The night the blood rains from the sky, Mind of Mercy’s world changes. The savage Blood Wings, bestial creatures that feed on the blood of Mercy’s people, attack her treetop village in a frenzy.
Mercy’s father, the chieftain, tasks her to leave during the fight and find the source of the storm. The journey takes Mercy across the continent of Lacern where she must make allies, even from some of the enemies of her people, to survive. The search forces her to get help from the least likely of sources, one of the very Blood Wings that attacked her.
During her journey, Mercy and her companions discover lies that are widely accepted as truths, secrets hidden by the beast men, and a power buried deep inside of Mercy herself. Magic is resurfacing in the world and the blood rain is only the beginning. A hidden power is pulling the strings to cause a world war that could result in the destruction of humans and beast men alike. Can Mercy and her friends stop it in time?
Mirilee slid up under one of the beds. Mercy wasn’t sure how she was able to fit. Mirilee was very thin and wiry, but the space she fit into was just so small, it was like watching a hutrender wriggling beneath a piece of furniture. Mercy wanted to squeeze under with her, but she knew that she wouldn’t fit. Instead, she went to one of the open lockers, pushed herself as far against the wall as possible, and shut it with barely a crack to look out. She hoped the smell of the musty coats inside would mask the smell of her blood. Just in case, she slipped one of the coats over the bandages on her back.
The group of Blood Wings in the hallway began to laugh as they got closer. They were also talking in common which came as a relief to her. It was as though after experiencing the raids from the Blood Wings over the years, Mercy was conditioned to be afraid of the shrieking language of the bat people. And, from what she had seen and heard, they probably created the language just to condition her people to be afraid. That didn’t make her any less worried as she looked through the crack and saw the bulky shapes of five Blood Wings coming through the door and closing it behind them.
Mercy tried not to even breathe as they all settled into the center of the room. She could tell from their voices that Erebus wasn’t among them. It seemed that they weren’t there looking for her or Mirilee at all, which was the only blessing she could think of in the situation.
A gruff male voice said, “Blood rationing. Can you believe it? Are you sure, Grimes?”
A stuttering timid voice that she assumed had to be “Grimes” replied. “That’s what I heard. But last time they had to ration, it wasn’t that bad.”
A deep voiced beast man asked, “But how will we get our fix then?”
Mercy shivered as one of them shrieked in the bat language in reply.
A female voice chuckled. “Why do you always use the second language, Dread? You know that we don’t need to while we’re at the colony.”
Dread hissed an unintelligible reply.
Mercy closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to figure out what the beast men in the center of the room were feeling. She caught feelings of apprehension but also a thrill, like someone about to commit a crime. She also felt the same feelings of hunger that she felt from Erebus when he was deprived of blood, but there was something more to it. It was combined with the feelings she had when she was addicted to vigor ash root.
She suddenly remembered Carmine’s words. “Every time we taste blood, we experience a sort of euphoria.”
Mercy thought, “They’re blood addicts!”
The deep voiced one said, “Well, we can always buy a slave or two. We’ll have to pool our money.”
The woman said, “Or we could do a raid ourselves. From what I heard, the Forest People are scattered and disorganized. We could pick off the stragglers.”
Grimes said, “No, Brine. There are harsh rules against unauthorized raids.”
Dread said something in their language that made all of them laugh loudly and made Grimes feel incredibly embarrassed.
The gruff voice said, “Speaking of illegal things, let’s get started. How much blood did we all get?”
Mercy heard the sloshing of filled water skins being tossed roughly on the floor and shivered. One of them lit up a candle. It was barely enough light for her to see, but it seemed more than adequate for the Blood Wings. A few of them even blinked in protest, as though someone had lit a bonfire in the center of the room instead of just a candle. She could just barely see their eyes, glowing red in the candlelight. Blood Wing eyes always cast an eerie red glow, but the reflection of the light amplified the effect. She felt herself shifting further towards the back of the locker.
Two of them were large, one with gray fur and one with black. She assumed they were the deep voice and the gruff voice. All but one were wearing clothes made out of silk in either shades of red, black, or gray, but their clothing looked more worn than the other residents that she had seen in the city. The woman, Brine, had tawny fur. The other two looked almost entirely alike with reddish orange fur except that one was wearing a render fur loincloth. She guessed that they were probably twin brothers, and that Dread was the one wearing the loincloth since he always spoke in their language.
The gray one said in his gruff voice, “That will have to do. I was hoping we would have more. Well, pick your poison. I’m thinking I would like vigor ash root today.”
