As soon as I first saw her sitting up in the apple tree this morning, smirking that unchanging, irritating smile at me, looking at me through narrowed eyes like the strange creature she was, I knew that today, I despised her with my entire being.
“Irene!” I shouted, dismissing my image as a royal momentarily. “You better get out of my tree and stop eating my apples!”
Irene simply rolled her eyes at my impetuousness, helping herself to another one of my prized apples with a crisp crunch. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
“I’m the ruler of Reveira!”
“Well, you’re not my ruler,” Irene shot back, that same distasteful look that I loathed so much dancing across her features.
And she was right. I wasn’t her ruler. Irene had no ruler, nor personal morals. As far as I could tell, she lived off the free and easy. Once she latched to me when we were younger, she never left. No matter what I did, regardless of how much we argued, she never left. And if I knew better, which frankly, I did, I could say that she was rather enjoying herself.
Irene was an immortal. She couldn’t die, or truly age, for that matter. I don’t know where she came from, just that she wasn’t from Reveira. If she had ever been a mortal, I couldn’t say. If her real name wasn’t actually Irene, I had no way of telling. I didn’t know her backstory, nor did I have the urge to learn it. To put it bluntly, I didn’t care.
To me, Irene was a witch, and that’s all there was to it. She was a witch who came from whatever depths of hell regurgitated her out, rising to this world in order to make my life just that much more difficult. Because apparently, having to run an entire kingdom from a young age wasn’t hard enough.
At this point, you’d think I’d be used to her and the exasperation she brings to my daily life. To a certain extent, that was correct. I didn’t always hate Irene. Not all the time, at least.
To those who knew of her presence, Irene was no immortal, but a trained exorcist. They thought she was spiritually tuned, despite her aloof attitude to the rest I had watched Irene extract a demon from the body of a young boy in the middle of July. Not only was the demon expelled and murdered on the spot, but Irene had killed the young boy as well. And although it was clear that the death of the young boy had been unintentional, apparently I had been the only one who thought that way.
The parents had been so angry. They pelted Irene with stones and threw attack after attack, and she didn’t even try to move. Irene stood there, her appearance that of a young sixteen-year-old girl at the time. By the time I intervened to tell the family of the deceased boy that I would have to report them if the torture continued, it was too late, and Irene was bruised and bloody. I remember that my heart hurt a lot that day, and I wondered why I hadn’t cut in earlier, but that was before I remembered that I hated Irene.
I had picked up Irene’s battered and wounded body into my own arms, cradling her against my pre-adolescent chest. I had brought her back up to my personal castle garden (the same one we were arguing in this very minute,) and I had watched Irene die with unblinking eyes. It wasn’t the first time I had seen Irene die. There had been a time she shielded me from an assassin, another time when she cushioned my fall from a high tumble from a castle balcony, and many more times that I could barely recall. Perhaps I had just become numb to her deaths, but I never forgot the blood that stained my white shirt that day.
Despite how many good deeds she performed, Irene always seemed to tip the scale towards my immense dislike of her. Yes, she was some type of protector of mine (had she been anyone else other than Irene, she could’ve been my guardian angel), but she also was a scammer, a thief, and a murderer— both unintentionally and intentionally.
No matter how much I chastised her, my warnings would constantly fall on deaf ears.
“Sure,” Irene would say, shrugging me off uncaringly. What did she care if she died? Irene would just come back later. She couldn’t die after all, and she made a point to remind me often.
But that one particular day in July, I saw a side of Irene that I had never witnessed before. I eventually decided that I didn’t hate Irene that day. Not that much, anyway.
She had just been reborn, changing her appearance to match mine— a twelve-year-old. We had sat next to each other on the sun-kissed marble bench, right underneath the shade of my apple tree, not really saying a word. I didn’t look at her, and she didn’t look at me. We just stared straight ahead. There was no hateful expression on Irene’s face, and right then, she wasn’t a witch to me.
“They hate me,” Irene suddenly had said, slicing through the silence. “They all hate me.”
“Not everyone hates you,” I had said. “I don’t hate you.”
“No, you idiot,” Irene had whispered, a bitter smile finding itself on her face. “You hate me too. Because I can’t die. Because I can’t and won’t leave you alone. I’m not stupid, Seulgi. I make your life a living hell.”
“I don’t hate you.” I found myself lying. And it was true— at that moment, I did not hate Irene. I couldn’t hate Irene. “I don’t hate you.”
“If you say so,” Irene had trailed off, looking like the most depressed twelve-year-old I had ever laid eyes on.
If there was one thing I hated more than Irene herself, it was Irene when she made me feel something other than hate for her. A demon didn’t deserve my sympathy, let alone anything at all.
“Let’s go up into the attic and play something.” I had insisted, gripping Irene by the wrist and tugging her into the castle, unable to bear staying in my garden any longer, under my ill-fated apple tree. “I wanna go explore. Let’s go.”
So Irene had followed me willingly into the castle up to the attic, flicking my arm like a pest the entire time.
And now, here we were, under my precious apple tree once again, having one of our usual bickers.
“You should at least respect my property,” I spat, striding over to Irene, grabbing one of her dangling legs, and yanking her out of the tree. The witch fell to the ground in a loud clatter of leaves and branches.
“You didn’t have to pull me!” Irene grumbled under her breath, now sprawled on the ground like a broken doll. “I could’ve gotten hurt.”
“Yeah right!” I scoffed, rolling my eyes. “Your wounds would just regenerate within the day.”
“You know me so well!” The immortal girl cooed, getting up and leaning close to me in an attempt to make me feel uncomfortable, and sure enough, it was working. “Must be because we’ve been together for so long!”
I roughly shoved her away with an annoyed grunt. “We are not together, whatever that means. And you were the one who into my life against my will.”
“I made your life far more interesting.” Irene replied, staring at her fingernails and twirling her hair with her other hand. “Anyway, you have no idea how difficult and exhausting it is to deal with you all day.”
“If by interesting, you mean hectic and troublesome, then yes,” I retorted, glaring at the girl with the intensity of a couple hundred burning suns. “I hate you. And if you find clinging on to me so tiring, then you can just leave. I’m sure you can walk out the palace doors and go somewhere else at any given time.”
At this, Irene’s gaze lifted from her nails and her hair-twirling ceased. Her eyes narrowed, and she moved closer to me such that she was right in front of my face, looking into my eyes with her own sharp, dark ones.
“Be careful what you say, Seulgi.” She murmured, her voice soft and velvety with a feather-light quality, “You’re right. I can leave at any given time. In fact, maybe I’ll leave you right now. I don’t even have to walk out the palace doors.”
And with that, she snapped her fingers and disappeared into thin air.
Not even a second later, I finally registered the empty space in front of me, and my eyes widened. My heart rate sped up considerably. Had she really left for good? Sure, I had seen Irene use her ability to teleport on multiple occasions, but never like this.
I was panicking inside, pondering what my next course of action would be, when a familiar weight dropped onto my back and a pair of accustomed arms latched around my neck. Instinctively, my own arms flew backwards, hitching themselves under Irene’s thighs to support her.
The moment I realized that I had been tricked, and tricked rather badly, I was already plotting Irene’s next death, and I was reminded yet again of one of the many reasons to detest Irene. I couldn’t see her face, but I could tell she was giving me the usual degrading look.
