Curse Breaker: Enchanted [The More Epic Version] by Melinda Kucsera by Melinda Kucsera - Read Online

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Curse Breaker - Melinda Kucsera

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KUCSERA

Copyright

Curse Breaker: Enchanted [The More Epic Version] © 2017 Melinda Kucsera

Cover design © 2017 Melinda Kucsera featuring artwork by Kolbakova Olga used under license from Shutterstock.com

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

ISBN-10: 0997214163

ISBN-13: 9780997214161

Table of Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Want Free Books?

Would You Leave A Review?

Why Do A More Epic Version?

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Curse Breaker: Darkens

Into Darkness

Want More?

Would You Give Us A Star?

Characters Speak

In Memoriam

We’d Love To Hear From You!

The Curse Breaker Series

Dedication

For my sister Carolyn, your last request is fulfilled.

Rest in peace.

"O Guardian most dear,

Hold those loved and lost near,

Shield those who live from fear,

Always be with us here,

O Guardian most dear."

—Traditional Shayarin Prayer

Want Free Books?

So do we! Who are we? We’re the stars of The Curse Breaker Saga, and we’re giving away a FREE preview of Curse Breaker: Darkens. (Yes, we can do that. We’re the stars remember?) Just go HERE to tell us where to send your copy. Please don’t tell our author.

Would You Leave A Review?

As fictional characters, we appreciate the feedback we receive. Reviews also help readers decide to buy our book. (Since we exist only when someone’s reading our stories, reviews are very important to us.) So, if you’re enjoying the magical mayhem in this book, please consider letting everyone know by leaving a review. And of course, tell everyone you meet about us.

Thank you for reading Curse Breaker: Enchanted [The More Epic Version]!

Why Do A More Epic Version?

Hello Readers!

We, the characters who starred in the original book, wanted more magic, action, drama and mayhem. Hey, we're readers too, and we wanted our story to be as epic as possible.

So, without further ado, we bring you—drumroll please—The More Epic Version of Curse Breaker: Enchanted!

We hope you enjoy it! Read to the end for a look at Curse Breaker: Darkens.

—the cast of Curse Breaker: Enchanted

Chapter 1

Dodging people, statuary, and foliage, Sarn threaded through a crowded tunnel. He had to reach his master before the next bell rang despite the lollygaggers blocking his way.

Delve down deep, urged the magic sharing his skin. Delve into the roots of the mountain.

Why? Sarn asked his magic without breaking stride. He checked the map scrolling across the backs of his eyelids seeking a convenient gap, but saw only a thousand—

Nine hundred and nine—corrected the magic after performing a quick count of the people icons on his map.

Whatever, Sarn shot back. Why do you want me to go downstairs? Is there a problem? Down there was where his loved ones lived. Were they in trouble? Fear niggled at Sarn as he patted the bodies ahead of him searching for a way through.

The Litherians—replied the magic in a reverent tone.

Not that again, Sarn shook his head. They were a race of stone mages who had carved a city inside the cone of a mountain. And their statuary fixation complicated his commute. Sarn cursed at a wall of bodies halting his progress. 

What about the Litherians? Why was his magic so interested in them? They’d been dead for centuries.

You could find out what happened to them, his magic taunted but failed to offer a reason why he should care.

They likely lost their way and starved to death in this place. And it would serve them right. Sarn felt a break in the crowd and squeezed into it. Damn capricious magic, he needed to go earn his daily bread, not search the bowels of this mountain for clues about a legendary race. Of course, it would help if the crowd started moving. What was the holdup?

Unnatural, screamed his magic, but Sarn ignored it.

Nausea tightened his gut. He slipped through a narrowing gap in the crowd and gained a couple of feet toward his goal. More grumbling accompanied him, likely the same warning again.

What did the magic expect him to do? Drop everything to find the unnatural thing upsetting it? Then what? He had no training just an overactive magical gift pressing against his closed eyes, begging for release. Showing it who was the boss, Sarn pushed back on the magic and felt for a way through. But his hands encountered more bodies, and none of them were moving—damn it.

Unnatural, shouted his magic as it threw itself backward and knocked Sarn off balance.

The ground trembled, and nine hundred people panicked. Shouts of earthquake motivated the crowd to move. They shoved past jostling Sarn in their haste to exit this tunnel into the falling night.

If it was an earthquake, then he had to go back. He had to save—Sarn slammed into one of those damned statues. They were everywhere. One of its marble hands brushed cold fingers over his burning eyes and the magic fighting to escape.

Let us out! Magic pushed flaming green hands against his closed eyes.

