Chapter 1
“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Isolde Cotheran said, as she buried the
blade into the hollow of the guard’s neck. “We could have been
The blade slid free as he fell to the forest floor, his eyes wide as if in
surprise. Garbled words faded away as they escaped his now ruby-red lips.
A pool of blood trickled into the dark tunic and dead leaves scattered about.
The usual, rejected thoughts invaded Isolde’s mind.
Who was he? Did he have a family? What was his name?
And the worst one of all.
Did you have to kill him?
Shaking herself free, Isolde wiped the blade on the guard’s pant leg and
pushed it back into the scabbard at her hip. Killing wasn’t something she
enjoyed. Still, she couldn’t risk the guard running back to his platoon and
raising the alarm. Without a second glance, she hooked a gloved hand over
a branch and began to climb.
Moron. All he had to do was tell me the count of guards on duty tonight.
Isolde shook her head. Hope you thought it was worth your life. Although
she wasn’t quite sure even that would have saved him.
She stopped halfway up the massive oak, her steps sure and relaxed as
she strolled along a wide branch. The presence of the others hiding amongst
the leaves pressed against her skin like a warm assurance. Cries of agony
streaming from Foxclove had long since ceased. The many tortured voices
were now silent in the dead of night.
“You’re quiet. Which is highly unlike you.

Isolde slid her gaze to the shadow lurking on the branch next to her as
Fane descended from the canopy. The hawk, now resting on her shoulder,
adjusted his footing. The sharp talons burrowed into the leather of her worn,
black cloak.
“I just killed a man, Malaki. Do you expect me to be chatty?” she asked,
turning her gaze forward once more, away from her second-in-command.
“Besides, I figured you would enjoy the silence.”
“For you, silence is never a good thing.” Malaki paused, hazel eyes
gazing out into the dark. His colossal shoulders rolled, the leather strap
keeping the sharp, double-edged axe in place strained. “Especially not
“Why, because a lot of men might die?” Isolde asked, her eyebrow
cocking. “By my hand? That’s nothing new.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Yes, it does.” A firm line formed on her mouth as her gaze fell. There
was no avoiding it. Not this time. Only one particular question had yet to be
“Do I let the bastard live?” she muttered, crossing her arms. Tiny puffs
of breath leaked through the mesh cloth pulled tightly over the lower half of
her face. A face that had not aged in thirty-five years. Since her twentieth
birthday. Her sun-kissed skin had yet to hold a single wrinkle. Much to
Isolde’s vain satisfaction. Water slid down the black hood meant to hide her
from the world onto the quiet forest below, which was now soaked in blood.
A familiar sigh ghosted from the shadows. His husky voice stirred her
humanity, the one part of herself she wished to bury, at least for tonight.
“It’s a choice you can’t take back,” said Malaki. Her beacon of light in the
storm of uncertainty.
“Obviously,” she said. Her emerald eyes, laced with ribbons of silver,
rolled in annoyance.
“You are the one who asked.”
Her narrowed gaze, ignited by the power stirring beneath her skin, slid
to where he lumbered. “Rhetorical questions do not demand obvious,
obnoxious answers, Malaki.” Irritation blossomed as a whisper of a chuckle
filtered through the downpour between them.
“With you, there is no such thing as a rhetorical question, Isolde.
Especially when the decision of ending a life is on the table.”
“I shouldn’t even have to make this damn decision,” she said, turning
back to the once beautiful territory. Rows of newly constructed barracks
surrounded Foxclove manor. A handful of guards patrolled the muddy
grounds snaking between the buildings. Light danced off the swords that
hung at their sides and tips of the spears clutched in their grasp.
Fane, perched on her shoulder, nuzzled closer, nipping at the edges of
her mask. He was white as snow, save for the spots of red that decorated the
tips of his feathers that were tucked tightly into his sides. Stretching out the
edge of the hood, Isolde created a small crevice for him to burrow into.
“Yet here we are,” a light, sensual voice purred from above. Drops of
water cascaded over the leather hoods drawn tightly around Isolde and
Malaki’s faces as the lethal creature stretched precariously. Her dark purple
hood and cloak groaned in protest.
“You speak as if we have a choice in this situation, Blyana.” Isolde’s
eyes shot up in annoyance as she ran a gloved finger down the bridge of
Fane’s beak.
“I’m not trying to change your mind,” Blyana said, a sly smile creeping
into her voice. “I never have.”
Isolde chuckled. “You mostly encourage this kind of thing.”
“Bad behavior is my specialty.”
“No arguing with that,” Blyana said.
