Veil of Souls.
Surrounded by darkness the light shines brightest.
Aether is all. Life. Love. Death. Rebirth. But most of all, Aether is power.
I was born into a world of love, kindness, and pretty things…then it was brutally ripped away. Taken in by their leader, I grew up amongst the Vipers, a violent caste of thieves and cutthroats who prowl the city of Tetris.
My only calling in life is vengeance against those who killed my family. And it will be mine—it’s only a matter of time. Yet, vengeance must wait. The Aether, the Veil between our mortal world and the Netherworld, is sick. The souls of the dead are restless, and the souls of the living are being stolen, dragged without mercy into the darkness.
When I’m caught using magic to destroy the soul suckers who threaten my home, everything changes. I’m forced to work for the man I hate most in this world. He’s dangerous. Ruthless. A liar who ripped apart my heart.
Well, he’ll soon find out that I’m not the same love-sick fool he left behind. This time, Dexalion won’t chew my heart up and spit it out. It doesn’t matter how sexy his smile is, or how much I enjoy pushing his control; the only one in charge of my life is me.
*Warning! Due to the swearing/cursing, violence, hot & sometimes detailed sex scenes, plus all the feels leaving a major book hangover, this series is aimed at 18+ readers!
Icy fog wrapped its ghostly fingers around me, the wind breaching my too-thin clothes as the damp made them stick to my skinny body.
Only seconds ago, my mother had collapsed next to a huge boulder. I studied her pale face and blue lips, my heart racing. My hands trembled so much I could barely grasp my mother’s boney shoulders to shake her.
“Momma?” I croaked, my mouth and throat so dry it was difficult to speak.
Her eyelids fluttered open. Deep green irises fringed with long, dark lashes that were so like mine, peered at me but without the spark of life, the defiance they normally held. My mother had always been beautiful. Even now, as death stalked her, she was the most beautiful thing in the Netherworld, and especially in my world. My heart hurt, my chest squeezing so hard I couldn’t suck air into my lungs. Hot tears tipped from my eyes, cutting a trail through the dirt and dried blood on my cheeks.
Her eyes fluttered closed.
“Momma, please don’t go! I don’t know what to do.” I shook her again, unable to hold back my sobs. If Father was here, he’d tell me crying was weak, that I was an embarrassment to myself and my bloodline. I sniffled loudly and tried to be strong, biting my lip so hard I tasted blood. “Momma? Please.”
Once again, she opened her eyes, her whispered voice barely strong enough to hear.
“You are so brave, so strong my beautiful son. Far stronger than your sire, which is why his hate knows no bounds. You have a long road ahead, but you were born to rule the shadows. And you will.”
I swiped away my tears, snivelling hard as she dragged in a weary breath.
“No.” I hiccoughed. “I can’t. Not without you. He won’t let me!”
I gripped her palm to my wet cheek, the iciness of her hand shocking me.
She smiled—the most serene smile I’d ever seen in my twelve years. I wanted to scream and shout and tell her to fight, but instinct told me not to. She wanted to go. She wanted the suffering that had been her life to end.
“Yes you can, Dexalion. Use your magic as I have taught you. The light of the Aether always shines brightest when surrounded by the darkness.”
“What do you mean, Momma? What light?” I cried, my whole body trembling.
She placed her other hand upon my heart. “Find the Angel who will be the light to your darkness, my son. Save the Heart of our world and heal the Veil. Promise me, Dexalion, promise me you will become who you are meant to be.”
Her emerald eyes briefly sharpened, but she needn’t have worried. I would do anything for my mother. I would make any promise she wished, especially if it would bring her peace in her final moments.
The growls and snarls that had chased us for days grew closer. It built to a frightening crescendo, amplified in the strange still air that wreathed the outer reaches of Haldaag. Hiding my fear, I nodded and kissed my mother’s pale cheek.
“Good boy,” she whispered. “Take this.”
She pressed a strange circular band into my hands. I stared at it, my stomach churning. It was the bone bracelet that my father wore on his arm. I had no idea what it was for, yet something inside my soul clicked as I touched it. All I knew was that Mother had been fiercely protective of it since we had run away. Through my tears, I managed to slide it over my bicep, jumping when it snapped closed. It fell down my skinny arm to my elbow. My nostrils flared. I promised myself that one day my muscles would be bigger than my father’s, that no one I cared for would ever again be treated as he had treated her.
“This is the most precious possession you will ever have. Keep it safe until you find the light.” She panted hard, each word an effort. “Do not sell it—or lose it. Ever.” Her eyes shifted, widening at something over my shoulder.