A slice of white marble slashed across the emerald glow wreathing a sea of heads. No! Sarn squeezed his eyes closed again and tried to slip out of the statue’s grip. He had to save—but his awareness shrank to the stone hand gripping his. Where were his damned gloves? Why wasn’t he wearing them?

Let us out, begged the magic as Sarn slid away.

His awareness seeped out of his ungloved hand into the statue. No, into Mount Eredren itself, then beyond it—Sarn was the tip of an arrow speeding toward a wrongness out in the gloaming.

A dozen voices merged into one voice repeating five unintelligible syllables. They hammered at Sarn, driving him to his knees. His head throbbed with each repetition until the voice faded.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, shouted the magic as Sarn’s world blackened.

The ground stilled, calming the crowd. No one saw a statue pivot on its plinth and deposit a thrashing youth behind its base. Nor did anyone see a green glow snake down his scarred cheek when his seizure ebbed.

Sarn came to slumped in a corner. Magic blanketed him. Maybe it had protected him from discovery, but he doubted it. How long had he been out? Long enough for the earth to calm and the crowd too, by the sound of it. Just in case, he kept his eyes closed to conceal their emerald glow, and his magic didn’t fight him.

Maybe his loved ones were okay. Fate protect them until he could. Pressing a hand to his aching brow, Sarn winced when his head map expanded from a two-dimensional icon-rich line drawing to a three-dimensional wire frame. Like he needed those extra details pointing out how much of the mountain stood between him and his waiting master.

What had just happened? Sarn felt along a high relief setting of a historical event for a handhold then hauled his six-and-a-half-foot tall body off the floor. Information slammed into him, providing the tonnage, context, and type of stone he touched. Damn magic—couldn’t it wait until he was a bit steadier before deluging him with unnecessary details?

Gritting his teeth, Sarn sifted through the information seeking what had disturbed his magic until pain forced him to stop. He stuffed his hands into his pockets despite protests from his magic and information quit pummeling him.

Relieved, Sarn pushed into the throng, letting it sweep him into its flow. He had no idea what had happened before, but he knew someone who might. His master’s icon blinked green on his head map inviting him for a chat.

Finally, Sarn left the crowd behind and slipped into a side passage hooking off the north-south transept. The sudden turn screwed with his balance, and he wavered until the visuals projected onto the backs of his eyelids stabilized. In his haste, he struck something hard, a sculpture perhaps, judging by the shape of the wire-framed heap.

The Litherians had folded rock imitating paper’s crisp folds and silk’s graceful drape while sculpting their vertical city. Then they’d wrapped five balconies around said mountain fortress adding extra space for their statuary obsession, and more obstacles to dodge.

An arrow flashed on his map, directing Sarn to a balustrade and beyond it to the meadow spreading from the mountain’s feet. His master was down there and hopefully, so too were answers.

Sarn bypassed a column supporting the veranda above and stepped over a raised vegetable patch with care. Its young shoots might become part of his dinner one day. Footsteps, out of sync with his quiet tread accompanied a new icon flaring on his map. Someone headed this way. Had this person followed him?

Sarn cursed his ill-luck. Since down was where he needed to go, he climbed onto the coping and jumped before anything else went wrong. Thank the Litherians their balconies overlapped each other, widening as they descended.

Magic sheathed him in cold purpose as it reached for the balcony below turning it malleable. After falling several stories, Sarn landed in a crouch. His magic forced the bench under his boots to flex, absorbing the energy from his fall.

Sensing no one around, he opened his eyes, and their glow dyed the balcony and its statuary green. Sarn blinked until the flagstones lost their polygonal afterimage and his minimized map parked itself in his peripheral vision.

The wind whispered five syllables and repeated them until its voice faded out. Sarn struggled to parse the sounds as he hopped off the bench. Beyond the balustrade, a red orb bled onto the serrated horizon, and the metallic stench of blood wrenched his guts. Darkness rippled through the enchanted forest, where a silent army of trees waited for something or someone. Their eyeless stare focused on Sarn, making his skin prickle and his magic circle him, alert for trouble. Were thousands of branches beckoning him onward? Or was it a trick of the wind?

A warning sounded in his head, startling Sarn right before an arm collided with his throat. Its mate secured itself around his waist then the two limbs yanked backward crashing Sarn into a barrel chest. Where had his attacker come from?

What the hell do you think you’re doing? Gregori enunciated each word as if he spoke to an idiot.

Sarn’s knees jellied as he struggled to regain his footing, and his sight dimmed. Before everything went black, Gregori let go.

Stop it. I didn’t squeeze you that hard, and besides, you aren’t fragile.

