Annika hated visiting the dungeons. The dank cells reeked of pain and fear as well as blood. Anyone unfortunate enough to be imprisoned here risked dying of exposure if the torture inflicted by the Na’Reish guards didn’t claim them first.
“This had better be worth it, Hesia,” she muttered and tugged the skirts of her dress away from slime-covered walls.
The furious squeaking she heard coming from a shadowed corner made her glad she was wearing her knee-high boots. Bare feet—or any naked skin, for that matter—were fair game to the scurriers scavenging down here. She’d treated many prisoners for bites and wounds caused by the vicious, little carnivores. A draft of air brought with it the stench of unwashed bodies, which almost overpowered her. She coughed and lifted a sleeve to cover her nose.
“You know none of the others will come down here.” The old healer’s tone held censure for her surliness.
If Annika were honest, the physical conditions of the dungeon weren’t the real reason for her reluctance. It was the mumbling voices of prisoners: some babbled, driven mad by circumstance, some cried piteously, others wailed in despair. The sound of their helplessness was heartbreaking and she could do little but try to ease their pain.
Hesia shot her an arch look. “’Sides, you’re the only one the demons will let into the Pit.”
Her face heated. Her half-blood status was a boon and a curse. While even the lowest caste of the Na’Reish outranked her, their fear of her father was the only thing stopping the guards from refusing her access.
“Who’s imprisoned there now?” she asked.
“Rumor has it that Na’Hord scouts captured a warrior during a slave raid in the Outer Provinces.” A thread of excitement colored the old woman’s voice. “He refuses even to give his name.”
Hope fired deep inside her and she glanced sharply at Hesia. “A Light Blade?”
Annika bit her lip as hope surged from deep within her. Lady’s Blessing, this could be the opportunity she’d been waiting for, the chance to escape.
Hesia’s wrinkled face peered up at her, her blue eyes somber. “There was the only survivor. You know what the Na’Hord do with any warriors they capture.”
Annika clenched her fists, empathy quickly replacing her hope. As a child she’d been forced to watch the Na’Hord kill human warriors many, many times. Her heart went out to the survivor.
Hesia’s steps slowed then faltered as they neared the Pit. She turned and gripped her forearm with gnarled fingers. “Be careful, Annika, Na’Reisha Tal is on duty.”
Despite the flash of anger that warmed her cheeks, the warning sent a shiver of fear along her spine. “I thought that lower caste scum had been relieved,” she whispered.
The last time she’d treated prisoners in the dungeon, he’d locked her in a cell without Hesia, then told the prisoners who she was. If it hadn’t been for another guard interceding she’d have suffered far worse than a few bruises and a head wound.
“Your father’s inspecting a new wagonload of female slaves that arrived this morning.” Hesia kept her voice quiet. “You know once his attention is diverted elsewhere, things go back to the way they were.”
Glancing ahead, Annika saw Tal’s burly form and another guarding the top of the stairway leading down into the Pit. The small cobblestoned chamber reminded her of a sunken arena: The demons tortured slaves or prisoners within it while others watched from the raised ledge above.
“Tal suffered the brunt of your father’s displeasure for his error.” Hesia gripped her arm tighter. “He’s looking for any excuse to exact revenge.”
Standing nearly seven feet in height, Tal was an imposing figure: all muscle and brawn, renowned among the Na’Reish for his great physical strength, but the full suit of leather armor tempered his physical dominance. Slave prisoners just weren’t dangerous enough to warrant such caution but a Light Blade warrior possessed the kinetic power to kill through any weapon, the skill a Gift from theLady, their human deity. Having faced such warriors in battle before, Tal’s precaution was warranted.
Had the prisoner made an attempt on his life? The idea brought a small smile to Annika’s lips. She hoped the Light Blade had given the Na’Reisha a lot of trouble.
Tal turned at the sound of their footsteps, his violet eyes glowing in the ambient light of the smoking braziers. His gaze met hers, his narrow-eyed stare colder than the icy prison. Annika schooled herself not to react, not to hesitate in her stride, not to give him the satisfaction of knowing she feared him. It was bad enough he thought her existence an abomination without inflaming his need to dominate by appearing weak.
The shadows darkened the spotted pattern of demon markings running down the sides of his face. No matter how many times she’d listened to Na’Reish females of all castes whisper behind their hands about how handsome his markings were, to her, and in this light, they compounded his ruthlessness.
