February Update – Sneak Peek at The Viper’s Library

I’m so excited about The Viper’s Library trilogy. I started it for NaNoWriMo in November 2022 but was focussing on Out of Ashes, so I kept dipping in and out. Now it’s finally a whole story, and I’m ready for feedback. I have to do a run-through to clear up as many spelling and silly grammar mistakes as possible, but apart from that and a few tweaks, it’s good to go. 

Another reason this has taken so long to draft is because it’s a trilogy, and I’ve been planning those books while writing this one so I can set things up for the rest of the trilogy. 

The release is planned for November 1st.

For more updates and snippets, subscribe below or sign up to be a beta reader for The Viper’s Library by March 31st. If you have already completed the form, then you can DM me on social media or email me at lovefantasymovels@gmail.com.

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See below for a sneak peek. Please note this is an early version and subject to change. There’s also a prologue, but I’m saving that to share later.

Content and Trigger Warnings: Contains violence involving minors, strong language, and suggestive language. body insecurities.


Chapter 1 – The Library

1 – The Library


He was late, and I was bored and hungry, or thirsty, depending on how one considered the need for blood. I’d been tapping my fingers on the arm of my chair—or throne, as I liked to think of it—for thirty minutes. If he didn’t bring my fresh food soon…

Lyria’s tail coiled around my arm, her tight grip reddening my skin. I hissed at her, and she snapped her head to face me. Those golden slitted eyes pondered something before she growled and puffed smoke through her nostrils, her sharp gaze narrowing at the wall. A rodent, judging by the distant scurrying sound. 

“That’s why I keep you around,” I said to the small dragon through a half chuckle. “You’re a good mouse-catcher.”

Lyria tilted her head, and smoke swirled from the edges of her mouth. She was small for her kind, the size of a house cat with her wings tucked in and wasn’t likely to grow much bigger. 

“Fine,” I said, stroking her deep green scales along her spine. “I’d also be horribly bored without you.”

Her tongue flicked at the air, catching my cheek. Her tail slithered around my arm again, black scales catching the moonlight that spilled across the chequered floor in the main room of the library. The scent of old books danced under my nose as I returned to tapping my fingers on my throne, a large sapphire velvet chair with a tall back and gold leafing on its carved wooden arms. 

I checked the clock above the arched entranceway. Quarter to one.

Now he’s extremely late. 

Crossing one leg over the other, I focussed on the spider’s silk of my black dress, the soft material centring me as it often did when I grew impatient or restless, the long skirt rippling over my skin. There was no need for such finery, but I tended to alternate between something regal and something befitting a huntress to receive my delivery every full moon. 

The box of chocolates on the table next to me had lost their appeal a while ago as I waited for the young human to bring me what I truly desired. At least I had wine to dampen my heightened senses, so I didn’t have to listen to every single creature scurrying around outside, and leaves and grass rustling in the evening breeze. Though I could still hear larger creatures like deer or dragons if they ventured close.

My book, wine, and Lyria were my entertainment to pass the time. Tonight, my drink was a fruity white from the dozens of bottles in the library’s pantry, and my book was a raunchy adventure romance of sirens and pirates and sea queens. Goddess, I missed living by the sea.

I stroked my necklace of sea glass, carved into the shape of a long shell or a cocoon depending on how you looked at it. Either way, it meant protection and was a gift from my mother, the only piece of her I had left.

Hooves clicked beyond the library’s grounds and stopped at what I estimated was the front gate. A moment later, crunching grass sounded near the main door just before it creaked open. I always left it unlocked on a full moon. Gentle footfalls grew closer, lighter than usual. Hmm, that doesn’t sound like Thorn.

The person stopped just short of the entrance to the hall, but I didn’t miss the intake of breath and the thudding heartbeat. Poor little lamb.

“Hello,” a small female voice said. I recognised the girl, though I’d only caught glimpses of her in the town’s tavern.

“Enter,” I commanded, and placed my book down.

Barely an adolescent, the girl stepped into the archway at the front of the room. She dragged the small cart I always left by the gate to bring the many boxes into the library. 

I chuckled menacingly and nodded to the dagger tucked into the belt at her hip. “You’ve come to kill me, girl?”

Her hazel eyes widened, and she dropped the blade into the cart. “Nothing of the sort, My Queen.” 

A thrill raced through me at her referring to me as Queen. I couldn’t help it. It got me every time. Of course, they had no idea I was more goddess than queen. They thought I was a territorial viper who liked pretty crowns and made a bargain for a simple life. If only it were that simple. 

She bowed low and took an uncomfortably long time to get back up. “There’s talk of fiends a few towns over to the west, so I brought the knife for my protection on the way here.”

I scowled and glanced out one of the many windows overlooking the back garden and the Lunar Forest beyond. The valley ended but a few miles east of my lands and met another stretching from north to south. Trouble usually came from that valley, not the west. 

“Be sure to raise the flag should they enter my territory, and I will see them gone.” The tall mast over her mother’s tavern held the signal should they need me to keep my bargain with them. 

