Hey book lover! I’m working on a new book, Queen of Blades and Roses, which is expected to hit the Zon at the end of August. Read the first chapter , and feel free to comment or e-mail and tell me what you think. This is a passion project for me, on which I’m working in parallel along with the next book of the Legends of the Fae series! So here we go.
A cursed beast lurks in the woods outside my village, and it wants one thing—me.
I learned to fear the Scorpio Beast many years ago. He is the most dangerous thing out there, brutal and cruel, so when he takes me captive in exchange for my brother’s freedom, I know to expect the worst.
Yet deep into the ruins of his ancient castle, I discover there’s more to Ares Amberson than his ruthless reputation. There’s a tortured soul behind his mask, and a sensual touch inside his iron fist. There’s also more to my own past than I ever knew, a secret buried in my bloodline that Ares wants to use me for. But in order to unlock my dormant powers, he needs to teach me.
The pull I feel towards him is wrong on all levels, but I’m hooked on the devilish pleasures he’s giving me. I must fight against it, or die trying. The secret of our bloodlines makes it impossible for us to be anything but rivals, polar opposites, enemies. In the end, there can be only one on the throne of the kingdom that we were both born to rule.
The Cursed Woods looked almost romantic from the window table at the Fyre Dragon Inn and Pub. Soaked in the scents of hearth and ale and leather, this was a place where stories had been born for many, many years, and most of those stories were about the Cursed Woods.
But the truth lurking in the hilly darkness spreading out between Azoth Hollow and Doomsday Mountain was far from the romantic adventure the pub’s storytellers made it out to be. They never told things the way my brothers and I gave it to them—raw and gut-wrenching. It frustrated my brothers. As for me, I didn’t take it quite as personally. After decades of suffering under the effects of the Spades fae’s curse, people needed some fantasy to keep them sane, and I felt for them. Not so my brothers.
“Do they even see our bleeding hands when they take the gold from them?” Thornan grunted, cocking a thick black eyebrow at the loud crowd from behind his pint. Scars adorned his rough fist, and his rugged looks placed him well beyond his twenty years. Part of that were his aggressive features, but most of it was what we had been doing for a living for years.
It had turned all three of us into brutes, even if it was less obvious in me, probably because I was female. One that dealt better with swords and knives than with baking, laundry and child-rearing, but still female. I had been fighting in the Cursed Woods for over a decade to help this village survive, and I was a Scavenger before anything else.
Once every month, my brothers and I put it all on the line venturing into that forested hell, hunting for treasure—and books, which were the rarest and most valuable items. I sure lived for the occasions when we found them. We spent the rest of our time training for our incursions into the woods. It took over our lives completely, but gold, silver and gems were the only things that got the people of Azoth Hollow through the winter. It helped us buy stuff from the other human settlements that didn’t have to suffer under the Spades’ wrathful curse, the curse that had turned our home into a haunted village.
Azoth Hollow intrigued outsiders and travelers, it fascinated them, but no one in their right mind would spend a full moon night here if they had a choice. As for leaving this place to settle somewhere else—others had tried before, and failed miserably. Being born here was like a scarlet letter, as if we could carry the curse into the wider world.
And maybe we could. We didn’t know for sure, but the curse might well have affected all of us in some way.
One sure thing was that our village wasn’t safe beyond nightfall on the three full moon nights of every month. Ghosts would creep onto the streets, hungering for human flesh. Consuming it made them feel alive again, even if only for a few hours. They were spirits of dead Scorpio fae, cursed by the Spades to dwell between life and death forever, unable to resume complete physical form or to cross into the spiritual world for good.
The spirits couldn’t enter cottages uninvited, but whatever they caught outside was theirs for the taking, and they never spared a life. Their hunger for flesh was beyond themselves, almost vampiric.
It was these stories that drew travelers to Azoth Hollow like moths to a flame. It was also why the three men at the bar were here, talking to Big Reo, the inn keeper. Checking them out from the corner of my eye, I’d have said they were monks.
“Those idiots, look at them,” Kovra groaned next to me. “Scented clothes, heads swimming with bedtime fairy tales, happy to believe all that bullshit.” He banged his pint on the table, the ale sloshing over the edges. “There are no fucking fairies in the Cursed Woods,” he called out, drawing the three strangers’ attention. “No fucking mermaids in its murky lakes. Only slimy stuff coiling around your feet, skeleton hands reaching out from the mud to pull you in, scorpions roaming around every fucking pile of treasure. It’s hard-earned silver that pays for this ale.”
