Steel and Sorrow: Book Two of the Blood and Tears Trilogy

A Warleader proves his worth, a High Mage seeks revenge, a Commander overcomes his past, and a Queen solidifies her rule.



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Steel and Sorrow: Book Two of the Blood and Tears Trilogy

On the continent of Hesh, Tobin has finally gained the two things that have always been out of his reach—the respect of his clan and a woman’s love. He now seeks to finish what his father began. When Tobin faces an enemy he never knew to suspect, he is left questioning not only his ability to rule, but also his sanity.

A High Mage has been humbled, but he has not been defeated. After spending his time devouring the history of Hesh, he’s discovered a way to return home and reclaim what was once his. But before he exacts revenge on his enemies, he fulfills an obligation to his one remaining friend.

In the aftermath of great tragedy, Kaz has taken the role of commander, and with it, a mountain of headaches. He expected threats from his enemies. He did not expect the largest headaches to come from within his own ranks. To make matters worse, the faded memories of Kaz’s previous life are returning and what he sees haunts him.

Queen Elyse’s kingdom faces collapse at the hands of a civil war. While her army has been organizing to secure the crown against traitorous lords, she has worked at her role as queen. Suspicion of traitors among the ranks of her council threatens to undermine Elyse's authority when a chance for peace presents itself.


PROLOGUE

Charu paced the quarters given to him that morning. The plush surroundings befitted his station as an emissary for the Red Mountain Clan, yet the ornate woodwork of the Green Forest Clan failed to impress him. Each clomp his boots made on the oak floors only increased his anger, causing him to focus more on the time of night than the impending meeting.

The warchief rubbed at his smooth face with an open hand. He cursed, wishing he walked the granite floors of his home in Guaronope. “Do they not know how to work stone at all?”

Melat spoke in her calm tone. “Feruse’s walls are made from stone, as are many of their buildings’ foundations.”

Charu threw up his hands at her. “Yes, and what walls! Barely eight feet. How do they expect to defend something a man could scale without even the use of a ladder?”

Melat shrugged. “I didn’t say they were good at working stone. Just that they could do it.” One side of her mouth turned up into a lop-sided grin. Instantly, Charu forgot his anger, enthralled by the woman’s ever-seductive allure. He drank in her curves and smooth, brown skin. Her smile grew wider. “I know that look. You need to stay focused for when Jolnan arrives.”

Charu frowned, remembering the true focal point of his anger. He started pacing again. “He’s kept me waiting for over an hour. If we were in Guaronope, it would be different.”

“But we aren’t,” said Melat. “Though it wounds your pride, you need to remember that. We need Jolnan to win over the council.” She walked over and placed a hand on his arm.

Charu sighed. After becoming warchief of the Red Mountain Clan, he had planned to invade the Green Forest Clan with his army, and then move on to the other clans until all of Hesh bowed to him. But the Blue Island Clan had acted first.

“You’re right,” he admitted.

A knock sounded at the door.

“Be strong, but be respectful,” said Melat.

“Let him in.”

Melat opened the door and Jolnan strode through with chin high. Lamplight danced off his bare scalp. Dark green trousers and a white shirt hung loosely from his thin frame. He wore an odd smile that reminded Charu of someone recalling an old joke.

Jolnan gave a slight bow that Charu begrudgingly returned. “I apologize for my tardiness, Warchief. Duty called.”

Charu gestured to a couple of chairs and the two sat across from each other. “Yes, especially in such troubling times.”

Melat came over with cups of wine for each. Jolnan’s gaze lingered on the woman’s figure before accepting the cup.

After a long swallow, Jolnan set his drink down. “So, what did you wish to see me about? It’s unusual for a council member to meet in private with an emissary the day before he is to speak before them.”

Charu remembered Melat’s warning. He set his own cup down and leaned forward, elbows on his knees with hands clasped. “How about we forget the formalities and get right down to it? I know the power you possess among the council and I need your help.”

Jolnan raised an eyebrow. “I’m listening.”

“Despite our differences, the Red Mountain Clan has always held a great deal of respect for the Green Forest Clan,” lied Charu. “I hope the feeling is mutual.”

Though Jolnan gave a slight nod, Charu noticed the lie it also held.

“Our clans must unite against a common enemy. The Blue Island Clan. They conquer the Orange Desert Clan. They form an alliance with the Gray Marsh Clan. Their warleader mysteriously disappears and his successor, his own brother, kills his father and gains command over the people.” He paused. “If not for the change in weather and the mobility of the nomadic Yellow Plain Clan that delayed Tobin’s victory over them, I have no doubt his armies would already be on your land.”

“We’ve considered these things and have begun retooling our forces. There are also plans to raise our walls.”

“That’s not enough. You can’t afford to sit behind the insignificant walls of the capital and wait for Tobin to come for you.”

“You’re talking about becoming the aggressor?”

“Together, we would hold a significant advantage in numbers.”

“They hold other advantages. Armor and weapons.”

“Yes,” admitted Charu. “But it isn’t like our blades will be useless against them. Besides, let’s not forget the advantage the Green Forest Clan has in terrain or our advantage with shamans.”

Charu could see Jolnan weighing his words. He did not seem convinced.

“What about Nachun?” asked Jolnan. “Reports say he is more powerful than anyone since the Elder Age.”

Charu clenched his fists at the shaman’s name. “Nachun’s abilities are an exaggeration, I assure you. You remember when his father sought aid from you some time ago?”

“Yes, we respected your wishes not to admit his family into our clan.”

“And for that I’m grateful. His family wronged me and the Red Mountain Clan.”

“The rumors are that you defiled his sister.”

Charu grimaced. “Lies.” He refused to elaborate, the truth was not for Jolnan to know. “But, I knew Nachun’s family well. The shaman was weak. If he had shown any real ability, wouldn’t his father have used that as enticement for you to accept them? No shaman is as strong as the stories say.”

“Then how do you explain those stories?” asked the councilor.

Charu shrugged. “He must be a figurehead for Tobin. His shamans are probably focusing their power through him. From a psychological standpoint, it is far more intimidating for it to appear as though one man can wield power on that scale rather than a collective. As an outsider, Nachun’s story adds to his mystique among the Blue Island Clan.” He paused. “If we face Nachun, we will destroy him.”

“So, you want our armies to join forces. You could have made this argument before the council yourself. There has to be something else you’re interested in.”

Charu quickly glanced at Melat who gave a slight nod. “I’ll be blunt. My army is better trained and better prepared. I want complete command over our combined forces. Someone must have final say otherwise our chances of success will be drastically reduced.”

Jolnan snorted. “That will be a hard sell to the council.” He looked down and played with the hem of his sleeve. “I’ve recently learned of your own plans of conquest.”

Jolnan reached forward and grabbed his cup of wine. He had not asked a question. He made his accusation and waited to see how Charu would respond. The warchief grew angry at the man’s arrogance and angrier still that he had learned such information.

Melat passed between them, jarring Charu from his thoughts. She sat on Jolnan’s lap and threw her arm over his neck. Jolnan froze, eyes widening. “Councilor, would you really consider spreading such an awful thing to others? Something like that could harm both our causes.”