“Thank you.” The girl bowed again, dusty blonde hair draping over her face. “I have your delivery.”

Nodding to the base of my makeshift dais, I took my goblet of wine from the table, where Lyria had coiled herself, and finished it. I sniffed the girl as she opened the back of the cart and slid the crate onto the floor at the foot of the dais. The scent of ale and meat stew clung to her the way it did her older brother, who usually made me deliveries. But there was something else beyond her scent, something I picked up on when venturing to the Moonshine Tavern. Witch, just like all the women in her family. 

Her earthen scent awoke an old memory of spells and magic and the Elemental Goddess who blessed this region just as she had my childhood homeland.

“Where is the boy?” Despite knowing his name, I never used it in front of him, for it would create familiarity. 

“My…” she gulped as her eyes fell on Lyria. “My brother brought me with the horse and wagon, but he is a little unwell and didn’t want to appear unseemly to you.”

“Has a plague reached the town?” I asked, though I knew if  he was sick, his mother could heal a simple influenza, and I just liked seeing the girl squirm.

“No,” the girl replied. “Just a seasonal illness.”

“As your Queen,” I said in a harsh flat tone, “I need to be informed immediately of any threats to the town. I wouldn’t want my,” I licked my lips and eyed the girl, “sustenance to be tainted.” 

“I-I…” She bowed again. “There is no cause for alarm, My Queen.”

I tapped my heeled sandals on the tiled dais and crossed my arms over my chest. “I had better not hear of deaths because of the incompetence of my subjects. You are all alive and safe because I permit it. And the talk of fiends in the other towns should have reached me sooner. I’ve a good mind to lock a dozen of you in the cellar for your blood and leave the rest to their own fate.”

The girl shook her head. “No. I promise we only heard of the fiends this morning. They came from the west.” I’d expected her to be quivering by now, but she did nothing of the sort. Instead, she smiled and curtseyed. “Anything else, My Queen?” 

I handed her the list of things I wanted for next month in a small envelope, and she pocketed it with a nod. 

“Sit,” I commanded, gesturing to the cushions next to me. 

Sighing, I rifled through the boxes. Outfits in spider’s silk and satin, a box that jingled—likely containing jewels to appease me—and a pair of tall leather boots, and several wine bottles, some unlabelled. 

My mouth watered as I popped the cork of one of the unlabelled bottles with my teeth and sniffed the delicacy inside. Tangy and metallic. I half-filled the goblet with the thick red liquid. 

The girl winced as I put the goblet to my mouth and took a tentative sip. The blood tasted of more than a hundred different people, all giving me a few drops in exchange for their safety from the dangers to the east. That was our simple deal, along with a few extras for my personal comfort. 

“How old are you, witchling?” I asked. 

The girl perked up, her smile back on her face. “I’m almost thirteen.” 

A pang formed in my chest at how I would say that when people asked. The idea of being almost a year older made me feel more mature, especially since I was the youngest of eighteen siblings.

“How did you know I was a witch?” she asked.

“You smell of dirt.” I gave her an amused sneer and waved a dismissive hand at her. “I scented it on the women in your family long ago.”

Her lower lip drooped, and her eyes grew wide. “Nobody knows,” she said.

“I am aware of that.”

She looked up, lip quivering as she inhaled. “Don’t you want to feed on me?”

“No.” It was a half-lie. Witch blood was rather delicious, and if she were older, I might have had a few drops. I would settle for the wine, chocolates, and fresh blood in the crate over the blood of a child. Even I had lines I would never cross.

Lyria leaped from the table, her webbed wings snapping out wide to guide her down and approach the girl. The girl stilled as my dragon rose on her haunches to meet her eyes. 

“She won’t hurt you unless you appear a threat,” I said. “She’s just curious.”

Slowly, the girl raised a hand to meet Lyria’s face before my pet huffed a little smoke, her throat glowing. The girl’s hand mimicked the glow, and I chuckled. Of all the things I’d expected tonight, a witchling playing with my pet dragon was not one of them.

“She likes you,” I said, amused by the mutual curiosity in the pair.

“I like her too,” the girl said and reached for a chocolate

My hand caught her wrist before she could take one. Her eyes widened, and her fluttering heart played across my ears. I almost baulked at her look of horror, but I’d worked hard to get those looks, and I wouldn’t want to undo it because of one little girl. 

Her wide eyes stared at our hands. “You’re freezing.”

“I’m cold-blooded,” I said. “And you will learn to respect people’s chocolates,” I said, a hypnotic hiss lacing my voice. 

“Yes, My Queen.” Her tone was flat, and her irises turned cloudy, a sign my compulsion had worked. There was nothing wrong with a little compulsion to keep the humans in line. I occasionally compelled her brother to forget our casual conversations. It was easier that way. 

“You’re Emberly, yes?” I’d heard her mother shout her name enough times in her family’s tavern along with the flash of her honey braids or pigtails through the crowd. 

Her gaze shot up at the use of her name. “Yes.”

“And why did your parents send someone so young in here?” I asked.

