Alone for a millennium, since a human murdered her beloved consort, Ashra, the immortal icrathari queen, rules over Aeternae Noctis, the domed city of eternal night. Her loneliness appears to be at an end when her consort’s soul is reborn in a human, Jaden Hunter, but their reunion will not be easy.
Icrathari are born, not made. If Ashra infuses Jaden with her immortal blood, he will be a vampire, a lesser creature of the night, a blood-drinker rather than a soul-drinker.
Furthermore, Jaden is sworn to protect his half-sister, five-year-old Khiarra. She is the child of prophecy, destined to end the eternal night and the dominion of the Night Terrors—the icrathari and the vampires.
As Ashra struggles to sustain her crumbling kingdom in the face of enemies without and treachery within, Jaden fights to defend his sister and unravel a greater mystery: what is the city of eternal night, and how did it come to be?
In silence, the humans waited. They continued to hope even though they knew that the sturdy walls of the stone cottage would not keep death out.
The fire burned low, its embers glowing. A young woman, her lips pressed into a flat line, sat by the fireplace. A large pitcher of cheap wine trembled between her thin fingers. Men stood guard at the doors and windows, each armed with a sword and an unlit torch soaked in pitch. In the middle of the room, ten children huddled in the protective embrace of their mothers.
The children had reached their fifth year since the last full moon. Grubby-faced angels, all of them, their eyes wide above their pale cheeks—how many of them would survive the night remained to be seen.
Jaden Hunter’s deep green eyes focused on his half-sister, Khiarra, seated on his stepmother’s lap. The child reached up and touched her mother’s face. “Mama, are they coming soon?”
Lydia swallowed hard and pressed her cheek against Khiarra’s hair. Her eyes glistened with tears, but she said nothing.
Jaden glanced out of the window. The full moon inched higher, its glow unhindered by a cloudless night outside the dome that surrounded the city. Its light bathed the mountains and pine forests in silver. Waterfalls cascaded, the spray rising like mist to obscure the craggy peaks.
The untouchable beauty of Earth lay in full view outside the dome.
Within the dome, the city of Aeternae Noctis sprawled across two miles, fringed by fields and thin clusters of trees. At the tallest point within the dome, Malum Turris, the vampires’ stronghold, loomed over the city. As a teenager, Jaden had broken his first sword against its unyielding black walls. The pale glow emerging from the uppermost windows encircled the tower like a bracelet.
He clenched his teeth against the familiar knot of despair-laden anger that coiled in his stomach. Malum Turris was a beacon of evil, a lighthouse that offered death instead of salvation.
He turned at his father’s touch, gentle against his elbow.
Gareth’s hoarse voice murmured in his ear. “She will bring the tower down.”
Jaden glanced at his half-sister. Would she? He doubted, but it would have been too cruel to shatter his father’s belief in the prophecy bestowed upon Khiarra at her birth.
On that blessed night, his father’s aged face had shone with pride when the wise woman laid her hand over the infant’s forehead. Her quavering voice had carried through the quiet city square. “Through her you will see the Night Terrors for who they are. Shred the veil of deception to end the eternal dark.”
The crowd roared with triumph. Hope, for the first time, flickered in all hearts.
Jaden alone noticed that the wise woman had turned her head and fixed her cloudy, unseeing eyes upon him. She smiled, exposing toothless gums.
He had only been twenty-three, but since that moment, his life had been devoted to protecting his half-sister. He had held Khiarra’s hand, supporting her when she learned to walk, and saved her from an irate rooster after she plucked feathers from its tail. Just a week earlier, he fished her out of the lake filled by the waterfalls spilling from the lower levels of Malum Turris.
Khiarra swept her wet hair from her eyes. She wore her most innocent expression. “I wanted to get this pretty stone for you.” She uncurled her fingers and held up a small black stone, worn smooth by the passage of water and time.
