Book Two of Villains & Virtues is here! As always, here is the first chapter to entice you, Dear Reader, to pick it up. Be forewarned, spoilers for Book One, Throne in the Dark, follow.
HUMBLE ALTRUISM AND WHAT IT ENTAILS
The most superlatively good being to have blessed the realm of Eiren was Evangeline Temperance Virtulios, more colloquially known as Eva the Congenial. While there were other, good beings who were spoken of in Eiren’s history, the descendants of dominions, conquering kings, priests to any of the one hundred and seventeen gods of goodness and light, there was no argument that Eva held the highest-ranking place for three reasons: one, it was well established by the Holy Order of Osurehm that her deeds had been monumental, selfless, and, most importantly, in the interest of serving the gods; two, there was a song about her altruism and consequently the death she suffered for never wavering from her morals which was quite popular amongst school children and those seemed to really stick; and three, she had in fact been dead for almost one thousand years so couldn’t ruin her own ranking by slipping up and saying something untoward on a bad day.
The legacy of Eva the Congenial was often taught to children in theology as a way to both define good behavior and instill great guilt at considering taking part in that which was bad, so it was perhaps not strange that Ammalie Avington, Baroness of Faebarrow, thought of the holy figure as she walked toward a dark tower in the middle of the Accursed Wastes beside not one but two blood mages. Amma had just faked her own abduction, and it wasn’t even the first time she’d done that, but the most recent performance did have an awful lot more death and destruction, and that made wonderful fodder for the guilt that roiled in her belly. Eva the Congenial would have never trusted one blood mage let alone a second rival demon spawn, so Amma couldn’t really help measuring herself against the well-known deeds of the realm’s most virtuous woman and recognizing that she was coming up significantly short.
But considering Amma’s upbringing, all of those shameful thoughts were perfectly normal and expected. What was perhaps strange and unexpected, however, was the next thought that popped into Amma’s head about the legendary, infallible figure, which was really more of a dawning realization that should have perhaps hit her a few years earlier and not at the ripe, old age of twenty-five: Eva the Congenial was a complete and utter fabrication.
Because if she actually had existed in the exact way the religious scholars said, the stories about her life would have been significantly more fraught with doubt. In her tales, Eva was routinely faced with a moral quandary and consistently chose the path of goodness and light as if she were a hound and virtue smelt of treed raccoon. While knowing exactly what to do and always having the perfect path to follow didn’t make for particularly good stories in the interesting sense—and likely contributed to Amma’s boredom with theology—Eva’s conflict-less decisions did make for good stories in the moral sense. But they were only stories, Amma realized, as having that easy answer every time just wasn’t realistic.
Not that there was a parable in which Eva had been faced with the decision to hitch her cart to a blood mage who intended to slaughter the king, free his demon father from prison, and call up infernal vengeance on the entire realm, but if there were, Amma was sure Eva wouldn’t have chosen to help the man who had just unleashed an undead army on her hometown. Then again, if Eva had seen how that blood mage looked when doing it—and for her nonetheless—she might have actually surrendered all her virtue on the spot.
Amma surely would have if they hadn’t been interrupted.
Damien Maleficus Bloodthorne’s muscled but exhausted form strode along at Amma’s side, violet eyes set forward and unblinking, black hair mussed and falling in his face, hard, clean-shaven jaw clenched and unreadable. He had smartly used a stone imbued with a translocation spell to take the two of them away from her home in Faebarrow where he had just unleashed the Army of the Undead. The stone was the quickest escape, certainly, and if any enterprising Holy Knights or priests tried to suss out the magic left in the stone’s wake, it would all match the lie he had told, that he was a different blood mage who was stealing Amma away.
Slightly less smart was the fact they were now actually standing in the Accursed Wastes, the place Xander Sephiran Shadowhart, Damien’s archrival, made his home. But Xander had been delighted to see the two of them, especially since they had successfully stolen and were carrying the Lux Codex, another bad deed to heap onto Amma’s growing moral predicament, and a truce was struck between the half-demon blood mages.
Xander’s tower was all obsidian and sharp and just looking at it made Amma’s skin feel pressed against a blade on the verge of being sliced through—not cut exactly, but just nicked to be painful in only the most annoying ways. The tower stood stark and tall amidst a flat field of red and grey, dried claylike soil scattered with rocky outcroppings on the horizon. The clouds overhead were heavy, but the air was dry, and a violent wind swept them over the dual moons and many stars.
