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Ferran’s Map Excerpt – First 3 Chapters

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Ferran’s Map

(The Cat’s Eye Chronicles, Book 4)
By T. L. Shreffler

Exerpt


First 3 Chapters

*Please note this is not the final version of the first 3 chapters. Text may contain errors or differ slightly from the published version.


Prologue

Grandmaster Natrix stood at the top of a sandy ridge, the iron-gray ocean to her back. Heavy clouds covered the sky, sending down flurries of snow. Below her, dozens of Named assassins littered the training ground, practicing hand-to-hand combat. The assassins worked tirelessly despite the weather, bracing themselves against gusts of wind, using the ice to their advantage. At this distance, they looked like black crickets darting amongst the gray slush of the dunes.

As she watched the Named assassins, a second figure appeared on the ridge beside her, materializing through the storm.

Her lip curled. Her eyes remained focused on the training ground. “Again, you’ve returned.” She spoke idly, as though musing about the weather. “I wonder where you’ve been—he, who once dedicated his life to this village.”

Grandmaster Cerastes raised a thin eyebrow. He looked weary, his pale skin sallow. Gaunt cheekbones protruded from an intelligent, angular face, matured in age. His deep-set eyes gleamed with a poisonous light.

Are you reprimanding me?” he said, a touch amused, but mostly hostile.

Grandmaster Natrix gazed at him. She noted the ragged wear of his black robes, the discouraging tilt of his lips. His hair was sleek and perfectly black, falling to his waist, dusted in snow. A strange scent tainted his clothes—the gritty musk of a city, the vague stench of humans and horses.

Then she nodded to the dunes below them, to one assassin in particular.

Your Viper has become quite good,” she said, shifting her weight to her hip, crossing her arms. She wore a close-fitting black shirt, clasped with a vest. The Sixth Race were born of Fire and Darkness, and resistant to cold weather. Her tall black boots were made of toughened hide, no soles, allowing the foot to move freely. A series of chakrams hung from her waist, steel rings with edges as sharp as blades, varying in size. They could be thrown with deadly accuracy, slicing off heads and limbs with the force of her throw. Tight, braided rows of black hair covered her head. Her eyes were the bright green hue of aloe.

Cerastes followed her gaze without comment.

A smirk touched her thin lips. “In your absence, he has trained with Lachesis. Another few years, and he might just become a Grandmaster himself.”

Cerastes appeared impassive, but Natrix knew the statement rankled him. Grandmasters did not like sharing students—especially talented ones. “He has unlocked the fifth gate?” he asked quietly.

No,” Natrix said, her eyes following the figure of the Viper. “But he is close.”

It had been eight years since the Naming of the Viper. In that time, she had watched Cerastes’ student progress rapidly and tirelessly. He was far better than her own savants—even the Named Adder, her best student, who wielded his saber with dexterous speed.

Assassins, especially Grandmasters, kept their emotions under tight control. Yet bitterness had crept in over the years. Perhaps even jealousy. She wished she could work with such a motivated student, one who took his training into his own hands, compelled by his own inner drive. Even without a Grandmaster, even if the Hive did not exist, even if Viper were the very first of the assassin race—she had little doubt he would be able to unlock the seven gates. He harbored a talent that founded tradition. He proved to her the assassin ways were not just fabrication, but a true part of their nature.

And because of that realization, she eventually lost her envy of Cerastes. The Viper’s skill was not one of superior instruction. Some assassins were simply born to the task, gifted by the Dark God with clever hands and a sharp mind. He moved like water, using his opponent’s energy to his advantage, pulling his assailant forward and off-balance, then striking with his entire body—foot, knee, hip, forearm, open palm. The Adder twisted, and the Viper turned with him, able to anticipate his opponent’s next move. He knocked the Adder to his knees. As she watched, her own student was forced to the ground, prostrated in surrender.

You owe him an explanation,” Natrix said casually, noticing Cerastes turn away. He walked across the top of the ridge, moments away from vanishing again.

The Grandmaster paused. He spoke over his shoulder. “I owe him nothing. He has made his way.”

You broke your oath.” Natrix watched his back carefully, his long hair listing in the wind. “You swore to mentor him until he reached the fifth gate. The boy relied on your instruction. For the last four years, you’ve rarely set foot in our hive. You’ve forsaken your duty to the Viper…he was your best. He still is.”

Grandmaster Cerastes turned fully and glared at her. “What I do with my time is not the Hive’s concern. I’ve turned my attention to greater matters.”

I don’t care,” Natrix murmured. “Leave the Hive for good if you wish. But you broke the oath of a mentor. In the eyes of the Viper, you are truly a snake. It is well-known that our best students shall some day become our greatest rivals—are you willing to let this seed grow wild? Did you not kill your own Grandmaster, so many years ago?”

Cerastes remained silent. They watched the Viper sheathe his dagger and turn away from his defeated opponent. The young assassin quickly walked back across the training ground to a fringe of trees on its opposite side, toward the direction of the colony.

Natrix grinned cunningly. “You should keep good relations with him. Some day he will be a Grandmaster, and you will be old, and then you’ll be that fool bleeding out in the snow.” She indicated the training field again, where the Adder now sat holding his rib cage, blood staining the ground.

The hint of a frown passed over Cerastes’ brow as he considered her words. He cast her one last look, then turned and strode away, vanishing into the ever-thickening flurries of snow.

* * *

Viper left the practice ground, crossing the sandy, slushy dunes to the hard-packed snow of the woods. He entered the barren forest, heading back to his village. The trees and shrubs were stripped of leaves, comfortingly silent, like the gleaming bones of skeletal hands. A series of animal tracks crossed the path before him—a gray squirrel living in a large knotted oak. He caught sight of a fox clothed in its white winter coat, kneeling beneath a bush, its ears pointed forward with acute concentration. As he watched, the fox pounced upon an unseen target beneath the snow, then chased off after a small field mouse.

He removed his shirt as he walked, letting the snowflakes strike his hot skin, invigorated from his hours on the training ground. A steaming plume of vapor accompanied each breath, visible on the chill air. He felt as though his breath alone could melt the snow. His muscles sang from the long hours of practice, pulsing with each heartbeat. Now was the ideal time to meditate. Winter is a time of reflection, his Grandmaster taught. A time of frozen streams, of suspension. When the outside world is dormant, we are better able to focus on that which lies within us.

The Grandmasters spoke of the seven gates; physical channels born into each of the Unnamed, natural locks against the full power of their demon. Every now and then, children were born with their gates unlocked and usually died within a few weeks, if not days. A shard of the Dark God lived within each of the Unnamed, a demon of destructive power seething beneath their skin. If the demon overtook the weak body of a child, its power would dissolve the flesh, the heart, the lungs…killing the vessel along with itself.

Assassins of the Hive were trained to unlock those gates, to eventually master one’s demon—or meld with it—both one and the same. Each gate brought him closer to his full evolution—his highest potential—and greater prestige within the Hive.

The first four gates were the easiest to unlock. Most accomplished it before the age of eighteen. The first gate, that of the mind, allowed him to hear the demon’s voice in his thoughts. After releasing the second gate, he could channel the demon’s strength and endurance into his physical body. The third gate, that of magic, had its limitations in human form—yet he was able to summon his shadow from the ground, use it as a cloak, a means of defense and fuel for minor spells. Finally, the fourth gate was that of form—becoming the demon, allowing it to take over his body, to manifest. Only after opening the fourth gate could one become a Named assassin. Since the age of fourteen, he had been able to manifest his demon, and in that time, he had become acquainted with its ways.

The fifth gate, a doorway into the shadow realm, remained blocked within him. His demon could easily cross over into the world of Wind and Light using the first four gates—but how did a man enter his own shadow? The key to the fifth gate lay in deep meditation, finding the door and opening it within himself. Once he unlocked the fifth gate, he would be able to open shadow portals between different lands, traveling hundreds of miles instantaneously.

Soon, Grandmaster Lachesis said only a few days ago. Soon, you will break through the fifth gate, and the secrets of the shadow realm shall be yours.

Then only the sixth gate would remain. Eventually, after exploring the hidden paths of the shadow realm, one unlocked a new demon—a second, stronger form for his darker self. Only then, as a Grandmaster, could he choose a name separate from the Hive, uniquely his own, to be included in the scrolls of their history.

And the seventh gate? No one spoke of the seventh gate.

He paused next to a large boulder. He brushed the snow from its peak and climbed easily upon it, then sat in a cross-legged position, already quieting his thoughts. It was easier to meditate after physical exertion, the mind numb and ready to sink into his body.

He began by taking deep breaths, allowing the tension to leave his neck and shoulders, his hands palm-down on his knees. His mind pooled at the base of his skull, becoming still as a frozen lake, as empty as a riverbed. Time slipped away, removing its chains. He could only hear the slow thud of his heart.

Somewhere deep within him a dark pit opened: an eager, gaping maw. Come, the demon whispered. Come to me….

The sudden sound of footsteps broke his concentration. Intentionally loud—assassins did not make noise in the snow. He recognized the pace of the steps, the weight of the body, the subtle brush of robes against the ground.

His eyes snapped open.

Cerastes stood at the fringe of trees.

Viper stared.

His Grandmaster disappeared two years ago, leaving their hive without warning. He visited rarely and no words passed between them. Before his long absence, Cerastes spent much of his time with books and scrolls, delving into the ancient lore of the Dark God and the history of their race. Viper suspected his thirst for knowledge eventually led the Grandmaster away from their hive, but he couldn’t know for sure.

Viper didn’t know why his old teacher ceased to mentor him. But he couldn’t shake the deep-seated conviction he had somehow failed an unknown test. Perhaps, despite the Viper’s unrivaled progress, Cerastes simply found him lacking. For a brief period of time he had felt lost, cut adrift, listless without instruction. Different Grandmasters turned him away, sick of Cerastes’ precious protege, only too happy to see him struggle.

And then, a year ago, an eccentric hermit took up residence at the fringes of their colony—Lachesis. He was of the Hive, but not a member of their specific village. Relieved to continue his practice, Viper eventually took up new instruction under the unusual Grandmaster, but he felt no true loyalty to Lachesis or his teachings. The Grandmaster was not of their colony, but a traveling vagabond who visited various factions of the Hive briefly, then disappeared for weeks on end. Cerastes was his true master, the one who melded him into a lethal assassin as strong as tempered steel.

Gazing now at his lifelong teacher, he felt a distinct tightness in his throat.

He waited for Cerastes to speak, but no words were forthcoming. Finally, Viper asked, “Why are you here?”

To check on your training,” Cerastes said.

A lie, Viper sensed, though it was difficult to read a Grandmaster. He could never know for sure what Cerastes thought or intended. His Grandmaster rarely consorted with others of his rank, except during Naming ceremonies.

My training is no longer your concern,” Viper said, quelling his bitterness. “I study under Grandmaster Lachesis now.”

