Copyright 2022 by Cassie Swindon
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be produced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This work is fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, cities, or events are entirely fictional.
Read short stories in this order:
- Scarlett’s Pledge
- Ryker’s Promise
- Ruby’s Vow
My lungs burn, but I’ll never stop running until I find Scarlett and bring her home. The hunter’s tire tracks disappear into sloshes of endless puddles. Heart pounding, veins pumping, I pant even harder. My muscles need the refreshing raindrops dripping down from the branches that add to my already soaked hair. Where is my sister? Time ticks on too fast. Once the sun fully rises we’ll be so much more visible to any threats lurking in Astoria’s forest.
“Scarlett!” Ruby yells in the distance.
The panic of my other sister’s voice startles me. Usually her voice is soft and low, singing one of her own songs in front of the piano; but now her voice scrapes against my spine with each frantic yell. Neither of us is thinking clearly anymore. Too much time has passed to be cautious. Despite my wishes, the sky shifts from cherry to rose as the sun gradually takes her throne atop Astoria’s highest summit.
“Scarlett!” My throat scratches from overuse.
My bare feet sink into the cold, squishy mud with each desperate step forward. Have we already checked this area? I circle around and scan the trees. For some reason, they all look the same now. Each pine, maple, oak, and hickory laughs at my useless attempts to rescue my eldest sister.
Behind a row of trees, Ruby mumbles nonsense to herself.
“Super brilliant idea to go on a forest hunt without me …” Unfamiliar sarcasm lines her mouth like lipstick. “She always has to have her head in some fairy tale … but searching for treasure? Seriously? That Crimson will never learn. She’ll always be selfish.”
I cover my mouth with one hand and back away. My world turns upside down on its axis. Is that truly what Ruby thinks of me? Does Scarlett agree? Have they always thought this? Heaviness clamps down on my chest. Just when I thought the absolute worst has happened, more layers are piled on. Once we find Scarlett, nothing will be the same between the three of us. Last night, something shifted.
Tura screeches above and snaps me out of my mental spiral. I squint into the bright sky in search of my falcon. She soars, then dives to the right.
“Ruby! Follow me!” I shout, “This way!”
“Crims? Where are you?”
“This way.” I keep making sounds so she can follow my voice. “Over here!”
I follow my falcon’s calls. She lands and squawks again. When wet, blonde hair contrasts against the forest emeralds, I suck in a breath and rush to Scarlett’s side.
“She’s here!” I scream to Ruby, close by. “Over here!”
Scarlett wears an oversized black hoodie that hangs like a dress on her thin frame. She teeters, then leans against a tree trunk. Black eyeliner smears into her gold eyeshadow which forms abstract art created from nightmares.
“Are you okay?” I gasp and hold her up. “What did he do to you?”
She swallows and slowly eases down the trunk to sit in a pile of mud. Ugly scratches decorate her wrists and the skin around her mouth looks dry and red. If he’s not dead, I’ll kill him. Fury engulfs my entire being and every fuckin’ one of my muscles tense.
Ruby finally joins us and drops to her knees too. Her hands hover over Scarlett’s injuries and her eyes bulge wide. Neither of us have ever had to take control in an emergency like this. Scarlett has always been in charge, even when we argued against her in our youth.
As the next in line, Ruby’s jaw sets firm as she says, “Okay, you’re okay. We’ve got you.”
Scarlett’s eyes close and she rests her head against the trunk gently. How long had she been running for? How did she escape?
Ruby scans our sister’s bare legs and exchanges a terrified glance with me. We gesture wildly in silence, asking unspoken questions of what to do next. Ruby slowly moves the giant hoodie up and breathes a sigh of relief that Scarlett’s still wearing her panties.
“Scarlett, babe, you can’t fall sleep here.” Ruby bites her lip. “Let’s get you home.”
She nods, but doesn’t make any effort to move.
“Tura,” I stroke her feathers. “Can you keep an eye out above for any threats? Let me know.”
