The Shadow Queen
Chapter One
Then

© Copyright Sloane Murphy 2021

Have you ever had a moment that you know is going to define the very fiber of who you are as a person? The one moment that will shape who you are and how your whole life plays out? I watch what’s happening before me in slow motion, and I know this is my moment. 

The moment that’s going to get me killed.

I scream in fury as my mother hits me, simply because my father was displeased with my tone at breakfast. I can’t say I’ve ever been that close to my mom—I’m not sure she would have had children if my father hadn’t required an heir. To be honest, I’m still not sure why they had me since they already had Ares. Besides selling me off to further their reach, which isn’t beyond the Realms of my reality, it really makes little sense.

“It is not becoming of a princess to speak with such feral language!” she screams as she hits me again, her claws tearing through my cheek. My blood splatters against her face. She roars again as if the blood spatter is my fault, and it's all I can do to keep a lid on everything I want to say.

I know better than to talk back. I also know that if I do talk back, my mother won’t be the one in here punishing me. 

She hits me again, striking me across the chest with brutal force. The lid on my rage flies off. I can’t control it as a heat unlike any I’ve ever known rips from me. 

My mother’s mouth makes an ‘o’ shape. It’s as if she never thought there could be consequences for beating her child. She disintegrates in front of me, and my heart stops. This is going to change everything.

Holy shit, what have I done?

I fall to the ground, hitting my knees hard as I try to work out what the fuck just happened. I look down at my hands and they’re shaking, but other than that, they look just like they always have.

I just killed my mom…

I’m pretty sure I’m going into shock because I can’t feel anything. Even the sting of my cheek where her claws slashed me is gone. I’m so fucking numb.

How is this even possible?

Ares, rushes into the room, taking in the scorch marks on the walls and the one on the floor where Mom was standing. 

“It’s going to be okay, Morgan.” My brother strides over to where I’ve fallen and gives me a quick look over to make sure I’m physically okay. I’m pretty sure he knows as well as I do that I’m not. I’m far from it, really. 

He crouches in front of me, inspecting my face. I glance up to find his bright green eyes, as reassuring as always, staring back down at me. He’s going to fix this. That's what Ares does. I fuck up, and he fixes it. He’s been my savior more times than I can count—it’s literally my entire life story.

“We need to keep this between the two of us, okay? I will deal with Dad, but you can never, ever speak of this. Or your power.” He holds my chin tight while he looks me in the eyes, making sure I understand him. I nod against his grasp, and he releases me, his face softening once more. The soft expression on Ares’ face is all it takes to break the dam holding back the tidal wave of emotions welling up inside of me over what I’ve done. My whole body shakes as I sob. He drops to the ground and pulls me into his lap, cradling me against his chest like a child.

“What did I do?” I cry, turning into his face and giving into the waves of emotion. He simply holds me until the tears subside. I manage to slow my breathing, focusing on deep inhales followed by controlled exhales, forcing myself to stop losing my shit.

“You have Shadow Fire,” he says softly, and the awe in his tone rubs me just the wrong way. It’s like I’m not the monster who just obliterated our mother. “There’s no way you could have known what would happen. But if Dad ever found out…”

“He’d kill me,” I whisper, and Ares nods. His dark hair, the same raven-sheened color as mine, falls into his eyes, and he looks all the more serious for it.

“He would. You having Shadow Fire makes you more powerful than him, and we both know how well he takes threats of opposition. You have to promise me that you’ll keep this a secret just between us.”

I nod but bite down on my bottom lip, worrying over how that could even be possible. “What will we say about Mom?”

“I’ll think of something,” he says before closing his eyes. In a blink, he glamours the room so none of the scorch marks show. “That will have to do until I can come up with a reason for us to redecorate. Are you okay?”

“I think so,” I say shakily as he helps me to my feet. The weight of guilt presses down upon me, and I wrap my arms around my middle, trying desperately to keep myself together. “I’m a monster.”

