I’m on a man-fast. Why bother with them? The good ones are always taken. Or they’re weirdly uninterested in a capricious wild child with continuous legal problems.
—Carrow Graie, a.k.a. Carrow the Incarcerated, mercenary of the Wiccae,
practitioner of love spells
My enemies have deemed me fearless. ‘Tis no compliment.
The only males who know no fear are the ones who have nothing to lose.
—Malkom Slaine, leader of the Trothan rebellion
Demon plane of Oblivion, City of Ash
Year 192 in the Rule of the Dead
“Do we go to our death—or worse?”
Malkom Slaine gazed over at his best friend, Prince Kallen the Just, wishing he had a better answer for him, anything to ease the apprehension in Kallen’s eyes.
As the vampire guards shoved them along, deeper into their stronghold, Malkom suspected death might be welcome before the night was out.
“The rumors are likely untrue,” he lied, putting up a renewed resistance as the dozen guards forced them down a flight of stone steps. But his bonds were mystical; Malkom was unable to teleport or break free.
At the base of the stairs lay a subterranean chamber with an ornate throne on a dais. Though the floor was of packed earth, the walls were hung with rich silks and tapestries. Rare crystal and glass adorned the room.
At once, Malkom began analyzing every inch of the area for an escape. Ahead, a pair of winded demon slaves stood beside a freshly dug grave. More guards lined the walls, with swords at the ready. In the back, a black-robed sorcerer worked at a vial-cluttered table.
Gods, let the rumors be untrue . . . those whispers of the Scârbă—the abominations.
Kallen muttered, “Can you see a way out of this?”
Normally, Malkom could. Without fail, he figured his way out of seemingly impossible predicaments. “Not as of yet.”
The guards shoved Kallen and Malkom to their knees before the grave.
“Ronath will pay for this once I get free,” Kallen grated. Ronath the Armorer was a seasoned warrior, the strongest demon after Malkom. He’d once been Kallen’s favored commander. “The traitor will not see another night.”
‘Twas Ronath who’d turned Malkom over to the vampires. Disastrous enough. But without Malkom’s unwavering defense, Kallen’s fortress had fallen just a weeks later. The Trothans’ beloved prince had been captured.
Blinded by his hatred for Malkom—a slave turned commander—Ronath had unwittingly doomed Kallen and all the Trothans.
Malkom had already planned his own revenge. As he was neither noble nor good like Kallen, his retribution would be far more vicious than the prince could ever envision.
Without warning, a vampire traced into the room, teleporting directly onto the throne. Clad in costly silk robes, the male was pallid, his skin untouched by Oblivion’s blistering sun. His eyes were wholly red, his visage twisted by madness.
When the vampires had conquered Oblivion and turned it into a colony, they’d dispatched the Viceroy, their most malicious leader, to act as ruler of the plane.
“Ah, my two new prisoners,” he said in Anglish.
Though Malkom and Kallen were both fluent in the language, they refused to speak anything other than their native Demonish—even as the use of that tongue was now punishable by death.
The vampire rubbed his narrow, clean-shaven chin. “At last, you have both been captured.”
Malkom and the prince were the leaders of the rebellion, and to break them would be to break the resistance. The vampire overlords had searched for them relentlessly.
When the Viceroy snapped his fingers, the two slaves exited the room, returning moments later with an unconscious demon boy. One of their own, handed over for a vampire’s refreshment. A leisurely repast.
Malkom started sweating. He strained even harder against his bonds but couldn’t get free before the vampire collected the boy in his arms, then bent over his neck.
At the sight, rage spiked within Malkom. Those sucking sounds . . .
He bared his fangs, overwhelmed with memories of his childhood as a blood slave. His only consolation was that this boy was unconscious, a luxury he himself had never been afforded. Nor had Malkom’s neck been taken, for that skin would have been readily seen—and he hadn’t been kept only for his blood.
“Steady, Malkom,” Kallen murmured in Demonish. “Keep your wits about you.”
How many times had Kallen said those exact words? The prince has long kept me sane.
The Viceroy dropped the boy from the dais to the ground like refuse, then dabbed at his lips with a crisp handkerchief. “I confess, you two fascinate me.” His red eyes burned with curiosity. “A friendship between a beloved royal and his brutal guard dog. The highest of the high, and . . .” He flicked his hand at Malkom.
No one had been more perplexed by their friendship than Malkom. Kallen was the crown prince of the Trothan Demonarchy, hundreds of years old, and filled with wisdom.
Malkom was the illiterate thirty-year-old son of a whore, raised as a vampire’s slave—and filled with rage.
Yet somehow he and Kallen had become comrades in arms, brothers by choice if not by blood. Kallen had said he’d recognized something in Malkom, an innate nobility. As if he’d known how badly Malkom wanted to be noble.
“Penniless, ignorant, and fatherless,” the Viceroy intoned. “The son of a demon whore who sold her body.” With a sneer, he added, “Until she could sell one of her offspring.”
Malkom could deny nothing.
“How easily you sprang to life, when you should have been no more than seeping waste in a back alley.”
“If Malkom is not noble in blood,” Kallen said, “then he is noble in deed.”
Kallen, still defending me.
The Viceroy seemed amused. “I can imagine none so lowly, yet you had the gall to resist us, knowing death awaited. Amazingly, you very nearly routed us from your world, demon.”
Malkom could scarcely comprehend this. Though he’d won numerous battles, he hadn’t imagined his foes were on the brink of surrender. Malkom had never known an Oblivion without the walking-dead vampires here.
Decades before his birth, they had arrived from an alien plane filled with myriad breeds of immortals and mortals, settling here for one reason.
When the vampires consumed Trothan blood, it made them more powerful than they’d ever been, made them heal from injuries more swiftly. Blood had eventually become the currency in Oblivion.
“So very nearly,” the Viceroy continued. “But in the end, breeding will tell.” The vampire traced to stand just beside them. “You can dress in your fine warrior clothing.” He reached down to rip Malkom’s rich cloak from him. “But you can only mask what you truly are. Under those manacles at your wrists, I bet I would find bite scars.”
Again Malkom voiced no denial. He normally wore silver cuffs to conceal those shaming marks.
The details of his past weren’t necessarily held secret. All the demons in Ash knew how Malkom had earned his bread as a boy, how he’d eaten from their trash once he’d grown too old for a vampire lord’s tastes.
But for this vampire to know as well . . .
“Does not matter how you appear, demon—you are still nothing.”
“Do not listen to him, Malkom,” Kallen said. “You are a good man. A stalwart leader.”
“Who was betrayed at the earliest opportunity?” the vampire said.
A gang led by the powerful and devious Ronath had tricked Malkom. Before he could trace or attack, he’d been caught in a metal net and stabbed through repeatedly.
“You rose up high for the briefest time. But I will break you down once more.”
Malkom craned his head up to face the Viceroy. “Break me down?”
“You submitted to a vampire master once. You will do so again.”
“Is that why we live still? For me, save yourself time and kill me now.” Nothing this vampire could do would be worse than what the slave master of Malkom’s childhood had done. Malkom gazed at the demon boy, unconscious in the dirt. Nothing.
“‘Tis not so simple,” the Viceroy said. “It never is with our kind.” Had he signaled something to the sorcerer at the back of the chamber? “You’ve destroyed so many of my soldiers that I have decided to create more, starting with you two. You shall be transformed, remade in my image.”
The rumors . . . ‘Twas said that the overlords had developed a rite to transform Trothans into Scârbă—demonic vampires who thirsted for the blood of their own. A demon and a vampire united, an abomination stronger than both.
The Viceroy drew his sword from a scabbard at his hip. “You will drink my blood, and it will open your veins to the ritual. Your deaths will be the catalyst.” He ran a finger over the edge of his sword, while in the shadows his sorcerer began to chant, fueling a sinister curse.
Power emanated from the sorcerer with every utterance, filling the room with forbidden black magics. Some unseen force seemed to wrap around Malkom’s body, digging in.
Even more guards closed in, heaving tight on Malkom’s and Kallen’s chains. One of the largest vampires jammed his knee into Kallen’s spine, forcing his head backward, while another wedged a bit between Kallen’s teeth.
“No, no!” Malkom roared, twisting violently.
The Viceroy sliced his own wrist. “‘Tis a gift I’m giving you. The Thirst. I am going to make blood sing for you, make you dine on demon flesh every day for eternity.” He shoved the streaming gash to Kallen’s pried-open mouth. “You will become like us, and be loyal only to me. It begins now.”
“Do not drink it, Kallen!” Malkom bellowed, but they forced him to swallow it.
They set upon Malkom next, stabbing him until he was too weakened to resist. The Viceroy’s thick, vile blood was forced down his throat as well.
Then the vampire raised his sword. Malkom thrashed against the chains with every ounce of power left in his body, but neither he nor Kallen could get loose.
Kallen met Malkom’s gaze for a harrowing moment—just before the Viceroy’s sword sliced clean through Kallen’s neck. His body collapsed backward, his head tumbling into the grave. Dazed, sightless eyes stared up at Malkom. The prince’s brows were still drawn, his teeth gritted.
