Chapter 1

Alaric whistled as he strolled down the corridor with a book in hand. An hour in the library at the end of a long day always helped him to unwind. Spending the whole day with his nose in a book would have been better, but his father would have disapproved. How anyone could claim such a wealth of knowledge wasteful is beyond me. A king especially. As a prince, Alaric felt it was his sworn duty to expand his knowledge. Someday, the people of Whitefort would rely upon him and he wasn't going to let his ignorance lead to the kingdom's downfall.

Striding past his chamber door, Alaric greeted the two soldiers standing guard at the hallways' junction. "Good evening, Werner. Sigmund. I hope your families are well?"

"Indeed, Your Highness," Werner answered, a grin on his face. "Milla and I've got a new baby on the way. She's sure it'll be a girl this time."

Alaric clapped the man on the back. "That is wonderful news! Tell her congratulations for me."

"Will do, Sir."

He left the men at their post, chattering away, and turned the corner. Halfway down the hall Alaric stopped before a rich mahogany door, just as he did every other night. From inside the room came a child's muffled complaints, followed by a woman's scolding reply. Alaric couldn't help but smile as he rapped his knuckled on the door. After a brief pause, he turned the knob and entered the room. Inside, Cyanne ushered their son to bed. But Stefan would not go without a fight.

"But, Mother, one day I will be king and a king should get to set his own bedtime," Stefan argued.

Cyanne pulled back the covers. Unlike Alaric, she never gave in to the boy. "And when you are king you can. Until then, I will decide such things."

Stefan grumbled but climbed into bed without saying another word.

"I could always read you The History of the Seven Kingdoms if you are having trouble falling asleep," Alaric said, holding up the book in his hand. "I know how it is your favorite."

Stefan threw the covers up over a head of unruly, dark hair. "Alright I'll go to bed. Just please don't read me that book again, Father. It's so boooring."

"Boring?" Alaric asked as he raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Without what came before our family would not rule Whitefort as we do now, nor would your grandfather be King, and most importantly, the Everhart's could not serve for the betterment of their people."

With a sigh, Stefan pulled the covers down to just below his chin. "But do they have to make it sound so boring?"

Alaric chuckled. "I despised history when I was your age as well. Perhaps when you are older you will understand its importance, but until then, I will let your mother handle the bedtime stories."

"I think I am getting too old for bedtime stories," Stefan announced.

"I think you're right," his mother agreed. "Eight years old, you're practically a man." Her eyes met Alaric's as she tried to hide her amusement.

"Then I will leave you to sleep a man's sleep, my lord," Alaric said before kissing his son atop his head.

"Goodnight, Father. Goodnight, Mother." And with that, Stefan turned over in his bed and feigned sleep.

Alaric and Cyanne crept over to the door where an uncomfortable silence hovered over them. Neither one met the other's gaze. While Cyanne tucked a lock of chocolate hair behind her ear, Alaric reached for the door knob.

"Goodnight, Cyanne," he said, turning to leave.

"Alaric?" Cyanne's voice held a trace of uncertainty.

Finally, he met her gaze. Her eyes were the same shade of golden brown as they had been on their wedding day over eight years before. "Yes?"

Her eyes drifted toward the ground. "Nothing. Goodnight."

As Alaric left the room, his high spirits dwindled. He paused outside the door, debating whether or not to go back in. I care about Cyanne, I truly do, but I just can't give her what she wants. When the light shining beneath the door disappeared he walked back toward his own chambers. The look on Cyanne's face as they had said goodnight pained him. Again, he debated going back, but his feet continued to carry him forward. I can speak to her tomorrow. Maybe by then I will know what to say.

By the time he reached his bedchamber Alaric yearned for sleep. He hadn't felt tired only minutes before, but now he could barely keep his eyes open.

Once inside, he slid out of his clothing, leaving them strewn across the floor. Then, after blowing out the bedside candle, he climbed beneath the heavy covers.

In seconds he began drifting off in a peaceful slumber, knowing that the morning would bring a bright new day. But something brought him awake—a soft, almost imperceptible noise somewhere in the room. His eyes shot open. A figure bathed in shadow stood over him. At that moment, Alaric knew he was going to die.