“You should’ve seen your expression!” Irene exclaimed gleefully, near my right ear. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not ready to leave just yet. Too much to do, so little time.”
I had decided a long time ago that it was fruitless to even try to decipher Irene’s riddles. I attempted nothing but giving up.
“I’ll make you want to leave,” I hissed, dumping her off my back roughly and sending her to the ground for the second time that day. “Just you wait!”
Irene merely laughed at my insistence, picking herself up and pretending to dust the hem of her black one-piece dress.
She smirked as she straightened herself with a certain flair I could never pick up on, “Sounds interesting. I’ll be waiting for that.”
“I’ll make you want to leave,” I repeated stubbornly, this time turning around to head back inside my castle. “I’ll make you want to stay away from me.”
“I can’t wait,” was all she said, that devilish smile never leaving her face. Then she reached into her dress pocket and pulled out an apple, taking a bite with a satisfied expression. Looking up, I realized that out of my original number of fifteen apples, there were only thirteen left in the tree— one of which Irene had already helped herself to earlier.
Out of all the demons I’d seen in this world, never had I seen a more despicable one than Irene.
With those final words, I left Irene alone in my garden with some flair of my own as I threw my vibrant red cape over my shoulder, returning to my duties, and retrieving my position as ruler of Reveira, not looking back once.
It was a full week before I saw her again. Part of me wondered if she was purposely ignoring me, and the other part wondered if I had been the reason why she had been seemingly driven away.
“You’ve been staying up awfully late these days,” Irene said out of nowhere, having snuck into my office atop the tallest centerpiece tower of my castle. In my work, I hadn’t noticed the door open, though then again, she could have just as easily teleported her way in. “Your personal servant – what’s her name again? Wendy? She told me that you’ve been going to bed in the wee hours of the morning, only to get up when the sun rises.” She casted a sly glance at me through hooded eyes. “I don’t suppose you could consider that healthy.”
“And what’s it to you,” I snapped back scornfully, glowering at her in sheer irritation. I had papers to sign and reports to write; there was absolutely no need for this intrusion, especially at this hour at night. “I’m fine. I know my limits. And where have you been, Irene? It’s been almost over a week since I was last graced with your presence.”
“Wendy also told me that you weren’t eating properly,” she continued, ignoring my question and pursing her lips smugly in that condescending, strictly Irene-way that I had been subjected to for nearly my whole life. But I knowing that I had been caught red-handed, I stayed quiet, glaring down at my desk like a scolded child who had been caught throwing away their vegetables.
Irene sighed, and even without looking at her, I could tell that she was rolling her eyes. With the clacking of her heeled boots against the stone floor of my office, she came to stand in front of my desk.
“Just because you know your limits,” she said rather dramatically, “doesn’t mean that you know how to best take care of yourself.” And to my inherent surprise, she reached into her back pouch and pulled out a red apple, placing it down on my desk with a audible thump.
I raised a skeptical eyebrow at her.
“Oh, don’t give me that look, Your Majesty.” Her tongue curled deliciously around the title. “Don’t worry, I didn’t take this one from your precious apple tree. I bought it from the town square farmer’s market today. Ease up a little, would you?” She flicked ashen locks of hair behind her shoulder— she liked to change its appearance often, and just when I thought I had seen every color of the rainbow, Irene would show up with something new. “Unlike some people, I can actually learn from my mistakes.”
I chose to ignore that last statement. Instead, I scoffed, begrudgingly picking up the apple and giving it a tentative sniff.
I wasn’t looking her way, but already knew that Irene was losing her patience. Good.
“Just eat it, Kang Seulgi,” Irene exclaimed exasperatedly, more venom on her tongue than there could have ever been in that apple, and there was the demon I knew. “I didn’t poison it, I swear.”
“Like I can take the word of a witch,” I replied scathingly. If that statement hurt her, Irene didn’t let me know. “Why are you doing this anyway? Trying to lead me to an early death? Or should I expect to fall into a coma any time soon?” Mother had read more than enough Snow White and the Seven Dawrfs to me when I was younger.
“Contrary to popular belief,” Irene drawled, perching herself on the edge of my desk and making herself comfortable like she’s on the comfiest of couches, “I actually still need you alive, Kang Seulgi. I already have a body count; I don’t plan on adding another name to the list, especially the name of the the queen of a nation.”
“So you’re saying that you have an agenda.” I took a bite of the apple, coming to conclusions. I side-eyed her suspiciously as I chewed, and she continued to watch me with an unimpressed look.
“In this world, full of magic and demons,” she shrugged nonchalantly, pushing herself off the desk and walking to stand in the center of the room with flair to her step. “Who doesn’t have their own agenda?”
I had to agree with her on that one.
“Keep yourself alive, Seulgi,” Irene said in an overly cheerful manner, a stark contrast to her performance from a moment ago. She disappeared from view in a shadow, and materialized at my shoulder a heartbeat later. She coiled her left hand around my bicep, and her right came up to tap my nose teasingly. “Boop!”
I blinked as there was a flash of light, and a flutter of monochrome feathers showered down around me. What’s this...? She’d never used magic like that before. Absently, I reached out to grab a gray, downy feather only for it to scatter into particles at my touch.
Irene giggled, a dainty hand rising to cover her wide smile.
“Take care of yourself,” she said, and I could only stare back at her in silent shock.
“Where’s that witch that’s always with you?” Joy asked, casually hovering around the library, lounging in midair as she pulled out a book from the highest shelf. A cloud of dust followed in its wake, showering me from where I stood below and sending me into a coughing fit. “Oops, sorry, Seulgi.”
“What even is that?” I wheezed through the dust particles, pumping a fist on my chest to expel the specks from my lungs. “Joy, what ancient tome did you just pull out?”
“It’s not that ancient,” Joy protested. She fluttered down to my height, but still floated a good three feet above the ground, just because she could. I clicked my tongue at this. Leave it to Joy to flaunt her abilities. To my amusement, she scrunched her nose. “Alright, so maybe it’s a few hundred years old, but still. This book has some powerful magic embedded into it.”
“Is that so?” Tipping my head in curiosity, I extended my hand and Joy gently placed the tome into my grasp. I skimmed through it’s contents, using my wind magic to accelerate the reading process ever so slightly. Meanwhile, Joy hovered over my shoulder, looking on in interest.
“It’s about how to summon a wyvern. As in the ancient dragons that used to roam our land? Yes, that seems right...” I snapped the book shut. Meanwhile, Joy looked at me expectantly. I stared back. “What?”
Joy shrugged, deciding to finally touch down on the library’s hard wooden floor. She lightly bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. “I don’t know. I thought you’d know what to do with it or something.”
With an incredulous eyebrow and a grain of salt, I tucked the book under my arm. “Joy, why on earth would I ever need to summon a wyvern? Let alone in this time period, when we’re living pretty peacefully without them terrorizing our towns and flocks?”
“I don’t know,” Joy repeated, launching herself back up into the air to continue her shelving duties. “Yeri was in here earlier and told me about it. She wanted me to find it for you for some reason. Maybe your witch friend can help you out? What’s her name again? Irene?”
It was interesting that Joy found Irene so intriguing— not suspicious, but intriguing. Joy had told me once that she’d simply been in awe of Irene’s abilities, and figured that someone who brought back souls from the brink of the underworld couldn’t be all bad. These days, I had often been wondering if Joy had been even remotely correct.
