T.C. McMullen's Disillusionment Series

Revenge of the Gods Excerpt

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Revenge of the Gods
Words and chapters subject to editing.
2009 T.C. McMullen
 
 
 
 

Revenge of the Gods

 

Chapter One

 

 

Noxious green goo leaked from between blood stained fangs, at least as long as half a man’s body, and over black jowls to puddle in globs on the cavern floor. Tryn steadied her stance, backing away from the slime, locking her gaze on the impossibly large yellow eye glaring down at her.  It was a window open to a consciousness too intelligent to comprehend from something so obviously not human at all. Fear boiled from her surface, feeling just as horrid as the wisps of foul steam expelled by the cave floor where the acidic saliva splattered.

Tryn was the only one left standing, the only remaining guardian who had set out from the villages lining the shores of Talori Lake to find the cause of the Inaut disappearances. They were her people, her responsibility because she was of the Brye Annis lineage. And she was the single adventurer who held the status of a Dreovid. Now the power being a Dreovid awarded her, along with a pathetically small short sword, were her only means of defense against the huffing beast. Her laser gun’s charge was depleted, all her allies lost.

The beast thing growled from deep inside its serpentine throat. The glistening scales covering it rippled with the sound and shimmered in the firelight like slicing gems. Tryn tensed, watching its eyes, the glint of movement in the huge dark pupil. In having intelligence, it also had the telltale signs of a human preparing to attack. Yet the beast’s attack range and sweep was so much larger than a human’s and much harder to escape.

She closed her eyes. She called forth the small force from minerals within the very cavern keeping her trapped, readying the energy she would need to deflect that which she couldn’t escape. The yellow eyes flickered. Air ignited. Blinding gold and red tongues of flame filled the space. Tryn held up the sword as if the force she focused through herself and out in front of her emanated not from her hands but from the metal, and screamed at the incinerating heat. She yelled again in full determination, slamming the ball of flame, and launching it back at the beast. A howl of surprise more than pain issued from its monstrous head. Horns jutted out above a scale plate over a flat forehead, arching back as if to point at two membranes, huge and now folded to the thing’s sides.

Today, she, Tryn Brye Annis, would disappoint Master Fate. Today, this hour, would not be her end no matter the impossible odds.

The beast charged at her, its four clawed feet carrying its bulk faster than nature should have allowed. But today was a day for strange allowances. She ducked beneath another flare of fire, ran forward, and discovered what all the others had before her, Detik and Hetris, Piladis, her childhood friend and travel companion. All of them had tried to strike at the beast with metal, and all had failed their attempt and fell to the void inside the creature’s mouth or were thrown broken against cavern walls. Watching their failures didn’t stop her need to feel the beast’s armor herself and find the scales covering the creature brushed away the steel’s edge as a horse’s tail would a fly. She ducked and swooped out beneath the beast, ever aware of its snapping jaws and swinging head. Things of nightmares.

“No!” cried a whisper in her mind.

She twisted to face the thing and willed a force of energy to shield herself again. The continued effort drained her more this time than the last. The shield held for so short a time.

“Mom!”

Fangs snapped, whirling the air around her, slicing her arm. Tryn spun on her feet, so close all she saw was huge black nostrils. Breath of decay and broiled flesh blasted over her. Hard rock blocked her back as the mouth gaped open. Cornered, she held up the sword.

“Mom, noooo!”

 

~*~

 

Cedrik threw his son’s door open and ran to the bed in time to catch the boy as he sprang up from the tangled trap of blankets. Tears washed down his small cheeks beneath eyes wide with terror even in the dim light from the main room spilling softly over the threshold. Cedrik pulled Tarenek to his shoulder, gripping the boy tightly and shushing him, hoping to quickly soothe away the panic, but knowing from the severity of it this time, a speedy recovery wouldn’t happen. Tarenek pushed him away with one arm but reached for him with the other. Cedrik smoothed Tarenek’s hair against the back of his head, ached from the tremble so obvious in his son’s small form, and wished to the gods of all he could somehow remove this curse from his boy.

“It’s all right, I’m here,” Cedrik said, knowing nothing else to say. He wished again, as he had for over a month, that Tryn was there. She always knew what to say to help her children recover from their haunts. She was so much more perceptive of emotions than he was.

Tarenek sobbed against Cedrik’s shoulder, shaking his head, and repeating his refusal to something only he saw, but his voice softened, losing its frantic fear.

Cedrik continued to smooth his hair. “It’s okay, all right, I’m here.”

“Mom,” Tarenek whimpered, sucked in a breath, and cried again.

“She’ll be home soon,” Cedrik said, trying desperately to keep his own need for her from sounding in his tone. “Real soon…”

“No. Mom!” Tarenek threw his head back, screamed, and pulled away from Cedrik. Steel blue eyes, so much like his mother’s but even deeper, peered wildly around the room. Cedrik had once thought nothing could be more intense than Tryn’s eyes, until their son was born. Now, something in the depths of Tarenek’s careened a spark of terror deep into Cedrik’s psyche.