Emberly shrugged. “My father…” 

Shit. I’d forgotten for a moment that he’d died the previous year. 

Her eyes dropped to where I’d just grabbed, a purple bruise ringing her wrist, too dark to have been me. I was always careful with humans and their weak forms. “My stepfather cares little for me and my brother.” 

“He hurts you?” I asked, blood seething beneath my skin at anyone harming a child. 

She sucked on her lower lip, and I wasn’t sure her fear was because of me or her stepfather.

“What has he done?” She gulped audibly and stared at the chocolates. Rolling my eyes, I plopped the box in her lap. “Finish them if you want.”

Her dull expression brightened as she tossed three into her mouth and devoured them faster than I’d seen since my sister would sneak mother’s sugared jelly sweets when she wasn’t looking. Maybe that was why I’d let Thorn stay all those times, and now Emberly.

These human children reminded me of a time before my sisters and I were tainted by blood that only made us crave more of it. Some days, I wished I’d died instead of being reborn as this monster. But then there were days like this when a sweet girl reminded me of the good in the world.

“Are you going to tell me why you’re really here in place of your brother?” I asked finally. 

“Well,” she said through a mouthful of chocolates, then looked at me as she realised she’d confirmed my suspicion. 

I swiped one for myself, slightly regretting my offer to let her finish them. I hadn’t requested any for this month. 

Her throat bobbed. “I didn’t know if he would actually ask you or not, but…” another gulp. Fear tinged her witchy scent. Emberly’s pleading eyes cracked something in my chest.

“You want me to do something about your stepfather?” 

The girl didn’t have to say it for me to see the look of shame on her face. For what exactly, I wasn’t sure. Asking me or for whatever I might do.

“I will see him gone.” Killing him would be deserving for making a girl resort to this, but it would forever ruin her to live with his death on her conscience. There were plenty of other things I could do to make sure he never hurt anyone again.

“You will?” she asked with a sheepish look. “Thorn thought you would kill him for just asking a favour.”

I leaned in close, scenting the sweetness of the youth in her blood, akin to the chocolates she’d almost finished. “And what do you think I’ll ask for in return for this favour?”

“I…” She grimaced. “I’ll do anything.”

“Anything?” I crooned, noting one last chocolate in her palm. “Give me that last chocolate back, and I want double next time.”

Her jaw opened and closed as if she were fighting words before she stretched out her hand. “I’ll bring you a dozen boxes of chocolates next month.”

I chuckled, but this time, it was pure amusement. “You have a deal, witchling. Your stepfather will be gone within the week, and I’ll make sure he spends the rest of his days regretting what he’s done.”

Moments passed as the moons’ light swept across the rows of books. It wasn’t until the girl yawned that I realised I’d kept her so long, far longer than her brother. To account for the girl’s lost time, I pressed the tips of my sharp incisors to her wrist. Everyone would assume I’d fed on her. I turned back to the crate, lifting out the boots with a matching corset and sheer lace hanging from it, just as I’d ordered.

“You may leave,” I told the girl, not facing her. 

She didn’t move judging by the lack of footsteps.

“I. Said. Leave,” I growled and spun to face her, baring my teeth and letting my eyes shift into the slits of my inner viper. 

Her already pale skin turned white as she froze in place. If she wasn’t scared before, she certainly would be now with my fangs on display. I’d also forced my deep green eyes to turn red, a sign of my bloodlust. Then there was the hiss in my voice, an irresistible command that had people doing my bidding.

I hissed and snapped at the air for added effect, which finally sent her running. A moment passed as I listened for the door closing as she fled, leaves crunching under her hurried footfalls. 

Too long. I’d let her stay too long and… Fuck. I knew I should have compelled her to forget everything the way I did with her brother.

A scream startled me from my thoughts, and I whirled to face the direction of the front gate as another scream echoed around the grounds. Emberly. 

I kicked off my sandals and ran down the hallway and out the front door. Overgrown shrubbery tore at the hem of my dress, but I ignored it as shouts came from beyond the tall iron gate that met the narrow lane from the town. More screams sounded, and I leapt over the gate with little effort. 

My sight narrowed in on Thorn and Emberly’s small wagon, its lantern fizzing out on the ground and the horse neighing with panic. I recognised Thorn’s lanky frame, on the cusp of manhood, and a mop of dark curly hair bobbing as he held out a silver-tipped blade. 

Clever boy bringing that. 

A tall female hooked an arm around Emberly’s small frame, her fangs glinting in the moonlight and eyes glowing red. 

“Laura,” I hissed. It had been over a hundred years, but I recognised my sister’s minion. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Looking for you,” she said with a bloodied sneer, and my stomach dropped over her tasting the witch in Emberly. She unlatched a pouch from her belt and dropped it at my feet. “And look who I find leaving your… What is that place anyway?”

“Mine, and you’re on my land. These children are my sources, so you can fuck off and find your own food.”

She licked the side of Emberly’s neck where she’d bitten her. “They don’t taste like yours.” 

