Raven clawed at the bare, unyielding ground. His fingers would more likely crack than the earth beneath them. Somehow he pushed himself up. Weak, dazed, it didn’t matter, he would continue until he collapsed—or until they caught up with him.
A glance back revealed he was safe for now. The flat terrain was both a blessing and a curse. In his state, hills and swamps would have been unmanageable; as it was, he could barely keep stumbling forward. But there was no place to hide, and his enemy could track him by sight alone.
The taste of blood had faded, forcing him to chew on his tongue until the metallic flavor returned. It was the only thing keeping him alert. The pain in his limbs had gone numb days ago. His face, gouged like carved clay, no longer hurt, though it would never return to normal, whatever normal was. A disfigured reflection was all he remembered of himself.
He closed his eyes and trudged on, trying to imagine how his life had been before. Before now. He could remember little of the prior week and almost nothing of anything earlier. It seemed his mind could only block out the unsavory if it erased everything else along with it.
But he remembered one detail, something that stayed with him no matter what: He must die. The one behind the dark cloak. The one who had done this to him.
Raven drew his conviction not from vengeance but from necessity. He had big plans for the continent of Draza, plans that ended with the subversion of every intelligent creature—and only Raven could stop him. A trace of euphoria passed through him at the thought of delivering the final blow, ending his life forever.
He awoke prone on the hardened soil; exhaustion must have overcome him.
As he dragged himself upright, he heard a subtle hiss from behind. A glance back revealed five shadows flitting in and out of view. Blinking back his sleep, he saw the details come into frightening focus. Stalkers. Waist-high, blanket-shaped bodies the color of a starless sky; razor-sharp claws longing to rend flesh.
He ran, imagining the stalkers giving chase, eviscerating him from behind. But the terror that filled his heart soon gave way to resolve. These creatures need to be dealt with. Destroyed. Just like every other servant he has—one at a time, if necessary.
He spun about, drawing two thin swords.
The first of the stalkers leapt from several body lengths away, skin stretched, claws extended. He pierced it through with both blades, then spread them, tearing the creature apart.
A stalker latched onto his face; another dug teeth into his shin. He fell to his knees, pinning the shin-biter to the ground. He threw a sword like a javelin at an advancing shadow, then peeled away the claws at his face as they tore his cheek and sliced his wrist, stopping only when struck with steel.
A glimpse of moonlit darkness hit him full force in the chest, knocking him onto his back. He dropped his remaining weapon and grabbed the interloper. Blood ran down his neck where its claws dug in. He compressed his hands, crushing the creature until it was nothing more than a ball, a shriveled piece of junk no longer of value to him.
He wheezed. There were holes in his neck where there shouldn’t be. And then a rippling pain as the last of the stalkers climbed up his leg and across his ribs, stripping flesh as it went. He rolled, elbows bludgeoning the creature away from him. Along with his feet and knees, they were the only weapons he had left other than his tired hands and useless fingers with short, dull nails.
Night had descended, making the stalker nearly invisible. Raven caught a shimmer of it and bolted away into the nearby fields. There, the odds would be even. That was a lie he told himself; the odds were never even when he was involved.
Crashing through thick stems of growth, he stayed low, stumbling, falling. He rolled to a halt. He could hide here if it would leave him alone. Thoughts of killing every last stalker evaporated. Revenge would have to wait for another day, after a long rest and a full recovery, when there was no more wheezing when he breathed or stabbing pain when he moved.
A hiss pervaded the night. It was coming for him. Memories came too, of a stiletto he kept hidden in his boot. Numb fingers wrapped around its hilt as the stalker pounced on his chest. He stabbed and cut, but not enough to finish the job. A claw drilled into his body, scooping for his heart.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. When he reopened them, he was no longer outside.
“Nightmares again?” asked the one in the dark cloak. There was no empathy in the tone.
Raven lay on the stone floor of the stronghold, clutching his chest. It was still intact, his heart beating vigorously.
“I am awake.” He managed to keep his voice from trembling.
“Good, then you are ready for your next set of lessons.”