“Thank you.” He accepted the gift with as much solemnity as she had offered it. Suppressing a chuckle, he wrapped her in his dry shirt and carried her home where they both received a scolding from Lydia.
Lydia’s perpetual anxiety over Khiarra blossomed into fear by the night of the first full moon after Khiarra’s fifth birthday. Jaden glanced at his stepmother; Lydia’s arms enfolded her daughter in a grip too tight to be called a caress.
Jaden sighed, more motion than sound, as he closed his hand around the black stone he carried in his pocket. Each night of the full moon, the vampires descended upon the city and carried away most of the five-year-old children. No one knew what became of the children. If Khiarra, the child of prophecy, was taken, what hope was there for the rest of them?
Gareth continued, his voice pitched low. “If anything happens to me, you must step up to lead the people, especially now that Stefan is gone. The people look to you as Khiarra’s protector and as my son.”
Gareth’s gaze traveled past Jaden’s shoulder, across the wide expanse of uniform brick houses crowded on cobblestone streets, and fixed on the black tower. “For a thousand years, the Night Terrors have separated us from the rest of the people on Earth and imprisoned us within the dome. Their sorcery hides the sun from us, traps us in their eternal night.” He shook his head. “This nightmare has to end. You must see Khiarra succeed. She alone can stop the Night Terrors from tearing men from their wives, children from their mothers—” He stopped, his voice choked with emotion.
A child against the Night Terrors? What could Khiarra do? Yet what choice did Jaden have but to protect the sister he loved? He released his breath in another quiet sigh and nodded.
“Are they coming soon?” Khiarra asked again.
A shadow soared across the silver moon, offering the briefest glimpse of bat-like wings—an icrathari, one of the vampires’ demonic overlords. Jaden reached over his shoulder and drew a sword from the leather sheaths that crisscrossed his back. His grip tightened on his unlit torch.
The door burst open. Behind Jaden, the fire fanned to sudden flame. Jaden’s sword flashed out in time to catch the edge of a guard’s descending blade before it cleaved Michael’s face in two.
“Damn it, man.” He glared at his best friend. “What are you doing here?”
A jittery warrior stepped back, abashed, lowering his sword and muttering apologies to Jaden and Michael.
“I had to come.” Michael looked at Jaden, and then at the children in the center of the room. His unshaven face appeared even grimmer than usual. “It’s Andrew’s turn next month. How can I ask you to defend him if I will not help you defend your own?”
A hesitant female voice spoke up. “The fire…”
Jaden glanced over his shoulder at the young woman standing by the fireplace. Her pitcher of red wine was empty; its contents consumed by the fire. So much for his plan to fan the embers into sudden flame when the vampires arrived. He had hoped that the bright light would disorient the creatures of the night. His people needed every possible advantage if they were to win a fight they had never won before.
Instinct rather than sight or sound screamed a warning.
Jaden’s head snapped up a moment before a powerful shove sent Michael stumbling into the cottage. Shadows filled the open doorway. A voice, too deep and resonant to be human, spoke. “We are here for the children. There is no need for the rest of you to fight and die.”
He had no intention of standing by while they took his sister. Jaden spun and shoved his unlit torch into the fireplace. The pitch-soaked torch caught fire, and he swung it around, tracing a circle of flame as he lunged toward the vampire.
Smirking, the vampire evaded Jaden’s attack with careless indifference and swiped out with gleaming pearlescent talons. Jaden deflected the vampire’s clawed hands with his sword, and shoved the smoking torch at the vampire. The monster seized the torch, yanked it out of Jaden’s grip, and extinguished the fire in the folds of its cloak. Flames briefly scorched its clothes, searing its skin, but it only smiled, baring its elongated incisors at Jaden. Within moments, its blackened skin faded to a pale hue.