Jolnan cleared his throat as if intending to speak. Yet he failed to find the words as Melat grabbed his hand and placed it on her leg. Jolnan began to sweat.

Melat continued. “I know something about you too. I know that you’ve wanted to do away with the council and rule Feruse outright for some time. So much so, that an assassination attempt you orchestrated against one of your rivals failed less than a month ago. If word of that got out, I’m sure it would be just as damaging to you as your news would be to us.”

Jolnan took his hand away and stirred uncomfortably in his seat. “It would still be your word against mine,” he muttered.

Charu heard the lack of confidence in his voice. Melat stood and gave a wink as she walked to a side door. Though Charu hated to see her flaunt herself to others, he could not deny its effectiveness.

“Convince the council to put me in command,” said Charu. “After we’ve defeated the Blue Island Clan, I want your help solidifying my rule. I admit that I did plan to conquer the Green Forest Clan, but I’d much rather do so peaceably. Do this for me and I’ll see that the council is eliminated and you are put in charge of managing Feruse in their stead. It may not be exactly what you wanted, but you’d have a great deal more power and wealth than what you have now.”

Melat opened a side door and two women, barely into their womanhood, entered the room. They wore very little.

“What is this?” asked Jolnan. He tried to appear upset, but could not hide his interest.

“Two virgins,” said Melat. “They are a gift for you. I thought it a more enjoyable way to seal the deal than a handshake.”

Jolnan’s eyes finally left the teenagers and drifted to Melat and then Charu. He chuckled. “We have a deal.” He shook his head. “You have a remarkable woman.”

“Yes, I do,” said Charu.

The two young women left with the councilor. Melat locked the door behind them. She turned with a smile. “You did it.”

Charu scowled. “I didn’t do anything. You convinced him. How did you know about the assassination attempt?”

“It was a hunch based on other information whispered about the city, especially in the local bathhouses where I bought the two girls.” She giggled. “They aren’t really virgins, but I doubt the old coot can tell the difference.”

“And what if you were wrong about your hunch?”

“I would have thought of something.” She frowned. “You aren’t upset with me, are you?”

Charu didn’t answer. Melat came over and wrapped her arms around him. Her familiar lavender smell drowned out the faint traces of pine from the furniture. “Look, you’re a brilliant man and a great military leader, but you aren’t a politician. That’s why I’m trying to help you. I’m not overstepping myself, am I?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry. I promise I won’t be so direct in the future.” She pulled a letter out of her dress and handed it to him. “Perhaps this will change your mood.”

Charu furrowed his brow as he opened the letter and began reading. He stopped and looked up. “These are details about Tobin’s army, including possible locations of attack.”

She smiled. “Yes. I made a friend.”

“Who?”

She gestured to the letter. “See for yourself. He contacted me. What do you think?”

Charu continued to read. “It seems legitimate. And he has good reasons for helping us.”

“So we can trust him?”

“For now.”

“Good. Because I already sent a reply. I expect the next letter to contain more details regarding Tobin’s plan for invasion.”

Charu stared at Melat, thinking of where he had been two years ago. His wife, Nachun’s sister, had cheated on him and embarrassed him before the council. He had lost standing with the Red Mountain Clan council as a result.

He met Melat a short while later after literally running into her on the streets of Guaronope. They had been inseparable since. Within a month, Melat managed to recover not only what standing Charu had lost, but also helped him rise higher than ever before.

And the entire time she asked for nothing. “It is enough to know I have you. What more do I need?”

“Stop looking at me like that. It’s embarrassing.” Melat cast her gaze downward. “What are you thinking about anyway?”

Charu snatched her off her feet. “Just how remarkable a woman I have.”

* * *

Duke Conroy sat in his study, thumbing through a book that chronicled the exploits of a general from the Quoron Empire named Victas. Centuries ago, Victas had conquered most of the known world.

Conroy felt a close connection to him.

During Victas’ early years, Quoron’s emperor had been the victim of an assassination. Victas seized control of the empire rather than supporting the heir to the throne. Scholars claimed that the young general did so out of necessity rather than selfish ambition.

He saw that the emperor’s son didn’t have the skills to keep the empire intact and therefore took the burden upon himself. His love for his country was too great to allow it to fall apart.

Historians agree that without Victas’ intervention and subsequent rule, Quoron would not have lasted.
What will historians write about me?

A knock at the door preceded the creaking hinges. A servant stuck his head in the room and bowed. “I apologize for interrupting, my lord. Duke Bronn has arrived. He’s insisting to speak with you right away.”

Conroy’s eyes peaked over the top of the book. “Send him in.”

The servant bowed again before quietly closing the door.

Conroy rose from his seat and strode to one of the large bookshelves lining the walls of his study. His most prized possessions, his library’s completeness and wealth of knowledge was second only to the collection on Estul Island.

Books had always been a passion of his. He had read his family’s collection several times over before reaching adulthood, and collected countless volumes since.

Hurried footsteps echoed from the hallway behind the study’s door. The door flung open and slammed into the stone wall. Unsurprised, Conroy did not turn around.

“What are you doing in here?” said Bronn. “I thought you would be marshaling your forces. It’s time we showed Jeldor and that black devil who should rule Cadonia.”

Conroy paid little mind to the urgency of the man’s tone as he carefully found the spot for the ancient text and replaced it. He slowly turned and gestured to the study door that hung half open. “In the future, you will treat my home with more respect.”

Bronn gave Conroy a confused look. “Are you that upset about a door?”

“I’m upset that you would barge into my private study like a child and then presume to order me around like one of your servants.” The edge in his voice cut through the air.

Bronn frowned and began to apologize. “You’re right, I was only—”

“Close the door and sit down.” Conroy told him, finding his chair once again. He could see Bronn’s frustration, but the young duke wisely bit his lip and did as instructed. “Now, why are you here?”

Bronn took a deep breath, gripping tight the arms of his chair. He cleared his throat. “As I was saying, we must mount an offensive. They embarrassed our armies in the north.”

“No,” said Conroy. “They embarrassed your army. Mine remains behind my borders, waiting for the right moment, just as we previously discussed.”

“Jeldor was susceptible for an attack after having come to Cathyrium’s aid. My commander took the initiative to act. Orenthal didn’t expect Kaz to redistribute his forces so quickly when he had Tomalt on the run.”

“Your commander is an imbecile.”

Bronn managed to control his emotions. “My father trusted him and he is well-liked among the men.”

“Well-liked means nothing. I care little if my men like me, only that they respect and trust me to lead them. They fight for me because I don’t make stupid mistakes. You should remove Orenthal from command.”

“It’s not his fault entirely. There were circumstances—”

“Circumstances you caused by seizing Arcas Island. That was not what we discussed. That act alone probably pushed Duke Jeldor to side with Elyse. If not for that alliance, her army would be a fraction of what it is now.” Conroy watched Bronn’s arrogant face twist with anger.

“How was I to know she’d be able to convince Jeldor to come to her cause? She had never shown the ability for such things before.”