Cerastes’ eyes remained flat and cold. Viper’s skin prickled. He had never seen such an eerie, unreadable facade, as though Cerastes’ face were truly a hollow mask, a thin veil before the unfathomable depths of an abyss.Something’s wrong, Viper thought. His Grandmaster seemed…empty, like a shell. Like something else wore his body.

I hear you are close to uncovering the fifth gate,” Cerastes said.

Viper hesitated. He suddenly felt reluctant to speak to his old teacher.

Come,” his Grandmaster murmured, and raised his hand in a beckoning gesture. He moved slowly, almost mockingly. “Let us spar. Show me your new skill.”

Viper couldn’t refuse. He slid from the rock in one graceful movement and drew his dagger, crouching slightly, prepared to fight. Cerastes drew a similar knife from his belt. It would be an equal match—as equal as master and student could be.

Cerastes’ form flickered, and then suddenly the Grandmaster appeared before him, inches away, thrusting his blade directly at Viper’s heart.

Viper knocked the blade to one side, then dipped under Cerastes’ arm and came up beside him, landing a solid punch to his ribs.

The Grandmaster vanished again, then flickered into existence a meter away. Cerastes lashed out with a vicious kick and Viper ducked under it. He grabbed Cerastes’ heel and pushed him off balance, tumbling him into the snow. The Grandmaster regained his feet instantly and whirled upon his student. He unleashed a series of blows that forced Viper back across the clearing. Viper tried to block, but he couldn’t gage where Cerastes would strike next. Half of his master’s blows were misdirections, meant to distract the eye and leave his guard open.

Viper held his fists up, his forearms taking the brunt of the attack. He stepped quickly backward, trying to put distance between him and Cerastes, but the Grandmaster stayed on top of him.

Finally, Viper found his back to the treeline. In desperation, he lunged forward and slashed with his dagger, aiming for Cerastes’ face. The Grandmaster caught his wrist and pulled him sideways, off balance, attempting to kick his legs out from under him. Viper rammed his shoulder into Cerastes’ sternum. The Grandmaster stumbled back. Viper kept pushing, dragging his master to the ground, twisting until his knife pressed firmly into Cerastes’ navel.

Then, suddenly, the Grandmaster disappeared beneath him. Viper collapsed in the snow, disoriented. Cerastes appeared amidst the shadows beneath a tree, materializing from thin air. The fifth gate. He had opened a portal instantly and used it to outmaneuver his opponent.

Viper sat up, staring at the Grandmaster, his eyes narrowed to slits. “You have an unfair advantage,” he spat.

Assassins use any and all advantages in combat,” Cerastes murmured.

Perhaps,” Viper returned. A hint of rebellion lit his gaze. “But Lachesis teaches differently. Engaging a lesser opponent is pathetic and useless if only to show off one’s skill.”

Then you admit you are the lesser?”

Viper’s glare hardened. “I never claimed to be anything else.”

And this Lachesis…” Cerastes murmured, clasping his hands behind his back. “Is he your new master now? Is he the one who taught you to harness your demon, who made you a Named assassin?”

Viper’s lip curled, but years of training held him to the ground. He bowed his head rigidly. “No, Grandmaster,” he murmured.

Ah,” Cerastes said. “Your discipline has grown sloppy, Viper. Lachesis is too encouraging with his words. You are far from reaching the fifth gate.”

Then I will strive harder,” Viper growled.

Cerastes smiled coldly. “But how long are you willing to wait, Viper?” he murmured. “Lachesis is a wild hermit. His teachings are untried and unproven. Do you really think you will reach the fifth gate by meditating hours on end? Lachesis is fooling you. He’s stalling your progress. Wasting your time.”

Viper kept his gaze trained on the snow, but his pulse quickened. He didn’t want to believe Cerastes’ words. But his Grandmaster would never mislead him—would he? The Grandmaster was the closest thing he knew to a parent. He’d been at Cerastes’ side since childhood, almost since birth—a child’s loyalty was hard to break. He trusted Cerastes above all others in the Hive, despite his recent absence.

What do you suggest I do?” Viper asked softly.

He kept his eyes trained on the ground, but he could feel Cerastes’ approving gaze. “I will show you the fastest way to unlock the fifth gate—but you must be fearless.”

* * *

Natrix spilled from the shadow portal to the snow-covered ground. Blood flecked the snow as she landed, and she paused briefly, adjusting her wounded ankle. Then she dashed through the quiet buildings of the colony. Her sharp breath rose in cold clouds before her face. She tore through the streets to the opposite side, through the deep shadows, into a grove of eucalyptus trees toward the sunken shrine of the Named weapons.

She knew he would be there. He would pay his respects one last time before leaving the Hive, perhaps for good. She had to stop him.

With a surge of thought, she summoned her demon form. Once a painful process, now it felt smooth and reassuring, like water trickling over her skin. Her demon rose easily to the surface. Her bones contorted, spine elongating, legs inverting until she half ran, half loped like an upright wolf. Her skin became whitish gray like a day-old corpse. Her mouth widened obscenely and her teeth sprouted into a row of sharp needles. Then, with a wet ripping sound, over a dozen snakes burst from her skull, taking the place of her hair, writhing around her head in a thick cloud of scales and coiling flesh. She moved with animal grace through the dark midnight forest, the heat of her power melting a trail in the snow.

Unlike a younger, less skilled assassin, she retained full control in her demon’s body. To become a Grandmaster meant to meld fully with the demon’s mind. Woman or beast, she was the demon, and the demon was her.

She sprinted faster, her wounded ankle forgotten.

Two of her fellow Grandmasters remained at the neighboring Mistmire hive to clean up Cerastes’ mess. What he’d done was inexcusable, and war could easily break out between their two factions. Blood stained her hands where she had dragged the Viper’s body from the ruined village. Fool, she thought angrily. Fool student, and fool master!

Grandmaster Simatus and Grandmaster Naja were negotiating now with the Mistmire hive, who sought restitution for endless breaches of their peace treaty. Sadly, most of the victims were children, nameless savants asleep in their beds when the fire broke out. The Mistmire Grandmasters blamed Viper for his own recklessness, and his hive for negligent instruction. She had heard Lachesis’ name mentioned more than once before she left. He, too, seemed a likely scapegoat. But Natrix knew better. If she could catch Cerastes in time, she would make him stand trial before the Grandmasters of both villages. Make him confess to his crimes against the Hive. Spare them of more needless bloodshed.

Finally she burst upon the jagged rocky crevice of the Dark God’s shrine, a fissure of rock sunk deep in the ground. The night remained eerily still. She could hear a thin trickle of water from below. A shallow stream cut through the rocks, wending its way toward the ocean. Inside the sunken fissure lay the old shrine of the Dark God where they stored the Named weapons of their hive.

Cerastes!” she bellowed, her voice rough and grating in her demon form. “Cerastes, you disgusting worm! Drag your carcass out where I can see it!”

She turned, panting, scanning the shadows beneath the trees. She knew he watched her. She could feel his cold reptilian eyes on her neck. The countless snakes upon her head began to twist and writhe, opening their mouths and tasting the air, searching for their enemy. Immediately they hissed and arched their long coiled backs, turning as one toward the far end of the clearing.

She whirled around.

Cerastes stood where she had already looked. He kept his human form, though under the thin light of the winter moon, he looked pale and ghostly, partly ethereal, like a phantom of the Dark God’s realm. His long black hair fell limply to his waist like a curtain, blending with his long robes.

She pointed one long, clawed finger at his skull-like face.

Wicked,” she breathed, snarling through her pin teeth. “Wicked, wicked beast. Have you lost all sense of honor? Do you care nothing for the Hive?”

Cerastes raised his brow. “Calm yourself, Natrix, before your hair swallows you whole.”

You sent the Viper to his death!” she shrieked. “You’ve broke the trust of the colonies! You can’t fool me, you bastard. What he did was not by his own will. You tricked him. You threw him to the fire and now you pray to your plagued God as though his life were an offering! You snake!”

Cerastes regarded her calmly. “How many did he kill?” he asked.

Natrix stared at him in disbelief. Discipline was the way of the assassin—but Cerastes had reached a realm of immorality that she couldn’t fathom. “You planned this,” she hissed.

I did.”

Why?”

Because as you said, dear sister,” Cerastes murmured, “I won’t let a seed grow wild. Not when it will come back to poison me.”

You could have mentored him as your own! He was loyal to you!”

We are all loyal to our Grandmasters…until we defeat them.” Cerastes gave her a calculating look. “I will not have my plans cut short.”

All this for the sake of your plans?” Natrix snarled. “What did you tell him? What made him attack another hive?”

Cerastes grinned or grimaced, she couldn’t tell which. “I told him a little-known secret,” he said simply. “If he has enough discipline and control over his demon, he can transform and let the beast escort them back into the shadow realm, thus breaking through the fifth gate.”

Natrix’ face paled. “You filthy, deceitful liar….He’s far too inexperienced to control the demon’s will….The demon went wild with bloodlust. He attacked the Mistmire hive, our own brethren! Grandmaster Lachesis summoned us before they could retaliate…you could have sparked a war! ”

Cerastes stared at her, unmoved.

I had to fight him off,” she breathed. “I had to stop him. I had to put down your rabid son!”

Silence,” Cerastes hissed. “He is a Named assassin, a student—not my son. We are all brothers and sisters in the Hive.”

Not you,” Natrix breathed. “You are welcome here no longer. I will tell the council of the Grandmasters about your trickery. You’ve betrayed the ways of the Hive, the treaty of peace between villages, the sacred bond between student and teacher….” The snakes recoiled atop her head, arching their backs in disgust.

Tension filled the space between them, their gazes locked. Cerastes seemed unconcerned by her threat. She couldn’t understand him. Only a few years ago, he had valued the Hive above all else, a strict follower of their traditions. What changed?

Natrix fingered the chakrams at her hip. One quick throw of the bladed disks would slice Cerastes’ head straight off…but she knew he was too fast for her. Grandmasters wielded varying degrees of power. Perhaps if Naja had accompanied her, they might have stood a chance. But Cerastes’ power had grown exponentially over the past two years. He had surpassed even her level of training. She could feel it in the air between them—even at this distance, his aura seemed to taint the clearing in a toxic cloud. Her snakes curled back from him instinctively. His face looked less like a man, more like something else, she couldn’t say what. But she could feel the alien force of his demon gazing at her through those serpentine eyes. Cerastes no longer thought like a man—not even a beast—but something darker.

Your Viper is dead,” she said softly. “Does that please you, Grandmaster?” She spat the last word with a sneer on her lips.

They’ll blame Lachesis,” Cerastes said idly. “Our colony is in no danger.”

It’s no longer your colony,” she repeated. “Get out.”

A smile twisted his lips. She would never forget his expression—mocking, filled with strange, self-satisfied amusement. “Gladly,” he murmured. Then ribbons of shadow, like silken ropes, flowed up from the ground and curled down from the branches. The trees grew impossibly dark. The shadows encompassed his body and wrapped him in a firm embrace.