Yeah right, but Sarn bit his lip to keep his acerbic comments to himself. He staggered until a ham-sized fist forced him to sit on a nearby bench. Gregori’s dark eyes zeroed in on a purpling bruise.

Who did that to you?

Rising, Sarn righted his hood to cover said bruise. Indentured men had no rights. So what if a bunch of fools had jumped him? Complications made it better for all if he kept his mouth shut. The incident had happened fifteen hours ago and had no bearing on the Ranger glaring holes in his back. Not that Gregori cared.

Who hit you? Gregori demanded with more menace. Can’t have the Lord of the Mountain’s property damaged, oh no.

Sarn swallowed the truth before it could break free. His situation was better than most, and he was managing just fine without interference. Still, he had to say something.

Gregori snapped his sausage fingers in front of Sarn’s face. Pay attention boy. I asked you a question. You’re supposed to answer it.

Sarn studied the carvings under his boots. Incised mid-writhe, insects patterned the ground, offering neither answers nor solace. The wind tugged on his ankle-length cloak, pulling him toward the balustrade and the distant forest. Its eyeless stare bored into his back. A voice whispered the same five syllables as before. His magic urged him to jump, and he could think of no reason not to.

Gregori seized his arm and shook Sarn free of the magic and its mad mutterings. The wind died, releasing his cloak.

You can tell me, or you can tell Jerlo, but you’re telling someone. Do you hear me, boy?

The fortyish bruiser looked ready to plant himself in front of something in need of guarding. Nothing on the balcony required such protection.

I turned twenty last November. I’m not a child.

Then don’t act like one.

Sarn rolled his eyes. A unicorn statue with a broken horn gave him the stink eye. Even the statuary had an opinion tonight.

Bind your eyes, so you don’t cause a panic and let’s go. They’re looking for you. Gregori fished a blindfold out of his pocket and handed it to Sarn.

Who’s looking for me?

Don’t be an idiot. You know who.

Gregori took back the blindfold and secured it then caught Sarn by his arm. The burly Ranger’s heavy boots beat a metronome of doom as he towed Sarn toward the trouble his magic had sensed.

A sullen green star poked at the blindfold. Sarn ignored it and kept hiking. His magic hated confinement, but he couldn’t liberate it. Heat bloomed in his hands and radiated into his fingers, extending them towards a wall. Damn the magic and its meddling. Sarn stuffed his hands into his pockets again. Where were his damned gloves?

A bell tolled twenty times. Uh-oh, Lateness was a whipping offense. Did being in Gregori’s custody count as ‘on time?’ Would the muscle-bound Ranger vouch for him—doubtful.

After he yanked his head map into view to steer him around statuary and jabbering people icons, Sarn picked up the pace.

—Moving around.

—Letting no one through—

It ain’t natural—

The last assertion caught Sarn’s attention. His magic had made a similar claim right before Gregori showed up. What he’d sensed earlier was no fluke. Something was going on, and the Rangers were hip-deep in it. No wonder Gregori was short with him.

What are they talking about?

Never you mind, Gregori said as the ground vanished under Sarn’s foot.

Thank Fate for his head map. Without it, he’d have tumbled down into the roots of the mountain. Sarn touched the enclosing wall. Information poured into his skull and boiled over onto his map, threatening to overwhelm him. He didn’t care if his magic had found an interesting frieze to investigate. Show me the damned steps so I don’t fall. But alas, his magic ignored his command until his master’s icon appeared below, promising answers. Only then did his map focus on the spiral stairs.

One hundred steps down, Gregori bumped a section of the curved wall with his heel, and it slid aside, sending a breath of fresh air into the dank stairwell.

I found him. The damned fool was trying to fly. Gregori punctuated his announcement by shoving Sarn forward.

You were trying to fly? Nolo asked, taking hold of Sarn’s arm.

Sarn yanked his arm free. He sensed no one else on this precipice—time for the blindfold to come off. I wasn’t trying to fly.

Leave it. Nolo squeezed his captured arm hard enough to make his point.

You were trying to defy something, Gregori said, ignoring the byplay.

We’ll talk about it later. Right now, I need you to come with me.

What’s going on?

What makes you think anything is going on? Gregori poked Sarn in the ribs.

Sarn slapped the muscular Ranger’s hand away before it could deliver another poke. Snatches of conversations, he said distracted by his magic unspooling inside him. Had it sensed something?

"Let’s go. The—disturbance—is some way ahead." Nolo pronounced ‘disturbance’ like a curse. His master’s grip firmed forcing Sarn to follow. As if he could do anything else—he was bound by the promises he’d made.

Beads clicked together on the bracelet Nolo always wore, as they descended the mountain trail. Ten agates, three Jaspers—supplied the magic before Sarn cut it off. His magic liked rocks, even if they were part of someone else’s jewelry.

