Authors: Eden Ashley
is a work of fiction Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used factiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Eden Ashley
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover art: Nathalia Suellen
Silver Buds, vine-like creatures adorned with brilliant blue-green blossoms, flourished only in the shadows of Golden Mountain. Passive until disturbed, Silver Buds possessed a constrictive nature that proved extremely valuable in restraining prisoners. Hair trigger sensors covered the surface of the creatures’ skin. Detecting the slightest movement, their thick bodies would tighten like ropes, setting razor-sharp edges deeper into the flesh of the bonded. Imprisoned in their grasp for months, Rhane no longer had the strength to struggle. All feeling had left his arms some time ago. But whenever the guides yanked his limp body up from the floor, the Silver Buds still tightened mercilessly.
Only three parts of his body did not radiate with pain. The last three toes on his right foot. Everything else was bruised, bloodied, or broken. Enough blood silver pumped through Rhane’s system to make him bleed like a mortal. Healing was damn near impossible. He was pretty certain he couldn’t have mended a paper cut.
Each day, he was transported from prison bowels up to surface caverns and delivered to dealers. Dealers were the few remaining kin in Golden Mountain not of royal lineage. Assigned to carry out Rhane’s sentencing, they meted out punishment with a finesse that gave testament to centuries of practice. Their enthusiasm made Rhane wonder if there had ever been a prisoner strong enough to survive their brutality for so long. But even he was barely surviving.
Nothing compared to the sting of bane silver slicing through skin and muscle. The wounds healed slowly, bled almost non-stop, and skewered obscene amounts of pain through his body as the element leeched into various organs and poisoned his blood.
Lying on the freezing dirt floor of his cell, Rhane tried to breathe as little as possible. Every breath was torture, agony that lasted beyond the rise and fall of his chest. He didn’t dare close his eyes. That put him back in the chamber…in the dark…underwater…with river serpents swimming all around. Trapped. Submerged. Drowning.
Rhane took a breath, winced with the effort. He had not seen night or day in months, but guessed it was near dusk. Dusk made sense traditionally. The torment lasted for many hours, until sunrise. But went beyond that if he lost consciousness, because then inflictions were suspended until he awakened.
Rhane tensed. Dealers. Their movements were more disciplined than clockwork. Already barely keeping his eyes open, he knew it was going to be a long session. The last time had been so severe. Now came the hour to start again. To receive the judgment his leaders had mandated.
They had killed his people and blamed Kalista, sentenced her to death. Back then Rhane upheld her innocence. The woman he knew could have never committed such an act of betrayal. To keep her safe, he’d used Banewolf to destroy an entire legion of his own kin. His actions deserved retribution. He didn’t challenge that. And he could endure it. Lashings with spiked whips laced in blood silver. The strokes of Bellefuron. Beatings that went beyond broken bones and loss of consciousness. Starvation. Sensory deprivation.
But the chamber…
The chamber brought him to the brink.
The Primes would have returned a sentence of death, but executing an immortal was a useless endeavor. So, they stacked his sentence against the lives he’d taken. When he suffered enough to kill a mortal or revived after drowning in the chamber, a name was struck from the judgment. But hundreds of names comprised that list. Rhane’s punishment would continue for a very long time.
The Primes were not free from blame. They were responsible for the plot that ended with the massacre of the entire civilian class of Warekin. Generations old and young had been slaughtered in a single afternoon. Their foundation was gone forever.
Centuries ago, Primes had bargained with Rogues to spill innocent blood. Months ago, they made a deal with Rogues to take Warren, knowing Rhane wouldn’t let the boy die. Not like Rhaven. Rhane had returned to them.
Anger. He felt it constantly, always simmering at the back of his mind. Whenever he thought of his son, that anger bubbled to a violent boil. Spreading through his chest. Threatening to take over. Trying to calm it, he took a deep breath, and almost screamed from the pain that burst through his shattered ribcage. But Rhane had to stay calm. He couldn’t give in to rage. He couldn’t give in to the bane wolf. Not yet.
