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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 25

MADE A NEW FRIEND

The acrid scent of cold-cut steel filled the air as I lifted a gloved hand and removed the loosened brick on the blacksmith’s shop. A slip of parchment passed through an intricate chain of supporters and spies had been tucked behind the loose block. It was unsigned and included only five words.

I’ve made a new friend.

My lips curled as I tucked the note into the interior pocket of my cloak. I’d destroy it later, leaving no trace of its existence. I made my way to the mouth of the alley, where puddles from the quick, drenching downpour formed narrow streams in the pitted cobblestones.

I quickly slipped in with the throng of people hurrying through the clogged streets at dusk, some heading home while others were just starting their days. There was a chill in the air, so many were cloaked like me. I blended in, unseen or forgotten the moment I passed another as I crossed the twisted, convoluted network of streets in the Lower Ward. There was always gloom in the shadows of the Rise, but even more so with thick clouds choking out the sun earlier and now the moon.

I took note of the white handkerchiefs tacked onto the doors of the squat, narrow houses—three of them. My jaw clenched, but I forced myself to keep going, telling myself that someone would answer the silent calls. I thought of what Jole had said about the Maiden and shook my head.

Cutting between two tarp-covered wagons, I crossed the street and was suddenly swallowed by the stench of slaughter and animals. One smelled the meatpacking district before they actually entered it. The rain did nothing to quell the scents. Many of the shops here didn’t close for the night, so the streets were just as filled with commoners and the unhoused.

Since I’d been here, the number of those without shelter had doubled, if not tripled. The Blood Crown did nothing for them, not even as the coldest months approached. In Atlantia, everyone who wanted a home had one. Providing for those who were unable to do so themselves for whatever reason wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible. Atlantia had always done it, even when we ruled the entire continent.

I skirted a vendor hawking smoked pork, reaching a tight lane between two smoke-stained warehouses. In the flickering yellow glow of the streetlamps as I headed for the side entrance to one of the buildings, I almost didn’t see the two small, young children—a boy and a girl. They couldn’t have seen more than their tenth year of life. Their faces were smudged with dirt, their bodies slender beneath their too-thin shirts and pants. They had managed to press themselves into an unused stoop, their eyes sunken, but they still watched those on the sidewalk with the wariness of an adult who’d seen war.

Gods, they were too young for this kind of life.

Slowing my steps, I pivoted and returned to the vendor, buying a package of pork.

One of the children leaned forward, using their body to shield the other as I approached. Were they siblings by blood or circumstance?

I knelt, keeping myself at arm’s length so I wouldn’t frighten them. Though all they saw was a cloaked and hooded figure in black, crouching before them, so I doubted much I did wouldn’t scare them.

“Here.” I extended the package. The one who’d leaned forward watched me with brown eyes. Behind him, the other child peered over his shoulder. “It’s yours.”

The boy looked at the package, hunger sparkling in his hollow features. He didn’t take the pork, though. I didn’t blame him. Nothing on the streets was given for free.

Except for tonight.

I placed the package by the child’s dirty boots, then saying no more, I rose and backed off. A second passed, and then the boy snatched up the package before disappearing into the shadows of the stoop. The pork was salty, likely tasted like shit, and not the healthiest, but it was better than an empty belly, and smarter than handing over coin, which would only make them a target. It was the best I could do.

For now.

Walking through the building’s side entrance, I entered the busy warehouse. Wooden crates thumped off tables, and sharpened cleavers sliced through bone and tissue. Heads rose as I strode between the tables, discarded parchment wrapping crinkling beneath my boots. There were a few smiles. No one said a word. They’d seen me before.

They could guess who I was.

At the back of the space, a large man I only knew as Mac sat on a stool by a closed door, head bald and apron stained with dried blood. He, too, said nothing, but he did nod. He knew who I was, and I knew exactly who he was. He was the unofficial leader of the Descenters here.

I pushed open the door. The hall was cramped with unused crates, and the sound of pigs rooting around in the outdoor pens silenced the sounds of the meatpacking floor. Two doors were at the end, and one led outside. I took the other to the right, going down a steep, unlit set of stairs that one without light or my vision would break their necks attempting to descend. There was one more door, and dull yellow light and cold air seeped out from the frame. Pushing it open, I entered the underground ice cellar packed with large blocks of the frozen water used to keep the slaughtered meat hanging from the rafters fresh for long enough it could be packaged on the floor above. The spot was cold and smelled like fresh kill, but what happened down here wasn’t heard above.

“About time,” I heard Kieran say as I walked between two slabs of hanging meat. “I think all my bits are about to freeze off.”