It was remnants of the nightmare, Cedrik told himself. Tarenek could do that, willingly or not, force his thoughts and feelings onto another if they weren’t careful. It was a talent one conceived by a Dreovid couple acquired naturally in contrast to his parents who had to work just to relay a single feeling. Cedrik shook his head against it and again tried to shush his son.

“No, Dad” Tarenek said, tears drying on his cheeks under the heat of an impossibly sober stare from a nine year old. “We need to find her.”

Cedrik suppressed a shiver. Licks of fear so potent in a young boy’s imagination escaped to brush against him again.

“She’ll be home real soon,” Cedrik willed his want to his son. He attempted to push his calmness to the boy, to use his strengths to relieve the fear.

Tears welled in Tarenek’s eyes again, magnifying the depths. “Something, something big and so bad… it ate her, Dad, it did, I couldn’t stop it, it did!” Hysterical sobs wracked his small chest again.

Cedrik clutched the boy tighter to his shoulder and turned from the bed. There was no consoling Tarenek back to sleep now, not yet. He needed to try other means, some of which would include a soothing tea. He found Kira standing in the center of the main room next to their table. She regarded him closely but silently, her dark eyes pools of worry and doubt all her own. Fast approaching adulthood, his firstborn was now sixteen, yet in those sixteen years, she had witnessed so much pain. It all happened before coming to Tarjei to live with Tryn over nine years ago. She loved Tryn now as if she were her natural mother.

“Make him some tea, please,” Cedrik said, hoping the small task would help her focus on something more pleasant or at least more numbing than Tarenek’s fear.

“What are you going to do?”

“We need to get him calmed,” Cedrik said.

“Not about that,” Kira said. “About Mom.”

Cedrik held still a moment. Surely Kira realized that the substance of nightmares didn’t mirror reality. Surely it didn’t. Nightmares were mists of the mind, especially vicious in minds so young yet so powerful like his son’s. But knowing that didn’t stop the horrible sick feeling sinking through his chest.

“She’s due back in three weeks, Kira. She’s only investigating the outer villages, she’ll be back, just like always.”

“Investigating people dying out there.”

“Kira!” Cedrik said through clenched teeth and held his hand over his son’s ear. Tarenek didn’t need to hear any talk of the things going on in the west grassland villages. Kira narrowed her eyes but turned to the stove, flicking the switch to light the burner beneath a constantly present clay tea pot.

Cedrik sank into the rocker in front of the fireplace, the chair Tryn always occupied when rocking Tarenek after a nightmare, just as he would do now.

“It wasn’t a dream,” Tarenek whispered in a shaking but quieting sob. “She needs us.”

Cedrik leaned his head back to peer at the ceiling. No nine year old child should ever have to speak those words. None should ever have to understand what they meant, but Tarenek did. He understood it all and so much more.

 

 


Chapter Two

 

 

 

Tryn retreated several steps, feeling charred and broken, but the debt had not been paid. Fate hadn’t yet given her enough to replace what it had taken from her, or what would be taken from her if now was her planned end. If so, she refused it, willed it away against Fate itself. She deserved to see her children grow. She deserved to see her husband again. After losing her father and brother, both murdered, and then her entire village as well as herself to slavery, a slavery that held her captive for eight years, she deserved so much more than to die now, in this cavern, so far from the family she lived for.

She stumbled, the dirt of the cavern coarse under her fingers, tingling with natural energy she didn’t have the strength to call anymore. She swiped a dagger from her belt, the coldness of its handle hard against her cut fingers. When she turned to the huff of air on her spine, she had only a split second to glimpse the fangs closing around her. The wicked teeth-swords slashed down. With no where else to turn this time, she jumped forward, onto the serpentine tongue, away from the deadliest piercing fangs and cringed at disgusting saliva all around her. She tried to breathe only through her mouth, but even then the rotten stench nearly gagged her.

Ridges of flesh-covered bones squeezed down on her shoulders and head. The lizard tongue flicked under her feet, a motion meant to knock her helplessly flat for swallow. She swung faster, digging her dagger into the soggy meat of the mouth above and between two of the huge incisors.

The beast opened its jaw and screamed, lifting its snout to the ceiling. Tryn strained to keep her hold tight on the dagger. She let frustration and anger fuel her and rule her mind. Life could be so damn cruel.

When the bones crushed down around her again, she felt a strange sensation of new energy flair to her center, power of a different kind, alive, and easier to wield than that of the inanimate minerals of the cavern. This energy fed her exhausted soul.

Her feet slipped on the slimy tongue as the thing tossed its head back again, doing its best to dislodge her and wash her down the gullet flexing wide and then narrowing just inches from the soles of her boots.

Her knuckles ached in their locked position around the small handle of her dagger, now hot and slimy with drizzles of blood dropping from the beast’s wound. Life blood—fresh energy. Tryn clamped her eyes closed in concentration, called the thing’s energy to her. The beast whipped its head side to side.