Her fierce eyes blink once then she flies to a higher branch on patrol. Scarlett needs a few minutes to process. At least Tura will give us a warning and for a head start in case we need to run again. I pat my pockets for water or a snack for my sister, already knowing they’re empty.
“He was horrifying,” Scarlett mumbles.
Ruby strokes Scarlett’s wrist in mini circles and asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Completely appalling. He wanted to know how to kill a Slynik.”
I hold back a gasp for her sake.
“He was repulsive.” Scarlett clutches her stomach and shudders. “All men look the same, but this one stood out because I’ve never seen eyes so blue that they mirror the swirls of the sea … you know how nauseous I get on the water.”
“Did he have a name?” I ask carefully.
Scarlett finally opens her eyes and black eyes that mirror mine look up. “Of course he did. All mortals have names … I think.”
“What’s his name?” Ruby leans forward. “We can kill his entire kin.”
Scarlett shakes her head. “I don’t remember. I was a bit too busy trying to escape. But he was our age, twenty-five max, and probably just over six feet tall, white skin. Oh, and he had insane tattoos crawling up his back. Half of them were phrases in cursive, but really hard to read, they may have even been in another language. And the other half …” She traced a shape in the air with a finger. “… the other half were intricate symbols repeated again and again.”
“What did they look like?”
“Give me your phone. Mine shattered when he tied me up.”
Rage floods my veins.
Ruby hands her phone over and Scarlett scrawls on the screen with her fingertip for a few seconds. I lean over her shoulder and study the unique shapes swirling and weaving.
Scarlett pauses and her finger hovers over the screen. “I can’t remember the rest and this doesn’t really look right. It’s hard to draw on this thing. But look, it’s sweeping here and curling like this, and then this part goes out.”
Ruby takes the phone and zooms into the screen. “I’ve never seen tattoos like that, have you Crims?”
I shake my head. “No, but at least we never have to see him again.”
“Hopefully.” Scarlett stands on unsteady legs. “We need to leave the forest before he finds us.”
“What?” I freeze. “You let him live?”
Scarlett groans weakly. “Goddess above, Crimson, I thought you didn’t want to drain mortals anymore, now you’ve changed your mind?”
“I meant innocent mortals! This hunter took you, Scarlett. That’s never happened before. What if he had tortured you for weeks? What if we never found you?” I pause, trying to ease my racing heart, then whisper, “What if he had Noire venom with him?”
“He definitely didn’t know about the Noire spiders, since he kept asking me how to kill one of us.”
I wrap my arms around my body and drop my chin. If he’s still alive out there, I’ll kill him for what he did to Scarlett. Her captor will be the last soul I drain, and I’ll enjoy it.
Scarlett turns so we can’t see her face. “But something about this hunter was different.”
Ruby slides her hand into Scarlett’s and I stare at their interlaced fingers. “How?”
“I … I tried to drain him. It didn’t work.”
All I can see is red. Scarlett must be mistaken. Why would her powers not work? A bird chirps above and Tura tenses on my shoulder. Her neck twists to the sound, then a cardinal’s feathers swoop in front of us.
“Hey, it’ll be okay,” Ruby whispered to our leader, the glue who holds us together.
Scarlett slowly turns and tears slide down her porcelain cheeks. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe I’ve lost my powers. When I reached for his forehead, the hunter had no cruxel. It was like he didn’t have a spirit at all. There were no witty comments floating in his aura, no first cuss word, no essays from school covered in red ink, no text messages or emails filled with typos, no arguments from his past bouncing in his mind. The man was empty of words. A shell.”
Ruby drops Scarlett’s hand and slumps onto a rock. “That’s … impossible.”
Yet, I believe Scarlett because I had the same experience when I briefly saw the hunter. Maybe he invented some sort of armor to keep us from sensing his aura.
“That’s not all.” Scarlett’s voice lowered.
I brace myself for worse news, though I can’t even imagine what else she might reveal.
