Gift of Darkness – Isadora Brown, Rebecca Hamilton

Kelia Starling had never seen anything more beautiful than the horizon during sunset while on a ship at sea. Too bad she was in the middle of a very important raid and could not appreciate it the way she would have otherwise. “Dammit, Slayer,” a familiar voice said. Drew Knight, Kelia’s captain and friend—a notorious pirate and Sea Shadow—bumped into her, tackling her to the ground. Something loud crashed somewhere on the ship. Kelia turned her attention to the ship parallel to theirs. Drew’s crew had just left to raid. Its mast had fallen horizontal, the crow’s nest now resting on Drew’s own ship. The deck was no longer solid, but broken up into cracks, but nothing that would cause the ship to be out of commission for longer than a day or two. Not with three witches on board and a crew comprised of undead beasts that needed nothing more than blood and sex to motivate them. “Well.” Drew picked himself up, his dark eyes focused on the mast and where it rested. “That was much easier than I expected.” “Your crew is like termites,” Kelia muttered, but she couldn’t control the smile from playing at her lips. “Then what does that make you?” His gaze warmed as it fell upon her frame.

The look —one she was starting to recognize as reserved solely for her—made her heart skip a beat. It reminded her of things she had desperately tried to forget the past two months, things that kept her up at night despite her best efforts. “Do me a favor, Slayer,” he said. “I know that concoction Emma feeds you for your weak stomach every week has side effects. Perhaps don’t take it the day of a raid.” Kelia touched her hip where the jolt of her cutlass could easily be accessed. She felt no more prepared for battle than with her trusted blade on her person and her hair pulled back into a braid. “My queasiness being on sea is my only problem,” she said dryly. “Feel free to drop me off at the nearest port and be done with me.” Drew let out a bark of laughter as he turned to head toward the beginning of the mast.

“If only I could get rid of you that easily,” he said. “But you stay with me, like the damn scurvy.” “As a member of the undead, I did not realize you could still acquire scurvy,” Kelia said. She followed him as they stepped onto the ship’s fallen mast and proceeded to walk across it, like a bridge over the ocean between the ships. She could not help but watch Drew with awed fascination. He had this undeniable grace in the way he moved. He did not hesitate, did not think for one second he would misstep and descend into the shark-infested waters where some of the opposing crew currently found themselves. He was fluid, just like the water below him. Fluid and…eyecatching. Even now, Kelia had to snap herself out of her stupor.

Drew Knight was dangerous for many reasons, including being an unwelcome distraction from the task at hand. Not that she would ever admit such a thing out loud, least of all to Drew Knight. Especially after what happened before. Kelia hurried to keep up with Drew. Wendy Parsons, an earth witch and Drew Knight’s sister, had tracked the target ship using her ability, and likely if this raid failed, it might be a while before they could try again; her magic was traceable, and Drew did not wish to draw too much attention to himself. The raids themselves would do that plenty. The tangy scent of blood, salt, and sweat stabbed her nostrils. Kelia pause, balancing at the middle of the mast. It was already bad enough she was now living at sea. Thanks to the concoction Emma brewed for her, her queasiness was kept at bay for the most part.

However, there were times when something would overrule the concoction, and she would be completely inhibited from moving. Whether it was something perceived via sight, sound, scent, touch or taste…something would come along and remind her senses that she should be throwing up right now. In this instant, Kelia wished her body could have remembered when she was firmly planted on a deck of a ship, instead of while she was hovering over the roaring sea. She could not make out what the voices across from where she stood were shouting, but she would not be surprised if the words were directed at her. Sea Shadows instantly knew what she was. Their hearing could pick up her erratic heartbeat, even if she was not directly in front of them. She was one of the few beings alive on the ship, and as such she expected to be a target. Sea Shadows, by nature, enjoyed feasting on blood—and hers was highly desired, even among Drew’s crew, because she was alive. But the minute she, Daniella, and Wendy set foot on his ship after escaping Port George and The Society, Drew had made it clear that none of them were to be touched. They were to be treated the same way Emma was treated.

