Authors: Coreene Callahan
Also by Coreene Callahan
Fury of Fire
Fury of Ice
Fury of Seduction
Fury of Desire
Circle of Seven Series
Warriors of the Realm Series
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Coreene Callahan
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Anne Cain
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014903957
And then, there was you—I’m so glad I got to take this journey with you and that you finally found your happily ever after.
GREY KEEP: AL PACII STRONGHOLD—AD 1331
Halál bolted upright in bed, a shout locked in the back of his throat. Gasping, he clawed at his bare chest, then looked down to see the damage. No blood. No gaping wound. No mark at all. Disbelief slithered in, coiling with ominous intent. Lucifer be merciful. It had felt so real. So bloody
—the slash, the pain, the warm trickle of his own blood. Pressing one hand over his heart, he fisted the other in the blanket. Rough wool scraped his palm as he sucked in another lungful of air. It didn’t help. He couldn’t catch his breath. Or think straight. Not while vivid imagery swirled inside his head and . . .
A tremor rumbled through him.
Damnation. A drea
m . . .
It had shifted into something dangerous. Something darker. Drifting toward something he could no longer identify.
Another shiver rattled down his spine. Gaze riveted to the timber beam ceiling, Halál fell back onto one elbow. His bones creaked. Muscles stiff with age groaned in protest as his forearm sank into the feather mattress. Sweat beading on his chest, he shifted focus and scanned the room. Rough stone walls. Heavy wood door with the iron lock engaged. A dying fire hissed in the widemouthed hearth. The familiar arrangement grounded him. Still in the heart of night. Still safe inside his own room. Still surrounded by strength and the walls of Grey Keep.
No need to be alarmed.
Halál frowned, knowing that wasn’t true. There was much to fear. Even more reason to be cautious. The return of his dream said it all. More than he wanted to acknowledge. And yet, he couldn’t let it go, never mind exorcise the demons. Ignoring the latest version of the nightmare wouldn’t be wise considering what it signale
d . . .
Change on an infinite scale.
Not a good sign. His sleep visions were never wrong.
Unease swirled through him, ratcheting his tension up another notch. Halál snarled softly in disdain. Be damned, he didn’t want change. He liked the status quo along with his current mission as leader of the Al Pacii nation: Abduct more strong boys. Fill the Al Pacii ranks. Train the most promising until Grey Keep teemed with warrior assassins and Halál’s stranglehold on Transylvania tightened. Power. Glory. His coffers full of the European kings’ coin and entire nations kneeling at his feet. The ultimate test of his prowess as a warlord—invincibility in the minds of his prey. He would be untouchable.
A harbinger of death. Revered and feared by one and all.
Halál huffed, enjoying the symmetry. ’Twas a worthy goal. Something to be proud of, but only if he succeeded—an outcome he began to question more with each passing day. And especially after tonight. Devil take him, the drea
m . . .
It taunted him without end, showing him snippets but not the details. Every time he went to sleep, he received another piece of the puzzle. Morsels of information. Tonight, the visual riddle had ended with his chest being torn wide open. The who, when, and why, however, evaded him. How would it come to pass? With a blade held by one of his assassins? A sneak attack? An uprising among the Al Pacii ranks to overthrow him?
All good questions. None of which he could answer.
A pity in more ways than one.
Distraction from his primary goal wasn’t an option. Not with The Seven—a group of former Al Pacii assassins—breathing down his neck. The crafty bastards stalked him like a pack of wolves: killing his men, interrupting supply lines, stealing potential Al Pacii inductees before the boys could reach Grey Keep. Releasing his grip on the blanket, Halál shook his head. So cunning. So skilled. Far too reckless and brutal. Henrik and his cohorts would never relent. Or bow to his comman
d . . .
ever again. Halál knew that now. The reality of it made regret rise. ’Twas a double-damned travesty.
Particularly since The Seven’s prowess would be missed.
With a sigh, he flipped the covers back and swung his legs over the side of the bed. As his bare feet touched down on cold stone, he gripped the mattress edge and stared across the chamber into the fireplace beyond. Flames burning low, orange embers glowed like cats’ eyes in the gloom. From the size of the coals, he knew it was well past midnight. The wee hours—where the darkness was blackest and night’s menace thickest.
His favorite time of all.