“The way the hunter looked at me and the way he said my name, it was almost like he believed me to be … human. It was unnatural.” She rubs the back of her neck and starts pacing. “I know it sounds crazy, but even though he abducted me, when he said my name, like there was something he knew. It wasn’t right. That man had a chance to capture me again, but he let me go. He told me to run.”
“Are you trying to defend him?” My hands shake and a tickling like spider legs creeping on my forearms makes me shiver. Tura flies down and massages her feathery face against mine, instantly calming me.
“No, I’m just —” Scarlett trips and almost falls, but Ruby steadies her. Our new rock. Our middle sister is the new foundation of our trio until we get through this.
“Come on, we don’t need to talk about this anymore.” Ruby pulls her softly. “Let’s go home. I vow to you, here and now, that we will kill that hunter for what he did to you.”
Scarlett sighs and I sandwich her on the other side. Three sister-hips line up in a row as we walk hand in hand. Autumn leaves flatten under my weight and my bare toes smush into the fresh mud as Tura scouts ahead for any signs of danger.
No breeze tickles my skin. It’s as if the forest is holding it’s breath. Every other minute, I glance over my shoulder, or check ahead, waiting for the hunter to jump out from behind a tree. Ruby’s soft humming hypnotizes me into a daydream. Storybook fairytales write cliffhangers on the flowers to our right and mythical heroines cast spells on the vines winding around the trees. Each branch looks like the shape of a letter, forming words and endless possibilities right in front of us. If only we didn’t have to rush home, the forest could open a whimsical door to another land and welcome me in. My next book could be about …
“Uh, Crimson, hello?” Someone’s fingers snap in front of my face.
The ladybug periods that I see and cloud shaped question marks all vanish in an instant.
“We’re home.” Ruby nods ahead to the towering dark structure.
We step as one unit out of the shade and into the sunlight. Warmth immediately blankets my cheeks and the morning breeze tousles my hair now that we’re out of the forest. From a distance, our obisdian house blends into the cliffside rock of Astoria’s most dangerous overhang. We picked this location because no mortal is foolish enough to climb this terrain.
I inhale the fresh scent of saltwater. Even though my sisters become nauseous from the waves, I love dipping my toes in the water or diving into the depths for pearls—almost as much as visiting the bookshop. Sunken treasure has forever called out to me since I was a child. My favorite finds have always been remnants of storybooks from long ago, maps with exotic lands written in foreign handwriting or love letter exchanges. The words that form each page are the source of my beating heart.
Our large metal door moans in protest as all three of us push with our shoulders. Tura flies in between the crack just before we shut it again. She lands on her perch by the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Jarrigan Sea. The open living space overflows with all our favorite belongings: Ruby’s guitar, Scarlett’s chess board, and my books with bent bindings and dog eared pages.
“I’ll be right back.” Ruby glares at me, a look I’m not used to, then turns away. “Let’s get you into bed, Scarlett.”
Her expression completely catches me off guard. Ruby’s known as the chill sister who goes with the flow, but today it seems as though I’ve finally cracked her. How can I make amends with them? Tura squwaks in response and shakes her head. My falcon is right; I did nothing wrong. Searching for the ancient maps in the forest wasn’t supposed to be a selfish act because I must find the legendary elixir among Slynik’s treasure. It’s the only way to stop feeding on mortal souls. From now on, it’ll be a secret mission and I’ll do it alone. If my sisters can keep thoughts and feelings from me, then I can too.
The neon digital clock on our wall flashes the wrong time. I guess the power went out last night during the storm. It continually blinks, reminding me that time and aging has been inconsequential to me—until now. In our black, sleek kitchen I pour myself a glass of water and chug the whole thing like a crazed animal. Droplets leak out and dribble down my chin. I spot Ruby’s girlfriend’s headphones laying on the counter. Maybe they’re not at Dionne’s place. I tiptoe past their closed door, the black tile cold on my feet. Soft skuttle sounds make me turn around to catch Tura hopping after me.