The smile he gave her revealed pointed teeth sharp enough to puncture human skin. Hers crawled at the thought of him touching her—not that he’d be attracted to one such as her, thank the Lady. There were few benefits to being a half-breed, but this was surely one of them.
“What do you want, Na’Chi?” His usual derogatory drawl accompanied the name.
“I’m here to heal the prisoner, my lord.”
“You waste precious resources on this human. He lives only until he tells us who he is and about the leader of his people. Another session spent under my lash should see to that.”
His attitude made Annika even more determined. The human warrior represented the chance of a new life free from her father and other tormentors, if she could help him escape. “Has he been condemned to death?”
The other guard shifted from one foot to the other, his boots scraping on the stone floor. “There’s been no such order given.”
“If he dies without revealing that information, our leader, Na’Rei Savyr, will want to know who refused the human access to a healer. You must allow me to treat him.”
The leather of Tal’s gloves creaked as he curled his hands into fists. “You don’t give the orders down here.” He leaned closer, his voice dropping to a harsh whisper. “I do.” His violet eyes flashed and darkened. “Do you want to find yourself in a cell again? Alone with humans? You remember what happened last time, don’t you?”
She shuddered, the memory too near, too fresh to control her reaction. Tal’s lips curled. She wished she could control her reactions more successfully, hating that he took pleasure in provoking her fear.
Swallowing hard, she met his gaze. “You’d risk the wrath of my father a second time?”
Tal’s eyelid flickered. He gripped her upper arm in a hold so tight she knew her skin would yield bruises by morning. She held still, unwilling to give him further reason to hurt her.
“The blood in your veins barely gives you the right to breathe! Why the Na’Reicontinues to let you live is a mystery,” he hissed. “The entertainment value of watching you cower and suffer under his belt must provide him with more amusement than it would me.”
He released her suddenly, as if he couldn’t bear to touch her a second longer, and she stumbled back toward Hesia. The elderly woman caught her before she fell.
“One day the Na’Rei will die and the leadership will pass to someone who believes purity of the bloodlines should take precedence over petty revenge.” He stabbed a gloved finger at her. “You’d do well to remember that, Na’Chi.”
Annika dropped her gaze. Pushing Tal too far would destroy her chances of meeting the human warrior who might be able to save her from that fate. Showing him submission grated, but if it meant he’d give her permission to enter the Pit she’d do it.
“Tal, let her treat the human with her herbal remedies.” The second guard wore an uneasy frown. “I don’t fancy being the scapegoat of the Na’Rei if the Light Blade dies while under your command. Besides, if she enters the Pit to heal him, who says he won’t try to kill her? He’s tried often enough with us.”
After several tense heartbeats, Tal grunted then began to chuckle. The sound wasn’t pleasant. He motioned toward the Pit. “You have half an hour, Na’Chi.”
With a soft sigh of relief, Annika descended the steps and glanced toward the center of the Pit, eager to see the prisoner. She winced at the silent pain the human male was surely forced to endure as a part of his captivity.
Chains suspended from the ceiling spread his arms wide, while more shackled him to the floor in a kneeling position. There was no leeway to sit or stand; the chains pulling at his arms were taut. Raw, chafe marks encircled his wrists, undeniable signs of a struggle to escape torment.
She murmured a soft entreaty to the Lady for help. Her whisper must have carried, for the male lifted his head, his long, jet-black hair parting to reveal a battered face. Her breath caught.
Lady of Mercy, she had not expected him to be so comely.
The bruises, cuts, and dried blood did little to hide an attractive face. Strong, fierce, captivating, yet his eyes commanded most of her attention. They were an intense, dark green that almost seemed to glow, bright with intelligence and power. His gaze reached deep into her, sparking an unfamiliar excitement that made her stomach flutter. A feeling so alien to her she almost forgot why she was there.
“I never expected him to be so handsome.” Hesia’s hushed comment turned her head. The old healer stood close behind her.
“Handsome? If he had the markings, he’d pass as one of the Na’Reishi.”
Did he possess the same arrogance and air of superiority the lordlings exhibited, the same traits that she despised because of their belief that it gave them the right to flaunt it over others?
The older woman raised an eyebrow. “You do realize the upper-caste lords would be insulted to be compared to a human? But I wholeheartedly agree with you.” Hesia’s comment steered Annika’s thoughts in an entirely new direction. Annika blushed as her friend chuckled. “What? I may be old but I’m not blind.”
“We’re here to heal him. Not stare at him.”
“Then go heal him.”