Malkom gaped in disbelief while years of their shared memories flashed in his mind.
The two demons’ countless battles, more victories than defeats. The dozens of times Malkom had saved Kallen’s life; the thousands of times Kallen had praised him, encouraging him to better himself.
“You are a fearless warrior who’s more than his past.” “Of course you’ve the intelligence to learn how to read! Who the devil convinced you otherwise?” “You are stronger and faster than the others, your will to live greater than any I’ve known. You see details others are blind to. Uniqueness is a kind of nobility, is it not, brother?”
Throughout, Malkom had begun to shed the taint of his past. He’d dared to entertain dreams of a better life.
Now Kallen was dead. Malkom roared with impotent fury, his eyes going wet with rage and loss. Kallen. Dead.
The sorcerer cast a layer of a black dust over Kallen’s body.
“No!” Malkom bit out. “Leave him in peace!”
More chanting, more power.
Malkom’s lips parted. Kallen’s body was lifeless no more. With each of the sorcerer’s words, it began to twitch, to . . . move in the dirt.
Not from death spasms. But writhing with life. The headless neck pumped blood anew.
The Viceroy again snapped his fingers for the demon slaves. Once the pair had kicked Kallen’s body into the grave, the sorcerer scattered more of that dust over all. To make Kallen whole once more?
When smoke snaked up from the depths, the Viceroy raised his bloody sword. “Now ’tis your turn, Slaine. And I promise you, rising from the dead—if it takes—will be the easy part. If you live, I will break you.”
Malkom silently prayed for a true end, beseeching the gods who had never once answered his most desperate entreaties. Please, do not let me rise—
The sword whistled through the air. He perceived the scantest bite of blade.
* * *
Despite Malkom’s prayers, he and Kallen had both risen two nights later, waking into a nightmare of darkness, deep in the earth. After clawing through the dirt, inching their way to the surface, they’d been thrown in a murky cell in the Viceroy’s dungeon.
They hadn’t suffocated as they’d risen because they now drew no breaths. Nor did their hearts beat.
The walking dead. Vampire. I am a vampire.
No! Malkom still hadn’t accepted his fate, was ready to rage and fight it. Even as he recognized how much he’d been altered.
Though he wore no cuffs to prevent him from tracing, he no longer had that ability. His clammy skin felt as if a thousand spiders crawled all over him. His upper fangs had elongated and narrowed, throbbing painfully. Even in the low light, merely opening his sensitive eyes was an agony.
His very hearing was different, more acute. He could detect insects boring in the ground beneath him.
From the moment he’d awakened in the grave, the burgeoning need for blood had lashed him. Confusion and anguish roiled within him.
In Kallen, too. He stared at the filthy cell walls, hollow-eyed and unblinking.
“We will fight our way free,” Malkom assured him now, “then return home.”
“We are Scârbă. Brother, no demons will ever take us among them.”
He was likely right. The two were worse even than the vampires. They were defiled demons, cursed to feed off their own kind. They were the monsters of legend feared by all.
Kallen rasped, “There is no reason to go on.”
“There is always a reason.” How many times had Malkom had to convince himself of this? “If for nothing else, you can seek vengeance.” He himself would not rest until retribution was meted.
He would slaughter the sorcerer who’d muttered his curses in the background, the guards who’d held them down, and the bloodthirsty Viceroy whose sick will had set them all into motion.
Then he would return to destroy Ronath.
Those who betrayed Malkom did it only once.
When all was done, he would find a way to erase every vampire trait from himself, to rid his veins of the Viceroy’s blood and return to what he’d been.
Or he’d greet the sun. Malkom frowned. Would that kill a Scârbă?
“Live for vengeance?” Kallen said. “Tell me, will that be enough?”
How to answer that question when Malkom’s own dreams appeared so ridiculous now?
He’d wanted a home that no one could ever force him to leave. He’d wanted as much food and water as he could ever enjoy. But more than anything, he’d secretly longed to be respected like Kallen—a noble like him—gifted with a blood far better than his own.
Malkom’s only fortune was that no one else had ever discovered how much he yearned to be highborn. “Then live for your fated female,” he urged Kallen. “She will accept you. She must.”
“Is that what you seek, Malkom? Your fated one?”
“I’ve no such expectations.” What use had he for a woman of his own? He’d needed no offspring for a noble line or sons to work the water mines with him.
“No? Then why have you never taken a demoness from the camps?”
Malkom’s gaze flicked away. Never had he known a female. Those who followed the army could be had for a price, but Malkom had never used one. No matter how urgent his need, no matter how badly his curiosity burned, he physically couldn’t.
They smelled of other males, reminding him of his childhood. Nothing extinguished his lusts like the scent of seed.
So he’d put females from his mind. As a boy, he disciplined himself not to dream about food. He’d applied that same discipline to keep from fantasizing about intercourse.
At length, Malkom answered, “Because war has become everything for me—”
The Viceroy traced into their cell, his eyes lit with pleasure. “Remade in my image.” The vampire wasn’t shocked the ritual had worked—he was brimming with pride. So how many had they created here? “And this is just the beginning. Do you feel the Thirst? It’s sacred to us, as death is.” His gaze fell first on Kallen, then on Malkom. “Only the one who kills—or answers the Thirst—will ever leave this cell alive.”
Just as Malkom tensed to attack, the Viceroy disappeared.
Once their situation sank in and he’d found his voice, Malkom said, “We will not fight each other.” They both knew that when he said fight, he meant drink or kill. “I will not fight my brother.” But if anyone was freed, it should be Kallen. He’s all that is good.
“Nor I,” Kallen vowed.
“We will not,” Malkom repeated, wondering if he sought to convince Kallen—or himself.
* * *
Three weeks later . . .
Malkom weakly stood before the bars, expending precious energy just to remain on his feet, yet unable to lie down as though defeated.
Day after day had passed with no food, water, or—dark gods help them—blood. His thirst intensified hourly, his fangs throbbing until he’d silently wept. He’d caught himself staring at Kallen’s neck, the skin there taunting him.
At times, Malkom had flushed to find Kallen’s gaze on his own neck.
Never had he hungered like this. Last night, Malkom had waited until Kallen fitfully dozed. Then he’d sunk his aching fangs into his own arm, sucking, disgusted by how rich he’d found the taste. How delicious, how blistering the pleasure . . .
Endless days passed as their bodies withered but would not die. With no industry to be had, no battles to be fought, Malkom was beset by memories, cloying in his mind. For someone who held survival paramount, he’d begun to have doubts. How important was living?
Living means more betrayal.
His first betrayal had been dealt by his own mother. At six years of age, he’d complained of hunger so acute he’d nearly blacked out. She’d railed that he was never satisfied, then sold him to a vampire who would feed him all he wanted if he was an “obedient and affectionate” boy.
His second betrayal? That same vampire had cast him out at fourteen, deeming Malkom too old to stir his lusts.
Back to the gutter, back to hunger. But against all odds, Malkom had grown increasingly strong, until he’d finally been ready to exact revenge on the master. Malkom had always been observant, and he’d noted every protection guarding that vampire’s home. He’d found it easy to steal back inside, take out the guards, and murder the master who’d tormented his youth and twisted him as a man.
And it’d felt so good, so glorious, to kill one of their kind, he’d hunted another, and another.
Soon, word of his deeds had reached Kallen’s ears. The prince had invited him to his stronghold, then spent months convincing Malkom to join their rebellion, even to lead it.
Eventually Malkom had been acknowledged in the street, asked to dinner by Kallen, paid in riches and fine clothing—merely for risking a life Malkom had cared naught about. For so long, shame had been his companion, but at last he’d dragged himself from the gutter. He’d known his people didn’t love him, but he’d thought he was earning their respect each time he saved their miserable lives.
Weeks ago when he’d noticed a tension among them, he’d chastised himself for reading too much into others’ reactions, telling himself he needed to listen to Kallen and stop expecting betrayal at every turn. No matter how many times I have been dealt it.
“And now what is going on in that head of yours, Malkom?” Kallen asked from across the cell, his voice faint. “You’ve that dangerous look on your face.”
“My thoughts are dark.”
“As are mine. I fear we near the end.”
“There is no end,” Malkom said. “Not until I decide it.”
A sad smile creased Kallen’s gaunt face. “Fierce as ever.” He rose unsteadily, then limped to stand before Malkom. “For me, I’ve decided this cannot go on.” His eyes flickered black with emotion. “So embrace me, my friend.” He wrapped his arms around Malkom.
His own arms hanging by his sides, Malkom peered up at the ceiling in confusion. I’ve never been embraced like this before. Touching meant using.
Was this giving instead? Am I too scarred to recognize it? Hesitantly, Malkom wrapped his arms around Kallen as well. Not so bad.
When he felt Kallen’s lips against his neck, Malkom frowned. Kallen loved females, enjoyed a new demoness nightly. So what was this? You are merely ignorant in the ways of affection—
Kallen’s lips parted.
He was going to drink. With the realization, Malkom started to sweat, his eyes darting, the will to survive rising up. But if he was truly steadfast, surely he’d sacrifice himself for the prince, for the good of the crown. How much had Kallen done for him? He’d taught him how to control his rage, to channel it.
