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DOMINION

A World Of THIRIA NOVEL


BY

JOHNNY M
(Original Rough Draft of BOOK 1)
CHAPTER 1

The girl fell onto the wet, spongy ground. Without thinking, she quickly picked herself up and continued
running, barely aware of the new pain in her ankle. The park was populated by shades, a far cry from the warm,
peaceful retreat she knew from her days away from the hotel. The trees mocked her, and the moon had become a
cold, faceless voyeur.

She could hear the man following her, his pace never relenting but seeming to quicken with her breathing.
What had she ever done to deserve this? Who was this man? She didn’t know and quickly determined that she
didn’t care. Her mind was focused only on primal instinct. Run. Hide. Away.

Despite her mental state, she was still able to remember the turns and features of the park easily. Her only
hope was that her pursuer was not as intimately acquainted. Hope was outrunning her, and every shortcut, every
trick she tried to evade the man had failed to gain her any ground. She even thought she heard him laughing.

Where was the watch? Why was the park so empty?

Eventually, she came across her destination: the enclosed rose garden. The gate was locked, and she swore
at herself for not realizing that it would be. She couldn’t climb the walls. The pain in her ankle, slowly asserting
itself in her mind, made sure of that. She pulled the long metal pin from the carefully assembled hair on top of her
head, the long strands falling in front of her eyes.

“Come on, come on! Damn you!” She struggled with the lock, furiously shaking the pin within it. She
hadn’t had to do this in years. Legal and gainful employment had not been without its downside.

“What are you doing, Thalia?” The man drew the name out carefully, like a line in a song. Thalia stopped,
allowing herself a soft, sharp cry before resuming her work. Focus! Who cared how he knew her name? If she
could just open the damn lock…

“Thalia…”

Click.

“Thank the Sisters!” Thalia ran into the garden, quickly reaching her hand through the door to close the
metal grate and snap the lock back into place. She leaned against the stone wall, actually grateful for the feeling of
the rubytear thorns quietly scratching her legs. Her heart and lungs had finally caught up with her brain, but they
refused to slacken their pace. Thalia took a few deep breaths, holding herself to steady her trembling body.

“Think…think…”

Who was this man? She was one of the best stewards in the hotel. It couldn’t have been a disgruntled
customer. She would admit that she was pretty, but she had only ever been with Telen, so it couldn’t be a hurt lover.
Who would stalk her? There had to be a reason she was now hiding in a damp garden, her ankle throbbing in pain.
There had to be. Who was it? Who?

“It’s not who you think.”

The voice was the same from outside, but it was darker, dripping with shadow. It was oddly atonal, as if a
melody was hidden within. An alien hymn. And it had come from inside the garden.

“Who are you?” Her voice was sharp and piercing. She stood up, pressing herself harder against the wall.
There was only one door to the garden, she was sure of it. She still had the hairpin in her hand, clutching it as tight
as her fingers would allow.
“It’s not who you think…”

“What do you…”

“Want?” He didn’t laugh, but he didn’t have to. That one word was enough. Thalia could only vocalize a
shudder as she frantically grabbed at the lock through the door. Stupid girl. Damned, stupid girl.

“And it seemed so clever at the time.” He was right behind her. He slowly slid his hand around her waist.
Thalia froze. Even her eyelids refused to blink.

“Such a shame.” The voice was no longer made of shadow, but had a dulcet, nearly feminine tone. It
almost hid the sound of scraping steel.

She didn’t even have a chance to scream.


CHAPTER 2
Miriam’s eyes flashed open, and her hand instinctively grabbed the pendant around her neck. Her fingers
explored the smooth green stone in the center, tracing the contours. The room was dark, the only illumination a
small glow under the door, the excess lantern light from the hallway. She looked around the room, letting her eyes
adjust, searching for the shadow figures that had woken her. When she was finally certain that there were none, she
slowly arose from the bed.

She walked slowly to the wardrobe, opening it with hands that still trembled despite her best efforts. She
pulled out the modest white robe from inside and slipped it on, not bothering to tie the waist with the gold braid
hanging next to it. It took her far longer than it should have to put on the soft boots she usually wore around the
temple. She cursed her fear inwardly as she tried to steady herself, breathing deeply.

“Sweet Chalcedia, grant me strength,” she whispered, and almost in response, a feeling of warmth flowed
over her for a brief moment. Ever since she had returned to Shantavel from her pilgrimage to Dereineau, she’d had
the nightmares. She was accustomed to having visions, brief and abstract flashes of divine insight that left her
disoriented, but this was something entirely different and tremendously more unsettling.

The temple was quiet this early in the morning, the only sound made the echoes of a priestess. Miriam
recognized it as a prayer for the wounded, and she realized there must be new entrants in the petitioner’s hospital.
She recognized the voice, as well. Only one priestess could sing that prayer with such confidence and power.

Miriam made her way downstairs to the hospital and found the door ajar. She quietly waited in the doorway
until the song ended, taking in the new entrants. It was a young woman, badly beaten and breathing slowly, her eyes
closed. A young man sat next to her holding her hand, a pained expression on his face. Miriam began to remove
herself from the doorway out of respect when a delicate hand stopped her.

“Sister Miriam.”

“Good evening, Mother Jessica.”

“Does something trouble you?”

“It can…wait until the morning, Mother.”

“I have done all I can for the girl. It is in the hands of the Goddess, now. What can I do for you at this late
hour?”

“I had the dreams again, Mother.”

Mother Jessica slowly closed the door to the infirmary and began to lead Miriam down the hall. The two
women walked slowly side by side, their hands folded within their robes.

“How many nights has this been now?”

“At least five now, and three of them this week. They’re getting worse, more intense each time. I could hear
the screams. I could feel the walls against my skin. Mother, what must it mean? I’ve never had these kind of
dreams before.”

“The Goddess works in mysterious ways, my child. There must be a reason you are receiving the dreams, as
horrible as they are.”

“Why do you think the Goddess chose me?”


“You see the signs in the water better then most. Seek your heart. Why do you think she chose you,
Miriam?”

Miriam stopped where she was, her head lowered in thought. Of all the sisters in the mission, why did it
have to be her? She searched her mind, her past, her memories. A flash of recognition crossed her vision, and she
raised her head again.

“I think the Goddess is telling me to fight a great evil. It’s my past, as a soldier. That’s why she thinks I
must be the one to do it.”

“If the evil is as dangerous as you believe, you will not be able to face them alone.”

“I know who I need to find. But I am not sure how.”

“Sing to the Goddess, and watch the signs in the water. She will guide you and give you insight. But I ask
you to be discreet about it, child. Certain members of the Council do not take lightly to the occupation of demon
hunter, no matter the reputation or the aim. They would not stand for the House of Mercy officially aiding them,
although you have my support.”

“As you wish, Mother.” Miriam bowed her head, and quickly ran back to her room to prepare. Mother
Jessica watched her leave, whispering a prayer.
CHAPTER 3
The moon was brighter than it should have been. It peered through the veil of clouds covering the sky as
the two travelers made their way through the quiet streets of the city. The inn wasn’t far from the city gates, but the
moonlight created flickering shadows that caused the travelers to take their steps slowly and cautiously.

“I don’t think we have anything to worry about,” the first one said. “The city seems to have retired early.”

“We can never be too careful,” the second one replied. “We’ve come too far to be ambushed now.” His
hand never seemed to leave the handle of his blade.

“Kieran, look around. It’s nothing. We’ll be at the inn soon.”

“You’re right, Jos. It’s just…I’m tense. Shantavel is rarely this quiet without good reason. I haven’t seen a
drunk stumble out a tavern yet or any of the usual lads and ladies of the evening.”

“Maybe it’s a holiday.”

“I grew up here. I don’t remember any holidays this solemn.”

Kieran and Jos finally saw the glowing lights from inside the Silver Griffon, their usual place of residence
when traveling through Shantavel. Cheap and simple, but for a few weeks, it would be home. They could hear a
soft lute from inside the inn, the notes wafting out like an aroma beckoning travelers inside.

