Bree Paine wasn’t in chains, but she was a prisoner all the same. She rode beside Prince Taveon, the son of the King who ruled over the realm of the Dark Fae. The former King, actually. His death at the hands of her best friend was why Bree was in this predicament in the first place, though she’d be lying if she said she didn’t find this whole thing more exciting than terrifying.
“So, what exactly is it that you want me to do for you? Or are you not going to tell me?” Bree asked as she cast a sideways glance at the Prince who rode beside her. His face was angular, his jawline sharp and smooth at the same time. His skin faintly glowed, like the pale shimmer of a midnight moon, and his pointed ears cut through his long, thick strands of coal black hair.
If he wasn’t a dangerous, violent Dark Fae, he might be fairly good looking.
Okay, really good looking.
Prince Taveon kept his gaze focused on the path ahead instead of giving Bree even a momentary glance. “I shall be training you to fight for me.”
Bree frowned. “Okay, but for what?”
“It will all be revealed in time,” he merely said.
Bree rolled her eyes, but the Prince didn’t see. She had agreed to this whole thing in an exhilarating moment, plowing forward with the hope of saving the Light Fae’s realm—Otherworld—from the hands of the Dark Fae. But it was impossible not to wonder if she’d made a mistake, especially when Prince Taveon wouldn’t tell her a damn thing about what he had planned for her.
“Come on,” she said, tightening her grip on the horse’s reins. “You’ve got to give me something. At least tell me what’s going to happen when you have to tell everyone that King Midas is now dead.”
His frowned deepened. “Technically, the crown should go to me, but there may be some...disagreements about that. Some of my father’s aides were not too keen on me. If they have any suspicion at all that I helped Princess Norah escape...well, I cannot say how they will react. They can be vicious and cruel when they feel wronged.”
Princess Norah was Bree’s best friend and the future ruler of Otherworld. She’d been kidnapped by the Dark Fae and taken into their realm, but the Prince had helped her escape when he realized she didn’t possess the same kind of shapeshifting abilities that Bree did.
Bree was a Redcap, which meant she had the ability to change into a wolf-like beast, though it wasn’t a power she was particularly proud of. Redcaps often killed innocents. And that was something that Bree never wanted to do. Ever.
“You speak as though you’re nothing like them,” she couldn’t help but snark. He was, after all, the one who had originally kidnapped her friend, Norah, even if he had also been the one to bring her back. Bree had a sneaking suspicion he had only ‘rescued’ Norah because she couldn’t give him what he wanted.
Finally, he cut his eyes her way. “Just because I am letting you ride unchained, do not forget who you are speaking to. You are my servant from this moment on. You will do as I say, and you will show me respect. If you cause problems, I can always make things worse for you, and the rest of my kind would do nothing but cheer me on.”
Bree blinked and glanced away from the Prince’s face, grinding her teeth together. How dare he treat her this way? Especially when she was practically doing him a favor. She could have said no when he’d made his demands. She could have told him exactly where he could shove it. But she couldn’t have, not really. Prince Taveon had made his position very clear. Bree could go with him to the realm of the Dark Fae as a sign of good faith, as a sacrifice from Norah. Or his kind would invade Otherworld, enraged by the death of their King and desperate for blood. Lots and lots of blood. So much blood that the beautiful lands would drown in it.
Because Princess Norah? She’d been the one who had killed the King, making her and the rest of Otherworld ‘Enemy Number One’ in the eyes of the Dark Fae.
“Come on. Just tell me something. Anything.” Bree shot him a smile, hoping the expression would ease some of his strange gruffness. “The whole point of you wanting a Redcap like me is because you’re hoping we can come up with a way to end the Tithe, right? Once and for all.”
The Dark Fae and the Light Fae were bound together by a yearly Tithe. Every year, the Light Fae took human babes from the human realm, swapping them with their own fae children. The humans were corrupted by the magic of fae, and they were transformed into vicious beasts. Into Redcaps. The beasts were then sent back into the human world so the infection could spread through humanity like the deadly virus it was.