The grip she struggled to keep on the dagger slipped. Energy filled her nearly to the point of forcing a scream from her throat. She focused what she wanted to release through her hands, only her hands. It burst from her fingers and palms, vicious and tearing in its power, slamming into the roof of the caging mouth with such force the top of the head snapped away. Torn muscle and broken scales scattered in a violent, silent whirl. Tryn fell down, down, landing on the lolling wet tongue and quickly rolling away. Her shoulder hit the cavern wall with too much force after all the other abuse she had taken. She held her eyes open just long enough to watch the beast’s limp body fall completely still, what was left of its head littering the floor around the lower jaw. Saliva and bits of stripped muscle plopped to the dirt in ugly puddles. Steam mingled with the scents of burnt flesh and stirred dust.

Tryn tried to push herself up with her hands, to sit, to gain some control over herself, but her seared palms, sliced shoulder and side, all of it filled her with mind-dulling pain. Too many wounds screamed for attention, some deep, others barely bloodletting. But she couldn’t fall, not now, not when she still had so much to do. She had to return to the villages, warn them of what she and the others had found. A lair of some sort, a lair that seemed to be home to more than one beast though one was all they found. She had to get the information to someone. Her arms buckled beneath her weight. Her body wouldn’t cooperate.

“Stay down,” someone said.

Tryn opened her eyes trying to recognize the blurred form above her. She flinched under the shock of fresh ache when pressure squeezed her side.

“Can you heal yourself?”

She blinked again then saw the familiar dark eyes slanted with concern. “Piladis?” she said.

“I’m still here.”

He moved above her, turning her flat to her back, putting something soft beneath her head. She gripped his hand, wanting him to stop. She wasn’t the one who needed him.

“You need to go,” she said, understanding that he was well enough to run, to ride. “Go, fast, warn them.”

Piladis stopped his frantic movements and stared down at her.

“You have to,” she said, holding her gaze steady on his.

He looked at his hand then, the hand he held firm against her side. His own blood nearly concealed his left eye, pumping from a gash on his brow that was sure to leave a scar on his handsome face. He shook his head. “You need me, at least till you can heal yourself. What are you waiting for?”

Tryn grasped his wrist and pushed up to ease the pressure he held to her, forcing him away. She wouldn’t tell him she was far too exhausted to heal the smallest wound, let alone her deep ones. “I’ll be fine, just need a few minutes. You don’t have those few minutes. You have to warn them.”

“But what if another one comes?”

“No offense, but you weren’t a lot of help with the last one, I’ll deal with it,” she said, despite knowing if another beast did arrive, she would be easy picking. It was nothing Piladis could help. She shoved him away and dragged every last ounce of her energy forward to wave him toward the mouth of the cavern. When he vanished around the corner, his shadow dancing in the small stream of bright daylight, she let herself slump against the wall. She held her hand to her wounded side, hating how much blood she felt pouring from the wound. The beast had gotten lucky with one of its fangs, yet she managed to keep it from splitting her in two. Now, she doubted she could keep her heart from pumping out the last vestiges of her life.

Slowly, carefully, she closed her eyes and removed herself from her outer shell. She retreated with all her thoughts, sensations, and awareness to the safe recesses of her mind.

 

~*~

 

Kira watched the sun sink beneath the proud barrier of mountain peaks, its last rays reflecting in the silver waters of Lake Anshu. She glanced at the dark pass cut beneath the mountains to the east, the pass she was to have taken hours ago to reach home. Nikkar stood in shadow ahead of her, the lights of the city just beginning to glow. She waited a few minutes more, until all direct sunrays were gone, then turned to the city.

She wasn’t supposed to be there. She was needed at home. She simply couldn’t stand to be in the house anymore. Tarenek had told Dad that Mom was in danger. True, sometimes Tarenek let his imagination get the better of him, but not this time. He had sensed something from their mother, yes, her mother too. Tryn was the woman who held her when she was ill, who taught her some skills to fight as well as to heal. Mom trusted her so much more than Dad did. Dad seemed to deny everything. For him, everything was always fine even when Kira knew differently, even when Mom knew differently. He seemed to ignore them all. She kicked a loose stone and sent it soaring through the air.

Staying in Nikkar wasn’t going to help change any of that, but she had a few friends there, friends who would listen and understand. She steered from the main footpath and down the slight incline to the lower single houses of the city. The buildings were much closer together than they were in the smaller front village of Tarjei that she called home. Somehow the closeness seemed comforting or at least concealing. Shadows deepened over her path.

She found Sharri in the lower paddock where the pack animals were housed but stopped in her step. Sharri wasn’t alone. At least a dozen others stood around her, a few boys Kira didn’t know and girls she recognized but couldn’t recall names. She glanced back up the path, turned away, but Sharri called up to her, her tone inviting and happy. Kira tried to force a smile despite her disappointment at having to share her friend.

As the hours wore on, ever present tension gnawed her tired mind. She should have gone home. Tarenek would miss her, but Dad, she doubted so, unless Tarenek had another nightmare and needed tea again. Dad knew how to make the tea. He was capable of taking care of the household but worry still chewed. As night lengthened, smiling at the silly gestures of the strangers around her got harder and harder. She purposely hung back from her friend, watching for her chance to escape unnoticed. When the chance finally came, she slipped into a dark alley, its path leading up to the shadowed gloom of the city center. Tall, double towers of the main hall cut into the night sky as deeply as the mountain peaks surrounding the highland vale backlit by stars and whisps of pale purple and blue clouds. It was beautiful, but so cold, so lonely.

