We arrived at the Veil of Tears a week after the brutal battle. Climbing the mountains had been deadly, only pure desperation could make a person risk the journey. And we were out of options. I would never forget the sight of the arrow piercing my husband’s chest with enough force to throw him off his horse. We had barely escaped the battle alive. Our kingdom lay in shambles, awaiting the death of their beloved King and the approaching slaughter from the Eastern Men.
The Veil lay at the top of the Ancient Mountains. A frozen pool, covered in a thick layer of dark ice. A stone staircase started at the shore and descended into the black depths. The air around the pool was charged, its otherworldly feel pulsing against my skin.
I looked up at Torsten, the King’s Guardian and my beloved friend. His face was haggard from our journey up the mountains. His eyes were full of grief and fear. The death of the King was near. We might already be too late to save him. As the King’s right hand, Torsten was taking it hard. But as the King’s wife, I was taking it harder.
“This isn’t worth it, the risk of both of your lives.” His voice was gruff with worry. “Let me try ---”
I lifted a hand, cutting him off. “Only the royal family can enter, and I’m the last. I will go, and I will return.” I dug deep in myself, pulling out the face I saved only for battle. I let that anger and determination show as I held Torsten’s stare. “We need the King. Only he can rally our people in this war.”
“This will be your tomb.” A note of desperation filled his voice. My heart panged at the sound.
Gently, I reached up and placed my palm on his cheek, brushing a gloved thumb across the roughness of his beard. He placed his hand over mine, bowing his head. There was nothing he could say that would change my mind. He knew that, but he wouldn’t be Torsten if he didn’t try.
“You are good. Always remember that, friend.” My voice dipped down. A softness I rarely showed.
With that, I stepped onto the first step. The ice shifted as my foot brushed against it, rolling away to reveal the rest of the dark staircase. Beneath its surface was...nothing. A shiver ran down my spine at the unnaturalness of it. I had known the Veil was enchanted, but the lack of water was still unnerving. But I had faced magic before. I would swallow my fear for my people. I spared one more glance to my friend. He stood at the water’s edge, gripping the hilt of his sword.
“I’ll see you soon,” I whispered, then turned and strode down the staircase. The ice shifted back into place over my head, locking me in.
The sun’s light reflected through the ice, casting a glow throughout a stone chamber. The magic was suffocating, thrumming like the beat of a drum. The steps continued down to a stone dais, surrounded by three massive pillars. An altar sat in the center, holding a massive silver bowl.
I drew my sword and made my way down the steps, eyeing each shadow for signs of trouble. There wasn’t a single breath of life in this tomb. I paused at the base of the dais and marveled at the three pillars. Each was intricately carved, ancient and beautiful. The first depicted a winged woman flying over the mountains. A beautiful crown adorned her head. She looked peaceful and free. The second showed a terrible battle between human armies and a host of winged creatures, led by the beautiful queen. An anger and violence that was too familiar. The third depicted the aftermath. The queen knelt among the broken bodies of her people, weeping. One of her wings was gone, the other hanging limp and broken. She gazed at the sky, her hands poised. Praying and bargaining.
A slight shudder passed through my body, and I worked to swallow around the thick thrum of magic. This was a sacred place. The Veil of Tears, the forgotten home of ancient magic, said to heal any ailment or injury. My last hope in saving my husband and kingdom.
I placed a foot on the first step up to the altar, and the magic in the air cracked. It threw me down to my knees as a strong wind swept through the chamber. My hair snapped loose of its braid, whipping around my face. I clutched my sword in hand and squinted against the wind, scanning for whatever danger I’d awoken.
Just as soon as it had started, the wind stopped. A figure stood on the dais, positioned in front of the altar. She was beautiful, glowing like moonlight. She wore an elegant gown draped over her narrow frame, a silver tiara on her brow. Her eyes glowed blue as she stared down at me. I had heard stories of the Veil Guardian. A woman who had been so brutalized and broken, she had faded into a Wisp.
“Who comes to the Veil of Tears?” Her voice was ethereal. Ancient and cold.
I knelt slowly and held my hands out, palms to the icy dome above. “Erica Gylanthius. Queen of Lyria. I seek the healing powers of the Veil.”
The Wisp’s eye flared, her face contorting in distaste. “You king and queens, always in pursuit of what doesn’t belong to you.” I stifled my fear as she drifted closer, moving like a ghost.
“The Veil asks a heavy price. What is worth yielding up your humanity?”
I bowed my head in reverence, the picture of respect. “I will pay any price. The King has been gravely injured in the war with the East. Without him, my kingdom will fall, my people will be slaughtered.”