All because the Dark Fae needed the energy of humans to survive, and the Redcaps were their way of getting it. Every time another human got infected by the virus, the Dark Fae got another hit of life-force energy.
If the Dark Fae didn’t get that energy, every single one would die.
But Prince Taveon wanted to find a way to change things. Or at least that was what he’d said.
He stopped his horse suddenly, letting out a frustrated sigh. “If I explain things to you, will you stop pestering me? I prefer to spend my journeys in peace.”
She gave him a look. “Man, you’re fun, but okay. Sure. I’ll stop talking to you if you give me some answers.”
He cut his eyes her way, his entire body taut. “Very well then. Just remember that you insisted on hearing this now. I will not be telling anyone the truth about my father’s death, and you would be wise to follow my lead. The Court will be told that he fell from wounds inflicted by a Breking monster. One that was not controlled by Princess Norah. The Dark Fae will not invade as long as they do not know the truth about his death.”
A deep frown pulled down the corners of Bree’s lips. “Wait a minute. You told Norah that they’d invade unless you brought back a sacrifice. That they would see me as payment for what she did.”
His lips twitched, and he refused to meet her eyes. “If they know the truth, they will invade, sacrifice or not.”
Blood boiled in Bree’s veins as she stared hard at Taveon’s brutally handsome face. “So, you lied to me. You wanted me to come here with you, so you came up with a lie to get me here.”
“A slight twist of words and nothing more.”
Bree’s hands curled into fists, and her heartbeat slammed hard against her ribcage. How could he? She shook her head, mouth dropping open. “I trusted you. I truly thought you wanted to help our realm. But...” The blood drained from her face as a new horrible realization washed over her. “What else have you lied about? Do you actually even care about stopping the Tithe?”
“The Tithe is a concern, but it is not my first priority.” He tightened his grip around the horse’s reins. “My first priority is winning the Battle for the Crown and following in my father’s footsteps by sitting on his throne.”
“The Battle for the Crown?”
He gave a nod and flicked his reins, motioning his horse forward down the dirt path. “In our realm, we do not merely follow a normal succession for Kings. The eldest son has first claim, but any other fae with a claim may challenge it. Any male who wishes to do so will put forward a shapeshifter champion to fight in the Battle for the Crown.”
Bree’s heart stammered, and she understood at once. “You brought me here to be your champion. You don’t want to save Otherworld from an invasion, and you couldn’t care less about the human realm either. All you want is a stupid crown.”
Hate began to boil in her veins. Prince Taveon was far worse than she had thought. Tears pricked her eyes, and a strange kind of sadness battled with the anger. She’d left behind everything to come here. And she’d only done so because of a lie. She thought that she’d be helping Princess Norah and the Light Fae realm, and that she’d be helping humanity as well by finding a way to put an end to the Tithe.
“Do you even care about the Tithe?” Bree demanded. “Are you even going to try to stop it? What about the humans? They’re innocent in this.”
He let out a chuckle, and unease slithered along Bree’s skin. “Humans are far from innocent. When I have taken the crown, I will turn my attention to the Tithe but not for their benefit. For ours. No more going through the Light Fae to get our energy. Now, you will be the hand that draws our energy. You will go into the human realm and do the deed yourself.”
Bree opened her mouth to argue, to plead, to anything. This could not be happening. She had voluntarily given up her freedom. For this? To be turned into a monster. To spread the virus. To act as a vessel of violence and death.
She would not do it. She would not become that kind of monster for them.
“Halt.” Prince Taveon pulled on his reins and stopped short on the path, throwing out his hand toward Bree. Frowning, she followed suit, watching as he gazed around at their surroundings. Ravens soared through the skies above and silence rained down on their heads. Nothing and yet everything about it looked wrong to her. The moon hung high above, one that was so large that it seemed to take up the entirety of the sky. Stars sparkled, though they were dimmed by the brilliance of the moon. And everything around them—the grass, the trees, the river streaming by—was all doused in a silvery blue light.
