Sleepers, Book 3 of Cat's Tales, coming November 14, 2014!
Back in Tezerain, in the country of Kitring-Tor, Cat visits the wizard Jeral and the prophecy regarding Sleepers is revealed. To Cat’s chagrin, they must wait for the constellation known as the Bashful Lady to shift into the appropriate position. In the meantime, Cat tries to find ways to amuse herself, avoid Prince Dayn, adjust to a Human world and spend as much time with Rhone Arden as possible.
While searching for proof of his innocence in the murder of a nobleman, Rhone discovers the truth to have much deeper consequences than he could have guessed and when Cat and Lindren both disappear on the same night, it pushes him into an unexpected decision.
WARNING! - This book contains mature content, including sex and violence.
In the grey place between Arvanion’s beloved worlds, the place that shouldn’t exist, on a plain of nothing, stood a castle. Walls, a mile long and seventy-five feet high, surrounded a castle of towers, seven in all. Six of the structures stretched up ninety feet to the grey sky, encircling the seventh, an unbelievable monstrosity of dark stone, one hundred and fifty feet high, studded with horrifying stone figures.
Carved faces―some Elven, some Tiranen, some Human, all twisted in agony―surrounded the arched doors, decorated the few windows and peered out from crags and crannies in the tortured building. Statues of demons from seven of the nine hells perched on balconies and cornices all up and down the hundred and fifty foot tower.
Khadag ignored it all. He ran up the long stairs of the central tower to Balphegor’s throne room, his heart racing in expectation, the hair lock hanging from the top of his head swishing against his neck. He’d arranged to have the vaurok bodies on Crescent Island taken to Fornoss for ceremonial burning before coming here. He’d also asked another First to find a suitable home for the white egg, the last survivor of the disaster on Crescent Island. Once the master hears my plan he’ll make me Fleet Commander and Delcarion can lick my nose slits. In his excitement, he almost forgot to knock.
The unspoken word slid through Khadag’s head, lingering like pond scum on skin. His brow ridge dipped at the figure on the throne. Balphegor had shunned the form he’d worn for as long as Khadag remembered, that of a Human male child. A youth now sat there, a male and not quite Human. Cat-like ears perked up from the top of his head, a golden lion’s mane surrounded his face, flowed down his bare back. A tawny tail flipped back and forth. Fur hid the skin of his lower body, the same shade as the tail. Clawed feet, too long to be called paws, rested on the stone dais at the foot of the throne.
The rest of the room remained the same. The blue marble throne, the only other hint of colour in the long, grey room, perched at the far wall. Khadag strode towards his master, passing the stone table and the fire pit in the centre of the room, avoiding the heated swords and pokers protruding from the pit. He didn’t bother acknowledging Delcarion, who stood by the fire pit, arms crossed, head tilted at an angle that left no doubt as to his state of mind. Angry, definitely angry, and that pleased Khadag. His mouth curved in a smile as he prostrated himself before Balphegor. “My master, I await your command.”
“Go to the table. Lay your left arm on it.”
Khadag lost his smile. Jaws clenched, he glared at Delcarion, hiding behind cowl and cloak as always, then strode to the stone table. That dung-eater didn’t tell him I had a plan! Now the master’s punishing me for something not my fault. He couldn’t argue his case, however, not unless the master allowed it. Delcarion visibly relaxed. Though a spell hid the slug’s face, Khadag could imagine his grin. He clenched his right fist and placed his left arm on the table.
“Delcarion, please remove his hand at the wrist.”
“With pleasure, my master.” Delcarion’s voice rasped with a harshness not found in Human or Elf and Khadag briefly wondered once again what kind of creature he was―until the master’s words sunk in.
Remove my…! Khadag’s blood turned cold. Rather than dwell on the inevitable, he clenched his teeth tighter and spread his legs, readying himself for the blow.
With a swirl of his black cloak, Delcarion turned to the fire pit. Three dark iron swords lay with their blades in the coals. He took a moment to choose one.
“Just get on with it, goblin-turd,” Khadag muttered.