He’d given Malkom purpose. If not noble in blood, then in deed . . .
Yet memories arose within him, sordid scenes with a vampire who’d used him for years. The feedings in the dark . . . the way the master’s skin would grow warm against his own. . . .
No, no! “Do not do this thing, Kallen.” Malkom’s voice was hoarse. “Do not betray our friendship.” Don’t betray me.
“I am sorry,” he said, his tone defeated. “I do not have a choice.”
Kallen is all that is good. Though Malkom had vowed he would never be bitten again, he somehow held himself still as the prince’s splayed fingers dug into his back, clutching him even closer.
A final sacrifice for my friend? Can I control my will to live?
Or would the prince’s brutal guard dog finally turn on him?
When Malkom’s jaw clenched, his every muscle tensing, Kallen rasped, “Steady, Malkom.” Then he plunged his fangs into Malkom’s neck, giving a wretched groan of pleasure as he sucked. And the sound was so familiar, the shuddering of his body just like the master’s.
Kallen’s chilled skin began to warm against Malkom’s.
Betrayal. Rage erupted, and he roared with it. Cannot control this . . .
Seizing Kallen by the shoulders, Malkom shoved him back. He looked down at the prince and knew that, for him, this was the end. “Forgive me, brother. . . .”
But those who betray me do it only once.
Immortal Internment Compound
When Carrow Graie had awakened from her abduction a week ago, she’d had a raging headache, cotton mouth, and a metal collar affixed around her neck.
Things had only gone downhill from there.
Tonight I might be hitting rock bottom, she thought as warden Fegley—a billyclub-carrying, no-balled loser—forced her down the corridor of cells to her doom.
“Dead Wicca walking,” the centaurs’ leader sneered from their cell as Carrow passed. He, like every other Lore creature imprisoned here in the immortal menagerie, suspected she was about to be offed.
“Shut the fuck up, Mr. Ed,” she said, earning a harsh yank on her collar from Fegley. Glaring at the mortal, she struggled against her cuffs. “Once I get my powers back, Fugley, I’ll curse you to fall in love. With your own bodily functions. If it comes out of your body, your heart will long for it.”
“Then I guess I’m lucky you’ve got this on.” Another jerk on the band at her neck—the mortals called it a torque. It mystically nullified her abilities and weakened her physically. Every species here had been hobbled in some way, making them controllable, even by mortals like Fegley. “Besides, witch, what makes you so sure you’re going to make it past the next hour?”
If these people execute me, I’m going to be sooo pissed. Unfortunately, that appeared to be in the cards. At the very least, she was about to be tortured or experimented on.
Hell, maybe then she could find out why anyone would have gone to the trouble of abducting her.
Carrow was a rare three-caste witch, but she was by no means the most powerful, not like her best friend Mariketa the Awaited. Though overjoyed that Mari hadn’t been taken, Carrow didn’t understand why she’d been targeted. . . .
What would Ripley do? When in a jam, Carrow often thought of how Ellen Ripley, the legendary badasstress of the Alien quadrilogy, would figure her way out.
Ripley would analyze the enemy, take stock of her surroundings and resources, use her wits to defeat her foes and escape, then nuke everything in her wake.
Analyze the enemy. From what Carrow had heard from other inmates, this place was run by The Order, a mysterious league of mortal soldiers and scientists led by a magister named Declan Chase, a.k.a. the Blademan, along with his trusty bitch, Dr. Dixon.
Carrow’s sorceress cellmate had told her the Order was bent on eradicating all the immortal miscreations, or miscreats.
My surroundings? A diabolically designed prison, with cells made of foot-thick steel on three sides and unbreakable, two-foot-thick glass on the front. Each cell had four bunks, with a toilet and a sink behind a screen—and no real privacy. The Order recorded their every action from ceiling cams.
This incarceration was like nothing she’d ever known—and she’d known more than her share of two hots and a cot. Carrow hadn’t enjoyed a single shower or change of clothes. She still wore her club duds: halter top, black leather miniskirt, and thigh-high boots.
Each day inside brought more shitty food and bad lighting.
Along with experiments on immortals, some of whom were her friends.
Resources? Carrow had precisely zero-point-zero resources. Despite the fact that she could usually charm prison guards, these mortal soldiers seemed immune to her. Except for Fegley, who for some reason appeared to resent her deeply, as if they had a history.
Though each of her steps carried her potentially closer to her demise, she observed as much as she could, determined to escape. Yet one reinforced corridor bulkhead after another doused her hopes of breaking out.
The layout was labyrinthine, the halls riddled with cameras and the cells all booked up. Lykae, Valkyrie, and the noble fey—all allies of a sort—were mixed amid the evil Invidia, fallen vampires, and fire demons.
In one cell, contagious ghouls snapped at each other, tearing at their own yellow skin. In another, succubae wasted away from sexual hunger.
The Order had snared more beings than could be named, many of which were notorious and deadly.
Like the brutal werewolf Uilleam MacRieve. The Lykae were among the physically strongest creatures in the Lore, but with that torque on his neck, Uilleam wouldn’t be able to access the beast within him.
For fun, the warden rapped the glass with his club. Maddened by the captivity, Uilleam charged, hitting the glass headfirst, splitting his scalp to the skull right before her eyes. The surface was unharmed while blood poured down his tense face.
In the next cell stood a huge berserker, a savage warrior male that Carrow had seen around New Orleans. He looked on the verge of going berserk.
Carrow swallowed to see his neighboring inmate—a Fury, with uncanny violet eyes and bared fangs. The Furies were female avengers, embodiments of wrath. And this one was a rare Archfury, raven-winged and lethal.
The Order certainly didn’t pull their punches. Some of the beings here were even infamous. Like the vampire Lothaire, the Enemy of Old, with his white-blond hair and eerily sinister hotness. Whenever the guards sedated him and dragged him down the ward, his pale red eyes promised pain to those who’d dared to touch him.
“Step on it, witch,” Fegley said. “Or I’ll introduce you to Billy.”
“I might like him, heard he’s wittier than you are.” She gritted her teeth when he shoved her again.
Once they’d reached the prison ward’s main entrance, another long corridor branched off, this one filled with offices and labs. Without a word, Fegley hauled her into the last room, what looked like a modernist den. No lab? No electrodes or bone saws?
A plain-Jane brunette sat behind an executive desk. She sported an I’m a bitch, so deal look behind unstylish glasses. Must be Dr. Dixon.
Behind her, a towering dark-haired male stood at the window. He gazed out into the turbulent night, revealing only a shadowy profile.
Carrow peered outside to get an idea of their location, but rain pelted the window. According to inmate whispers, this facility was on a giant island, thousands of miles from land in any direction. Natch.
“Free her hands.” the tall man said without turning. Though he’d spoken only three words, Carrow recognized Declan Chase’s voice—that low, hateful tone with the faintest hint of an Irish accent.
Fegley unlocked her cuffs the same way he’d locked them—with his thumbprint—then he exited through a concealed panel door in a side wall.
Everything in this place, including her torque, was locked with a person’s right hand thumb. Which meant Carrow needed to cut off Fegley’s. Beauty. Something to look forward to. “I remember you, Blademan,” she told Chase. “Yeah, from when you and your men electrocuted me.”
Those bastards had posted bail for Carrow’s latest disorderly conduct charge—proudly earned!—and then lain in wait outside the Orleans Parish Correctional. As she headed home, they’d blown her down a city block with charge throwers, gagged her, and forced a black bag over her head. “Was the hood supposed to instill dread in me or something?”
‘Cause it’d worked.
Without deigning to reply, Chase faced her briefly, yet he didn’t look at her, more like through her. His pitch-black hair was straight, longish. Several hanks hung over one side of his face, and she thought she saw scars jagging beneath them. His eyes, at least the one she could see, were gray.
He was dressed in somber hues from head to toe, concealing any exposed skin on his body with the help of his leather gloves and high-collared jacket. By all outward appearances, he seemed cold as ice, even as his aura screamed I’m unbalanced!
This was the man who took Carrow’s friend Regin the Radiant out of her cell, time and again, to be tortured. Whenever he hurt Regin, her Valkyrie lightning struck outside and the compound’s lights surged from her radiant energy.
He hurt her a lot.
“So, Chase, you get off torturing women?” It made a kind of sick sense that a man so cold would fixate on the normally joyful Regin, with her glowing beauty and lust for life.
Carrow thought she saw his lips curl, as if this statement held particular significance to him. “Women? I only torture one woman at a time.”
“And you’ve decided to go steady with Regin the Radiant for now?” Out of the corner of her eye, Carrow saw Dixon frowning at Chase, as if she suspected some untoward interest as well. Ah, so that was the way of it—Dixon carried a torch for the Blademan.
Carrow supposed some might consider his features attractive, for a sadistic human, but his half-hidden countenance resembled a pale, deadened mask.
All the best with that, you crazy kids. Tommy-used-to-work-on-the-docks and mazel tov.
Chase merely shrugged, turning back to the window. But the tension in his shoulders was so marked, she wondered how he remained upright.