The Lady of Light has finally granted me a peaceful death, Kalan Tayn thought. He wasn’t afraid but he’d expected to die at the end of some demon’s sword in battle, a death more honorable than having his life cut short in the depths of a dungeon.
He listened to the Handmaiden speaking nearby. Closing his eyes, he shut out the less-than-ideal surroundings and concentrated on her voice. It was soft, sensual, well suited for the task of easing a man into the Light. It wound its way deep inside him, touching his soul, fortifying the ragged remnants of his strength. He recognized the Lady’s power emanating from her; warm, gentle, and soothing. Her touch would ease the abuse his body had suffered in the last sennight.
He parted battered lips and sighed in relief. “Handmaiden, the Lady is truly merciful. I welcome your guidance as I pass over.”
His one regret was leaving his sister, Kymora, the unenviable task of taking up his position on the Blade Council. His death would bring chaos at a time they could least afford turmoil; there were too few Light Blade warriors left to defend their territory from the growing demon horde.
“What?” The second voice was older. “What’s he saying?”
Light-hearted laughter teased his ears. “You’re mistaken, warrior. You don’t stand at death’s door.” The alluring voice whispered to another. “He thinks we’re Handmaidens from the Lady.”
“Then who are you?” Although his eyelids were heavy and reluctant to obey, the temptation to see the woman with the captivating voice was too strong to resist.
“My name is Annika.”
In the flickering torchlight, long, thick, honey-colored hair fell to her waist, acting as a veil over her face and shoulders, shielding her from his gaze as she knelt to one side of him. A pale, flowing dress clothed her slender form but she was all woman: rounded breasts, a narrow waist and curved hips. She was everything he’d imagined a Handmaiden of the Lady to be.
A wry smile twisted his lips at the heat stirring in his gut. Deriving enjoyment from looking at her was strange considering his predicament, but it was better than the memories of the last few days. He’d take pleasure over pain any day.
Delicate, graceful hands untied a pouch and removed several jars and pots. They gave no clue as to the identity of the woman but the clean, fresh scent of herbs and oils told him she was a healer.
“You waste your time.” His voice was hoarse. Kalan tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. “I thank you for your concern but there’s little you can do for me that won’t be undone by ’morrow-eve. Save your salves and potions for another who would benefit from them more.”
The woman raised her head, a gentle smile curving her lips. All pleasure fled as his gaze met hers.
Lady’s Breath, she had demon eyes.
Adrenaline burned through him. He sucked in a shocked breath. They weren’t quite the same shade of violet as the Na’Reish but lighter, flecked with pale yellow highlights.
She wasn’t human.
He jerked back from her, hissing at the pain that shot through his manacled wrists. “Keep your hands off me!”
She flinched at the anger in his voice and turned away. A cold shiver worked its way along his spine. Perhaps the flickering torchlight affected his sight, or maybe there’d been one too many blows to his head. He scanned her face again. The swirling design on her skin, the pigment paler than any he’d seen on the Na’Reish, trailed down the side of her face and neck then disappeared beneath the neckline of her dress.
The enemy in the guise of a healer? Shame pricked and burned beneath his skin at his body’s earlier response and the attraction he’d felt for her. How could he have felt anything but horror and disgust for a cold-blooded killer? Lady’s Breath, he’d need every shred of strength to resist whatever torture this demon was here to inflict.
An old woman knelt on the other side of him. She was human. The small pale blue tattoo on her wrinkled cheek, a crescent moon in design, was the mark of a slave. Snow-white hair was pulled into a tight bun at the back of her neck. “You have nothing to fear from Annika. She’s a healer. Let her help you.”
“I want no help from the Na’Reish!”
Her brown eyes narrowed and flashed with anger. “She’s no more Na’Reish than you or I. Surely you can feel the Lady’s Gift burning within her?”
“Hesia, it’s all right.” The younger woman’s rebuke was soft.
“No, Annika, he’s judged you too quickly. Perhaps I was wrong in my assessment. A Light Blade would never do that. They’re more intelligent.”
The old woman was insulting him? Kalan glanced between the two of them, temped to laugh but the heat of anger curling tight inside his stomach stayed the impulse. Was he dreaming? Had he passed out during the last beating and now drifted in some sort of surreal world?
“His intolerance is unacceptable.” The old woman leaned in close, her gaze burning. “Warrior, listen carefully. Do you want your freedom?”
Of course he did. What warrior wouldn’t wish for escape from the torment inflicted by the Na’Reish? He resented the flash of hope her question sparked. Was this another of their tricks?
“I don’t know either of you. Are you blood-slaves?”
