Book one of the Foretold Series - X
In a shattered world of genetic manipulation and magical illusion the shape of an ear can mean death, and fear of discovery haunts even the most innocent of beings.
Tribal opponents from birth, two assassins are pitted against each other in a struggle for survival. Betrayed by their organization, they must work together or face annihilation at the hands of an ancient evil.
Sumptuous, lethal, and heir to a despicable destiny, Kyra struggles for self-control in a body genetically designed for promiscuity. Fortunately, that same body is capable of illusions that make for an exquisite assassin.
Tahrek lives a complex code of deception and truth. Crossing the fine line between honor and duty unravels his secrets. Now everything he values, his clan, his sanity, his very life, are at risk.
Shackled by a code of abstinence, the Seven masquerade in plain sight, unable to use their psychic abilities to change the future. Regardless of consequence, they rush towards the Foretelling and a promise of unity too good to believe.
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Ishk’s pupils widened into pools of darkness. And he smiled. Baring his teeth in a grimace of triumph so ghastly that the seven females averted their eyes. They moved awkwardly, cradling distended stomachs. Shuffling forward as if the sheer thought of what they carried was a burden too difficult to bear. He stalked down the line of women, savoring the way they cringed as he drew near.
Soon I will have my pawns. Raised from birth. Raised to do my will alone. Not raised to respect Kyron—or his precious worlde. He spat at the thought of Kyron, so engulfed in rage that the women’s alarmed gasps went unnoticed.
With a muffled whimper, the glidarth’s legs buckled and she fell, scraping already bruised knees. Ishk frowned as she struggled to rise, fighting for balance. She froze, an insignificant creature caught in the gaze of a predator. A low growl of satisfaction escaped the straight line of his blackened lips, and his animalistic pupils narrowed into slits moments before his hand shot out. Grasping her ebon hair, he gave it a rough jerk, sending her sprawling forward onto her hands. Sudden tears landed with heavy splats, wetting the stone pavement beneath her head, but she didn’t fight. She didn’t dare.
He raked a clawed fingertip down, slicing through the fabric of her simple robe and baring her scar-laced back. Tracing lightly over the two largest scars, still the sweet red of a fresh wound, he savored the shudder of dread that passed through her body. His lips parted, tasting her fear, and he pressed the ragged point into her still-tender flesh. A moan escaped her taut lips, rising to a wail of pain as he dug into the indents which had once housed her wing joints. Blood ran in a thin stream down her back.
Music—his thoughts purred out with pleasure—and a lesson to all within my fortress. There would be no more attempts at escape, not even by one valuable enough to carry his seed. Not without paying the price of unbearable torment.
~Music,~ he sent, projecting the thought-word into the mind of every subject within the hall.
Ishk's barbed tongue snaked out, tasting the agony emanating from the glidarth. His nostrils widened, drawing in the pain that hovered on the air like the sweet scent of honeysuckle.
Glancing up from the writhing woman, he embraced the sheer terror on the faces of the other females. Their horrified thoughts rolled in a wave through his mind, mixing with the glidarth's, adding to his mounting pleasure. He bared the sharp points of his teeth in something that was more grimace than smile. They averted their eyes from his penetrating stare, unwilling to draw attention, unwilling to risk punishment. He looked back at the kneeling woman with contempt.
Feeble glidarthian lamb. Unworthy of my gift.
“Stand.” His guttural voice was harsh in the tense silence.
Abruptly releasing her shoulders, he grasped her long tresses and pulled, drawing the glidarth to her feet. Tears streaming down her face, she staggered forward, catching her balance as he let go. He felt the internal tension of her trembling muscles as they cried out under the heavy load of her pregnancy. She would not be able to hold the position for long.
No matter. It will be over soon.
His eyes strayed down her body, past the mound of flesh housing his seed, to the trickles of blood running from her knees, and returned to her face. She had been comely when they captured her. His free hand moved in an almost caress across her cheek. She froze, terror racing through her blood. He took in her thoughts with satisfaction, adding to the dread by leaning in as though to kiss. Just shy of her lips he stopped, aware of the hammering of her heart, of the scream that raced frantically through her mind.
Pretty little pathetic rabbit, how you search to escape the snare.
