“Tell me again what you saw, boy.” Tirrin sat cross-legged across from Kai on the floor of the largest tent in the camp.
“I already told you,” Kai said, legs starting to ache from the uncomfortable position his legs were contorted into and growing warm from the fire between them, “what more are you looking for?”
Tirrin grimaced and looked away.
Isa, sitting off to the side between them, gave Tirrin a sidelong glance, then smiled at Kai. “Do not mind Tirrin. His mind is greatly burdened.”
Greatly burdened by what? Kai thought.
“More like greatly troubled,” Tirrin snapped, looking at Isa. “What you say happened, boy…”
“What I say happened,” Isa interrupted. “I looked into his mind and saw the truth.”
“…is not something I can easily accept. Candris would never have led a slaughter against humans. We need humans.”
“Need us for tribute you mean,” Kai retorted, suppressed bitterness rising up.
Tirrin sighed. “It has been the way of the world for a thousand years. The Engrall protect the Do’vai and they provide tribute from the rich farmlands. Surely your parents explained this to you.”
Kai’s parents had indeed explained the symbiotic relationship between the Engrall and his people, the Do’vai, but they had not painted it in such a bright light. “I know the ways.” The parasitic ways.
“Then you also know that what Candris did goes against our code of honor. There must be an explanation for this.”
Other than Candris being a bloodthirsty monster? Kai thought.
Isa, who had been sipping her tea, raised an eyebrow at him. Could she read his mind?
“I can see images, and sense your emotions and the intention of your thoughts. But if you are wondering whether I can read your mind, no. Even this requires my concentrating on you. Otherwise I would be overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions of all those around me.”
That revelation gave Kai some comfort and he felt a hint of relief. “Are you going to go after Candris’ men, then?”
Tirrin sighed and nodded. He took a sip of his tea before speaking. “We have no choice. I thought they would go to Drakau but by all reports they went south of here, so that’s where we’re going.”
“You think he’s raiding more Do’vai villages?” Kai asked, a lump in his throat. “Who is in charge now?”
“I hope not. His second in command is Mogar. What do you see, seer?”
“I sense them to the south, as you say, but I cannot tell more than their general direction. Their emotions are…muffled. It is as if I see them through a mist or fog. I have not encountered this before and must meditate on it.”
“Go if you must,” Tirrin said, waving a hand dismissively. “But we shall be gathering to move south soon.”
“I will do what I can.” Isa rose, smiled warmly at Kai again, and exited the tent.
Awkward silence filled the tent. Tirrin cleared his throat. “You’ll soon begin sword training. That is if I can trust you not to stab me in the throat.”
“I’ve used a blade before,” Kai retorted. He wasn’t a child.
“Yes, but by your own account it was the first time and you were…lucky. A warrior cannot rely on luck alone on the battlefield. You must be trained.”
“Why would you train someone who may one day be your enemy?”
“Because I believe every young man should learn to use a blade.”
My father should have been the one to teach me to use a blade, not my enemy. “What of learning to use that?” Kai pointed to a blade-staff leaning in the corner.
Tirrin followed his gaze. He raised an eyebrow. “Once you have learned the basic of the blade I may allow you to train with the blade-staff.”
Kai imagined throwing the blade-staff like a spear. He didn’t picture Tirrin as his target…not quite anyway. Just a generic enemy. A generic enemy of Engrall height and build. The anger from his parents’ death still lingered inside him. “I would like that.”
“You will also begin your meditation training.”
Kai groaned. That sounded like when his mother assigned him homework.
Tirrin smirked. “This will help you focus and become one with your blade.”
That did sound pretty good to Kai.
Gojo chose that moment to saunter into the tent. A fat rabbit hung from its mouth. He set it down at Tirrin’s feet.
“Ah, Gojo,” Tirrin smiled and rubbed his werecat on the head. “You brought breakfast. Would you care to have some, Kai?”
Kai’s stomach growled as if it had heard Tirrin and wanted to make its desires known.
“That answers my question.” He snatched the rabbit up and withdrew his belt knife. He set about skinning it, then ran a spit through it and started roasting it over the fire.
Gojo watched hungrily, and Kai suspected if Gojo were a human he would be licking his lips at that moment.
The smell of rabbit soon filled the tent. His mother used to make rabbit stew when they could find it and it had been a treat for him. The hares of the Do’vai lands ate well and did not possess the gamy taste known among rabbits in more desolate areas to the north or west. “Where does Gojo come from?” he asked.
“Werecats are born in the Dreadlands. To the east,” he explained when he saw Kai’s vacant expression. “I traveled to Nighthold when I was barely a man and ventured forth to capture and tame Gojo. It is a rite of passage for the emperor’s heir.”
“You will be emperor?” Kai asked incredulously.
“One day,” Tirrin said distantly. “When my father dies. Which I pray to the gods will not be soon.” He removed the rabbit from the fire. He sliced off a larger chunk and tossed it to Gojo. “To the hunter goes the spoils.” Then he split the rest between he and Kai.