Shit. Even lesser vipers like Laura could taste if another viper had claimed a blood source. Emberly’s hand glowed, burning into Laura’s arm, but the viper didn’t seem fazed by it. In a single breath, I was on her, one hand shoving Emberly towards her brother, the other digging my nails into Laura’s throat. 

“You should have been more careful whose lands you fed on,” I hissed, my tongue shifting into a lengthened fork and spitting venom at her face.

Sharper than hers, my fangs slipped out. A warm breeze blew over the back of my neck, unseasonably warm. I snapped my gaze to the morning sun cresting the distant hills. It wouldn’t kill her, but it would hurt enough for her to reconsider going in the sunlight. Me, on the other hand, sunlight did nothing.

“Thorn, Emberly.” I shouted. “Get to the clearing by the well.” It was on a small hill where the sun would soon reach. 

Nothing happened. Nobody moved.

A male viper stood between the children and the hill, licking his lips. Damn fiends. And my night had been relatively pleasant until this. I threw my hypnotic hiss in my voice. “Leave the children alone.” 

His pupils widened, and he blinked, fighting it but loosening his grip long enough for Thorn and Emberly to run. The fiend gave chase and overtook them in a heartbeat. I was faster. 

I caught the back of the fiend’s short coat, tossing him to the ground as Thorn and Emberly raced past. I breathed in the deliciousness of the blood pooling under his head where he’d hit it on a rock. Bloodlust took over as it often did in these situations, and I sank my teeth into his neck and spilled my paralytic venom into him.

Delectable warm liquid dribbled into my mouth, and I sucked hard. It was like a fine wine, intoxicating and fun to drink, but no viper could survive on the blood of their own kind. Shame. 

I was vaguely aware of the sun’s light a fraction closer to the clearing where the children had run to, but I couldn’t tear myself away from my treat. Every sense dulled but the taste of that blood. Drinking him dry would kill him, but the bloodlust… Once it started, it didn’t stop until it was satisfied.

Emberly’s scream finally dragged my logic back, and I pushed myself away from the limp form as it melted into the ground. Spinning on my bare feet, I ran towards the children. 

They’d made it to the clearing, their huddling forms visible through the gaps in the trees. Laura closed in on them. Light kissed the metal hook holding the bucket above the well. Sunrise wasn’t moving fast enough. Stupid sun. Laura reached for Thorn, canines latching onto the boy’s neck. If I dragged her off him now, she might rip half of his throat out. 

Creepers tugged at her arms, and Emberly had her hand outstretched, fingers gripping in the same way the creepers were until they snapped. “Get off him.” Her scream tore through me, screams I was more than familiar with.

Snarling, I ran to the clearing and hissed in Laura’s ear. “Let him go.” I pushed all my will into it, imagining her fangs retracting and releasing him. 

She did, and I pressed my nails into the back of her neck. She spun away from Thorn and tossed me against a tree surrounding the clearing. I groaned as sharp pain crashed into my nerves, and I looked down to see a protruding branch sticking into the side of my waist. 

Pushing slowly off the tree, I gritted my teeth at the sting as the branch slid out of my side. Blood seeped through my fingers where I held the wound through my torn dress, and I snarled at the viper.

“You ruined my dress, you fucking waste of a being.” I stepped closer, glancing briefly at Thorn and Emberly, who were alive, albeit a mess of cuts and scrapes. “This is my queendom, small as it is, and I don’t take kindly to shits like you and your dead friend feeding off my subjects.”

Laura shrugged. “You’re rather protective of the sprogs. Don’t tell me you’re slipping into those old ways your sisters told me of.”

I shot forwards, ripping into the viper’s throat with my teeth. I tore her head from her body before she could say another word. Lost in the euphoria of her blood, I didn’t stop drinking, not until the body sizzled and melted like her companion’s. Panting, I took in the dark patch in the ground, the blood staining my clothes, and my skin now completely covered in my viper scales, armour against almost any blow.

The sun finally graced us with its presence, casting long shadows from the trees. I let its warmth wash over my scales in an attempt to soothe the bloodlust. My head snapped in the children’s direction, the scent of the witchling’s blood drifting under my nose, stirring my bloodlust again. I bared my fangs at them.

“Go,” I said before I did something I couldn’t undo.

“Thank you,” Emberly said as Thorn tugged her back, and they both fled.

Good. They got to see what I was capable of and why they kept away from me, but also why I was their Queen. What was a few bottles of blood a month in exchange for this kind of protection from fiends? 

Laura’s pouch still on the ground caught my attention, and I picked it up and pulled out a small letter with my name on it. My heart stopped at the insignia on the wax seal. A serpent coiled around a heart, signifying our bloodlust as if it were something to celebrate. And Aelia’s writing. Fuck. My sisters had found me again.

Back in my library palace, I paced the bathing chamber while I finished off a whole bottle of blood, cursing how I’d missed vipers in my territory who had revealed my location to my sisters and probably my sire too.

As much as I feared my sire and sisters’ influence on me, the woman in the mirror was my truest fear. The red glow beyonds her green eyes, the blood drying around her mouth and neck, sharp fangs still on display, and the layered scales in place of human skin.

