Prologue: A Husk of Mortality
Tristan could feel everything. The timber and chiseled stone that crumbled, whined, and withered under the consuming destruction of his flames. The scent of hellfire swirled within the cloak of smoke that curled and rose towards the heavens as it purged earth and flesh below. The chapel’s skeletal structure’s shuddering screams pierced through the insidious furnace as it groaned and succumbed to its blistering fate.
Kritanta’s magic pulsed from Tristan’s chest with every heartbeat. It hummed with life, death, and destruction to each of his fingers and toes. He could feel it channeling from his lungs to the very ends of his midnight-blue curls.
The power of a god radiated through him, ready to unfurl at Tristan’s command—and yet—he was powerless to stop the life that faded away from the husk of human flesh cradled in his arms.
Alex’s skin cracked around the corners of his eyes like crisp paper. His lips and eyelids were burned raw. His salt and pepper hair now a singed mat of soot against his blackened scalp. The only part of him that still looked human were those coal-black eyes, now rimmed with red veins, that stared back at Tristan and promised him an eternity in hell.
“I’m—sorry.” The words came out, even though Tristan knew they would never be enough. “It’s—” His voice choked, strangled by guilt and horror, as Tristan felt his comrade’s limbs begin to crumble.
Alex’s words, barely a whisper, were muffled by the chapel that collapsed behind them. Sparks of insatiable flames flickered out across the courtyard but died the moment they exceeded the barrier that Tristan had placed around the church.
“My Prince.” The shadow guard’s leader limped closer tentatively.
Tristan ignored him and focused on the dying man in his arms, unwilling to abandon Alex while life still flickered in his comrade’s eyes.
‘Is this all I have to look forward to? The torment of those I never meant to kill dying in agony before my eyes.’
Alex’s chest did not move. His eyes did not blink nor flicker with movement. The scraps of his clothes that remained had melted into his skin like hardened wax. Only the faint wheeze of air between the assassin’s cracked lips told Tristan he still lived.
“There has to be—some way—to save him,” Tristan growled, even though he knew it was hopeless.
“My Prince,” the shadow murmured and heaved a heavy sigh. “The damage inside and out is too severe. The most merciful thing would be to let him die—quickly.”
Tristan’s fingers tightened against the shell of Alex’s body. The charred surface cracked and gave way at his touch as small chips of flesh broke free and fell to the ground.
“Don’t—cry—you bastard—” Alex’s last words contained the ghost of a smile even as a ragged breath shivered past his lips before they went utterly still. The light in the assassin’s hellish eyes flickered out, but the crooked tilt of his lips mocked death even in his horrific state.
There are no words for the pain that cut Tristan open as he gripped the shell of a man he had much admired—now nothing more than a burnt empty remnant. There was no magic to preserve the dry corpse that crumbled to dust before his eyes. The callous breeze that scattered the Master of the Fox Den from Tristan’s fingertips is but a mockery of the greatness the pure-blood was blessed with—yet could not control.
“My Prince, we should leave.”
Tristan exhaled sharply. His dust-stained fingers stared back at him as a tear burned down his cheek. The will to move and think eluded him. Images crashed and blurred together within his tormented mind.
The day King Henri stripped him of his crown. General Liam’s betrayal at Deadwood Pass. The ambush that had buried Tristan beneath a rockslide; and his oath to Kritanta. The power the goddess of death and destruction had granted him that now coiled below his skin. The same damnable hunger that leaked free whenever the beast within him woke.
Tristan had survived to seek revenge, but at what cost? Now he was chained to a dragon he could not control by an oath to a goddess he could not break.
After eradicating General Liam and the remnants of the Red Wolf Army, Tristan had fallen into a magic-induced sleep. He awoke in Ventrayna, where he had been reunited with Emperor Arius, that man who now claimed to be his birth father.
Whether Arius had indeed sired him little mattered. A year in Ventrayna had been long enough for Tristan to see what sort of tyrant the Emperor was and how treacherous the courts of witch covens could be.
So Tristan returned to Lafeara and began his war upon the corruption that empowered those who had betrayed him. Marquess Borghese was at the top of that list; after all, if anyone had something to gain from the death of two queens, it was the man who had put forward Lady Serilda, the King’s secret mistress.
Tristan had met Alex just as he’d begun to dismantle Borghese’s underground network of slavery that sold children to monsters, women to brothels, men to pagans, half-witches to the church, and witches to Ventrayna.
The Master of the Fox Den reminded Tristan that there were still those, even in the filthiest part of the capital, who wished to cleanse the corruption that lurked among Lafeara’s highest noble families.
Alex had led him to Lady Maura, who, in turn, had led him to Nero.
‘Fate is a cruel Mistress.’ Tristan rose slowly and stared into the burning inferno as he clutched his still burning chest. Beneath his shaking fingers, Tristan could sense, could still feel the monster that had taken control of his body. ‘Who am I—what have I become?’
He had lived on revenge, fear, and bitterness for over two years. No longer the Crown Prince of Lafeara. Not welcome by the Empress in Vetrayna’s royal court either. Tristan had become a ghost in every sense of the word. The Emperor had permitted his return to Lafeara to find Catalina’s killer, and yet—Tristan had failed.
‘I came this close to both her killer—and the Witch Star.’ Tristan ground his teeth together until he tasted blood. ‘But I couldn’t hold back enough to protect my allies, and I wasn’t strong enough to kill that snake-bellied pretender. What is the point of Kritanta’s blessing if I can’t control this power?’
“Are you in control?” the beast within his skin taunted. “Or is your fear controlling you?”