Rune looked down at the prince of Whitefort. His wide, blue eyes stared back at her. He looked so helpless, so vulnerable laying there. For the hundredth time she questioned whether she was making the right decision. Her king had ordered her to kill Alaric Everhart. Doing so would bring them closer to finding the cure. After all, what was one more life out of the vast numbers already slain by her hands? Nothing was more important than the cure. She knew what she must do.

As the prince moved to call out, Rune clapped her gloved hand down over his mouth. With her other hand she pushed back the hood of her cloak and leaned down, letting her long, fiery red hair fall over her shoulder.

"Do you know who I am?" Rune asked without releasing her hold on the prince's mouth.

By the look in his eyes Rune knew he did. She could feel him staring at her tattoo—a spiked dragon that curled above her left eyebrow, then swept down her temple and across her cheek. The unmistakable mark or an Elite. That, combined with her hair, told him exactly who she was. Still, she waited for him to nod.

Rune held up her ungloved hand. "Then you know what I can do." It wasn't a question, but the prince nodded in understanding nonetheless. "Good. Then you should also know that calling out for help won't do you much good. So don't try it." Rune paused. It was now or never. She removed her hand from his mouth and stood back.

For a moment he just laid there, unmoving. Then, slowly, the prince pushed himself into a sitting position. His short sandy, blonde hair looked freshly primped. "But—I do not understand."

"I'm not going to kill you."

"Then why are you here? What is it you want from me?"

"Let's just say I need your help." Rune picked up his trousers from the floor and threw them on the bed. "We need to get out of here. Now."

"I cannot help you. I have a family. And duties I cannot abandon."

"Your family is dead," she said, throwing him the rest of his clothes.

After a moment of shock, the prince threw back the covers and leapt out of bed. "What? No!" He lunged at her.

Rune held up her bare hand and he halted. "I didn't kill them. But those who did will be here soon. We need to go."

"My parents—gone? My sisters? My son?" he said, as his chest puffed and his eyes grew distant and wild.

"Your wife and son are alive," Rune said, tugging on her glove. "Valdemar has other plans for them."

"Then I must save them," he shouted, rushing for the door.

Rune jumped in his path and the prince barreled down on her. At the last second, she crouched down low and grabbed at his legs, sending him off balance. As he began to fall forward, she raised herself up. The prince tumbled over her and landed on his back with a thud. No unarmed man had ever been insane enough to pull such a stunt before. Even armed, those who did had not lived to tell the tale.

Ignoring the groans behind her, Rune grabbed his clothes from the bed. "You won't be able to help them if you're dead," she said, throwing his belongings on the floor beside him. "If you leave this room without me, the others will kill you." She knelt down next to his head, but didn't move to touch him. "Your family is dead. But if you want to avenge them, if you want to save your wife and son, you have to come with me now. Before they realize I've betrayed them."

A mix of emotions flashed across his face. Sadness. Anger. Pain. Do I get that very same look when I think of my own family? Rune pushed such thoughts away. Now was not the time to think of the past. She had to stay focused.

"Make your choice," Rune told him as she stood and pulled the hood of her crimson cloak over her head. Without looking back, she moved over toward the window. Outside, darkness blanketed the island and the surrounding waters. Good. It would help to hide them as they fled the castle and sailed back to the mainland. If they made it that far.

From the reflection in the window pane, Rune could see the prince beginning to dress. So she pulled off the pack hidden beneath her cloak and removed the length of rope coiled inside. With deft hands, she tied one end of the thick rope to the bedpost.

"I am ready," Alaric announced, his voice flat and empty.

Rune flung open the windows. A cool burst of salty air blew past her and into the room. "Stay close to me. And do whatever I say without question." As he began to protest, she raised up a hand. "If you can't do that, you might as well stay here. I don't have time to argue."

After a brief moment of silence, he agreed. "As you wish."

"If something happens, if for some reason we get separated, head toward the east side. There's a boat hidden behind the old, burned down stables." Rune rummaged around in her bag. "Now put these on," she said, throwing him a thick pair of gloves. To her surprise, he did so without questioning.