And my dress. Huffing, I lifted the shredded layers of satin, baring my filthy feet. One of the rips exposed a fine scar from the side of my breast, arcing down and part way across my stomach, ending just under my hip bone. I could still see half my insides spilling out on the ground, horses’ hooves nearly missing my head, and my sisters half dead on either side of me.

Gripping my sister’s letter in my hand, I read the first words from my sisters in around two hundred years.

Dearest Zelenka,

I hope this finds you well, dear sister. It has been many years, I know, but Mother misses you.

If you could call the woman who forced this life on me my mother. I supposed that was exactly what mothers were, someone who gives life without being asked, though most mothers cared what their children did with their lives. My human mother cared. 

My sire, as I preferred to think of Viessa, couldn’t give a shit about my choices. She was born from a union between the Blood God of Underland, maker of vampires, and the Serpent Goddess of Afterlight. Not long after her birth, the other gods and goddesses vanished, and the magic of their realms ceased to bless humans and their lands. Trapped in the mortal world, my sire named herself the Viper Goddess. Though some call her a Viper Demon. 

Octavia and I heard of your quaint town and decided to visit. I am sure you can accommodate us in that unique palace of yours, and we’ll be with you at the next full moon.

Ugh, I hated Aelia’s tone even in a letter. 

I look forward to spending time with my dear sister and having the three of us together after all this time. 

Your dear sister,


“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” I crumpled the letter and scrunched it in my hand.

The first time my sisters found me after my sire let me leave, I had recently compelled an entire royal family to leave their palace and their lands to me. But all I received from my sisters were insults disguised as compliments before they turned the surrounding towns into a bloodbath.  

Blood always spilled where my sisters were concerned. 

So I came to the most inconspicuous place I could find. But it wasn’t far enough.

I stomped up and down for several heartbeats before I glugged down the goblet of blood I’d poured upon my return, promptly filling it with more wine. Neither relieved the seething under my skin. 

With a roaring scream, I threw the goblet across the room and cursed.

2 – The Hunters


Several hours earlier

We’d been tracking the vipers for days, helping their victims as best we could after they’d attacked in multiple towns. According to the map we’d obtained in the previous town, the valley ended not far from here and we could trap them before the river. The forest surrounding the town gave us cover from the vipers’ sight.

The vipers were arguing over delivering a letter. A fucking letter of all things. The lone male had mentioned being gone for a day or so but not why, but whatever it was had him and the four females vipers excited. 

The cool night air bit at my skin, but my inner heat fought it off quickly.

“Not too hot,” Naveed warned. “They’ll see it.” He nodded to the vipers. His gold-bronze eyes caught the moonlight, but his dark skin was barely visible among the trees. 

I nodded back and turned to Kian on my other side. His heritage was the same as Naveed’s though his eyes were a fraction lighter and dark hair a shorter than Naveed’s shoulder-length waves.

“Drunken stupor?” Kian suggested. 

We shared a grin and nodded. I slowly slid my sword from my back while Kian handed Naveed his bow and quiver and tucked Naveed’s twin daggers into his belt, covering them with his jacket. Kian was the better shot by a fraction, but both could hit most moving targets save for the faster vipers. 

“Hello ladies,” Kian said, his voice wobbling as he swayed towards them. “I errr…” he slurred his words, “I could have sworn I left my horse around here somewhere.” He spun and stumbled, making one of the females, a brunette, roll her eyes. 

Another, a petite blonde, licked her lips, and my gut roiled at the look of hunger as her fangs slid out. “Looking for a drink, stranger?”

Kian gave a wild grin. “You offering?”

The other females sniggered as the blonde stalked towards him. “No. I was talking about drinking you.” An arrow shot through her skull before she could touch Kian, and he dropped his façade and pulled out his daggers. Swinging both arms across one another, her rid the viper of her head.

Naveed stayed back while I shot forwards, swiping my sword across the brunette’s chest. She spun away before I could do any serious damage and screamed at the male and another female to run.

“Nav,” I shouted.

“On it,” he called back before his footsteps hurried after the two escaping vipers, leaving me and Kian with the brunette and a black-haired female. 

They flashed their fangs, and on closer inspection I noticed they were slightly curved. Fuck. Not the weaklings we often came across. Good thing we’d kept up our training while on the road. 

Some of the brunette’s blood had spattered the sword, and I took a long, slow lick. The blood’s power surged in me, heightening my senses.

Kian spun, his daggers flashing and slashing at the brunette, but she was fast. The other viper, a tall female, launched at me, and I swung my sword as she rolled away, avoiding the blow. 

Drawing on the viper’s blood in my veins, I shot forwards, faster than her thanks to my own inner beast, and this time, my sword cut through flesh and bone. Her eyes went wide for a moment until her torso slid away from her lower half and thudded on the ground. 