“It was all tied to Jonrell arriving. Gone for twelve years and then he shows up when she needs him most.”
Bronn laughed. “I almost cried in joy when I learned he was shot by a boy with a crossbow. Just imagine, you fight the battle of your life only to have some foolish child put a quarrel through your heart.”

“He deserved better,” said Conroy.

“Hmm?”

“I never liked Jonrell, but what he pulled off at Cathyrium with the resources and time he had was impressive. And to retake Namaris at the same time? Incredible!”

Bronn grunted. “Pure luck.”

“Luck comes from wise decisions.”

“Is that how you explain Elyse’s decision to make that animal her commander after her brother’s death? Wise?”

“It depends. The reports say most of Kaz’s men would follow him to hell and back. Others, especially the nobles, are eager for the foreigner to meet his demise.”

Bronn’s eyes widened. “You admire him, don’t you?”

“You would have to be close-minded not to. Despite so many things working against him, he’s still managed relative success.”

“Listen to you. It’s almost as if you plan to bow before him rather than the other way around.”

Conroy’s eyes narrowed. “He and everyone else he commands will pay homage to me when I take the crown.”

“You say that, but then you refuse to attack. I could understand your hesitancy if Elyse still had the scepter. That would certainly change things. But Amcaro must have destroyed it before he died. Otherwise, she would have found a mage to use it against us by now.”

Conroy shook his head. “True, but I won’t leave the High Pass undermanned prematurely. Aurnon the Second bestowed its defense to my family centuries ago. I won’t throw my duty away to seek personal glory.”

“Why not at least remove Olasi from the field then? His lands are close enough. We wouldn’t have to travel so far from the High Pass to reach them.”

Conroy smiled. “I already have plans for Olasi.” He refused to elaborate further. “I’ll continue to let Elyse wear down her resources against Tomalt for now. When they are at their weakest, then I’ll crush them. Not a moment sooner.”

CHAPTER 1

Raker lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. He downed the last of the whiskey bottle’s contents in one large gulp. Despite his position, he didn’t spill a drop. Years of practice made him an expert in drunkenness and he had become nearly perfect in the craft since Jonrell’s death. So caught up in war, few had noticed his recent mastering of the art.

Speaking of the art. Raker pressed the glass to his lips. He guzzled air and cursed.

Where’s that kid when you need him? Oh yeah, off with Kroke and Krytien on some assignment for Kaz.

“Hey!” he called out. “You wanna throw me a bottle?” His voice echoed in the stone room. He and Drake, like most of the other officers, stayed in rooms away from the main barracks. Since returning to Lyrosene for the winter, an old place in the back of the armory had become their home.

“I know you’re there. You gonna answer me or just skulk in the shadows?”

A lithe figure emerged from the far corner of the room, stepping into the pale moonlight from a high window. He drew back the black cloak concealing his face and figure. He looked young, barely a man.

I hate kids.

In his right hand, the kid held a knife. “How long have you known I was here?”

“I heard you come through the window.” Raker allowed himself a grin as he watched the young man’s eyes betray his surprise.

“I expected you to be asleep at this hour.”

Raker spat and a glob of tobacco landed between the young man’s feet. “I don’t sleep much these days. I just drink.”

The kid looked at the mess near his feet then up again, disgusted. “So, I noticed.”

“You gonna hand me that bottle I asked for?”

After a moment the kid grinned. “Why not?” He walked over to a nearby table, picked up a full bottle, and threw it across the room.

Raker fumbled the toss, but the bottle thankfully landed in his lap. He popped the cork and took a drink. “Much obliged.” He took another swallow and put the cork back in. “I gotta say I’m flattered that I’m the one to get taken out. I thought you’d have gone after someone else. Kaz perhaps?”

The kid grinned wider. “Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Our entire guild was hired to take out everyone in the Hell Patrol. A few others as well.”

Raker whistled. “That’s gotta be a pretty big payday. I’m guessing the queen too?”

The kid nodded.

Raker heaved a sigh and turned his eyes toward his mace a few paces away. “Well I hate to tell you, but that knife ain’t gonna do much for you.”

The assassin widened his stance. “You really think I’m gonna let you get that thing? Not that it matters. You’re probably too drunk to wield it.”

Raker smiled a mouth full of stained teeth. “Aye, you’re right. I’ve never been quick on my feet. But that’s the problem with you kids. You get distracted and focus on the wrong things.”

Raker raised the arm he had moved beneath his sheets. It came up holding a rope that he yanked across his body. A missile sailed across the space and impaled the kid through the chest. The impact threw the assassin across the room, pinning his body against a wooden post.

Raker took another drink as he watched the light go out of the kid’s eyes. Then he cursed, realizing the thing worked. He kept telling Drake that firing a ballista with a rope wasn’t important, but the boy had pushed the issue.

Good thing he ain’t here. I’m in no mood to hear him gloat. He cursed again. I’ll have to get someone to clean this mess up tomorrow though. He sighed. I probably should get up and tell someone what’s going on.

He looked down at his bottle. Gotta finish paying my respects first. He eyed the kid whose blood dripped all over his floor. Besides, if all the guild’s assassins are this sorry, there ain’t much to worry about. Good thing Kroke ain’t here. He’d be floored at what they’re passing for a killer these days.

He raised his bottle to the ceiling.

We miss you, Jonrell.


* * *

Zorik opened his eyes, but saw nothing in the pitch-black. He tried to move his hand to his head, hoping the simple touch would lessen the incessant pounding that echoed in his skull. But his arm wouldn’t move and neither would his other. He looked down and saw they had been tied to his sides. Thick rope also bound his legs. He panicked.

What happened? How did I get here?

He struggled, but to no avail.

Though the giant hearth had burned down long ago, the stone near him still emanated heat. Coupled with the stacks of pots and pans off in one corner and several sacks and crates of foodstuffs in another, Zorik remembered he was in the kitchen.

The rest of his memories came flooding back.

The guild had received a big contract, employing all its members to eliminate the Hell Patrol. He wanted a crack at one of the main officers, but since he had botched the last two assignments, they gave him the task of taking out some old woman and her lover.

This was my last chance.

And somehow he blew it. He had snuck easily enough into the building, locating the kitchen soon after. The two targets shared a room adjoining the kitchen’s eastern wall. He had been inching toward a door when something struck him in the back of the head. A low cackle had followed as he hit the stone floor.

A hushed murmuring of voices caught his ear. Hinges squeaked and a small patch of light fell into the room.
“I told you its fine. I killed a rat. That’s all,” said a raspy voice.

“Well, then let me help you dispose of it,” said another, more gentle than the first.

“I think after all these years I know what to do with a dead rat. Now go to sleep. You’ll need your rest when I’m done,” said the first voice. Zorik noted the playful tone.

The door shut before the second voice could respond. The light remained in the room, growing stronger with the approach of shuffling footsteps.

A squat figure with long stringy hair appeared by his feet brandishing a cleaver in one hand and a candle in another. The glow of the flame danced across her face. When she smiled, a low cackle pushed itself out from the back of her throat. Zorik’s spine crawled.