The barg skidded into the clearing, materialising through the mist like monstrous phantoms. She eyed the biggest one.
“He’s the Alpha. The King. Kill him. Then you’ll have them at your mercy. I know you are scared of your magic, but use it now or all will be lost.” She coughed weakly. “Give my body to the pack. Make them yours.” She blinked, and a tear ran down her cheek. “I love you. So much. Never forget that. Now go!” She pushed me backwards before her hands fell to rest limply at her sides, her head lolling to one side.
A loud growl rumbled through the air.
I spun on my knees, my legs shaking so much I toppled onto my side landing in the black mud. The Alpha barg lowered his head and snarled, revealing huge yellowed fangs, though its endless black eyes rested upon my mother, not me.
Fury shoved at the grief in my heart. “No. Not you,” I snarled. “You cannot have her. You are going to die.” My mother was right. These were the fabled Hounds of Death, their Alpha the sovereign of these dark and dangerous lands. These shifters sensed death; they hunted it, feeding on the flesh of the dead to increase their power. From what I remember, barg were shape-shifting demons. The hounds were their demon form.
I scuttled in front of my mother, whose chest was now still. My heart shattered, but my promise remained, burned into my soul for eternity; I was to use my darkness to find and free the Aether’s light. I vowed then and there as I stared into the fathomless eyes of this ruthless killer that I would never give up. Once I found the light, I would do everything in my power to keep it safe.
The pack stalked forward, creating a semi-circle around my mother’s body. I was aware of them all, but my eyes focused on the Alpha. The others wouldn’t attack unless he ordered them to.
I opened my numb fingers, feeling the touch of magic race from my soul and into my bones. Pushing away my fear, I yanked on it. The barg growled, lowering to its haunches as it stalked closer. My heart thudded against my chest wall, and my hands, though cold, were slick with sweat. Finding some courage, I held the Alpha’s gaze, trying not to cry or cower as it bared its teeth. Knowing I would die if I showed any weakness, I snarled back and threw my magic with everything I had. Nothing happened. Threads of shadow stuttered across the muddy ground, stopping short of my target. A mewling sound escaped my lips, and I shook my head. No! Not now! My magic had always been erratic and untrustworthy, especially when I was anxious. I often tried to summon its full strength only to end up struggling to control it.
The Alpha leapt backwards, away from my pathetic attempt to end its life. Its eyes narrowed as it snapped its great jaws and growled at the rest of the pack. Clearly an order to stay back.
I gulped, my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth, panic raging as I tried to grasp the magic that promised so much yet kept slipping away.
The Alpha dipped down on powerful haunches, then launched. I threw myself to the ground, screaming as pain exploded across my back. Its huge body passed over me, landing on the boulder above my mother. Claws, now dripping with my blood, clicked against the stone as it found purchase, its predatory gaze weighing me before completely disregarding me. Instead, it focused on my mother, its black eyes full of intent, saliva dripping from its fangs. Muscles rippled under its black scaly skin as it landed gracefully beside her body, intent only on its prize. It would wait until I was closer to my end before attacking again. It was the barg’s way. They were, after all, the legendary Hounds of Death.
Thick liquid trickled down my sides, seeping into the ground under my stomach. The smell of my own blood made me retch. No matter how much I cursed or prayed, immortality was not a given for a Shadow Demon like me, at least not until I reached adulthood.
“No!” I screamed as the Alpha nudged my mother’s body with its nose.
Screaming against the pain that burned along my back, I grappled with my magic, tugging and cajoling, even praying to the Higher Powers to give me this one thing.
“Me! Come for me!” I hollered, hitting the sodden earth with my cold palms to get its attention. Dread took hold when it ignored me. Instead, it grabbed my mother’s foot and dragged her flat to the ground.
In desperation, I pulled the small knife my mother always made me keep in my boot. I threw it with everything I had.
“No!” I half yelled and half sobbed.
With a dull thud, it landed in the Alpha’s hind leg. Flinching, the powerful creature whipped its head towards me.
“That’s right! Me!” I cried, hitting my chest now. My blood boiled and darkness, much like the inky fog that covered this land, grew from my fear and horror. It entwined my very soul. Horns sprouted from my head, and my body changed, growing taller and broader. This. This was the legacy of my birth. Pain. Destruction. Death. It was what I fought every day, what I feared most—this almost uncontrollable desire to kill and consume.
Bellowing my grief, I blasted a wave of obsidian magic across the ground, knocking the great beast into the air and sending the others sprawling. Ignoring the chorus of yelps and growls, I flew straight at it. My feet pounded the ground, and my heart thumped painfully against my ribs, my roar echoing through the fog.
