I wake to the sensation of a hand petting my back.
I wearily blink my eyes open. I don’t immediately recognize my surroundings. Not until I notice the bronze wall scones and a Moroccan archway.
Des’s room. I lay splayed out on my stomach in the middle of his bed, nestled amongst all his sheets.
Why am I on my stomach? I never sleep on my stomach.
“Cherub, you’re awake.” The Bargainer’s smooth voice raises goosebumps across my skin.
I begin to smile, still confused, when I remember.
The prison, Karnon, my metamorphosis.
I reach behind my back. When my fingers brush against feathers, I let out a choked cry.
It wasn’t a dream.
“They’re … beautiful,” Des says. His hand moves over them. Under his touch, they move, my feathers making a whisper-soft noise as they rub against each other.
I squeeze my eyes shut. “Don’t,” I say, my voice hoarse.
I don’t want to hear about how pretty they are. They were forced on me by a madman. By a psychopath who would’ve laughed had the transformation killed me. The same monster who raped thousands of women.
I was ready to die. I was even ready to live in a state of suspended animation.
I wasn’t ready for this.
And I know it’s not the worst fate, but it feels that way. Because now I look like all those fauna fae. My captors. My tormentors. It was one thing to endure the punishments. Another to look at myself and see them.
“Don’t what?” Des says. “Don’t touch you? Compliment you?”
“All of it,” I say, opening my eyes. I’m horrifying to look at.
My arms shake as I begin to push myself up into a sitting position. I catch sight of those dusky gold scales that run up my forearms like plated armor.
I have an itch to pluck them from my skin, one by one.
As soon as I begin to sit up, I feel pressure at my back. My unwieldy wings are too long, the bones too delicate.
I can’t sit up in bed.
I feel a frustrated tear leak out as I flop back on my stomach.
A moment later Des scoops me up. My wings tangle behind me, the tips dragging along the ground. The feathers are pitch black, but under the light, they have an iridescent sheen.
They are pretty, and I hate them all the more for it.
As he carries me, my fae king looks at me like he’s the one drowning.
He catches me staring. “We will get through this,” he swears, “just like we did the last time. We’ve done this once before. We can do it again.”
“I don’t know if I can.” My voice breaks.
Des sets me on my feet in front of a full length mirror in his chambers. “Tell me what you see,” he says.
I frown, first at him, then—reluctantly—at my reflection. I don’t even want to look. I don’t want to see if I’m more monster than human. But when I do look, I see my face, and it is utterly unchanged. Forgetting Des is standing by me, I touch my cheek. I thought that maybe … that maybe I wouldn’t recognize myself in the mirror. That I’d truly be a beast. But I’m not.
My eyes move to my hand. For a long moment I stare at the sharp claws, and then my gaze moves to my fingers. Those are still human. In fact, if I filed my claws down, other than my nails’ black color, they would look like regular hands.
My forearms have a delicate sheen of scales, which glitter under the light. They begin at my wrist and end before my elbow, and a few rows of them ring my upper arm before fading back into my normal flesh. They don’t continue up my neck or chest or face. I lift the skirt of my dress to look at my legs. Those too are free of scales. They look how they’ve always looked. And my feet are still human feet—no claws adorn my toes.
And when my gaze moves back to my reflection, I still have the same proportions. I’m the same woman I’ve always been, just with a few additions. And while those few additions—claws, scales, and wings—are painful to look at, I’m not the monster I thought I might be.
In fact, if anything, I look a little fae.
“What do you see?” Des asks again.
I swallow. “I see Callie.”
“As do I.” He dips his mouth close to my ear. “Cherub, people like us are not victims. We’re someone’s nightmare.”
I’m not a victim.
I’m not a victim.
How had I forgotten this? Because, somewhere along the way, I had forgotten. And it nearly broke me.
I’m not a victim.
Here in the Otherworld, I lost my most powerful weapon—my glamour. But I gained claws and wings.
My eyes move to Des. “Teach me again how to be someone’s nightmare.”
I needed to feel dangerous, powerful, traits I lost somewhere along the way.
A hint of his wicked smile appears, and cloaked in his shadows, it’s menacing. “With pleasure, mate.”
I stand inside one of the Night Kingdom’s reappropriated warehouses, staring at the multitude of sleeping female warriors. Thousands of them.
Killing Karnon should’ve released all these women from whatever dark magic held them under.
But it hasn’t.
And now there are so many more sleeping women, uncovered from the subterranean rooms far below Karnon’s castle.
The partially empty warehouse is suddenly teeming with coffins. And the women in all the new ones are pregnant. No one knows when—or if—they’ll give birth.
The other kingdoms have also received their share of sleeping warriors recovered from the bowels of Karnon’s prison, warriors belonging to the Kingdoms of Day, Flora, and—strangest of all—Fauna. Karnon had been abusing his kingdom’s female soldiers.
I can barely wrap my mind around it.
There’s still the matter of the male warriors, the men who are still missing. And then there are the female captives, like Aetherial, who are recovering from their ordeal. Captives who have all complained of a darkness that still lingers within them.
I touch my hand to one of the coffin lids, my claw tips clicking against the glass. “Wake up,” I whisper, glamour slipping into my voice.
If the sleeping women hear, they don’t obey.
I even wait for the sound of wraith-like voices to rise around me, just as they had before.
But all is silent. All is still.
Smoke and shadows wrap around my arms. A moment later, they coalesce into hands.
“Cherub,” Des whispers into my ear, squeezing my arms gently.
At his voice, my wings stir, brushing themselves against his chest.
I shouldn’t be surprised that he found me. He’s the Bargainer, Lord of Secrets, Master of Shadows, and King of the Night.
He touches my jaw, turning my face.
I close my eyes and swallow. It feels good to have the Bargainer touch me like this, despite the fact that Karnon did the same thing, day after day. Because with Des, it’s different. It always has been. It always will be.
“I woke and you were gone,” he says.
I understand what he doesn’t say. That he feared he lost me all over again.
“I had to see them.” The words are barely audible.
I had to see the women that were less fortunate than me. The ones who were unable, even after Karnon’s death, to escape his clutches.
My eyes scan the room, my chest tight at the sight. Had I not been human, I could’ve been among them, my body laid out amongst all the others. My lungs not breathing, my heart not beating, my body not alive.
But not dead either.
Suspended somewhere between the two. Waiting.
He’s coming for you.
Goosebumps break out across my skin.
“It’s not over,” I whisper. I can feel it in my bones. We’d simply fired the first shot.
“Let our enemies come,” Des says, his silky voice lethal. “They have a reckoning waiting at the end of my blade—and my siren’s vengeance to deal with.”
I turn to face Des, his white blond hair swept back beneath his crown. His tattoos and war cuffs are hidden under his fitted fae attire, but even without them showing, he is so obviously a dangerous thing, with his glittering eyes and hulking wings, which have been out almost constantly since the night he killed Karnon.
He cups the side of my face. “Let our enemies come, and I will kill them all. So long as you’re at my side, cherub, I have something to fight for.”
This is perhaps the most amazing mystery of all in the aftermath of Karnon’s death. My physical changes haven’t dimmed what Des feels for me. He actually seems quite … fond of the changes. And every time he looks at my wings, my claws, my scales with adoration, I tolerate them a little more. And I fall for my mate over and over again.
This man who’s saved me so many times, who’s pulled me from my own tormented darkness into his. This man who waited seven years for me. This man who, against all reason and odds, is my mate.
I lean in and brush a kiss along his lips. “I’ll be at your side,” I promise, “till darkness dies.”
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