Chapter One

 

THE DREAM was always the same. Tas wandered the empty corridors of Blagos Keep. The clack of his booted heels echoed loudly off the bare stone walls, but the sound was not enough to drown out the screams, sobbing, and whimpering coming from beyond dozens of thick wooden doors. The stench of stale sweat, rank with fear and anguish—and other things he’d rather not think about—formed a thick fog, enveloping him as he walked, choking him and blotting out the light from the few lamps mounted to the walls.

He didn’t panic anymore. He recognized the nightmare for what it was. This place was not the home he knew and loved, but some twisted, tainted shadow of it. All he had to do was suppress his fear and discomfort, center himself as he’d been taught, and sing. The stone around his neck would answer his call, as it always did. The drone of the sacred bowls would join in soon after from somewhere above him. And all of the unpleasantness would vanish. When he woke, he would be filled with warmth and a sense of purpose and rightness again.

All he had to do was sing.

Except, finding his center proved more difficult than it should have, and the screams seemed louder than before. Squeezing his eyes tight and clenching his teeth, he tried again and finally locked on to his center.

A flood of relief made him almost weak as he gripped Tasnerek—the crystal pendant that was his constant companion—with both hands. He opened his mouth to begin the most basic of Harotian hymns, and… nothing came out.

Pushing aside the ripple of unease that threatened to knock him from his center, he drew more of the fetid air into his lungs and tried again, concentrating hard. The haze around him had thickened, making his russet robes feel heavy with damp, and no matter how hard he strained, no sound issued from his throat. A twist of real fear tightened his belly as the screams and moans grew louder and the sickly light from the lamps weakened. He sucked in another breath, only to choke on the miasma. Coughing and gagging, he released his death grip on Tasnerek and clamped his hands over his ears as he struggled for air. He was drowning in a flood of fear and pain and misery, and Tasnerek had abandoned him.

Icy fingers clamped painfully around his wrists, trying to wrench his hands from his ears, and he fought against them. A harsh voice hissed at him, but he couldn’t understand it over the screams, cries, and pounding of his heart. The bruising grip on his wrists released, and he thought at least one of his torments had eased until an explosion of pain cracked across his cheek. He was still reeling from the blow when another came hard and fast after it.

“Brother Tasnerek! Wake up, you fool! The entire village will hear you!” a voice hissed angrily.

Tas struggled against the last oily cobwebs of the nightmare, gasping for breath.

“Stop this nonsense at once and get hold of yourself!”

Brother Saldus’s wrinkled and sour face filled his vision, and Tas flinched away from it. Rolling out of bed, he stumbled to the wall and leaned heavily against it while he filled his lungs with cool, clean air.

As reason and calm returned, he could feel Brother Saldus’s mud-brown eyes on him, heavy with judgment and suspicion.

“Are you quite finished?” the brother asked snidely.

Ignoring his burning cheeks, the still-panicked fluttering of his heart, and his shaking limbs, Tas lifted his head and squared his shoulders. “Yes, Brother. My apologies for waking you.”

He must have hidden the tremor in his voice well enough, because Brother Saldus only sniffed. “Good. Then I should like to get back to my bed for what little time we have left before sunrise.”

He spun on his heel and strode toward the door, his coarse gray linen sleeping shirt flapping against his pale, spindly legs. At the door, he stopped and threw a narrow-eyed scowl over his shoulder. “There will be no more outbursts like this. Do you understand? You’re supposed to be the golden child, a favorite of the Inner Circle, the brother village girls and boys swoon over and farmers sing forbidden country ballads about behind our backs. I’d suggest you remember that and act accordingly before Tasnerek is forced to find a new master.”

With that, the aged brother stepped into the shadowed hall and closed the door behind him.

Tas clutched at the crystal pendant whose name he shared and slid down the wall to land in an awkward pile on the rough plank floor. Drawing his knees to his chest, he closed his eyes and waited for his body to stop shaking. Tasnerek was a reassuring weight in his fist, and Tas squeezed it tight enough to leave the imprint of its angled edges in his flesh, adding to the marks that were already there from his dream.

Brother Saldus’s threat was largely empty. The man wasn’t a member of the Thirty-Six and merely served as a secretary, and some said spy, for Brother Vienas, High Brother of the Inner Circle. At his age, he would probably never know what it was to be bonded to a stone. Tas would have to die before Tasnerek could bond with another, and no matter what he’d discovered in those gods-damned journals, he couldn’t believe the Brotherhood capable of that—at least he didn’t want to believe it.

“Quanna protect me,” he whispered.

Quanna was the gentlest and most forgiving of all the gods. Tas could only hope she would hear his prayers and the purity of his intentions over the blasphemy of his recent thoughts.

Feeling a sudden surge of queasiness, he lurched to his feet and hurried to the small plain table across from the bed. Without bothering to search for a cup, he brought the water pitcher to his lips and gulped its contents until he had to break away for air. He set the pitcher aside, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and stumbled back to the narrow bed. Slumping onto its thin straw mattress, he pulled the thick Rassan wool blanket across his shoulders against the chill and buried his face in his hands.