“You are not a monster; we were born of monsters. That doesn’t make you one. You were defending yourself. I could hear her wailing from down the hall. I was coming here to step in as soon as I heard.” He pulls me into his arms and holds me tight. Ares is the only safe space I’ve ever known in the life of darkness we were born into. “I’ve got you,” he murmurs as he holds me, “you know I’ll always have your back.”

“And I’ll have yours,” I whisper as I cling to him. The soothing sound of his heartbeat under my ear lulls me into a momentary peace, but the panic comes back full force with a heart-stopping realization. I pull back, my heart beating erratically once more as I ask, “What if someone heard?”

“There was no one around. You know Mom sends the staff away during our lessons,” he says, the bite in his tone is as hard as a bite from a Hellhound. “I was coming here to tell you that Father is sending me away on my quarter-century tour of the Realm. Since I know he won’t allow you to come with me, I got you a gift. Something to help keep you safe while I can’t.”

Thank the hells for big brothers because nothing else in this Realm is worth a fucking thing. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”

“Morgan, I love you, and I know for a fact that The Carver will be here while I’m gone. So just let me do this, okay?” He hugs me tightly again before leading me from the room, while I try not to freak out about The Carver being here while Ares isn’t. I take a deep breath and try to shove away the fear because falling apart right now won’t help anyone.

“Where are we going?” I ask, struggling to walk without stumbling. Apparently using Shadow Fire is fucking exhausting. My muscles ache against the strain of staying upright, focusing on my forced breathing, and walking all at once.

“You’ll see.” He smiles back at me and offers his hand again, so I take it. He leads me through the palace, winding through the halls of a place that is more like a house of horrors than a home, until we reach the stables. The black, winged horses that are housed here screech as we enter. Smokey, my Dàgaan, whinnies as I near him, so I reach through the metal bars and pet his nose. I swear he almost smiles as my skin connects with his snout and he feeds on my life force the tiniest bit. Not everyone can make a connection like the one I have with Smokey, but unless someone takes his head, he’ll live as long as I do. 

Ares gives me a minute to say hello before pulling me toward the back of the stables. “This is your gift,” he says before opening the last door in the stable. I peek around the corner and squeal before clamping a hand over my mouth so I don’t scare the precious little babies.

“You got me Hellhounds?” I gasp, unable to take my eyes off of the black little balls of sleek fur and squish, fire eyes blinking owlishly in our direction. 

“I did. They were only born a few days ago and won’t stay this size for long. In a week, they’ll be much bigger and will have established their pack hierarchy. I couldn’t think of a more fitting present for a princess,” he says, walking past me and winking before sitting down next to the group of pups.

I move forward and fall to my knees in front of them, cooing as one climbs to his feet, already looking more fierce than the others. He wobbles toward me, and I scoop him up into my arms. “Aren’t you just precious?”

At my words, he stretches up and bites my nose. I can’t help but laugh. 

“He’s going to be a handful.” Ares chuckles before stroking another one of the pups who snuggles against his leg.

“I think you’re right.” I lift the little guy away from me, looking him in his bright orange eyes and smiling. “I think I’ll call you Kaos.”

The pup yips, smoke curling from his nostrils, and I glance up to see Ares grinning at me. “I think he likes it.”

“Me too.”

We sit with the pups for a little while until a roar shakes the walls of the stables. “I guess Dad is angry,” I sigh, climbing to my feet. Ares joins me as we dust ourselves down from the hay the pack is curled up on.

Ares sighs before giving me a tight smile. “What else is new? We should go face whatever horrors await us. Just remember, not a word of what happened or of your power. I’ll work with you on techniques to keep it hidden and under control, but I need you to keep this between us. Promise me, Morgan. I can’t lose you; I don’t even want to think of what this place would make me without you here.” 

I take his hand and squeeze it again. “I swear I’m not going anywhere and neither are you.”


Chapter Two
Now

“Morgan, come on. It's been ages since we had anything fun to do around here. Literally all you do is train with Ares, fly the Dàgaan or wander aimlessly around with me. All you have to do is say yes… Say yes for me!” Amelia, my fire-haired friend, pleads as she waltzes through my closet. 