But despite the troop of imps at their back and Xander leading them inside, Damien didn’t appear worried. There had been a flash of fervor at Xander’s offer that they begin working together, and then a pall of apathy settled over him. In the pallidness of his skin and dark circles beneath his eyes, he was only just wearing the exhaustion from what he’d done in Faebarrow Keep: releasing the Army of the Undead, commanding them, trading spells and swords with Cedric. The Brineberth occupying force had surely been staved off, perhaps even wiped out, by the skeletal soldiers he had called up from the infernal plane, taking back Faebarrow for its own people.
But that…that wasn’t why Damien did it. Not really. He had, of course, told the army what it would do, that they would drive out Brineberth troops and protect Faebarrow, but he had also, explicitly said, “fuck the barony,” and told Amma she was going with him when it was all over because it wasn’t safe for her to stay there. Amma had been willing, there was no questioning what her heart and body wanted, but what Damien truly wanted with her—that was still curious.
Except she did know one thing now for certain, revealed by Xander: Damien intended to release a demon in Eirengaard in order to destroy the realm.
Up the main stone steps that circled the exterior of Xander’s tower, they were finally brought inside, out of the whipping winds and dry air, and into a grand and imposing receiving hall. Damien’s violet eyes darted around though the rest of him remained stoic. The shadow creatures that had followed them all at a distance remained outside, the doors shutting behind. Xander’s too-light and cheery steps guided them into a smaller chamber just off the main hall, a receiving parlor of sorts, where a cozy fire was already lit along a curved wall.
With a small flourish, Xander pulled a chair away from a table in the room’s corner, motioning to it as he stood over the back. “Kitten, please, have a seat.”
Amma hesitated, glancing at Damien. When he nodded, she went to it and sat because despite now knowing his treacherous plans, even tangentially, she still trusted him. Xander, though, she trusted much less, and when he stepped around the chair and gave her a look up and down, she shivered, squeezing the Lux Codex tighter against her chest.
“I’m very flattered the two of you have dolled yourselves up so much to come see little, old me.”
Amma took a hand, dried blood smeared across it, to the fluffy skirt of her dress, the hem of the light blue tulle dusted heavily with red soil. It felt bizarre that only hours earlier she was sitting uncomfortably as her hair was done, her face painted, and her body cinched into the gown. She’d been sweating, yelling, and even forced out a few tears during their charade as she pretended to be Damien’s unwilling abductee from her own home, so she knew her face must look a wreck now, blonde strands falling free from the curls piled atop her head.
Damien, similarly, was also “dolled up,” as Xander said, in a dress uniform common to Faebarrow. It was a look Amma was familiar with, but she’d never been so attracted to it as she was now, the military-style jacket pulled open at Damien’s collar and exposing his chest where he had cut into his own skin to cast blood magic. His hair had been pushed back at one time, but it had predictably fallen in his face. The face that was growing more severe by the minute, jaw interminably clenched in Xander’s presence, even the long scar running from his forehead to cheek looking angry.
He had been so similarly angry when he fought Cedric, but there had been a moment before all the madness when his face was softer out on the balcony. When he said all that mattered was that she knew he was doing all of this for her. And then there were other moments when he addressed the assembled, when he played the part of a villain so well, when he said he would destroy everything and take her with him, when his face was wild and wicked. Amma couldn’t decide which was the real Damien. Maybe none, maybe all.
Xander took one of the two seats before the fireplace, folded his hands in his lap, and slung a leg up over the other. He sat his thin form back too comfortably, an amiable smile across his lips. In stark contrast to the other blood mage, Xander’s white hair was pulled into a knot at the back of his head, his sharp features were clean, and his dark eyes were filled with elation. The fire flickered across his tanned skin, warm and full of life, and he gestured for Damien to take the seat across from him.
Damien remained unmoving for a moment, staring at Xander and then the empty chair. His throat bobbed with a swallow, a bead of sweat dripping down to his collar, and he finally sat, hands on his knees to bolster himself. It was then Amma realized he was injured, but he never let it show on his face, pushing the pain away to sit up fully.
