Mask of Shadows (Untitled #1)(6)

Grell lurched to his feet and leaned against his desk, towering over me with all his scars and muscles.

“And you want what for ratting him out?” Grell spread his arms in the least welcoming embrace I’d ever seen. “Doesn’t breed confidence keeping you around.”

“I don’t want to run with him anymore.” I fidgeted in fake fear and shuffled forward, pointing to the map of Kursk on the wall. Grell followed. “If he’s planning on splitting, he’ll muck us up. I’m not getting hanged because he’s thinking about leaving.”

“One job.” Grell leaned over my shoulder, exhaled sweet blue smoke, and tapped the map with a crooked finger. “Then you go back to your lot, and I replace Rath.”

“Thanks.” I yanked the pin with my name on it from the wall. It was heavy and thick, with a point sharp enough to pierce thin wood.

“No reward for snitching.” He tore Rath’s pin from the wall and tossed it aside. “Get out.”

I buried my pin in Grell’s neck. He flailed and clawed at his throat. I spun, my back hitting the wall. He reared, face pulled up in a wild, openmouthed sneer, and swung for my face. I caught it in the forearm and the hit shook my bones. His fingers curled around my arm.


He flung me across the room. I skidded over his desk, knocking papers and jewels to the floor and cracking my head on the ink blotter. I blinked away the black and pulled my knees to my chest. Grell gurgled.

Lady bless, I’d messed up. He’d a pin in his neck, wasn’t down, and was spitting angry. I yanked the knife from my boot.

Grell threw himself at me. I rammed my heels into his chest.

His ribs snapped.

Grell smacked backward into the wall, blood oozing from under the hand clutched to his neck. I slid off the desk, floor rolling beneath me and pain aching at the back of my head. I gripped the desk and swallowed the bile in my throat. My ears rang.

“I meant to be quick.” I slurred, my mind a step behind. “Sorry.”

Grell’s red-rimmed eyes fluttered open. Spurts of blood painted the wall, and he blinked at me. His breathing was quick and frantic, chest too tight, and I knelt before him. He tightened the hand around his neck.

“Nothing personal.” I stepped on his free arm, pinning it to the floor, and flipped my knife around. “But I need a hand.”

Grell tried to tug at my bootlaces, fingers weak, and I pressed my palm to his chest. His heart thrummed beneath my hand as it struggled to keep up with the hole in his neck. I slipped my knife between his ribs, slick and easy. Grell gasped.

His heart stopped.

His hand fell.

I eased away, bitterness stuck in the back of my throat. My knife clattered to the ground. Scattered gold and finger bones rolled around my feet as I pried Grell’s old sword from the wall behind his desk. My heart tried to beat its way out of my chest.

I’d the appropriate skill.

I took another breath, fingers catching up with my thoughts as I grasped the sword with both hands. I sliced the blade through Grell’s wrist. His bones snapped as easily as Rath’s, and the scrape of metal against him shuddered down my spine. The sword slipped from my trembling hands.

He was only Grell.

He wasn’t good, not even a little bit. He’d taken nine-year-old Rath’s finger with a laugh and a sharpened knife.

Opal wouldn’t be bothered. Grell had to die, and I had to do it, like Opal with one of Our Queen’s marks. Wasn’t anything wrong with this.

This burning weight writhing in my chest and bubbling up my throat had no place in Opal’s life.

I coughed, heaved, and lost my breakfast in the corner. Up and out, no more of that. Nothing left to make me sick over killing Grell. He’d made his choices, and I’d made mine. I would be Opal.

With Grell da Sousa’s hand heavy in mine, I fled.


I left town soon as I was done scrubbing the blood from my tunic. I fit in well enough with the other dust-covered travelers on the wagon heading to Willowknot, the city next to the new palace, but I ran out of money after three days on the road. All I could do was pick at the dried blood under my nails.

I wasn’t used to all that happened with Grell. I’d not been able to stand the sight of blood for years after the war. It was too wrong, too against everything I’d been taught as a kid. Just had to get familiar with it again.

My home, Nacea, had been small, wedged between Erlend and Alona and ruled from afar by Erlend lords. A territory allowed to keep its queen and god in exchange for tribute.

Then Erlend and Alona went to war and called their mages to the front lines. Nacea didn’t deal in magic. The Lady, our godly Lady of Nacea, was not to be stolen from. She wasn’t human or flesh but magic in every form. Mages used her up, forced her into the old handwritten language of runes, and devoured her power.

She devoured them right back—runes rotted their flesh and minds, leaving nothing but mindless souls.

Shadows of the people they’d once been.

The Erlend mages didn’t know, of course. They’d never pushed so far, tried so hard for innovation than during the war, but the damage was done. The perfect soldiers they’d tried to make couldn’t be called back. The shadows had no bodies and no minds, only broken souls, memories of a face, and an all-consuming need to get back their stolen flesh. They scoured the lands looking for themselves and flayed the skin off any they found.

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