In an instant, my entire body was on alert. I stopped breathing for several moments just so I could home in on the location of the sound of the broken twig. The bugs stopped chirping. The lone owl in the trees that had been my constant companion for what seemed like days ceased its incessant low hooting. I slipped my hand down to my waist in silence, circling my fingers around the handle of my dagger. The familiar leather grip slid against my skin and my muscles tensed at the ready.
I closed my eyes, listening for the crinkle of a stray footstep on a dry leaf or the snap of a dry branch, but for several moments I heard nothing. Hendrik and Zoltar, who had been sleeping by my side, were just as quiet, their breathing no longer heavy and regular with the dredges of sleep. None of us had made a move yet, but we all knew that we were no longer alone. The two men had been with me for close to ten years now. Initially, I’d hired them as protective detail, but they’d stayed with me long after my coin had run out.
They were like brothers to me now.
Another stray footstep. Whoever these men were, they were clearly not trained in stealth. Not like me. Every footstep mattered. Every breath. Every trace I left behind.
It was the only way I’d kept myself alive all these years.
Cursed blood. Witch. Monster. Daughter of the devil. Demon sorceress.
Never human. Never just a girl who was supposed to inherit a kingdom. All because I was unfortunate enough to have been born on a day when the sun went dark and a ring of fire was the only light cast down onto the land.
It didn’t matter. I could tell them that I was human, but they would never believe me. That never stopped the blades coming at my throat so that they could claim the bounty on my head.
The intruders were closer this time, approaching us from the back. I didn’t move a muscle, not wanting to give any indication that I was awake or aware of their presence, not yet. Instead, I readied myself by opening my eyes to narrow slits and letting my vision grow accustomed to the enveloping darkness. Our fire had long been put out. We were close to town, so we’d only risked a fire long enough to cook a leg of venison to feed our hungry bellies. I was used to sleeping in the cold.
One of the men grunted behind us and I took a deep quiet breath, calling on all the power of my limbs as I leapt up and twisted back. There was a man only feet from me, and his face distorted with surprise at my sudden motion. His shoulder pulled back in alarm and I drove my dagger upward. He dodged the blade at the last second, very narrowly avoiding my knife slicing across his throat.
I didn’t recognize him, but I usually didn’t know those that came after me. I thought I had been careful. I’d worn a disguise when we’d had to go to the market for supplies. I’d always kept my hood up to hide my face and I tucked my long braid inside it. I’d done everything to appear just like any other person that lived in Dungannon. Somehow, I’d been found out anyway.
I lunged forward, edging my blade ever closer to the bandit. He was roughed up and he looked like he hadn’t shaved or trimmed his scraggly beard in months. His dark eyes were cold and unforgiving. He’d already made a judgment about me, just like all the rest.
He only saw one thing, a monster that needed killing. Beside me, my bodyguards had already started holding off several more men that had streamed into our campsite. I didn’t let myself get distracted by their efforts though. It would only take a moment for me to look the wrong way to end up with the pointy end of a blade sunk deep into my heart.
I fought with the experience of one thousand fights while he parried with the clumsiness of a man who had only picked up a sword at the call of someone else once or twice in his life. He lunged toward me, bringing his sword arm down too hard and committing his momentum forward. He stumbled and I took advantage. I dodged his sword easily and leapt to my other foot, spinning out to the right, and using the force of my own motion to thrust my body up into the air.
I swung my arm around and brought my dagger down, slamming it into the crux of his shoulder without hesitation. I kept my blade sharp, and it slid through his flesh like butter. He yelled out with pained surprise as I yanked it back out and retreated several steps, wanting to get out of reaching distance in case he flailed.
He roared and slapped his hand to his throat, but that wouldn’t do much good. I’d sunk my blade in deep and it was already bleeding profusely. He gritted his teeth and coughed, sputtering blood all over his chin. I must have punctured something important, and I reveled a little in victory. His expression turned a little dazed, but he made no sign that he was giving up. I knew it was simply a matter of time now. I just had to play it smart.