The Wisp stood over me, eyes narrowed. A deep pain flitted across her face. But then it vanished, replaced by a cruel sneer. “My own people were massacred many years ago. By a King who envied our powers. Who felt entitled to them. Kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall. It is the way of the world, and your meddling will only awaken horrors you can not comprehend.”
“Are you saying you won’t help my people?” Anger coursed through me. I swallowed my temper. Who knew what terrible powers this creature possessed.
“I’m saying you won’t weather the asking price of the Veil. You will poison your Kingdom with this request.”
I stared at the Wisp. My people were a week’s journey away, starving and broken. Our war had stretched on for years, spreading our armies thin. So many men and women had been slain. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen someone wearing colors. We all bore the color of mourning. We all shouldered the massacre of our people. The death of our King would be the final breaking point.
I rose to my feet. “There’s no price too steep for the sake of my people.”
The Wisp looked me over, an eyebrow arched. Her lips curved into a coy smile, and she turned towards the altar. “Then by all means, approach the Altar.”
I took the last step onto the dais and walked to the Altar. The people carved into the pillars seemed to watch, their faces split in agony. A headache built with each step, throbbing in warning at the magic in the air. But I kept walking until I stood before the giant silver bowl. Crystal clear water reached the brim, the bottom luminescent with blues and greens. Moonstone, precious to our people. An elaborately carved dagger sat on the edge, glinting softly in the light.
The Wisp glided to the side of the altar. “The asking price. You will sacrifice the most essential part of your life. You will turn over your happiest memories, the thing that keeps you going on the darkest nights. You will take that knife and pour it out of your heart.” She gestured, sweeping her hand over the bowl and placing her fingertips to her chest.
Anger flashed through me. “That isn’t fair. My kingdom is the most important thing to me, along with the King. I would have to sacrifice the thing I’m trying to save.”
The Wisp looked at me, contemplative. Something glimmered in her eye as she smiled. “There is something more. There is someone in your heart, someone essential to your soul. A truth you haven’t had the courage to face.”
I stared at her. A man’s face rose in my mind, eyes the color of the sky. I shoved the thought away. Any moment my King would die and my kingdom would fall. I didn’t have time to think about this, to put myself before my people’s survival.
I grabbed the dagger and leaned over the bowl. I spared a glance for the Wisp, who watched me carefully, a conflicted look on her face. And then I pressed the knife into my chest.
The cold metal bit into my skin, and the air zapped with magic. My soul lifted from my body, pulling towards the ice domed ceiling. I didn’t belong to my body anymore, didn’t have any control. I watched the knife press into my flesh. I felt the burning pain as blood flowed from my body, dripping into the water. Turning it a brutal red. My soul writhed as magic cracked through the air, plunging into my open chest. I felt the rip as something essential tore from my soul, leaving a gaping wound behind.
Then I was thrown back into my body. The knife clattered to the stones and my knees buckled. I flung my hands out, gripping the edge of the bowl to stay upright. The Wisp swept for me and grabbed my shoulders, throwing me forward against the bowl. Her hand gripped my chest, closing over my weeping wound. Light flared, and I couldn’t stop the scream that ripped from my lungs. The light flared brighter, searing my skin. I fought against her grip, but her strength was unrelenting.
Suddenly we were airborne. She gripped my arms as we flew through the cavern, up the stone steps. We shattered through the icy ceiling, and I gasped at the open sky.
Then I was free falling. I caught a glimpse of a figure standing on the shore before I hit the ground, cracking against the hard snow.
A figure appeared over me and scooped me into their arms. He gripped me against his chest.
I stared up at the man holding me. He was clothed in furs, his face bearded and average. His eyes were a striking blue, and they stared at me with such concern...and something else. Something tender.
I pulled away from the man and lurched to my feet, gripping at my chest. The wound that had been so crudely carved was closed. A lumpy scar remained. My fingers hooked on a chain around my neck. It hadn’t been there before. I yanked it over my head and held it up. A small vial dangled. Filled to the brim with water. A single stream of red swirled through it, dancing and waving mockingly. My blood.
“You got it.”
I turned to the man. His eyes darted from the vial to my face, then fell on the scar over my heart. “What did you do?”
I gripped the vial in a fist. “I did what needed to be done. Now take me home, soldier.”
Something flashed across his eyes. Hurt and fear. “Erica. Do you know me?”
I watched him, irritation flashing through me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I strode to my horse and mounted, “Come, we need to deliver the healing to the King before it’s too late.” And with that, I turned my horse down the trail.