She gestured with the cleaver to his crotch. “Scream and I start there.” The ugly grin grew wider. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “You’re wondering how an old woman could possibly take you down, right?”

He nodded, eyes on her weapon.

“All you fools are overconfident. Like someone has to be a member of your guild to understand the nuances of sneaking up on someone and the thousands of ways to kill a person. You see me and think I’m an easy target. But I’ve done more wicked things than you could ever imagine and I take offense when someone tries to harm me or my man.”

“It’s not personal,” he whispered, feeling as helpless as a newborn babe.

The old woman chuckled. “Oh, it’s about to get real personal.”

* * *

Terk gestured at the two men flanking his left and right. Never before had the Assassin’s Guild assigned three men to take down one person, but considering the giant’s size, the master saw it fitting to send three of his best. Terk understood the reasoning once he saw Crusher up close.

Terk had been told the Ghal could sleep through anything, including his own snores, which had pushed the giant to an isolated part of the barracks, away from other soldiers.

He sounds like a wagon barreling down an uneven cobble road.

Overwhelmed by the strong smell of musk, the three men inched toward the bed. One moved to the Ghal’s feet, the other his head, and Terk took the middle. He breathed through his mouth trying to ignore the odor turning his stomach.

The other two cocked their heads confused. He felt it too. Something seemed off. Yet, the giant slept soundly, mouth catching flies while his snores rattled the room.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know when someone’s faking it. And he’s not faking it.

He scanned the giant’s length and noticed how odd he slept, rigid as a board with arms at his sides and covers pulled up to his chin.

You’d think the man was dead if not for the echoing in my ears.

The assassin to Terk’s right waved a hand in a silent question. Terk blinked and then nodded.
We don’t have time to waste.

They raised their knives together, one meant for the throat, the other for the chest, and the last for the lower abdomen. Terk counted off with a slight bob of his head, feeling the watchful eyes of the others.

At the third nod all three blades plunged down. Knives clanked against metal and skidded to the sides, throwing each of the three figures off balance.

What the . . .

The snoring stopped and in a roar covers came off. A massive arm lashed out. The one motion sent the three assassins sprawling. Terk watched the Ghal climb out of bed.

One Above, he’s huge.

The man wore full plate, including a gorget around his neck.

Who sleeps in full armor?

The Ghal reached down and grabbed one of them with his bare hands. Bones popped as the giant closed his grip about the man’s throat.

Crusher threw the body at Terk as he pushed back to his feet. He heard a scream cut short by a sickening crunch and then the heavy plodding of footsteps.

The Ghal stood over him, eyes filled with hate, pronounced brow furrowed. He sneered and raised his boot above Terk’s head.

Three wasn’t enough.


* * *

Leo, the Shadow of Cadonia and Master of the Assassin’s Guild, worked his way down the long corridor with a silent proficiency that none could match. He wore thin black silk, wrapped tight about his body and head, so not even the rustle of fabric would make a sound in the drafty hallway. Stepping lightly on the dark marble floors, he had already slipped by a half dozen royal guards, passing within inches of them while alerting none.

Pathetic.

The palace guards, though well-trained, were below what he considered a worthy challenge. He could have killed them with ease.

Leo had ordered his men to take down the rest of the Hell Patrol, one assassin per target with the exception of the Ghal. He also sent four of his best to kill the queen. Normally, he would have taken the queen himself, but that wasn’t what the job called for.

Their employer had been adamant that only the Shadow of Cadonia could be trusted to take out the Hell Patrol’s leader, Kaz, since none could stand before him on the battlefield. Leo had laughed at his employer’s warning. “I will take him in the shadows. And in the shadows, I have no equal.”

His employer seemed satisfied with his response and smiled, breaking the lid on a large chest of gold. Half the payment for the job. He would receive the rest upon completion, when the troublesome mercenary group and the queen were no more.

And once this is done, I will be set for life. Perhaps I’ll move to Thurum and carve out a small kingdom for myself.

He edged ever closer, ducking in and out of the shadows cast from oil lamps positioned in wall sconces. A half-open door stood at the end of the corridor. Instinct caused him to freeze and he slide twin blades from oiled sheathes. Then he remembered the odd detail about his target. Informants had told him that the foreigner felt more comfortable with the door and windows open.

Something about being less confined. Barbaric is what it is. No matter. I won’t have to double-check the hinges before I enter.

The open window of the room brought cool air into the hallway, reminding Leo that winter still struggled mightily against the inevitable spring weather. He slipped into Kaz’s room, hugging the stone walls to avoid the fractures of light cast about the space. He waited.

He had not become the greatest assassin ever to live, a man whose very name struck fear like an apparition in the stories of old, by being careless. As his eyes continued to adjust he saw the details of the simple room—a desk and chair in one corner, a chest and dresser in the other. A long bed rested in the center and the contours of a great form lay under the covers.

Leo took a deep breath and held it as he made his way to the bed. Kaz slept with the covers tight about him and his back turned to the door.

Leo had never been one to stab a man in the back. He obtained too much enjoyment from the shock in a target’s eyes as he plunged his knife into their chest, that brief moment of clarity when they realized their end had come.

He yanked away the covers, expecting Kaz to turn, but to Leo’s surprise saw only stuffed pillows and balls of clothing.

“Pathetic,” said a deep voice.

Leo’s eyes widened.

He wheeled with his blades, one slashing low, the other high. His target moved in a blur, easily dodging the blows. Leo kicked, but a meaty hand reached out and seized his foot in mid-air, wrenching him from his feet. He lashed out with his knives again, but Kaz’s foot deflected one blow and before he could follow through, he had been tilted upside down.

A fist slammed into Leo’s gut. He fought for air as the room spun. Panicked and trying to right himself, he dropped his knives, knowing he had others. He grabbed at Kaz, but his target’s long arms kept him at bay.
Kaz carried him across the room.

The cool night air cut through his thin clothing. Moonlight shone in his eyes. He looked down and saw the ground below. He started to scream, but another fist slammed into his gut. The vomit had nowhere to go with the black cloth covering his face and the previous contents of his stomach sloshed around his mouth and cheeks.

Kaz held him by one outstretched arm like a toy.

“Am I the only one?”

Leo met the eyes of the dark foreigner. “Tell me how. Who told you I was coming?”

“Answer me first. Am I the only one?"

“No,” he answered honestly, surprising himself.

Because he bested me. What else can I do with the man who brought down the Shadow of Cadonia like he was a common thief?

“Who else?”

“Everyone. All of your crew.”

“And the queen?”

“Yes.”

“Who hired you?”

“Our contract prohibits us from knowing the identity of our employer.”

Kaz grunted.

“Please. Now tell me who warned you.”

Kaz shook his bald head, a scornful look on his face. “No one. I needed no warning for an amateur.”
Leo fell. He thought about screaming or shouting in protest as the ground rose up to meet him. But that word had been too great of an insult. It echoed in his mind, a word he had never remembered being called, even in his early days.

It was the last word he ever heard.

Amateur.

