The Final Decree [Chapters 1-3]

Hello everyone!

While I know most people are here for the Frith Chronicles, I do have a kabillion ideas for novels. Just… so many. Not enough time. Not enough typing willpower. BUT! I am trying–I want the ideas to escape my head and live out in the world on their own. Which is how The Final Decree came about.

Basically, The Final Decree is actually born from a lot of ideas I couldn’t use in the Frith Chronicles. When I was outlining and thinking up ideas for Knightmare Arcanist, I would asked myself things like, “Should the plague-ridden mystical creatures talk? Or should they be mindless monsters?”

Obviously, I opted for them to speak, so I couldn’t use any of the ideas I had for if they couldn’t speak. Ultimately, I just put all my unused ideas in another Word file and moved on. That other file kept getting “alternate ideas” to the point I really liked all of them out together, and I wanted to make a cool story based on those.

Since The Final Decree isn’t related to any of my other ones, I know people will be hesitant to check it out, but I want you all to know I think this book is one of my best! (At least, all the beta readers make it seem that way, lol)

Here are the first 3 chapters. More will be posted on my Patreon (and some of my Patreons will be receiving the book signed from me).

I hope you all enjoy!

To Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman leader who inspired this story.

The Final Decree

By Shami Stovall

Chapter 1

            I stumbled forward, fueled only by hate.

            The soldiers of the god-king had taken everything from me, but I would be safe once I crossed the border. Denying them the satisfaction of my death would be my final act of defiance.

            The winter winds rushed past, as bitter and cold as my thoughts. I walked the long road through the Kingdom of Luka alone. I was a stranger—a random woman—nothing more than some wraith passing by, devoid of purpose. People regarded me with suspicion, and I hurried along. I tried, at least, until I tripped and fell.

            I hadn’t eaten.

            Snow provided little in the way of sustenance. It sated my thirst somewhat, but my gut twisted in agony. It felt like my stomach was consuming my insides, cannibalizing the other organs to keep me alive. I knew it wasn’t, but my nightmares had been filled with such imagery, and it was all I could dwell on.

            I pulled my stolen blanket tightly over my body, unable to stand. With gritted teeth, I continued at a crawl. I should have found shelter and rested, but I was on the edge of town, by the first few houses that lined the road.

            When merchants rode by on horses and carts, I glanced up, hoping they would spill something edible. They didn’t, of course—no successful merchant would—and I contemplated my situation with dreaded realization.

            I might die here. In some town whose name I didn’t even know.

            “That’s a nice blanket.”

            The tone put me on edge. It wasn’t a compliment, but an appraisal. I tilted my head back to stare at the speaker, still unable to stand. The man who had spoken wore thick winter garb. Similar men flanked him on either side, each with a full beard and light satchels. A woman stood next to them, a bundle of firewood in her arms. I suspected they were leather workers.

            I scooted up against the wall of the nearest building, holding my wool blanket close. My throat was too raw and dry to offer a verbal response.

            The man leaned down, grabbed the edge of my blanket, and yanked it from my grasp. I tried to hold on, I really did, but hunger killed my capacity. I couldn’t keep it.

            The instant the man took it, he and his companions jumped back, their gasps a painful chorus in my ears. I had trousers and bindings over my chest, for when I had pretended to be a man, but I wore no shirt—it had been cut off by my pursuers as a cruel joke, leaving most of my skin exposed.

            I covered my left shoulder with my hand, but it was too little, too late. The black cascade of spiderweb markings that stained my skin was visible for all to see.

            “You’re cursed,” the man said, dropping the blanket to the dirt road.

            I closed my eyes and huddled against the cold stones of the building. What could I do? I wished the group would leave. I wielded magic unlike anyone in this backwater town, but even that was useless when hunger dominated my body.

            “No wonder she’s a vagabond,” the woman with the firewood muttered.

            “She’s a monster.”

            “We can’t let her roam around.”

            I heard the familiar sound of a knife leaving its sheath.

            The man intended to kill me.

            Townsfolk congregated on the edge of the road, their eyes wide and their postures stiff. They didn’t look at the man with the knife—the man poised to gut a stranger—they looked at me, their brows wrinkled in silent disgust.

            I was a Lord of Flame and Cinder. If I had had the strength, I would have burned the whole town to the ground.  

            Perhaps the men were afraid, or perhaps they wanted to take their time, but they didn’t stab me right away. One got close and kicked me in the side, just below the ribs. I would have said the kick hurt, but it didn’t compare to my aching stomach. Another one joined in, stomping on my legs, and I bit back the urge to cry out.

            I wished they would get it over with. Life was nothing but a parade of struggle, suffering, and disappointment. I didn’t want a prolonged finale.

            “What’re you doing?”

            The new voice cut through all the others with a commanding edge that demanded attention. The men beating me ceased their aggression, but I feared it was too late. I would surely die, bruised and starving.

            The clink of metal stirred dread in me. It was the sound of sollerets—the plated metal boots of soldiers. They had come to take me back. They had come to torture me and throw me at the god-king’s feet. A death at their hands would be a thousand times worse than a death in the winter streets.

            My tormentors ran, and the crowds dispersed. I shivered with each clink of the boots drawing closer.

            Please, gods of old—please, not this. I didn’t want to go back. I would apologize for my transgressions. I needed the blanket or else I never would have stolen it. What else have I done to anger you? It wasn’t my fault I was born cursed… Please, let my end come quick.

            The soldier knelt next to me and placed a gauntlet on my shoulder, the metal so cold, it burned. I cringed away and forced out a growl, unable to speak and conducting myself no better than a rabid dog.

            Kill me. Do it.

            The soldier stood, and for some reason, walked away, the clink of his boots fading with each step. I didn’t know why, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Even if he didn’t know my identity, soldiers of the god-king were rewarded for killing the cursed. What possible reason could he have to stay his hand?

            But I didn’t have the energy to dwell on it.

            I crawled away from the street, through the dirty alleyway between hovels, and back toward the wilderness beyond the town’s limits. I had forgotten my blanket, but it wouldn’t do me any good where I was going.

            Once I reached a patch of iced-over shrubs, I eased myself into the detritus beneath them. I would die here. In nature. Away from everything I had grown to hate. It was how my father had died, after all. I supposed I deserved no better.

            Before my wish was granted, the clink of metal returned. I closed my eyes, hoping to feign death, and I listened as the soldier easily followed my furrow through the dirt. He pushed the branches of the bushes aside and stepped close to my body. I couldn’t help but shudder.

            He knelt again and turned me onto my back, his now bare hands warm and powerful. I opened my eyes, confused by the gentle way he lifted my head. My vision, blurred with hunger, took in a young man with a hard, neutral expression. Calm brown eyes, dark chestnut hair, red maple leaf scarf—or maybe I was looking at a tree, I couldn’t tell through the delirium—and I relaxed a bit, amused by my own skewed perceptions.

            Knowing I would die had removed the stress of trying to live.

            The soldier placed the lip of a canteen at my mouth and poured. I gulped down the water—warm water, not hot—and the heat coated my insides with comfort. It was only after a second gulp that I realized it was soup. The fragrant herbs and shreds of meat were like distant memories returning to me after having been long forgotten. I had never tasted anything so delicious in my life.

            “Everything will be fine,” the soldier said.

            If I could have cried, I would have. His confidence was undeniable and infectious—I had never heard anyone reassure me like he had. I wanted to thank him. I wanted to tell him that, if I died, at least I would have known comfort for a moment before passing. I wanted to tell him that his single act of kindness meant more to me than anything else I could have experienced.

            But I couldn’t.

            I coughed after the third gulp and shook with dry sobs.

            He hung his canteen on his belt and wrapped me in a thick cloak. It was warm and smelled of sweat. It was his.

            With one effortless motion, he scooped me up into his arms. I didn’t protest as he walked out of the wilderness on the edge of town and carried me back to the main thoroughfare. He continued beyond, walking at an even pace. I rested my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes.

            Finally, sleep took me.

***

            When I awoke, it was to the glorious crackle of fire.

            I loved the brilliant glow brought about by the flames. Fire had a special meaning to me. No force compared to the heat and radiance, and while fire could be a tool, no man could conquer it. Sure, it could be snuffed, but the blaze of the sun reminded us that it would never be beaten.

