Chapter 1: Veronyka
For as long as there have been Ashfires, there have been phoenixes.
- CHAPTER 1 - VERONYKA
VERONYKA STUMBLED THROUGH THE darkness, her hands outstretched.
She couldn’t see, couldn’t hear anything beyond the sound of her booted feet slapping against the damp stone and the echo of her breath reverberating around her.
Left, right, left again.
Veronyka trusted the directions, followed them in a rush, even as everything inside her fought against rising panic. There was nothing to ground her, no way to know if she was close or far or completely and utterly lost.
She gritted her teeth. She was going the wrong way; surely she was—it had been too long since that right turn. She should have reached the end by now. She was just getting more and more lost, wasting more and more time.
Veronyka took a deep breath, but she’d never much cared for the dark. It brought her back to her childhood, when she’d been left alone for days—first by her maiora, and eventually by Val. She’d been older by then, but she’d still hated the solitude. The loneliness. The helpless waiting.
She felt it now, that isolation, that powerlessness, and the darkness that seemed to go on and on… until Veronyka walked straight into a roughly hewn wall, moving so recklessly fast that her hands weren’t able to brace her against the impact. She smacked her nose with enough force to make her eyes water and her face tingle with pain.
She cursed, disoriented—then cursed again. She’d forgotten the additional left turn.
Swiping at her face to check for blood, Veronyka continued on, frustrated now. She tried to double back, seeking the missed turn—and her boot met with open air.
She knew a single moment of terror as her stomach lurched, her body tensing for the fall, when all her forward momentum came to a sudden, jerking halt.
Her ears ringing, Veronyka took several shuddering gasps before she understood—and heard Xephyra crooning softly behind her, the sound slightly muffled since her beak was clenched tightly over the back of Veronyka’s shirt.
Thank you, she thought dazedly as Xephyra carefully drew her back.
With both feet on solid ground, Veronyka tugged off the blindfold she’d been wearing.
They were somewhere inside the underground passages of the Eyrie. Before her was a staircase that she’d have fallen down headfirst if not for Xephyra, and just behind was the left turn she’d missed—and the way out. A wash of torchlight colored the dark hall, and an uneven gait announced the arrival of Morra.
Veronyka groaned. She’d been right there, so close she could practically taste it, but had once again lost her head.
She and Morra had been practicing shadow magic together for weeks now, working hard to sharpen and extend an ability that Veronyka had spent her whole life fighting against.
Recently, they’d attempted to mimic some of the Phoenix Rider training exercises, working on range and communication. It had actually been Veronyka’s idea to try wearing a blindfold while Morra spoke instructions into her mind, and she was now very much regretting that decision.She’d thought they’d do it outside, somewhere in the stronghold or on the open field outside the village walls. She’d happily wear the blindfold on the walls—and risk a much farther drop—if it meant getting out of these oppressive tunnels. But there were virtually innumerable routes down here, and it allowed Veronyka and Morra to practice whenever they could squeeze it in—like now, before the sun had risen and Morra had to head to the kitchens and Veronyka to her other responsibilities.
Morra also seemed to think that cutting Veronyka off from other people and animals provided an additional level of difficulty—those things could work as distractions, true, but they could also spark her magic and increase her potency.
Down in the dark, Veronyka was very much alone with her bonds. It should be easy… and yet it wasn’t. She should have sensed Xephyra’s nearness—should have smelled the change in the air and heard the sounds of the Eyrie in the open passage behind Morra. But she hadn’t.
How’s your beak? Xephyra asked.
Veronyka touched her nose again, but there was still no blood, and even the pain had receded to a dull ache.
“You’re still doing it,” Morra said, leaning with both arms crossed over the top of her crutch. “As soon as things get hairy, you close up and block me out.” Xephyra croaked, and Morra nodded. “You’re also combining your shadow and animal magic again, so when you block me out, you block her out too. Xephyra was close enough for you to touch, but you didn’t feel her. You were too preoccupied with being frustrated and lost.”