* * *

Kaz spun on his heels, grabbed his sword, and left his room. He raced down the hall half-dressed, cursing at the guards outside to follow him. They obeyed, but the clanging of heavy armor and labored breathing grew fainter with every step.

He refused to slow, knowing that every second counted against Elyse’s life. The assassin had told him that the Hell Patrol had been targeted as well, but Kaz did not fear for their safety as he did the queen’s. The Hell Patrol had lived this sort of life long enough to look after themselves.

The queen maintained half a dozen guards near her chamber door at all times. Yet, Kaz doubted their ability to defend Elyse any more than his had protected him.

A wide mass of stone, the queen’s tower stood adjacent to the great keep. Kaz entered the tower on the third level through an enclosed walkway. Two guards near the entrance lay with blank stares and blue lips, a dart sticking from each of their throats.

Kaz bounded up the stairs, taking them four at a time. He discovered similar scenes on the next two landings. The last pair of guards had managed to eliminate an assassin before meeting their fate.

Blood trailed up the last remaining steps.

A small hallway at the tower’s top led to three separate rooms. The queen resided at the end. A pile of bodies lay before the large, open double doors—five guardsmen and two black-cloaked figures. A scream sounded beyond the doors and Kaz sprinted toward Elyse’s quarters, hurdling corpses and shouldering his way inside. The door slammed against the wall with a thud.

Elyse crouched behind a toppled dresser in her nightgown. Before her, a battered guardsman swung wildly as the last assassin dodged the sloppy blows. The assassin ducked under a tired thrust and plunged his blade into a gaping joint in the guard’s armor. Crimson flowed from the wound as the guard crashed to the floor.
The black-cloaked figure flicked a glance at Kaz, acknowledging his presence for the briefest of moments. Elyse screamed in fear as she began throwing books at the assassin.

Kaz covered the room in a heartbeat. He leaped into the air and a guttural yell came from his throat. The assassin faced Kaz with his long knife raised in defense. Kaz’s strike pushed aside the assassin’s knife. His sword peeled away a layer of cloth and ear before carving its way down into the man’s neck. Kaz wrenched his blade loose, turned it point down and plunged it into the man’s chest.

Elyse wept in the corner. Kaz dropped his sword and bent down on one knee next to her. She looked up and lunged toward him, throwing her arms over his shoulders and squeezing his neck. She sobbed and he put his sweaty arms around her. He felt her limbs tremble.

“It’s over,” he said.

She took a deep breath. Her sobbing stopped. “You think I would be used to this by now. It isn’t as if this is the first time someone’s tried to kill me.” She sighed. “Will it ever end?”

Kaz grunted. “Eventually. Don’t give up.”

“I know.” She started to stand and Kaz helped her to her feet. “No matter how much the night has shaken me, I need to hide it from all prying eyes or others will use it against me.” She smiled. “Or at least that’s what Jonrell would say.”

“He was a wise man.”

“Yes, he was.”

The clanging of armor told Kaz that the rest of the royal guards had finally caught up to him.

Elyse forced back her remaining tears and quickly wiped her face. Kaz admired the speed in which she composed herself.

Two dozen guards entered. The captain spoke. “Your Majesty, are you—”

Elyse cut him off. “I’m fine. Your men fought well and Kaz reached me in time.”

The captain bowed. “We received word that there have been other attacks.”

“My men,” said Kaz.

“Go,” Elyse said. “See to their safety. Come back when you’re done and see me. I won’t be sleeping any more this night.”

He nodded, grabbed his sword, and sped past the guards and out the door.

* * *

Kaz ran through the dark corridor just as he heard a wet hacking sound behind a closed door.

I’m too late.

Rage took him as he shouldered into the room, splintering the door. His eyes darted frantically about.

An old woman appeared from behind a table. “What in the name of the One Above are you doing?” asked Hag.

She walked from behind the table, exposing a bloodied shirt. His stomach tightened and he took a step forward. “Are you alright?”

Hag looked down and cackled. “I’m fine. Some idiot tried to kill me and Wiqua. It’s his blood. I was trying to get some information out of him, but I guess I got carried away.” She scowled. “I had to keep him focused since all he wanted to do was babble about his poor childhood. Whined like a baby. Why can’t people just take it like a man?”

Kaz felt a brief moment of relief. “Where’s Wiqua?”

“Asleep. I haven’t told him yet. You know how he is. He’d try to heal the idiot. Wait a minute. What are you doing here? Just before he died, he said there were others.”

“I came to check on you first.”

Hag scowled. “That’s a stupid thing to do.”

“You were on my way—”

Hag waved a hand. “One Above, you’re an awful liar.” She shook her head as she turned back to the body. “Get out of here before you make me blush. I’ve got to clean this mess up.”

Kaz allowed himself a grin as he left the room.

* * *

He stood over the dead body and stared into its lifeless eyes. The young soldier had not even seen his twentieth year. The Hell Patrol had lost eighteen men from the attacks and though they killed over a hundred of the assassins, Kaz found little solace in those numbers.

It had been over a year since he had taken command of Elyse’s army and in that time he’d lost thousands of men. Those who had died tonight shouldn’t have affected him any more than the countless others, but they did. Each new death seemed to eat at him in a different way.

It’s all this responsibility. It was much simpler taking command from someone else, having the death on someone else’s hands. But now, every decision I make, everything I do, others must pay for.

He thought about the brief flashes of his old life that would sometimes visit him. He was no closer to learning who he was or where he had come from, but he knew that he had held some sort of command before. Kaz wondered if the loss of his men’s lives had always affected him, and if so, how he handled it.

Is this what you went through Jonrell? All this worrying? Would you have made the same mistakes as I’ve made? Would you have lost fewer men?

Those questions, along with the brief glimpses of his past, kept him up at night when he felt the pressure of command. Cathyrium had earned him much of the army’s respect and the battles that followed brought many others to his side. He knew some still didn’t particularly like him, but they trusted him with their lives.

“What do you want me to do with them?” Crusher walked up and dumped three bodies at Kaz’s feet—their features barely recognizable and limbs disjointed. “These were the ones that came after me.”

“Cut off their heads and mount them on spikes outside the city’s walls. Do it to every one of them. Let people think twice before trying something like this again.”

“What about the one you dropped from the window? He ain’t got much of a head left.”

“Stick his whole body up there.”

Crusher grunted. “I like it.” A meaty hand slapped his shoulder. “You’re taking this too hard. Stuff happens.” The hand pulled away and the giant scooped up the three dead assassins before shuffling off.

It shouldn’t.

“Commander,” said a soft voice.

Kaz turned as Yanasi cleared her throat, eyes down. Rygar stood a step behind her, blond hair falling over his forehead. “Yes?”

“Rygar and I just made another round of the barracks and everyone else is fine.”

“The armory?”

“All clear. Cisod was up working late and threw one in his forge. And despite being drunk, Raker still managed to kill one too.”

Drunk again? Figures. “Good.” He turned to Rygar. “Go tell Hag to wake Wiqua. I want him to double-check the injured.”

“Aye, Commander.”

Rygar pivoted and ran off. Kaz turned back to Yanasi. “Anything else?”

“No, sir. I think that’s it.”