Delcarion finally made his choice and with a swift, solid swing of the red-hot blade, removed Khadag’s left hand. His vision blurred and he almost passed out. He prided himself on the fact that he remained standing, though he had to lean on the table to do it. Pain throbbed through his truncated arm to his entire body until he thought he’d burst.
Khadag shook with the effort to hold himself upright and deal with the agony. Long, blinding minutes passed before he could think of something other than his pain. He raised his head to the grey, unseen sky above and bellowed; not from the injury, his master hadn’t allowed it, but in triumph at his success in keeping Delcarion from seeing him cowed.
When he could see again, Khadag examined his stump. He had to admit, Delcarion had done a good job. The blistering hot sword had cut clean, leaving the wound cauterized. Not a drop of blood had been spilled, though the stink of seared flesh filled his nostril slits. Khadag took greater pride in that he’d still shed none of his blood on that thrice-damned table. Delcarion couldn’t say the same. Khadag’s hand now lay on the stone slab, a dead thing, no longer useful.
“Come to me.” Balphegor’s slippery voice dripped in his mind.
Khadag took control of shaking legs and made his way to the throne. He prostrated himself, a clumsy effort due to the injury. “My master, I am at your command.” His voice came out rougher than usual.
“Delcarion told me of the loss of the ships. Though Mectan was responsible, someone had to be punished and since you were the only survivor…” Balphegor shrugged. “I would have taken your life, but I need you. He also mentioned some sort of plan?”
That surprised Khadag. “Yes, my master. I believe if we’d had the proper modifications to our ship, the ramming would have been successful. If we put metal, perhaps with something like a spiked iron fist at the bow, we could…”
The cat-man on the throne waved his hand. “Spare me the details. Take who and what you need. Go to Fornoss to make your preparations.”
Despite his pain, Khadag smiled. “Thank you, Master.”
Khadag rose, clumsier than he wished. When he strode past Delcarion, he bared his teeth in a wide grin. Interfere with my plans, will you? It will get you nowhere. I don’t need two hands to draw plans or command my workers. He did need rest to recover from the loss of his hand. Rest, however, had to wait until he’d organized his workers and had them transporting supplies to the spot on Fornoss he’d chosen, a long peninsula on a small continent bordering the one remaining ocean.
Delcarion tapped his fingers against his thigh while he watched Khadag exit the throne room. All had not gone as planned. The vaurok should have been stranded on that island for six months. Mind you, chopping off his hand was exhilarating. Not enough punishment, though, and now the master wanted him to play with his toy boats. Most irritating. At least he’ll be out from under foot for awhile. There were advantages to everything, if one knew where to look.
“Yes, my master?” He strode to the throne, prostrating himself before the unusual creature.
“Have you made any progress on your…little project?”
Delcarion kept his groan to himself. No, not much. “Some, Master. I have been able to expand the portal time to twelve minutes.”
“It must be longer. The portal bigger.” The youth’s eyes, one a maelstrom of corruption, the other milky-white in death, burned straight to Delcarion’s soul. “We must get an army through.”
…in case of a defeat, Delcarion finished. It also made raids easier. Once the band had struck, they could escape before help arrived―which had been a problem in the past. The vauroks would be tracked and caught before they could make it back to one of the hidden, stationary portals. “I will continue to work on it.”
“See that you do.” A careless wave of his hand dismissed Delcarion.
Naron traced the words on the new gravestone ―‛Rayson, Son of Carle. Died with Honour in the Protection of our Lord Gethyn. In the Year of Ar, 824’. A fancy emblem, a wolf’s head with a garland of ivy underneath, sat at the top of the stone, letting everyone know this man had received the Gold Wolf, Kitring-Tor’s medal of valour. Too bad it was posthumous. Rayson would have worn it with pride.
It was an expensive stone. His family could never have paid for it. The new baron, Gethyn’s son Edan, had it made for Rayson and for five others who’d died defending their lord. Naron was grateful to the baron, but still resented the fact that Rayson had to die. If only that Elf girl…
A month and a half had passed since his brother’s death. Naron had been sent home to his family’s farm, in the northeast corner of the barony, to spend time with his family―and to grieve. Now he had to return to his unit. He brushed snow off the top of the stone and where it stuck to the words.
