Jasper reached for the dagger of Astrix as it lay on the carved wooden stand, and I prepared to drop the box of bottles so I could steal the blade right out of his grasp. A magic barrier rippled around the powerful instrument, zapping the faerie’s fingers.
“Damn it!” He yanked his hand back, cradling it to his chest.
Fae runes glowed green around the edges of the mahogany table, and my shoulders sagged. Of course Lachlan wouldn’t leave the knife lying around unprotected.
But alarms suddenly blared through my mind. Why had Jasper tried to grab it?
“What are you doing?”
He whipped around at the sound of my voice, cursing up a storm. “You scared the shit out of me.”
My brows furrowed as I scrutinized the broad fae and placed the box of liquor and wine in a chair in front of Lachlan’s desk. “Are you trying to steal the dagger of Astrix?”
His head snapped back, shaking those shiny copper curls. “No way. I was just curious.” Jasper glanced over his shoulder at the knife in question. “I don’t understand how this thing could be capable of turning humans into demons and creating feral monsters.”
I crossed my arms while attempting to choke back the memories of damage the demon dagger had caused. “Dark magic is attached to that thing.” A shiver slithered down my spine as I studied the hilt’s onyx stone that burned crimson when it throbbed with power.
“But it’s just a knife.” Jasper palmed his nape. “It shouldn’t be able to do that.”
“Looks can be deceiving.” Even I looked like a normal witch, but beneath this petite, purple-haired exterior, a sinister creature lurked. “Aren’t you supposed to be working in Shade of Nightworld?”
He angled toward me, finally prying his attention from the dagger. “Lachlan requested my presence a few minutes ago.” A hint of bitterness coated his words. “He slipped out to take care of something. What are you doing here?”
“I brought those.” I pointed at the box before uneasily glancing around the king’s office. The place always unsettled me. Maybe it was the ebony stain of the floors and wainscoting along the navy walls or the fireplace that was large enough to burn witches. Or perhaps it was the way the thorns on the large rug in the center seemed to reach out, trying to drag me into their painful grasps.
“Thorn, what are you doing here?” The king—as elegant as ever in his dark suit and royal blue tie—strode into his office and closed the door. “Not that I’m not happy to see you.” Charm and sophistication oozed off him like sex appeal and danger streamed from his son.
I jerked my chin toward the box in the chair. “I brought the items you requested.”
“Ah.” He peeked inside to examine the contents. “Why didn’t Hugh bring them? You didn’t have to come all this way.”
My hand planted on my hip. “I was told you specifically asked for me.”
Lachlan arched a black eyebrow. “I did no such thing.” He grabbed the box and started placing items on his desk, the colorful liquids catching the soft light of the overhead chandelier in the center of the tray ceiling.
Why the hell would Tressa tell me that?
Jasper cleared his throat and tucked his hands into his pockets. “You said you wanted me to do something, sir.”
“Right.” Lachlan set down the bottle of gin and reached into his mahogany desk to withdraw a folded piece of paper. “I need you to run an errand.”
The younger fae took the paper from Lachlan and unfolded it, his lips thinning ever so slightly. “Sure thing.”
Lachlan returned to the liquor bottles. “That’ll be all, Jasper.”
The fae shoved the list into his pocket, looking none too thrilled with his task at hand. “See you later, Thorn,” Jasper muttered as he marched out.
After the bartender left, I turned to Lachlan. “Are you really going to leave the dagger of Astrix out in the open?”
Lachlan’s ice-blue eyes flickered toward the powerful weapon less than a few feet away. “The shield I’ve placed around it will keep it secure.”
To get his attention, I shortened the distance between us and snatched the bottle he was about to open. “Will it keep the demon queen from getting it? We really don’t need any more dead bodies piling up or freshly made demons.”
“Cyria wouldn’t dare show up here after what happened.” A short laugh burst from his mouth. “She’s been hiding to keep from facing the council over the charges I brought forth—thanks to you.”
The word in Nightworld was that Cyria had gone to the Underworld on sabbatical, but she really disappeared to escape punishment by the council who could permanently banish her from Chicago or even order her death.
“Thorn, the dagger is secure. No one’s going to get it.” He reached for the bottle, and I finally let him have it. “It’s safer where I can keep an eye on it.”
Or, like me, did the knife’s power call to him?
My gaze traced the red and silver blade as the hair on my arms slowly rose. “What are you planning to do with it?”
“Keep it safe and out of diabolical hands.” Lachlan poured a few sips of bourbon into a crystal tumbler on his desk. “There’s no telling what other terrible things the dagger of Astrix is capable of.”
Trepidation crawled through my veins, and it felt like the knife was pulling me closer as my boots inched across the floor. Even from here, power throbbed through the blade, urging my darkness to rise to the surface.