“Then get some sleep. Training will be at the same time tomorrow. This is no time to become complacent.”

* * *

The morning sun reflected off the melting snow, shining bright in Elyse’s tired eyes. She struggled to walk on the wet ground, but drudged on nonetheless. She needed to be outside, away from the nightmare, only hours old. The dead bodies and frightful terror of the previous night reminded her of the atrocities inflicted by High Mage Nareash when he had slaughtered so many before her eyes. She still dreamed of that terrible day and the events surrounding it, doubting she would ever shake those helpless feelings or the dread that accompanied them. Her life had improved little since that day with court intrigue, spies, victories, defeats, and countless nightmares along the way.

Jonrell’s death had become her most bitter memory, one that she thought of often.

One Above, I wish he was still here.

She let out a long puff of air that fogged before her face.

The stresses of running a kingdom weighed heavily. Less than a year ago, she had even wanted to hand the crown over to her brother.

But not anymore. I know I can do this.

Elyse walked through the army barracks and into the training grounds. She pulled her cloak tighter as a breeze sent a chill up her back. Spring approached, but winter had given the land one last memory of its wrath with a late snowstorm, the remnants of which still clung to the ground. In patches where the sun hit the frost more directly, Elyse saw the first shoots of grass peeking through.

It won’t be long before fighting begins anew.

Elyse halted as she spotted Kaz on his knee talking to a young boy. A woman that looked to be the boy’s mother stood at his side with an arm draped over the child’s shoulder. Kaz leaned in while speaking to him. A moment later, he handed him a sword. The commander rose and took the woman’s hand. He placed a pouch into it. Elyse saw the woman’s eyes widen as she shook her head and tried to pull away. Kaz held her firm and said something that caused her to weep. After a few more words, the woman kissed Kaz innocently on the cheek and walked off with the boy.

Elyse came upon Kaz while he watched them leave through the gate of the training yard.

“Is everything alright?” she asked.

Kaz turned and bowed. Straightening, he nodded. “Yes. Fine. I was just about to make my rounds,” he said, quickly changing the subject and walking ahead of her.

Before Elyse could press him, Kaz began talking about Yanasi’s archers as they passed the castle’s range. The young mercenary woman drilled her soldiers with admirable proficiency.

Elyse decided to drop her questions about the mysterious encounter for now. “It still amazes me how far they’ve come,” she said as another flight of arrows hit their targets.

“Yanasi pushes them hard.”

“And none resent being commanded by a woman?”

“Many did at first. But in time she earned their respect and trust. Now it’s as if being commanded by her is a badge of honor. The last man from another division to say something cross about Yanasi had an arrow in his backside before he finished his sentence.”

Perhaps I should learn the bow then, she mused.

As they continued on, Elyse heard heavy footsteps and turned. The Ghal strode behind them, in front of her personal guard. His gaze darted about them.

“Why is Crusher following us?” she whispered.

Kaz shrugged. “After last night, he appointed himself my personal bodyguard. He won’t take no for an answer and I’m in no mood to argue.”

Elyse shook her head, not understanding the connection the two men shared. “Gauge said there were over a hundred bodies found in the black cloth. The assassin guild was crippled, practically wiped out.”

“Not enough of them died as far as I’m concerned. The Hell Patrol lost eighteen men,” said Kaz solemnly. Elyse noted how well his accent had improved over the last year.

“It could have been worse. Gauge believes the man you threw from your window was the master of the guild, the Shadow of Cadonia. Without leadership in their ranks, it will be years before they’re a serious threat again.”

“So your enemies must find another way to kill us then.”

She shuddered and changed the subject. “When do you plan to move out?”

“Another few weeks. It will all depend on Krytien’s success on Estul Island. As much as I hate to admit it, our lack of mages has hurt us in battle. We’ve lost too many good men simply because we can’t counter the sorcery Tomalt brings to the field.” He scowled. “But even so, we nearly had him.”

He still resents my decision. “I needed you to release Jeldor when Bronn entered his borders. In order to keep Jeldor’s alliance we can’t discount his concerns.”

“I didn’t need him to defeat Tomalt. I could have won without him,” he said.

“At what cost?” she asked. “I saw the reports. I know you’re a good strategist, but Tomalt had you greatly outnumbered. Even a victory would have decimated the army. Then what? Conroy would be free to finally make his move and we’d lack the men to face him.”

He grinned at her.

“What?”

“You’re growing into your role more each day. Jonrell would be proud.”

Elyse blushed. Her hand wiped the tear streaking down her cheek.

“I didn’t mean. . . .”

Elyse forced a smile. “It was only the wind in my eyes. Only the wind,” she whispered.

* * *

“Oh my! I can’t believe I almost forgot.”

Elyse had just sat at her desk for a night of work when Lobella called out. The woman spun away from the door and glided toward her.

“What is it?” Elyse asked.

Though they were alone in Elyse’s room, Lobella leaned in and whispered. “I learned the story of the woman and the boy you mentioned earlier today.”

Elyse blinked. “You did? I didn’t expect anything so soon.”

“It was pure coincidence. My mother heard about it from one of her friends.” She shook her head. “It’s such a sad story.”

“Tell me.”

“The woman’s husband, Sarex, had recently placed membership with the Hell Patrol a few days ago as an aide to Kaz.”

“Yes, I know him. He didn’t really look like much of a soldier to me.”

“That’s just it. He was never a soldier, but a scholar. With the war going on, people in Cadonia had cast aside such things and Sarex struggled to care for his family. He went to Kaz and offered to help him with research, cartography, histories, translations—that sort of thing. Kaz had thought it was a good idea to bring him on in that capacity.”

“And?”

“He was one of the eighteen men killed by the Assassin’s Guild. He was also the only one with a family. I don’t know all the details of the exchange, but apparently the sword had been specially made by Cisod and Kaz had yet to present it to Sarex. He gave it to the boy in memory of his father. The pouch came from Kaz’s own personal funds. The amount was enough to feed the woman and child for over a year. Kaz told them there would be more when that ran out.” A tear streaked down Lobella’s face. “Elyse, that is both one of the sweetest and saddest things I’ve ever heard. I never realized Kaz had that side to him.”

Elyse’s heart tightened. She had seen that side of Kaz many times.

CHAPTER 2

Nareash admired the handiwork of the ship gently rocking beneath his feet. The captain steered it effortlessly through the calm waters and the crew went through their duties with little fanfare. Though he hadn’t lifted a finger in its construction, the design had been his and he couldn’t help feeling a sense of pride at its success.

Well, mostly my design.

His fellow students at Estul Island often mocked him for the time he spent studying in the musty library. However, the knowledge he had obtained had been worth every moment of their ridicule. His recollection of Mytarcian shipbuilding techniques had been the catalyst for the designs he created with the Blue Island Clan’s shipwrights. Nareash had followed a similar process with Juanoq’s blacksmiths when introducing more sophisticated armor and weapons to the Blue Island Clan’s military.

And look what my ideas have done for the Blue Island Clan.

His mind wandered back to his last couple of years in Cadonia, especially those last few months after discovering Sacrynon’s Scepter. He opened and closed his hands in frustration.

