Greetings, humans. Prepared to be awed by my furry tyrant self. Or beguiled. Whichever you prefer.
The humans recently went on a trip, abandoning my sister and I for one whole evening. Honestly, we liked it. A lot. We were (mostly) pleased when they came back because our litter boxes needed scooped and our plate of food was almost empty.
They wisely planned their time from home properly, as we would have destroyed everything they owned had they catered to us properly.
They traveled up CA-1 (The Pacific Coastal Highway) from Oxnard, California to San Jose. They both enjoyed the view, although they were not so thrilled about possibly plummeting four hundred or so feet to a very quick demise.
Their next bucket list item is to do the San Francisco to Leggett portion of the highway. The female in particular is happy she got one half of it knocked off her bucket list!
(It was worth every moment doing the long drive.)
Before they can do that, the humans will be venturing to England for almost two weeks. And they’re sending us to prison. We’ve been promised excellent accommodations, but I’m not buying into that crap.
I’m totally going to find something of the humans’ to destroy. Probably pens. pens count as toys, right?
So, the female finally got around to re-releasing some of her earliest books. They’re written in third person, they’re epic fantasy, and they’re… not what she typically writes.
The next time she releases stories from either series, it will be in another box set. These are labors of love, so it’ll be a while.
Not sure you’re keen on this stuff?
I stole the first chapter for your amusement. According to the female, she’ll probably do some proofing updates as normal, so she’ll probably make me make a blog post whenever she does an update to the book so people can get a fresh copy if they’d like.
~From Chapter One of Storm Without End.~
Kalen stared down at his feet and wondered what had happened to his boots. Thick, black mud oozed between his toes.
If he had his boots, the cold, wet forest wouldn’t have bothered him quite so much. His feet tingled, promising agony if he dared to take a single step. His only arm alternated between burning and freezing. A pair of dark dots on the back of his hand marked where he’d been bitten. He remembered that much. The serpent had been red, gold, silver and black, and it had struck faster than he could react.
What had happened after he’d been bitten? He had flung the serpent away, too late to stop its venom.
That, however, had been within the Rift, where the sun heated the stone and blistered the feet of those who dared to walk without boots. Serpents didn’t thrive in forests. They basked in the sun, waiting for people foolish enough to walk the trails of the Rift without paying attention. Kalen’s mouth twisted up in a rueful grin. Shaking his head, he stared down at his feet again and wiggled his toes.
How could he have journeyed so far without his boots? The answer to where he was and how he had gotten there surely hinged on the mystery of his bare, mud-covered feet.
At least whatever had happened to him hadn’t hurt his horse. While far away, Ferethian was alive. The animal’s presence was a soothing warmth in his chest—the only part of him not plagued with the damp chill of the forest. Kalen furrowed his brow and rubbed his temple with his hand. Ferethian had been with him. How had he gotten separated from his stallion?
He shook his head and lifted his gaze from his feet. The forest stretched out around him, fog coiling around the roots of trees and spreading out as a misty blanket over the ground.
The trees didn’t compare to the sheer cliffs of his home, but there was something majestic and defiant about the way they reached toward the sky.
A blast of wind whipped his rain-slicked hair across his face, and Kalen flinched at the cold against his cheeks. For a brief moment, the fog cleared. Long furrows tore across the forest floor revealing mud, overturned beds of moss, and exposed roots.
His breath caught in his throat. Figures moved through the shadows of the forest, and the rain gleamed on the steel of their naked blades. The winds stilled and the fog rushed back to cover the ground.
Kalen tensed and for a moment he forgot the cold and the aches plaguing him. Even the throb in his right arm faded to little more than a burn creeping towards his shoulder. He slid his left foot back and turned so that he presented less of a target. Despite the fifteen or so years since he’d lost his left arm, he was too aware of the phantom sensation of flexing a hand he no longer possessed.
Reaching down to his side proved fruitless. The corners of his lip twitched upward. His sword must have suffered the same fate as his boots, another thrice-cursed mystery he didn’t want to solve.
Another breeze whispered through the trees and disturbed the clouds of white engulfing him, but did little to clear it. The wind tugged at the thin pair of braids tucked behind his ears, which draped over his shoulders and down his chest. His every instinct urged him to step forward and strike. It whispered to him, urging him destroy the threat. Kalen drew one breath, held it, and then let it out before drawing another. Feet splashed through the water and mud. One pair, two pairs, three pairs. His heartbeat sounded in his ears with the same steady driving tempo of the drums of war.
A gust parted the fog; the shapes had drawn closer. Branches creaked overhead, then the wind stilled once more. Through the gaps in the mist, Kalen saw six, but somewhere in the forest lurked a seventh, splashing through the mud whenever the others hesitated to move forward.