            I stared at the stone hearth. The small flames licked at the black logs, a gentle glow brought about by their dance. The sofa I rested on creaked with my movements as I turned to get a better look. I sat up and examined my new blanket—a woven cloth of moons and stars, perhaps a child’s aid to learning the night sky.

            “You’re awake.”

            I flinched and held the blanket close. I hadn’t bothered to examine the rest of the room, and I cursed myself for such folly.

            “It’s all right. You’re safe here.”

            Shaken and confused, I stared at the man standing by the far wall. He was tall and gaunt, but wiry. He had curly chestnut hair, but the curls were so small and tight, they clung close to his head. I would have guessed his age at eighteen, maybe nineteen, and he offered a smile. I pressed myself against the armrest of the sofa. He wasn’t the man who had carried me off the streets. He sounded different.

            “My name is Wulfric,” he said, his voice boisterous.

            He walked over to the sofa with excited energy in each step. My grip tightened on the blanket, my nails indenting my palms through the fabric. I offered him a glower and nothing more, my heart beating hard against my ribs.

            He stopped a few feet from where I sat and examined me for a moment, his eyes narrowed. “Uh, don’t worry. I’m not a nobleman. My father just likes to name his kids after dead royalty. He, uh—” Wulfric chuckled and folded his arms across his chest, “—he thinks it’ll help us to aspire to greatness. Odd, right? You may call me Wulf.”

            I didn’t speak. Instead, I examined my surroundings, taking in the details I hadn’t before. I was in the front parlor of a modest home, one made of wood and worked stone. The window, while large, was covered in a thick drape, blocking most of the midafternoon sunlight, but a small sliver sliced through the middle of the room. Trophies from past hunts adorned the walls. I stared at a pair of antlers mounted above the fireplace.

            Wulf fidgeted for a moment, tilting his head from side to side. He looked confused, and I suspected he didn’t know what to do with himself amidst the silence.

            “I’ll go get my brother,” he said. “And something to eat. Wait right here.”

            I said nothing as Wulf hurried from the parlor, leaving me with the fire. I stared at the flickering blaze. It danced, hungry, like I was. Although I knew I shouldn’t—no one should discover my talents—I held out a hand and called a part of the flame to me, just to make sure I still could. A wisp of fire twirled through the air and I grabbed it. The heat soothed my sore skin.

            Floorboards creaked. I glanced up to catch sight of a much more imposing man than Wulf. He was thick with muscle and tanned from the sun—a warrior if I ever saw one. I shrank down into the blanket, keenly aware of our difference in size. I was much shorter than the man and emaciated from the long trek.

            “I’m glad to see you’re awake,” he said as he entered the room with a slow gait.

            It was him! The man who had carried me from the street. Already his voice was ingrained in my mind. I would know it from a thousand other men in a busy tavern.

            He took a seat on the opposite end of the sofa, the furniture straining under his solid frame. I almost missed the fact that he held a mug of water and a half loaf of bread. Without words, he motioned for me to take them.

            I kept the blanket up over my body as I grabbed the food. I waited, half expecting him to say something, but nothing happened. Without wasting another second, I bit into the bread, my dry and cracked lips bleeding from the range of motion. I washed back the blood and pain with several gulps of water.

            “You shouldn’t eat so fast,” the man said. “Not if you want to keep it down.”

            Although I wanted nothing more than to consume everything all at once, I forced myself to relax. How cruel was life that even eating was torture? But he was right. I hadn’t eaten in a while. And my body had suffered enough.

            The man stared at the fire, his gaze set and focused. “My name is Rylion Nasos.”

            Rylion.

            That was the name of the first god-king to rule over the Kingdom of Luka. Stories made him out to be a conqueror unrivaled on the battlefield. If Rylion’s father wanted him to aspire to greatness, he had picked a large pair of boots to fill.

            “What should I call you?” Rylion asked, never looking away from the flames.

            I sipped another mouthful of water and took in a breath. Could I speak? I coughed and forced out a few sounds.

            “I, uh,” I began. “My name is…”

            My voice had a rusty tone and it pained me to say even four words.

            Rylion waited. I gathered the fortitude needed and continued.

            “My name is Artemisia.” I held the mug close. “Artemis. You may call me Artemis.”

            That was what my father had called me when we had been alone.

            “You don’t look like you’re from here.”

            I stared at him, and he glanced over before motioning to my hair. I touched the disheveled locks hanging long enough to reach my shoulders. My mother had said I had hair like coal, and eyes as gray as ash.

            “Did you leave your home because you were cursed?” Rylion asked.

            I finished the bread and tucked myself back into the blanket, the mug held between my legs. I hated that we were discussing the fact that I was cursed. It brought back the loathing I felt for the world—the hate that would never leave me. I wished the curse would vanish, rather than consuming me at every moment of every day.

            But I knew it would never happen.

            Rylion exhaled. “You needn’t worry. You don’t have to run anymore if you don’t want to.”

            “Rylion,” Wulf shouted as he entered the parlor. He panted once. “Soldiers are at the door. They’ve come for—” he glanced at me, and then back to Rylion, “—well, I told them you would speak to them.”

            Were they not aware? Surely, they were. All citizens of Luka, not just the soldiers, were offered a reward for killing the cursed. But there was a chance—a small chance—Wulf and Rylion were oblivious to that fact. And that was the only reason they had helped me thus far.

            Would they kill me once they knew? What a cruel twist of fate. But it wouldn’t surprise me.

            Rylion stood. “I’ll speak with them.”

            He exited the room, his brother close behind. The heavy slam of doors echoed throughout the house.  

            Wulf was the younger sibling, and I suspected Rylion was six or seven years older. They had the same impressive height and broad shoulders, but while Wulf had a rambunctious spirit, Rylion had a calming presence.

            The simple thoughts kept my mind off the terror that lurked in my heart. I tried to continue thinking of their family, but my mind returned to the possibility of death.

            After several long minutes, I heard the squeak and slam of doors. I stayed huddled on the sofa, knowing that escape was futile. Whatever they decided would be my destiny.

            Rylion reentered the room, his quiet confidence a reassurance. I didn’t even need to ask. He had sent the soldiers away. Wulf paced behind the sofa, his long legs taking him farther with each step. Rylion returned to his seat, and I stared at him, confused.

            “I thought you were a soldier,” I murmured.

            “I’m a hunter,” Rylion said. “But I know the soldiers of this area well. They won’t ask questions while you’re here.”

            A hunter? When I had met him on the street, he had worn pieces of plate armor. No hunter wore half-plate—the loud clink of metal would scare the animals away for miles. But I had no room to comment, nor did it matter. If he said he was a hunter, even if he was a terrible one, I believed him. He had given me no reason to doubt.

            “She talks?” Wulf asked. He walked around the sofa, smiling wide. “What’s your name?”

            I took another gulp of water, unwilling to repeat myself when energy was in short supply.

            Rylion turned to Wulf. “Her name is Artemis.”

            “Really? She’ll talk to you, but she won’t say a word to me?” Wulf threw his arms up in the air. “It’s the handmaidens at the market all over again! I’m the one to initiate conversation, yet they speak to you.”

            The brothers shared a laugh, and all the anger I had thought Wulf harbored toward me disappeared. I was surprised by their jovial attitude, considering everything that had happened. How could they be so relaxed around me? Me? I was cursed. They knew. It didn’t bother them that their lives were in danger?

            Their laughter waned until the crackle of the dying fire reigned supreme. Wulf resumed his pacing, his attention jumping from the window to the empty doorframe. Rylion watched the flames consume the last of the logs, his gaze unfocused, as though deep in thought.

            I wanted to speak to him, but the words never came.

            “He’s still not back,” Wulf said, breaking the silence between us.

            “He will be,” Rylion stated.

            “What if he’s injured? He might need help.”

            “He’s tough.”

            “He’s old.”

            “Not so old that he can’t handle himself.”

            Wulf sighed. He stopped his movement and placed his hands on his belt. “I’m worried. It’s almost sundown. We should look again.”

            Rylion stood and nodded. “Very well. We’ll look again.” He turned his attention to me. “We have a room. You can rest there until we return. That may not be until morning.”

            I glanced around the front parlor. A small house couldn’t have more than two bedrooms, maybe three, if the carpenters were competent. They would give me one? Even for a night? I stood, keeping the blanket over my shoulders, and followed Rylion as he led me deeper into the building.

