The Delving

Chapter One

Allison had that look in her eyes again; a look I’d begun to recognize as the precursor to bodily injury. Already, my elbows and tailbone ached from trying—unsuccessfully, I might add—to protect myself from her. There was going to be a big bruise on my shoulder too. I could feel the blood pooling there just beneath the surface of my skin.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said, backing away.

“Do you think I like hurting you?” It was supposed to be a rhetorical question so I didn’t reply, but I was starting to think that the answer was yes.

“They’re making me do it. They’re going to keep making me do it until you give in.”

In this case, they refers to my grandfather Bay Bennett, who I call Pop, and my fiancé Alex; not They of the Dark, the race of subterranean elves who wanted to kill me or control me—without being picky about which—before I took my place as queen of the Light Elvish on my twenty-sixth birthday.

“Just do what they want so I can stop hurting you,” she said.

What Allison wanted me to do, what everyone wanted me to do, was to call the Gift of Light and Air to defend myself. I knew they were right. I had to learn. People kept trying to kill me; being able to stop them with a single thought would go a long way toward keeping me alive. But, as much as I tried, I couldn’t make the magic come when I called. Because I couldn’t call it at will, it would come randomly and at the strangest times. It had opened jars for me, scratched a place on my back that I couldn’t quite reach, and retrieved a pair of slippers from my bedroom closet. Useful, right? I know, so handy. But scary too—especially for a person who’d only recently stopped thinking of herself as a bank teller.

This power that I couldn’t control (and didn’t understand) had saved my life the day the General of the Queen’s 500, Estella, and I fought it out on my front lawn. If not for the Gift of Light and Air, she would have killed me. She’d spent nearly twenty-five years planning to. She was also guilty of kidnapping and torturing my grandfather—not to mention, treason. Maybe she deserved to die for those crimes, maybe not. Either way, I certainly hadn’t intended to kill her. She died because she said that she wouldn’t stop trying until she killed me, and I said that I didn’t want to die. The Gift of Light and Air decided on its own that the best way to protect my life was to end hers.

Strangely, no one seemed to understand why this had left me a little gun-shy.

“I am trying,” I said. “It’s not that easy to do.”

“It would get easier if you practiced more. You can’t count on an adrenaline rush to bring your gifts to you. You have to know how to make them come when you want them, not only when you need them.”

“And if I accidentally kill you while I’m learning to control them? What then?”

She rolled her eyes as if the very idea of such a thing was ridiculous. “If you accidentally kill me, I deserve to die.”

Allison was one of an elite group of warriors who protected the Light Elvish when they couldn’t protect themselves. In the few months since she’d become a regular part of my guard, I’d discovered that she took her work very, very seriously.

“Great,” I said. “That’ll be a huge comfort to me at your funeral.”

As we stood facing each other across the solarium, I couldn’t help remembering the woman she’d been when we met: drab and mousy, with dark circles under muddy-brown eyes. Later, I found out that it was all just a magical problem. Sometimes, the magic it took to keep her charges alive also drained her powers to a dangerous level. Like all guardians, she was supposed to return to the Inbetween a few days each month to recharge; but because Allison hated leaving her vulnerable charges alone in the human world, she almost always went too long between refueling trips.

Once she started hanging out with me, the source of power for the Light Elvish, her gifts were replenished and her appearance changed back overnight. Literally. She went to sleep plain and drab but woke up gorgeous, with golden skin and hair and eyes the color of emeralds or sapphires—and sometimes both at once.

“Here it comes,” she warned. So get ready, you stubborn ass.

You’re wondering how I knew what she was thinking, aren’t you? One of my emerging Elvish powers was the Gift of Sight and Knowing, which basically lets me poke around in people’s heads and read their thoughts. Sometimes, not always; and, back then, almost never when it would have been truly helpful.

Not everyone knew about the mind reading thing yet. Not surprisingly, I was reluctant to tell people that I had the power to hear their deeply hidden thoughts and tiptoe around through their most personal memories. Allison, on the other hand, did know. She just didn’t care if she insulted me. At times like that, when she was trying to provoke a response from me, she’d call me whatever horrible name popped into her head, pushing her thoughts at me so they were impossible to ignore. Stubborn ass actually wasn’t so bad compared to some of the other things she’d come up with.

“Bring it on.” I braced myself for impact as her magic rushed toward me. Not that it mattered. Impact hurts like a bitch whether you’re braced for it or not. I landed a few feet away on the cold tile floor.