Veronyka blew out a breath, hands on her hips as she stared down the shadowy staircase. “I know—I’m sorry. It’s…”
“A defense mechanism.”
Veronyka looked at the woman. Her voice went strange lately when they skirted around the issue of Val. Or rather, Avalkyra Ashfire. Morra had been a loyal supporter of the Feather-Crowned Queen during the Blood War, after all, and never spoke ill of her—no matter what she’d heard since about Veronyka’s kidnapping and Tristan’s capture, or the seventeen years of rumors and horror stories before that.
Despite her mixed feelings, she’d been the one to offer to help Veronyka. While Morra had always been a source of wisdom when it came to shadow magic, Veronyka hadn’t known until very recently that she actually used to study it.
“I was something of a scholar,” Morra confessed one evening inside the kitchens. “I was studying to become a High Priestess of Axura, specializing in magic and phoenix history—that was until I was conscripted to become a Phoenix Rider during the Blood War. Afterward, that wasn’t the sort of thing one advertised in the Golden Empire. I got used to hiding it, just like my shadow magic.”
She pushed hard—harder than she ever had during their infrequent conversations about magic before—and Veronyka could only hope it was because the woman believed in her and wanted her well equipped for the challenges that lay ahead. Challenges like Avalkyra Ashfire.
“It’s not so much a defense mechanism,” Veronyka explained, trying to find the words. “More a force of habit.”
Because while keeping people out of her mind was indeed a method of defense, it was also the only thing she’d ever learned about shadow magic before now. The only lesson Val had ever bothered to teach her. Veronyka had never been able to risk showing her sister she was frustrated, scared, or confused, so it had been second nature to hide those things. What was it Val used to say? Old habits were like phoenixes, rising again and again.
As for combining her magic… it hadn’t been that long since she’d learned from Morra that she shouldn’t, and it was hard to untangle the two in her mind. She tried again now. Two magics, two rivers—both strong and freely flowing.
“You’ll need to break that habit if you want to master your magic,” Morra said sternly. “To ensure your connections are as strong as they can possibly be.”
Veronyka looked away. That was the whole problem, wasn’t it?
Yes, she wanted her bond with Xephyra to be strong and stable, and she even wanted the same for her bond with Tristan—which Morra did not know about. Veronyka wanted no barriers between herself and those she loved, no more fear or hesitation or self-defense.
But her bond with Val? She knew now that she could defeat Val inside her own mind—she had done so in Ferro—but that didn’t make her any more eager to have Val there. In fact, while she didn’t consciously block Val, she also didn’t allow herself to really think about her either. Avoidance, she supposed, was another kind of defense, another type of wall.
Since she’d embraced her shadow magic, Veronyka had been adjusting to the sensation of allowing humans in and out of her mind the way she allowed animals. She had to teach herself to let the drifting thoughts and feelings of others pass through her mind just like the random noise of everyday life passed through her ears. Soon those distractions faded into the background, easy to ignore, and she was no longer taken by surprise or bowled over from sudden emotions bursting into her otherwise silent mind. It was like trying to hear a whisper in a crowd versus an empty room. Now she feared the quiet more than the noise, because it was in moments of solitude that she remembered her bonds. That she remembered their silence.
If her mind was a room, her bonds were hallways connecting her to other rooms. Because Xephyra was physically close to her, the hallway between them was little more than an archway, her phoenix’s mind open and available, her thoughts side by side with Veronyka’s own. The other two passages were capped with doors. For most of her life, Veronyka had first subconsciously—then deliberately—kept such doors closed, but now they were wide open.
Not that it mattered. Both Tristan’s and Val’s bonds were dark and silent. But while Tristan’s bond was new and fragile, like a hallway made of fresh plaster and smooth, unmarred stone, Val’s was ancient, immovable, and oppressive. The walls were wide and strong, built of massive blocks of stone. It was a place Veronyka did not want to be, and she suspected the feeling was mutual.
