The Darkness: Purity teaser

The sun was still setting; a violet haze still lingered on the horizon, streaking the clouds rainbow hues. It was beautiful, despite the faint sting on his flesh; he had forgotten just how much he once enjoyed simply sitting outside and watching the last dredges of daylight struggle against the night. It was poetry in nature.

A twig snapped beneath his perch, and he squinted through the cover of leaves to see three people trudging through the dense forest beneath him. Two strigoi morţi, famished but well rested, dragging a limp figure through the dry grass and fallen leaves of autumn.

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Lessons: Purity teaser

Jezebel Baudelaire was gasping for air, scratching at the sleeve of his coat with desperate fingers. Fane’s glare sharpened and he pressed his arm harder into her throat. He was tempted for a moment to be like Vanessa, when she was showing him the ropes of hand-to-hand fighting several centuries before, and coolly ask upon pinning the opponent, “So, what have we learned?”

Instead, he leaned closer to her, and she tried to buck him off by jerking violently. Fane stayed firmly planted atop her, legs on either side of her body. “Have you had enough yet?” he hissed. Somewhere behind him, he could hear the vârcolaci and strigoi morţi engaging in battle.

Satan only knew if Caitlyn had gone.

The vârcolac beneath him couldn’t answer, not while the life was being choked out of her.

“Get out of Auvergne, Miss Baudelaire,” he said, formality itself. “Return Estelle Moreau her son, and leave the pack be. I will not hesitate to kill you.”

He eased up on her throat, and a huge gust of air inflated her lungs as she finally managed to catch her breath. Gasping and panting, she glared at him and whispered, “You… won’t win. Heinrich… has too many… supporters.”

“Heinrich may have strong support, but I have greater allies. We shall see how this battle of wits plays out in the end.”

Leaning over her face as he was, Fane was suddenly very strongly reminded of several points in his childhood when he and his brother would wrestle for fun. Mircea, being older and bigger, always ended up pinning Fane, and leaned over him in this exact way, slowly drooling spit until Fane would call for their mother.

He smiled slightly at the memory. Baudelaire saw and her eyes widened, misunderstanding. She thrashed wildly beneath him, determined to free herself. Fane pressed his weight on her, and she gave up after a few moments. Her chest heaved with the effort of dragging in breaths, and she was still pawing weakly at his arm.

Fane sighed and moved his free hand. He reached into his coat and calmly removed the revolver. Pulling the hammer back with a click, he pressed the barrel into her temple, and she immediately froze.

“Return Master Moreau to his mother and leave Auvergne, and I will spare your life. This is your only chance, Miss Baudelaire, and the only mercy I shall ever show you.”

There was only a brief hesitation and flash of indecision in her dark eyes before she shoved him off. He let her and stood, watching her closely as she gasped and rubbed her neck.

“The kid’s in those trees there,” she croaked, pointing to a copse nearby. “He’s not hurt.” Turning away and crawling to her feet, she waved a hand. “Hey! It’s time to get out of here!”

The fighting ceased almost immediately.

“What?” A German voice—Manfred Gottschalk, unless Fane was mistaken—rose up in the darkness. “Where are we going?”

“Home.” Baudelaire limped toward her group, eyes cast down.

Fane kept the gun aimed at her, silent.

“Baden-Württemberg?”

Baudelaire’s mouth twitched. “Baden-Württemberg. Auvergne isn’t about to be swayed to join Heinrich. Let’s go.”

Fane watched as the rebels abandoned their fights and trudged toward their leader. The night was filled with the crunch of breaking bones for several long seconds, then a large pack of wolves stood on the ground before Fane. One—judging by the ash brown fur, Jezebel Baudelaire—glared up at him, and he nodded once, and lowered the gun. In silence, they turned toward the north, toward France’s far border with Germany, and began to run.

Fane waited until they were shadows. “Estelle Moreau’s child is in that copse. We are going home as well, and may this business with Heinrich Abendroth be finished.”

He turned and began striding back toward Le Vallon. In the distance, he could see Vanessa’s recognizable figure heading toward him, leading the third and final prisoner. A bubble of hatred popped inside him as he neared them; renewed disgust for Alfred Blade and everything he stood for.

