“My king! I bring news!” shouted a young man as he raced across the campsite, heading pell-mell for Arris, who was slouched on a pile of cushions. Sliding to his knees as he came within sight of the king, the messenger bowed his head and mumbled, “I hail thee, Arris the Demonslayer, overlord of Y’dan.”
“Yeah, yeah, the news, boy, let’s have it.” The king was bored. Though the army had been camped in the mountains for weeks, he hadn’t seen so much as a demon’s toenail, much less a living, breathing example of the scions from hell.
“Demons, your majesty, hundreds of them!” the young man exclaimed breathlessly. Now he dared to look up and was rewarded with the sight of Arris leaping from his chair.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” he shouted exuberantly, jumping up and pacing to and fro, erratically. “This is fabulous – I mean terrible news! We must attack them at once.” The king ceased his pacing and grabbed the messenger, shaking him forcefully. “Tell me more, at once!”
Briefly, the messenger stammered out what the half-dead scout had told him and then handed over the scout’s proof – an ichor stained, broken sword blade.
Barely able to contain himself, Arris accepted the blade, shaking with glee. “Demons,” he whispered. Reverently, he dipped his fingers in the ichor, cursing when the thick yellow fluid burned his flesh.
Behind him, the scholar Porthyros emerged from the king’s tent. He was carrying a large tankard filled to the brim with freshly made tea. His gaze went from the messenger to the sword in Arris’ hand and a tiny smile sprang up on his sallow features. It was about time. Now maybe the brat would stop whining. For weeks, all he had heard was, “Thyro, when do I get to kill one?” and he was heartily tired of it. Soon, he thought in satisfaction, I will no longer heed the words of this puling boy who dares think he is the next master of the world! Rich visions of gold and jewels taunted him as he approached his king and diffidently proffered the beverage.
“Did you hear, Thyro? Demons!” Arris babbled, absently taking the mug and draining it dry.
“I did, your majesty. Shall I call the squad leaders?” he asked, accepting the tankard back with a small bow.
“Yes, at once! I must prepare!” Arris dove into his tent and shortly, the clatter of armor and weapons could be heard.
“You heard him, boy. Go find the generals.” Porthyros dismissed the messenger with a wave of his hand. Oh master, your plan goes so perfectly. The scholar scanned the mountains to the east, wondering if all was going according to plan. If so, then shortly, he would leave Arris to his fate and join his master high in the snows and watch the dawning of a new era.
Does she come? he wondered, searching for any sign that his master’s plans were coming to perfect fruition. She must come! Is it not written? How many times had he heard his master muttering about crazy prophecies and destined events? Azhani would be here with an army, because the fates willed it so.
The bitch had to die by Arris’ hand, or kill the king. Then the victors would find themselves surrounded by an army of demons, all waiting to kill for their master. Ecarthus would have his key, and he, Porthyros Omal, would have a kingdom! I must make ready. It will soon be time to leave Arris to his fate.
A self-satisfied smirk settled on his narrow-featured face, making passersby shudder and avoid the rat-like little man.
Azhani’s army left the Ystarfe Pass after three weeks of bathing in blood and gore. The hatchings grew more frequent until there were no more egg-filled caves, only long nights of fighting demons and praying for the sun. Two thousand men and women gave their lives to the fangs and claws of the spawn of hell, leaving a bare four thousand to face the horrors still to come.
Each loss deeply scarred the warleader’s heart. Every time she had to stand pyrewatch and listen to the priests sing the death chant, tears scorched her cheeks and anger flamed in her gut. For days following a funeral, Azhani would be fierce in battle, fighting with a frenzy that seemed almost otherworldly.
Tales of her fighting spread as those in the army compared what they had seen of their warleader before and what now walked among them, blue eyes brightened by some inner fire that fueled them to face the demons every night. They loved her. From the lowest cook to the lieutenants that gathered every morning to give the death tolls, they revered their Warleader. There wasn’t a man or a woman among them, who wouldn’t follow her to the gates of Hell itself, had she asked it of them.
Whispered over cups of warmed mead or mulled wine, was the tale of how Azhani had single-handedly held back a wave of demons when her entire patrol had gone down. The warleader had been a whirlwind of death, holding the monsters back until King Padreg’s patrol could race to their rescue. Of the forty soldiers in the unit that went down under the demonic onslaught, thirty-eight lived.
One of the soldiers who had lived through the assault made a song about it, taking the warleader’s hated nickname and turning it into a title of pride. The Banshee of Banner Lake became Banshee to the men and women who fought and died for her. Y’dani minstrels had christened her with the name to drive fear into the hearts of all who heard the tale of her defiance of Arris. The soldiers took that fear and turned it around, making the warleader’s cry into the balm that was sent to shield their souls from destruction. Azhani Rhu’len, Y’Syr’s Banshee.
Azhani despised it, but she allowed the name to stick because it gave them something to cling to when they were staring into the glowing eyes of death. Padreg tried to tease her about it, until he heard what he and those who were considered to be a part of the warleader’s camp were called. “Banshee’s Pride” they were, the warleader’s steadfast pack of followers, whose loyalty was never to be questioned.
Knowing of the warrior’s dislike, Kyrian never addressed her lover by the hated nickname. She understood that part of her lover’s reluctance stemmed from humility and part came from remembered pain. Azhani was one of the most humble people the stardancer knew, and that kept her from basking in the glow of worship that seemed to permeate the entire army.
Gormerath’s lengthy legend increased as well. The ancient sword flamed like a torch when Azhani wielded it in battle, cutting through demon after demon without ever needing the touch of a whetstone. The warrior privately swore to Kyrian that the sword knew when demons were near, emitting a bone jarring hum when the evil beings came within a certain distance of her.
Kyrian also felt that the blade must have some kind of healing properties. Wounds that should have bedridden the warrior for days, mended overnight, with no magical help from any of the stardancers.
Thus far, the stardancer had managed to avoid direct confrontation with the demons, though she had seen the remains of the devastation daily. Each time one of the soldiers passed, she stood with Azhani and sang the songs of ascendancy, wordlessly holding on to the warrior’s hand as she cried. Those were the nights they loved the fiercest, clinging tightly to one and other and seeking solace in their love.
The stardancer glanced down the road they traveled, spotting her lover at the head of the column. Yesterday, a plume of smoke in the distance had caught their attention and today, they were following an old mining trail toward Barton town. The sun was just beginning to set when they rode into the town.
