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In the midst of a battle between the Maddox and Kohen clans over the Shadow Shroud, Lord Kian pressures his son, Ryker, to choose a mate. However, the young lord has no interest in such courtship. Desperate to avoid his father's expectations, Ryker makes a surprising proposal: he will settle for a male thrall, a rarity in their society. Lord Raiden of the Maddox clan sees an opportunity and sends an unmarked male thrall named Zayn to seduce Ryker and gather intel in exchange for his freedom from captivity. But as Zayn and Ryker grow closer, lines between loyalty and desire blur, and they must navigate their way through the conflicting and brutal realities of their world.

Romance / Fantasy
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I feel like an animal, sitting alone while locked up in a cage. The chains around my ankles and wrists feel heavy and tight, digging into my skin with every move I make. The metallic scent of the restraints fills my nose, and the weight of my captivity bears down on my shoulders.

It’s late, and the hive is quiet except for the occasional whispers of the night guards. The hopeless fate of my kind consumes my thoughts. Male thralls like me are the lowest of the low in the scentari race.

A thrall’s only purpose is to breed. We are the only ones out of the three subtypes that can produce primarchs. That is, as long as it’s a female thrall with a male primarch. Since I am a male thrall, I can only reproduce other thralls or resilients. I can’t mate with female primarchs because there aren’t any. Therefore I have no purpose.

My bitterness is disturbed by a low creak as the doors to the main hall open. A few resilients enter. I watch quietly as they begin setting up the long table. The sound of silverware clinking echoes through the room, and the aroma of the food they are preparing fills my nostrils. A meal at this hour? The primarchs must be returning to the hive then. I hope they’re coming with good news. It’s been three days, and I hope to have a small bite of something.

As I wait, I can’t help but feel envious of the resilients. They are immune to the pheromones of the primarchs, and while loyal to them, they have the freedom of choice in who they follow and mate with. Of course, they only breed with other resilients, but at least they have a choice.

Thralls don’t have the luxury of choice. Instead, we are handpicked by primarchs and held captive by their pheromones through a phenomenon called social control. It’s a brutal form of manipulation that alters our behaviour and renders us helpless to resist. Pheromones, released into the air from a special gland, can only be detected by thralls. Once we pick up their scent, we become consumed by an uncontrollable desire that forces us into submission.

I’ve been told about it countless times, but thankfully, I’ve never experienced it myself. I consider myself fortunate to be locked up in a cage, far away from the prying eyes of the primarchs. For other male thralls, however, the situation is far worse. They either live in fear, hiding from the pheromones, or they are subjected to unspeakable abuse and exploitation by their captors.

I remain unnoticed in my cage as the resilients quickly fill the table with a feast fit for a king. Dressed in matching charcoal grey tunics over off-white sarouel pants, their transparent and fragile wings flutter now and then, creating a gentle breeze that tickles my ears as a few hover above the table, straightening the decor with graceful hands.

I’m mesmerized by their elegance and the freedom they possess. It’s a luxury I’ve never afforded as a thrall. I can only imagine what it would be like to soar through the air, to feel weightless and untethered.

But as much as I envy the resilients, I could never live like them. Our differences are too stark. Their clothes are embroidered with gold, while my rough and tattered tunic reminds me of my lowly status. Their wings shimmer in the soft light while heavy chains weigh down my back. Even if I could leave my cage, I would never be able to blend in with the resilients. Mother Nature made sure of that. Thralls don’t have wings.

My stomach growl with hunger. I take a deep breath and release a heavy sigh, the sound echoing off the cold metal bars of my cage. I can’t help but feel like a prisoner, trapped by my biology and the whims of the primarchs. But then I remind myself that I am safe in my cage, shielded from the dangerous world outside.

The distant sound of a horn echoes through the halls, signalling the primarchs’ return to the hive. The resilients scramble to finish their preparations and rush out of the hall. Left alone once again, the silence is shattered by the sudden slam of the heavy doors as they are flung open with brute force, striking the back wall with a loud thud.