And if anyone behaved out of those lines—If anyone so much as objected—they would be slaughtered instantly. They were alive – something that instantly placed a target on their back. Kelia took a breath. She was not planning to be shark food today. Or a last meal for the drowning Sea Shadows. She took one step and then the next, bile bubbling into her mouth and then burning her throat as she forced herself to swallow if back down. Her stomach churned. Drew thought she shouldn’t have taken the concoction on the day of raid, but it seemed perhaps she should have taken more of it. Emma was adamant it could only be taken once a week or it would start to affect her ability to defend herself while on a ship, but she’d never said how much Kelia could take. The minute Drew reached the other ship, he disappeared, and Kelia could not blame him.

He had a mission, and that was ridding the world of other Shadows—ones that worked for the Queen—and acquiring their treasure and any sort of trinket that might fetch a decent amount of currency. Blood brothels were not cheap, and Drew’s crew was getting restless. They had been out at sea for nearly a week with no end in sight, no land for miles, and the Shadows—Drew Knight included—were starting to get hungry. The adrenaline was wearing off as her stomach continued to roil like the waves of the ocean beneath her. Nearly getting hit by the mast was enough to cause her heart to jump out of her throat, but not enough to help her with her weakness. “What’s a thing like you doing in a place like this?” came a familiar, dangerous voice from behind her. Kelia whipped around, mouth dropping when she recognized a Shadow. Not one from Drew’s ship, but one she distinctly remembered from somewhere. Not only that, but how did he get on Drew’s ship? Had he jumped over – the way Shadows could? Shit. She stumbled back, barely catching her balance, as she realized who the Shadow was.

The one from the breeding program. The one who escaped. Kelia swallowed and reached for her blade. The Shadow, now a healthy size and much more attractive than he had been in that dank room, feasting on the immobile body of Slayers that could do nothing more than stare up at the ceiling. He leered at her, and she could read his intentions clearly in his gaze: he intended to feed off her the same way he had those Slayers, but it was more for the thrill of victory than the need to nourish himself. “Not surprised to see Drew Knight holding onto you.” The Shadow took a step forward, forcing Kelia to step back toward the opposing ship, toward the clang of blades and shouts of creatures, not all of whom would be friendly to her. She couldn’t fight a battle in both directions, but she wouldn’t let that fear show. She curled her toes in her boots, as if that could possibly help keep her grip on the mast and prevent her from falling into the water. “I’m surprised he hasn’t fed on you yet,” the Shadow drawled.

“I can smell your innocence from here.” “Are you a sailor, then?” Kelia demanded. Her voice shook, fear thrumming through her veins and echoing through her head, but she held steady. “Is that your ship?” “I lay claim to nothing,” the Shadow said. “Everything I do is for the Queen, and the Queen alone. She is the only one I serve.” “Right, I almost forgot you’re a mindless monster incapable of thinking for yourself.” The Shadow sneered. “You wouldn’t say that if the Queen were here. She was very interested in my tale, how Drew Knight is taken with some human bitch.

If I take you to her, I will be rewarded.” “And if you fail?” Kelia did not particularly care one way or the other what would happen if he failed. She was merely buying time until she could get steady footing on the other ships; she doubted she would be able to defend herself on the mast. On the other hand, plunging to the deep, dark waters below did not seem as dire as it had been before. And at least she was distracted enough where her stomach was not giving her too much trouble anymore. “The Queen is merciful to those she deems worthy.” Kelia knelt to her feet and wretched. Not that much of a distraction then. The Shadow paused, eyebrows pulling together as Kelia wiped her lips with the back of her sleeve, drawing his attention to her mouth while she grabbed the small knife tucked against the back of her boot with her other hand. Apparently, the Shadow was more easily distractible than herself.

Before the Shadow could do anything, she stood and flung her knife at him all in one rapid motion. The small blade caught him in the shoulder. She nearly lost her balance, but with a small shuffle was able to stop herself from falling. The Shadow shrieked as he stumbled backward, the silver-infused blade sinking into his skin. He nearly fell into the water by the sheer force of the throw, and his flailing didn’t help. “You bitch!” the Shadow shouted. “You’re going to pay—” Kelia angled her body, hoping to give herself more balance. “I thought you could not harm me.” She took a deep breath before curling her fingers around the hilt of her cutlass. She was definitely not ready to fight right now, especially against a Shadow who was not only experienced in battle but also furious because of the blade protruding from his shoulder.