The smell was terrible. A thick miasma of death shrouded the once thriving trading community. Azhani’s descriptions of the place after the demonic invasion the previous year, were nothing close to what they saw now.
Around the town stood the ruins of a wall, the wood splintered and smashed by massive forces. Not one house remained standing. Fires still smoldered, adding a thick, oily smoke to the noxious atmosphere. There was no sign of life, anywhere. Liberally littering the streets were the corpses of mutilated bodies, the stench of decomposition making it difficult to get close enough to the piles of flesh to determine whether they were mortal or demon.
The army rode in horrified silence, some with tears staining their smudged faces as they passed the destruction. An aura of evil pervaded the town, making the atmosphere oppressive and chilling. Shaking uncontrollably, Kyrian guided Arun to the center of town, relieved to see Azhani and her lieutenants gathered around the remains of a well.
The warleader’s face was deeply lined by sorrow and heartbreak and Kyrian nearly cried out at the bleakness in her lover’s dark indigo eyes. She didn’t need words to tell her that Azhani needed her. Leaping from Arun’s back, Kyrian carefully picked her way through the rubble until she was beside her lover, worming her way under the warrior’s arm and wrapping her arms around her.
Azhani looked down at the sudden appearance of her lover and smiled wearily. How does she always know when I need her?
“Hey,” the warrior said, returning the hug one-armed while keeping the other free. Gormerath’s song was distant, but present.
“Hi,” Kyrian said, continuing to snuggle against the warrior’s side. “I missed you, so I just had to come find you.”
The tips of Azhani’s ears turned bright pink, causing Padreg and the others to smile.
“You are well and truly snared, my friend,” Padreg said, clapping Azhani on the shoulder.
“Look who’s talking,” Azhani said as Elisira joined them, catching Padreg’s mail-covered hand in her own.
Smiling sheepishly, Padreg brought his lady’s hand up and kissed it. “Well, at least we were caught by the best.”
“No argument there,” Azhani agreed, brushing a quick kiss over Kyrian’s forehead. I know you’re gone, Ylera. I swear that Arris will die for his crimes, but I no longer feel as though killing him will bring you back.
Commotion at the other end of the town sent the group scrambling. Four scouts were hurriedly running into the street, carrying a blue-robed figure.
“We found him in a shrine,” one of the scouts was saying as Azhani arrived, seconds after Kyrian.
The stardancer was already singing, her hands limned in a brilliant yellow aura as she tried to heal the other priest’s numerous wounds. Padreg gasped in shock as he recognized his old friend Jalen, the scholarly priest who had helped him escape Arris’ guards the year before.
Opening his eyes, the man looked around and tried to speak, but all that came out was a rough croaking noise. Azhani ripped the waterskin from her side and drizzled a few drops into his mouth. He swallowed and finally, hoarse, wheezy words emerged.
“Azh-ani Rhu’len? Paddy? Am I hall-ucinating?” he mumbled, faltering over the words.
A cot had been set up and the scouts laid the priest’s broken body down while Kyrian continued to sing. Another stardancer appeared, linking his hand with Kyrian’s and singing a descant to her song. Starseeker Vashyra also arrived, kneeling beside her fellow priest and took his hand, praying softly.
Dropping to his knees next to Kyrian, Padreg took up his old friend’s hand and squeezed it gently. “We’re here, Jae,” he whispered, forcing back the tears that burned in his eyes. Jalen looked terrible. Blood sluggishly flowed from deep cuts in the priest’s belly, and through the crimson fluid, the chieftain could see the pale pink of ravaged bowl and intestine. Elisira put a hand on her beloved’s shoulder and squeezed, lending him her support as tears slipped down his cheeks.
“Couldn’t stop them,” Jalen said, his voice stronger now that Kyrian’s healing had taken effect. “Came in at night and destroyed everything.”
A strangled howl came from Azhani and she buried her head in her hands, sobbing brokenly. Paul, Orra, Mattie – they were all dead?
Allyndev, seeing his mentor in pain and knowing Kyrian could do nothing for her while she was singing, handed Azhani a skin filled with elven wine. “It’s not an answer, but it may help,” he murmured, bowing his head.
The warrior drained it in three swallows.
“...Sent them to the elves three months ago, when the mines were overrun with larvae. A few of us stayed behind, to tend the shrine,” Jalen coughed and blood flecked his lips. “I couldn’t let the Ecarthans win; I had to keep the Twins alive in Y’dan.”
“Of course, my friend,” Padreg soothed. “Rest now; let the stardancers work.”
Only now noticing Elisira, Jalen managed a smile. “So you finally found the one, hmm, my friend? Did you marry her?”
Padreg smiled sadly. “Not yet, Jae. We wanted to wait until the time was right.” He reached up with his free hand and covered Elisira’s. She squeezed his shoulder silently.
Kyrian and the other stardancer stood, their song ended. “We’ve done all we can; it’s in the hands of the gods now,” she said, going over and burying herself in Azhani’s desperate embrace.
“It will feel good to sleep,” Jalen said drowsily.
“Then rest, my friend. We will be here when you wake,” Padreg assured him. The priest’s eyes fluttered shut.
Azhani clung to Kyrian. They weren’t dead. Her friends – the people she had known since she was a child were still alive, safely ensconced across the border, in Y’Syr. Her heart was hammering in her chest and tears continued to fall, but it was relief that flooded her now, not sorrow.
The fear that had ridden on her shoulders since they had entered the shattered town, vanished, and was replaced by a giddy sense of release that made her feel as though she was floating. Yes, there were dead to mourn, but they were few; only a small group of miners and trappers had refused to leave their homes behind. Paul, Orra and their family, as well as many other families, had fled, rather than face the demons again.
Azhani wallowed in her lover’s embrace, trading soft kisses until she felt able to face the army. Taking a deep breath, the warleader looked up and began giving out orders.
“Vashyra, take the mages and cleanse this place. Padreg, you and Eli gather the men and set patrols of no less than fifteen soldiers each, no more than three miles outside of town. Allyn, take fifty men and find us a place to camp.”
“What about outside the shrine?” one of the scouts suggested. “It’s still intact and it’s upwind of this place. There’s a well and plenty of space.”
“Perfect. Allyn, take those men and go check it out.” Azhani frowned, trying to place the scout’s name. “Tal, you go with them; show them the way.”
Everyone scattered to his or her various jobs. A chair was brought for Kyrian, who flopped into it tiredly. Brother Jalen slept peacefully and Kyrian wondered if she should bestir herself enough to clean him up, or wait until he woke.