“She hasn’t been around recently,” I said dismissively, though I briefly wondered where she’d been as of late. After that brief visit to my office, Irene had all but disappeared yet again. There had been news of her occasional performed exorcisms in the towns, but other than that, no word from the immortal herself. I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter right now. Anyways, you’ve been spending an awful lot of time with our new prophet, haven’t you, Madame Joy? Prophets aren’t supposed to tell just anyone about their visions.”
Joy pauses in her shelving, a book halfway inserted back into its proper location. The gifted librarian narrows her eyes down at her work.
“Yeri and I have become close as of late,” Joy admitted, but I still couldn’t see her face. “We’ve become friends. She trusts me to keep secrets, and she trusts me as your best friend to tell you what I know. She says that I can help you, and I want to help my best friend.”
“...Why did you become a librarian?” I asked quietly. We were alone in the library, and my voice echoed throughout the empty space. “You could’ve been a renowned magician with your talent by now, Park Sooyoung. Yet you chose to follow your father’s footsteps and become the castle librarian instead.”
“It’s not that complicated,” the red-haired girl replied, leisurely levitating some books from the To Be Shelved cart a few feet away from me. One by one, she plucks them out of the air, returning them to their rightful places. “I like reading books.”
Irene came back.
“Why do you keep on leaving?” I asked. “Why do you keep staying out so late?”
“Because you can’t tie me down,” she replied.
“Why don’t you tell me anything?” I asked.
“Because you don’t need to know,” she replied.
“Why won’t you just do as I say?” I asked. “Or maybe you don’t have to comply every single time, but you could at least listen.”
She shrugged. “You’re not my queen. I don’t belong to any queen of Reveira.”
“So which one of us do you belong to?” I demanded. “There’s quite a number of queens and kingdoms to choose from.”
“None of them,” she replied. “I don’t belong to any kingdom. Not to any of the five kingdoms, and certainly not Reveira.”
“Do you even have a place to belong?”
“Well, yes I do.”
“Not where, but whom.”
“So who do you belong to then? Yourself?”
“Not even myself.”
“You. I belong to you.”
“But you said—”
“I said that I did not belong to the queen of Reveira. I belong to Kang Seulgi.”
“...I don’t see what the difference is.”
She gave me a long look before answering.
“There is a difference. By belonging to you, I still have a place to return to. The difference is that I have absolutely no obligations. No kingdom to fight for, no queen to defend. To top it all off, I don’t have to listen to you. All there is in my world is me and you, and in my world, we’re equal human beings.”
I gave her a hard look.
“I’m not sure that’s the best way to look out on things.”
“Like you’re one to tell me.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re not my queen.”
With a groan, I collapsed on the courtyard grass beneath me, rubbing the back of my neck sheepishly. Chuckling, I grinned up at my friendly foe in front of me. “Looks like you win again, Eunji. What a surprise.”
“Your sarcasm knows no bounds,” Eunji laughed, plopping down on the grass next to me, and she rested the wooden sword she had been wielding in our mock duel right next to mine. The young woman glanced at me in interest, her eyes disappearing into a smile much like my own. “If it makes you feel better, I got seriously bruised up this time.”
Hailing from the neighboring kingdom of Quadra, Eunji was initially sent as an ambassador of peace and goodwill, and eventually decided to stay within my kingdom for an extended period of time after making new friends. I liked Eunji. The slightly older girl was a calming, uplifting presence around the castle, in stark contrast to a certain witch.
“I’ve yet to beat you though,” I reminded her teasingly. “But do you want to get those bruises looked at?” I pushed my left thumb against a small bell-shaped tattoo on my right wrist, and a tingle shot up my arm. Meanwhile, the gleam in my eyes turned wicked. “I just summoned someone to tend to them.”
Eunji’s eyes widened, and I swore I saw a hint of red tint her cheeks. “I can’t believe you— There was really no need, Seulgi! What about yourself? I hate to boast, but you got pretty beaten up as well.” I could feel her gaze rest on a thin cut that had managed to make its way to my cheek during our sparring.
I waved her off with the flick of my hand. “Don’t worry about me, that’s just a small cut. Nothing to lose our minds over.”
“I here I was, thinking that I told you to take care of yourself, Kang Seulgi.” A thin voice cut through the once-warm air, and I unintentionally flinched as Irene entered the castle courtyard with Wendy at her side. “I should’ve known that I couldn’t trust you.”
I glowered, baring my teeth in a forced smile. “Like you have any right to be talking.”
Irene stuck her tongue out at me, and I glared.
The servant girl laughed at our bickering, shooting me an apologetic look before she beamed at Eunji with a wave.
The female knight’s eyes acquired a dazed film as Wendy drew close enough to touch Eunji, and I smirked at the utterly dopey expression that overtook my friend’s features. Despite the difference in social class, it was no secret to any of the castle’s staff or residents that Eunji was madly in love with my personal servant. Wendy had been one of my closest companions since my earliest days, and it was amusing to see her blush and stutter at Eunji’s never-ending compliments. It made my heart warm to see such two unlikely souls come together. Certainly, I had no qualms with their relationship.
“Oh, you know Seulgi, Irene,” Wendy giggled as she glanced over her shoulder at the immortal girl who had been smirking at me. I always questioned how people like Wendy and Joy could find Irene tolerable, let alone take a shine to her.
Wendy ran her hands down Eunji’s toned arms, the soft healing touch of her medical magic gently settling into her lover’s bruises, the purple swelling already starting to fade.
“Things that relate to her own well-being seem to go in one ear and directly out the other,” the servant girl continued, and I heard a glimmer of mischief hidden in her innocent words. I sighed, and Wendy grinned before turning her attention back to Eunji. “Do those bruises feel better, baby?”
“Much,” Eunji breathed, exhaling briefly before tugging a giggling Wendy towards her slightly larger frame, pulling her into a hug. “You’re the best healer in the whole wide world, Wan.”
“The actual medics in the medical wing would beg to differ,” Wendy quipped, and I smiled at their banter.
A moment later, I found myself grunting. Ugh, my face aches... maybe I should have Wendy take a look at that—
“You could try taking my advice,” Irene’s voice sounded from my shoulder, and I looked to the right, only to blink in disbelief as I was immediately greeted to the witch in front of me and cupping my cheek, covering her hand pressing into my cut with an uncharacteristic softness.
There was a quick flash of light – fast enough that I wasn’t even sure if it really happened – and a soft sensation ticked the skin beneath Irene’s palm— feathers? My question was answered when Irene retrieved her palm and more monochrome feathers showered down. More of that unknown magic. I chose not to comment on the feathers yet again.
I reached up to feel my face. No more scratch. No more ache.
“You’re so careless,” Irene scolded me. There was the vague feeling of deja vu, and I thought back to how the immortal girl had berated me on my eating habits a few days prior. Since then, I had taken to eating proper meals, even enlisting Wendy to remind me if I ever forgot. I couldn’t put my finger on it; Irene’s words sounded like a warning, and after years of dealing with her antics, I knew better than to ignore it.
“Yeah, well,” I shrugged helplessly. “Eunji’s one of the best knights from Quadra, after all. It was inevitable that I get hurt.”
