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The Undergod: The Godsfall Trilogy, #3

The Undergod: The Godsfall Trilogy, #3

Vorschau lesen

The Undergod: The Godsfall Trilogy, #3

Länge:
409 Seiten
7 Stunden
Freigegeben:
Oct 16, 2018
ISBN:
9781386029571
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

Nekiel has fallen, his blood darkening the Wintersea, but victory came at great price. Knightswrath lies shattered. Many of Rowen's trusted allies have been slain. Hatred of magic spreads once again, this time in the form of the Inquisition. A true dragon, the first seen in ages, has been unleashed, and her great wings sow panic as they blot out the sun.

But these troubles pale before an even deadlier truth: Nekiel was merely the puppet of Fohl, the sinister Undergod, who has already claimed a new host. Now, a war-weary Rowen must hunt this new dark disciple, even as the Inquisition stalks his allies, and the Undergod proves to be the cruelest adversary Rowen has ever faced.

Freigegeben:
Oct 16, 2018
ISBN:
9781386029571
Format:
Buch

Über den Autor

Michael Meyerhofer grew up in Iowa where he learned to cope with the unbridled excitement of the Midwest by reading books and not getting his hopes up. Probably due to his father’s influence, he developed a fondness for Star Trek, weight lifting, and collecting medieval weapons. He is also addicted to caffeine and the History Channel. His fourth poetry book, What To Do If You’re Buried Alive, was recently published by Split Lip Press. He also serves as the Poetry Editor of Atticus Review. His poetry and prose have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Brevity, Ploughshares, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Rattle, and many other journals. He and his fiancee currently live in Fresno, California, in a little house beside a very large cactus.


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Buchvorschau

The Undergod - Michael Meyerhofer

PROLOGUE

The God of Death screamed across the continent in the form of a hot, howling wind. As the tips of mountains and the spires of towers scraped against him, he felt his essence unraveling. Already, he was beginning to forget who and what he was. Shapeless and lost, he raged across the land, frightened but clinging to life. He had existed in that form for far too long. For centuries, he’d hidden himself within the vessel of Nekiel, lending power and will in exchange for a home, then Nekiel had inadvertently driven him out, a byproduct of whatever magic Nekiel had used to return to Ruun. Homeless, Fohl felt his soul beginning to unravel.

Soon... Soon, I’ll be forced to go back...

He wondered what the other gods would do to him. How many millennia had it been since he’d tricked them into casting down Zet then declaring war on the Dragongod’s winged creations? Surely by now, they’d recognized their error. The pain and suffering Fohl had secretly inflicted on the world were nothing compared to what the other gods could—and would—do to him.

Frantically, the Undergod drifted across the length and breadth of Ruun, passing through kingdoms, flitting through cities and castles in the blink of an eye. He had the vague satisfaction of sensing the inexplicable unease left in his wake—the roiling nightmares of children and the anxious trembling of kings—but that was small comfort, considering what lay ahead for him.

I need another vessel. A strong one. But who?

Even with all of Ruun open before him, the odds of finding a suitable home were slim to none. After all, even the most fey of souls would never be foolish enough to consciously house the Undergod. Rather, it would require subtlety and patience. Fohl needed time to coax his way in, exploiting the opening afforded by runaway ambition. He had learned millennia before that he could not simply conceal himself in the body of any unconscionable killer or prideful king, though. He needed a vessel of sufficient strength and a soul of considerable power. Otherwise, the vessel would simply burst to cinders, leaving Fohl weaker than before.

The Undergod gasped like a drowning man and continued his search. Inevitably, he found himself drawn back to Godsfall—a land of thorns, scattered with the bones of dragons, choked by poisonous fumes that seeped up from cracks in plains of jagged black glass. There, he was stronger. The degradation slowed. Despite his terror, the Undergod felt another passing flutter of satisfaction. Dimly, he remembered the land as it had once been, thousands upon thousands of years ago—before he tricked the others into casting down the Dragongod and ruining the lush kingdom’s former inhabitants.