“Not having fun?”

Kira whirled at the voice and found a boy just a few steps back. She couldn’t remember his name. “No, I just have to…” Thoughts and words tumbled uselessly in her mind.

“You’re from Tarjei, right, not much chance you’ll make it back there tonight.”

She eyed the towers again. She did have a place to go if she dared.

“I don’t blame you for leaving, they’re a bit noisy down there. You look cold.”

“No, I’m fine,” Kira said and started walking. He followed.

“Here, take my coat.”

Kira shook her head and shivered.

He smiled. “Come on, it won’t bite. Better than catching your death out here.”

Kira hadn’t thought about the late season or the difference in temperatures between Nikkar and the lower lands of Tarjei. She hesitated, wishing she could remember his name and gingerly reached for the coat he held out to her. He smiled and moved too swiftly, wrapping the garment over her shoulders and practically hugging her. She stiffened at his nearness.

“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you. What’s your name anyway?”

In the back of her mind a none too familiar humming sounded, a sensation she remembered having only a few times in her life. Mom told her it was her sixth sense, her connection to the energy force coursing through all, the force the rest of her family could peruse and wield when they needed. She couldn’t. She only had strong instincts as she understood it. And something about this boy sent those instincts into a frenzy.

“Hey,” the boy said. “Look, I’m sorry if I startled you. I just thought you looked like you could use a friend.”

“I should be going now.” She slipped his coat from her shoulders and handed it back to him.

“What, it’s not good enough for you?”

Kira stiffened at the sharp tone of his words hidden behind his grin, but not deeply enough. Shivers shook her but not from the cold. He appeared a few years older than she and a good bit taller. Mom always told her size didn’t matter as much as skill. Kira hoped her skills would be enough to get her free of him. What he wanted, she didn’t want to think about. She couldn’t let him know she felt threatened either.

She swallowed her fear. “I’m sorry, but I need to be going and you’ll need this more than I will.”

“Going where?” He stepped toward her. “It’s pitch black out there, honey.”

Kira stumbled backwards into a stone wall. She thought at first to call out, as she would if she were in Tarjei, but this was Nikkar with a lot more people, people she didn’t know. “I…I have a place to go.”

“I don’t think so. You are cute, you know. Your hair, it’s different.” He stroked a strand of her violet-tinted brown hair with two fingers. He obviously didn’t know her father was a Madai or a Dreovid. Kira threw his coat at him.

He lunged at her and pinched her against the stones. “I’m trying to be nice here.”

A barrel blocked her escape right. He blocked forward and left. She turned her face from his hand. “Then let me alone.”

“Ah come on, you don’t want to have some fun while you’re here? I can show you a real good time.” He pressed his hands on her shoulders, crushing her. He forced his leg over hers, smothering, too close.

“Stop it,” she said. She had to get away from him. She pushed against him, fighting his tightening hold. Dread flooded her mind, scrambling her thoughts. Tears boiled in her eyes.

“What if I don’t want to?” He smashed his lips painfully to her mouth. In that instant, Kira remembered something Mom had taught her.

She brought her arms up, fists clenched under his jaw, and in the same moment drove her knee into his groin. He coughed out a protest. She dove for the small opening he revealed, but he grabbed her long hair, whirling her around and slamming her against the barrel and then the ground. She tried to scream but he clamped his hand over her mouth and nose, sealing out all air. She kicked and shoved, panic brimming dangerously near hysterics. Her ears roared, her vision blurred. Dust from rocks grinding under her in her struggle powdered the air. She wanted to beg him to stop, couldn’t breathe.

Tears dampened her stinging eyes. Shadows cloaked the boy above her, erasing anything kind or attractive, painting him as something evil. Her lungs burned, intensifying the roar filling all her senses. The world drifted steps away from her reach.

Silence exploded with a crack and the world came rushing back around her. His weight and hand vanished, leaving her free. Cold air poured into her lungs, her gasps loud, high pitched. She rolled, desperately trying to swallow enough oxygen and move before he found her again but she suddenly realized he hadn’t stopped. Someone had stopped him. A tall form stood above the boy who squirmed in the dirt a yard away from her.

“I ever see you doing anything like that again, you’ll be heading out to Madai country alone. If I even hear of or think you’ve tried anything like this again!”

Kira crawled from the two. Her chest ached, her face and arms hurt from his restraint. She trembled all over.

“I was only showing her—”

The big man swung his fist, dragging the boy to his feet. “Don’t you lie to me Dram.”

“She was cold.”

“Don’t lie to me!”

“How would you know if I’m lying!”

  The man threw the boy several feet. He landed on the gravel path with a grunt and a cry. “I smell the lie on you! Now get out of here before I lose all my hold on my temper.”

The boy stumbled to his feet, coughing and wiping his hand to his chin. “You aren’t king of all,” he said.

“Right here, right now, I sure as gods am, now get!” The man charged at the kid, sending him down the dark alley in a flurry of flailing arms.