She’s not wrong. The palace isn’t exactly known for being a fun house. Plus training, with or without Ares, takes a good chunk of my time. Fun isn’t something we have in large doses around here. Except today, my father announced a royal ball will take place in a few months. It will officially announce to the Realm that I am its princess. Yet I have little doubt that my father intends to use me as a bargaining chip to expand his power and reach in some shape or form. 

Awesome. 

“You might think differently if you were the one on the pedestal,” I sigh. “Sitting up there like a prized possession isn’t exactly my idea of fun. Do you honestly think my father is going to let me mingle, dance, or have any sort of fun at all? Everyone already knows I fucking exist. This ball is just a powerplay for him. He’s such a dick.”

“Your dad has a stick up his ass,” she laughs, and I snort along with her. “Anyway, that’s half the fun of a ball. You’ll at least get to dance with all of your potential suitors, right? We can sneak off from there and have our own fun.”

“And face my father's wrath as a result.” I drop down onto my bed like the petulant Demon princess that I am and stroke the dark fur of my Hellhound and protector, Kaos. “I don’t care that I just had my birthday, I am still not old enough to be sold off to further my father’s stupid alliances.”

“Morgan, you’re only one hundred years old. You’re literally still a kid—he’s not going to marry you off tonight. That would be barbaric, even for him.”

“Have you met my father?” She giggles as she continues wandering through the expanse of my closet. Despite the fact I’ve told her for years that she can take whatever she wants, apparently being the chef's daughter doesn’t give her reason to use the clothing in there. 

“You’re father is an ass,” she yells, but I can barely hear her. I freaking hate that closet. It's too big, and it's a literal maze. But she’s not wrong, my father is an ass, though that might just be the understatement of the century. 

My father—known as the Demon King to those who both love and fear him—is the reason for my nightmares, both waking and in slumber. I’d like to say life got better for me in the fifty years since my mother died, but that would be a severe overstatement. After Mom’s ‘disappearance,’ my father became more cruel, more ruthless, and if possible, more bloodthirsty. 

Made worse by his friend, now known here as The Carver, thanks to his handiwork in the throne room. My father has taken to putting on shows for his toxic, vapid sycophants. They lap up any attention he deems to throw their way, all whilst fearing his wrath more than anything else in existence. 

"But he also knows how to throw a party, and all of the other High Families are coming. Let me live vicariously through you!" Amelia practically bounces back into the room, a red dress hanging in front of her, attached by the hanger behind her neck. She prances around the room, and I can't help but laugh. 

"We both know that when my father asks for something from me, I don't really have a choice in the matter, so I'll be going. I'm just going to be freaking miserable the entire time. Plus, the only reason the High Born families are coming is because the royals from the other Realms are coming. It’s another chance for my father to show off what a good broodmare I am." Kaos snorts at my words, smoke curling from his nose as the flames in his eyes flash. 

“Hey, maybe there will be a cute prince that you can run away with. Escape this hell-hole,” she says as she drops down onto the bed on the other side of Kaos. He growls low in his throat, so I scratch between his ears and he settles. 

“I don’t think anything will ever get me out of here,” I tell her, “but I guess I should at least start thinking about what to wear to the ball, even if it is a few months away.”

“Yes! Please let me help. You know I’m a genius with hair.” 

“Maybe I’ll go in my other form and terrify them all rather than being a pretty little doll on display for the Prince Parade.” I smirk, and she grins back at me.

“That would definitely be one way to piss off your dad.”

“We both know I live for it,” I offer with a sardonic grin. Amelia smiles back, though she shakes her head at me slightly, and I sigh. “For real though, maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe I can run away and escape from all of this. Nothing can be worse than being here, right?”

“I doubt it,” she sighs as she lies down. “Though, if you escape, please say you’ll take me with you? Or that you’ll marry me off to Ares?”

“I love my brother, and I love you, but absolutely not.” I shake my head, laughing softly. 

“We both know I don’t love your brother, but we also know he’d keep me safe and out of the clutches of the assholes here. I mean, and it helps that he’s dreamy as hell. Even if I don’t like how much he bows down to your dad.”

