King of Sword and Sky

Page 2


"No, wait! Wait!" Panicked, Den shoved his feet against the cell floor and scooted his chair back, retreating from the icy hand. The leg of his chair caught on an uneven stone, and with a choked wail, he toppled over backwards.
Pain exploded in his skull as his head cracked against the stones. His hands, shackled at the wrists, scraped hard against their metal bonds. The sudden jolt shook his entire body, and a long, narrow parcel of wadded cloth fell out of his robe's deep pocket to land beside him.
The pair of pale, hulking guards standing near the door strode forward to grab Den's chair and haul it—and him—back upright. One guard kicked the small parcel and sent it skittering across the floor. The fabric unwrapped as it went, and a handful of long, crystal-topped needles spilled out, chiming an absurdly cheerful series of tinkling notes as they rolled across the stone floor.
The High Mage went still. His eyes narrowed and lightened from nightmarish black to a slightly less terrifying shade of cold, glittering silver. Sheathing his dagger, the Mage pointed to the scattered exorcism needles. "Bring those to me," he commanded.
Both guards rushed to obey, gathering up the fallen needles and bringing them to their master. The Mage examined them closely. Most of the dark crystals topping the needles were black, but several sparkled with ruby lights.
His jaw clenched. He spun around, grabbed Den's chin in a fierce grip, and shook him, making stars whirl across Den's vision. "These crystals have tasted blood," the Mage hissed. "Whose flesh did the needles pierce, mortal? Yours? Or someone else's?"
Den swallowed the acrid bile rising in his throat. "Ellie Baristani," he groaned. "She pulled them out to stop us from taking her into the Well."
The High Mage released Den and straightened. He lifted the needles to his nose and inhaled deeply. His eyes fluttered closed. When he opened them again, the Mage smiled.
"Well, mortal, it seems you will keep your miserable life another day, after all." He untied the sash from around his waist and wrapped the needles in it carefully, then deposited the small bundle in his own deep pocket. "I do not punish those who please me, and this gift is pleasing indeed."
The shallow, relieved breath had barely left Den's lungs before his chest constricted on a new surge of panic when the High Mage lunged and his bony hand closed around Den's throat.
"Today is my gift to you," the Mage hissed. "But for life after daybreak tomorrow, there is a price, mortal." He lifted the Mage blade, twisting the black, razored edge so the light of the sconces made shadows dance across the dark metal. "Accept my Mark. Willingly bind your soul to my service. Or when the Great Sun rises, you will die a death more hideous than any you can imagine."
Den whimpered.
The Mage smiled, pressed the point of his dagger to Den's wrist, and sliced. Blood welled from the cut and slid down Den's arm like scarlet teardrops. The Mage lifted the wrist to his lips. Den flinched as a pale tongue flicked out, tasting his blood. "Answer me, boy. Surrender your soul or die. The choice is yours."
Den's hand shook. His entire body trembled. How had this happened? How had his plans gone so awry?
The Mage's grip tightened, pointed nails digging into the soft skin of Den's inner wrist. "Speak, mortal! Do you accept my Mark? Of your own free will, do you bind your soul to my service?"
Den's dreams of living in luxury in some remote part of the world, growing fat on the profits of Ellie Baristani's magic, shattered like broken glass. There would be no palatial estate. No soft-skinned, buxom serving wenches to tend his every need. No lords lining up to seek his favor. There would be no Ellie Baristani on her knees before him, kissing his feet and begging for his forgiveness, whoring herself to please him.
His eyes closed. His shoulders heaved with helpless, silent sobs.
"Yes," he whispered.
"Yes, master," the Mage's hissing voice corrected.
"Yes, master." Tears gathered in Den's throat and burned at the back of his eyes.
"Then say it. 'Of my own free will, I accept your Mark and bind my soul to your eternal service.' "
Den heard himself, weeping brokenly, repeating the damning words. Hot tears ran down his frozen cheeks. The cold press of the Mage's mouth clamped against his wrist and pulled sickeningly as the Mage sucked Den's blood from the sliced vein. Then came the colder press of that taloned hand gripping the skin above his heart. A sickly sweet aroma filled the air, overpowering, like barrels of rotting fruit. Pure, frigid ice, sharp as a knife, plunged deep into his chest. A will, heavy as stone, pressed down upon his.
He was in a black river, gasping for breath and fighting desperately to stay afloat, while a terrible weight slowly and relentlessly dragged him down. His head bobbed under. The thick, black, oily liquid of the river—so cold, so horribly sweet—enveloped him. His lungs burned as the air in them ran out and the need to breathe became overpowering. He fought, struggled, tried to kick his way to the surface, but the weight anchored him down, dragging him deeper and deeper.
His world was total darkness. No light. No hope. No hint of warmth. His lungs were on fire. If he breathed he would drown. If he didn't breathe, he would die.
His mouth opened on a deep, desperate, despairing gasp. Oily blackness flooded in, filling his lungs, filling him.
With one last, choking, weeping cry for his lost life, Den Brodson surrendered.
Chapter one
Celieria ~ The Garreval
Seven days after departing Celieria City, the Fey reached the end of the mortal world. As the small caravan of wagons and loping Fey crested the top of a last, rolling hill, Ellysetta's breath caught in her throat. A great fertile plain stretched out below, miles of land sectioned into hedgerow-partitioned fields, all greening with well-tended crops against a dramatic backdrop of majestic mountains thrusting up from the earth like a solid wall.