“Get up,” she said.

I knew she’d hit me again before I got up if she suspected me of lollygagging. She’d done it before.

“All right. I’m—” Before I could finish the sentence, her power surged toward me a second time, knocking me against the windowed wall that looked out toward the hedge maze.

“Defend yourself,” she barked. She went again. This time when her power hit me, my head banged against the wall.

“Jesus, could you give me a second?”

If the way Allison was shaking her head didn’t show that she was disappointed in me, yet again, than her eyes would have given her away. They were a whirl of frigid-blue and stone-gray. That’s another thing you should know about the Elvish. Whether we’re upset or happy or horny or whatever—when we feel something intensely—the color of our irises shift and swirl, and change like glass beads in a kaleidoscope. Consequently, as a people, we are notoriously bad at poker.

“Do you think Nicholas will give you a second?” she asked.

Nicholas was the right-hand man of Daniel, the Dark King. If he came for me, the last thing he would give me would be a second to prepare for the fight. Head trauma, he’d give me. Broken ribs, he’d be happy to. But if he came and I wasn’t ready, I would die.

“Do you think Nina gave Molly and Becky a minute before she buried them alive?”

Nina had been a friend for most of my life. She was bold and funny; and, it turned out, a dark elf who’d been sent to kill my guards and bring me to King Daniel—like  my own little sleeper cell.

“No,” I whispered. I could picture the faces of my older sisters, hear them laughing. My palms began to itch, then burn. Both were sure signs my magic was gathering.

“No,” Allison bit back. “Of course she didn’t. She saw her chance and she took it.  And your sisters were too slow to stop her, so they died.”

Talking about my sisters was painful. Horrible. It hadn’t even been a year since their murders. With everything that had happened right after, I’d never had the proper chance to grieve for them. Allison knew that. She also knew the quickest way to bring out my gift was to push me to some extreme. That she was willing to push me this hard might make her seem cruel, but she wasn’t. She was desperate, willing to try anything that might work.

“Stop,” I warned. “I know what you’re doing.”

But Allison didn’t stop. “Do you think she gave Rivers a chance to prepare before dragging her into the dirt to die?”

I loved Molly and Becky dearly and I missed them every day, but Rivers’s death had been the hardest to bear. She was my sister, but also my best friend. “No,” I whispered. A heat like wildfire ran up my arms.

Allison kept talking, her voice cold and emotionless, dragging me back to the memories of how my sisters’ lives had ended. “They died screaming and alone and terrified. Choking on dirt and praying for a rescue that never came. You know that better than anyone. You remember what it was like, don’t you?”

Images from the visions I’d experienced as they died came crashing into my head: Molly struggling; Becky desperate to claw her way out; and Rivers crying my name with the last gasp of air in her lungs. I felt their panic. Their fear. I tasted dirt and felt the loose earth that filled their lungs. I felt the darkness closing over them, pressing down on them. The visions were so realistic that after the first one, on the night Molly died, I legitimately thought I was dead.

I didn’t know it yet, but those final moments spent with my sisters were brought to me courtesy of the Gift of Sight and Knowing—my first and least favorite Elvish gift.

The air began to change, getting thicker and harder to breathe, as magic and power swirled around me. It was restless and unstoppable. Any second, even one more word, and I wouldn’t be able to hold it back. “Shut up.”

“You want me to shut up?” Allison mocked. “Make me.”

The Gift of Light and Air spilled from my hands, enveloping us both in its beautiful, deadly glow.

Let it come, Princess, Allison thought. Don’t be afraid.

I wasn’t afraid anymore. The magic took my fear away and replaced it with certainty. I knew what to say. How to say it. Make her stop talking, I told the magic. Make her be quiet, but not dead. My power touched her, overwhelmed her, and she was washed away in a flash of light. When it cleared, she had already collapsed to the ground.

“Allison?”

I knelt by her side, terrified that I’d really hurt her. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was shallow. I touched her cheek and she opened her eyes. She looked up at me, smiled, and then used all of the strength and power in her body to knock me back onto my ass.

“Just because your enemy is down,” she gasped, “doesn’t mean she’s knocked out. That’s a rookie mistake. Don’t make it again.”

“Seriously?” I yelled. “I thought you were dead.”

“Well, I’m not. Get up.”

“When did you start being such a hard-ass?” I asked.

She folded her arms across her chest. “I guess it was right around the time I realized you were such a dumbass.”