Let's do this. She released the rope and watched it stretch down toward the ground five stories below. It jerked to a stop just shy of the cobblestones and smacked against the castle wall a few times before steadying. It's a long way down. Rune took a deep breath. Then she climbed up onto the windowsill.

With nothing but hard stone to break her fall, she grabbed the rope with both hands and slid out the window. The ground raced toward her. As usual, her stomach twisted in her belly.

Rune clenched her jaw. Warmth seeped through her gloves, growing more intense with every passing second. Instead of letting go, she gripped the rope tighter to slow her descent. When her feet touched the stones she bent her legs to soften the impact. Nevertheless, it sent a jolt running up her calves and through her thighs.

Remaining in a crouch, she searched the darkness. Nothing moved. But that didn't mean much of anything. They'll come. Rune was sure of it.

As the prince climbed out the window Rune stepped away from the dangling rope. For a moment he hung at the top like a cat stuck up in a tree. Then he began to fall. Near the end he slowed until he landed next to her with a muffled thud.

In a half crouch she led Alaric across the courtyard. Even with the moon and stars shining above, Rune could see little, and even less when the clouds swept across the sky. But she managed to guide them through the thick shadows toward a door in the castle's outer walls. The door opened without so much as a creak.

Inside, torches sputtered along the walls. Unlike the courtyard, there were no shadows to hide their passing. Which meant Rune had no time to wait for her eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness. They had to move quickly.

"Why are we going this way?" Alaric whispered close to her ear. So close it almost made Rune jump. "Are we going to find my guards? They could help us."

Rune shook her head. "The first thing they'd do if they saw us is kill me. And then they'd probably kill you."

"They are sworn to protect me! They would give their lives for me!"

At the end of the hall, against her better judgment, Rune stopped and turned to face him. "How do you think we got into this castle without anyone knowing? You've been betrayed. Valdemar has people working for him within this castle, people you trust. If we show ourselves, we're both dead." Rune watched his eyes grow wide as he finally put the pieces together. How can someone that trusting survive in a world as harsh as this one?

As she turned her head, Rune caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. They had found her. "Move," she cried as she shoved the prince around the corner. Something smashed against the wall just as she dove after him, sending shards flying in every direction. Her heartbeat and the footfalls behind her thumped in sync as Rune ran for her life. But she didn't manage to get very far.

Both feet left the ground as she flew sideways through the air. Rune gasped. She slammed against the wall, her head bouncing twice before she slumped to the floor. When she opened her eyes, her vision swam. Beside her, Alaric groaned.

Rune ripped off her gloves. "Run," she yelled out to the prince. At least she tried, but she couldn't hear herself over the ringing in her ears. Her fingers fumbled to pull out the knives hidden beneath her cloak. "Run!"

"What about you?"

"Go! Now!" Rune used the wall to steady herself as she stood. What am I doing? I'm going to die, and for what?

Behind her, the prince scrambled to his feet. But he wouldn't get far if she didn't create a distraction. Rune squared her shoulders and clenched the knives tight against her palms. She glared at the two figures storming down the hall. Soren. Kit. Two of the last people I had hoped to see. There was no going back now. She threw her knives, one a short time after the other. The first careened away long before it reached them, but the second shot past Kit by a hairs width. They stopped. Rune charged.

Again, she slammed against the wall. Rune gritted her teeth. It was all she could do against Soren's gift. She wouldn't stand a chance unless she got close to him. And even then, Kit would stop Rune from using her own—gift.

Through sheer willpower, she pushed herself back onto her feet and charged again. This time when Rune threw her knives she didn't bother aiming. As soon as they left her hands, she drew out her third and last pair. She only threw one.

Just as Soren ducked out of the way, Rune flung herself at Kit. The two women crashed to the ground and rolled. When they stopped, Kit was on top. But it didn't matter. Rune's blade slipped into the other woman's side with ease. Kit gasped. Incapacitated, she could no longer block Rune's gift. When her hand touched Kit's, the woman's face drained of color.

Power surged within Rune as she stole the woman's life force, and even her gift. But before she could drain her fully, Kit was wrenched away. Soren stood above her, his lips twisted in a sneer. It was the last thing Rune saw before everything went dark.

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