Prologue - Chapter 1
Nessa struggled through the snow fighting the cold, sodden weight of her skirts and the tattered traveling cloak she clutched close to her body. The wind cut through the ruined fabric of her bodice
sending shivers like tiny daggers to pierce her frozen skin. It was difficult to see more than a few feet ahead, and when she managed to, only the dark skeletons of monstrous evergreens loomed like
pillars reaching skyward through the heavy clouds.
She felt the comfort of Kianmar's strong arms helping her along. The priestess was blind, but in the chaos of flying snow, sight meant little. She felt the blossoming warmth of a comforting spell Kianmar sent through her hands and into Nessa's arms. The small kindness offered by the priestess kept her moving, but she worried that sooner or later she would falter. Already the degree of that warmth had lessened; the priestess herself looked little better off than she, but there was determination there - the strength of her god, Laureleen? More than likely it was her own will; whatever the case, the young priestess had brought them this far and she had to trust that Kianmar knew where they were going.
It was strange and often harrowing being in the company of one who was god-touched. Ever since the young priestess sought her out in the gardens of her consort's Mineadian estate, her life had been thrown into chaos. First the deaths of her family at the hands of assassins, then the razing of her home and murder of her consort, and finally this - trekking through the frozen passes of northern Fenra.
All for what - a damned vision?
Nessa was bitter at first; the tragedies she suffered numbed her to the pain but as that faded and turned to bitterness, Kianmar shared first-hand the vision that compelled her to seek out the daughter of one of Mineada's lesser royals. Even now she could not speak of it. But as the months passed and Nessa's belly swelled unexpectedly, she began to believe. That frail tether held her together and gave her hope that her child might yet find safety.
Kianmar stumbled, almost dragging both of them into a snowdrift. She righted herself but froze starring off into the swirl of snow and darkness.
"Come on, we have to keep moving." Nessa slipped her arm around the priestess.
"No. They've found us." Kianmar whispered.
"We must hide!" Nessa cast around for any place that would offer concealment, but the only possibility lay in waves of snow drifts around the nearby trees - a weak possibility at best. Even as she considered this, Nessa realized that the unmistakable trail they left in the snow would prove to be their undoing. With a shudder she pulled the blind priestess to her feet, propelling her along through the deep blanket of snow. Their only hope was to run.
"Which way Kia?" Nessa rasped. Her throat felt ragged after breathing in the frozen air for so long.
"I don't know." Kianmar lost her walking staff somewhere along the way and had to make do with a gnarled branch as she floundered through the drifts.
"Damn it woman! You said help would be nearby." Nessa growled. Her heart raced, hoping their pursuers had not found them yet.
The shrill whinny of horses that cut through the night shattered her frail hope. Nessa turned to help the priestess along only to find Kianmar standing rigid in the snow. Her cloak lay in the snow revealing the golden lines of intricate tattoos that laced both arms from wrist to shoulder. They glowed with a soft amber light - a sure indication that the power of her god filled her. Kianmar's milky eyes were half open and her lips moved as she whispered a prayer. Fine, loose strands of her brown hair whipped about her head in a wild nimbus; a palpable heat emanated from her small body, enough to melt the snow around her legs.
Nessa trudged back to the priestess thinking that Kianmar might spirit them away with her magic. Despite how long they traveled together, Nessa knew very little of the young priestess' power and Kianmar had offered little insight in that respect. Nessa prayed that this was a fortuitous sign.
"Do not touch me, child of flesh; daughter of the blood. Do not touch me for the sake of the daughter that grows in your womb." Kianmar's voice rumbled with a deep resonance filled with power. Lauraleen, Kianmar's god, held possession of the young priestess' body.
"Kia?" Nessa pleaded. "We must run. Please!"
"We are here." Kianmar blinked and shivered as the power of her god and the heat that came with it, left her.
"What?" At first Nessa did not understand. Their hunters were upon them and the need for haste was overwhelming. Kianmar stood her ground.