“You two keep talking and they’re bound to hear us,” Malaki rumbled, a
whisper of thunder in the night.
“Stop being such an old man, Papa Bear” Isolde said, pulling the lip of
the hood further around Fane. “A little danger would be good for you.”
His massive shadow shifted, his arms crossing. “I get plenty with you.”
“This is true, Isolde,” said her weapon’s expert, Cillian. His lean
shadow broke through the darkness on her left as he took careful steps
forward. He kept a steady hand on the trunk of the tree. “Too much
excitement will undoubtedly send the old man to an early grave.”
A sharp snarl pierced the small space, causing Fane to bat his wings in
agitation. A faint light shined in Malaki’s gaze as his eyes narrowed.
“You’ll think old, Cillian, when I throw you from this tree.”
“Don’t overexert yourself now. I hear that’s ill-advised in the elderly.”
Cillian’s voice was filled with humor but Isolde knew better.
While he possessed an air of ease, Isolde could see the stiffness that ran
along Cillian’s defined arms and the strain at the corners of his dark eyes.
His gloved fingers pressed into the bark of the oak. A contact for something
steady and immovable. Heights had always been his enemy. An adversary,
created in childhood, that had never been defeated.
His obsidian gaze swept up to Blyana where she perched on the limb
above. Worry shined in his eyes as they ran over the open air beneath her.
Isolde fought the urge to roll her eyes at his fussing. It was an
unnecessary worry. Isolde knew Blyana’s abilities and heights were more of
an asset to her, than a hindrance.
“Enough, Cill,” Isolde said, the hint of a smile coating her words. “I
don’t need my cover blown with Malaki beating your ass senseless before
the mission even starts.” Cillian merely nodded, his face fighting a grin as
his muscles relaxed a fraction. She felt Malaki’s irritated gaze fall to her,
but he kept his tongue in check.
“Children,” Blyana murmured as she stretched out on the limb, an arm
and leg dangling.
“You all remember your positions?” Malaki asked, ignoring her
A beat of silence followed. The only sound was the steady rhythm of
the rain. Isolde knew this was coming. Changing the plan, especially now…
It would be a problem; she had known it would be. [KW3] Apprehension
prickled at the back of her neck as the heavy silence continued.
They had gone over the plan countless times. Picking apart Foxclove
like it was a roasted chicken until nothing was left. They knew every angle,
every possibility of failure until Malaki was satisfied and on board. Still,
she had known springing this change on him wasn’t going to be pleasant
either way.
“Answer me,” Malaki growled.
“There’s been a slight change of plans,” Isolde said, the words forcing
their way around the ball of apprehension stuck in her throat.
Malaki’s head whipped around. “We don’t have changes in plans,
“Well,” Cillian said, as he dusted a piece of bark from the dark green,
leather coat hugging his chest, “tonight we do.”
“What changes?” Malaki asked. Tension rolled off him in palpable,
blazing waves.
“The gold is not the only thing leaving with us tonight,” said Isolde.
Malaki froze. Fury planted his limbs firmly in place. The steady stream
of power bled through the cracks of his self-control that was ignited in his
eyes. “Explain yourself…now.”
“We received word from our point of contact in Yvek,” Isolde said, her
voice even and cold. “They found bodies floating down the river just north
of the outpost. Tortured…mutilated.”
“And?” Malaki demanded. “What does this have to do with us?”
Cillian’s words, low and lethal, broke the silence. “It wasn’t just the
older ones, Malaki. Dagan ordered children to be put to death as well. To
prevent the mingling of virya and human blood. Two of which were his
own. He couldn’t stand the idea of his precious viryian lineage linked to a
That particular prejudice had existed since the time of the gods and the
War of Kings. Butchering of human children was not an uncommon
practice for their kind.
The virya.
Beings blessed with extraordinary abilities that ranged from morphing
into terrifying beasts, controlling the elements, and everything in between.
“All because they weren’t born monsters,” Blyana spat. A spark of
power brushed against Isolde’s mind. She could feel the spotted leopard
lurking just beneath Blyana’s skin. A small movement caught Isolde’s eye.
Blyana’s forefinger scrubbed against her left thumb. The rough, jagged
scrapes, Isolde knew, were a nervous tick. A small tattoo of a serpent was
etched into the skin, just below the first knuckle of Blyana’s thumb. It was
symbol, a brand that had marked her as property once upon a time.