“Am—” I start, but she cuts me off.

“I know, I know. He does it to keep you off the guy's radar as much as possible, but you know… Fight back a little. He could be a total dreamboat of a prince, Morgan. He has the hair, the eyes, the freaking jaw. I just need him to be the rebel too.”

“Maybe you should keep dreaming.” I look up to find Ares standing in the doorway, leaning against the door jamb with a smirk firmly on his face. I can’t help but laugh as Amelia blushes so hard I think she might pass out from heat exhaustion. “Father summoned you, Morgan. I figured I’d come get you rather than one of his handsy lapdogs.”

“Thanks.” I smile at him, jumping to my feet. I look back at Amelia who looks like she wants a hole to open up under her feet. “I’ll see you later, Amelia?”

“Yeah, if I’ve resurrected by then,” she answers, covering her face with a pillow.

“Bye, Amelia,” Ares chuckles, and she lifts a hand to wave without removing the pillow. 

“Lead the way,” I say to him as he steps aside, leaving me space to move around him and lead the way from the room. “Hopefully not to my demise.” 

* * *

I sit on my throne upon the dais. My father sits to my right, and Ares is to his right. Kaos lounges at my feet. The point of the summons was apparently for me to officially start my ‘royal training'. Which as far as I can tell so far, ‘training’ just means sitting through these hells awful parades of depravity from people hoping to curry favor with my father. That or pay off a debt owed to him. 

So far he’s added four girls to his harem, and I really do mean girls. They can’t be any older than I am. Holding down the vomit during that despicable display was agonizing. How Ares sits through this with a mask of indifference is beyond me. I do what I’ve done since the day I killed my mother, lock away every single emotion inside of me so I seem like the ice cold bitch everyone accuses me of being. 

They don’t know me, and they don’t want to, so I’m not going to bother showing them who I truly am. 

I hate this room. The living statues of my father’s victims dotted around the space are a stark reminder of exactly what he’s capable of when he’s pissed off. I avoid looking at them as much as I can. Their eyes have the uncanny ability to follow you across the room no matter which way you’re moving, and I can’t take the pleading hiding just behind the glassy surfaces of the statues’ eyes. I’m not sure how to undo what my father has done; and until I learn more about my own abilities, I won’t ever have a clue. Which is exactly why my father hasn’t encouraged me to train with any of my powers. He doesn’t want anyone to be more powerful than him. Ares is almost more powerful, the way he can make people see what he wants them to is just the beginning of what he’s capable of, but he’s also the golden child. I’m the rebellious asshole daughter who hates his way of life. 

Between the living statues and the black on black decor of the entire space, even with the hints of gold, it just feels cold and dead in here. If I had my way, the high ceilings would be light and airy instead of filled with a dark mist that can descend on the Demons gathered below and suck the life-force from their bodies. It's the mist that makes my father as feared as he is. It's the one thing, other than Shadow Fire, that can truly kill a Demon—so of course he has control of it. 

Though my father would rather encase someone in stone and torture them for eternity than truly kill them.

He’s a freaking delight.

I’ve had about as much as I can take of my father's power show when the sound of chains clinking together and dragging over the marble floor catches my attention. My breath hitches when I see a boy, no older than I am, shackled at his neck, wrists, and ankles being dragged into the room by a man I assume is his father. They look too alike to be anything other than father and son. 

The boy looks lost, afraid, and fucking broken. 

I hate what my father has turned this place into. I’ve heard stories about the Shadow Realm while my grandmother ruled, and suffice to say that this was a very different place. I just hope that when Ares ascends to the throne he changes shit up because none of this is okay. 

None of it.

The smell of burned skin makes me want to gag. I guess they’re using salted iron chains. Classy. Not barbaric at all. And I bet they’re coated in healing salve, just enough so that it hurts like fucking hell, but won’t break the skin enough so that he dies from the wound. Raging assholes, the lot of them. He stumbles toward us behind his father, who simply grins at mine. 