Lachlan wasn’t wrong about the dagger, but did he intend on doing any of those terrible things?
I broke the connection and shook off the shadows trying to consume me. “I’ve got to get back downstairs.”
The king flashed a charming smile, one hiding the cunning devil beneath. “Don’t be a stranger, Thorn. You and I are not enemies.”
I begged to differ.
I hightailed it out of his office. Sooner or later, Lachlan would want something from me, but at least this time he didn’t have Aiden’s life in his hands. As part of the blood oath we’d made, the fae king could never harm Aiden or hold him hostage again.
The service elevator dinged open, and I hopped inside, pressing the button for the club level. The hum of machinery whirled within the large steel cage as it descended. I’d started taking this elevator more often to avoid meeting my reflection in the shiny gold walls incasing the interior of the others.
I didn’t want to see the death raker staring out of my silver eyes.
In Illyria, after carrying out terrible deeds for the grand witch, I avoided my reflection for days. I once shattered every mirror in my mother’s house because of the damage I’d inflicted on another witch. The memories that caused that incident haunted me to this day. It had been two years ago, but it could have been yesterday. Sometimes, I could still feel the blood on my hands…
I marched out of the stark white, windowless room, slamming the door closed with a flick of my hand to cut off the male witch’s whimpers. My attention remained straight ahead as a few coven members passed. They openly stared, and I knew what they saw—the blood speckled on my skin and clothes, the hard mask on my face, and the coldness of my gaze. As the grand witch’s greatest instrument, I carried out her orders and never failed. I was closer to Ellexia than anyone and held a higher rank than most.
They envied me. They wanted to be me.
But they didn’t see the tremors in my blood-soaked hands or the invisible claws tearing my chest apart with every labored breath. They didn’t notice the weight of guilt pressing on my shoulders. They didn’t hear my screams at night from the terrors invading my dreams.
If I could, I’d give them my gift of death.
And then they’d know what a curse it really was.
I strode through the halls in the basement of the coven house, finally making it to the stairs. My knees wobbled as I climbed them, and I darted out of the door at the top as if Terrance’s sobbing pleas couldn’t find me anymore.
Those awful sounds were seared into my mind. They could find me anywhere.
Luckily, the corridor was empty, and I leaned against the wall, breathing hard. Images of what I’d just done flashed through my vision with a chaotic strobe light effect like a garish horror movie. I finally lowered my head to study my hands. Dried blood stippled them mixed with splashes of fresh, wet crimson that shined in the soft light from golden sconces running through the hall.
My stomach heaved, and I wanted to take a scolding shower to scrub the stains off my flesh. Tears turned the long stretch of white marble and gold blurry. This place was too nice for the horrors it held. I stood in this sickening opulence covered in blood, but if anyone were to walk by, they’d think it was normal.
It wasn’t. None of this was normal.
At fifteen, I should be going to school, hanging out with friends, and getting into mischief. Instead, I was a master at inflicting pain.
I hunched over and choked back the sobs trying to claw up my throat.
“Did you crack him yet?”
I jolted at the pompous voice belonging to Cazimir, the only male witch with a seat on The Grove, the governing body of all witches led by Ellexia. His blond hair was slicked back from his face with two streaks of pale blue running at his temples. His dark, nearly black eyes scrutinized me while he gave the tiniest contemptuous tilt of his upper lip.
“From that miserable look, I’d say you’ve failed at prying the information from Terrance.” His long fingers curled around my bicep, almost encircling the entire thing. “I’ll escort you to the grand witch’s office. I’m sure she’d be interested to know you’re slacking off.”
I yanked out of his grip. “I’m giving him time to think.”
Cazimir scoffed. “Come now, Thorn. You’re taking it easy on him.” He leaned forward, that sickly sweet scent of whatever magic spells he’d been performing clogging my nostrils. “You aren’t as strong as you pretend. But perhaps with a little—”
“Dad, what are you doing?” Zane, Cazimir’s son, strolled toward us with a furrowed brow at the way his father leaned into my personal space. “Why are you bothering Thorn? I’m sure she’s busy.”
Unlike the cap of platinum on Cazimir, Zane’s blond hair was darker and threaded with streaks of gold and bronze. His skin and brown eyes also held a warmer hue. The eighteen-year-old was nearly as tall, though, both men towering over my petite form.
But something was off about Zane too. His father wore his creepiness on the outside while his son buried it beneath gentle smiles and sweet words.
“This is none of your concern, Zane.” Cazimir stretched to his full height and delivered a masterful scowl to his son. “Thorn is refusing to do her job.”
I pushed off the wall faster than Cazimir expected, making him shuffle back. He knew exactly what I was capable of, even though I rarely attacked anyone with my death powers—unless directed by Ellexia. “I always do my job. Maybe you’d like to go to a torture room in the basement to experience it for yourself.”
