Chapter 1- Forever
An epidemic of ævids was sweeping through the Karsaë like deadly wildfire. Sixteen-year old Zoë Wren was stricken with the hallucinating, mind-destroying disease, lying on a small rough cot in the back of the infirmary, eyes rapidly moving behind feverish eyelids, sweat beading on her pale brow.
"Are you going to leave her alone to die?" Raven asked angrily.
Chance, the bald and aged head of the infirmary locked long, tapered fingers together and glanced at the tall, well-muscled fighter beside him. "There is nothing we can do to help her, it will only spread because the disease is too contagious. Half of the population has already passed, do you want the other half to die on the account of one girl?" he asked coolly.
Raven's black-gloved fist punched and almost broke through the wall, the sound making Zoë flinch and whimper in her sleep. "I will not stand by and watch her die!"
"Careful, assassin. If you are stupid enough to risk your life to risk your life for a worthless wretch like her, then go ahead. But I will not be here to treat you when you are ill."
"Zoë is not worthless! The only reason you refuse to treat her is because she has no one to pay you for the treatment," Raven hissed between clenched teeth as he shoved Chance to the floor and stormed into Zoë's room. Gently, Raven picked up Zoë's limp and feverish form. A soft whimper of pain and fear escaped her pale lips.
Raven gingerly brushed her damp hair away from her corpse-hued skin. "It's okay, Zoë. I'm here now, I'll protect you."
"You have just sealed your death, Raven," Chance said as he struggled back to his feet.
"At least I'll know I died while I tried to save something I love," Raven angrily said as he delivered a swift kick to Chance's ribs.
As Raven stalked out with Zoë lying in his arms, an infirmary assistant ran to help the old man to his feet.
"Should I summon the guards? They won't make it out of the infirmary," he said as he wiped the red tattoos on Chance's bald head.
"No," Chance responded as he wiped blood from his mouth. "They'll both be dead by the end of the month."
Instead of taking Zoë back to his home at the center of the town, Raven took her to a small cabin out in the woods. For days and nights he nursed her back to health, neglecting his needs and ignoring the signs that the disease was slowly claiming him.
On a cold, snowy day, the first day of the new winter and three weeks after Raven started treating Zoë, he finally succumbed to the deathly kiss of the disease, screaming that he could see the angel of death, and that it was Zoë.
After he died, Zoë knew that she couldn't stay here, the memories too fresh and painful. Drawing on reserves of strength she hadn't known existed, Zoë carried Raven's body out into the still-falling snow and buried him beneath the welcoming arms of a weeping willow near the cabin.
Wiping tears from cheeks raw from the cold, Zoë turned and walked away from the cabin and back to the Karsaë city where they had been content to let her die.
In the year since Raven's death, Zoë had attended the assassin school, the school she had been selected for. During the first week, she had proven all instructors wrong about her by soaring through the ranks to the highest one.
By the time she was sixteen, she had more black runes than any other Karsaë assassin at the school, and was looked upon with a mixture of fear and awe.
Finally, her graduation day had come. At seventeen, she was the youngest to graduate with the skills of a full assassin.
She brushed her waist-length sable hair and looked at her reflection in the mirror. Black runes curved to the back of her left shoulder and twisted at a soft angle to her left hip. Charcoal eyes filled with sadness and pain, Zoë traced the first mark on her hip, the heart bound by steel with a tear drop hanging from it. It was the first rune that had been tattooed on her skin, marking her first kill, the heart meaning it had been a great sacrifice.
"Oh Raven," she whispered softly. "I'd rather be dead with you than here alone."
"Zoë, it is almost time for the ceremony," called an instructor from the hallway.
Zoë finished lacing the front of her black fighting shirt and pulled on a pair of leather boots over her fitted pants. She gently tucked a silver chain with a matching ring into her shirt and walked across the room to the door.
"Raven would be proud of you, Zoë," said the instructor softly as they walked to the courtyard where the ceremony would take place.
Zoë blinked back a tear as the ceremonial stand looked into view. All of the students and instructors were here, watching another graduate receive his final rune. He held back a scream as the burning black metal burned the rune into his skin. Zoë turned away and tried to close off thoughts of Raven.
The other graduate left the stand and Zoë walked up to the brander.
"You have done well, Zoë Wren," he said as he moved her hair from her left shoulder. He smiled slightly when he saw the silver chain. "Still wearing Raven's ring?"
"He promised to marry me, and I'm still honoring my side of that promise."
The instructor shook his head sadly and lifted the brand and pressed the burning metal into her skin. Unlike others when being branded, Zoë didn't flinch or cry out. She steeled her body against the pain and thought of Raven, and how strong their love had been for each other.