“So learn to dodge,” Irene retorted, and I quirked an eyebrow. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. It’s common sense that if you can dodge, you won’t get hit. And for a queen who specializes in wind-based magic, one would think that you’d be a bit faster on your feet.”
“I am fast!” I frowned, offended, and crossed my arms.
“You’re too quick to dash in to try and attack. You’re lacking in reflexes,” Irene clarified. Then, in one smooth motion that was far too fast for my own eyes, Irene lunged forward, jabbing at the side of my stomach.
Unable to help myself, I barked out a laugh at the ticklish sensation before falling backwards onto my backside. I narrowed my eyes up at the smug Irene. She raised an eyebrow at my hunched figure and snapped her fingers.
A heartbeat later, a teddy bear appeared in midair and plopped down in my lap.
“Softie,” she teased.
“Okay,” I relented with a groan, a hand clenching around the toy’s stuffed arm. “I’ll work on directly avoiding my problems.”
Irene shrugged. “I mean, that’s one way to look at it.”
I was back to filling out papers when Yeri, our castle oracle, quite literally dropped into my office, plopping a large book on my desk, right on top of the paperwork.
“Hello Seulgi!” She exclaimed, all sunshine and bliss, and I blinked, utterly stupefied.
“Uh, hello Yer—”
“No time to talk!” The prophet girl called over her shoulder, already making her way out of my office. She waved. “I’ve got plenty of stuff to do! Just read that book sometime, yeah? I get the feeling that some changes will start to happen around here.”
I stared dumbly at the oaken door that had just closed behind her. What… just happened?
Shrugging to myself, I glanced down at the book Yeri had dumped onto my work.
“The Sacred Swords?” I muttered to myself. I shook my head. I’d have to read it later. Surely, the change that Yeri spoke of couldn’t happen that soon, could it?
I was horribly wrong. Something stirred and changed a few days later.
“Take back your lousy apples.” Irene growled under her breath, throwing the damned fruit back at me. I had just pulled Irene down and out of the tree once more, like all the times I had previously, expecting the usual banter.
“I don’t want them anyways.”
My eyes widened, taken aback by this unusual behavior. A few weeks ago, when I had declared that I was going to force Irene to leave one way or another, I had no idea that my words would lead to the events that would follow today. Had I known, there’s no way on heaven or hell that I would have repeated that declaration, had I been given the chance to re-do everything.
“You probably noticed that I haven’t been around much these days.” Irene began, her voice atypically flat and harsh, jagged like the edges of mountain rocks. “I left for a while to do some thinking. A bit of searching, so to say.”
My mouth was strangely parched. “And what did you find?”
“You really meant it, didn’t you?” Irene whispered. “That you were going to make me want to leave? It turns out that you didn’t even need to do any work.”
I couldn’t respond. My mind was going numb with unfeeling, as though I was entering some kind of hypnotic trance. I couldn’t say anything even if I wanted to. My body stayed unresponsive against my will.
And there it was. That bitter, nostalgic smile. I hadn’t seen it in six years; not since the incident with the little boy. I hated that bitter smile. It made me want to hate myself.
“I walked aimlessly around town, you know?” Irene continued, not giving me a chance to reply (not that I would’ve been able to regardless). “When I walked by, shops closed, windows and doors were slammed shut, and parents pulled their children indoors. I heard their whispers and murmurs. ‘See that girl? Never get close to her. She’s an exorcist. A witch. If she doesn’t kill you first, she’ll send one of her demons to possess you.’
“Little did they know,” Irene chuckled mirthlessly, the sound so icy and cold that it sent shivers down my spine and caused the hairs on my neck to rise. “Little did they know that I, myself, am I demon.”
“Oh, please.” Irene jeered, eyes narrow and untrusting, “Save me your pity, Seulgi. I’ve known from the beginning that you hate me. Everyone hates me.”
“I don’t hate you!” I managed to get out, this scene feeling far too familiar, as though I had experienced it before in a long-forgotten dream, “I don’t—”
“It’s not good to lie, Seulgi.” Irene abruptly cut me off, lifting a finger to my lips to silence me. “Remember what I told you before: be careful with your words.”
“But if I am, I’ll never get you to listen!” I exclaimed, launching forward to grip Irene’s right shoulder in my hand. “I don’t hate you! You're not a demon! Please don’t do anything stupid without thinking this through!”
“Everything I do is thought out.” Irene replied, shaking off my grip without another word. “I can’t stay here, Seulgi. I have to find somewhere else.”
“No!” I shook my head persistently. “I won’t let you.”
“Watch me,” she whispered, leaning in to speak into my ear. “You’re not my ruler, Seulgi. I don’t want your stupid apples."
And just like that, she snapped her fingers, vanishing into thin air.
A voice hissed through the empty space.
"I'll take the liberty of banishing myself from of this garden.”
I waited several minutes in a state of disbelief. If my brain had felt numb earlier, it was nothing compared to now. That familiar, accustomed weight never dropped onto my back. That pair of milky white arms never latched themselves around my neck. I was panicking on the inside. This couldn’t be happening. On the outside, I could only stand still, hoping and wishing that this was all some bad dream.
Eventually, I collapsed onto the ground out of exhaustion. I didn’t know how long I had been standing there motionless, but I had never felt so tired before. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I hugged myself tightly.
Irene was gone.
I was truly alone.
“I’ll give you them!” I gasped out to dead air, “I’ll give you the damn apples, Irene!”
“You’re losing her.” A brusque voice echoed through the darkness. “You’ll be too late.”
I couldn’t see anything. I was blind.
And then I was in a large, grandiose hall. It shimmered and sparkled, and floor beneath me was made of mirrors, yet I could not see my reflection. Where was this place? Surely not outside. Yet there were clouds, and an endless sunset that spread out, out, out. On and on.
There was a door. A large, crystalline door surrounded by a flawless marble gateway.
And she was there.
“You’ve made a mistake by coming to the Hall of Origins,” a different voice, much more feminine than the one from my darkness, said. “Especially so close to the Summer Solstice, Bae Joohyun.”
“I abandoned that name,” Irene replied, her tone icy cold. A shiver ran down my spine. “I gave it up long ago, the day that I chose to save her from her unfair fate.”
“You were banished! You defied the very orders that were given to you!” The new voice boomed, and heavy gusts of wind swept through the hall. “You betrayed us, Bae Joohyun!”
Yet the immortal girl was not deterred.
“She didn’t deserve to die!” Irene seethed, fists clenched into balls at her sides. “I willingly accepted my punishment! And I will not allow her to have her life stolen now!”
The female voice seemed taken aback. “So you’re not here to try to return back to the heavens,” the voice stated plainly.
Irene snorted. “Yeah right. Like I’d be trying to get back up there. I know better. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t know about your little plan. That only means that I’m going to try that much harder to stop you. I won’t let this kingdom fall into ruin. I won’t let you take her too.”
The laughter that rang through the crystalline hall made the hairs on my arm raise, and I shuddered.
“We’ll see about that. We’ll see what happens on the Summer Solstice, when I can finally cross over to the world of mortals. We’ll see how long you can continue to protect your precious Kang Seulgi.”
My vision was failing; blurring. Darkness was closing in again. I tried to reach out. Irene, please.
The last thing I saw was a pair of pitch black wings emerging from Irene’s back, and the gleam sheen of a silver sword.
The darkness got ahold of me.
I woke up screaming the name of an angel.