            The room he offered was a simple bedroom. A mattress on a light wooden frame. A nightstand with a basin for washing. A single candle. A chair. One window. Rylion motioned me in.

            “You’re leaving?” I whispered, staring into the room. “Even though… I could turn?”

            Surely, he knew? He knew why the cursed were shunned and killed? He must have known. Everyone knew. Everyone knew we were twisted by fell magic, eventually losing ourselves to our dark markings and transforming into wretched monsters. Beasts with no mind. No control. Some worse than others—some with claws and horns and venom—some so malevolent they hunted down children and feasted on their flesh.

            And the cursed could change at any time. I had worn my curse mark for my entire life, all twenty years, but some transformed immediately. Some transformed in a few weeks. Would I change tonight? Tomorrow?

            Most killed themselves before they turned.

            Rylion motioned to the room a second time. “Right now, you’re still a person. I won’t treat you as anything but.”

            His confidence rocked me. I didn’t know what to say.

            I shuffled into the room and stared at all the amenities.

            “Consider this your home,” Rylion said as he stepped away from the door. “My brother and I will return by noon tomorrow, perhaps sooner. I suggest you rest. I’ll bring more food with me then.”

            I nodded. He closed the door, leaving me to my new space. For a long moment, I stood and listened, keeping track of Wulf and Rylion until the front door shut and I knew I was alone.

            I could run. I could take what I needed and flee to the next country over. Maybe then I could start a new life. No one would know me. No one would know I was cursed. But what would I do then? How long did I have before becoming a monster? Was there even a point to trying when everything could end in an instant?

            Dying sunlight streamed in through the window, but the frost at the edges of the glass betrayed the chill of winter. I hated the window. I didn’t want to be seen.

            With frustration building, I stormed over and pulled the heavy drapes closed. Still, light shone through the cracks. Someone could still see in if they wanted. I walked over to the bed, pulled off the top quilt, and threw it over the drapery rod, further covering the lone window until all was darkness.

            I waved my hand and lit the candle, pleased to see the fire spring to life as quick as it had. I had feared, perhaps irrationally, that I might have lost my connection to magic. It had been so long since I had used it… Father had never wanted anyone to know.

            The bed invited me to rest, but I was still uneasy. I didn’t want anyone to find me. The thought of being out in the open, on top of a mattress, was anything but comforting. Instead, I pulled off the last blanket and flipped the bed onto its side with a bit of struggle. The light cork wood and thin straw mattress shouldn’t have been a problem to move, but in my weakened state, I was surprised I even managed. My body ached from the effort, and I promised myself I would rest once I was satisfied.

            I dragged the mattress off and pushed it into the corner. Then I tilted the lightweight bed frame up and against the wall, creating a mock cave. I placed the blanket of stars inside, and used the sheets to create the fourth wall of my enclosure. I crawled inside the tiny space—a space devoid of light—and curled up into a ball, my breath warming me with each passing second.

            The confinement reassured me. No one could see. No one knew I was here. It was safe.

            I snuffed the candle with a thought.

            Before I rested, I whispered a prayer to the gods of old.

            “Please,” I said. “Not tonight. If I must turn, if I must be a monster, be it some other time—some other place. I do not want to harm them.”

            I closed my eyes and gave in to sleep.

Chapter 2

            The sound of doors closing pulled me from my sleep.

            Although I couldn’t see the sky, I knew it was the dead of night. The darkness of my makeshift cave comforted me as I listened to the movement throughout the house. Muffled voices drifted into my room, but I couldn’t understand their words. Rylion’s tone was among them, and that fact reassured me.

            I crawled out of my hiding place and stood. The small amount of food, coupled with the rest, had done wonders for my energy. I was still starving, but I was no longer on the edge of death.

            Unable to see, I grabbed the star-covered blanket and shuffled forward, feeling along the wall until I made it to the door. Once I exited my room, fire from the parlor illuminated the hall with a dim orange glow. The black shadows that lingered in the nooks and crannies shifted with the flicker of the light, moving like they had a life of their own.

            I walked down the hallway and stopped at the threshold of the parlor door. The sofa rested up against the wall, allowing for a wide space in the middle of the room, but I didn’t venture in. I waited, half-tucked behind the doorframe.

            “The mountain will have a considerable amount of snow,” Wulf said.

            He and Rylion stood near the back of the room, their attention on a man in front of the hearth. The man—who was everything sturdy and stout—had a thick beard, trimmed neat, and disheveled mud-brown hair marked with gray and white. He was older, beyond his prime, but not yet done with life. His arms bulged with muscle, and even through his heavy clothing, I could sense his strength.

            “It’s nothing we can’t handle,” the man said, the gruff timbre of his voice similar to Rylion’s. He held his hands out, palms open, and warmed himself with the heat of the fire. “Mountain training will do everyone good.”

            Rylion crossed his arms. “You’re sure she’s up there?”

            The man nodded. “I’ve followed the trails, and the traders up north say the mountain is swarming with birds. Some call it an infestation.”

            “We’ll have plenty to hunt then.”

            “My thoughts exactly.”

            The floor creaked with my weight, and I ducked around the corner, my heart rate high.

            “Who’s there?” the older man asked. He unsheathed a knife—I would know that sound no matter the blade—and I couldn’t bring myself to answer him.

            “It’s all right, Father,” Rylion said, calm as ever. “She’s the one I told you about. The one I picked up from the streets.”

            “The one who’s cursed?”

            “Yes.”

            I held my breath and rested my forehead on the hallway wall. I hated that Rylion had told someone else. I didn’t want the information of my curse spreading, especially when some would come for my life. Why had Rylion told his father?

            The man sheathed his weapon. “Come out here, girl. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

            After a long exhale, I pushed away from the wall and stepped around into the front parlor. Through sheer force of habit, I kept the blanket tight around my shoulders, hiding my curse mark and the rest of my body, ashamed anyone would see any part of me. The man stared at me with calculating dark eyes. His beard half masked his expression, but I swore it was a look of pity.

            “You’re young,” he said with a grunt.

            I ran a hand through my shoulder-length hair, knowing full well it was pointless to argue. Everyone assumed my age was far lower than the reality. I wanted to tell him how wrong he was, but I doubted he cared. I had the youthful appearance of a child, my mother had said. I should consider myself lucky. I didn’t feel “lucky” when everyone patronized me, but such details were irrelevant.

            My mother had always compared me to others, especially when family had visited. Snide remarks, mostly, all of which had been meant to showcase her disappointment with how I hadn’t grown into a proper woman. I probably dwelled on my appearance more because of it.

            “Father,” Rylion said, drawing me out of my thoughts. “This is Artemis. Artemis, this is my father, Osmund Nasos.”

            “You made her wear a blanket?” Osmund asked. He waved his hand out. “You know Bryn kept some of his old robes in the back. Go fetch her some.”

            “I will,” Wulf replied as he jogged from the room, eagerness in his flight.

            I stepped toward the doorframe and leaned into the shadows. Not only had they taken me in and given me a room, but they were also providing me clothing? Why? I doubted even the selfless saints would have been as accommodating to one of the cursed.

            Wulf returned with two sets of robes, one white and the other black. He walked over to me and held them out, like I should choose. I spotted the gleam of metal on the collar of both outfits—small, copper rings pierced through the fabric. They were the robes of a scholar. The number of rings signified the number of years in study.

            I took the black robes. Five rings adorned the collar.

            “My uncle doesn’t need these anymore,” Wulf said. “They might be a little long, but you can keep them.”

            I held the clothing close and nodded.

            “Maybe you should change and see how they fit. There’s a tailor in town, we can get them fitted for a woman.”

            Without saying a word, I stepped back and returned to my room.

            The darkness greeted me with open arms, but I didn’t want its company. I lit the candle.

            Once certain I was alone and the door was firmly shut, I removed my blanket and ratty trousers and then changed into the robes. The rope belt for the waist and the cuffs on the long sleeves meant I could adjust the fit. The hood fell back between my shoulder blades, and the matching trousers went longer than my ankles, but I liked the outfit. The soft fabric reminded me of home.

            Of course, nothing would feel completely right until I bathed, but that would have to wait.