“Sit and rest, my love. I’m going to find us something to eat and search for survivors,” Azhani said quietly, squatting down to kiss her lover quickly.
“Okay,” Kyrian agreed willingly, letting her head drop back. Cloudy gray skies suddenly parted, allowing the barest sliver of the setting sun through. The golden light bathed the small town all too briefly and then vanished behind the clouds once more.
Over several candlemarks, the ruined town of Barton vanished. Priests, mages and soldiers worked in concert to remove the miasma of destruction that clouded the tiny valley where the trade town was housed. The structures that had withstood the damage were taken over by the army as housing and headquarters, though the main body of troops camped a few miles away in the forest.
In the town square, a bonfire burned. The ruins fed the flames, helping to send on the souls of the townsfolk. Demon carcasses were left where they lay, or brought into areas where the sun’s rays would work to dissolve the hellish corpses.
Any useful items found buried in the rubble were immediately cleaned and brought to the shrine to be put into service. Chairs, clothing, linens – everything was treated to a thorough cleansing and then distributed to the soldiers for use. Surprisingly, many large stores of foodstuffs were discovered. The priests gave thanks for the bounty while the cooks took the windfall and added some variety to the meals.
Trapped under the fallen roof of the old inn stable, a gaunt, near-dead female hunting cat and her young kits were found, near dawn. As the debris was removed, her weak cries could be heard, driving the soldiers to work nonstop until she and her family were extricated. Coaxed into the arms of the waiting men and women with food scraps, the large mother cat and her kits quickly won the hearts of the army.
Throughout the day, wherever she wandered in the camp, warm, dry spots were hastily offered and plenty of food shared. A small platoon of men and women even volunteered to risk life and limb to bathe the knee-high cat and her kittens.
Azhani took the existence of the cats as a sign that the gods approved their mission. The gift of precious animals like hunting cats was not one she would lightly ignore. Trained to hunt alone, or alongside partners, the felines could easily bring down a deer on their own. The animals had been created centuries earlier by Firstlanders who discovered that their ship cats did not fare well on land. A larger species of native feline proved capable of breeding with the ship cats, producing a strong, agile, smart and loyal hunting animal. Already, the kits were gravitating toward the men and women who would be their handlers and friends for the rest of their lives.
The mother cat, named “Avisha” by the soldiers, was lying by the warrior’s side, her head pillowed on Azhani’s boot and her dark golden eyes slowly roving the camp. Reaching down, the warleader rubbed the cat’s thick, chocolate brown furred skull, smiling at the thundering purr she received in turn.
Avisha, whose name meant “miracle”, was a welcome addition to the hunting squad. After only two days of recovery, the skilled huntress had helped take down a large wild boar, the meat of which was a welcome addition to stew pots around the camp.
Sitting back in the chair, Azhani allowed her head to roll about on her shoulders, wincing as several loud pops and cracks echoed around her. She sighed wearily. The cleanup of Barton had taken candlemarks and yet there was always more to do. Azhani could see the first twinkling of stars and knew that soon, she would lead another patrol into the surrounding mountains. Tempted to visit her homestead, she had purposefully assigned herself to the northerly route, asking Padreg to take the southern quarter. It would be too painful to see the home she could not live in, and even more devastating if that home had been destroyed.
Earlier in the day, Starseeker Vashyra had received a magical sending from Queen Lyssera. The Y’Syran navy, with help from Y’Nor’s ships, was engaged in battle. Dark ships sailed by Ecarthan priests and Killigarni pirates, were infesting Banner Lake and its larger tributaries.
On the plains of Y’Nor, priests disguised as bandits were attacking the clans, keeping the plainsmen from sending more than token assistance northward. Regardless of their troubles, Lyssera promised to send supplies and reinforcements. The other message to come in that day was from Ambassador Kuwell. His news was welcome indeed. On the morning that Azhani’s people had ridden into Barton, Kuwell and his men had arrived in the Y’droran Mountains, having cleansed the land of demons.
The warleader heaved a great sigh of relief, satisfied that she would not have to look over her shoulder so much. Not that she would ignore that avenue completely – that would be sheer folly – but she could rotate the rear guardsmen forward, leaving the soldiers more time to rest during the day.
Avisha reached up and playfully batted at the warrior’s fingers. Smiling, Azhani spent some time wrestling with the big cat, careful not to incite the feline’s more ferocious instincts. The hunting cat had a vicious set of very sharp teeth and claws and Azhani did not want to become a pincushion.
Over by the fire, Kyrian and Elisira worked on dinner and quietly talked. The stardancer looked up and watched her lover play with the cat and smiled gently, amused by the precious sight. Elisira followed her friend’s gaze and chuckled lightly.
“She’ll be something with children, don’t you think?” the noblewoman quietly commented.
“Yeah,” Kyrian said dreamily.
“You’ve found yourself a good one, Kyr, I’ll grant you that. Always thought you would, too,” Brother Jalen said, smiling fondly at the stardancer.
In a corner of the campsite, Padreg was teaching Allyn the finer points of Y’Noran combat. The distant thunk of practice swords clashing heavily against padded armor, threaded past Azhani’s senses. Turning, she looked at the amazing shrine that Brother Jalen and the Barton townsfolk had built.
Set outside of the protective town wall, the single story structure spread out in a rambling sprawl under three large trees. In the very center of the building was an altar dedicated to Astariu and Astarus, who were the twin gods of Y’myran. Rising up from the altar were two intricately carved statues. Cradling a rock crystal bowl filled with water, the serene expressions of Astariu and her twin brother Astarus gazed out into the temple, welcoming all. Fragrant incense burned in tiny cups, the blue-gray smoke wreathing upward to enshroud an oil lamp that was suspended from the ceiling.
Spread outward from the altar were bedrolls filled with priests and mages in various states of sleep. Flashes of saffron, crimson and azure fabric peeking out from under dark woolen blankets, denoted the men and women who had drained themselves working to set Barton town to rights. Suppressing a smile at the symphony of snores coming from within the temple, Azhani reached down and grabbed her gorget and began removing a broken buckle.
Princess Syrelle exited the chirurgeon’s tent, bearing a heavy load of bloodied bandages. Seeing the warleader, she nodded a hello as she passed by to toss the ruined cloth onto the fire. Azhani waved back, approving of the way the young woman had fearlessly undertaken the task of learning battlefield medicine. The princess passed by Allyn and the two nobles exchanged shy smiles.
