There is always a Dark Monarch. There is always a Princess in Gold. There is always a Hero and always a conflict between light and shadow.
In defeat, in victory, in death—whatever the outcome—the cycle begins again with the coming of a new age.
But this cycle is different.
“The Dark One has spies everywhere,” people say, and that’s not entirely true, but tonight one glides toward the city on silent wings.
With expert grace he weaves between searchlights, dives behind neon-accented skyscrapers, and flies at last to rest at an open window.
A beak taps against the window frame, alerting the woman inside to the presence of her visitor.
“Eddie, is that you?”
She enters from the adjoining room, carrying a small bowl of food scraps for the raven, who responds with an appreciative croak.
“Thought so,” she says. “You always give the daintiest little knocks.”
Eddie digs in to his gift while she plucks out the message he brought here. “It was you the last two times, too. Your sisters busy elsewhere? Or do you just like to volunteer for this job?”
The raven does not respond, thoroughly engrossed in his snack.
As she unfurls the message, a small vial falls out into her hand. She inspects it with care. No signs of tampering—not that Eddie would let someone intercept him—all magical seals intact.
“Delivery enclosed,” the letter begins without preamble. Trust her partner to get right to the point. “It is done. This has been the work of many lifetimes, and I am confident that it will do as you ask.”
She pauses, confused. She made the request within the past year.
“Yes, I said ‘many lifetimes.’ If you are to take this, you must understand what it means. You made the request once before, in a previous life, and I began the work knowing how long it would take, that the version of you who requested it would be long dead by the work’s end.”
Her own consistency is reassuring, but…
“Your incarnation at the time of its completion hated me, as they typically do, acting properly for her role in the cycle. I would not inflict this transformation on one unwilling, so I have kept it to myself.”
“If you take my curse into yourself, you will become like me. Your soul will be stained. You will be forever changed. The cycle will be broken. Our third may be cast adrift, unmoored from fate as well.”
Unless we are convincing enough, she thinks, but that must come later.
“The choice is yours, but think carefully. I would rather us fight a hundred thousand battles—with you never remembering our rare, intimate moments—than to have you resent me forever for poisoning your destiny.
“If you take it, stay out of the light. I’ll come get you.”
That’s the message, ending as abruptly as it began.
Her own response is much more brief. A kiss on paper, leaving the mark of her lip color as a wordless promise for what is to come. She slips it to Eddie, who carries it dutifully back home.
The vial’s contents are already in her mouth before the raven leaves her sight.
The experience is like nothing she’s ever felt before. Some part of her soul screams to her that she’s never experienced anything like this in any of her past lifetimes.
The power of darkness roils within her, devouring her inner light.
The physical changes won’t come all at once, but she can already feel her body responding. It demands new sharpness and new softness and new growth and new needs and above all change.
She drops to her knees, overwhelmed by sensation. It’s a good thing her partner has experience with kidnappings. She doesn’t think she’d be able to make her escape herself, not without being seen or—perhaps scarier yet—understood.
Her partner may be tempted to leave the third to the whims of chance, but… the Princess is still out there, and he deserves to be rescued from the light just the same as her.
Maybe she can play the Hero one last time.