From #1 New York Times bestselling author J.R. Ward comes an unforgettable story of passion and vengeance in the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood.
When Ahmare’s brother is abducted, there is nothing she won’t do to get him back safely. She is unprepared, however, for the lengths she will have to go to save his life. Paired with a dangerous but enticing prisoner, she embarks on an odyssey into another world.
Duran, betrayed by his father, imprisoned in a dungeon for decades, has survived only because of his thirst for vengeance. He has been biding his time to escape and is shocked to find an unlikely and temporary freedom in the form of a determined young female.
Battling against deadly forces and facing unforeseen peril, the pair are in a race to save Ahmare’s brother. As time runs out, and the unthinkable looms, even true love may not be enough to carry them through.
THERE ARE STILL SECRETS in America. In spite of population density, the internet, modern law enforcement, and the constant intrusion of cell phone cameras, there remain, across this great nation, whole tracts of hill and dale that are largely uninhabited. Uninvestigated. Unpenetrated by the prying eye.
For both humans and vampires.
Ahmare, blooded daughter of Ahmat, drove through the night, alone on highways that rose and fell over the heaving earth of the Appalachian Mountains. She was far from Caldwell, New York, by now, a good seven hours into her trip and close to her destination. She had stopped only once, at a roadside gas station to refuel. She had timed herself. Eight minutes from insertion of credit card to reclose of gas cap.
A human male who had been doing the same to his motorcycle had looked across at her, his eyes lingering on her body, his sexual hunger obvious under the harsh glow of the fluorescent lights.
When he’d sauntered over to her, all cock and swagger, she had debated castrating him both to get him off her back and as a public service.
But she couldn’t afford the delay—and more to the point, she might fantasize about doing something like that, but she wasn’t a natural born killer.
She’d just learned that firsthand.
The leering bastard did deserve a corrective event, however, and if she’d been hardwired differently, she was exactly the kind of destiny to deliver it to him. Vampires were a far superior species to those rats without tails, so it would be the work of a moment for her to overpower him, drag him behind the gas station, and take out her hunting knife.
The trouble with humans, however, was that they were an invasion of non-lethal pests, ants intruding on an otherwise enjoyable picnic. And the last thing she needed was a bunch of—what state was she in now? Maryland?—cops with Southern accents flashing their lights and pulling her over ten miles down the highway for aggravated assault because the attendant in that little glass box with the lotto ads all over it had positive-ID’d her.
Which wouldn’t be tough. There weren’t a lot of six-foot-tall, black-haired, black-clothed females stopping to pump gas at three in the morning. And the security cameras no doubt had the license plate on her Explorer.
So, yup, instead of taking action, she’d told the human with the bright ideas that he’d have more success fucking off than fucking her. Then she’d gotten back in her SUV and returned to the highway, reflecting that her ability to override her aggression for a greater purpose proved another truism in the long list of differences between Homo sapiens and vampires: For the most part, her kind had a higher evolved rationality.
Although perhaps that quality wasn’t intrinsic to divergences in the cerebral makeup between the two species, but rather the result of the much longer life spans of vampires. If you lived long enough, you tended to put things in better perspective. Stay focused on your goals. Understand that present sacrifice yielded tenfold future gain.
Which explained why she was going to get her far younger brother out of a warlord’s dungeon.
Overhead, lightning tripped and fell across the velvet black sky, and just as hail struck her windshield like marbles poured out of a sack, her exit glowed green and white in the headlights.
Getting off the interstate, she traveled over a series of roads that grew narrower and more degraded. By the time she pulled onto a dirt lane ten minutes later, the summer storm was raging, great gusts of wind and lashing rain bending the fat-topped, kudzu-choked trees and releasing them just before they snapped free of their root systems.
And there it was.
Chalen the Conqueror’s century-old stronghold in the New World.
Either that or a Disney antagonist had jumped out of a movie to get away from all the damn singing and set up shop in this sweaty forest to kick puppies and scare children.
The stone fortress had high walls with thin slits to shoot out of and defensible positions all along its roofline parapet. The entrance even had a bridge that could be drawn up from a murky moat and locked into place. All that was missing were the alligators—and there was a good possibility they weren’t missing.