“I have the money. You take the horses around back to the stable.” Kieran nodded and carefully led the
horses to the rear of the large building.

Jos entered the inn and immediately felt a wave of sensation hit him. The warmth of the fire, the sound of
large glasses of drink landing on wooden tables, the smell of spiced meat. It was certainly a respite from weeks of
lean-tos and forest clearings.

“Ah, Mr. Balo! It’s good to see you again.”

Jos turned to see who had greeted him. Sure enough, it was Jassilla Valenstone, the proprietress of the
Silver Griffon for many years now. Her curly hair was arranged in braids adorned with simple charms and stones.
She strode around the counter to embrace Jos as he walked toward her.

“Well met again, Jassilla. I trust all is well with you and your family?”

“Can’t complain, can I? We’ve been doing good business since the last time you were around. I presume
that your husband is with you?”

“Of course. He’s taking the horses to the stable.”

“Good, good. There’s a room available for you if you’d like it. You do plan on staying, don’t you?”

“For at least a few weeks.” Jos produce a handful of small gold coins and placed them in Jassilla’s hand.

“Right, then. I hope this doesn’t mean we should be…expecting trouble? You’re not here for…”

“No. No troubles as far as I know. Goddesses willing. Why, have you heard of something?”

“Not as such. Although…”

“What is it, Jassilla?”


“My head serving girl, Thalia. She hasn’t been heard from for two days. Even her man hasn’t seen a trace
of her. It worries me.”

“If you like, we can see what we can do for you, but it sounds like it might be a job for the city watch.”

“You’re likely, right, although I don’t trust them around this part of town. Any help you could give would
be much appreciated.”

“For all you’ve done for us, it won’t be a problem.” Jos smiled warmly and placed his hand on Jassilla’s
shoulder.

“Thank you. Goddesses bless you boys. You’re always so good to me. Any requests from the kitchen?
You both must be exhausted.”

“We are, in fact. We’ve been on the road for two weeks. A couple of spiced ciders and some fresh bread
would be wonderful.”

“I’ll have someone bring it out to you. If you need anything else, just let me know?” With a final hug,
Jassilla went back behind the counter to deposit Jos’ money and tend to her duties. Jos found a table close to the
hearth and wearily sat himself down. His muscles and joints seemed to collapse into the chair, not caring that it was
hard and wooden. The heat from the fire seemed to welcome him, wrapping invisible fingers around the exposed
parts of his skin. He barely noticed Kieran coming to join him.

“At home already, I see.”

“Quite a bit, in fact.”

“Perhaps we’ve stayed here too often,” Kieran said as a barmaid brought two glasses filled with an aromatic,
warm cider and a small basket containing a fresh loaf of bread. Kieran ripped off a chunk of the bread eagerly.

“Did you see Jassilla already?”

“Yes. In fact, she has a job for us.”

Kieran froze, his mouth open, the chunk of bread almost in his mouth.

“Well, it wouldn’t be a trip home if we weren’t busy. Idle hands. Wicked workshop. You know the saying.”

“It doesn’t sound demonic or supernatural. Just a missing person’s case. It shouldn’t be difficult for us to
handle.”

“You always say that, and I always end up with a blade in my face.” Kieran smirked at Jos as he took a bite
of the bread.

“If I didn’t think you liked that kind of thing, I would stop.” Jos smiled back. Kieran swallowed his food
and leaned forward to kiss Jos quickly when a presence near their table broke the mood.

“Kieran Redmoon?”

Both men turned to address the speaker. Before them stood a tall, statuesque woman, her ash blond hair
tied back in an elaborate bun. She wore a close-fitting white robe and a silver pendant set with a smooth piece of
jade. A mace with a white head sat tied to her belt.
“Miriam?”

“It’s been a long time, Kieran. I need your help.”

“It’s going to be a long night,” Jos whispered to himself and settled into the chair.
CHAPTER 4
“It has been a long time, Miriam. You’ve traded your chain mail in for priestess robes, I see.”

“That was a lifetime ago. I’m no longer that person.”

“That’s a shame. You used to be a great warrior.” Kieran took a long swig of his cider. Jos was nervously
drumming his fingers against his own mug.

“And I still am. I serve the Lady of Mercy now. My enemies are the pain and suffering I see on the faces of
the people of Shantavel.”

Kieran couldn’t stifle his laughter. Jos glared at him and slapped his shoulder. Kieran still didn’t stop
laughing, and turned to Miriam.

“Is that what they train you to say at your temple?”

“Kieran, leave her alone. She needs our help.” Jos took a sip of his own cider.

“Two jobs in one night? Wow, we really don’t get any time to ourselves anymore, do we?”

“If you’re not going to help me, Mr. Redmoon,” Miriam spat out the final words, “perhaps I shall call in my
favors at another time.”

“What favors?”

“Take a look at yourself, sometime. It should be a scar about this wide,” she held her fingers a few hair-
breadths apart, “and about as long as your hand. It should run down your left side. It was left by…”

“By the cutlass dipped in flaming oil used by the worshipper of a demon. I know, I know. The dress may
have changed, but your still the same stubborn Miriam Astryr.” Kieran drank again from his mug and took a long,
deep breath. “I’m sorry, Miriam. Please, tell me what you need.” Miriam didn’t let his lack of enthusiasm deter her
from sitting down and beginning her story.

“It began about two weeks ago. Horrible dreams would wake me in the night. Nightmares I’ve never had
before.”

“What kind of nightmares?” Kieran kept his voice low.

“They always started out the same. I was in a dark, wet passageway lined with stone. There were no torches
or lanterns, just strange rocks embedded into the walls that would glow with an unnatural light. As if they were lit
from within. I would walk down this path for quite some time, and the more I walked, I would hear voices singing
in the…,” Miriam lowered her head slightly, “…language of magic.”

“Gnosis?” Jos exhaled the word.

“Yes, but not like I’ve heard before. It sounded different. Like some of the letters had been switched out
for others.”

“Like a cipher or a code?” Kieran asked.

“Yes, exactly. There were so many voices: men, women, deep bass tones, and high sopranos. It was such a
din, almost a mockery of the songs we sing to the Goddesses. The closer I got to the sound of the voices, the
more I heard people crying, people in pain. I eventually come to a door, and as I reach out to pull it open, I feel a
cold…thing on my shoulder. Not quite a hand, but something much more alien than that. It whispers to me in that
corrupted language and says my name…and that’s always when I wake up.”

“How many times have you had this dream?” Jos was intently taking in Miriam’s story.

“At least five. Each time it gets a little more intense. I’ve never had these kinds of dreams before. In fact, I
generally don’t remember my dreams at all. I believe that I’m being given these dreams for a reason. I don’t think
it’s a coincidence that you came back to town.”

“How did you find us so quickly?”

“I sang to the Goddess at the temple’s reflecting pool. She was able to guide me. The visions are
sometimes frustrating to decipher, but knowing that you’ve always stayed here every time you’ve come to Shantavel
helped me out.”

“You could have just checked with his parents,” Jos said with a slight chuckle. “We wrote them weeks ago
to tell them we were going to be here in time for the autumnal equinox.”

“I hardly thought that waking the Redmoons at this late hour was an appropriate course of action.” Miriam
shifted slightly in her seat to hide her embarrassment.

“So,” Kieran said, steering the conversation back to the topic at hand, “what exactly is the favor your
cashing in, Sister Miriam?”

“I want you to help me investigate the cause of my dreams. I’m certain there’s something in the city causing
them. I didn’t start to get them until I returned from Shantavel. I had been on a mission to our temple in
Dereineau. Almost the same night I returned, the nightmares began. I’m sure there’s something in town causing
them. A cult, maybe? Some new force taking up root?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve gone into dank, stone tunnels to ferret out badness, that’s for certain,”
Jos said. “Maybe this is connected to the favor Jassilla asked us about.”