He stood his ground, watched, and waited. If he moved too soon, they would be ready for him. Too late, and escape wouldn’t be possible. He had to wait for the moment when those before him were assured of their prey. Then, he would strike. His lip twisted up in a grin. Would they believe him a child due to his height? Many did, and some even survived to regret it. Would they hesitate at his lack of a left arm, and believe they had the advantage?
Kalen hoped so.
If he could take one of their weapons, he’d have a chance.
One of the figures stepped forward. While most men were taller than him, the stranger towered over him enough that Kalen was forced to tilt his head up to stare at the man’s face.
All he saw was a frown and narrowed eyes. The man’s squared jaw twitched. Kalen shuffled back a step, the mud clinging at his trousers and sucking at his feet. The man’s sword was held low and at the ready, gripped with white-knuckles. Kalen swallowed and glanced around for something—anything—he could use as a weapon. If the man wanted his head, so be it, but it wouldn’t be without a fight.
They stood and stared at each other with nothing but the patter of rain and the rustle of branches and leaves to break the silence. The darkness of the forest couldn’t hide the paleness of the stranger’s hair. It was a color Kalen hadn’t seen in so long that he blinked several times to assure himself that his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.
The color didn’t change.
The cold of the rain seeped into his veins. Blond hair didn’t exist in the Rift. Those with the man’s light-toned skin and hair the color of the sun were killed on sight in neighboring Danar. Mithrias had forests, but blond hair was rare; even in the gloom, the glints of yellow and light brown was predominant. The clans had men with blond hair, but they lived on plains, not within forests.
Many Kingdoms bordered the Rift, but only Kelsh had men with such pale hair.
Loathing and disgust burned within him. It was bad enough that he was cold, wet, bootless, and without his sword. But to be stuck in Kelsh?
He longed for home, even if he had to subject himself to the watchful eyes of his Guardians.
Kalen fought to keep his expression neutral and his gaze fixed on the man in front of him.
“Why have you come here?” the man asked in the trade tongue, the words clipped, harsh, and grating to Kalen’s ears.
“Passing through,” he replied, careful to keep his voice quiet and his tone even, like he did when soothing a wild or unruly animal.
“With no horse? With no pack? Your clothes aren’t from here. We don’t wear such symbols,” the man replied, moving closer. The tip of the sword remained lifted. “We’re far from the trade road. Only raiders, outlaws, and beasts come this way. Which are you?”
Kalen reached up, touching the cloth crossing his chest. The sigil, crafted of black silk and embroidered in silver and gold thread, was in the shape of a winged serpent. Had he been wearing it when the serpent had bit him? If he had been in the city of Blind Mare Run, he would’ve worn his sigil as a sash. Had he been on the trails? He couldn’t remember.
“Which are you?” Kalen challenged, stealing glances to both of his sides when he could without losing sight of the man before him. The rain and the groaning of the trees masked too much sound. The other men were out there, but Kalen wasn’t certain of where.
The disadvantage could get him killed. He could only hope that their sight was as hampered as much as his, and that their muscles were also stiff from the cold.
Fervent obsession lit the stranger’s eyes. “We’re those who will bring you to justice.”
“I am no Danarite,” Kalen said in the Kelshite tongue. Hatred ran thick between the lands of Danar and Kelsh. Few Kelshites learned Danarite, and fewer Danarites learned Kelshite. He jerked his chin at his left shoulder and his empty sleeve. “Do I look like a raider? Or a beast? I have broken none of your laws.” He took one step back, then another, until the bark of the tree bit at his back through the material of his tunic.
~Truth,~ a voice whispered. It was a sound, but not one Kalen heard with his ears. It was a voice, a woman’s voice, but it resonated within his mind. It was meaning, intent and thought rather than spoken word.
Kalen shivered. Hearing voices in his head was the last thing he needed. Was the last vestiges of his sanity finally slipping away?
If the Kelshite also heard the voice, there was no indication of it. “The beast was here. It led us to here. To you.” Rage contorted the man’s features. “You lie.”
“Beast? What be—” Kalen sucked in a breath through his teeth and swallowed back his words as the man leaped forward.
“Hareth, wait!” someone—a man—shouted.
Rain whipped off of the blade as it was thrust at Kalen’s chest.
Kalen dove out of the way. The mud sucked at his feet and legs. The bark tore at his tunic, scratched at his back, and slowed him. Steel grazed his arm, and a pained hiss slipped out from between his clenched teeth. The blade bounced off the tree trunk and showered him with bark.
Then the tip of the weapon rose, arcing to strike Kalen down as he fell.
* * *
For one moment, the world obeyed the command that thundered through Kalen’s head. There was no sound, and even the rain ceased falling on him. He was unable to resist the power of that one, simple word. His legs collapsed beneath his own weight, and he hit the ground hard.
