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A Dire Onus

A Dire Onus

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A Dire Onus

Länge:
780 Seiten
12 Stunden
Freigegeben:
Jul 12, 2017
ISBN:
9780997820621
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

Despite not knowing what happened to Brogan, Rucker and his three friends, Eli, Selwyn, and Arabelle, must flee Rynwyde as quickly as possible.

After rescuing a beautiful young woman, named Shartha, from a brutal beating, Rucker unexpectedly kills a dozen deadly sellswords by tapping into powerful elemental magic. But his unplanned act of bravery has consequences — as heroic acts often do.

As a result, Rucker’s party is forced to seek a safe route by which to escape Rynwyde. While doing so, they must avoid The Raven’s Wing, whose cruelly depraved members doggedly hunt them with the sole purpose of killing ― not capturing ― them.

Together, they must find a cunning way to beat the odds stacked against them; odds that grow worse by the hour.

Rucker is determined to complete Brogan’s secret mission. That means he and his companions must survive long enough to deliver Wolfanger’s Hammer ― the long-lost icon of leadership ― to the Thorn Dwarves on Blackpool Island.

Upon swearing an oath to complete the mission, and with Shartha as a new member of their small fellowship, they continue their journey southward, undaunted by what seems an endless number of deadly obstacles.

Freigegeben:
Jul 12, 2017
ISBN:
9780997820621
Format:
Buch

Über den Autor

BIOGRAPHY Ron Smith was born in Selma, Alabama, although he spent most of his younger life in Oregon, near Salem. In his late teens, he lived in the suburbs northeast of Sacramento, California. After he married his beloved wife, Jane, they lived in the Sierra foothills and built custom homes on country properties between Loomis and Grass Valley. He also spent many years as a graphic and sculptural artist, working in oils and water colors, as well as stone and wood sculpture. For thirty years he had a dream: he wanted to write an epic-fantasy series. And that meant he had a ton of work and learning to do. This included being a long-time subscriber to two magazines: WRITER’S DIGEST, and THE WRITER. During that period, he accumulated and studied nearly a hundred books designed to aid those wishing to become proficient writers. For many years now, most of the evening hours he spends in front of a TV screen have been with a “self-help for writers” resource in his lap. Shortly after he got married, he became a devout reader of epic fantasy and science fiction (with his readerly wife’s encouragement). But during the last eleven years, (along with reading other authors, as always) his focus has been on actively writing during the day, even as his study of writing continues in the evenings. Finally, the hard work has paid off and he is able to share his story with the world. He writes from the heart, filling the pages with deep passion and heroic adventure. Now that his dream is realized, his hope is that readers like you will find his story enjoyable enough to list among your favorites. He stands solidly behind the old saying ― “Follow your Dreams!” And in his own words...”Who knows what might come of it?”


Buchvorschau

A Dire Onus - Ronald Taylor Smith

BIOGRAPHY

CHAPTER ONE

The Unnamed Rune does not exist and never will. You are alone, Child of Stain. Not even The Runic Circle can help you.

The memory of those cryptic words tormented Rucker like a maddening itch that was always there, but just beyond his reach. Even worse, the demon’s maniacal laughter echoed in his mind; a distant whispered laugh that plagued him day and night. Laughter only he could hear.

Rucker forced his thoughts elsewhere, but his effort seemed to make things worse by focusing his mind on a more immediate problem: Brogan was missing; possibly a prisoner, but more likely dead. Either way, one simple fact remained — his teacher was gone, leaving a gaping void in Rucker’s heart.

What Rucker wanted now more than anything else, was to go back home to Bieldburg; back to Lilya. They’d get married just as they always planned, and he’d stay with her forever. That’s what he longed for. However, it would have to wait.

First, he had to fulfill his promise to Brogan. He’d take Briar Wolfanger’s Hammer to the Dwarves on Blackpool Island and complete Brogan’s mission. Then he’d go home.

But right now, death stood in his way.

Rucker came to a standstill halfway across the long bridge and watched the three sellswords coming at him with drawn weapons in hand.

His feelings of sadness and loss were suddenly gone, disappearing as if they never existed. Only a fire of loathing remained, the consuming flames burning hotter by the second as a flicker of rage grew larger and brighter in the darkest part of his soul.

He knew he should feel a rush of fear or panic; at the very least, a sense of apprehension. But there was none of that. There was only hatred.

He stared at the three sellswords, his mind and soul seeking an avenue of release from what seemed a bottomless pit of black despair.

And the path to that release now stood before him.

His earlier despair and heartache felt like the dim memories of a fading dream. In their place, anger had taken an unnaturally powerful hold on him, feeding his bitter need for bloody vengeance. Determination to make someone pay for the loss of Brogan had been eating at him slowly, tearing at his soul, hour by hour.

Since the night before, Rucker had been overwhelmed with the consuming emptiness caused by the devastating loss of his beloved teacher — his inspiration, his hero. And as hard as he tried, he couldn’t shake it.

But with the sudden appearance of these sellswords, he now felt a renewed sense of purpose. The gods hadn’t abandoned him after all; at least not completely. They’d given him back what he’d momentarily lost — a reason to exist. They’d given him a way to start refilling that emptiness. It was the answer to a subconscious question that had been eating at him since Brogan’s disappearance: What’s the point of all this?

Finally, he had the answer that had been waiting there all along: Revenge!

It was simple enough. That’s what he wanted; that’s what he needed.

This was a chance to purge his soul, an opportunity to vent his raw rage and his festering desire for retaliation — a way to diminish his feelings of hopelessness.

It felt like he’d been standing here on the bridge for hours. However, no more than a dozen silent heartbeats had passed since the sellswords first appeared.

Even though the threat of death moved quickly toward him, Rucker just stared at the advancing swordsmen, his hate-filled mind not registering them as the true danger they were, but as an outlet for his rage. Despite the likelihood that he was about to die, he just stood there unmoving and oddly unconcerned.

What he’d been wishing for, the chance he needed so desperately, was foolishly walking straight toward him: three sellswords with a desire to fight.

Suddenly, Rucker experienced an odd and unexpected personal reaction — he smiled.

Snap out of it, Ruck, Eli shouted. We have to do something…now!