I don’t care. But it was too late. The largest bead—a cylinder of green lumir—called to Sarn. Or maybe it was the wind soughing that eerie polysyllabic summons. He clenched his fists until his nails bit into his palms. He’d heard that phrase thrice now, and each time it had danced on the edge of understanding. What the hell was it saying?

What is this ‘disturbance?’

Nolo maintained his silence because he equated freakishness with stupidity.

Damn him. You don’t think I can understand. Sarn wanted to pummel something. He had a mind, and it worked just fine. Or did it? Sarn went cold, his hands uncurling. The phrase ceased its looping litany, leaving behind an afterimage of a circle enclosing a thirteen-pointed star. Cold dread knifed through Sarn, speeding his longer strides. Why thirteen? What did it mean? Likely nothing good.

Gravel crunched as they proceeded single-file into the falling night. Northeast of their current position, a cluster of Rangers appeared on Sarn’s map. Were they standing by the problem?

Sarn halted when he heard something other than the rattling of loose stones bouncing down the trail. Wood scraped over wood. Something thudded and had he heard a whip crack? What the hell was this disturbance?

Did you hear that?

I don’t have time to explain. Come on. Nolo’s tone gave away his worry. Something serious had happened.

Long grasses brushed their booted calves as they left the mountain behind and crossed a flat swath of greenery, heading ever nearer the enchanted forest. Malevolence slammed into Sarn, driving him back a step. Somewhere in that trackless wilderness, something had gone terribly wrong. And they wanted him to do something about it? Were they insane?

We fix, said the magic.

Fix what? What happened?

But his magic remained silent. Did it know what mess he was walking into? Sarn gnashed his teeth in frustration and kept moving.

Sarn halted on the gravel path. In front of him, standing stones encircled the meadow in two concentric rings. They maintained a cordon the enchanted forest could not cross. Since Litherian hands hadn’t raised those giant stones, his magic had no interest in them until tonight. Something was different about those menhirs. Damn Gregori and his blindfolds. Sarn felt for the knot again then stopped.

Silence fell, cutting the remaining cord between Sarn and the world beyond the blindfold. The air between the menhirs coalesced into an invisible hand shoving Sarn backward. Nolo’s grip broke as he stumbled out of the ring of stones.

Something warm brushed against his hands as Sarn raised them to examine the barrier blocking him. Particles flowed clockwise, sparking against his skin. He bet they glowed the same hue and intensity as his eyes. Likely, the same magic comprised them both.

Nolo shook Sarn. What happened? Why did you retreat?

I didn’t. It expelled me.

It’s never rejected you before. I don’t like it.

Neither did Sarn. He shook off Nolo’s grip and paced. Before tonight, he’d crossed these circles of stones many times with no hindrance at all. Why was tonight different? What the hell was going on? Sarn quit pacing and explored the blindfold. It was time the damned thing came off.

No, don’t touch it. You must leave it in place. There are too many folks abroad. We can’t let anyone see—

His freaky eyes because the sight might drive someone to put them out. That reality bitch slapped Sarn every time he opened his eyes. The damned knot defeated his extra-large fingers putting paid to the argument.

Nolo pried his hand away from the blindfold. Leave it. I’ll remove it when it’s safe to do so, not before.

Tell me what’s going on.

I can’t tell you what I don’t know. Nolo tugged him southwards.

Where’re we going now?

To find a spot where you can cross. We’ll walk the whole damn circumference if we have to.

So, the problem lay outside the ring of menhirs in the enchanted forest. Foreboding dragged an icy claw up Sarn’s spine. The forest functioned on magic akin to his, and it tended to wreak havoc on his control. Just what he needed on a night when his magic was already unruly.

Grass ceded to rock again, but this time, they were water-smoothed stones. Sarn grimaced at the fishy stink of the River Nirthal. It flowed east to west in a broad, lazy ribbon along the southern edge of the meadow.

Nolo crossed first. This time, when Sarn stepped across the divide, the barrier slid through his body, allowing him to pass. Shuddering at its alien feel, he trudged the ten feet between one circle of menhirs and the other onto a rocky beach.

Are you alright?

Sarn nodded. Something large tore free from something else and approached. It flashed red on his head map. What the hell is that?

Look out!

Get down Kid!

Someone grab the Kid and get him down!

A body slammed into Sarn and bore him to the ground. Something hard wrapped around his forearm and yanked on it, dragging him toward the enchanted forest. Another unidentifiable object wrapped around his upper arm adding its argument to the fray.

