Cloak of Night (Circle of Shadows #2) - Evelyn Skye
Empress Aki woke up completely disoriented and with a skull-hammering headache.
She opened her eyes slowly, because even that movement hurt her head. There was dirt beneath her, and the air here was sharp and sour, as if a crate of cleaning solution had been left open and undiluted. Her throat ached from breathing it.
What is this place? Aki certainly wasn’t in the Imperial City anymore.
The last thing she remembered was her brother, Gin, taking control of her mind and forcing her to abdicate the throne in his favor and then one of his ryuu turning everything in the world green and knocking her unconscious.
Carefully, the former empress rose, bracing herself against a wall. She was still in the taiga uniform she’d donned before the battle with Gin, and now her sleeves caught on the jagged rock walls.
Aki was in a grotto of some sort. A waterfall crashed twenty yards away from her, and a pool of churning water spanned the short distance between the grotto floor and the base of the falls.
She crept along the narrow ledge of rock around the edge of the pool. Surely this was more than a mere grotto. Gin wouldn’t leave her alone if she could simply swim her way out.
She approached the underside of the waterfall and stretched her hand toward it.
The droplets burned her fingers, and Aki jerked her arm away. “Nines!” she cursed, falling backward onto the ground. Wisps of smoke rose from her fingertips.
Instinctively, she began to plunge her hand into the pool to cool it down, but she caught herself at the last moment. The pool might be filled with the same thing.
Aki cradled her hand and gaped at the torrent of acid raining down in front of her. Was this a fabricated prison that the ryuu had created? Or was this a real waterfall, and they’d somehow transformed the water into something deadly? In either case, it was terrifying.
A girl laughed from the other side of the grotto. Aki startled but didn’t see anyone there. She scurried back to the opposite part of the cave.
Out of thin air, the girl materialized.
Virtuoso. Aki gritted her teeth from both the pain of the acid burn and seeing the ryuu who had knocked her out during the battle at Rose Palace.
The girl didn’t even bother with a greeting before she stalked over, kneed Aki in the stomach, and shoved her onto the slick ground.
Tears stung Aki’s eyes. “Please. You have to let me go,” she said.
“No,” Virtuoso said curtly.
“I demand it.”
Aki had nothing. She was a prisoner. She couldn’t cast spells like her brother and the ryuu and taigas could. No one knew where she was, or even that she was still alive. She might as well be dead.
She slouched against the wall, no longer bothering to hide the fingers burned by the acid.
Virtuoso smirked at Aki’s blistering skin. “I see you’ve discovered that these are no ordinary waterfalls.”
“You did this?”
“It was my idea. Another ryuu executed it for me. Want to go for a swim?” she sneered.
“I thought my brother wanted me alive. You know, so I could suffer in exile as he had to. Isn’t that what he said before he had me thrown in here?”
Virtuoso glared daggers at her.
Aki set her jaw. She refused to give away the fear chewing at her bones.
The acid in front of Virtuoso began to boil. What in Sola’s name was this? Aki pressed herself even harder against the wall to get as far away from it as possible.
An enormous emerald bubble—seven or eight feet in diameter—rose from the depths of the acid. The orb bobbed to shore and opened as if it were yawning. It was empty, except for a large armchair.
Virtuoso glowered. “There’s a small cell behind this rock wall, sheltered from the acid. Squeeze through the crevice over there”—she pointed to a person-sized crack in the grotto wall, obscured by the falls’ shadows—“and you’ll find a mattress, water, and food. Enough to survive. Barely.”
Then she stepped into her green bubble, sat in it like the captain of a small ship, and sank into the water, leaving Aki behind.
Possibly for the rest of her life, because Gin wanted her to rot here as punishment.
She hugged her knees to her chest and looked at the curtain of acid locking her into this prison.
But there was still one hope, even if it was a small one.
“League of Rogues,” Aki whispered. “If you’re out there, please don’t give up on me.”
Hana clenched her