“You’ve got stones to nab a Valkyrie, I’ll give you that,” Carrow said. “But her sisters will come for her. For that matter, you really shouldn’t have pissed off the House of Witches. The covens will find your little jail. They’ll descend on this place.” Though she sounded confident, she’d begun to suspect that the island was cloaked somehow. By now, Mariketa would know she’d been abducted, and if her powerful friend hadn’t yet scried her location—or gotten a soothsayer to uncover it—then it couldn’t be found.
“Will they, indeed?” His tone was smug, too smug. “Then I’ll add to my collection.”
Dixon hastily said, “Magister Chase is only doing what must be done. We all are. Whenever immortals begin to plot, we sentinels rise up, as we have for centuries.”
Dixon nodded. “You’re planning to annihilate mankind and take over the earth.”
Carrow’s lips parted in disbelief. “That’s what this is all about? My gods, it’s too ridiculous! You wanna know a secret? There’s no plan to kill you all, because you’re beneath our notice!”
Ugh—fanatical humans! Sometimes she hated them so much.
“We know that a war between us is coming,” Dixon insisted. “If your kind isn’t contained, you’ll destroy us all.”
Carrow squinted at her. “I’m warming to the idea. Especially with mortals like you. Don’t you get it? Human fanatics are more monster than any of the Lore.”
“More than the Libitinae?”
The Libitinae often forced men to self-castrate or die—for fun.
“Or maybe the Neoptera?” Dixon continued.
Insectlike humanoids, the stuff of nightmares. At the mention of the latter, Chase tensed even more, the muscle in his jaw bulging. Interesting.
Watching for any reaction, Carrow slowly said, “No, I’ll grant you that the Neoptera are depraved. They don’t kill their quarry; they keep it, tormenting it hour after hour.”
Had sweat beaded on Chase’s upper lip? If those creatures had gotten hold of this man . . . Well, Carrow knew what they did for shits and giggles, what they did to their victim’s skin, and it made her stomach turn.
Was that why Chase had covered as much of his body as possible? How was he still sane? Was he?
The inmates gossiped about this man constantly; apparently, he hated to be touched, had once clocked an orderly who’d made the mistake of tapping his shoulder.
That would explain the gloves.
She felt a shred of pity for him, until he grated, “And the witch believes she’s better than they are.”
And the witch is talking to a madman. “Okay, clearly you two are beyond rational debate, so let’s just get to it. Why did you take me?”
Dixon answered, “Our aim is not only to study you, but to conceal your existence. Most immortals fly under the radar. You flaunt your powers in front of humans.”
Carrow had been repeatedly chastised by her coven for this. But, as she’d often argued, she never used her powers around sober humans. “So why’d you bring me here tonight?”
“You’re going to help us capture a vampiric demon, a male named Malkom Slaine.”
Heh. Twenty large says I’m not. “A vemon? You really think they exist?” she asked innocently. Vemons had been thought an impossibility, a “true myth”—oxymoron, hello?—until one had been unleashed on New Orleans last year.
Unimaginably strong, he’d defeated several fierce Valkyrie, who’d survived only by chance. He’d barely been destroyed by the powerful Lykae king, and only because he’d been threatening the werewolf’s mate.
“They’re rare, but we have knowledge of one’s existence,” Dixon said. “You’ll seek out this male then lead him to us.”
“You want me to go out and coax some poor sap to his death?”
“We don’t intend to kill him,” she said. “We want to discover his weaknesses—”
“And how he was made, huh?”
Dixon held up her palms. “We are interested in the anomalous beings among the Lore.”
Anomalous. What a mild way of putting it.
“He lives in Oblivion, a demon hell plane.”
The demon planes weren’t parallel universes, but self-contained, hidden territories with their own climates, cultures, and demonarchies. Most of their societies were feudal and old-fashioned. Not exactly hotbeds of technology—or, say, women’s liberties. “I’ve heard of it,” Carrow said. A wasteland used as a gulag for Lore criminals in olden times, Oblivion was the former home of the Trothan Demonarchy. Before the vampires overthrew their royal line.
“We’ve been able to compile information about your target, taken from detained Trothan demons.”
Carrow raised her brows. “You torture them to spill the beans?”
“They volunteered the details gladly. He’s reviled among his kind, a bogeyman of sorts. You’ll like him no better. He is illiterate, filthy, and brutish. Mentally, he is severely disturbed.”
“You’re calling someone ‘severely disturbed’ with this dude in the room?” Carrow hiked a thumb at Chase. The tension in his shoulders and neck ratcheted up, if that was possible. “You know, Dix, you’re not exactly selling me on this.”
Dixon pursed her lips. “To succeed, you will need to know exactly what you’re up against.”
“You’re from the enchantress caste of witches, and you’re attractive. The males on that plane have probably never seen a female like you.”
“That plane? Honey, try this universe. Oh, and easily this room.”
“We have your history as well,” Dixon snapped, losing patience with her. “In your forty-nine years of life, you’ve routinely done things that are very brave—and very stupid. This should suit you perfectly.”
No argument there. And she’d only grown bolder since she’d become fully immortal twenty-three years before. “Why can’t you go and get him yourselves?”
“He’s sequestered in deep mines within a mountain and has choked the few passes with traps. He guards his domain ruthlessly. If we can’t take him out, we can lead him out.”
With her playing the part of Delilah? Don’t think so. “As much as I appreciate the invitation to help out with your vemon-retrieval problem, I’m afraid I’m going to have to R.S.V.F.U.”
Over his shoulder, Chase said, “Is that your final decision?”
“Yep. Even if I wanted to help you, I’m not special-ops—I’m frontline.” She was a general among her kind, leading armies of spellcasters. “So if you’ve got some urban warfare, we can talk. But not so much with the tromping around on a mountain in a hell plane.” Carrow loathed the outdoors, Gulf Coast beaches excepted.
Chase said, “We thought you might be misguided in this.” Were his pupils dilated? “I have something that will give you perspective.” He crossed to an intercom panel on the wall, pressing a button beside it.
That concealed panel door slid open once more, and Fegley walked in. He had his arms full—with a young girl, unconscious and limp in his hold. Her mane of long black hair covered her face. She had on a dark T-shirt and leggings, a tiny black puff tut, and miniature combat boots.
Carrow felt a sense of foreboding. Don’t let it be Ruby. She glared at Chase. “You’re taking kids prisoner?” How many little girls dress like that?
Fegley sneered, “When one of them tortures and murders twenty soldiers?” Then he tossed the girl to Carrow.
She dove forward to catch her, shooting the man a killing look before gazing down. Don’t be her.
Carrow hissed in a breath. Ruby. A seven-year-old from her own coven, related to her by blood.
“Where’s her mother?” Amanda, a warrior-caste witch, would never have been separated from her little girl. “Answer me, you prick!”
Fegley snidely said, “She lost her head.”
Amanda dead? “I’d already planned to end you, Fegley,” Carrow choked out. “Now I’m going to make it slow.”
Fegley merely shrugged and sauntered out, making Carrow grit her teeth with frustration. In the past, she could have electrocuted him with a touch of her hand, could’ve rendered him to dust as an afterthought.
Struggling to get her emotions under control, she turned her attention back to the child, petting her face. “Ruby, wake up!”
Dixon said, “She’s only sedated.”
Carrow gathered the girl closer. Her breaths and heartbeat did sound regular. “Ruby, sweet, open your eyes.” Of all the young witches for them to have . . .
Within the coven, there were tanda, social groups of similar ages. Ruby was in a group of baby witches, or a “gang” as they called themselves—a gang more in the sense of Little Rascals than of the Crips and Bloods, but it was cute.
Carrow and Mariketa often took them to sweets shops, getting them jacked up on sucrose before setting them loose on the coven. Ring the doorbell, drop them off, then run like hell, cackling all the way.
Carrow and Mariketa—Crow and Kettle, as they’d been dubbed—were the gang’s favorite “aunts.” Ruby was secretly Carrow’s favorite as well. How could she not be? Ruby was fearless and bright, an adorable little girl dressed in ballerina punk.
Dixon frowned. “She could pass as your own.”
Like many in a coven, Carrow and Ruby were related, though more closely than usual. The girl was her second cousin, and she belonged to the exact three castes that Carrow did, with her strength in the warrior caste. Just like me.
Ruby’s green eyes blinked open then. “Crow?”
“I’m right here, sweetheart.” When Ruby’s tears welled, Carrow felt a pang like a blade in her heart. “I’ve got you.”
Ruby’s body tensed against hers. Eyes wild, she cried, “Mommy t-told me not to kill them! B-but when they hurt her, it . . . it just happened.” She was beginning to pant, her breaths shallowing.
“Shh, you’re all right now. Just breathe easy.” When Ruby got overly excited, she would hyperventilate, even passing out on occasion. “It’s okay, everything’s going to be all right,” Carrow lied, rocking her. “Just breathe.”
“They swung a sword at her neck!” Her chest heaved for air. “I saw her . . . d-die. She’s dead—” Ruby went limp once more and her head fell back. Unconscious.
“Ruby! Ah, gods.” Amanda was truly gone? And Ruby’s father had been murdered by rogue warlocks before she’d even been born.