The Alpha was still trying to get to his feet when I reached it. I yanked the small knife from its hind leg and thrust the blade through its ribs and into its heart. As I pulled the blade out, hot metallic blood showered my clothes and skin. Like a spectator looking on, I watched my hand reach out. Gore-covered fingers grasped the largest horn on the Alpha’s head and heaved it back. The barg didn’t know it was dead. Its jaws snapped weakly, fury in its dark eyes as it tried to fight me. I cocked my head, newly detached from the horror as my blade sliced its throat open. Blood bubbled out, soaking my hands and arms. The Alpha’s huge body became lax, the light fading from its eyes.
For a few seconds, I stared, unable to believe I had survived this creature. Trembling and panting against the pain blazing across my back, I let go and turned to face the pack. They bayed and howled, clearly confused. If I didn’t cow them now, I was as dead as my mother—and I had a promise to keep.
I snarled and stood. This time my magic came easily. I sent a wave of power over them, not to harm but to warn.
As one, they laid down and rolled onto their sides, baring their throats.
“That’s right. You’re mine now.”
My eyes drifted to my mother. I brushed my scraggly black hair from my face and stalked through the pack. The Alpha’s blood dripped from my hands, and though I had never done it before, I instinctively dragged its soul into me. Its death nourished my magic, nourished me. Despite that, my strength was fading fast, and it was all I could do to stay upright. I stumbled, falling to my knees by my mother’s side. She had suffered such pain and hopelessness because of my father. I swallowed my ever present hatred and guilt. I had been born of that pain, but not once had she let her anguish taint her love for me.
With reverent fingers, I brushed her dark hair from her bloodless face. She may have died wearing rags, but she would always be a Queen to me.
“I love you, Momma,” I whispered, my voice breaking along with my heart. I didn’t want to be alone. The thought of never again seeing her smile or feeling the comfort of her touch left a sorrow so deep it scarred my soul.
Tipping my head back, I wailed at the grey sky. The wind dropped, leaving the clearing disturbingly still, almost as if the gods themselves were watching.
I shuddered at that thought. The Higher Powers scared me.
A chorus of whines filled the eerie silence, the barg watching me with unwavering focus.
Perhaps I wasn’t alone…I had a pack.
I shuffled away from my mother’s body, the cold wet mud mixing with my blood and soaking my already sodden breeches. Mother was right. This pack of predators would never respect me if I didn’t abide by their laws. An Alpha, especially a new one, always fed his pack.
I looked down. This was no longer my mother but an empty shell of flesh and bone. My mother had gone, though her soul would not rest or be reborn until our world was safe. She had been the axis that kept the balance between the mortal world and our Netherworld. Now that she was gone, there was no one to decide whose soul would go to the Heart of the Aether for a chance at rebirth, and whose soul would feed the Veil. The Veil between our worlds would weaken, and all life would suffer. My mother had been the Angel of the Aether. Her life had lasted six hundred Heart cycles. Only she had suffered so much at my father’s hands that, in recent years, her power had diminished to the point of being non-existent. The Veil was already weakened, and without an Angel it would disappear. The balance would be completely lost. It would take hundreds of heart cycles, but it would fail. And the journey to its inevitable end would lead this world into a darkness so thick and cold not even the worst of my kind would survive.
In the distance, the sound of hooves rumbled through the ground. The King’s guards. I would stop my father, but not yet. I was a child, my magic untried and undisciplined; but it wouldn’t always be so.
I swallowed back my tears as I looked down at my mother’s face. It was the most peaceful I’d ever seen her. This was how I would remember her, not the broken, sad woman who was terrified of her own shadow.
I peered down at the nearest and biggest of the barg. He laid in supplication, not meeting my gaze, yet somehow still seeming proud. Perhaps he had been the Alpha’s Beta, his second in command. It didn’t matter, I decided he would be mine. I ran my cold hand over his roughly scaled, hairless head, wrapping my fingers around one of his horns. He studied me warily.
“It’s alright my friend, I have no interest in more killing.”
He huffed, watching intently as I sat back and shoved my arm towards his mouth. Organising my thoughts and magic was hard with the beating of hooves getting louder and louder. The baying of the Alzac, the Netherworld’s equivalent of the four-legged horses mortals used, was deafening.
“Feed,” I commanded.
His predatory eyes narrowed, but he levered up onto his paws, his claws sinking into the mud. His head dipped, a snarl baring his teeth. And struck. There was no time for me to change my mind. Between his powerful jaws, my forearm snapped. He didn’t try to feed on any more than the first blood I gave him. It was enough. It bound him to me. The bond between us snapped into place, painful at first but settling quickly.
