Read the first chapter of The Cruelest Curse

Read the First Chapter

The Cruelest Curse hits shelves on November 30th! This is the conclusion to the Dark and Otherworldly series (Start at the beginning with Poison and Honey if you haven’t already), and the story is ending with a bang. Expect tons of sword fights, at least one steamy scene, and one very cruel curse as the title promises.

Want a preview? Check out the first chapter below.

The Cruelest Curse Cover

Chapter 1

Dredarion nearly stepped on the first dead sprite. She lay atop fallen leaves, body no taller than his finger, her delicate arms and legs limp. She’d lost her glow, and one of her butterfly-like wings was bent. She must have choked on the smoke and fallen.

They came across more of them, tiny corpses strewn across grass and tree roots, their colorful wings waving in the breeze and giving the illusion of life. Dredarion and the others stepped carefully. The smoke grew stronger the farther through the forest they trekked. It conspired with the leaves overhead to blot out the sun, so thick between the trees that it obscured everything more than ten feet away. His eyes stung, but that was nothing compared to the cold lump of dread that had settled in his gut. When he coughed, the sound seemed to carry through the entire forest.

Salvador raised a hand for them to stop, and both Dredarion and Leigh obeyed. Dredarion scanned the trees for a threat, but it seemed Salvador was just being cautious. They must nearly be upon the village—or what was left of it, judging by the ash floating in the air.

“We’d better go in armed and ready,” Salvador said as calmly as one might comment on needing a feathered fan on a hot day.

Leigh drew one of her knives, but Salvador gave a pointed look to the sword hanging in a scabbard on Dredarion’s hip. Called the Evensong Sword, it was the legendary weapon of Dredarion’s ancestor, Queen Aserenti, who had used it to fight off the Rashrang’s first invasion of his kingdom nearly three hundred years ago. The ancient weapon could shield its wielder from harm and cut through bone and iron with ease, and Dredarion, Leigh, and Salvador had nearly died during their quest to retrieve it.

Leigh glared at it like it had insulted her mother.

Leigh Morgan’s face settled naturally into a glower even when she wasn’t angry, and when she glared, she looked as fierce as a warrior queen. With piercing blue eyes, light beige skin, and long, dark brown hair, she had a body that was all lean muscle. She was human and wore their world’s strange garb: pants of a sturdy blue-gray material that hugged her legs nicely, a simple gray shirt, and a leather jacket. A strap around each thigh held a knife, and Dredarion knew she had several more weapons hidden on her.

Sighing, Leigh clasped the sword’s hilt at Dredarion’s hip and drew it from its scabbard. Dredarion felt a surge of magical energy, and for a moment the smoke and ash in the air held perfectly still.

The last time she’d picked up the Evensong Sword, she’d gone into a berserker rage and cut down over twenty soldiers single-handedly. Hence why Dredarion carried it and not she. But only she could wield it; the Evensong Sword had chosen her and would merely be a shiny trinket for anyone else. He waited, prepared to summon his magic and disarm her if the sword took over again. Her eyebrows drew together as she stared at the blade, and her hand trembled ever so slightly. She didn’t fly into a rage, but the sword was obviously still affecting her.

Dredarion rejoiced that the legendary weapon gave him the means to save his people, but when he saw what it did to Leigh, he wanted to melt the blasted thing down and have it reforged into a chamber pot.

“Talk to me,” Salvador said. “How do you feel?”

“Furious.” Leigh’s voice shook slightly, and she didn’t look away from the blade. “Invincible. Like I could…”

She flung the sword to the ground and staggered away from it, panting like she’d just sprinted a mile. Keeping her back to the sword, she let loose an impressive barrage of profanity regarding it. Dredarion couldn’t follow half of what she said but filed away the phrase “overrated goddamn dildo” for further contemplation.

He crossed the grass, stepping over the sword to reach her. Then he put his hand lightly on her back.

