When the piles of deadwood reached halfway up the trunk, Cian stood up. He lifted my chain. “Van. It’s time.
I glanced at the sun. It hovered over the mountain peaks, its bright rays of gold, orange, pink and rose-blush streaking eastward as though yearning for the dawn. As you love me, your lordships, I prayed silently. As you love her, help me through this.
I offered no fight as Cian and Kado untied my hands only to retie them behind the stout, dried trunk of the old oak. Just more tinder to catch hold. I gazed down at the pile that shifted uneasily beneath my feet. I leaned my head back against the bark and shut my eyes. Focus, damn it. Focus.
Concentrating, I slowed my breathing, my heartbeat. I focused on my sword. If you’re there, I said, deep within my mind, I need you now. Slowly, too slowly, I sank deeper into a trance. Only by casting out all distractions might I call upon the sword’s power. As it lay outside my own, perhaps it was not constrained by the cold pewter collar around my neck.
“May you be reborn in Paradise,” Cian called, safely returned to the ground with Kado in tow.
His voice broke my infant trance. Frantic to reclaim it, I felt it slip from my grasp. I heard a torch lit with a whoosh, scented its smoky flame. I knew someone, probably Yestin, handed it with devout ceremony to Cian.
Down, I thought, my mind fogged, sluggish. Down, deep and down.
The trance hovered at the threshold of my mind, calling to me.
At my feet, flames licked the dry wood and found it palatable. Heat rose to warm my body, and smoke teased my nostrils, burned my eyelids. Ignore it, my mind whispered. Ignore it and control thy fear. Fear is your enemy. Make it your ally.
Dropping deeper into a trance, I called to my own blood, captured deep within the sword. Hear me. Feel me. I am yours and you are mine.
I hear, the sword hissed in reply. I obey.
The flames rose higher, hungry, feeding on the dry wood. I needed no eyes to witness Cian fall back, shading his brow against the terrible heat. I saw within my mind his companions curse in dreadful fascination as they stumbled into one another, seizing arms, tripping over themselves in their haste to escape the licking fires of hell.
Sweat burst from my pores only to dry an instant later under the searing heat. The pain from my busted ribs felt as naught to the savage terror that filled my soul, my heart. The trance slid back, panic emerging, my throat raw and ready to scream. I’m going to die!
The sword’s power caught my mind, my heart. I saw through its empty eyes, felt its calm regard, listened to its silent voice. It knew me. I knew it. Like lovers reunited after a long absence, we rushed toward each other. We collided like twin moons in the aether, sparks and smoke erupting in showers. I now owned its absolute power, the kind of power the gods themselves outlawed eons ago.
Hot, lethal flames surged upward, licking my knees, straining toward my thighs. Raging hot flame climbed up my body, burning, destroying. I knew, distantly, my boots had melted and only my feet smoldered, not quite burning.
I sharpened my mind and focused my will. Now!
With the sound of six-inch thick ice breaking, the collar about my neck shattered. As though hit with a divine hammer, it dropped into hundreds of pieces, into the licking flames, gone. My power roared through me, restored, my birthright. The agony of my injuries receded as the new flood of adrenaline forced it to the sidelines.
In a blink, I was airborne. The ropes that once bound my hands dropped to the flames, consumed. My falcon’s small form rose high into the violent colors of the sunset, my screech of triumph breaking across the sound of crackling flames and the scent of burning wood. My wings forced the dark smoke into roiling behind my tail, coiling like deadly serpents before the light evening breeze set it adrift. I soared high and free, climbing into the dusk.
“No!” Cian screamed, his voice echoing through the mountains.
Finish it. The soft voice whispered in my ear.
Yes. Let’s finish it. If I don’t kill him now, I’ll never be free of him or his vengeance. It’s time he met the true Zeani.
Folding my wings, I dropped like a stone. Straight toward the hot fires he set, the death he planned for me, I aimed my raptor’s beak. The wind whistled past my ears, rustled through my tail feathers. My keen eyes saw him, far below, watching the skies for me, his mouth open in a howl of despair. His boys flanked him, watching the sky, the wood, the mountain, huddled together like sheep before the onset of a storm. They feared me. They were right to fear me.
I was always the best. I won every contest. I defeated every prior champion. I could change forms on a pinfeather and slay with the fangs of a tiger before my enemy knew what killed him. My enemies feared me. My friends wished they could be me. No one ever bested me in a fight. I didn’t intend to lose now.
A rod from the ground, I changed.
Striking the ground in my human shape, sword in hand, I charged. From the darkness I rose, unseen. They searched the skies as I dropped among them. My first strike took Kado across the face, splitting his mouth from ear to ear. He smiled as he pointed his arrow at my knee. Then let’s permit him to smile forevermore.
His scream of agony alerted the others and they broke apart in panic. Cian yelled and seized steel, bellowing orders his men didn’t heed. Darkness hadn’t yet fallen completely, and the firelight glinted off our bared blades. Only the first stars twinkled from the heavens, and I half-wondered if Zeani watched from afar and hoped her lover would win this bout.