Eli’s urgent command jerked Rucker’s attention back to the moment. But it also allowed his grief over the loss of Brogan to consume him once again. This sudden return to full awareness was like being doused with a bucket of icy water, resulting in an instant of heart-jolting shock and confused perception.

Immediately, a wave of fear struck his consciousness, assaulting him with the full vigor of its capacity to confound. Yet, somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he knew he had to steady himself and do something fast, to act responsibly, to focus on the moment, which meant he had to get control of his fear, rage, and heartache.

As Rucker’s vision cleared and he focused on the bloodthirsty members of The Raven’s Spur, he realized they had him and his four friends trapped on the bridge with nowhere to go but over the rail and into the raging, turbulent water. From each end of the long wooden span, a trio of sellswords approached with swords drawn. Their blazing eyes and cruel grins told Rucker that these men intended to kill, not capture.

The henchmen descended on their trapped prey so swiftly that Rucker and Eli had no time to string their bows. Instead, they threw aside the useless weapons and restrictive gear and drew their swords. Rucker faced one end of the bridge, and Eli the other. Between them stood Selwyn, Arabelle, and Shartha, swords in hand.

When each trio of hired swords finally came within twenty paces of their trapped prey, they stopped in their tracks. Then, one member of the group at the south side — a large man with blond hair so light it looked almost white — took a single step toward Rucker.

If you throw down your weapons, we’ll be merciful and kill you quick. If not, we’ll make you wish you had. He flashed a contemptuous grin. The choice is yours.

You can stick your choice up your ass, you shit-faced pig. Some of you motherless swine who work for The Spur might’ve gotten Brogan, Rucker thundered, but if you’re stupid enough to think I’ll just lay down my weapons and let you kill me and my friends…you’re dead wrong.

Rucker didn’t wait for a response. Holding his sword ready, he charged straight at the three men. When he made his move, the blond sellsword rushed forward as well. Rucker and Blondie came together in a violent blade-on-blade clash of bloodlust, even before the other two hired swordsmen were halfway to them.

Blondie made a powerful diagonal stroke that would have cleaved Rucker nearly in two at the juncture between neck and shoulder, but Rucker deflected it with ease. Then, with a well-executed side step, Rucker delivered a stroke of his own.

He moved with such speed and grace that Blondie was unable to regain his footing before Rucker’s blade opened his left side, spilling the sellsword’s guts and severing his spine.

The man died instantly.

While Rucker was busy with the first swordsman, the other two rushed in for the kill.

In the last second, Rucker dodged to the far side of the man on his left and feigned a low attack. The henchman took the bait and lowered his sword to block his groin. Immediately, Rucker spun and delivered a high cut that sliced through his attacker’s neck, almost beheading him.

As the man crashed to the planks of the bridge, the last sellsword leapt in, driving his sword tip straight at Rucker’s chest. Rucker’s blocking stroke redirected the lunge. In the blink of an eye, he struck the third man in the teeth with the butt of his sword hilt, and then spun to pierce the man’s throat with a foot of cold steel. Yanking his blade free, he turned and raced toward the sellswords battling his four friends.

While rushing forward, Rucker could see that one of the hired swordsmen already lay unmoving on the bridge even as Eli and Selwyn continued to fight the other two.

Rucker was surprised to see that Arabelle and Shartha had entered the fray as well, courageously attacking the last two sellswords with sword strokes of their own. Before he could reach his companions, they had dispatched their more experienced, yet outnumbered, opponents.

Relieved that his friends were safe, Rucker gave them a quick nod. Then he noticed small crowds gathering a short distance from each end of the bridge. He knew it would be only a matter of time before someone sounded an alarm that would bring the local constable. Or worse, an alarm might alert other members of The Raven’s Spur.

Grab your gear…and hurry! Rucker shouted. We have to get out of here, now! After gathering his own belongings he darted away, leading his small party southward.

Rucker ran until the bridge lay far behind him. He would’ve preferred to keep this pace for another mile or two. But when he heard his friends gasping for breath, he slowed to a fast walk.

He hoped they were out of immediate danger. However, he’d already made the foolish mistake of thinking they were safe earlier; and once a day was more than enough. That mistake was, at least partly, why it had been so easy for the six sellswords to trap them on the bridge.

Of course, it was always possible that the gods of Chance and Luck also played a part.

While fleeing Rynwyde earlier that morning, they’d taken a circuitous route through the forest to avoid the recently set roadblocks and heavily armed guards posted at every ferry landing.

They would’ve boarded a ship heading south, but the docks of this northern port town were swarming with guards; most certainly including members of The Raven’s Spur. For more than an hour, they’d traveled northward, always just inside the dense tree cover of the forest, until they finally found a fisherman willing to give them passage across the river on the smelly deck of his small fishing boat.

It took Rucker far longer than he’d anticipated in finding someone greedy enough — or perhaps, needy enough — to turn a blind eye to their odd request for passage and their inability to give a suitable explanation. But just as Rucker had hoped, the unexpected opportunity for easy income had been more than the old man could say No to.

After benefitting from the man’s greed, and on solid ground once again, they headed southward along the eastern side of Broken-Axe Lake. They traveled for almost two hours without encountering the slightest threat. Then, upon gaining a modest sense of confidence and safety, Rucker had let his guard down just a bit.

That’s when everything changed.

It only took him a few seconds to realize what a big mistake he’d made. He found himself and his friends trapped, chin-deep in mortal danger. And, as their leader, he would’ve been responsible if they had died on that bridge. Fortunately, the gods smiled on them and they had escaped.

Now, as they continued south, he’d had more than half a day to think about that real possibility of death, and he silently cursed himself for being so stupid. He resolved to be much more careful from here on.

During his seven years of training under Brogan’s expert tutelage, he’d often been called a quick study. But today he failed, and that failure nearly got them killed. You have to stay focused, Brogan had always warned, or someday it just might cost you your life.

Rucker had almost learned that particular lesson the hard way.

In truth, he was angrier at himself than he was ashamed — because only an idiot would let The Soulless Reaper serve as his teacher. And although Rucker had foolishly opened the door to The Reaper, it was with a bit of luck and the effective use of Brogan’s training that he was able to slam the door shut before permanently learning that deadly lesson earlier today.

