Driven by it's never ending hunger, the darkness left it's home... and silently began eating. When the darkness fed on something, it didn't cause any pain. To be exact, people didn't feel anything when touched and eaten by it. It just destroyed them silently.
As was with his aunt. She didn't notice the black point eating in her flesh, not even when it grew and grew. When it wandered up her arm as a black vein. All her attention was on her nephew, who had closed his eyes, his brows knitted.
The darkness that had taken seven lives now, the darkness she feared instinctively and was still glad that it existed because it saved her, very slowly receded on the child's arms and neck.
"That's good.", she encouraged him. "Compel it more." She had an inkling what this darkness was, although she wasn't sure about it. It was so strange... different from what she knew. She had only seen ice-mages and a few fire- and wind-mages in her life. This darkness was too unusual. Could it really be a magic ability?
However, what else could it be? What happened wasn't natural. It had to be done by magic. And coincidentally, her nephew was around the age most children awakened, too.
The small point of darkness grew and distributed itself in her body, eating and eating. Suddenly, she felt dizzy. Was it because of the cold, she thought to herself. She wanted to rub her face, but when she lifted her hand, she could only stare at it dumbly. What had looked like a palm from the one side, was only wiggling black fluid on the other. Was... was this a dream? She couldn't feel any pain. Stunned, she looked at her palm as it slowly melted away. Then suddenly and without her contribution, her body jerked. Her heart drummed against her chest. She looked down, and disbelieve and horror colored her face.
Instead of her legs and h.i.p.s, there was only a black fluid spreading on the cave floor. Her lower body was... gone!
She screamed. Or at least that was, what she intended to do, but instead black liquid bubbled out of her throat, spilling on her nephews chest.
Surprised, Nathaniel opened his eyes... and saw something he would never ever forget. However old he might get, this horror would stay in his mind. Instead of his aunt's, his screams filled the cave.
Katherine felt the earl shudder, his chest heaving up and down heavily. Her tears wet his shirt, but he didn't loosen his embrace. Strangely, she felt like he needed it more than her, even though he was the one to scare her silly at first.
But maybe it was not that strange, given that it was the death anniversary of his aunt. His emotions must be in a turmoil. His aunt was dead. Her parents were, too. They were united in misery.
Slowly, she raised her arms and coiled them around his waist, hugging him back. At first, he stiffened, but a second later he pulled her even deeper into his chest.
She heard his heart beat loudly next to her ear. His breath hit her scalp. The warmth let her feel strangely safe. It may only be an illusion, but she held onto it with all her heart. Just for now, she didn't want to think about what happened before. She wondered, was he crying too? Her tears were still running silently, her hands clutching the back of his shirt tightly.
Nathaniel wasn't crying. He was staring down at her as if she was a miracle he didn't dare believe. She was hugging him back. Why was she hugging him? How did he deserve being hugged by this pure creature? Heavens above, it felt too good. Too good to be true. And at the same time, he was too greedy to push her away.
When was the last time someone hugged him? It was probably back then when his aunt shared the blanket with him. Twenty years. He missed it so much. He didn't even know how much, before her arms surrounded him.
Still, this hug was different from the one his aunt gave him. Naturally, he was bigger now. But that wasn't all. He was strangely consciousness of the softness of her body. Especially the part he touched before. Such a big chest And her smell was so nice. Like fresh water and roses.
He wanted to bury his head in her hair, inhale deeply and never let her go. But if he touched her, really touched her, that would ruin everything. It was dangerous enough as it was now. So, he only hugged her and soaked in her warmth and wonderful scent.
Silently, they stayed like this for god knows how long. Katherine's tears stopped after a while. They dried on his shirt, but still none of them wanted to break their warm and quiet bubble. It was a luxury that could not be bought by wealth and would cease to exist as soon as one of them recognized the past. Recognized who they really were again.
In the end, it was Katherine's stomach that let the bubble pop. It growled like a grown-up lion. Instinctively, Katherine pulled away and clutched her belly. Her cheeks reddened in shame.
Like an equally hungry beast, Nathaniel nearly growled back, his arms already tightening. Just in time, rationality kicked in, and he let her go. He couldn't hug her forever. It was embarrassing enough that he held her for such a long time, given that he planned to be cold to her just this morning.
Angry at himself, his tone turned out harsh. "Didn't you eat already? Won't you ever be full?"
Her cheeks blushed even more. "Most of it got spilled, remember? How long did you plan to stay here anyways?"
Instead of an answer, he only made an annoyed sound and sauntered out of the cave.
The guards were still waiting outside, walking in circles because of the cold. When they saw Nathaniel and Katherine come out together finally, they looked relieved.
Jack whispered to Pete: "Told you it wouldn't be a problem. How can anybody be angry about our lady? And the earl looks less frosty now, right? Don't they look good together?"
"Shut your trap.", Pete advised quietly. "If they look good together isn't on us to decide. Exactly like if someone follows the earl or not."
"Oh, please." This time it was Jack who rolled his eyes. "He didn't even say that she can't go in. He gestured. It was on us to decide, if she was included or if it was only meant for the guards."
"It was obviously meant for everyone.", Pete retorted.
"Even if, don't you see it worked out great this way? The atmosphere around the earl is much lighter. See, those two are made for each other."
Noticing the irony, Pete lifted a brow. "What became of 'I don't want to give my daughter away yet'?"
"Uuuhm..." He really did say that, right? And didn't he think this demon of an earl was the worst choice? "You know, as a dad, I just can't get in the way of true love..."
Pete snorted. "Whatever. Just remember, the next time you're going against orders - or around, like today - I will shave your beard off. I won't go with your shit anymore."
"What?!", Jack blurted out, and looked deeply shocked. He didn't even realize he just indirectly acknowledged that he was disobeying. "Why my poor beard?!"
"Because your head is so silly that it won't react to a normal threat. It would only get more stubborn if threatened to be chopped off. But I know you love your beard more than your live." The grin on Pete's face was quite vicious.
"You won't!", Jack retorted with wide eyes. He knew, even if he was stubborn, his partner was even worse. In their military time, Pete hadn't been nicknamed 'the wall' for nothing. Normally, he was tolerant, but whenever he really decided on something, even an army couldn't move him one millimeter.
The smile on Pete's face didn't change. "I will. It's decided. Now, shouldn't we follow them down?"