Chapter 2
DEATH filled Malaki’s nose as he and Cillian raced through the rows of
silent barracks. At 256 years old, the smell never grew easier to bear.
He fought back the nausea and blinding rage, drawing on his
centuries of training to stay focused. Not a soul dared peer out into the night
for fear of attracting unwanted attention from the guards.
A trail of dead guards and streams of blood lined the pathways he and
Cillian left behind. Throats lay open and lungs were punctured by blades,
preventing even a hint of a scream as the guards fell.
“This one,” Cillian said, his expert hands roving the shiny new lock at
the first barrack door. “Damn it. Dagan’s replaced the old locks with
elithrium infused ones. This may take a bit.”
Malaki remained quiet, his fingers clutching at the handle of his
elithrium laced battle-axe. Isolde’s twin blades possessed the same material.
The deadly metal always made him feel off, on edge. As if his power was
being pulled from him little by little. That’s its purpose, I suppose.
“I wonder how he managed to get some,” Cillian pondered.
“Who knows,” Malaki murmured. “As long as you keep those gloves
on, you’ll be fine.” In its rawest form, elithrium was lethal to the virya. Its
potency, if held in contact with their skin long enough, would pull flesh
from bone. But once it was mixed with another metal, it lost much of its
power. Depending on the amount of metal and elithrium used, it would only
rob a virya of their strength and powers rather than their life. Still, Malaki
knew the importance of keeping a barrier.
If a virya was struck by a weapon laced with elithrium, a poison would
leak into their blood, preventing healing. Even his magic had its limits
when it came to mending a wound caused by a

tried to forget for decades flashed in his mind. Shoving the memory away,
he forced himself back into the miserable present.
“Indeed, my lady,” Cillian said with a bow, his arm brushing the ground.
“At your service. I know these are remarkable accommodations Lord Dagan
has so graciously bestowed upon you, but if you wish, we can take you
away from this place.”
“To be slaves somewhere else?” a woman asked, leaning forward, the
chains rattling in a way that set Malaki’s teeth on edge. In her arms was a
child whose eyes shined with painful understanding. Yet from the lack of
food, he wouldn’t have guessed him to be older than four years of age.
“Not slaves,” Malaki said, meeting every pair of eyes in turn. “But free
people. Away from the king and Dagan’s reach.”
“How can you guarantee this?” she pressed. Her eyes were hard-not
with anger but with yearning.
“Have you ever heard of the Hood failing?” Cillian asked, his arms
crossing as he leaned against the filthy wall. “I was once a slave on the run.
The Hood freed me as well. You can be free…if you choose to be.”
Murmurs echoed through the small crowd. Their eyes turned to those
they loved for guidance, some for approval. The woman looked only at her
child, thinking of a future that was not her own.
“Anything is better than this,” she said, her voice cracking. “Even if it is
a risk.”
Cillian nodded, his deft hands slipping the lock pick back into his
pocket. “We need to keep absolutely quiet. No talking, no touching
anything. Is that understood?” They nodded in agreement. Their fingers
worked quickly on the locks until all were free of their bondage and
standing. Or attempting to.
Malaki scanned the children clinging to their mothers’ skirts. “You will
need to carry them,” he said, gesturing to the little ones who shied away
from his pointed stare.
The women turned and scooped their terrified children up into their
arms. “My arm,” one of them said, her eyes full of tears. “I can’t lift it.” A
large dirty bandage ran down the length of her arm, ending at her wrist
“Very well,” he said, beginning to strap the axe over his back.
“I’ll carry him,” Cillian offered, stepping forward, his knives sheathed
and hidden from sight. “Wouldn’t want you to throw your back out now,
would we?”
Fury coated Malaki’s tongue like hot lava, his hands balling into fists at
his sides. Cillian was already squatting before the child, whose eyes
widened in uncertainty. For someone who’d barely reached his forty-fifth
year, Cillian was awfully cocky. He’ll pay for that later. After a few words
of coaxing, the little boy left his mother’s side and sidled into Cillian’s
leather-clad arms.