“You filthy witch. You’re going to pay for that,” he spat. He coughed and more blood spattered down his chin. I kept light on my feet, deftly evading his sloppy lunges toward me. The tip of his blade was rusted, catching the moonlight just so to reveal the dullness of the edge. He grunted and gripped at his shoulder, but his face was starting to lose color. With each passing moment, his cheeks turned paler, and his dark eyes glinted with glassy agony. He staggered back and forth before making a final stand against me.
His chin lifted and he let go of his wound to grip his sword handle with both hands. He used every bit of his strength to swing that heavy blade, but it was sloppy, and he committed too much to the effort. I sidestepped and moved in underneath his sword. He had no recourse against me this close, nor did he expect it. It was already too late for him when he tried to throw his weight backward so that he could grab at me.
I threw my elbow out, slicing the edge of my dagger across his throat. A thin line of red appeared and his eyes widened in shock. He gurgled something, probably another wasteful insult before his eyes went blank and he slumped to the ground. His hand gripped at my shoe, but then it loosened as his last breath rattled from his lungs.
It used to bother me, seeing a man die, but that was a long time ago.
I remember the shock that followed the first time that I sank my blade into a man’s throat. I remember the inability to move and the soul-crushing regret that came with killing someone, but my hand had been forced time and time again since I was a young girl.
Now it was just a part of life.
Wake up. Defend myself. Sleep. Eat. Hide.
I sometimes wondered if it was all worth it.
With a heavy sigh, I kicked his hand off my foot and turned my head to take stock of Hendrik and Zoltar. They were both locked in battle with two big grisly men and my eyes scanned our surroundings for any sign of others. The sounds of men locked in battle were loud and I crouched down, ready to fight in case either of them turned my way.
The glint of silver caught my eyes and I rolled to the side just in time to avoid a well-placed arrow that would have caught me in the shoulder.
I had learned to fight simply to survive. I had to be perfect. Anything less than that would mean death.
I threw my body in the opposite direction as soon as I heard the swish of another arrow cutting through the air. I grasped a small knife from my belt and threw it where I’d seen the silver glint. A pained grunt indicated that my throw had met its mark. I had three more throwing knives tied to my belt and I slipped another one into my fingers. I wasn’t certain where exactly I’d hit the attacker, but from the ragged breathing coming from the bushes, it was either serious or it really hurt.
Honestly, either was good.
My eyes searched around me. There was a fallen tree only a few feet away and I dove to hide behind it just in time to dodge another arrow. It clunked into the wood, narrowly missing my head by inches. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, listening for the snap of the bow and the thunk of the arrow. I measured the cadence between arrows and waited until the opportune moment to leap up and throw another knife.
This time, no more arrows followed.
I spun out of my hiding place. The burly man fighting with Hendrik was so focused on him that he didn’t notice me sneaking up behind him. Hendrik gave no indication that he noticed me either, but we’d fought together for a long time. He directed the man toward me, step by step until he was only feet from me.
Using the power in my legs, I burst up and leapt on top of his back. The man shrieked in surprise. I would have laughed at the sound, but I was too busy dragging the edge of my blade across his throat to take the time. In combination with my efforts, Hendrik took advantage of the man’s distraction to sink the brunt of his sword directly into the man’s chest.
His breath rushed out of his lungs, and he staggered back several steps. I pushed off his shoulders and landed on the ground with a resounding jolt. Hendrik slammed his heel into the man’s chest and pulled his sword free. The warm feeling of blood spattered across my face. I grimaced, the metallic scent of it assaulting my senses. The man dropped to the ground, and he didn’t get up again. Knowing time was of the essence, Hendrik and I rushed to Zoltar’s side, but his eye twitched at our presence.
He hated when we intervened.
“Come on, Zoltar. I’ve already taken one down and helped Hendrik with his,” I called out and his mouth twitched both in annoyance and pride. He always fought harder when he knew I was watching. He liked proving his strength. It was kind of cute actually.
“Why are you defending this bitch? She’s going to be our ruin,” the last man roared and Zoltar made him pay for his words by plunging his sword deep into the man’s belly when the opportunity presented itself.
“Because I can!” he roared, and he tore his blade out with savage force. I didn’t look, but the wet sound of the man’s guts hitting the ground was disgustingly loud. I smirked as Zoltar turned to face me.