The old woman snorted. “You’re a fool!”
The Na’Reisha placed a gentle hand on the old woman’s arm. “He’s cautious, Hesia, as I would be if I were in his place. Roll up your sleeves and show him your wrists.”
Her skin was unmarked, scarless. Neither was enthralled to a master or mistress. The younger woman’s eerie gaze linked with his. “We’re not blood-slaves.”
“Why would you help me?”
The demon woman glanced toward the guards and lowered her voice to a whisper. “I can get you out of here, but I’ll need your assistance.”
“You need my help to escape?”
“No, I’ve already planned our escape. It’s afterward . . .”
Her words made no sense but the offer of freedom burned in his heart. Kalan glanced to the guards standing on the lip of the Pit, gut seething with renewed anger. Was this a new tactic to get him to talk? The Na’Reisha commander couldn’t be the mastermind behind this plan. The hulking leather-clad bastard enjoyed inflicting pain too much. Fourteen days of torment and not once had he answered their questions.
And a Na’Reisha healer treating a human prisoner? No demon would condescend to aiding an enemy. Her story about wanting her freedom had to be false.
But Lady’s Breath, if she could help him he’d be a fool not to take her up on her endeavor. Even overlooking the fact she wasn’t human, the odds of escaping the demon’s realm were slim. But could he trust her? A demon?
“I don’t understand why you’d want this.”
Frustration colored her voice. “What is there to understand? You want to escape. I want my freedom. We need each other.”
He snorted. “Why should I trust you?”
“You should.” The old woman’s whisper was fierce.
How could a Na’Reisha earn such loyalty from a human without forming a blood-bond? “I’m sworn to kill you.”
The younger woman’s abrupt laugh was bitter. “My death would be a cause for celebration among the Na’Reish, Light Blade. Do you think they welcome one such as myself among their ranks?”
The power of her Gift nudged his senses, warm and strong. The heavy, cloying evil he usually associated with the demons was noticeably absent.
“How can that be?” He frowned, recalling something he’d heard earlier. “The guard called you Na’Chi. What’s that mean?”
For the briefest moment, vulnerability flashed in her gaze, the colored flecks in her eyes changed to orange, and then she glanced away. Her reply was barely audible. “Half-blood.” He sucked in a shocked breath. “Now do you understand why I want to help you escape from here?”
“Demons pride themselves on the purity of their bloodlines. How did you survive beyond birth?”
“Does it really matter? All you need to decide is whether you can trust me enough to help you escape.”
He peered more closely at the markings on her face more closely. They weren’t as dark or as prominent as the Na’Reisha commanders, and the violet coloring of her eyes was lighter. Her stature didn’t seem as heavily boned, either. He couldn’t refute what he was seeing but a half-human, half- demon hybrid?
Mother of Mercy, stories of their existence had been around for centuries, figments of the imagination used as campfire tales to scare children. Evidence to refute that belief knelt beside him. Considering the Na’Reish’s intolerance for bloodline contamination, how had this woman survived into adulthood?
“What do you want in return?” he asked.
For the barest heartbeat, excitement flickered across her face. “I can get you out of the fortress, make sure we aren’t recaptured within Na’Reish territory but after that I need your help. I have very little knowledge of your land or your people.”
“You want to leave Na’Reish territory? And you want my protection?”
“I know it’s a lot to ask . . .” Her voice shook as it trailed off and she glanced toward the old woman, biting her lip.
She was scared. The revelation burned through him. Did she fear him or her own plan?
Her head lifted and her shoulders straightened. The flecks in her eyes went from yellow to a dark green color. “I doubt I’d survive long outside the valley. I have no way of hiding what I am.”
“Annika . . .” There was a wealth of love and pain in the old woman’s voice.
“They won’t know me like you do, Hesia. The warrior’s reaction proved that.”
Her fingers pleated the material of her dress. When she realized he was watching her, she met his gaze, proud and unflinching, but her anxious action didn’t stop. Unusual. Vulnerability was considered a weakness among theNa’Reish.
Was it another ploy?
“Kalan,” he said.
A startled expression flitted across her face. “What?”
He’d go along with her plan, for the moment. If she could unshackle him, he could fight. Even bare-handed, he stood a better chance at escape than he did now. Should he fail . . . well, he’d make certain he wasn’t recaptured alive.
“My name is Kalan. If we’re going to escape together, then you need to know my name.”
And by the Lady of Light, if she were deceiving him, he’d make sure she never drew breath again either.