The sudden appearance of Chance or Luck is one thing — stupidity is quite another.

CHAPTER TWO

It was already growing dark when Rucker’s party entered the northern end of a small fishing village.

The tiny settlement appeared to be nothing more than a group of poorly maintained cottages scattered along both sides of the trail. It wasn’t even large enough to have an inn to supply travelers with room and board. But there was a small forge for the local blacksmith, and a tavern with a fair-sized stable in back.

While the rest of their group waited outside, Selwyn went into the tavern to inquire if anyone in the village had a couple of rooms to rent for the night. Rucker thought it best not to give the landlord a close look at their entire party, in case someone should come along asking questions.

Fifteen minutes later, Selwyn returned. Unless you like sleeping in the forest…or want to keep traveling for at least six more hours until we reach the port town of Gildenrock…it seems we have only one other choice. And I decided to accept it. So, let’s take a look at our new home for the night, and then I’ll tell you what I found out.

He led them around back and into a large stable.

It’s a lot better than sleeping in the open, Rucker said, noticing that the roof didn’t show any signs of leaking and there was plenty of dry straw piled in three of the empty stalls. In fact, from the look of this place, we shouldn’t have any problem making ourselves comfortable.

I hope so, Selwyn grinned, because it cost us three coppers. The landlord wanted five…one for each of us…but I told him we’d just have to sleep in the forest in that case, since we didn’t have that much to spare. After a bit of haggling, he settled for three. I think he assumed he had a bunch of bumpkins on his hands.

He did, Eli said. You just didn’t let him get away with it, that’s all.

His comment brought a short chuckle from the others.

During a precautionary inspection to make sure no one else shared the twelve-stall stable with them, Rucker found two oil-filled lanterns. Selwyn lit them using a fire spell, which clearly impressed Shartha.

Then they each busied themselves with making up their beds on a thick layer of straw. Rucker placed the lanterns on cleared patches of packed soil, just in case someone knocked one over. It wouldn’t do for them to show their appreciation to the landlord by burning down his barn. Besides, they had more than just themselves to think about, since they shared the stable with four horses.

After settling in, they ate some of the food they had purchased from the kitchen of The High-Boot Inn early that morning. Even though it was cold fare, Rucker still found it tasty and more than sufficient to satiate his ravenous hunger. He washed it all down with fresh spring water from the skin he had filled earlier in the afternoon.

Once he had settled himself in the soft, dry warmth of his bedding, Rucker was almost lulled into believing he could complete Brogan’s task of delivering Wolfanger’s Hammer to the Dwarves with very little difficulty — almost.

That’s what he wanted to believe, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t that much of a fool.

The deaths of all those men in the alley when rescuing Shartha, Brogan’s disappearance, and the deadly fight on the bridge — not to mention the subsequent and highly dangerous escape from Rynwyde by Rucker and his friends — were still too fresh in his mind to allow such fanciful thoughts to ease his tortured soul. Nevertheless, he sought what peace of mind he could. After a few minutes of indulging in the afterglow of a full stomach and enjoying the restful quietness of the stable, he asked Selwyn what he had learned from the landlord.

He said that ships make regular stops at the mouth of a small bay-town called Gildenrock, about six to eight hours south of here, Selwyn said. It seems the town doesn’t have a dock for the larger vessels sailing the lake because the water is too shallow. But he did say they used smaller boats for shuttling passengers and goods out to the anchored ships multiple times each day. He said the next place to book passage on a ship, after Gildenrock, would be Yarlton. And that Yarlton is just over half a day south of Gildenrock…by foot.

Rucker frowned. Did he say anything about recent news?

He certainly did. And wait till you here what’s being said about our battle in Rynwyde last night.

Bloody hell, Eli said, his tone reflecting his surprise. You mean they already know about it?

"Yes. But just hear me out before you get too excited. The rumors are spreading, but there’s a good side to that bit of bad news. Adjusting himself on his straw-padded blankets, Selwyn leaned against a stall post and crossed his legs. And the rest of you might as well make yourselves as comfortable as you can. This will take a few minutes to tell."

For crying out loud, just get on with it, Selwyn, Eli snapped. Why do you always have to drag things out? Sometimes I want to…

Let him talk, Eli, Rucker interrupted, you’re only making this take longer.

As I was saying, Selwyn continued, we might not have much to worry about. If all the rumors are as distorted and misleading as the one I was told, then there’s little chance we’ll be recognized.

What do you mean? Arabelle asked. There were witnesses. At least half a dozen people saw us come out of that alley. And what about that man who survived the blast…the one that ordered Shartha’s beating? And don’t forget the sellswords who fled in fear. What about them?

I have to admit, I can’t explain it, Selwyn said as his brow knuckled. The rumor is so removed from the truth that it’s laughable.

So, what did you hear? Rucker demanded.

The tavern owner told me that a group of marauding sorcerers used powerful magic to kill more than twenty…perhaps as many as fifty…law-abiding citizens in a back alley in the heart of Rynwyde. He said the sorcerers abducted a respectable businesswoman for use in their vile and bloody sacrificial rituals. And listen to this. It seems she can be identified by the horrible cuts and bruises on her face…injuries inflicted when the sorcerers snatched her from the loving arms of her employer.

Those stupid bastards, Shartha cursed. I hope they all burn in hell.

If those fools are looking for a woman with a face that badly damaged, Eli grinned, then I think we have less to worry about than I feared.

Shartha turned to Arabelle and offered a warm smile. And it’s all thanks to you. You have no idea how much I…

Please, Arabelle said, don’t mention it. I was happy I could help.

There’s more, Selwyn continued. It appears Shartha was right about avoiding the normal routes out of town. It turns out that the docks at the main wharf are more heavily guarded than we anticipated. He said that all the ferries are watched by hired swordsmen, and that most of the roads and trails leading to and from town are swarming with posted sentries. Although it’s a moot point now, I guess they’re still trying to make sure we don’t escape.

Did he say anything about what happened this morning? Rucker asked.

No. But that doesn’t mean he won’t hear something soon. A traveler on foot, or even a fisherman coming in from the lake this afternoon or later this evening, could bring news of our fight on the bridge. I don’t think it will take long for that to become known as well.