“No more, Allison,” gasped my newest guard, Jenny Greenteeth. She didn’t approve of the tone Allison used with me or the way she threw me around the room. “You mustn’t speak to the future queen in such a way.”

Since I grew up completely unaware of my royal Elvish heritage, with my sisters and three cousins who may as well have been my brothers, Allison’s behavior didn’t bother me at all. In fact, being jostled around, joked with, and yelled at felt normal to me. Jenny wasn’t used to the way everyone treated me yet.

“It’s okay, Jenny,” I assured her. “Allison was using some tough love on me. Right, Ally?”

“And it worked, which proves you can call your gift even when you know you’re not in mortal danger.”

“Apparently, extreme irritation will do,” I admitted.

“Even so,” Jenny chided. “That is no way to speak to the Princess.”

I still found it hard to believe that the sweet and soft-spoken Jenny, back before she was reformed (in what I’d come to think of as her wet and wild days), had been a flesh-eating sea monster; but Allison assured me it was true.

When she was a practicing water witch, Jenny used to wait beneath the water; her emerald hair billowing and swaying on the waves, the movement of the tide hiding and revealing and hiding her lovely face and big, topaz-colored eyes. Then, when some poor, unsuspecting sailor got close enough, she would leap from the water and pull her victim down. Using the sharp teeth hidden behind her Kewpie doll lips, she would rip his body to shreds. Everything she didn’t eat was used in spells and enchantments of the darkest kind.

Gross, right? Believe me, I know.

Anyway, about a hundred years ago she got tired of all the violence and blood and uncooked sailor meat; so, she abandoned the coastal inlet she called home for a different kind of life. Unfortunately, the others of her kind were not thrilled to hear the news of their sister’s desertion. By all accounts, Jenny had needed Allison’s protection badly at first, but eventually—presumably after the death threats had dried up some—the two had become friends. It took some convincing, but eventually Allison got my family to agree that the reformed water witch would be an asset to my guard regardless of—or maybe because of—her former ties to dark magic. She had only been with us a short while but she’d quickly earned our admiration. Even Francis, my oldest cousin, trusted her. And believe me, that’s saying something.

“Let me help you, Your Lightness,” Jenny said, offering me her pale green hand.

“Thank you, Jenny.”

“It is my pleasure, Lightness.” She lifted me to my feet and bowed.

“You were going to start calling me Tab, remember?”

Jenny nodded politely even though we both knew she would never call me anything but “Your Lightness” or “Majesty” or maybe even “My Princess” if she was feeling especially casual. It turns out water witches are surprisingly old school when it comes to matters of decorum.

“And you don’t have to bow,” I added.

“As you wish,” she said, bowing slightly before she caught herself. She blushed, the skin across her nose and cheeks turning slightly pink.

“That’s enough for today. But Tab,” Allison said, “I want you to think about how it felt—”

Her sentence died off in what was clearly the middle. I followed her gaze across the snow-covered lawn to the high stone wall that marked the ring of enchantments and wards that protected Witchwood Manor. Sure enough, there was my cousin and advisor, George Waverly, stepping out of the portal that allowed We of the Light to cross between the human world and the Inbetween.

Allison was riveted; her eyes locked on George’s face. She wasn’t drooling, but almost.

“Oh, you’ve got it bad,” I laughed. Though I had to admit, he did look sort of stunning standing there, bathed in a glow of light, with the fading rays of the winter sun chasing the wind around in the red and gold hair.

“Got what?” Jenny asked.

Allison didn’t respond. She kept staring as George buttoned his black cashmere coat and pulled a pair of gloves from his pocket.

She categorically denied it, but anyone with eyes could see she was in love with him. Personally, I thought she was being ridiculous about the whole thing. First of all, it was just George. He was a lot of things, but intimidating wasn’t one of them. Secondly, between the sunshine color of her hair and her perfect body, she was far too beautiful for unrequited love. I hated to see her suffering that way.

“Do you want me to talk to him for you?”

“No!” she snapped before remembering that she didn’t care. “Promise me you won’t say anything to him.”

“You’re being stu—”

“Please don’t,” she begged. “Please.” She looked so desperately serious, I just couldn’t tease her. I made a point not to smile at her adorable overreaction.

“I won’t. Not a word, Ally. Cross my heart.”

She nodded.