The coven didn’t usually spell out things like godparents or custody. Immortals not actively at war didn’t have to worry much about leaving behind orphans. But if Amanda had gone to battle, she would have expected the closest blood relation in the coven to care for her daughter.
That’d be Carrow, the House hellion.Poor Ruby.
Though Carrow had been treated so callously by her own parents, she would do right by her responsibilities. She stared down at the girl’s ashen face with a new recognition, a momentous feeling of a shared future.
Carrow had long had a unique and curious talent—the ability to sense when another had just become a part of her life forever, when their destinies would eventually be intertwined and shared.
In that instant, Carrow became witch plus one.
But she couldn’t even get herself out of this shithole, much less a child!
“Action and reaction,” Chase said. “You get us our target, and the two of you will go free.” Though tension thrummed off him, his voice was monotone, his accent barely perceptible. “Otherwise, she dies.”
Carrow stiffened. Against Ruby’s hair, she murmured, “I’m going to take you home soon, baby.” She turned to Chase. “I’ll have the use of my powers?”
“Your torque will be deactivated for the mission,” he said.
Not that Carrow would be able to spellcast even without her torque. She needed crowds and laughter for power to fuel her spells. Here she’d been tapped out, as useless as an empty keg.
“You’ll depart tomorrow, remaining in Oblivion for six days.” Dixon continued over Carrow’s sputtering, “Tonight I’ll assist you in collecting your gear. You’ll be allowed a shower, and we’ll provide you with a dossier on your target.”
“Nearly a week in hell? How am I even supposed to get to Oblivion?”
Dixon answered, “Your sorceress cellmate, Melanthe, the Queen of Persuasion, can create a portal.”
That’s right. Lanthe could open thresholds to anywhere.
“We’ll briefly deactivate her torque—under SWAT supervision. And of course, we’ll keep Ruby here to make sure all goes according to our plans.”
There went that idea. “I want Lanthe and Regin released as well.”
The doctor shook her head. “Impossible.”
If they truly set Carrow free, then she’d come back for the two of them soon enough. “I want the Order’s word about releasing me and Ruby.”
The woman said, “You have it.”
“Don’t want yours,” Carrow said in a scoffing tone. “I want his.”
Chase turned to her once more. After a hesitation, he gave a nod.
“Then we have a deal,” Carrow said.
He narrowed his eyes, as if she’d just proven a point. “Not even a qualm about betraying one of your own species?”
“A demon is not one of my own species,” Carrow snapped. “You make us sound like animals.”
Without another look at her or the girl in her arms, he strode out of the room, saying in a chilling tone, “Because that’s all you are.”
– 3 –
“She’s not coming back, is she?” Ruby whispered as Carrow held her, rocking her in the bottom bunk. She’d awakened just a couple of hours ago, immediately bursting into tears.
“Amanda’s gone to Hekate, sweetheart.”
“Can we bring her back?”
“No. You know that’s forbidden.” At times, Carrow forgot the magics stored in Ruby’s trembling little form. The girl had exceeded even Mariketa’s abilities until Mari had recently come into her powers.
Apparently, the last time Ruby had cast a spell, she’d tortured and killed twenty men.
“Don’t go tomorrow, Crow.”
Carrow had explained that she was setting out to hunt a demon. In exchange, these mortals would free Carrow and Ruby. “I don’t want to leave, but I don’t really have a choice. Hey, in a way, this is just a mercenary mission. I go out and do some magic, and I get something in return.” The girl would understand an arrangement like this. The witches were mercenaries, taught at an early age to sell their magic. “And the sorceress will take good care of you.”
From the top bunk, Lanthe gave a feigned pissy exhalation.
Earlier, with a clipped “Oh, very well,” she’d agreed to look out for Ruby. Carrow suspected Lanthe might actually like kids but kept that fact secret, protecting her street cred as a wicked sorceress.
After all, she was the notorious Queen of Persuasion, a sorceress who could compel others to do whatever she bade them. To be deemed a “queen” meant that she was the best at her talent in all the Lore.
Though Sorceri and witches shared a common ancestry, many of the Sorceri class belonged to the Pravus, an alliance of evil factions that warred with the Vertas, the relatively good alliance that Carrow affiliated with.
Before allying, loosely, with the Vertas, Lanthe and her sister had fought on the Pravus front line.
Still, Carrow felt a level of trust toward Lanthe. She usually had a good sense about people, and the week she and Lanthe had spent confined together in this cell felt like a lifetime.
They’d played tic-tac-toe in the condensation on the steel walls, gabbed about the hotness known as King Rydstrom, Lanthe’s new demon brother-in-law, and commiserated about the man drought they were both presently gasping through.
Carrow had had lovers—more than a couple, less than a handful—and a single night on Bourbon Street could score her another one. But she had her reasons for her current coitus hiatus. . . .
“What will happen when you get us free?” Ruby asked.
How much confidence the girl had in her. “I’m going to take care of you myself. You’ll live with me.” Mental checklist, item eighty: find us some digs.
Witches with kids didn’t get to live at Andoain. Carrow had felt a pang at the thought of giving up her sorority-style life there—and her coveted suite with a private bath—but when she’d looked at Ruby’s tearstained little face, she’d easily decided that it didn’t matter.
“We’ll get a pad near Andoain so you can still go to spell school there. I’ll pack lunch”—bag leftover pizza—”for you every morning.”
Lanthe made a sound of disbelief from overhead.
“I will. And when you get old enough, I’m going to teach you all about the Street that is Bourbon.”
Ruby yawned, her puffy lids drooping. “I heard some witches talking about you a couple of weeks ago. They said you were rutterless.”
Now a chuckle from the top bunk.
“Rudderless?” So true. “Maybe so. But I’m not going to be anymore.” How’s it feel to be a rudder, kiddo?
“Will you hold my hand until I fall asleep? And stay here till I wake up?”
“You got it.” Maybe the reason she’d never done well with responsibilities in her personal life was that she’d never had any practice?
In minutes, Ruby was out, her countenance relaxing, her brow smoothing. Carrow waited a little while, then eased from the bed to recheck her pack and begin studying the dossier.
When Lanthe slunk down from her bunk, Carrow noted yet again that the sorceress looked flawless, displaying no signs of a week’s worth of stress, discomposure, or even wrinkles. But then Lanthe wore typical Sorceri garb: a metal bustier and a mesh skirt, held together with bits of leather.
Her dark hair was a mass of braids in the wild Sorceri style. The only things missing were her metal gloves—with built-in claws—and the half mask that would normally adorn her face.
Carrow found it interesting that the mortals left their prisoners in their own street wear for the most part. She herself still wore her jewelry and club duds.
“They’re going to double-cross you,” Lanthe said.
Did Carrow suspect Chase would go back on his word? Of course. But she also knew she had to operate under the assumption that he would release her and Ruby. What were two witches to them? And more importantly, what other choice did Carrow have?
“I don’t know that for certain,” she said as she began rooting through the pack Dixon had offered her earlier. At once, Carrow had demanded to go to the facility’s PX store for her own supplies.
While the Order might have a dandy assault pack for soldiers to make an incursion, they didn’t have an all-purpose Carrow pack for witches bent on seduction.
So after a few hygienic tweaks to her gear—and her first shower in a week while her clothes were dry-cleaned—she was ready.
“In any event, witch, I think you waste your time.”
“Look, I might not trust that they’ll keep their word about releasing us,” Carrow said. “But I trust one hundred percent that they’ll keep it about killing her.”
Lanthe sighed, gazing over at Ruby. “Well, then, let’s see this dossier.”
They sat on the floor with their backs against the wall. Fitting. Carrow opened the folder to the first page, a summary of her destination and its peoples.
“I still can’t believe they’re sending you to Oblivion.” Lanthe shivered.
“Come on, it’s the only place you can get fresh vemons this time of year.”
Oblivion was one of the hell planes, a place of such limited resources that only the harshest demons could survive. In this case, water was scarce. No rain fell, and the few collections of water were underground.
According to the dossier, the Trothan culture was a chaotic mix of slavery, violence, and cruelty—its members brutal. Yet they had a deeply entrenched class system in their society.
Carrow’s lips thinned. She wasn’t a big fan of classes in any form—educational or social. She herself hailed from a “noble” family, but had buried that little tidbit about herself. And it’s not like my folks will out me.
When Carrow turned the page to the summary of Malkom Slaine, her “target,” Lanthe said, “A vemon, the most dangerous of all Lore creatures, was created out of a Trothan, one of the most barbaric species of immortal?”
Though Carrow knew demons who were civil, engaging, and hot, she’d never met a Trothan.
“And you’re going into hell to get him? This is like Escape from New York, except you’re bringing out the baddie.”
“Snake Plissken, at your service,” Carrow said as she began perusing Slaine’s information, organized in handy bullet points. Description: Light blue eyes. Defined musculature. Over six and a half feet tall. Black horns, curving back from just above his ears. Identifying marks: A large, winding tattoo on his right flank, typical demon piercings.
Background: Born more than four hundred years ago to a prostitute demon mother. Father unknown.