* * *

When no one else responded to Selwyn’s last statement, Shartha spoke.

"Selwyn has that exactly right. News travels fast around this lake. By first light tomorrow, people all the way down to Orendale will have heard about what happened in Rynwyde and on the bridge. From here on, we should assume that everyone we meet has already heard the stories. The best thing we can do is act shocked and surprised if anyone mentions them to us…and hope no one recognizes us."

So, Arabelle said, it sounds like you’re saying we can never assume we’re safe.

I wish we could. But with my escape from Katz’ Den of Pleasure, and your involvement in my rescue, no place is safe for any of us now. Shartha frowned before continuing.

"During the last year and a half to two years, I’ve overheard occasional bits of useful gossip. Stories spread fast through the private conversations between the rent-girls at Katz’ Den. Men tend toward effusive and unguarded displays of self-importance at such times…always boasting about what and who they know, trying to impress the girls with their knowledge and connections. As much as I hated those blustering windbags, I knew that if I paid attention long enough…and I promise you, I was always listening and watching…eventually something that could help me escape would slip out of their stupid, stinking mouths. It was inevitable.

From what I’ve learned, it seems that every town from Rynwyde to the Eidolon Sea is influenced and manipulated by an organization called The Raven’s Wing. At its core, there’s a tiny but powerful group of corrupt businessmen called The Heart of the Raven. I’ve heard that very little commerce takes place around here in which at least a small part of the profits don’t end up caught in the talons of The Bird of Death.

She paused for a moment when a dog started barking in the distance, its tone filled with agitation. When the barking calmed and finally ceased, she went on.

"As I was saying…money is power. And weak people attach themselves like leeches to those who hold the power. It seems there’s no shortage of dishonorable bastards drawn by the coppery scent of blood-money, always hoping to suck up a few bloody drops for themselves.

It’s disgusting how greed and fear can make people sell their honor as if it were worth little more than a rusty button-hook. If that’s what it takes to be rich, or to be part of their shit-twisted society, I’d rather be a beggar in the streets…or dead.

She gritted her teeth while recalling how many times unscrupulous people had tried to force her into doing the same thing by trying to impose their wretched standards on her. However, she knew she wasn’t without her own weaknesses. In order to stay alive over the last four years, she’d done things she was deeply ashamed of.

So many times she had teetered on the brink of embracing death. Yet, each time she chose life instead; even though it meant living with her shame. The memories burned her spirit like red-hot steel pressed to tender flesh. And worse, she knew they always would.

She forced herself to calm down and return to the issue at hand. "The men who manipulate The Raven’s Wing are liar-kings in a pauper’s world of liars. The few powerful bastards at The Heart of The Raven never tell the full truth…not even to their most loyal and trusted cohorts. From what I learned, there are at least three lie-filled stories The Heart spreads, and each one accommodates a specific need.

The first is the biggest lie. It’s the story told to elicit the aid and approval of the masses. The second is the story told to the hatchet men…the thugs and sellswords who do the actual bloody work. Of course, like the others, they are told only bits and pieces of the truth…just enough to make the murderous cutthroats feel like they’re part of the inner circle of power. The third is the story told to the bought off lawyers, constables, and town bosses.

She paused and shook her head in disgust. But they aren’t told the whole truth either, even though they think they are.

Suddenly, Shartha stopped talking and searched the faces of the others in the dim lantern light. If I’m babbling on like a fool about things you already know, just tell me. I won’t be offended.

Not at all, Selwyn said. You know so much more about this than we do, that I think we’re all thankful you’re part of our group. What you tell us now might save our lives some day. So we’d be grateful if you’d continue. But first…how did you learn all of this if the details are supposed to be such a secret?

Shartha frowned. Let’s just say that it isn’t only the lowlife bullies who seek recreation in the kind of places I worked. Katz’ Den of Pleasure draws its fair share of powerful men as well. And they have even bigger mouths than the ass-kissing scum who work for them.

She paused again, trying to muster the will to recall such terrible memories.

"For a short time, a so called ‘very important client’ showed an interest in me, although I never learned his name. I knew he was well connected and influential just by the way Kat licked his boots and all but serviced him himself.

"Powerful man or not, I can’t believe what an idiot this so-called very important client was. Since I’d barely speak to him, he must’ve thought I was just as drugged or slow-witted as so many of the other girls. Otherwise, he would’ve kept his mouth shut. It seems big egos make their owners dumb enough to think they can spill big secrets and not have to pay the price. But I never forgot a word he said. All this time I’ve been hoping to use the information against him and his kind. Now it looks like my chance has come at last."

I hope that someday you’ll be able to make them all pay, Selwyn said.

Thanks, Sel. So do I. As far as I’m concerned, they should die in the slowest, most painful way possible. I know that makes me sound cruel. But that’s just how I feel and I’m not going to apologize for it. The truth is…calling them black-hearted bastards is being far too kind.

She stopped and took a deep breath. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes, I remember. This tiny group of men who control The Wing can manage and manipulate each level of their organization just by the information they dole out and the lies they chose to spread. For enforcement, they use death-squads, called The Raven’s Spur, made up of sellswords, assassins, and torturers. These men are butchers…little more than sadistic shit-eating pigs. You can see it in their stupid pig-eyes.

I remember one of them in particular. The evil bastard used to come to The Katz’ Den just to see me. He enjoyed hurting women…enjoyed hurting me…and liked the fact that I wouldn’t submit to his twisted needs without a fight. After a few painful visits from him, I realized that my resistance was exactly what he wanted…what kept him coming back. So I quit fighting and just lay there like a corpse, even though it went against every instinct I possess. But I achieved my goal. He finally stopped coming to see me.

She made a half-hearted attempt to smile before continuing.

He was savagely cruel and bloated with ego, just like so many of those Raven’s Spur bastards. He once showed me a tattoo on his forearm of a black raven in flight, with vicious-looking curved talons that dripped red droplets of blood from their tips. He said all their members wear the tattoo. I could tell he was extremely proud of the mark, but it just made me sick. If I remember right, I think his name was Fletcher…and he worked at a casino on the waterfront for some bastard named Jack. The place was called The Bloody Axe, or some such nonsense.

