Queen of Blades and Roses – Chapter I

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.

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When did my destiny go wrong?

When the Spades fae’s curse befell us all, fae and humans alike? Or when I, Vyper the princess in rags, became the key to a masked beast’s vengeance against them?

Once known as Prince Aries Amberson of the Court of Scorpio, the Scorpio Beast wants the throne of Celestia. He believes the city on top of Doomsday Mountain is rightfully his to rule, and he needs me to get it. Who would have thought that I of all people would have a legal claim to it? I have no choice but to do what Aries demands, otherwise he will leave behind piles of corpses that will include those of my brothers.

But as I’m forced to join him into the great halls of Celestia as his fake fiancée, I go discovering there is more to this monster than I knew. A tragic hero hides behind his iron mask, one with a cruel past, and a future that might doom us all. My brothers say I’m the only woman that can touch his heart, that I’m the key to his undoing. It’s my sacred duty. Fail, and Aries Amberson will go down in flames, taking us all with him. Succeed, and it will mean my own destruction because there is no taking off the beast’s iron mask without facing a deadly truth.

A Curse of Blades

Through the pub window, the Cursed Woods looked almost romantic. They could fool anyone sitting with a pint in their hand at the wooden table beside it here 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 crushed 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 coins from them?” Thornan grunted, cocking a thick black eyebrow at the gossiping crowd from behind his pint. Scars adorned his rough fist, and his rugged looks placed him well beyond his twenty-two years. Part of that was his scruffy three-day-beard and 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.

Of the three of us, I seemed easiest to approach, accommodating even. I had inherited the magic of seduction from my fae ma’, even though I wasn’t good at using it, because hell, she hadn’t been around to teach me. But my magic was good enough to use on humans, and on some of the monsters out there, and I’d crafted my own brand of violence from it. Where blades couldn’t help me, my magic did. My brothers and I needed to function like a well-oiled machine when entering the Cursed Woods, our lives depended on it, and I always did my part.

Once every season, we put it all on the line venturing into that forested hell, hunting for treasure. We spent the rest of our time training for that. It took over our lives completely, but gold, silver and gems were the only things that got the people of Azoth Hallow 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 Azoth Hollow into a haunted village. It intrigued outsiders and travelers, it fascinated them, but no one in their right mind would choose to spend a full moon night here. As for leaving Azoth Hollow to settle somewhere else—others tried before, and failed miserably. Being born in this place was like a scarlet letter, causing people to recoil, 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 have affected us all in some way.

The sure thing was that our village wasn’t safe beyond nightfall on the three full moon nights every month. If the sunset caught you outside, you were on a life and death race to get yourself to safety. 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. It was the Spades’ way of keeping the Scorpios dependent, unable to reclaim their lost power.

One thing the spirits couldn’t do though—they couldn’t enter cottages uninvited. But whatever they caught outside was theirs for the taking, and they never spared a life. Their hunger for it was beyond themselves, almost vampiric.

It was these stories that drew travelers to Azoth Hollow like moths to a flame. It was why the three men at the bar top 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, gathering stories they could take back and write down as real accounts.

“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, snakes slithering 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, even after Big Reo leaned in and whispered to them who we were. The strangers’ eyes widened as he spoke, their curiosity and hunger for more 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. We were both blonde, blue-eyed, fair skinned and half-fae, which made 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 Ma’, but his mordacity he got from Da’, the best blacksmith in Azoth Hollow, and once the best blacksmith in Celestia, too. Back in the Scorpios’ day, humans could still work in the Golden City, if they had proven themselves worthy. The fae considered humans lowly creatures, but they still used their services, if they were outstanding.

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 after Ma’ almost killed him, but the Providence 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 Ma’.

Sometimes, on clear days, you could see the city with the naked eye on top of Doomsday. 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 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-slept boys. I wondered how much they were willing to risk for the knowledge they thirsted for. My brothers had clearly already decided they 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, his long blonde hair framing his face like glinting platinum. It made a fierce contrast with his pale blue eyes, sharp nose and thin lips. I was his female version, only that my hair was 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 succubus-like magic I’d inherited from Ma’.

“We don’t remember inviting you to take a seat,” Thornan bit out.