Her head whipped toward him, a pained expression on her face that she quickly covered up. “I—” She turned away, taking a moment to get ahold of herself. “I can’t pick that up again. I’m scared of what I’ll do.”

“Then don’t,” Dredarion said.

At the same moment, Salvador replied, “You’re going to have to.”

A week earlier, Dredarion would have snarled at him, but now even looking at the old man stole the words from his mouth, leaving him in stiff, uneasy silence. Salvador Velasquez had stormy-gray hair and a short beard, his tanned skin wrinkled, his body hale enough for him to walk all day without complaint despite his age. He’d once served as the royal secretary to Dredarion’s mother, though they’d split over the issue of the kingdom abducting people from the human world. Looking at him now, you’d never guess he’d once held such an exalted position. He wore a long brown coat that must have seen nearly as many years as he had, scuffed boots made of animal hide, and a wide-brimmed tan hat. His brown pants and button-down shirt were faded and fraying, and the only splash of color on him was a red bandanna tied around his neck.

Dredarion kept his hand on Leigh’s back, giving her at least that small support.

“I wish I didn’t have to push you,” Salvador went on, an apology in his eyes. “But you’re literally the only one who can do this.”

“And if I lose control and kill you both?” Her voice shook.

“You won’t.” He sounded so certain, his words almost solid enough to touch. “I believe in you.”

“Then believe me when I say I’m not ready.”

Salvador studied her for a long moment, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening, and reluctantly nodded. “I guess walking into a war zone isn’t the best time to test it. But you should practice later. I know you can control it.”

Leigh gave the sword a dark look. “Yeah,” she said finally. “All right.”

Dredarion picked up the sword, replacing it carefully in its scabbard. He felt nothing when he touched it; to him it was just an ordinary hunk of metal. He wished, not for the first time, that he could wield it, that he could defend his kingdom and take the burden from Leigh’s shoulders. But wishes were pitiful wastes of time. Better to spend his mental energy strategizing their next move.

They continued through the forest in grim silence. In less than a minute, they came upon the village—or what was left of it.

Dredarion knew the village of Sun Leaf Hollow. Like many of his people, its residents built their homes in the trees, glass windows carved in the massive trunks, rope bridges stretching overhead. The buildings nestled in the huge branches tended to be round with pointed roofs and narrow patios. Flowering vines grew on the wooden railings, and colored lanterns hung from the smaller limbs. In the evenings, birds would return to the trees to roost, their trills mingling with the villagers’ songs.

The mammoth trees still stood, but they were blackened, smoldering husks. The bridges had been scorched, the buildings burned down. Charred skeletons were visible near openings that had once held ornate doors at the base of the trunks, but other villagers must have escaped their burning homes. Their corpses lay on the ground, bloody wounds telling of swords and axes.

The smoke mostly covered the stench of guts, and so far, it seemed to have kept away most of the carrion eaters. That would change, though, once the few lingering fires cooled and the air cleared.

Dredarion had raced home to defend his kingdom as soon as he, Leigh, and Salvador had reclaimed the Evensong Sword. He had planned for Sun Leaf Hollow to be a brief stop on his journey to the palace, thinking the Rashrang army wouldn’t push past Dwencant’s borders for at least another day. It had been foolishly optimistic of him.

Had the palace fallen as well? What of his mother, the queen? And his brother, Rab? He couldn’t stop himself from picturing their corpses covered in ash and blood like the ones before him. Nausea filled him, and he had to swallow.

“The palace is much better defended than Sun Leaf Hollow,” said Salvador, making Dredarion wonder if the old man could read his mind—a troubling thought. “We won’t know anything until we reach it. Let’s keep moving.”

Dredarion didn’t reply.

Salvador’s gaze lingered on him for a moment. His shoulders heaved with a sigh, and then he started walking. Leigh took two steps after him before stopping and looking back at Dredarion, who hadn’t moved.

He didn’t want to leave these people—his people—without even digging a proper burial mound. But that would take days, and if he didn’t stop the Rashrang army soon, more would die. His duty to the living had to take precedence over the one to the dead.