“Quietly,” Malaki said. His eyes met all of theirs, ensuring they
understood the importance of their silence. They followed him through the
doorway. Their steps were a rhythmic beat any virya would have a hard
time deciphering from the rain that had begun to fall harder.
He took five at a time, not daring to take the group as a whole. Once
through the door, he pointed to the two long boats waiting at the end of the
“Stay here and get the boats ready,” Cillian instructed two of the
healthier looking men. Their eyes scanned the others, and a look Malaki did
not care for crossed their faces. As they turned with the oars in tow, he
snatched the ends and held them in place.
“These ships stay here,” he ordered, a hint of power bleeding through,
igniting his eyes. They stared back at him in terror, their mouths agape.
“Remember, we are not like you, humans. A virya, is far stronger,
faster…You won’t make it far.”
They nodded vigorously, their hands shaking around the handles.
With a grunt, he released them to their work. “Make sure they and
anyone else we send makes it on board.”
“Yes,” they said, their hands already busy with the lines.
He ignored the cutting glance Cillian shot him as they ran back through
the barracks.
“Why don’t you just threaten to take off their heads next time?” Cillian
whispered, banking right. “I’m sure that will have the same effect.”
“Those cowards would have left them to die.” They stopped before
another barrack, this one far newer, the lock much shinier than the rest.
Cillian dug for his tools. “You don’t know that.” He bent down and
began his work on the lock. Faint rays of green danced across his gloves.
“Yes, I do,” said Malaki. “I know that look.”
Metal clinked beneath Cillian’s fingers. One of the picks twisted in his
grip. “What look?”
“The one that gives away someone’s intent to betray. It’s the same one
I’ve seen you give me before.”
Cillian chuckled, the lock finally giving way. “Only in sparring, my
dear Malaki.”
“You keep running that mouth of yours,” Malaki bit, his temper flaring,
“and we’ll see if it’s just sparring next time.”
“I don’t know if you could handle me if it became more than a friendly
competition. I might accidently kill you.” His eyes crinkled, the only hint of
a smile hiding beneath the mask.
“There are plenty of reasons for you to keep me alive,” Malaki said.
“It certainly isn’t for your charming personality,” Cillian retorted. “Or to
see you sulk around because of the choices Isolde’s making.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Malaki demanded.
Cillian sighed, his fingers stilling. “I see that you don’t approve. It’s
written all over your face. With any decision she makes, there is resistance
from you. It makes her second-guess herself.” He turned back to his work,
the dark hood shaking slightly. “Every decision she makes, she thinks it’s
the wrong one. No matter what she does, she will be wrong in your eyes.”
Malaki looked down on him, his eyes wide with incredulity. “Do you
agree with her? Changing the plan last minute, leaving me in the dark?”
“Partly,” he admitted with a sigh. “I understand changing the plan right
before it’s about to begin is not the way to go about it. That robbing Dagan
of every last coin in Foxclove was the goal…But what choice did you leave
her, Malaki? You can’t seriously expect her to leave them here like this.”
“I’ve known her since she was born,” he hissed, his teeth grinding. “I
think I know her a little better than you.”
“Then you’re a fool if you didn’t see this coming,” said Cillian, an edge
carved into his words. “You can’t expect a flower to grow in the shade of a
towering oak.”
Malaki growled, his eyes igniting.
“All I know,” Cillian said, “is that I see someone wanting to do good in
a world that hates her for it. That wants to kill her for it. Good people get
tired of being good to ungrateful people, Malaki. Eventually, she will too.”
The lock fell away but neither of them moved to open the door. Instead,
Cillian stood, his fingers slipping the pick back into his pocket. “I’m trying
to stave that off as long as possible. It’s very difficult to fight upstream your
whole life. She will find her way, but she doesn’t need someone constantly
second guessing her…especially you.”
Malaki squeezed his hands into fists as a heavy sigh broke through the
mask. “I know she cares. She’s lost so much, more than any one person
deserves to.” He refused to meet Cillian’s probing, observant gaze. Rain
pelted his hood, hiding his face even more. “It is her biggest fear. Losing
those she loves. What loved ones remain, anyway.”