The black one threw back his head with a booming laugh. “Need a pick me up, huh, Marrow?”
Grimes spoke up, “I just think I’ll mix mine with wine. I just feel like drinking until I get sick, with all the bad news we’ve been having.”
Brine nodded. “Same here. Did you hear that Erebus is back? Apparently he killed his father and got his medallion, so now he can speak with the Senate.”
Dread made a squawking sound.
Grimes replied, “Tell me about it. If he has his way, we won’t even be able to own slaves. Then it’s back to raiding for blood and the rationing will be worse.”
The black Blood Wing said, “Well, better than if Cruor has his way, and we have to start treating the forest people like equals.”
Grimes chuckled. “I hear you, Dim. I think we should, though, if they have one of our children.”
Brine scrunched her nose up. “That’s disgusting. It’s like breeding with a dog. Don’t you dare argue with me about that!”
Dread shrieked something again and the others began to laugh.
“I am not jealous! Why would I be jealous of them?”
The others just laughed even harder, but eventually the noise died down, and they began picking up the blood bags and opening them, sniffing each one.
Marrow said, “Young male.”
Dim reached out. “I want that one. Mostly so I can go ahead and get started.”
He handed it to Dim and then sniffed another. “Old man.”
Brine grabbed the wineskin. “I’ll take that. It’ll be good with the wine.”
Marrow scowled. “Let me see what else we’ve got. If you all keep grabbing the first one I sniff, I won’t get to have my pick at all.” He smelled the three remaining wineskins, keeping the information to himself.
Grimes sniffed the air. “I call dibs on the gifted girl’s blood. I can smell it from here; young, about sixteen, and very fresh.”
Mercy nearly screamed but forced herself to remain silent.
Marrow frowned. “Are you crazy? I’ve already sniffed all of the skins. We don’t have any gifted blood here.”
Brine held up her hand. “Wait, I smell it, too.”
They began making the snuffling, snorting sounds that were similar to the ones Mercy heard from the watcher that smelled her blood on the way. She put a hand on her knife, wishing she had room to ready an arrow. Mirilee was right. It was the blood that they smelled that gave her away. They could probably smell an individual’s scent if they were close enough since their noses were keen, but they could tell a great deal more about a person by their blood. Mercy saw them getting closer and leaned farther back, closing her eyes.
Mercy chanted in her mind. “Go away. Disappear, Mercy. You’re as clear the wind. They can’t see you. They can’t see you.”
She heard the locker creak open.
Marrow said from very close by, “Well, girl, I can smell you. Where are you? Show yourself, and maybe we’ll go easy on you.”
Mercy’s heart skipped a beat. Could he really not see her, or was he just taunting her? She squinted her eyes until she could just barely see the beast man. Marrow was standing right in front of her with a puzzled expression on his face, sniffing the air. Mercy clenched her dagger tighter. He reached in and his hand brushed up against her arm. Marrow seized it and began to haul her out of the locker, but not before she sliced a deep gash into his wrist. He shrieked and let go, staring murderously at her and clutching his bleeding arm.
Brine stammered. “She affected our minds so that we couldn’t see her! How? Humans that aren’t born here can’t do that!”
Dread shrieked something Mercy couldn’t understand.
Brine frowned and said in a terrified whisper, “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
Mercy snarled, “Stay back! The next bat to touch me gets worse than a little cut on the wrist.”
The group began talking back and forth in the language of the beasts. Even though Mercy didn’t know what they were saying, she felt their confidence, and she couldn’t blame them for it. As far as they were concerned, it was five against one. Even though Mirilee remained hidden, it was still only five against two.
“The odds aren’t good.” she thought miserably. “But I’m not giving in without a fight.”
She grabbed her second dagger with her other hand and then everything happened at once.
The twin bats rushed forward together. Mercy slashed at them and managed to slice Dread in the cheek. He screamed in pain, but his brother, Grimes, shoved her down. While she was trying to regain her balance enough to stand, Dim kicked one of the knives from her hand and Brine grabbed Mercy’s other arm, fighting for control of the other knife. Marrow grabbed Mercy beneath the arms and held her still, picking her up entirely off of the ground, and she felt Brine finally pry the knife from her fingers.
Mercy kicked and screamed like a wild animal, and some of her kicks landed, until the two twin brothers grabbed her legs. There was one enemy holding her on each limb, and Marrow had her suspended by the back, which left Mirilee open to attack when she was ready.