My heart races as Lord Raiden enters the dining hall, flanked by his mate, Mykah, and their son, the young lord Jayce, who is accompanied by his mate, Raelynn. Four other intimidating primarchs march behind them. I shrink back, trying to make myself as small as possible.

Their boots echo off the walls as they approach the table. Lord Raiden’s face is set in a deep scowl, and I can almost feel the waves of anger radiating from him. Mykah’s eyes dart toward me, but I quickly avert my gaze. Even the slightest hint of familiarity between us could lead to trouble. I don’t want to attract any unwanted attention. Lord Raiden’s expression is grim, and I can sense his displeasure as he surveys the room. I assume the battle with Arktosia didn’t go well.

Our home is the realm of Veleria, a land of stark contrasts. To the far north, towering mountains dominate the horizon; their peaks are forever lashed with icy winds. In the south, a vast expanse of unforgiving desert stretches as far as the eye can see. Yet, despite the harsh environment, scentari have managed to thrive here, carving out hives across the land and separating ourselves into four distinct clans.

Aranthia is a marine hive on the southern coast of Veleria, spread out across numerous surrounding islands connected by bridges. It is currently under the power of Lord Daxton of the Axl Clan. Aranthia’s economy is primarily driven by shipbuilding, fishing, and blacksmithing, but the shipping industry is the most lucrative.

Kalyndria lies in the far north, nestled in the highlands of Veleria. Lord Zyler of the Krew Clan reigns over this holy sanctuary, where the Kalyndria Orthodox Church holds sway. I’ve heard tales that even thralls can find peace within those icy walls, though reaching them is a daunting task.

Then there’s Talanosia—my home. The scorching sun beats down on Talanosia, its rays mercilessly reflecting off the sand and stone buildings that make up the hive. Yet, despite the harsh environment, Talanosia thrives with bustling markets and vibrant streets.

Despite the hive’s wealth and power, it is not without its problems. Slavery is rampant in Talanosia, with thralls forced to work for our primarch masters. The Maddox Clan is known for their brutal treatment of their thralls and the cruel punishments inflicted on those who dare to disobey.

Arktosia, one of the smaller hives, floats above us amid the dense forest and coursing rivers of the Shadow Shroud. The hive is renowned in Veleria for its skilled trades in forestry, agriculture, carpentry, and leatherworking. Under the leadership of Lord Kian of the Kohen Clan, Arktosians prioritize living in harmony with nature.

Despite its small size, my clan has been unable to gain access or control over the territory, making Arktosia an enigmatic and alluring hive shrouded in mystery and secrets. Some say that Lord Kian and his followers can communicate with the spirits of the forest, and others whisper of a secret underground network of tunnels beneath the hive. Whatever the truth may be, one thing is sure: Arktosia remains a mysterious and fascinating place in the realm of Veleria.

Lord Raiden takes his place at the head of the long, ornately-carved table, the other primarchs filing in beside him. Mykah settles herself into the chair on his right, radiating an aura of calm and confidence despite the tense atmosphere in the room. Lord Jayce sits at the opposite end of the table with Raelynn, the two exchanging quick whispers.

As the group becomes settled, three resilients enter the room, bearing musical instruments. They take up positions at the far end of the hall and begin to play a hauntingly beautiful Talanosian melody. The sweet notes of the music fill the room, weaving a spell around the assembled group.

At the same time, four thralls enter the room, moving gracefully to the music. They are dressed in little more than scraps of cloth, and their movements are sensual and seductive. I can see the hungry gazes of the primarchs upon them, and it’s clear that they are nothing more than objects of desire for their amusement.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these thralls are brought here against their will, forced to perform for the pleasure of those in power. The thought makes me sick, and my heart aches for them. I wonder what their lives were like before they were taken, how they ended up in this position, and whether they ever dreamed of a better life. I can see the weariness in their eyes and the exhaustion in their movements, and it breaks my heart to think that this is all they have to look forward to.