Taking a deep breath, he allowed his eyes to drift closed and listened. The wind moaned, the rush low and pitiful as it pushed past mountain peaks to reach the great walls surrounding Grey Keep. A perilous hiss played a soft accompaniment. Halál glanced to the right. His gaze narrowed on the cage sitting on a table across the room. Hinges squeaked as the steel door swung wider. His heart picked up a beat. And then another, slamming against the inside of his breastbone, making his temples throb. Each movement slow and measured, he turned toward the table an
d . .
The door to the viper’s enclosure stood wide open.
His mouth curved. Exhilaration followed, drowning caution beneath a wave of satisfaction. Such a superb turn of events. An interesting twist wrapped up in a lethal game of hide-and-seek. Scanning the shadows, Halál pushed to his feet. He needed to be moving—able to shift quickly when the snake slithered into view. Cunning for her kind, Beauty enjoyed the hunt too much to ever back down. Or show an ounce of mercy. She would strike fast and sink her fangs deep instead. Leave him with little defense as she filled him with poison and left him for dead.
No doubt his adversary’s intention.
Beauty’s escape was no accident. Someone had unlocked and opened the cage door. Which meant one thing. One of his assassins sought to kill him. Slowly. With his own snake.
Halál hummed in appreciation. Pride surfaced along with the pleasure. Finally. At last. A worthy opponent. An assassin willing to use creative means to relieve him of command. ’Twas a good sign, one that gave him hope for Al Pacii’s future. He wouldn’t be around forever and the Order of Assassins needed a strong leader. A man willing to do what was necessary—like mastermind a power play to eliminate him, clearing the way for a change in the ranks. All without raising a blade against hi
m . . .
Or getting his hands dirty.
With a grace that belied his age, Halál shifted away from the bed. Bare feet brushing over the flagstone floor, he searched the shadows again: under tables and chairs, in each corner of the chamber. He caught sight of Beauty in his periphery. Black scales gliding across stone, she slithered under the bed behind him.
“My Beauty,” he whispered, preparing for the attack.
The viper’s tongue flicked out. She curled the forked tip, searching for his scent in the air, then drew it back in, and retreated on a smooth glide. Slithering into a coil, her horned head shifted to one side, as though preparing to strike, bu
t . . .
Beauty stayed still and silent instead, the orange glow of firelight reflecting in her eyes.
Halál frowned. Strange. Not like her at all. She should have struck by now.
“Come, lovely,” he said, coaxing her. “Be bold. Show me your secrets.”
“She has none left to give you.” The deep voice rolled into the room on a malevolent wave. The air thickened and warped, tumbling into smoky froth as a sinister presence filled the chamber. “I, on the other hand, have plenty to share.”
The inky intonation drove spikes into Halál’s skin. As the prickle deepened, his attention split. One eye on the viper, he pivoted toward the hearth. Fire roared, exploding from the opening. The flamed tongue licked into the room. Ravenous heat rolled into the chamber like venomous swill, filling his lungs so full he couldn’t breathe. Eyes watering, choking on the acrid smell, awareness struck. He recognized the scent. Had encountered it once befor
e . . .
years ago when he’d met the High Priestess of Orm and borne witness to her powerful spells.
Black magic. The calling card of evil incarnate.
“The dark one.” Halál coughed, fighting for each breath in the smoky air. “Prince of Shadows.”
“Very good, assassin.”
Stance set, physical discomfort fading, Halál raised his fists. “Show yourself.”
“Unafraid, human?” A menacing hiss spilled out of the fire. “Then I have chosen well.”
Inferno-like heat crept over the hearthstone and across the floor, billowing over the tops of his bare feet. Cinders stirred in the fireplace. Two footprints became visible in the coals. Halál took an involuntary step backward as the blaze twisted into a tornado and . . .
The silhouette of a man appeared in the flames.
Boots planted in the fiery pit, the beast opened his eyes. Twin irises the hue of orange flames, the dark one met his gaze. Shock hit Halál like a mailed fist, causing his muscles to clench as surprise settled into something more. Awe. Fascination. Glory and fear. The powerful emotions mingled, sharpening his senses. Intuition stirred, and the truth struck home. Strange as it seemed, the Prince of Shadows—god of the demon realm—wanted a word. Anticipation streaked through him, making his skin tingle. Halál drew a deep breath. Incredible. His night had just gone from mundane to extraordinary.