It was beautiful but also strange. Bree had never seen anything like it, not during her childhood in the human realm and not during the past few months she had spent in the realm of the Light Fae.
“Are you able to transform into the beast on command?” Prince Taveon asked in a low voice that was laced with a dangerous kind of dread that make Bree’s bones begin to quake. Something was wrong.
“Sometimes,” she said in a whisper. “Not always though. I’m still working on it.”
He gave a nod. “If you transform, will you go wild or will Bree still be in that beastly brain of yours?”
“I’m not fully in control. Not yet.”
“Then, we cannot risk it,” he said, swinging his leg over his horse and hopping down to the ground in one fluid movement. “Get down and stay behind me. We have been spotted by the Wilde Fae, and they will be coming for us.”
Bree felt the blood drain from her face, and her heart began to tremble in her chest for the first time since agreeing to go on this strange adventure. “The Wilde Fae? But I thought they were an Otherworld thing?”
“They are an Otherworld thing, and they are an Underworld thing as well.” He cut a sharp look in Bree’s direction. “Now, get down off that horse and stay behind me.”
Bree followed his orders, if only because she didn’t know what else to do. Hate still churned in her stomach, and the betrayal of Prince Taveon still hung heavy between them. But she couldn’t think about that right now, not when the Wilde Fae were coming for them. Her fingers itched for a sword. Even a dagger would be better than being empty-handed.
“Give me a weapon,” she said, not even attempting to keep her voice “respectful” as the Prince had ordered earlier. Now was not the time for that kind of thing, and all his lies had quickly caused Bree to lose any ounce of respect she might have felt. Not that she’d felt much of any before. “I trained at Otherworld Academy with Alwyn Adair for a little while. She taught me how to use a blade.”
He arched an eyebrow, clearly surprised. “For how long?”
“A few months.”
He grunted his response. “A few months is nothing.”
Still, he pulled a dagger from the strap around his left thigh and tossed it her way. She caught the hilt just before the sharp edge of the blade hit her shoulder. And then she narrowed her eyes.
“I’m not going to be much use to you if you kill me on the first day,” she said in a snap, whirling the hilt around so that the blade was now pointed away.
“If you hadn’t caught it, it wouldn’t have killed you. You would have had a wound, one that would have healed easily enough.” He stiffened as he twisted toward the nearby forest, his eyes scanning the luminescent greenery. “Get ready, Redcap.”
Prince Taveon gave the horses a quick pat on the backside before turning toward the cluster of trees once again. The animals set off with a start, galloping down the path away from them. Interesting that he would even bother, Bree thought to herself. The Dark Fae didn’t seem like the kind of beings to particularly care about any creatures other than themselves. Sometimes, the Light Fae even referred to them as demons. Plus, there was that whole feeding on the energy of humans thing.
But Bree didn’t have long to think about the actions of her new master. The sound of heavy footsteps broke through the quiet night, and the crash of limbs crackled like gunshots. Bree bent her knees and braced herself for whatever would come next, and she tried to clamp down the fear that had sent her heart racing.
At least a dozen Wilde Fae broke through the trees. They screamed in rage as they barrelled straight toward the two travellers. Their eyes were wild and tinged in red, and their sharp teeth glinted underneath the brilliant moonlight. Bree swallowed hard and tightened her grip around the golden hilt. How would the two of them take on so many Wilde Fae?
As they drew closer, Bree scanned the group. They were bigger than Prince Taveon. Almost twice as tall and wider, thicker, more muscular. Their faces were gnarled and twisted, large bulbous noses and scars on every cheek. As they stormed toward the two of them, their long, stringy hair streamed out behind them, highlighting the yellowish sheen to their skin.
“They look like orcs,” Bree muttered as she took a step closer to the Prince.
“What are orcs?” he asked.
Bree rolled her eyes. “Nevermind.”
Sometimes, she forgot where she was: a world where no one had read Lord of the Rings. Fairy tales were not stories here. They were real.
