THE AGE OF DARKNESS APPROACHES. FIVE LIVES STAND IN ITS WAY. WHO WILL STOP IT . . . OR UNLEASH IT? A show-stopping epic fantasy debut that is getting huge early buzz
In the moonlit room overlooking the city of faith, a priest knelt before Ephyra and begged for his life.
“Please,” he said. “I don’t deserve to die. Please. I won’t touch them anymore, I swear. Have mercy.”
Around him, the lavish private room at the Thalassa Gardens taverna lay in disarray. A sumptuous feast spilled from overturned platters and filigreed pitchers. The white marble floor was littered with ripe berries and the smashed remains of a dozen tiny jewel-like bottles. A pool of blood-dark wine slowly spread toward the kneeling priest.
Ephyra crouched down, placing her palm upon the papery skin of his cheek.
“Oh, thank you!” the priest cried, tears springing into his eyes. “Thank you, blessed—”
“I wonder,” Ephyra said. “Did your victims ever beg you for mercy? When you were leaving your bruises on their bodies, did they ever cry out in Behezda’s name?”
He choked on a breath.
“They didn’t, did they? You plied them with your monstrous potion to make them docile so you could hurt them without ever having to see their pain,” she said. “But I want you to know that every mark you left on them left a mark on you, too.”
A breeze rustled in from the open balcony doors behind Ephyra as she tilted the priest’s chin toward her. “You’ve been marked for death. And death has come to collect.”
His terror-struck eyes gazed up at Ephyra as she slid her hand to his throat, where she could feel the rapid tap-tap-tap of his pulse. She focused on the rush of blood beneath his flesh and drew the esha from his body.
The light drained from the priest’s eyes as his lungs sputtered out their last breath. He collapsed to the floor. A handprint, as pale as the moon, glowed against the sallow skin of his throat. Dead, and only a single mark to show for it.
Drawing the dagger from her belt, Ephyra leaned over the corpse. The priest had not been alone when she’d found him. The two girls he’d had with him—hollow-eyed girls, their wrists mottled with green and purple bruises—had fled the moment Ephyra had told them to run, as if they couldn’t help but obey.
Ephyra slid the tip of her blade into the flesh of the priest’s throat, cutting a line of red through the pale handprint. As dark blood oozed out, she turned the dagger over and opened the compartment in its hilt to extract the vial within. She held it under the flow of his blood. The priest’s desperate words had been a lie—he did deserve death. But that wasn’t why she’d taken his life.
She had taken his life because she needed it.
The door burst open, startling Ephyra from her task. The vial slipped from her hand. She fumbled with it but caught it.
Three men spilled into the suite, one holding a crossbow, and the other two with sabers. Sentry. Ephyra wasn’t surprised. Thalassa sat at the edge of Elea Square, just within the High City gates. She’d known from staking it out that the Sentry ran their foot patrols through the square every night. But they’d gotten here quicker than she’d expected.
The first Sentry through the door stopped short, staring at the priest’s body, stunned. “He’s dead!”
Ephyra sealed the vial of blood and hid it back within the dagger’s hilt. She drew herself up, touching the black silk that covered the bottom of her face to make sure it was still in place.
“Come quietly,” the first Sentry said slowly, “and you don’t have to get hurt.”
Ephyra’s pulse hammered in her throat, but she made her voice calm. Fearless. “Take another step and there will be more than one body in this room.”
The Sentry hesitated. “She’s bluffing.”
“No, she isn’t,” the one with the crossbow said nervously. He glanced down at the priest’s corpse. “Look at the handprint. Just like the ones they found on the bodies in Tarsepolis.”
“The Pale Hand,” the third Sentry whispered, frozen as he stared at Ephyra.
“That’s just street lore,” the first Sentry said, but his voice was trembling slightly. “No one is so powerful that they can kill with only the Grace of Blood.”
“What are you doing in Pallas Athos?” the third Sentry asked her. He stood with his chest out and his feet apart, as if staring down a beast. “Why have you come here?”
“You call this place the City of Faith,” Ephyra said. “But corruption and evil fester behind these white walls. I will mark them the way I mark my victims, so the rest of the world can see that the City of Faith is the city of the fallen.”
This was a lie. Ephyra had not come to the City of Faith to stain it with blood. But only two other people in the world knew the real reason, and one of them was waiting for her.
She moved toward the window. The Sentry tensed, but none tried to go after her.
“You won’t get away with killing a priest so easily,” the first said. “When we tell the Conclave what you’ve done—”
“Tell them.” She tugged her black hood over her head. “Tell them the Pale Hand came for the priest of Pallas. And tell them to pray that I don’t come for them next.”
She turned to the balcony, throwing open the satin drapes to the night and the moon that hung like a scythe in the sky.
The Sentry shouted after her, their blustering voices overlapping as Ephyra flew to the edge of the balcony and climbed over the marble balustrade. The world tipped—four stories below, the steps of Thalassa’s entrance gleamed like ivory teeth in the moonlight. She gripped the edge of the balustrade and turned. To her left, the roof of the public baths sloped toward her.
Ephyra leapt, launching herself toward it. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tucked her knees and braced for impact. She hit the roof at a roll and waited for her own momentum to slow before picking herself up and racing across it, the voices of the Sentry and the lights of Thalassa fading into the night.
* * *
Ephyra moved through the mausoleum like a shadow. The sanctum was still and silent in the predawn darkness as she picked her way through broken marble and other rubble around the tiled scrying pool in the center, the only part of the shrine left unscorched. Above, the caved-in roof gave way to the sky.