“You didn’t have to die. Why did you do something so foolish! Gethyn was an old man, he’d have died soon anyway.” A tear moistened his cheek. Despite Rayson’s efforts, the old lord had perished.
Naron plunked himself on the ground and pulled the hood of his cloak over his sandy-blond hair. The graveyard sat on a hill and even though the sun shone, the wind blew cold. If only that Elf girl had healed him. Lindren said she couldn’t, but that soldier, the one from Kerend, said she could. How would he know? Naron couldn’t see…
“Well, hello stranger.”
Naron glanced up. A man stood there, in plain brown trousers and jerkin, a cloak of the same colour wrapped around him. He looked familiar. “Hello. Have we met?” He stood, the better to see the man’s face under the hood of the cloak.
“Yes, I’m the one who, ah, accidently overheard your conversation with Lindren. The name is Atax.” The man smiled and lowered his hood. He had an ordinary looking face, youthful though he didn’t seem young. Dark brown eyes, set in winter pale skin, sat under a neatly trimmed thatch of black hair, cut short, yet stylish. Naron could easily look him in the eyes.
“That’s a coincidence.” A strange one. “I was thinking about you.”
Atax smiled. “Were you also thinking about our conversation?”
“Ah…yes, but, what are you doing here? And why are you out of uniform?” The man had worn the badge of Kerend, not Gethyn. The hairs rose on the back of Naron’s neck.
“I quit the army. Had enough of cold beds, bad food and danger every time you turn around. I’m on my way to Tezerain, I have relatives there. I took a small detour to visit a cousin of mine who, I just found out, passed away. I’m here to pay my respects.”
Naron’s eyes narrowed. “What is your cousin doing here?”
The smile increased, ever so slightly. “He married a girl from a village not far from here. Her parents had no other children, so he took over the farm when they died.”
It sounded plausible. Kerend lay next door to Gethyn and here the border was quite close. “What was the name? I might know them.”
Atax chuckled. “You’re full of questions today.” He fished around the pockets of his cloak. “Ah, here we are.” He pulled out a small flask. “I was given this as a going away gift from my brother. It’s brandy from Thallan-Mar. Share some with me? For old times’ sake.”
What old times? Naron said nothing, though. Thallan-Mar brandy was rare in the northern baronies. He’d tasted some once and that had been a sip. “I suppose so.”
With a flourish, the stranger indicated they should sit. He passed the flask to Naron. “First drink to a brave warrior.”
Naron snorted, but took the flask, drinking more than a sip. It burned on the way down and tasted so good…light, with a hint of sweet fruit. It slid down like silk. He stole another mouthful before handing it back.
Atax held the flask to his lips, then lowered it. “How’ s your family handling the loss of your brother?”
Naron dropped his gaze to his boots. “Not well. He was the oldest and I only have one other brother. He’s eight and barely able to help out on the farm. When summer comes, I’m quitting the army so I can help my parents.”
“That’s very decent of you.” He passed the flask back. “Have another drink. Nothing like good brandy to warm you on a cold day.”
“Thanks, I think I will.” If the man offered, how could he refuse?
Atax shook his head. “Bad business that.”
Naron gulped down the mouthful he’d taken. It still burned as it slipped down his throat. “What business?”
“Your brother. And the others who died needlessly.”
A month and a half and it still hurt. Naron said nothing as he tipped the flask once more.
A sigh escaped Atax’s thin lips. “Such a waste. Especially since the Elves could have helped, if they really wanted to.”
“You said that the last time we met.” Naron passed the flask back. “Lindren said otherwise. I doubt he’d lie.”
“How do you know he would or wouldn’t?”
“Baron Gethyn…he always trusted Lindren. He’d know.” Wouldn’t he? Naron’s head spun a little, from the brandy he supposed. When Atax returned the flask to him he didn’t refuse it.