And then Grandmaster Cerastes vanished.

Natrix knew he would never be seen in the Hive again.



Chapter 1


The Dawn Seeker sailed upriver, long and sturdy in the water, a three-masted schooner with billowing white sails and over a dozen cabins. The ship traveled up the Little Rain, a small tributary of the Crown’s Rush, headed inland from the ocean. Early morning fog cast the world in gray, brooding light. Tall trees loomed over the riverbanks, fading in and out of the mist. The Little Rain traveled through flat marshland and dense forest, lined by juniper thickets and bristling blackberry bushes. The rainy season made the water deep and wide.

Sora dangled her legs over the crow’s nest. She always took the dawn watch. She liked the tension in the forest at daybreak, the birds twittering in excited song, the first hint of silver light.

The crow’s nest of the Dawn Seeker sat high upon the central mast, dozens of feet above the ground. At this height, Sora could see Captain Silas’ crew stirring on deck through the mist. The night-workers filed inside while fresh crewmen took their stations, adjusting sails and manning the wheel, calling out to one another, laughing. She could smell whiffs of fresh bread drifting up from the galley. Her stomach let out a sudden, loud complaint. She wanted nothing more than to climb down the ropes and eat breakfast. She felt stiff and cold, her woolen cloak damp with moisture from her three hour watch.

But I can’t leave yet, she thought. When Captain Silas first assigned her to the crow’s nest, he gave her a long lecture about sailing upriver: the danger of opposing currents, lightning, driftwood, debris, tree limbs and rocks in the shallows. The ship’s safety relied on a good lookout…and so breakfast would have to wait.

Her eyes drifted to a figure on the deck below. At first glance, he appeared to be lying prostrate on the wooden boards, but a closer look revealed a series of short, quick press-ups. His hot breath misted the air. His hands were placed evenly with his shoulders, palms flat against the deck, back rigidly straight. She didn’t know how many presses a man could do in one sitting; she had counted two-hundred and then lost track as the fog thickened.

He trained every morning around this time—the same as her watch—and ran through a strenuous routine of exercises: twenty laps around the deck, a series of kicks and jumps, then a long chain of attacks using daggers or swords. His broad, powerful shoulders drew her eye far too easily. A myriad of scars covered his back, visible even at this distance. She wondered if he removed his shirt on purpose; if he knew how much it distracted her. No,she thought. He doesn’t want anything to do with me.

She had hardly spoken to Crash since leaving the Lost Isles. She didn’t know what to say to him. Not after what happened.

Hey!” a familiar voice drifted up to her, and she glanced further down to the base of the mast. Burn, the giant mercenary, swung himself easily onto the rigging and started upward. His movements were startlingly graceful despite his massive size. Within a half-minute, he stood on the ropes just beneath her feet. “What are you doing up here, looking so gloomy?”

She tried to smile, but it felt false, fixed in place. “Just tired,” she mumbled. It was half the truth. Honestly, she had been out of sorts since leaving the Lost Isles, and for more reasons than just Crash. Her eyes drifted to her left hand, which lay curled in her lap.

Burn smiled gently, a strange expression on his wide, square face. His teeth were as sharp as lion-fangs. His long incisors jutted past his lower lip, a trait of the Wolfy race. “Is the moisture bothering your wound?” he asked. “Perhaps Lori can give you a soothing balm.”

Sora shook her head. “No, it’s healed.” It wasn’t painful anymore. The scar remained from her battle with Volcrian: a circular crater in the center of her palm, still pink with freshly grown skin. But it seemed to go deeper than the flesh. Since battling the mage, she hadn’t heard a whisper from her Cat’s Eye necklace.

She resisted the urge to touch the small green-tinted stone at her neck. The Cat’s Eye was more than just a simple rock, but a magical artifact with its own form of consciousness, sharing a psychic bond with her mind. It protected her from magic, absorbing supernatural energy like a parasite, but if she removed the necklace, its psychic bond would break. She would fall into a coma or even die. Most likely die, she amended. She had worn it for almost two years now and there was no turning back.

Usually the stone murmured softly to her, nudging her thoughts, responding to the world around them. Yet now when she stretched out her mind and sought its presence, she felt a muddy, dull quagmire at her fingertips.Wake up, she thought, touching upon the internal bond. Where are you?

Silence, like the billowing morning fog.

Her troubled frown deepened. She looked back to Crash on the deck of the ship. He had finished his routine and sat to stretch out his muscles, cooling down.

Hmm,” Burn grunted deep in his throat. “Is that what’s on your mind? Quite a good view from up here.” He winked at her.

Sora grimaced. “Very funny.” Then she redirected her gaze to the forest.

You should go speak to him,” Burn suggested.

Speak to Crash? Why?” she asked, feigning ignorance.

Burn gave her a humorous look. “First, so I can eat dinner with the both of you again. And,” he paused, “so you can put your heart at ease. I know what happened between you two. I saw you on the deck of the ship when we left the Isles,” he admitted.

A tremor of horror ran down Sora’s spine. “You…you what?”

I saw you two speaking. And I saw….”

The kiss. Oh that terrible, stupid kiss! “It’s not what it looked like,” she cut him off, her cheeks flushing. “There isn’t anything between us. I mean, there wasn’t anything between us. I…uh,” she stuttered. “I don’t know. He’s a hard person to understand. I think he just needs….” What? Needs what?

Space?” Burn supplied. “A hearty breakfast? Perhaps a knock upside the head?” His eyes twinkled merrily.

Sora scowled at him.I don’t know and I don’t care,” she huffed. Then she looked back to Crash. I don’t care about him at all, she repeated firmly to herself.

Despite all they had been through together, the dark assassin remained enigmatic and withdrawn. Sora had taken to avoiding him after several failed attempts at small-talk. They seemed to have fallen back to their old ways, when she had been a high-handed noblewoman and he, a menacing assassin. Back when he had discovered her Cat’s Eye necklace and kidnapped her. It had been so easy to hate him then, to blame him for all her troubles. He seemed the very embodiment of evil. But over time, they had fought side-by-side, shared nights by the fire, learned to trust and rely on each other, grown steadily closer…until the kiss.

Now everything remained the same—and yet so horribly different. I can’t, he had said that night on the ship as they sailed away from the Lost Isles. I can’t be that person for you. He was an assassin, after all. Ruthless and deadly, with a past she was just beginning to understand.

Now he kept a steady distance from her, as though she were a bashful young girl infatuated with a charming tutor. The thought made her at once furious and dismayed. She felt she deserved more of an explanation, or at least an attempt at normalcy. She glared at his dark figure on deck. Cold bastard, she thought.

Have you considered he’s just as bad at this as you are?” Burn asked softly, breaking the silence. He leaned back on the rigging, settling his weight on the ropes.

Bad at what, exactly?” she hedged.

Sharing his feelings.”

Feelings?” she muttered. “The man doesn’t know the meaning of the word. I told you, there’s nothing between us.”

And I’m a Harpy with no wings!” Burn balked. “You’ve been circling around each other like two cats in a box. It’s hard not to notice. Even the Dracians are talking.”

The Dracians talk about everything.”

Right,” Burn agreed, then gave her a searching glance. “But have you heard what they’re saying?”

Sora paused at that. “What do you mean?”

Burn hesitated before explaining. “Tristan thinks Crash hurt you…physically,” he said slowly. “Some sort of wife-abuse, without the wife part.”

Sora’s face drained of color. “He said that?” she asked.

Yes, about twenty times over the past week.”

Sora clenched her jaw.

Burn reached out and patted her foot. “Don’t take it too hard,” he said sympathetically. “The sailors are getting restless. Not much for them to do but spread stories. Just thought I would warn you, before you hear it from someone else.”

Sora sighed. “It’s my own fault, I suppose,” she muttered. Burn looked at her questioningly, but she shook her head. “It’s not true, of course. But I might have confided a bit too much in Tristan….” Her voice wandered off. After Crash’s rejection, she had sunk into a depressed state. Tristan saw her distress and swooped in, showering her in affection, all too willing to take the assassin’s place. His attention had been difficult to turn down. Tristan was handsome, charming and only a year older than herself. He brought her seashells, played silly games and tried to make her laugh. If she had been any other girl, she might have fallen head-over-heels for him.

Then she confided in him, complaining about Crash’s coldness. A petty thing to do, but there it was. Tristan had been all too sympathetic, furious that the assassin would scorn her. You don’t need him, the pirate had said.Not when you have a hot-blooded Dracian at your side.

And then he tried to kiss her. Twice.

Sora winced at the memory. The very touch of Tristan’s lips against her cheek had brought a startling revelation—she didn’t love him, and she never could. “He’s probably jealous,” Sora said, realizing she had been quiet for some time.

Burn raised an eyebrow. “Of course,” he replied. “And perhaps a bit angry at you. Dracians are passionate creatures. The rest of the crew half-believe Tristan’s story….”

Sora glared stubbornly. “It’s just gossip and drunken speculation! Tristan should lay off his cups. The Dracians can think what they like—I don’t care.”

Burn nodded. “Fair, but your mother hasn’t known Crash for very long, and the Sixth Race carries a reputation. Don’t be surprised if she asks you about what happened. Word will reach her eventually. It’s a large boat—but not that large.”

Sora bit her lip and looked back down at the assassin on deck. Crash seemed to be taking longer this morning than usual, drawing out his stretches. She had the sudden, horrible feeling that he could overhear them. He wasn’t human, after all. Not entirely. Only a few weeks ago, she had learned the truth about his race, that Crash was one of the Unnamed, a child of the Dark God. He contained a demonic power she couldn’t begin to understand. Did he know about the rumors? She felt a twinge of embarrassment. What a mess….

How do we stop this from getting out of hand?” she asked, suddenly concerned. A few more weeks of travel still separated them from the City of Crowns. What if the Dracians became so worked up, they tried to throw the assassin overboard? Goddess help them, she thought.

Go to the source, I suppose,” Burn said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I tried to speak to Tristan…but he took offense, said I’d insulted his honor by calling him a liar.” He let out a short bark of a laugh. “Dracians! Full of pride and passion, and not a lick of sense! I think you’ll have to speak to him.”

Sora nodded. She didn’t relish the thought. Confronting Tristan about the assassin, perhaps in front of the whole ship, sounded excruciating.

Burn swung easily up next to her, landing on the crow’s nest. The wooden boards shuddered beneath his weight. “Go down and get some breakfast. My turn to play lookout,” he said, and tousled her hair fondly.