Vanessa was near Joan Gwyther and Caitlyn now, who were watching in stunned silence, a large rifle on the grass before them.

“My lord,” Vanessa said, pushing forward the final prisoner. “What do you want to do with him?”

In one fluid movement, Fane lifted the gun and pulled the trigger. A sick splat as the bullet ripped through the prisoner’s forehead, and a thud as his body jerked in Vanessa’s arms; Fane barely heard any of it. His mind was elsewhere.

Vanessa dropped the corpse, looking disgusted, but Fane ignored it and pushed past her. Keeping his emotions under control, he said flatly, “Burn the body,” and, leaving the others behind, he slipped into the darkness around Le Vallon.

Battle Plans: Purity teaser

He opened a drawer of the desk and flipped through a hefty stack of maps until he found one of Germany. He set it flat on the desk with two paperweights. “We will go to this area, here,” he said, gesturing to part of the map. “Not many human settlements, and it is only a dozen or so miles from the Danube. Those who do not wish to fight the battle will remain in the castle, to guard it against vârcolaci scouts. The rest will join us in Germany. Have we any solid number of Heinrich’s followers?”

“A few hundred at most, and not all are based in Germany. He’ll probably call them all together now that there’s been a battle.”

“Hm. Send out the message, then. Any European or Asian strigoi morţi or loyal vârcolaci who wish to participate are hereby welcomed to Castle Dracula to be armed and prepared for war. Inform General Fernandez and Lieutenant Romanov of the plan, and no one else. We cannot risk this news leaking. Do you hear me, Belial?”

“Aye-aye, Captain.”

“Have the guards continue treating Madam Gwyther as they have, with enough blood to keep her alive. Break her will, if necessary. If she knows of the plan, she may betray us yet again.”

“Abendroth will kill her the second he finds out it’s a trap.”

“Sacrifices must be made. If we can spare her life, all the better. She certainly has her uses. If the plan is in jeopardy, we will have someone spying in the area, downwind of the vârcolaci, who can end Madam Gwyther before our cover can be spoiled. Do we know any dryads in the area?”

“None we’re friendly with.”

“Figures. Then whomever is sent as her potential executioner must have as little scent a possible. Choose someone with discretion, and have them feed several hours before the plan is set in motion. Soak their clothes in sap and mud if you believe it will help.”

Vanessa nodded and rolled up the map. “Any idea when you want this to happen?”

“Give it a fortnight at the most. Heinrich will likely launch his own attack before then, but he must also collect reinforcements.”

“And recover from a nasty bullet wound.”

Fane almost smiled. “Oh, yes, that as well. What a delightful advantage. Then we have more time. Send word to our munitions contact as well. We will need more firepower.”

“Sure thing.” Vanessa scooped up her coat and backed toward the door. “Anything else?”

“That will be all, for now. Oh, and remind me to get on better terms with dryads and nymphs and pixies and fairies, and all those little nuisances.”

Vanessa chuckled and stepped into the hallway. “I’ll get right on it.”

“Thank you. One more thing,” he added just before she could carry out her orders, “do the tengu still owe us a favour?”

“No, your father called it a long time ago.”

“Damn.”

“Anything else?” she said again, almost grinning. Her irritation about Caitlyn and anxiety over the ghost of Mircea were vanished, overcome by her lust for war.

Fane considered it for a moment. The strigoi morţi still had running favours with other societies of demons they didn’t often converse with, but he didn’t want to call on them just yet. A vârcolaci rebellion he could handle with those loyal to him. One never knows when one might need the help of shinigami, harpies, encantados, or tokoloshes.

“No. That is all. Thank you, Vanessa.”

She nodded. “Think about what I’ve said.” And she walked away.

Old Friends: Purity teaser

“I do not want to kill you, Heinrich,” he breathed. His hair was tousled around his shoulder, spilling over Heinrich’s wet snout. The wolf was panting heavily from their short battle. The hot dog breath made Fane wrinkle his nose, and he could feel the ribs moving beneath him as the lungs made an effort to breathe.

Heinrich growled. Fane didn’t understand what he was trying to say.

They remained that way, trapped on the forest floor as the strigoi morţi and vârcolaci around them slashed and snarled at each other. An echoing boom made the trees shake and the reek of gunpowder suddenly tore through the cool calm of rain.