Neither she nor Val wanted to remember their connection just now… not after Val’s betrayal and Veronyka’s rejection. Not after their volatile relationship had finally come to a head. If it were up to Veronyka, she would destroy the bond entirely and leave Val behind—a part of her past she needed to move on from, even if she could never truly forget it. But whatever her head and heart desired, it seemed her magic would never let her sever their connection entirely.
Val had tried to kill her. What further lines could they cross? What more could they do to each other? Veronyka did not want to know, even as she feared she would learn the answer sooner rather than later.
For now it seemed that no amount of anger or betrayal could dissolve their years of closeness, their love and hate and complicated, intertwined past.
A bond was forever.
It could survive death, after all, so why not near death?
If Veronyka had learned anything recently, it was that it was better to see the attack coming than to ignore the possibility of an approach altogether. She could no longer hide from or avoid Val… at least not with her magic.
Veronyka closed her eyes and examined the open door to Val inside her mind… then tore it off its hinges. Whatever happened from here on out, Veronyka would be ready.
She had things to do, and she would do them, even with a magical bond to her murderous sister-aunt. Val had taught her more than self-defense; she had taught her to be ruthless in the pursuit of what she wanted.
With Val’s door gone—and then Tristan’s too, for good measure—Veronyka’s mind was truly open for the first time in her life. Welcoming, inviting… daring her bondmates to come in. Was that fear she felt thrumming inside her chest, or anticipation? Veronyka had this magic, this power, so she would use it.
She would save Tristan.
She would save Pyra and the Phoenix Riders from the Golden Empire—then she’d save the empire, too.
But first, Axura help her, she would make it through this exercise.
Morra helps you, her bondmate corrected, confused. Sometimes Xephyra took turns of phrase a bit too literally.
Veronyka smiled, turning to Morra. “Let’s go again.”
If Veronyka had thought going from Nyk to Veronyka was hard, going from Veronyka the poor orphan girl to Veronyka Ashfire, heir to the throne, was utterly isolating. The others had no idea how to act around her—with a few exceptions, like Kade and Sparrow—and most avoided her altogether.
It had all started a few days after their return from the empire, as their lives at the Eyrie slowly returned to some semblance of normal. With Rolan’s forces no longer in Pyra—thanks to Veronyka and Val—and the border quiet once again, they had pulled the majority of their forces back to the Eyrie and settled on frequent patrols rather than permanent postings, while Fallon remained at Prosperity, running the majority of the surveillance.
Never before had Veronyka wanted so desperately to prove herself, or to suffer the blows of every slipup and failure. She wanted to feel it, to punish herself physically when her constant mental chastisement became insufficient.
She had made a grave error following Val that day, risking everything and allowing herself to give in to her own darkest tendencies. Her actions haunted her—foolish enough on their own, but even worse when taken in the context of who she was and what she was supposed to be. Her behavior had not been that of a leader of any sort, never mind a queen, and she couldn’t move on from that mistake until she got Tristan back, safe and unharmed. Only then could she breathe properly again. Only then could she try to forgive herself and look ahead, to her future.
Until that time, however, Veronyka deserved to hurt, to feel her rage, anguish, and regret against her skin and muscle and bone as acutely as she felt it against her mind, heart, and soul.
But as Veronyka arrived in the training yard day after day, looking for a worthy opponent to spar with, the others refused to fight her.
It was partly due to uneven numbers. They weren’t practicing as a single patrol, but with whatever other Riders were currently stationed at the Eyrie as well as some of the older apprentices who were ready for combat training. No matter how many turned up, Veronyka invariably found herself standing alone with all the others paired off. Kade partnered her whenever he could, but he was a beginner in many respects and was at a different stage in his training. Every time she asked someone else to join her in the ring, they insisted they already had a partner or were about to do archery or some other individual task.
But today, after her exhausting morning with Morra, Veronyka finally lost her patience. She wasn’t yet ready to order someone to spar with her, but it was a near thing.