Hmm, it looks like Allyn has mended his fences, the warleader thought, smiling in satisfaction as she watched them interact. It was easy to see that Allyn and Syrelle were moving from friendship toward something more, and Azhani spared a moment to wonder if she should interfere. No, let it happen. Those Y’Syran stuffed tunics need a little shaking up.
“Food’s done,” Kyrian called out, holding up a steaming bowl of stew and wobbling it enticingly.
Setting aside the busted piece of armor, Azhani stood and meandered over, taking the bowl and a kiss from her lover.
“Mm, smells great,” the warrior muttered, nuzzling Kyrian’s ear.
The stardancer chuckled throatily, tipping her head to capture her lover’s lips again. “Glad you like it,” she said, pulling away to serve up another bowl for herself. They sat together on a bench that had been saved from the town.
Padreg and Allyn showed up about then, drenched in sweat but grinning like a couple of kids who had just gotten away with eating an entire handful of sweets.
“Have fun, boys?” Azhani asked as she took her first bite.
Allyn’s grin got even bigger. “I knocked him flat on his backside, Master Azhani!”
Raising an eyebrow, Azhani looked to Padreg for confirmation of the young man’s boast.
The chieftain nodded and said, “Kid’s fast, Azhi. I’m impressed.”
“Maybe you’re just getting old, Paddy,” Brother Jalen piped up, chuckling at the expression on his friend’s face.
“Old? If you didn’t look like three day old cartwheel fodder, I might be tempted to show you just how old I am!” Padreg teased, walking over and leaning down to gently embrace the priest.
Elisira found a chair and shoved it under Padreg’s bottom and ordered, “Sit down you big ninny.” Flopping back, the Y’Noran king laughed and accepted his bowl of stew graciously.
“Dev still sleeping?” Allyn asked, looking over at the shrine, searching for his friend.
“Yeah, I can see his feet sticking out from under his blankets,” Kyrian said around a mouthful of food. “But I think Syrelle is still over at the chirurgeon’s, if you’d like to tell her that dinner’s ready.”
She didn’t have to mention it twice. Allyndev dropped his armor and his practice weapon in a pile outside of his tent and raced across camp to the large, white pavilion that served as the chirurgeon’s tent.
Shaking his head, Padreg wondered aloud, “Did he just grow wings on those feet, or am I seeing things?”
Azhani shrugged. “Love makes you do the strangest things, Paddy.”
The Y’Noran chieftain shared a smile with his fiancée and nodded. “I suppose you are right, my friend.”
Clearing his throat, Jalen asked, “Speaking of love, Paddy-me-boy, why is it that you chose midwinter to stand before the goddess?”
Padreg flushed and looked down at his feet. “Well, ah, I was actually going to marry Elisira as soon as we returned to Y’Nor, but, ah, I got to watching Azhani and Kyrian and you know how meddlesome we Y’Norans can be...” he laughed weakly. “Well, anyway, I thought maybe I could spread a little of my happiness around and...” his voice petered away under the intense gazes of the group.
Azhani grinned openly. She was very interested in hearing this. Beside her, Kyrian added her own smile and attentive gaze.
Fidgeting uncomfortably, Padreg hurriedly said, “Eli told me how deeply Azhani had loved Ylera Kelani, and how wonderful it was that Kyrian had come into her life. I thought, maybe, that I could tempt the fates into giving Azhani a measure of happiness.” He shrugged and looked at Azhani, then at Jalen. “So I planted a seed and hoped for a lovely flower.”
“You are a sap, Paddy. I love you, but you are a sap,” Elisira said, leaning over to plant a kiss on his cheek.
“So that’s what Lyss meant by a promise,” Kyrian said abruptly. At Azhani’s look of confusion, she added, “Just before you revealed Var’s treachery, the queen told me about a letter she had received from Padreg. She mentioned the promise and neither of us could figure out what it was about. I had forgotten about it until just now.”
Everyone stared at Kyrian, amusement sparkling on their faces in the form of teasing grins.
“What?” the stardancer asked innocently and then took a bite of her food.
“I love you, Kyr,” was Azhani’s response.
“I love you, too,” Kyrian replied, though the response was somewhat garbled from the food she was chewing.
Nodding his head, Padreg said, “Yes, asking Lyssera to pass on the message seemed to be the best way to gently remind our sword swinging friend that life moves on.” He shared a look with the warleader.
“I hadn’t forgotten,” Azhani said quietly, reaching out to take Kyrian’s hand in hers, their fingers automatically twining together.
Padreg only smiled.
“Well, now that you don’t have to wait, why not have the ceremony now?” Jalen blithely suggested, causing both Padreg and Azhani to turn ghostly white.
Elisira and Kyrian exchanged glances, both biting their lips to keep from laughing.
“Should we be insulted?” Elisira slyly asked, giving both Padreg and Azhani arched looks.
“Elisira, beloved, I would be happy to bind my fate with yours.” The Y’Noran bowed his head and sighed heavily. “Yet, I would rather not taint such a blessed event with the blood of war. If it would please you, though, I will lay aside my misgivings.”
The noblewoman reached her hand out and laid it against Padreg’s bearded face. “No, my love. I agree with you. Our day should be filled with sun and the scent of home. I am content to wait until midwinter or beyond. What about you, Kyr?”
Caught with her spoon halfway to her mouth, Kyrian dropped the utensil into her bowl and pretended to ponder the question. “Well, I think,” she lingered on the word, tilting her head to look at Azhani. Sweat glistened on the warrior’s brow and she returned a hopeful look to her lover. “I think that whatever the two of you decide to do is wonderful, Eli, but I’m not sure Azhani and I are ready to make any kind of commitment.”
Surprising herself, Azhani calmly said, “No, that’s not true. I am ready.” She looked into Kyrian’s startled eyes and smiled. “I was ready the night I came to you, my love.” They shared an intense look and then Azhani rose to begin pacing around the fire. “My friends,” she said quietly, “May whatever day you choose to join, be special.”
“Thank you,” Elisira said.
“With my lady by my side, it could not be anything else,” added Padreg simply.
Azhani smiled and turned away, kneeling before Kyrian. Taking the stardancer’s hand, she stroked her thumb along the palm before bringing it up and pressing her lips against the warm skin. Kyrian smiled lovingly and cupped the warrior’s face in her hand.