Kovra tossed his ale down, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and looked away. I could only hope the three men wouldn’t dare to come over, but Big Reo leaned in and whispered to them who we were. The strangers’ eyes widened as he spoke, their curiosity and spiking interest obvious in their neat, monkish faces. One of them, probably the leader, licked his lips greedily, but still hesitated, which was understandable.
Kovra’s androgynous voice was one of many misleading things about my twin brother, but his words and tone always had a sobering effect. He was angry, always on the edge, and very efficient with a blade which, for some reason, shone through in him the most. We were both blonde, blue-eyed, fair skinned and half-fae, the last part making us particularly beautiful to the human eye, but that was pretty much where the similarities between us stopped.
Kovra was everything his name suggested. Fierce and swift. He’d inherited the fae looks of our mother, but his mordacity he got from Da, the best blacksmith in Azoth Hollow, and once the best blacksmith in the Golden City of Celestia, too. Yet my twin and I would have been seen as abominations in Celestia. Hybrids between fae and humans were extremely rare, and even those rare ones were born of human mothers and fae fathers, from affairs that rarely survived the night of conception. But Kovra and I were the product of a forbidden love between a fae princess and a human blacksmith, a story that ended in tragedy.
In the aftermath of that tragedy, Da got cast out of Celestia, and sent back to Azoth Hollow with my brother and me when we were still babies. Grief for our mother almost killed him, but the Allmother took mercy, and a kind girl from the village fell eternally in love with him. I guess there’s no resisting a handsome blacksmith with a broken heart. Thornan was the result of that union, two years later. They’re fine together, Da and Thornan’s mother, but I think Da never stopped being nostalgic about Celestia, and his lost love.
Sometimes, on clear days, you could see the city with the naked eye on top of Doomsday Mountain. But such days had been rare over the last two decades, ever since the Spades usurped the Scorpios. The curse spread a permanent veil of clouds over Azoth Hollow, unleashing hell into the woods covering the hills between it and the mountain.
These were the kinds of stories that travelers came here for, and that sure wasn’t any different for the three monks heading over to our table right now.
“May we join you?” the leader inquired, sinking his hands into the wide brown sleeves of his monkish garment. The other two drew close to him as they flanked him, looking fearful but greedy for information. A holy trinity of well-fed, well rested boys. I wondered how much they were willing to risk for the knowledge they desired.
My brothers had clearly already decided the monks weren’t worth the effort of even opening their mouths. Thornan took another sip of his ale, while Kovra shot them a killer glare. Chills ran through the flankers, but number one kept his ground.
He pulled a chair, and sat down. The old wood creaked.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Kovra demanded under his breath and shot forward, his long blonde hair framing his face like glinting platinum. It made a fierce contrast with his pale blue eyes, sharp nose and the angry curve of his lips. I was his female version, only that my hair was golden and up in a tight pony tail on top of my head, my eyes sparkled more, and my lips were fuller, all an effect of the vestigial lust-inducing magic I’d inherited from our fae mother.
“We don’t remember inviting you to take a seat,” Thornan bit out.
“Big Reo there said you were The Scavengers,” the leader said. “You’re famous.”
“Very famous,” the monk to his right chimed in. I named him number two.
“You have no idea,” number three said from the leader’s left.
“Fuck off,” Thornan growled.
“We have money,” number one put in, and pulled a pouch from his sleeve. It landed on the table with the telltale clink of precious metal. Coins. “We understand that people like you don’t let other people partake in their experiences just like that. They’re valuable, the things you’ve lived, the things you’ve seen. We understand that, and we’re willing to pay for the privilege of learning.”
“So, you want to learn,” Kovra said through his teeth. “How about you join us tomorrow, and learn by doing?”
Thornan burst into a raspy laugh that made number one’s throat bob, but he got a grip quickly. He reached to the pouch, unfastened the leather string around it, and spilled its contents onto the table. Thornan’s dark eyes fell to the silver coins. He ran his tongue over his teeth, his face unreadable to the strangers, but Kovra and I knew exactly what he was thinking. We had every intention to back him up, so my twin took on an even colder, forbidding and opaque demeanor, while I leaned back to let my brothers take center stage. This could prove lucrative.
“What’s this supposed to mean?”
“Like we said—”
“A few chipped silver coins? We get that within the first few minutes in the woods.” That was a lie, but Thornan was the kind of guy you took seriously.