His gaze captured her frightened eyes, daring her to pull away, while the hand which had almost tenderly cupped her cheek traveled down her neck. Her thoughts shrieked so loudly that he was tempted to strike, to give her something to scream about. Barely, he restrained himself. He ripped fabric from milk heavy breasts and his rough fingers grasped, pulling until she cried out in pain and the pressure of his nails punctured her bare skin. Finally, he looked down.
The tip of his tongue slid over the pointed edges of teeth as he considered adding more puncture wounds to the multitude of tiny dots covering her breasts. Scars. Created with deliberate slow pleasure as he took her, the same night he had ripped the wings from her back. Scars. Forever marked as his, living proof that she belonged to him. Releasing her so abruptly she staggered and almost fell, he walked across the room and stared down at the game table.
Seven children. I've seen it. Seven to lead this world into destruction. My children.
And they would be his. He alone would control the outcome. As a twisted smile settled onto his face the women across the room reached for each other’s hands, knowing that anything which made this monster smile foretold evil. Glaring at them from under furrowed brows, he sent his power towards them, towards their unborn children.
Would these be the ones?
The others, they had failed. Their short lives completely unworthy of his seed. Lacking power or drive or even enough skill to survive the simple tests he put before them. Most before they could even walk. He frowned. Though the power allowed him to see much, he could not see the ones who would be his. His children. His pawns. His tools of destruction. In a sudden decisive move, he scooped up the bits of colored glass on the table and dropped them into a stone bowl. No matter. It was enough to know that one day he would have them.
His dark eyes shifted to the women across the room. Seven feeble lambs. One from each of the tribes of men. All with traces of the gift. All pathetically holding hands as though this alone could protect them. None with enough power to resist.
The corner of his lip lifted in a sneer. Weaklings all, unworthy to raise his children. No matter, none of them would survive. With a flick of his hand all seven women cried out, grasping their stomachs as an excruciating contraction sent them lurching forward and amniotic fluid gushed from between their legs. Ishk strode from the room without a glance, leaving their care to the attendants.
Within the hour seven worthless bodies would lie in graves and seven tiny infants would cradle within his halls. His seven. His tools.
It was the sound that bothered her the most on nights like this. The lonely clip-clop of horse hooves as they stirred up scents of clover and moss. Kyra licked her lips, tasting solitude on the moist air. Fumbling at her waist, she drew forth a fresh mint leaf and tossed it into her mouth, driving away the flavor of flat ale and stale ashes with cool sweetness.
Through billowing mists she rode, her face blurring, shifting, sharpening. A rogue breeze sprang up, tossing strands of blond hair across her face without disturbing the overlay of gem-set braids. Her cloak lifted in the gust, allowing muted light to glint off the stitched adornment of a noble's simple travel wear. Peering through the ancient stone arch, she measured the distance of the double moons from the horizon. They hovered, dividing day from night, as red stars winked out one-by-one and morning approached.
Now—Kyra tensed, readying for a fight—for the next stage of the game. Without taking her eyes from the archway ahead, she loosened her throwing daggers.
I’ll be fine, I’m an expert, she told herself. As long as they don’t touch my hair. If that happens . . . well, there’s a reason I carry so many blades.
Two leather-clad guards rubbed whitened hands together over a low burning brazier, chaffing circulation into the painful numbness of their fingers. They moved stiffly, as if last night’s cold spell—and the damp blanket of fog rolling in on its footsteps—had settled into their joints, leaving behind a longing for a tankard of ale in front of a blazing fire. Despite the lonely post, fraught with more dangers than they had been warned about, they passed a bone flask back and forth, sharing its artificial warmth.
The muffled rhythmic thumping of her horse drew their bloodshot eyes northward. Startled by how close the stranger had drawn without their notice, they automatically reached for battle-scarred swords. As the horse drew closer they swung about, swords drawn, ready to attack. And froze, knowing they had made a mistake.
Long ago hardened to the vast variety of travelers who filtered through the crossing point of the Tri-Land area, they relaxed, sheathing their swords before moving at a leisurely pace to attention. Her station in life meant little to them beyond orders that needed to be fulfilled to the letter. Her h'euman beauty was a whole other matter; piercing blue eyes, long aristocratic nose, firm jawline, arching brows, peach colored lips. Mesmerized, they watched as her horse, adorned in glinting ropes of silver chain, moved with stately grace through the engraved archway.