“Stop.” True to my command, he released me, sat back, and waited. Forcing myself to remain conscious, I curled my uninjured arm around his huge neck and used his vicious-looking horns to haul myself up from the ground.
“Feed,” I snarled down at the rest of the pack.
I could not watch as they disposed of my mother’s body. It didn’t help to know, as she had, that I needed to feed them to gain their loyalty. Moreover, we couldn’t risk her body being found.
My Beta allowed me to throw my leg over his ridged and scaled back. I dragged myself up until I was draped over his spine. It was uncomfortable, but there was no way I could even walk, let alone run from my father and his warriors. We managed to disappear into the fog. It wasn’t long before the pack left my mother’s corpse and closed in protectively around us. No matter my determination to stay on my Beta’s back, my strength faltered, my shaking fingers slipped on his horns, and my legs weren’t strong enough to grip to his sides. I fell from his back, landing with a thud on the sodden ground. Agony roared along my spine and through my wounds. I rolled onto my stomach, lifted myself to my hands and knees—and vomited.
Knowing I’d pass out very soon, I called on my shadow magic to search out and cover the mess of my mother’s sacrifice, commanding it to drag her blood and remains into the earth, leaving no evidence that she had ever been there. My Beta dipped down, and two other barg helped steady me with their heads as I hauled myself back up. There I stayed, clinging with my arms around his neck until, once again, I fell to the cold, wet ground. It seemed like an eternity that I lay there, surrounded by my pack of death hounds, drifting in and out of consciousness. In moments of wakefulness, tears burned my eyes, but I didn’t let them fall. I was a boy no longer. Nothing remained of my mother except the love and memories I held in my heart and the promise I’d made, one I would strive to keep until my dying day. I would find the light and restore the Veil to its full glory. But to do that, I had to destroy my father and any who remained loyal to him. I’d take his damned crown and rip his heart from his chest. Never again would an Angel suffer at the hands of our bloodline.
Disgust burned through me, though I resisted the urge to march into the dark and abandoned warehouse. A deep-chested growl vibrated right up my throat, my fingers curling into fists so tight that my nails scored my skin.
I wasn’t some naive upper-caste maiden, so this situation didn’t surprise me. I hadn’t believed Garret when he’d told me I was special, that he’d never want anyone else; not a fucking word of it. Though I hadn’t expected to feel so humiliated. Funny, since I didn’t have great feelings for the arrogant bastard.
I snorted, unfurling my hands. Garret definitely wasn’t worth any anger. Gods, I didn’t even like him all that much. My capacity to care about any man that way had been numbed years ago. My long brown braid brushed my back, snagging in my cowl as I shook my head. I was twenty-four, and I’d found out when I was seventeen that I couldn’t trust any man in my life, let alone a prick like Garret. It was just my pride that was hurt more than anything.
Lifting my chin, I inhaled deeply, then blew a determined breath from my nose. Willing the echo of my footsteps into the Aether, I stalked away from the soft groans and slap of skin against skin.
I squared my shoulders. I was too damned good for him, anyway.
Outside, the frigid winter air stung my skin. It was icy enough that my breath made small clouds of fog as sleet hit my face. Dala waited for me outside, her sympathetic look soothing me.
“I’m sorry, Zahlia.” She rested her hands on the hilts of her daggers which were always fixed at her waist.
My friend looked like the fierce warrior she was. Tall and strong, she had been by my side since I was fifteen years old. Dala rarely shortened my name, and only to Zah, never to Lia. The only person I’d ever allowed to do that had broken my heart, and I hated it when anyone else used it. If they kept it up they soon figured out that they shouldn’t, especially when my fist slammed in their gut, or my blade ended up at their throat.
I chuckled. “Honestly, I’m not all that bothered. Besides, it’s not your fault he’s a lying, cheating bog worm, is it? I should have known better. I just thought…” I swallowed the lump in my throat. It wasn’t that I was hurt about Garret. It was more that I’d convinced myself I wanted him.
“ He could at least have shown me some respect. And, you know, dumped me before he fucked someone else.”
Irritation at my own vulnerability set in. I didn’t do love, not anymore. People living as we did didn’t care about anyone but themselves. Even my guardian didn’t care about me enough to not lie, cheat, or sell me out to save his own skin.
Life on the streets of Tetris was tough; love didn’t enter into it. I’d learnt that lesson as a child, and it had been reinforced when I was seventeen. Now, Dala was the only one I truly loved and trusted.