The monks looked at each other and, after a few moments of hesitation, number two pulled a second pouch from his sleeve. When the contents spilled on the table, Thornan’s eyes glinted.
“Diamonds and sapphires,” number one stated proudly, pushing out his smooth boyish chin. “Originals from Celestia.”
“Celestia,” Kovra said. “And how does a man like you possess something from a Golden City?”
“My brothers in faith and I come from the oldest monastery in Northern Kaledonien.”
“Hmm,” Thornan purred. “Where the pilgrims go.”
“Yes. Where the pilgrims go. They bring much value to our holy place, new knowledge, exotic goods.” He looked down at the gems. “Rare items.”
“Then why did you need to come here, to this cursed place? Why search for the stories when the stories come to you?”
“Because only here we can learn the truth about the most famous monster in the world. The Scorpio Beast.” He bent in with greedy eyes, but lowered his voice to a whisper, as if the name alone could strike him dead. “He’s said to dwell in the Cursed Woods. Ares Amberson.”
A heavy silence spread out at our table, dampening the nearby chatter. There wasn’t much noise to begin with, not with everyone’s ears turned toward the conversation at this table, but even the little cacophony there had been died down now. It was the effect of that name each and every single time someone spoke it out.
“Ares Amberson,” the leader monk pressed on. “The cursed heir of the Court of Scorpio, the—”
“We know who the bastard is, we don’t need a fucking profile,” Thornan spat out.
The monk licked his lips, his eyes so big now I could see the red under his lower eyelid. My eyes flicked down when he put his hands on the table. It was my job in the team to take in the details and evaluate danger.
“Heroes from many parts of the world come to Northern Kaledonien, and all of them know about the Scorpio Beast. But we never met anyone who’d actually laid eyes on him. He became a myth with too many versions. We’re here for the truth.”
“Why would you even want that kind of truth?” Kovra grunted. “I would un-know it anytime if I could.”
“And I can understand that,” the monk said. “You and your siblings have been through hell.”
“You understand nothing,” Kovra burst out, shooting forward and causing the monk to snap back into his seat. My twin held out a long, scarred finger in the monk’s face. “Don’t you fucking patronize us. We’re sick of you useless scribes coming around, going all paternal on us. You have no fucking idea what it’s like to feel death’s cold breath wrapping around you from the moment you enter that cursed darkness. That place out there—” He motioned with his head towards the window and the woods. “That place is hell. You want to know what it’s like? With pleasure. Tag along tomorrow, and we’ll show you.” His eyes glinted pale blue from under white-blonde eyebrows. “Unless, of course, you’re afraid we’re going to take your treasure and use your ass as fodder for the very beast you’re so eager to see.”
Number one stared with a blank face for seconds before he spoke again.
“We’re not looking for the beast. We’re looking for the truth in order to write about the beast, and keep the accounts forever protected in our library, and you of all people should see why. Don’t you think the world should know about what’s really happening here?”
“We think the world should fucking help,” Thornan interjected. “But it’s easier to just come snooping around, and then get out of town before darkness falls.”
“I think they should know about the Scorpio Beast,” I chimed in, drawing the three monks’ attention.
“Oh?” one of them breathed, as if he couldn’t believe his ears. “She speaks.”
I gave him a smile meant to make him uncomfortable. Why wasn’t I surprised that he didn’t like a woman speaking?
“We know one or two things about him, it’s true,” I began, keeping still as a statue. The monks stared mesmerized as I spoke, surely because of my looks. The fae traveled the world of men only rarely, and they tended to keep their faces obscured under hoods on most of those occasions. Kovra and I might well have been the closest thing to fae these three men had ever seen, and my appearance as a female was even more specific. I proceeded to give them some of the knowledge we’d gathered about the beast.
“Ares is the eldest son of the late Scorpio King, Zavros Amberson, and his wife, Lumeia. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. King Gariel of the Court of Spades killed both King Zavros and Queen Lumeia when he took over Celestia. For that, he used black magic, because he wouldn’t have won against Zavros any other way. The Scorpio King was the world’s best fighter, and some said his wife was one hell of a strategist. She was the commander, and he was her General. Together, they were an unbeatable force, so Gariel turned to dark powers in order to defeat them. He sold his soul to the devil, if you like. I’m sure you of all people understand the concept. Ares and his siblings survived the terrible curse that fell over their court, but at a great cost.” My voice lowered, my tone darkening. “They had to integrate the curse, to let it run through their veins. They had to become one with it, and live with it like with a disease. They were all small children when this happened. It is said Ares had the worst fate of all. Have you heard anything about what this curse did to him, honored clergymen?”