All of a sudden, Shartha heard the sound of someone walking just outside the barn’s closed door. She was surprised at how fast Rucker leapt to his feet, and how — almost magically — he already had his sword in his hand.

Before she could stand and draw her own sword, she heard a firm knock on the door. And by the time the echo died away, Rucker had taken a defensive stance next to the latched door. A couple of seconds later, Eli and Selwyn stood at his side.

Trying desperately to calm her suddenly erratic breathing as she leapt to her feet, the only thing Shartha could imagine was that The Raven’s Wing had finally found them.

If that was the case, she’d fight to the death before she’d let them take her back to face Katz’s anger — or even worse, to be forced back into that disgusting rent-girl business. She was done with that soul-killing life, forever.

And if that meant she must die here and now, then so be it.

CHAPTER THREE

Who is it and what do you want? Rucker shouted, even while trying without success to relax the sudden tension that gripped the muscles of his neck and shoulders.

It’s me…the tavern master. I brung you somethin’.

Rucker felt his tension ease a bit as he sheathed his sword. After his friends did likewise, he opened the door. With lantern in hand, the man entered the barn.

Sorry if I sounded a bit rude, Rucker said, setting a much friendlier tone. Now, what can we do for you, good sir?

Glancing over at Arabelle and Shartha, the man nodded and smiled. Then he returned his gaze to Rucker, Eli, and Selwyn. Just wanted to give you this.

He handed Rucker a stoneware jug.

Figured you could use somethin’ stronger than water, and thought I’d make sure your friend warned the rest of you about them rumors while I was at it. It’s a scary business havin’ to worry over bein’ attacked by a pack of maraudin’ sorcerers and murderin’ swordmasters. Seems they wreaked havoc in Rynwyde last night. Ended up killin’ twenty…maybe thirty…hired swords after beatin’ a helpless businesswoman near to death. Then they hauled her off with ’em, probable for some sorta magical sacrifice or the like. And that ain’t all. Word just come to the tavern about a bloody swordfight a few miles north of here on Murphy’s Bridge. Happened this mornin’. Seems six sellswords was slaughtered by a group of travelers…blademasters all. Even had a couple of women with ’em.

He glanced at Arabelle and Shartha again. Don’t suppose you folks know nothin’ ’bout that?

Not a thing, Rucker said. We’re just passing through.

Well, you couldn’t have nothin’ to do with the trouble in Rynwyde, ’cause you sure ain’t no pack of sorcerers. And as far as I’m concerned…whoever killed them sellswords done the world a good turn. Them bastards was part of a group of bullies hated by near ’bout everybody. So no harm done. Like I said…I just thought I should warn you to keep an eye peeled as you head south. People are gonna be edgy, what with maraudin’ sorcerers and all. And if I ain’t missed my guess, friends of them what died on that bridge today is certain to be in a foul mood. Likely doggin’ ’em that done for their bully chums…if you get my meanin’?

We do, Selwyn said, and we thank you. If we see anyone who fits such a description, we’ll certainly pass on your warning. It seems the world is a dangerous place these days.

…’deed it is, young man. Now you folks have yourself a good night. He smiled and gave them a friendly wink. After a quick nod, he left the barn and headed for the tavern.

And thank you for the jug, Rucker called after him. We appreciate it.

Think nothin’ of it, my friend, the man said without breaking his stride, …least I could do, considerin’… Waving his hand over his shoulder, he disappeared around the corner of the alehouse.

Well, so much for luck. He must know it was us, Eli said, the second after Rucker closed the door. What if he tells someone we’re here? And why did he bring us that jug? Is he hoping we’ll get drunk so it’ll be easier when he and his friends attack us in the middle of the night? Or even worse…he could’ve poisoned it.

I don’t think he’d do that, Selwyn answered. Based on what he said about hating a certain group of sellswords, I believe we’re fairly safe here.

I agree with Selwyn, Arabelle said. I didn’t sense any ill will coming from him.

Holding up the stoneware jug, Rucker nodded. And I agree, as well. I think this is just a ‘thank you’ gift.

But if he can figure out who we are, Eli said, so can the men who work for The Wing.

Rucker shrugged. I guess we can only hope that the farther we get from the bridge, the less likely it is that anyone will connect us to what happened.

Then he returned to his blankets and set the jug on the ground, leaving the container unopened. But, for the time being, we have to be extremely cautious. Eli made a good point. We’d be ill-served by drunkenness, especially tonight.

It appears we’ve been given a gift from the gods, Selwyn said. Based on the idiotic description of what took place last night in Rynwyde, I don’t think we have to worry too much about being recognized. At least for now, it’s unlikely anyone can tie us to last night’s bloody mess in that back-alley. If everything goes…

* * *

Hold on a minute, Selwyn. I hate to spoil your optimism, but I have to disagree with you, Shartha interrupted, appalled at what she was hearing.

This sort of ignorance could easily end in tragedy. She knew that from firsthand experience. The past four years of her life had been a cruel teacher — terrifying years that had shown her the depraved depths of human brutality and self-interest. That nightmarish period had taught her she could take nothing for granted, especially not the foolish assumption of security.

She knew that Selwyn was engaged in dangerous thinking. In fact, naïveté in such large doses would likely get them all killed.

She’d seen too many desperate young girls die from little more than a bad case of ignorance. If she allowed even some of Selwyn’s foolhardiness to pass unchallenged, she’d have no one to blame but herself when things turned deadly.

Don’t forget what I said awhile ago, Shartha continued. "I gave you that information for a very good reason. We can’t assume that everyone we meet will have the same ridiculous rumor the tavern master had. Those who work for The Raven’s Wing, no matter at which level the bastards stand, will have the story they’re supposed to have…not the asinine crap The Heart tells the public.

Long before we can board a ship and get away from this demon-cursed lake, you can bet The Spur will have received a much more accurate description of us. And since we have no sure way of telling who works for The Wing and who doesn’t, we have to presume every person we encounter from here on out might be one of their agents…the shit-faced bastards. The most important thing to remember is that if we say or do the wrong thing in front of the wrong people…we’re dead. It’s as simple as that.

