A sneak peek treat for you while I wait for Beta readers to go through Draft 2 of the Ever War. I give you, Chapter 1.
Andrian, Adrid — The Frist
Rowe Blackwell had not seen the sun in over a year. He’d not bathed, not shaven, and not changed his clothes since the moment feverish followers of the Vel d’Ekaru dragged him down to the deepest depths of Andrian’s city prison.
His beard had grown long and matted. Black hair tangled in dreadlocks around his head, and he no longer carried himself with the rigid straightness of a nobleman. Hunched in the corner of his tiny cell, he carved runes into the granite walls with a small, rusted nail.
Rowe turned the nail over in his dirt-crusted hands, his shackles scraping against the cracked stone floor. He rolled the bumpy, rusted metal between his fingers, eyes darting from its sharpened point to the iron around his wrists and ankles. He frowned, tossing the nail into the corner. It was better use on walls than his shackles.
Warded Binds. Cursed, monstrous things no ordinary tool could open. Nothing would unlock them but the key dangling at the Captain of the Guard’s waist, and he’d long since lost the strength to get it on his own.
For over a year he’d subsisted on gruel shoveled into his mouth, delivered to him on a pewter plate slid under a wooden door. Enough to keep him alive, but not enough to give him strength.
His only light came from the flicker of torch flame filtering in through a barred window on his cell door. Just enough for him to see the shape of his hands and the shine of fresh scratches on the wall.
His attention turned on the screech of the dungeon door and the clatter of boots. He sighed, falling back against the wall with a weary thump.
The only two people who ever came to visit him were the Vel d’Ekaru—the Living God—and his nightmare Captain, Elmaron Keegan.
Rowe spent long hours with the Living God, the white-haired monster who’d stolen his brother’s body as its vessel—a torture by itself. The cruelty he endured at his and Keegan’s hands was an uncharacteristic departure from the selfless love his brother, Keleir, had shown him—even when Rowe didn’t deserve it. It made hating him easier, despite his familiar face.
Rowe tilted his head back, eyes flashing to the door as the familiar clank of keys in the lock echoed into the room. But when the door opened, he didn’t see Keegan’s burly shape or the Living God’s eerie graceful sway. He saw two unnamed guards.
Nearly every day, for two years, they’d tortured him. But, Keegan hadn’t come to hold him down against the stone, or drag hot knives across his skin, or pluck out his new fingernails. Instead, the unknown men gathered him up from the floor.
“Core’s Mercy, he stinks,” one said, pressing a cloth to his nose as he slipped an arm under Rowe’s.
“Let me bathe, and I’d smell like roses,” Rowe said with a laugh, running his tongue across slick teeth he hadn’t brushed in ages. “Are we heading to my execution?”
They didn’t answer.
Rowe shuffled brittle, worn leather boots across the stone as they hauled him up the spiraling stairs to the main floor. When the heavy metal dungeon door opened, sunlight spilling through the windows blinded him.
They dumped him on the floor of a balcony overlooking the castle courtyard. Blazing sun and summer heat washed over him. His shaking, shackled hands pressed against his sun-blind eyes and, wincing, he attempted to see the world around him.
“Gods the smell,” said a female voice, the first woman he’d heard since Saran’s unwilling departure. Frowning, he looked to the stone and thought of her red hair and green eyes, so vivid with anger and betrayal. He tried so often not to think of her. To pretend she never existed, like the Prophetess he once prayed to—a figment of his imagination.
Squinting, he lifted his gaze to the sweet, siren call of the stranger’s voice, his bones and joints locking the instant he found her. She was beautiful and similar in age to his brother. Petite, cloaked in black and green robes, with hair hanging straight and long down her back.
It wasn’t her beauty sending a sickening chill down his spine, but the trademark features of an Oruke—the same sort of creature which had stolen his brother’s body.
Her straight hair was snow white, and her eyes—which gently curved to points—were the color of fresh blood. She wore a smile weighted with all-knowing malice, and she wrapped her arms around one of his brother’s, hugging him to her breast. Other than Keleir Ahriman, Rowe had never seen another one of his kind before.
Off to the side, Keegan half sat on the balcony railing, running the point of his knife under the edge of his fingernails. He was a brutish man. Large, muscled, and so devoted to the Vel d’Ekaru he’d branded the beast’s mark into both of his cheeks. The mark, a series of intricate lines, wove the shape of a monstrous, almost indiscernible face.
Keegan turned his lips up at Rowe, which Rowe understood as the closest thing to a smile the man could muster.