Wendy was at my side in an instant.
“Seulgi!” She gripped my shoulder, massaging it as I came to my senses. “It was just a dream!”
I wish it was... Irene is gone, and I don’t know where— wait.
“Wendy,” I said, and she bit her lip but nodded. “Wan, do you remember any of the old stories about something called the Hall of Origins?” I groaned a bit, my head throbbing as I said the name. “I... I vaguely remember of its existence. My mother, before she died... she used to tell me about all the legends before bedtime, but it’s been too long...” I trailed off, old memories of fireside winter nights briefly flashed through my mind, where my mother would recount tales of the ancient days, and my father would chime in to make them funny. I had never taken them too seriously, but now...
I stared down at my cotton sheets, out at the expanse of my bed that had been much too large for me alone. How many times had Irene appeared at its edge, greeting me with that knowing smirk that had irked me to no end? When had those morning wake ups started to dwindle?
“Of course I do,” Wendy murmured. “Among us servants, these legends are passed down by word of mouth during the holidays especially.” I motioned for her to sit at the edge of my bedside, and she acquiesced. “One legend speaks of the Hall of Origins at the very top of Empty Summit, the bleak mountain that lies in the top left-most corner of Reveira.
“It is said that the Hall of Origins is the gateway to the heavens,” Wendy said. “You know about the Summer Solstice, yes? We hold a festival on the Summer Solstice to celebrate all of the spirits and those who have left this plane. It is said that on that day in particular, the Hall of Origins opens, and spirits are allowed to pass though, but only for that day. If they don’t make it back through the gate by midnight, they are trapped in our realm forever, restless.”
“Does the Hall of Origins really exist?” I asked quietly. Questions. More and more questions, and not enough answers. It was time to put together the puzzle pieces.
Wendy shook her head. “I’m not sure. All we have are our legends passed down verbally.”
“Do the legends say how to get there?” Irene was there, and she was seeking danger. She was a liar. She hadn't left because of the way some random townspeople were looking at her; Irene wasn't the type to care about that. She was after something else, and it had to do with the Hall of Origins.
“You have to either be a spirit, or of celestial nature to be able to enter the Hall of Origins,” Wendy said slowly. “Or, you have to be a human who proved your worth. If you’re looking to reach the peak of Empty Summit, the only way is by wyvern.”
My eyes widened. “By wyvern?”
Yeri, you scary genius.
“That’s what the myths say,” Wendy replied, and she looked at me knowingly. “You’re up to something, aren’t you?” I could tell that she knew this to be true.
“I’m not right now,” I said, determinedly. “But I will be.”
“I need a wyvern!” I shouted, racing into the library, the tome that Joy had given to me securely under my arm. “Joy! I need your help! I need to summon a wyvern! Do you know where Yeri— you’re already here.” I blinked in disbelief.
“I’m a prophet, remember?” Yeri smirked, sipping on her tea as she reclined back in one of the the comfy library sofa seats. Placing the teacup down on its platter with a clank, she rose to her feat and straightened out her simple grey dress. “About time you got here, Your Highness. I was just about to be subject to yet another round of poetry from dear Joy here, the closeted romantic.”
“Oh please,” Joy snorted, humoring indignantly. She flew down from where she’d been hovering next to the shelf marked with books that started with the letter ‘S.’ “Don’t lie to me, Kim Yerim. Even you enjoy a little bit of ‘a rose by any other name is not as sweet—’”
“I don’t have time for this,” I interrupted their flirtatious banter. Impatiently, I placed the book of wyverns down on the coffee table and looked up to meet their eyes. “Yeri knew I was coming already. You two can help me, right? I need a wyvern. It’s the only way I can get to the Empty Summit and reach the Hall of Origins.” Where Irene is.
Joy nodded, clearly sensing my desperation. She flipped open the book, skimming its contents with trained eyes. “We’ll help you find her, Seulgi, don’t worry.”
“Wait,” Yeri cut her off. She frowned, taking the book herself and skipping a sufficient segment. “Seulgi, reaching Empty Summit is one thing. Any wyvern can do that. But there’s only one beast great enough to break through to the Hall of Origins. A regular wyvern won’t work.” Yeri narrowed her eyes, slamming the thick tome back down on the table. “You’ll need more fire power than that anyways. Your Highness, we’re going to have to summon the King of Dragons— Bahamut. And it’s not going to be easy.”
Across the library’s oaken wood table from me, Joy, Yeri, and now Wendy, stood over the wyvern book, pouring over the schematics of summoning a wyvern. Joy and Yeri were obviously attempting to make sense of the ancient language that had been used to diagram that actually summoning process, while Wendy had been called down to provide ideas of proper sacrifices and materials. (I had underestimated Wendy’s over-willingness to take part in Operation Irene.)
Meanwhile, I busied myself with another book in an effort to make myself more useful— the Sacred Swords book that Yeri had dropped off in my office the other day. While Yeri was, admittedly, scary in her accuracy of predictions, I had a feeling that this book held a clue.
I couldn’t have been more correct.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t re-read over that same crucial paragraph over and over again, more than ten times, just to make sure that I was understanding the portion of text properly. And when the meaning finally stuck, I was dumbstruck.
Three pairs of eyes glanced my way.
“What is it, Seul?” Yeri asked.
I met their eyes.
Wendy cast a wary glance at me. “We’re already summoning the King of Dragons, Seulgi. What could be worse?”
I flipped the book around to them, pointing to the picture of the silver gleaming sword and the paragraph next to it.
“I saw this sword. Irene had it in my dream. It’s called Stella Mortem, and it means Death of a Star. Irene is trying to kill a god.”
“,” Joy cursed. “We’re absolutely ed.”
Bahamut was gargantuan, and that was putting it lightly. The King of Dragons was easily at least four horses tall and wide— and I had never been more terrified in my life. The thing had fangs the size of the blades on our swords, and spikes on its tail that could knock a human out from a mere sting!
I couldn’t help but think that my ragtag team and I had not thought this plan through enough. At least Eunji had been kind enough to offer her services.
“You’ll have to slay the beast,” Yeri had said, and I had nodded without thinking. The things I was doing for my witch. Then Yeri had paused. “Or, well not really slay it, since you kind of need Bahamut to reach the Gate of Origins. More like you need to best it.”
Eunji had been kind enough to offer her assistance, and off we set to the foot of Empty Summit to summon Hell Incarnate.
A very, very small part of me hoped that the summoning ritual would fail and that this wouldn’t fall on my shoulders, that I wouldn’t have to face Irene ever again— not because I didn’t want her alive and well, but because how could I possibly face her without feeling the heavy weight of guilt that was already embedding itself into the core of my being at the mere thought of her? For sure, Irene would be the death of me.
Yet all the more reason why I needed to get her back. All the more reason why I couldn’t let Irene die— at the very least, not for my sake. Not when I didn’t deserve it. There was this sinking feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be alive as it was, but somehow, I continued to exist.
Yes. I would get Irene back. I would not let her sacrifice herself for me. Not like this. I would not lose her.
I scoffed, asking myself about when I had gotten so soft for the witch who’d brought me so much grief all my life, before shaking my head. There was no use thinking about it, especially when Eunji was fifty feet away from me, deflecting balls of fire back at Bahamut as the beast stumbled backwards, maimed by icicle spears Joy was flinging its way.