All my efforts there ruined in one moment before they ever had a chance to come to fruition.

“Does something trouble you, Nachun?”

Nareash blinked and turned to Mizak. The old scholar’s nose crinkled as he squinted against the sun, emphasizing the crow’s feet at his eyes. “No. I was only thinking about how close we are to reaching the lagoon. It will be nice to see something alive above the water again.”

When Nareash had spoken with Tobin about his desire to search out the ancient city of Quarnoq, he made it known he would not cross the Great Divide using the route through the wastelands as Hesh’s ancestors had centuries before.

Yet even by ship, the High Mage could not escape the sight of the barren land as they sailed east along Hesh’s coast, past both Nubinya and the Burnt Sands Desert. The rolling black sand and rock of the wastelands spanned a greater distance than Nareash had imagined. From the safe confines of the ship, he wondered how any of Hesh’s ancestors managed to survive that journey.

Mizak pointed toward a cliff that jutted from the dry land. “I double-checked our best map. After we pass that point, it says the land completely changes. We should reach our destination before midday.”

Nareash already knew, but allowed the old man to speak his mind in order to keep him enthused. He had obtained the scholar’s services before leaving Juanoq, knowing that despite his studies on Hesh, Mizak held a fountain of knowledge the High Mage did not.

Mizak also offered Nareash intellectual conversation he couldn’t find elsewhere onboard. Several warriors or members of the ship’s crew would show flashes of intelligence, but none offered the insight Tobin had surprised him with from time to time.

I wonder how he’s doing.

He shook his head, surprised at the thought. He never thought he would have developed a friendship with Tobin when they had first met in Munai.

Life has a way of surprising you.

Mizak had continued talking, though Nareash had stopped listening. The High Mage waited until the old man’s words trailed away before speaking. “I’ll be in my cabin reviewing notes. See that someone notifies me once we reach the lagoon.”

* * *

Two hours later, Nareash stood at the bow of the ship. As incomprehensible as the ancient maps and texts seemed at times, his assumptions regarding them had been accurate.

The wasteland of the Great Divide ended as abruptly as if someone had drawn an imaginary line in the air. Lush, thick jungles rose to soaring heights, the likes of which unknown even on the Blue Islands. The water changed from a deep, dark azure to a light blue one could see through. The water played tricks on the eyes when trying to estimate depth, but after careful consideration, the captain dropped anchor in a small inlet.
A short while later Nareash, Mizak, two shamans, and three dozen warriors led by a Kifzo named Guwan, slid their ships onto white beaches. The pale sand made him feel guilty for intruding on the ground as if their crunching footsteps might tarnish its beauty.

He stared out over the wild land. Hills that looked like a staircase for the One Above disappeared into a distant mist that covered the highest peaks. All texts led Nareash to believe that the ruins of Quarnoq sat somewhere within that shrouded area.

And within the ancient city lies a means to counter Amcaro now that he has the scepter.

His gaze slowly drifted down the green landscape as he shielded his eyes from the sun, scanning the peaks of the lower hills. He read that smaller cities leading to Quarnoq had littered those hilltops, when mankind still inhabited the lands.

Nareash saw nothing.

“I have men scouting the shoreline to find the best place to camp for the night,” Guwan said as he approached the High Mage. Naked from the waist up, the tall, lean warrior carried a long sword strapped to his back.

“We’re not stopping here for the night,” said Nareash.

“It’s past midday. It would be wise to make use of the remaining light to get a lay of the land and formulate a plan for tomorrow.”

“I did not travel weeks at sea only to arrive without a plan. We will leave now and make camp within the jungle when the day has abandoned us. Not a moment sooner.”

“I don’t want to risk the lives of my men.”

Nareash eyed the warrior. “Need I remind you of your orders from Tobin?”

Guwan’s tone hardened. “No.”

“Then have your men search for a stone road leading into the jungle.”

“A stone road? After hundreds of years, it would be impossible to find. It’ll be covered in a foot of dirt and plant life.”

“Not this road.”

Guwan narrowed his eyes. “Do you have any other information about this road? It may help in locating it since you’re in such a hurry.”

“It’s thirty feet wide and constructed from a variety of colorful stones. From what I gather, it’s a breathtaking sight. I’m sure your men should be able to find something so unique.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
Guwan clenched his jaw and walked away.

Nareash chuckled. Tobin had insisted that one of his best Kifzo should command the regular warriors the High Mage requested for the trip. Guwan obviously did not appreciate his orders.

He found himself too filled with excitement about the journey ahead to care.

* * *

After an hour of searching, they found the road. Ancient descriptions did not do the legendary path justice. Slabs of white and black marble formed the base of the road while patterns of jade, jasper, and agate gave it a life all its own. Each step seemed more wondrous than the last, and Nareash had to keep reminding Mizak not to waste time studying the road when what they came for what lay at the end of it.

That first night and the two that followed, the party camped on the road. Guwan and his men scouted the jungle, but other than coming back with local animals and fruit to replenish their supplies, they discovered nothing of importance.

In the late afternoon of the fourth day, that changed. Low lying limbs and vines that hung over the road parted near the top of the first rise. Mouths hung agape as they took in the scene.

Less than fifty yards away, the remains of a limestone wall encircled the ruins of a city. White statues adorned the tops of the walls. Nareash assumed the figures had been important in their time though they meant little to him. Gray towers rose behind the walls, their architecture unlike anything he had seen before as the dull color still managed to shine.

“Which one is it, Mizak?” asked Nareash.

The scholar rode atop one of the pack animals. He cleared his throat. “Poliktas. ‘The Beginning,’ if I translated it correctly. The smallest and first city we’ll pass through.”

Guwan came up beside them. “A stupid name for a city. What does it even mean?”

“It means that as impressive as the shattered remnants of this deserted place are, it’s nothing in comparison to what awaits us. Yet, this place in its glory would have made Juanoq seem like a cesspool.”

“How dare you speak of my home? If Tobin were here—”

“If Tobin were here,” said Nareash, cutting the Kifzo off, “he would concur with my assessment. Your ruler possesses enough depth to understand such things. Would you argue against that?”

Guwan ignored the question and started toward the arched entrance. “We’re wasting our time.”

Mizak lowered his voice. “I believe he doesn’t like you.”

“Few men do.”

* * *

Poliktas may have been the smallest city the group would pass through, but it still took an hour to reach the far gate at the other side. The beginnings of dusk had touched the sky and though Nareash wanted to push on, he agreed to rest for the night.

They made camp in the ruins of an old bathhouse where fresh water still ran. To everyone’s surprise the ancient pipes and wells flowed as well as Nareash assumed they once did centuries ago.

“It makes you wonder why our people ever left,” said Mizak.

“Hmm?” Nareash had drifted off into thought.

Mizak nodded to one of the shamans. “Colan and I were discussing what we’ve seen so far.” He tossed a piece of charred monkey into his mouth and followed it with a bite of copoazu fruit. “There is obviously still a great deal of food here and,” he gestured to the fresh water, “we know our ancestors did not lack water. Why would they ever leave something so beautiful? History says that many died crossing the Great Divide before our ancestors settled in Nubinya and later branched out to the land we know. I can’t find their reason for their decision anywhere.”

