The Ruby Insignia

Chapter One

Kindled Power

The year 6347 OI (Odunti Ikpe)

She always smelled of roses—it was her signature scent.

It lingered around her like embers trailing off her skin. Some days, that scent would fade into something like honey mixed with burning incense. On other days, it would resemble something more seductive, something more intoxicating.

But today, her fragrance was something new. Something He hadn’t noticed before now. And it wasn’t just her embers. It was like a heavy perfume had cloaked her embers underneath, drowning out what He sensed was blood. Fresh blood.

Her blood.

Arched over her, she was enveloped in His shadows. He could smell the odor that emanated from her, raw and untamed. She couldn’t hide it from Him; she didn’t try. But she had drowned herself in a sweet cologne that masked it. Maybe, she’d used the perfume to hide the scent of her blood from the other Ehols and Aingeals. But to mask the scent of blood from Him was impossible.

Taking a stealthy breath in, He thought back on the time she first called Him. Centuries had passed, and nights like these felt empty and quiet. Until three days ago. A’Mara had summoned Him to the forest buried deep within the Kingdom of Kekere-Daun. And He had made His way to her. It was unlike Him, yes, but it was A’Mara that called. And when she called, He always felt it was His obligated duty to answer. And today, she called Him again.

But this time, not with words. But from intuition. He felt it: something was wrong. He picked it up through their bond.

And He left Ariwa-Ịte to find her.

When she had called Him the first time, though she was angry, she seemed well. She and Kerria had a fight, and the disagreement led to her calling Him. He wasn’t bothered by it, but He never thought that something as simple as a fight would have escalated to the full-on melancholy He saw in her golden eyes. He never thought it would lead to the pain she felt—the pain He felt, now that she’d clutched onto Him, desperately trying to hold onto the little reservoir of hope that slowly diminished.

Her emotions were always entangled with His, especially since they bonded. He felt everything she felt. From the slightest bit of anger to unexplainable joy, He felt it. And He understood it in ways she didn’t. He was okay with the onslaught of emotions that she brought. He trained Himself to be used to it.

But the only thing He couldn’t bring Himself to be okay with—the only thing He resented was the pain. Not that He couldn’t tolerate the pain Himself. He was more than capable of it. But it was her. A’Mara shouldn’t have to feel pain.

He had done everything in His power to shield her from it. He knew what pain caused, and an Empress should never have to endure it.

The pain threatened to choke her. It threatened to take her life.

He wasn’t going to allow it.

For the first time in centuries, when He’d visited her three days ago, though angered by Kerria, she was upbeat, lively. And her attire reflected it. Silk dress flowing over her skin like smooth, red lacquer paint; she resembled the Empress He knew her to be—sensuous and confident.

But now draped in the white satin she had bonded with Him in many centuries ago, she was broken. The glimmer of rose-gold that hung around her neck, attached to a clean-cut ruby pendant He had given her that night told Him many things. That was her wedding gift: a sign of their bond and commitment. A promise of His love to her. And He knew she would wear it anytime she felt lonely or down-hearted.

But she would never wear it when she was in pain.

Coming closer to her, He let His embers wrap around her and then cupped her chin, gently nudging her to look at Him. Her face was puffy from the tears she’d cried. The face that once glowed with the embers of an Empress He fell in love with many Oduns ago was now bleached of its rich umber color and replaced with a pale, ghastly look of a complexion reddened with pain and fear.

Who could have caused her this pain?

Who could have caused this unbearable magnitude of anguish that seeped through her skin and into His? Pain so unbearable even He had a hard time tolerating it?

It was no ordinary pain. It was deep-set torment bludgeoning His back. It was like knives being stabbed in His skin, creating harrowing wounds that would never heal.

He trailed His fingers down her shoulder, tugging her around. The dread and almost-empty void that settled on His stomach were enough to cause His embers to bubble up underneath His skin, but He kept His Sẹda at bay, watching slowly as the white satin A’Mara wore turned into a gruesome crimson red at the back.

A’Mara jerked in her tears, terrified to even show it to Him. The gown was drenched in blood, shredded, with the tiniest bit of fabric covering what was left of her bare skin and the two upsetting wounds it was stuck to. He pulled it off, letting the dress hang off her shoulders as she buried her face in her hands, sobbing.