“Latham,” she barked the moment he and the others walked into the training yard. It had rained all through the night, the overcast sky looming iron gray over the stronghold. Her breath fogged the air.
He hardly met her eye, whether out of deference for her newfound Ashfire glory or the usual dislike, Veronyka didn’t care. “You’ve been itching for a chance to knock me on my ass—let’s have at it.”
“I don’t—that’s not—I already promised Anders,” he sputtered, jerking a thumb in Anders’s direction. Anders gave her a hesitant smile.
Veronyka looked around at them all. “I need to get him back,” she said softly, forcing them to lean in closer to hear. “And to do that, I need your help. I need to be stronger—better. Please.”
“It’s just that, things have changed,” Ronyn explained, looking uncomfortable. “You’re the heir to the—”
“I am your temporary patrol leader and a fellow Phoenix Rider,” Veronyka corrected. “And considering the fact that the empire is currently attempting to hunt down and destroy us, it’s a toss-up over whether they’d put a crown on my head or cut it off.” Ronyn snorted in response, and the others seemed to relax slightly. “As far as the empire is concerned, I am a rebel and a traitor—the same as all of you. There may come a time when you’ll have to use your fancy manners around me,” she said, trying to make light of the situation—though the idea made her stomach squirm, “but now is not it.”
They glanced at one another, but no one spoke. Veronyka sighed, looking at the practice staff in her hand. “Sorry, Anders,” she said, and when his smile faltered in confusion, Veronyka swung the staff around and knocked him in the shins.
It wasn’t that hard—and he was wearing padded practice armor—but apparently, it was hard enough for him to cry out in surprise and drop to his knees.
Veronyka turned to Latham, whose mouth was hanging open in surprise. Ronyn and Lysandro wore matching expressions.
“Anders will need a minute. Why don’t we have a go until he’s recovered?”
Latham, it seemed, had no response to that, so he took up a practice spear and met Veronyka in the ring.
They began stiffly, but soon eased into the rhythm of attack and deflect, forward and back, the damp sand sliding beneath Veronyka’s feet and sweat dotting her brow.
When at last Latham took her down with a neat sweep of the staff, Anders was standing beside the ring, arms crossed over his chest and a cool, competitive glint in his eye.
“My turn,” he said, twirling a spear in his hands and taking up Latham’s place across from her. This time his smile was wide and true—and edged with the promise of pain to come. Latham stepped aside, chest heaving as he drank from a waterskin, and Ronyn and Lysandro paused to watch the grudge match take place.
“Go for the shins,” Latham advised. Anders laughed, and Veronyka couldn’t help but grin.
Every night when Veronyka inevitably ran out of things to worry about and tasks to occupy her restless mind and body, she wound up atop Azurec’s Eyrie’s highest point—the temple roof with its golden phoenix statue.
It might be more distracting to return to the noisy barracks or stay late at the bustling dining hall, but Veronyka found it hard to be around most people these days. Maybe it was the Ashfire thing—the members of her patrol weren’t the only ones who saw her differently now. Or maybe she’d been the one to put the walls up, like Morra suggested, protecting and secluding herself. Regardless, she didn’t have the energy for laughter or gossip, her single-minded desire to free Tristan and fix the mess she’d made of things like a barrier between herself and the world.
While Veronyka would sit in silence, Xephyra liked to puff out her chest and mimic the golden statue’s stoic manner and wide, outstretched wings, but she could never stand still long enough to give the pose any real weight. Sometimes Rex would do it too, just to prove how much better he was at being quiet and dignified—and Xephyra would nudge and nip at him until he was forced to give it up and snap back at her.
Rex left her to it tonight and was instead perched off to the side, staring into the distance.
From up here, they could see the stronghold and the village, the Eyrie and the grassy field beyond the gate. Sometimes Veronyka stretched her eyes—or Xephyra’s through mirroring—ever wider, imagining she could see Tristan down in the valley below, or Val, wherever she was. Sometimes she even sought Alexiya, who had left weeks ago in search of her long-lost brother—Veronyka’s long-lost father—and who had yet to return.