Their scant clothing reveals the intricate pattern of scales that adorns their skin, delicate and natural like lace against their flesh. I shift my gaze downward, where I can see my scales on the back of my hands, and I tug the sleeves of my tunic to hide them. Despite being a part of who I am as a scentari, I can’t help but feel self-conscious about them.

Scales are a defining feature of our kind, and each scentari has a unique pattern. Even twins have their own distinct markings. But as I look around the room, I can’t help but feel like an outsider. The primarchs at the table have solid, matte black scales that seem to absorb the light. The resilients have solid bone-white scales that reflect it. And my fellow thralls have an assortment of shimmering, vibrant colours that catch the eye.

It’s not that having scales is terrible; it’s just that it makes it difficult for us to blend in. Aside from our lack of wings, our scales make us stand out, shimmering like a beacon. I have some scales on my arms, legs, back, hips, and neck. I feel fortunate not to have any on my face.

Mykah and Raelynn serve their mates a platter of food and pour their drinks. Lord Raidon immediately drowns his goblet of wine, and Mykah prepares to refill it, but Lord Raiden slams the goblet back down on the table, causing it to rattle against the woo.

“Damn those tree huggers!” he growls, his eyes blazing with fury.

Mykah’s hands tremble as she pours Lord Raiden another goblet of wine, her eyes darting around the room as she tries to keep her composure.

Lord Jayce takes a small sip of his wine and releases a heavy sigh. “They must have a weakness,” he says, looking around the table. “Every hive has a weakness. We need to find it.”

Kael, the primarch to Lord Raidon’s left, nods in agreement. “But how?” he asks, his brow furrowed. “We can’t even make it through that damn clusterfuck of trees!”

Daxtyn, the primarch across from Kael, lets out a loud chortle. “You can say that again,” he says, shaking his head. “We’ve tried everything. Nothing seems to work.”

Lord Raidon grits his teeth, revealing his sharp fangs. “It's as though the shroud itself is alive,” he says through clenched jaws.

Xaiden, the primarch next to Daxtyn, speaks up. “What about the young Lord?” he asks, his eyes darting around the table. “I heard he still doesn’t even have a mate.”

Kye, the last primarch at the table, nods slowly. “You mean young Lord Ryker,” he says, his voice low.

Lord Jayce frowns. “What does he have to do with anything?” he asks, looking puzzled.

Xaiden shrugs. “Just another damn thorn,” he says, his eyes glinting with hate. “We can’t get close to him.”

“Yes...” Lord Raiden frowns. “That one is more evasive than Lord Kian himself.”

My eyes dart at each primarch as they speak and unintentionally focus on Mykah for a moment. Then, my heart leaps into my throat when I notice her pocketing some bread.

You fool! If they catch you...

Thankfully, the primarchs are too engaged in their conversation to notice the petty theft.

Daxtyn snorts, his eyes rolling. “And what do you suggest?” he says. “Storming the hive with swords and axes? We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work out too well.”

Xaiden nods in agreement. “We need a different approach,” he says. “Something more subtle.”

As the conversation continues, I can feel the tension in the room mounting. Lord Raidon’s anger seethes beneath the surface, and the other primarchs seem equally frustrated with their lack of progress. However, Mykah remains vigilant, anticipating her mate’s every need and doing her best to please him.

Eventually, the chatter quiets as the primarchs seek refuge in their drinks and focus on the thralls’ dancing. But, as a new song begins, I feel a familiar pang of dread twist in my gut as Mykah leans toward Lord Raiden.

What is she up to now?

“My lord, may I remind you that in your absence, Zayn hasn’t had a bite to eat,” she says in a measured tone, her eyes darting briefly in my direction.

Lord Raiden narrows his eyes, his lips curling in a sneer. “And who are you to remind me of anything, thrall?” he spits the last word like a curse.

Mykah’s shoulders slump, and she bows her head, her lavender hair falling like a curtain over her face. “Forgive me, my lord,” she murmurs.

Raelynn shifts uncomfortably in her seat next to Lord Jayce, her eyes darting between Mykah and Lord Raiden.