Despite everything, I can’t help but smile. “Where do you think you’re going?”
She ruffles her feathers, then skips past me into my room. Once I click my door shut, she flies high, her wings accidentally rippling the hundreds of letters I have hung as wallpaper. Tura lands on the twelfth level of my massive bookshelf and curls into her nest of blankets. I ignore my romance novels and stare at the texts holding Astoria’s history, some legendary, some not. There must be information in there about the hunter’s tattoos that I didn’t notice the first five times I devoured its words.
My door opens and Ruby’s black hair enters first. Dark shadows linger below her eyes and she shakes her head at me.
“Is Scarlett doing okay?” I wring my hands together.
“Yeah, I called Eve. She’s on her way now, but Crims … listen, Eve is pissed as fuck at you.”
Ever since my sisters’ relationships have turned more serious, I’ve become the fifth wheel. For a few months, it hasn’t been us three against the world, but Scarlett tucked away in her bedroom with Eve, and Ruby writing songs all night with Dionne. I don’t have any interest in trying to date a Slynik again– just one more detail about me that doesn’t fit. Fay, Gevielle, and Harlow were all sweet enough, but never felt natural when I’d touch them. If I told Ruby that I was interested in males, she’d call that selfish too. A bitter rush runs through my veins and ignites a strange feeling. How could she call me selfish? It’s not like I can ever date a male, they’re all mortal.
“What were you thinking dragging Scarlett to the forest, Crimson Rose?” Ruby studies me intently and says my middle name with emphasis. “It’s dangerous out there.”
I slouch down into an old armchair, probably designed for princesses once upon a time. “Why are you blaming me? Scarlett was out there too.”
“Scarlett was abducted, of course I’m not going to yell at her.”
“No,” I whisper, “if I had been the one taken, there’s no chance you’d be reprimanding Scarlett right now. She’d be lecturing me before I even had the chance to recover and you’d stand in her shadow without sticking up for me.”
Ruby paces the room, between my collection of typewriters and mounds of bookmarks. “Come on, Crims, when can we rely on you to start using your brain?”
“So, now I’m stupid?”
“I love you, Crims.” She slides onto my four-poster bed, knocking over a stack of my notebooks. “You’re creative and curious and love exploring, but it’s time to grow up. You’ve been twenty-two for four years now, start acting like it. It’s not safe to go into the forest without all three of us together, or backups from other tribes.”
“Don’t bring her into this again. Of course she agreed to hunt with you. She’d do anything to keep you happy. Don’t you see that? No, you’re lost in your wonderworld half the time. I bet she said no the first time you asked her to join you out there.”
I bolt up. “That’s not fair.”
Ruby stands too and closes the distance between us. “There’s no map, Crims, it’s a myth. There’s no treasure, there’s no elixir.”
“But—” I almost pull out my phone to show her the image I snapped from the ruins.
“Stop!” Ruby takes both my hands. “You need to stop chattering on about this story before it becomes more of a problem.”
“Why?” I yank my hands free. “Who is it hurting for me to just try to find another solution?”
“Well, we almost lost Scarlett, so there’s that, unless you already conveniently forgot.”
“Stop chastising me.”
“Then act like an adult.” Ruby’s eyes flit to the door. “There’s no other choice.”
I sense the fear in her voice and sit again, exhaustion bearing down hard, and ask, “What do you mean?”
Scarlett twists the ring her girlfriend gifted her last year. “We know what you’re up to. Dionne left to tell the leader of her tribe.”
“What? Why didn’t you stop her?”
“I tried, Crims, but what you’re doing is foolish.” Her black eyes flash in warning. “Maybe Dionne was right to let the other Slyniks know.”
“You’re taking your girlfriend’s side over me?”
Ruby picks at her chipped black nail polish. “Someone needs to knock sense into you. Maybe if we can finally find you a girlfriend too then you’ll calm down.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Tura must sense my distress because she flies down and lands on my shoulder.