Cillian followed Isolde’s gaze and quickly wrapped Blyana’s twitching
fingers in his own, his fear of heights momentarily forgotten. Carefully, he
pulled the mask free from his face. His rich, caramel skin, sprinkled with
bits of black scruff, glowed in the few rays of moonlight that managed to
break through the clouds. Leaning forward, he gently kissed her leather-clad
knuckle. A soft purr echoed through the air, the edges of Blyana’s face
crinkling with a shy smile. Isolde saw the fire die a little in her eyes, but not
She could see the struggle, the anger that guided Blyana. Much like her
own, Isolde could sense it crackling through the humid canopy. It caused
her own power to stir in response. The irrevocable force pushed forward to
meet the potential threat head-on. The rush of chaotic violence strained
against her resolve. Fane shifted his weight nervously on her shoulder.
Teeth grinding, Malaki said, “Who did you promise, Isolde?”
Swallowing back the malice, Isolde replied, “A mother of one of the
children they found dead.” She had seen sorrow before, but not such
wretched despair. It was as if the woman wished for nothing more than to
slip into oblivion. As if she never existed. With the dead child still clutched
to her chest, she begged Isolde, disguised as the Hood, to help those who
remained at Foxclove.
“Taking the humans was not part of the plan,” said Malaki.
“Since when do we ever stick to the plan?” she asked.
“You shouldn’t have made that kind of promise! It puts us all at too big
of a risk.” He rose from his crouch, the tree limb shaking under his weight.
“We’re scrubbing this job.” He turned on his heel, drops of rain dancing
across his hooded head.
“You didn’t see what they did to them,” Isolde said. Visions of the
bodies played in her mind. “Even the infants.” She pushed back against the
memory before it could consume her completely and swallowed the heavy
lump in her throat.
Malaki’s hand tightened around a tree limb keeping him rooted. The
wood groaned under his unforgiving grip. Rumors had spread throughout
Arnoria of the treatment of slaves at Foxclove…but never about the babies.
“It’s true,” Cillian said, taking a few careful steps to rest a hand on
Malaki’s shoulder. “I know this isn’t ideal, but those people don’t have
time. They can’t wait for us to form another plan before the same thing
happens to them. Would you leave them to that fate?”
Malaki shrugged away from Cillian’s grip as his hands balled into fists
at his side. Isolde wanted the remorse, the guilt for changing the plans at the
last possible moment. But none found its way to her heart. It was necessary,
she told herself. He wouldn’t have agreed if I’d told him before.
Turning back, Malaki scanned the barracks. They stood like tombs,
windowless and devoid of life and hope. With a heavy sigh, he met her gaze
and she knew Malaki understood one simple fact. She would go whether he
went or not. Without a moment’s hesitation, she would throw herself into
the pits of hell. It wouldn’t be the first time. But leaving her side was not an
option. Isolde knew it never was for him.
“How many?”
“What?” Isolde asked.
“How many did you promise to save?” Malaki rasped.
She licked her lips as the answer stuck to the back of throat. “As many
as time would allow.”
A string of swears whispered through the dark as Malaki’s gloved
fingers gripped the back of his hood. “We can’t save them all,” he growled.
“I’m aware of that,” she bit back. “There’s a small group in the
dungeons just to the east, closest to the river. My point of contact told me
they were in the worst condition. The ones that probably wouldn’t make it
much longer.”
“The ones that will be the most trouble to get out you mean,” said
Malaki. The words hung in the air between them.
“The ones that need our help the most.” Her voice was hollow, as if she
couldn’t believe what he was saying.
He took a deep breath, his eyes squeezing shut. “I assume there’s more
than one boat lurking about downstream.”
“You even asking is an insult,” Cillian muttered. His fingers toyed with
the blades at his side. Isolde looked up to Blyana, who stared down, her catlike eyes reflecting in the dark. Isolde knew she would follow her lead, no
matter where the path led. Along with Cillian. It was Malaki she looked to
The hazel eyes she had known her whole life were hard and full of
worry. As if he was trying to mentally will her into turning back. She
wanted to be angry with him. Angry for not listening, for constantly
questioning her judgment. Even after fifty-five years of being by my side, he
still doesn’t trust me.
“The first sign of danger,” Malaki said through grinding teeth, “we
leave. Whether we get them out or not.” His eyes darted to each of them in
turn. “We make it home.”
Cillian nodded, his eyes shooting up to Blyana, who merely waved her
hand through the air in dismissal. Isolde stroked Fane’s head, her eyes
purposely forward.
“Fine,” she said under her breath.
“Fine,” Malaki bit back. “You and Bly will extract those in the
dungeons. Cillian and I will find others that are able to move easier, ones
that can help paddle.”