The leader blinked as if recovering from a mesmerized trance. “Indeed, yes. The curse, ahm—” He scratched the back of his head. “Like I said, the Scorpio Beast has become a myth in its own right. There are many speculations.”
“Let us hear some,” I encouraged him.
“Well, there are those who say he can kill with seduction. He can give pleasure, but that’s all an illusion. In truth, terrible things happen to people’s bodies when they think they’re being pleasured by him. Where they feel a caress or the stroke of a tongue, it’s often the tickle of a scorpion. But that’s only one of the many theories.”
“Why am I not surprised you chose one related to carnal sin? But the beast is about more than that.” I placed my elbows on the table. They made a blunt clanging sound against the wood from the elven protective plates I was wearing over my black mail. Elven armor, scavenged from the woods. The metal in my outfit had the Scorpio heraldry carved into it, the intricate undulations of a scorpion. Everything that belonged to the Court of Scorpio, including their treasure, had been thrown out into the Cursed Woods in the aftermath of the bloodbath, imbued with the same curse, which rendered the treasure untouchable by fae of Spades blood. Luckily, my twin and I were only half fae, and our mother had belonged to another court, so we could make good use of what we found.
“Let us start with the beginning,” I told the eagerly listening monks. The leader’s looks had turned slightly more lecherous, but I didn’t mind just yet. I wanted their masks off. “Tell me, clergymen, do you know how fae names are chosen?”
The two flankers shook their heads no, while the leader kept staring.
“From their birth, fae emit a certain kind of energy. An aura, if you want. Like the name suggests, Ares Amberson was first and foremost a warrior prince, because he was born with martial magic. He would one day become head of the Scorpio Army. But the dark magic King Gariel cast over the Scorpios twisted what was already inside the children. For example, it turned Ares’ little brother, Taurus, into a nasty shifter that goes mad at the scent of blood. You can hear his chilling howling on full moon nights, and you can be sure no creature happening in his path escapes with their lives.
“It turned his sister Lybra into a dark executioner, a creature that will deliver justice in cruel ways. It’s not unlikely to find a wayward clergyman with obscure sins hanging from a cross with his insides spilling out of him.” I bent in closer over the table, driving tension into the monks like a rod up their asses. Only number one retained some measure of control over his facial expressions, while the others stared like they weren’t sure they wanted to listen to this anymore. “Can you imagine what it turned Ares into?”
Snorting laughter broke through my story, giving the poor bastards some respite. It was Thornan, unable to hold back his amusement.
“Look at them, staring like you’ve turned into the fearsome creature yourself. Relax,” he slapped number two’s back, nearly throwing the man off his chair. “It’s just my beautiful lady sister. For now.”
“Let them answer my question,” I said through my teeth, not trying very hard to hide my displeasure. I made a mental note to ruin my little brother’s fun the first chance I got, too.
“A devil,” the leader said quietly. There was fear in his voice, but also reverence. My cheek twitched.
“People shouldn’t revere monsters, clergyman, for whatever reason. It’s not like it’s real admiration anyway. It’s just a suck-up to power. Yearning for a monster’s approval is a weak man’s business. And even monsters despise weak men. They use them, chew them up, and then spit out the leftovers.”
“Have you ever seen him?” he managed.
Kovra scoffed by my side.
“You don’t see the Scorpio Beast and live to tell the tale. He’s killed more monsters with his bare hands than we ever slayed with our weapons. Facing creatures like Ares Amberson isn’t how you survive those woods.” He pointed to the darkening window behind him. “And it’s sure as hell not how you scavenge treasure every month to help this village survive.”
“Find a place by the hearth to spend the night, clergymen,” I concluded, leaning back in my chair. “Brace yourselves, because tonight you’ll hear the lamentations of ghosts, and the howling of Taurus. This, gentlemen, is the most dangerous night of the month—the last of three full moon nights. Not a great time to arrive in Azoth Hollow, but it seems that’s how your fate would have it. Tonight, death descends over the village, taking on treacherous forms. That’s why we gather in large groups in places like this.” And why we, The Scavengers, would go on our monthly hunt the next day, but I left that out. The monsters gave their all on these nights, and they slept deeper the next day, which made it easier for us to move through the Cursed Woods. “I hope you appreciate the great opportunity you’re being offered. You’re going to experience the thrill of your lives, but beware. The ghosts will call on you, using their power to lure you out of your sanctuary—the very reason we stay together on these nights. Whatever happens, don’t even think about leaving the inn, because you will certainly die.”