He searched Godsfall as well, but without much hope. After all, part of him had always clung to the place, so he knew the land with the intimacy of a lover. And he knew that he had done his work too well. The Olgrym were too corrupted to be of further use to him. For all their wrath and physical strength, none could hold him. Still, he searched their villages of rapine and murder, along with their ghastly fortresses built from the bones of dragons.

He paused, feeling a momentary flutter of hope when he sensed a different tribe of Olgrym. This tribe had gone west, to the Dead Shores, and isolated themselves from the rest. A comparatively temperate clan, they had somehow shaken free of the Undergod’s influence, rejecting the barbaric ways of their kin, and turned back to the Light. Despite his anger at their betrayal, he wondered if one of them might serve as an adequate vessel.

No, they’re still too weak, too good...

The Undergod screamed in silent frustration, twisting and thrashing in the night. He was nearly out of time. He could not sustain himself on this plane of existence for much longer. Soon, very soon, he would be forced to go back. Already, he could sense the gods waking from their slumber, turning their burning eyes to find him. Though they could not kill him, he had no doubt that the agony of their revenge might well last until the end of time.

No, I will not go back. I am no longer a child of Light. I cannot go back! The Undergod continued his search, resolving that it would be better to fade and pass into oblivion than face an eternity of divine torment. Then, at last, he found what he was looking for—not on Godsfall, but far away. The ghostly impression emanated from a faraway kingdom whose original name he could not remember.

The Undergod laughed at the absurdity of his situation, disbelieving that a mere Human could ever hold him. He hesitated, wondering if he truly wished to bind himself to a being who did not even have a Shel’ai’s portion of magic. He glanced up at the swirl of stars known as Armahg’s Eye. With a nauseating rush of fear, he felt the heavens beginning to open up. The gods were looking for him. Soon, they would have him.

No choice.

Fohl started off then wept with frustration when he felt his strength continue to ebb. He did not think he had enough power left to reach his destination, let alone coax his way in. Then he felt the heavens open further, gazing down at him with freshly kindled wrath. Terror gave him renewed strength and purpose.

The hot, howling wind drove east, forsaking the land of glass and shadow, then turned abruptly. Tendrils of Fohl’s essence trailed behind him, and he felt the Olgrym tremble for the first time in their lives. Some sat up, clutching weapons hewn from iron and dragonbone. Gradually, though, the terror subsided. One by one, they lay back down, closed their eyes, and returned to their nightmares.

CHAPTER ONE

Rowen could not tell whether he was drowning or burning. Scalding water flowed over his bare skin and poured into his screaming mouth. His lungs swelled. Frantically, he clawed at the surrounding darkness. Faint wisps of purple light appeared then vanished the moment he reached for them. He tried to kick, to swim, but only his right arm would move.

Armor, he thought dumbly. My armor is trying to drown me. He reached for the right side of his cuirass, where leather straps joined the two halves. Unable to feel the buckles through his gauntlets, he pulled anyway. One of the straps came free. His cuirass shifted. He reached for where the second strap should be and pulled. Nothing happened.

The pain in his lungs reached new heights of agony. Gritting his teeth, Rowen brought his right hand to his face, pinched it between his chest and chin, and tugged his gauntlet off. He reached for his cuirass again. This time, he found the buckle. He tugged it, and his cuirass sprang open and fell away, slipping off his left arm.

Why can’t I move my left arm? What’s happened to me?

He tried to kick again, but his legs were still trapped. A glint of purple blurred through the water right over his head, but Rowen ignored it. Reaching for the inside of his right thigh, he found the strap that secured the plates and gave it a tug. He did the same to the armor plates covering his left ankle, releasing them into the dark.

Still, he could not get free.