“That would be far too convenient, don’t you think?” Kieran asked, raising an eyebrow. Jos only looked at
him with false apathy.

“You and I both know after ten years in this occupation that…”

“There are never coincidences. Yeah, I know.”

“So will you help?” Miriam asked. Kieran and Jos traded glances.

“Why don’t we talk more about a plan of action over in our room?” Kieran suggested. “Might as well bring
another mug of cider. It may be a long night.”

All three of them rose and headed for their room. In the corner of the inn’s tavern room, a slim figure
watched discreetly, her eyes peering from under a hood. She took a silent drink from her stein and searched around
the room. She set the drink down, only half-full, and stood up as if to leave. Almost immediately, a barmaid moved
in to take the stein and clear off the table. When she noticed the amount of liquid left inside, she turned to the
hooded figure.
“Darling, you’ve still got plenty of drink in there. Are you sure you want to head out now?”

“Don’t worry,” the figure said. “You’ll see me again.”


CHAPTER 5
Xanthe surveyed the assembled nobles before her. Couples twirled in time with the waltz as others mingled
at expansive and elaborate buffets of exotic delicacies and free-flowing wine. She had to admit that the Caecinan
diamond ale was, in fact, particularly delightful, but she couldn’t think about things like that now. She scanned the
crowd again, fanning herself and wishing that she could remove herself from the bodice she found herself trapped
in.

“Dear, you’ve been standing there waiting for ages,” a similarly-dressed woman next to Xanthe offered. “If
you’re waiting on a suitor, he may not have come.”

“No, he’s here. I know he is. I’m a patient woman. I can wait.”

“I admire your optimism,” the other woman sighed. “I’ve barely had so much as a ‘how do you do’ from
anyone except Lord Reneir.” Xanthe laughed lightly to herself in response.

“As did I. His reputation proceeds him, although he’s the only one who doesn’t know.”

“Perhaps I’ll try fishing in more fertile waters. I hope your suitor comes for you.”

“Best of luck.” Xanthe curtsied to the woman, who responded in kind and gracefully walked away. Xanthe
tapped her foot impatiently, careful not to let the hard sole of her boot come down too forcefully onto the floor.
Ladies don’t wear leather boots up to their knees, after all, especially if they hide daggers.

“Dammit,” she muttered under her breath, “show your face you sodding coward.” She slapped her fan
loudly against her hand, folding it with one swift gesture, and began to walk away when a voice stopped her.

“Looking for someone, my most radiant lady?”

“Finally,” Xanthe whispered and turned around, a wide, happy, completely artificial smile on her face.

“Sir Vadnais!” Xanthe gasped in a mockery of the prim, proper tone she’d heard so many women use for
the past month. “I didn’t see you there. You startled me, good sir.”

“Ah, that was not my intention, my lady.” Vadnais took Xanthe’s hand and kissed it. Xanthe inhaled,
thrusting her breasts forward as much as they could muster, trapped as they were in the dress’ corset. She wished
she could blush on command.

“You are as charming as you are handsome, good sir.” Xanthe had to admit that he was attractive, at least at
first glance. The distinctive Karambelasti accent certainly helped.

“What is your name, my dear?”

“You may call me Lysandra.”

“Such a beautiful name for such a beautiful woman.” Vadnais leaned forward and placed his hand on
Xanthe’s waist. “Would you care to dance, Lysandra?” Xanthe responded by lifting her skirt and gently leading him
to the floor. The two of them joined the dancers already there easily. Xanthe had not forgotten her days of
training. Ladies waltz, she was told, and it was expected to be gracious when asked by a man.

Ladies can go sod themselves, Xanthe thought.

“You dance wonderfully, dear Lysandra.”


“As do you, my good sir. It is a shame that you shall have to return to your home soon.” Xanthe continued
to smile. She didn’t know how much more of this she could handle. Might as well get to it. “Do you do all things
as well, Sir Vadnais?”

“Of course, my dear.”

“I have heard such…stories about you, sir. I have been told of your prowess. Tell me…are the rumours
true?”

“They say that there is a measure of truth in all rumours, my dear.”

“They also say that truth is best seen, not spoken.” Xanthe lowered her eyelids ever so slightly, again
holding her breasts forward when she saw his eyes begin to drift down her body.

“Aye. It is.”

“Shall we?” Xanthe leaned in, whispering the words into his ear, a soft, moist question.

Sir Vadnais took Xanthe’s hand and led her discreetly off the floor. Xanthe directed him to one of the
small rooms on the side of the ballroom, one of the many private lounges set up for such matters. The room was
small but comfortable with a large chaise-lounge dominating the far side of the room book-ended by ornate tables
and heatless lanterns. Rich velvet tapestries hung from the walls depicting heroes of old. As Vadnais headed to the
chaise-lounge, Xanthe turned her back to the inside of the door, and quickly fixed the lock shut without a hint in
her face or body language. Vadnais relaxed on the soft, plush furniture, his legs slightly spread. He smiled with
anticipation.

“Sir Vadnais, I must say I am honoured and privileged to be alone with you.”

“My dear, you have not had the honour yet.”

“I could say the same of you.” Xanthe reached for the lace of the corset behind her back. “You have no
idea of what’s about to happen.” Vadnais leaned forward to help Xanthe with her dress, but she took a step back,
shaking her head. “No, good lord, this is all for you.”

It took Xanthe a moment to undo the lace. Her torso heaved its relief, grateful to be free of the binding.
She had to be quick with this. One pull on the lace and the dress would be gone for good. Pierrick had seen to
that. It had cost her coin above coin, but it would be worth it. Vadnais leaned back more, displaying his prominent
codpiece. He relaxed himself into the chaise-lounge and removed his overcoat.

“Are you prepared, Sir Vadnais?”

“Oh, yes, my dear.”

“Good.” Xanthe pulled one last time on the lace and the dress seemed to disintegrate, pulling apart into
sections that cascade to the floor. A mild courtesan was no longer standing in front of Sir Vadnais. She had been
replaced with a woman dressed in sleek, black leather armor, a quartet of small, wicked-looking knives strapped to a
bandolier across her chest. A pair of large daggers hung at her hips in criss-crossed belts.

“Ah, that’s much better.” Xanthe pulled the pin holding her hair in place, allowed the dark red curls to fall
down.

“What is the meaning of…” Before Vadnais could even finish the sentence, Xanthe had pulled the daggers
from her sides and lunged at him all in one impossibly fast motion, one of the blades at his throat with another just
a hair away from his codpiece. The voice that had filled him with lust and need was suddenly inspiring fear and
dread.

“I’m the fastest woman this side of the Karynth with a dagger. Scream, and I don’t know which of these
blades you’ll feel first. Fail to answer any of my questions, and one my hands might just slip a little. Do we have an
understanding?” Vadnais, his eyes wide, nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Good. Now. We have business to discuss, Sir Vadnais. We can start with a nice, long conversation about
who exactly you sold my brother to.”
CHAPTER 6
The shaking wagon woke Ioan up from his dreamless sleep. He rarely had dreams anymore, and even when
he did they were rarely pleasant, violent yet subtle reminders of what happened almost a year ago. Was it a year ago
so far? He couldn’t remember anymore. He measured time by the length of the contests at this point.

The only sound in the night was the sounds the carriage made as it slowly made its way down the semi-
smooth road heading toward the city. They never took main roads when they were transported, and rarely such nice
accommodations. But the nobleman who had made the purchase was very generous, and the supplier felt inclined
to offer him a more luxurious package.

Ioan tested the iron manacles around his wrists. Of course he had no chance of breaking them, even with
his strength. They had to make sure of that after the last time. He rubbed his aching shoulders, trying to work out
the cramps from how he had slept. There wasn’t much room to stretch out in the carriage, especially with four
other passengers inside, but he had been in much worse conditions than this and not complained, so there was no
point in starting to do so now. If he was lucky, he would have a room this nice when he arrived.