Arms closed around Sarn’s middle and pulled him in the opposite direction, but it was futile, the force pulling his upper body had more leverage. And the Rangers trying to prevent his kidnapping were ceding ground. Before they were pulled into the forest, they realized who they were attempting to save and let go. After all, he was replaceable.

Sarn slid into the enchanted forest, still blind to what was going on. Thanks a lot, Gregori.

Nolo flinched as a giant tree ripped free from the ground and slithered toward them. Trees were supposed to stay put, even enchanted ones. But a three-hundred-foot-plus monster crawled on its roots, heading straight for Sarn. And the blindfold made it impossible for the Kid to see the danger. A branch whipped out as Nolo dove. He knocked the boy down. But the lad was closer to seven feet than six, so a branch seized the brat’s arm. It dragged Sarn, but Nolo held fast. Another tree grabbed hold and yanked even harder. The Kid slid a few feet closer to the forest and a host of uprooted trees. If Nolo could pull the Kid back across the gravel into the ring of standing stones, the Kid would be safe. None of the enchanted trees dared to touch the menhirs or their cordon.

Nolo dug his toes into the earth and struggled to reel Sarn back in. Thank God youth kept the Kid lanky and lean enough, he could secure his arm around the Kid’s waist and lock it in place. Every muscle strained as the tug of war continued, but he had to hold on. Sarn was his charge, his responsibility.

A clout to the head stunned Nolo. Screams battered him while his senses reeled. His grip loosened despite frantic mental shouts at them to hold, hold, hold damn it.

Nolo blinked away pain edged in darkness as the forest swallowed Sarn. He would find that boy. Rolling onto his stomach, he gathered himself to rise. His head rang warning bells, but he ignored them. The world teetered. Everything grayed as Nolo sat. Whatever had hit him had been hard indeed.

Stay down damn it. That thing might return.

Nolo gained his knees determined to make it all the way to a stand this time. He glared at Gregori, who crouched nearby wringing his smarting hand.

You hit me? Why? Nolo stared. His long-time friend’s sheepish look confirmed his guilt. How had he remained conscious? Gregori was a bear of a man who hit harder than a boulder and whose stature was only exceeded by the missing Sarn.

What? Should I have let it drag you off too? Bad enough it got the Kid. Lord Joranth will be pissed his pet mage was eaten by whatever that thing was. Gregori shuddered.

It was a tree—an oak I think. Nolo probed the sore spot on the back of his head and winced.

We don’t know if the Kid is a mage, Jerlo corrected as he appeared between his two officers.

At five foot nothing, the force of Jerlo’s personality took up more space than he did. And it pushed his subordinates apart. Right now, his ire focused on a man sixteen inches taller than himself who could bench press one Jerlo in each hand. A dozen Rangers turned up to watch the commander scold Gregori.

No doubt the betting would be fiercer than usual tonight. Every Ranger had a theory about how Jerlo would best Gregori, some of the proposed methods stretched the limits of credulity.

"Oh yeah, then why do his eyes glow all the damned time? It’s a sign of active magic. Hell, it’s even mentioned in the Litany."

A mention in the Litany made it God’s truth, and it sent a chill down Nolo’s back every time the subject came up.

Stow it. We’re not having this argument here and now. Whether the Kid ever does one damned magical thing is not my concern.

Why? All we do is babysit him.

Exactly, now get over there and take charge of your squad. I want this whole area sealed off until the forest calms down. No one's allowed to pass out of the stone circle.

Yes, sir.

Nolo had pushed to his feet while Gregori argued it out with their commander. His head still rang from Gregori’s fist, but Sarn’s kidnapper had dragged a two-foot-wide trench pointing the way. And Nolo trotted after it, focusing on his goal. Spotting a Kid with radiant eyes would be easy in the dark.

Where’re you going? Gregori called after him.

Where do you think—to find Sarn.

Good hunting, Jerlo offered. Though I doubt the Kid is in any real danger. He’ll likely turn up with some wild tale ‘ere morning.

Maybe but I’m still going after him.

Never doubted it, Jerlo waved his second off. His gaze landed on the Rangers playing spectator. You there—yes you—take five men and secure the west side of the circle. You and you, go east and you, south. Everyone get moving. Secure the perimeter, now damn it. Or you’ll be cleaning latrines in the dungeon before the night’s over. Jerlo clapped and the sound cut across the forest’s sudden silence.

Nolo squeezed between two giant trees and shuddered at their sudden stillness. Their attention focused elsewhere, perhaps on the missing Sarn. A pale green nimbus spread out from a bead of lumir on Nolo’s wrist. Mount Eredren’s mines churned out the luminous stone by the megaton by necessity. This enchanted wonderland carried an extreme prejudice against fire.