The mud enveloped him in a suffocating grip. Bursts of light danced in front of his eyes. He struggled to move, but his muscles stiffened and refused to obey. The sword, so close to running him through, splashed down beside him. It wasn’t just within reach; it rested on his hand, as though imploring him to take it up and use it.
~Kill.~ It wasn’t the woman’s voice. It wasn’t a man or a woman, but rather a strange blending of the two in Kalen’s head, consisting of the rumbling tones of a man partnered with the sultry, lighter intonations of a woman. The images of battle and bloodshed, and a deep, burning hatred accompanied the command. The taste of blood was hot on his tongue, sweet yet metallic, and he wasn’t certain if it was from a past memory or the present.
The new compulsion was born of malevolence so strong that Kalen’s heart ceased beating. Those who defied him needed to die. Those who dared to raise their hand against him would be destroyed.
Kalen wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the sword.
“This isn’t right, Hareth,” a deep voice called from within the mists. “Would you turn us into murderers?”
Movement drew Kalen’s eye. A dark-haired man emerged from the forest to stand beside Hareth. All Kalen needed to do was lift up the sword and take but two steps, and he would be free. He would feed the forest with the blood of those who tried to strike him down.
The need to use the sword burned within him and drove away the chill of the rain and the mud.
Muscle by muscle, Kalen gained back control of his body. His breath came as short pants.
~This isn’t right,~ the woman’s voice said. He couldn’t sense any ill-intent from her, but he got the sense that she wasn’t speaking to him. It reminded him of listening in on a conversation others didn’t want him to hear.
It was nothing like the other’s voice; its message was simple and clear, and it was meant for him and him alone. Its message was one he knew too well: kill, or be killed.
~Kill,~ the malevolent one whispered again, taking on a more masculine than feminine tone. Kalen rose to his knees, his grip tight on the sword.
Within two short strides, his enemies glared at one another. The forest was silent and the rain ceased falling, as though anticipating his choice. Two steps and he could cut his way to freedom.
“Do you really intend to kill a harmless cripple you just injured? Have you lost your mind?” The questions were whispered, but they carried the weight of loathing and disappointment.
~Kill.~ Kalen once again adjusted his grip on the hilt of the sword. Strength flowed through him. If he wanted to rise and take the steps, he would succeed. Within three breaths, he could strike.
“He’s one of them. He wears its sign,” Hareth replied, voice shrill with madness. The man yanked a dagger free from his belt and clutched it in a white-knuckled grip before lunging forward.
Kalen rose to meet the strike, parrying the wild thrust. Steel clashed against steel. Rage and hatred clouded the tall man’s eyes, and spittle frothed and dripped from the corners of Hareth’s mouth.
Sliding his feet through the mud, Kalen came alongside Hareth and cracked the flat of the blade against the Kelshite’s unprotected ribs. Jerking the blade up, he let the edge slice through clothes and flesh. A line of darkness seeped through the brown tunic the man wore.
With a little more pressure and a twist of his wrist, Kalen could gut the man and be done with it.
Spitting his disgust and shaking his head, Kalen disengaged and slipped out of Hareth’s reach. Shock paled the man’s face to white. Out from the shadows, several other men leaped towards them.
Hopping back several steps, Kalen braced for the attack. Roaring with inarticulate rage, Hareth lunged at him again.
It took several men to hold Hareth back and tear the dagger free of the crazed man’s grip.
“I’ll kill him,” Hareth snarled. “Murderous little runt.”
“Curse you, fool! He spared you.” Once again, it was the dark-haired man who spoke. The others remained silent as they fought against Hareth’s insanity and strength.
Kalen tensed and held the sword at the ready. The dark-hair man stepped forward but remained well outside of his reach.
“Why didn’t you kill him?”
The wind blew and thinned the fog, revealing the others waiting and ready deeper in the forest. Kalen retreated to the safety of the tree’s trunk. “Does he deserve to die?”
“Maybe, maybe not. That isn’t for me to decide. I am Derac. What is your name, stranger?”
“Kalen Alkasatoren,” he replied. Without letting go of the sword, he shifted his weight and stance to limit how large of a target he was.
“That is not a Kelshite name,” Derac said.
“I am not a Kelshite.”
~Truth, but also a lie,~ the woman whispered in his thoughts. The malevolent voice and the chill of its presence were all but gone, leaving behind a faint sense of its displeasure.
“Let me go!” Hareth screamed. “I’ll kill him for what they did to Aurorie.”
“He didn’t kill Aurorie. Frankly, you’re fortunate to be alive. He could kill us all, if he so desired.” A young man stepped out from between two trees and moved towards him.
Kalen shifted his weight from foot to foot and longed for his boots. His toes were cold, and the unpleasant tingle was back, threatening fully fledged pain.