"We are here." Kianmar repeated. She looked serene despite her tattered garments and ragged cloak. There was nothing around them save trees and more snow. Whatever help Kianmar sought was not here, she thought. Nessa couldn't help but feel envious for the young woman's faith. Her own was a pale specter in comparison.
Before Nessa could reply, a throng of horses bearing dark clad riders plunged out of the darkness and thundered around them in a loose corral, effectively cutting off any means of escape. Steam rose from their lathered mounts as they stomped nervously in the snow. The men wore masks of obsidian, but their intent showed clearly in their eyes. They said nothing and kept their eyes fixed on the two women. One of the riders dismounted but stayed near his horse; he gripped the reigns with a gauntlet clad hand and shook loose the snow already accumulating in the folds of his cloak.
He was lean, that much was evident despite the cold weather gear he wore, and his heavy cloak fell away from broad armored shoulders. The man stepped away from his horse and into the pale moonlight, pulling back his cowl to reveal his obsidian mask. The eyes that peered out at the two women were like two chips of ice, so grey they almost appeared white in contrast to the mask. His long dark brown hair whipped about in the frenzied wind and fell about his shoulders. Warrior's brands were tangled with loose strands and looked like the thin sleek bodies of snakes.
"Do not make this any more difficult for us than it needs to be." He said.
Nessa stepped closer to Kianmar trying to shield her, but the woman stopped her with a glance, warning her back with a slight shake of her head. Her milky eyes snapped back to the rider. Though she could not see the world with eyes of flesh, her god had gifted Kianmar with eyes of spirit. The young priestess looked to each man, seeing beyond armor and flesh into the souls that lived beneath. All but a few were dark like a brackish pond, with only the faintest pinprick of light showing through. These were corrupted men; so far gone that even Laureleen's light could not purify them. Those few whose bright souls still shone through the blight were weak-willed men. All were beyond hope. All save this one who stood before her. She brushed his mind with her thoughts and was pleased.
"You do not need to do this, Kittaman of Mineada." Kianmar's voice was almost a whisper through the shrill cry of the wind.
The man cocked his head to the side starring at the priestess. He wondered how such a frail slip of a woman could see through the cloaking magic of the obsidian mask he wore. "I have my orders. Come with us, and we will escort you both to shelter and warmth." He held out his hand to her.
Kianmar stole a glance into his pale grey eyes and followed the thread of emotion from there to the nexus of his soul where such things originate. Like most people, Kittaman's nexus consisted of two parts, and the priestess saw these as twin halves of a single moon: one red; one white. She watched as dark tendril-like veins of corruption warred with the brilliant threads of his better half. He was fighting a battle that threatened a delicate balance. Kittaman was at war with himself.
"You do not want to do this." Kianmar repeated.
"Please lady, you have my oath that neither your blood nor that of your ward will be spilled by my hands. I offer you only safety." Kittaman held his hands open to his sides to emphasize his words, letting his heavy cloak billow out around him. Kianmar caught the faint aura of enchantment around the twin blades strapped at his waist. A Blade Dancer? Her heart beat faster in recognition. Yes, he is the one, she thought
"Kia!" Nessa hissed. "What are you doing? You know we can't trust him."
"Yes. We can." Kianmar extended her hand, her fingertips tentatively feeling for the man's outstretched hand. He moved closer, realizing she was blind, and closed his hand over hers. Kittaman felt his whole body seized in a paralyzing grip, unable to cry out in warning. He was helpless, unable to move, to blink, to breathe, all the while berating himself for his foolishness.
Like a white-hot poker, Kianmar's voice seared into his mind. "Know the truth, Kittaman of Mineada." She whispered as she caught Nessa's hand in turn. All three were joined as one.
In that brief moment of contact, Kianmar unleashed the power of her god and flooded Kittaman's soul with the purging flames of Laureleen's light. The god's power engulfed all three of them in a brilliant nimbus that exploded outward, blinding those who looked on and spooked the horses. Riders cursed as some were bucked from their mounts to land in high drifts or were carried off, unable to calm their horses' frenzy.