The inflection on lessons was mild, without a hint of the horrors to come. Raven reached for his swords, but they were missing.
“Shall we begin with humility?” The question issued from deep within the hood, a hollow sound borne from infinite darkness. “You must learn humility above all else. That and obedience. The same lessons I plan to teach the Realms upon my return.”
Raven gave a shallow nod, wishing desperately to be anywhere but where he was. Even in a field having his heart ripped from his body.
Hand of the Council
Zeph Greymoon waited in the shadows of the tannery, tapping the circular birthmark on his thumb. The moon was so garishly bright, he practically had to squint. Add that to the constant stream of patrons from the nearby tavern, and he had the distinct feeling he was never going to finish the job.
He removed the blood slip from a pouch on his belt, a red-dyed parchment scrawled with information on his target—this time, only a location, a room inside the Rested Eyes Inn. Another Alliance member might have had reservations about the mission. Not Zeph. As a follower of Dela, goddess of destiny, he knew the part he played was nothing more than that of an accomplice. The goddess had spun the life thread of each individual long ago. Death was preordained and the success of an assassination attempt already determined.
The hardest part for him had always been the waiting. If his target was meant to die, weren’t these precautions a tedious delay of the inevitable? He knew that line of thinking was too simplistic. Death was such a slippery thing; not even Dela could pin down how its victims would succumb. Zeph had been a spectator to its cruel sense of humor more than once. An impossible victory followed by a graceless fall was all too common. Why, this past summer he had witnessed a man collapse midstride clutching at an invisible chest wound, dead within a matter of moments.
At least it had saved Zeph the trouble of slitting his throat.
And so he stayed put in the tannery, thankful that at least this mission would be over more quickly than the last. He had spent the past two weeks following a wealthy aristocrat, the Duke of Something-or-Other, with orders to document his agenda and report every inane detail. Over time, Zeph’s accounts had become decidedly less helpful: Duke speaks with ugly bald guy. Bored assassin lurks indefinitely. Zeph’s taskmaster got the message and the kill order was issued.
Two soldiers turned the corner.
“If we’re lucky, he won’t be here,” said one.
“Yep,” agreed the other. “Another tavern, another drink.”
They passed right by. In his midnight-black pants, boots, and cross-patterned leather jerkin, he was nearly invisible. Then again, based on the stench of spirits they gave off, he could have worn the dashing purple ensemble he reserved for dinner parties and they wouldn’t have noticed him.
An outpouring of noise burst from the confines of the inn only to be silenced as the door shut behind them like a cork plugging up the shouts of a jinni in its bottle.
The time was right—or it wasn’t. He tired of the waiting game.
Zeph crept over to the inn beneath the room he’d been watching, gripped the cobbled wall, and started his climb. Before long he’d hoisted himself up to a set of closed wooden shutters.
A roar erupted from below as the door to the inn opened. He froze. You never knew what small, unforeseen event would trigger an avalanche of trouble. It was one of the locals. He waited for the man to stagger down the street before he tugged the shutters open. A second set of shutters inside the window frame gave a further layer of protection against the chill of the night. Pushing them inward, he slid inside the room and closed both sets behind him.
The glow of the moon permeated the slats, allowing the contents of the room to become more than dim outlines. The steel of a knife on the desk caught his eye. Next to the blade lay a crossbow, loaded and ready. Zeph cracked a smile. What, does the guy take target practice from his window?
His gaze settled on a large armoire, the perfect perch for leaping down upon a person entering the room. He hoisted himself up. Back against the peeling paint of the wall, he twirled his favorite dagger in the palm of his hand: Venytier, named after an old flame whose eyes were the same color as the steel’s muted green.
He got up on his knees at the sound of approaching footsteps.
The door swung open to reveal a tall, broad-shouldered man with a tangle of wavy blond hair that fell just below the start of his leaf-green cape. He entered the room facing away from Zeph.