Noble born. Definitely noble born, they shared the thought without realizing.
Everything shrieked of that nobility; expensive attire, royal bearing, even the fine features of her face declared the woman one of the chosen few who ruled over the lands. Beautiful, yes, but she didn’t need to be. Her every need would be met for the rest of her life.
Kyra drew her horse to a stop, fully aware of her effect on the men. Every detail, every item, had been carefully planned. All delicate aspects of an intricate weaving of contrived illusion; plucked from the air, her knowledge of the H’euman race, and current fashion. Even the timing of her arrival at the gate, for when it lay cloaked in billows of drifting fog, was born of a familiarity with h’eumans and their reverence for all things mystical.
Her pale Anestian mare fidgeted, restless, ready to continue. Kyra stroked the long ropes of its silky mane in a soothing motion before fumbling through the saddle bag with deliberate care, allowing extra time to imprint her face into their memories. Pulling pristine travel parchments from an inner pocket of the bag, and pretentiously lifting her chin, she handed them to the stout guard who had stepped forward.
They were impeccable of course. The Red Pelican Assassin’s Guild always had the current version of required papers. Kyra had learned to trust the network of spies who infiltrated every city and port in the known lands. To these guards she was a noble of the highest order.
Inwardly, Kyra smirked at the irony. Little did the Red Pelican know how much she deserved the title of nobility, nor how far she had run to escape that despised responsibility. That was a secret she’d kept close since the day she left the Freni-Kyn Landholdings; not daring to allow other races knowledge of the potential hostage they held within their grasp.
After giving the papers a cursory examination the men waved her on. Kyra nudged her horse into a walk while the mists swirled up, almost mysteriously, around her. She moved languidly forward, making sure to leave an indelible memory of a high-born noble woman traveling south from the northwest. Once assured of passing far enough from sight, Kyra guided her horse off the cobbled road and relaxed as the sweet fragrance of honey-pines washed over her. She sighed with relief. Taking the guards out would have been an unnecessary complication.
Stretching the stiffness from her back, she listened to the early morning bird calls and the scrabble of small creatures. A spibird fluttered down to settle on her head but veered off, sensing the illusion, and instead settled on the horse’s mane. Kyra waved her hands, trying to shoo it away without spooking the horse. It scuttled across her mounts back on eight legs before plucking one of the mare’s ear hairs and taking flight. The horse neighed and flicked its ears.
Kyra patted its back. “Sorry about that, girl. It was too fast.”
An explosion of chirping from above drew her eye and she spotted more of the colorful birds skittering from branch to branch, squabbling over the plucked hair. Two more launched into the air and plunged towards them. She nudged her horse back into motion before they could decide that her brows would make good nesting material. Though harmless, the long beaked creatures were almost as annoying as biting gnats. Her mare snapped at the spibird trying to land on its nose and stomped its feet angrily.
Kyra leaned forward and rubbed between its ears. “Shh, shh, shh, we’ll be out of range soon.”
Reining her horse towards a rendezvous point, memorized from a hand drawn guild map the week before, Kyra began changing. Removing a surprisingly lightweight cloak, she twisted several hidden fasteners and flipped it inside out. She laid the now common cloak across her lap, smoothing the rough fabric to assure its safety from falling.
Kyra's lips flickered into a fleeting smile. This particular cloak had cost the guild a pretty d’yroap. Her insistence on its purchase, when they started sending her on jobs to impersonate people of importance, had well been worth the hassle of dealing with an incompetent seamstress. The distraction of sparkly metal thread was often all she needed to get into, and out of, tight spots. She fiddled with her clothing, twisting and turning bits and pieces, until all the ornamental gold and silver disappeared.
Steadily changing appearance, Kyra drew closer to the meeting place. The illusions shrouding her freni-kyn features flickered out one by one. Her face, now heart shaped with high cheekbones, paled noticeably; nose reshaped into a diminutive line; lips turned luscious, full, kissable; ears lengthened into ruffled points; feline-like eyes slanted upwards under white feathery lashes. Long overlapping braids shimmered into silky gossamer, arising to surround her head in a shifting halo of twinkling lights; a perfect crown for the curvaceous freni-kyn she really was. The corset, which had been loose, now barely contained her full bust.