“Take on the smaller ones. I’ll focus on the rest.”
Prince Taveon raised his sword and charged toward the Wilde Fae. Bree’s breath got caught in her throat as she watched him run straight into the heart of the storm. The smaller ones? As far as Bree could tell, none of these creatures were particularly small. Still, she raised her dagger and followed Prince Taveon, and the next few moments became nothing but the clash of steel.
As Bree entered the fray, she came face to face with a female who—in her eyes—was practically a giant. Bree swallowed hard and tipped back her head to stare up at the fae. Her hair was bone white, and her teeth were yellow. She hissed and slashed a blood-caked dagger at Bree’s head, and the entire world around Bree began to slow.
Bree’s powers were limited, but they were still there. The heightened sense of smell and hearing had never come to her, not like they had for Norah. She couldn’t control the elements of her season because she didn’t have one. She’d become a fae, but she hadn’t become an Autumn, a Summer, a Spring, or a Fall. Instead, she was just Bree. Bree with her beastly shapeshifting form. But with that form came a few perks.
For one, she could move impossibly fast, though she had never been certain whether she was actually spinning like a whirlwind or whether the world was slowing down when she moved. Probably, it was the former.
The Wilde Fae’s blade moved toward her head as if it was dragging its way through a thick tub of molasses. Bree ducked down, twisting her own blade and aiming it right at the fae’s stomach. Because that was about as high as Bree could manage to get it.
The Wilde Fae screamed when her dagger missed its mark, and then she screamed even louder when Bree’s weapon sunk deep into her flesh. Bree gritted her teeth as a dark sticky blood poured from the wound. She hated blood, though there was a deep dark part of her—the beast—that craved it.
The light died from the fae’s eyes, and Bree pulled the dagger from her body just in time to block a blow from another attacker. This time, she faced off against a male. And he was even bigger than the female and a hell of a lot faster. Bree ducked. Again and again as he swung wildly at her neck. She didn’t even get a second to blink, his attack so frenzied and ferocious.
The beast within her grumbled, as if slowly waking from an endless slumber. Her teeth began to ache, and her stomach clenched tight. Even though she’d taken the Starlight cure that allowed her to control the beast, it was still awake inside of her. She carried it around with her wherever she went, and it lusted for the sweet taste of fresh blood and flesh. It wanted her to let go. It wanted her to transform and slash these fae to pieces with her long and jagged claws.
Bree swallowed hard and blinked those thoughts away. And then she jumped as high as she could before stabbing the fae right in the throat. He fell within an instant, vacant eyes staring up at a raven-filled sky.
When she turned, she found the rest of the Wilde Fae had fallen. Along with the Prince, who was sprawled across the ground with gooey blood caked on his luminous face.
She strode toward him, anger and fear churning through her. He looked so different like this. Almost small and broken, even though she knew he was nothing of the sort. He was dangerous, conniving, and violent. He wanted to use her for his own gain, not for the help of others. He had lied to her to get her here, and he wanted her to become his vessel of murder.
“You know I could stab you right now and go straight back home,” Bree said as she stood over Prince Taveon.
“You could but you will not.” He smiled up at her with a kind of smug superiority Bree wanted to smack right off his face.
“You think you know me, but you don’t,” she snapped. “You’ve never even spoken to me until today, and barely at that. You think you own me now, but in truth, I could do anything I wanted to you right this second. And no one would ever know.”
“I know you, Bree Paine,” he murmured up at her. “You are fierce and loyal and stubborn. You are also weak. You could kill me now and go back, but you will not.”
Bree continued to stand over him, her blood boiling. She hated that he thought he knew her. And she hated that he was right about everything. Almost everything, at least. She would not become a slave to this cruel fae. She would not kill for him. She would not lose every last shred of humanity she had left.
“You’re the only one who knows that Princess Norah killed the King.” She raised her weapon. “Otherworld will never be safe as long as you’re alive.”
And with that, she made her last kill.