At her feet, Kaz scurried up in his true, imp form. He’d curled his ruddy tail about himself, fiddling with its pointed end in his claws, little, leathery wings pulled in. Sidling up to the leg of her chair, she could feel heat off his body, his eyes wide, never blinking. Kaz was almost always nervous, but never had he taken solace in being close to Amma, and that only heightened her own unease.
Damien sat back, tipping his head down, narrowing his eyes, and glaring at Xander as if he had been insulted. In return, Xander’s placid smile curled up on one side and his fingers steepled, knuckles cracking as he pushed his hands together. Damien cocked a brow at him, frowning deeper and huffing out a hearty sigh. Xander tipped his head to the side, the foot propped on his knee bouncing lightly.
Behind them, the fire crackled, the room’s only light, their forms growing more shadowed, more sinister with each passing moment as they continued to do nothing but just stare at one another as if it were some unspoken contest. The light fell into their deeply hollowed cheeks, reflecting in their eyes like the very pits of the infernal plane burned there. Neither spoke, simply trading half-smirks, wicked glares, and increasingly aggressive poses in the stiff-backed, too-elaborate, probably uncomfortable chairs. What in the Abyss were they doing?
“I can’t take it anymore!” Amma squeaked, and both men jerked toward her, thrown from their ridiculous game. “Someone say something!”
Damien snorted, a flicker of amusement on his face until Xander looked back to him. “I’ve blackened your name,” he said, delivering the news with a satisfied lilt. “The Army of the Undead has been unleashed under what has been declared as your order. The forces of Brineberth March of the realm of Eiren have been, by now, decimated. I expect the crown will consider it treason and put a call out for your head.”
Xander stared back, unmoving, hands folded again, and then his lips twitched until he broke down into a full-bellied laugh. “I would expect nothing less from you, Bloodthorne. Basest beasts, the Undead Army? No one’s used that thing in centuries! Skeletons are sort of blasé, though, don’t you think? They’re not my style anyway, but they sure do make a point, I suppose.”
Amma leaned forward, jaw hanging open. Xander was laughing at the fact Damien had blamed the treasonous act on him.
“It served its purpose,” said Damien, finally settling back himself and pressing the tips of his long fingers together.
“But I imagine that scroll would have been a bit more useful in Eirengaard to liberate dear, old daddy, no?”
Damien’s cool confidence waned, eyes flicking over to Amma at the mention of his father, the demon he intended to free. He swallowed.
“So, you must have something much better up your sleeve to get him out, and, as I said, I want in.” Xander’s dark eyes were wide, set on Damien expectantly, his smile tight lipped. He knew he had him, and similarly Damien knew too.
He shifted in the tall-backed chair, bringing a hand up to his chin and rubbing it, looking into the fire. “You’d like your mother out too, I wager.”
“Always sharp as a horn, you were,” said Xander. “I’ve been considering it ever since I figured out what you were doing. Imagine this,”—he sat up holding his hands out in front of him, fingers spread—“We head into the capital together, side-by-side—no one will see that coming—I’m thinking maybe we bring a few wyverns, I know a guy offering a good deal, oh, don’t look like that, they’re impressive, okay?”
Damien was apparently not doing a very good job at hiding the unease on his face at the mention of winged serpents.
“Maybe we’ll even get a dragon if we can convince one, and I know what you’re thinking, but not an infernal one—I’m actually interested in turning one of those divine things. Of course all my shadow imps will come along, and you can bring your little draekin army or whatever it is you keep up there in the mountains, and we march right up to that dominion spawn, cut off his head, and then we’ll break out my mother with whatever it is you’ve got planned, and I guess your father too, and then they can duke it out to decide who gets to reign supreme over the realm from the throne in Eirengaard. Whoever wins—mother, of course—will be pleased with both of us, either way, since we did it together, and I’m fairly sure they’d let the loser’s son live. At worst you’d be a trophy, but at best you’d be a ward—you remember, like the good, old days in Aszath Koth?”
Damien cocked a brow at Xander, eyes shifting back from the fire when he was finished speaking. Amma’s mouth went dry at that look, but if he was considering it, he did so silently.
Xander waited a moment longer then dropped his hands into his lap, pouting. “Well, I thought it was a marvelous idea. You, kitten, you think it’s a good idea, don’t you?”
With his dark eyes on her, willing her on to agree, Amma just pressed back into the chair on the room’s far side. “You both have a parent trapped in Eirengaard?”