I snorted, knowing Kieran was fine. Wolven’s bodies ran hotter than any I knew. It would take a lot longer for these kinds of temps to do any real damage to him. I reached the pool of yellow light and found Kieran leaning against a bare wooden table, his arms crossed. He was dressed as I was, minus the hood. I left mine up. It had proven scarier that way. My attention shifted to the male slumped in the chair he was tied to.

“I’m pleased to introduce you to Lord Hale Devries,” Kieran announced, following my gaze. “He was arriving from Pensdurth,” he said, referencing the nearby port city. “But he is from Carsodonia, and according to all who had to listen to his insufferable boasting during the trip here, he is well connected to the Blood Crown.”

I smiled as I eyed the unconscious vampry. He was dark-haired and appeared somewhere in his second or third decade of life, but I’d bet he was a few decades older. “Gods, how I love a boaster.” We had Descenters in the Guard and among those escorting travelers among the cities. Not many, but enough that a few Ascended found their way down here. I prowled around the Lord, spotting a nasty bluish-purple bruise on his temple. “How long has he been out?”

“Since he was dumped here. Want me to wake him?”

“Sure.” I came to stand behind him.

Kieran pushed off the table and dipped below to where a bucket sat beneath it. He lifted a large ladle. Sending me a grin, he went to where the Ascended sat limply. “Wakey. Wakey,” he murmured, dumping a cup’s worth of icy water atop the Ascended’s head.

The vampry came awake with a gasp, shaking his head and sending drops of water spraying in every direction. “What the—?” Whatever the Lord had been about to say, it died a hundred deaths when he spotted Kieran standing in front of him.

“Hello.” Kieran tossed the ladle onto the table. “Did you have a nice nap?”

“Who…who are you?” the Lord demanded as he turned his head left and right, his body going rigid as he saw the slabs of hanging meat. “Where am I?”

“I think it should be obvious where you are.” Kieran’s face was devoid of emotion, but his eyes were a bright, luminous blue. “And you shouldn’t be concerned with me. You should be asking about the one behind you.”

The Lord’s head jerked to the side. “Who’s there—?”

Planting my hand on the top of his head, I stopped him. “I’m so glad to make your acquaintance, Lord Devries. I have a few questions for you that I do hope you can answer.”

“How dare you?” he sputtered.

I grinned as I pressed my gloved fingers into his head. “How dare I?”

“Do you know who I am?” the Lord demanded.

“I believe that’s been established,” Kieran stated.

“I doubt you understand—”

“Look at him when you speak,” I turned his head so he faced Kieran.

The Lord fought but lost. He ended up looking right at Kieran as he warned, “I’m a Lord, a member of the Royal Court, and you have made a grave mistake.” Devries spat on the floor. “Descenter.”

Kieran raised a brow.

“What is it you want that has driven you to make such poor choices?” Devries demanded in that annoying air of haughtiness all Ascended seemed to come equipped with. “Land? Coin?”

“We have no need of your coin,” Kieran said. “The land, though? Yes, but that will have to wait.”

I chuckled.

“You laugh now, but you risk the wrath of the gods,” Devries hissed, pushing his head against my grip as he tried to turn toward me. “You risk bringing the Crown down upon your head.”

I bent so I was close to his ear as I whispered, “Fuck the Crown.”

“Bold words from the coward who stands behind me,” the Lord snapped.

Grinning, I shoved his head and stepped back. He cursed as he and the chair toppled forward. Kieran caught him with a boot to the chest, and I prowled around him, setting the chair to rights.

“You stupid heathen. You will burn…” He trailed off as I came into view. Pitch-black eyes widened as he watched me stand in front of him.

“Do you know who I am?” I asked.

He took in the black cloak, the heavy hood that hid my features, and my gloved hands. That alone would not be of concern, but combined with the predicament he found himself in, it took no time for him to figure it out.

The Lord’s head snapped forward, and his lips peeled back over his teeth, all pretense vanishing in an instant as he bared sharpened canines. “Dark One.”

I bowed. “At your service.”

“Dramatic,” Kieran muttered.

Smiling, I straightened. “As I was saying before you had your little meet and greet, I have questions for you.”

“Fuck your questions,” he snapped. “You’re going to die.”

“Let me cut in here since it’s fucking cold and it stinks,” Kieran interjected. “You’re going to threaten us. We’re going to laugh. You’re going to swear you won’t answer our questions, but we’ll make you.”

The Lord’s head swiveled in the wolven’s direction.

“And right now, you think there’s no point in cooperating since you know you’re not walking out of here,” Kieran went on. “But what hasn’t sunk in yet is that there is a difference between dying and a very long, drawn-out, and painful death.”

Devries’ nostrils flared as his gaze darted between us.

“And if I have to stay down here longer than necessary? I can promise you will beg for death,” Kieran continued. “You have a choice.”

“He speaks the truth,” I said, my eyes narrowing on Devries. “I want to know where they’re keeping Prince Malik.”