Kira struggled to stand, stumbled, and caught hold of the barrel.

“Don’t get in a hurry,” the man said.

Kira flinched from his outstretched hand, trying to make sense of it all, not wanting to be near anyone.

“Kira, take a minute here, sit before you fall.”

Kira gasped at the sound of her name. She squinted, trying to see features, something recognizable but shadows cloaked all of him. He stooped down before her, slowing his motion when she scrambled to get away but only found the solid rock wall against her back.

“Your dad know you’re here?”

Kira blinked away dust and panic. This man was someone who knew her. She waited a moment longer then softly shook her head.

“You come up with him today?”

Dad hadn’t gone anywhere but to the windmills. She looked up the street to the main halls again. She’d never been in the hall without Mom and it had been many years since then. Dad had made a big fuss about not wanting her to hear the things discussed there. Trysali, the next best thing to a grandmother, often stayed at the hall. Kira knew Trysali and hoped she was there.

“Well.” The man sighed. “If you weren’t with him, what are you doing here?”

“He wasn’t here today,” she said sure she had met another unworthy male. She slid sideways, inching away, hoping he wouldn’t lunge.

The man slouched comfortably. He made no move to get nearer to her. He looked toward the city center. “Yes, he was here. I know because he came to see me.”

Kira begged for just a little light, something so she could see the man. She didn’t want to ask who he was, feeling like she should already know.

“Come on, let’s get you someplace warm. You have anything to eat this evening?”

“Why did he come see you?”

She eyed his outstretched hand, not at all sure she should trust him despite her desperate need for warmth and food. She’d been so stupid to stay in Nikkar. The man sighed.

“Not sure that’s my place to say,” he said.

“Not sure I trust you’re telling the truth.”

“He had some things to discuss with me about your brother.”

“What about my brother?” She gulped down the sharp sound of misery.

The man sat motionless and silent, contemplating her until she felt just as trapped as she had earlier. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing’s wrong. I need to be going is all.”

“Up to the hall,” he said and stood more quickly than she did. “I’ll see you get something to eat. You can stay in one of the rooms.”

“The hall?” Kira blurted before she could stop herself.

“Yes, the hall.”

“Trysali there?”

“Just me,” he said.

Kira looked down, concentrating on what she knew of the official building. It was the meeting place for all Inaut business, where plans were discussed about Tarjei, the western lands, and about whatever happened to the east in the Madai lands. As far as she knew, Tryn’s family was the only family who used it as a temporary home when they were around. Kira raised her head, taking in full view of the man who walked beside her. Tryn only had two family members still living. Tilak was the brother, older than Tryn. Kira didn’t know him, only seeing him from a distance or for quick seconds. She heard stories about him being a vicious warrior but the man next to her seemed kind enough.

“Was Dad really up here?”

Tilak, if that was who stood beside her, nodded his head. “He rode up and back down after only an hour. Said he had to get home for you kids. And now I find you here and can only imagine what he’s thinking.”

Kira held her arms tight around her chest, both for warmth and for comfort. “He told me he was tending the mills,” she said to put voice to her thoughts, to push the recent attack a little further into the past.

Tilak hummed.

“He told me Taren’s dream was a dumb dream.”

A new thought slammed over her, stopping her forward motion and sending her heart into a stampede. Her breaths grew short and she whirled, looking west. If Dad had talked to this man about Tarenek’s dream, if he had come all this way up and back and kept it secret, it meant he didn’t mean what he said about the dream. It meant something about the dream could’ve been true. Mom needed them.

“Then what’s he doing at home! Why aren’t we going, if he was here, we need to go, to find her. Oh, gods, what of it did he trust?”

“Kira, calm down.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” she screamed, not at all sure what drove the irrational surge of emotion and not at all caring. “Don’t you get it? We have to help, we have to!”

“Are you forgetting she’s my sister and your father’s wife?”

“I gotta go, I gotta.”

“You have to stop and listen to me.”

“I don’t have to listen to you at all.”

“No, but you will because what I have to say you want to know.”

“Then you better start talking fast,” Kira said. She knew she shouldn’t be so disrespectful, but this man and her father—both were hiding things.

“Your dad is at home for you and Tarenek. He promised Tryn nothing would take him away from you two until she returned.”

Kira shook her head. Tilak stayed her words with a wave of his big hand. In fact, he was a big man. Tilak was powerful, skillful, a Brye Annis just like Mom.

“You will listen to what I have to say, or I’ll see you sent to a room and dragged back to Tarjei come morning, like a little child if you can’t prove to me that’s not what you are.”

Kira bristled at the threat, then deflated with the realization she was acting like a spoiled child.

“Understand,” Tilak said.

Kira shivered from the intense calmness of his voice. She nodded.

“Because one thing a good warrior must control is emotions. You must take everything in, see it all before reacting and when you react, you must do so with skill, not emotion.”

Kira nodded again. She’d heard those words before, but not from this man, not from a man at all. Mom had told her the exact same thing from the time she could hold a polearm.

“Good. Now, let’s walk.”