Distracted, Fane glanced up. The movement tore at the scratches on his chest, and he inhaled sharply against the pain. Before he could look around to see who had fired the gun—honestly, the fight had only just started—Heinrich snarled and kicked him off.

Fane tumbled back and rolled down a slight slope, coming to rest at the base of a large evergreen. Woozy, he pushed off the leaves and onto his fingers and toes, squinting through the dark.

Heinrich stalked toward him, tail swishing in the dirt. His lips pulled back from his long, filthy teeth as a low growl issued up from his throat.

Fane stared, waiting.

Saliva dripped from the fangs. Deadly teeth in a powerful jaw, ready to snap. Sharp claws, already proved to draw blood even from a vampires. Heavy yet agile. Fane was almost intimidated. Werewolves were worthy foes.

Or at least, Heinrich Abendroth was a worthy foe.

Just as the wolf was about to pounce again, Fane lunged and grappled him to the ground. The rain was picking up, washing the dirt and blood from flesh and fur. Heavy, muscled legs thrashed out, slicing claws in all directions. Fane snarled and rolled to the side to grab Heinrich’s flailing legs; the wolf’s filthy, matted fur pressed into the open wounds on Fane’s chest, making the jagged edges sting.

Heinrich wriggled away and snapped his drooling fangs at his opponent. Pain blossomed in Fane’s shoulder; thick blood pooled down his flesh and ruined shirt.

He had not been bested in a true fight in years, not since the 1970s, when he had been briefly killed by his father’s former friend, mind lost.

He leaped forward, batting Heinrich’s sharp claws and bloodstained maw out of the way. The wolf roared, but Fane dodged his next attack by feigning to the left, and leaped at his object of desire: his black frock coat, cast so carelessly on the leafy carpet, soaked by the waterfall of raindrops. In one quick motion, he bent and swiped up his coat, unearthed his revolver, clicked back the hammer, and aimed it at the approaching vârcolac.

Heinrich stopped.

“Silver alloy ammunition, Heinrich,” he hissed.

All around them, the strigoi morţi and vârcolaci still fought with snarls and awry gunshots, oblivious to their leaders’ halt. Rain soaked his hair, his shirt, watering down the coagulated blood on his chest and shoulder and sending it in thin rivulets down his stiff body.

The wolf stared at him, tail swishing over the damp leaves.

“Take one more step toward me and it shall be your last. That is a promise, Heinrich. You know I do not make empty promises.”

Cowardice: Purity teaser

Crispin Kramer would not be one to call himself a coward. But when he had seen Evangeline Moreau picking wildflowers a few kilometres away from Le Vallon, prickly fear had instantly overwhelmed him.

That fear had turned into outright panic when Belle Baudelaire leaned in close to his hear and whispered, “Why not kill her, Crispin? Write a message in her blood. Heinrich would be proud.”

He didn’t want to tell her what he thought. He was sure Heinrich already doubted him, and sent him as the leader of the revolt in Auvergne to test his loyalties. Heinrich Abendroth was no fool. Crispin figured he was a genius, but of the unhinged, unstable variety.

Outright panic turned into sweaty palms and shallow breaths when Samantha Boulanger and Genji Lee captured Moreau with ease and brought her to the rebels.

When that goddamned harlot Baudelaire circled him with that dark gaze on him, silently taunted him. When Ivan Petrov and his wife, Katarzyna, cooed taunts in English and Russian, prodding their prisoner and scratching her unmarked skin.

And when he felt a hand slide slowly up his back and curl over his shoulder, and when he felt breath touch his face when Belle murmured, “Kill her, Crispin. Show the Arsenaults just who they’re dealing with.”

He couldn’t bear to look at Moreau. He could hear her stifled cries, her desperate pleas in a choked mixture of English and French. And when she struggled against her captors, Regina Carter had viciously slapped her, hard enough to shut her up and make Manfred Gottschalk grunt something about how pitiful the Arsenaults truly were.

Standing still, unable to move or speak, Crispin had done nothing when the aptly named Jezebel Baudelaire slithered up to him and lightly touched his cheek, grazing his skin with her pointed nails.

“You can’t do it?” she had purred, giving him a particular pouting look that every man—even Heinrich Abendroth—melt and become a doting puppy to her every whim. “Too bad.”