“What am I going to do?”

In response to his voice, Tasnerek hummed comfortingly against his breast, and Tas wrapped his hands around it again for reassurance, but the crystal could offer no words of advice.

“I wish I’d never found those damned journals,” he whispered harshly to the bare wood walls around him.

The sleeping chambers of this village temple were as spare and unadorned as any holy place in Rassa, much like his own rooms back at the keep. He should have found comfort in that simplicity. But the walls closed in on him, making him feel trapped instead of safe.

I can’t go on like this.

His hand shook as he released Tasnerek and rubbed his eyes. That dream had been the most terrifying yet, but they’d been getting steadily worse with each passing day. He hadn’t slept a full night in all the weeks since he’d discovered the hidden journals. His nerves were beyond ragged.

The “golden boy.”

He laughed bitterly. Like any brother outside the Thirty-Six, Brother Saldus was jealous. The fact that Tas had risen through the ranks and been bonded to a stone so young had a great many of his brothers bitter and eager for him to fail. Tas had always been able to ignore the glares and muttering among the rank and file. He’d been so focused on climbing the ladder to the Inner Circle, so puffed up by his successes and acclaim, it had been easy to lift his nose above the envious.

Not anymore.

Drawing in a shuddering breath, he forced himself to stretch out on the bed. He needed to sleep. He’d never get through the next several days, exhausted as he was.

Sing.

The thought whispered through his mind, and Tasnerek hummed louder on his chest.

After taking another trembling breath, he opened his mouth, half-afraid no sound would come. But this time it did. His voice cracked on the first notes of the hymn he’d tried in his dream, but it strengthened and warmed to his smooth baritone after a few lines. Tasnerek hummed a little louder, but the response was lackluster at best.

Sing.

The thought had a melodic quality this time, and the notes struck a chord in his memory that made his chest ache.

Nearly delirious with exhaustion and willing to try anything, he cleared his throat, centered himself, and tried again. But this time, instead of a hymn, the strains of the wordless tune he’d sung at his choosing ceremony shivered in the air. The melody was from a lullaby his mother used to sing. The words were lost to him now, much like her face, but he still remembered the tune. Such secular music was ostensibly forbidden, but only the most severe in the Brotherhood ever attempted to enforce that, and the country songs still persisted, even hundreds of years after the prophet Harot’s ascension.

Tas sang quietly, in case Brother Saldus should overhear, but the more he sang, the more the tightness in his chest eased. Tasnerek hummed louder against his chest and began to emit a soft light like it did during rituals. A tide of warmth and calm washed away the remnants of Tas’s dream and weighted his limbs.

Among the thirty-six shards of Anchor Stone Harot had brought back with him from the Riftlands five hundred years ago, Tasnerek was the smallest and had always been considered a bit of an oddity. Tas had never heard of any of the other stones reacting to a folk song like this. Although, he supposed none of the other brothers would admit it if they did, since it went counter to the teachings of the Brotherhood. The Brother Tasnerek who’d come before him had been the butt of many jokes behind his back for his strangeness, and Tas had been forced to work that much harder to counter that stigma and make a name for himself.

Now all that was probably lost.

Shifting uneasily on the scratchy mattress, he concentrated harder on his song. He couldn’t fix anything tonight, and he’d be in no shape to deal with tomorrow if he didn’t sleep. Clearing his mind of all those wandering thoughts and pushing away the flood of conflicting emotions they conjured, he created a space where only the song and Tasnerek existed. He didn’t know how long they hummed in harmony together before the soothing vibration and warmth on his chest drew him into unconsciousness.

 

 

DAWN CAME far too soon. But despite all his doubts, fears, and exhaustion, Tas drew on the same will and determination that had catapulted him up the ranks of the Brotherhood, dragged himself out of bed, and was washed and belted into his robes well before Brother Saldus pounded on his door. The sour little man swept in without being bid and glared around the simple chamber. He sniffed loudly when he couldn’t find anything to complain about, turned, and headed toward the stairs, trailed by a young servant girl carrying his travel bag.

Tas sighed and twisted his neck a few times to relieve the tension building there.

“It’s going to be a long few weeks,” he grumbled before grabbing his own bag and following.

Brother Freel—a mousy, anxious little man, who’d slept in his temple so Brother Saldus could have his bed while Tas had taken the only spare—waited for them at the base of the stairs. Pressed for time and eager to get on the road, the three of them sang their morning hymns quickly and without much ceremony before Brother Saldus led the way out of the temple.

Tas paused just inside the doors to the courtyard and took a fortifying breath. Nearly every inhabitant of the small village of Vecin waited in the square outside, all plainly dressed in drab browns and muddy grays, as was proper. Only a few weeks ago, he’d have proudly strode down the steps and into that crowd, soaking in the awed looks and smiles of gratitude and admiration.

That seemed like a lifetime ago.

Now all he saw as he stepped into the dreary overcast dawn and searched their faces was the fear veiled beneath their thin, tense smiles, compliments, and solicitous overtures.

Brother Saldus marched before them, nose held high, accepting the attention and reverence as his due. Tas felt sick.