He had to speak to Jehsi.
Jehsi. A Prime. His father. The man who had stood before the village and claimed the outcast as his own. The man who bucked tradition and gave up his throne to live in ostracism with a son other royals refused to accept. He had been the first to fight for Rhane. He had been the first to love the little boy who did not know love could exist for him. If not for Jehsi, Rhane would have died long before the bane wolf chose him.
He only had to hold on a little longer. Jehsi would come.
It was too bad dealers had to come first.
The manor was rebuilt, returned to every bit of its former rustic glory. All rooms stood as they had before rogues had ripped the kin’s world in two. Before the explosion. Before the fire. Before Warren was taken. Before Ander made the greatest sacrifice a soldier could make. Every wall in place, each tile and wooden floorboard set. But there was one area in which construction was not yet complete.
Instead of having his room repaired with the rest, York decided to let the carpentry be his own pet project. He said it was something to pass the time, to occupy him while Kalista and the younger kin were at school. In actuality, York couldn’t sleep. When the others retired for the night, cozy and dead to the world for seven or more hours, he lay awake, unable to capture the peace only sleep could bring. So York filled his nights insulating and plastering walls, hammering nails, and installing hardwood floors. The work kept his hands busy.
The labor was also a reprieve. Whenever the manor quieted, York’s mind was consumed with thoughts of revenge, wanting to rip out throats and drink blood spilled from the guilty. After a hard night’s work, he stretched his tired body onto a large cot situated in the far corner of the room and lay with quieter thoughts.
York did wonder if Rhane were ever coming back. He was gone, and had been for a long time. Of course, Rhane was Banewolf and couldn’t be killed, but if the circumstances were right, he could be held—possibly forever. York thought of Gabriel, the former vessel of the immortal wolf. After having the bane wolf ripped from his body, Gabriel had been paralyzed from head to toe, unable to move or speak. And for nearly a thousand years, he had remained thus imprisoned. The thought of the same thing being done to Rhane triggered a profoundly distressing state of mind in York.
Taking one final drag on the custom cigarette pinched between his lips, he snuffed it in an ashtray next to the cot. Yeah, it was a filthy habit. But hell, it was a lot better than going on a killing spree.
Three hours later, sunlight blasted through his curtain-less window, and York rolled out of bed to begin the ceremony of yet another day. Kali, Rion, and Orrin were already downstairs eating waffles and cereal. With Rhane gone, there was no one around to do any fancy five-star cooking. Continental breakfast and take-out dinner had been the routine for several months now.
York retrieved the multi-colored dodecahedron from the breakfast table and leaned against the counter. Rion looked up from his laptop and cereal bowl, eyeing him dubiously. “You know that thing has, like, a billion combinations, right?”
York grunted. “I’ve got time.”
“You’ve been working at it for months.”
“Some things take a little more effort to solve.” He stuck his tongue out in concentration as he twisted the colored blocks one way and then the next. “I’m making progress.”
“Right,” Rion scoffed, turning his attention back to the computer.
Matthias, quietly perched in a position as far away from Orrin as possible, slid off the barstool and edged closer to York. “I don’t understand. What’s so fascinating about these blocks of color? And why isn’t there pizza for breakfast?”
“Pizza is for dinner, kid.” York spared a glance from the puzzle. He remembered when the kindred had first come to them, ass-naked, dirty and wild. It was remarkable, the transformation Matthias had made. Living full-time in the manor had no doubt helped speed up the transition from weird troll-boy to civilized but still weird teenager. “And this block of colors is called a dodecahedron. It’s a brain teaser.”
“Brain teaser?” Matthias arched both eyebrows.
“Yes. It’s a puzzle. You play with it until you figure it out.” York winked. “Makes you smarter.”
Matthias reached for the puzzle. “May I try?”
York moved out of reach. “Get your own. This is therapy.” He took a seat at the table across from Kali. She nodded a greeting and smiled, but the expression never reached her eyes anymore.