Dala pushed off the wall and wrapped her arms around me before I could stop her. She was a bit taller than me, so I rested my head on her shoulder. I wasn’t a hugger with anyone else. Neither was she. In our world, showing affection made you vulnerable, but with Dala I could let myself relax and succumb to my friend’s support. She was the only person I would ever show this sort of weakness. She pulled back and rested her forehead against mine, huffing at my reaction. Her message? I lived with liars, killers and thieves, what the hell did I expect?
“You know, this is as it should be. He’s not good enough for you. And you were getting bored with him.”
I smiled, she was right. “Yeah, but now it’s just embarrassing. Everyone will know he’s been cheating on me…”
“Not necessarily. I found out because I didn’t trust the slimy bastard so I followed him.” She shrugged before her lips curved into a devious smile. “Who cares anyway? It won’t be a surprise to anyone; he’s a player. He’ll do whoever is handy to get what he wants.”
“Yeah, I know. A little bit of my just hoped…Ah, shit it doesn’t matter.”
She met my gaze. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but he wants to humiliate you because you refused to let him use you to get closer to Hentus. He can only succeed in doing that if you let him.” She paused, a slow smile stretching her dark lips. “You know, it’s the gathering tonight, so break it off with him then, in front of the entire nest of Vipers. It’ll be hard for him to save face with Hentus after that.”
I gave a half-hearted chuckle. “Yeah, you’re right. He can find another way to suck up to Hentus.”
Dala grinned. “Yeah, so long as he doesn’t try and hurt you for upsetting his plans.” She gave me another hug before releasing me. “You’re beautiful in every way, inside and out. He’s a bastard, born of Haldaag. Being with that idiot was the worst thing you ever did.”
I huffed a laugh at her reference to the most horrific place mentioned in all the books we’d read about the Netherworld. “Please, don’t hold back. Tell me your thoughts, why don’t you?”
She grinned. “Always. Besides, I love you, you don’t need anyone else.”
“I know you do,” I replied, my mouth stretching in a wide smile. I took her hand in mine and squeezed. “I love you, too, but unless you’re going to grow male parts, I will eventually need more than even you can give me.”
Dala laughed out loud and shoved my shoulder. “Not even for you would I change my anatomy.”
Giggling, we walked away.
Dala was my best friend, a sister in everything but blood. She was two years older than me, and we vastly differed in looks but not attitude. I was also tall but ridiculously pale-skinned with deep brown hair. At least, that’s how everyone saw me. My hair was truly a bright silver blonde. My mother taught me how to use my magic to change my appearance when I was barely knee-high. Except I’d never been able to change the brightness of my blue eyes.
A familiar tightness spread through my chest. The image of my beautiful mother lying in a pool of blood, a sword speared through her chest, was as clear as if it had happened yesterday. She’d fought the red-eyed demon even with the sword sticking through her heart. Dark blood that looked almost black had covered her chest and dripped down her chin by the time my father had scooped me up and pushed me out through the basement window of our home. He’d rasped at me to “run!” just as that same sword had pierced his heart.
I’d run like the wind. Even though I was only six years old, I still remembered the cold rain soaking my hair and my fine silk dress. We’d been ready to go somewhere. Some kind of gathering. Mother had instructed me to behave, and to sit quietly once we were there. Her orders not to play on the ground and dirty my dress were still clear in my mind. I’d hidden in the darkness of a small alley, hoping the bad men wouldn’t find me, too scared to move. The killer hadn’t come. Instead, a boy had found me.
I swallowed the painful lump in my throat. Dexalion had taken my hand and led me away from the monster who’d killed my parents. We’d spent the night on the dirty streets, huddled together in the rain until Hentus had found us soaking wet and shivering outside an ale house. He’d offered us a place in the Vipers, and together we’d grown up among the thieves, liars and cutthroats who served Hentus. The Vipers ruled the Slopes, the slums of Tetris. We weren’t an official caste, not like the other castes in the kingdom of Tetron, but we had laws, and a hierarchy of sorts—one that Hentus presided over.
I forced a smile. “Perhaps Hentus will kick Garret’s arse for using me.”
Dala raised her white brows, which were always stark against the darkness of her skin. Dala was half Riou, a race of ebony skinned warriors who lived on the northern borderlands of Tetron. She was also half human; or so she thought, and bald as a baby’s bottom with tattoos adorning her scalp. Her mother belonged to a pleasure caste, one which served the lower levels of society. And since her mother didn’t know who her father was, neither did Dala. They hadn’t seen each other for years, not since the lord of the pleasure caste had tried to sell Dala to the highest bidder at the age of nine. Dala had been fierce even then. She’d stabbed the buyer in the groyne before running to the Slopes, surviving on her own for years before Hentus offered her a place in the Vipers.