Nuzzling her lover’s hand, Azhani quietly said, “My beloved; every day I wonder what kindness I did to the gods. When the darkness nearly overwhelmed my soul, you soothed both the hurts of my body and my heart. I called you friend and you came, standing beside me when I was alone. Now I call you my love, for you are that and so much more – what name can you give the healer of a soul? There would be no greater honor I could do than to stand before the gods on winter’s solstice and name you my wife. Will you share my life and claim the right to cherish our love together and in the company of friends?”
As if the warrior’s words had touched Heaven itself, rain began to fall. Tears pricked at Kyrian’s eyes and by the time Azhani reached up to touch her cheek, they had spilled over and were dripping into her stew. The warrior brushed a tear away and Kyrian leaned into the touch, her eyes drifting shut.
She blinked away the rest of her tears as she opened her eyes and whispered, “I have no words, my love.” Bending her head forward so that her brow touched Azhani’s she said, “Everything and the universe in your eyes; that’s what I see when I look at you, Azhi.” She drew back, shaking her head slightly. The bowl of stew dropped away as she slid to her knees and took Azhani’s hands. “I’ve never met anyone who could make me forget the rain. In the circle of your arms, the sun is always shining.” Looking up, she smiled blissfully and whispered, “Yes, Azhani, I will join with you on Winter Solstice.”
Elisira leaned over and whispered to Padreg, who was surreptitiously brushing tears from his eyes, “If you can top that, I’ll eat my shoe.”
A gleam of something wicked sparkled in the Y’Noran’s eyes and he whispered back, “Have you acquired a taste for old leather, my lady?”
Startled, Elisira replied, “No, but...”
“An unwise wager made in haste, will flatten a pouch quickly,” he advised smugly, wriggling his eyebrows suggestively.
She playfully shoved him and said, “You really think you can be more romantic than that?”
Shrugging, Padreg said, “Of a sureness, my lady. T’would be of light labor.”
Azhani and Kyrian, who were still locked in each other’s eyes, suddenly stood and walked away from the fire, heading for their tent.
Archly, Elisira said, “Oh really?”
A wide grin spread across Padreg’s face. “Yes, love. It is but a matter of applying the lessons of the heart.” Putting actions to words, he stood and lifted Elisira up, cradling her in his arms. “My lady,” he said gruffly, juggling her slightly to get his balance. “It has become chill. Allow me to escort you to the warmth of our humble abode.”
Carefully, he walked the few steps to their tent, ducked inside and then gently laid her on their bed. Taking one of their soft towels, he slowly began to dry her off, helping her to remove the damp clothes and slip into her sleepwear.
“Eli, from the moment I saw you I knew that you were something special. You spoke with educated grace and your words had more than merit - they had sense. Astride an uncommon horse, you rode with the poise of one born to the hoof. Your beauty outshone the brightest bird in Arris’ unfriendly flock and when you smiled, blessed Astariu, I was truly lost!” A shy, almost wondering smile transformed his rough-hewn face. “I had to travel across the kingdoms to find you, but when I did, I knew the journey was worth the ride. It would please me, my lady Elisira, if you would consent to wed.”
Breathless and quite well warmed by Padreg’s gentle care, Elisira reached her hand out and drew the Y’Noran down beside her. “I’m glad you didn’t take my bet,” she whispered, kissing him gently. “Because I would have lost.” They kissed until their muscles cramped.
“Well?” Padreg prodded teasingly as he stood and began changing into his nightclothes.
Sitting up, Elisira rested her chin in her hand and pretended to think about it. “Hmm, I don’t know... do I want to spend the rest of my life with a wild Y’Noran barbarian who thinks living in tents and chasing horses is fun?” A grin spread across her face as his expression grew worried. Leaping up and wrapping her arms around him, she blurted, “Of course I do! I love you, Padreg, oh goddess, but I love you!”
“I love you too, my sweet,” he murmured, kissing her fervently. “With all that I am.”
The news of the double proposals spread through the encampment like wildfire. Soon, all anyone was talking about was the upcoming nuptials and the damned rain. Harvest came and went. Night after night, Azhani’s army clashed with the forces of hell and destroyed them.
Supplies from home arrived early one morning via a mass teleport spell. Reinforcements, food and equipment appeared in three giant pops that had all of the mages and several of the priests running from their tents wondering what was causing the magical racket.
Calmly assuring everyone that this delivery had been scheduled, Starseeker Vashyra quickly assigned several of the acolytes to escorting the newly arrived soldiers to their posts. Confusion reigned in the camp until everyone had been settled, causing several minor altercations. Surprisingly, Allyndev, Syrelle and Devon stepped in to aid Azhani and Padreg in settling the minor disasters, until all were satisfied.
Having decided to wait until they were home in Y’Nor to marry, Padreg and Elisira spent time talking with Brother Jalen about the kind of ceremony they wished to have. Both agreed that they wanted to stand on the plains, surrounded by their loved ones. Kyrian and Azhani, however, avoided discussing any details, preferring to concentrate on ridding the mountains of demons.
It was late morning and Azhani and her lieutenants were gathered in the building that served as their headquarters. Standing as the last of her men entered the room and sat down, the warleader quietly greeted the room. “Good day, all. Unless there’s something pressing, I’d like to begin today’s meeting by hearing from our recently returned scouts.”
Tal Gwyeth, the elven leader of the scouts, stood at the warleader’s nod. “My lords, ladies... and Banshee, I bid you good morrow. I trust you are all rather tired, so I will make this brief.” As people nodded, he smiled thinly and walked over to a large map that was tacked to the wall. Pointing to a valley three days westward, he said, “This is the farthest point of our last mission. We have cleared out all caves we could find, though those were precious few. The demons have risen, and they are hungry, though you surely know this. What you may not know is that here, here and here,” the scout tapped three places along the map, each within a short distance of the other. “King Arris and his army have engaged the demons. We believe that his tactics are unsound and will shortly result in his defeat. Without reinforcements, or a change in battle plans, the king’s men will be overrun in six days.” He turned and faced the room.
Azhani stepped up and tapped the star that marked Barton town. “So they’ll come for us next,” she said calmly.
“Or head into Y’dan unhindered,” Padreg said quietly, his words carrying through the room easily.
The group erupted. Questions and speculations flew around the tent for several minutes while Azhani just stared at the map.
Arris is out there, fighting demons? All of Azhani’s conceptions of the selfish, power mad king, started to waver on their foundations. And losing, too, she thought, looking over Tal’s written report.