For all her searching, Veronyka saw nothing. She felt nothing too, and that was worst of all.
The closest she ever got was late at night, when she assumed Tristan was sleeping. With Rex by her side, Veronyka could manage the feeling of him—his heartbeat in her ears, his breath expanding and contracting in her chest—but nothing more.
Maybe that would change after today. She’d finally dropped the last barriers she had in place, opening her bonds wide. All of them.
Maybe tonight would be the night she got through.
A scrape of footsteps sounded behind Veronyka.
Kade emerged from the ladder at the back of the building, clambering over the pedestal that held the phoenix statue and crouching to sit down next to Veronyka. He didn’t speak much—he didn’t seem to feel the need to, the way others did—his quiet presence a soothing, undemanding comfort at the end of each day.
Though Rex remained distant, Xephyra cocked her head at Kade, who smiled and ran a hand down her beak. A second later another, smaller female phoenix fluttered to the roof—Kade’s new bondmate, Jinx. She was a beautiful thing, elegant and long-winged, suggesting much growth still to come—which was good given Kade’s height and weight. She stretched her neck and let out a soft, warbling cry before inching closer to Xephyra, her movements slow and deferential. Xephyra rather enjoyed the display, lifting her beak haughtily—but Veronyka knew what was coming. Jinx waited until she was right next to Xephyra, head still bowed respectfully, before she spread her wings wide in a sudden burst of feathers. Xephyra squawked and fell back, giving Jinx what she really wanted—not the respect of an older phoenix, but the best perch on the temple.
Xephyra relished the challenge, leaping forward to reclaim her spot at once, and the two were soon sharing the spot—with the occasional playful bite and jostle. Rex tossed them both a bored look. He was the largest of the three and would take the position himself if the two didn’t quit making such a fuss. Xephyra snapped at him, and Jinx chirruped brightly, unfazed. She was clearly a bit of a rascal, bold and daring, and an interesting counterpart to Kade, who always seemed so serious.
Veronyka glanced at Kade now; he was grinning. She hadn’t understood things at first, baffled that Sev had given him his only precious phoenix egg, the prize he had nearly died to deliver—his reward, his salvation, when all this was through. But then she’d seen the look in Kade’s eyes as he’d described their time together and it had all made sense.
Veronyka and Kade had both left people they loved behind.
Thinking of Tristan made Veronyka turn her eyes south, and Kade copied her.
Tristan and Sev were there, alone in an empire of enemies.
“Any message for him?” Veronyka asked abruptly, but Kade understood.
Once she’d realized what Sev meant to him, Veronyka had explained more fully to Kade how she knew where Sev was, as well as the decision he’d come to that night. She hadn’t just seen him with Tristan; she’d felt him there, felt his fear and the bravery and courage buried beneath. Kade was Pyraean and had heard enough rumors about shadow magic to act surprised but not shocked. He’d also worked closely with Ilithya Shadowheart—Veronyka’s adopted grandmother—who had told him that the magic was real.
“And you believed her?” Veronyka had asked, stunned at his simple explanation.
He’d shrugged. “After all the impossible things she’d told me that turned out to be true—Phoenix Riders still existed, Avalkyra Ashfire lived—believing in shadow magic was fairly easy.”
They’d traded more stories after that, tales of Ilithya Shadowheart, of Tristan and Sev.… It was painful, of course, but it also made them feel closer.
And every night when Veronyka tried to reach Tristan through their bond, she offered to try to send Sev a message too. Every time she failed, but still she tried.
“The same,” Kade said in response to her question. It was a good message, after all, and not so very different from what she wanted to say to Tristan.
When all this is over, you and I will be standing together on the other side of it.
Maybe tonight it would happen. Veronyka’s heart was open: her mind and her magic reaching for a connection.
Maybe tonight it would work.