“I am Valen Cortas,” he whispered through cracked lips. “Vengeance will be mine.”
Another scream. The sizzle and pop of an electric whip, a flash of blue light that ghosted across the bars. Valen gasped, his eyes aching, head throbbing, memories churning. Color. A blue like the powerful sea, a blue like the open, cloudless sky. And then...darkness again, and silence.
The new prisoners always screamed for days, until their throats went ragged. They cried out the names of loved ones and tried to hang on to who they were.
But on Lunamere, everyone became a number in the end.
Valen was 306. Deep in the belly of hell incarnate.
The cold was endless. The food was enough to keep skin hanging on bones, but muscles atrophied and hearts slowed. The stink of bodies rose up like a wave, a scent that had long since sunk into the obsidinite walls and bars.
Those walls of obsidinite were the only thing separating Valen and the other prisoners from the void of space and their untimely deaths. He’d thought of escape, as every other prisoner had. He imagined leaping through the wall, diving out into the airless abyss.
Death had once scared Valen, but with each day that passed, it grew closer and closer to becoming his greatest wish.
Still, deep within his tormented soul, he knew he had to survive.
He had to bide his time and hope that the Godstars had not forgotten him.
And so he sat, dreaming of darkness, wrapped up in its cold arms.
I am Valen Cortas.
Vengeance will be mine.
Chapter One (#u2c495123-a205-5bed-8b1b-b7611314f030)
HER NIGHTMARES WERE like bloodstains.
They were impossible to get rid of, no matter how hard Androma Racella tried to scrub them from her mind. On the darkest nights they clung to her like a second skin. In them, she could hear the whispers of the dead threatening to drag her down to hell, where she belonged.
But Andi had decided, long ago, that the nightmares were her punishment.
She was the Bloody Baroness, after all. And if surviving meant giving up sleep, then she would bear the exhaustion.
Tonight the nightmares had come as they always did, and now Andi sat on the bridge of her ship, the Marauder, scratching a fresh set of tallies into her twin swords.
The glowing compression cuffs on her wrists, which protected skin burned in an accident years before, were the only light in the otherwise dark space. The press of a button was all it took to power them up.
Her fingertips were white beneath red-painted nails as she gouged a piece of steel against the flat of one blade, creating a thin tally the length of her smallest finger. Without its spirals of electricity, the sword looked like any other weapon; the tallies, any other soldier’s lucky mark. But Andi knew better. Each line she etched into the metal was another life cut off, another heart stopped with a slice of her blades.
A hundred lives to cover up the pain of the very first. A hundred more, to shovel away the hurt into a place that was dark and deep.
Andi glanced up as an object in the sky caught her eye.
A piece of space trash, hurtling away among thousands of stars.
Andi yawned. She had always loved the stars. Even as a child, she’d dreamed of dancing among them. But tonight she felt as if they were watching her, waiting for her to fail. Mocking little bastards. Well, they’d be sorely disappointed.
The Marauder, a glimmering starship made from the rare impenetrable glass varillium, was known for its devilish speed and agility. And Andi’s crew, a group of girls hailing from every hellish corner of the galaxy, were as sharp as Andi’s blades. They were the heart of the ship, and the three reasons why Andi had survived this long so far from home.
Five days ago, the girls had taken on a job to steal a starload of sealed BioDrugs from Solera, the capital planet of the Tavina System, and deliver them to a satellite station just outside the planet Tenebris in the neighboring system.
It wasn’t an abnormal request. BioDrugs were one of Andi’s most requested transports since these particular drugs could burn someone’s brain to bits or—if used correctly—carry one into a blissful oblivion.
Which, Andi thought, as she resumed her death-mark scratching, I wouldn’t mind experiencing right now.
She could still feel the hot blood on her hands from the man she’d slayed on the Tenebris station. The way his eyes had locked on to hers before she’d run him through with her blades, silent as a whisper. The sorry fool never should have tried to double-cross Andi and her crew.
When his partner had seen Andi’s handiwork, he eagerly handed over the Krevs her team was owed for the job. Still, she’d stolen another life, something she never relished doing. Even killers like her still had souls, and she knew that everyone deserved to be mourned by someone, no matter their crimes.
Andi worked quietly with only the hum of the ship’s engines far beneath her for company, the occasional hiss of the cooling system kicking on overhead. Outer space was quiet, soothing, and Andi had to keep herself from falling asleep, where the nightmares would be lurking.
The sound of footsteps brought Andi’s gaze up once more.
The rhythmic tapping made its way down the small hallway that led to the bridge. Andi continued her scratching, glancing up again when a figure stopped in the doorway, her blue, scaled arms poised on narrow hips.
“As your Second-in-Command,” the girl said, with a voice as smooth as the spiced Rigna they’d shared earlier, “I demand that you return to your quarters and get some sleep.”
“Good morning to you, too, Lira,” Andi said with a sigh. Her Second always seemed to know where she was—and what she was doing—at all times. Her sharp eyes caught every detail, no matter how small. This quality made Lira the best damned pilot in the Mirabel Galaxy, and it was the reason they’d managed to succeed with so many jobs thus far.
It was one of many peculiar qualities Lira had, along with the patches of scales scattered across her skin. When she experienced strong emotions, the scales began to glow, giving off enough heat to burn through the flesh of her enemies. All of Lira’s clothing was sleeveless for this reason. But this defensive mechanism also took a lot of energy from her, occasionally rendering Lira unconscious when activated.
Her scales were a trait many from her home planet desired, but few had. Lira’s bloodline traced back to the first Adhirans who colonized the terraformed world. Soon after the colonization, the planet experienced a radioactive event that transformed its earliest settlers in a number of strange ways, including the scales Lira had inherited.
Andi’s Second stepped into the starlit bridge and lifted a hairless brow. “Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of space on those swords.”
“And then I’ll turn my tallies on to you,” Andi said with a wicked grin.
“You should take up dancing again. Perhaps it would ease some of that deadly tension you’re carrying around.”
“Careful, Lir,” Andi warned.
Lira grinned, swiping two fingers across her right temple to activate her internal communication channel. “Rise and shine, ladies. If the captain can’t sleep, we shouldn’t, either.”
Andi couldn’t hear the response Lira chuckled at, but soon enough, two more pairs of footsteps sounded from the deck above, and she knew the rest of her crew was on their way.
Gilly arrived first, her fire-red braids bouncing on her shoulders as she approached. She was small for her age, a girl no older than thirteen, but Andi wasn’t fooled by her wide, innocent blue eyes. Gilly was a bloodthirsty little beast, a gunner with plenty of death on her hands. She had one hell of a trigger finger.
“Why do you insist on ruining my beauty sleep?” she exclaimed in her fluid little voice.
A tall, broad-shouldered girl appeared behind her, bending so as not to hit her head on the doorway when she entered. Breck, Andi’s head gunner, rolled her eyes as she placed a large hand on Gilly’s small shoulder.
“Kid, when are you going to learn not to question Lira? You know she won’t give you a reasonable answer.”
Andi laughed at Lira’s sharp glare. “If you would only look up from your gun sights long enough to listen to me, you’d know that my answers are, in fact, quite reasonable.” Lira winked at the girls before settling into the pilot’s seat next to Andi’s captain’s chair.