Not my armor. My legs are shattered. Deciding the same must be true of his left arm, he focused what remained of his strength into his right. His eyes started to close. He forced them back open. The next time purple light blurred overhead, he reached for it. Something brushed his hand, jolting him down to the bone.

Silwren, please help me—

The purple light barreled toward him, so fast and blinding that he started to recoil. Overcoming the instinct, he reached for it instead. Something grabbed his hand. The jolt swept down his arm a second time, flooding his entire body. Unable to scream, he jerked.

The hand let go.

Rowen felt himself plunging deeper and deeper into darkness. No! I can’t die here. Too many people need me. Igrid... Thessa, Sariel... everyone—

The purple light plunged toward him like a spear. His strength exhausted, Rowen could do nothing but stare. The blazing light came closer and closer. It waved past his face. He realized the light looked like a hand. The burning hand reached for him a second time, missed, and started to retreat. Rowen felt a great weight bearing down on his eyelids, forcing them shut. He resisted a moment then gave in.

Then something grabbed all four of his limbs all at once and yanked him upward, out of the water. The jolt swept through his body again, stronger and more painful than before. Rowen’s eyes flew open, and he found himself facing a dark sky smattered with stars. Blue-black clouds swirled overhead then parted, revealing the bright swirl of Armahg’s Eye.

The pain ebbed, receded, then increased tenfold. Like a leaping animal, it swept throughout his entire body, though he felt it most in his chest. Water poured out of his mouth, as though something were forcing him to retch into the face of the stars. He tasted blood on his lips. Squeezing his eyelids shut, he felt tears leaking between them. Then he felt himself falling. He turned his head, blinked, and saw a great sea of broken ice as jagged as shattered glass. He realized that whatever had saved him was casting him back into the sea, letting him die.

Unable to speak or move, Rowen watched the shattered ice and dark water rushing toward him. Then his descent slowed. His body shifted sideways, like a scorched leaf caught in an autumn wind. His descent slowed further. A moment later, his body settled gently onto a patch of ice. Rowen stared up at the stars for a moment, then he took a breath.

Pain burned his lungs, but it was not as bad as before. He forced himself to take a second breath then a third. With each breath, the pain ebbed. Finally, when it had dulled enough, he tried to sit up. The pain leapt at him again, driving him back down. He heard a strange sound and realized it was his own voice, screaming.

Gods, what’s happened to me? Gritting his teeth, he managed to stop screaming, but the pain continued to pulse through him, making his body shake. Realizing he’d closed his eyes, he opened them. He saw the stars again—and a woman’s face.

Don’t move. Stay awake. Ignore either of those instructions, and you’re dead for sure.

Rowen started to smile, alarmed by the urgency in Zeia’s voice, but another wave of pain jarred him. He looked down, blinked, and saw matching hands of purple flame blossoming from Zeia’s scarred wrist-stumps. For the first time, he realized she was pressing her flaming hands to his body, trying to heal him. But the faint tingling that issued from her touch hardly even dulled the pain.

How— He coughed, feeling as though a jagged shard of bone remained in his lungs.

Zeia did not blink, despite the blood that just splattered her cheek. Don’t talk, she warned. I figured that one was obvious. Her violet eyes matched the color of her hands as she continued to press on his chest. Your left arm is shattered. So are your legs. I’d say the bones are more like powder now. If you have a single rib that isn’t broken, I’d be amazed. She paused. Do you remember what happened?

Before Rowen could try to answer, Zeia’s voice echoed in his mind. Just think your answer, jackass. I’m not risking my life trying to fix you just so I can hear your pretty voice.

Rowen smiled faintly. The dragon, he thought. The ice. The ice shattered. The dragon broke free. I remember it rising—

A fresh bout of pain stabbed through his chest, making him wince. He had the odd feeling that his ribs were shifting, moving, scraping everything in their path.

They are. Zeia spoke directly into his mind. I’m trying my best to knit your bones back together, but your organs keep getting in the way.

