Home > Promise of Darkness (Dark Court Rising #1)

Promise of Darkness (Dark Court Rising #1)
Author: Bec McMaster

Prologue

 

 

Eons ago, the invaders came from beyond the stars.

They travelled through portals that tore space and time apart, riding on steeds that trampled all in their wake. They were bright and glittering and malicious, beautiful and terrible. Their faces could conjure love in a mortal’s heart, and their smiles held no mercy.

They rode into a world where magic came from the earth and from the blood, and where the people worshipped their Old Ones. They cut the forests and raised their cities and palaces. They enslaved those they found on this world, calling them monsters.

And they waged war upon each other, until two peoples were formed: One bright and merciless, and one dark and vicious.

But as the years passed, they forgot the power of those that lurked in the forests. They stopped placing salt on their windows, and ignored those monsters that prayed to their Old Ones and made sacrifices in the places where power dwelled.

Until one day, those Old Ones rose.

A new war began. The Wars of Light and Shadow.

The bright ones won. They trapped the Old Ones within those precious Hallows where power lingers. And they forgot once again.

But the Old Ones merely wait.

For they are immortal, and their memories long.

And they know…. That the prison walls are weakening.

 

—Prophecies of Arcaedia

 

 

1

 

 

Kill the beast.

And don’t disappoint me this time….

My mother’s words play in my head in time to the drumming hoofbeats of my gelding.

It’s a song that’s been repeating itself for years, though the verses often change depending on her latest critique. Disappointing my mother seems to be my greatest ability these days.

Golden leaves drip from the trees in a steady tumble as autumn starts its slow, seductive slide into winter. I ease Jaeger to a halt, and he snorts, no doubt catching scent of the rank musk I too can smell.

“I know, boy.” I pat his neck as I slip from the saddle, landing lightly on the leaf mulch. Smells like a troll’s breath the morning after a feast of decayed corpse.

Late afternoon sunlight ripples over the ground, the wind whispering through silent trees. It feels like the forest itself is holding its breath.

Watching.

Waiting.

Drawing my sword, I tie Jaeger to a tree and then creep toward the ruins.

There are eyes upon me.

I can feel them.

“That’s right, you ugly bastard. I’m here.”

The trail of blood leads directly toward the thorny tangle ahead. Where it fell, the leaves have shriveled into brittle shreds, as if the blood itself is tainted.

The news came from the borders three days ago. An empty hamlet discovered on the edges of Vervain Forest, the woodcutters within vanished. Instead, there’d been claw marks in the door and a bloodied fingernail on the floor inside, as if someone had been dragged out by the ankles.

Other empty cabins were slowly discovered. Tales of a beast stalking the edges of Vervain and whispers of hunters not returning from relatively easy hunts began to grow in strength. Chickens slaughtered in their coops over the summer months, though nobody had mentioned it until it was too late.

It always starts with the chickens.

Banes are big, ugly brutes, curse-twisted into half-animal, half-human shapes. It takes a powerful witch or spell to create them; and to break the curse is both dangerous and difficult. True love’s kiss. Eating the heart of the witch. Sometimes another spell will gift them with the ability to remain a man during the day and a beast at night, but magic often sloughs off them.

Which leaves me with one option.

The cold kiss of iron, straight through the heart.

It’s my first bane hunt.

Preferably not my last.

“Let’s make this nice and easy,” I mutter as I slip through the forest with murder—or mercy—on my mind.

Thorns encircle the ruins, some of them bearing spikes as long as my forearm. Poison drips from their tips; they call this particular bramble Sorrow’s Tears. It sprang from the ground the night the King of the Sorrows was slaughtered by his new Unseelie queen. Where his people wept, the brambles grew. It’s deadly to the Unseelie and excruciating to my kind, though it won’t kill us.

How, in Maia’s name, am I going to get inside the ruins?

I can hear the snuffling of the bane in the distance. No doubt it made its lair deep inside where it will be safe from predators. Which means there must be a way in. I just have to find it.

Skirting the brambles, I hold my sword low. Demi-fey peer at me from the shadows, their golden eyes vicious and unblinking. Sweat drips down my spine. I’m practically jumping at shadows, my skin prickling at the faint whisper of claws on stone.

“You can do this,” I tell myself quietly.

I have to do this. I have to slay the beast at my mother’s bequest or suffer her consequences—as well as her disfavor.

After all, if it tears my head from my shoulders, then at least I won’t have to hear about it for the next ten years.

Or worse.

Girding myself, I follow the bane’s blood trail to an overgrown arch. Shadows loom beneath it, and I don’t know where it leads, but it’s clearly the only way into the castle.

This was once the ancient stronghold of my kingdom, many years before my mother took power. The king who ruled wore a gauntlet coated with pure iron. A literal iron fist. Though the main tower’s half-shattered, with stones strewn about it like rumpled skirts, it wouldn’t surprise me if the tower once bore a certain phallic resemblance.

My mother overthrew him nearly a thousand years ago.

Nobody even remembers his name—she had it wiped from public record, and no one dared speak it upon pain of death. The years passed, and he faded from memory, crushed to dust just like this keep. Now only the forest remembers him, slowly swallowing what remains of his grandeur.

I wonder what he did to her to earn such a fate, such enmity. My mother is petty and vicious, but to ensure even history forgot him speaks of an enemy she saved her most vengeful acts for.

“This way, Princess!” a voice cries through the ruins. “I can see its tracks!”

I freeze.

Hooves echo on half-buried cobblestones, and then a glint of gold shines through the brambles as a stunning young woman canters into view. Her blonde hair is knotted into tight braids that circle her head like a coronet. A trio of Seelie hunters clad in hard leathers are at her heels.

Son of a dryad.

The Crown Princess Andraste. Strong. Dangerous. Powerful.

She looks the epitome of a warrior, with a battle-hardened leather corset protecting her slim waist and boots that cling to her calves. A lush dark green cloak wraps around her shoulders, but it’s the bow at her back and the knives tucked into her boots that make her dangerous.

Andraste doesn’t miss. She doesn’t fail.

I might have once called her sister, though it’s been so long since we’ve been close enough for such a word. It’s not encouraged anymore.

After all, in my mother’s kingdom, there is only one ruler, only one heir.

And I’m not the favored child.

I have to kill the bane first.

Darting up the spiral staircase of the tower, I slip my knife from its sheath so I’m well armed. Blood is spattered on the steps, and it will be only a matter of time before Andraste follows me. I can’t afford to rush this and make a mistake, but I cannot afford to lose the chance.

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