Tristan dragged his ashen hands along his scalp as his gaze dropped to Alex’s scattered remains. ‘It should have been mother’s killer burned to ash—but I failed her—again. The most powerful pure-blood in Lafeara—and I can’t even kill a half-witch?’
“Ha!” His bitter, hollow laugh echoed through the billowing smoke as the wind changed direction. The wet trail upon Tristan’s cheek evaporated as his hands tightened into fists.
“There is no greater weakness than doubt. No quicker way to shackle an Immortal than mercy.”
“My Prince.” The shadow leader limped closer, and hesitantly, reached out to touch Tristan’s shoulder. “My Prince, we must—”
Like dry grass upon a burning ember, the shadow guard’s hand then arm caught flame as Tristan whipped his head around and roared, “Do not touch me!”
The shadow leader danced back, clutching his burning arm as a strangled scream of pain brought him to his knees. Other shadow guards rushed forward and pushed him to the ground as they attempted to quench the flames with their cloaks.
Tristan blinked slowly as the scene before him registered through the fog of anger that clouded his reason. The dragon at his back chuckled darkly before it evaporated into the breeze. Tristan hurried to the screaming man’s side and extended his hand.
Tristan flinched as the female voice, rippling with power, chanted the incantation.
The assassins sprang back from their comrade, barely in time to avoid the flames that erupted over his entire body—and burned their leader to ash within seconds. The shadow’s dying screams echoed in Tristan’s ears as the two female witches glided gracefully towards them through the smoke.
Princess Aurelia, Tristan’s older half-sister, glittered in her scarlet and gold witch armor. Her jet-black hair trailed over her shoulders and down her back in braids adorned with onyx gemstones. Her golden skin reflected the light of the burning chapel while her deadly copper-brown eyes fixed upon him with a look of disgust and hatred.
Behind her, Lady Isleen, an equally talented pure-blood fire witch, stared towards the smoldering rubble of the chapel. Her dark midnight eyes, as always, were filled with an expression of wary caution.
Aurelia strutted through the dead man’s dust as the remaining shadow guards knelt before her in silence. Although two years older than Tristan, she was five inches shorter, a fact that always drew Aurelia’s scarlet red lips into a hard line of disapproval as she lifted her gaze to meet his.
“Father is tired of waiting,” Aurelia informed him coldly in Ventrayna. “Time to come home, bastard.”
Tristan’s jaw clenched as he stared down at her and cracked a smile. “It’s been a while, Aurelia.”
“Princess Aurelia,” she corrected without hesitation. “And I don’t appreciate being sent on an errand to bring home some pathetic wayward scab.”
“I am not finished here,” Tristan interjected quickly.
“Humph,” Aurelia snorted as her gaze drifted past him towards the chapel. “Haven’t done enough damage yet—have we?” She extended her hand, gracefully. Golden bracelets adorned with ruby scorpions glittered as they cascaded down her slender arm. “Perhaps the bastard needs a demonstration from a true fire witch,” she suggested as she flicked her fingers.
The fire serpent that snaked around her wrist hissed longingly in the direction of the capital that lay beyond Tristan and the burning chapel.
“No,” Tristan growled. “The Emperor doesn’t want a war with Lafeara.”
“Times have changed,” Aurelia scoffed as she brushed her braided jeweled hair over her shoulder. “As loathed as I am to admit it—I think the only thing that stopped Father from bringing Lafeara into his empire was Catalina and well—you.”
Pain twisted in his chest even as Tristan rejected her words. Catalina had died when he was five-years-old. For the past fourteen years, the Emperor had left his son alone in Lafeara to live with Catalina’s killers. Only after Tristan had been banished, nearly assassinated, and taken under the protection of Kritanta had Arius shown up to embrace his son and welcome Tristan to Ventrayna.
‘I traded a den of wolves for a pit of scorpions, and “family” on both sides want me dead.’
The talented witch princess that stood before him had once been crown princess of Ventrayna until her mother, Empress Alexandria, attempted to kill Tristan. The assassin she had sent died after drinking his own poison, but the furious Emperor quickly used the Empress’s foolish move to revoke Aurelia’s title.
Now his half-sister hated him with every spark of her witch fire, and Tristan couldn’t blame her. If anyone understood what it was like to be stripped of everything, he did.
“Well then, bastard?” Aurelia teased as the flame serpent grew steadily larger. “What shall it be? Come home willingly? Or should I set fire to Lafeara first and then drag you back?”
Tristan stared at his half-sister with a sigh of resignation. They might share the same father, but their personalities couldn’t be more different. Aurelia was everything Tristan despised. A powerful monster who relished setting cities on fire and preferred to rule through fear, cruelty, and intimidation—not unlike the Emperor.
Then again, if Tristan was brutally honest with himself, Aurelia represented everything Tristan feared he would become if he gave in to the dragon and Kritanta’s power.
He stepped forward instinctively and grabbed his half-sister’s wrist. Aurelia’s eyes narrowed in warning as her body tensed to fight, but the flame serpent coiled around her arm let out a feeble snarl before it withered and died as Tristan’s magic overpowered her own.
Aurelia’s eyes burned with rage as she tried, and failed, to yank herself free.
“Not today, Sister,” Tristan said calmly as he maintained his grip. He glanced from Lady Isleen to the shadow guards around them, none of whom dared to raise their voice or gaze in protest. “Come, let us return to Vetrayna.”
“Of course, Prince Tristan,” Isleen murmured and dipped into a curtsy as he strode past her dragging a fuming Aurelia behind him. “The shadow guards have already prepared the fastest desert horses for us. We should be home in about four days.”
Tristan ignored her; he would never call Vetrayna home. Tristan did not have a home. And as long as Nero continued to draw breath, a part of Tristan would forever remain—a ghost.