Through our mental link, Yeri was screaming at me.
What do you think you’re doing just standing around there? Yeri berated via her oracle magic, and I winced as the sound echoed around every nook and cranny of my brain. The prophet girl was safe, back at the castle with Wendy (my personal servant had wanted to come, but Eunji wouldn’t have it, outright refusing to let Wendy accompany us). We just summoned Bahamut for you! Get out there and help!
“Yeri,” I muttered out loud to her under my breath. “We didn’t exactly think this plan through well enough.”
Seulgi’s got a point, Wendy joined in on the mental conversation. We scrapped this together in maybe three hours max.
I wasn’t aware that saving your little exorcist-witch-fallen-angel-lover-girl on such short notice would actually require such lengthy planning! Yeri shrieked. I grit my teeth. The youngest girl had a point. Seulgi, you want to save Irene, right? Honestly your plan should just be to best Bahamut and stay alive!
“Stay alive,” I repeated. Irene had told me to stay alive. “I can do that.” Irene had also told me to learn how to dodge. As this processed I watched Eunji roll away from another fireball. It looked like Yeri wasn’t the only scary genius who would see the future in this kingdom. “Okay.”
Five minutes later, as I dashed away from an incoming claw swipe the twice the width of my body, I inwardly gave myself a quick reminder to thank Irene a bit more often – maybe once a week – for her advice, even if it came in handy in the most absurd situations.
“I need your help,” I whispered desperately to the chained beast. Before me, Bahamut lay on the ground, unable to move thanks to the magical chains I had flung at it from my hands moments before. Behind the carnage, Joy and Eunji took heaving breaths, backing away as I crept forward to place my hands on Bahamut’s body. Warm. Leaning in, I placed my forehead against its scaly neck, feeling the dragon beneath me tense and breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
“Please. I need your help.”
Bahamut’s red eyes searched me, and it huffed, puffing out a cloud of smoke that swirled around me.
You have bested me, it said, ringing through my mind, the deep growl slightly catching me off guard. What ails you, Queen of Reveira?
“My witch is gone,” I murmured brokenly in reply, pressing my hands to its scales more persistently. “She wants something to do with the Gate of Origins on the Summer Solstice. I—” I gulped, swallowing a lump in my throat. “Something bad will happen to her, O King of Dragons. Someone – and I’m not sure who – is going to try and break her.” I leaned into Bahamut once more. “Please. I need to save her. I need to get to the Gate of Origins.”
It looks like your witch is picking a fight with a god, Bahamut grumbled. It’s gaze fixed on my small figure, still searching for something. I struggled to keep my legs from buckling beneath its glare. You realize this? I nodded. And yet you still wish to go to her?
“She is doing this for me,” I said, my words coming out with more strength than I had expected. “I— I can’t let her throw her life away for me, King of Dragons. I hadn’t made it very clear to her but,” my mouth went dry at the thought of my mistreatment of Irene, “she is worth so much more than what I told her.”
The beast rumbled thoughtfully. What is the name of this witch, Reveiran Queen?
“Irene—” I paused as another name popped into mind; as though from a far-off dream. “Bae Joohyun.”
And from beneath the charcoal black chains that shimmered from my magic, Bahamut stiffened.
“Yes,” I reiterated. “Though she said that she abandoned that name long ago.”
She is my sister.
“I—” Once again I was rendered speechless. “How?”
And for the first time, Bahamut met my eye.
We have both been forsaken by the gods, it stated, and I felt shivers run down my arms. I will help you, Chained Queen of Reivera. For my neglected sister.
“Too late,” the wind hissed at my back as I clutched to Bahamut as it soared through the skies, ripping through clouds as we climbed higher and higher through the air, racing to Empty Summit. “You’ll be too late.”
“You’re wrong,” I growled, and Bahamut rumbled. “I will save her.”
I could see it approaching – the bright light, the summer night sky – and then we crossed the barrier and everything – the light, the sky – shattered, like falling like broken glass around me. The sky, once a dark blue, was a never-ending sunset, going on and on in all directions. And the marble platform was there, at the top of Empty Summit, every bit as dreamlike as I remembered it.
And there it was— the Gate of Origins.
And she was there— Irene, with her hair that was now a strange, yet serene shade of lavender
And she was alone— save for the blond girl in front of her, draped in black reaper cloth, a pair of ragged, gray angel wings drooping onto the ground.
And just like that, they clashed.
“Stay back, Seulgi!” Irene yelled, using her magic to send me sprawling backwards onto the flawless marble floor with a grunt. “You shouldn’t have come here!”
“You’ll die if you use that sword!” I shouted in reply, pushing myself up from the ground. “It’s a life for a life to kill a god, Irene! I can’t let you do that!”
Her mystical sword clashed with the scythe of the blond girl– who I’d come to understand was Chanmi, the God of Death’s underling – and Irene was blown back, her raven black wings beating hard to stop her fall. Grimacing, she propped herself up on her sword, shifting her stance to accommodate for her injuries, and leaping forward once more.
Irene couldn’t take much more, that much was clear. If she was hit, she was a goner.
Meanwhile, Chanmi cackled, and never had I been more afraid of a sound in my life.
“Watch carefully, pitiful queen,” the True Demon cawed. I could see the red veins of her eyes, wide with delusion, and I felt that hot bubbling of rage start to boil in the pit of my stomach. “Watch as your traitorous angel dies! And then you’ll be next! You’ll be dead, just as you’re supposed to be!”
“Bahamut!” I screamed, my voice hoarse from the effort. With a burst of magic from my hands, a hurricane came to life with a violence of all my anger, flinging Chanmi away from Irene’s small, yet brave form. Irene...
Above us, Bahamut roared with the voice of millions, and I watched with stunned eyes as a storm of hellfire rained down on Death’s Underling with relentless fury. I watched the balls of fire barraged the blonde demon without pause, until the last one hint, and a white light broke out across the sky.
I was nearly blinded, and as my vision went to faded out, all I could see was Irene as she ran towards our foe’s body, the sword of Stella Mortem extended and ready to strike.
My last thoughts were of her, as I stretched out my hand, unable to move, begging for a miracle.
Wishes can come true, but not if you just wait for miracles. Miracles are things we make for ourselves. Here, and now.
I forced my eyes to open; to peer through that bright light.
And Irene was smiling at me—
—before she crumbled to the ground.
“Irene!” I screamed, scrambling forward towards my witch’s frail, broken frame. Hoisting her body onto my lap, I cradled her as close to me as physically possible, not daring to leave any space between us. I cupped her cheek urgently. “Irene! Wake up! Wake up, please! Irene!”
With heaving breaths, Irene’s eyes fluttered open. “...Seulgi. You’re alright! Thank goodness...” I grabbed her hand anxiously as she weakly tried to bring her fingers up to touch the cuts on my face. “Oh, but you got hurt...” She frowned, pursing her lips. “I’m sorry, Seulgi...” Her breaths came out labored, and my chest constricted in pain as I watched her struggle. “I should’ve protected you better—”
“Don’t say that!” I quickly cut her off, her cheek with my thumb. Tears welled in my eyes, and I grit my teeth, the walls I had worked so hard to build up crumbling down in mere heartbeats. This was all my fault. “Don’t you ever blame yourself! I’m the reason why you’re like this! I’m the one who should be apologizing!” A horrified look grew on my features, and the dam broke as tears trickled down.