Mercy glanced in Mirilee’s direction. She was wriggling out from beneath the bed as silently as a viper through the sand. Marrow saw her and was about to shout a warning, but he couldn’t even say one word before Mirilee threw a small, sharp knife directly into his right eye. He howled in pain and dropped Mercy, and the sudden motion was enough to wrench her arms away from the other two beasts.
With her arms free, she twisted her body and drew her bow and arrow. She aimed quickly and shot Grimes in the leg. He crumpled to the floor like a wilted, fallen leaf. She was nocking another arrow, getting ready to shoot at Dread when she felt a hand like a club slamming into her skull. Her bow tumbled from her hands like a cup dropped by a small child. Everything became blurry and the people around her seemed to be moving in slow motion. Even though she couldn’t see him, she felt Erebus’ panic from somewhere within the city. Somehow she knew that he was instinctively feeling her pain as keenly as she was, and he was on his way.
Mirilee was closing with Brine, using one of her throwing knives as a dagger. She managed to stab the tawny beast woman in the shoulder, just missing her chest, but it wasn’t enough to slow her down. She slammed into Mirilee and bit her, tearing into the tendons in her neck. Mercy screamed for Mirilee. Then she felt a pair of strong hands clasp around both of her wrists and pull her hands behind her. It was Marrow again, and it seemed he had managed to pull the dagger out of his eye. Mirilee was grasping at the wound in her neck, trying to apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding with one hand while fighting with the dagger in the other. Dread grabbed Mirilee’s hand with terrifying speed and bent it behind her back at a nearly bone breaking angle.
Dread said something in the common language for the first time, though his voice was slurred from the wound in his cheek, “Well, it seems we managed to get a pair of slaves after all. You okay, brother?”
Grimes nodded. “I’m alright, trying to stop bleeding.”
Marrow’s eyes became wide. “Two gifted. I’m tempted to kill the desert tramp, though. She might’ve cost me an eye.”
Brine pulled the knife from her shoulder and said, “Then maybe we should carve out one of hers.”
Mercy growled. “Leave her alone.”
Grimes limped up to Mercy. “You’re the one whose blood I smelled. I believe I claimed her blood as my share. I’m going to take my fill now.”
Dread nodded and said, “You’ve earned it from that leg wound. Drink up.”
Marrow made a scoffing sound but didn’t say anything.
Mercy quickly said, “I would say that Marrow earned it most. He lost an eye.”
“I’m going to drink my fill from the desert whore. Keep your mouth shut. If you’re trying to turn us against one another, it won’t work.”
Mirilee laughed. “Try to drink from me, bat. When I take your other eye, I’ll be doing you a favor so that you don’t have to look at that ugly face in the mirror every day.”
“Laugh while you can. You don’t need a tongue to serve your new masters.”
For the first time since she met her, Mercy felt a wave of fear coming from Mirliee, but she composed herself quickly. Mercy tried to think of something else to stall them. She felt that Erebus was close.
“You really couldn’t see me when you opened that locker, could you?”
She felt something akin to fear in Marrow, but he kept his expression cold and unreadable. She decided to use it to her advantage.
“I was using magic, wasn’t I? I know that all of you can use it. Before Erebus killed him, I talked to Carmine. He told me everything.”
Brine said in a shaky voice, “I’ve heard rumors that the curse is unraveling, could he have taught…”
Marrow shouted something in the bat language and Brine physically shivered, then got very quiet.
Dim said, “Grimes, bite her and drink until she can’t speak. I’m starting to feel the pain.”
Grimes slapped a hand over Mercy’s mouth and buried his face into her neck. She tried to struggle and bit down on his hand until he bled, but that just made his fangs dig into her throat harder, and she felt the immediate dulling effects of the venom.
Mercy thought, “No, I can’t let them kill me, but I said too much. They won’t let me live now. If I can just hold out until Erebus gets here…but he’s taking so much blood, so fast that I’m getting dizzy. I’m not going to make it.”
Mercy could feel the blood being pulled from her neck. She never realized how gentle Erebus was when he drank from her body. Grimes drained the blood from her with the fervor of an alcoholic guzzling a bottle of ale. She could actually feel the pressure of her blood moving too quickly through her veins and it made her feel cold and light headed.
Just as she thought she was going to black out, she heard an unspeakable howl from the hallway. Even though she recognized Erebus’ voice, she had never heard such a terrifying sound from his throat. It was a sound of unrestrained fury blended with acute pain. It sent chills down her spine.
Grimes stopped drinking from her and shouted, “Who’s there?”
Erebus snarled, “Your executioner.”