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Authors: Kelley Armstrong

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BOOK: Forest of Ruin
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“I'll go,” Moria said. She moved in front of Tyrus and faced the emperor, no one stopping her now that her hands were bound, her dagger on the ground. “I've said I'll go, and I'll do it alone.”

“No,” Tyrus said. “You—”

She turned to him. “I cannot get out of this. You know I cannot. Find Ashyn for me. Please.” She looked into his eyes. “That's what I need you to do. Make sure she's safe.” She walked to him, passing between the men holding him still, and pressed her lips to his. “Please.”

“No,” the emperor said.

“What?” She spun on him. “My sister—”

“—will be found by Goro Okami's men.”

Tyrus stiffened. “If you think I would pursue Moria—”

“He won't,” Moria said. “If he gives me his word that he'll go straight after Ashyn, then there is no doubt he will.”

“Just because he stays away from Alvar Kitsune does not mean he'll be safe. He's been branded a traitor.”

It was
Tyrus
who had been betrayed, by an imperial warlord. But the only witness to return to the imperial city claimed the prince had been seduced by Moria, and that he'd fled the battlefield after leading his men to certain death.

The emperor continued. “With a bounty on his head, I'll not have him roaming the lands.”

“I am a man, not a child,” Tyrus said, his voice chilling. “Perhaps you forget that. I can do as I wish.”

“Not if your emperor commands otherwise.”

“And if my emperor acts as a father and not a ruler?”

“He acts as both.”

Tyrus leaped back. The move was perfectly timed—the warriors had been intently following the conversation. They were caught off guard. Tyrus's sword swung up, hitting one blade and then a second, and both were knocked free of the men's grasps. Then he swung on the third, but the warrior was already in motion, the one quickest to recover, his sword firmly in his hand. Tyrus's blade caught him in the side, not quite piercing the armor, but Tyrus yanked it free and danced back, ready for another—

Moria heard the
thwack
of the dart before she saw it coming.

Tyrus pitched forward. “No.” He staggered, turning on his father. “No. You would not . . .”

“I would,” Emperor Tatsu said softly. “To keep you safe.”

Tyrus fell, and Moria knelt beside him. Tyrus's eyelids fluttered as he struggled to stay conscious. She gripped his hand, and he squeezed hers back.

“Take . . .” he whispered. “Take . . .”

His eyes closed. She leaned down and kissed him.

“I'll take care,” she whispered. “You know I will.”

She started to rise. Something hit her shoulder. A dart. She pushed up, turned on the emperor, and thrust her bound hands at him. “Was this not enough?”

She bore down on him, her feet tangling under her as the sedative took hold. One of the men moved as if to stop her, but Emperor Tatsu waved him back. He stepped toward Moria and caught her as she fell. As he lowered her to the ground, she said, her words slurring, “I am no spy.”

“I know,” he whispered.

“You do not wish me to spy on Alvar Kitsune, do you?”

“No,” he said, his lips to her ears as she drifted from consciousness. “I wish you to kill him.”

THREE

A
shyn stared at the man. Pale-skinned and white-haired, he had tribal tattoos of dragons on his cheeks. Not imperial tattoos like Tyrus's, but rather the intricate art of the North. His eyes were golden with slitted pupils. Dragon eyes. Then he blinked, hard, and the illusion vanished—his eyes were as blue and clear as hers.

“Ashyn,” he said gently, when she didn't respond.

“You're my . . . grandfather?” she said.

He nodded. “Did your father not mention me?”

“He did not speak of my mother's family. Or his own. Once, when Moria asked, he said . . .” She swallowed. “He said it was another life. Best forgotten.”

“Yes, I can see that he would. Safer for all, given the circumstances.”

The circumstances. Their mother's suicide. Taking her
own life to protect their father's. To ensure her daughters would not grow up orphans.

Except now they were. Not merely orphaned but without any family at all. Ashyn had spent the past moon trying to forget that. There were other things to worry about.

Yet now . . .

“My grandfather,” she said slowly.

“Edwyn, if that is easier.”

“Do I have . . . ?” She was about to ask if she had other family. A grandmother. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. But that only made her think of the family she did have—namely the sister who was not here. Her gaze went to Tova, the giant yellow hound sitting at her side. Her thoughts moved slowly, still lost in the fog of the sedative.

Sedative. A noxious-smelling cloth shoved over her mouth and nose. Frantically fighting to be free, seeing a boy, slumped on the ground, arrow lodged—

“Ronan.” Ashyn looked up sharply. “There was a boy—a young man—with me, felled by an arrow. Did you see him? Did you—?” She stopped short and her hand went for Tova, who rose, growling so softly only Ashyn could hear him. “The arrow. That was you. You shot him and—”

“No, child. We were following you, but Lord Okami's men felled your escort, and we took you before you were hurt.”