At least the rain no longer fell. Biting back a sigh, he glared at the newcomer. Like Hareth, the young man’s hair was a lighter shade, but the deepening shadows hid whether it was brown or blond.
“What do you mean, Marist?” Derac asked.
Kalen’s mouth twisted in a feral grin when Marist pointed at the sigil that crossed over his chest. He glanced down at the mud-coated fabric. The metallic threads of the winged serpent glinted despite the mud and the dim illumination of twilight.
“I know this man. He’s not a raider or an outlaw. He is not a beast,” Marist replied with a shake of his head.
“Then what are you?” Derac asked. When Kalen didn’t answer, the dark-haired man turned to his companion. “Who is he?”
“He is someone far more dangerous.” Marist dropped to a knee and inclined his head. “I hope that you will forgive my companions.”
Kalen scowled. “Get up.”
“How dare you!” Hareth snarled. The men holding him let out startled cries as he broke free of them. A long, slim dagger appeared from a sheath hidden within his tall boots. Hareth slashed at Marist before twisting around to lunge at him.
* * *
“What do you mean, you can’t find him?” Breton didn’t shout, and he was proud of that. He wanted to, but it wasn’t Avern’s fault, not really.
No one could control the Rift King, not even Breton, no matter how hard he’d tried. But, almost a month had gone by without word or sign of His Majesty. It didn’t surprise him; he’d learned long ago to trust that quiet, unsettling feeling that told him his charge was far away.
“I rode as far as Land’s End. He wasn’t there, and no one has seen him,” Avern whispered.
Breton tried to convince himself he wouldn’t get angry. Staring at the cluttered chamber didn’t help. The Rift King’s study was buried beneath towers of letters, missives, and tomes. Gorishitorik was sheathed and placed on top of the piles on the desk, waiting for its master’s return.
“Put out the call,” Breton said, and then huffed out a sigh. With Avern’s failure, a gathering of the Guardians was inevitable. Invoking it admitted that the bad had gone to worse, and things wouldn’t get better until they found the missing Rift King.
Avern ran out the door, a streak of black against the pale stone that Blind Mare Run was carved out of.
Breton slammed his fist against a stack of the parchments and vellum perched on the edge of the giant desk. They scattered to the floor and knocked over several other piles as they fell. “Hellfires.”
There was no one present to hear him use the Rift King’s favorite curse. He could almost understand the lure of the oath, since he would’ve been more than pleased to drop a torch in the middle of the mess just to be done with it.
“He’ll flay you when he learns you threw his work on the floor,” a woman murmured from the hall. Riran laughed, leaning against the door with her arms crossed beneath her breasts. The hem of her tunic had been pulled down low to reveal her cleavage.
Breton scowled and ignored the aging woman and her tricks to get his attention. He wasn’t an eager foal anymore. He did not need to prove he was a stallion. While she was talented with horses, he wasn’t about to let her rein him in.
“You haven’t found him,” she continued when he said nothing.
“Not yet,” Breton replied. “I’ll be the one to do his work.”
There was always someone who dealt with the constant stream of messages meant to serve as the Rift King’s prison. The above worlders only assumed one man handled it all.
The above worlders were fools, all of them. They were just kings and queens who sat on their precious thrones and vied for dominance while fearing a man they’d never met and worked hard to keep contained within the vast desert canyons.
Breton clenched and then relaxed his hand. It throbbed. How many times had he taken his frustrations out on the stone desk and its precarious stacks in the past few days?
“You’re worried,” Riran whispered, weaving her way through the maze of unfinished work. “He’s a strong man. He’s proven that many times.”
“You only consider him strong because he refuses to spear you and make you one of his Queens,” Breton retorted.
Riran laughed. “He’s still alive.”
The confidence in her voice didn’t surprise him. Even if he hadn’t confirmed the truth with her, the Rift Queens always knew. It didn’t matter if they were Queens of the current Rift King or not. If His Majesty died, they would know. Like him, the Queens had known the moment that Arik had been replaced by the very man who’d killed him.
That man had only been fifteen years old.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I wish to prove my craft. I would act as a Princess. All of us. All of Arik’s Queens would serve as Princesses to the Rift King.” Riran lifted her chin and her dark eyes were hard with challenge.
Breton kept his expression neutral. Taking up one of the missives from the floor, he thrust it to her and nodded at the desk. While he couldn’t stop her from trying, he could demand perfection from her and all of Arik’s Queens, and he’d get it. “It won’t make you Queen again.”
“I know,” Riran replied. “This is my fault, and it could destroy us all.”
Breton waited in silence. If he spoke, the temptation to break the Code and strangle the woman would be too strong. She told the truth. Without her machinations to replace the Rift King with a man who’d make her Queen again, he would be glaring at a diligent young man hard at work rather than at a woman consumed by her thirst for empty power.