Zeph seized the opportunity, diving from the armoire and stabbing his dagger downward. His target spun around as if he had been expecting the attack. A buckler strapped to the man’s wrist swung outward, pounding Venytier on the flat of the blade. A hand axe materialized, streaking toward Zeph. He tucked his chin, letting momentum carry him into his foe. A moment slower and he would have been sliced through. As it was, the axe clipped him on the back as they fell to the ground.
He was contemplating his options even as he gathered himself. A gorget and pauldrons protected his adversary’s neck, shoulders, and upper arms, and he felt chain mail beneath the man’s garments. The axe the man wielded had a better reach than Venytier. The only other weapons Zeph carried were throwing daggers, but no experienced warrior would allow those to be unleashed at this range. His best strategy would be to get in close, where one well-aimed stroke could be fatal.
He sprang at his opponent as soon as his feet were beneath him, targeting the kill zones: the neck, the eyes, the bowels, and the temple. Each deadly strike was met in equal measure by the warrior’s buckler.
Zeph used the walls and furniture of the room as cover, making it difficult for the warrior to deliver an unhindered swing with his axe. He ducked and dove as they danced around the room, two clashing shadows in the moon’s seeping light. He was winded and had been grazed by several axe strokes, the most recent a gash to his arm. The wake of a powerful swing rustled the hair on top of his head—too near for comfort.
Clearly his more heavily armored foe was winning the war of attrition, and they both knew it. Perhaps this man’s death was not in the threads. Zeph’s mindset switched to one of escape.
The warrior’s axe snapped forward. Zeph deflected the blow, stumbling to the ground. A foot slammed into his head. He rose, wishing he hadn’t as steel approached at eye level. A leap backward left him pressed against the desk, his adversary closing in. Zeph aimed low with Venytier, leaving an opening for an overhead attack. It arrived in a hurry. He dropped and tumbled. The axe embedded itself into the desk’s thick writing surface with a thunk.
Zeph made for the exit. His fingers grasped the door handle, freedom a hairpin turn away.
He jerked the door open. A glance into the darkness behind him caused his heart to clench as if Dela herself held it: a silhouette of the warrior holding the crossbow aimed directly at him.
He slammed the door shut, using the momentum to send himself tumbling the opposite direction. The bolt soared high. Venytier hit the ground before the rest of him and clattered away.
Then his opponent was on top of him, this time with a knife.
Zeph half crawled, half slithered toward his lost weapon. The weight of the warrior pulled him back. A blade cut his shoulder. Thick blond hair obscured his vision, but a twist and a turn had him wriggling free like sand through open fingers. Venytier was not far.
He pushed up on one knee, intending to dive, when two meaty arms wrapped him up and slammed him to the ground. This sweat-drenched warrior was no ordinary victim to be dispatched with a slice across the throat. He was determined, prepared—he’d been expecting Zeph from the start.
What was the Council thinking, sending me here?
Rough, ragged breath sounded in his ear. The vice-like hold loosened, replaced by a forearm pinning him down. A knife rose above him; no room to dodge.
He grabbed a throwing dagger from its place on his breeches and jabbed outward. He heard a grunt. The forearm let up. In that moment of respite, he squirmed free.
Venytier. His hand clasped its beloved hilt in time to parry a dagger stroke, then another.
The two combatants rose in unison, facing each other as they had at the start. But Zeph could see that the warrior was not as accomplished with this weapon as he was with the axe. The man’s best chance had been to finish Zeph earlier. Now the tables had been turned.
Venytier’s curved blade tore through chain rings. A kick to the knee sent his opponent reeling. It was just a matter of time now.
His target angled toward the window.
Could he be trying to escape? Jumping out would break a leg. Climbing down would get him skewered. He might be positioning himself to call for help. Best not to let him get there.
Feigning a jab, Zeph sidestepped with the window at his back. The warrior responded by grabbing a rope attached to the shutter and yanking it toward him. The shutter connected with the base of Zeph’s skull, sending him sprawling. He twisted in the air, shoulder blades striking the floor.
Moonlight spilled into the room.
Before Zeph could bring Venytier to bear, the cold steel of a knife dug into his neck.
Thank you for reading!
Return next Sunday to read Chapter 2: The Sentinel.