He’s probably just doing it for the glory, a more cynical side of her said.
Oh goddess, what do I do? I can’t just let them slaughter Arris’ people, no matter how much I hate him.
But wouldn’t it be so sweet to ride up with salvation at your back, and just sit there, and let him die? the same voice taunted.
Standing, Azhani cleared her throat, getting everyone’s attention. “Prepare the troops; we ride in the morning.”
“I’m going with you,” Kyrian said as they exited the command tent and headed for the shrine.
Azhani stopped and looked at her lover. “Kyr, this isn’t going to be like it has been. I’m planning to make an all out attack on the demons that are harrying Arris’ men.”
“I understand,” the stardancer said, nodding her head slowly.
Shaking her head, Azhani said, “Love – I know how you feel about fighting, and –“ she fought for words that wouldn’t offend.
Kyrian’s fingers on her lips stilled her speech. “I know,” she said calmly. “And I’m scared, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be useful. Maybe I won’t be on the front lines, guarding your back, but there are going to be a lot of injuries that need tending; injuries that the chirurgeons can’t handle. You know that, and you know that most of the other Stardancers have to stay here, to take care of our own injured.”
Azhani stepped forward and cupped her hand over Kyrian’s cheek. Stroking the healer’s face with her thumb, she said, “There’s no one I’d rather have at my back, Kyr.” She sighed heavily and bent her head down to briefly kiss the stardancer. “I wish I didn’t need you so much. It would be easier to argue with you.”
Kyrian smiled wryly and shrugged. “Well, I told you I’d follow you through the forest.”
A long ago conversation filled Azhani’s mind and she smiled in memory. “I almost left you that night, you know. Just a few minutes more, and I would have been gone, lost in the woods,” she said sadly.
Reaching up to cover Azhani’s hand, Kyrian said, “I’m glad you stayed.”
“Me too,” Azhani said, bending down to kiss her lover once more. “Me too.”
Gods blasted, useless piece of ... words escaped the young king just then as he drove off another demon, evading its wickedly gleaming claws and hacking off a chunk of flesh and fur. Cackling madly, he spurred Tyr’s sides and chased the monster down and skewered it over and over again. The beast collapsed, emitting an eerie shriek before dying.
“Por-“ the name was on his lips briefly before he clamped his mouth shut, biting his tongue until he felt blood. Porthyros was gone. Anger and fear tussled inside his chest, until anger won out and he cursed the scholar once more. Damn you, Thryo! Damn you for abandoning me just when I needed you the most!
Wheeling around on his horse, he hunted the battlefield for another demon to kill. There was a brief lull, so Arris took the time to shake the demon’s caustic blood from his blade and unhook his waterskin. Swishing the lukewarm fluid around in his mouth, he once again mourned the loss of his mentor and friend. Since the scholar had left, there had been no one to make him his favorite tea. He had tried to duplicate Porthyros’ recipe, but so far, all he ended up with was a musty tasting brew that a drunken man wouldn’t touch.
Spitting out the now fouled water, he took another drink and slung the skin around the saddle horn. He yawned, hearing his jaw crack. Killing was exhausting work, something he had not realized until he and his army were forced to fight from sundown to sunup every day.
A patch of shadows moving over the snow, caught his attention. “To me!” Arris cried out. The king watched as a new wave of demons poured down a crevice and into the valley. What soldiers that could break away from their battles, joined him, desperately trying to hold back the tide of gray, noxious smelling bodies.
Arris fought the walking nightmares, grateful to face a demon he could easily slay. Since the day his mentor vanished, leaving the camp and the king’s life without even a note of good-bye, the king had found little peace. It wasn’t enough that he fought real monsters in the darkness – in the light of day, his dreams were as chaotic. Storm tossed and filled with luridly horrible visions, his sleep gave him little rest. Without the soothing presence of his friend, and the calming tea that had been his constant companion for nearly ten years, Arris felt torn apart by the day to day demands of being king.
Supply reports, the lists of the dead and injured, even the accounts of enemy dead that had once held his attention, now palled, forcing the king to play intricate mind games with himself just to stay awake while his lieutenants spoke. It was during one of those sessions that the first bubble of memory burst open, creating a vision of time that seemed to slip and meld, forming pictures that couldn’t possibly belong to him.
Blood soaked his hands and tunic, and he was looking down at the body of a beautiful elven woman, but her name escaped him. In his vision, he heard himself say, “Bitch!” and watched as he viciously kicked the body. The tiniest of groans escaped the woman and he felt how he had grown excited by her pain. Revulsion rippled through him, as the memory sparked that excitement anew.
Other memories arrived on the wings of dreams, the most terrifying of which was the one that he wanted so desperately to believe was a lie, yet knew deep in his soul was the truth. The dream would begin with the sound of footsteps as he walked quietly down the castle halls and entered his father’s study. The king would be seated at his desk, oil lamps burning low and a fire crackling on the hearth. Spread before Theodan was a scroll, filled with the florid black calligraphy that his father had insisted he learn. Arris would greet his father softly and offer him a cup of tea – a cup that he had prepared and carried to Theodan as a special treat.
The young king always shuddered in his sleep as he watched his father drink the soothing draught, for he knew what no one else did – that cup was laced with the most toxic of poisons. Honey and mint masked the taste, and the results were slow acting, but gratifying all the same to the scheming young man in Arris’ dream. Theodan died, and with his death, Arris ascended the throne of Y’dan.
Shaking his head to clear away the encroaching memories, Arris hacked at the reaching claws of a demon, allowing himself to feel deeply satisfied at the gout of ochre yellow blood that spurted from the stump of the monster’s arm. The king grinned wickedly. No, he had not killed his father. The old goat had simply kicked his last, leaving the kingdom in the capable hands of his brilliant, heroic son.
Arris beheaded the demon, watching silently as its furry body crumpled into the moonlit snow. Blood pumped out of the neck, spattering Tyr’s legs, causing the horse to dance away. Blood on the snow... New memory erupted, blacking out Arris’ vision. Azhani Rhu’len, standing before him, her chin raised defiantly as he proclaimed her to be an Oathbreaker. He shivered and tried to thrust the vision away. Gods, no... I can’t... I don’t want to see her face.
He silently begged the gods to steal away the images, but they marched on relentlessly. The woman he had loved turned away from him, denying him his deepest dreams – to share the rule of Y’dan by his side. Her love belonged to another - to...to Ylera Kelani, the elven ambassador from Y’Syr. Beautiful, intelligent, and a gentle soul, Princess Kelani was a joy to be around, and Arris would admit that he genuinely liked her.