“I know nothing about Prince Malik,” he growled, his arms flexing.

“But you told everyone on the journey here you were well connected with the Crown,” Kieran said.

Vamprys were strong—strong enough to break the ropes holding him in place.

I sighed. “He’s going to choose unwisely.”

The bindings snapped, and the vampry came out of the chair faster than a mortal could move.

But not faster than a wolven.

Kieran caught him by the shoulders, holding the vampry back. “Why do they always do this?” he asked as his chin dipped.

“Maybe they think it’s fun,” I mused.

“It’s not.” A growl rumbled up from Kieran’s chest as his nostrils flattened and the skin of his features thinned. The hand on the Ascended shoulders lengthened, the nails growing and sharpening, plunging deep into the vampry’s shoulder.

The Lord howled as Kieran clawed through flesh and muscle. He threw Devries to the cold, stone floor, sending him skidding back into a hunk of meat. “You’re a…” He gasped, clutching his mangled shoulder. “Wolven.”

“You can call me that.” Kieran inhaled deeply, reining himself back in. His skin filled out, his hand returning to its normal size. Blood and tissue dripped from his fingertips. “Or you can call me death. Whichever you’d prefer.”

I glanced at him. “Bet you’ve been waiting all day to say that.”

Kieran lifted a bloody middle finger.

“How about I call you a filthy dog?” Devries retorted.

I snapped forward, bringing my boot down on his ruined shoulder. The Lord screamed. “That was rude.” I kept pressing. “Apologize.”

“Fuck you.”

“Apologize.” I dug my foot in, cracking bone. “You have a hell of a lot more bones to go.”

He swung with his other hand, reaching for my legs I supposed, but I wasn’t sure what he thought that would accomplish. Kieran easily caught his arm, snapping it back and cracking the bone in the process. Devries howled, kicking his foot at Kieran as he jerked upright, fangs bared as he went for my thigh.

I sighed.

This continued for a while, proving that the Lord was not all that wise. Both legs were broken when he finally stopped trying to bite us. So was his left arm. The right hung on for dear life. He was a messy heap of flesh and bone, leaking all over the floor.

Cleanup would be a bitch.

“Tell me where Prince Malik is being kept,” I said for what had to be the hundredth time.

“There is no kept Prince,” the vampry moaned, and that was, at least an improvement over telling me to go fuck myself.

I kicked him in the chest, knocking him flat on his back.

“Motherfucker.” Devries groaned.

“Where is he being held?” I repeated.

“Nowhere,” the vampry roared, spitting blood and saliva.

Fury erupted. Moving toward him, I raised my leg, but Kieran grabbed my arm, stopping me before I brought my boot down on the vampry’s head.

“You level?” Kieran asked.

Inhaling deeply, I stepped back and nodded. I didn’t even know what level meant at the moment. “Okay. Moving on, Devries. I want you to tell me about the Maiden.”

The Lord moaned, rolling onto his side.

“Why is she important to the Blood Crown?”

“She’s Chosen,” the vampry groaned. “By the Queen. By the gods.”

Kieran looked over at me.

“You forget who you’re speaking to,” I advised. “We know the gods have Chosen no one, least of all a mortal girl.”

“She is Chosen, you fool. The bringer of a new era,” he gasped, pale features contorting in pain. “And you are a fool.”

“I think he wants to die,” Kieran remarked, his brow raised.

One black eye opened and fixed on me. “I…I remember when you wanted to die. When…when you begged for it.”

My chest lurched.

Kieran’s head whipped back to the vampry. “What did you say?”

“He doesn’t recognize me. Do you? Of course, not.” Lord Devries’ laugh was bloody and wet. “You were out of it, screaming and biting at the air one second…”

I stiffened.

What the Lord spoke of hit Kieran in an instant. “Shut up.”

“Then pleading for death the next,” the Lord said, laughing as he eased onto his back. “I was there in the capital when they had you.”

I’d frozen, but my chest moved with each rapid breath.

“Shut the fuck up,” Kieran growled.

“I remember where they kept you underground and in that cage.” His arms flopped uselessly at his sides as images of those damp bars flashed in my mind. Glimpses of bloodless skin. Dark eyes. Sharp nails. “How you writhed in pain and then ecstasy—”

Lord Devries’ words ended in a gurgle, startling me. I blinked, my surroundings coming back into view. The hung meat. The thick blocks of ice. Blood and clumps of matter strewn across the stone. Lord Devries’ body twitched as Kieran moved back, his steps smearing gore.

“Cas?”

When I didn’t answer, Kieran clasped my shoulder. “You okay?”

I closed my eyes and nodded, but I wasn’t. Kieran knew that. No matter how many times I said I was, I wasn’t.

I never would be.


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