A scream caught my attention, and I spun to Kian stabbing both daggers into the other viper’s neck before splitting it open, blood spattering everywhere. Shaking my head, I handed him a handkerchief to clean his face. It was a nasty habit of ours to end up covered in blood, so I always carried something to at least get it off our faces. 

The dead vipers melted into the forest floor, and Naveed returned with a grim expression. “They were too fast and I lost them. They can’t get far with the valley ending beyond the forest and dawn on the way, so we should rest up for the night.”

“We could get them now,” I said.

He gave a look that reminded me why I kept him around. He was my voice of reason. “Rest. Those two will be more difficult to take down if they outran me that easily.”

I nodded. 

“What do you think they were getting all squealy over?” Kian asked, hading Naveed his daggers back. 

“I overheard the runners mention it wasn’t worth their lives to lose that letter they were talking about.”

“Hmm.” Squinting in the direction they’d run, I wondered just what in Underland that was all about. Nothing good if they were that desperate to deliver it. 

Nav nudged my arm. “Come on. There’s a town along here according to the map. It’s on the silk merchant route so probably has an inn or two.”

“Sounds good to me,” Kian said, flinging his arm around my shoulders. “I need a drink.”

A close-up of a snake

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Morning brought a dire need for a cooked breakfast after living off stale bread and apples for three days. Fortunately, Moonshine Inn’s tavern served freshly baked bread, bacon, and eggs, which had set my stomach growling. Flavours blended with each bite, chasing back the mild hangover from far too much ale. 

I deserved it for killing three out of five vipers last night. The celebration had started with arm wrestling the locals, then cold cuts because I wouldn’t let the innkeeper cook at that hour. Sure, two vipers got away, but that was tonight’s problem. Right now, I just wanted to lose myself in food.

Kian sat across from me nursing his head after too much ale while Naveed rolled his eyes at us. He might as well have been our father with the look of disappointment he gave us. Ironic since I was the eldest. 

“You two never learn,” Naveed said. “I don’t know why you have to drink so much when we have a job to do.”

I half thought about having another ale to take the edge off. “Barely feel a thing,” I said in defence. It helped that my metabolism had fought off the effects by the time I’d woken.

The barmaid, Alice, hovered behind the bar, giving us a not-so-subtle wink as she handed a platter of bacon to her older sister, Beth. The sisters were as different as night and day with Beth’s darker hair and delicate beauty compared to Alice’s fair hair and sharp features. Both likely fought off men left, right, and centre.

Beth placed the platter on the table next to us, the farmers tucking into it. Clicking hooves from their cart horses had passed the inn hours ago, and now they were back for a late breakfast. 

I’d expected Beth’s husband to be helping with the breakfast, what with her being heavily pregnant, but he’d been drunker than Kian and I last night. I’d overheard that she’d lost her first husband a couple of years ago and had two children I was yet to see.

“You think I should go for that barmaid again tonight?” Kian asked me.

I shrugged. “Since when do you ask my opinion?”

“Well…” His deep gold eyes lit up as an eyebrow arched. “She said she could find a friend to join us. I swear, her breasts are softer than the finest pillows.”

Nav and I snorted. “Thanks,” I said, “but I’ll let you have all the fun while I stick to my ale.” I said, keeping my voice low so neither the barmaid nor the innkeeper could hear us. We may have enjoyed a good discussion of women, but we knew better than to be obvious about it. 

Kian was always the first the ladies fawned over with his dark skin and golden eyes that marked him his White Dessert heritage. Naveed’s family was from the same region and had similar features apart from his shoulder-length hair compared to Kian’s short curls.

Naveed tsked. “We have vipers to kill.”

“And we will,” I said. “Those two can’t have made it far. We’ll start getting the lay of the land right after breakfast.”

“There’s a forest and valley to the east,” Naveed said. “I asked a drunked last night if he knew where the vipers might have come from. He said they often come from the north where the valley splits.”

“Then why have we chased these from the west?” I asked.

“Because of that letter?” Kian asked.

Naveed and I nodded in unison.

The door slammed open, and a boy in his teens and a younger girl ran in, filthy and breathless. “Mother,” they both called out repeatedly. 

“What is it?” Beth said as she leaned on the surface, reading the morning’s news on a single sheet of paper, the headline being our little victory from the previous night along with a warning to stay inside after dark. Her eyes shot up from the news, and she hurried around the bar, taking in her children and pressing a hand to her swollen belly. 

The poor woman had been up late seeing to the patrons and up early to cook breakfast, so she must have thought her children were in bed. “Emberly, sweetheart, what happened?”

Emberly ran to her mother, wrapping her little arms around the woman. The boy joined the embrace.

“We made the usual delivery with no problems,” he said. 

“Thorn,” Beth scolded, a hand hovering over her mouth as her gaze flicked between the two children. “You took your sister to the library?”

I almost laughed. What could be so dangerous in a library that she would react like that?

“I begged him,” Emberly said, clutching her brother’s hand. “She saved us from two fiends.”

That got my attention. “Fiends or vipers?” I asked, standing. 

Kian’s gaze shot to the children, and Naveed’s face went pale at the mention of young humans around vipers. We all knew they preferred youthful blood. 

