The Darkest Touch

By: Gena Showalter

She wasn’t upset by his attitude. They’d never really gotten along.

“I had plans to free Mari, you know. I only needed time. Just another few weeks, in fact.” Or months. Maybe years. Time had ceased to exist. But Mari hadn’t cared about herself—she’d cared only about Keeley.

The girl had known what Keeley was doing to herself day after day. Well, maybe known wasn’t the right word. She’d suspected. And she had hated the thought of Keeley in any kind of pain. So Mari, sweet Mari, had decided to act, to take Cronus up on his suicidal offer and procure Keeley’s release the only way she could. Despite Keeley’s protests.

“Cronus didn’t even keep up his end of the bargain,” she explained to Wilson. Mari had died upholding hers, and yet Keeley had not been freed.

Hatred burrowed deep inside her, taking root in the darkness of her soul and feeding on the rich soil of her bitterness. So much to do. First she would take care of Torin. Then she would do to the king of the Titans what she’d once done to Prometheus, who wasn’t the good guy everyone thought. He hadn’t blessed the world with fire. How laughable. But he had tried to engulf every inch of it in flames.

“But I punished him, didn’t I?” She laughed with maniacal glee. “I cut out his liver every time it regenerated and fed it to a flock of birds.” Day after day...year after year.

Zeus, of course, had taken credit for the deed. But not this time.

I am the Red Queen. The entire world will learn of me at long last—and fear.

“Soon,” she said.

Wilson might have snorted.

“You’ll see.” Keeley huddled in the corner of her cell, stabbing the lower part of her arm with the rock she’d sharpened into a shiv. Blood poured from the throbbing wound, and spiderwebs of black drifted through her vision. Still she pressed on, cutting harder, going deeper.

Experienced far worse than this.

Like losing Mari...the only ray of sunshine in a life as black as pitch.

“Mari always offered comfort rather than censure. Not once did she say a cruel word to me.” Keeley pointed the bloody shiv at Wilson, adding, “But you...oh, you. Don’t even think about denying the fact that the only thing you’ve ever given me is grief.”

The bastard smirked at her.

“You have always mocked me, but she constantly fed me. I can’t count the number of rodents she tossed to me.” How many people shared so selflessly, giving away the only meal they were likely to find, knowing they would eventually starve? None!

Was it any wonder a literal bond had formed between them, tying them together?

But then, such bonds were the lifeblood of Keeley’s people, the Curators. Or, as other races liked to call them, the Parasites. The bonds were imperceptible to the naked eye and, like mystical tentacles, latched on to others with or without approval to syphon strength...and whatever else the person on the other end had to offer.

The more bonds Keeley procured, the more power she wielded and the more control she had over that power. But she had to be careful. Bonds worked both ways. She took, but she also gave.

It was never fun to have her own strength used against her.

“But the bond failed to help Mari, didn’t it.” And now it couldn’t.

Keeley’s rage returned and redoubled. She screeched, dropping the shiv. Captivity had long since whittled away her humanity, and she suspected that had never been more apparent as she stood and ripped hunks of rock from the walls, until nothing remained of her fingernails. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks.

Royalty doesn’t cry.

Royalty. Doesn’t. Cry.

That’s right. Tears were a weakness she could not afford. She wiped at her eyes, her arms shaking. Her newest wound protested, bleeding more profusely. Inhale...exhale.

Currently Keeley had only one remaining bond. To the land around her. It would have to be enough for everything she had planned.

She sank next to Wilson, saying, “I’ll strengthen. I’ll succeed.”

Will you? he seemed to ask.

She raised her chin. “No one steals from me and lives to tell the tale.”

She’d had so few things worth treasuring. A kingdom—eventually everyone in it had rejected her. A gorgeous fiancé—until he lied to her and betrayed her. And then Mari, who’d never hurt her...

Now gone. Forever.

A sob burst free.

Royalty doesn’t cry. Royalty endures.

“I’m just a girl.” The words razed her throat, making her feel like she’d swallowed acid. “A girl without her friend.”

Torin gave an agonized groan. “Sorry. So sorry.”

Healed already? Too soon! “Your apologies will never be good enough.” She swiped out her hand, sending more debris into his cell. Wilson, too, rolled out of her cage.

Screaming, “Wilson!” she frantically chased after him. He made it into the hallway—where he stayed put, once again staring at her, forever out of reach.

“Fine,” she told him, her chin quivering. “Be that way. You’re nothing without me. I never really liked you anyway.”

“Keeley?” Torin asked.

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