Kira hesitated, then stepped forward again. She waited for what felt like minutes before she looked up at her companion. “We can talk while we walk, can’t we?”

“I’m still wondering if I should,” he said.

“Please? I need to know, I’m so tired, so tired of things being hidden when I know they are right there, just beyond my reach, and I feel like I’m such an idiot not knowing what’s in plain sight, not being able to make sense of what I know is there.” She slapped one hand to her mouth and wiped the other over her forehead. She hated what frustration did to her, making her ramble and tear up like a baby.

Tilak sighed so heavily she thought for sure he expelled every last drop of air from his chest. “First, I sent twenty men west today, shortly after my meeting with your father.”

Kira lifted her chin, determined to remain poised, determined to show she could handle anything he revealed to her and not crumble to the relief in having finally found an ally nice enough to share with her.

“So, Dad did believe Taren?”

“He doesn’t know what to think, but whatever happened last night troubled him, yes.”

“Taren swore he saw Mom in danger,” Kira said, then bit her lip, hoping Tilak wouldn’t care what she called Tryn.

“I heard.”

“So much danger that it terrified him.”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you go?”

Tilak stopped walking just inside the pale solar glow of lanterns hung at the great hall’s gates. His eyes sparkled and he crossed his big arms over his broad chest. The pale line of a scar showed on his left cheek, just below his eye to his jaw.

“How old are you?” 

Kira swept her bangs from her forehead and firmed up her shoulders. “Sixteen.”

Tilak bobbed his head. “Sixteen. At that age, I was riding with my father through these lands, fighting for it, as Tryn would have done had Tarjei not fallen.” He sighed again. “So I’ll trust you to understand this much. Our people look to my family’s name for guidance. To Tryn, Trysali and me.”

Kira nodded when he paused.

“If she really is in jeopardy, and with Trysali gone to the west with her, I can’t risk myself recklessly, no matter how much I wish to find her. I must know more first. Do you understand?”

Kira wetted her dry lips and looked up at the man. Reluctantly, she nodded, knowing but not wanting to know, not wanting it to be so.

“And your father is no different. He can’t risk himself, risk leaving you and Tarenek. This is his concern.”

Kira rubbed her hands to her elbows, feeling so foolish.

“But,” Tilak said, his voice bold, “he did report to me what happened. I did call forward twenty of my strongest warriors and I did send them west prepared to face horrible trouble. This is why I remain here in the hall, to wait for a report. At that time, I’ll decide what step to take next.”

Kira nodded and realized she shook all over, maybe from the cold, maybe not. “Thank you,” she said, hoping he heard her quiet tone.

Tilak gestured her toward the hall entrance. “No need. Just don’t go making me regret it.”


Chapter Three

 

The chirping racket of night insects crept into Tryn’s mind as she tested a short glimpse outside the warm, dark safety of her subconscious mind. Pain pierced her but not as badly as it had the first time she sipped a taste of consciousness. She considered slipping away again, waiting until the pain in her side, chest, arms and hands subsided to a mere nagging rather than a chronic burn but the sound of the insects beckoned to her.

“We’ll stop here for a few hours,” someone said and leather creaked under weight. Tryn dared a looser hold on her mind’s recesses, ignoring the pain, needing to know who was there. “So if you need anything else, you’re going to have to wake up and tell me.”

Piladis, the recognition jolted her. He was to have gone back to warn the villages, not be with her and she knew she hadn’t been unconscious long enough for him to have gone and returned.

Horses snuffled and huffed from somewhere near, more than one or two, she sensed.

“I sure wish you were willing to take your share of the watch tonight,” Piladis said. “I can’t be doing it all, you know, sooner or later, I’m going to fall asleep. You know I can’t sit still and stay awake in fresh air.” He shifted, the ruffle of his clothing proof of his nervousness. “I can’t figure this out, Tryn, what are you doing here? This isn’t like you, just stopping, not doing anything. You do still have things to do, you know. Can’t just give up like this.”

Tryn cringed at the accusation and embraced reality fully, shivering against the pain, needing to know what was happening now. “Not,” she said, the sound a raspy gasp in her raw throat.

Piladis scrambled from a near place and jumped into view. “Tryn?”

“Shut up.” She cleared her throat and breathed a soft moan. “You talk far too much.”

He launched to his feet, rummaged through things near by, and dropped down beside her with a water canteen in hand. “Here, drink.”

Tryn shuddered under the blankets, then breathed heavy, deep. Star-glow nearly blinded her.

“You scared the life out of me,” he said. “Don’t do that again.”

“What are you doing here?”

“What? I’m here hauling you back to civilization. Drink.”

Tryn swiped the canteen from his hand and sat up, doing her best to hide the stiffness and aches still plaguing her. Her wounds had been bandaged and she was warm despite the cold night air. He had kept her tightly wrapped in wool saddle blankets. “You were supposed to go back to the village and warn them.”

Piladis scowled at her. “Couldn’t.”

Tryn eyed the horses tethered near-by, twelve mounts all standing and one pack animal. “Why not?”

“You could be a little nicer and thank me for hauling your ass out of there before you were lunch. You’ve been down for two days.”