I took no pleasure in sowing fear, and I pitied number two and three. Poor bastards fidgeted in their seats, turning to their leader, searching his face for reassurance. But number one, he deserved every ounce of this.
“You shouldn’t be joking about these things—” he paused, realizing he didn’t know my name,“—milady.”
“Vyper Gladwell is the name,” I offered impassibly. “And these are my brothers, Kovra and Thornan.” My twin and my little brother raised their pints as I gave their names. “And I assure you, we of all people take these things very seriously. Just look around.”
Patrons looked away as the monks turned to analyze their surroundings more carefully. Mothers and children had already started to pour in, raising the noise level. Babies wailed in women’s arms. A bunch of chickens used the chaos to slip in as well, expertly scuttling their way among people’s feet.
The Fyre Dragon Inn and Pub wasn’t the only place of gathering in town, but it was where The Scavengers spent the night, and people felt safe with us. Some of the women walked over to say hello before they started up the stairs, screaming at the children to stop running and stomping. Big Reo always reserved the rooms upstairs for women and children, and he had a soft spot for chickens, too. The monks’ eyes swept over the thick sheepskins and the fire logs stapled by the fire where a group of men had already settled in, close the hearth.
The leader stood up swiftly, realizing he’d have to move fast if he was going to get a spot close to the hearth. He hesitated for a moment, his eyes moving from the hearth to me and back again. Sure, he was uncertain whether to leave our conversation about the Scorpio Beast. I often found myself wishing sensation mongers like him would get a taste of the horror stories they came looking for, of the horrible things that happened to other people.
“We’ll talk some more about this in the morning?” he probed. I folded my arms across my chest.
“If we live until morning.”
The other two got up and crammed around him like scared children. The bastard found it in himself to bring about a grin.
“I don’t expect this will be The Scavengers’ last night. If you expected it were, you wouldn’t be so relaxed.”
Kovra burst into grating laughter. “Oh, believe me, clergyman, we’re not relaxed.”
“We’re just a wee bit drunk,” Thornan added, while I said nothing. The monster admirer wasn’t worth it, so I might as well save my breath.
“You’ve outdone yourself, sister,” Thornan said after the travelers left, working their way among the crowd to reach the hearth. The closest spots were already taken, but they could still squeeze in by the bar, if they curled their knees up. My brothers and I would take up position by the door, like we always did. We were here as protectors, not protégés. We hadn’t had a careless night’s sleep since we got out of diapers. “You scared the shit out of them.”
“I like this new skill of yours,” Kovra said, proudly raising his pint.
I raised mine, too. “Bottom’s up, boys. Within the hour, these streets will be swarming with ghosts.”
My brothers joined their pints to mine. I took a long pull and set mine down, turning my head to the window. Night was nearly upon us.
Our job wasn’t something that one ever got used to. The third full moon night in a month brought nightmares to life, and surviving it was never easy, especially since The Scavengers weren’t by far the badasses we projected to the village. But thinking we were strong made the people of Azoth Hollow feel safe, so we let them take comfort in that lie. The three of us were good fighters, but no real match for the evil out there.
A claw squeezed my heart as we took our places by the door, yet it didn’t have to do only with the hungry ghosts out there. I had enemies in this room too, among the very people we protected. Some believed I was the real reason why the curse had spread over Azoth Hollow, and now those men sat right by the monks. It wasn’t long until they huddled together in conversation, eyes on me.
“They’re not even trying to fucking hide it,” Thornan grunted, flanking me on my right, Kovra to my left. “Back in the day, they would have burned you at the stake.”
“Back in the day, I would have cut their balls off in the main square,” Kovra pushed through his teeth, his sharp jaw tight. “It’s what they’d deserve for being stupid today, too.”
“We all know it’s not stupidity that makes them hate me.” I hooked my fingers into the leather girdle around my waist. “It’s the lust I awakened in them when I was girl, and my powers went as crazy as my hormones. It was a scary time for all of us.”
“You were only twelve, Vyper. It’s not like you were trying to seduce drunk middle-aged men,” Kovra said.
“Yeah, well, no way of convincing them of that,” I whispered, looking away from the group, and trying to swallow the knot of disgust in my throat. “Placing blame is natural. We all do it.”