“Escort? No. I mean, yes. Ronan
was
escorting me. But he's a friend. A good one.” Her heart thumped so hard she could barely get out the words. All she could think about was Ronan, on the ground, that arrow—

“Did Dalain Okami take Ronan or . . .” She swallowed
again and forced out the words. “Did you see if he lived?”

Edwyn did not answer. He simply looked at her, studying her expression.

Ashyn turned to go. Then she froze and gaped at her surroundings, her mind still fogged, having forgotten exactly where they were. In a cave. A cave that contained the skull of a dragon.

The skull of a dragon? There
were
no dragons. Creatures of myth, lost in the distant past, or perhaps never having existed at all beyond collective imagination.

Like thunder hawks and death worms. Creatures of myth, now made real by Alvar Kitsune. And dragons . . . ?

Questions for later. Actions for now. That's what Moria would say.

“I must go,” she said. “I need to find out what happened to Ronan.”

“He lives,” Edwyn said. “We have him.”

“What? Why didn't you say so?”

“He is not well, child. The outcome is uncertain.”

Ashyn struggled for breath. “He might not survive?”

“The wound should have been mortal. Only swift intervention ensured it was not immediately so. But he has lost a great deal of blood and his heart is weakened. I hesitated to tell you we had him, because I am not certain we will have him for much longer.”

“I—I need to see him. Now. Please.”

“You say he is a friend.” Edwyn studied her again. “Is he more?”

Ashyn felt her cheeks heat, but she could say with honesty,
“No, he is simply a very good friend. He came with us from Edgewood.”
From the Forest of the Dead, actually. Where he'd been exiled as a criminal.
But she was not explaining that. “He escorted me across the Wastes. He was with me here as we sought to reunite with my sister and Prince Tyrus.”

“That seems very attentive for a friend.”

“Prince Tyrus hired him to accompany us.”

Edwyn frowned. “A friend who takes money to escort you?”

Frustration lashed through Ashyn. It was too much to explain, and she should not have to explain at this moment, perhaps not at any moment. As naive as she might have been leaving Edgewood, she was no longer that girl, and yet she had absolutely no doubt of Ronan's loyalty.

She channeled her sister, straightening and saying, “Ronan is my friend and I wish to see him,” though Moria would have said something more akin to
Take me to him now
, with one hand resting on her dagger hilt.

The sterner tone seemed to startle Edwyn. Then he laughed. “You are indeed your mother's daughter. I will send word to the healer, and after we've dined—”

“I will not be able to eat while a friend lies near death.”

He nodded. “I understand. Come, and then we will return here to speak. You must have many questions.”

Outside the cave, Ashyn found herself on a path, looking
down
at the forest. She gazed up at the sparsely wooded rocks rising toward the sun.

“These are the Katakana Mountains,” she said.

“Yes.”

“That's . . .”

“Home of the Kitsune clan. I know.” Edwyn motioned for her to go ahead of him on the path. As they stepped out, two hooded figures joined them. Edwyn paid the men no mind, and they fell into the rear, as guards.

“This is not the place I'd wish to be,” Edwyn said. “Not now particularly, but not at any time. I know what Alvar Kitsune has done, and I count myself in the small portion of the empire that is not the least bit surprised by any of it. Not that he survived his exile in the Forest of the Dead. And not by the rumors I've heard, of what happened to your village and your father.”

Ashyn glanced back quickly.

“Yes, child, most of the empire may know nothing of what transpired in Edgewood, but my sources are excellent. Alvar Kitsune raised shadow stalkers to massacre your village. Is that correct?”

She nodded, her chest seizing with grief as she thought of it. Tova pushed at her hand, and she patted his head.

“I heard the story, and I did not doubt it for a heartbeat. I know exactly what sort of man Alvar Kitsune is. I've known for thirty summers—since he put my village to the torch.”

“What?”

Edwyn motioned for her to turn on the path ahead. When she did, he continued. “Our family originally came from a town not much bigger than your Edgewood. It was called Silvershore.”

“I've not heard of it.”

“You won't. It has been erased from time and memory. An inconsequential town that fell in the conquest of the North.” Edwyn waved for her to head upward with the path. “Jiro Tatsu and Alvar Kitsune were still young warriors, looking to make names for themselves. Fearsome warriors and closest companions, but very different men. They split their forces that day, on the former emperor's orders. Have you heard of Icewynne?”

“My father mentioned it. A pretty town on the side of a snow-covered mountain. He took my mother there when they first married.”

Edwyn smiled. “Yes, I recall that. Icewynne is indeed beautiful. That is the town Jiro Tatsu conquered. He rode in, demanded their surrender, put a few objectors to the sword, and captured the town. It pledged fealty to the empire, and he left it exactly as he'd found it. Over in Silvershore, Alvar Kitsune also rode in and demanded surrender. Then he put
every
objector to the sword, along with a few dozen innocents as a lesson in resistance. The town begged for mercy. He accepted it and made as if to leave. I was hiding with your mother and my wife, and as he rode past, I saw him throw sorcerer's fire into the livestock enclosure. The straw and the wooden buildings caught flame, and the town burned. Then Alvar told the emperor we must have burned our own town in spite, so the emperor ordered Silvershore razed and stricken from all history books.”