They’d best be there. I can't deal with another no-show. One last job, just this one, then I can walk away.
She licked her lips with unconscious anticipation. Once this job was finished she would enjoy freedom, even if it was bittersweet. Most of the obligation to her people would be fulfilled, leaving enough saved d’yroap to start over. Kyra grimaced as she thought of her homeland and sent out a silent plea. Please Kyron, someplace other than the stifling Freni-Kyn Landholdings.
Slipping from the saddle with well-practiced ease, she pulled her horse to a halt, and rubbed its nose in a silent ‘thank you’ for getting her through the gate. Gently, she plucked the twisted silver chains from the mare’s mane, untangling them bit by bit. After stashing the gaudy pieces of jewelry within a pocket of her hunter-green underskirt, she loosened the overskirt and let the fabric billow to the ground. It lay, a soft puddle of incongruous light in the dark shadows of the woods.
Tempted to leave it behind, she paused to stare down at it, a falsity, like her life. But it was too early to shed those shackles. Scooping up the fabric, she ran her fingers around the waistband and hem, checking that all the ornamental stitching lay hidden, a secret. She folded the garment, turning it over and over, until it was such a tiny square that it looked like a scrap of rag, and tucked it away within her sparsely filled saddlebag. A haunting sound reverberated through the woods, causing her ears to instinctively lift upwards and drawing her eyes southwards.
There they are. She squinted at an isolated campfire and her catlike pupils narrowed into black slits of focus. The sorrowful sound continued, rhythmic, metallic, almost predictable in its pattern.
H’eumans. Three of them. And about time. It's been two hourglass turns since I left the road. Her eyes flitted over the surrounding wooded area. Yes three. Everything seems as it should. Still, a bit of caution can’t hurt.
Her jade eyes searched the clearing as she flipped the catches of her corset open and slipped the pale fabric off. With a deft flick of her wrist, she swung the reversible corset back around her body, revealing sensible black brocade. The haunting sound paused, and so did Kyra. She waited until it started back up and matched her movements to its steady scrape, covering each snick of the closing corset latches with the noise. She held her breath while it continued, then let it out, assured that she hadn't given her position away.
Giving her horse an apologetic pat, she scooped up handfuls of dark loam and rubbed it across the mare’s pristine coat, creating a less elegant, more ordinary appearing animal. Satisfied that all vestiges of the haughty noble woman disguise had been hidden, Kyra turned towards the campfire. Shrouded in a thick cloud of dawn mist she crept forward, picking out more details as she neared.
Two veterans, grunts really. Obvious warriors, battle hardened, but lacking the deft movements that might pose a threat to a trained assassin.
The younger one though . . . Her eyes shone faint in the shadows of the forest as her thoughts trailed off. A cool breeze wormed its way up her spine and she shivered. Winter’s cold breath lay ready to swoop down on soft grey wings, but the deciduous woods—unwilling to relinquish their leaves—remained lush and green. She crept from shadow to shadow, taking advantage of the abundance of dappled hiding places, a natural camouflage for the flickering lights that moved through her hair like out of season fireflies.
Now—her thoughts purred out in pleasure—he has a grace that speaks of more than messenger. Discomfited, she searched for the reason. There’s something about . . .
Kyra studied the man, searching his h’euman face for clues; average nose, strong clean-cut jaw, slightly high cheekbones. The breeze caught his flaxen hair, throwing it forward across his face. With an impatient hand, he pushed the hair roughly back. Her gaze drifted away, settling on a nearby tree. The tree shifted, becoming a muscular man with arms folded behind his head and hips jutting forward. With her imagination drifting to more gratifying things, she wrapped pale arms about her body and clenched her biceps in a pinching grip while her knees trembled.
A soft thud came from behind and she spun, daggers appearing in her hands. A spotted squirrel froze mid-stride, one tiny paw lifted, body stiff with fear. Suppressing a relieved giggle, she pressed her lips together and sheathed her daggers. The squirrel darted, throwing up a flurry of leaves before settling into a branch. It sat above her head, flicking its tail angrily while chattering out a scolding.
Kyra lifted a finger to her lip and whispered, “Shhhh, not like I was trying to seduce you, too.”
She clapped a hand over her mouth, suppressing a laugh. Kyron’s beard! Soon I’ll be kissing trees and fondling shrubs. What next?