Carrow felt a flare of pity for him. Living in Oblivion was bad enough, and he hadn’t exactly gotten a great start.
Led rebellion against the vampire invaders until his capture. Transformed into a Scârbă—a vampiric demon. Before escaping the vampire stronghold, he beheaded Kallen the Just, the Trothans’ demon prince, as well as the Viceroy, the vampires’ emissary.
Carrow frowned. “Why would Slaine have assassinated the two potential leaders, then not taken control of the demonarchy?”
Lanthe said, “Sounds to me like a failure to capitalize.”
Fugitive from Trothans for over three centuries. No known associates. Unwed. Most current activities: Defending his territories, the water mines of Oblivion. Special skills: Martial strategy, survival, military command experience.
“Unwed?” Carrow said. “Their kind marries?” Many demon breeds didn’t, especially if their species had one fated mate.
“At least you won’t have to worry about competition.”
“Unless he’s got a demon harem in those mines. A little honey or two holed up underground?” Carrow said, raising a brow at the next bullet point.
Language: Demonish, some Latin. There had been an isolated report of his speaking English, but it couldn’t be confirmed.
“How am I supposed to communicate with him?” Carrow’s Demonish was sparse. She knew mostly curses and how to order liquor.
“The language of love?” Lanthe suggested.
“Check out his psych profile.” Easily enraged, reacts with a marked ferocity. Violent and territorial. . . .
“Psych profile? Isn’t that what they do with serial killers?”
Carrow nodded. “Dixon said he was the Trothan version of the bogeyman.”
“Well, then. Tell me they’ll deactivate your torque for this mission.”
“They will.” A lot of good it’ll do me if the folks in hell aren’t happy. Whereas Mariketa’s magic was based on adrenaline, Carrow’s own was fueled by emotions, specifically happiness. The raucous revelry of a crowd was like an exquisite feast for her powers.
“Then you can just do a love spell on him,” Lanthe said.
“It doesn’t work for me.” Many people knew Carrow sold love spells for a living—they just didn’t know she sold them for folks to use on themselves. Like when a guy knew he had a good woman but was tempted to stray, he’d order a Carrow Graie special. “I probably won’t have much power to do magic anyway.”
“Cruising Oblivion with no magic, witch? I suppose you’ll just use your brute strength to defend yourself?”
Wiccae and Sorceri were among the physically weakest in the Lore.
“And what about the vemon?” Lanthe continued. “If you can’t lure him to the portal, he could just keep you in hell as his little witch pet.”
“I’ve had worse relationships,” Carrow deadpanned.
They snickered. Gallows humor.
After they’d flipped through all the pages, Lanthe summed up Malkom Slaine: “A dangerous, devious, demon non grata.” Gazing at Carrow with curiosity, she asked, “You’re really going through with this?”
“I’ve got this down cold,” she answered confidently. Carrow had always followed her instincts and landed on her feet. Sometimes she landed on her feet in County, but it always worked out in the end. “But if for some reason, I don’t”—she glanced over at Ruby—”will you make sure she gets back to the House of Witches?”
Lanthe said, “I will. Just try not to let it come to that—”
A sudden bellow echoed down the ward.
“I guess he don’t like the cornbread, either,” Carrow quipped.
When a fight ensued and they heard loud whooshing sounds, Lanthe shot to her feet. “A Vrekener.”
Vrekeners were fierce, demonic “angels,” with wings, horns, and fangs.
Shortly after, the guards dragged a limping, winged male past their cell. He stared at Lanthe, his eyes haunted, his lips drawn back from his fangs. His scarred wings had been bound. He said only one word as they passed: “Soon . . .”
“I take it you two know each other?” Carrow asked.
“Would you believe that Thronos and I were childhood friends?”
Carrow raised her brows. “I’d hate to see your childhood enemies.”
“The bastard probably let himself get caught, just to get closer to me.”
“You want to tell me what for?”
“Maybe one day. For now, let’s focus on your own menacing male.”
Carrow sighed, growing serious. “I might not make it back from this.”
Instead of assuring her that she would, Lanthe said, “It isn’t likely. . . .”
* * *
Year 601, Trothan Restoration
They’ll come to kill me soon, Malkom thought as he adjusted the tension on one of his spring traps.
After concealing the contraption, he climbed to a blustery vantage on his mountain, gazing out over the Forest of Bone and the vast desert beyond—the sun-scorched desert he could never cross again. His vampire nature made it impossible.
Far in the distance, in the city of Ash, sacrificial pyres burned bright. The dwellers there were making yet more offerings to their dark gods for an end to Malkom. He’d been judged a twisted murderer, a fugitive from justice, an abomination.
They would like nothing more than to sacrifice Malkom himself on a pyre. More so now than ever since they were desperate for water. And he controlled every drop.
Soon they’d come for him; their stores were nearly gone. They’d have no choice but to cross the desert that had protected them from Malkom.
Though he could travel over his dust-shrouded mountain in the hazy light of day, the desert and city were void of wind and shade. He couldn’t cross that expanse and return within a single night. The sole time he’d successfully traversed it—fleeing a mob of Trothans more than three hundred years ago—he’d nearly died.
All his attempts over the centuries had failed. Each time, he’d been so weakened by the mid point that he couldn’t continue, much less contend with his powerful foes.
So he’d cut off the dwellers’ water supply to draw them near, knowing they would be led by Ronath the Armorer—the demon who’d taken over after the leaderless vampires fled from this plane.
The traitor who now lived in the Viceroy’s opulent fortress.
I removed all of his obstacles. Kallen and eventually the Viceroy both fell because of me.
Malkom had despised the vampires, but at least they had acted according to their nature. The armorer and his men? Malkom remembered their feigned greetings to him just before they’d attacked, just before they’d doomed their prince.
Kallen, my sole friend.
At the memory of his death, bitter-tinged grief swept over Malkom. As fresh as the day I killed him.
When the winds increased, heralding dusk, Malkom gave a low curse. They would never come in the dark.
Now a long, solitary night stretched before him. He’d endured lifetimes of them.
He turned away, heading toward his lair down in the mines—where he would wait, alone, in silence, staring at the damp walls. Time passed slowly deep in the mountain, and the isolation weighed on him.
Malkom consoled himself with the knowledge that one way or another, his miserable existence was about to end.
“You can’t come, sweetheart,” Carrow told the irate seven-year-old seated on the bunk before her. “Oblivion’s not a place for kids.”
Sometime between last night and this morning, Ruby had decided she would not be separated from Carrow.
Throughout the night, Carrow had lain awake, wanting to be there if she woke missing her mother. Carrow had been exhausted and knew she needed to be strong for her mission, but putting Ruby’s needs above her own affected her in ways she wasn’t ready to analyze.
Once, the girl had sleepily mumbled, “Mommy?”
Tears threatening, Carrow had said, “It’s okay, baby. Go back to sleep.”
But since Ruby had awakened this morning, there’d been nonstop hissy. At least she hadn’t passed out so far.
“Why do you have to leave this morning?” Ruby demanded.
“The sooner I leave, the sooner I can return. Now, Dr. Dixon is going to sit you until Lanthe gets back, okay?”
Ruby crossed her little arms over her chest, jutting her chin. “You’re not leaving me behind. Or I’ll do a spell to make you smell like ass. Forever.“
Carrow raised her brows. “Harsh, Ruby, harsh.” I think I’m the one who taught her to say “smell like ass.” “And you can’t do spells, anyway. Remember what I said about the collar?”
From behind Carrow, Lanthe quietly said, “You need to be firmer with the child.”
Over her shoulder, Carrow muttered, “Come on, think about what she’s been through.” And Carrow had no way to comfort her, none of her old tricks to pull.
Before when Ruby had cried, Carrow had been able to solve all with strategic bouts of consumerism. An all-expenses paid trip to Disney World for her and her posse of friends, a monkey, a robot, a half-pipe skating ramp. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.
Lanthe scoffed. “I lost my parents when I was not much older than she is.”
Funny, so did I, Carrow thought. But she shook away those memories. She didn’t have the luxury of wallowing in the past. As she looked down at Ruby, it struck Carrow yet again that she now had a responsibility. Someone depending solely on her. “You’re going to be good for Miss Lanthe, right?”
“Miss Lanthe?” the sorceress repeated, her blue eyes gleaming dangerously. “Why don’t you just buy me a minivan, zip me into mom jeans, and shoot me in the face?”
Carrow shrugged. “I’ll make this up to you when we all get out, yeah?”
The sorceress played with one of her dark plaits. “Melanthe’s sitting service has rates of one hundred K an hour.”
“Put it on my tab.”
Footsteps sounded down the corridor. Coming for me. Ruby heard them as well; she launched herself from the bunk at Carrow’s legs.
Carrow caught her up, swinging the girl into a hug. Ruby clung with her little arms, her face streaked with tears as she pressed it against Carrow’s neck. Carrow stared at the ceiling, struggling to keep from bawling with her.
“Promise you’ll come back,” Ruby whispered.
Her words sounded slurred, babyish even. Promise came out as pwomise. Carrow knew precisely jack-point-jack about raising kids, but she didn’t think this reversion could be a good thing, in light of the circumstances.
