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Seven years have passed since Lady Tyrsa of Dunvalos Reach banished the gods of Ardael. All but one. Now Shival, Goddess of Death, seeks vengeance and forges a mighty sword imbued with her dark power.
When Lord Cenith is summoned to Edara, events begin to unfold that could not only see his destruction and that of all he holds dear, but set the entire country aflame with war.
Warning! This Book Contains Adult Content. Not recommended for children!
Excerpt from Chapter One
Eleventh Month, the year 432, Ardaeli Reckoning
Snow lay thick on the gentle hills surrounding the city of Ys, yet the sun shone with the crystalline brightness only possible in winter. It reflected off the metal tip of the temple spire rising high above the grey and white buildings. Bells rang in the clear air, calling the inhabitants to worship. Esryn, Lord of Sudara, should be leading the procession as he did most Maegden Days. Most, that is, until two months ago. He wrapped his robe tighter around him and turned from the bedroom window. The air felt as cold as his heart. His beloved Veira lay under the frozen ground in the cemetery set aside for the ruling family.
Esryn left the chilly bedroom and held his hands out to the fire burning brightly in his sitting room. Spacious, it was filled with expensive furniture, rugs, tapestries and trinkets, yet it held no more warmth than the lonely bedroom.
Two chairs sat in front of the stone fireplace, his and Veira’s. This was where they’d talked for hours about matters concerning both the family and the principality. This was where they’d chosen their children’s names, all three of them.
A knock sounded. “Breakfast, My Lord.”
“Send it away. I am not hungry.”
The guard’s muffled voice responded with something that sounded like, ‘Yes, My Lord’, but could have been anything for all Esryn cared.
Two months had passed since his beloved wife had slipped into a deep sleep, then away from him entirely. It had been a long, painful illness and he should have felt relief that she was finally at peace and sitting in Maegden’s Hall, for surely a soul as sweet, loving and gentle as hers deserved a special place.
His eyes slid from the dancing fire to the bottle of apple brandy sitting on a nearby table. Drink dulled the pain, helped him to forget. Payden, his councillor, had chastised him more than once for drunkenness. Esryn no longer cared. He strode to the table and picked up the bottle. A chill ran through him and he shuddered.
“You do not need that,” said a voice, a woman’s, low and silky.
Esryn almost dropped the brandy. He spun, the bottle falling from nerveless fingers when he saw her. It shattered, spraying broken glass and alcohol over the patterned carpet. It was of little consequence. What mattered was the woman standing by his balcony doors.
She was dressed all in black; her skin as pale as death. Her ebony hair waved in a non-existent breeze, floating around her like an ethereal mist. The snug-fitting dress matched her hair exactly. Esryn’s eyes followed the curve of her breasts to her hips, then to the floor. Her dress tapered to the width of his spread fingers and he realized she had no feet. The dress didn’t stop at the floor, however, it continued into it. She held out her hand and his eyes rose. The ragged sleeves of the dress also moved in a breeze that he couldn’t feel.
“Who…who are you? How did you get in here?” He should call for the guards. The words died in his mouth.
“You know who I am.” Her quiet, seductive voice slid through him, gripping his heart, and he knew.
Esryn fell to his knees, heedless of the broken glass. “My Lady, you have come for me.” Death had come to take him. He should be afraid, cowering, yet all he could feel was relief. He’d see his beloved Veira, spend eternity with her.
“No, Esryn. Not yet. Events are happening in Ardael, disturbing events. And I need you to be my champion.”
It took a moment for her words to sink in. Disappointment, then confusion followed. “I…I do not understand.”
“Did Cenith tell you what happened six years ago, in the cavern under Shadow Mountain?”
His mind suddenly cleared. “He said nothing about a cavern. Only that the Old Ones had returned and some of them, the Shanadar, needed a place to live. Meric offered a portion of his land.”
“Then he has been keeping secrets from you. Listen to me, Esryn of Sudara. Cenith’s wife is a non-believer. She and his Calleni councillor have poisoned his mind. They are against my father, my siblings and me. The rest of my family have been banished by them and their foreign gods. Have you noticed their idols will no longer stand?”
“I am the only one left of my family in Ardael. My existence here is in danger. I am afraid to reveal myself for fear they will also banish me.” Shival, Goddess of Death, moved closer, her black eyes sad. “The Old Ones and the Shanadar do only her bidding, and she wants to rule this country. She wants to remove you and the other lords. You must help me stop them.”
Anger replaced confusion in Esryn’s heart. It explained many things. “Six years ago, at the Lords’ Council Meeting, Cenith was nothing more than a confused boy, thrust into the position at his father’s death. Five years ago he was a different man, taller, leaner, self-assured and his facial features had changed. I thought it odd at the time that a man could lose breadth of shoulder at such a young age.” He’d thought perhaps he’d misremembered, but now realized that wasn’t the case.
“Just so.” Shival lowered her gaze a moment, then said, “The foreign gods changed him so he could do their bidding. He now resembles the Shanadar, though he is much taller than they could ever hope to be. He is a puppet, under their control. They follow an old prophecy, an evil one that says there will be only one ruler of Ardael and they wish it to be her, a queen. You know that is wrong. You must help me rid our country of the non-believers so my family can return.”
Esryn’s right hand formed into a fist. “I wish to help, My Lady, but someone younger and stronger would be a better champion.”
“There is no one else. You are a lord and a properly religious man. People will follow you, listen to you. The old gods changed Cenith. I can help you in a similar manner, if you are willing.”
His heart filled with pride. For a brief moment, he wondered what happened to the grief he’d suffered only moments ago, then decided it didn’t matter. His life had purpose again. “I am ready, My Lady. I will be your champion.”
From out of nowhere Shival produced a sword and held it out to him, a weapon unlike any Esryn had ever seen. It resonated darkness, drawing all the light and warmth from the room. He shivered.
“This is a special sword, one I made with my own hand. Yes, it is dark, but that is my nature and all that I know how to do. You will make it your own, you will make all that is wrong right again.” She held it out to him.
Esryn didn’t want to touch it. It seemed evil, yet he couldn’t stop himself. Horrified, he watched his hand reach out and touch the black haft. A freezing cold shot through him, yet it burned to the core of his being and he cried out.
“This weapon will not just kill a man,” Shival said, with a hint of a smile. “With every strike it will suck more and more of his soul from him. When he dies, he will be trapped inside. Every time you kill with it, it will grow stronger.” She floated close to him. “Now, receive my blessing. This will hurt. I am sorry, I cannot change that.”
Shival touched the fingers of one hand to Esryn’s forehead. Blistering cold blasted straight through to his soul, the world grew dark and he screamed for what seemed an eternity.
When it was done, the room came back into focus. He still knelt in the broken shards of the brandy bottle; he still held the sword. Esryn stood, his knees bleeding. Shival was gone.
A pounding sounded at the door. He ignored it, strode into his bedroom and stood in front of his mirror. His face hadn’t changed as Cenith’s had, but most of the lines had vanished from his face, the grey from his dark brown hair. His brown eyes gazed back at him, lit with a fire he hadn’t felt in years. He was young again. Esryn gripped the sword in his hand tighter, feeling a strength he had never known, not even in his youth. He smiled. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he noted it was a smile Veira wouldn’t have recognized.
Still ignoring the pounding on his door, Esryn returned to his sitting room and sat in his chair in front of the fire. He felt none of its warmth, only the sucking cold of the sword now laying across his lap. He caressed it.
With this sword Esryn would see Ardael returned to the worship of its true gods and if there was to be one ruler, it wouldn’t be a mere woman. It would be him.