My cycle? I shouldn’t be getting so distracted. Must've miscalculated the time. She tapped her fingers against her legs, counting moons, before lifting her shoulders in a shrug. Maybe, or my cursed imagination. But If I don’t take a mate soon the decision of who, and when, and where, will no longer be mine.
She focused on the man by the fire again. Nothing unusual there. No tell-tale scars or inks, but handsome, in a h’euman kind of way. And a distraction I don’t need right now, or ever.
Finding no answer to the warning that edged her consciousness, Kyra turned to examining his body. Every detail was important, could be the difference between success or disaster, life or death. Her trained eyes took in the bloused poets shirt and open leather vest over broad shoulders; slim hips, plain brown pants; weather-stained boots. She frowned. All the clothing hung loose and sloppy, as though they hadn’t been purchased for his slim form, but absolutely nothing stood out as remarkable.
The h’euman leaned forward to add more wood to the fire and pale blond hair fell across his face, revealing the slight point of a half-frevell ear. She let out a breath of relief.
Ahhh . . . There we have it. A half-breed.
It made sense; refused a place in his parent’s world, some misbegotten creation of a fleeting night’s passion. Cast off, illegal even, in most places. Taken in by the assassin’s guild; maybe even raised from birth, as they oft did with society’s outcasts. The miss-breeds, as some called them, a definite advantage to the Red Pelican. No one to answer to if something went wrong, and who could be more loyal than one reared by the guild itself.
He moves with poise though—her thoughts simmered with appreciative admiration—from the frevell side no doubt.
She crouched, watching in perfect stillness, broken only by the random shimmers of light flitting across the tips of her hair. A playful autumn breeze picked up, stirring the liquid dandelion fluff of hair and taking with it a few bits of light. Lifting an impatient hand, Kyra pushed it back from her eyes before drawing a thoughtful breath and moving forward. She slipped a simple nighshk ring on while circling the campsite. Her medium length hair darkened into a floating mass of deep brown while the lights winked out one by one.
Tahrek added yet another fresh-cut log to the fire and dodged the smoke that billowed upwards. Eyes watering, he rubbed sticky fingertips down his breeches, unable to rid them of the stubborn sap. Picking up a brown woven cloak that lay thrown across the wood pile, he swirled it onto his shoulders, unconsciously mimicking the graceful motions of a dancer. He scrutinized the overcast sky, wishing he could somehow part the murk and clearly see the illusive sun. Daybreak had come and gone, yet the chill of night still hung upon the land.
How long have we waited? Our contact should be here by now.
He tried shaking off the shroud of foreboding gloom, but it clung, thick and heavy, smothering close about his body. Like a living entity it embraced him even harder, as though belonging to that day. To him.
Change is coming. He sensed the turning of paths as surely as though they lay before him.
Desperate for distraction, a long-drawn-out litany of mental complaints erupted. Kyron! How I despise this job! And this one . . . This one’s worse than all the others rolled into one. What a relief it’ll be when it’s over! Time for a break .
I’ll go somewhere. They’ll let me too. I’m long overdue.
With a crackling hiss, the rejuvenated flames burst upwards, encompassing the new log. He rubbed his callused hands together over them. Somewhere warm. I’ll go somewhere warm.
“See anyone yet?” Tahrek called out to his companions. “He should be here by now.”
The mercenaries turned uncaring eyes towards him before returning to the task of sharpening blades, creating drawn out scraping sounds.
“Nope,” one grunted, with an unhurried slide of the whet stone down his sword. “Maybe he’s not coming . . .” his voice trailed off at the implications.
I should tell them to stop. Tahrek shuddered with dread. The forlorn sound echoed, bouncing off the trees, adding weight to the dismal day. But what right’ve I got to rob them of whatever small comfort that familiar task affords?
“We should move on.” The darker of the two sheathed his sword and hurried to put away his belongings. “We’ve waited all night.”
“No,” Tahrek spoke with terse authority. “We wait. Orders.”
The muffled trot of a horse coming in from the south sent tingles of alarm racing through his muscular body. With urgent movements Tahrek drew a battle-worn sword. Instinctively responding to the raw sound of a weapon being drawn the guards spread out. Tahrek glanced at the men as they moved in the wrong direction, and barely contained a grunt of disgust, before turning towards the nearing sound. His ears strained to pull more hints from the concealing woods. One rider on an unburdened horse, he decided.