Aside from being affordable, the green stone reminded him of a promise he'd made five years ago. Nolo broke into a trot. He would find Sarn even if it took the whole bloody night to search.

Sarn? Call out if you can hear me.

A branch cracked somewhere ahead, and many large things thumped out a rhythm of movement, maybe even of doom. Nolo followed the sound. Lord, let us both live through this.

Sarn ran his fingers along the grooves of the thing manacling his arm and encountered tree bark. Why would a tree abduct him?

Let go of me!

Sarn hammered the heel of his hand against the branch clamped around his middle. Magic hit his veins in a flood of crackling power, scorching a path down his arm to the hand beating against his captor. The tree let go.

Early flowers perfumed the air, but their scent was undercut by something rank as Sarn felt along the blindfold for a weakness to exploit. Screw untying the damned thing. Sarn tore the blindfold off releasing his sight. Green light bathed the trunks of his captors and the furrows attesting to their recent movement. Picking himself up, he checked he was still in one extra-tall piece. Nothing broken or even bruised—thank Fate for small mercies.

Thousands of branches waved, and one enterprising oak spidered toward Sarn on its roots. Two others lifted themselves up on their root balls and dropped, shaking the ground. Did individual trees have any sense or was it a kind of hive mind? Sarn backed away though he had nowhere to go. He was surrounded.

The spokes—man—tree—halted a few feet away and its eyeless stare bored into Sarn. The forest had never chosen to communicate with any of the folk inhabiting its lands. Please let them keep their secrets tonight. He had enough of his own.

The oak disagreed. It seized his wrist and towed Sarn in its wake. Magic lit up his skin and zapped the branch as Sarn pulled his wrist free.

I can make my own way, he said allowing the chill of his anger to creep into his voice. Damn it; he was a man of twenty. I'm not a witless child. Show me where you want me to go, and I’ll follow on my own.

The forest stilled. Massive trees stood hundreds of feet tall, and their leafy crowns blocked all sight of the sky as they loomed over him. Sarn massaged his wrist. The skin smarted from where the branch had grabbed him. Had they heard him? More importantly, had he angered them? Would they strike him down?

No, they wouldn’t. The forest had three rules, and he’d broken none.

The enchanted forest agreed. A moment later, branches waved millions of beckoning leaves. When more and more branches pointed northeast, he set off curious about the why of all this. Though he had a feeling, he already knew part of the answer.

Four miles he trekked with a wall of trees to his right and left. Were they guarding him? What from? What was going on? The temperature dropped and night deepened as Sarn climbed a slope. Darkness webbed the path, and his magic retreated. The green nimbus he depended on to pick his way through the tangled underbrush shrank down to a pinpoint when he reached the top. 

Sarn froze between two trees whose boles each had to be over a hundred feet in diameter. His breath misted in the air. Winter embraced him, sliding icy lips over the exposed skin of his hands and face. Behind him, the May evening rolled on despite the piece of winter parked in its midst. The glow of his eyes winked out blinding Sarn.

Unnatural, whispered his magic, winding tighter about his organs.

Sarn didn’t bother to reply. Conversations with his magic offered a one-way trip to insanity, not the answers he craved. His head map unfurled as he blinked. But it had been too long since his eyes had to work without magical augmentation, so he saw nothing but the map filling up with strange icons.

Sarn touched a red symbol flashing before his eyes. An image of a circle and a star exploded raining thirteen curved lines. As the lines squirmed into the ground, he heard that phrase again. It repeated until he finally caught it—eam’meye erator.

Without context or a definition, it meant nothing to him but a headache. Darkness coalesced into a fist and squeezed Sarn. Blood dripped from his nose and ran down his lips. The foul litany continued as inky malevolence washed over him and solidified, imprisoning him like a fly in amber. An inarticulate cry interrupted the chorus of fell whispers right before a branch snagged hold of his boot and yanked. Sarn rolled clear and rose, facing the thing trying to trap him. This was the wrongness he’d sensed earlier.

What is this? What caused it? he asked, but the forest maintained its watchful silence. He felt like a pack of children stared at his back. Were the trees willing him to do something about this? If so, they had the wrong mage. He had no training and not a single idea what to do about the cold, black blob in front of him. Was it dangerous?

Sarn touched the semi-permeable black membrane. It froze his skin on contact. Stuffing his numb hand under his arm, he tried to warm it. Why did you want me to see this?

The wind shifted, pelting Sarn with the metallic scent of blood and rotting meat. He doubled over and retched. Sudden, violent death had created the cold, dark spot in front of him. That didn’t explain how this had come to be. Plenty of folks had died in the forest over the years, and none of their deaths had created anything like this. What made these people’s deaths different?