You sure know how to paint a cheerful picture of the future, Eli muttered.

I didn’t tell you this to scare you. Shartha saw that Eli wasn’t the only one looking worried. It’s just something we all have to know if we’re to survive. We can’t let fear, or a regrettable lack of knowledge, force us into a false assessment of the danger. This is simply the way life is, and it has to be faced…whether we damned well like it or not.

At that moment, she realized how truly young and inexperienced her rescuers were. She’d spent so much of the last four years expecting each day to be her last that she’d almost forgotten how it felt to live in constant terror of losing her life. In the protected back corners of her mind, she knew she used to feel the same soul-crushing fears that her young friends did now. And the momentary touch of that memory made her heart ache for them.

It reminded her of how much her life had changed. It was proof, once again, of how being smart enough to learn from, and make use of, those changes had been the secret to her survival. Her lessons had begun very soon after she was kidnapped, following her first beating for fighting back. That was when she discovered the importance — the sheer necessity — of adaptation.

Out of need, she’d taught herself to modify how she reacted to almost any dangerous or unexpected circumstance; how to control and endure her fear of the unknown. This skill was her most basic weapon in the cruel battle for survival, a weapon that so many of the other girls never learned to use.

As she studied her four young companions, she wondered if they actually had what it would take to see their obligation through to the end.

It was true they possessed a code of honor strong enough to make them risk getting killed. She wouldn’t be here now if they didn’t. However, there was a bigger question: did they have enough wisdom and experience to know when not to take such a risk? She owed them a life-debt, so she’d stay with them until she repaid them in full. She just hoped her own sense of honor wouldn’t get her killed in the process.

I want you to know what you’ve gotten yourselves into…what sort of brutal, inhuman pig-fuc… She paused and took a deep breath. Sorry! What I meant to say was…what sort of sadistic bastards you’re going to be up against.

We appreciate your warning, Arabelle said, but I think we already realize there are more dangers ahead of us than we can imagine. I promise you, there’s no need to worry about the depth of our determination. We’ll do whatever’s necessary when the time comes.

And there’s one other thing, Rucker said, his eyes narrowing as his jaw muscles tightened. It doesn’t matter whether we’re afraid or not. We’re not quitters. Brogan wanted us to take Wolfanger’s Hammer to the Dwarves, and that’s what we’re going to do, one way or another.

Shartha smiled at their fortitude. I didn’t mean to insult you. If I did, then I apologize. It’s just that I’ve had to rely on myself for so long, I’ve convinced myself I can’t trust anyone else to protect me. The last time I believed I could count on someone else, my world changed forever. I can’t ever let that happen again.

You’ve lived a life I can’t even imagine, Arabelle said, so I won’t question your decisions or even try to tell you who to trust. But I can tell you this from my own experience. Although I’ve known Rucker, Eli, and Selwyn for only a few weeks, I’ve never known anyone with more valor or compassion or determination. I don’t know if you can call it a gift or not, but I can sense things in people. And no one in the world has ever made me feel as safe and cared for as they have. And sadly, that includes my mother. I know she cared for me, and I loved her. Yet she always held back so much of the person she was… from everyone…even from me. But these three have treated me like I was part of their family. They stood up for me even against one of their own, and even against their own best interest. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them or trust them with, and that includes my life. I hope that someday you’ll be as lucky as I’ve been and find this out for yourself.

When Arabelle was finished, a silvery sheen glistened in her green eyes.

Shartha noted how quick Arabelle was to defend the honor of the three young men and how protective she was of them. It was obvious they had won her whole heart and utter devotion. Although Shartha didn’t believe she’d ever feel that way about anyone again, she let a tiny smile touch the corners of her mouth. I hope so, too, Ara. It must be a wonderful thing. I guess I’m going to have to re-learn what it means to have friends.

Well, first thing tomorrow, Selwyn said with a warm smile, we’ll start helping you learn. But right now, we need to get some rest. Then he turned to Rucker. So, how do you want to post our guard?

It didn’t take Rucker long to assign Arabelle and Shartha the first watch, Selwyn second, with Eli third.

Rucker chose the last watch for himself.

CHAPTER FOUR

Rucker stretched out on his bedding and sighed deeply. He tried not to fret over the tavern master’s warning, nor become obsessed with his ever-present fear concerning the possible return of his nightmare. But his efforts proved to be a complete waste of time.

Despite his desire to relax, Rucker found the thought that someone might come to the stable in the middle of the night searching for the five of them just a bit too troublesome. After a few minutes of worry that only seemed to increase, he knew his growing concern made sleep all but impossible.

Although he hadn’t asked for it and didn’t want it, the dire onus of leadership had fallen on him. That task had been Brogan’s, and Rucker would happily give it back to him if he could. But the responsibility of keeping himself and his friends safe was now up to him, and the burden weighed heavy on his shoulders.

Unable to shake his uneasiness, he sat up again and spoke to Selwyn. I was just wondering, Sel. Can you place some sort of spell on this barn to make certain that no one enters without our notice? There’s no sense taking chances if we don’t have to.

That’s a good idea, Selwyn said as he threw off his blanket and stood. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it on my own.

Then he moved over to the closed and wood-beam latched double doors of the main entrance, and there he paused. This will only take a minute or so to complete, but it might be a bit easier for me if no one talks until I’m finished.

Rucker watched in silence as his friend walked the full interior perimeter of the barn. Each step of the way, Selwyn spoke a series of archaic phrases while flourishing a combination of indecipherable hand gestures. When he completed the spell, he returned to his bedding and nodded at Rucker.

"That should do it. I placed an auditory alarm that will alert us if anyone tries to get in. I spliced the circle and locked the ends with a spell of binding. If anyone enters this barn now, it won’t be by stealth. I can promise you that."

Thanks, Sel, Rucker said with a nod. I think we’ll all sleep a little better now.

Rucker remained watchful as Arabelle and Shartha took their positions near the barn’s double door where they’d be most effective if anyone sought unwelcome entrance. When he finally saw them turn off one of the lanterns and adjust the second one to a short wick to cast only minimal light — just one of the safety measures they’d decided on earlier — he allowed himself a slight sigh of relief. For now, there was little else to be done.

