CHAPTER 1 (part 1)

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Chapter 1

Veriasse could taste the scent of vanquishers in the crisp mountain air. Beneath the sweaty odor of the horses, lying deep below the aroma of pine needles and leaf mold, he could barely detect the acrid scent of a dronon vanquisher's stomach acids. This was the third time he had caught that scent in as many days, but this time it was closer than in the past.

He reined in his mare at the crest of the mountain, raised his right hand as a sign for those behind to halt. His big mare whinnied and stamped its feet, eager to forge ahead. Obviously, the horse tasted the strange scent, too.

On the muddy road behind him, the Lady Everynne reined in her stallion, and Veriasse just sat a moment, looking back at her. She had the hood of her blue cloak pulled up, and she hunched wearily in her saddle, too tired to remain alert any longer. The wind was blowing at his back in wild bursts, rushing through trees with the sound of an ocean, gusting first from the east, then from the south. In such weather, one could seldom tell where a scent originated. A vast forest spread below them, and Veriasse could see little of the road they had just traversed-only a thinning of the pines in the valley. Overhead, thunderclouds rolled across the evening sky. In minutes, full dark would fall upon them, with the storm.

Veriasse raised his hands. The olfactory nerves running up his wrists could detect the subtlest smells. He could taste a person's nervousness from across a room, detect the scent of an enemy across a valley. Now, he could smell a man's fear behind him, along with the acrid odor of a vanquisher.

"Calt?" Veriasse called softly. The big warrior was supposed to be trailing them as a rear guard. With Calt's sharp ears, he should have heard the call even at half a mile. But he didn't answer. Veriasse waited for a count of four.

Downhill, far behind them, Calt whistled like a thrush, three short calls. It was a code: "Our enemy is upon us in force! I will engage!"

Everynne gouged her stallion's flanks, and the horse jumped forward. In a heartbeat she was beside Veriasse, looking back down the trail in confusion, as if to wait for Calt.

"Flee!" Veriasse hissed, slapping her stallion's rump.

"Calt!" Everynne cried, trying to slow and turn her horse. Only her ineptitude as a rider kept her from rushing headlong back down the mountain.

"We can do nothing for him! He has chosen his fate!" Veriasse growled. He spurred his own mare, grabbed Everynne's reins as the horses surged forward, struggling to match pace.

Everynne looked at him, her pale face flashing beneath her hood. Briefly, Veriasse saw the tears moistening her dark blue eyes, saw her struggling to fight off her confusion and grief. She hunched low and clung to her saddle horn as Veriasse pulled her horse over the rise, and soon their mounts were fluidly running downhill, side by side, over muddy roads where one misstep would throw a rider headlong to his death.

Veriasse pulled his incendiary rifle from its holster, gripped it with a cold hand. A wailing sound echoed over the mountains, freezing Veriasse's bones, a keen death cry that could not have issued from the mouth of anything human. Calt had confronted his vanquishers. Veriasse held his breath, listening for more such cries, hoping Calt would be able to fell more than one of the monsters. But no more cries reverberated over the hills.

Everynne gasped, and a wracking sob escaped her as the horses raced through the oncoming darkness between the boles of tall black pines.

Five days. They had known Calt only five days, and already he had sacrificed his life in Everynne's service. Yet of all the places the vanquishers could have attacked, this is where Veriasse least expected it, on a quiet mountain road in a backward place like Tihrglas. This should have been a pleasant ride through the woods, but instead Veriasse found himself hunkering down on his horse, thundering over a muddy road, numbed by cold and grief.

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