“I know.”

He shifted his position back to a saddle he used as a pillow and crossed his arms over his chest. “Really?”

“Yes, I know. I was aware of it all.” Tryn had mastered keeping track of time even in her subconscious, though she wasn’t positive the time span had been exactly forty-eight hours.

“Thanks for letting me know that. Thought you were dying on me.” Piladis huffed.

She pulled a blanket around her shoulders and faced the outstretched field. After a moment quietly studying the rolling expanse, she sipped from the water pouch.

“You all fixed now,” he said.

She slapped the cork back into the leather spout and smiled at his struggle to hide his concern. She still heard it. “Fixed enough.”

“Good, can I sleep now?”

“What happened?” she asked.

He raised his scabbed brow at her comment. “Thought you said you were aware of it all.”

“Why did you come back?”

He winced. “I couldn’t stop them. Saw two headed to the villages, flying like birds, far too fast for me to catch up. Figured I could at least help you, since I obviously couldn’t catch up to them.”

Tryn sat motionless and silent as the information leaked into her. The beasts could fly. She fought against a shiver that had nothing to do with temperature. The realization that she had managed to overpower the one in the cave only because it had been trapped slammed her. Outside, there was nothing she could do to stop them.

“Thank you,” she said.

Piladis watched her for a moment. “You’re welcome.”

“Yes you can sleep now.” She tossed one heavy blanket at him. “You wouldn’t last long out here in this fresh air anyway.”

She stared into the night, her heart aching more than any of her still throbbing wounds. She hadn’t wasted precious energy in fully healing herself. Nature would do that work for her. Now, she needed to be awake and acting.

She sensed a shiver in the essence of all when Piladis drifted to sleep, leaving her alone, something denoting great change. She couldn’t determine what it meant; only that something had altered the world energy resonating through everything. She hoped it wasn’t what she thought. As hours passed, she hoped against reason it wasn’t caused by many deaths.

Piladis remained fast asleep behind her. She watched him for a moment, trying to find just how deep of a sleep he was in. She didn’t want to stay sedimentary for too long but knew how exhausted Piladis was and what he had done to help her. He needed rest as much or more than she needed to hurry on to the villages.

She breathed deep and closed her eyes, focusing on a much more pleasant thought. She pictured a single story, stone house built on a low hill with a backdrop of grand mountains. She remembered Cedrik standing on the porch, little Tarenek holding his hand and resting his head to Cedrik’s hip. And Kira, so grown in such a short time, almost a woman despite Cedrik’s steadfast denial of that. Tryn would see all of them again soon. The memories and thoughts of things to come in that small house made her smile.

The sudden slam of relief alien to her punched her heart. She gasped at the shock of it and held both hands to her chest. Her mind reeled, searching for the reason, searching for what touched her. She felt someone close, a feeling she only had when holding a crystal and speaking with Zansidri, but she did nothing of the sort now. It was then she realized Piladis knelt beside her, one hand gently on her shoulder.

“You all right?”

Tryn didn’t know how to answer. She nodded anyway, knowing whatever had happened had nothing to do with a threat. “You’re awake,” she said.

“Cold,” he said.

She shivered herself. “Think you can handle moving on?”

“Can you?”

Tryn watched the field for a moment more then rose to her feet. The sooner she reached the villages, the sooner she would find the reason for the odd feelings in the world.

She and Piladis rode for hours in silence, even well into dawn. She felt no need to speak, and Piladis, usually the most talkative of any of her travel companions, muttered not a single word. She thought maybe the pain she felt stirring in the energies of the world hung so thick that even he sensed the chaos. When dawn stretched to midday, they reached the farmlands of the first village below Tanin Lake.

Earth lay charred over the hills in black, tortured stripes. Breaths of thick gray smoke drifted to the sky and tore grief from Tryn’s heart. Her chest twisted agonizingly with dread and regret, squeezing tears to her eyes as Sprix carried her forward, his head down, snout to the injured soil as black as he. Tryn felt the torment from the village before she and Piladis crested the hill and it came into view.

If she pulled the reins to halt Sprix, she didn’t realize it, nor did she care. He stopped still just the same. The scene ahead of her shocked her mind and emotions to silence. Smoke rose from scorched homes. Tents of soot-dirty cloth swayed in the breeze, filled with all the people of the small village and too many of them obviously bandaged. It was the rows of covered human forms set away from main camp that wrenched her mind into awareness again. The air around those forms held an excruciatingly empty aura. Nothing. No hint of the vibrant spirits that once blessed the world with their magick. She hated the flashes of faces she remembered from this town, all ages, young and old. She also hated the fact she didn’t sense Trysali at all, the grandmother she left at the village, caring for those who needed healing. She tried to breathe, tried to control her panic at what her heart knew. Sprix swayed under her, or maybe it was her. She swung her leg over and down to solid ground, her chest tightening at too many horrors as the memories of the world penetrated her thoughts, the screams, the searing pains.