Bile rose in his throat. So why was it so easy to see the elven woman’s blood staining his hands? How was it that he knew, intimately, how loud she could scream for mercy? Why was it that the image of blood on the snow brought up images of his father’s warleader tearing through a mass of men and women, leaving behind torn and bloody chunks of quivering flesh? Why was it that those images both satisfied and enraged him?
Arris struggled to rein in his thoughts, to control them and direct them toward the present, but all he could do was watch helplessly as flashes of the past drowned out the sight of the present.
What had he done? Pressing the heel of his hand to his aching temple, Arris felt his world twist nauseatingly.
Where are you, Thyro? I can’t stand the hole in my head!
A horn sounded. Was it Porthyros? Had he returned with reinforcements? Did his oldest friend not abandon him, but leave to seek help instead? Arris whipped his head around to greet the new arrivals and nearly fell off his horse.
It was Azhani Rhu’len, riding at the head of an army. Y’Syran, Y’Noran and even, Y’droran banners snapped in the wind that was raised by the thundering of hooves along the snow. Sitting proud atop a beautiful warhorse, garbed in the traditional armor of the elven nation’s warleader, Azhani Rhu’len, the woman he had banished from Y’dan, the woman who had scorned him, spared him but one brief, hate-filled glance. Judgment on a horse’s back, had just ridden into his valley.
Arris watched in amazement at the surreal sight of the warleader confidently leading her people in and driving back the demon tide. His nearest lieutenant took the gods’ gift and began using Azhani’s soldiers to draw out the wounded men and women of the Y’dani army.
It began to snow. Soon, the field was slippery, and staying mounted was nearly impossible. Endlessly, the demons charged on, pouring out of the mountains, seeming to rise up from the stone itself. The screams of the dead and dying echoed around Arris, yet he stayed still, letting the battle wash around him.
Suddenly, Tyr went down, his throat torn out by crimson-coated claws. Time slammed into the king in a rush, snapping the sense of shocked lethargy away and replacing it with raw anger. Rolling away, Arris shouted in rage and charged the demon, hacking it to bits.
His vision blurred, but he continued to fight on, his sword flickering in the moonlight. Death paced him as he blindly carved his way through demon after demon, until he was fighting side by side with the woman he both loved and hated. He looked at her, seeing her face clearly through the battle haze. She was beautiful, she was terrible and she was everything he had dreamed she would be, since the moment he realized he was in love with her.
She ignored him.
He wanted to speak, to say the words that puddled in his throat and begged to drown his tongue, but his voice had left him. What could he say? How could he defend his actions? What excuses would cause her to forgive him for stealing her life, her love and her honor?
I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to kill your beloved and strip you of your title so that you would love only me? Insanity. She would never hear the real truth behind the words, only the hurt that they had caused. He laughed brokenly.
Was he insane? Arris couldn’t grasp reality anymore. It shivered and fled his touch like a wild bird escapes the falconer’s jess. Without Porthyros – without the man whose calm voice and soothing tea had always made him feel as though he could conquer the world, he was only half there.
That damned, stinking tea! I never wanted it, Thyro! You made me drink it! Clarity blazed across his mind as he remembered – saw what he would not see – that the drink had bourn the same toxin that had taken his father’s life, only in milder, less deadly doses.
He went to throw down his weapon and drop to his knees to beg for Azhani’s mercy. His mind, still in the thrall of the drug, refused to allow the muscles in his hands to unclench. Instead, they tightened further and Arris watched in horror as the sword raised to strike down the woman who had haunted his dreams.
Arris pivoted to face Azhani, scathing words of hatred poised on his tongue.
Cold, dark eyes met his, boring deep into him, daring him to make a move. His drug-controlled will fought to overpower her calm determination. The krill thrall gave way, leaving Arris drained and unable to speak.
Turning away from Azhani, he sought another enemy, one he could face with impunity. The half-elven warrior was an opponent he would never master. Somewhere, out in the wilds of Y’myran, another Arris wandered. That Arris would know how to be a king. He would have no trouble charming the headstrong warleader into serving him.
This Arris could only fight, and pray that he saw the dawn.
The first rays of sunlight touched the mix of snow, blood and muck and sent the demons scurrying off to their caves. Azhani nearly dropped where she stood. A full day of riding, only to fight all night, had exhausted her very last reserves.
Across from her, no more than six feet away, was Arris. He too looked absolutely drained. Leaning on his sword and panting, he looked up at her. Blood trickled from a scalp laceration, staining half of his face in red.
“Oathbreaker,” he croaked. It might have been a taunt, but it sounded more like a plea.
“We’re not on Y’dani soil,” Azhani sneered weakly. “So stuff your false accusations up your ass, Arris. You’re lucky I haven’t got the strength to rip your intestines out and feed them to the crows.”
He shook his head. “I have no more quarrel with you, Azhani. I-“ he wiped his face and looked down at it. “So much blood. There’s so much – gods, how can there be so much blood?” The king broke, tortured sobs tearing out of him and wracking his entire body.
Azhani watched him, pity and hatred wrestling with her conscience.
Kyrian walked over and handed Azhani a cup of warm tea. She looked over at the weeping king and asked, “Is he okay? Should I-“
“Leave him,” Azhani said coldly. “He’s not worth your time.” She turned away and sipped at her drink, watching as the sun’s first rays painted the horizon in pale amber hues.
The stardancer couldn’t just let the man sob like he was. Her heart broke each time Arris cried out and she started walking toward him to try and offer some comfort.
Through his tears, Arris could see the crimson robed priest come for him. Red – like blood – blood, the thick, coppery fluid that stained his hands and painted the altars of Ecarthus’ unholy temples. He shrank back, quavering in fear. Those memories – the shockingly vivid images of the carnage that took place in one of that demon’s temples, was more than enough to send him screaming into the forest.
The rising sun glimmered off the silver Astariun token on Kyrian’s chest, catching Arris’ attention. Goddess. Good. Astariu, blessed lady of life and healing. The chants of childhood echoed in the king’s mind, breaking through is fear.
He staggered toward her, intending on falling at her feet and begging her to forgive him for his sins, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw something gray and huge dart out of a clump of bushes.
“No!” he shouted. Drawing on every last reserve, he raised his sword and leapt in front of the startled stardancer.