I’ll have a stern word with them, when this is all over, Rowen thought. "What about Keswen?" He resisted the urge to sit up and look for their Sylvan companion.

Alive. Hurt, but she’s in better shape than you.

Rowen turned his head, looking for the dragon.

It’s gone, Zeia said. It flew away as soon as it set you down.

Rowen’s eyes widened.

Zeia smirked. That’s right, Knight. It wasn’t me. I pulled you clear, but then the ice broke again. You got yourself pinched between two chunks that dragged you back down. I tried diving in, but— Zeia, broke off her telepathy and said, Damn.

Fresh urgency filled the woman’s expression, though Rowen did not know why. The pain did not feel any worse than before. A trickle of seawater leaked out the right side of his mouth. He lifted his hand to brush it away. Instead of water, blood stained his fingers.

What did I say about moving, Knight? Zeia snapped.

Rowen shifted his attention back to the Shel’ai. For the first time, he realized how exhausted she looked. Lines of strain had formed around her eyes and mouth. A thin trickle of blood—her own—ran from her nose.

She’s killing herself, Rowen realized. She’s spending magic she doesn’t have, trying to heal me. Stop, he croaked.

Either I die here or I die later when Igrid finds out what happened to you, Zeia snapped. Now shut up and let me get your insides back in order. Blood, warm and wet, trickled from Zeia’s nose and ran down his cheek. Zeia winced. Her eyes lost focus, then she shook her head and snapped back to attention.

A tingling sensation flooded Rowen’s chest, interrupting the rough jags of pain. Then Rowen turned his head and saw Keswen dragging herself toward them, grimacing as she pulled her wounded body across the ice. The Wyldkin huntress’s hair had come unbraided, trailing feathers on the ice behind her. She kept one twisted wrist tucked against her chest and winced each time she moved. But she was not bleeding, and her other hand still feebly held a shortsword. Her ice-blue eyes met his.

Stop her, Rowen gasped.

Keswen did not reply, and Rowen realized she was still too far away to help, anyway. He lifted his right hand, gathered his strength, and prepared to push Zeia away. But he had only seized her arm when Zeia lifted one hand-shaped flame from his chest and pressed it to his forehead. Her touch jolted his mind, and a moment later numbness swept in.

Just so you know, Wytchfriend, you owe me one in the next life, Zeia whispered, hoarse, then Rowen’s world went black.

IGRID LISTENED TO THE whimpering and moaning of the Sylvan king and wondered if Rowen would mind too greatly if she killed him after all. The bedraggled king was still tied to a horse, his face dangling over the ice as they rode. As much as Igrid wanted the man dead, she had to admit that at least some of his pitiful status might be her fault. After all, she was the one who had broken his arm.

Not that he left me much choice, Igrid thought, glancing at Thessa, whom the king had blindly tried to kill. He’s lucky he’s even breathing. Igrid turned back to the disgraced monarch and studied the man’s wide, cloudy eyes. She doubted the king even knew where he was.

The king turned. His eyes fixed on her, and their blueness seemed to intensify. The king’s body began to shake—not in pain, but with rage. Despite the man’s age and the fact that he was tied to a horse, Igrid reached for her sword-hilt. A moment later, though, the king’s eyes glazed over, and he began wailing again.

Igrid reined in the horse. She hesitated then drew her sword. She’d promised not to kill the man, but she could not recall any promises that forbade her from bashing him unconscious.

A great gray hand touched hers so quietly that Igrid jumped. Then she relaxed when she saw a hugely muscled, gray-skinned warrior standing before her. Even on foot, he towered over her. The dark-eyed Olg bowed then stepped back. He turned and shoved a rag into the screaming king’s mouth.

No use, Saanji said from the distance. He’ll just spit it back out—unless you shove it down into his lungs, which I wouldn’t mind.

She turned to give the Dhargothi prince a stern rebuke. At the sight of the rotund man shivering in his armor, though, Igrid’s anger subsided. Like her, Saanji had given his cloak to Thessa.