Atax chuckled again. “Your Baron Gethyn was an excellent warrior. He also knew how to manage his lands.” He spread his arms. “Look at what he’s done and in such a short time, too. Just thirty-nine years. An amazing man.”
“Yes, he was. To Baron Gethyn.” Naron raised the flask, took a drink, then passed it back to Atax.
He also raised the flask. “To Baron Gethyn.” Atax gave it back. “Even so, I think he was blinded by all that Lindren did, supplying money and Elves until the army had grown big enough. I’ve seen a few battles, my friend, most of them with Elves fighting alongside. More humans die than Elves every time. Don’t you think its a little suspicious?”
Naron frowned. Atax’s face blurred, then straightened out again. “But, isn’t that because more Humans fight than Elves? There’s usually only one or two companies, while there’s hundreds of us.”
“And that’s another point. Why send so few? If they sent more, we’d have a better chance of cutting our losses. Besides, I’m talking percentages. Less Elves are killed than Humans.”
“Isn’t that because they have better armour? And I think I heard their mail is better too. Wouldn’t that help?”
Another smile slid up Atax’s face. “Of course it’s true. Thank you for bringing that up.” He waved a finger in Naron’s face. “Why don’t they share their mail and armour with us? It’s all a plot I tell you.”
“A plot? To do what?” None of it made sense, and yet, when he thought about it, Atax had some very good points.
“Have the Black Lord’s forces kill us and we kill them, leaving the world to the Elves…all by themselves. They’d have the whole thing.”
Naron hiccupped. He took another drink. “Wouldn’t that be a little difficult to pull off? I doubt the Elves know exactly how many vauroks and goblins there are, let alone trolls, wyverns and…hic…hell wolves.” Naron frowned again and looked at the flask. Maybe I’ve had too much. He shook it―it was over half gone―then passed it to Atax. The strange man slipped it back into his cloak. “There’s not just us either, there’s the rest of Kitring-Tor, Thallan-Mar to the south, The Denfold to the east, and…and…all those other places. I don’t see how they could possibly plan for everyone to kill each other at the same time.”
“Ah!” Atax held up a finger. “But that’s just it, it wouldn’t be at the same time. Elves live forever, they have all the time in the world to bring their plans to fruition. Just think about it. Why else would they not send in more troops? Why else would they not heal us or make us armour like theirs? And trust me, they can heal us.”
Naron had no answer for that, not with the brandy-fog clouding his brain. Maybe Atax was right. “Their armour makes them hard to kill.” Didn’t he say that already? It was difficult to remember.
“Not if you know where to put your dagger. Come from behind and go for the face. A quick stab to the eye and there you are. They never wear full helms. And coming from you, they’d never suspect it either.”
“Me? But…why would I want to kill an Elf? They help us, even if what you say is true, they’re still helping us, aren’t they?” Or are they? If what Atax says is the truth, then that Elf girl really did let Rayson die. For nothing. Just so they can have the world to themselves. Naron’s hands tightened into fists.
Atax stood. “They’re pretending to help us. They really want us gone from their land. They never wanted us here in the first place. Ar brought us to Urdran to live in peace and harmony, but the Elves resented it. And now we’re paying for it.”
Naron looked up into his eyes. He seemed so tall, standing over him like that, his brown eyes alight with the fire of conviction. He truly believed what he said. Could it be true? Naron thought about Rayson, about the Elves that fought and died compared to the Humans, about the armour and how to kill an Elf. He must be right. Rayson died for nothing.
Atax nodded. “Rayson died for nothing.”
How did he know what I was thinking? Naron tried to stand and almost made it. Atax held out his hand. Naron used it to stagger to his feet.
“Remember what I said. It’s very important.” Dark brown eyes bored into Naron’s, imprinting his words on his brain. Then he was gone.
Naron struggled to keep upright while he searched for the stranger, but he’d vanished. Somewhere in the back of his clouded brain he didn’t remember Atax taking a drink of the brandy, but, somehow, it didn’t really seem to be important. There were more serious issues to think about.