Sora nodded, suddenly reluctant to go. At least up here she felt above it all, the Dracians’ gossip nothing more than petty speculation. On deck, she would have to walk around knowing what they all thought. How long had these rumors been flying around? She thought back over the past week and began to remember a few conspicuous moments: a flurry of murmurs every time she passed Tristan’s table in the mess room; strange looks from crewmen; a few nosy questions from her friend Joan. Her cheeks flushed suddenly. Joan had asked pointedly about her experience with men. The honest truth? She didn’t have any. Only that one night with Crash on the Lost Isles, learning the fire of a kiss, the addictive nature of a touch. She had no experience with love—and making love, at least the thought of it, still left her tongue-tied.

She bit her lip in distress. Perhaps the rumors weren’t as well-hidden as she thought.

She sighed and climbed down the rigging, wincing as her sore muscles flexed. The wind shifted abruptly, blowing in her face, and she wrinkled her nose as an afterthought.

Do you smell something?” she asked. A pungent stench floated on the wind, like rotten vegetation.

Burn nodded. Wolfy senses were far more heightened than humans. “Been smelling it for days. Seems to be coming from the forest.”

Her eyes traveled to the line of trees. The fog was slowly burning off as the sun rose in the sky. It would be a cold, clear day, heralding the winter months to come. Large pine trees and cypress crowded the bank, thick with untamed foliage, arching countless meters above the river and branching into tall canopies overhead. Bright green willows leaned over the Little Rain, trailing their branches in the murky water. Birdsong filled her ears: the shrieks of meadowlarks and hollow thump of woodpeckers, even the coo of an owl somewhere in the dark branches.

She couldn’t see the source of the smell and wrinkled her nose again, sniffing the air, reminded of her venture through Fennbog swamp two years ago, where the ground had reeked of sulfur and mold. We’re not far from Fennbog now, are we? she wondered.

No, she didn’t think they were anywhere near Fennbog, and it didn’t explain the rancid smell of rotting plants.

Burn waved to her as she continued down the rigging.


* * *


The mess hall of the Dawn Seeker doubled as a game room and meeting room, depending on the time of day. In one corner, a series of steep wooden steps led down to the galley, the ship’s kitchen. Sora sat down at one of the long wooden tables and ate without disturbance. The breakfast hour had already passed and most of the crew were either resting or manning the ship. Breakfast was a humble affair of red beans, rye bread and two strips of fatty bacon. Only two other Dracians inhabited the hall—Joan, a red-haired woman who sat boldly with her legs splayed out on the bench, and another man who Sora didn’t know by name. They spoke in quiet tones over a cup of hot tea.

Just as Sora raised the last fork-full to her mouth, a hand shot out and grabbed her by the wrist. She turned in surprise, spilling the last of her beans on the ground.

Mom!” she exclaimed, then bit her tongue and winced.

Lorianne stood above her daughter, five feet of fortitude and a steady, searching gaze. “You unwrapped your bandage,” she said, immediately noting her daughter’s scarred left hand.

Sora yanked her wrist free and rubbed it in irritation. “It feels fine,” she said defensively.

The skin needs to toughen up a bit. What if you tear it again? That rigging is rough on the hands.”

Sora opened her mouth to protest, but her mother whipped out a strip of gauze and grabbed her hand, swiftly wrapping it. Sora waited with forced patience. She didn’t like to be fussed over. She had traveled for months with two hardened warriors—she could take care of herself. And I want to!

But of course, Lori wouldn’t hear of that. “What kind of Healer would I be, if I let my own daughter neglect her wounds?” she muttered as she worked.

Sora gritted her teeth and wished she knew the woman just a little better. Then she would feel less obligated to be polite. She had known her mother for less than two years. Lorianne had left her as a baby in the care of a rich noble Lord, hoping Sora would be raised with wealth and privileges that her own blood couldn’t afford. His own seed was useless, her mother had once explained. He lived in denial of it. A man’s pride, you see. So it was easy to convince him that you were his.

According to her mother, Lord Fallcrest had married Lorianne within a few weeks of meeting. Eventually he discovered Lori’s common birth and gave her an ultimatum—disappear, or face the King’s law. She had been forced to leave her baby behind, as Lord Fallcrest still believed the child to be his own.

He always doubted me, Sora thought, caught up in memories. And for good reason. She thought back to her Blooming and the end of her step-father’s life. She would never know for sure if he saw her as a true daughter. He had always remained distant, especially in those final years, traveling often to the City of Crowns. Her life had changed the night of her Blooming, a ceremony that should have attracted hopeful young suitors. Instead, her step-father had been murdered and she had been kidnapped and taken on an unanticipated adventure. An adventure that eventually led her to Lorianne’s doorstep.

It left a strange taste in her mouth. Sora understood her mother’s decision—but she didn’t have to like it. She had been raised for seventeen years believing she was a Fallcrest, a noblewoman born into Second Tier nobility. It was hard to see herself any other way.

Come,” Lorianne said, disrupting her daughter’s thoughts. She released Sora’s freshly bandaged hand. “Let’s go for a walk.”

A walk?” Sora asked, nonplussed. There weren’t many places to go aboard the Dawn Seeker. She had been circling the top deck for weeks now.

Lori nodded firmly and waited for Sora to climb from the wooden bench. Then they walked together out the door, arm in arm. “I’m composing a letter to Cameron,” her mother explained idly. “I thought you might like to add something to it.”

Sora shrugged. She doubted her mother would go through all this trouble just to compose a letter. No, something else occupied Lori’s mind, and thanks to Burn, Sora knew what it might be. But she waited. Maybe, hopefully, the whole thing won’t come up.

Once outside, they circled the deck slowly, arms linked. The two women were very similar, if eighteen years apart. They shared the same blond hair, her mother’s straw-straight and worn neatly above her shoulders. Sora’s hair fell in long, heavy waves down her back. She had her mother’s blue eyes, if a little darker, less like the sky and more like the deep, cool water of a lake. Sora had a wider mouth, a slightly more pronounced chin, and stood a few inches taller. Still, anyone who looked at them could see their relation.

As they walked, several Dracians called out to Lori, hailing her with various greetings.

Fair morning, Healer!” one called.

And the day just got fairer!” another added.

Your hair is like the dawn!”

Sora resisted the urge to sigh. Healers commanded a lot of respect from the different races. Sometimes it was useful—but now it grated on her nerves.

Aye mistress!” another Dracian hailed Lori as they rounded the rear of the ship. “Do you have time for an appointment this afternoon? Got a terrible fungus on my toe.”

Lori nodded to him graciously. “Of course,” she said. “Come by the sickroom after lunch.”

The Dracian dropped the rope in his hands and gave an exaggerated salute. Their race came from a union of Wind and Fire, and they were theatrical down to the bone. Sora grinned at his antics, but the man didn’t return her smile, instead turning quickly back to the rope. She hesitated, unnerved.

Her mother noticed the interaction. She spoke casually as they continued to walk. “I’ve heard some strange rumors flying around the ship,” she began.

Sora considered a number of responses, but remained silent.

Her mother gave her a sideways glance. “The Dracians like to embellish,” she offered. “But it does make me wonder….”

Rumors…?” Sora fumbled for a response. “I’m not sure….” Then, just as they rounded the corner, she came face-to-face with the last person she wanted to see. Her breath caught. She almost tripped over her own feet.

Crash stood with his shirt in his hands and his hair damp. A series of wet footprints led to a large water basin on deck. By the look of him, he had just rinsed off. She recalled his fierce regiment of exercises in the early morning fog. He looked fit and bristling, his shoulders straight and wide, his arms perfectly shaped, his chest hard and defined. His black hair fell in front of his green eyes, the color of deep-forest moss. His face always reminded her of a wolf or jackal, sharp and cunning, with a straight nose, defined jaw and firm lips that rarely cracked a smile.

Sora’s heart thudded awkwardly in her chest, missing a half-beat. She came to a dead stop; her mother paused beside her. She became aware of a lull in the activity of the ship; a few nearby Dracians paused, casting curious glances in her direction. Don’t feed the rumors, she told herself firmly. She could barely look Crash in the eye, but she raised her head a notch and gave him a warm smile.

Training?” she asked, trying not to stare at the water droplets trickling down his chest.

He raised a dark eyebrow. “Walking?” he asked in return.

Sora flushed.

He pulled his black shirt over his damp body and turned to walk away. Sora shot a glance at her mother—the woman watched them closely. In an attempt to appear normal, she tried to speak again. “Uh…nice day out, isn’t it?” she asked, stepping after him. She winced. Much too forced! she berated herself.

He glanced at her briefly. “It’s fine.” He kept walking. His voice held a rough edge. Only a month ago, he had been imprisoned and tortured by Harpy soldiers. They had placed a sunstone collar around his neck, where the light of the stone burned into his flesh. The scar still showed between his collarbones. His voice hadn’t fully recovered, and it seemed like it never would.

Sora didn’t feel like giving up quite yet, and continued on his heels. “The fog burned off,” she offered. “Nothing like a clear winter sky!”

Crash looked upward. “Funny thing about fog,” he said.

Oh?”

It plays tricks on your ears. Sounds tend to carry.”

Sora’s stomach dropped. “Oh?” she repeated softly.

Aye,” Crash murmured. “Though I suppose Burn knew that, hmm?”

Sora opened her mouth—then shut it. Her footsteps came to a halt.

Crash continued down the side of the ship, heading toward the galley. Sora watched him walk away, her hands slowly curling into fists. He knows, she thought. He knows about the rumors, and so does the whole damn ship.Humiliating. She had the sudden urge to throw herself off the boat.

Her mother’s hand landed on her shoulder. “Here,” Lori said, and steered her toward the railing. Sora leaned up against it, steadying herself, swallowing the frustration in her throat.

Lorianne cast a sharp look at the gawking Dracians, and they hurriedly ducked their heads, going back to work. Her hand moved restlessly on Sora’s upper back, massaging the stiff muscles. “You’re awfully tense.”

I’m fine,” Sora gritted out.

What happened between you two?” Lori asked calmly. “You barely speak to one another. You’ve been out of sorts since the Lost Isles.”

Nothing, mom,” Sora repeated. “Nothing happened.”

You can tell me about it, you know, if there was a disagreement, a fight of some kind….” Lori hesitated. “Or if he hurt you….”

Mom!” Sora snapped, turning to glare at her. “How could you think that of Crash? Just because he’s an assassin doesn’t make him cruel.” Goddess, it sounded desperate even to her own ears—of course assassins were cruel, especially the Sixth Race. It was in their nature. She tried again. “You don’t actually believe the Dracians, do you?”

Lori gave her a searching look. “No,” she finally said. “But I can’t help but worry. Crash is very…quiet. The Sixth Race are difficult to read.” She paused again and continued carefully. “We have a lot to think about, now that the Shade is trying to summon the Dark God….”

Sora shook her head. “You can’t blame Crash for that,” she said.

I don’t,” her mother replied swiftly. “But we don’t know enough about him. We don’t know his previous alliances….”

Then you believe the rumors?” Sora balked. “You believe Crash would hurt me?”

No, I just want you to be cautious!” her mother exclaimed.

