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Authors: Kelley Armstrong

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TWELVE

D
on't look!

Moria's voice seemed to scream the words in her ear, and Ashyn couldn't process what she was seeing, only knew that she should not look, that she could not look. The fox was long gone. She glanced back at Tarquin. At what remained of Tarquin. The darkness covered some but not enough, certainly not enough to leave any doubt that he was dead. That the boy she'd just been speaking to, the sweet Northern boy who'd helped her free a fox, now lay in pieces—

Run, my lady.

The words whispered all around her, as if from every side. Tarquin's voice. His spirit's.

Run, my lady. Please run.

Ashyn saw the shadows forming again, taking the shapes of beasts with red eyes, and she did not spare a moment to
consider what she was seeing. She heard Tarquin's voice, his urgent whispers, and she ran, and even as she did, she didn't think of what she'd seen, but sent up prayers for Tarquin's spirit, to ease his passing and guide him to the second world.

She continued to run, uphill now, toward the caves, Tova behind her.

What are you doing? Don't run!

That was Moria's voice again, from deep in her mind.

Don't look. Don't run. Black shadows. Red eyes.

Not shadow stalkers. That's what she'd thought at first, remembering another forest, another attack, another shower of blood, when the shadow stalkers had killed Ronan's uncle. These were not shadow stalkers.

Don't look. Don't run. Black shadows. Red eyes.

Fiend dogs.

Ashyn exhaled a ragged breath as panic filled her. Fiend dogs. Another spirit-driven creature of legend, like shadow stalkers. Yet not like them at all. Fiend dogs were the spirits of warriors who'd been damned for cowardice, forced to spend their afterlife in the form of shadowy hounds. To look at them meant death. To run from them meant death.

There was nothing to be done now, no way to avoid her fate, if Moria's old stories were true.

All of Moria's old stories were true. Why would this be any different?

She thought of Tarquin. Ripped apart by shadow dogs. There was no question. If they caught her, they would kill her.

Yet they had not caught her. While she was not a fast runner, they were still at her heels.

No, not at
her
heels. At Tova's. They were not passing Tova.

Hound of the Immortals, possessed by the spirit of a great warrior.

Fiend dogs were shadow hounds possessed by the spirits of cowardly warriors.

There was some answer there. Some reason they were not attacking him or passing him to get to her. The reason mattered not, only that she could keep running, escape to the . . .

Escape to the caves? To the others? To Edwyn? To Ronan? Lead the fiend dogs to them?

When she slowed, Tova nipped her hand. Telling her to keep going, keep running. She looked around for another option, but Tova growled, warning her not to look, and a fiend dog appeared, right at his side, its red eyes flashing. In the shadow she saw a hound begin to take form and she wrenched her gaze away. She veered to the side, leading them away from the camp, but ahead, she heard voices, someone shouting. Then, “Ashyn!”

It was Edwyn. A snarl sounded behind her. Not Tova. The fiend dogs. She caught a glimpse of shadows in the forest beside them. The fiend dogs circling around, realizing there were other targets ahead, easier targets.

“No!” Ashyn shouted. “Begone, spirits! I command you, begone!”

Even as the words left her mouth, she knew they were a waste of her breath. Banishment was Moria's power, not hers.

Moria, where are you? Why aren't you here? I can't do this without you. I can't do any of it without you.

“Ashyn?” Edwyn called again.

“Go back!” she shouted. “Into the caves. Fiend dogs. There are—”

“There are
what
?” yelled another voice, and she said it louder but she knew it would do no good. It was like saying a dragon was attacking. Worse, because her grandfather and the others believed in dragons.

Ashyn continued running in the direction she'd heard Edwyn's voice. There was no need to lead the fiend dogs away now. The damage had been done.

“Don't look at them!” she shouted. “Don't run from them. Just get back into the caves.”

And do what? Cower with their eyes shut? Tarquin had barely glanced at it, before it ripped him apart. If that was all it took, how did anyone survive?