The woman pushed her children behind her. “It’s probably nothing. They get excited during a full moon and tend to exaggerate perfectly normal goings on.”

Naveed and Kian couldn’t hear the skip in her heartbeat like I could, but judging by their hard stares, we’d all see the slight shift in her stance and the way she glanced back at her children. 

“Apologies,” Naveed said. “We are the hunters who took out three vipers last night, but two got away.” He peered around to Thorn. “Can you remember anything about them?”

Thorn stepped out. “Yes. They had slightly curved fangs.”

“Are you sure they’re dead?” I asked.

The boy nodded.

“How?” Naveed asked. “You said she saved you. Who is she?”

“That’s enough,” Beth said, ushering the children to the stairs at the far end of the room. “I’ll not have you interrogating my children. They’re obviously upset and it was just the fiends from the north. We don’t get anything worse around here.”

“Please,” Naveed said. “We need to be sure, and they had something we need more information about..”

The woman whirled on us. “We can take care of ourselves, and we don’t need hunters to keep fiends like that away.”

Fiends like that? Her wording set off warning bells. “And what about other fiends or stronger vipers?” I stalked towards her, glancing at the children who still hadn’t left.

“It doesn’t matter,” Thorn said. “The fiends are dead, and my sister and I are fine.”

His use of vipers then fiends had me glancing back at Kian and Naveed who seemed to have noticed too. “So why are you so worried about a library?” I asked as Kian and Naveed flanked me.

“It’s our job to track and kill fiends and vipers,” Naveed said.

“Not here, it’s not,” Beth said. “We’re fine.”

I was always suspicious of that word when said more than once. “Right. Fine.” I gestured to the filthy children. “Whoever this… she is who saved your children missed the three vipers who were on their way here. If we hadn’t been there…”

“She was with me,” Emberly said. “She would have stopped them herself otherwise.”

“Shut up, Emberly,” Thorn snapped.

“No,” Emberly said, pushing past her brother. “She didn’t hurt me, and she never hurts my brother.”

“Stop it,” Beth said and scooped up the girl. “You’ve had a traumatic experience, and you need sleep.”

“But why can’t I tell them about—” 

“Emberly!” Beth’s sharp tone finally hushed the girl, and they strode from the bar. Just before they left, the mother turned. “We appreciate what you did last night, but the threat is gone, and you should leave too.” Her command was clear, but so was the fear in her shaking voice and wide eyes as she followed the children upstairs.

Sighing, I sat back down and wolfed down a ration of bacon. She never said we couldn’t finish our breakfast first.

“You think there’s something in what she said?” Kian asked through a mouth of bread. 

“Definitely,” Naveed replied. “Something’s got them spooked, and it wasn’t the vipers from last night.”

We packed what little we brought and left the inn, leaving a little extra coin for the trouble of scaring the woman and her children. Alice made us several sandwiches for the road, and made Kian promise to visit on the way back, which he was more than happy to do. 

After someone directed us to the town library, we realised this wasn’t the library the children were referring to. It was little more than a bookshop with a few desks at the back. 

Kian and Naveed distracted the librarian, while I looked for anything on the town’s history. Judging by Beth’s reaction, I doubted the librarian would let us poke about in local history section. 

I found one with an outdated map and promptly found the building I suspected was this mysterious library based on the direction the vipers were running in the previous night. Tearing out the page, I nodded to Kian and Naveed, and they made their excuses to leave.

We followed what looked like a main road on the map but ended up being more like a glorified walking path to the edge of Lunar Forest, which was more like a wall of trees surrounding a fortress. The path faded through the trees, its lack of regular use evident. 

A horse whinnied from beyond the layer of trees, and a simple travelling cart lay half overturned to one side of the path. We stalked closer, wary of the sounds of our footsteps. Signs warned us that this was private property and trespassers would be punished.

Good thing we weren’t any normal trespassers. If there was a viper in there, like I suspected, she wasn’t exactly announcing it with the usual speared heads and markings in blood like others who’d held dominion over a specific area.

As we reached the cart, a glint of light dragged my attention to a set of gates and a vine-covered wall. I focussed on the gate, the lock clean and quarter-circles marking the ground where the gate had recently opened.

“Someone’s entered there recently,” I said, keeping my voice low. “This is where the children were. I’m sure of it.”

“Doesn’t look like a library,” Naveed said, his light footsteps barely audible even to me.

We stopped short of the gates, peering through to more vines veiling the stone of the massive building that was more like a small palace. A spacious garden surrounded the structure, overgrown and half dead. The central building had tall arched windows on two levels with towers on either side with five levels. A glass dome peeped out over the centre, and a row of columns held up a sheltered walkway along the front.

“Doesn’t look like we can get in this way without making any noise,” I said, inspecting the rusted hinges of the gate. They would announce our presence to any viper within a mile, if not further.

Naveed leaned back, glancing up and down the wall. “Give me a minute.” With near silent steps, he jogged along it, pausing every few feet to place a hand through the foliage.