            The three in the parlor resumed talking. I snuffed the candle and cracked open the door, curious as to what they talked about when they believed they were alone. Was it about me? Were they secretly worried I would turn?

            “We should leave by noon,” Osmund said. “I’ve already informed the others. It’ll get too cold to make the trek if we wait even a single day.”

            “This is sudden,” Rylion replied. “Is the mountain lodge even prepped with supplies?”

            “Some.”

            “Enough?”

            “We’ll make it work,” Osmund said. “Bryn is still there, after all.”

            “You don’t think you’re being rash, Father? We can catch her come spring or summer.”

            Osmund grunted. “I’ve hunted her for years, and I’m not getting any younger. One injury and I may never recover at this point. I don’t want to risk missing my opportunity.”

            “What about Artemis?” Wulf asked, interjecting himself into the conversation.

            “I will ask her to join us,” Rylion said.

            Again, Osmund grunted. “Good. I will round up the others and secure us a cart. Meet me on the western road when you two are ready.”

            Good? He had said good to me joining them? Not even a word of worry? A word of doubt or uncertainty?

            Their odd acceptance of my presence filled my mind with hesitation and speculation. Why were they so accommodating? Why didn’t they fear me? I wanted to know, but I dreaded the answer, certain I would regret asking.

            The stomp of someone walking down the hall sent a shiver down my spine. I jumped away from the door and hid in the shadows out of habit. When someone finally entered, I remained still and quiet, unwilling to reveal my presence before I knew who had come to speak to me.

            “Artemis?” Rylion said.

            “Yes,” I replied, my tension waning. “I’m here.”

            “My father wants us to travel to Mount Regel for a hunt. I said you wouldn’t have to run from soldiers or pursuers, and I mean to stand by my word. If you join us, I can make good on that.”

            He meant to protect me? A stranger?

            “Why?” I asked, probably sounding more ungrateful than I felt.

            “We could use another hand on the hunt.”

            “No, I mean, why do this for me?”

            “If you had a destination you were traveling to, by all means, continue on your way. But it didn’t look that way to me. And like I said, we could use another hand.”

            That was it? I was a wayward soul, so he offered to give me purpose?

            No one was that altruistic. My suspicion grew deeper with each moment, but a part of me wanted to believe him—gods, I wanted so much to believe him!—because if there were men like him, then I might be wrong about the cruel nature of the world.

            “What would you have me do?” I asked. “I’m no hunter.”

            “There’s always work to be done outside of the hunt. Meat to cure. Fires to maintain.”

            “Fires?”

            “Mount Regel would be uninhabitable without them, yes.”

            I shuffled out from the shadows and stood at his side. Before I said anything, Rylion sifted through his pockets. He withdrew something and held it out, the faint light from the parlor outlining him enough for me to see his silhouette.

            “Here,” he said. “Jerky from the butcher. You should eat plenty before we make the trek.”

            My mouth watered at the mere mention of food. I took the meat and unwrapped the linen binding. I wanted to believe the situation was real. I wanted to believe he was a kind man helping me with no ulterior motives.

            “I’ll go,” I said.

            “Good to hear,” Rylion replied. “We should get you cleaned up and we’ll gather some things for you to take on the journey.”

***

            “Do you need more water?” Wulf asked me.

            He offered his canteen.

            I took the container and guzzled another round of liquid. So delicious. I had been eating and drinking all day, but it all tasted wonderful. I was full, then hungry, then full—everything in short bursts, like my body sped through each process to consume as much as possible.

            Rylion walked out of his quaint home suited in heavy armor. When he had taken me from the streets, I had thought he had worn full-plate mail, but I could see now he wore half-plate: metal pieces covered vital spots, held in place with adjustable leather straps, rather than covering his whole body from head to toe. His chest and legs had some protection, including thick greaves that guarded his shins. He wore gauntlets, sollerets, and a pauldron—a curved piece of steel armor strapped over his left shoulder.    

            It must have been a burden. That much weight would have prevented me from walking.

            Wulf, on the other hand, wore leather in all the same places, cutting the weight of his gear to a fourth of what Rylion must have had. Wulf’s was more practical, I thought, but it offered less protection.

            Still, why wear such extravagant armor for hunting? It was rare for a buck to stand and fight.

            Rylion secured a dark navy cloak over his shoulders. The garb covered him completely from the shoulders down to the dirt. When he walked over to join Wulf and me, the clink of his armor and the harsh rustle of his cloak followed his movements. His cloak looked like cloth, but it didn’t flow with the wind or his movement. It hung straight, like it was weighted.

            I stared at the garment. Rylion lifted an arm and allowed me to touch the edge.

            The moment I felt the material, I knew why it defied the wind. There was chainmail woven on the inside. The cloak itself must have weighed an extra forty pounds. In total, I would have said Rylion dressed in a hundred, perhaps a hundred and twenty, pounds of metal. Could he truly expect to fight in such conditions?

            Rylion looked me over. My bath had done me wonders. “You look like a scholar,” he said.

            I released his cloak and nodded. “I studied for thirteen years.”

            Wulf lifted both eyebrows. “Thirteen years? That has to have been expensive! Where did you study? Who instructed you?”

            “It doesn’t matter,” I replied, curt.

            Wulf went to say something else, but Rylion shook his head, silencing his brother. The conversation died. Better than talking about my past. It was best they didn’t know who I was, or where I had come from. I would rather be a new person, anyway. Free to do whatever I wanted.

            A fresh start—until I became a monster.

            Rylion motioned with his head. I followed as he walked to the main road, Wulf on the other side of him. The warmth of the winter sun offered some comfort from the chill, but not enough. I shivered and crossed my arms tightly over my chest. I could only imagine the weather on Mount Regel.

            “We keep warm gear in the lodge,” Wulf said, like my thoughts were out in the open for all to read. “I’m sure we’ll have something for you!”

            His energetic voice was odd, considering the innocuous topic. I dwelled on that and didn’t answer.

            Rylion withdrew a red scarf from his satchel and handed it to me. “Here.”

            I recognized the piece of clothing. He had worn it the day he had taken me from the streets. I took the scarf, and without delay, I wrapped it around my neck. The vibrant color reminded me of embers.

            “Thank you,” I muttered.

            It didn’t take long for us to reach Osmund and his cart full of supplies, covered in heavy blankets. Five horses and four other people awaited our arrival. It was an awfully large group for a hunting party. Did they mean to run down a whole herd of animals? I kept my sarcastic comments to myself, but I couldn’t help but wonder.

            Rylion nodded to his father and then glanced over to the cart. “Do we have enough?”

            “I got salts and spices,” Osmund replied, tapping the wooden vehicle strapped to a large workhorse. “We’ll catch the meat we need. I didn’t bother with any of that.”

            “I guess if you’re ready, we should depart.”

            “Indeed.”

            Osmund waved his arm, and the group urged the horses down the western road, toward Mount Regel, seated not so far in the distance. The white cap, visible thanks to the clear skies, was dappled with evergreen trees. I hadn’t taken a moment to enjoy such sights in a long time.

             Everyone walked—even Rylion, despite his gear—and I attempted to ignore the blisters on my feet as we marched forward. The road made it an easy trek, though. The rattle of the cart was a pleasant white noise that distracted me from darker thoughts. I liked having others close by, even if I didn’t know them well. I could pretend I was a normal person.

            I turned my attention to the four I had never met.

            One man. Three women.

            The man had blistered hands and dark stubble on his chin and neck. His oak-brown hair, pulled back in a short ponytail, was slick with sweat.

            “Look what they have me carrying,” the man murmured, walking close to a lean woman carrying a quiver. He motioned to his overstuffed pack. “They treat me like a pack mule.”

            “You’re the handsomest pack mule I’ve ever seen,” the woman replied. The smile on her heart-shaped face dispelled misery. “Handsome enough to take to bed.”

            The man huffed and fussed with the straps of his pack. “Shush, woman! What if the others heard such talk?”

            “Would you prefer I treat you like an actual mule?” She cracked an imaginary whip.

            “Enough of this silliness! The others will stare.”

            She laughed and leaned over to graze his cheek with a feather-touch kiss. The man blushed red enough to be seen from the mountaintop, but he didn’t push her away or protest.

            Wulf must have noticed my staring because he jogged to my side and pointed to the man and woman. “That’s Steen and Lydia. They’re married. Steen cures leather and cooks. Lydia sews and fletches arrows with the best of them.”