“Yeah, but not when it means punishing a mere child for our own perverted nature,” Thornan added. “I’m with Kovra. Stupidity should be as deadly as bubonic fever.”
“It’s the ghosts out there that are going to start killing unless we focus on our job,” I said, fitting two curved magic blades into my girdle. They were rare finds that could make ghosts dissipate into thin air and get sucked back into limbo.
Before long, hissing seeped into the night, a full moon rising in the sky. I watched it through the window as it took over the firmament like a queen of the underworld. I focused on it to center myself as trapped fae souls took to the streets, whispering. The room went awfully quiet as the ghosts started circling the inn. People huddled together, barely breathing. The only sound inside was the rustling fire that spread out a dim but dependable glow over the space. Upstairs, mothers and their children kept a grave-like silence.
Twenty years ago, when all this began, it had been easier for the ghosts to lure out terrified children. It wasn’t long before their mothers followed, desperate to save them. They could easily feast on Azoth Hollow. Now, decades later, people had toughened up, but the ghosts had also upped their game. My hands tightened on the hilts of my blades as ghostly whispers slithered under the door. They couldn’t infiltrate the inn, but they’d start using some of their uglier tactics soon enough. The spectral lamentations of a mother in an attempt to draw out a kindred spirit wanting to help filled the air, the cue that the fight for our lives was on. The sound was gut-wrenching, appealing to deep-seated instincts in a mother’s heart. A few years ago, one of the women had thrown herself out the window over something like this, and I couldn’t stop her. I was too late, and that was going to haunt me forever, but I’ll be damned if I’d let it happen again.
My muscles tensed, my eyes sharpened, and my hands wrapped tighter around the daggers at my waist. I would be ready this time.
Failing to get anyone to respond, the sound morphed into the wailing of babies, and then the calls of long lost, dead parents.
“Fuck it,” Thornan spat out. “They’re extra vicious tonight. Someone’s bound to fall.”
There was a heavy fatality to that statement that neither Kovra nor I could deny. Allowing yourself to be blindsided didn’t help things. We couldn’t know what everybody was hearing, because the ghosts could sound like anyone they loved. They lured people outside with promises that, if they got out there, they would be reunited with their lost loved ones. Only that this time it wasn’t a mother longing for a dead child that sought her way out. No. The one who stood and made his way towards the window, squinting, was none other than clergyman number one.
Of course. Unlike the locals, the monks were inexperienced. Easy prey.
“No,” Thornan hissed. “Get away from there.”
But the man was already entranced, mentally beyond Thornan’s reach. Those huddling on the floor didn’t bother to stop him because the foreigner going down meant more chances for the locals to survive the night. Maybe his flesh would appease the ravenous spirits. All the other watchers were upstairs with the women and children, which made us, The Scavengers, the only guardians on the ground floor. That also meant that the clergyman was our responsibility.
“Fuck! Stupid idiot,” Thornan spat out as he made his way toward number one. He got to the man before he could get to the window. The ghosts could take the shape of the Allmother herself, for all we knew, making him capable of anything.
A howl ripped through the air just as Thornan pushed the clergyman away. It sent ripples through the windowpane.
The howl of Taurus.
The blood froze in my veins, and my hands on my daggers. That was close. Too close. And if Taurus lurked in the area, Ares, the crownless king of the Court of Scorpio, wouldn’t be far.
Fuck me, this night would be the nastiest one yet. My pointy ears shifted imperceptibly as I focused on the sounds of night.
I watched Thornan with wide, unblinking eyes as he turned slowly towards the window, his lips parting.
“No! Fuck! Thornan!” Kovra sprang up, ready to sprint over and push our brother down to the floor. But what if the evil got to him, too? All I knew was that I couldn’t lose my brothers.
I shot up to my feet, jamming my shoulder into Kovra, and shoving him aside so I was the first to reach Thornan and place myself as a shield in front of him.
An icy fist tightened around my heart. My only luck, if I could call it that, was that fear always anchored me, making me hyper aware of my surroundings, which always proved an advantage. Even people’s breathing turned loud in my ears, yet clearly distinguishable from the sounds of night. Mothers hushing their babies upstairs, the quiet whimpering of a child, even rats in the basement scurrying to safety became loud thumps in my ears.
It was the first time I saw the three terrors, yet I didn’t have a doubt about who they were. You couldn’t mistake the dark executioner Lybra with a scales in one hand, and a blade in the other, or the creature to her left—a huge huffing shadow, steam curling out of its nostrils, its eyes red as fire.