“And in small groups,” Isolde added. “Few are easier to hide if
Malaki sighed heavily and turned his attention back to the manor. She
could practically see his mind wrapping around the series of new problems
that could and would meet them head-on.
Foxclove, while the smallest of the seven territories in Arnoria,
stretched out in all directions. It had been the desire of Lord Theort, the
previous ruler of Foxclove, to see from all angles. “Nowhere for the enemy
to sneak up on me,” he had said to her, playfully tugging at her dark brown
curls when she was a child. Of course, he had been anticipating an army…
not a small cadre of thieves and assassins.
Now, row after row of dirty metal barracks wrapped around the
perimeter in tight, uniform rings. Replacing the once lush fields Isolde
played in as a girl.
Like a giant, glistening serpent, the Lenda River stood between them
and the first row of barracks. It served as the main means of transportation
for the coveted goods of many territories. Little rivers sprung from its body,
creating small communities and perfect hiding places for those who wished
to remain hidden.
Torches perched along the stone wall that bordered the manor fought
against the storm. Their flames flickered precariously on their posts,
providing little light to what lay below.
“It’s smaller than I remember,” Isolde said. Memories of running
through the lovely wooden halls flashed in her mind. She saw the Lord of
Foxclove, his warm, fatherly smile beaming down as she ran past.
“Hmm,” Malaki said. “It doesn’t even look the same. Not with the
barracks.” His finger extended toward the manor. “Or whipping posts.”
Isolde looked to where he pointed. A small stage, hardly big enough to
hold five men, stood before the main gate leading into the stronghold. A
platform had been erected, set with a single overhanging arch. In the center
was a rope, its end fashioned into a noose. An iron ring was driven into the
wood of the four posts used to keep the platform aloft. Streaks of red
stained the beams.
Isolde inhaled sharply, her teeth setting beneath the mask. She could
feel Malaki’s gaze on her. The familiar look of pity she hated was
undoubtedly there.
“I see Dagan has been remodeling,” Blyana said.
“Lord Theort would not have tolerated such things in his territory,” said
Isolde. A sick aching filled her chest, squeezing as the words lifted from her
“No, he wouldn’t,” Cillian said, his mask now secured around his face.
“Seems that Dagan didn’t heed your warning, Isolde. Must not have made a
big impression.” A small air of amusement ghosted on the edges of his
voice. “Losing your touch are you, Hood?”
Isolde growled, the sound mingling with the light chuckle from Blyana.
Fane chirped in irritation, his beak nibbling at her mask. “My warning had
the same sting as it always does.” Her instructions were easy enough:
change the treatment of humans and half-bloods, or die.
Dagan had clearly squandered that warning. Not a hint of change could
be seen; if anything,…things were far worse. “It would appear Dagan likes
to play games. Even ones that involve the abrupt end to his life.”
Along the ridge of the wall, guards walked the perimeter. The tips of
their spears shined in the light of the torches. Arrows nestled in the quivers
on their backs. Isolde gently stroked Fane’s chest, her words bleeding into
the air. “If we are going to get them out, the guards need to be taken care of
“With pleasure,” Cillian said, his voice chipped and ice cold. Blyana’s
tiny chest rumbled, her eyes igniting as the monster just beneath the surface
“Easy,” Isolde said, her own instincts flaring. “It would be ill-advised
for you to transform so soon.” She knew Blyana’s limits, what triggered her
power to come forward and seize control. Anger, revenge, and bloodlust.
Much the same as her own. It was a natural reaction for a virya. An instinct
that was as much a part of them as their powers were.
Blyana scoffed. “Isn’t it my job to tell you that?”
Isolde rolled her eyes. “Fur ball.”
“Bossy bird brain,” retorted Blyana.
Isolde grinned, her eyes shining with the power coursing beneath her
skin, saturating her blood. “If you are going to transform, at least wait for
the action. We can’t have you burning out in the first few minutes.”
“I don’t know,” Blyana mused. “It might be worth turning into a
bloodthirsty monster, deprived of all thought and humanity, to tear apart
Dagan and his men one by one.”
“Remember the last time you changed?” Isolde asked. “It didn’t go so
well.” They had nearly lost her. The power snuffed out all of who Blyana
was, with only the vicious animal remaining. Isolde shuddered from the
memory. At how close she had come to being forced to kill her.
“I seem to recall a certain pigeon nearly tearing us apart the last time
they transformed,” Blyana shot back.