Not yet, Igrid said, but I’m giving it an hour. If we don’t reach this trading post Locke told us about by then, all vows are nullified.

Igrid turned to check on Thessa again. The girl was desperately trying to wear a brave face, though she continued to shiver, despite the weight of several cloaks. Snowflakes had gathered in her crusty hair, and her cheeks were taut with cold. The girl kept one hand on the shortsword that Rowen had given her. She kept drawing it, sheathing it, and drawing it again.

Don’t move your arms so much, Igrid said. It’s good to keep moving if you want to stave off cold, but every time you open your cloaks, you let your heat out.

Thessa sheathed her sword and tugged at her cloaks. Her teeth chattered. Doesn’t feel... like there’s much heat left to lose.

I know the feeling. Saanji turned to Igrid. How much... farther do you think it is?

Igrid squinted into the white wastes ahead. She saw no hint of firelight and heard no voices on the wind. Gods know. Even at night, it’s so damn barren out here, we couldn’t have missed it.

Maybe it’s... over the next hill, Thessa suggested, her teeth chattering.

Igrid gave her a piteous smile. Don’t get your hopes up, little one. Could be miles yet. She glanced at Breaksteel, the only member of their company who wasn’t complaining.

Then again, he can’t speak!

The tongueless Olg seemed far from warm, though. He shivered as he walked, occasionally pausing to swing his massive polearm at the empty air as though to warm himself. Breaksteel’s attire—the plain wool clothes and leather jerkin of a squire, oversized to accommodate his massive build—were ill-suited to a night on the Wintersea. As resilient as he was, she wondered how long it would be before even the Olg froze to death.

Saanji maneuvered his horse closer to Igrid’s. There’s something we should consider, he said in a low voice. This trading post that Locke mentioned... what if it doesn’t even exist?

Igrid reined in. She was quiet for a moment. Then, barely remembering to keep her voice down, she said, That bastard.

Saanji nodded. "Locke didn’t want you and the girl there when the fighting started. Zeia didn’t want me there, either. So they sent us away."

They sent us off to freeze to death, Igrid amended, fuming.

We still probably have more of a chance out here than we did with Nekiel. Saanji smiled weakly.

Igrid’s wrath ebbed again. Don’t talk like that. Zeia’s still alive.

Saanji blinked rapidly and wiped his nose. Like hell.

She is, Igrid insisted. The woman got her hands chopped off then fell in love with a fat Dhargothi princeling. If she can survive that, she can survive anything.

Saanji looked up, blinked again, and laughed. I’m holding you to that. He reined in and looked around, scanning the surrounding darkness. Enough of this, he said finally. Let’s at least build a damn fire.

Breaksteel moved closer. He held his kashpa in one hand and jammed the weapon into the ground. Then, using both hands, he made a quick series of hand-signs.

Igrid translated. No wood. She wiped her nose. Gods, he’s right. I haven’t seen a tree for miles!

Then let’s ride as fast as the horses will carry us. Saanji nodded toward the whimpering Sylvan king. Cut him loose and leave him here. Breaksteel can have his horse. We’ll just ride until we—

A great bestial roar struck them with the force of a storm wind, nearly driving them from their saddles. The horses screamed and reared. The one holding the Sylvan king twisted and galloped off before Breaksteel could grab the reins. Even as Igrid fought to regain control of her own mount, she turned and saw Thessa. The girl was wide-eyed, frantically holding her saddle as her horse balked and reared.

No, hold the reins tight! Use your feet to—

Thessa’s horse tossed its head, jerked, and reared up again, hurling the girl from the saddle. Thessa screamed, seemed to hang in midair for a moment, then fell with a hard thud onto the snowy ground.