            Married? It explained their odd relationship.

            Lydia’s dirty blonde hair, held back in a tight braid, betrayed the fact she was a foreigner—or at least, not someone from the capital. Her bright blue eyes lit up whenever Steen spoke, though his gruff mumbles never seemed pleasant or joyful.

            Another woman, small and frail, held the reins of the lead horse. I wouldn’t have expected to find someone so delicate among a group of hunters. She kept herself swaddled in three heavy cloaks, but her narrow wrists were plain to see.

            “That’s Thea,” Wulf said. “She cares for the animals. They all listen to her no matter how agitated they get. She has a gift, she does.”

            Thea’s tiny frame, coupled with the light step of her walk, made me think the animals could easily topple her over if they wanted. The lead horse didn’t try, however. It nickered and snorted when urged forward, but it never misbehaved. 

            Her beautiful caramel hair fluttered freely behind her, but she kept her head down, preventing me from seeing her eyes or facial expression.

            The last woman had long ebony hair down to her waist. It hung straight, without flaw, and shone in the winter sun. She walked with her head held high and her gray eyes glued to the sky, almost as though she were lost in her own thoughts, wandering a path unseen by everyone else.

            I would’ve said she looked like me, but the woman was much taller and willowy. She wore scholar’s robes, however—six copper rings hung from the collar.

            “And that’s—”

            The sounds of a hard gallop cut Wulf off before he finished. A rider up the road, near a fork, barreled toward us. The horse panted with each gallop and a dreadful feeling twisted in my gut.

            No one rode that fast to deliver good news.

            Thea stopped the horses and Osmund walked beyond the lead, waiting for the strange rider to draw near. Once she was close, I could tell it was a woman, and the more details I took in, the more I knew my intuition was proven correct.

            She was covered in blood.

            “Travelers,” she cried, her voice half-cracking. “Up the road! It’s up the road!”

            Wulf and Rylion jogged to meet their father. The unfamiliar woman galloped to the group and reined in her mount, slowing the sorrel horse to a stop. The animal pranced and turned in place, its eyes wide and its brown coat spotted with dried blood.

            “Osmund,” the woman said. “Thank the gods! It’s beyond the hills. It attacked the merchants. They didn’t stand a chance.”

            The woman’s quick, breathless speech left me anxious. She was so panicked, she could barely get her thoughts across, and most of the blood she wore likely wasn’t her own. I stared for a bit longer, hiding behind the cart. She was missing a few fingers from one hand, and a fresh injury along the top of her scalp kept her brown hair wet with crimson.

            “It’ll head to town,” she said, her hands shaking as she brushed clumps of hair from her face. Then she stared at her hand for a moment, as though noticing her injury for the first time.

            “Is it one of the Forsaken?” Osmund asked.

            “Yes. It’s Forsaken.”

            “You’re certain?” 

            “No doubt.”

            I ducked around the cart completely, terror filling me with a chill far worse than the winter.

            The Forsaken. It was the name of the cursed once they had transformed into monsters. And one waited for us up the road; perhaps it was already on its way. No one enjoyed the sight of the Forsaken. Their twisted features filled my nightmares.

            That would be me one day.

            “How far from here?” Osmund asked.

            “Half an hour. Maybe a little closer.”

            “You should get home, Frema. Take care of yourself.”

            “Be careful, Osmund. The beast… It—It was so fast…”

            Her broken words pained my ears. What had happened to her up the road? I supposed I would never know. Frema rode her horse past our group, urging it into a full gallop. Never once did she look back.

            “Rylion, Wulf,” Osmund called out. “You heard her. Get the chains!”

            His sons complied with his command. They walked to the back of the cart, and I stepped aside, curious about their behavior. Weren’t we going to leave? Shouldn’t we at least clear off the road? The Forsaken would surely kill us all if we gave it the opportunity.

            Rylion and Wulf threw back the blankets covering the supplies. Half the cart carried barrels and boxes full of edible goods, but the other half held bear traps and wicked weaponry. I caught sight of chains with spikes, long stakes, and flails—objects crusted with blood—too large to be used against a man. Wulf struggled to haul some of the heavy equipment, but Rylion took the brunt of it and threw a long chain across the road. The others went about preparing the area, pulling the horses back and unsheathing weapons.

            They meant to fight the beast.

            I caught my breath as stunned realization gripped me.

            They were hunters. Not normal hunters who sought caribou and elk, not with tools like theirs. They were hunters of the Forsaken. They hunted the monsters born from people cursed.

            Of course! How could I have been so blind?

            Half-plate armor for a hunting trip? A whole group of people for the hunt?

            And that explained why they weren’t afraid of me. They wanted me to turn. The god-king offered a reward ten times higher for the corpse of a Forsaken over the corpse of a cursed man. All they had to do was keep me around until I fell victim to the curse. Once I shed my old body, they would strike me down and collect their prize. Their kindness all made sense when the reward was the equivalent to six months of paid labor.

            I turned and walked back toward the city, my breath short and shallow, and my steps quick and shaken.

            Good—that was what Osmund had said when Rylion had told him I would accompany them. Good. I was sure he had imagined their next payment when he had said so. You’re so young—that was what he had said. Now I knew what he had meant. So easy to kill.

            All the signs had been there.

            “Artemis!”

            I picked up my pace and continued toward town. We weren’t far. I would reach it soon enough. Then I would walk to the next kingdom, like I had planned before. I didn’t want to be someone’s bounty.

            “Artemis!”

            Rylion’s voice. I stopped and waited, hoping I was wrong. Hoping this wasn’t the truth. He caught up to me, the clink of steel dredging up memories of the soldiers who had chased me all the way to his town. I could trust no one to be my ally—they were all out to manipulate or kill me. Every. Last. One.

            Rylion walked to my side and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. I jerked away and gritted my teeth.

            “You hunt the Forsaken?” I asked.

            He hesitated, perhaps confused. “Yes.”

            “And…” I took a moment to inhale. “And you plan to kill me once I turn?”

            “Yes.”

            Gods, damn me. He didn’t even deny it!

            I knew it. Darkness and greed dwelled in the hearts of all men. But I had hoped. I had hoped Rylion and his family would be different. What a fool I had been to think such things. Like a child—a child who wanted to deny reality because it was too harsh and cruel to handle.

            Without another word, I marched forward.

            “Artemis,” Rylion said.

            I ignored him.

            Would he kill me now that I was about to leave? Better some money than none. I wouldn’t be surprised if he stabbed me in the back. The thought burned more than it should have. I had been a fool. A trusting, naïve fool.

Chapter 3

            “Wait,” Rylion commanded, an edge of authority in his voice that hadn’t been present before.

            I froze.

            Rylion once again walked to my side. A cloud passed overhead, washing us in shadow. I clenched my hands into fists and held my breath, ready for the confrontation. I was still thankful for his assistance on the side of the road, and a part of me wished I had never discovered it was all a ruse.

            “Do you want to hurt people?” Rylion asked. “After you turn, I mean.”

            Yes.

            That was what I almost said, but I bit back the answer.

            I hated them. I hated the people who tried to use me for their own gain. I hated the people who wanted me dead. I hated the world for its rules and its curses. Maybe, if they knew suffering under the heat of my fire, then they would be sorry.

            And sometimes I tasted the rage as it boiled beneath the surface of my thoughts, threatening to dominate my actions.

            I had to remind myself I didn’t want to harm anyone. I didn’t want to become the very thing I hated. My loathing was born from a lifetime of mistreatments—I knew that. It tainted my perceptions, like a dark veil forever covering my eyes. I didn’t want to despise myself, but some days I found it difficult.

            I felt broken beyond repair.

            “Artemis. Do you want to hurt people as a Forsaken?”

            “No,” I forced out.

            “Then wouldn’t it give you peace of mind knowing you won’t? Knowing that we’ll be there when you turn? That you won’t live life as a monster?”

            I stared at the road, watching the wind carry flecks of dirt into the shrubs.

            I hadn’t given it thought—the fact that I might live a life of twisted agony as a monster. That I might harm more people with my savagery. I had thought turning would be like dying. That I would cease and the monster would take my place. I didn’t know for sure, and Rylion’s point stood.

            “That’s how Thea and Steen feel,” Rylion continued. “That’s why they travel with us.”