“I see you’ve come to pay your debts, Airon.” My father laughs, and the sound booms through the throne room, and I realize exactly what this is. This guy’s just another slave being sold to my father to resolve some debt owed. My stomach rolls as pity overwhelms me. I can’t stand any more of this today. It's vile and completely unnecessary.

The man pushes the boy to his knees, and the crunch of his bones as he hits the ground makes me wince, so I pull my icy mask back into place. If I show any weakness right now, this boy won’t be the only one in chains. I glance over at Ares, who doesn’t even look at the boy. He stares at a spot on the back wall.

“He looks weak,” my father sneers down at him, and the boy casts his gaze to the floor. My father sneers, instantly deeming the boy as less than. I’ve seen that look before.

“He looks weaker than he is. But I’m sure he’ll meet your needs, whatever they may be,” Airon practically sings as he metaphorically kisses my father's ass. Though I’m sure he’d do it literally too, given half the chance. 

This place makes me want to hurl. If this is what being a royal is about, I’m tapping out. 

“I’m sure he will,” my father says, interrupting my train of thought. I glance up to see Airon gazing over my body. I want to sneer, but I know better. “You should be more careful with your things, Airon. Soon you’ll run out of bartering chips.” 

Airon drops the chains, and the boy flinches at the sound. I can see him shaking, a fight or flight response pounding through his veins. I wish he would because at least then he would have tried, not just given into this awful fate his father is selling him into. At the same time, I don’t want him to cause a scene because I know that the punishment will be worse than the momentary success of making that kind of choice for himself.

My father snaps his fingers and his head lapdog, Tenacious, appears and grips the boy by his hair, yanking him to his feet. The boy hisses at the pain, and my heart hurts for him. I don’t want to think about the pain he’ll likely experience at the hands of my father. I’ve had to learn how to tune it out, the knowledge of what my father does, because otherwise I’d never survive this place.

One day he won’t have a reign of terror here. Until that day comes, I need to make sure I survive.

“Lock him up with the others. I’ll have my fun later.” My father waves his hand dismissively, and Tenacious drags the boy behind the dais through the door that leads to the cells in the lower basement. 

“Father, is that all for today? This really is very tedious.” I sigh, feigning a bored indifference. I’d rather fake the indifference than let him see just how fucked up today has left me.

“Fine, begone.” He dismisses me with a flick of his hand, and I stand. I’m careful to not stand too quickly to make it look like I’m running away, but it’s fast enough that I manage to get out before my hands begin trembling. Kaos stays by my side until we reach the kitchens and I spot Amelia, covered in flour, helping her dad.

I smile at her, and then head back to my room. 

No one needs to see the breakdown I’m about to have.

* * *

It seems like all my life consists of now are fucking royal summons. I’ve been sitting through this bullshit for weeks. It’s as if my father wants to see how much I can make it through before I break. But the joke’s on him because I’ll never show him any sign of weakness again. There’s too much at stake if I lose control of my emotions, if I lose the tight hold I have on keeping my power suppressed.

The Shadow Fire means one thing. I’m going to be powerful. Even more so than I am now. I might not know exactly what I’m capable of, but I can feel power swirling around inside of me. Dark, wild, and desperate to be free. It’s more than I’ve ever felt from another Demon, and that both terrifies me and excites me. It means that if I can get away from here, I can be free. No one will ever hold me prisoner again.

I didn’t think my father could sink much lower than he already had. So when I saw Airon and The Carver enter the throne room, which for some reason is set up like some sort of wedding chapel, it never crossed my mind that it could get worse.

It can always be worse.

My father has the boy he bought from Airon sitting at his feet, the same way Kaos sits at mine, while The Carver and Airon cut up one of the many poor girls sacrificed to my father. I’m not sure what she did to invoke my father's wrath, but no one deserves this. 

What's worse is that I’m not sure if this is about the girl or if it's about breaking the boy sitting at my father's feet. The girl looks like she could be his twin. Which makes Airon’s part in all of this even more abhorrent. But then again, if I’m going by my father’s standards, this is nothing. 

Her screams have finally almost died off. We’ve been here for hours, and at one point, I thought Ares might actually lose his cool. We both know he won’t because he wouldn’t risk me like that. We discovered early on that Father was well aware of Ares’ weaknesses, and the total sum of them is me. 