The ruins of the mausoleum sat just outside the High City gates, close enough that Ephyra could easily sneak back into the Low City without drawing notice. She didn’t know exactly when the mausoleum had been burned down, but it was all but abandoned now, making it the perfect hideout. She slipped through the scorched shrine into the crypt. The stairwell creaked and moaned as she climbed down and wrenched open the rotted wood door to the alcove that had served as her home for the past few weeks. Shedding her mask and hood, she crept inside.
The alcove used to be a storeroom for the acolyte caretakers who had tended to the shrine. Now it was abandoned, left for rats, rot, and for people like Ephyra who didn’t mind the other two.
Ephyra peered through the darkened room to the bed that lay in the corner, shadowed by the tattered sheets that hung over it. Her sister’s dark eyes peered back at her.
“I know,” Ephyra said, folding the mask and hood over the back of the chair.
A book slid from Beru’s chest as she sat up, its pages fluttering as it bounced onto the sheets. Her short, curly hair was raked up on one side. “Everything go all right?”
“Fine.” No point telling how close her escape had been. It was done now. She forced a smile on her face. “Come on, Beru, you know my days of falling off slyhouse roofs are behind me. I’m better than that now.”
When Ephyra had first assumed the mask of the Pale Hand, she hadn’t been quite as good at sneaking around and climbing as she was now. Having the Grace of Blood didn’t help her sneak into crime dens or scale rich merchants’ balconies. She’d had to gain such skills the traditional way, spending countless nights honing her balance, reaction time, and strength, as well as gathering information necessary for specific targets. Beru had joined her, when she was well enough, racing Ephyra to see who could climb a fence faster or leap between rooftops more quietly. They’d spent many nights stealing through the shadows, tailing behind a potential mark to learn vices and habits. After years of training and close calls, Ephyra knew how to get in and out of the dangerous situations she courted as the Pale Hand.
Beru returned her sister’s smile weakly.
Ephyra’s own smile faded, seeing the pain in Beru’s eyes. “Come on,” she said softly.
Beru lifted the rough blanket away from her body. Beneath it, she was shivering, her brown skin ashen in the low light. Tired lines had etched themselves into the skin below her bloodshot eyes.
Ephyra frowned, turning to the crate beside Beru’s bed, where a shallow bowl rested. She opened the compartment in her dagger’s hilt and poured the contents of the vial into the bowl. “We let this go for too long.”
“It’s fine,” Beru hissed through clenched teeth. “I’m fine.” She unwrapped the cotton from her left wrist, revealing the black handprint that marred the skin beneath it.
Ephyra pressed her hand into the bowl, coating it with wet blood. Placing her bloody palm over the dark handprint on her sister’s skin, she closed her eyes and focused on the blood, guiding the esha she’d taken from the priest and directing it into her sister.
The blood Ephyra collected from her victims acted as a conduit to the esha she drained from them. If she were a properly trained healer, she would have known the correct patterns of binding that would tether her victims’ esha to Beru. She wouldn’t need to use the binding of blood.
Then again, if Ephyra were properly trained, she wouldn’t have been killing in the first place. Healers with the Grace of Blood took an oath that forbid drawing esha from another person.
But this was the only way to keep her sister alive.
“There,” Ephyra said, pressing a finger into Beru’s skin, which was starting to lose that worrying grayish tinge. “All better.”
For now, Beru didn’t say, but Ephyra could see the words in her sister’s eyes. Beru reached over and opened the drawer of the table beside the bed, withdrawing a thin black stylus. With careful, practiced motions, she pressed the stylus against her wrist, drawing a small, straight line there. It joined the thirteen others, permanently etched in alchemical ink.
Fourteen people killed. Fourteen lives cut short so that Beru could live.
It wasn’t lost on Ephyra, the way Beru marked her skin each time Ephyra marked another victim. She could see the way the guilt ate at her sister after every death. The people Ephyra killed were far from innocent, but that didn’t seem to matter to Beru.
“This could be the last time we have to do this,” Ephyra said quietly.
This was the real reason they’d come to Pallas Athos. Somewhere in this city of fallen faith and crumbling temples, there was a person who knew a way to heal Beru for good. It was the only thing Ephyra had hoped for in the last five years.
Beru looked away.
“I brought you something else,” Ephyra said, making her voice light. She reached into the little bag that hung at her belt and held out a glass bottle stopper she’d picked off the ground in the priest’s room. “I thought you could use it for the bracelet you’re making.”
Beru took the bottle stopper, turning it over in her hand. It looked like a little jewel.
“You know I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” Ephyra said, covering her sister’s hand with her own.
“I know.” Beru swallowed. “You’re always worrying about me. Sometimes I think that’s all you do. But, you know, I worry about you, too. Every time you’re out there.”
Ephyra tapped her finger against Beru’s cheek in reproach. “I won’t get hurt.”
Beru brushed her thumb across the fourteen ink lines on her wrist. “That’s not what I mean.”
Ephyra drew her hand away. “Go to sleep.”
Beru rolled over, and Ephyra climbed into the bed beside her. She lay listening to her sister’s even breaths, thinking about the worry that Beru would not give name to. Ephyra worried, too, on nights like tonight, when she felt her victims’ pulse slow and then stop, when she pulled the last dregs of life from them. Their eyes went dark, and Ephyra felt a sweet, sated relief, and in equal measure, a deep, inescapable fear—that killing monsters was turning her into one.