            “Thea and Steen?” I whispered. Their hunting group was made of people who were cursed?

            “Yes. When they turn, we’ll be there to slay them too. And in some ways, hunting the Forsaken brings them a bit of redemption.”      

            All the new information got me pensive. I didn’t know there were bands of hunters made of cursed individuals. There would be a sense of security knowing my end would come quick.

            “And if I decide to leave?” I asked.

            “I won’t stop you.”

            I choked up.

            Really? He would let me leave? Did that mean he really saw me as a person first, and a bounty second? How would I ever know?

            I unraveled the scarf from around my neck and held it out.

            “Keep it,” Rylion said.

            With unsteady hands, I wrapped the garment back around my neck. The road stretched out before me, and I exhaled before continuing forward. I listened as I went. Rylion didn’t move, not until I was more than a hundred feet away. When he turned, I heard the clink of his steel armor and the rustle of his chainmail cloak.

            He was letting me leave. After giving me so much.

            And he hadn’t asked for anything in return.

            I stopped and clung to the scarf. People had always expected things of me. My mother had wanted me to look a certain way, act a certain way—use my magic for her. My father had wanted my mother’s favor, so he had trained me in magic and done as he had been told, manipulating me when I had come to him upset. My other family members had wanted my magic for themselves. The god-king and his Holy Guard wanted me dead. Hunters wanted my mark so they could collect their coin.

            And the world wanted me to become a monster, if my curse was any indication.

            Yet Rylion asked nothing of me? Not a single thing?

            I turned around and jogged back down the road, the burning of my blistered feet momentarily subdued by my determination to be with him. I had to know what made him different.

            When I reached his side, the cloud passed, and we were once again bathed in the glory of the sunlight. He smiled and welcomed me with a clasp to the shoulder.

            But a heinous screech shattered the peace.

            I knew the sound. It was the Forsaken, coming our way.

            Rylion raced back to the cart, his focus on the far end of the road. I followed behind, hesitation in my step. Another soul-rending screech and my heart rate doubled. At the fork in the road, where the path disappeared behind a foothill, a merchant horse emerged, chased by a wicked creature running on many legs. 

            No, the creature didn’t “run,” it flew across the ground with lightning speed, far faster than any animal or man. And of course it would. The Forsaken had ten spindly legs with sharp claws that tore through the dirt and propelled it forward. It was a black reptile, elongated like a snake, but with the weight of three stallions. Its malevolent golden eyes, unblinking, focused straight ahead. The slits of its irises reminded me of a snake.

            The monster ran with its mouth open, its maw soaked in blood—flesh and dismembered human limbs hanging between jagged fangs.

            The Forsaken never slept. The Forsaken never grew full. They hunted for flesh, not because it sustained them, but because their fell magic compelled them to.

            The reptile monster chased the stray horse with a bloodlust beyond comprehension.

            The worst part—more disturbing than its speed or slithering movements or insatiable appetite—was the human face jutting out of the monster’s skin. Every Forsaken had it… the face of their human self… somewhere on their body. It was a face frozen in time, twisted in horror and agony. This Forsaken had a man’s face bursting out of its forehead, right between the bulging eyes, and the face’s mouth hung agape in a silent scream.

            Oh, gods, it was close. I took a few steps back, uncertain of my role.

            The Forsaken caught the horse with a powerful crunch of its jaws. The mare lost her back legs from the force of the bite—the whinny that followed pained the ears. With only two legs, the horse writhed on the road, attempting to flee. The Forsaken lunged forward. With six of its ten legs, it vivisected the mare, ripped out her intestines, and gobbled down the innards with a sick gurgle as it filled its gullet.

            Rylion moved forward and unsheathed a short sword from his belt. He stood behind the spiked chain and secured the top of his cloak to his shoulders, creating a heavy cape.

            It didn’t take long for the Forsaken to finish its victim.

The thin woman, Thea, led our animals to safety.

Wulf and Osmund climbed on top of our now horseless cart, a good seventeen yards from Rylion. Wulf held a short yew bow nocked with an arrow, while his father knelt and uncovered the last of the cart’s cargo. He hefted a large compound bow, one with axles and a complex string system for powerful shots. It was nearly five feet from top to bottom, and the entire bow, even the axles, was carved from pure white bone. The silver bowstrings, taut and thin, glittered in the sunlight. I had never seen such a majestic weapon outside of the god-king’s armory.

            The Forsaken dashed toward the cart, stepping over the last shreds of the mare’s fresh corpse.

            “It’s coming,” Wulf announced as he took aim with his smaller yew bow.

            Half a second later, he let loose an arrow. It whistled through the air and struck the Forsaken deep in its left golden eye. The organ popped, like a swollen pimple, spewing pus and blood across the dirt road.

            The monster screamed, its long tongue thrashing out of its mouth, but it barely slowed. Wulf nocked a second arrow, drew, and fired. The arrow slammed into the other eye, ripping through the soft flesh. The eyeball ruptured, leaving the creature blind and infuriated.

            And yet the Forsaken continued forward. It rushed over the spiked chain, tangling four of its ten legs in the dubious trap. The beast persisted, bleeding and cutting itself as it went. It snapped its fangs and was close enough that red spittle splattered across Rylion’s armor.

            Rylion stepped forward and swung his sword up with both hands. He cut into the Forsaken’s throat, slicing through twisted scales and severing arteries. Despite the massive gouge in its flesh, the monster fought on. It slashed Rylion with two claws, but the metal pauldron on Rylion’s shoulder protected him. When the Forsaken snapped and bit, Rylion ducked under its jaw and stabbed into its shoulder, pinning it back with his weapon.

            Unable to see, the creature thrashed and rolled, lashing out at every angle. It struck Rylion twice in the process. His cloak and armor held fast, but the bash of the creature’s limbs left Rylion bruised and bloodied in a matter of seconds. Still, he withdrew his sword and stabbed again, keeping the beast from charging forward.

            Rylion was protecting the cart.

            Wulf continued firing his arrows, but they never pierced the monster’s scales.

            I gritted my teeth, unsure of what to do. The four other hunters in our party stood with the animals far from the fight. They watched, rapt, and held their weapons close. But none of them looked like they could face the Forsaken. I had my magic, but how potent would it be in my weakened state? Then again, how long could Rylion stand against this monster?

            Rylion dug his heels into the dirt, holding the Forsaken in place despite the creature’s ravaging attack.

            Osmund nocked a bone arrow in his massive bow.

            When he pulled back on the draw string, I heard the strain of the weapon—Osmund’s arms shook, and he clenched his jaw in solid concentration. The draw weight of the bow must have been intense. Normal bows required five to thirty pounds of strength behind the draw to send an arrow flying. Osmund’s bow must have needed seventy to a hundred pounds, and that was just to get it fully extended. He held the string at full tension for two seconds before releasing.

            The arrow pierced the air, not with a whistle, but a screech.

            Perhaps the arrow would have torn through the monster’s body, had Osmund not missed. The arrow continued far down the road, barely losing height as it traveled at a disturbing speed. Osmund cursed under his breath and nocked another arrow.

            He had missed? At fifty feet? He must have had the gods’ disfavor.

            The Forsaken bashed Rylion and sent him hard to the ground. Rylion got up—one foot, then a knee, then the other foot—his fatigue plain for the world to see. He was strong, not many could match stances with the Forsaken, but the brief encounter had left him drained.

            With one snap of its jaw, the monster ripped Rylion’s cloak from his shoulders. The Forsaken thrashed its head from side to side, attempting to rend the garment through sheer force. The cloak never broke, or even tore, and Rylion used the distraction to pick up his sword and ready himself.

            I couldn’t stand it. Osmund struggled with his second arrow, and Wulf’s continued shots hit the Forsaken, but without effect. Couldn’t they do something more? Would they let Rylion die to this monster?

            I rushed onto the road, despite the cries of the other hunters for me to halt. I got close to the Forsaken, its foul odor of blood and rot stinging my nose. When Rylion swung again, the creature deflected the blow with a swipe of its claw, slicing open Rylion’s arm in the process.

            He dropped his sword, and I knew he would be ripped to ribbons. I lunged for the blinded beast.

            “Artemis, stay back!” Rylion shouted.

            I slammed a single hand on the creature’s side; the pulse of the monster throbbing under my fingertips.