We also know my father takes no issue with breaking me if it suits his purpose. Which is why I’ve learned just how to shut everything inside of myself down over the past fifty years. Survival is key.

Except I’m not sure how many more of the screams I can take. My gut churns. I want to burn every person in this room alive. 

The problem is that I don’t have control of my powers, so I wouldn’t be able to just take out the people I wanted to. Which is why I’m sitting here like a good little fucking doll, doing absolutely nothing. If everyone knew how truly powerless I was up here, they wouldn’t look at me with such reverence, as if they covet my position.

Even the girl looks to me for help. What she doesn’t realize is that I’m just as trapped, just as helpless, as she is. The key difference is that my torture happens behind closed doors. 

The boy at my father’s feet shifts, and the waft of burning skin from the chains around his neck and wrists makes my stomach churn. 

I will never understand the depravity of men who enjoy this kind of pain and violence. How broken do you have to be to get off on someone else’s screams? We might be Demons, but despite the humans’ depiction of us, we’re not all monsters. Just like every other race, there are the good and the bad among us. And I’m trapped here with some of the worst for the rest of my existence—unless I find a way to escape it all… or until Ares takes my father’s seat of power.

I will never forget the words Ares whispered to me on the day we discovered my newest power emergence. 

You are not a monster; we were born of monsters. That doesn’t make you one.

That one line has turned into a daily mantra for me. 

“Should we carve up her pretty face?” The Carver’s words pull me from the train of thought and bring me back to this stark and horrific reality. His black and yellow teeth gleam as he smiles while the girl sobs in the chair she’s chained to. He looks over to my father for instruction. 

I’m powerless to do anything other than sit here and clench my fists under the skirts of my dress where no one can see. I wonder how much he’d like it if I carved up his face.

That might be an upgrade, though. Slimy asshole.

Airon’s grin makes me shudder as he looks at the boy he sold. I have no idea how a parent could do that to their child. I swore after the hundredth or so beating from my parents that I would never have kids. The only decent parent I know is Amelia’s dad, Seth. And even he can be pretty absent thanks to his job. But when he is around, he does at least dote on her.

“Bring me her eyes.” My father’s menacing laugh booms around the throne room, and the shouts of glee and encouragement from his sycophants make me want to vomit. I can’t help but look at him with sheer disgust, though I hide the look quickly when Ares raises his eyebrows at me. It’s the only real show of emotion from my brother today. Sometimes I wonder if he just makes one of his dreamscapes and escapes into them while we’re in here. I have no idea how he stays the person he is after everything he’s witnessed, but I truly hope my father never manages to extinguish the light that’s inside of him.

I want to look away as Airon rubs his hands together and moves behind the girl, but I know I can’t. He clasps her cheeks in his palms, holding her still for The Carver. Her screams tear through the room, and I swear to fuck my heart shatters as she begs for them to stop. 

I jump when my father shouts, “You will watch, boy, otherwise we’ll make her pay for your disobedience too!” He pulls on the boy’s chains until he’s watching the poor girl’s torture, and I want to cry for him. For us all.

She passes out when the first eye is cut from her, but that doesn’t stop the joy and hunger building in the room. The entire group of them are monsters, black pits of evil all the way to their core. 

“Is all of this really necessary, Father?” I sigh, hoping he sees my question as boredom rather than horror.

“You should be watching, learning how to keep this lot in line. All of this could be yours one day, Morganna,” he says proudly.

“Yes, Father. I know, though I’d rather not, since that would mean the demise of Ares, but still. She’s not even conscious anymore.” I glance down at the boy, and it feels like he can see the truth of who I am, so I look away quickly. The anger building inside of me is too much, too close to the surface. If I lose my shit in here, we’re going to have a lot of fucking issues, and I really don’t want to kill my brother. 

“Fine, begone. Take that fucking hound with you,” he says, waving at Kaos with a sneer on his face.