He turned his back to them and followed Salvador out of the village. Leigh touched his arm gently, not saying anything but offering comfort. Her presence was a balm, this woman who’d once been his enemy but was now so much more. He tried to give her a grateful smile, but surrounded by so much death, he couldn’t manage it.

They kept walking until dusk, when they had to stop and camp for the night. They didn’t dare a fire, not wanting to catch the attention of any scouts the Rashrang army had left behind. They’d gone far enough to escape the smoke, though the smell lingered in Dredarion’s nostrils and had soaked into his clothes.

They settled on a patch of soft, mossy ground with a huge tree at their backs and ate dinner. Sadly, the only food they had was what Salvador and Leigh had brought from the human world: nuts that were too salty, dried fruit that was offensively sweet, and some awful fried things that somehow managed to be both crunchy and drowning in grease. Will-o’-the-wisps drifted between the trees around them, small balls of pale blue luminance like stars. The night was quiet save for the wind rustling the leaves and the distant howling of a wolf. None of them spoke. Leigh was naturally untalkative, and Dredarion… He glanced at Salvador and felt his stomach roil. It was better if they didn’t speak anyway. Less chance of hostile forces hearing them.

Leigh abruptly stood. “I’m going to scout the perimeter.”

Dredarion jerked up. “I’ll go with you.”

“No!” She winced at the loudness of her voice and continued in a softer tone. “You stay here. With Sal.” She glanced between them, her mouth a tight line. “Deal with whatever’s bothering you two. I don’t like it.”

Then she turned on her heel and stalked off into the darkness.

Silence filled her wake. Dredarion wished they had a fire, as it would give him something to stare into and avoid Salvador’s gaze. Had the tension between him and the old man been so obvious? No, but Leigh was observant.

“I think she wants us to talk,” Salvador said mildly.

Dredarion forced himself to look at the old man. In hindsight, he could see the resemblance between the two of them. Salvador had the same dark eyes he did, and their noses were similar. Dredarion was taller and leaner, his sharp cheekbones, pointed ears, and arched eyebrows shared by his mother and her kin, and yet… and yet the more he looked, the more of Salvador he saw in himself. Dredarion wondered if the old man’s hair had been as black as his own before it had gone gray.

“I should apologize,” Salvador said when Dredarion didn’t reply.

“For fathering me?” Dredarion asked wryly, surprised he was able to make light of it. He’d found out only a day ago, and his mind was still reeling.

Salvador’s mouth twitched, not quite forming a smile. “For letting you find out the way you did.” His expression sobered. “I’d been trying to find a way to tell you, but between breaking the curse on Leigh and getting the Evensong Sword…”

Dredarion grunted in acknowledgment. They had been rather busy. He turned his focus inward, searching his feelings and finding little anger toward Salvador for not telling him the truth. He’d known the man for less than a week.

His mother, on the other hand… She’d let him go his whole life thinking himself to be another man’s son. All the times his fath— No. All the times Jeorlel Vendoselon had beaten him as a child made sense now. The man must have known he was a bastard.

Or perhaps not. He’d hit Rab too, and with the same auburn hair and golden skin as Jeorlel, Rab was definitely the man’s true son. Jeorlel had been a cruel, petty man, unfit to be king-consort, and Dredarion supposed he should be glad they weren’t related by blood. But gladness didn’t come close to describing the acid eating away at him when he considered that nearly everything about himself was a lie.

He turned his attention back to Salvador, not the least bit ready to have this conversation, but at the same time… At the same time, he had to know.

“How long have you known?” he asked Salvador.

The man’s eyes grew distant. “Since I saw you on the battlefield at the gate. You had to be Eirenga’s son—you wore the crown, and you looked like her. But you didn’t look anything like Jeorlel, and you were the right age…” His eyes focused on Dredarion. “I was almost sure, and when you shifted into a raven…”

Among enchanters, animal forms were often passed down from parent to child. When Dredarion had seen Salvador transform into a raven identical to his own form, he’d realized the truth as well.