A Shadow who already knew who she was. Her stomach roiled from both nerves and illness, and her feet could not grip the mast as she had hoped. She felt weak, almost useless. Perhaps she should have stayed on Drew’s ship, tucked belowdeck with Wendy, Daniella, and Emma. But she’d trained many years as a Slayer to take out Shadows. She was every bit as capable as Drew’s crew. Or at least she had been, at one time. The Shadow smirked as he yanked out her small blade and threw it into the water. “She said nothing about harming you,” he said. “In fact, the Queen has encouraged us to snatch your purity.

She thinks it’s causing Drew Knight to fall under the delusion that you are worth more to him than his Creator.” Behind the Sea Shadow, the sun was sliding down, leaving a watery trail of color in its wake. Kelia could not see the moon just yet, but the sky would soon be black and one of her senses would be stripped from her. Kelia had yet to draw her blade. She didn’t want to remove it from its casing if she could help it. Kelia wasn’t sure she had the strength to hold anything just yet. Her stomach still tumbled like the waves rolling in the ocean and rocking the ships. She would rely on her wits as much as she could, save the blade as a last resort. “So, your queen is promoting you to ravish me?” she asked. The Shadow curled down, as if preparing to pounce.

“Something along those lines.” He sprung into the sky, leaving Kelia barely enough time to dash the rest of the way to the ship. He snared her feet, just as she stepped off the mast. She shot forward, face first toward the wooden deck. She broke the fall with her arms, yet her hip took the brunt of the impact. The Shadow was on top of her, his weight making it difficult for her to breath. With her arms pinned beneath, she could not draw her sword. She wriggled and thrashed, but it made no difference. “I wonder where Drew Knight is right now,” the Shadow mused. “Perhaps if he saw me on top of you, he might give me a worthy fight.

Or perhaps he cares more about the ship’s bounty than he does for a broken Slay—.” Dark purple blood spilled over his lips, landing on her shoulder. It was only then that she noticed the sharp point of a blade protruding through the Shadow’s chest. “Disappointing,” Drew Knight said, standing behind the now dead Shadow. “I thought there had been promise of a worthy fight.” He whipped his blade from the Shadow’s chest and moved it a fraction to the left before pushing it into him once more. The Shadow disintegrated into ash that blew off with the wind. Drew helped Kelia up as she dusted herself off, trying to rid her body of every last piece of ash. She didn’t want that vile wretch of a beast touching her, even in death, but ash had a way of never really wiping away without a proper washing. “Kelia Starling, star pupil of the overbearing Society,” Drew said, shaking his head.

“That’s twice in a manner of minutes I’ve had to save your life. What say you?” Kelia rolled her eyes but smiled before turning her head to look at the new ship. Her stomach was still rumbling with illness and nerves. She needed a moment to catch her breath. But she didn’t have a moment other than what she’d already been blessed with. There was still work left to do, and hopefully she could find a way to be more help than hindrance. Drew’s men seemed to have subdued the opposing crew, tying them up and holding them back. Besides the ones that had been thrown overboard, the Shadows on this ship were being held captive rather than killed. Drew had never been the type to kill without question, unless circumstances required otherwise. And what are those requirements? a voice murmured in her head.

He seems to only kill when your life is in peril. It was a familiar voice, one that belonged to her one-time friend and roommate, Jennifer Espinosa. Jennifer had been a Slayer, just like Kelia, with a boy obsession and too many candles to count. She had tried to prevent Kelia from leaving Port George with Drew Knight. Kelia knew Jennifer thought she was protecting Kelia, but it forced Kelia to choose between Jennifer and Drew. Kelia had chosen Drew and refused to look back. Sometimes, though, even since leaving, she could hear the kinds of things Jennifer might say. The ocean crashed into the side of the ship. It wasn’t enough to push the boat over or even scare the occupants, but it tilted the ship enough to be a gentle reminder who had the power when it came to humans, witches, and Sea Shadows. Mother Nature always prevailed.

Kelia turned her attention back to Drew. “Did you find what you were looking for?” Drew opened his mouth, but before he could respond, someone from across the ship called out to him. “The captain is finally ready to talk,” a familiar Sea Shadow announced. “Who?” Drew turned from Kelia and headed toward his crew member on the opposing ship. Kelia followed across the deck, stepping over ash and blood. “As I recall, there can only be one captain on a ship, and considering I am free to walk around and not entrapped belowdeck…” Kelia wanted to smack Drew for his mocking dramatics, though it was just as much a part of his charm. “That makes me captain, savvy?” He wiggled his eyebrows. Unfortunately, it was that charm of his that might get her killed.

.

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