“It wasn’t intentional.” The words felt hollow, wooden in Isolde’s
mouth, as violent flashes of that day resurfaced. “And I believe you mean a
fierce falcon. In the end, I didn’t hurt anyone…permanently.”
“Foxclove could use some permanent damage tonight,” Blyana said.
“You know I can’t risk it,” Isolde said. “Only if I can’t shoot a bow or
hold a blade would I even entertain the idea. It’s not worth it.” Some virya
rarely transformed for fear of losing themselves to the power that lurked
beneath. Their power was simply too chaotic, too unpredictable.
Isolde was one of them.
“It won’t come to that tonight,” Cillian said. “Not if we stick to the
plan.” She hoped he was right. The pain still echoed in her bones. A
constant reminder of what it felt like to be completely undone.
“Malaki…Cill…start making your way around the outer ring of
barracks,” Isolde said, her voice firm. “Then move more inward.”
Malaki sighed. She could all but see his eyes roll and jaw flex.
“No worries,” Cillian said, shifting next to Malaki, who growled. “I’ll
make sure he remembers.” Tiny daggers shined along his belt like a row of
teeth in what little light penetrated the canopy as Malaki shoved him back.
Cillian gripped the tree’s trunk, his fingers leaving small indentions in the
“You are forbidden from killing him, Malaki,” said Blyana.
“No promises,” he said, his massive battle-axe gleaming from his back.
“See you at the river.” Limbs found their way to Malaki’s feet, as his power
created intricate steps that circled the trunk leading to the ground. Cillian
followed behind, keeping his hand trailing along the trunk with each step.
“Lazy.” Blyana scoffed.
Isolde slowly turned, Fane with her. “Is that the pot I hear calling the
kettle black?”
Blyana rolled her eyes. “I’m not lazy. I don’t make the plants and
creatures around me do my bidding. Where’s the fun in that? If I want out
of a tree, I jump. Simple as that.”
“I’m sure that doesn’t bode well for Cillian’s anxiety,” said Isolde.
“What about Malaki’s healing abilities? I’ll be sure to mention your lack of
fascination the next time you need patching up.”
“Please,” Blyana said, her eyes rolling. “You’re the one who cares about
scars. You’re the vain one, not me.”
“I’m not vain, am I Fane?” Isolde cooed, her fingertips scratching his
chin. The hawk chirped happily, his eyes closing against her touch.
From the forest below, a chorus of vulgarity filtered through the
branches, followed by a growl and the scurrying of feet. “They might
actually kill each other,” Blyana said, after a moment.
Isolde sighed, a grin tugging at her lips, “Well, it’s not like the place is
crawling with guards to see them anyway.”
Only a handful of uniform-clad guards [KW12] patrolled the upper lip
of the stone wall near the dungeons. One to the east and the other surveying
the western border. A thankful smile played on Isolde’s lips. At least that
part of the plan had been accurate.
“Imbeciles,” Blyana mumbled, tucking in a strand of blonde hair and
securing the hood around her face and head. “Dagan has become far more
lenient in his security since his father’s untimely passing. It’s almost
As nimble as the cat lurking within, Blyana leapt down onto a branch
beside Isolde. The dark purple of her hood twinkled faintly. A sea of stars
danced on her head as she stepped out into the open air.
“He’ll regret that decision.” Each word sounded odd, distorted as it
spilled through Isolde’s mask.
A bow and quiver were draped across her back along with a pair of
silver-handled swords adorned with intricate carvings of mountain peaks on
one and roaring waves on the other. Small, intricate rivers of metal ran
along the broad side of the blades. They held a faint, green sheen. A sight
that made her blood run cold. Isolde had always thought the blades looking
like living metal. A monstrous creation meant to destroy her kind. Various
blades were hidden along the linings of her clothes. These too held the same
eerie glow. They were the many tools she used to shelve out vengeance.
Confidently, she strode to the edge of the limb and extended her hand.
Flapping his wings, Fane jumped forward, his talons fastening around her
fingers. He cocked his head to the side, his amber eyes piercing into hers.
She could never be sure if he understood her words but a feeling, she didn’t
quite understand, told her he did.
“Don’t come unless it’s necessary.” His sharp eyes merely blinked back
before he flew off, disappearing into the canopy.
She took a deep breath and tugged at the edges of her hood, pleased to
find her dark brown hair laced with strands of fiery red was tucked away
securely. The familiar tide of adrenaline barreled through her veins. It ebbed
and flowed with the power, the life force humming beneath her skin. Her
own monster…was awake.
“I do not bow to fear,” she said, taking a step out into the darkness.

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