Sarn’s stomach heaved, winnowing his world down to throwing up without spattering his already stained clothes. He jerked when a hand landed on his shoulder.

You okay, Kid?

I’m not a kid. Sarn shot back as he wiped the blood dripping from his nose on his sleeve. I’m twenty.

I know, Nolo gave Sarn’s shoulder a squeeze, and let go, but you’re also almost half my age.

You’re not forty.

No, but I’m not far from it. What have we here?

The Black Ranger pushed through the equally black membrane as if it wasn’t there. Maybe it only reacted to magic. Or maybe Nolo’s status as the Death’s Marksman protected him.

Nolo never talked about what it meant to be the mythic Black Ranger, or how he’d acquired that title. Nolo wasn’t a mage, yet he carried Death’s arrows. They were part of him and so was the burden of choosing how people died.

Aren't you freezing?

Not any more than usual for a May night. Winter's gone, and I'm glad of it. Nolo turned, and his concern slammed into Sarn. Are you sure you’re all right?

Sarn nodded and cringed as Hadrovel spoke from the depths of memory.

No one cares for you, said the Orphan Master, then he’d punched Sarn. You’re nothing and no one. That’s why he turns away. He can’t bear to look at you.

Sarn’s head still rang from that blow in years past. Maybe he was still that boy waiting for someone to see the bruises, the pain. But Nolo had strode away leaving him with a monster.

Well, are you okay? Answer me.

Sarn blinked at the question, but the memory refused to recede. Where was that care when he’d needed it?

Sarn?

I’m not hurt. Not this time, but one day they wound hand him over to another monster. It was inevitable.

Feeling pinned and needled his numb hand as Sarn circled the barrier. But he couldn’t escape the question—why did you hand me over to a monster? It gnawed at him as he rubbed his arms to warm them. Every circuit around the barrier stole a little more of his heat.

Don’t you feel it?

Feel what? What are you talking about?

The place where you're standing—it feels wrong to me.

After a moment more, Nolo nodded then turned his attention to the ground where humped shadows lay. Wrong how?

Sarn shrugged, just cold and dark. Can you see anything?

Nolo’s lumir stone lit the edges of a hole punched through something, but its nimbus contracted the longer the Black Ranger crouched there. Was the lumir stone’s eternal glow flickering?

It's best you don't look. It's a grisly sight.

Tell me what you see.

Why do you want to know? Nolo's eyes searched him. What did those dark eyes seek?

I need to know. Sarn met his master's assessing stare. Let the man see he could handle this.

Alright I see body parts scattered over—I'd say a ten-foot radius. And blood, lots of it coating leaf, branch, and ground.

Body parts—you mean something ripped people apart? Sarn's luminous gaze bounced to the trees surrounding them. Were their branches angled to attack?

Yeah, but something impaled this man right through the chest. And the hole it gouged is too broad for a spearhead. Nolo measured the hole with his black hand and struggled to cover the entire wound.

You can’t bring steel in here. The forest doesn’t allow it. Sarn moved upwind, staying clear of the black barrier, so the stench stopped causing his stomach to rebel. Its vile presence became opaque until he could not see his master anymore. What was this thing and what had created it?

Suppositions pummeled Sarn, but only one made sense. His gaze played green light over an oak whose crown brushed the hidden sky. Was he staring at one of the culprits?

Remembering the tensile strength of his leafy kidnapper, Sarn shuddered. Its smallest branch could have torn his limbs off. What had incited the trees to murder? Would they kill again? Had they brought him here to take back a warning?

What was the warning? Step out of line and die? Such a threat had always existed. The forest had three rules—respect them and live; ignore them and die. Which of the three rules had those people broken?

A branch tapped Sarn on the shoulder and pointed left. Was he about to receive an answer? He left Nolo squatting in death’s shadow.

Viscous darkness drilled through the forest, extending out from the murder site. Sarn paralleled it until an obstacle blocked his path. Ice skinned the tree and broke off when his shoulder brushed it leaving a weeping wound to drink the light his eyes produced.

Unnatural, whispered his magic before ducking out of the darkness’ reach.

Sarn nodded and kept going, following the stygian tendril deeper into the forest. Branches indicated another clearing where the cold darkness belled out into another dome. Horror constricted his throat, knotted his chest and cut his legs out from under him. How could this be? Sarn stretched out a shaking hand toward the body of a child dashed on the rocks.

His fingers punched through the barrier. Ice burrowed under his skin sucking out his heat. Magic sparked white, knocking his hand away.