They climbed a particularly steep section of the path in silence, and Ashyn looked back to see if Edwyn was having difficulty, given his age, but he didn't appear to be winded or
struggling. When they reached a flatter section, he continued speaking.

“When Alvar Kitsune was exiled, I was more pleased than I ought to admit. I would certainly prefer
not
to be on his ancestral lands. However, as you may have noted, that dragon skull is embedded in the cave wall. Unmovable. This, then, has become one of our sacred places, despite the proximity to an old enemy.”

“Sacred places?”

He smiled. “More on that soon, child. For now, there is a cave opening hidden just ahead. Inside, you will find your friend.”

If Edwyn had not told her that Ronan lived, Ashyn would have believed she was viewing his corpse, laid out for her to send his spirit to the second world. He lay absolutely still on the straw-filled pallet. His brown skin looked as pale as hers. His eyes were closed and dark-lidded as if bruised. She had to take his hand to feel his pulse, and even then, the chill of his touch sent one through her. As she lowered his limp hand back to the pallet, Tova whimpered.

A woman crouched beside Ronan's supine form. She wore a thin cloak of hemp weave. Her hood was pushed down, revealing a woman perhaps in her fourth decade, with graying yellow hair. The healer, Ashyn presumed, along with another older woman who seemed to be her assistant. Ashyn did not want to bother the healer, who was busy, but when she asked the assistant about Ronan's condition, the woman didn't lift her gaze.

“She does not speak the common language,” Edwyn said. “The North may have been conquered three decades past, but for many of the small settlements, that is their protest.”

“Not learning the empire's language?” Ashyn said, looking over. “One would think that would be more hindrance than help.”

He shrugged. “People do what they can to retain some power when most of it has been stripped from them. I am not particularly opposed to life under the emperor. We feel he often forgets us, likely because we have little to offer but snow and ice, but he does send warriors to protect against the tribes, and wagon trains of rice to sustain us during the long winters, so I offer him my fealty and learn his language. Others do not.”

Ashyn went to examine the bandages around Ronan's neck. The assistant jumped then, as if to stop her, but halted at a word from Edwyn.

“Is the wound closed?” Ashyn asked.

“Yes, it has been sewn. The problem is the loss of blood.”

“Then he needs fluids. Water may not replace blood, but it does aid in its replenishment.”

“You know healing, child?”

“Mostly from books. Battle healing is one of a Seeker's responsibilities.”

“Ah, I will admit that I know little of your position. There has never been a Seeker in the North. It is an imperial custom.”

She turned, frowning. “But it's not a
custom
. Moria and I hear the second world, at least when the spirits choose to communicate. I can soothe spirits and Moria can banish them. That is not merely training.”

“Perhaps, but it is not the gift of
every
twin girl either, is it? Only those the empire allows to survive.”

Ashyn nodded and turned back to Ronan. The empire was a place of both kindness and cruelty. Right now, she needed to focus less on that and more on her immediate corner of it.

“Has he woken to receive liquids?” she asked.

“No, he has yet to regain consciousness. Which is the problem with replacing his fluids.”

She leaned over and laid her hand on his forehead, clammy and cold beneath her fingers.

“Ronan?” she said. “It's Ashyn. Can you hear me?”

No response.

“If you are conscious but too weak to open your eyes, can you let me see you move?”

Still nothing.

“He is deeply unconscious,” Edwyn said. “We have not witnessed so much as a flutter of movement since he first passed out.” He said a few words in another language to the woman, and she nodded, confirming that.

“He is as well as he can be, child,” Edwyn said. “Now, if you'll return with me to the other cave, I will answer your questions and tell you what we have planned. Then you may come back here and sit with him.”

“It's real then,” Ashyn said, running her fingers over the eye socket of the dragon skull. It protruded from the wall, as if mounted there, but upon closer inspection, it was indeed embedded in the stone itself.

“It would be difficult to manufacture such a thing,”
Edwyn said with a dry laugh. “Although, to be honest, people have tried. We've been summoned to verify remains of dragons, only to discover they're bones from an ancient cave bear or even parts carved from soapstone. But something of that scale, I assure you, is impossible to fake.”

He was right. The eye socket alone was as big as her head, and she had to reach up to touch it. The teeth were each larger than her handspan. Some were missing, and she could feel wear on the intact ones, less sharp after a lifetime of ripping apart prey. She shuddered at the thought. Moria had told her about their horrific fight with the thunder hawk, and this creature would be larger still. One chomp of its great jaws . . . Ashyn might not have her sister's imagination, but she could still picture a man sliding down that massive gullet in a single swallow.

BOOK: Forest of Ruin
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