The vampire lashed out. Jaden parried the first attack, but the second broke through his defenses. Like an anvil, the impact of the blow smashed into him and flung him into a wall. Stunned with pain, he groaned and rolled onto his side. His vision swam in and out of focus. Apparently indifferent to the thick smoke wafting through the cottage, vampires tossed aside human warriors as if they were rag dolls, and pulled children from their mothers’ arms.
The creatures, once human but no longer, placed their hands on each child’s forehead in a gesture that seemed both deliberate and gentle. What were they doing? Jaden shook his head, his brow furrowing. No, the smoke and the disorientation—his eyes had to be deceiving him. Two children were returned, unharmed, to their screaming mothers, but the others were seized and carried from the cottage, including Khiarra.
Jaden pushed to his feet and stumbled from the cottage, leaving behind the groans of injured men and weeping women. He reached over his shoulder and unsheathed his second sword. Double blades in his hands, he threw himself at a vampire, the last to depart the cottage. It spun around, dropping the child it was carrying. Jaden ducked under the vampire’s attack and lunged forward, stabbing the creature through its heart. With his other hand, he swung his blade and slashed across the vampire’s neck.
Its head rolled off its shoulders. The vampire’s body sank to its knees and toppled sideways. Blood, gold-tinged crimson, oozed from its body.
Jaden pulled the screaming child to his feet, and shoved him into the cottage. Another vampire sprinted toward him, talons extended. Jaden twisted away, but its claws swiped across his abdomen. The pain scarcely registered against the burst of adrenaline. He completed his spin, and his swords swung out. He took off the vampire’s head with one sword and stabbed it through the heart with the other.
Overwhelm its unnatural healing capabilities. Strike two fatal blows. It was the only way he knew of to kill a vampire.
No one, though, knew how to kill an icrathari. It had never been done.
Like the first, the vampire dropped to the ground, never to rise again.
The other vampires turned on him, but before they could attack, shadows flickered through the air and unfurled to reveal an ethereal creature. Scarcely five feet tall, it was so slender it seemed almost delicate. Its skin was pale, and its silver hair wove into a long braid that it wore down its back. Its large gray eyes slanted upward in a finely featured face that mirrored the murals of angels in the city square.
Its angelic innocence was a fragile illusion. Bat-like wings stretched outward ten feet from wingtip to wingtip, and the horn-shaped bones that emerged from each juncture between the flaps of the black leathery wings were encased in studded metal. Dressed in a leather bustier, pants, and matching boots, the icrathari strode past the silent vampires.
Jaden, his green eyes narrowed into slits, watched for the flash in its eyes, for the split-second warning prior to its attack.
It never happened.
The serene expression on its face did not change. In a blur of motion, it spun toward him; its wings swung out like a living weapon. The metallic tips of its wings smashed into Jaden’s face and chest, hurling him to the ground. Before he could spit the blood from his mouth, it seized him and dragged him to his knees. Its small fingers wrapped into his dark hair and pulled back his head, baring his throat for the fatal kiss of his own blade.
Khiarra, held fast by a vampire, sobbed out his name. Her arms reached out to him.
The icrathari paused. In a lightning-fast move, it released his hair and pressed its hand against his stomach.
Jaden sucked in his breath as his vision spun into shades of gray. Images flashed before his eyes, too quickly to be visible. Sounds and voices pounded through his skull, too jumbled to be coherent. Shards of raw agony pierced him. He gasped, sobbing for each hard-won breath of air.
The icrathari pulled its hand away, and Jaden crumpled to his hands and knees. Nausea ripped the contents of his stomach. His body shuddered from the violation. He vomited. The acrid scent of blood and bile filled his nostrils.
Although he was too weak to win, he fought when the vampires dragged him to his feet. Their low, mocking laughter at his pitiful attempts to wrench himself free echoed through his aching skull. One of the vampires picked up Jaden’s twin blades and strode toward him. Jaden, teeth gritted, braced for death, but before either blade could enter his body, a sharp pain exploded against the back of his skull, dragging him down into darkness.