A chill ran down my spine as the third creature stepped into the moonlight, right between the first two. There was no mistaking his identity, even though a hood obscured his face completely. He was bigger than Taurus, a black cloak flowing down from his broad shoulders, and he emitted so much power that all life seemed to be shrinking away from him. All he needed was a scythe, and I could have sworn I was looking at the bringer of death himself.
“Scavengers,” his ghostly whisper seeped into my head, while an icy mist coiled around my body.
Thornan shifted behind me. He must have heard him, too, and so did Kovra. I knew, because I had a direct line to my twin’s feelings. Still, I also felt the voice was addressing me more than either of them. I felt spoken to. And the more I stared at the hooded figure standing between dark executioner and shifter, the more I felt his focus. Penetrating. Cutting into my mind like knife through butter.
“Get out of my head,” I pushed out through my teeth. My jaw clenched so hard that it hurt, making speaking difficult. Was it him, not wanting me to talk out loud? What the hell, was he taking control over my body?
“I could,” he hissed, sending ice rolling down my back. “But you wouldn’t want me to come over there, would you?” A low rumble followed, as if he enjoyed this.
“Please.” I reached out to grab the sides of the window’s wooden frame. “These people are innocent. They’ve done you no wrong. Let them be.”
“They’ve done me no wrong, it’s true. But you have wronged me, and so did your brothers.”
A feeling of doom settled in the pit of my stomach.
“Scavengers,” he continued, the icy mist around me infiltrating my senses. “You’ve been violating the Cursed Woods, stealing Scorpio treasure. Now, we want it back.”
I begged the Allmother for an idea, but my mind stayed stubbornly blank. This was a monster I was talking to, the most dangerous creature in the Cursed Woods. I had to be very careful with what I did next. The responsibility weighed heavy on my shoulders. I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.
So, I did what I had never done before. For the first time, I accessed my magic, tapping into rusty instincts. My voice changed to a rippling soft tone, not entirely seductive, but getting there. The odds that my magic of seduction would work on the Scorpio Beast were close to zero anyway, but a deeper part of me was desperate enough to try.
“We can’t return the treasure, because we don’t have it anymore. It is spent. We don’t venture into the Cursed Woods for fun, you know. We do it because the Spades’ curse took Azoth Hollow in stride, and we can’t earn a living, so we have to buy one. The cursed treasure is how we’ve subsisted all of these years.”
A low growl like distant thunder made my skin pebble. When his spectral voice spoke in my head again, it chilled me.
“Well, then you’ll find that the Scorpio Beast isn’t beastly in all ways. I could let this slide, on the condition that you never come into the Cursed Woods again. That you never touch Scorpio treasure again.”
“You know that’s not a promise we can make. It’s the only way we can survive,” I pressed on, my fingers tightening on the window frame, the ridged wood starting to give way under my grip. “If you think about it, you owe this to us. We are all suffering under your curse, and we shouldn’t have to. We’re innocent.”
He burst into laughter. It was deep, controlled, but I could hear the repressed anger behind it, and it terrified me.
“Innocent,” the voice hissed in my head. “You mean we Scorpio fae deserved this?”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Save it, princess. I’m not here to discuss morals. You either give back the treasure, or pledge not to steal any more of it. Of course, since all good things are three, there is one other thing you could do to placate me.”
Rage tightened like a fist around my neck. He enjoyed torturing me with this. I wanted to scream at him that he was the most despicable creature, since he didn’t need the scraps of treasure we found in the woods, and everybody knew that, but I pressed my lips shut.
“You could pay your village’s debt,” he said, clearly taking dark delight in this. “In fact, if you choose this third option, I give you my word that neither my siblings nor I will set foot Azoth Hollow as long as you’re in my power. And if you make yourself really useful, we might provide the village with the means necessary to survive this winter, and maybe all the winters that follow. I might even protect Azoth Hollow of the ghosts on full moon nights. What do you say?”
My mind went blank. What the fuck was happening here? Why would he want me of all people, of what possible use could I be to him?
“All you need to do, Vyper, is give yourself over to me, as tribute.” His voice darkened, and more blood drained from my face with every word he said. “Do that, and see your village spared. Even those that don’t deserve sparing. You know exactly who I’m talking about.”
I did, and it scared the hell out of me. Did this monster know my secrets?
“Why would you even want me?” Even inside my own head, my voice was barely more than a shaky whisper.
“Come to the Well of Sorrows tomorrow at midnight, and see your questions answered.”