I scanned the area around the library, nothing but trees for around a mile towards the town we’d just come from, and even further in the other directions. The top of a well stuck out from a clearing, and something rancid drifted under my nose. Dead fiends. 

“I smell them,” I said. “Someone killed at least one of them over there.” I pointed to the well. “And another in this general area.”

Kian sucked in a breath. “Why would a viper kill their own kind?”

“Territory wars,” I mused. I’d seen it a few times in my life as a hunter, vipers battling for feeding grounds, but usually clans, not a lone viper judging by the silence from inside the building. I could often hear movement from this distance if I took a moment to concentrate, and we’d been too quiet for someone to hear us. “Or to protect those children, like they said.”

“That’s odd as fuck,” Kian said. 

“There’s a gap around the back.” Naveed whispered from behind me. “It’s tight, but no leaves or crumbling stone to make any noise.”

Kian and I nodded and followed Naveed along the wall, making sure to place our feet where Naveed had. He reminded me of my sister sometimes, the way she would sneak up on me or stay out all night without our parents knowing because she never made a sound coming in and out. A pang formed in my chest at how long it had been since I’d seen her. Months. 

The hole was more than fucking tight. I doubted a teen could fit through it at first, but if we removed our weapons and angled ourselves right, we might just fit. I removed my bow and quiver of silver-tipped arrows, carefully placing them beyond the gap for me to use the moment I was through. 

Pausing, I turned to the others. “I’m bait this time,” I whispered. 

Kian’s brows creased. “Why not me?”

“Just something off about this,” I said.

“What’s the plan?” Naveed asked.

I grinned. “The teaser.” It wasn’t my favourite, but it worked as a distraction.

Kian covered his mouth to muffle a laugh. “Oh, Goddess. She’s in for a world of trouble.”

Ducking my head and extending one leg in an awkward position, I bent over and placed my other leg on the ground by my bow, my hand ready to grab it if need be. It took a few breaths and careful manoeuvring, but I shimmied through. 

Kian went next, cursing under his breath as Naveed and I pushed and pulled the male’s limbs through. Naveed slipped in as if ducking under a common fence.

A low hedge lined this inside of the wall, but we could see a partially open window on the upper floor through the gaps in the leaves. Again, we followed Naveed’s footprints until we were as close to the building as possible. 

The creepers made for an easy ladder as we scaled the wall of one of the towers. Once on the roof, we tiptoed along and stopped above the open window. Holding tight onto the roof, I peered over the edge and into the window.

To my relief, the window was only a couple of feet off the floor, giving us something easy to land on. The edges of bookshelves flanked either side, which we could use to hide out of sight.

As I lowered myself down level with the bottom of the window, more of the room came into view. The floor was a gallery that looked down into a space the size of a large ballroom, the upper floor lined with bookshelves, and the lower floor with the same plus rows of perpendicular bookshelves along two sides. The centre was open save for a few small tables and reading chairs that seemed lost in the massive space.

I dropped in, balancing myself on the bookshelf and gestured for Naveed and Kian to enter. Kian slid in first, using me for balance. Naveed was next and was straight in and onto the gallery floor with barely a sound.

My heart leapt at an amused echoic chuckle that seemed to come from everywhere at once. 

“And there was me thinking we’d been quiet,” I said in a hushed tone. I strained to hear where the laughter came from, but the acoustics were playing havoc with my senses. 

A hiss rippled through the space, setting my hairs on ends. I nodded to Kian and pointed to the corner. In a smooth motion, Kian pulled an arrow from his quiver and held it to his bow, ready to knock and fire. 

“Wait for my signal,” I said. 

We all nodded, and Naveed dropped over the railing and into the rows of books a moment before I did. 

A large chair sat at one that looks more like a throne atop the raised platform. Odd. A pile of books lay on the table next to it along with two goblets. I walked over and sniffed the goblets. One was a rich red wine, the kind only a true connoisseur would have. And the other goblet. I grimaced at the metallic scent. Blood.

The laughter faded as footsteps clinked outside the room from down the hall. I glanced up, shaking my head to warn Kian and Naveed not to make a move. I wanted to see what this viper would do, so I sat in the throne and waited for my next kill.

But what stepped into the room was far beyond anything I expected. 

She strode in, her long black dress cinched at the waist with a corset belt and tall boots that exposed a sliver of thigh through splits in her skirt. Her hair was near black, but when she stepped through a ray of sunlight streaming through the dome above, it shone deep red like Underland fire. Her plait danced like a serpent slithering towards her prey, and her eyes… They glowed green with slitted pupils as her skin rippled with midnight green scales, and curved fangs slid over her upper lip. 

Fuck, they were longer than the usual vipers I came across. It hadn’t escaped my attention at how she’d strolled through the sunlight without so much as a flinch. I’d only seen one viper do that. 

She was a perfect balance of goddess and demon.

Oh, I would have fun figuring this one out. Drawing on all my charm, I gave a lascivious grin.

Her full deep pink lips curled into a snarl as she spoke. “Are you lost?”

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