Igrid yanked on the reins to her horse, furiously driving her heels into its sides. The horse fought her a moment longer then withered, all but collapsing in the snow. Though Igrid knew the horse would probably run, she leapt from the saddle. She ran toward Thessa, but Saanji reached her first. The Dhargot was on foot, his forehead bleeding, though he hardly seemed to notice.

Thessa was lying on her side, turned away, absolutely silent. Igrid started to reach for her. Saanji caught her wrists and pulled her back. He said something that Igrid could not understand in her fury. She kicked his ankle then his knee and broke free. She dove for Thessa again.

This time, it was Breaksteel who caught her. Expressionless, the Olg hefted her in the air, over his shoulder, ignoring the blows she rained on his chest. Weeping with frustration, Igrid was just about to thrust her fingers in the Olg’s ears when he deposited her on the snowy ground. She started to get up. Breaksteel pressed one boot into her midriff and gently but forcefully pushed her back down.

Let me up, you bastard, Igrid cried. When she could not shove the Olg’s foot off her, she drew a shortsword.

Breaksteel stepped back, holding up his empty hands, then made a flurry of signs. But Igrid did not have the patience to translate. Casting aside her blade, she sprinted toward Thessa. Saanji was kneeling beside her, turning her over gently. Igrid was about to kick the Dhargot in the ribs, but she saw that he was using one hand to hold Thessa’s shoulder while the other was supporting the girl’s neck.

She’s hurt, Saanji said without looking up. Sorry about before. I just didn’t want you shaking her until we knew—

Igrid collapsed to her knees in the snow. How bad?

I don’t think the little lamb broke her neck, but her skull got rattled. That’s for sure.

Igrid studied Thessa’s face. For the first time, she realized that Thessa’s eyes were wide-open. She waved her hand in front of them. The girl did not respond. Frantically, she searched for injuries, but saw no blood on Thessa’s face. Then, she saw blood pooling in the snow, beneath the side of her head, above the soft swirl of her ear.

Saanji had already tugged off both his gloves. Despite the cold, he took off his belt next. Hold her head up. Gently. I’ll try tying—

Another roar sliced the night air. Igrid turned in time to see the last horse, her own, trying to get away from Breaksteel. Somehow, the Olg had caught it by the reins and, despite having no tongue, was trying to soothe it by humming. It looked for a moment like it might work. Then the horse reared up, hooves flailing.

Breaksteel jerked backwards, and the reins slipped from his grasp. The horse bolted, galloping away, but the Olg continued to hold his empty hand in the air. Then, like a felled tree, he tipped sideways and crashed to the earth. The ice cracked beneath him. Igrid feared for a moment that the ground would open up and the freezing ocean underneath would claim him, but the earth held.

Damn, Saanji said.

Cover Thessa’s wound first, Igrid ordered, surprised by how calm her own voice sounded.

Saanji’s hands shook as he held his gloves to the side of Thessa’s head then cinched them tightly with his belt. He pulled it as hard as he could and held it. Igrid drew a stiletto, made a new hole, took the belt from Saanji, and buckled the makeshift bandage around Thessa’s head. Sheathing her stiletto, she drew her breast-knife, which had a better blade for cutting, and sliced off the excess length.

Breaksteel, Igrid said, but Saanji was already easing away from Thessa. Igrid took his place, resting Thessa’s head on her lap. She waved her hand in front of Thessa’s open eyes again. The girl did not blink. Igrid closed the girl’s eyes but gently slapped Thessa’s cheek. Wake up, sewer rat. This is no place for a nap.

When Thessa did not answer, Igrid leaned over her and turned sideways, holding her cheek over Thessa’s mouth. Igrid’s braid had come undone, and red hair spilled across Thessa’s face. Igrid swore and gathered up her hair, tying it in a rough knot. She continued to hold her cheek over Thessa’s lips. A moment later, she felt a faint, warm breath against her skin.

Igrid wept. Then she lifted her head and turned to check on Breaksteel. Saanji had already turned the gigantic warrior onto his back and was stooped over him, scowling. Igrid could tell at once that it was bad news. She took a deep breath. Dead?