“Big Rae 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, and learned. 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 upped the magic flowing in my veins, creating some atmosphere. 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, leaning back against his chair. “And how does a man like you possess something from the 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 leaned 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. Aries 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 funneled for the conversation at this table, but even the little cacophony there was died down now. It was the effect of that name each and every single time someone spoke it out.

“Aries Amberson,” the leader monk pressed on. “The last surviving prince 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, and I never got out of that mode.

“Heroes from many parts of the world came to Northern Kaledonien, and all of them had heard 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 heat. My twin held out a long, bony 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 out there?”

“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, a small one, to make him comfortable but not quite.

“We know one or two things about him, it’s true,” I began, keeping still as a statue, yet my voice was low and inviting, fluid. It mesmerized the monks, but that might have had to do with my half fae looks more than with my magic. The fae traveled the world of men only rarely, and they tended to keep their looks obscured under hoods on most of those occasions.  Kovra and I might well be the only fae these three men had ever seen.

“Aries is the son of the late Scorpio King, Zavros Amberson, and his wife, Lumeia,” I said. “I’m sure you 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, 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. Aries and his siblings survived the terrible curse that fell over their Court, but at a great cost.” My voice lowered, its frequencies darkening. “They had to integrate the curse, to let it run through their veins, become one with it, and live with it like with a disease. They were all small children when this happened, which was bad enough, I imagine, but Aries had the worst fate of all. Have you heard anything about this curse, 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 regarding that.”

“Let us hear some,” I encouraged, keeping the smile on.

“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 loved by him. Where they feel a caress or the stroke of a tongue, it’s often the slithering of a poisonous snake. 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 leaned forward, placing my elbows on the table. They made a blunt clanging sound against the wood from the elven silver protective plates I was wearing over my black mail. Elven armor, scavenged from the woods last season. I rather liked how it made me look.  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 full fae blood. Luckily, my twin and I were only half fae, and we could make good use of what we found in the woods.

“Let us start with the beginning, so that this story makes perfect sense to you,” I told the eagerly listening  monks. The leader’s looks had turned slightly more lecherous, but I didn’t mind just yet. I liked it when masks started to peel off of people. “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. Like the name suggests, Aries Amberson was first and foremost a warrior prince, because he was born with martial magic in his veins. A positive kind of magic, in the beginning, it seemed—he was a protector—which, to his parents and his court, was a blessing. He would one day become head of the Scorpio Army, and it seemed he’d been born for it. To him though, it was a curse, because the dark magic King Gariel cast over the Scorpios twisted what was already inside the children. It turned Aries’ older brother, Taurus, into a particularly 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 living creature out there is safe from him.

“It turned his sister Lybra into a dark executioner, a creature that will deliver justice in cruel ways on full moon nights. It’s not unlikely to find a wayward clergyman with obscure sins hanging from a cross with his insides spilling out of him.” I leaned in closer, driving tension into the monks like a rod up their arses. 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 Aries into?”

Snorting laughter broke through my magic, giving the poor bastards some respite from the trance I’d pulled them into. 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 just a lecherous way of begging for safety from their cruelty—by implying the possibility you’d adhere to their values if it came to that. But trust me, that wouldn’t bring you the monster’s approval. Monsters despise suck-ups. They chew them up, and then spit them out like leftovers that lost their taste.” I paused to take in the effect on their faces. It gave me a kind of sick pleasure.

“Have you ever seen him?” he managed.

Kovra scoffed by my side.

“You don’t meet 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 Aries 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 scavenger treasure to help this village survive.”

“Find a place by the hearth to spend the night, clergymen,” I concluded, leaning back in my chair, and lessening the grip of my magic over them. “It’s going to be the most scary one your lives. If you’ve never heard the whispers of death before, you will tonight. You’ll hear the breath 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 the most treacherous of forms. That’s why we gather in large groups in places like this.” And why we, The Scavengers, went on our hunt the next day, but I left that out. The spirits and monsters gave their all on these nights, they feasted and gave their murderous lust free rein, and they slept deeper the next day, which made it easier for us to move through the Cursed Woods. “I hope you are happy, gentlemen, and appreciate the great opportunity you’re being offered. I’m sure you didn’t even dare hope such a thing would happen when you arrived here this afternoon. You’re going to experience the thrill of your lives, but beware. Some ghosts will call on you, using their power to lure you out of your safety—the very reason we stay together. Whatever happens, don’t even think about leaving the inn, because you will certainly die.”

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