Lord Raiden’s gaze lingers on Mykah for a moment longer before he turns to me, a sarcastic smirk on his lips. I feel a cold sweat break out on my forehead.

“Zayn, my precious, you look positively petrified,” he chuckles, his voice dripping with contempt.

I bite my lip, struggling to keep my composure. Lord Raiden’s casual cruelty never ceases to terrify me. The room falls into an uneasy silence, punctuated only by the soft strains of music from the instruments. Mykah sits still as a statue. Her head bowed in submission. Lord Raiden surveys the scene with a cold detachment. His eyes shift back to me, and a shiver runs down my spine.

“Zayn,” he says, his voice low and dangerous. “How do you think we should handle this disobedience?”

My heart races, and I struggle to keep my composure. “I-I think Mykah was just trying to be helpful, my Lord,” I stammer.

Lord Raiden’s lips curl into a sneer. “Helpful? Or perhaps she thinks she knows better than me?” he rises from his seat and raises a hand.

“No!” I shout before I can stop myself as Lord Raiden strikes Mykah, sending her body hurtling toward the group of dancers, who are sent sprawling to the ground. The resilients continue to play the music despite the whimpering of the dancers before them.

Lord Raiden rises to his feet, towering over Mykah’s still form, and glares at the dancers. “Did I say you could stop?” he barks, his voice echoing through the room.

The dancers cower in fear and quickly scramble to their feet, their movements hesitant and fearful as they try to dance around Mykah’s motionless form.

Lord Raiden’s gaze flicks to me, and I can feel his eyes boring into my soul. I seethe with anger, my muscles tensing as I grip the bars of my cage. Mykah’s plight has ignited a fire inside me, and I can barely contain it.

As Lord Raiden approaches, I can see the amusement in his eyes. He grips my chin through the bars of the cage, his claws digging into my skin. The smell of his breath makes me want to hurl.

“Perhaps you need a reminder of your place too, Zayn,” he says, his voice oozing with condescension.

I should fix my expression but I can’t stop glaring at him. The urge to rip his head off is almost overwhelming.

Mykah stirs weakly, her head lifting off the ground. I can see the pain etched on her face, making me want to scream.

Ignoring her, Lord Raiden holds up a silver bell and rings it with a cruel grin. The sound echoes through the room, and I feel another shiver run down my spine. I know what it means, and so does every other thrall in the room. It’s a signal of punishment, a warning that we are at his mercy.

Lord Raiden turns back to Mykah, his eyes glittering with sadistic glee. “Stand,” he commands. Despite the pain, Mykah complies, and my anger swells. It’s not her free will. Mykah is his mate. She is marked by him.

Thralls marked by a primarch have no choice but to obey their orders. It’s a higher level of social control, and I grip the bars of my cage so hard that my knuckles turn white.

Lord Raiden leans in as Mykah’s body stands, his breath hot against her face. “Stand here, keep quiet and watch!” he snickers. “Don’t take your eyes off for a second!”

I can feel my anger building, threatening to consume me. This isn’t right. Mykah shouldn’t have to suffer like this. She shouldn’t have to be under his control.

Two resilients enter the room, their faces blank and expressionless. “You rang my Lord?” one of them asks.

Lord Raiden turns to address them, his voice cold and hard. “Take Zayn out of the cage. Flog him.”

The two resilients exchange a quick look, and I can see the anticipation in their eyes. They enjoy this, I realize. They enjoy hurting us, breaking us down.

“How many lashes?” the other one asks.

“Until I say stop,” Lord Raiden replies, settling back into his chair and pouring another glass of wine.

My heart sinks as the cage door is unlocked, and my chains are yanked, pulling me out onto the ground. I try to steel myself for what’s to come, but my breathing is already ragged, and my heart is pounding in my chest.

I meet eyes with Mykah, her body still, her voice silent, and her eyes wide as they remain glued on me. The tears gliding down her cheeks and splattering on the floor before me only add to the weight of my soul. I shut my eyes as the whip cracks, and the dancers keep dancing.

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