“Since you are done training for the day,” Jenny said, “perhaps you will walk with me, Your Lightness? There is something I wish to discuss with you.” She took my hand and was already leading me out of the room before I was entirely aware that she had even touched me. It occurred to me that this was probably part of her magic, an uncanny ability to be mesmerizing and unnoticed at the same time.

“Hey, Tab?” Allison called after us. “Alexander is back too.”

He’d been away for nearly two weeks, dealing with some lingering unpleasantness—those were his words—over Estella’s death. I didn’t need Alex, or anyone else, to tell me that murdering their well-respected and much-loved colleague wasn’t the best way to endear myself to the other generals of my army. Especially since some of them had their doubts about me and my mixed, half-light and half-dark heritage long before the Estella incident.

“I can see how much you’ve missed him,” Jenny said as she smiled and blushed again.

“I really have.” I had to laugh at myself when I realized just how much. Two months earlier I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself.

I wanted to run down the hall and throw myself into his arms, to hear his voice, to feel his hands resting on the small of my back. Only the slight pressure of Jenny’s hand holding mine kept me from doing it.

“I know you are anxious to see him so I will take only a moment of your time. I must talk with you about your note.”

In the days that had passed since I’d slipped the little piece of paper under her bedroom door, I’d been watching her for some sign that she’d seen it and read it; but Jenny’s face had given nothing away. I looked around to make sure we were alone, and then whispered, “I was starting to wonder about that.”

“You asked me to take you to meet King Daniel. Is this something you truly wish to do?”

Since discovering that I was the product of his raping my mother—an attack that caused her to kill herself after arranging to have me killed too—I’d become obsessed with meeting the Dark King face-to-face. When I asked George to take me, his answer had been a very loud no! My grandfather knew that I wanted to go, but not that I was actively looking for ways to get there. He would lock me up and throw away the key before he let me put myself in that kind of danger. For the same reason, I couldn’t ask Francis, my protective oldest cousin. And my cousin Matt was still grieving for Rivers. In his current state, I wasn’t convinced he could get me to the end of the driveway, let alone to another world.

Jenny was my last reasonable hope.

“May I speak freely as I would to a friend who was not also a princess?”

“I hope so,” I answered. “I’d like you to.”

She let go of my hand. She took a deep breath and pushed a wave of hair behind her ear. “Nothing waits for you in the Underneath except suffering and death. You must let this foolishness go. You must ignore the poison things that you have been told. You must forget King Daniel and the bonds he claims to have to you.”

I started to say, “Daniel is my father,” but Jenny wouldn’t allow it.

“Daniel is not your father. Bay Bennett is,” she corrected. “Not by blood perhaps, but in every other way. He has raised you, cared for you, and protected you since you were an infant. That is what a father does.”

“My mother hated me because of what Daniel did to her,” I said. “She killed herself because of what he did. Don’t you think he should pay for that?”

“Is that what this is about? Would you have revenge?” She sounded strangely relieved. “If that is what you seek, you need only to ask and I will go and kill him for you. I will use my teeth and taste his blood, the way I once did. I will bring you his hands, forever emptied of their magic, as a trophy. Is that what you want, My Princess?”

I wanted lots of things—to meet him, to question him, to understand him—but ultimately, Jenny was right. The thing I wanted most was revenge. I wanted my father to beg me for mercy when I would offer none. It wouldn’t be enough for me to send someone to end his miserable life. I wanted to. I wanted my face to be the last thing he saw.

Only, for some reason, I couldn’t make myself say the words. I stood there looking at the parquet floor, wishing for a voice that wouldn’t come, and choking on my own weakness.

Eventually, Jenny said, “I will go the moment you ask it of me. But unless you command me to take you to the Underneath, Your Lightness, I will not.”

If I commanded it, Jenny would have no choice but to do as I asked. If I commanded her to start ripping up the floorboards with her teeth so that we could make our way to the Underneath through Witchwood Manor’s foundation, she’d have to. That was one of the perks of being Elvish royalty. Even though it was my right as the future queen of the Inbetween, I hated the idea of taking away her free will—of being a bully with a crown who forced people to do her bidding. Not to mention that the couple of times I’d done it before—once with my ex-fiancé Robbin and once with my cousin Matt—I’d ended up regretting it.

“It’s not a command, Jenny.”

“Then you have my answer, Your Lightness. It is too dangerous. I served Daniel before. I know him, and he is not a nice man.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“We water witches are a very subtle people.” A smile spread across her face when I laughed. She took my hand again and started walking.

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