My fierce and beautiful friend rolled her eyes. “That’s not going to happen. You know the rules. You fight your own battles. Besides, if I know Garret cheated on you, it’s guaranteed Hentus knows. That means he’s waiting for you to work it out and leaving you to deal with it yourself.”
I knew it was true. Hentus had always pushed me to stand up for myself. He wasn’t my father, not by a long way, but he’d been in my life since he’d found me hiding on the streets with Dex.
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Dala nodded, her hazel eyes studying me.“You know, if he thought you really loved Garret, and that the two-timing shit would break your heart, he’d slice his dick off in his sleep.”
“Yeah.” I grinned, realising that was probably true. I pulled on my gloves. But Garret was Garret. He was a liar and a cheat. And I found I didn’t really care.
The biting sleet turned to snow, sticking to my cold face, so I raised my thick cowl. Dala did the same, covering her tattooed head. Winter in the Slopes was no fun. The sea winds gusted, bringing freezing fog and snow, battering this part of the sprawling capital city of Tetron. At least those winds sent the stench of fish, old seaweed, and rotting flesh high into the city where the upper castes pretended there was nothing bad happening in the world. So long as it didn’t affect them, they ignored the bodies in the streets, and the bloated corpses floating in the harbour.
I wrinkled my nose. That stink, mixed with the open sewers that ran through the streets of the lower levels, made our existence even more grim. This city had always had a dark side, but since the Aether, the Veil between the mortal world and the Netherworld, had become sick, it was even worse. Permeating the stink of the city was the bitter stench of fear. People were terrified of the approaching night and the creatures that arrived with it.
The sun was already low in the sky. “Come on, we need to find a mark and then get back. I don’t want to be out here at dusk without more weapons.”
Dala nodded, her face dour.
Our boots sloshed through a glutinous puddle, stirring up a foul stench. I cringed. How I longed to wrap my magic around me and run. It would take only seconds for me to reach our destination if I did, but I wouldn’t leave Dala nor would I risk anyone seeing me disappear. They would sell that information to the mad Prince’s soldiers in a heartbeat. And the soldiers, along with their monstrous mage hounds, were only ever a step away. The prince was convinced magic was the cause of the sickness that thinned the Veil. Maybe he was right, but regardless, I couldn’t allow him to find me. I wasn’t ready to die and couldn’t leave, not until I found my parents’ killer. So I readjusted my daggers and the small dart blower I always kept in my pocket and stalked after Dala.
We kept our heads covered and smartened our pace, keeping our wits about us. The Vipers held a specific territory in the Slopes, but that didn’t make this part of the city safe for us. Other gangs, thieves, and the dregs of society hunted here all the time for likely victims—even in the daytime. They killed members of the Vipers the same way we killed them if they tried to steal our marks or threatened us. Though, nighttime was always worse. That was when the Veil thinned and the darkness from the Nether seeped into the city. The monsters that pushed through the Veil every damned night took more and more mortal souls. It didn’t matter what caste they were from, high or low born, innocent or corrupt, children or fully grown, they took until the light of dawn chased them away.
It hadn’t always been this bad. When I was younger, the monsters that went bump in the night were only tales. Now they’re folklore come to life. They had started away from the city by pushing through the Veil on the moors. I didn’t know why the Veil was weakest out there, but it was. The King had taken his army out there and fought them until he died about eight years ago. Since then, the mad Prince and his general had been holding them back—until they couldn’t. Now the city was overrun with refugees trying to find safety within its walls.
Every night the creatures seemed hungrier, almost desperate. No one knew what it was about our souls that they hungered for, but every single person in Tetron knew that winter was fast approaching, so the nights were getting longer and the days shorter. The refugees that had flooded the city in the past months were the most vulnerable. They were homeless and casteless, their collective life energy seemingly a beacon to the monsters that hunted in the darkness.
My nostrils flared. I hated that so many died every night, and there was precious little any of us could do about it. Even predators like the Vipers were at risk of being dragged kicking and screaming from their mortal flesh and into the murkiness of whatever was beyond the Veil.
No, the Slopes were never safe—not even for criminals like us.
Three hours later, my pocket was weighed down with the coins I’d lifted from a nobleman. The skinny, dark haired man hadn’t begged for his life, though I’d been feeling generous and granted it to him anyway. In return, I’d emptied his pockets and taken his fine cloak and shoes. I rubbed my cheek against the soft material. I had no idea what it was made from, but it was a beautiful midnight fabric that shimmered when it moved. What an idiot, coming down near the Slopes wearing such a beautiful garment. It had made him a mark for every thief. I just got in there first.