For all Arik had speared many women and sired well over a hundred children, he had mated with a purpose. His Queens were intelligent and capable of matching any handwriting. They were wise enough to know when a Guardian’s touch was needed for a reply.
Some of them, like Riran, were serpents clad in human skin.
But Kalen wasn’t Arik, and few understood that. Most wouldn’t call the Rift King by name, because it would be an acceptance of all that he was. Breton couldn’t erase the name of the boy who’d grown to be the most feared man in the Rift.
He shook his head and met Riran’s eyes. “What is it?”
“Do you think they’ll actually go to war this time?” she asked, lifting up the missive and waving it in the air. The vellum crinkled, giving it the appearance that it had been read and considered several times.
“That isn’t our concern,” Breton replied. He hesitated before continuing, “It wouldn’t surprise me. Kelsh and Danar have always been at war. The question is whether or not it’ll be official this time. Unless they call the Council, we can do nothing.”
“If we don’t find him before someone else does, they’ll go to war with us.” Her brow furrowed as she picked up one of the root quills and dipped it in ink. The scratch of writing was the only sound in the room until she finished the reply. “We’ve been practicing since it happened.”
Breton didn’t need to ask what she spoke of. Something was happening, but he didn’t know what. No one did. He wasn’t certain if he could call it evil, but it wasn’t good either. There was one thing he was assured of: whatever caused the feeling was dangerous, and it was affecting all of the Guardians.
“Do Arik’s Queens feel it too?”
Riran nodded. “We want to help find him, but we can’t risk our mares. None of us have geldings or stallions. But, we can free you of this work and make it so you can go out and find him for us.”
She refused to meet his eyes, staring down at the vellum as though it held the secrets of the world within the letters written upon it. The corners of Breton’s mouth twitched up.
“By ‘you’ do you mean me or the Guardians as a whole?”
Riran thrust the sheet of vellum at him. He took it and read through the document. The message from Kelsh was neither report nor letter, but the vague sort of missive that Breton hated the most. It wasn’t addressed to a man. It wasn’t even addressed to the Rift King or His Majesty. Even worse, the tone of the writing was so dismissive that Breton wanted to shred the page.
The sight of Kalen’s handwriting partnered with the careful and neutral tone of the Rift King hurt. The pressure in his chest grew until he wanted to lash out from the frustration of it all. She’d done it just right, even mastering the flicked curl added to many of the letters. It was a Kelshite habit that Breton hadn’t quite managed to convince the Rift King to remove from his writing.
“Are all of you this proficient?” Breton asked.
“Yes,” Riran replied.
“Get this mess cleaned up, and I’ll think about it,” he said. He lifted Gorishitorik from the desk and held the old sword in the crook of his arm.
“We’ll need a few days.”
“Fine. Oh, Riran?”
The woman looked up from the stack of papers in front of her. “What is it?”
“Scheme against Kalen again, and I’ll separate your head from your shoulders. Understood?”
Riran paled and jerked her head in a nod. Inclining his head, Breton turned and walked through the room, not caring how many of the stacks he bumped against on his way out.
* * *
Calling for the other Guardians would need to happen and soon, but instead of heading straight for the library, Breton wandered through the carved tunnels of the underground city to the plains skirting the Foristasa.
The winds sweeping down from the cliffs dried out his nose and mouth with each breath. He sighed, lifted his fingers to his lips, and whistled. A whinny answered his call, but instead of his tall gelding, a much smaller horse charged at him. Underneath a flaking layer of yellow dust and brown, drying mud, the tiny King Stallion of the Rift skidded to a halt in front of him, letting out an explosive snort.
“Ferethian,” Breton greeted, clasping his hands behind his back. The stallion snorted again, both delicate ears turned back. A frayed rope halter hung on the horse’s filthy head, one of the nose bands severed. The others were close to breaking. Dark eyes bore into his, and with an unrepentant toss of his head, Ferethian presented the halter’s clasp to him.
Breton shook his head but obeyed the animal’s command. The halter was caked in muck and was damp. “Where have you been this time, Ferethian?”
Ferethian ignored him. Draping the halter over his shoulder, Breton hesitated before holding out his hand to Kalen’s horse. The animal sighed and eyed him before relenting and bumping his fingers with his soft nose.
“I’ll bring him back to you,” Breton whispered. One of the stallion’s ears pricked forward.
The crunch of dry grass under foot approached from behind, quiet enough that Breton tensed and listened to the cautious steps. Ferethian’s ears twisted back, and the stallion’s snort was one of warning. A squeal startled Breton into whirling around in time to see a pale-robed figure leaping towards him, a short blade thrust out. Breton dropped his hand to his sword and he managed to get half an inch of steel free before something large and golden lunged out of the grasses.