“Took you long enough,” I teased.
“I just wanted to show off a bit,” he countered, but I could tell that his mood was light. The corner of his lips turned up just the slightest bit. There was a glimmer of amusement in his gaze. He was doing his best to hide it, but I knew him well enough to see it.
“Sure. Likely story,” I mumbled, winking in his direction.
“You saw my moment of glory, didn’t you?” he gloated.
I chuckled, taking a moment to study the carnage. The ground was wet in the places the men had bled.
“Should we hide the corpses this time?” With a sigh, I wiped my dagger free of blood on the man’s dirty cotton pants closest to me before I tucked it into the scabbard on my waist.
“Does it really matter? Maybe fewer will come when they hear that the Witch of the Red Sun murdered four men in her sleep,” Hendrik spat. He’d never given much credence to the warnings about me. He didn’t much believe in magic or fate or inherent evil.
“Let’s just leave them. The longer we spend here in this place, the more danger you’ll be in,” Zoltar grunted. He kicked one of the men onto his back and started rifling through his pockets. The rest of us did the same, taking whatever was of value and leaving everything else. The one that attacked me had a large sack of coin which I very gladly pocketed, as well as several knives and daggers.
It was time to go.
We didn’t waste any time in covering up our tracks. We just moved. The three of us rushed into the woods under the cover of darkness. The path we chose wasn’t heavily used, and we did our best not to leave any obvious traces that would indicate the direction of our journey.
After about an hour or so, we came across a farm that was very much asleep. Behind it, there were several horses out grazing in the paddock. Hendrik motioned for us to wait, and he went off and quietly opened the gate. When he gave the signal, Zoltar and I followed. A dappled gray mare approached me, and I reached out, running my fingers along her nose. She nuzzled against me.
“Hi, there. It’s nice to meet you,” I whispered. She neighed quietly and shook her head. I grasped her mane and pulled myself up onto her back. My thighs squeezed her gently and she stepped side to side almost as if she was suddenly ready to tear off into the wind.
“Easy, girl,” I said in a hushed voice. I ran my fingers up and down her neck. She calmed down right away. I’d always had a knack with animals, and they’d always seemed drawn to me. The hungry and the injured flocked to me and I did anything I could to help them.
I looked off into the woods, seeking any sign that someone might be following.
“Let’s make haste toward Dalhurst. If we make good time, we could hit the outskirts by morning,” Hendrik thought out loud.
“We keep off the main roads,” Zoltar added, and he kicked his horse just enough to spur it into motion. I followed and Hendrik maneuvered behind me so that I was protected between them. Without another word, the three of us careened off into the night.
“Fucking Unseelie bastard.”
I always heard them on the side of the road as I passed by, no matter how hushed they tried to keep their voices. I turned my head, just catching the man’s gaze with mine. He staggered back in fear and quickly swept his cold stare to the ground.
It had been a long time since their insults bothered me and it was easier to ignore them in the end. My existence had always been deeply misunderstood because I was different.
I wasn’t human like them.
I used to be a very long time ago, but through the use of magic I’d been changed forever. To them, I was nothing short of a monster.
I was a Dark Fae.
Long ago, my kind had had a purpose. Rising populations of monsters had threatened the elves, humans, dwarfs, and all manner of living creature that inhabited these lands. In a great consortium of power, the mages council had started to experiment and the result of that was the first of both the Light and Dark Fae.
For a long time, we were celebrated as saviors. Light and Dark Fae were stronger, more agile, and were highly successful in the hunting and elimination of monsters. Our senses were keener. Our reaction times were much faster than our human counterparts. Our bodies were far sturdier by a long shot. Fae were also especially resistant to extreme temperatures, dehydration, or hunger, healed remarkably quickly, and we could move in silence with incredible ease—all skills that made hunting monsters well within our wheelhouse.
For years, we were accepted in the community, but soon enough, we’d served our purpose. The monster population eventually started to come back down. Dark Fae migrated to the north while Light Fae traveled down to the south in order to find solitude and peace with our own. In our absence though, humankind began to speculate as to our intentions. They thought we were coming together to build an army against them, to take over their lands, their kingdoms, and everything that was theirs.