“How ya feeling today, kiddo?” Kali was the only person he worried about more than Rhane. She met his gaze without blinking. “I’m fine.”
Rhane’s departure had taken the expected toll on the girl…and then some. At first, there was only anger. Kali nurtured a fierce hatred for all parties involved in War’s kidnapping—Primes, Builders, and Rogues. She loathed each race equally. Anger slowly became acceptance. Months passed. A new year came. And it was well beyond the time Rhane had promised to return. So her acceptance morphed into fear that was followed by a deep sadness. Once, she sat in a darkened room for days without taking food or water. Nor did she feed on life forms.
Strangely, Kali also never cried. Instead of tears, there were rainstorms. The subsequent and unending downpour brought flashfloods to the entire county of Aiken. York had seriously considered investing in a boat.
They tried everything. Nothing worked. Bailen’s typically calming aura did not have its usual effect. Even Callan, under all of the kin’s watchful eyes, had attempted to pull her from the pit of misery. He’d failed, as York predicted he would.
At the end of the week, Kali snapped out of it. She left the room, and everyone could see she was different. She stood taller. Her small jaw was set. The youthful light of innocence was replaced by a determined glint in her eye that York wasn’t sure he trusted.
From then on, she studied and trained harder than he thought possible. On the sparring field she dealt as much punishment, and sometimes more, as she took. Nearly a year later, her hand to hand combat still needed some work. But in knife or sword play, Kali had become a force to be reckoned with. She’d surpassed the skill of the younger kin, possibly matching York’s own. And as for school, she was far ahead in her studies, set for early graduation within the month.
Still considering Kali, York put the puzzle aside. “You’re fine. Right.” Sighing, he snagged the cereal and began eating straight from the box. It was only half full anyway. “So, what’s on the agenda for today?”
“I’ve got a few more exams to take at school. The rest of the week will be an early dismissal because I’ve already finished the coursework for last block, AP English.”
York lifted his eyebrows. Early dismissal put Kali on a seriously different schedule than Rion and Matthias. Not that her safety was as big of a concern as it was the previous year. Rhane and Ian had eliminated the rogue hive. And with the kindred, Gabriel, and his reapers all keeping their oaths to protect her, York was pretty sure Kali was safe wherever she went. But still…
“Do I need to pick you up?”
She shook her head too quickly. “No. I can wait on the boys. I’ve got a lot more prepping to do for the Calculus exit exam next week. I only want to take that sucker once.”
“Maybe you should slow down. Don’t be in such a hurry to leave it all behind. You only get to be a kid once.” He winced, wishing he could take the words back as soon as they left his mouth.
Kali smiled humorlessly. “I’ve been forcibly reincarnated well over a dozen times. So maybe I’m the exception to that particular rule.”
“Right. Sorry.” York sighed and smiled apologetically, hoping to placate her. But Kali wasn’t done.
“I can’t stand being trapped here, suffering through another second of another lecture when all I want to do is find him.”
“Rhane said he’d be back. He’s coming back.” The emptiness of those words tasted bitter on his tongue as he said them.
“If Rhane could be back…if he was okay, he would be here.” Her hand tensed around the spoon. “You know it. I know it.”
York swallowed the thick lump lodged in his throat. Rion watched carefully from across the table. Orrin’s stare drilled into him from across the granite bar. Lying still at Kali’s feet until this point, even Bailen’s ears had perked. Yielding to the pressure of all that was unspoken, York nodded slowly.
Kali closed her eyes, relieved and maybe a little surprised he had actually agreed. “We’re going to need a plan,” she said carefully.
While he and Kali talked, Matthias had steadily crept toward the kitchen table. York noticed him reaching for the dodecahedron from the corner of his eye and quickly snagged the puzzle out of reach.
“Finish school. Then we’ll talk strategy.” He leaned back into the chair. “It’s gonna have to be a damn good one.”