The invisible fist of anxiety closed tighter around my neck.
No one who ever went to the Well of Sorrows ever came back. No one that ever gazed down at their own reflection in the water ever resisted the urge of throwing themselves in it. Word had it that a terrible sadness came out of the well, and it overwhelmed even the most mentally robust.
“What you ask of me is pure suicide,” I said.
“Relax. If I wanted you dead, we wouldn’t be talking right now.”
“Then what do you want with me?”
The dark hooded figure shimmered, and chilling fear went through the entire room behind me. This man was pure terror. Every creature in the Cursed Woods knew to fear him, scurrying to safety whenever they felt his presence close. The ghosts that had invaded the village streets at nightfall had stopped whispering, now barely more than a quiet presence out there, as wary of the dark triad facing me through the window as I was. People behind me crouched in silence, barely daring to breathe, while Kovra kept tense like an arrow ready to spring if I needed protection.
Not that he’d be able to protect me. If anything happened, he’d only end up losing his life. I couldn’t let it come to that.
“What do you want from me, Ares Amberson?” I pressed on in the velvety tone of a nymph, even though it only seemed to amuse Ares.
“All in good time, princess. The Well of Sorrows. Tomorrow at midnight.”
I squinted at him, trying to pierce the night and get a good look at his face under the hood. My half fae eyes were able to scrutinize the darkness, but he managed to keep himself shrouded in a veil of mystery.
He raised his head just a little, upping the static that prickled my skin. Brilliant green eyes like pure poison gleamed under his hood, emitting light that hinted at the sharp, dangerous edges of his face that seemed made of metal.
While his siblings began to draw back into the night, Ares lingered, as if he were still waiting. Something glinted behind him, a blade in the moonlight as a war cry ripped through the night. Time slowed down as the silvery light revealed the attacker’s face. My blood thumped in my ears as I screamed out his name. The sound of my own voice deafened me, wood splinters piercing my skin as my hands crushed the wooden window frame.
“Thornan, no!” tore out of my throat. Taken with the Scorpio Beast, I hadn’t noticed when my brother had slipped outside.
The ghosts must have cleared the streets in fear of Ares, and Thornan saw opportunity. He took one hell of a risk to do it, and for what? This was pure madness. Ares turned, and the veins in my neck swelled as I screamed out my brother’s name once more. Probably for the last time.
Thornan never stood a chance. My heart crumbled into pieces as I realized that my little brother was about to perish. Watching his face, much more rugged than a twenty-year-old’s should be, felt like a knife through my heart. The moment Ares raised his arm, his black garment falling back from a large hand that was obviously used to heavy weaponry and to easily twisting the necks of young men, I knew.
My little brother had sealed his own fate.
Thornan was a big brawny man, but compared to Ares he seemed almost feeble. Even in a simple fist fight, one blow from that large hand that seemed capable of cracking an anvil would have rendered my brother senseless. But it didn’t come to that. An army of scorpions emerged from under the Scorpio Beast’s sleeve, the sight of them enough to send shivers all over me. They jumped on Thornan, throwing him down and spreading out all over him like termites. He scrunched his face and bared his teeth, screaming and thrashing on the ground.
“No!” I cried. “Please!”
Ares turned, but all I could see was a poisonous green eye glowing from under his hood, his face obscured.
“Your brother, yesss?” he hissed in my head. “Hmmm. I think I’ll keep him. You know, as a token of your good faith,” he rumbled, cunning behind his words. “Make sure you don’t do anything foolish, like try lukewarm, brothel magic on me again.”
With that, Ares Amberson disappeared into the night fog beyond the moonlight, dragging my brother along with him, and leaving me only with the sound of my own blood thumping in my ears. I started to feel the pain in my palms from the splinters that had pierced my skin. Pain shot through my hands as I unimpaled them from the splintered wood. Then the room tilted, and the ground disappeared from under my feet.
“Vyper!” I heard my twin as if through water as he caught me. I grabbed his dependable arms, my eyes hanging desperately on his pale blue gaze, struggling to stay conscious, my palms leaving bloody traces on his mailed biceps.
“He’s got him, Kovra. He’s got Thornan.” My voice sounded hoarse, like I’d been screaming for hours. “He’s only twenty, this can’t be how his story ends. It just can’t, I can’t let it be. He was in love, you know? And he kept on loving him, even if he didn’t want Thornan back. All he ever knew was pain. We have to save him! We have to, I have to—” my voice trailed off, and everything went dark.
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