The auction had been swifter and more organized than usual, even while it was more ceremonious. The
supplier had been a pompous man, even more so than most of that type that Ioan had known. He insisted on
pageantry and spectacle, when a simple parade of the goods and a quick bidding process would have sufficed. Ioan
hated it when the process was dragged out. He almost found it hard to stifle laughter when he saw the buyers lined
up, all in long robes and garish masks.

He had been dragged onto the platform toward the end of the auction. A singular prize, he had been
called, the Titan of the South. He stood before the crowd half-naked, what clothes he was allowed to wear had
been cut and torn to show off the muscles in his limbs. In case the crowd didn’t see that, the auctioneer had poked
and prodded his arms and legs like he was inspecting a prize bull. How much would you pay for this magnificent
specimen, this accomplished champion of battle? 650 gold pieces. That was the price on Ioan’s head.

Now Ioan was headed to a new city, to a new arena, to a new underground. Some cities had sanctioned the
fights. Ioan relished traveling to those places. It meant sunlight and walking above ground, albeit with heavy guard
and escorts. This city forbade the practice, and so Ioan knew he would be sequestered and kept under lock and key.

Ioan never imagined his life would ever have come to this. He was once a promising student, adept at both
combat training and the finer arts, and he was planning to take up medicine. That was before the incident, before
the dead rose from the ground and took over the land. He still saw the grinning face in his dreams, the cruel eyes of
the woman who had come to the city and claimed retribution for a wrong that was never explained.

What dreams he did have always ended with the same image. The woman laughing, a sword in her hands, a
swirl of dark energy around her like black storm clouds. The citizens fought back as well as they could, but the
assault was too much. Skeletons animated by foul magic mercilessly fought their way to the center of town, aided
by howling beasts covered in spines and spikes. Ioan had personally slain a score of the horrible things, but even
his prowess was limited. His parents had fallen, and his sister had vanished. The woman took him and several
other survivors captive. He hadn’t seen the rest since the first auction in Khamaat.

“You awake, Titan?”

Ioan was surprised to hear anybody else stirring. He kept his voice low.

“Yes. I never sleep well in the wagons.”

“Me, either. Something about being transported in manacles against my will seems to keep me from a
restful sleep.” He thought he saw him smirk.

“You’re new to this, aren’t you?”


“It’s been a couple of months. I’ve only had two fights so far.”

“But you survived. That’s a good start.”

“True. I guess I should count my blessings.”

“You’ll get used to it if you can keep your wits about you.”

“I guess you would know, right? You’re the great Titan, after all.”

“I hate that name.”

“It suits you. Big, strong man with a big weapon. And you’ve never lost a match. You’ll be out of here
soon, I bet.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Isn’t that how it works? You either die in the ring or you win your freedom. That is how it works, right?”
Ioan said nothing in response. “Right?”

“That’s what I keep getting told.” Ioan let his voice trail off. The air was filled with a thick, heavy silence
punctuated only by horse hooves and the creaking of wagon wheels. Finally, Ioan spoke up again.

“Do you know where we’re heading?”

“It’s a pretty big city. One of the jewels of the north coast, they say. It’s called Shantavel.”

“Shantavel. Good to know.” Ioan turned away from his fellow passenger and tried to rest his eyes. He had
a feeling that he would not be getting any rest for quite a while.
CHAPTER 7
“Are you sure we shouldn’t have escorted her back to the temple? It is fairly late after all.” Jos was carefully
unpacking the contents of his backpack onto the room’s small table as Kieran stared out the window. Kieran
watched as Miriam walked briskly but carefully through the streets, her white robe making her stand out even in the
moonlit darkness.

“Miriam can take care of herself. She may wear the robes of a priestess, but you and I both know what
she’s capable of. I have no doubt she can handle any trouble she may come across. Although to be honest, I doubt
even in a city like this a thief would stoop so low as to attack a…holy woman.”

“You have a very hard time with that concept, don’t you?”

“What concept?”

“Miriam the Holy Woman. Miriam the Bringer of Mercy. Miriam, Our Lady of…”

“That’s enough,” Kieran said, not turning to look at him. “Miriam was once a fierce warrior. I don’t
remember anyone so efficient in combat. Now…” Kieran sighed and relaxed his shoulders slightly. Jos came up
behind him and put his arms around Kieran’s waist.

“We all have our own paths. She chose hers. You can’t fault her for that.”

“You’re right. It just seems like…”

“Like nothing. Do you remember the day we met? I was training to be an herbalist in Vespersky.”

“That was 10 years ago, Jos.”

“Yes. I had never seen the world outside the village, and I never thought I would. Then you showed up. I
insisted on following you around. You thought I was an awestruck little hick.”

“Sorry.” Kieran smiled a little at the memory.

“It’s all right. But you remember what ended up happening? You told me to listen to the spirits, the ones I
had heard and seen since I was a teenager. That was the first time I ever performed gnosis. You awoke a spark in
me.” Kieran eased into Jos’ embrace and placed his own arm around the back of Jos’ head. Jos leaned in, resting
his head on Kieran’s shoulder.

“You do have a point here, don’t you?”

“My point is that I chose to follow you. I chose to let the spirits in. It shocked my village and shamed my
parents, but I did it. You supported me every step I took. Why can’t you see that in Miriam? We all follow the road
we’re meant to.”

“Yes, you’re right. It’s just hard to reconcile, that’s all.”

“It’s a bit of a change, I know. She’s still our friend, though, and right now she needs our help and support.
So no more jokes at the expense of her church. Agreed?”

“Yes sir, Mr. Balo.” Kieran raised his free hand in mock salute, but Jos stopped it midway with a playful
slap. Kieran smiled and pulled Jos onto the bed with him. The two embraced and kissed slowly and quietly.
“It’s pretty late. Why don’t we get ready for bed?” Jos said in a low voice. Without rising from the bed,
both men quickly removed their clothing and pulled the covers over themselves. Jos pulled himself in close to
Keiran, their bodies instinctively intertwining.

“One of these days we’re going to have to come here and not take on a mission of any kind. No missing
persons or underground mayhem. We’ll just stay in the inn, maybe check out the artists’ quarter, spend time with
your parents. I believe they call that a holiday.” Jos kissed the back of Kieran’s neck.

“Always the optimist, aren’t you?”

“One of us has to be.”

Kieran kissed him back and the two quickly fell asleep.

*****

Jos found himself bathed in a soft blue light. It surrounded him, seemed to penetrate his skin deep into his
nerves. It was oddly comforting, but there was a strange undercurrent to it. He recognized this feeling, but it had
been years since he had felt it.

A shimmering path stood before him leading into the unknown. He thought he heard a woman’s voice
calling in the distance, singing. He knew the tone, he thought he could make out the words, but it all came through
as if it was underwater, muffled and muted. Without thinking, he began walking down the path, taking careful steps
and stopping every few moments to see if he could make out what he heard.

“Hildegardis?” Jos called out. His voice echoed against walls that weren’t there, circling around him like a
fog. He continued down the path. The light began to coalesce, forming into small points surrounded by fiery
nimbuses. They seemed to hum and pulse in time with the singing voice. It was becoming louder, and he could
make out more of the words and melody.

The shadow comes, and the sun hides


The star of guidance trapped inside
You will not be ready.

The words were in the language he knew only from his time in meditation, the language of gnosis and of
secret things. The same words, over and over. You will not be ready…you will not be ready.

“What am I not ready for? What shadow comes?”

Heart of ice and eyes of fire


The scars of bitter blood empire
You will not be ready.

“Even for you, these riddles are odd, Hildegaris.” Jos waited for a response, but he received none. “Why
won’t you speak to me?”

You will not be ready.