Skin popping and bubbling under the sun’s light, the demon hit Arris at full speed. The king ignored the acidic ooze that coated him, eating through his armor and clothing, trying with all his flagging strength to push the beast off of him. The priest was trapped beneath him – he could feel her struggling to get away. Her movement told the king that she was alive, allowing him to focus on the dying monster that held them down.
The demon got one leg up and between them, kicking downward like a cat with its razor sharp claws. Blood filled Arris’ mouth as he screamed. "No!" he shouted hoarsely. "There will be no more blood on my hands!" With a last burst of power, he thrust his sword upward at an angle, pushing until he felt the blade break through the monster’s ribs and pierce its heart. The demon roared once, and died.
Kyrian finally freed herself and Arris rolled his head up in time to see her scramble away. “Did... it,” he wheezed, and then passed out.
“Hello, my son,” said King Theodan as he turned to greet the man who his boy had become.
“Fa-father?” Arris stuttered, staring into the face of the first man he had killed.
Death had washed the years from Theodan’s face, leaving behind the smooth, calm visage of a handsome man. The elder king bowed his head.
“Oh my son,” he whispered, reaching out to touch Arris’ battered face. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, father. It is I who am sorry,” Arris cried, feeling tears gather in his eyes. “I’ve been so bad, father. I’ve done so much...” The young king’s throat convulsed, as bile rose at the memories of his actions.
Theodan drew his son into his arms. “I know, son. I know it all. It’s all right, though. Don’t you worry.” He comforted the weeping boy.
“You’ll pay for all of your evils.” The voice changed, rising from his father’s deep baritone to the silken tones of Ylera Kelani.
Pulling out of the embrace, Arris stumbled away. Where his father had been, now sat the elven princess. Once beautiful, now the ambassador was a ghoulish sight. Pale skin had turned waxen, sagging to reveal the white of bone. Maggots crawled over the never-healed wounds that his daggers had made and silken hair now fell in matted clumps over a blood soaked dress.
“What’s the matter, Arris? Don’t you want to lie with me? You seemed so willing before. Or is it my Azhani you want? Does she still excite you, my lord? Come, my king. Show me how much you want my body.” The ghastly form reached for him and he cried out, scrambling back.
“No! You’re dead! Go away! No!”
Claw-like hands grasped his ankle and drew him back into the dead woman’s embrace. Rubbery, cold lips pressed against his and an ice-like tongue thrust into his mouth. He gagged and struggled, fighting with all of his strength.
“You’re mine now, dead man. Your soul is mine!” Once again, the creature holding him metamorphosed, only now he was held in the clawed hand of Ecarthus, eater of souls. Glittering red eyes gazed into Arris’ and a wicked grin cracked the demon’s face.
Fear choked the young king and Ecarthus laughed, opening his mouth wide and letting the eerie sounds of mirth fill the air. “Yes, feed me, boy. Your terror is so delicious!”
Arris awoke to the sound of singing. Blinking open his eyes, he saw that the red-robed priest was kneeling over him, her hands hovering inches above his abdomen. An aura of a bright, almost painful shade of yellow limned her hands and she was softly chanting a healing prayer. Her hands came down to rest on his ravaged flesh and ice-fire pain lanced through him. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced, surpassing even the ripping agony of the demon’s claws.
“Oh gods, stop, please!” he begged as tears flowed from his eyes. The dream was still very real and he didn’t know whether or not this torture was a part of that, or something new and even more hideous. Miraculously, the priest backed off, though confusion clearly marked her face.
Kyrian looked up at Azhani and said, “I don’t understand. I can’t heal him.”
The warleader stared at her lover helplessly.
“I,” Arris spoke slowly, pain lacing his words. “I belong to Ecarthus now,” he whispered, bitterness acidly plain on his tongue. “The goddess cannot touch my soul. Ah gods, what have I done?” he cried plaintively. With his dream still fresh in his mind, he looked over at Azhani. Her eyes were hard, unreadable and he sighed heavily. “You hate me. I don’t blame you. I would –“ he coughed and blood flecked his lips. “I would ask you to forgive me, but it’s too late. Just... promise me, Warleader. Promise me that you’ll save them. Save my kingdom, Azhani Rhu’len. The armies are yours.”
Spotting his squire, Arris lifted his head and weakly shouted. “Hear that? You’re hers now, boy! All of you! Hers! I command it. Follow Azhani. She is the Warleader now.” He fell back, displacing a drift of crimson stained snow.
“Yes, my king!” the boy smartly saluted and ran off to tell everyone else.
Arris coughed, wincing at the pain in his stomach. “Damn that Porthyros to the lowest hell! I would do murder for a pot of his tea right now!”
Azhani offered him hers, but he only spat it out.
“Gah, too sweet.” His eyes started to glaze as he stared up at the gray sky. Light snow drifted down, coating his lashes. He closed his eyes and sighed. “I can feel him, you know,” he said, his voice deepening. Arris’ eyes popped open and he stared up at Kyrian, the intensity of his gaze causing her to shiver. “He’s eating my soul,” he whispered. He smiled beatifically. “I wonder... what it will be like...” As his voice faded off, he took one, shuddering breath and then went limp.
Sadly, Kyrian looked down at the dead king, covered him with his cloak and said, “He might have been a monster, but he saved my life.”
Mixed emotions roiling plainly on her face, Azhani whispered, “I know.” She stood and walked away, heading toward the Y’dani army.
“I hope you find your peace, Arris of Y’dan,” Kyrian said softly, stroking the fine black hair off of his face. She moved to stand, but stopped when something caught her attention. Lowering herself to her knees once more, she lifted his hand and curiously inspected it.
The king’s hands were coated in blood and muck, but she could clearly see that the fingernails were a ghastly shade of greenish black, one of the signs of krill poisoning.
“Oh goddess...” Kyrian whispered breathlessly, still staring at the dead man’s hand. “That tea... I wonder if...” Expending just a little more power, the stardancer hummed a few short notes and scanned Arris’ body. Eyes widening at what she saw, Kyrian was hard put to contain a whistle of surprise.
The king had been krill-thralled for years. The drug had meshed completely with the young man’s system, tainting every breath with its hallucinogenic poison. Wearily, the stardancer stood, letting Arris’ hand fall.
Looking down at the dead king, Kyrian said, “No wonder you were loonier than a box of square wheels.” She shook her head sadly. “I’ve got to tell Azhani. It’s not an absolution, but it might help her to understand you, Arris Theodan.”
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