He tried again to let go of his worries so he could get a few hours sleep.

Tomorrow they’d need to gain passage on a ship headed south, but he feared that wasn’t going to be easy. Their true descriptions probably will have spread across the entire area by then. With every passing day, the danger that they could be recognized by one of the murderous agents of The Raven’s Wing was likely to increase. This sobering realization added one more stone to the growing wall of trepidation blocking his entry into the world of dreams.

When sleep finally did come to him, it brought with it terrible nightmares of huge ravens soaring overhead — the sky dark with thousands of hungry Birds of Death, fierce and red-eyed, flashing dagger-like talons that dripped blood as they swooped down, searching for just the right moment to strike.

* * *

Dreaming or awake, it was a long night for them all.

About three hours before dawn, while standing the last half of his watch, Eli felt the hairs on his arms and neck start twitching.

A faint hum floated on the night air, the way Selwyn had said it would if someone tried to enter the barn before he removed the spell. The twitching of hairs and the low hum continued, their intensity growing only slightly for the next five or six seconds.

At the same time, the four stabled horses started shifting about, softly huffing their alarm. Unable to see clearly in the dim light, Eli turned up the flame on the lantern. Then the air pulsed and snapped, suddenly shattering the near silence of the night.

An explosive surge of energy came from just outside the closed barn door. Yet, it was so powerful that Eli could feel it on the inside, gusting through the narrow vertical spaces between the boards. Before he had time to alert his friends, the doors crashed inward, splintering the heavy wood-beam latch and ripping loose the hinges.

All of a sudden, Selwyn’s broken spell of binding pierced the quiet night with a steady shriek.

Unable to sidestep the shattered doors, Eli found himself knocked to the ground, stunned and barely conscious. As he looked up, dazed and bewildered, from where he lay in the dirt, he felt certain that the impact from the doors had damaged his mind. At the very least, he feared his vision must be impaired. Because nothing else could explain what he saw coming through the open doorway.

Looming large and gray, a nearly transparent figure of a faceless man swept soundlessly into the barn.

CHAPTER FIVE

The loud snapping sound, followed immediately by the noise of the barn doors ripping from their hinges and crashing to the ground, jolted Rucker and his companions out of their bedding.

Before the thunderous din of the shattered doors reached its apex, Rucker was on his feet with sword already in hand. A second or two later, the others followed suit, their weapons poised to defend against the ghostly figure standing before them.

Rucker saw Eli lying dazed and moaning on the ground next to the shattered doors, the devastating result of an attack by this vaporous eight-foot-tall ghost-man towering over his friend’s prostrate body.

A terrible shrieking sound filled the barn and helped make the patches of moonlit darkness seem like a scene from a madman’s nightmare. The blaring noise caused the horses to panic as they whinnied in terror and kicked wildly at their stalls.

Rucker assumed the ear-splitting sound came from the terrifying intruder, until Selwyn removed the warning spell he’d conjured earlier.

Instantly, the unnatural shrieking stopped.

Confident that this was real and not one of his nightmares, Rucker stared in horror at the wraith, which floated a few inches above the barn floor. Before Rucker could move to aid his fallen companion, the specter held out its hand and conjured a small sphere that began to glow like a pulsing ball of red fire.

The phantom reached down, gripped Eli’s ankle, and then lifted him from the ground.

By now, some of the horses were trying to jump the gates of their stalls. Those that weren’t, were violently kicking at the thick planking of the divider walls around them, kicking with such force that it seemed they might break free at any moment.

In the blink of an eye, Rucker closed the distance between himself and the wraith.

He swung his long-sword in a powerful sweeping stroke that would have severed the wraith’s head from its body, had this been a natural creature. But the blade passed through the specter as if meeting nothing more substantial than morning mist.

However, Rucker’s attack did have an effect.

The fire in the specter’s hand went dark and disappeared as the apparition dropped Eli on the ground and turned toward Rucker. It leapt at him while striking out with incredible speed. Even as fast as the wraith moved, Rucker had his sword in place, raised to block the impending blow. But his valiant attempt to outmaneuver this specter from hell failed to achieve the desired result.

The well-executed defensive move did nothing to deter the swiftness and efficiency of the unnatural creature. Seemingly unconcerned about the presence of the naked blade, the wraith’s arm passed right through the sword and landed a fierce blow against the side of Rucker’s head, knocking him to the ground.

Even in his dazed condition, he realized his sword had no apparent impact on the specter’s actions, and this disheartening awareness chilled Rucker to the marrow of his rattled bones.

Selwyn had begun to conjure some sort of incantation by this time. That failed as well. Before he could complete the spell, the wraith was upon him, backhanding him to the ground. Selwyn crashed face down and didn’t move.

Rucker feared his friend might be dead, but almost immediately Selwyn began to moan and shift about.

The silent specter reached down and snatched Selwyn up by the ankle as though it required no effort at all, just as it did with Eli a few moments before. Dangling its stunned victim in the air with one hand, the wraith extended the other one, once again conjuring a small ball of fire.

Rucker lay sprawled in the dirt like a discarded scarecrow. And although still dazed from the jaw-wracking blow he’d taken only seconds earlier, he watched in surprise as Arabelle and Shartha attacked the creature.

They charged in from opposite sides, stabbing and slicing at it with all their might. But the only impact their swords seemed to have on the specter was that the fire in its hand went dark for the second time.

The unnatural creature immediately dropped Selwyn and turned on them, just as it had with Rucker.

The specter leapt forward and backhanded Shartha. It knocked her almost ten feet away as if she weighed no more than a small child. Then it grabbed Arabelle by the front of her shirt and snatched her from her already unsteady stance.

At once, the object in its hand began to glow again.

* * *

Arabelle was certain she was about to die.

She was defenseless and there was no one left to help distract the wraith from its attack on her. As she squirmed and flailed about while locked in the specter’s powerful grip, her shirt tore part-way open at the neck and both of her necklaces swung free.

Instantly, the wraith released its grip and leapt away.

With a sudden pulse of air and a sharp snapping sound, the specter vanished.

Arabelle lay trembling on the ground where the creature had dropped her. Terrified and gasping for breath, she stayed where she was for what seemed an eternity while trying to convince herself that she was still alive.