The light began to shift and change. The blue faded to purple, then finally to a dark, almost sickening red.
The points of light began to take flight, surrounding Jos like a swarm of angry, threatening insects. They circled
him, taunted him, followed his every step.
“Enough! In the name of Hildegaris, the pillar of illumination, I demand you show your form to me! Lux
vivens veritas!” Jos thrust his hand forward, his index and middle fingers together, and a brilliant blue-wight light
erupted from his eyes.

The lights swarmed in front of Jos as if of one mind, a shifting and swarming mass of near-blinding red
light. They spun and flashed until they formed an image, a ghost of a woman, a dark beauty barely visible in the
flickering illumination. She smiled, an unsettling and grim sight. She slowly danced and spun around Jos, as if
tracing a circle around him. Even when he walked forward, she circled him, never seeming to come any closer or
move any further away.

“You will not be ready, son of Beloran.”

“Ready for what?” Jos held his hand forward still, the blue-white light still surrounding it.

“For anything. For me. For HIM.” The last word was possessed of a dark vibrancy, and it echoed through
Jos’ mind, seeming to ricochet off the walls of his skull and tunnel through his brain. HIM…HIM…HIM…

Jos gritted his teeth and tried to fight back. Lux vivens veritas…lux vivens veritas…

“Lux vivens veritas!”

Kieran jumped out of bed, his hand reaching for the blade propped up against the wall. Jos was breathing
heavy, his body dripping with sweat. A soft blue light filled the room briefly, and Kieran traded glances with his
partner as it began to fade.

“Are you all right?”

“I…don’t know.”
CHAPTER 8
The morning air was crisp and slightly damp. Jos and Kieran wrapped themselves in thick wool cloaks as
they walked the distance to Miriam’s church. Jos used his battle staff to help him along, his legs a little weak from
lack of restful sleep. The weather had not deterred the usual business of the city from beginning, although it was
not as vibrant or active as it should have been.

The two men had said little to each other since the sudden awakening thanks to Jos’ dream. Kieran had
spent most of the night holding Jos, and Jos for his part had tried to silently make sense of it all. They took
breakfast in the inn’s common room, spoke with Jassilla about Thalia’s routine and favorite haunts, and stepped into
the overcast morning. They had almost reached the church when Kieran looked at Jos with concern. Jos smiled
wanly in response.

“I’m all right, you know. It was just a…bad dream. That’s all.”

“You were using gnosis in your sleep, Jos. You know that worries me.”

“I can control it.”

“That’s not why I’m worried. I know what those words do. You were trying to use light to reveal
something hidden. You were calling on Hildegaris.” Jos didn’t respond. Kieran put Jos’ hand in his own and Jos
responded with a light squeeze of recognition. “I don’t have your gifts. I’ve always been a little envious of that.
But the aeons speak to you for a reason. If you’re trying to summon them when you’re sleeping, that makes me
wonder what they’re trying to tell you.”

“I wish I knew, Kieran. It wasn’t Hildegaris that was calling me in that dream. It was something or
someone else. ‘You won’t be ready for HIM.’” Jos placed a low emphasis on the last word, as if it was a curse
word. “I think another mage invaded my dream.”

“It sounds similar to Miriam’s dream.”

“I’m beginning to dislike the similarities that are traveling with us.” Jos placed his hood over his head as the
wind began to pick up. Kieran stopped him and turned to face him.

“Hey. I thought you were supposed to be the optimistic one.”

“I might be more optimistic if we stopped somewhere for some very strong tea.”

“Then let’s go get our priestess.”

*****

Miriam prepared herself as best she could. She thought she had given this all up years ago. She never
parted with the memories of that time, or with the small trunk she kept at the foot of her bed. She didn’t know
why she didn’t get rid of them when she joined the church. She told herself it was a reminder of who she once
was, of the life she had given up. Now, it looked like she might need to call upon that person again.

She didn’t know what kind of trouble she might expect. At any rate, to see a priestess of Chalcedia skulking
around in dark places wouldn’t do. The white robe was too much of a target for the things that might hide in those
shadows. A suit of leather armor covered in silver rings, now that might cause someone or something to think
twice.

Miriam was pleased to find that the armor still fit her. While she was no longer routinely making treks
through the wilderness or swinging a massive sword, she was still in shape. This bodes well, she told herself. She
slipped on the boots and the gloves, just as the habit was. Her ash blond hair hung in a tight braid down her back as
she tightened her belt and secured the silver-white mace to her side. While it was a trusty weapon, she had to admit
it lacked the heft and authority her old broad sword had.

Miriam reached for her cloak and stopped when she saw herself in the mirror. She slowly approached the
mirror, as if greeting a stranger. She reached for her reflection and traced the faint scar she could see along her
neck. That had been the message that had sent her into the church. It had been years ago, but she could still feel a
kind of cool warmth radiate from it.

She clasped the cloak around her neck and placed the hood up. She checked herself one last time to take a
final inventory before she decided she was going to leave. Mother Jessica had instructed her to wait until morning
offerings had finished being sung. The last thing anyone wanted was to alert the rest of the church to Miriam’s
investigation. She touched the head of the mace one last time.

“Chalcedia, give me strength. Know that I do this for the good of all.”

She took a final breath and headed toward the back entrance of the church. It was time.

*****

Xanthe carefully made her way through the back streets of the city’s lower ward. In the two months she had
been here, she had made sure to learn the ways of the smugglers and thieves. She had been lucky enough to not
have been noticed by the local gangs or guilds. The last thing she needed was to be a marked woman.

The clouds in the sky certainly helped her to a point. While there were no shadows to duck into, the drab
atmosphere made it easy for her to blend in to the background. Her red hair had been pulled tight into an elaborate
twist to keep it contained and under her hood. The cloak helped conceal most of her from view, with the only the
occasional glimpse of black leather emerging in the form of a boot. It certainly hid the multitude of daggers and
knives she had armed herself with.

She got to the bridge connecting the hill of the lower ward to the merchant’s quarter. She waited until a
large group of people walked past, easily blending in with them as they made their dutiful way across to conduct
business. She realized she had little reason to be so secretive. The guards didn’t know who she was. Even the
people from the ball last night would be hard pressed to recognize her now. It had taken her forever to wipe the
make-up off.

Better safe than sorry, though. That was the saying. She had come too far and too close for something to
go awry now. That was the reason for secrecy, the reason for the aliases, and the reason for no less than nine
daggers being carried by one woman.

To be honest, however, she only really needed one.

*****

Ioan was placed in the cell quietly and quickly. The escorts had been rather civil, all things considered. At
least they didn’t treat him like a steer headed to market. The room was actually quite comfortable, much more
comfortable than the usual quarters he was afforded. A pillow and blanket lay on a small cot in the corner. A
washbasin sat on a small pedestal near by. The window was too high up for him to reach, but it let a decent amount
of light into the room, or at least it would have had the sun been out.

Best of all, they had removed his restraints. Ioan had free reign to move around his tiny room. At the very
least he could take in a little exercise. He reached for the sturdy iron bar running through the ceiling to test its
strength. Yes, it would hold his weight. It would take much more than he could do to wrench it from the wall. He
grabbed on with both hands and began to pull himself up to it when he heard voices down the hall. They sounded
agitated, and he jumped down to listen.

“What do you mean he wants him back? Has he gone mad?”

“I don’t know, your lordship. He just said that it was very important that the one called Titan be released.
He didn’t say why.” Ioan recognized the voice. It was one of the young guards who had escorted him to the cell.
Young, though, was relative. He had been no older than Ioan.

“You can tell him he can’t have him. No. Better than that, tell him to sod off to Karambelas.”

“But, sir…”

“Did you hear what I said? He can’t have him back. I paid a handsome sum for that man, and by the stars,
he’ll fight for me in the arena.”

“With all due respect, sir, he said it was important. He said that he had been persuaded by someone that…”

“Ajani Vadnais is a cowardly fool. He’s a pretty boy with a lot of money who would fold under if a little girl
waved a serving knife at him.”