Kittaman's mind was on fire as tongues of white flame licked at his exposed soul. He could not give voice to the dual sensation of adulation and pain he felt, and the only sound to escape his lips came as a sharp gasp for air. Dark memories flooded his mind: he stood in a shadowed room hidden behind the heavy drapes of a study silently waiting as a woman and her two children sat near the fireplace. They listened with rapt fascination as she told them the story of how the gods touched Fenra for the first time and how the seas and land were changed forever. It was a tale he had grown up on - the same tales his father and mother told him as a child, and one that he might have told his own children. It was a pure moment, and he watched himself as if in a dream floating above the scene as he stepped from the shadows, dagger in hand. Kittaman cried from the wrenching pain that gripped his heart as he was dispatched all three. His trained hands swiftly drawing the keen dagger across children's throats before their mother could react. Kittaman watched in horror as he viciously plunged the dagger into the woman's chest and slashed at her throat, cutting of her agonized scream. He tried to turn away from the scene but found himself starring down at his bloodied hands as the sticky warmth of their life blood dripped from his fingers and dagger.
"Murderer." Nessa hissed.
I am no murderer! Kittaman screamed as darkness swallowed him.
"Know the truth." Kianmar's voice whispered in his mind.
The vision faded and he found himself standing alone in the snow. The wind was gone and so were the riders. He glanced down at his hands once more and nearly dropped the thing held in his open palms. It was a girl-child still bloody from birthing; its life cord dangled from her belly like a gnarled root. She wailed pitifully, shivering in the cold. Its mother lay in a pool of blood that soaked the snow around her like a blossoming rose. He recognized Nessa's soft features at once. Her eyes were fixed and starring, and her hair fanned about her head like the plumage of an exotic bird.
Another death on my hands, he thought. Kittaman glanced and around, feeling countless eyes boring into him. The clearing was choked with the hazy specters of the restless dead. Some he recognized and others were no better than strangers. But they called to him none the less.
"Murderer." They wailed in unison. Kittaman could not hide from their accusing glares.
"No!" He screamed in defiance. "I had my orders."
"Know the truth." The priestess repeated.
The vision changed again and he found himself standing on the rise of a hill overlooking a great battle. Two armies surged across the field, one bearing the red standard of Mineada; the other bore a white standard of unknown origin. His hand rested on the side of a dark charger, and he glanced up to see its rider. She was young, barely a woman but bore the mantle of greatness on her shoulders. She wore a fine laurel circlet with a single amber gem on her forehead and her fine dark hair, mixed with the braids of a warrior, cascaded in waves over her shoulders like a bride's veil. Her hair gleamed with a wicked red sheen like wet blood - God-touched, he realized. He knew this was the same child he held in his hands earlier. She turned to him and he could see the love in her eyes, and a great sadness that welled deeper still.
"Know the truth." The priestess urged.
The vision faded again, but this time he was caught in a nimbus of light, hands joined to the priestess who seemed to stare at him over a great distance though he knew how close she truly stood. Her eyes no longer bore the milky sheen of a blind woman, but were startling sapphire and flecked with what he could only describe as tiny stars. The priestess' eyes were firm yet pleading in a way he could not ignore. He felt something deep within him give way and knew in that instant that he was changed. For the first time in many months, Kittaman felt free. He felt the cold shackles f his dark oaths to fall away like ashes.
"Protect this child as if she were you own, Kittaman of Mineada." Kianmar urged him. "Love her as if she were the fruit of your own loins. She must survive."
"Why?" He asked.
Kittaman regretted asking the moment the thought was formed. A nimbus of light and pain exploded once more as the priestess gifted him with her vision, Laureleen's voice echoing through his mind.