Salvador had left the palace before he’d been born. He wondered if his mother had hidden her pregnancy from him or if she hadn’t known at the time either.

“What would you have done if you’d known sooner?” Dredarion asked.

 Salvador frowned, considering it, and Dredarion appreciated that he didn’t immediately offer hollow assurances that he would have stayed and made everything better.

“I would have still left,” he said finally. “And your mother would have added kidnapping to my many charges of treason since I’d have taken you with me.”

For several seconds, Dredarion forgot how to breathe. He’d never considered that possibility. He would have been raised as a human, not a Dwencanti prince. He could scarcely even imagine what that would have been like—what kind of person he would have become. He’d still be an enchanter, surely, as Salvador was the most powerful practitioner he’d ever met and wouldn’t fail to teach his own son.

But he wouldn’t have taught Dredarion politics and the art of manipulation as his mother had. Dredarion wouldn’t have uncovered the secrets and desires of every courtier in the palace, wouldn’t know exactly what to offer them to get what he wanted and how to sabotage those who stood in his way. He would never have been trained in subterfuge and negotiation, wouldn’t be able to debate musical theory while subtly poisoning his conversation partner’s drink.

Elder gods, what would he even do all day?

Inhaling sharply, he realized he would have probably helped Salvador infiltrate Dwencant and free the other humans. He would have been on the same side as Leigh, rather than her enemy.

“I suppose it’s a pointless question,” he said finally.

“There’s no changing the past,” Salvador agreed. “I can only offer my regrets that I wasn’t a part of your life, and… my hopes that I can start changing that now.”

The surge of clashing emotions within Dredarion threatened to overcome him. He locked them away, to be perused and sorted at a later date, and tried to stop himself from shaking.

“I’ll consider it,” he said finally.

A flash of grief crossed Salvador’s face, but he hid it and nodded graciously. The pair of them sat in silence for a time, and Dredarion again missed a crackling fire to offer distraction.

“We should decide how we’ll approach your mother,” Salvador said after a few minutes.

“I see no reason to tell her anything,” Dredarion replied with a scowl. “It’s not like she gave me the truth.”

“I mean about the Evensong Sword. Eirenga won’t like that it’s chosen Leigh as its wielder.”

“She’ll have to accept it,” Dredarion said, even as he knew Salvador was right. “The sword won’t work for anyone else.”

Salvador gave him a measured look. “You don’t think she’ll have Leigh killed to force the sword to choose another wielder?”

Dredarion went still, the very air freezing in his lungs. He hadn’t considered that, and damn it, he should have.

“It’s too risky,” he said, hearing the edge in his own voice. “The sword may refuse to choose another, and then we’ll have lost our only hope of defeating the Rashrang.”

Salvador nodded evenly. “Yes, I think that’s the argument we should take with her.”

His agreement did little to ease Dredarion’s nerves. He knew his own mother. She would want to control the Evensong Sword, and she couldn’t control Leigh. No one could. If she ordered Leigh put to death…

Dredarion would use every ounce of his guile to make sure she didn’t. But his mother… She was the one person in the palace whom he couldn’t manipulate. He’d tried before, but she’d seen through his schemes—and even when she hadn’t, they’d affected her about as much as wind trying to push a mountain. When Queen Eirenga Rath made up her mind about something, nothing and no one could move her.

Well, Dredarion would just have to change that. If he didn’t—

A shout from somewhere in the forest cut off his thoughts, followed by the scrape of a sword being pulled from its scabbard. Dredarion shot to his feet.


I hope the first chapter piqued your interest. Stay tuned for links to the ebook when it comes out on the 30th.

Kristen's signature

Published by Brandedkristen

If Kristen Brand could have any superpower, she'd want telekinesis so she wouldn't have to move from her computer to pour a new cup of tea. She spends far too much time on the internet, and when she's not writing, she's usually reading novels or comic books. Icon by @heckosart.

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