“From what I understand, sir, that’s actually what happened. They say a woman with a knife threatened to
kill him if he didn’t…”

“It’s a trick. I know Vadnais. Go now. Tell Vadnais to leave Shantavel before I decide to have the city
watch investigate his ships.”

“Yes, Lord Carrado.”

Ioan heard the guard leaving at a brisk pace. He stopped to think. A woman with a knife asking someone
about his whereabouts? He felt a leap in his chest and told himself immediately not to get his hopes up. It was too
much to think his sister had come looking for him.
CHAPTER 9
Kieran and Jos waited patiently for Miriam to come out of the church. The sky showed no signs of clearing
up, and it looked as if it might rain. Miriam had agreed to assist them with their investigation into Thalia’s
disappearance in return for aiding her in her own quest. Jos remained convinced that the two incidents were related,
and Kieran kept his doubts to himself. He knew better than question Jos’ intuition after all these years.

Miriam finally emerged from the back door of the church, walking slowly and carefully, occasionally shifting
her eyes back and forth as it frightened she would be seen. When she had placed a respectable difference between
her and the church, she removed the hood of her cloak and straightened her posture.

“Well met, Miriam Astryr. It’s been a while.”

“I suppose it has.” Miriam was stone-faced. Kieran placed his hand on her shoulder.

“There’s no need to be so grim. I would think you would be excited to get to the bottom of things.”

“I don’t relish the idea of revisiting my past, Kieran.”

“It wasn’t all horrible, Miriam. We did a lot of good things together.”

“That as it may be, that’s not who I am anymore.”

“Then why didn’t you sell all that you’re wearing and donate the proceeds to the church?”

Miriam and Kieran stood in tense silence. There was a lack of hostility, but the pressure was palpable. Jos
spoke up.

“We’ll have plenty of time to argue over what happened four years ago when this is all over. Right now,
we’ve got a missing girl to find and a shadow to hunt down. We can’t do either if you keep fighting.”

“We’re not fighting, Jos.” Miriam kept her eyes of Kieran.

“Not yet, anyway.” Kieran turned to look at his partner. “Shall we get started? You haven’t even told
Miriam about last night.”

“What about last night?” Miriam asked.

“You’re not the only one to have bad dreams.”

*****

Xanthe continued to make her way through the city, moving carefully from block to block. She kept in the
flow of the morning traffic, stopping occasionally to pretend to browse the windows of shops and the contents of
carts and stands in the wide streets. She looked over her shoulder every so often, just to make sure she had not
been followed. The city guard had been uniformly unaware of her presence or intentions, but she couldn’t risk a
servant of Lord Vadnais on her trail.

The Carrado estate was one of the larger ones in town. Gareth Carrado had made a fortune as a merchant,
and he wanted everyone to remember it. The estate shouldn’t be hard to fine, Xanthe told herself, but it would also
probably be difficult to get inside. It had taken her a full month to infiltrate the courtesan circles and insinuate
herself enough to get into the ball that Vadnais had attended in the first place. She definitely didn’t have time to
wait another month, so a more direct method would have to be used.
The merchants were all clamoring for business, even this early in the morning. The crowd was thinner than
usual, although the streets were still slightly crowded, but the lack of people amplified their desperation. Xanthe
could have made deals on any number of products had she been so inclined, from dried meats to writing ink. She
kept on her way until a particular voice cut through the din.

“My dear! My dear! Potions for you! Potions for sale!”

The woman was older, with streaks of white running through her otherwise jet black hair. She was dressed
simply but was still striking, her clothes fitting well to her body. Dozens of bracelets of different metals jingled and
chimed with every movement, and two fine, ornate baubles dangled from her ears. She motioned Xanthe to come
closer, and Xanthe felt compelled to do so.

“Come, girl. Come and view my wares. Never will you find so potent a brew in all of Aslyr.”

“What makes you think I need your services?”

“I can tell in your eyes, child. I can see it dancing in your mind.”

“You and two dozen other merchants here. Your gift is not so rare.”

“Ah, but you have not experienced the gifts of Lariel Treasa yet.”

“Well, Lariel, I can tell you this. I’m not in love nor do I want to be, I don’t have an upset stomach, and I’m
well-stocked with creams and soaps.”

“Of course. A girl such as you has other needs. Such as this.” Lariel produced a small glass vial containing
a strange, translucent liquid. “This is the Sleep of Ages. When this liquid mixes with the air, the vapors put even
the hardiest man into a deep, restful sleep.”

Xanthe examined the bottle. She had to admit that such a draft would definitely be useful. She placed the
vial down on the table very carefully, noting its locating even as it mixed with dozens of other containers of liquids
of various colors and consistencies. She scanned over the table and thought for a second.

“Do you have anything that might be useful for quickly starting a fire?”

“In three different varieties.”

Xanthe smiled.

*****

Miriam, Kieran, and Jos made their way to Thalia’s home. It turned out not to be very far from the church,
situated as that building was in a more lower-income residential area of town. The small building was home to
several people, with eight different boarding rooms in its two stories. The main entry was deserted and quiet. No
sounds came through the walls.

“Which of the rooms was it, again?” Kieran began scanning the doors.

“Three,” Jos said, approaching one of the doors toward the back. The doorknob easily turned. Jos swung
the door open quietly, slipping inside as silently as he possibly could. He surveyed the room quickly before
motioning for Kieran and Miriam to join him inside.
The small, utilitarian room was in near-immaculate condition. There were no signs that anyone had been
involved in a struggle or conflict. The bed was neatly made and the sheets clean. The shelves were filled with
neatly arranged books and spices. The small wardrobe was orderly and well stocked with simple clothes and shoes.
After a brief search of the room, Kieran sighed.

“I think it’s safe to say that she wasn’t kidnapped from her home unless whoever did it came back to tidy
up.”

“It seems all a bit too organized,” Miriam admitted.

“Not for a girl that works at an inn,” Kieran said, patting down the bed a second time.

“There is this, however.” Jos was standing over the small desk in the corner. In his hands, he held a small,
hand-written note. It looked fairly recent, the paper well-made and crisp.

“What is it?” Kieran leaned forward to see.

“My dearest Thalia, please accept my apologies for not being able to attend the gathering with you the other
night. The long nights in the castle are punishing on me, for it keeps me from you. I cannot stand to be apart from
you any longer. Please come tonight. You know the place. I cannot wait to hold you once again. Telen.”

“I think we just found a suspect.” Miriam offered.

“I think we just found a lead,” Jos responded. “This path is all too obvious, but it’s the best one we have
right now. I say we follow it. Let’s track down this Telen.”
CHAPTER 10
“Telen? You mean Telen Gallehant? That’s Thalia’s man. Oh, no. He couldn’t possibly be involved in
this.” Jassilla continued her duties in the kitchen as Jos talked her. “They’ve been together for some time now. I
know they had some difficulties lately, but…”

“It’s the only lead we have right now,” Jos said. “We need to talk to him if we want to find out what
happened to Thalia.”

“Very well. I know he works in the Carrado estate as a watchman. He can normally be found there during
the day. But please don’t be too hard on him. He’s been very upset since Thalia disappeared.”

As Jos and Jassilla discussed the matter in the kitchen, Kieran and Miriam sat at a quiet table.

“You should probably take the lead when we track down this Telen guy,” Kieran said as he sipped a hot tea.

“Why me?”

“Well, for one, you live around here full time. He would likely recognize your face far more than mine or
his,” Kieran gestured his head in the direction of the kitchen. “Also, you’re a priestess of Chalcedia. A servant of
the aeon of mercy is a much more sympathetic ear then a pair of demon hunters.”

“Not dressed like this I’m not.” Miriam began to drum her fingers impatiently on the table.

“Why not? You’re still Miriam, right? You’re still wearing that pendant around your neck.”

“Look at me. I’m wearing ring mail and combat boots.”

“Nobody said you had to arm yourself. You could have certainly worn that nice white robe.”