I’d never owned anything like the soft black cloak, so I pushed my hands into its pockets, scrunching my fingers into the material and simply enjoyed the softness and smoothness of its fabric. My footsteps faltered as the tips of my fingers brushed against something in the right pocket. Creases furrowed my brow. I’d checked his pockets earlier and found nothing. Strange. I must have missed it.
I wrapped my fingers around the piece of soft leather and pulled it out. A quick glance told me there was an old faded image on it. A coat of arms and a name that I couldn’t quite make out. Quickly, I shoved it in my tunic pocket. It didn’t look expensive or important. I’d look at it later.
Reluctantly, I removed the cloak. It wasn’t really mine; it belonged to Hentus now.
The noise in the dining room made me wince. It seemed more people than usual were here for the once a month gathering. The moon was at its highest tonight, so it was the night the Viper’s captains came to give their ill-gotten gains to Hentus. It was also when Hentus would dole out punishment or praise to his minions.
The heavy smell of boiled beef and onions had saliva rushing into my mouth, and not in a good way. I swallowed hastily, glad I’d pocketed a couple of apples off a distracted market seller. Boiled beef, or what we were told was beef, onions and potatoes was our staple food. I should have been used to it, but I really wasn’t.
I pushed past the crowd of kids and adults and headed to the vat of boiled potatoes. An earthy, damp steam laced the air. I shoved down my revulsion at tonight’s fare, piled some of the bland white pulp onto a slate, and then held it out to the cook. He took it without looking at me and slopped some beef on top.
Thin gravy sloshed over my fingers, its heat scalding me. I winced. “Ow,” I muttered under my breath, already spying bits of meat I’d save for Dala. She’d eat anything. Me, not so much. I had suspicions about the meat’s origins, and I really didn’t fancy chewing on bits of the dock rats that feasted on sewage and dead bodies.
Spotting a table at the back of the room, I headed through the crowd and plonked myself on a stool, staring despondently at my food. Giving myself a mental slap, I picked up my fork. There were many others in this city that were starving. I had no cause for complaint. Determined, I speared a brown lump and clamped my lips around it. Holding back a grimace, I ground the rubbery substance between my teeth and then swallowed.
Beef, my arse.
I quickly picked up my cup of water and washed the lump down my gullet. I forced down another two bits of chewy meat hiding in the potatoes, swallowing against my inclination to gag. I hated the thought of eating dead things; rats, beef, it didn’t matter what it was. It made me shudder, but I had to survive, and there was precious little else to eat.
Managing another mouthful of gravy and potatoes, I saved the rest of the meat for Dala. Closing my eyes, I pictured the lush green skin of the apples I had stolen. Each one was so big they didn’t even fit in my palm. I didn’t care that they had likely come on the black market vessels from overseas, probably from the warm Medallion Isles, or that I had robbed the seller of much-needed coins by stealing them. I could already taste that sweet yet tart juice as it washed across my tongue.
I groaned in anticipation.
“Hey, princess, where ya been?”
My eyes snapped open.
Garret grinned, his deep brown eyes grazing over my body. He sat his slim, toned body on the stool beside mine and put his arm around my shoulders. “Was that sexy groan for me?”
I considered elbowing him straight in his handsome face; instead I shrugged off his touch and glared at him.
“No,” I hissed. “And you don’t touch me—ever again.” I pushed back my stool and stood just as his face shut down and his eyes narrowed.
“What’s up your arse? You liked my touch well enough yesterday.” His eyes flitted around the men who sat at the long table, and who were doing their best not to listen.
Well, all except Angus. Angus was wider and meaner than a bull. He was just over a year older than me at twenty-six, or, at least, that’s how old Hentus guessed him to be. No one really knew stuff like that in the Vipers. I liked Angus. I always had. He was one of those quiet watchful types. He didn’t favour a sword but was an expert with the meanest-looking double-headed axe I’d ever seen. He’d never liked me becoming another of Garret’s lovers. He’d said I deserved more.
I cringed a bit as Angus’s eyes met mine. His nostrils flared and he shook his head sadly.
My cheeks heated. He knew. Aether’s balls, did they all know? Perhaps I’d missed the signs because I just wasn’t that bothered. Garret had been my only lover since Dex had left, and that was over seven years ago. I inhaled sharply. Had it really been that long? I rubbed my chest with my fist. It didn’t feel like it.
Garret sat back, smirked and raised his voice. “So what d’you say, princess? You gonna moan like that for me tonight? Hmm? While I pound into that sweetness between your legs?” He brushed his fingers against my breast, before squeezing its softness.