Pale hooves lashed out, and bone broke with a crunch. Blood fountained from the figure’s mouth and nose before crumpling to the ground. Breton’s mouth dropped open. For a moment, he thought the bright chestnut was Kalen’s Honey, but when the animal whirled and galloped away, he was certain the horse was too large to be the Rift King’s mare—and a stallion.
At Breton’s feet, the body twitched. Ferethian reared, hopped forward on his hind hooves, and slammed both of his front hooves down. When the stallion was finished, what was left of the figure’s face was too bloodied and crushed to identify. He guessed the person had been female, judging from the way her garb clung to her curved figure. Her sword, a thin short blade favored by many women, was plain. He stooped to pick it up. The weapon’s balance was off, too heavy in the hilt, and the blade’s edge was dulled and chipped.
Breton wrinkled his nose. The blade glistened with fluid. “Poisoned,” he murmured.
Ferethian whinnied and kept close to his side.
“If you’re wise, you won’t move,” a deep voice stated in the brisk and harsh trade tongue.
A man clad in tan robes similar to the color of the grass rose. The tip of an arrowhead glinted in the sunlight. Breton closed his fingers around the hilt of the poisoned blade and kept still. Ferethian’s legs pressed against Breton’s back, and the horse squealed a challenge.
“While I’d prefer you alive, dead is fine too,” the man said. The bow’s angle changed. “Silence your horse or the first arrow goes in his head. It’d be a shame to kill such a valuable beast. I’ll be a very rich man once I get him out of this cesspit.”
“Ferethian, still,” Breton hissed through clenched teeth, wondering if the stubborn horse would even listen to him without Kalen’s direct order. The stallion’s breath tickled his neck.
“Stand up and drop the weapon.”
A long shadow stretched over the grass, followed by a second. Breton loosened his grip on the weapon and let it fall. Careful to step on the blade as he rose, he held out his hands to show he wasn’t armed.
A second robed figure emerged from the knee-tall grass, and the tip of a second arrowhead glinted in the sunlight. Breton ran his tongue over his teeth. The first stood close enough for Breton to reach, if he could avoid being struck.
The second man would prove the true problem. If Breton was hit—or if the archers missed him and hit Ferethian instead—he’d have more than his survival to worry about. While he needed to find Kalen, he didn’t want to lure the Rift King back to the Rift through someone’s death.
“That’s right. Easy now. Keep your hands where we can see them, Rifter.”
Breton glanced out of the corner of his eye at Ferethian. The Rift King’s horse stood rigid, the animal’s dark eyes staring beyond the two outsiders.
The pair of large shadows moved closer, and it took all of Breton’s will to keeping staring at the two figures in front of him.
“Hands up higher, Rift King,” the man snapped.
Breton hesitated, glancing at each figure in turn. They thought he was the Rift King? He frowned and considered the two men. They didn’t exactly go out of their way to describe Kalen to anyone. However, he could recall a few missives talking about how unusually small the Rift King’s horse was. Had they learned of Ferethian, but not of the man who rode him?
The shadows solidified to the towering forms of black horses. The taller of the two Breton recognized from the familiar warmth in his chest born from being near his horse. Perin’s teeth were bared and both ears were turned back. The second horse was covered in river mud and dust, with black patches showing through.
Breton held his breath.
Ferethian lifted his hoof and struck the ground once. A chill ran through Breton. The two large animals took their places behind the robed figures, their movements silenced by the ever-present hiss of the wind.
“Halter your horse,” the man ordered.
He lifted his hands to his shoulder to grab the ruined halter. Ferethian snorted and reared back, slamming both hooves down at the same time.
The outsiders fell to the heavy blow of hooves to the head. Angry squeals broke the silence, and Ferethian surged forward to trample the fallen, his long tail bannering.
Breton shivered, stooping to pick up the poisoned blade and the outsiders’ bows and arrows. One of them was carrying a small pouch tied to his belt. He grabbed it and tucked it away in a pocket. Pivoting on a heel, he left the bodies for the nibblers. The three Rift horses flanked him.
He hurried to where the Foristasa cut its way through the plains. The weapons vanished beneath the white caps of its waters. Perin draped his head over Breton’s shoulder and sighed. There was only one reason he could think of for outsiders to make their way to Blind Mare Run. They wanted the Rift King, dead or alive.
If the outsiders learned the truth of the Rift King’s disappearance, he didn’t want to think of the consequences. Breton knelt by the river’s edge and clucked his tongue at the horses. Perin came without complaint, letting him clean the blood from his legs.
The other two horses refused, as though unwilling to wash away the evidence of their devotion to the King no longer within the Rift.