If possible, his complexion paled a few more shades. “Are you threatening a councilor of The Grove?”
“Of course she’s not.” Zane wedged himself between his father and me. “Right, Thorn?” He shot me a pleading look.
I swallowed the insults lingering on my tongue. “Right.”
Cazimir brushed back the few locks that had tumbled across his forehead. “Sometimes, I just don’t know about you, Thorn. You and Lilian are complete opposites.”
That was one of the kindest compliments anyone had ever paid me.
Without another word, Cazimir pivoted and strode down the hall.
“Sorry about him.” Zane moved to my side, remaining too close for comfort. “My father was born with a stick up his ass.”
I gave a forced smile. “You didn’t have to intervene.”
“It’s no problem. I don’t like him treating you that way.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “You deserve some slack. You have way too much to deal with on your own.”
My suspicions intensified the more Zane talked. It was no secret Cazimir had proposed a marriage between his son and me less than a year ago. Ellexia and my mother said I was too young and needed to focus on training, but that didn’t stop the father-son duo from pursuing it.
At first, Zane had been an arrogant, entitled douchebag. After several failed attempts at winning me over, he switched tactics. Cazimir would play the bad guy while Zane would swoop in to defend me.
I wouldn’t have a say in the end, though. Ellexia would have the final decision on who I married. I wasn’t naive enough to believe otherwise.
I cleared my throat and put some space between us. “I should go see the grand witch.” Cazimir had probably already informed Ellexia that I hadn’t broken Terrance yet.
Zane nodded. “I’m here if you need anything or want to talk.”
“Thanks.” I spun and reluctantly made my way to Ellexia’s office as my stomach began to knot again. She wouldn’t be happy about my progress with Terrance or lack thereof. Before I could even knock, the door swung open to reveal her spacious office. Like most of the coven house, an opulent mixture of ivory, marble, and gold wrapped the room.
“Enter, Thorn.” Her calm, controlled voice sent shivers down my spine, and even though I couldn’t see her, her stare bored through the wall and right into me like laser beams.
I took a deep breath and marched inside, keeping my head high as my knees trembled. My mother’s glossy lips twisted in derision at my disheveled state.
“Couldn’t you have properly cleaned up before interrupting our meeting?” She crossed her arms against her chest from her chair in the corner of the room.
Another councilor on The Grove, Bianca, sat on the other side of Ellexia’s desk, keeping her knees a few inches from the carved lion heads. They were only supposed to attack unwanted visitors, but knowing the grand witch, I wouldn’t trust that theory. “That’s an awful lot of blood.” A grimace pulled her coral-painted lips apart.
“That happens in torture.” I hoped no one had noticed the bite to my words.
Ellexia’s emerald eyes, sharp enough to slice enemies with, slowly took me in. “Cazimir has informed me that you haven’t had much success with Terrance.”
Such a jackass.
“Terrance isn’t as easy to break as some.” I clasped my hands behind my back so she wouldn’t see the tremors racing through them.
The grand witch drummed her fingernail—the one covered by the lethal metal tip—on her desk as the silence in the room thickened. Every hard tap was like a puncture to my skin. Her face remained neutral, but her anger brewed in the air as her magic crackled. If Bianca hadn’t been in the room, Ellexia might have done worse than glower.
“Maybe I could give him some time to think about—”
Ellexia cut me off with a simple lift of her hand. “Return downstairs and use your death powers to find out where that medallion is.”
My jaw clenched so hard my teeth threatened to crack. What right did she have to the medallion anyway? It had been in Terrance’s family for generations. She literally had no claim on it.
But as the grand witch, Ellexia believed anything she wanted could be hers.
The desire to protest burned in me, and as if she could sense it, Ellexia’s mouth curved into a haughty smile.
“Cazimir,” she called.
The male witch entered the office on her command like a loyal dog. “Please escort Thorn back to the lower level and make sure she utilizes her special powers to obtain the information I need from Terrance.”
All the fight drained out of me, and my blood ran cold. I couldn’t get out of using those powers now. Cazimir would be breathing down my neck until the job was complete.
Without waiting for her to dismiss me, I exited the grand witch’s office with Cazimir on my heels…
The elevator jerked, bringing me back to the present. I’d gotten the information out of Terrance that day, but I’d killed him in the process.
He wasn’t the first. And he wouldn’t be the last.
One day, I’d have to pay for all I’d done, including killing the necromancer.
The doors opened, and I marched out, turning the corner just as a hand fastened around my wrist.
My heart flew into my throat as my worst fears materialized. Helena’s death had brought venators to Nightworld, and even though I hadn’t seen one in weeks, I’d be stupid to believe they were gone for good.
But had a witch tracker done the unthinkable and snuck into Shade to capture me? Was my freedom about to become forfeit?