Hentus strolled in. I froze. Angus froze. And the men at the table froze. Hentus’s grey eyes narrowed on Garret’s back. A predator sizing up its prey. Then they slid to me before his gaze rested on where Garret groped my right tit. His dark bushy brows rose.
Right. Fight your own battles. I knew that rule better than most. Hentus’s favour meant jealousy followed me. I’d always had to fight my own battles. He’d never done it for me. Respect—and, to some degree, fear—had to be earned. No one had dared disrespect me while Dex had been my shadow, but I’d had to learn to stick up for myself when he’d disappeared.
I took a slow deep breath, feeling through the layers of air around me. The brush of magic against my body had my eyes fluttering shut. I wouldn’t use it unless I was desperate. None of the Vipers, save Dala and Hentus, knew of it, but the knowledge it was there as back up gave me comfort.
Garret had a temper. Everyone knew it—especially Hentus. It was why he’d been raised to command his own faction of thieves. Even though the Vipers were full of the unwanted dregs of society, like the official castes of this city, we had a hierarchy as well as rules. Garret was a captain, but Hentus was the Lord of the Vipers. Hentus had always cut me some slack, but he could be cruel and expected me to be, too, when the need arose.
I looked down at the flat piece of slate that served as my plate. Garret had never been respectful of women, especially those he considered clingy after he tired of them. But he had treated me differently, or so I’d thought. He’d chased me, persistently seducing me, so I’d given in. I swallowed the bitter taste of reality as I saw Emily, the girl he’d been ramming into this afternoon, smirking at me.
Dala and Angus were right. I deserved better. The insult that sneered through his last words and his completely unwanted and degrading touch made my blood boil.
I exhaled in a swift rush as my muscles exploded into action. The slate disintegrated against the side of Garret’s face, the impact vibrating up my arms.
Garret jerked sideways, almost falling from his stool, murder flashing in his eyes. Without giving him time to straighten, I spun on the ball of my foot and slammed my boot heel into his chest.
His stool toppled backwards, and he landed in a crumpled heap. I pulled one of my blades, resting its spine first along my forearm. If it had been anyone else, I would have been on them with the blade against their neck—but not Garret. I wasn’t stupid enough to get that close. My nostrils flared, still feeling the violation of him grabbing my breast.
He looked up from his position on the wooden floor and chuckled before spitting out a mouthful of bright blood.
“So you found out, hmm? Wondered how long I’d keep you hooked” He shrugged and looked at Hentus, whose face was dark. Garret’s gaze soon returned to me, though his smile didn’t reach his eyes.
I was surprised by his lack of retaliation, though I wasn’t stupid enough to think he’d forget about me knocking him on his arse in front of everyone.
“It’s nothing personal, princess, I get bored easily…”
“Shut up,” I demanded, despite the tickle of unease his cold gaze instilled in me. “You’re just a piece of shit. Do not touch me again. If you try, I will do more than shut your smart mouth with a slate.” I turned away, stalking up to Hentus. I might have to fight my own battles, but Hentus would not allow Garret to stick a knife in my back.
Angus crossed his massive arms over his chest and smirked, winking as I passed his table. I tried not to show my satisfaction at smashing Garret’s face in, and kept my expression in a scowl.
“About time,” was all Hentus said when I reached his side.
“You knew he was using me.” It was a statement not a question.
Sorrow fleetingly shadowed his eyes. “Of course.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Perhaps I should sound less pissed off with my guardian, but I was angry with him, with myself, with Garret, but mostly with the man who had left me in this shithole city instead of following through on his promise to escape with me across the ocean to a new life.
Garret got up and brushed himself down. I stiffened at the malice in his eyes. Then he shrugged and fixed an apologetic look on his face. Sorry, he mouthed and grinned, his teeth blood-stained and his scalp dripping thick, dark blood down his face.
I just shook my head, then mirrored his movements, shrugging before I touched my head. Sorry. I mouthed back. Was I fuck. I wasn’t even a little bit.
He nodded, spat on the floor, then went to get some food.
I guessed that was it—for now.
I caught Dala grinning at me from Angus’s table. I smiled back, knowing she would have my back, too.
Hentus and I watched as Emily flounced over and draped herself over Garret.
“Don’t turn your back on him,” advised Hentus. “Doesn’t matter if he deserved it, he won’t forget. Now, tell me where you got that lovely cloak. It looks like the sort of cloak people in Kamarate wear. Did you get anything else with it?”
I rolled my eyes, wondering when he’d been to the capital city of Pa’dur, and got straight back to business. The sun was already set, and my magic thrummed in excitement. It was almost time to hunt.