She should have stopped it from happening, should have done something, anything, more to destroy the two that escaped the cavern where she killed only one. She gripped the arms that surrounded her, and pulled his energy, as frail as it was, to steady herself before she realized it was Piladis, not Cedrik. He didn’t release her or shudder too deeply at the quick drain she put on him.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You okay?”

Tryn looked up into his hazel eyes, realizing how much about Cedrik she took for granted. Piladis’s query was one Cedrik never needed to ask. A touch of his hand to hers was all she needed for him to understand. Her soul begged for that now, to not have to explain what she felt. She slipped free of Piladis, careful not to drain him any further despite her desperate need for something solid, something right.

“Tryn?”

She closed her eyes, not able to talk.

“What is it?”

“Trysali…”

Piladis looked toward the village. “We’ll go find her.”

Tryn shook her head and blinked away her rising tears. “She’s not here.”

“What do you mean she’s not here? Of course she is, where else…”

She glared at him, begging him not to make her say it, to say that somewhere down there, her grandmother, a grand Dreovid with gifts Tryn hadn’t begun to understand in nine short years, lay dead.

His brow twisted and he whirled from her, launching into his mount’s saddle and storming down the slope. She watched him go, not at all ready to near the despair. She paced the hill, trying to find some bit of positive energy, but even Mother Earth was in turmoil, her flesh smoking and singed. Tryn turned to the only thing she could.

She poked inside her saddle bag then dumped the contents to the ground, snatching the now seldom used communication crystal. It glowed bright at her touch, pure proof of her haggard emotions. She hoped Zansidri would be prepared for the torture she was sure to inflict.

With eyes closed, she breathed deep and softly linked with her mentor’s mind energy.  She took comfort in Zansidri’s calm reassurance, his promise to join her in Tarjei. Thankful wasn’t a strong enough word to describe her gratitude when he didn’t ask for answers or explanations for her state of mind. He simply promised he would meet her the moment she reached Tarjei.

She walked with crystal in hand toward the camp of souls who needed her. She had come west to stop what terrorized them and had only succeeded in causing more destruction for the people.

Some spoke her name, cried it out as if she was the giver of hope. She had nothing left to give to them other than her presence, her own pain, a hug, a pat on a shoulder. She silenced everyone who spoke Trysali’s name. She strode among the injured silently, helping to secure bandages where she could, then wandered outside again, facing the field of the dead.

She walked the distance absently and moved along rows of the deceased. She ignored the rancid smell of burnt hair and flesh, steeled herself against the resonating imprints of terror and grief. One hadn’t wanted to go, hadn’t wanted to leave the people so defeated but hadn’t had any more strength to fight.

She found Trysali set a little higher than the others on a fabric-covered wooden slab. No one else in the village would have been given such a grand resting board in the chaos. Tryn watched the wind rustle the fabric covering the lifeless form, knowing without looking what face she would find beneath. Grief pulled her silently to her knees. She had failed someone so dear to her in such an impossibly dire way.

Nine years she had with her grandmother, a woman who had lived nearly a thousand years because of her Dreovid status. It wasn’t enough. The hollow emptiness of loss drilled through Tryn, digging deep into her soul. Trysali had taught her so much about living, about healing, about being one with the energy of the world. Tryn wasn’t ready to stop learning yet. She still needed Trysali as much or more than she did Zansidri.

Tears streamed down her cheek, hot even against the cold wind. Fury swirled through her at the creatures, the monsters, and whatever force of nature created them. Nothing less than Mother Earth had a right to be so cruel. Frustration ripped from her in a hoarse scream. If she accomplished nothing else in her remaining days, it would be hunting and killing the creatures that took so much from this peaceful village and her home so far away.

She sat with Trysali for long moments, feeling the tears dry on her skin, salty on her lips. She heard the crunch of footsteps before she acknowledged who approached. When she finally looked over her shoulder, she rose in surprise at who she found.

It was Tilak’s friend, the man her brother appointed to ride with him on the battle lines. She glanced about, not sensing her brother. Jamison bowed his head to her.

“They say she saved dozens, casting off the flame with wind. It was just too much for one, even one of your kind.”

Tryn sickened at the thought of her grandmother alone to fend off two beasts to save so many. She had gone against one with the help and loss of a dozen and nearly failed in destroying the creature then. The fact Trysali had even tried to stand before the beasts spoke strongly of who she had been. And she wondered why Jamison was there without Tilak. Her brother didn’t lay with the dead, he couldn’t, not him too…

“I’m really sorry to bother you, but Tilak sent us,” Jamison said. “He’s waiting urgently for us to report back of your well being. Asked me to bring word to him.”

“Mine?” Tryn had no clue why Tilak would be concerned about her. Jamison nodded.

“You,” Tryn shook her head, grasping desperately to arrange her thoughts and push aside emotions. “You and your men gather these people and all the villages around here, move them back to the mountains into the southern caverns, away from these beasts as quickly as possible. Make wagons for the injured. I’ll report to my brother myself.”

She left Jamison there, surrounded by the dead and went to find fresh horses. Sprix would have to stay behind with Piladis. She had to move fast to reach first Nikkar and then Tarjei where she would meet Zansidri and hopefully find answers to the devils haunting the skies of the west.

 

 

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