And sweaty palms, shallow breaths, terror at what in the hell he was doing—it all became an indifferent haze when Belle ruthlessly kicked down Evangeline Moreau and crushed her skull with a single well-aimed stomp.

While everyone else hooted and laughed at the grotesque execution, Crispin had been the only one to spot Evangeline’s husband, Claude, near a copse of trees in the near distance.

He had witnessed the entire thing.

Belle spotted him next. Crispin, along with Samantha, Regina, Katarzyna, Ivan, and Iris Santos, waited at their makeshift camp as the others—Belle, Manfred, Genji, and Alex Hanson—stalked up to the panic-stricken Claude in hopes of giving him the same ending as his wife.

But while Manfred managed to cut Moreau’s chest, he escaped.

And now, after waiting until day broke to launch the official attack on Le Vallon, Crispin sat on a hill overlooking the town, watching as the nine under his command shrieked and shouted and destroyed everything they could.

War Triage: Changeling teaser

The wounds were gruesome. One man was peppered with arrows; the shafts protruded from him like the spines of a porcupine. I had my doubts that he would survive, but kept quiet as the oldest squire led me around the makeshift triage. Burns were by far the most common injury. Men with fifty percent or more of their body covered in deep-tissue burns were already separated to their own section, just inside the treeline; those with a better chance of survival were kept with men with nonfatal stab wounds or slashes. I kept my face carefully composed as I surveyed the injuries. Burns from fire, ice, and electricity: they were all painful to look at, and most of those with terrible patches had already been sedated with, from what I could tell by watching one squire dole out a measure to a soldier, obscene amounts of opium.

The squire, a comely lad of about seventeen or so, peered up at me with desperate, round eyes as he finished leading me around the hospital. “Well, mum? What d’you think?”

I sighed and began to roll up the sleeves of my homespun tunic. “Separate magical wounds from tangible, and those with lesser severity from those who are on death’s door,” I ordered, pushing my wet hair from my cheeks. “Have some of the younger squires with little medical training to help the men with few, nonfatal wounds; we might be able to put them back on the battle right away if need be. Nonfatal magical wounds, there is little we can do right now—”

“Sorry, mum, but one of the men, he said you was from the mountains?”

I exhaled shortly and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Yes. I am. But I am reserving my skills for those with dreadful wounds, both magical and tangible. Nonfatal wounds are not delightful, certainly, but they will at least be survived. I will need as many hands helping me as possible, until Lord Hession returns from the battle to assist. Fetch some of the more capable squires.”

The boy nodded and hurried away to do my bidding, leaving me to make some quick decisions regarding the lives of several Nallisian and Syllian soldiers. The one drenched with arrows would have to be put down to keep him from suffering too much longer; none of us would be able to keep up with the demands of so many separate wounds. A few of the men with burns didn’t have much of a chance; neither did the one with no obvious external injuries save for an ashen pallor that made it clear he had been partially devoured by revenants.

“All right, let’s get down to it,” I muttered, and brought to my fingers a healing ward. I crouched beside the man with arrows and lightly touched his shoulder. “I am so sorry.”

He smiled weakly; blood stained the corners of his mouth, and his breathing was gurgled and laboured. “I died serving my king, Lady Healer. Make it quick.”

War Council: Changeling teaser

It was the second hour of the meeting when Alistair’s presence was finally acknowledged. Yes, he was there because his father had died and he was the new Nallisian monarch, but the only official ceremony he needed was a coronation, especially during a war. They could have managed the meeting just fine without him.

“Now we can send more help to Syllan!” the Lounian ambassador shouted, louder than those around him with a thick accent. “Montfort and Loun are no longer threatened by such danger as—”

“You trust the end of that blockade?” someone else shrieked. “It was a pirate—”

Quite abruptly, one of the ambassadors—Alistair had no idea where from—stood from his seat and slammed his hands on the tabletop. The room fell quiet, and the air around him crackled with suppressed fury. Lips pressed in a thin line, he pointed an accusing finger at the row of thrones and snarled, “Let him explain the goings-on of the embargo! Should we be concerned that Nallis will secede from the Kingdoms and make a partnership with the foulest land in Cyril?”