“And all this time, I treated you so awfully—” I choked back a sob.
“Seulgi...” Irene smiled painfully, her whole body shaking. “Seul, I made my own decisions. It was better this way.” She shuddered, taking yet another heaving breath. “I didn’t want you to get attached.”
“Well it didn’t work. I’m attached,” I retorted, and Irene chuckled briefly before breaking out into a coughing fit. My hold on her tightened and quivered, and I shook my head stubbornly.
“Not you too.”
I could see the question in Irene’s eyes.
“Please don’t leave me,” I croaked out, and Irene’s gaze softened sadly. I clutched at her shivering hand, desperate for some kind of reminder that she was here, that she was real. “Please, please don’t leave me alone!”
“You wouldn’t be alone, silly,” Irene murmured, gently reaching for a strand of my hair, twirling it between her fingers. “You’ve got Joy, and Wendy, and Yeri, and the rest of your kingdom who love and adore you, silly bear.” Please never stop calling me that. “But don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”
“This better not be another one of your empty promises,” I whispered, and Irene chuckled once more as she shifted in my arms. She was warm— warmer, and more consuming than any other warmth that I had ever felt in my life.
“It’s not,” Irene smiled, absolutely glowing. She gripped gently at my arms, staring deep into my eyes with emotion that I had never seen before. Or perhaps it had been there all along, just keep hidden. Or maybe it had just been me, too blinded by the walls Irene had helped construct around me to see it. “Seulgi, I’ve had enough lies to last me thousands of lifetimes. I am through with the secret keeping.”
“So you’re staying?” I voiced aloud, my tone shaky and uncertain. Was it too good to believe? Because yes, Irene was an immortal, but she had been sought out by the messenger of the god of Death himself. Chanmi had been his underling, and therefore possessed his divine power. But then again, Irene had defied fate once— she had saved me. Could she have done it again?
“If you’ll have me,” Irene replied, almost shyly. She ducked her head, twisting in a way that hid her expression from view. She hesitated, biting her lip. “I’m not going anywhere, really, Seulgi. I know it looks bad now, but—”
“I trust you,” I interrupted. “I know I’ve had my doubts before, but,” I gazed at her meaningfully. “If you’re willing to start afresh, then so am I. We... Your explanation can wait for later. For now, I’m just glad you’re safe.”
“Everything,” Irene breathed, and something inside me shattered. How had my witch been so brave on her own, especially in the face of the god of Death? I silently vowed never to let her out of my reach ever again. “I’ll tell you everything, Seulgi.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” I whispered, resting my forehead against hers momentarily. Then I stood up, Irene still cradled in my arms, and whistled to summon Bahamut to me.
It was time to go home.
“Seulgi!” Irene yelped as I tossed her into my plush bed. “These are your quarters, there’s really no need—”
She was interrupted as I face planted into the bed next to her, immediately latching onto her body. I tugged the covers over our bodies and buried my face into her neck, feeling the skin there heat up.
“Sleep,” I mumbled into her collarbone, and Irene shivered. “We can talk and you can object later.”
“I guess I should start from the beginning,” Irene murmured the next evening, as she pressed close to me in bed, gently kneading the comforter out of habit. She was quiet for a moment, mulling over her words, and I smiled softly.
“That’s a pretty good place to start,” I mumbled softly into her hair, and she giggled.
“Well, in case you couldn’t tell already,” she shrugged helplessly. “I’m an angel. Or, at least I was.” She turned her attention to the ceiling, as though trying to see right through it. “I was banished from the heavens for interfering with fate.”
She fell silently, probably to get her thoughts together. I squeezed her shoulder firmly, just to let her know that I was here.
“As an angel,” she continued slowly, “I was tasked with finding and escorting the souls of the dead to the Hall of Origins, where they would be brought through the gate to be judged by the gods. And for the longest time, I simply did as I was told, watching people pass on, waiting for them to pass on. I never questioned anything— no one did. We did as instructed and that was it.
“Until one day, perhaps around two decades ago.” Irene’s voice dropped down to a quiet whisper. “You were three years old when you were supposed to die.”
Her words rang loud and clear through the air of my bedroom, and although I had already had my suspicions based on her interaction with Chanmi, her words made a shiver race down my spine. So it was true. I was supposed to be dead. Yet I wasn’t, and it was because of the very witch that I had been condemning.
“So it’s true then,” I whispered, staring down at our hands. I hadn’t noticed how I had been reaching for hers until Irene gently interlocked our pinkies. How had I never seen this? The way that she looked at my like I was something fragile, other than the iron queen of a kingdom? Irene had been the only one afraid to break me – she had been so careful to never push past the tipping point – and yet here I had been, thinking that she would be the reason I would break.
“Listen, Seulgi, I’m sorry—”
“You saved me.” I stated. “You were the one who brought me to Wendy’s family at the mill on the night my parents were assassinated. I— I had no idea how I had gotten there, and Wendy’s parents hadn’t had answers either, they said that I was just suddenly at their doorstep with Wendy and—”
Irene looked taken aback, her eyes wide as I gazed at her imploringly. Surely, she didn’t think that I was going to be angry. But then again, I had treated her so harshly over the years. Irene was immortal, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t scar.
“If anything,” I said steadily, “I should be apologizing to you.” I hung my head, ashamed. “I can’t believe I treated you so horribly.”
“Seulgi,” she scolded, reaching up to brush a few locks of hair away before cupping my cheek, “I don’t ever, ever want to hear you blame yourself for any of this. I made my decisions. I defied the very will of the heavens to save you because I—”
She cut herself off with a short, watery laugh with clear, gleaming tears forming at the corners of her eyes.
“Seulgi, do you know what I saw when I was given assignments from the heavens?” She asked me bitterly, and not knowing the answer, I shook my head. “They would give me something of the person I am to collect – a name, a special toy, a favorite flower – a little token, or seed, for me to plant into the minds of the deceased’s loved ones.” Irene just looked sad, and I was reminded of the little boy that she had accidentally killed from that one exorcism that had gone wrong, all those years ago. “I could whisper to the grieving, ‘remember how Gayeon loved it when you sang to her before bedtime? Remember to sing for her every night, and she will still be with you.’
“But sometimes,” she pressed closed to me, and I held her tight, “sometimes, the heavens would do something different. Seulgi, they didn’t give me something like your favorite book, or your the lullaby that your nurse would sing to you.” Irene shuddered and buried her face into my chest, and muffled, against my nightshirt’s fabric I could hear a muffled, “They gave me your future.”
I gaped, my hands stilling from where they had been playing with strands of Irene’s hair.
“My future? Like, a vision?”
“...What did you see?” I braved myself for the worst.
“Oh Seulgi,” Irene sighed, suddenly looking more tired than she had in years— even more tired than she had been after her duel with Chanmi. “I saw the most beautiful girl I had ever laid eyes on.”
My heart stopped beating, I swear.
“You were only three years old at the time,” she continued, “but what I saw was the future that you could have had if the heavens had not sentenced you to death.” Her voice grew quiet. “A happy Seulgi, living life to the fullest in a world where her parents hadn’t died. You... you were supposed to die with them in that attack Seulgi. And I—” Her voice broke, and I immediately tugged her towards me, one hand cradling her head to press against my chest. “I couldn’t save them, Seulgi! I— you were my priority, and I went back for them after I stole you away from the castle in your sleep, I swear! But I wasn’t fast enough... I wasn’t quick enough!