Fear is contagious. All it took was for a single spark of misinformation to spread before it turned into an uncontrollable wildfire. It built and built until it exploded.
I was there the day that the human world descended on the Dark Fae keep.
They attacked with such hatred and loathing. Fae can be very strong, but we were massively outnumbered. We didn’t stand a chance against them.
I remembered watching my brethren succumb, overwhelmed by more than twenty to a man. We held our ground, but we all knew that it was simply a matter of time. About two dozen of us slipped out the hidden passages beneath the keep before it was all destroyed. I was one of them.
That was five hundred years ago. I knew my brothers still walked the land, but they all lived like me. I hunted monsters and the scourge of the land for coin. My kind had learned to live with the humans in a way that allowed us to survive. We were a dwindling population. I wasn’t certain quite how many were left, but I did run into them from time to time. Occasionally, a few of us would gather in what was left of the keep to regroup and heal from a life like ours. I grinned, thinking back to the last time Igor almost set himself on fire after drinking too much ale.
His eyebrows never grew back quite right after that.
I didn’t stay in any one place for very long. Humans or elves or all other manner of creatures did not appreciate when I stayed anywhere for more than a few days, so I learned not to push my luck.
With a sigh, I approached the city gates and pushed down my hood. I heard several men and women gasp with fear, but none of them approached me. They usually didn’t. Sometimes, a few of them would decide to fight me and I would defend myself, but only up to a point. If there was an opportunity, I would always step away from a fight before it went too far. There was no need for pointless death just to prove a point.
I also didn’t need to put my life in danger unnecessarily. Killing humans had a habit of doing just that.
I was strong and I was very hard to kill, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t die. Most blades could not pierce my skin, but those made of iron could certainly end my life if they were to slice across my throat. It didn’t help that it wasn’t exactly a secret that a Fae’s weakness was iron.
I kept to myself. It was easier that way.
The guard at the gate nodded as I dropped my hood. City officials generally turned the other way when I walked into town. As long as I didn’t cause any problems, they wouldn’t bother me. It was an uneasy alliance, but a dependable one.
My dark hair shone under the sun, inky black with a hint of violet. My skin was on the paler side, but it was my eyes that generally gave me away. They were bright purple, somewhere between lavender and violet with flecks of pale blue and silver.
There was no hiding what I was.
I had stopped trying long ago. Now I simply tried to coexist with humans as best as I could. I took care of the werewolves or cruxars or whatever manner of monster plagued their lands in exchange for money. My position in the world was always quite precarious, but that made things interesting from time to time. No day was ever the same.
“The lord is expecting you, Unseelie,” the guard spat. He turned up his nose as best he could. It was silly, really; he couldn’t look down on me as I was a good six inches taller than him. He lifted his chin so high I could practically see right up his nostrils.
“I know. House at the top of the hill, right?” I replied.
He glared back at me with disgust. “It’s not a house. It’s Dalhurst castle,” he corrected me.
“Right. Right. Dalhurst castle,” I replied flatly. I said nothing more to him as I strode down the road. He called after me with some sort of insult, but I ignored him and continued on.
I coexisted with humans. That didn’t mean that I kissed their asses.
The road was muddy and uneven from the constant cut of a thousand wagon wheels. There were boot prints everywhere. I stomped along, not really caring about stepping in the filth. There were several men and women groaning on the side of the street. Many of them appeared to be sick and I crinkled my nose, catching the ripe smell of vomit on the breeze. I studied the faces of the sick, seeing pale, jaundiced cheeks and a yellow tint to their eyes. There wasn’t anything I could do for the likes of them. I wasn’t a healer. I turned away and walked on past them.
I kept to myself all the way to the castle or really, the sorry excuse for a castle at the top of the hill. An estate at best, maybe.
The entire building was only three stories tall. It was made of stone and brick, but parts of it were crumbling and in desperate need of repair. There was one spire and a balcony that could have held a guard some time ago. Studying it now though, it looked like it would fall right off under nothing more than the weight of a child. Honestly, if a bird landed on the wrong spot, it would probably topple to the ground.