Xander nodded. “His Majesty Archie, that king you serve in the realm, is a prolific if not picky demon hunter. My mother, Birzuma the Blasphemed, Ninth Lord of the Accursed Wastes and Nefarious Harbinger of the Chthonic Tower, is one of, if not his preeminent prisoner.” Of course, Amma had just heard Damien rattle off the same thing to the assembled in Faebarrow, though she had sort of thought he was making it all up. Xander turned back to Damien and smirked. “The better ninth lord of anything.”
“Please.” Damien’s eyes rolled with an untensing of his shoulders. “How difficult is it to lord over the Accursed Wastes? There’s nothing here. The Infernal Darkness is significantly more complex and evolved. It’s not even on this plane.”
“Oh, yes, it’s so difficult to be an Abyssal Tyrant, I guess.” Xander crossed his arms, sticking out his tongue. “We’re all blood mages, Damien, I don’t know why you get to have the sanguine throne.”
“It’s not mine, just like this tower isn’t yours, and you know it.” Damien sat forward slightly.
“Isn’t it?” Xander also sat forward, but quicker, his smile sharper as he nearly sprung from his chair. “Isn’t it yours to defend in Zag’s stead? Just as this place is mine?” He slipped a hand into the neckline of his top and revealed a thin vial of blood.
“Moronic,” said Damien, eyeing the vial. His lip curled, disgusted, and he leaned farther forward. “You can defend nothing if someone gets their hands on that blood of yours that you’ve preserved. All because you’re not willing to endure a little pain.”
“Who said I don’t like pain?” Xander perched just on the edge of his chair. “And if this is so simple to take away, then why don’t you come over here and show me how easy I am.”
Damien took a deep breath, veins in his neck tensing, violet eyes on Xander like they could burn him alive, and then all at once, he threw himself back into his chair with a huff. “We can argue for millennia about who’s the better blood mage, but the truth is, both of our parents are trapped in that bastard’s vault, fallen to a divine mage who calls himself a king, so we can’t prove a damn thing.”
Xander remained on the edge of his seat a moment longer, holding his breath, but finally relaxed back as well. “And killing you now won’t prove anything either—you’re so weak after that ruckus you caused, it would hardly be fair. I will admit I’m impressed you got my translocation portal to work so cleanly though. You didn’t even fall down the steps or anything. And you brought the human and the imp with you. Quite the expenditure of arcana, I imagine.” Xander stretched, arms behind his head, casually glancing in Amma’s direction. “So much so that I wonder if you’ve got much left in you to protect anything at all.”
Amma’s knee began to bounce nervously, bloodied fingers curling around the edges of the Lux Codex.
Damien sat forward again, quickly this time, face pinched as he tried to hide the pain he’d just caused himself. “When I agreed to your terms, it was for all of us. We have a bargain, but only for as long as you keep your hands to yourself. We’re obviously not leaving tonight to storm the capital, so first: our asylum.”
“Aw, sleepy?” Xander pouted, but he stood, stretching before the fireplace. “I suppose I am as well. Come on, then, why don’t we retire—”
“To our own rooms,” Damien cut him off, standing as well.
“Still no fun, as always. You’ll want clothes too, yes? And what else? A warm bath? Food? Darkness, so needy.” Smirking, he looked him up and down. “I know just what to put you in at least.”
“Nothing you own will fit me,” scoffed Damien, wider shouldered. “Not in size or style.”
“Oh, no, not my clothes. I just had someone recently who’s almost your identical build. Amazing in bed if his fashion sense is a little…meh.” He started to walk off, crooking a finger at Amma. “Someone your size too. If only I’d gotten them both together, now, that would have been a good time, though it does seem the opportunity has presented itself again, hasn’t it?”
Xander wandered off back into the main hall, calling out orders with a cheery lilt to unseen servants to make his guests comfortable. Amma eased herself over to Damien who was rubbing a temple and focusing very hard on putting one foot in front of the other as he was no longer under Xander’s eye.
Amma gently touched his arm, and he stiffened. “Everything will be fine,” he assured her without her asking, and continued on as if there were no problem at all, and she followed.