As Yestin and Tris reached Kado to succor his injury, Cian and I met. Our swords rang against one another, slithering in a shiver of sparks as I fought to kill him and he fought not to die. His fear worked against him just as my rage worked for me. I parried his amateur stroke and feinted a blow to his left. When he swung to block it, I lunged in, under his blade, to his right. The tip of my sword cut his thigh near the groin. Not close to his femoral, but enough that his leg buckled under him. I feinted again, striking close to his head. He ducked, parried and responded with a quick cut to my belly.
I jumped back easily, avoiding his blade and slashed downward and sideways. His sword swung hard left, harmless, leaving his right shoulder exposed. I cut backward, slicing through tough muscle and tendon.
His sword clanged to the ground as he staggered, blood gushing from two wounds. As desperate as he was, I expected him to change, to shift into a new body. His favorite form was the fox: swift, clever, and nimble. As a quick predator, he might escape my blade and my wrath. Instead, Cian cried aloud, screaming names, calling for reinforcements. “Broc! Yestin! Help me! Help!”
I swung my blade hard, from left to right, across his throat. Blood fountained high, spattering into the growing darkness. He stood still, his eyes wide and staring. What the hell? I know I killed him. Still he stood, gaping at me in astonishment. His mouth worked. His eyes bulged in his head. The scar across his cheek paled to a dim pink as the blood drained from his flesh. Damn it, why aren’t you dead? I tilted my head sideways, considering. A swift glance downward showed me a clean blade glinting in the bright firelight.
Uh, did I kill him or didn’t I?
“Van,” he mumbled, his lips moving slowly. “For–forgive me.”
Oh, bloody unlikely. I lowered my sword and watched in casual amusement as his head slowly, like a mountain collapsing, tilted sideways. Only a thin thread of flesh that my sword missed kept his head on his neck. Then it split, torn, as Cian’s head fell to the tundra and rolled, over and over, bumping his nose, to rest near my bare feet.
His body slumped to the stony soil, bleeding out from his empty neck, pooling in thick clots amid the thin grass and fallen pine needles. I swallowed the lump that formed in my throat. I killed a member of my own family. He was my kin, a Clansman, after all. But he sent my girl into the hands of a murdering prince with all the thought of ordering his next round of ale. For that, I kicked his head into the rushing river.
“You killed him,” Tris said, his tone low with awe and disbelief.
Broc, Yestin and Drust slowly rose from a still groaning Kado and stepped on light, cautious feet toward me. Zorn ran in, nocking an arrow to his bowstring, raising it, aiming. Their bared swords gleamed in the firelight as they circled me round, their eyes glowing redly. Spinning my sword in a tight circle, I raised my free hand toward them, grinning faintly.
I lowered my face and spat on Cian’s still twitching corpse. “I reckon you boys want to join your master, eh? C’mon, then. Let’s dance.”
Drust rushed me first, yelling for all he was worth, his sword raised. I lifted mine, braced to meet him head on. Instead, something from the near darkness seized him by the shoulders and yanked him high. His despairing scream of agony and terror trailed down to me at the same instant his sword clanked to the ground at my feet.
Zorn’s arrow whistled past my head as Drust’s flayed body, his skull crushed beyond recognition, fell to the ground behind me. I whirled to defend my rear. I saw nothing to defend against, yet the hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention. Blood poured from the myriad cuts and slices to his body, his neck half severed. His slowly glazing eyes stared at me, accusing. You did this.
No, I swear, I didn’t.
Tris rushed me, his eyes bugging with not just fear but outright terror. His sword swung so wildly, all I needed do to avoid it was step aside. I never bothered to raise my own. He staggered past me–and screamed. Something huge and darkly shadowed lifted him from the ground and hugged him close. I heard his bones snap as his ribs and spine gave in, his last breaths of life broken with bubbles of blood.
Thudding hooves warned me in time.
Spinning, my sword high and my body low, my narrowed vision watched as a huge dark creature galloped into the firelight. The red-orange flames glistened off black hair, black hide, a rayed star high above with gold gleaming around his throat. Moon and fire licked off a raised sword, but the creature’s face dropped my sword’s tip to the dirt. Oh, no way, this isn’t right, this isn’t happening–
About the Book
When the moon and the sun
Are joined as one,
From tears of strife, from the bitter ashes,
From sorrow and from rage
That what was once parted
Shall again be one.
First Captain Vanyar: Disgraced. Outlawed. Haunted by the chilling murder of his own men, he is consumed by guilt and knows he can never find redemption for his crimes. The most talented Shape-Shifter ever born, only he can save Princess Iyumi from a Witch's evil, and help her find the child of prophecy. But his Atani brothers, seeking justice for the slaying of Vanyar's unit, plan his private execution against the King's orders.
Princess Iyumi: She is the legendary "She Who Hears", the voice of the gods, and the gods' chosen tool. Only she knows where to find the child spoken of in the ancient prophecy, the child who will unite two feuding countries and protect the world of magic from obliteration. Caught between two warring men, only her love is hers to give, to offer to the only man she ever wanted.
Prince Flynn: Despised by his own people, cruelly abused by his father, he fights to hide his magical gifts from those who would slay him for possessing them. By blood and by fire, he gains a terrible power, and condemns his own soul. He must find Princess Iyumi and the child, and bring them to his father's mistress, the Red Witch. Or the only people who ever mattered to him, his mother and his sister, will die.