I knew that the lord who ruled over this small area was an older man driven to acts of lunacy from time to time. He ruled over the serfs who farmed on his land. They ate and drank solely based on his will. At one point, he abolished the color orange for whatever reason and even went so far as to publicly lash anyone found with a single item that had even a speck of that color. Oranges hadn’t been sold in this place for decades.
Sometimes he was prone to fits and had some of the most ridiculous prejudices I’d ever heard of, one of them being that women should only be allowed outside under the light of the moon.
Honestly, I don’t know how he’d gotten this far in life without finding a knife in his back.
Truthfully, I hoped that if he ever did find himself in such unfortunate circumstances, it would be a woman that did it.
I chuckled to myself at the thought.
I generally avoided men like him for the most part, but I hadn’t picked up a lucrative contract in quite some time and he’d asked for me specifically with an offer I couldn’t refuse. I needed to buy a new set of armor, sharpen my dulled swords, and I needed buy more ingredients to make the elixirs and potions required to fight whatever monster I came across.
An unprepared Fae was a dead Fae.
I grumbled to myself as I approached the door. I was already regretting my decision to come here, and I had a feeling I was only going to be even sorrier by the time the day was done. With a heavy sigh, I reached for the knocker and banged it against the door three times.
Eventually, an older man answered the door. The hinges squeaked loudly, and I flinched, my hearing especially sensitive to such a high-pitched noise.
The man grunted in greeting. I glanced up and down the far outdated finery that covered his body. Twenty years ago, it might have cost someone an arm and a leg. The burgundy fabric was highly faded. Parts of it were threadbare and there were a number of holes worn through at the elbows and the knees. I said nothing and he stepped back and motioned for me to come inside.
I walked by him, and he shut the door behind me, sliding a massive wooden bolt into place. I looked around at the dusky place. There was a damp musty scent that was just strong enough to be irritating. I did my best to ignore it and carry on my way.
Bad smells didn’t really get to me, not generally. I’d spent more than my fair share of time hunting monsters in sewers to be that picky.
The attendant led me up two flights of stairs to the top level. Up here, things were cleaner, but only by a hair. The throne room consisted of a long hall with tapestries on either side. The windows were massive and let in an ample amount of light. Tattered curtains hung over them, a royal purple color, or at least I assumed they used to be at some point. Now they looked to be made of a thick layer of dust.
“Ahhh. Ansiel the Dark Fae at last, I presume,” a voice called out. My gaze centered in on the old man sitting on the oversized throne. It was quite pompous for a bloke who only owned a spread of land and still answered to the king of Griselheim. I raised an eyebrow at the elaborate steel crown on his head. It was intricately designed at the hands of a blacksmith, certainly, but it was no crown fit for a king.
“Lord Hidgar.” I bowed my head, feigning respect.
There was no reason to make waves with the man offering me the contract. Not for the amount of coin that would come with it.
“I’m certainly pleased to see that you answered my call,” he said pompously. “Welcome to my kingdom.” He waved his hand aside slowly, as if he was showing off the most glorious thing in the world. I groaned inwardly, but I did my best to look impressed. I couldn’t really stand the small talk. I was here for business. I could only fake my patience for so long.
“You said you have a monster problem,” I cut in before he could fish for any more compliments as to the grandeur of his lands. I stared at him more closely, studying his face beneath his long scraggly gray beard. His eyebrows were incredibly bushy, his eyes red and puffy. He had several long hairs sticking out of his nose and he breathed through his mouth with great effort. I could hear it clear across the room.
I sighed. What a bother.
I told myself the coin would be worth it. His letter had said nothing of the details of the monster he’d needed taken care of, just a number and a summons that he needed my help.
So, I’d come, and I got the sudden feeling that this would be a far bigger pain in the ass than I had originally thought.
“I do. It’s a pretty big problem,” he began. “Come. Have an ale with me. I have a cask of the good stuff.”
He grunted something and a younger boy dressed in rags came out of the shadows. He kept his head down as he gathered two pewter mugs and a big pitcher from a waiting tray.