Oh, look, they were waiting for her.
As she stopped the Explorer in the gravel parking area, two males stepped forward out of the shadows on the castle side of the lowered bridge. They didn’t appear to notice the storm, and the lack of visible weapons on them was nothing she was fooled by.
They were a pair of cold-blooded killers. Everyone who worked for Chalen was.
She removed her gun and her knife and hid them under her seat. Then she slipped on a windbreaker and turned to the duffel bag that had ridden shotgun with her for the trip. A nauseous swell made her swallow her gag reflex back into place, but she grabbed the handles and got out. Locking up, she took her keys with her.
The storm pushed against her like an assailant, and she held her ground as she walked through the puddles and the mud. As lightning flashed, she noted the black vines that grew, tangled and leafless though it was July, up the castle’s slick stone flanks like the clawing hands of Chalen’s many dead.
Was he haunted by his deeds? she wondered. Did he care about the ruin he’d brought to so many?
Ahmare crossed the planks that were slick and smelled like creosote. Peering over the edge, she couldn’t see anything moving in the stagnant water.
She stopped in front of the guards. They were wearing mouthpieces that pulled back their lips, exposing their fangs like daggers holstered in their mouths. She expected to get frisked, but they didn’t move toward her.
Frowning, she said, “I’m here to see—”
The castle’s great portal opened by lifting up, the creaking and grinding of gears so loud that the metal-on-metal screeches drowned out even the thunder. Neither of the guards spoke to tell her to enter, but then again, they couldn’t. All of Chalen’s guards and staff had their larynxes removed.
Stepping into the torch-lit interior, she found herself in a great hall, smelling ripe mold and old earth sure as if the place were a crypt. No rug underfoot. No tapestry on the damp stone walls. No warmth in spite of the fire that raged in the room-sized hearth. There was only a rough-hewn table, long, narrow, and stained, with a set of benches and a single throne-like great chair at one end. Up above, a chandelier of oil lanterns swung on its chain ever so slightly, the genesis of the movement unclear.
Inside her skin, inside her soul, every part of her was screaming for her to get out. Run. Never come back.
Forget she even knew how to find the place—
Something was dripping, and she narrowed her eyes at the shadows in the far corner, expecting to see bodies hung up on meat hooks, well into the process of exsanguination. No such thing. Only a leak that had formed thanks to a conspiracy between cracks in the mortar and the driving rain. There was also a closed door that had a pointed arch at the top and ugly hinges that must have been fashioned by the huge, dirty hands of an ogre.
She should have brought her weapons in with her. She hadn’t even been searched.
Abruptly, an image from childhood came to mind, like an innocent entering a slaughterhouse: her brother just months old in her arms, staring up at her with wide eyes, his little button mouth pursing and smiling. Back then, their mahmen had been alive and well, cooking at the stove, and their father had been at the kitchen table, reading a newspaper with the headline “NIXON IMPEACHED.”
Ahmare had been decades out of her transition and in a human degree program for nursing. There had been fear over her mahmen safely delivering the second young, but all of that had resolved with the successful birth, and the family’s fortune, though meager in terms of material things, had seemed as vast and enduring as history itself if you measured wealth by love and loyalty.
How had she ended up here? How had her brother—
Chains moving through antique gears brought her head around. A section of the stone wall was rising up, revealing, inch by inch, a draped figure covered head to toe in black.
“He will see you the now,” an electronic voice said.
The scent suggested it was a female. There was something wrong, however. A smell that was off . . .
Gangrene. Rotting flesh under that robing.
And she was speaking with the aid of a voice box unit.
“I am ready,” Ahmare said.
“This way.” The female indicated the corridor behind. “Follow me.”
Falling in with the female, Ahmare tracked the movements underneath the robes. There was a limp and a dragging shuffle, as if one foot, or perhaps a whole leg, were a useless dead weight.
What the hell had been done to her brother here? she thought.