Saanji inspected the Olg’s eyes then shook his head. No, but he’s not waking up, either. And I don’t see any blood, except for a trickle on his forehead. Saanji clapped his hands over Breaksteel’s face. When the Olg did not respond, Saanji shook his head again. I’m no cleric, Iron Sister, but I’m guessing they’re both in damn near the same condition.

Igrid looked down at Thessa, considered clapping as Saanji had done, and noticed how pale Thessa’s cheeks looked. A fire, she said. We need to build a fire. When Saanji did not answer, she looked up. Did you hear me?

Saanji met her gaze, his eyes flashing with anger. Yes, Iron Sister. But unless you know about a kind of tree that’s invisible until you hit it with an axe, I don’t—

I know there aren’t any damn trees, Igrid snapped, but we need to get them somewhere warmer. That means we need the horses. One of us has to go after them.

Saanji straightened slowly. And... that roar we heard?

Igrid winced. Maybe that was Nekiel. I saw Silwren turn into a dragon of sorts, in Atheion. Could have been like that.

Or else that was Khyrshar breaking through the ice. Saanji’s expression darkened. To Igrid’s amazement, he had stopped shivering. Maybe she’ll help them fight Nekiel.

As gently as she could, Igrid lowered Thessa’s head onto the ice. After gathering up the cloaks Thessa had lost, she covered the girl then faced Saanji again. "Maybe that was Khyrshar breaking free and helping Locke and the others kill Nekiel. Or maybe they’re all dead. The truth is, we don’t know. And I’m sorry, but that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Right now, what matters is catching those damn horses."

Saanji nodded wearily. I know. Stay here with them. I’ll go—

Igrid looked down at Thessa. With great difficulty, she shook her head. No. I’m faster. Just... keep her safe.

I will. Saanji stooped to pick up his kingsteel longsword, which he’d dropped while bandaging Thessa. After a brief pause, he offered it to Igrid. Take this. You’re better with it than I am. Just give me your shortsword. If I need anything else, I have the Olg’s polearm.

Igrid hesitated then traded swords with Saanji. She turned east, in the direction the horses had run, and took off after them. As she ran into the night, she looked down at the new sword she was carrying. The hilt was made of chilling brass, shaped like a grinning warrior with arms and legs spread. With a start, Igrid realized she’d seen this sword years ago, when she’d briefly met the heroic Lancer, Arnil Royce. He’d been wounded on the plains, but she’d saved his life—only to hear that he’d been killed later, fighting Saanji’s brother.

I saved Thessa. I saved Breaksteel. Does that mean they’re about to die now, too?

Cursing, Igrid tucked the sword under her arm, lowered her head, and sprinted into the freezing night air.

CHAPTER TWO

Maddoc undid the clasp of his cloak and let it fall to the forest floor. The cloak had already snagged three times on branches, ripping loudly in the night, and he was glad to be rid of it. Still, a faint chill seeped through his clothing as he climbed the rocky hills, making his way toward the Lancers’ camp.

Gods, if it’s this cold here, what must it be like on the Wintersea? Banishing the thought from his mind, he refocused his efforts on the climb. The position of the moon told him he was making good time. He knew that would change once he had to abandon his run for a stealthy walk, though. Though Maddoc could see perfectly well in the dark, he was not nearly as sure-footed as the woman he was rushing to help.

Peering ahead into the darkness, Maddoc wondered how far ahead Kilisti had gone. He’d left the camp in pursuit of her, fully intending to help her assassinate Cadwallis, the fanatical leader of the Lancers. Their hope was that in doing so, the Lancers would be so demoralized that they would retreat, giving Jalist’s army a clear path to race north and help Rowen Locke. But Maddoc was already filled with doubts. He could just as easily foresee the opposite happening, as the Lancers sought to avenge their

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