“Can’t say no to a good stiff drink,” I grinned.
Maybe this whole thing would be easier with a bit of booze anyway. I walked across the room and joined the lord at a wooden table next to the windows. The boy poured us both an ale, passing the first to Lord Hidgar with a bow of the head and then to me. He didn’t dare look at me. The boy was skinny, but he looked pretty healthy. At least Lord Hidgar didn’t appear to be mistreating his staff.
“There’s a sickness that’s been plaguing the land. Crops are dying and food is scarce,” he began.
I sighed. Hopefully this wouldn’t just be a long list of superstitions. Sure, sometimes a plague started because a monster infected the water with its blood or its excretions or even with the unfortunate fall of its dead corpse. Katakanas were one such monster, hiding in the shadows, feeding on blood, and working through playing on the human emotion of fear through the use of magic. Such things didn’t work on a Fae, and I very much enjoyed putting my silver blade through the enormously oversized bats on occasion. They weren’t particularly hard to kill on their own, but as a group, things would sometimes get a little more interesting.
Hidgar hadn’t given me much to go on yet. I needed more information to be sure of the cause.
“Do the sick have black spots on their tongues?” I questioned. It was one of the biggest signs of a katakana infestation. If that symptom wasn’t present, then it was likely something else.
“No. Not that I know of.”
“What else can you tell me?” I pressed.
“I already know what type of monster you’re looking for,” he cut me off. I sighed.
Fat chance. But continue, false king.
He stood up and grabbed his drink off the table. He took a long draw and I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from hurrying him along. I covered up my grunt of irritation by taking another sip myself. The ale wasn’t the best I’d ever had, but it wasn’t terrible either. It was already the best thing about this whole annoying interaction.
I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could get back to my horse.
“The monster you’re looking for is the worst type of monster,” he started.
I already hated where this was going. I swallowed heavily and raised an eyebrow. I’d let him continue, but I already had a bad feeling about this, and it was just getting worse.
“The kind of monster you’re looking for is a woman. She is of the worst kind, pure evil born straight from hell. I want you to kill the Witch of the Red Sun, Layna. She is in my kingdom, and I want her gone,” he exclaimed, his tone entirely too serious.
I knew the tale of the witch, but I’d never given it any credence.
“That story is a myth,” I replied. It was a long-held superstition that women born during astronomical events were evil, and the ones born during an eclipse that showcased a red ring around the black sun were ones that were direct descendants of the devil.
There had been one such eclipse about twenty-five years ago.
Most female children born on that day had been killed. I’d heard stories of one or two that had gotten into their teenage years and only one about the Witch of the Red Sun. It was said that she cursed the land she walked on, that people died wherever she went, mostly by her own hand.
“It is not, Fae. She has been spotted not far from here. Killed four men not a week ago. Stole three horses and is camped out in the woods on the perimeter of my kingdom casting spells and dooming my people. The fields are wilting. Children are dying. People are getting sick. She needs to be dealt with immediately,” he preached.
Humans were invariably dumb when it came to superstition and delusion like this. They feared magic because they didn’t understand it. Witches, wizards, and mages could deal in magic, but there were limitations to what they could do. They could heal, they could grow, and they could use their skills in time of war.
There was absolutely no connection to the ability to deal in magic and being born during such an event. It was more than likely that this was just a woman who’d been dealt a hard hand and was just trying to survive all on her own.
“She is evil, Ansiel. My people and I will pay handsomely for her head,” he proclaimed.
There was nothing I could say that would change this man’s mind. The best thing I could do was to leave. I could kick myself for letting the prospect of a sack full of coin draw me into something like this.
“You’re going to have to find someone else for the job.”
I downed the rest of my ale and slammed the mug down on the table. I stood up and turned away, all while the old man bumbled something behind me about monsters and murders and the dangers that came with letting demons walk these lands.
“Come back here! I command it!” he yelled out.
“I am not your subject,” I growled.
I didn’t explain myself any further as I walked from the room.
I was in the business of killing monsters. I wouldn’t stoop to killing a woman just to soothe an old man’s superstitions. It didn’t matter how much coin was involved.
I wasn’t that kind of man.