Carrow eased Ruby back to meet her eyes. “I vow to the Lore that I will come back for you. You believe me, don’t you?”
A slight nod.
Fegley, Dr. Dixon, and a contingent of guards arrived, opening the cell’s glass door. The woman reached for Ruby, but Carrow hugged her even closer.
“Anything happens to her, it’s on your head, Dixon.” She cast the doctor a warning look, knowing her irises would flicker. Carrow’s eyes didn’t change color with emotion. They changed brightness, glittering like stars. Right now, she was literally starry eyed, and it was freaking the mortal out.
Dixon stared, absently replying, “L-like we agreed . . .”
Ten minutes later, Carrow sat in a military Humvee, one of five that made up Fegley’s convoy. As the truck bounced down a rutted road outside the facility, Carrow gazed out of the rain-slicked window, still in turmoil, replaying the sound of Ruby screaming for her. How can I miss her like this already, as if I’ve left my heart behind?
Giving herself an inward shake, Carrow forced herself to study her surroundings.
The road wound through a moist forest overflowing with fir trees. Lichen and moss coated fallen trunks and anything stationary, making everything appear fuzzy, any sharp edges smothered by green. The area looked like it could be in the Pacific Northwest.
Way to narrow it down, Carrow.
The landscape was definitely coastal, which lent credence to the latest rumor going around—that the Order chummed the surrounding seas to attract great white sharks, ensuring no immortal could escape by water. . . .
As her eyes darted over geographic details, she tried to mentally prepare for her mission, reflecting on all she’d learned from the dossier.
She was filled with curiosity about Malkom Slaine. What had happened when he’d been turned into a Scârbă? Had he become the walking dead or had his demon nature remained dominant? Had he been alone for all those years?
Did the Order just assume she’d have sex with him to lure him back?
Carrow couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken a lover. She would’ve enjoyed more, but she’d learned that sex didn’t necessarily make all men happy. It made them feel good, relaxed, but not necessarily joyful. There was angry sex, insecure sex, preening sex. Some men needed validation, others vindication, but most thought of wild-child Carrow as a conquest.
If she knew she wouldn’t get all her needs met, she didn’t go all the way.
Now she might not have the luxury of being choosy. . . .
Eventually, the convoy parked around a large clearing encircled by five equal sized boulders. As she climbed from the truck, Carrow sensed power there, sacredness.
Then she glared up at the steady deluge of rain that wetted her leather boots and skirt, reminding Carrow how much she loathed the wilderness. For her, the “great outdoors” was as much an oxymoron as “true myth.”
Last night, Dixon had suggested combat boots in place of Carrow’s own—her two-thousand-dollar, gathered-leather, over-the-knee boots. “Do you want me to go in as an enchantress or a warrior?” Carrow had asked testily. “Pick a caste, any caste, mortal. I myself think I have the best chance as an enchantress. And fuck-me boots are standard-issue.”
Carrow gazed down at the mud creeping around her soles. Oh, well. She would rather die than admit a mortal was right.
Furthering his own doom, Fegley yanked Lanthe out of another Humvee by her collar, shoving her into the clearing. His continued cruelty gave Carrow insight into the skin-bag of waste that was Fegley. She’d decided he was a deeply insecure man who hated women.
This gig gave him power over females he would never otherwise possess.
Enjoy it while you can. Only a matter of time before he went down. Once Carrow got Ruby settled at Andoain, she would return here and go wicked on their asses.
“Get to it,” Fegley ordered Lanthe. “You have two minutes. Try anything and the snipers will plug your skull.”
With a killing look, the sorceress raised her hands. Soon an iridescent blue light glowed from her palms. Her face pinched with strain as she created a door-sized threshold, carving a black vortex as if through thin air.
Teeth gritted, Lanthe said, “Be careful out there, witch.”
“I will.” She shouldered her pack, readying herself at the portal’s edge. “You take good care of my little girl until I get back.” My little girl. As soon as she said the words, Carrow knew they were true. Ruby was hers. Would always be.
“I will take care of her,” Lanthe said, but she glanced away.
The sorceress truly didn’t think Carrow was going to make it back?
Before she could question Lanthe, Fegley planted himself in front of Carrow. “You’ve got six days to get your target back to this portal. Saturday night, witch, no later than midnight, Oblivion Standard Time. Your torque will activate an hour before then. You show without Slaine, and we’ll slam the door right in your face. Lastly, don’t call him by his name, or he’ll know you’re a mole. Clear?”
“As clear as you can make it, fuckwit. Anything else?”
Fegley smirked. “Yeah, if the demon finds out what you’re planning, he’ll cut off your head and mount it on a pike.” Carrow was still gaping when the man grabbed her shoulder. “Go to hell, witch. Literally.”
Then he shoved her into the abyss.
* * *
No sign of Ronath. The afternoon was drawing to a close, and now another interminable night loomed.
Malkom ceased his pacing to gaze out over the desert yet again. He’d had a sense that something momentous was about to occur, a feeling of destiny—which in his case usually meant destruction.
“Face me, armorer!” he roared.
Only the winds answered. With a disheartened exhalation, Malkom turned back toward his lair, eventually snagging a bird for his dinner on his way. Again he recognized that the supply of game was dwindling. Though he possessed unnatural speed, he found it increasingly difficult to sustain himself here.
Snap. The bird’s neck cracked in Malkom’s fist, and even over the howling winds, he detected the sound. With an easy yank, he severed the head from the body, then lifted the gushing neck over his mouth to sate his vampire need for blood. Back within his home, he’d cook the meat to feed the demon within—
He lowered his arm, his ears twitching. His heightened senses perceived a brief portal opening, a disturbance in the plane below his mountain home. Directly before the forest lay a circle of five boulders, marking a notorious portal’s location.
He rose to investigate, tensing to trace to the circle. Nothing. Even after all this time, he still forgot that he could no longer teleport. Not since the Scârbă ritual.
No matter. He was fast, could be down in the forest in minutes.
The opening of the portal meant one of two possibilities.
More mortals had been dispatched to the wastelands to capture him. If he’d ever learned how to laugh, he would’ve now. Whenever they invaded his territory, he’d dismembered every soldier who’d dared set foot on his mountain, piling the mangled body pieces in a gruesome display at the closed threshold.
When the soldiers beseeched him for mercy or screamed their prayers, they always spoke Anglish, the vampires’ language, which only sealed their fates.
Though Malkom recognized the tongue, he no longer comprehended it, hadn’t spoken it in centuries—but hearing it enraged him.
The other possibility? The portal was being used to dispose of more Lore creatures, exiled criminals.
If so, they’d never know they were about to be judged once more. He sneered, knowing it was an ugly sight. By me.
Carrow landed so hard a top a pile of old skeletons that her breath was knocked from her lungs and the porous bones were pulverized beneath her.
She lay for precious seconds, enduring that panicky feeling of suffocation. Waiting . . .
Once her lungs reset, she sucked in a breath, then immediately began coughing. Though the wind gusted, the air was acrid.
Hauling herself to her feet, she kicked a couple of femurs out of her way and peered around. So this is hell.
All around the matching circle of boulders lay a wasteland such as she’d never imagined. Above her spanned a brown sky, swirling with dust and fumes. Behind her, a rocky desert stretched to the horizon. Glowing stones that seemed to have cores of lava dotted the land.
To her right and left, deep chasms crisscrossed the land like scars, wafting plumes of sulfurous smoke. Before her stood what resembled a forest, but the trees were petrified, their color matching that of the scorched bones scattered all over the ground. Nothing green grew here. Everything was just a gradation of brown, dirty white, or ash.
Miles and miles in the distance, far past the forest, was a single immense mountain with three distinct peaks.
His mountain. Her destination.
Unfortunately, every inch of this place sounded inhabited. In the desert, creatures resembling giant centipedes dipped and tunneled, shifting dunes in a perilous instant.
On either side, the chasms teemed with unseen scrabbling creatures. And even over the wind, she could hear that the forest beyond was crawling with life—not a good thing on a hell plane.
So how was she supposed to get through the creatures to reach the mountain?
Although Fegley’s words gave her pause—he’ll cut off your head and mount it on a pike—she had no choice but to seek out Slaine. Finding him might take her the entire six days.
From those nearby gorges, shadowy figures began to crawl up. Ghouls?
Not them! They were like zombies, mindless walking pathogens bent on increasing their numbers. Contagious through their bites and scratches, the ghouls needed to infect others.
Surrroundings? Sand centipede monsters behind her; creepy, inhabited woods ahead; ghouls flanking her.
When they began skulking closer, she had no choice but to hasten straight for the murky forest, glancing over her shoulder as she ran.
While the ghouls were resilient, able to lope along after prey for dozens of miles at the same pace, Carrow’s own strength and endurance were better than a human’s, but not like a Valkyrie’s or a Fury’s. So how to lose them. . . ?
Just as the thought arose, they began slowing. In fact, once she’d breached the forest, the ghouls halted. Past the line of trees, she turned back. They were prowling at the very edge, wary. Something within had them spooked.
But sooner or later, they’d come for her. Deciding that nothing could be worse than the troop of zombies on her heels, she plunged ahead.