“Why couldn’t I have saved them too?” Irene sobbed, her hands coming up to clutch at her scalp. With tears tracking down my own cheeks, I shook my head ceaselessly, prying her fingers and smoothing her hair before wiping away her tears. She hiccuped, swiping at her eyes fruitlessly. “I wasn’t in charge of escorting your mother and father’s souls to the Hall of Origins. All I knew at the time was that I couldn’t let you die like that. And even after I was banned from entering through heaven’s gate ever again, I knew that they would come for you, so I vowed to keep you safe.”
“My guardian angel,” I joked through sniffles. “My guardian angel with black raven wings. My Irene.”
“Yours,” Irene agreed, placing a small palm over my heart. “I may not be an official guardian angel, but I am your Irene.”
“I love you,” I said without thinking.
“I love you more,” Irene replied, not even having to think. She beamed teary grin at me. “I’ve loved you since the moment I saw you.”
“So you wanted to protect me,” I mumbled from behind my book, flushing as I peeked above the pages to sneak a look at Joy who had regarded our whole exchange with sisterly amusement. “You decided against becoming a world-class magician to instead become my castle librarian, because you wanted to protect me.”
“That just about sums it up!” Joy chirped with a shrug. “I told you my reasoning wasn’t complicated.”
“You told me it was because you liked reading books!”
”Not false,” Joy grinned cheekily, waving her hand and levitating a few books midair. A second later, she sent them flying to different corners of the library. I scrunched my nose in annoyance. Typical Joy, turning a heartwarming moment into something else entirely. She extended her arms to the stacks and stacks of literature surrounding us. “Plus, this place is a magician’s dream! No other kingdom has such extensive archives of text of any subject, ranging from romance novels to ancient magic tomes!”
I lifted a shoulder reluctantly, “I guess I see what you mean.”
Then Joy’s gaze turned soft, and she smiled at me, completely genuine now. “But, I mainly chose this path because my spiritual big sister and best friend was nearly assassinated one night. Like I was going to let that happen a second time.”
A moment of silence.
“Thank you, Joy.”
“When are you two going to get married?” Irene asked plainly that afternoon, leaning on my shoulder, casually playing with my fingers as we lounged in my garden with our friends. Our spot on our marble bench, she raised an eyebrow at Wendy and Eunji curiously, that slight smirk that I had denied as charming dancing on her lips.
Wendy sighed dramatically, reclining into Eunji’s chest where that sat on the grass.
“I’d like to know that too, now that there’s really nothing to stop it,” the former servant girl replied cheekily, and I grinned. I’d appointed Wendy as my royal advisor just hours prior, after a suggestion from Irene, and the ten minutes I spent hitting myself on the head, asking myself why I hadn’t thought of that solution before. (Irene had cackled at me the entire time, sticking her tongue out in that Irene-way that had somehow become so endearing to me).
Eunji laughed, opening to respond – probably with some smooth remark – before Yeri abruptly cut her off.
“Don’t say anything yet!” The young prophet girl exclaimed, eyes positively gleaming. “I had a vision, but Joy doesn’t believe me! So we have to leave this one up to Eunji, alright?”
Meanwhile, the red-haired librarian scoffed. “You’re just playing with me, Yerim! You know that my prediction is actually right, but you’re just saying you had a so-called ‘vision’ to screw around!”
“I just can’t believe you’re having visions about something like Eunji’s future proposal date,” I stated blandly, rolling my eyes playfully. “You’d think there’d be something more interesting going on.”
“But of course!” Eunji chuckled. “Because we just bested your everyday dragon, nothing big here.”
“Honestly,” I huffed with joking indignation. “Why doesn’t anything exciting happen these days?”
“If I were anyone else,” Wendy remarked with a quirk at the corner of her lips, “I could almost believe that blasé attitude of yours, Your Highness, with your endless paperwork and whatnot. The only problem is that you aren’t scorning Irene’s very existence at the moment.”
“That’s right!” Irene pouted, eying me accusingly. “You hated me!”
“I never hated you!”
My witch rolled her eyes. “Oh please. You despised my presence and you know it.”
“I was just annoyed, that’s all!” And I frowned. “You even admitted to irritating me on purpose!” I lowered my voice to try and keep it from wavering. “You said that you thought you were going to die.”
We all went silent at that. Irene continued to look at me gently.
“But I didn’t,” she reminded me gently, moving to look me in the eyes. “I’m right here, in front of you.”
“And I’m still in disbelief.” I shook my head before wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling Irene in close. “I swear… that book that Yeri dropped off in my office said that using the sword of Stella Mortem to kill a celestial being resulted in death— the whole ‘life for a life’ deal.”
“Seul,” Irene giggled, the sound like chiming bells. “Do you know how old I am? I’m an immortal who has lived countless lives over the thousands of centuries since my first creation. So one of those lives was taken. So what?”
“So you’re really here to stay?” I asked uncertainly.
“Absolutely,” she nodded before pausing. “Well, it also helped that Chanmi wasn’t the Goddess of Death herself.” She laughed. “She was just a stuck up underling. And you – well, all of you – don’t have to worry about Seulgi’s well-being anymore. The God of Life has new plans for this world, and the God of Death had stopped attempting to take Seulgi’s life. Really, the whole thing with Chanmi was that woman and the centuries-old grudge that she’s held against me."
Wendy’s eyes went wide. “What the hell did you do to her, Irene?”
“That’s a story for another day,” Irene winked, waving off the question with the flick of her wrist. I chuckled but said nothing.
“So you’re really an angel?” Yeri asked curiously as Joy leisurely floated in the air nearby, snagging an apple from my prized apple tree. I glared at her for a hot-second, only to feel all heat ease away when Irene placed a consolidating hand over my own.
“I was,” Irene corrected with a shrug. She snapped her fingers, and another apple grew from back in place of the one Joy picked. The red-haired librarian gawked silently, her stare flying from the newly grown apple and Irene. “They let me keep my wings though.”
“Aren’t they black now?” I questioned, and Irene smirked.
“They were, but—” There’s the familiar sound of beating feathers, and suddenly I gaped as a pair of white wings unfurled around both Irene and I. “—the God of Life is forgiving.”
“So you’re an angel.” I deadpanned.
“No, I’m your angel,” Irene grinned. “There’s a difference. I get to choose when to return to heaven now too.”
“Wow.” I whistled in awe. “So a lot of things happened when I was passed out during that white light.”
My angel nodded. “A lot of things, indeed.”
“The tension is real,” Joy commented offhandedly to Yeri, who nodded dumbly. Eunji and Wendy just laughed.
Irene rolled her eyes, and with one fluid motion, she wrapped the expanse of her wings around me, successfully hiding the two of us from the view of the others like curtain.
I couldn’t even tell what was happening before I felt a soft pair of feather-soft lips press into mine.
I blinked as Irene pulled away, looking up at me uncharacteristically bashful.
“Love you,” she muttered, looking down shyly.
I beamed at her, full teeth on show, and Irene’s eyes glimmered as she returned the expression wholeheartedly.
“Love you too.”
A/N: We made it to the end of my token fantasy fic! Thanks for reading guys!!!!! <3