            My magic was divine—a gift straight from the gods of old—and its divinity overwhelmed the fell magic the Forsaken were made of. Even a brief second of my fire was enough to melt the hide of the beast, destroying organs and bones alike.

            Flames erupted from my palm and washed straight into the monster’s body. If I were stronger and not starved, maybe I could have done more, but the short burst of fire required all my energy. The flames liquefied a fourth of the monster’s body, its blood boiling and spilling onto the road by the bucketful.

            I fell to one knee afterward, my breath shallow and my hands shaking.

            The Forsaken lashed at me with its tail, like a horse swatting a fly. I hit the bloody mud on the road, my side burning in agony. I took some satisfaction in the pained cry the monster let out. The hole in its side continued to gush blood as it curled in on itself to protect its new vulnerability.  

            The screech of Osmund’s arrow cut through the Forsaken’s screaming—and then the arrow found its mark, piercing so deep into the creature’s monstrous skull that only half the shaft was visible once it landed. For a strained moment, the creature froze up. It twitched twice, stumbled around, and exhaled a putrid breath.

            The Forsaken crumpled into a puddle of its own blood, its body massive enough to cause a splash. After a groan of agony, it died. Silence soon followed. Even the clouds in the sky held still as the creature settled with a slump.

            I staggered to my feet, shaken, but relieved.

            “Artemis!” Wulf jogged over. “Are you hurt?”

            I glanced at my blood-soaked clothing and cringed. It took me a moment to remind myself it wasn’t my blood—it was the monster’s. I would be bruised from its attack, but I wasn’t wounded.

            “Out of the way!” Osmund said with a grunt.

            He pushed me and Wulf aside and walked over to the corpse of the Forsaken. Rylion joined him, and so did the last woman—the tall one with the long, ebony hair whose name I hadn’t heard. Osmund turned the creature’s head and examined the frozen human face jutting through the scales.

            The woman placed her palm on the forehead of the face, her thumb over one eye, and her fingers over the other. “You have paid for your sins, and now the gods will take you. May your good deeds be remembered.”

            “May your good deeds be remembered,” Rylion and Osmund intoned in unison.

            I was surprised to hear them offer a prayer. Most just burned the bodies of the Forsaken, not a hint of deference in their actions.

            The woman removed her hand and motioned to Rylion. Despite his bleeding arm, he hefted his sword and plunged it into the forehead of the Forsaken. The monster’s flesh around the human face sunk in and sputtered blood. After a quick circular cut, Rylion dug his hand into the creature and lifted out the skull of a man, the face affixed and stretched over the bone.

            Not white bone, but black bone, a sign of the cursed.

            Wulf took the skull and ran it back to the cart. The black skull was all that was needed to claim the bounty for killing the Forsaken. The rest of the creature was to be disposed of. It was the same with the cursed—taking the skin stained with the spiderweb marking was enough, the body needn’t be intact.

            Wulf placed the bloody object in a thick leather sack and closed it tight. Osmund whistled for the others and they returned with the horses.

            “Will we bury him on the side of the road?” Rylion asked.

            “We don’t have much of a choice,” Osmund replied. “If the god-king has a problem with it, he can come dig the thing up himself.”

            I stared at the gruesome corpse. “You won’t burn it?”

            “No. It’s disrespectful. We always bury the bodies. They’re back with nature then. Back to the true mother.”

            “But the god-king has decreed them evil and without redemption.”

            Osmund grunted and turned away, his lips pursed. Had I offended him? Without another word, he walked off. I didn’t ask any more questions, but a piece of me wondered why they followed the ways of the old gods. Ancient teachings spoke of the curse being a punishment for otherwise good people, and that once a Forsaken died, they were once again a person worthy of joining the gods in a divine kingdom.

            But the god-kings and god-queens claimed the opposite. All those who broke the decrees were forever damned. There could be no redemption.

            Rylion stared at the monster for a moment and then turned his attention to me. I held my breath, ready for when he would confront me about my magic. He had been the only one close enough to witness the fire erupt from my palm and sink into the Forsaken. Even if he hadn’t seen, wasn’t he curious? I had obviously hurt the beast, but I carried no weapons…

            His staring left me guilty, as though my continued silence was an act of subterfuge.

            “I’m sorry,” I muttered, unable to think of anything else. I couldn’t tell them. No one was supposed to know.

            Wulf jogged back to us and glanced between me and Rylion. “What happened?” he asked. “What caused the Forsaken to curl up like that? Everything flew by so fast.”

            Rylion shook his head, dismissing the comment. “We should focus on cleaning up and then be on our way.” He held up his bleeding arm and showed Wulf where the Forsaken had sliced part of his metal gauntlets. The beast’s razor claws had known no equal.

            He had kept my secret. Rylion had helped me at every turn. I hoped my attack against the Forsaken was, in some small part, the start of my repayment for his kindness.

            “Rylion!”

            I turned and spotted Thea riding a horse to the road, her caramel hair practically glowing in the afternoon sunlight. The animal stopped before it was within twenty feet of the fallen monster, and I didn’t blame it. If the skull wasn’t removed from the body, the Forsaken were known to rise again, sometimes empowered by the rage of their counterfeit death.

            Thea leapt off the saddle and rushed to Rylion’s side. She took his injured arm and immediately withdrew bandages from her satchel to tend to the bleeding.

            “I was so worried,” she said, her voice gentle and demure, but laced with a breathless anxiety. “These monsters get more perilous as the years go on. I’ve never seen one that big, or fast.”

            “I’ll be fine,” Rylion said. “Thank you for your concern.”

            He placed a hand atop her head—their difference in size highlighted. He must have been a foot and a half taller than she was, and three times her weight in muscle mass alone. As if aware of those facts, he touched her gently, stroking the length of Thea’s hair with his knuckles.

            I couldn’t articulate why, but I disliked the sight. I turned away, my chest tight. Anger was a familiar companion. I hated how often it took hold of my thoughts, however. I tried to calm myself by walking away.

            “Come!” Osmund shouted from the cart. He threw shovels to the other hunters. “We have a hole to dig! We need to get this done if we’re going to continue to Mount Regel.”

***

            The setting sun engulfed the sky in a blaze of orange and red.

            Our hunting party continued on the road, already half a day behind schedule. They had dug fast, even Rylion, despite his sliced arm, but the Forsaken was too big for a normal grave.

            I faced Rylion. He fiddled with his heavy cloak while Wulf walked along next to him. Both brothers had dried blood stains across most of their clothes and skin. Everyone wanted to press forward, however, rather than bathe, so we did.

            Wulf caught me staring. “I’m surprised you got involved,” he said with a smile.

            I nodded. It occurred to me I hadn’t spoken much to Wulf, despite his pleasantness. I took a deep breath and said, “I’m impressed with your aim.”

            My statement came off stiff and forced, but Wulf smiled widely regardless.

            “Thank you. I practice every day.”

            “Your father should as well.”

            I hadn’t meant to sound so harsh and judgmental, but what else could I have said? Osmund had jeopardized Rylion’s wellbeing with his faulty aim. He should have practiced more.

            “My father has bad eyes,” Wulf replied with a shrug. “Things are blurry for him, he says.”

            “Why don’t you shoot his bone bow, then? It seems more effective than your tiny one.”

            “Me? Wield his bow, Calavandi? I can’t. It’s much too heavy. I tried, but I can’t draw the strings.”

            That made sense. Wulf was smaller than his father, albeit taller. I turned to Rylion. “Why don’t you shoot your father’s bow? Surely, you would have no problems.”

            “My eyesight isn’t much better than my father’s,” Rylion replied. “Things are blurry at a distance. It makes for poor aim.”

            Wulf laughed. “I’m the lucky son. Perfect eyesight, just like my Uncle Bryn. I can hit a bird midflight up to a hundred yards away.”

            Impressive. Still, it was unfortunate that one son would get the brawn and the other clear sight.

            Through the shadowy sunset, a glimmer of blue light caught my eye. My heart sank the moment I recognized the King’s Stone. They were stationed all over the Kingdom of Luka, but I had hoped to avoid them. The King’s Stones were tall pillars of black obsidian with the god-king’s decrees etched into the side. The words glowed with a faint blue light once the sun set. Anyone could see the glow from half a mile away, even in harsh weather.