Eventually it worked. After regaining her wits, she noticed that the horses had calmed down.

When she at last felt confident the phantom had gone away, she rose to her feet and went to see how badly her friends were hurt. After a quick inspection, she found them battered and stunned but not seriously injured.

Once they were all back on their feet and had their senses about them, Selwyn asked Arabelle what she’d done to drive the creature away.

I have no idea, she said. When my shirt tore, the wraith simply dropped me and disappeared. In truth, I didn’t do anything.

With a trembling hand, she reached up and lifted her necklaces to examine them.

I’m surprised the creature didn’t break these, considering the way it grabbed my shirt and yanked me off my feet. This one is my favorite keepsake from my mother. She held up one of her two necklaces and inspected it for damage.

That has to be the answer, Selwyn said. The wraith must’ve reacted to your necklaces. There has to be something about them it couldn’t withstand…some sort of magical property bound to one or both of them. Isn’t the necklace your mother gave you one of the items she took from your father?

It is, Ara said, but she never said anything about it being magical.

What about the other one? Rucker asked. …the one Enid Hubbs gave you.

She told me her mother gave it to her…that it kept her safe and always brought her good luck.

Then it’s reasonable to assume that one or both of the necklaces must be responsible for driving the wraith away, Selwyn said. But I’m amazed at how fast the specter released you and disappeared. I think I should check your necklaces for…

Bloody hell, what was that thing, Sel? Eli interrupted as he rubbed the knot on his forehead where one of the barn doors had struck him. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t a man. Nothing human could be that strong…or be so unaffected by the clean stroke of a sword.

"I’m almost positive it was what the books call a Death-Vapor. It’s a wraith conjured by the darkest practitioners of magic and sent forth as an assassin. A Death-Vapor has only one reason for existing…to destroy life. And they’re usually unstoppable. Until it achieves the goal its conjurer has set, it’s absolutely merciless in its pursuit…not the least bit averse to killing dozens of innocent people just to reach its intended victim.

When it captures its hapless prey, it uses that red ball of fire to burn a hole through the victim’s chest and then rips out the beating heart. Only the most powerful magic-users can conjure such a vile creature. And even to consider doing so, the sorcerer would have to be willing to practice the blackest, most corrupt forms of the magical arts.

It attacked us by mistake, didn’t it? Arabelle asked as she tried to overcome the fear that still gripped her. It must have been sent for someone else. That has to be what happened here…right?

I hate to say it, but I don’t think so, Selwyn answered. As I said, whoever conjured that hideous thing clearly possesses great knowledge and boundless power. And a sorcerer with such prodigious skill wouldn’t make a mistake of that kind. So, no…I’m afraid the Death-Vapor was most certainly intended for us. We were lucky this time. But the appearance of this Death-Vapor is a very bad omen.

What the hell does that mean? Eli’s dread-filled tone made it clear he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

It means whoever sent the wraith must possess the magical power to track us, even from great distances. It also means he could know where we are at any given time…and that makes my blood run cold. However, we do have one thing in our favor. At least now, whoever sent it is aware that we have a means to defend ourselves against such an assassin. So it’s not likely he’ll send another Death-Vapor against us. He’ll have to come up with something else if he wants to succeed the next time. I just hate to think what that ‘something else’ might be.

What do you mean? Arabelle asked, terrified at Selwyn’s dire expectations. What ‘next time?’

Whoever sent that thing after us, failed, Selwyn explained. But I can’t imagine that anyone would expend that much magical effort and then just give up because they were foiled the first time. They’ll keep trying until they’re successful.

So, what do we do now? Shartha asked.

Two things…and the first one is…, Selwyn said without hesitation, I’d like to check Ara’s necklaces to see which one is responsible for driving the Death-Vapor away. But I’ll do so only with her permission, of course.

With only the hint of a smile, Ara nodded, allowing Selwyn to inspect the necklaces one at a time. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the result. The possibility that she was wearing not only one, but perhaps two magic talismans around her neck left her more nervous than she would’ve imagined. Until recently, she wasn’t even sure she believed in magic. Now, it seemed she was surrounded by it.

It took only a few moments, but when Selwyn finished his inspection, he stepped back and released a long sigh.

Just what I suspected, he said, but not what I’d hoped. They both possess powerful magic, although they each pulsate with their own resonance. Since we’re dealing with magic, it only makes sense, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

You said it’s not what you’d hoped, Eli said. So, what’s the problem? Isn’t it to our advantage that both necklaces contain magic? How can that be something you wouldn’t want?

Ara saw Selwyn glance at Eli as if momentarily confused.

"Oh! No! That’s not what I mean, Eli. I’m not sorry they’re both imbued with magic…certainly not. In truth, I’m more than thankful. It’s just that because they are, I can’t figure out which one drove the Death-Vapor away. That would be very useful knowledge, would it not? However, I find it almost impossible to believe that both necklaces would contain the same magic. So, that leaves me with two questions still unanswered. And that’s what I was hoping wouldn’t happen."

So, as I asked a minute ago, what do we do now? Shartha said with a frown. You stated there were two things we must do. What’s the second one?

Second, Selwyn said thoughtfully, "I’m going to place a strong spell of concealment on each of us. It might not be fool-proof, but it will make tracking us much more difficult for the magic-user that sent that Death-Vapor."

When he stepped close to Arabelle and raised his hands, she cringed slightly.

Don’t worry, Ara. This will only take a second or two, and you won’t feel a thing.

I’m sorry, she smiled apologetically, feeling foolish for flinching. I guess I’m just not yet comfortable with the idea of magic. It still seems so strange and frightening. But I’m sure I’ll get used to it with a little more time and experience. So, go ahead. You can place the spell. I won’t draw away again.

After Selwyn had gone through the process with all of them, Rucker thanked him and turned to the others.

I don’t know about the rest of you, he said, but I’m not in the mood to go back to sleep. And besides…it won’t be long before we see the first signs of dawn. I think we should just stay alert for the rest of the night, and then get away from here as soon as it’s light enough to travel.

As Ara listened, she let her gaze scan the littered barn floor. Finally, she said, "What about the damage to the stable doors? Shouldn’t

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