Someone screamed. A terrible scream that told her the fiend dogs were upon them.

“Into the dragon cave!” Edwyn shouted. “Retreat to the cave! Do not run. Do not look at the shadows. Do not look at the eyes. They are—” He said a word Moria didn't know, a word in some other tongue, and someone shrieked, not with pain but with terror.

“Do not panic!” Edwyn roared. “I can hold them off! Do as I say and you will live.” Then, “Ashyn! Can you hear me, child?”

“I can.”

“Follow my voice. I know how to deal with such beasts, but I need your help to escape them. Focus on me and follow my voice, and if you see the shadows, banish them.”

“That is Moria's power. It is not—”

“Do it, child!”

Ashyn kept running. She glanced back, but there was no sign of the fiend dogs. They'd circled around to attack the others. She did not know the way to the dragon cave, certainly not in the dark, but she continued following Edwyn's voice as he spoke in another tongue. Using magics.

Her grandfather was a sorcerer?

Finally, she could see him ahead, standing in the mouth of a cave . . . surrounded by fiend dogs. She stopped short just as Tova was grabbing for her cloak.

“Ashyn?” Edwyn said. “Is that you?”

She swallowed. Would the fiend dogs come after her if she spoke? She was trying to decide what to do when Tova barked.

“Listen to me, child. I'm going to do something that will scatter them, but only for a moment. Do not look directly at them. When you see them disperse, come to me as quickly as you can without running.”

Tova barked again.

Ashyn waited with her trembling hand on the hound's head. He nudged her reassuringly. Edwyn started to speak in that foreign tongue again, his words rising. When they hit a crescendo, the shadows seemed to break apart, as if blasted by a gust of wind.

Ashyn moved quickly toward the cave. She'd run before and if she was doomed, then she was doomed, but this wasn't the time to panic Edwyn by running. When she finally reached the cave entrance, the fiend dogs were re-forming. Edwyn pushed her into the cave, telling her he could handle this now. Tova stayed outside with him, growling at the fiend dogs as
Edwyn continued working his magics.

There were seven others inside the cave, the remaining members of their party and the other warrior. When Ashyn saw the healer among them, she looked about frantically.

“Where's Ronan?”

No one answered. There was not enough room in the cave to hide an unconscious young man.

“Where is Ronan?”

“He's safe, my lady,” the healer said.

“Is someone with him?”

“There was,” the warrior said, and the others gave him a hard look.

“He is fine, my lady,” the healer said.

“The elderly woman. Your assistant. Where is she?”

Silence.

Ashyn remembered the scream. That terrible scream. And the warrior's words—that someone
had been
with Ronan.

The warrior grabbed Ashyn's arm as she made for the cave entrance. “You cannot leave, my lady. Your young man will be fine. He cannot see the creatures nor run from them. He is safe.”

Do you know that for certain? For absolutely certain?

They didn't know and couldn't care. Ronan was not important to them. Only to her.

Moria would storm out against their wishes. Yet Ashyn was coming to accept that she could not be her sister, and it was not a failure of nerve. It was a difference of inner composition. They might look identical without; they were not identical within. Running to Ronan's side would do little except make
her feel better. It would not save him. It might even kill him, if she brought the fiend dogs with her.

Instead of trying to flee, she stepped out behind Tova and attempted to calm the spirits, and while she was not convinced it did any good, Edwyn encouraged her efforts.

When the fiend dogs had finally dispersed, one of the women came up behind her and whispered, “You are covered in blood, my lady,” and when Ashyn looked down, she saw she was speckled and splashed with Tarquin's blood. Her throat tightened and tears filled her eyes as she said, “Yes, I am.”

“Tarquin . . .”

“I—I'm sorry. We—there was a fox. Injured. We heard screams and—”

The woman squeezed her hand. Edwyn reached out and drew her into an embrace, in spite of the blood.

“He died as a warrior,” Edwyn said. “In our faith, as in the empire's, that means his spirit will be honored in the second world.”