A stray breeze lifted the fog, revealing the source of the sound; a solitary freni-kyn child riding a horse too big for her small frame.
Tension drained from his tight muscles. False alarm. Lost, most likely.
“I’ll take care of this,” he told his protectors. With impatient grunts, they returned to the warmth of the fire while he moved to intercept the child. He took in the fine bones of the horse. Despite the filth it was a well-bred beast.
I can’t believe this is happening. He gave himself an internal shake as she rode closer. Of all the times for some wisp of a child to show up . . . she’ll have to find a different fire. There’s no help for it, this is no place for a youngling.
The unsure smile that flitted across the child’s face nearly disarmed him as he stared up into wide green eyes.
“Hallo,” she chirruped.
“What're you doing out here alone?” Tahrek’s voice turned gruff with very real concern. He grimaced at how young she was, flat chested with hair too short to even have come of age.
“I saw the fire.” Her voice was sweetly naive, a breath of clean air on such an ominous day. She slipped from the mare with catlike grace.
“You can’t stay here.” He brusquely placed his body between her and the flames she was so obviously drawn to. At the question in her large green eyes he scowled, trying to appear threatening. “It’s dangerous.”
“But . . .” her voice trailed off as she glanced over his shoulder into the fog and her eyes took on an even wider look of dawning awareness. Seeing the fright mirrored there Tahrek steeled himself against some forlorn story.
Her gaze shifted to his golden eyes. Tahrek noted the subtle alteration in the way she carried herself; the flexing of her knees as though prepared to spring, the widening of her pupils into pools of darkness. He took a step backwards and stiffened at the palpable menace emanating from the girl, his hand settling uneasily on the hilt of his sword. She more closely resembled a wild animal poised to strike than a child now. Memories of horror stories about creatures said to roam this territory came rushing to the forefront. Despite immediate dismissal of the notion as a piece of fanciful fiction, he repressed a shudder. The silence drew out.
“My dog ran away across the lake,” she said, and hearing the code words drop from such petal soft lips was like a crack of lightning in the silence before a storm.
“I’m sure you can draw him back with a spot of fresh meat.” Despite years of training, astonishment stole over Tahrek’s face.
“But I have none.” She smiled, seeming to savor his bewilderment. Her eyes lost the wild look they had momentarily held, returning to sweet innocence.
“Then perhaps some jerky will do,” he finished off the code phrases. Aftershock resonated through Tahrek, jarring him so badly that he blurted out words he should have never spoken, “You’re just a girl-child!”
How is this . . . this . . . tiny thing . . . supposed to take out a grown man? A grown man in a guarded palace? His angry thoughts stuttered with disparagement. Jerking a slender packet from his leather vest, he passed it to her.
For the first time since joining the guild, he was positive someone had made a grievous mistake. They’d assigned the wrong person to this mission and his part in it was taking on new levels of distastefulness, growing by the moment. Now, on top of everything else in the whole disgusting mess, a child was destined to die.
Pulling soft leather gloves from her hand in what seemed like slow motion, she revealed delicate fingers adorned with a single ring of pitted black metal. In a burst of movement her hand shot forward, plucking the packet from his outstretched palm.
Tahrek started. Damn, she's fast!
She turned from him as if unconcerned and walked to the fire, deftly slipping open the oilskin envelope. Two small packets slid into her waiting hand, to be secreted within her corset. She glanced around the clearing. The guards looked elsewhere, anywhere but at the girl, neither of them wanting the type of early retirement awaiting the overly curious in this business. After reading the enclosed document she let it drop and burn to ash before turning back to him.
“Are you sure you can handle this?” Tahrek muttered, doubt furrowing his forehead into lines of worry.
She’s too young to die. Maybe I can talk her out of going. It’s not too late. If she doesn't go then I won't have to . . .
Her heart shaped face cocked sideways, causing dark hair to sway in a playful manner and confirming his belief that the choice of a child had to be an error.
“Can I handle this?” she challenged with such a queerly intense gaze that he found himself looking away.
When he looked back again she had vanished.
“Can you?” came a menacing whisper from close behind.
The hair on the back of his neck lifted in warning.