Nareash faced Colan. Somehow the shaman had managed to keep his blue robes absent of any grime. “And what is your theory?”

Colan bowed as other shamans did when speaking to Nareash. Their fear of his power warranted respect. “I’m not sure I have one. The obvious guess is that they fled some enemy. Yet, there is no evidence in our history or in the remains of this city that would suggest that. Perhaps a great plague infiltrated their populace and the only way to escape it was to leave their sick and dead behind. But there haven’t been signs of mass graves.” Colan shrugged. “Of all the things we might learn in Quarnoq, the answer to that mystery is what I seek the most.” He paused. “What are your thoughts?”

Nareash stood and brushed off the dust from his red robes. Though Poliktas still showed flashes of its brilliance from centuries ago, even the ancient people of this land could not stave off time from covering everything in a layer of grime. “I have theories, but none I’m ready to share. Though the answer would be interesting, it isn’t my priority. If even half of what I’ve read is true, Quarnoq holds inventions and weapons that could forever change mankind. Think of what could be accomplished with those lost secrets. A people who would not only leave those things behind, but then forget their success, are a people I care little for.”
Colan inclined his head in confusion. “But Nachun, these are your ancestors as much as they are ours.”

No. Not mine.

“I’ll leave you two to contemplate your questions. I have more pressing things to consider.”

Nareash walked away from the crackling fire and into the ancient city. The light of the stars and a crescent moon illuminated his path. Venturing off the main road, he saw the plant life had worked its way through cracks in the stone. He stopped at a high tower where vines had crawled three quarters of the way up its side. A faint glow encircled his right hand, which he placed against the wall. The vines withered, exposing the chiseled carvings in the marble. Nareash recalled seeing similar work in his brief visit in Nubinya over a year and a half ago.

It would seem the people took something with them across the wasteland after all.

The sound of running water piqued his curiosity and he located the tower’s doorway. He stepped through and canted a small spell that illuminated the space. In the center of the circular room, Nareash gazed upon a marble statue of a woman overturning a jug. Water dribbled into a pool at the statue’s base. He strode to the pool, peered down, and his reflection stared back at him, or rather the reflection of Nachun. He allowed the glamour to fall away, thankful to look upon his real face once again.

“Nachun?”

The voice startled Nareash and he wheeled without thinking. Colan stood in the doorway. He wore a shocked expression. The young shaman assumed a defensive stance and found his voice. “Who are you?”

I lower my guard for the first time in months and it comes back to bite me.

Nareash sighed and returned the glamour to his features, darkening his skin, and smoothing out the hard lines of his face.

Colan’s eyes widened. “It is you. But how . . .”

“Close your mouth. And cease with your nonsense.” Nareash gestured to the shaman’s hands. “We both know that you’re no match for me. Now, come in before someone sees you standing in the doorway. Why are you following me?”

After a moment, Colan hesitantly lowered his guard and took several steps forward. “I just wanted to see if you could settle a debate Mizak and I were having.”

Nareash waved a hand dismissively and began pacing.

“Is this your real face or is the other?” asked Colan.

“The other.” Nareash gestured around his head. “This is simply a means to an end. A spell few even know about, let alone are able to master.”

“I-I don’t understand. Do you have some disease?”

Nareash chuckled. “I have no disease. I’m not from Hesh.”

“But there is no other place than—”

Nareash threw up his hands. “One Above, Colan. I thought you were someone who could see past what’s in front of him. It’s ironic that the rest of the world thinks the lost continent of Hesh is a legend while Heshans can’t fathom an entire world existing outside of them.”

“Then where are you from?” asked Colan. “How did you get here? And who is this ‘One Above?’”

“The One Above is the god of my people and I’m from a country called Cadonia. I’m not here by choice. A teleportation spell went awry.”

“Teleportation is a myth,” said Colan.

Nareash laughed, remembering his discussion with Tobin after Kaz’s disappearance. “I still forget how far behind Heshans are. Believe me or not, I don’t care.”

Colan bit his lip as if in deep thought. “Is your name even Nachun?”

“It’s an identity I assumed once I found myself without a way to get home. Teleportation is a risky and sometimes elaborate process. Without knowing more about the distance I need to travel, the results could be fatal.”

“So everything you’ve done over the last year and a half has been a lie?”

Nareash shook his head. “No, not everything. Most of ‘Nachun’s’ story is real. I simply borrowed it from a shaman dying in the Burnt Sands Desert after an attack by the Orange Desert Clan. I changed some facts to suit my needs, but the meat of the story is the same.”

“Are you really trying to aid Tobin in conquering Hesh?”

“Yes. I want to see him succeed. Haven’t I given the Blue Island Clan weapons, armor, ships?” He paused.

“However, I made it quite clear to Tobin not long after we met that your people could help me accomplish my own goals too. Quarnoq holds the answers I seek in order to return to Cadonia and reclaim what was taken from me.”

“So Tobin knows your secret?”

“No. As much as I like the man, I believe the truth would damage our relationship and I can’t afford that to happen.”

The young shaman’s mouth formed in a thin line. Nareash heard his quickening breath over the constant flow of water from the ancient fountain. After a minute, Colan finally spoke. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” Nareash shrugged. “But it’s been some time since I’ve had the opportunity to speak truthfully. I rather enjoyed it.”

“Then why kill me?”

“Because now you hold me at a disadvantage.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”

Nareash raised an eyebrow.

“Let me live. I know your story, but what does that matter? No one would believe half of what you just told me, and it would be my word against yours. Plus you have Tobin’s ear. Why would I betray you when you can dispose of me at any time?”

Nareash began pacing again. “What do you want?”

“Besides my life?” asked Colan. “Knowledge. I was sincere when we spoke earlier with Mizak. I volunteered for this assignment because of the chance to learn from our history but also from you. I want answers, and based on what you’ve told me, there are more questions than I even knew to ask.”
Nareash grinned. “So you expect me to teach you? Perhaps then one day you will grow more powerful than me.”

Colan shrugged. “It isn’t likely. I’m a capable shaman, but I have to work twice as hard to put the theory into practice. My natural talent is less than others.”

I know that feeling. It was that way for me before using the Scepter. Then things seemed to just open up.

Colan continued. “Hold back what you like from me. Even learning a fraction of what you understand would be more than what I could learn from anyone else in Hesh.”

“And the benefit for me?”

“Just as you said. You haven’t had the chance to speak freely with anyone for some time. That and my loyalty is what I offer.”

Nareash considered the proposition. He had expected Colan to beg for his life, but the way the shaman handled the situation impressed him. In fact, he had reminded Nareash of himself.

He removed his hands from his sleeves. Colan flinched, obviously expecting an attack. Nareash smiled and scratched at his cheek.

“Your education begins tomorrow.”

The young shaman bowed. “Thank you, Master.”




Purchase Steel and Sorrow: Book Two of the Blood and Tears Trilogy now through the following links!

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