He glanced in the direction of the bodies, shook his head, and headed back towards Blind Mare Run to call for the other Guardians.
* * *
The library was the only place in Blind Mare Run that was able to hold all of the Guardians and offer the illusion of privacy. It took four of them to wrestle the stone doors closed. While it wouldn’t prevent anyone from listening at the cracks, Breton was at least confident no one would come in and interrupt them.
The last time they’d all gathered was when Arik had died, and the room had been just as quiet. Instead of staring at the blood-stained boy holding Gorishitorik, the Guardians stared at him. The sword was still tucked beneath his arm, and he had no intentions of letting it go.
Breton exhaled in a huff. At a head taller than anyone else in the room, even those who knew him tended to gawk. This time, he doubted they stared at him due to his height.
“I need five volunteers to stay in Blind Mare Run,” Breton announced. No one moved and he doubted anyone dared to breathe for several long moments. The rows upon rows of bookcases cast long shadows from the witchlights hovering near the tiled ceiling. “Gentlemen, it is time to ride. Someone will find him, and they’ll try to discover the secrets of our people and his rank. They might even try to kill him, and may their gods and goddesses have pity on their souls.”
Breton narrowed his eyes, considered telling the Guardians of the attack on him, but remained silent while waiting for the tittering, nervous laughter to fade. “Every man and woman who wishes to wage war and protect our heritage can. The way of the sword will be taught. The correspondences will not cease until our horses emerge draped in red with banners held high. When we are done, they will remember why they were right to fear the Rift King.”
The door at his back wasn’t enough to block the murmur of conversation in the hallway.
“Arik’s queens have conceded to serve as Kalen’s Princesses and will deal with most of the correspondence. Your duty will be to handle what they cannot. A new era of Guardians must be groomed. I won’t promise we’ll all return. You will coordinate with the horse breakers, the quartermaster, and the warmongers. The rest of us ride. I will take a group to Kelsh,” Breton said.
“I volunteer,” Gorteth said, lifting his fisted hand high over his head. The man was almost as short as the Rift King, though by age rather than nature’s refusal to let Kalen grow any taller than Breton’s elbows.
One by one, hands rose. While none of them were exactly old, save venerable Gorteth, they approached the time where it was honorable to put away the sword to focus on their horses and their women. The last man to raise his hand was one of the youngest of the guardians, and one of Arik’s many foals.
“Father’ll kill us all if we are too cowardly to do our duty,” Joris said.
Breton smothered a laugh. The ‘father’ wasn’t directed at Arik. Almost all of Arik’s offspring loathed the man and hadn’t even mourned his death. But, Joris wasn’t young enough to be Kalen’s foal; he was elder by several years.
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard one of them address Kalen as their father, but it’d been in whispers. He’d even seen Kalen’s colors of silver, gold, and black woven over Arik’s in the ancestral blankets.
Breton searched the room for the twins, but didn’t see their brown hair among the more common black. “Where are Varest and Ceres?”
“They’re not here,” Joris replied. Breton felt both of his eyebrows creep upward and he was powerless to smooth his expression. “I did try to stop them. I didn’t try very hard, but I did try.”
Several of the other Guardians laughed.
“Don’t waste the effort, Breton. Those two don’t have your stifling sense of honor. They tore up the trails the day after,” Dorek called out from somewhere in the back of the group. Of all of the guardians, Dorek was one of the few who could feel the presence of the Rift King and all of the Guardians. “I’ll stay behind as well. Someone needs to keep the records.”
The room quieted. Breton didn’t want to think about how many new names would be added to the volumes. The very existence of the Rift King was akin to dark clouds brewing on the horizon that was yet to break and expose the land to its fury.
If they failed in their duty, it would be a storm of war, violence, and death. It would be their history and heritage brought back to life. His people would seek their revenge over hundreds of years of seclusion, using the Rift King’s demise at the hands of outsiders as their excuse.
“So be it,” Breton said. “Split yourselves into groups. No Guardian rides alone. Clear off the map and we’ll assign duties. Someone get the flags.”
The Guardians shuffled off of the central mosaic inlaid in the floor and packed into the spaces between the packed shelves. Crafted of colored stone tiles, the floor was both a piece of art and an ever-shifting map of the land. Built from the hundreds of maps imported from the above world, it was as accurate as they could make it. Even the rivers and mountains were portrayed in different colored stones.
The edges of the map were gouged and scarred where the tiles had been pried up, new ones carved, and the mosaic relaid.
The Rift, crafted of ruby and moonstone, resembled a bloodied tear through the center of the continent. The Six Kingdoms were of precious stones, while the minor kingdoms were formed of colored granite, slate, and malachite.
