…” Lydia couldn’t hold on to consciousness anymore. Her grip on it was slipping, just as her hands were falling from clinging onto his coat to stay standing.
His metal-clad face was close to her ear, and she heard his words—quiet, dangerous, and a threat even as it was meant to be comforting. “He will not harm you. With me, you will be safe. I promise.”
Edu’s drake landed with a hard thud on the dirt road. The bolt of lightning had been not a terribly subtle way to announce where he might find the girl. He arrived in time to watch her head roll to the side as she collapsed against a figure in black that he knew quite well.
Aon leaned down and scooped up her legs with one arm and held her behind the shoulders in the other, carrying her like he might a bride. The thought that the man would seek to instantly claim such possession of his prisoner was beyond infuriating. Instantly, Edu wished nothing more than to pound Aon’s face into the packed ground.
“Ah. Hello, Edu. I was wondering when you might arrive,” Aon said idly, as if what had transpired was no matter at all. “Wonderful evening, don’t you think?” He was clearly goading Edu, taunting him by belittling what was happening.
Edu dismounted his drake and stormed toward the other man, his fists clenched.
“Oh, pull the reins, you great buffoon. You are king no longer. I see you have forgotten!” Aon’s voice raised from casual and idle annoyance to sharp anger with no warning.
Edu shook his head, pointed at the girl, then crooked his finger back at himself.
“Give her to you? Are you mad? You would murder this poor thing to spite me, no less. When have you become so callous? The years have been cold to you. Weren’t you always the sympathetic, forgiving one? To cradle a butterfly in your hands, for fear it might die without your care? She must terrify you greatly to end her life without due cause.” Aon shook his head and tsked. “For shame.”
Edu growled angrily, but the warlock paid him no heed.
Aon cast a glance down at the girl whose head was tucked into his chest, resting against the black fabric of his suit. Blonde hair trailed around her face in stark contrast to the tones of the man’s clothing. “I must see to it that Lydia is attended. She is injured, and as she has been cast away from the ancients,” Aon said, obviously enjoying digging the seriousness of her rejection from the pool into Edu like a knife to the ribs, “she is fragile.”
With that, the warlock disappeared. Merely blinked out of existence as if he had never been there at all. He took Lydia with him without even a swirl of power or a crack of thunder left in his wake.
Edu let out a wordless howl of anger and slammed his fist deep into a tree next to him in his impotent rage, splintering the bark. In the hollow emptiness left behind by his temper, he lowered his head and admitted his folly to himself in the silence of the woods. He should have killed the girl when he had his chance.
Now, it may be too late for them all.