“That’s fine, he needs a run anyway,” I say as I stand. Kaos follows suit, pressing himself closely to my side as I sashay from the room. If I’m still here when Ares comes into power, I’m going to have him tear down that room stone by fucking stone. Maybe even the entire fucking palace.

Knock it down all the way to rubble and rebuild. 

Not even the strongest of potions or spells could remove the horrors from this place or the blood that seeps from the stones.

One day… once my father is dead. 

* * *

After riding my Dàgaan for hours, I feel some of the rage release from within me. I’ve spent the entire ride lost in my own mind, wondering how the supposed Gods could have forsaken us and left this place as part of their legacy. The mythology states that the Seven Realms were created by the Seven Gods. The Shadow Realm was the domain of the God of War, which is why he created demons. He thrived on chaos and made us in his image. Bloodthirsty, power hungry, and more than a little crazy.

Except I find it hard to believe that the other Gods would have allowed such madness. I might have never left this Realm, but I’ve read so much about the Realm's supposed history that I feel like if the Gods had truly existed, surely they wouldn’t have left this place as it is. Surely even the God of War would have been reined in. Why would six other Gods just allow this place of horror to exist?

Sometimes an existential crisis is just what a girl needs to calm the rage.

I find the entire pack of Hellhounds waiting for me when we finally get back to the stables, with Kaos pacing until we come to a stop in front of him. 

I dismount Smokey and brush him down before leading him to his stall. I make sure he has enough water and raw meat to get him through until the morning when the stablehands will look after him and then head back out to where Kaos waits for me. He offers me his nose, and I close my eyes, putting my hand on his head to let him show me what I missed while I was gone.

Images flicker through my mind, my father meeting with The Carver, my name being mentioned, more of the usual… and then Ares, looking for me.

I open my eyes and find my brother standing before me, a look of concern flashing in his eyes before he strides forward and hugs me.

“Father has called a family dinner.” I go still at his words, and he looks about as happy as I feel when he pulls away.

“Why?” I ask. We haven’t had a family dinner since he came to the conclusion that my mother ran away to another Realm. I’m pretty sure that’s why so many Demons have been given a free pass to wreak havoc on Earth—they’re under the guise of searching for her. I can’t help but feel responsible for the terror, but I have no way to stop it either.

“I don’t know, but you should go and dress quickly. I’ll come and grab you in an hour, and we’ll go down together. We need to present a united front against whatever comes.” He holds out his pinky to me, and I grasp his with my own.

“United always.”

It’s something we started doing after the first time Father beat me because of something Ares fucked up. I didn’t hold it against him, much to Father’s dismay. If anything, it brought us closer. But we’ve always gone up against things together. We truly are united always.

“Okay, go quickly. The last thing we want to do is be late.” His eyes dart around behind me, knowing that we can’t be overheard. While we have some people around the palace that are loyal to us, most here are loyal to my father. If they think telling him that we’re ‘disrespecting’ him will gain them points, they will absolutely do it. 

I nod without saying another word, and Kaos and Havoc flank me on either side while the rest of the pack go with Ares. I’m not the only one who can use some badass backup in this place. Especially since even with as powerful as Ares is, he really doesn’t like to hurt people. We all deal with our trauma in our own way, I guess.

I hurry back to my room and wash quickly. The waterfall of hot water scalds my pale skin, but I enjoy the sting of it. It makes me feel like a real person rather than the ice bitch I walk around here pretending to be, like nothing can hurt me or get to me.

I don’t take as long as I’d like to. The fear of being late takes some of the joy from my usual sanctuary under the running water. I hurry and dry my long dark hair into waves until it sits just below my waist then pull a black, floor-length dress from my never-ending closet. I slip it on and check myself in the reflecting glass. Demure enough, but then... also not at the same time. The high neck, with the floor length skirt keeps it subtle, but the thigh-high splits in the skirt and the fact that it has no back makes it exactly what I like. Classy, but then again, not quite. 

My own mini rebellion against the image my mother expected from me.

I line my eyes with black kohl and use ink to enhance my eyelashes to enhance the green color of my eyes, before painting my lips a soft pink. This might be a family dinner, but even so, I know the consequences of not presenting myself properly. It was one of my mother’s first lessons, and some things scar you for life. That first attack from my mother definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things. 