            As we approached, the group turned toward the stone. If we wanted to make the best time, we should have headed straight for the mountain, but alas, we did not.

            “What’re we doing?” I asked.

            Wulf pointed to the King’s Stone. “We should pray here and check to see if the god-king has issued any more decrees.”

            “He doesn’t make new decrees often,” I said, curt.

            “Yeah, but you can never be too careful. We need to know what they are so we don’t get cursed.”

            I knew he didn’t mean to insult me. Still, it irritated me, even if the fear was completely rational. 

            If anyone in Luka broke any decree, they became cursed. And then, be it fast or prolonged, they transformed into one of the Forsaken. The punishment was unwavering. No exceptions.

            The horses drew the cart to the base of the black obsidian pillar. The structure was fifteen feet high and four feet wide on every side—the perfect square pillar with corners rounded enough not to cut. The glowing blue words shone with the god-king’s decrees, in ascending order from when they had been given. At the base of the pillar was the first decree uttered by God-King Eliezer—the same first decree made by every new god-king.

Cursed be the man who commits regicide.

            And the next two decrees were similar to other god-kings, but not always repeated.

Cursed be the man who disobeys the god-king’s direct command.

Cursed be the man who emigrates from the Kingdom of Luka.

            If the citizens couldn’t kill the god-king, or disobey the god-king’s orders, and couldn’t leave the god-king’s realm, he had total control until he died and the next god-king took the throne, or so the reasoning went.

The next two decrees were also standard fare.

Cursed be the man who commits matricide.

Cursed be the man who commits patricide.

            I once had asked my tutors why the god-king didn’t craft a decree that forbade all killing. The tutors told me that was too rigid. No one would want to serve in the god-king’s armies if there were a decree that forbade killing. I supposed the tutors were correct—and so the only three people a person could not kill were the god-king, their mother, and their father.

Cursed be the man who lies with another before marriage.

Cursed be the man who lies with an animal.

Cursed be the man who lies with a corpse.

Cursed be the man who lies with the Forsaken.

Cursed be the man who lies with a child less than the age of ten.

Cursed be the man who commits adultery.

            God-King Eliezer had always been disturbed by odd stories of the bedroom, especially the thought of unfaithfulness. His decrees on the matter didn’t surprise me in the least.

Cursed be the man who steals from a member of the god-king’s court.

            Very specific, but it, too, didn’t surprise me. He couldn’t forbid all stealing, not when the punishment was on par with death itself. A simple stolen thimble wasn’t worth the rise of a Forsaken. The roads of Luka would become clogged with corpses.

Cursed be the man who herds another’s livestock and sells them for money.

Cursed be the man who does not make good on a debt within five years’ time.

Cursed be the man who drinks in a tavern after pledging himself in service of the god-king.

            All god-kings and god-queens had civil laws meant to keep the kingdom in functioning order. They weren’t always as specific, but God-King Eliezer had made it clear he thought his citizens should trust each other when it came to sheep, cattle, coin, and his personal servants.

Cursed be the man who hunts the summer lioness.

Cursed be the man who hunts the pronghorn.

Cursed be the man who hunts the golden warbler.

Cursed be the man who hunts the moonlight starling.

Cursed be the man who hunts the silver hare.

            The last five decrees were gifts. God-King Eliezer uttered a new decree for each subsequent wife he took, giving them each the power to forbid one animal from being hunted. The silver hare was his current wife’s favorite animal, and the beast was mounted on all her family’s banner flags.

            I wondered how long the list would grow. God-King Eliezer seemed to be running out of patience when it came to his wives bearing him a child. He didn’t care about the gender or health—he just wanted a child. His previous queen had only lasted eighteen months.

            Osmund walked to the pillar and placed his hand against the side. Divine magic coursed through the cold stone—reading wasn’t required to understand the decrees. Once an individual placed their hand upon the pillar, the intent became clear, straight to their thoughts. No word games or semantics could be played to get around it. When the decree stated a man could not “lie” with another, the King’s Stone conveyed the sexual intent, not the physical act of lying side by side. When the decree stated a man could not “hunt,” the King’s Stone conveyed the requirement of killing the animal, not just stalking it through the woods. And when the decrees stated “man,” it meant all of mankind, not restricted to a specific gender.

            Once Osmund had his information, he pulled his hand back and ambled to the cart. Rylion and Wulf gave the King’s Stone a long stare before joining their father. I stood a bit longer, staring at the text.

            “You’re cursed, aren’t you?”

            I tensed. The man standing next to me was a member of our hunting group—Wulf had said his name was Steen. His oak-brown hair was slicked back, and the stubble on his chin and neck seemed to have gotten thicker over the course of the day. I had yet to say a word to Steen, and this was how he greeted me? Talking about my curse? I narrowed my eyes and returned my gaze to the pillar. I didn’t have to answer him.

            “I know you are,” Steen said under his breath. “Rylion always treats us cursed a little differently than he treats normal folks.”

            Again, I remained quiet.

            “You know I’m cursed, too, right? I’m sure one of the others has told you by now.”

            I glanced around. The sun crested the mountains in the distance, and purple darkened the height of the sky. A few peddlers and travelers rested not far from the King’s Stone—forty, fifty feet away. Less than ten people, but still enough to spread rumors. Steen kept his voice low, and I doubted anyone had heard, but I wished he wouldn’t even voice his thoughts.

            “I stole from a man,” Steen said as he laced his fingers together and placed his hands on top of his head. “I didn’t know he belonged to the god-king’s court. That was five years ago, back in the City of Gourna.”

            I held the red scarf close. Steen shared Wulf’s lean frame, but he didn’t hold himself like a warrior. I vaguely remembered Wulf saying something about him being a crafter or a cook, but the details eluded me. I wished Steen would leave me alone.

            “What did you do?” Steen asked. “To become cursed, I mean.”

            “I don’t know,” I said, hoping the man would be satisfied.

            Steen glowered. “You don’t know?”

            “No.”

            “Was your crime that bad? So awful you can’t talk about it?”

            I offered the man a glare. “I was born cursed.”

            Steen snorted and then laughed once. He shook his head. “That’s rich. You must think you’re real clever. I should start using that too. I didn’t break any of the god-king’s decrees—I was born cursed!” He chuckled, though in a mocking, cruel sort of way that got under my skin.

            I had touched ten different King’s Stones and read over his decrees more than I would have cared to admit. Nothing offered me an explanation for my cursed state. Nothing. It was a mystery that had plagued my thoughts since I had been old enough to grasp the situation.

            Steen’s response wasn’t a surprise. No one ever believed me, save the people who had known me all my life. But that number dwindled with each passing day.

            The heavy beat of hooves accelerated my heart rate.

            The nearby peddlers and travelers pointed to the far end of the road.

            A man ran toward us, but he didn’t last long. Soldiers on horseback chased him down, the lead soldier going so far as to slice open the man’s back with the edge of his halberd. Once the man hit the dirt, the warhorse stomped down, crushing bones and splattering the road with gore.

            The soldiers weren’t local city soldiers, militia, or even hunters, like Rylion—they were the god-king’s Holy Guard, the most elite soldiers in all of Luka—soldiers tasked with killing the cursed and the Forsaken.

            The merchants backed away from the sight, but a few cheered for the violence.

            “Kill the cursed,” one woman said with a chant-like tone. “They’re evil!”

            “Evil,” another merchant agreed. “Vile!”

            The soldier who led the Holy Guard, the one who had cut down the fleeing man, was someone I recognized. Alexavier Lowell—the kingdom’s Scourge—a warlord in charge of carrying out the god-king’s punishments.

            He was the one who had led the hunt for me after my father had been killed.

            He was the man who had cut off my shirt and told me I could “have a head start” before he would come looking for me.

            Unfortunately, my divine fire didn’t burn his flesh, no matter how many times I had tried.

            I jogged back to the cart, sweat soaking my blood-stained clothes.

            I hadn’t thought Alexavier would find me here. I thought he had gone in the other direction, toward the bustling cities along the trade routes.  

            Wulf and Osmund glared at the Holy Guard, tense in every regard, but Rylion looked me over with a keen eye. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Nothing will happen while we’re around.”

            “They’ve come to kill me,” I whispered, almost tripping over my words in my haste to speak. “Me specifically. They know who I am. That’s why they’re here.”


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