Nessa held fast the Kianmar's hand unable and unwilling to risk breaking the tenuous contact she maintained with the priestess while she worked her magic. The visions she shared of the stranger in her grip were horrifying; he was a monster at the beck and call of masters who knew nothing of compassion or mercy. They were ruthless in their means with a purpose so dark she could not summon the words to describe. Some fraction of their work was familiar to her through the priestess and she felt the woman's own power standing sentinel between herself and the horrors in the man's mind. Something moved at the periphery of her sight and she turned to see a young woman, moon-clad in the snow starring out at her. She was barely out of childhood and still in her awkward years, but in her amber eyes she found recognition. A force like thunder slammed between them before she could call out to her and when she looked back, the young woman was gone.
Images rushed through Kittaman's battered mind like a cold torrent, sweeping away his protests without mercy. There was no beginning it seemed as images of people and places - some he might have recognized and others so foreign they were unlike anything in his experience - flooded his thoughts. He felt himself swept away on that rush, floating like a bit of flotsam to wash upon some distant shore. There were many voices; children, men and women, none familiar but all seeming to say the same thing. He caught only one word - "Harbinger". He lost all sense of time and bearing until as if on a whim the torrent chose to become a stream. The stream lingered for but a moment and became a lake, calm and shrouded in fog. The voices were silent once more and Kittaman felt his senses focused to a razors edge, narrowing still to the point of pain. It was as if everything around him were defined with such detail that he became aware of everything. The water was wet, but he could feel something more about it, as if its very substance hinted at some unseen bond that if loosened would render it less than mist. He turned his senses outward, probing the fog about him. There was nothing. No, he thought - there is nothing. Kittaman was alone, trapped in a moment as if waiting.
I am always alone, he thought.
Kittaman doubled over in pain as the world came crashing down around him. Sunlight ripped through the mist like searing ribbons of white pain and sound roared about him like a maelstrom. The lake dried up and was replaced but dusty earth and the smell of spring flowers filled his nostrils. He kept his eyes shut for a long time, afraid of the pain and the light that might burn.
Kittaman wished he'd kept his eyes shut the moment he opened them. He stood on a precipice overlooking a dark ocean of mist and fog that roiled and churned as if in the throws of some great storm. He backed away from the edge, swallowing hard at the realization that he might easily misstep or be blown over at any moment. He looked behind him and saw with horror as a tsunami of darkness swallowed the land. He saw in exquisite detail as cities were drowned in the darkness, and each wretched life extinguished like a tiny flame. The horror was unstoppable, alive in a way that was anathema to life, and it had purpose. He stood watching helplessly as the wave changed course and bore down on where he stood. A foul miasma preceded the wave killing all who breathed its noxious fumes and turning the rocks and earth black as soot.
Kittaman backed away as the wave approached, forgetting entirely of the sheer cliff that fell away into the mists. He kept on walking until the cliff became visible to him, and he looked down to find himself standing on the deck of a small craft. The once assassin, cast about in surprise and saw that he was being carried away over the ocean of fog. The wave of darkness crashed against some unseen wall and hammered at it with the ferocity of an enraged animal. Try as it might, the darkness could not breech the wall. Kittaman glanced over his shoulders and caught sight of a distant light like a beacon. The boat carried them unerringly towards it until it filled his vision becoming a small sun, and he was forced once again to shut his eyes against its blinding glare.
The world fell away once more and he felt himself floating in a bright void.
"What does it mean?" He asked.
"Nothing and everything." The priestess' voice filled his thoughts once more.
"I need to know what it means, Damnit!" He screamed.
"You have been given your task Kittaman. Fulfill this and you will understand."
The vision ended abruptly as it began and the warrior found himself blinking away icy flakes that stung his face. Kittaman staggered backwards, the priestess having released him without warning. He fell into the snow and shivered as icy powder flooded down his back. Kittaman regained his feet as the shouts of men around him brought him back to reality. He paused a moment to reorient himself but found only chaos. Men struggled with their horses with little success, while others had fallen into drifts, their mounts racing off into the night. All but three who managed to recover quickly. Kittaman was too slow to react and watched in sickening horror as they loosed quarrels from small crossbows at the two women. Kianmar stepped in front of Nessa in time and the bolts struck the priestess square in the chest; she staggered backwards and fell into the snow. Her pale gown turned crimson as her lifeblood soaked her bodice.
