Shadows Before the Sun
THE SIREN CITY OF FIALLAN
His muscles tensed, going rock hard as the whip sliced through the air with a long, brutal sigh. The glowing barb flashed over the walls of the chamber and struck his left shoulder blade, sinking in deep and then ripping flesh as its power burned like acid through the wound.
A shocked gasp lodged in his throat. The pain strung his body taut, frozen, as though time itself had paused to acknowledge the vicious blow.
In a blink, time moved on and the barb withdrew, catching and slicing the flesh over his hip as his breath returned in a great, shaky rush. His head fell forward, hanging low between his shoulders and pulling down painfully on his arms.
Shackles held his wrists high above his head—so high only the balls of his bare feet touched the cold stone floor.
“A lash for every year you denied us.”
The voice was so beautiful and pure, so powerful and deep, like nothing he’d ever heard from a siren before.
The initial strike of the whip had clouded his vision with pain, but his sight cleared and he saw them; the three witches who held sway over the king and the entire city of Fiallan.
All three were similar in height and looks except for the color of their eyes. Some said they were sisters, some said triplets, but there was no one left alive who knew for sure. Their regal bearing and siren looks were deceptive, though. They clung greedily to their power with ancient, iron fists, still denying the natural deaths that should have taken them eons ago.
“Two hundred fourteen in all,” the one on the right spoke, green eyes lighting in earnestness.
He growled at them, adrenaline fueling his wrath and dulling his pain for a brief moment. The arcane barb on the end of the whip would impede his natural ability to heal, to knit his wounds back together. That many strokes might kill him. The old bitches were ensuring he would suffer before he died.
“But sisters . . .” the one on the left said excitedly. “He has denied each of us.”
He wrapped his hands around the chain above him, cursing his inability to attack, to summon his power, to call upon his voice. The helplessness burned through him as harsh and bitter as the barb that had opened his flesh.
“True. Very true.”
“Two hundred fourteen leashes for each of us, then.”
Rage urged him to fight, to kill. And yet he could do nothing. He struggled and tried to speak, to curse them, to show his complete and utter hatred, but he could not. Nothing came. His words were hindered by the Circe’s magic, so he growled between ragged breaths, promising them with his eyes that they’d pay.
Oh, they’d pay. Even if he had to come back from the dead, he’d see them pay for every Malakim they’d destroyed, every life they stole. This was not finished.
“Stop when he loses consciousness,” the Circe told the whip master. “And continue your count when he wakes. He must feel every lash.”
The middle one stepped closer, her head only coming to the height of his heart. She lifted her chin. “Do not waste your time praying for death. You will not die, Malakim. Every time your body gives up and your soul prepares to leave, it will be forced to endure until the final lash is struck.”
The second one stepped up to join her sister. “And once it has, perhaps then we will grant you leave to meet your family in the afterlife.”
The third joined in. “Welcome home, Niérian, strongest of the Malakim sirens. Welcome home, traitor. With you the great house of Elekti-Kairos comes to an end.”
They watched him, eyes wide and eager and . . . waiting.
Waiting until he understood, until he realized the implications of their words. Cold crept over his skin. The last of his family? That could not be true. When he’d left, his family was large, joined of the two great Malakim houses of Elekti and Kairos through marriage. It had been filled with sons and daughters, nieces and nephews . . .
The Circe smiled in eerie tandem as the truth hit him harder than any barb they could ever wield.
“And now you understand the depth of your betrayal.”
“Someone had to pay, after all.”
“All gone. Every last one, but you.”
They left him then.
A scream of despair, bleak and cold, pushed on his chest, but he was unable to release it. Unable to do a goddamned thing. His pulse came rapid and erratic. Only a wounded, angry groan issued from his throat, finding its way past gritted teeth and out through lips wet from tears.
They were gone. All of them. Wiped out.
Because he had dishonored them.
Because he had escaped from the tower where he had gone willingly and proudly as a child, where his power had helped feed the four rings of protection that strengthened the inner wall around Fiallan.
Being a Malakim, a guardian, was a thousand-year-old tradition and the highest honor one could receive in Fiallan.
But it was all a lie. A horrible, horrible lie.
The Malakim never asked to stay in the towers after their seven years of service was done. There was never any choice, never an escape or a survivor who could tell the truth about the Circe’s towers.
He’d found a way to disconnect himself from the grid—as he called it. He alone knew the truth. Once he escaped, his ring fell, alerting the Circe and the king. They fought in the tower and, somehow, he’d managed to throw the king into the grid, a move that eventually cost the king his life.
Then he’d fled. Branded a traitor and murderer, the first ever in a long line of guardians to dishonor his family.
He had no knowledge of how to care for himself, how to eat, what to eat; the basics were unknown to him, as the grid had taken care of him in the way that power does.
For two hundred years, he lived in the sidhé forests of Gorsedd, learning, growing in strength, and finally leaving to make his own way, always training, learning, and preparing to one day return and liberate the Malakim once and for all.
Only that day had come sooner than he’d planned . . .
He never imagined his family would pay for his desertion; that an entire lineage would end with him. While he was learning and growing and, eventually, thriving in another world under a new name, they were dying.
Christ. They were all dead.
The lash whispered through the air once again and this time when it hit, he accepted the excruciating pain as his due.