The hall they proceeded down had a high ceiling and torches in iron brackets every six or eight feet. Rats ran in a tributary off to one side, staying thin and long as if they didn’t want to attract attention, shooting over and under each other depending on the north or south of their course. Overhead, cobwebs wafted in drafts like fabric in its last stages of disintegration.
The hooded figure stopped before another door with a gothic point at its apex. The hand that reached out was bandaged with dirty gauze, and it was a struggle for the female to open the heavy weight.
“Proceed,” the synthesizer said.
Ahmare stepped through and stopped where she was as she was closed in. Up ahead, on a raised dais, an oak throne faced away from her, its high back carved with twisted figures being tortured.
“Right on time,” a thin voice said. “Punctuality is so important.”
The dais began to turn with a grind, the throne coming around slowly, and Ahmare tightened her grip on the duffel’s straps. Chalen had come out of the Bloodletter’s war camp centuries before, honed by that sadistic fighter into a killing machine who was efficient only when he had to be. Otherwise, it was well-known that he preferred agony over any manner of quick dispatch—
Ahmare’s breath caught. And then exhaled in a rush.
“Not what you expected?” the murderer said as the dais bumped to a stop.
Beneath a cockeyed crown that was missing its head stone in the front, the contorted and pockmarked corpse slouched on the hardwood was in the final stages of dying. Vampires were not like humans when it came to the aging process. Rather than a slow descent into an elderly state, the species went through the transition to maturity at around twenty-five, and following that, their bodies stayed in a state of prime physical condition until the very end of their lives. At that point, a rapid degeneration took place, faculties failing in a tumble that led quickly into the grave.
Chalen the Conqueror had a matter of weeks. If not less.
A skeletal hand extended out of his black robe and cranked a hold onto the throne’s arm. There was a grunt as he repositioned himself, and as the wrinkled and decaying face grimaced, she imagined what he must have looked like when he’d been in his prime. She had heard the stories of a massive male whose brute strength was surpassed only by his taste for cruelty.
It was hard to get there from where he was now.
“Old age is not for the faint of heart.” The smile revealed many missing teeth, only one broken fang on the left remaining. “I will caution you of its approach when it comes for you.”
“I have what you asked for.”
“Do you. Clever female. Let me see.”
Ahmare dropped the duffel and unzipped it, making sure that none of her reactions showed. Reaching in, she unknotted the Glad trash bag and put her hand into the black plastic. Gripping matted, blood-soaked hair, she pulled out a severed head, the scent of fresh, raw meat wafting up.
Chalen’s laugh was the kind of thing that was going to stay with her. Low, satisfied . . . and nostalgic. As if he wished he’d been the one to do the killing.
“Clever, clever female,” he whispered.
That bony hand released its grip and pointed at the cold hearth. “Place it there. I have a spot for him.”
Ahmare walked over to a spear that been inserted into a hole drilled in the stone floor. Lifting the head, she positioned the sharp tip at the base of the skull and shoved down. As she forced the impaling, she had to stare into the face of what she had killed: The eyes were open but sightless, the skin gray, the mouth loose and gruesome. Tendrils of tendons and ligaments, like the skirts of a jellyfish, hung down from where she had crudely severed the spinal column.
It had been a hack job. She had never killed before. Never beheaded before. And the effort required to pop the top off the dandelion, so to speak, had been a sweaty, messy, horrific revelation.
As she turned back around, she wanted to vomit. But the human had been a piece of shit, a drug dealer with no morals who had sold bad shit to children. Who had contaminated her brother with a false promise of financial gain. Who made the colossal mistake of setting up and operationalizing a plan to cheat their supplier.
Why did you make me do this, she thought at her brother.
“Tell me what it was like to kill him,” Chalen ordered.
There was a rapacious edge to the command, a hunger that needed feeding, a pilot light that burned within the wasted shell that would never, ever bring a pot to boil again.
“Give me my brother,” she said grimly. “And I’ll take you through it step-by-step.”
J.R. Ward is the author of more than thirty novels, including those in her #1 New York Times bestselling Black Dagger Brotherhood series. There are more than fifteen million copies of her novels in print worldwide, and they have been published in twenty-six different countries. She lives in the South with her family.