“I just thought…”

“So why did you?”

Miriam seemed surprised by the question. She sat in silence for a moment, her mouth half-open, the next
word in her sentence held in suspension. It was true. There was never an instruction to dress for combat. She
simply did it.

“I don’t know. I guess I just thought it was the best thing to do. Just in case.”

“Instinct.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s your instinct from your warrior days, when preparing for the unknown meant making sure you can
bash the unknown’s head in.”

“I have no intention of bashing heads or anything else for that matter.”

“But you know you still can if it came down to it.” Kieran leaned forward in his chair and dropped his voice
a notch. “Why do you think I never leave the room without my blade? Why do you think Jos carries a battle staff
when a regular walking stick would suffice? In our business, we never know what’s around the corner or behind the
door. We never know if that pleasant-looking girl smiling at us in the tavern is really just an innocent villager or a
succubus in disguise.”
“I should think you would be more wary of incubi smiling at you from across a crowded room.” Miriam
smirked.

“Don’t change the subject.”

“Sorry.”

“My point is that your instincts are still there. All your reflexes and behaviours. Sure, they might be a bit
rusty, but they never went away. You can’t hide who you are, Miriam. You can walk a new path with Chalcedia if
you want, but you can’t hide your past.”

“I’m not trying to hide my past. I just don’t like thinking of the things I’ve done.”

“What things? You were not a horrible person, Miriam. You were a fantastic warrior, a courageous fighter,
and a wonderful traveling companion. How many lives do you think you saved when you helped us at the Tombs of
Nin-Sanna? Or the Vale of the Petitioner? I know what happened in Phaedron was traumatic. I can’t blame you
for wanting to leave that life behind. But please believe me when I say that if you want to fail in your mission to
find out what’s causing your nightmares, then go ahead and try to bury yourself.”

Kieran sat back in his chair and took another sip of his tea as he let his words sink in. Miriam averted her
eyes for a second, her mind trying to process the conversation. She absent-mindedly fidgeted with the pendant
around her neck.

“Maybe…maybe you’re right.”

“Just my opinion,” Kieran said matter-of-factly. “I’m not trying to lecture you.”

“You’re a good friend, Kieran.” Miriam smiled faintly. She looked as if about to add more as Jos came to
sit down between them at the table. He ran his fingers through his hair and massaged his temples briefly.

“Everything OK?” Kieran asked, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“Yes. I’m just tired. I’ll be fine.”

“So what did Jassilla say about Telen?” Miriam asked.

“He’s a guard at the Corrado estate, apparently. He’s some kind of high-up here.”

“Yes, he’s a very prosperous merchant,” Miriam added. “He has a large estate toward the upper part of
town. He’s…kind of notorious around these parts.”

“Well, notorious or not, he’s going to have to be our next stop. Telen’s got the day shift there. But Jassilla
doesn’t think he had anything to do with Thalia’s disappearance.”

“We won’t know if we don’t ask him,” Kieran said. “Right now, he’s our only lead.”

“Then let’s head over there,” Miriam stood up quickly, adjusting her mail and cloak. “I’ll lead you there.”

Kieran smiled and nodded as Miriam led the two men out of the inn.

*****
Xanthe had spent a good deal of her coin, but she found her new purchases more than worth the money.
Flaming oil, sleep-inducing dust, all the wonders of homemade alchemy. She adjusted her pack again as she tried to
keep the contents from shifting or rattling too much. The Carrado estate was not too far away.

“Don’t get brave, girl,” she told herself. “This is reconnaissance. You’ll louse everything up if you storm in
now.”

She could see the tallest tower of the estate rising in the distance. She was still unsure of how to she would
go about investigating. She had no easy way of bluffing her way past the guards should she be spotted. As she
pondered coming back during the evening, she failed to notice passersby. The pack of running youths came out of
nowhere, and blindsided even her. She fell to the ground roughly with a loud, high, sharp clattering noise
accompanying her.

“Bloody hell,” she muttered. “Bloody hell!”

As she struggled to get up, a hand appeared before her.

“Do you need some help?”

The tall blonde woman wore ring mail armor and a pendant around her neck featuring a large piece of jade.
She took the gloved hand and steadied herself. With her other hand she quickly grabbed the fallen vial and
pocketed it.

“Thank you very much.” Xanthe nodded and began to turn toward a side alley, away from the crowd.
CHAPTER 11
Ioan quickly ate the small but filling breakfast offered to him by the guard. He was definitely being treated
better than he was used to. The bread wasn’t stale, and the meat wasn’t the refuse from a dinner two nights
previous. Even the water tasted slightly better and clearer than he remembered having before. Whoever had
purchased him planned on keeping him around a long time, although whether it was as slave or employee was
unclear. Ioan did know one thing: whoever bought him thought he was simple enough that his loyalty could be
bought by food and drink.

Ioan had no intention of relieving anyone here of their delusions.

“When do I fight?” Ioan asked the guard as he chewed a piece of bread.

“I do not know.”

“Who does know?”

“You would have to speak with Lord Carrado.”

“Then I want to speak with Lord Carrado.”

“When he is ready to speak with you, he will do so. Lord Carrado is a very busy man.”

“So busy he can’t check out the merchandise he just spent a small fortune on?”

“You are a retainer of the House of Carrado, now, boy. So much more than mere merchandise.” The new
voice was soft but confident, a hammer wrapped in a velvet glove. The speaker emerged from beyond the entryway
of the cell slowly and carefully, savoring the entrance. A young man appeared, no older than two dozen years at the
most, but possessed of an air of command and surety that was instilled in from birth.

“Are you Lord Carrado?”

“I am Edwin Carrado. Lord Gareth Carrado is my father. While he is on official business, you can consult
with me.” Edwin turned to the guard. “You may leave us now. We have much to discuss.”

The guard quickly exited the room as Edwin pulled up a chair on the other side of the bars in Ioan’s cell.
He was not in the dungeons, thankfully, but a prison cell with plush pillows and fancy meals was still a cell. Edwin
leaned back in the chair and looked Ioan up or down. Instinctively, Ioan knew what was happening. He puffed up
his chest and subtly widened his back to make him self more imposing. This was the inspection, and he had to
pass.

“You certainly are a magnificent specimen, aren’t you? Titan, they call you. I can see why.”

“I’ve never lost a match.”

“Of course not. Otherwise you would not be here.”

“No man can best me at blade combat or at wrestling.” Ioan moved his feet just an inch or two further
apart, widening his stance.

“That proclamation we mean to test out.” Edwin slowly rose to his feet. “Lord Carrado has invested a fair
amount of money on you. He also has his mind set on winning the next set of matches. If you’re everything
you’re said to be, all of this will turn out well for everyone.”

“What do you mean?” Ioan relaxed his body only slightly. He raised a curious eyebrow.
“The position of bodyguard pays well here. And it carries a good deal of prestige not only here in
Shantavel but across the kingdom. The Carrado name is well known across the Continent. You would have the
honour of serving one of the most powerful men on the northern coast. Doesn’t that intrigue you at all?”

Ioan had indeed heard of the Carrado merchant family. They did little business in his homeland, and their
messengers were not always trusted fully. Still, they had access to goods and items few others could acquire. Ioan
was sure Edwin was trying to sell him on the organization, inflating the Carrado resumé to impress the dim-witted
gladiator in the cage as much as Ioan was tensing his muscles to impress the vainglorious bourgeois who purchased
him. Ioan decided it was best to play along for now.

“You’re offering me freedom?”

“In a manner of speaking. Of course all of this hinges on how well you do in your battles. Fail, and I think
we both know what the outcome might be.”

Ioan knew all to well the price of failure in the ring. He’d seen it far too many times. He never struck down
an opponent when they were on the ground, but he’d killed a few of them in the heat of combat and in self-
defense. It was never an enjoyable experience.

“But if I win?”

“That, my dear gladiator, is what we call an opportunity.” Edwin smiled at him, his face smug and self-
assured.