Sora frowned stubbornly. Her mother might not believe the Dracians, but she certainly didn’t trust Sora’s judgment. That bothered her more than anything else. Did the entire ship see her this way? A young girl in the thrall of a ruthless assassin? Who knew what the Dracians were really saying. Burn had said “abuse” but perhaps he had tried to soften the blow. Used, she heard in her mind. Taken advantage of. Raped. Any of these could be part of the rumor mill. This is getting out of control.

She couldn’t stand the sympathy that crept into Lorianne’s gaze, or the distraught turn of her lips.

I’m not a defenseless victim!” Sora finally exclaimed. “Crash saved my life countless times! I can’t believe you would doubt him. Just keep out of my business, would you? I know who my friends are.” Then she turned on her heel and stalked across the deck, thumping her feet as hard as she could against the wood, wishing she could snap each plank in half.

Lorianne gazed after her. Finally, she sighed and turned in the opposite direction.


* * *


Deep underground, surrounded by heavy granite stone, Krait knelt on one knee and bowed her head.

Shadows filled the low circular chamber. Above her head, the ongoing churn of gears grated through the stone. Summoned by Grandmaster Cerastes, she was transported under the earth by a shadow portal, an instant doorway connecting one place to another. She didn’t know where this chamber resided, perhaps deep beneath The City of Crowns, or perhaps buried under a mountain range hundreds of miles away. It made no difference. Cerastes had called, and so she had come.

To her left side knelt another assassin clothed similarly in plain black garb. A member of The Shade she had yet to meet. Cerastes kept their order hidden from the world—even from each other. Higher-up members met rarely, usually before a mission. She wasn’t sure why this man was here. Why they had been summoned together.

At the center of the chamber hovered an eerie, nightmarish apparition. The creature made her skin tingle, her blood rush with unknown excitement. It seemed molded out of mist and shadow. A black, tattered cloak wrapped around its evanescent form, creating the illusion of a body. Beneath its hood, only black, empty space stared out. It shifted back and forth, flickering in the air, as though any minute it might vanish completely.

A circle of blood on the ground kept it contained. Krait didn’t know much of magic, but she knew this was an ancient spell taken from The Book of the Named. Somehow, her master had imprisoned this creature for his own dark purposes.

Cobra tells me the Viper is indeed alive and has returned to the mainland,” Cerastes spoke from behind them. He stood to their backs, though the chamber seemed filled by his presence, as intimidating as the wraith. His long, calloused hand rested on each of their shoulders, connecting the two assassins together. Krait forced herself not to flinch. “For the past month, Cobra has kept watch over the minor tributaries leading to the Crown’s Rush. Finally, the Viper and his ship have returned from the ocean.”

The Viper. Her heart quickened at his Name. She first encountered the Viper almost six months ago in the bell tower of Delbar. Before that, the infamous assassin was thought dead. Their fight had been fast and violent, and she barely escaped with her life. This time, she wouldn’t be taken off guard.

Then Krait felt a twinge of uncertainty—almost jealousy. She dared to speak. “Master,” she murmured. “You assigned me to watch for him at the gates of The City of Crowns—”

We can’t afford to wait any longer,” Cerastes cut her off. “Winter Solstice Night will soon be upon us. I must ensure the Viper arrives in time with the weapons.”

Krait gritted her teeth. She was afraid to interrupt her Grandmaster a second time, but her thoughts forced her to speak. “He has more than one of the weapons?”

Yes,” Cerastes said softly. “He carries the sacred spearhead and sword hilt. He has already killed the bloodmage who initiated the plague. A pity, but not detrimental to our plans.” Cerastes paused. His voice turned deceptively inviting. “Anything else on your mind?”

Krait bowed lower, pressing her lips shut. She must obey Cerastes’ authority above all else. She had overstepped her place.

You and Cobra have been of great service these past weeks,” Cerastes continued. “With The Book of the Named, I’ve been able to harness the last of the wraiths, the keeper of the third sacred weapon.”

Krait’s eyes slid to the phantom apparition before them. It gave off a cold, deathly energy—unnerving, even to one of the Shade’s elite.

The Viper travels with a group of others,” Cerastes explained. “We have yet to discern if they are a threat. I’ve arranged a test to gage their abilities. They shall meet an unexpected obstacle on their voyage. I want to see what they’re capable of. To that end, you and Cobra shall be my trusted eyes and ears.”

Krait’s gaze slid to the kneeling form of Cobra. He was a slight man, narrow-shouldered and unassuming. A long scar mutilated half of his visible face. A black cowl obscured his nose, mouth and lower features. His green eyes remained fastened to the ground, focused intently—almost fervently—on the stone floor.

This time, Cerastes’ silence seemed to beckon questions. “Exactly what do you wish from us, Grandmaster?” she asked softly.

Do not interfere with the trial I’ve arranged. Observe from a distance, then report your findings back to me. I want to know what Viper’s allies are capable of. I want to know their goals and how much they’ve learned of the plague and the Dark God’s weapons.”

They know enough to kill the bloodmage,” the Cobra offered. His voice sounded nasally and thin, as though he spoke through a broken nose.

Yes, but what else?” Cerastes intoned. “Knowledge is a weapon. We cannot be taken off-guard.” The Grandmaster released their shoulders and began pacing around the outer circle of the chamber. Dense shadows hid half his face. Perfectly black hair trailed to his waist, blending with his dark robes. A heavy gold chain hung from his neck with the emblem of a boar’s head upon it: the human king’s royal seal. Only recently did he begin wearing it, though Krait didn’t know why. Cerastes kept much of his doings secret, sharing only what they needed to know for a mission. She didn’t know all he planned, only that he tended to some mysterious business in The City of Crowns.

Her Grandmaster paused at the side of the circle. “I wanted you both to see it,” he said, his voice echoing around the chamber. “This creature from the Dark God’s realm. A masterfully honed piece of magic. Is the wraith not beautiful?”

Krait raised her eyes slowly, gazing at the phantom. “Your power is unrivaled,” she murmured.

Cerastes’ lips curled—the closest he came to humor. “Oh no,” he corrected. “This creature is not my work. But do you see its weapon? Do you see it?” Cerastes stepped very close to the barrier of dried blood. His face came into full view: gaunt, angular cheeks, a narrow jaw, deep-set eyes and a stern nose. Subtle lines marred his brow and lips. His form was powerful, even through his robes—defined muscles carved over decades of vicious training. He looked capable of cruelty. Of malice.

The wraith lunged in his direction, coming up against an invisible barrier. It paused, unable to pass over the line of blood. The two stared at one another, face to hooded face. Then the creature let out a terrible shriek—a piercing, unnatural sound—and raised its arms.

Yes, she saw it then: a black longbow as though molded from onyx. A dark arrow manifested between the wraith’s hands. It drew the bowstring taut and aimed directly at the Grandmaster’s heart. But the phantom did not release it.

A creature of wrath, bred of vengeance,” Cerastes murmured. “Immortal, indestructible…unstoppable. And here, the black arrow. The last of the sacred weapons.” He trailed off, deep in thought.

Krait watched silently. If the arrow was so important, why didn’t he just take it? She knew he planned to contact the Dark God in some way by using The Book of the Named and the sacred weapons. But she knew nothing more. Why is he showing us this? Cerastes didn’t flaunt his trophies without purpose.

She shifted. “What are your plans for the Viper?” she asked softly. “He seeks the last weapon as well.”

Yes,” Cerastes hissed slowly between his teeth. He spoke without looking at her. “He will come for the last weapon, I count on it. I don’t know how he managed to kill the other wraiths, but he must do so to claim the weapon. The only method I can imagine is by using a Cat’s Eye, but those of the Sixth Race cannot wield such a stone. None of the races can. One of his human companions must be helping him, but we do not yet know which one.” His gaze slid to Cobra. “I must know all the details before their ship arrives in the City of Crowns. I need the Viper to make short work of this wraith before Winter Solstice. If not, I will be sorely disappointed.”

Cobra twitched imperceptibly. His body seemed filled with anticipation. “It shall be done, Grandmaster,” he murmured.

Krait frowned at that. “And after we have the third weapon?” she asked.

Cerastes glanced at her sharply. She knew she had made a mistake. Cerastes didn’t share his plans, only small pieces of them, whatever he deemed necessary for her to know. After a moment, he said coldly, “We shall see.”

Krait lowered her head again. The Cobra’s rigid stance seemed to mock her disobedience—a reminder of just how unworthy she felt as Cerastes’ student. She wanted to impress the Grandmaster and earn his favor. Her eagerness to serve made her talk out of turn, anxious to exceed his expectations. At times, it seemed her very blood yearned for his blessing, like a wayward child seeking a parent’s approval. Since he saved her life and took her under his wing, she felt eternally indebted to him.

Six years ago, he found her emaciated body on the beach. She had been a ghostly shell of a person, her memory full of gaping holes and horrific nightmares from her years spent in the Harpy dungeons, where young warriors used her as practice fodder for their magic. Through his dark and majestic powers, Cerastes restored her burned-out eyes and built her spirit anew—and so she served his will without question. That bond of loyalty gave her a sense of purpose—the seed of a new identity. Given how low she had once fallen, and how high he now raised her, she would do anything to repay him.

Go now,” Cerastes said, and raised one long-boned hand. The shadows coiled in the corner of the room, circling together until they formed a black, misty portal. “Keep your eye on the ship. Watch carefully. Return back to me by the end of the week.”

Krait and Cobra stood as one. Then Cerastes spoke again, “Cobra, stay for a moment. I have one more task for you.”

Krait wore the composed mask of an assassin, but she couldn’t stop a jealous flurry of thought. Why would Cerastes choose Cobra over her? He might be her superior in skill, but he was still a new member of the Shade. Did Cerastes not trust her with his plan? No, she thought. He has no reason to doubt me. A willing tool, she would do anything for her Grandmaster without question, even take her own life. Cerastes must know that.

We all have our place, she told herself firmly. As hands of the Dark God, we must do as we are asked and nothing more.

Krait bowed slightly, then turned her back to the Cobra and swiftly traversed the room. With a running leap, she jumped through the portal into inky darkness.



Chapter 2



Sora eventually returned to her small cabin to get her staff. The Dawn Seeker held a surprising amount of cabins below deck, each about the size of a closet, room enough for a narrow cot, a porthole window and little else. Her bags, including the sacred weapons of the Dark God, were stashed under the cot.

She pulled out her staff, her favorite weapon. It proved too bulky to carry around for no good reason. The simple wooden rod stood about two hands taller than her head, made of sleek gray-blue wood. The top looked like it had been broken off and carved-over many years ago. Bright yellow woodgrain could be glimpsed beneath the weapon’s gray surface. The initials K.W. had been carved toward its top, perhaps the loving insignia of some past owner.

