All it takes is a single instant.
A split second and the world Livia had endured for more than a year turns on its head.
One moment a warm hand encases her own as they ran through a hidden passageway. His gait was fast compared to his round form, faster than she ever has seen him move. They rush downstairs and whirl around sharp corners. Footsteps could be heard pounding after them, as did taunts and yells.
The stone around them vibrate with the thrum of battle, and the smell of smoke was heavy in the air.
His grip threatens to slip from hers, but Livia only interlocked their fingers so that it didn’t. Once, she would have been mildly disgusted at his sweaty hands and how easily her own sink into his soft moldable flesh. But now she can’t tell who is sweating more and the thought of his hand ripping away from her own sends a thick trendle of fear straight to her heart.
It surprises her.
Livia had not thought she cared for him in the least. She had thought he had simply been a means to an end. Something to use and eventually toss away once she was done.
But then the world started to burn around them.
Instead of making his own escape and saving himself, he had come for her, searched desperately for her even as his most loyal servants turned against him and abandoned him.
She had felt a sense of relief when she found him in the library, frantically calling her name.
You are still alive, they both had thought when their eyes met.
His hand had reached for hers and she had not hesitated like she once would have and now refuse to let go of it now.
They manage to lose their pursuers in the tunnels below the palace. A thundering explosion above had caved in a section of the stone passage. The crunch of bone, the smell of freshly spilled blood, and the screams that abruptly cut off nearly stopped him in his step, but not her. Unlike him, Livia had witnessed such things firsthand. For him, it was the first time he had been so close to death. A very rare luxury in the empire, in this world. He nearly stops, stumbles even, but she shoves him forward roughly, her eyes conveying that they don’t stop.
“You will be killed! MOVE!” Livia yells above the noise.
They make it to his personal garden, at the edge of the palace towering walls. The invading force had pushed through the entrance, confident and arrogant. They hadn’t yet made it this far. The garden remains just as beautiful as it was a day before, untouched by those who would have seen it burn in glee.
Their pace slows and they both see the hidden exit from their position on the top of the stairs. It leads to the dense woods that are cheerfully named The Lost Forest on the other end of the private garden.
Her thin gown that clings to her figure sways in the night breeze. Livia shoves her slim wrist out, revealing the golden band tight around each one, “Take them off!” she demands instantly.
He hesitates, his dark eyes are unsure and scared.
“Magic is the only thing that can help us right now! I can save us both, but I need complete access to my power,” She explains in agitation, glancing back at the hidden entrance they just came through.
“Do it!” She snaps, cutting him off.
His hand responds even as his eyes remain unconvinced. He removes a ring on his own finger with his family crest and hands it to her before his hands hover above her wrist.
There was only one way to break the bands once they were placed. A user had to be powerful enough to overwhelm them with a quick surge of raw, untapped power. Many wouldn’t even risk it. It would drain them to dangerous levels or outright kill them, and even then, the band would remain firmly in place. Once encased in them, even the most potent of magic users couldn’t escape instantly.
It was no easy task.
Even still, she had found a loophole.
She had been slowly changing the void metal into something more harmless, such as silver over the course of a few months, weakening the bands. She had been able to access a small amount of her magic for months now. It exhausted her and did more harm than good, but she had deemed it worth it. Now, she simply didn’t have the time.
Livia watches impatiently as he gathers his magic.
He was completely untrained.
Of course, he was.
Everyone in the Eastern Empire was.
The moment they were born, they all had sealed off their magic with a rune tattooed into their skin. He also has such a rune on him. It was much fancier and elaborate to mirror his station but it did little good. His magic was too wild, it refused to be contained. That was what the ring was for. The band was made out of a void metal while the square jewel was a rare dragon scale. It was the only thing that sealed off his magic entirely, as was the custom of the land.
He was powerful.
If anyone could break the bands in one go, it was him.
“Brace yourself,” He says quietly, his eyes filled to the brim in concern.
Livia did, but she couldn’t stop her grunt of pain at the lick of fire around her wrist before the thin bands snap like a twig and fall into lush grass.
Her magic rushes forward undaunted. She staggers forward, her vision spinning, and he catches her.
“We must hurry. They will be here soon,” He says gently, but she can feel how his body trembles, how his voice wobbles over the words.
Livia doesn’t thank him. Instead, she nods, and straightens herself, ignoring how his arms remain up to catch her again if she was to fall. She grabs his hand and leads the way to the exit.
The garden was small but still shaped like a maze. He brought her here often though, so she knows the way. They would leave the palace and wander around to the edge of The Lost Forest. He would speak about all the monsters that live inside it and tell her about the stories that had been passed down for centuries about the forest. He was never brave enough to go deeper, not without his guards, but his curiosity about the world beyond the palace was always obvious.
Her hand tightens around his.
Livia whispers protection spells under her breath, her hand placed over her stomach.
She had been on her way to tell him when the first scream had hit the air and the palace trembled around her. It had been an entirely baffling and unpleasant discovery. It is a wrench thrown in her carefully laid out plan. She had almost extinguished it the moment she realized what nestled inside of her. It was a burden she didn’t need much less ask for. It was slow her down and even hinder her. But she had stopped herself.
Livia hadn’t thought about it again until now.
Her magic would need time to properly recover. It was shaky and very unstable, slipping out of her grasp like a sleek snake. She could do little with it, but she tried anyway. Livia directed another protection spell to him.
They make it to the center of the garden. A beautiful fountain spouts out the water the color of a rainbow and seating lined the edges. She remembers telling him of her sister. She had never told anyone of her life before she was brought to the empire. Livia had thought it wasn't anyone's business, but one morning, she found herself telling him. She hadn't told him anything of importance, and never went into detail, but the fact she told him anything at all was telling.
They re-enter the maze. His pants are loud in her ears while she is barely out of breath.
This time, he doesn’t complain about her moving too fast. He doesn’t whine for her to slow down.
The exit is hidden behind expertly trimmed shrubbery by large white blooming roses.
She sees the pearly flowers first.
“There!” He says behind her, loud and full of excitement. Livia nods in agreement and yanks him forward none too gently. Her fingers were just skimming over vibrant leaves when a harsh slash of wind slams her forward.
His scream of pain and the sound of his body hitting the floor happens a second later.
Livia rolls to her feet, her eyes quickly trying to find him.
The whole maze was gone. Cut down by a single swing of a monstrous sword. Standing by the fountain they passed only moments before was a tall imposing figure. A white-gloved hand raised the sword once again as the figure strolled forward casually, walking into better lighting. Hair is as red as blood and his eyes the color of a soulless moon.
Saer had made his appearance.