The juicy rabbit meat melted in Kai’s mouth. He moaned appreciatively.
A horn outside the tent distracted him from the treat. Tirrin stood up abruptly, dropped the rabbit meat and hurried out of the tent. Gojo watched his master go, eyed the discarded rabbit meat and then followed without touching it.
That is a well-trained creature, Kai thought. To ignore its primal impulses out of respect for its master. He was sure it was not fear, for Tirrin did not give the impression of being a cruel man, even if he was an Engrall. He took a final bite of his rabbit and followed Gojo and Tirrin outside.
The warbound soldiers had formed a circle around someone or something, though Kai could not see. “What is the meaning of this?” Tirrin demanded loudly. He walked toward the wall of men and they parted for him.
Kai scampered forward and followed in Tirrin’s wake before the wall of men closed back up. He almost ran into Tirrin seconds later.
“Oba,” Tirrin whispered.
Kai stepped around Tirrin and saw two older men standing there. One, a tall, muscular balding Engrall and the other a shorter, white-haired Engrall with a scar across his face. The tall Engrall knelt and bowed his head. “My prince.”
“What are you doing here, so far from the Obsidian Tower?” He sounded confused, and perhaps worried?
Oba looked up. “I bring grave tidings. The emperor is dead.”
Gasps rose from some of the gathered Warbound, followed by whispered conversations.
Tirrin held up a hand, calling for silence. “Dead?” he repeated. He took a step back. “But how?”
“At the hands of an assassin from the Guild.”
“The daughter of their master,” the white-haired Engrall interjected. He had not knelt.
“Who are you?” Tirrin asked.
“Khadd.” He bowed his head slightly.
“You show a surprising lack of respect for your prince.”
“Forgive me, my lord, but you are not my prince. I was banished long ago.”
“I could not stop her, my prince, though I tried,” Oba interrupted before Tirrin could respond to Khadd. “But that is not the worst of it, I fear. I was framed for the murder of your father and imprisoned. I escaped but I fear the Obsidian Tower is lost.”
“What of Rai’vynn?” Tirrin asked. “Did he not support you?”
Oba shook his head. “Nay, my prince, he did not. In fact…he was the one who betrayed me, and your father. He worked with the assassin, gave her information on the secret passages and framed me even though he saw the assassin. He is now the emperor.”
“That is not his right,” Tirrin said.
Isa approached out of the crowd. “What is the cause of this…”she stopped when she saw Oba. “You.”
Oba nodded to Isa. “It is good to see you again, seer.”
Isa looked at Tirrin. “I sense fear in you. What has happened?”
Oba recapped the attack. “…I barely escaped with my life, thanks to the help of a general and Khadd, who was also condemned to die.”
“Were you pursued?” Tirrin asked, looking out into the dim woods being slowly invaded by the morning sun.
“Not far. Our pursuers gave up. We were given shelter at a farm. We left three days ago and rode to find you.”
“What did the warbinders do?” Isa asked.
“Warbinder Rue watched as I was accused of the emperor’s murder and said nothing.”
Isa furrowed her brow. “That does not make sense. Surely they would have sensed you were speaking the truth.” She stepped forward. “May I?”
Oba smirked. “Just like old times. You may touch me.”
Had Oba and Isa been friends before? It seemed to Kai they were familiar with one another.
Isa stepped forward and placed a hand on Oba’s shoulder. She flung her head back and gasped. Moments later she released her grip and stumbled back. “He speaks the truth, all of it. I sensed a great evil in the throne room.”
“It was colder than I ever felt before,” Oba confirmed.
“I must think on this,” Tirrin said. “We must make for the Obsidian Tower and confront my brother, but first…”
A screech caused Tirrin to look upward. Kai followed his gaze. A shadowy blur flashed through the sky. Kai found it hard to focus on the spot, even with the morning sun shining bright.
“Shadow drake. She’s here,” Khadd warned.
“Who?” Tirrin asked.
“The daughter of shadow and ice,” Isa said distantly. “Filled with fury and hate. The one who killed our emperor.”
Oba, who had set his blade-staff next to him when he knelt, rose and spun it. “She has come for me,” he said.
“To arms!” Tirrinn shouted. “She will find no easy prey here.” He turned and ran for the tent. “With me, boy.”
Kai stared slack-jawed at the shadow drake as it circled. He could see a figure seated atop it. What was she waiting for?
“Boy!” Tirrin shouted.
Kai shook his head and ran to follow Tirrin into the tent.
Tirrin handed a sword to Kai. He held his gaze. “Try not to stab yourself in the foot, lad.”
I did just fine against Candris, he thought, but knew now was not the time to bring that up. Instead, he nodded and took the blade. “Yes, sir.”
The two exited the tent. The rest of the Engrall had armed themselves. Some held bows, while most held sword or blade-staff.
“Archers, fire!” Tirrin ordered.
Arrows streaked through the sky toward the shadow drake, but the drake dove at the last moment and the arrows flew through empty air.
The drake flew low to the ground and snatched an archer up. They screamed as they were carried into the sky and dropped moments later from a height no man could survive at.