She had bought the weapon in Mayville two years ago when she first left Fallcrest lands, before journeying through Fennbog Swamp. It was made of a rare kind of wood only found in the Bracken, an ancient forest in the far East, where travelers said the trees were so old, their roots and branches grew together into a singular living organism. Eventually, the wood of those trees became so strong that it could not be damaged by human means. It could only be cut and carved by magic. Any artifact made of witchwood had to predate the War of the Races, when magic had been a common, everyday occurrence.

The moment Sora lifted her staff, her arms tightened in anticipation. She intended to lose herself in a long, hard workout—the best way to overcome her irritation. It had been several weeks since her last bout of strenuous exercise. Yes, she needed to practice, then she would be too tired to care about her mother or the Dracians. She left her cabin and headed to the bow of the ship.

As Sora walked, she thought of her mother’s warning. She couldn’t agree with Lori’s words—her concern felt misplaced. Now, more than ever, Sora felt the need to trust Crash. The next leg of their journey would be the most dangerous. The City of Crowns lay on the horizon, home to the King and the most powerful nobility in the land. And within that city, the Shade awaited. A secret cult of the Sixth Race, trained since childhood in the art of killing, who worshiped the Dark God and wanted to resurrect His power.

Their small band now followed the Shade on a desperate hunt for The Book of the Named, an ancient text that contained secret knowledge of the Dark God. Lori and her friend Ferran, a once-renowned treasure hunter, claimed it would help them stop a deadly plague from consuming the land. The magical disease had already spread over a hundred miles from the lowlands to the coast. Sora didn’t know how helpful the book might be, but without it, they didn’t have much to go on. No one knew much about the plague, and they hadn’t found a way to cure it besides using a Cat’s-Eye stone.

Crash denied any knowledge of The Book of the Named or the Shade. He said the cult was only a rumor among the Sixth Race, and she believed him. I can’t let myself doubt, she thought, turning her staff over in her hands. In the past month, Crash had more than proved his friendship, his alliance, his intentions. Why couldn’t her mother see that?

She reached the bow of the ship just as they rounded the next bend in the river. Shouts arose from the crow’s nest and countless Dracians leapt to the jib and yardarm, adjusting the sails and rudder to guide the long schooner around the sharp turn. The ship slowly tilted to the side, making its lumbering way upstream. She could hear Captain Silas yelling obscenities at a hapless young sailor who had tangled the ropes.

The ship cleared the turn and passed through a thick copse of poplar trees. The Little Rain straightened out before them into a wide and flat stretch of water, heading further inland. The current slowed considerably, the banks half-buried in cattails and watercress. Any number of obstacles could lay hidden beneath the murky, sluggish water. She heard Captain Silas roaring orders behind her, directing his men to steer them toward the center of the river. “Better straighten her out, boys! I’ll have your heads if we hit bottom!”

Sora stood at the pointed nose of the Dawn Seeker, where the figurehead of a charging horse protruded from the woodwork. The wind shifted, and she smelled that strange pungent odor again, like a pile of rotting fruit. She leaned against the railing and gazed out at the bank, wondering at the source of the smell.

Suddenly a strange vibration moved through her body, sending chills across her skin. She looked up, surprised, and raised a hand against the sun. No, wait, that’s not the sun….

Sora!” a familiar voice called down to her. Caprion. He sounded distraught, out of sorts.

The winged Harpy plummeted from the sky and Sora stumbled backward, narrowly avoiding a collision. Caprion landed swiftly on the deck next to her, a frantic expression on his face. His hair looked mussed, his clothes crooked.

As creatures of Wind and Light, all Harpies had pale hair and bright, luminescent eyes. Their voices were entrancing and hypnotic. Brilliant white wings protruded from their backs. Their wings looked like blood and bone, but were really manifestations of pure energy, starlight solidified into feather and flesh. Sora had learned recently that Harpies earned their wings through a complicated test called The Singing. A young Harpy would cast his pristine voice far above the heavens. If their Song was strong enough, then a star would sing back, and the light of that star would be channeled into a Harpy’s body, thus manifesting as wings. The larger a Harpy’s wings, the greater the strength of his star, and the more magical power he controlled.

Caprion was not a normal Harpy, but something called a seraphim, bred for war. He carried six wings on his back instead of just two, and had the rare ability to hide and display his wings at will. He told her it was for his own self-preservation—if he displayed all of his wings at once, the constant energy would wear out his body, shortening his life. He had joined their party on the Lost Isles, where he helped them escape the Harpy Matriarch in exchange for passage overseas.

Sora blinked up at him. Caprion had an aristocratic face, at once masculine and beautiful, though now he wore a distressed frown. His keen violet eyes were wide and dilated. Fear?

What?” Sora demanded. “What’s wrong?” She glanced around. “And where are the other Dracians?” Three days ago, Caprion and two Dracians flew off to investigate the surrounding forest. She thought it had something to do with the growing stench, but Caprion kept their business quiet, not wanting to alarm the crew.

A town,” Caprion replied, out of breath. “We found an abandoned village in the woods. I need to speak to your mother.”

Sora nodded, taken aback. “A village? Out here?” They were countless miles away from civilization.

Caprion strode past her, heading quickly down the side of the ship. His feet lifted easily from the wooden deck after a few steps, and he glided forward, half-flying. Sora jogged to keep up. “Where are the Dracians?” she repeated. “What’s going on?”

No time to explain,” Caprion said. “Where is your mother?”

Uh…in the sickroom, I suppose. Probably tending a patient….”

Tell Silas to stop the ship. We need to stop the ship immediately!” Then Caprion started below deck into the long row of cabins.

Sora stared after him, stunned. Then she recovered and ran back to the bow of the ship, where she last remembered seeing Captain Silas. But when she got there, the good captain had disappeared, replaced by a half-dozen sailors.

Where is Silas?” she called, grabbing the arm of the nearest Dracian. The sailor gave her a startled look. Then he glanced around and shrugged. “Check the aft,” he said.

Sora gritted her teeth in frustration. For a singular boat, it was certainly easy to lose track of people. Where could Silas have disappeared? As she turned around, her eyes passed over a pile of rotted wood and mulch on a nearby sandbank. Something unexpected caught her attention. She paused, her gaze traveling back to it. She blinked. Squinted. Is that a body? She stared harder, moving along the railing as the ship continued upriver.

Yes, a body. A thin, crumpled body spattered with mud. She stared harder, her eyes picking out a female figure covered in muck and reeds from the river, barely discernible as human. Water lapped around the woman’s legs. She lay completely still.

There’s a woman!” she yelled, pointing over the side of the railing. “Hey! There’s a woman on the banks!”

The Dracians were too busy straightening out the boat, swinging the jib back into place and tying it, furling and unfurling different sails. She looked up at the crow’s nest where Burn sat high above the ship, his head turned in the opposite direction. She needed to get his attention.

Nothing else for it. Sora cupped her hands to her mouth and screamed, “Woman overboard!

Two or three heads turned to look at her. She saw Burn’s ears twitch and he looked down at her, leaning over the edge of the crow’s nest. She signaled to him, pointing over the side of the boat. He put his fingers to his lips and whistled through them loudly. “Aye!” the Wolfy picked up her cry, roaring over the ship in his deep brassy baritone. “Woman overboard!”

The sailors began to look around in confusion. It occurred to Sora that they didn’t see anyone in the water. She waved her arms animatedly. “Stop the boat! Where is Silas? Can I get some help?” she called impatiently.

Then, from seemingly nowhere, Crash appeared on deck. He strode swiftly to her side, light on his feet, swift as a shadow. “What is it?” he asked, pausing next to her. He gave her a quick once-over. His voice turned wry. “You’re not in the river.”

Sora glared. “There’s a woman on the banks. She looks injured.” She pointed to the thick patch of weeds and half-rotted logs. “See?”

Crash followed her hand and stared for a moment. “I don’t recognize her,” he deadpanned.

This is no time for humor,” Sora gritted out. “Caprion returned. He said there’s a village nearby and we need to stop the boat.”

Not our problem,” Crash grunted.

Sora growled in frustration. “What if she’s still alive? She’ll die of exposure before long! By the Four Winds, where is Silas?

Crash let out a short breath, then stepped onto the railing without a word. He cast a glance at her as though to say this better be worth it, then leapt from the boat into the water.

Sora gasped as he fell smoothly through the air and entered the river with hardly a splash. Within seconds he broke the surface and swam powerfully toward the shore. The boat continued forward and she momentarily panicked. “Stop the ship!” she screamed. “Drop anchor! Hey! Stop!” She waved her arms wildly at the Dracians on deck.

Captain Silas finally strode onto the bow. He was a short man, as all Dracians were—only an inch or so taller than herself. He dressed tastefully in a starched white shirt and long blue greatcoat with tall black boots. A leather thong tied his silky red hair, the color of shined copper, at the base of his neck. Dracians were usually lighthearted and mischievous, but today he wore an irritated scowl.

What is this about?” he demanded as he stalked toward her. “What’s going on?”

Sora raised her chin a notch. “Caprion said there is an abandoned village in the forest and we need to stop the boat. Also, two of your men didn’t return with him. And…!” Sora pointed to Crash’s figure in the water. “There’s a woman on the banks. Crash jumped overboard to help her.”

The assassin reached the shallows and began trudging through the thick mud and cattails, his black hair slick with water. Silas saw him, paused, then looked skyward with great exasperation.

What a waste of a day,” he muttered. “I should toss you all overboard!” Then he turned back to his crew, who were waiting expectantly upon the rigging. “You heard her, lads! Drop anchor!”

The crew scurried to obey.

He cast her a angry look. “Let’s hope the anchor catches on something. Otherwise your assassin will have to find his own way to the City of Crowns. And if my men are missing, I’ll cut off that damned Harpy’s wings!” He turned and stalked back to the helm.

Burn whistled twice more from the crow’s nest as the rear anchor dropped into the water. Sora could feel its sudden weight drag at the back of the boat. They continued to surge forward a short ways, then the anchor caught against the bottom of the river and the boat came to a sudden halt.

Lock her in!” Silas roared from the wheel. “Secure the front anchor! Raise the sails! Get off your arses and work!”

Sora waited impatiently as the sailors prepared a small skiff to travel ashore. Eventually, her mother and Caprion appeared on the bow, deep in conversation. When Lori saw her, she asked immediately, “What’s this about a woman on shore?”

Sora pointed over the side of the boat to the nearby bank, where Crash knelt among the tall reeds next to the still woman’s form. She couldn’t tell if the woman was injured or dead.

Can you take us down there?” she asked, turning to Caprion, who still looked anxious, an unfamiliar expression on his usually calm face.

The Harpy nodded, then made a few swift gestures with one hand, a wordless sign language that Sora had seen him use before, though she didn’t know its significance. Then a white light began to engulf her, starting at her feet and slowly working its way up her legs. She felt a slight vibration pass over her skin, like music with no sound. She shuddered slightly and rubbed her arms. A similar light crept over Lori’s body. Then, with a wave of his hand, Caprion lifted them all swiftly into the air. He transported them over the side of the boat as gently as a leaf on the wind, across the Little Rain river to the far bank.