The tower had a set of stairs built into its center that wound upward in a spiral, each level set along a rounded balcony. As they traveled through the eerily quiet place, shadows moved at the corners of Amma’s vision, taking shape on occasion to look like a human or creature, but they always slipped swiftly out of view again. There was an urgency in the shadow creatures, running ahead as they floated, anticipating Xander’s needs. Sleeping chambers were near the top up even more of those steps. No wonder Xander was so thin, he was constantly climbing these things.
When they came to a single door, Xander paused briefly. “You’ll both find what you need inside. And if you need anything else,”—he pointed upward—“you know where to find me.” He then continued on upstairs, his light footsteps disappearing overhead, and they were left in silence.
Damien and Amma glanced at one another and then the single door, but when Damien swung it open, there was a small parlor inside with two bed chambers off of it. Amma wasn’t sure if it were relief or disappointment she were feeling, but when Damien shut the rest of the tower out, and the hollow silence of the stairwell was replaced by the more cloying silence of the closed chamber, it all changed to intense trepidation.
She went to step forward, but Damien threw out a hand. “Wait.” There was a pulse of arcana, one that he didn’t spill blood for, but that she could feel. It crackled out into the room like tendrils sweeping over everything, and then there was a yelp from each of the bed chambers.
“Unless you’d like to be banished, get out now,” Damien called into the space, and slips of shadow scurried through the doorways, keeping to the edges of the walls. Kaz flew upward to wrench the door open by its handle, and a darkness tripped over itself to escape. Kaz shoved the door closed again with a shiver.
“Even you don’t like those things?” Amma asked, rubbing away the chill from her arms through the thin fabric of her ruined dress.
Kaz shook his head, looking after where they’d gone. “They’re a whole different kind of imp. Sneaky and weird.” He clacked his claws together, placed himself low to the ground, and started scurrying off through the space. “I’ll check for anything else, Master.”
When he was gone, Amma looked over Damien standing limply beside her, gazing off into the fire burning blue in the parlor as if in a daze. “You look exhausted.”
He blinked over at her. “I’m fine.”
“Well,” she said softly, “thank you for…everything.”
“For stealing you?”
Her heartbeat sped up at the thought of truly being abducted, but that hadn’t been what happened, even if she was in a strange and frightening place. “For besmirching your name. Well, Xander’s name, I guess, but so many people saw your face, someone will put it together that you were lying eventually, and now you can never—” She cut herself off before going on, knowing what she wanted to say was…silly. Why would he ever want to go back to Faebarrow? “Well, you’ve just made things complicated for yourself.”
“It was nothing, really,” he said ruefully, taking a few slow steps deeper into the small parlor, giving it a look over. “I might not have actually been attacking your home or taking you against your will, but I am evil, after all.”
Amma’s stomach clenched, staring at the back of him, hands clasped, tall and looming as he blocked the fireplace, body like a shadow in the low lighting of the room. She wanted to scream at him to stop saying that, especially after what he had done for her, but then Xander had given away the secret Damien had been keeping, the plans he had made, the prophecy he was set to fulfill, and Amma had to remember she was a hitch in those plans—a hitch that needed to be resolved.
“I think I should go to bed,” said Amma, weary, and she started toward one of the rooms.
“Wait.” Damien’s voice cut into her, making her stop. “The Lux Codex. Sleep with it.”
Amma turned to him fully, gripping the book to her chest.
“Don’t just keep it nearby, but in the bed, against you. It will be the best deterrent.”
What exactly did he mean to deter? “You think Xander will come into our rooms?”
“I don’t know what he’ll do, but other than me, that book is the best protection in this place. It will keep anything infernal from touching you, including blood mages.”
Amma glanced down at the Lux Codex, trying to hide the warmth on her face and her preference for his body over some hard-edged book in her bed. She swallowed. “All right. I will.”
Kaz was just skittering out of the bed chamber as Amma went into it. He gave her a frustrated look, but confirmed there was nothing else inside. When she closed the door after him, she looked around as if she could identify the kinds of things Kaz might or even do anything about them if she could, then gave up.
Only the red, arcane glow of a pile of rough-cut rocks on a table at the foot of the bed lit the space, but it was an opulent room even in the dark and exactly Xander’s style. There was crimson and gold woven into everything, tapestries on the floor, the bedding, the wall hangings. She caught her reflection in a massive mirror with a gilded edge in the corner of the room, and she pushed off the door to go to it. She could see the room behind her, and even though she was donning a pale blue dress, she didn’t necessarily look out of place, just as done up, just as opulent as everything around her, but looking like she’d been dragged through the Abyss.