The two wounds—in the place of wings.

The laceration was deep and bubbling with blood. Broken bones hung out of her torn flesh, and the remainder of her skin around the wounds seemed burnt with acid. Her skin peeled off from pale pink flesh and the sight of it all only made Him angrier.

He pulled His hand away from her; stared at the wound. Her wings were gone. Ripped away from her, skin burned and broken. And for a slight second, He felt the teardrop form in His eye.

She was ruined.

They did whatever they could to prove a point to Him.

His mind flashed to a long list of suspects that could have done it. He’d long considered the Titans since for years they lurked in the shadows of Dunia’s darkest forests but far away from A’Mara. He didn’t dare think that the reprobate Ehols would really show themselves like this. But it wasn’t them; He was sure of that.

He wondered if it was someone else. Someone darker and more twisted than the Titans. Three days ago, A’Mara called for Him. She must have given away her location and attracted them her way.

He should have stayed with her. He shouldn’t have returned back to Ariwa-Ịte. He could contemplate it now, but the deed was already done. Someone found her and inflicted this sort of pain on her. To prove a point to Him.

He told her to trust Him.

And she did.

This was the result.

The longer He stared at the wound, the deeper the hatred became. And revenge became the fuel that ignited the Sẹda that surged beneath His skin. He promised her He’d never do this. He would never use His Sẹda to inflict cruel punishment on anyone. But someone was testing Him, tempting Him to use it: to break a seal, to go back on a vow.

He let His energy subside; it leeched into the ground, and the low rumbles beneath His feet reminded Him of the sounds of what could have been destruction.

A’Mara stood there, shivering and clutching herself. She was hurting, and she was petrified. She had every reason to be.

And what would He say to her?

She’d long risked her life to be with Him. She risked her life in an attempt to save a Clan that fell no matter how hard He tried to help them. What would He say to the Empress whose love was the very thing that created these realms? What would he say to the Empress whose life He once saved and whose trust He’d gained? And for the times He’d been with her, she endured the pain served to her by the hands of gods and angels who thought it was their duty to take matters into their own hands. And now, here she was, battered and broken. Defeated.

She never held up to the standards of the other females in the realms. She was unusual; she was rebellious. An Empress whose own stubbornness led her to fight for what she believed in. She broke laws to help those who need help, and she made sacrifices beyond comparison. No female in His arsenal could match up to her courage. No female in these realms could stand up to her loyalty. No one had a heart like hers.

There were times He had convinced Himself that she wasn’t worthy of His love, but at the time, He’d failed to see the sacrifices she made for Him. And for a while, in honesty, rather than protect her, He despised her. In the end, she still came to Him. She still called Him.

She still trusted Him.

He took A’Mara in His arms, her skin hot to the touch, and her eyes filled with fear as streams of tears ran down onto her cheeks and soaked her dress. She barely looked at Him, but she held on tightly to Him. She buried her head into His chest; He pulled her in closer. So close to Him that He felt her heartbeat. Her breaths were staccato as she tried desperately to fight the pain. But each time she pulled in her breath, her heartbeat grew louder, and with each beat, her heart spoke to His. Her energy vibrated off her skin in a song that matched her beating heart. And within those embers, He could hear her calling Him. Beckoning Him to save her.

There was something strangely unique about that song. There was an odd familiarity to it. Her song intertwined with His, like she was made for His energy. Their cores were one and the same, carrying the same DNA in their energies. It gently reminded Him of who she was—who He was. And it was that gentle reminder that made Him realize how much these realms depended on both of them for survival. He wouldn’t dare take that away from her.

There was something complex and daring and true about the love she had for Him—the love He had for her. He promised her His protection, and in turn, she promised Him her love. These were the sacrifices they made to create a realm and to sustain it.

Power had once been the fuel to create these realms—a Kingdom in which He was enthroned the King. But love was the power that kept these realms thriving. And though He held that power, she held the love that fueled it.

And though that same love tortured Him night after night, right now, it tortured Him no more. For whoever did this to her, He would find them. And they would wish they had never been made.