Their brief flight over the river felt terribly unnatural to Sora. She retained her sense of gravity, as though she stood on solid ground even as the water passed underneath her. Her Cat’s Eye remained silent—a disturbing sensation, since it usually responded to any sort of magic, warning her with the sound of bells in her ear. She subconsciously touched her left hand to the stone, gripping the necklace in her bandaged palm. Where are you? she thought worriedly. She felt a slight stirring in the back of her mind, but that was all.

Finally, they reached the tall sandbanks and cattails where the woman’s body lay. A few yards downstream, Ferran leapt from the narrow bow of his houseboat. He sloshed through the shallows toward them. He was a tall man of athletic build, a few years older than her mother, with brown hair and quick gray eyes. Lori waved to him as he neared.

Sora went directly to Crash on shore. He stood over the body of the woman. As she approached, he took a step back and his eyes turned to her. “The plague,” he said quietly.

Lori overheard him. Her mother rushed to their side and pushed them out of the way, making room for herself. “The plague?” she echoed, not truly a question. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and tied it around her mouth, then knelt next to the woman, turning her over on her back.

The woman appeared pale and motionless, as good as a corpse, though as Sora looked closer. she noted the fragile rise and fall of her chest. Lori motioned for Ferran to grab the woman’s shoulders and they dragged her out of the water fully onto the bank. She checked the woman’s pulse and breathing, her eyes swiftly taking stock of her symptoms. “It’s the plague,” she confirmed. “Her pulse is weak. Another hour and she’d be dead.”

What is she doing out here all alone?” Sora asked. “Was she looking for help?” No one answered, of course, because no one knew.

Her mother checked the body for other injuries, touching the woman as briefly as possible. Lori finally sat back on her heels. “I can’t treat her here,” she said. “We’ll have to move her back to the ship.”

Isn’t this plague contagious?” Caprion asked logically. “Not to sound inhumane, but is that such a good idea? You would put Silas’ crew at risk.”

The four looked at him. The Harpy stared back expectantly. Then Crash said dryly, “On that note, where are the missing members of Silas’ crew? I suppose something inhumane happened to them?”

Caprion shot him a glare. “We passed over a village in the forest. The Dracians wanted to investigate, but the village was abandoned. It appeared decimated by the plague.”

And the Dracians…what, disappeared?” Crash asked sarcastically.

We touched ground and they went off on their own. We became separated,” Caprion replied. His face became troubled and he looked at Sora. “When I found them, they were not themselves. They became violent. Something effected their minds. I had to leave them behind. Is this a symptom of the disease?”

Everyone in the circle shared an alarmed look.

I don’t know,” Sora admitted. She felt cold. “Someone has to tell Silas.”

No one seemed eager to do that.

This woman must be from the village,” Lorianne suggested. Her eyes returned to the prone figure on the ground. “If we can cure her, we can figure out what happened. From what I’ve seen, deranged behavior can be a symptom of the plague, but only in its very late stages, just before death when the sickness reaches the brain….” Her mother chewed her lip in thought. “If we remove the Dark God’s magic from this woman’s body, then we can safely move her to the ship. Sora?” She turned to her daughter. “We have need of your Cat’s Eye.”

Sora was deep in thought, pondering why the woman appeared abandoned on the riverbanks, all alone. It seemed strangely foreboding. The missing Dracians worried her as well. She frowned and touched her necklace subconsciously. “I…uh, what?”

Use your Cat’s Eye to draw out the Dark God’s magic,” her mother repeated, and raised an eyebrow.

Sora glanced to her mother, then back to the prone body, uncertain. “Right,” she murmured. Her four companions watched her, waiting. She tried to nudge the necklace with her thoughts, prompt it into action, but nothing happened. A bit of sweat broke out on her brow.

Ferran’s eyes searched her face, his lips pulled into a frown. He, more than any of them, seemed to notice her hesitation. He wore a Cat’s Eye as well, the only other bearer she knew. Most of the stones were destroyed after the War of the Races, tossed back into the ocean from which they came, deemed too dangerous to continue using after the war. Knowledge of the stones had been forgotten over time, just as humans had forgotten about the races, their magic and lore.

Sora hadn’t told anyone about her trouble with the necklace. She has hoped the issue would fade away with time and the necklace would return to its former self, but it seemed like the longer she waited, the worse the problem grew.

I’ll try,” she said quietly, and stepped next to the body. She knelt down at the woman’s side and placed a hand on her arm. At this point, she expected the necklace to release a fierce jingle of bells and glow with a bright green light. That light should flow from her hand into the poisoned body and seek out the Dark God’s taint, then draw the black energy into itself, absorbing and nullifying its power, releasing the victim from the plague. She expected it—but nothing happened.

Um…just a minute….” she mumbled, aware of her companions’ expectant gazes.

Suddenly, the injured woman shuddered. Her eyes opened, showing pure white orbs rolled back into her head. Then the woman’s pale hand whipped through the air and grabbed Sora’s arm. Her face twisted into a terrible grimace, somewhere between a scowl and a smile—a frenzied leer. An inhuman shriek ripped from her throat, spittle flying to her lips, and she launched herself from the ground.

Sora cried out and stumbled backward off balance, taken by surprise. She twisted her arm and broke the woman’s grip, then shoved her away.

The woman lunged after her, but suddenly Ferran stood between them. He caught the diseased woman by the neck, gripping her under the jaw, and lifted her clear off the ground. Sora gasped, falling back into the wet dirt of the banks.

A leather cuff glowed around Ferran’s wrist, a bright red Cat’s Eye embedded in its surface. The stone flared crimson, then the light spread over the woman’s body, up her neck and over her face like a scarlet cowl. It entered the woman’s mouth and her jaw stretched wide, another horrible scream ripping from her throat. Tendrils of black smoke began to spew from her lips as the dark curse was expelled from her body. The Cat’s Eye drank in the toxic residue like water down a funnel.

Then, unexpectedly, the woman began to cough and hack. Her body stiffened and convulsed. A black, tar-like substance spilled from her lips, gushing down the front of her muddy shirt. A horrible smell drifted from her body, like rotten meat, heavy and pungent in the air. Ferran didn’t loosen his grip, but continued to hold the body aloft as the woman vomited. Finally the spasms passed and the woman went limp in his hand, her shirt stained dark with phlegm.

With rigid self-control, he set the body gently back on the ground. Then he turned to the river, a disgusted grimace on his face. He staggered the first few steps. Sora knew what it felt like. Usually the Cat’s Eye became energized and jubilant after absorbing magic, but the Dark God’s power was different. It tasted worse than bile, like drinking moldy sewage water. Ferran barely reached the river before he vomited, emptying the contents of his stomach into the flowing current. Lori rushed to his side, a worried frown on her face.

Sora watched the two interact—the way her mother hovered near Ferran’s side, her hand resting on his shoulder. She rubbed his back gently. Sora noted the closeness between them. It made her feel strangely out-of-place, like an awkward observer. She wondered if she should ask her mother directly about their relationship. Later, she thought.

Finally Ferran sat down on the banks, his arms resting on his lanky legs, his head bowed. He took deep, long breaths to settle his stomach. Lori rummaged through a pouch on her belt, perhaps for an herb to ease his discomfort.

Sora rubbed her arms, disturbed by Ferran’s violent reaction. She remembered curing a farmer from the plague almost a year ago, but the nausea wasn’t nearly that intense. Was the plague growing stronger? More difficult to dispel? Or did Ferran simply have a weak stomach? Somehow, she doubted it—the man drank like a fish.

When she turned away, she realized Crash stood only a few inches from her side. She looked up and met his gaze. He watched her carefully and she felt that closeness again—that bond they had created on the Isles, when touching and talking felt so natural.

Your Cat’s Eye should have responded to that,” he said quietly.

She wanted to turn away, but his gaze wouldn’t allow it. His eyes were a bright, poisonous green in the sunlight, too vibrant against his dark hair.

The necklace has been acting strangely,” she admitted. “Since the Isles, I can’t control it as I once did. I don’t know why—I can’t figure it out.”

Why didn’t you say anything?”

She glared at him, suddenly irritated. “I tried to, but you won’t talk to me for more than a half-minute. You avoid me like the plague!” She put her hands on her hips, pleased with her timely wit.

Crash stared at her.

Sora felt a bubble of anger rise in her thoughts. “I thought we agreed to be more open with each other!” She jabbed a finger into his firm chest. “I thought you said you would be there for me. That we were a team!She jabbed him twice more for emphasis.

Crash caught her wrist and glanced around. His gaze landed on Caprion, who stood only a few meters away, staring at a pile of moldy leaves, very obviously eavesdropping. “This isn’t a good time to talk…” Crash muttered.

Then when?” she demanded, trying to wrench her hand back, but he wouldn’t let go. “When are we going to talk? I can’t stand this. You can’t avoid me forever. Half the crew are talking about us!”

Crash’s face darkened momentarily, a look that made her want to step back. “So I’ve heard.”

Well it can’t go on,” she pushed. “You need to do something about it. About this whole situation. Avoiding it makes you look like a coward.” She nodded firmly, proud of herself for stating her thoughts so directly. Yes, a coward. A frightened, stupid coward. It felt good to say it, like untying a hard knot.

She could tell her words effected him, but only because she knew him so well. She saw the marginal hardening of his lips, the tightness around his eyes. Frustration. Good. She continued in a fierce whisper, “You told me not to doubt you. That I can trust you. Well now I doubt you more than ever.”

Crash’s grip tightened a notch on her wrist. He held her eyes, their faces inches apart, so close she could feel the heat of his skin. The hardness in his gaze terrified her, just as it always had, but she didn’t back down. If anything, it only made her stand more firm.

Hey,” Lori called suddenly. “What’s going on?”

Sora glanced up at her mother. Lorianne stood a few yards away with Ferran, both gazing at Crash with suspicion and concern. She knew what it must look like—the assassin’s hand on her wrist, their faces close together, scowling at one another. “Absolutely nothing,” she said, and yanked her hand back.

Crash let go this time, though he seemed unsettled, first crossing his arms and then turning away, like he didn’t know where to place his hands.

Feeling better?” Sora asked Ferran, who stood behind her mother. His face looked drawn and tired, but not terribly so. He nodded slightly to her, though he didn’t reply.

Then the sick woman stirred on the ground.

The five travelers paused and glanced down at her prostrate form. The woman coughed. Her pale, cracked lips parted. A wheezing breath escaped. “Help…” she murmured.

Sora moved quickly to the woman’s side, relieved for the distraction. “We’re here,” she said softly. “We’re here to help you.”

No,” the woman croaked. Her eyes fluttered and she shifted, trying to lift her head, but it was too great an effort. Sora wondered if the woman was fully conscious, or perhaps consumed by a fever-dream, a delirium. “My village…my children…help….”