Ashyn nodded. “I heard his spirit depart. I said prayers for it, but I wish to say more. First, I must check on Ronan.”

“I will send someone—”

“No,” she said, walking from the cave. “I will do it.”

“It is not safe yet, child.”

“If it is safe for others, then it is for me.” She could tell he was going to argue the matter, so she broke into a run. Edwyn tried to come after her. Then the warrior cried out and Ashyn looked to see a shadow lunging at Edwyn. A fiend dog. But hadn't they been dispersed?

“Back in the cave!” Edwyn shouted. “Everyone get inside! Ashyn!”

She turned away and pretended not to hear him. That would have been difficult a moon or two ago. One did not disobey one's elders, particularly family. Yet now she assessed the situation. The fiend dog was intent on Edwyn and the others, and the beasts had already proven that Tova made them uneasy. So the chances of the fiend dog abandoning the others to come after her were minimal. Edwyn could handle it.

As terrifying as fiend dogs were, they'd been easier to handle than she expected, perhaps because of Edwyn's magics. She slowed to a fast walk, to avoid running, but she continued on up the path that led to Ronan's cave.

The old woman lay right outside of the cave mouth. Ashyn did not look closely. She saw blood and she saw a limb, and that was enough. She kept her gaze averted and told herself that she was stepping over stones and branches. Finally, she burst into the cave and . . .

Ronan was gone.

She heard a low moan, and Tova dashed ahead and ran to a dark shape in the rear shadows.

“T-Tova?”

Ronan's voice came thick and fractured, and Ashyn raced over to find him on the cave floor, the blanket wrapped and twisted around him. She dropped beside him and he turned to her and he smiled. No, more than a smile. He grinned for her.

“Ash.”

She kissed him. On the forehead, but a kiss nonetheless, and as much of an embrace as she dared give in his condition. That's when he noticed the blood.

“You're hurt,” he said, scrambling up.

Ashyn held him down. “It's not mine. You're the one who's
been injured. Badly. The blood is not yours either, though. We . . .” She took a deep breath and felt grief surge as she thought of Tarquin. She pushed that back. “Later. We're safe for now.” A glance at the cave entrance, where she could see parts of the old woman beyond.
Reasonably safe.

His hands rose to his bandaged throat. “The arrow.”

She nodded. “You've been unconscious since then.”

“Okami . . . There was a young warrior. Dalain Okami. Is that who . . . ?” He squinted about the cave. “Where are we?”

“The Okamis didn't take us. They shot you, but someone else . . . It's a long story. We're safe, and you're awake and alive, and that's what counts.”

“Hopefully if I'm awake I'm also alive. But I suppose these days that's not a given, is it?”

She struggled for a smile. “Sadly, no. Now, lie back down. Help will come soon. I'll get you water. You must be thirsty.”

When he didn't answer, she stopped looking for a waterskin and turned to him. “Ronan?”

“Sorry, just . . . Something about being thirsty. I was dreaming . . .”

“That you were dying in a desert? I don't doubt it. You must be parched. Probably famished, too, but we'll start with water.” She found the skin near his sleeping pallet. “Here, I'll help you.”

She opened it and held it out. He motioned that he could handle it and took the skin. After one gulp, he spat it out and made a face.

“The water's fouled.”

She sniffed at it. “There is a smell, but I think it's from the skin. Perhaps it wasn't cured properly.” She capped it and set
it aside. “I'll get you more once I'm certain the fiend dogs are gone.”

“Fiend . . . ? Did you say . . . ?”

“She did,” said a voice from the entrance. Edwyn walked in. “I see you're awake. That is a relief. To us, but especially to my granddaughter. She was greatly worried.”

“Your grand . . .”

“There are dragons, too,” Ashyn said. “Well, only bones here, but we're going to see a sleeping dragon. Then I'll wake it to fight at the emperor's side.”

She had to smile as Ronan rubbed his hands over his face.

“I'm still asleep, aren't I?” he said.

She took his hands, just to pull them down, but he gripped her hands and squeezed and quirked a smile for her.