One of the scribes, a woman clad in the veil of mourning, hurried forward with a tray of small, colored flags mounted on polished stone bases. Breton took them and crouched at the edge of the map. He found the one with his name on it and placed it over Kelsh’s capitol city of Elenrune. “I will go to Kelsh. Of the Six, Kelsh and Danar are the biggest threats. The clans would kill him and ask questions of the body.”
“What about the other kingdoms?” Joris asked.
“They’re all threats. Kelsh and Danar are just the biggest of our problems,” Breton replied. “Some will disagree with me on that, though.”
“Where was the Rift King born?” Dorek asked.
Breton pursed his lips together and didn’t reply. Of all of the Rift Kings, of all of the failed successors, of all of the men who’d taken up the red banner of war, only Kalen had been born outside of the Rift. Arik had, in the last of his days, seen the worth of the young man and had conspired to forever bind him to the Rift.
By turning an innocent into a murderer, by turning someone so gentle into a cold-blooded killer, Arik had acquired what no other Rift King before had: the perfect successor.
One by one, the Guardians picked up their flags and placed them on the mosaic until red covered most of the map. Dorek placed two flags on the map next to Breton’s.
“I believe they’re headed here. It feels like this is the direction they have gone. This is the land of his ancestors, isn’t it? It knows, doesn’t it?”
Their secret didn’t have a name, and even if It did, Breton doubted that any in the room would be brave enough to speak it. It was something he didn’t want to think about for too long, and he shivered at the implication of Dorek’s suggestion. “Perhaps.”
Breton pressed his arm against Gorishitorik to reaffirm the weapon’s presence. He didn’t have Dorek’s strong senses. But, he had Gorishitorik, and he had the Rift King’s horse.
The horses always knew where their masters were, and Ferethian even listened to him sometimes. Breton suspected the stallion would obey. This time, they shared a common goal.
He tried to hide his smile by shaking his head and scowling at the map and the flags on it. “Ferethian comes with my group. If the rest of his horses accept your leadership, take one in each group. They’ll know how to find their master, maybe even better than we do. Spread the word.” In a way, the truth hurt, but it relieved him as well. After fifteen years of watching and waiting, he’d no longer have to try to protect his foal from his own people. “The ascension is over.”
The silence in the room was like the moment of calm before a storm.
Have a great day, folks!
Wait. No. Belay that. the female is glaring at me. Look, Wenchasaurus Rex, I have better things to do than this, right? Like nap. Do I really have to?
Damn it, I really have to.
So, things. Those ‘updates’ she mentioned.
First, a reminder that Hearth, Home, and Havoc is out as an audiobook. If you have audible, and you’re in the US, that link is for you! It’s also available in the UK, FR, and DE. We hope you love it. (The Wenchasaurus Rex is totally jealous of peoples who can listen to audio because Courtney, the actress who is doing all the female perspectives of the Romantic Comedy series sounds amazing. Daniel, who is doing the male perspectives, is also amazing.)
Playing with Fire is still processing and on its way to retail, but the female will force me to post when it’s ready!
Fowl Play was just started by Courtney, so the final audiobook for that should be done in March sometime, roughly.
No Kitten Around is also in production, and it should be releasing in February or March. Or something like that!
Cheetahs Never Win will also be heading into production soon. (Likely right after No Kitten Around.) It’s been ordered, just have to wait for the voice actor to become available for recording!
In other news, the Wenchsaurus Rex is listening to a metal version of Let It Go, and she absolute loves it. You can listen to it here. You can also search iTunes for Connor Enstrom Let it Go.
Pat from Storm Called isn’t sure he’s too fond of this choice of music, as it has encouraged the human to continue being mean to him.
Fair warning: Storm Called? It’s about like you’d expect from a Royal States novel. Which is to say that it starts crazy, stays crazy, and is entirely focused on the relationships in the book.
Well, I might be lying a little bit. There is a plot. It’s just covered in honey and served with a side dish of angry bees.
This is a prequel novel in the Royal States series, and it’s pretty obvious who is marrying who, but you fans caused this thing to happen. You wanted to read about Pat fainting at Jessica’s feet.
So that’s what you got.
We hope you’re happy with yourselves, human. The Wenchasaurus Rex wrote an entire book dedicated to setting up Pat fainting.
It’s been a surreal experience for her.
It’s also been a surreal experience writing a book where no one has been kidnapped or killed.
Like, what the actual fuck?
Hold off on the or killed part… the Wenchasaurus Rex is writing an action sequence and Geoff is pissed.
Looks like there’s about to be a body.
Spoiler alert: a much younger Geoff is partnered up with a much younger Pat, and Geoff is pissed.
Somebody is about to die.
But who? Why? Oh noooooees.
Guess you’ll just have to read the book, humans!
Coming to an e-reader near you in February.
</insert maniacal laughter here.>