Alistair kept from rolling his eyes at the melodrama. Other voices rose up in protest, accusing him of joining hands with a pirate and selling the soul of Nallis; the ambassador lowered his hand, smiled smugly, and returned to his seat.

Queen Ailith cleared her throat and stood. It took a moment, but the anger of the crowd went from a bubbling froth to a simmer, waiting for a chance to explode again. Once it was relatively quiet, Ailith gestured to Alistair and said, voice echoing off the hall’s stone walls, “Before we accuse anyone, we will allow them to speak. King Alistair, will you explain to us why Captain Vincent Henson is claiming you and he are allied?”

With a sigh, Alistair stood and rested his hands on the railing before the thrones. First act of public speaking as king, and it was to explain his actions like a naughty child.

“I am certain many of you were here the last time I attended a war council, when Vincent Henson sent the allied cryonics here with an offer to stand down. I said then, and will reiterate now, that I spent time in his company during my captivity in the Gabal Mountains, and I know that he has the mind of a businessman. Offer him a suitable enticement, and he would end the blockade; offer him slightly more, and he would help us. He does not run on loyalties like we do; rather, he gives his help to the one who pays him the best.

“My opinions at that war council were scoffed at,” he added, remembering the day with distaste. “And it seemed you all decided to leave Montfort and Loun’s coastline to the fate handed to it by Vincent Henson. I returned to Syllan with my father, and the war continued as it had before, with no alterations despite our attempts in this chamber.

“Over a month ago, on the Syllan front, I received news that my father had been killed in an ambush in Galenor. My brother passed away last fall, leaving me heir to Nallis, and king I became after my father’s death. My first act as king was to send a letter to Captain Henson’s blockade, requesting his presence in Syllan. He obliged and left the embargo in the care of his right hand, Saeed Hartir.

“I offered him exactly what he wanted to hear, and what we should have done, as allies,” he emphasized, glaring down at the dignitaries gazing up at him in silence, “when the idea was first brought to us. I offered him a monetary sum and the removal of his outlawry in Nallis; in return, he ended the blockade and agreed to attack the coast of the Wynd. For as long as there is money left in our agreement, Canton and Nallis are allies.

“So yes, it is true what you have heard. I have made a contract with the pirate king of Canton, and thus ended the blockade of Loun, stopped the destruction of Montfort, given Syllan an opportunity to actually win a battle against the barbarians, and found a way to distract the Wynders and help the Galish loyalists recover and turn the tide of war in their favour. I have no intention on seceding from the Southern Kingdoms, and as for Canton being the foulest land in Cyril”—He shrugged, anger reaching a peak—“I can certainly think of worse places. Have any of you ever been to the Necropolis, or the unclaimed territories?”

The silence met his ears with a painful ringing, and he backed away from the railing, satisfied that he had made his point. With a frustrated snort, he sat back in the throne and crossed his arms, feeling rather like a petulant child.

Ailith gave him a long stare, face carefully composed to hide her thoughts, then stood once more and faced the council. “King Alistair has given his reasons as to his alliance with Captain Henson. We shall not discuss it now. This meeting shall be adjourned until further notice. Thank you all for joining us today.”

Alistair stood and bowed to her before the first ambassadors began to file from the room. “I appreciate your hospitality, Your Majesty,” he said, just loud enough that the others in the room could overhear if they so desired, “but I would rather not join another war council until after my coronation. My duties lay in Syllan—for now.”

Those sparkling green eyes remained on him for a moment, unblinking and impassive. Then a smile crossed her features and she held out a hand. Alistair took it and kissed the back. “I understand, King Alistair, and I thank you for gracing us with your presence for today, at least. You will send my regards to your sister?”

“Of course, my lady. She will be delighted to hear from you.” He bowed again, murmured meaningless farewells to the other monarchs, and left the chambers through the rear entrance.

He didn’t hesitate a moment when he returned to his borrowed chambers. Changing quickly into riding gear, he packed away the few supplies he brought with him, added extra food and drink, and collected his escorts before hurrying to the stables.

Maybe Aisling was right; maybe he could ease Nallis out of Helmene’s grip, and bring in a new age of independence with his magical inheritance.

But for now, he was just going to focus on staying alive and beating the barbarians in Syllan. Royal business could wait.