“So . . . dragons now?” he said.

“And fiend dogs.”

“I think I'll prefer dragons.” He tugged her to sit beside him. “All right. Tell me the whole story.”

THIRTEEN

W
hile Ashyn talked, the healer came in and tried to insist that Ashyn leave while she examined Ronan, but he refused to let her go.

“If she leaves now, something else will happen and the story will only take longer.”

“It will be but a few moments, my lord.”

“I'm not—” he began, and then looked at Ashyn.

“Ronan is from a warrior family,” she said, which was technically true. “His does not rank high enough to be accorded the title of lord, though.”

“Ronan will do,” he said. “But Ashyn's not leaving until she's done with her tale. Given that it is my neck that's injured, there's hardly any impropriety in you examining me with her watching. She's trained in battle healing. She can assist—while she talks.”

Ashyn did that, filling Ronan in on everything that had
happened since his injury, even as she assisted the healer with his care.

The fact that the arrow had penetrated to the side, hitting neither his windpipe nor his spine, meant there was no damage beyond the wound and the loss of blood. In other words, he was weak and ought not to exert himself, but the danger had passed and he'd suffer no long-term effects beyond a scar.

“I'll follow Tyrus's lead in this,” Ronan said with a faint smile, “and tell myself a scar will make me more dashing. Even if it doesn't require an eye patch.” He winked at her then, and she laughed, remembering their reunion in the Wastes, when she'd teased him about rogues requiring eye patches.

“If that is all,” Edwyn said, “the young man needs to rest, child, and you and I need to discuss our new plans, in light of what has transpired.”

“I need to see to Tarquin . . .” She swallowed. “To his remains first. They must be buried, and before that, I wish to say words to put his spirit at peace. I know that is not your way, but it is important to me.”

Edwyn nodded. “It is also our way, and his family will be honored. We will do that then, as soon as we have spoken outside.”

“Speak here,” Ronan said. “As Ash's guard, I ought to be privy to any plans.”

“You are hardly in any shape to function as her guard, my son. Rest, and when you've recovered, you can—”

“I've recovered enough to stay by her side,” Ronan said. “Which I will, particularly now, after what happened to the guard you assigned.”

“It was not Tarquin's fault,” Ashyn said.

“I do not mean to minimize the tragedy of his death,” Ronan said. “But he wasn't up to his task. You require better. You require me.”

“You have a high opinion of yourself,” Edwyn said dryly.

“No, I have a high opinion of the danger Ash faces, and I don't trust anyone else to understand it. Clearly your guard did not expect fiend dogs.”

“No one expects fiend dogs,” Ashyn said.

“True, but at least you and I expect the unexpected.”

Edwyn cleared his throat. “Perhaps so, but I still ask—”

“No,” Ronan said. “If you wish to have Ashyn, you must take me as well. As her guard. At her side. Always.”

Edwyn's brows rose. “Are you her guard? Or her
guardian
? To suggest that you would prevent her from helping me, when she clearly wishes to . . .”

“Ronan speaks brashly,” Ashyn said. “He is a warrior. It is their way. He knows he cannot determine my path for me. Yet I will insist he stay at my side, as my personal guard. I presume we'll be moving on as soon as your scouts . . .” She looked between the two of them. “And that doesn't matter now, does it? We cannot wait for the scouts to return with news of Moria. Fiend dogs mean Alvar Kitsune is near, which means we must flee, quickly, before he sends something else after us.”

“Or comes himself,” Edwyn said. “Yes, we must presume that the creatures are his work and that they were sent to attack us and allow his men to capture you, which would explain why you were not attacked. We must leave. Quickly.”

“We will,” Ronan said. “But as we go, I want to know more about these dragons. How far is the journey? How long will
this require? Because I know Ash's main concern is her sister, and while duty to the empire will take her along with you, she will not wish to be gone far or long.”

Ashyn glanced over with a faint smile, thanking him for saying what she dared not.

“Come then,” Edwyn said. “I'll explain as we pack.”

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