He had so many questions. Had been studying the occult for years. The bookshelves in his library, crammed full of texts on the subject, proved his obsession. Bowing his head, Halál forced his stiff muscles to bend. Pain tore at his knee joints. Ignoring the creak of his old bones, he knelt on the hard floor. “My lor
d . . .
The Prince of Shadows said nothing.
Without mercy, the silence expanded, beating against Halál’s temples. He frowned, wondering if he’d said the wrong thing. By all accounts, the dark one lacked patience along with any semblance of peace. Mayhap he shouldn’t be kneeling. Mayhap the malevolent force standing inside Grey Keep wanted him to fight instead. Mayhap he’d just ruined all chance of gaining the Prince of Shadows’ favor by—
“Come,” the dark one said, speaking to the snake as he stepped over the grate and out of the fireplace. His fiery feet touched down on the hearthstone. Power rolled into the chamber on a violent gust of wind. Halál flinched, heart thumping hard. The fire went out and smoke billowed, rising in a wave over the Prince of Shadows’ shoulders. Flame-orange gaze riveted to him, the dark one held out his hand, and with a flick of his fingertips, gestured to the viper coiled beneath Halál’s bed. “Come to me, Beauty.”
The viper obeyed.
Muscles rippling along her sleek sides, she slithered around Halál to reach the devil. Laying her head in his open palm, she accepted the dark one’s touch without coaxing, curling around his forearm, caressing his skin with her scales. The sign of affection rubbed Halál the wrong way. He clenched his teeth. Lucifer save him, the viper was his pet. His love. His to care for, not the devil’s. And yet, she’d betrayed him without a moment’s hesitation. Fisting his hands, he smothered his ire and smoothed his expression. Rebuking the Prince of Shadows was not the smart play to make. Not if he wanted to survive long enough to discover the reason behind his midnight visit.
The dark one stroked the underside of Beauty’s chin. “Jealous, assassin?”
“You come into my house and steal what is mine.” Refusing to show weakness, Halál squared his shoulders and looked the beast in the eye. “’Tis not jealousy I feel.”
“Rage, then.” Approval sparked in the deity’s eyes. “An excellent emotion.”
“If wielded properly.”
The dark one laughed. “True enough, Halál.”
“You know my name?”
“Of course. I know all about you.”
“Then you will understand Beauty’s importance to me.” Family. Comfort. The viper represented both. So nay, her theft—no matter the power of the perpetrator—couldn’t go unchallenged. Bones aching, Halál shifted his weight from one knee to the other, trying to alleviate the pressure. “I would like her returned.”
“Careful, human.” The Prince of Shadow bared his teeth on a snarl. Fire flared in response, roaring out of the hearth toward the ceiling. The large candles sitting on the mantelpiece melted. Wax spilled in rivulets over limestone, splattering the floor as the mantel grew black with soot. Petting the viper, the Prince of Shadows approached Halál, crossing the chamber on silent feet. The flames in his eyes grew wilder, cannibalizing his dark pupils. “Your temper does not impress me.”
“Be that as it may, my lord, I—”
“Call me Armand,” he said, stroking Beauty yet again. “And if you agree to my propositio
n . . .
A frisson of excitement shot through Halál.
“On your feet, assassin.”
Swallowing past the knot in his throat, he obeyed and, ignoring the pain, pushed to his feet. Armand stepped in close. Halál tensed, but remained unmoving, trying to guess his game. It didn’t help. His opponent gave nothing away. No sign of what he wanted. Even less of what he intended. Halál’s eyes narrowed. The dark one growled, and with a quickness that defied reason, grabbed him by the throat. Armand squeezed. Halál’s windpipe contracted under the pressure. Beauty hissed. Wrapping both hands around the deity’s wrist, he struggled to retreat. But as the call to self-preservation sparked in his mind, his body failed to obey. Immobilized by black magic, he stood helpless in the face of power.
With a hum, Armand tightened his grip. “Agree to serve me, assassin.”
Halál shook his head. “I am my own master.”
“Have it your way.”
Satisfaction in his fiery eyes, Armand murmured a command. Beauty rose, horned head angled with deadly intent. Halál moaned as her fangs sank into the side of his neck. The air left his lungs. Pleasure rose on an ecstasy-filled wave. He’d waited so lon
g . . .
too damned long to feel her fangs pierce his flesh. All the months spent in yearning, desperate to savor the bliss of her bite. And as she delivered her venom, delight took him to a place he’d never visited befor
e . . .