Kittaman could hear only the painful thunder of his own heart as he watched helplessly as another bolt found its mark and the priestess went down. Nessa was screaming. The three men pulled more quarrels from their quivers and set about reloading their crossbows with the patience of paid killers. Kittaman tore the obsidian mask from his face; cold anger replaced his anguish over his inability to save the young priestess. His twin blades flew free of their scabbards and their sharp ring filled the air to sound the first chord of his blade song.
Kittaman gave himself over to the deadly music, letting the eerie song permeate his limbs and body. He felt himself carried off like a leaf on a wind. The snow meant little to him as he shot like a coiled snake between the two nearest men and brought the razor edges of his curved blades across their throats and back again in a single fluid movement. They fell without a sound and the third glanced up in surprise only to see Kittaman's blades knife across his vision and he too fell lifeless into the snow.
Nessa starred in disbelief at the unexpected change in events. She flattened herself close to Kianmar, gripping the young woman's cold hand in her own. Kianmar starred at her with those milky white eyes, blood bubbling at the corners of her mouth as she tried to say something. She bent close to her, shielding them both from the harsh winds. The sounds of battle and the cries of frightened, dying men filled the air.
"Trust this man." Kianmar gasped. "Laureleen has touched his soul and he will bear you to safety." Kianmar coughed, spitting up dark blood. Nessa was crying freely, he tears mixing with the priestess' blood. She was desperate to hang onto the young woman who had saved her life. Nessa had not realized how much she had grown to love her, and the pain of loosing her only friend tore painfully at her already shattered heart.
Kianmar gripped her hand tightly. "You must not be afraid of what is to come."
"Stay with me Kia! Please, I don't know what to do without you." Nessa cried.
"Have faith." Kianmar whispered. "My time here is over, child. Heed what I have said. Trust the one whom I have charged to ward you. The one god and his beasts seek you." Nessa watched helplessly as the life fled her eyes and her body went limp in her arms.
Kittaman propelled himself across the snow with a thought; his feet stepping lightly over the ice crusted drifts as if he weighted but a feather. He arched his blade low, catching one man behind his thigh and brought his other blade around in a killing stroke. He moved faster than a normal man, flowing like quicksilver to close the distance on those who flailed helplessly in the powder. The blade song caressed Kittaman's mind and he welcomed it like a lover. The world moved like a slow churning river around him as he felled every man who rode with him. He knew without question that they were corrupt. The purifying fire of Laureleen's light still filled his vision and he watched in morbid satisfaction as their dark souls evaporated like mist into the Aether. None would survive this night - a price he was determined to exact for the killing of the priestess.
The blade song ended with a whisper as he replaced his twin blades in their scabbards. He looked around only to find dark mounds jutting from the snow where men had fallen under his blades. The last of his riders turned to flee, racing haphazard through the snow for a nearby mount. Kittaman pulled his own crossbow free and loosed a quarrel that stuck the man square in the back. He lurched forward into the snow, dead before he fell. The clearing was silent save for the wind that carried on indifferent to the killings. He remembered the priestess and rushed to where she laid, her head cradled in Nessa's lap.
"Why?" Nessa demanded, fresh tears streaming down her face.
Kittaman bent low to brush a stray lock from the dead woman's face. He reared back in surprise as Nessa raked the air with her nails and lunged at him.
"Murderer!" She screamed.
Kittaman caught her by her wrists, holding her at bay as she struggled with the last reserves of her strength until she finally buckled. He held her as she cried for a time, shivering in the snow. Her dress was cold and wet, clinging to her delicate form like silk, and he knew he must find shelter for them both or risk dying of exposure. A few horses had returned for their riders, his amongst them. He propped Nessa against the trunk of a nearby tree and stripped the riding packs of the remaining horses of food and water. Kittaman pulled the rough woolen blankets free of their tethers and wrapped it around Nessa before hoisting her up to rest across his knees. He pulled his cloak about them both and kicked his horse into a slow trot. She was like a rag doll in his arms as he bore her away from the carnage.
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