“I will not let you down.” Ioan proclaimed, even while he stifled an urge to knock some humility into the
man on the other side of the door.

“Excellent. Then we should get you prepared. Lord Carrado will want to test your skills. If you’re as good
as you say you are, you should have no problem.” Edwin clapped his hands loudly, and two guards quickly entered
the room in response.

“A training jacket and a new pair of boots for our friend here, gentlemen. He has a long day ahead of him.”

Ioan silently cursed himself and the merchant’s son. Another owner, another obstacle course. Perhaps he
truly was cattle after all.

*****

Xanthe kept a respectable distance from the Carrado estate, watching it intently as a hunter might watch
prey. There were more guards than she anticipated, but considering the wealth and importance Carrado held in
Shantavel, she could hardly be surprised. These weren’t peasant militia, either, but contracted and well-armed men
and women who looked more than capable of handling a young woman with a handful of daggers and potions.
Yes, a frontal assault certainly would never succeed.

As she watched the grounds, she saw three people approaching the gate. Before they could even get near, a
rider went out to greet them. Xanthe dared to get to a closer vantage point and saw that one of them was the
woman who had helped her up in the alley. The two men with her seemed ready for battle. The woman did the
talking, her body language unassuming and calm. Xanthe saw the rider shake his head in response to the woman’s
speech, and waved his hand away. The woman said something Xanthe couldn’t quite make out. She only saw a few
words: please, important, Telen, and what she thought was disappeared. The guard shook his head again and again
pointed the trio off the grounds. The three of them turned and walked a few steps away as the rider turned back to
the estate.
The two men were definitely warriors, and the woman seemed like she could be a templar of one of the
local churches. She certainly carried herself like a priestess, even if she wasn’t dressed as one. Xanthe waited until
the guard had reached the doors of the tower and slowly, quietly, and carefully made her way over to where they
stood. She waited a bit off in the distance, hidden behind a wall, waiting for the right moment in the conversation
to make herself known.

“We have to get inside if we want to get to the bottom of this,” one of the men said.

“But how? The guard said no admittance,” the other man said.

“We could come back tomorrow. There may be some private affair going on right now,” the woman said.
“The Carrado family is known for their celebratory nature.”

“Every day we wait makes our job more difficult,” the first man said. “It gives the kidnapper all the more
time to cover his tracks.”

“We don’t know that she was kidnapped,” the woman said.

“It’s a pretty good possibility,” the second man offered, “but we won’t know anything more until we get in
there to talk to Telen, and I don’t think waiting around until shift change will help, seeing as how we really don’t
know who he is or what he looks like.”

“Excuse me.”

The trio turned to watch as Xanthe appeared from around the corner. She held herself proudly and firmly,
a slight glint of mischief in her eye.

“I think I may have a solution that will benefit us all.”


CHAPTER 12
(UNFINISHED)
“Who are you?” Kieran crossed his arms and took a step forward.

“You can call me your friend…for now.” Xanthe stood her ground.

“Well, friend. Why do you want to help us get into the estate?”

“I have business there.”

“I suppose you don’t have an appointment?” Jos moved slightly behind Kieran, a hand on his staff.

“Not in the technical sense.”

“And how do you plan on getting in there?” Miriam asked. “The guards won’t let anybody through. Unless
you have enough money hidden somewhere in there, that is.”

“There are many more methods of persuasion than fists and swords, my friends,” Xanthe said. She arched
her back slightly and raised an eyebrow.

“Then that means we come down to the question of the hour,” Jos said. “We’ve got the how, the why, and
the what. Now we just need to know how much.”

“We can call it a favor. I help you in, you help me out.”

“Explain,” Miriam demanded in a soft voice.

“I need something that’s inside. If I can get in with you, I can scope the estate out, come back when it’s not
quite as busy, and make my way out. Provided I have back-up, of course.”

“It is not our business to assist in thievery.” Miriam didn’t bother to hide the disdain in her voice.

“Thievery is not my aim. Consider this a reunion.”

“Reuniting you with what? A lost trinket? A sack of jewels? A book of dark secrets?” Kieran insisted.

“With what’s mine.” Xanthe dropped her voice a tone. Kieran looked at her suspiciously. Miriam crossed
her arms and turned to her side, looking off into the distance. Jos stepped in-between his partner and the new
“friend.”

“Everybody lower your arrows,” Jos said, raising his hands to both parties. “Let’s make a deal.”

“A deal?” Kieran and Xanthe asked at once.

“A deal and a game,” Jos said. “You help us get inside the estate. We’ll serve as your entourage for the time
being. When the three of us have what we came for, all of us leave together. When we’re out, we play a game of
truth.” Xanthe looked at Jos skeptically. “We ask you what you’re looking for, and you tell us the truth. If we think
your mission has merit, we’ll help you. If not, you’re on your own.”

Miriam, Xanthe, and Jos looked at each other warily. Jos looked back and forth at the parties involved.

“So do we have a deal?”

“Deal.” Xanthe reached forward her hand.


“Deal.” Kieran grasped it in a warrior’s greeting.

“Miriam?” Jos looked at Miriam as he placed his hand on top of the two already joined. The priestess
hesitated a moment before slowly putting her hand on top as well.

“Agreed. Now, friend,” Jos said as the four of them parted. “Let’s get inside and find Telen Gallehant.”

*****

“As I’ve already said, there is no admittance. The Carrado estate is off limits due to pressing business being
conducted inside.”

Miriam, Kieran, and Jos stood slightly behind Xanthe as she slowly approached the guard. She was still
wearing her cloak, and as she stepped forward, she brushed it aside, showing glimpses of the black leather armour
underneath.

“Do you not know who I am?” she asked with a slight hint of disdain in her voice.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” the guard replied.

“You are speaking to none other than the great songstress Selena Galatyn of Karambelas,” Xanthe placed
her hand on her hips and stood proudly.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard of you,” the guard said without emotion.

“I can guarantee you that the Carrados have, my good man,” Xanthe continued undeterred, “and I can also
guarantee you that they would be very upset if a guard turned away one of the great bards of the land…especially
when she’s hoping to grace them with a performance that would draw hundreds of people from across the land.”

“Lord Carrado does not have any even scheduled for…”

“Not yet, he doesn’t,” Xanthe cut him off. “But if you want to deny the Carrado estate the chance to host
dignitaries from across the Continent and potentially cut off valuable and profitable arrangements before they’ve
even begun, you can go right ahead. I’m sure Lord Carrado will be very forgiving when he finds out his rival has
the gathering of the year at their estate.”

The guard thought carefully about Xanthe’s words. Xanthe, for her part, merely stood silently with a barely
noticeable smirk on her face, letting the words sink in. He slowly turned his horse around and raised his hand.

“Come with me. You may speak to Lady Carrado about this.” Xanthe followed the guard, her head held
high. Kieran, Jos, and Miriam began to walk behind Xanthe when the guard stopped.

“Only the bard may enter,” the guard said.

“They are my retainers,” Xanthe said. “They come with me.”

“Very well.” The guard continued on, the rest of the group in tow.

*****

Finding Telen proved to be no challenge once they were inside the estate. Xanthe quickly made her way to
anyone that seemed of even minor importance in the estate, loudly proclaiming her musical gifts and even testing
out the acoustics of the rooms they passed through with a brief melody. That her voice proved suited to the
masquerade was a welcome relief.

The estate was large but simple. There seemed to be no strangely shaped rooms or odd corridors.
Considering the ostentatious nature the Carrado family was known for, the estate was surprisingly mundane.
Xanthe kept her eyes discreetly scanning the rooms as she passed through them, searching for possible secret
passages, trick stones, or other indications of hidden secrets.

It was easy to track Telen down with the upper echelons of the estate occupied. He was a handsome and
strong, if unassuming man. Average height and seemingly of average intelligence. As planned, Miriam took the
lead in questioning him, keeping her voice calm and low.

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