She was careful to put the Lux Codex right beside her as she finally reached to her back and wrestled with the cords to shuck off the poofy gown. It fell around her feet like a thick fog, but her body immediately felt better, the itch of the fabric gone, the weight of the layers gone, all of it gone, just like—she winced suddenly at the realization—just like her: she was gone. She had left…no, she had abandoned Faebarrow. Again.
Amma tripped, staggering out of the pile of fabric on the floor, catching herself on the edge of the bed before sinking to the ground. She sat there in her thin chemise, her dagger strapped to her thigh where she’d secured it before the banquet, just in case, suddenly cold in the space of the room and alone. This was what she wanted, she knew it, she asked for it.
Amma had spent a lifetime doing everything right only to have things go so wrong, and even as she had tried to fix things, they only got worse. Running away had been her only option before, so she did, on a desperate quest for magic to protect her home. But even if she had gotten the Scroll of the Army of the Undead back to Faebarrow on her own, how would she have read it not knowing Chthonic? How would she have commanded a skeletal army? She would have gotten everyone killed including herself. Or there was the much worse alternative, she realized, surviving the ordeal and being stuck with Cedric. She would have never been able to do anything for Faebarrow or herself without Damien.
But what about this decision? Accepting Damien’s offer to use the scroll on her behalf and then spiriting her away from whatever gruesome aftermath they left behind? And now she was sitting in the Chthonic Tower in a place called the Accursed Wastes with not one but two blood mages. Not to mention all of the imps.
Her eyes snapped back up to the small table where the Lux Codex was, and she scrambled on hands and knees to it. But when she reached for the book, the sight of the dried blood on her hands—Damien’s blood—made her freeze. He’d hurt himself for her, but he’d done that for himself too, hadn’t he? He certainly looked like he was enjoying the mayhem he’d called down on Faebarrow, the chaos, the death.
Amma shook her head and grabbed the Lux Codex, crushing it to her chest as she squeezed herself into a ball on the floor. What was she thinking? Moments before she had been pining over Damien, she’d been wrapped up in his arms, she’d almost kissed him, and now?
She had seen how his eyes flashed with eagerness at Xander’s offer, she had heard him say he was evil more times than she could count, and now she knew exactly what he was destined to do. It wasn’t enough that he had made himself the villain in her home, the place she had sworn to protect and love, but he was planning on razing the entire realm to the ground.
Amma squeezed the book even tighter between her knees and her chest, wrapping arms around her legs as her vision blurred with tears. Damien had told her, and she had refused to listen. It was easy to ignore the bloodcraft and his ominous if vague words when the plan wasn’t laid out in front of her, but his father wasn’t just an idea now, harmlessly living in some unreachable plane. He was a demon, the vilest being in existence save for the dark gods, and he had been trapped by King Archibald in a vault beneath Eirengaard to protect the realm for what had to have been a good reason—every crusade the king’s holy men went on was to drive evil from the land—but Damien’s goal, the prophecy given by the Denonfy Oracle, was to release him.
And he had to kill her to do it.
She’s promised to be loyal, dutiful, and obedient, but to whom?
Lady Ammalie Avington, Baroness of Faebarrow, has discovered the truth, and it should not come as a surprise: the blood mage who threatened, spellbound, and abducted her intends to bring ruin to the realm–the very one she is sworn to serve. It’s just a terribly inconvenient fact to learn because, well…he’s rather cute.
But it’s not safe to pine after the son of a demon, especially not whilst locked up in a tower surrounded by infernal beings and a rival for your affection, nor trapped below ground in a den of beguiling vampires, nor even in the heart of a wild jungle under the tutelage of esoteric witches. Amma just can’t help herself around Damien Maleficus Bloodthorne, danger be damned, but, truly, what danger is there? Damien’s heart, the one he swears to not have, has been softening right before her eyes. Nevermind the weird smoke that sometimes unwittingly emanates from his hands or that faraway look he gets to his eyes, and a voice she can’t hear telling him that he’s meant to be a vessel? Surely it’s all just a bad dream.
After finally tasting freedom and learning that Amma may have ancient, innate magical powers of her own, why not use them to do exactly as she pleases?