Brother Saldus’s narrowed eyes landed on him, and Tas quickly lifted his chin, swallowed his nausea, and strode forward to join him by their horses.

“Is there any other service we may provide you, Brothers, before you leave?”

The chief elder of Vecin was a round, obsequious little man. His cheeks were flushed and his smile broad as he stepped in front of Brother Freel and bobbed his head at the both of them. If Tas hadn’t seen the beads of sweat at his temples, he might’ve believed the poor man’s pleasure at addressing them to be genuine. But the elder was afraid, like everyone else who had gathered to see them off.

They should be. We’re the real monsters.

Tas’s mask nearly slipped, but one sharp sideways glance from Brother Saldus made him catch himself before anything showed on his face.

“No, Elderman, we have all we require. Your humble, worthy hospitality will be included in the record,” Brother Saldus replied without much feeling. Brother Saldus probably hadn’t been on a circuit in decades, and it showed in how he’d dealt with most of the villagers they’d encountered so far on their journey north.

“Thank you, Brother.” The elder bobbed his balding head again, glanced at the assembled crowd, and swallowed. “May we be so bold as to send our best wishes to our neighbors in Comun along with you. The tales of their recent hardships have brought us to the temple often. For many weeks now, we’ve raised our voices in the sacred hymns on their behalf.”

And on your own as well.

If the Spawn wasn’t stopped, it would eventually attack their village too, as they certainly knew.

Brother Saldus’s mouth stretched in the closest approximation of a smile his thin lips had managed in all of the years Tas had known him, and he dipped his head. “As you can see, your efforts have not gone unanswered. The gods have heard you. Brother Tasnerek and I are their answer, as the Brotherhood has been since blessed Harot was chosen as their messenger,” he intoned.

“Praise be,” all the villagers and Brother Freel droned in unison.

“Pwaise be,” a small voice chirped belatedly.

Turning his head in that direction, Tas spotted the little girl just as she squeaked and hid behind her mother’s skirts. The woman paled at his look and ducked her head, shielding the child from view.

In the past, Tas might’ve given her a smile or dared a wink to ease her fears, but he was on shaky ground as it was, so he simply returned his attention to the men closest to him and forced his face to remain blank.

Brother Saldus’s expression soured, but he didn’t bother addressing the child’s mistake. “We will convey your message to the elders of Comun. I’m sure they will be pleased to know they can call upon you, as well as the Brotherhood, in times of travail.”

The elder winced a little but ducked his head again. “Of course, Brother. Thank you.”

“You will receive word when we’ve accomplished our task and intend to return,” Brother Saldus continued as he moved to his horse and waited for another villager to give him a leg up into the saddle. He smothered a grimace as he settled into his seat and took the reins.

Tas didn’t need any more encouragement than that. He moved quickly to his own horse and swung into the saddle, unaided and with a sigh of relief. Brother Saldus might not be the easiest companion, but Tas could handle one unpleasant judgmental old brother far better than the fearful and searching gazes of dozens of villagers who reminded him of everything he was struggling to forget.

They rode in silence for several miles before Brother Saldus unfortunately chose to break it.

“You didn’t speak much before the villagers.”

“You didn’t appear to need me to,” Tas countered as lightly as he could manage.

“This is not my task. I am only here to… accompany you and provide guidance should you need it.”

Accompany.

Tas had to suppress an angry snort. He had done more circuits in the last five years than this man had done in thirty. He hadn’t needed any “guidance” in a very long time. Brother Saldus was there because High Brother Vienas and the Inner Circle trusted the man more than anyone else at Blagos Keep. Brother Saldus’s sole purpose on this trip was to scrutinize Tas’s every move and report back.

Swallowing his bitterness, Tas gave him a bland look. “I certainly appreciate any guidance you would like to give, Brother. I have merely deferred to your experience until now. I will of course take the lead in Comun, if that is your wish.”

Saldus compressed his lips and cast Tas a sideways glance before turning his attention to the road ahead again. “This is Brother Lijen’s flock. Both of us will defer to her in village matters. But, the villagers are expecting to see a member of the Thirty-Six come to save them from utter ruin and death… and not just any member, but the great and powerful Brother Tasnerek. Perhaps you should show them that.”

“You know it is not our way to elevate one brother above the rest,” Tas murmured piously.

Brother Saldus snorted. “As if that ever stopped any of you.”

Tas gaped at him. They’d been on the road together for two weeks. Brother Saldus had been snide, suspicious, and generally unpleasant, but this was the first time he’d actually come right out and admitted to the bitterness and jealousy everyone knew existed within the Brotherhood but never acknowledged.

After a quick glance in Tas’s direction, Brother Saldus scowled and urged his horse a few paces ahead. That was fine. The man’s company wasn’t enjoyable even at the best of times, and as brittle as Tas was now, he couldn’t handle any more probing questions or censure. They were less than a day’s ride away from the village of Comun, where he had a job to do. People’s lives depended on him. His life as he knew it depended on his performance. He needed every spare second he could get to calm and prepare himself, and even then, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach told him he might not be able to do it.