Picking her way over rocks and stone tree trunks, she increased her pace when she could. Her lungs burned, her muscles screaming. . . .
Right when she’d begun to suspect she’d gained a safe distance, she spied more shapes moving amid the trees. A new threat. Numerous eyes glowed back at her from the shadows, beings surrounding her. They were sentient males—she could perceive their emotions.
And the predominant one was lust.
When they closed in, forcing her to stop, she saw there were at least a dozen of them in various shapes and sizes. They were all humanlike, but each had horns and upper and lower sets of fangs. Which meant demons.
She turned in place, drawing a harried breath to speak, wondering if they’d understand English. She knew natives likely wouldn’t.
But before she could say a word, the smallest one brandished a spear in her direction. He blinked his eyes so rapidly, Carrow dimly wondered if the world looked like an old-timey film to him. “Is she one of the mortals, Asmodel?” he asked in English. Non-natives. They were probably exiled criminals.
Like the others, he was dressed in tattered clothes, indicating they’d been here for a while.
The largest one, this Asmodel, said, “Smells like an immortal to me.” With the back of his hand, he swiped a line of ropy drool from his mouth. “First female I’ve seen in the wastelands. Ever.”
No females were here? So these were hard-up exiled criminals? Beauty. Putting on a bold front, she said, “I am an immortal, a powerful member of the House of Witches.” But she was tottering on her feet, sooty and bedraggled. Scarcely looking like a high-powered witch.
A demon with green skin asked, “Then why have you not smote us?”
Even with her torque deactivated, right now she was a no-powered witch. Need some happiness here, guys. “An excellent idea, demon.” Brazen it out, Carrow. “Though if you allow me to pass, I might consider sparing your lives. Otherwise, I’m debating whether to turn your viscera into nests of vipers or your bones to sand.”
Unimpressed, they paid her no heed, arguing among themselves. The gang’s intention with her was clear, even before the small one uttered, “I go first.”
“The hell you will, Sneethy,” Asmodel said.
Carrow shuddered. She had no way to defend herself, and she was surrounded with no place to run. Brazen! Raising her palms threateningly, she said, “Then you’ve left me no choice. Surrender now, or—”
Sneethy called her bluff, merrily yanking free her backpack, scraping her shoulders.
“Hey!” When he dug into it, rifling through her things, she snapped, “Go Yoda someone else’s supplies, asshole.”
He ignored her, distributing her PowerBars with glee. Those were scarfed down before he’d even held up her canteen with a “whoop!”
But his excitement faded as he sniffed the air. “It comes.” His low voice conveyed fear—and awe. “Though we haven’t crossed into its territory.”
So what was it?
With darting eyes, the green demon said, “We go now!”
Asmodel stalked closer to Carrow. “I go nowhere without this female.” More drool dripped from his lips. “She would be worth her weight in water! Even used.”
“You’d risk facing it?” Sneethy said.
Apparently so, because Asmodel seized her arm. She kicked down on his instep, but it didn’t even faze him. As she fought, he dragged her along deeper into the woods.
“Stop struggling!” he ordered. “You’ll be our concubine—or the beast’s dinner. And it nears even now.”
What in the hell had spooked a gang of demons like this? As they all plunged into a copse of petrified saplings, the fleeter ones darted ahead, the slower ones lagging. The young trees had grown so close, it was like wending through a smoke-laced cornfield. Good cover.
Yet the demons grew more uneasy, drawing their weapons and crouching low. Asmodel pulled a wooden club from his belt. Sneethy sniffed the air again and whimpered, raising his spear.
The green demon drew a hunting knife and muttered, “It stalks us.” A demon worried about being stalked?
When she heard a gurgling yell behind them, her eyes went wide. She ceased any resistance, fleeing with them when the gang began running. At intervals, she glanced back, as unnerved as they were.
Then, directly on the path ahead, they came across one of the faster demons—beheaded so recently his body was still kneeling.
As the corpse collapsed, Asmodel sneered, “No, the beast plays with us.”
Another demon’s scream warbled from behind them. They’d barely gone a dozen steps in the other direction when something that sounded like a boomerang sailed through the air overhead. Blood rained down from it.
The beast had flung a severed leg like a Frisbee to land in front of them.
Beside the mangled leg lay a pair of demons, one body toppled over the other. And their heads looked to have been severed—not with a sword but with claws.
“A single blow took down two.” Asmodel swallowed loudly as he jerked her around in a circle, scanning for an escape.
Something had beheaded a pair of immortals with one strike? Then gone to slash off the leg of another? “No, there’s got to be more than one,” she said. Beings were dying in all directions, screams like a chorus.
“One,” Asmodel snapped. “It!”
Sounds of carnage echoed through the trees, the cracking of bones and the unmistakable tearing of flesh. She began shaking too hard to run, stumbling twice in rapid succession.
Asmodel promptly abandoned her, taking his chances, sprinting through the saplings.
The few remaining demons followed suit, scattering in different directions. She trailed after Asmodel, the biggest one, while all around her the others screamed.
Then she slowed, squinting in disbelief through the smoke. Ahead, something like a shade seized Asmodel with a staggering speed. Asmodel looked as if he were being lifted by an unseen force. Whatever it was ruptured the demon’s body in midair—limbs separated, blood spraying over dust.
He’d never had time to scream.
The shadow vanished. Silence fell. Only the sound of the wind could be heard. Had they all been taken out? Or were they hiding?
What was this thing?
She twisted around, her eyes darting. When she reeled back from a nearby sound, she tripped over a legless, beheaded torso, tumbling beside a pool of gore and entrails.
Sneethy. She recognized the spear still clenched in his hands.
Choking back bile, she crawled from the leavings into a patch of petrified brush.
Her first impulse? Ball up there and hide. What use was fleeing? Death awaited in any direction.
Then she grew ashamed. Though young, Carrow was an inducted mercenary of the Wiccae and a leader among their vaunted warrior class. She’d face this beast fearlessly—even to the end.
“Show yourself, coward!” At once, trees began to topple in a line coming straight for her. A monster on its way. Before, it’d been soundless. Now it crashed toward her.
It was playing with her as well.
Carrow would be damned if she was going to sit here, helpless, like some offering to King Kong. For the first time in her life, she had someone depending on her. She would fight.
And if she couldn’t match its strength, she’d use other talents. She could be cunning . . . deceptive.
She pried Sneethy’s spear from his gnarled fingers. You’re about to see what would happen if Fay Wray were a witch!
Just as she dragged the weapon into the brush behind her, the attacker plowed into the clearing.
Carrow craned her head up. And up . . . She lost her breath.
The being’s body was nearly seven feet tall and splashed with blood. Large horns curved back from above his ears. His lips were parted, exposing upper and lower fangs. Another demon.
And, gods, this one was big. His broad chest and brawny arms were covered in a mesh chainmail shirt, his muscles rippling with strength under the metal. He was clad in leather pants, and they too were spattered in crimson. His long hair was tangled around those horns and hung over his dirty face. A sparse beard covered his cheeks.
Surely, this couldn’t be . . . him. Her target. Nothing about his appearance indicated vampirism. Please don’t let it be him.
When their eyes met, she gasped. His irises were a light blue, as described in the dossier. Severely disturbed? Violently territorial? Affirmative.
The blue flickered, turning blacker by the second, usually a sign of lust or rage in a demon. Neither boded well for her.
Just as she studied his appearance, his gaze raked over her body, over her hiked-up skirt and bared thighs. At once, his horns straightened and flared back, signaling his attraction to her.
When he raised his face, his eyes narrowed, as if with recognition. He clenched his huge hands into meaty fists, then opened them, splaying his claw-tipped fingers. Again and again he made fists, then released them, like he missed something he’d long held on to.
His shaft was hardening—impossible to miss that. When he sucked in ragged breaths, grasping at his chest, a ridiculous suspicion arose, but she tamped it down.
This demon looked to be on the razor’s edge of lust. For all Carrow knew, he’d been out in this wasteland for centuries without a woman, as hard up as Asmodel.
And if she didn’t figure out a way around it, this one was about to be on top of her, his hulking body heaving over her.
“I-I’m asking you not to hurt me,” she said, studying his expression. His harsh face evinced nothing, no comprehension of her words. So no English. Trothan native? Check. His only reaction was an ever-growing erection.
Just as she’d begun to suspect he was beyond any communication, he slammed a fist over his chest, then pointed at her, rasping something that sounded like “Ara.” His voice was rough, as if it’d been dragged over gravel.
When he stalked closer, she spied a tattoo, a large one that looked like black flames licking up his side, his right side.
Hekate help her, this was Carrow’s target, Malkom Slaine. And the Order had been woefully mistaken. There’d be no coaxing him anywhere.
Change of plans. She wasn’t going to lead him to the portal. She was going to lug his unconscious body there. After repeatedly stabbing him.
But for her plan to work, she needed him to charge her, to fall upon her.
She motioned for him, crooking a finger.
His eyes briefly widened, but he didn’t speed up his approach.
Damn it, Slaine! Charge me!
Mentally steeling herself, she moistened her lips as she subtly inched her knees apart. . . .