“She cares about them.” Cillian’s arm waved around the compound.
“All of them. You can tell by the risks she takes for them…she cares.”
While Cillian’s eyes were those of someone no older than twenty-five,
Malaki could see years of anger shining in their depths.
Twenty years had passed since Isolde caught Cillian sneaking into
Thornwood, pilfering the pantry of what scraps he could find. He wasn’t
sure if it was their shared love of blades or sweets that captured Isolde’s
heart and led her to offer him a place in their cadre. Either way, Cillian had
become a whetting stone for not only Isolde’s skills…but Blyana’s as well
when she too joined the fold ten years later. And a pain in Malaki’s ass.
“Again,” Malaki said, shoving his shoulders back, his eyes cold.
“Something you don’t need to tell me.”
Sarcasm etched into the lines of what little Malaki could see of Cillian’s
rich, caramel skin. “Of course. I just had to make sure you weren’t
forgetting anything, old man.”
The groan from the door masked the growl seeping through Malaki’s
teeth. A small whimper greeted them, the sound ghosting through the damp,
putrid air. Mud licked at the soles of their boots as they walked soundlessly
through the barrack.
These beds were smaller, Malaki realized. Tiny bundles lay under dirty
sheets of burlap that rose and fell in rapid procession. Carefully lifting a
corner, he stifled a hiss of fury. A child, no older than four, was clutching a
newborn. Around them was a woman, or what remained of her. No muscle
was left on her bones, just a thin sheet of pale, bruised skin. His eyes,
roving over them, determining how best to move the small family, halted
when they found hers staring.
They were wide and a stunning shade of deep blue. Like early day
break. “Hello,” he said as gently as possible, dropping to one knee beside
“Hello,” she said in return. “Have you come to take me from my
children? Have the gods called me home at last?” Her voice was so calm, so
serene, Malaki knew it meant only one thing. She was preparing to die.
“No,” he said, his voice soft and warm as an afternoon breeze. “I’m
here to take you all somewhere safe. You and your children.”
She shook her head, a dampness spilling over her eyes, making them
impossibly bluer. “I can’t.”
“Why not?” he asked.
Removing one thin arm from around her children, she threw back the
sheet to reveal what once used to be her legs. Anger like Malaki had not felt
in so long surged forward, his eyes shining. He gripped the frame of the
too-small bed, needing something to ground himself, to slake the fury.
“I tried to escape with them,” she explained, fingers rubbing the
deformed, constricted legs as if willing them to move again. Not a single
bone was straight. “I was given a choice. My legs…or my children.”
“I can carry you,” Malaki said, his voice a hollow plea.
She shook her head. “I will not put myself before them.” She smoothed
out the pale, blonde curls from the little one’s face.
“We can get you help,” he pushed, knowing exactly what she was about
to ask of him.
“There is nothing else in the world I can give them besides this,” she
cried softly. A stream of tears formed a clean path down her dirt-covered
face. “A chance to live.”
Malaki could not stand to look at her anymore. He dropped his head, the
lip of his hood hiding his eyes. He said a silent prayer of thanks for being
the one to find her and not Isolde. But that relief was short-lived as she said,
“Do not pity me. The ones in the dungeons have suffered far greater than
A slight shuffle to his left drew Malaki’s attention. Cillian stood before
him. A child was in each arm and one clinging around his neck. Three
women stood behind him, their arms full with more children. All were
mangled or injured in some way. He looked past them to the bodies that
remained in their barracks.
To bodies that did not move…and never would again.
He turned back to the woman. Her face was now smooth as she looked
at her children still asleep beside her. “They will hurt you,” Malaki rasped.
“Not in any way they haven’t already.” Her fingers grazed her baby’s
face, her touch feather soft.
“They will kill you,” he pressed.
She chuckled softly, her lips brushing the infant’s warm, sunken cheek
for the last time. “If only they would be so kind.”

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