Keleir grinned and cut his red eyes to the Oruke woman. His white hair gleamed blinding bright in the sun. It had grown in two years. His brother, had he any control over his own body, would’ve hated it. “He hasn’t bathed in nearly two years, my dear,” Keleir replied. “But, you think all humans smell foul, don’t you, Cyra?”
“They do,” Cyra said, releasing her grip on Keleir and sauntering to where Rowe knelt, pressing her sleeve to her nose. She cast her red eyes down, dangerous and quiet, like any predator. “Why do you keep him alive, Nakar?”
Rowe stiffened, flashing his gaze to his brother’s body.
Nakar? No one had ever called Keleir that, not even the Ekaru Priests who worshiped him as their merciful redeemer. She spoke the name with fondness, as if she’d known him for a long time. Though, Rowe had never met her, and he’d spent the better part of his life standing next to Keleir.
Nakar sighed. “He knows where she is but no amount of persuasion sways him into confessing… and I’ve tried every method of torture.”
“Not every method,” said Keegan, flicking dirt from beneath his nail onto the stone.
Cyra sneered at him before turning her gaze on Rowe. “Have you tried castration?” Cyra asked, a dance of amusement in her voice. She pressed the tip of her finger to Rowe’s forehead and tilted his face up to her.
Nakar’s eyes twinkled. “No. We haven’t.”
Cyra laughed, backing away from Rowe, and looped her arms around the Living God. “Well, I’ve found human men are most attached to that appendage, and would rather lose all others to save it.”
“I like her,” Keegan said, grinning at Rowe.
“That seems the ultimate negotiating chip, however, drastic,” Nakar mused, his gaze settling with warning on Rowe. Rowe spit on the granite beneath him and smiled.
“You’ve been looking so long,” Cyra whispered, brushing her palm along Nakar’s cheek. “Let me use my magic for you. It’s time to fulfill your purpose.”
Nakar pried her groping hands from him and nodded to Rowe. “Go on, then. I brought him here so you wouldn’t endure the stench of my dungeon. Take what you need and work those silly incantations you call magic.”
“Dregs is as powerful as elemental magic if you use it right,” Cyra muttered, drawing a long, thin knife from her robes. As she knelt before Rowe, the guards seized him. She pulled a glass vial from her other pocket and pressed it against the skin of his neck. The tip of her blade grazed his flesh, and he jerked in their grasp. “Careful, little human, or I may slit your throat. Wouldn’t that be a shame?”
Rowe’s blue eyes narrowed to slits of rage. She leaned closer, and a scent wafted off her, transfixing him as powerful as any potion, drugging him to stillness. Each angry breath he took pulled it into his lungs until his muscles involuntarily slackened. With a quick cut, his blood poured into the vial. Once filled, she capped it with a cork.
“All done,” she sighed, like a healer bandaging a cut. She stood and slipped the blade and bottle into her pocket. “Take him back to the dark. I’m sure his eyes will thank you for it.”
Guards collected Rowe, hoisting him onto unwilling legs and dragging him back into the darkened hall. The dreamy haze the Oruke woman placed him did not lessen until the moment the guards dropped him on his dirty cell floor. The wood door banged shut, the latch fell heavy, and he listened as their boots quieted to nothing.
“I thought they were executing you,” came the deep, rough voice of his neighbor—muffled by the stone walls.
He imagined Ishep Darshan lurking in the shadows of his cell with a pleased smile. The old Water Mage might have hoped they would execute him.
“No, Darshan, you can’t escape my company so easily,” Rowe muttered, sitting back against the wall.
Darshan scoffed. “Some company, you don’t talk anymore.”
“I talked when we planned, and you stopped planning a long time ago.”
“I don’t focus on futility.”
“You don’t focus on anything.”
The air grew quiet, and Rowe was sorry for it. He desired the conversation. Needed it to feel human—to feel like something other than a man alone in a box. Clenching his eyes, he smeared his dirty hands over his face. “There are two of them.”
“An Oruke woman named Cyra is here. A Dregs witch, from what I gathered.”
“Not surprising,” Darshan huffed. “More will crop up when they realize their god has taken his post. You should have killed him.”
Rowe clenched his teeth, still not ready to admit how right the old Water Mage was. “She calls him Nakar. I’ve never heard the name.”
Darshan laughed. “Think about it, boy. Nakar and Cyra are the names of the Orukes, not the bodies they inhabit. They are old. As ancient as the universe itself.”
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