I shake away the memories as a knock sounds at the door. Kaos grumbles low in the back of his throat as he moves toward the door while Havoc moves to my side. “It’s probably just Ares,” I mutter, but Havoc moves in front of me to ensure I stay where I am. I let them do their thing because situations like these are the whole reason I have them, and I honestly would never be without them. I’ve never slept as well as I do when the pack surrounds my bed. 

The door opens and Kaos sits, looking like a puppy in an instant as Ares enters the room. He’s the only male in my world I can truly say isn’t a threat to me. “You ready?”

“I am now,” I tell him as I slip on my heels. “Let’s go face the music, shall we?”

He offers me his arm, so I thread mine through the crook of his elbow, and we head to the dining hall in a comfortable silence. I take a deep breath and enjoy it, knowing that this is probably the last comfort I’ll feel all evening. 

We reach the dining hall, and unsurprisingly, Father isn’t here yet. Hells forbid we be late, but he’ll probably keep us waiting an hour on principle alone. The table is laid out in full, as if there will be twenty or so people joining us. I glance at Ares, who frowns when he sees what I do.

“Either this is overkill or our family has grown,” he snarks, and I laugh.

“With Father it could be either.” 

He walks me to my seat, pulling out the chair so I can sit before taking his own. We wait nearly thirty minutes before Father graces us with his presence. When he finally waltzes in, he struts across the room as if he had a full entourage with him. I smirk up at Ares before shutting down any and all emotion. 

“Children, so good of you to join me.” He grins, and my heart rate picks up. He’s never this happy, and it honestly scares the shit out of me. Once he sits, the waitstaff appears from the staff entrance and trays upon trays of food are brought out for us. I spot Amelia’s fiery hair, and she smiles at me quickly before disappearing with the others again. 

We eat in near silence, though Father does discuss some issues in the Realm that I have no idea about so I stay quiet, just as he likes. Seen, but not heard. 

It’s only once the dishes are cleared that Father turns his attention to me. At that moment, I swear if Ares wasn’t here too, I’d probably just run away and never look back. The way he looks me over turns my blood to ice.

“Morganna, I think it's about time you learn how the Realm works. We’ll never find you a suitable match if you're nothing better than an airhead.” It takes every ounce of strength I have not to roll my eyes at him or just straight up slap him. Ares’ eye twitches, but I nudge his foot under the table. I can take Father's words. They’re not the worst things he’s thrown at me. 

“With that in mind, I’ve decided you’ll be joining Ares on his quarter century tour of the Realm. He can show you how things work and introduce you to the people you’ll need to know before the ball in a few months. We have many relationships we need to cultivate, so I expect to have your full cooperation. Meeting the High Families—learning how to be diplomatic—are some of the skills you’ll require when I introduce you to the other royal families attending from other Realms.”

I keep the smile from my face, but it’s so fucking hard to maintain. “Of course, Father.” 

I bite my tongue to keep the other choice words I have for him about it from falling through my lips. Because at least this time, there’s an upside—it’s going to be at least eight weeks that I’m out of this horror show. I tune out the rest of their discussion, trying not to fantasize too hard about life away from here. I’ve never left the inner ring of the Shadow Realm. Only Ares has been granted that privilege. Despite the reasoning behind the trip, I find myself feeling excited. Time with my brother, where we might even be able to relax a little? The chance to see the world, even as dark as I’ve heard it is? It all excites me.

I’m not going to let my father shit all over it with his agendas.

“Morganna!” I blink, pulling myself from the thoughts in my mind and glance over at my father. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from wincing. He looks pissed.

“Sorry, Father, I was just thinking about the trip,” I say as demurely as I can, and I see Ares’ shoulders shake subtly as he laughs at the act.

“I was saying that you leave in two days, and you’ll be taking those fucking hounds with you. I expect you to do everything your brother says.”

“I understand,” I say, nodding before looking down at the table and grinning.

I’m coming, World.

Ready or not.