Sora turned to look at her mother, who stood at her back. Lori’s face looked pale. “What about your children?” the Healer demanded. “Where are they?”

My village…help them….” The woman groaned and flung her hand up, attempting to point in a direction. Her eyes opened and rolled upward, searching the forest. She pointed to the thick, tangled woods, her arm swaying and then landing in the dead leaves above her head, stretched to the North. “My children… please…help Maggie, sweet Maggie…. ” The woman shuddered and her eyes closed again, her body returning to a limp, placid state.

Sora stood up slowly. She turned to her mother, uncertain. Lori took her cue. “We need to go to her village and see what happened there,” she said immediately.

It’s a long trek through the forest,” Caprion offered. “We could fly there much faster.”

What of the plague?” Sora thought to ask. “Ferran and I have the Cat’s Eye to protect us, but the rest of you….”

I’ll be fine,” Crash said.

Caprion cast him a narrow look. “If the assassin goes, then I go as well,” he said.

The two glared at each other.

Ferran shifted on his feet, shoving his hands in his pockets. He chewed on a long yellow reed from the river, spinning it between his straight teeth. “Troublesome,” he murmured, and raised an eyebrow at Lori. “Sora raises a good point. You don’t have protection against the plague and it seems to be growing stronger. It could be dangerous for you….”

It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Lori said. “If the plague has spread this far, and grown this strong, then the entire Kingdom could be at terrible risk. Much has changed since we traveled overseas.”

A small village in the woods is hardly indicative of the entire Kingdom,” Crash replied.

Lori shot him a fiery look. “What did you say, Viper?” she barked. “If you have an opinion, speak up.”

Crash gazed at her stoically. “There’s nothing we can do. Her children are already dead. If not, they’ll die very soon.”

And what of the missing Dracians?” Lori demanded

Crash shrugged. “I don’t see the point of risking our entire crew over the fate of two men.”

Caprion shook his head. “Of course he would think that,” he said to no one in particular. “His kind value death over life. Cut down the weak and leave them to rot. Isn’t that the way of the Hive?”

The Hive. Sora remembered that term—the name of a colony where Crash spent his childhood. Or perhaps it wasn’t just a simple colony. Perhaps the term meant something more. Caprion made it sound like an entire network of places and people, a history of traditions and a dense culture all rolled into one.

Crash stared at the Harpy dangerously. Tension settled over their group and for a moment his hand twitched toward his dagger. But the assassin contained himself. “No,” Crash said levelly. “Quite the opposite—I won’t putLori’s life at risk.”

Sora saw a shocked look pass over her mother’s face.

Crash turned to face Lori fully. “You’re a Healer and a valued asset to our team. I won’t allow you to risk your life, nor the life of anyone on this ship.”

But we can’t leave the Dracians behind,” Lori said softly. She looked at Caprion. “There’s a chance they’re still alive. What say you, Harpy?”

Caprion looked uncomfortable. “I honestly don’t know if they’re still alive, and I’m not immune to the plague. I took a risk returning to the ship. I feel fine, but perhaps the sickness is slower to work on me. I could be infected.”

He’s not,” Ferran interjected. “I would see it with my Cat’s Eye. But he brings up a good point. Perhaps he should stay behind.”

A brief silence fell as the five companions regarded each other.

At that moment, the skiff from the Dawn Seeker arrived. Silas stood at the bow and jumped ashore before his crewman could secure the boat. “Well?” he barked. “Where are my missing men?”

Sora felt the situation coming to a head. She could see the temper flare on Silas’ face. She turned to meet the oncoming Dracian. “They were infected by the plague,” she started.

I had to leave them behind,” Caprion said bluntly.

Silas hesitated mid-step. He didn’t seem sure where to unleash his fury—upon Caprion, Sora, or the whole lot. Finally, he pointed at Ferran. “Go get them,” he growled.

Ferran raised an eyebrow. “The risk involved—”

You have a Cat’s Eye, don’t you?” Silas snapped. “You can take the risk. I don’t abandon my crew. Fix this or find your own way to the City of Crowns.”

We don’t plan to leave anyone behind,” Lori said amicably. “We were about to go look for them. Right?” She glanced at Ferran.

The treasure hunter chewed his reed stubbornly and said nothing.

Lori finally indicated the woman on the ground. “She needs my care,” she said. “And she might have information about what happened in the village. Permission to bring her on board, captain?”

Silas studied the prone figure. “Does she have the plague?” he asked.

Cured it,” Ferran grunted.

Silas beckoned impatiently. “Then bring her aboard. The rest of you,” he scowled, “find my men and bring the back. You have until nightfall. You hear me, Ferran? No wandering about! If you don’t return by tonight, consider yourselves stranded.” Then he whirled back to his boat and flounced away.

A fat lot of help he is,” Sora muttered.

Hypocrite,” Ferran agreed.

No use wasting more time,” Crash said, looking skyward. It was close to noon. The sun set early this time of year and they only had a few hours at best. Crash fixed Caprion with a hard stare. “How soon can we get to this village?”

Caprion looked at the four of them. “It’s about five miles away. I can only take two passengers at a time.”

I think we should make our way on foot,” Crash said.

“And you’re worried about wasting time?” Caprion asked dryly.

Sora gave Crash a questioning look. “He has a point. I mean, is it truly necessary to walk? It would be much faster to fly….”

Better to search the forest,” Crash explained. “See what we can find on the ground. Caprion can fly above us, since he’s susceptible to the plague.” Crash stared at Caprion intentionally, as though purposefully pointing out the Harpy’s weakness.

Caprion looked uncomfortable. Sora didn’t think he was used to having a disadvantage.

Then Ferran chimed in. “I have to agree with the assassin,” he said. “I’m curious to see what we might uncover in the woods. The state of the forest could tell us a lot more about the plague than an abandoned village. Let’s not forget the stench.” He wrinkled his nose to emphasize his words.

Caprion shrugged. “As you wish,” he said shortly.

It seemed they had an agreement. Ferran helped Lori carry the sick woman to Silas’ skiff. She looked reluctant to go, and she cast Sora a concerned look, mouthing the wordsBe careful.” Sora felt a sudden stab of uncertainty as she watched her mother walk away. Lori was just as much a warrior as any of them. The woman obviously wanted to join the hunt, but she couldn’t. She didn’t have a Cat’s Eye to protect her from the plague. Sora considered returning with her to the boat, but she couldn’t stand the thought of waiting for Crash and Ferran on the ship, surrounded by gossiping Dracians and the irascible Captain Silas.

For a moment, she and Crash were alone. “Will your Cat’s Eye protect you?” Crash asked directly.

Sora’s mouth felt dry. “Yes,” she finally said. “Yes, it should.” The bond with her necklace wasn’t broken, just clogged, somehow dormant. But she knew the Cat’s Eye would protect her in a real emergency, if anything for its own self-preservation. That was simply the nature of the stone.

Crash nodded sharply, then turned away as Caprion and Ferran returned to their side. Without another word, he started silently into the forest, following the woman’s trail through the underbrush toward the village. Sora started after him, fingering her necklace in thought, her brow furrowed. She felt a strange tingle at the back of her neck. None of this felt right. In retrospect, she agreed with Crash. Better to sail onward than risk their lives for two Dracians who were perhaps already dead. Who knew what they would encounter in the village?

But it was too late to argue. Caprion summoned his white magic and lifted smoothly into the air, soaring above the trees. She, Ferran and Crash continued through the woods toward the plague-ridden village.

14 Comments

  1. Aghhhhhh!!!!!!! Why can’t August 31st come faster?!?! I’m completely addicted to this series and I need to read the next book! Your writing is just amazing! Keep up the good work!
    A dedicated fan from Switzerland
    P.S. Sorry for the abusive use of exclamation marks (; !!!!

  2. Now that I’ve read the first three chapters, I might not be able to survive waiting until August! Why can’t it come faster? The suspense is killing me!!!

  3. The story sounds fascinatingly full of mystery & intrigue……….I find myself wanting to keep reading until the adventure comes to the finale. But, no, must wait until August 31. Love the first 3 chapters. CONGRATS!

  4. This 3 chapters made my day in so many ways. I can’t wait for August either.
    Thank you for letting us a heads up of the book!
    Greetings from Chile <3

  5. *Sigh* Finally…this should hold me up till August. Been waiting to read an excerpt for a while now. As always, story pulls you in.
    At times I get frustrated with Sora tripping over her feelings for Crash, then she makes it up with her quick witty remarks.
    On the same note, I’m hoping to see Crash being taken down a notch or two, always seems so sure of himself and putting Sora through unnecessary turmoil.
    Maybe Caprion can serve as a little competition for Sora’s affection but something tells me there’s a certain someone in this story for him?? *sigh*
    Hmmm… I’m already driving myself mad with all this brain chatter.
    Till August I guess…
    Kelly B.

  6. Ahhh! I don’t know what I can read in the meantime to satisfy my reader’s mind until August! Nothing compares to this series…T.L. Shreffler, you keep writing books like these and I will keep reading them. You are a totally awesome writer. Can’t wait for the whole book!

  7. For those of you wanting to kill the time with some good in-between reads till this wonderful book releases, Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsey Buroker are pretty awesome reads as well, Just throwing it out there…

    • I love this series and you are totally right. I read Emperor’s Edge before I read this series and it is pretty awesome. There are a lot of similarities. Strong, young headstrong woman falling for a deadly heartless assassin… sigh

    • I’m so glad I read these comments! I’m always looking for a good book to kill the time. And right now I’m going crazy waiting for ‘Ferran’s Map’ to be released. Thanks for the suggestion, I just downloaded the first book (it’s free on Amazon, even better!) and will start reading them right away!

  8. i need to read the book! August 31st cant come any slower!

    • Wait August 31st!!! I am going to die, I swear. I started this series like a year ago thinking,oh it is a finished series. I was so wrong. I finished the series is a week.
      My friends and I are writing a story based off the races. (My friends idea, although I love writing stories. Power of the pen!) Please o tober 31st come faster!

  9. I can’t wait…Sora/Crash 🙂 I hope they get to be together in this book.
    Please, Ms. Shreffler could you tell us the releasse date?

    This made me laugh – Then, from seemingly nowhere, Crash appeared on deck. He strode swiftly to her side, light on his feet, swift as a shadow. “What is it?” he asked, pausing next to her. He gave her a quick once-over. His voice turned wry. “You’re not in the river.”

    • yeah, just looked how people would comment these three great chapters and then of course read this one. I was like, where the hell is this scene? Being my fabulous self I copied the text into Word and in ‘search’ or whatever you English guys have there I put in -You’re not in the river- (because it seemed like a key sentence or so) and of course found this. (tried to stop my laughter for, like, five minutes)
      I can only say – Crash can be such an idiot sometimes…
      Can’t wait for Book 5!!!!!!!!!!
      But take your time to make it perfect!!!!!!!

  10. Wow just wow…. Its so captivating…

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