Malevolence gathered around Sarn, imprisoning him in thickening shadows. They liquefied and clutched his hand freezing it as his index finger touched the boy’s ice-rimmed cheek. The veil became opaque, and the star in a circle icon blinked a red warning on his map. Why did it have thirteen vertices instead of the usual five or six? 

Finding those sightless green eyes with his questing fingers, Sarn closed them. Something pricked the skin between his second and third knuckles. Ice slid into the wound as Sarn retreated from the dead and the black wall hiding them while cradling his injured hand. The tiny bite wept a single bloody tear, and in its wake, gray lines cross-hatched the back of his hand until a tongue of emerald flame burned them away.

A choked sob escaped his grief-tightened throat. The dead boy might have grown up to be just like him. Had someone killed the boy because his eyes promised magic? Deadly what ifs chased themselves around his mind while fear feasted on his heart.

Sarn didn’t see a roach crawl out of the darkness. He didn’t feel its malevolent interest bearing down on him as he folded, cut to the quick by what he’d seen and the questions tearing at his heart. Was his son next? The possibility terrified him.

Chapter 2

It’s possible, Nolo replied. If you cover the weapon in a natural fiber, how would a bunch of trees know it’s there? If you don’t use the weapon, it’s not against the rules to carry it in here.

Silence met Nolo’s words. The cloak-draped wraith had disappeared again. Nolo cursed. Sarn? Where are you? You’re not supposed to wander off.

Nolo punched the blood-spattered ground and rose from his crouch. What he’d found here asked more questions than it answered. All the victims wore sturdy clothing now torn and bloodied and cheap jewelry. In their pockets, he found a handful of small coins, but nothing of any real value. He estimated there had been four men and one woman, all torn apart.

The one thing he'd expected to find was absent. Either someone had escaped the carnage with it, or someone else had shown up afterward and stolen it. Either was possible. Last years’ leaves, now blood coated, carpeted the clearing but had taken no prints.

A keening sound sent Nolo hurtling toward its source. Less than a mile later, he crouched in front of Sarn. The Kid’s hands shook, suspended halfway between himself and a dead boy. Horror had shut off his reasoning.

Beyond the child lay two women and three men—all dead. Nothing had despoiled their bodies. They were whole, unlike the other site. The dead could wait, but Sarn could not.

Sarn had arrived six winters ago half dead from exposure with his brother in tow. Never had the Kid spoken about how he’d earned some of the scars marring his skin or his psyche. No, the stupid Kid bottled everything up until he imploded.

Worse still, the Kid refused to let him help. He waved a hand in front of the Kid’s radiant eyes. No response. He shook Sarn.

What the hell is going on in your head right now?

Sarn made no reply. His eyes put out enough light to reveal his face, making him look young and lost. The sight punctured Nolo’s heart, and it bled pity. Something the Kid would have scorned had he noticed.

Silver light bloomed around Nolo, and he turned to see what new trouble had come their way. Trees shifted aside, their crowns lowering in respect. Nolo stared as one of the most massive trees he'd ever seen propelled herself toward him. Beads of light danced up and down her pearlized trunk and her roots undulated in a silken train.

A tower of bark and patterns of light, she stood over one thousand feet tall. Her trunk exceeded one hundred feet in diameter. Logic claimed she should remain stationary, but logic held little sway over Shayari. Star-shaped leaves adorned her crown and dripped from every branch. From root to tip, she emitted a soothing white light.

Nolo stared at the Queen of All Trees. Her sightless gaze penetrated all the way to his core, leaving no part of him unexamined. He shuddered under the weight of her scrutiny.

The so-called Queen of All Trees regarded the Child of Magic. He was one of a precious few to survive to adulthood. She’d allowed these humans six of his years to do one thing, and they’d failed. Anger welled up directed at the Painted Man, but a glance quelled it. Written in his blood and bone was one purpose: to protect people, objects and places of power. He’d lived up to his ancestors’ promise, but the Child of Magic was still broken. In less than seven months, his magic would expand and kill him. She must save this walking loophole, this bringer of change.

She extended a radiant branch toward him and her power collected in a cloud of sparkling motes. She should take him away and find someone else to fix him, but something tied the Child of Magic to Mount Eredren.

The Queen of All Trees tested its tensile strength and found the bond to be stronger than her. Surprise made her roots lash out and claw the earth. Who had bound so powerful a mage?

A preternatural chill hung in the air. The souls of the slain floated, trapped between worlds, but she could do nothing for them. They too were tied to this place by treachery, violence, and death. Their entrapment had torn the world's fabric allowing the Adversary to peer through. And the Enemy was watching. Its evil eye fixed on her and her bark crawled in revulsion.

Shafts of black ice speared toward her and shattered when they