“She’s toying with us,” Khadd said. He held a pair of knives in his hands. “Like a hunter stalking her prey.”
Gojo growled and bared his teeth.
“Come and face me, you coward!” Oba roared, lifting his blade-staff and shaking it in fury.
“As you wish,” the woman said distantly. She leapt from the back of the shadow drake and dove toward the ground. A moment before Kai expected her to hit the ground and break every bone in her body she turned into a shadowy mist and disappeared, only to appear behind one of the warbound warriors Kai had yet to meet. She slit his throat and blood spattered outward.
Two archers turned their bows in her direction and fired, but their efforts resulted in the dying Engrall being pin-cushioned with arrows. Perhaps they had ended his suffering a moment sooner.
The assassin disappeared again, this time re-appearing behind the two archers who had fired on her. She held two daggers and plunged them into the back of each man. They both writhed in pain and fell to their knees. She kicked them both over.
Gojo rushed forward, growling, but a shadowy blur slammed into him, bowling him over. The shadow drake was on top of him, biting and slashing. Gojo slashed back and struggled to get off his back.
Oba raced toward her, blade-staff held like spear. Khadd ran at his side, dual daggers at the ready.
This time the assassin did not disappear like before. She held her daggers at the ready and as Kai watched frost spread across the blades. “Do you tire of my games?” she asked as they charged toward her.
The two men answered with steel. Oba thrust with the blade-staff while Khadd circled around to slash with his daggers.
The woman calmly dodged to her left to avoid the thrust from Oba and met the blow from Khadd with her own blades. The frost spread to his blades and when she pushed the blades of her foe shattered. She capitalized on the moment by kicking Khadd in the chest, sending him flying backward with an oomph. He did not get up. She then turned her attention back to Oba, who was now sweeping his blade toward her mid-section. She disappeared into shadow and appeared behind him. She raised her daggers, preparing to stab him in the back of his neck or top of his spine, but Tirrin’s blade-staff blocked the downward strike, allowing Oba to turn. Two men armed with longer weapons than she now faced the veiled woman, who had flipped backward out of their reach.
Kai ran forward, sword raised, hoping to strike the assassin in the back while her back was turned. He felt the same power from before when he had faced Candris flowing through his hands into his blade, causing it to emit a crackling noise. He swung it. A pair of crossed daggers met his blade of power. A shockwave burst out from the impact site, sending Kai and his opponent flying backward and those around them staggering back. Kai struggled into a sitting position but could not stand due to his vision spinning.
The assassin had bowled into Tirrin but avoided being impaled due to him dropping his blade-staff in the face of the shockwave. She rolled to the side and leapt to her feet, barreling toward Oba with single-minded fury. “Enough games,” she said. Oba lay on the ground but lifted his blade-staff in an effort to stop her from stabbing him. She kicked the staff from his hands and, unceremoniously stabbed him in the chest with both daggers, which were now no longer covered with frost.
“No!” Tirrin shouted, struggling to his feet.
Oba gasped and his eyes went wide. He lifted his hands as if to push his assailant away but they dropped to the ground as the life fled him.
The assassin stood and looked around at Tirrin struggling to rise, Khadd lying unconscious on the ground, the other Warbound in various states of lying down or kneeling from the shockwave and lastly Kai. Her gaze lingered on him. What was she thinking? Perhaps she’s wondering what happened when our blades met, he thought.
A screech caused Kai to duck his head instinctively. Her shadow drake flew from where it had been facing off against Gojo straight toward its master.
She leapt onto her drake and it took off into the sky. She cast one last glance behind her as she faded into the distance.
Kai felt exhaustion rushing over him. Isa rushed to his side. “Lie still, you are still weak from using your power.”
“I’m fine,” Kai insisted. I still don’t know what that “power” is, he thought. “Help the others.”
Isa nodded and went to attend to Tirrin, who had made it to a knee but still held his head in his hands. Groans echoed across the clearing as the other Warbound nursed similar symptoms.
After several moments Tirrin rose and knelt by Oba. “Oh, my old friend, I am sorry.” He closed his open eyes and looked toward Kai. He shook his head.
What had Kai done wrong? He had only tried to stop the assassin.
“We could have stopped her,” Tirrin said, waving at the sky. “But you had to rush in with reckless abandon. You killed Oba.” He pointed at Kai.
Kai gaped at Tirrin. Why was he saying such a thing? “I…”
“That’s enough,” Isa said firmly, a hand on Tirrin’s shoulder. “He is just a boy.”
“A boy with power he doesn’t understand and used foolishly,” Tirrin bit out.
“Do not misplace the blame, prince of the blood. The assassin is responsible for Oba’s death, not the boy.”
Tirrin gritted his teeth, his eyes locked on Kai. At last he flared his nostrils and looked away. Gather the dead. We will burn them so their souls may float to Etrigan.”
Kai felt tears dripping down his face. Maybe had killed Oba. He rose and ran into the forest.
“Kai!” Isa shouted from behind him, but he did not stop.