“You’re being careless,” Ruby continues, “just like the time when you ran about in that library downtown, or when you contacted a mortal to try and publish your book.”
My heart races. My breaths come faster and faster. She has never been so harsh like this in the past. I assumed my sisters supported my dreams of becoming a novelist, at least they acted like it at the time. Why would they lie? How much of our relationship is fake? Have they only been telling me what I want to hear?
I drop my head. “It was only a freak accident in the forest. I swear I’m not doing anything to harm our kind.”
“You’re exposing us. Don’t you understand? The bookshop owner must suspect you by now.”
“No.” I swallow hard. “He doesn’t know I’m a Slynik. I promise.”
“Well, he’ll find out soon enough. And what about that hunter? He has information on us now. He might lead a whole army to our door. Then what?”
Ruby’s porcelain skin shimmers when the sun streams through the window. She tucks a strand of her black hair behind her ear. All I’ve ever wanted was to be like my sisters, as cunning, beautiful, and responsible as Scarlett and as confident, popular and relaxed as Ruby. Instead, I’ve let them both down. Maybe we’ve all changed.
My only strength is words, so how can I use them to find the answers?
I flip open a book by my side. “We can beat the hunter and learn his weaknesses.”
Ruby palms her head. “We don’t even know his name.”
“We know about his back tattoos. They must mean something. Maybe the answers are in Kinsley’s history books instead of Astoria’s.”
“We don’t have any Kinsley books.”
“The bookshop will.” Without meeting her eye, I march across the room and out my bedroom door. Tura’s claws dig into my shoulder a little.
Ruby stomps after. “No, don’t go, Crims, please.”
“I have to.”
“Then you haven’t listened to a word I’ve said. You don’t care about us.” She jumps in front of me. “You’re being selfish!”
Tears pool behind my eyes but I hold them back. “If you think I’m selfish then maybe you’ve never understood me at all.”
Ruby crosses her arms. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe sisters aren’t meant to live together forever.”
Words stored from cruxel’s I’ve stolen spark to life and whirl in my mind like a tornado. Anger. Stop. Bold. Regret. Cringe. Terror. Mistake. Alone. Finished. I try to grasp at them and toss them aside. Instead, they seem to form a shield against what she’s about to say.
“You’ve done too much damage. Scarlett has been too patient, but now that I’m in charge, I’m doing what she should’ve done months ago.”
Ruby turns her back on me and marches to the front door. Since it takes all three of us to fully open, all she can manage is a tiny crack. Her intention is crystal clear, but I need her to say it. I need to hear the one syllable word that’ll rip my soul to shreds. I hold my breath as her lips slowly form the first consonant.
I stare. Ears ring. Head pounds. Heart stops—probably.
The girl who taught me how to hold a pencil is asking me to go. The sister who created a scavenger hunt with clues for my tenth birthday wants me to leave. My heart is her heart. We’re one, the same.
“Now.” She looks at the beams on the ceiling.
I follow her gaze and see our three initials carved into the wood: SR, RR, CR. Three roses are one too many. How we managed to get up there was always a story she’d tell at Slynik tribal meetings over a round of cranberry vodkas.
“You can cross my initials out. My letters were fading from the grain anyways.” I glide past her like a ghost and step into the sun.
Tomorrow, I can ask Gevielle to collect my belongings and bring them to whatever hole-in-the-ground place I find. Tura soars after me and heads to the lush treetops. Maybe I’ll live in the branches like a bird. Together, Tura and I can fly free and find the elixir ourselves. Alone. Very, very alone.
The door clicks behind me quietly and I use every ounce of strength not to turn around. Left foot moves towards the forest. Right foot wants to pivot. Left foot heads towards the ancient runes where more parts of the map must lie, waiting to be discovered. Right foot targets Scarlett’s window on the side of our fortress. If I plead my case once more, she’ll talk some sense into Ruby.
My heart severs. If I’ve been hurting them, then I can’t go back. Forward is the only way, to the unknown.
Be sure to read the other short stories, in this order: