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Authors: Stephanie Bedwell-Grime

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The Deadwalk

BOOK: The Deadwalk
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The Deadwalk
The Deadwalk

The Deadwalk Bedwell-Grime, Stephanie

The Deadwalk
CHAPTER ONE

 

The battle axe split the ground inches from his head.

Too close. Much too close. Bevan scrambled to his feet. It swung again, this
time striking the stone wall behind him, showering him with gravel.

He caught a glimpse of a slack-jawed face, one glazed and clouded eye. The
other eye...

Bevan didn't want to think about that, but he couldn't help it. The sight of
the mutilated eye, a stake of amber protruding from the empty socket was forever
engraved in his mind. Whatever happened, he couldn't let them catch him.

He ducked under the arm. A flap of foul-smelling cloth brushed across his
face. He choked. Fighting nausea, he bolted back down the alleyway and into the
open square.

The sight nearly stopped him cold. Blood carpeted the marble steps to the
throne palace. A trail of bloody footprints led to the bonfire in the main
square where all of value that couldn't be carried off was heaped and set
aflame. Acrid smoke drifted in ghostly columns. Burning air caught in his
throat. Having no other choice, he sucked it into his lungs anyway and forced
his feet to keep moving.

Dying cries rose in an unearthly chorus. Pleas for mercy, abruptly silenced.
The roar of flames consumed all. Bevan cast a furtive glance behind him.
Clutching hands emerged from the fog. His assailant lurched mindlessly toward
him. A low moan issued from its flaccid lips as flattened lungs labored to make
a sound.

Bevan skirted the fountain, rushing past rows of thatched huts that now
burned like flaming torches. His only hope of salvation lay in making it through
the city gates. But he could barely make out the line of the circular wall
through the drifting smog. And in his mad dash he'd lost all awareness of
direction.

He darted down a narrow street, praying to every god in the pantheon of The
Seven Heavens, that it led in the right direction. Looking back over his
shoulder, he watched his assailant turn down the street after him, as if it knew
before he'd decided which way he was heading.

The street spilled him back into the square. Bevan uttered a raw cry of
defeat.

Blocking his passage was a virtual army of the things! He sagged against the
wall. Behind him, his assailant lumbered mindlessly after him.

Bevan uttered a fervent prayer. To anyone's gods. It had ceased to matter
whom he prayed to. As if catching his scent on the smoke-laden air, the horde
turned toward him.

Ivory ribs striped the remaining threads of their clothing. Dried blood
encrusted gaping wounds made by swords and maces. Jaws worked awkwardly. A flat
cry rose from their ranks. Dead staring eyes leered at him from soot-covered
faces. Gleaming monacle-like from each right eye was a flash of amber.

The clatter of hooves drew Bevan's gaze past them. A troop of plumed and
armored riders emerged from the smoke. The black and red standard of Hael furled
past them.

At the center was a rider more decorated than the rest. His helmet boasted
the thickest plume. The hilt of his sword was set with jewels. Blue eyes bored
out from under his visor, calmly surveying the carnage.

Prince Doan-Rau. Bevan's hope evaporated. A cold stab of utter terror shot
through him. Dead or alive, they wouldn't catch him, he vowed. He wouldn't let
them do what they'd done to Zolan.

The Prince barked an order. On that signal, the ghouls surged forward.

Bevan looked up. Several feet above him, a clay drainpipe slopped its
contents into the steaming gutter.

He leapt for the drainpipe. His fingers closed on thin air. With a jarring
thud, he landed back in the alleyway. Robbed of the luxury of time to catch his
breath he jumped again. Hot terracotta seared his hands.

He shrieked in pain, but forced his blistered hands to grasp the pipe anyway.
The roof offered the only venue of escape. If he failed, if he fell, they'd make
him one of those things. He swung a leg. Abused stomach muscles protested,
throwing off his aim by several inches. He made another try for the rooftop. His
boot grazed the edge.

Something seized his other ankle, hauling him downward.

He wrenched his leg from its grasp. His boot dropped to the cobblestone with
a dull thud. Tightening his grip on the burning pipe, he summoned his strength
for a last desperate lunge at the roof.

A loud crack broke through the muttering of the horde below. With a final
swipe, his hand clutched the edge of the roof. But his fingers found no purchase
in the smooth tile. In horrified fascination, he watched the tracks of his nails
inch closer to the edge.

Screaming, he plummeted into a sea of smothering, clawing hands.

The first blow knocked the world askew. Blood, hot and sticky gushed down the
side of his face, soaking his tunic and his breeches. He hadn't known there
could be so much.

He couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. Voices, those horrible dull moans echoed
through his mind. Cold raced inward toward his heart, bringing with it a thick
blanket of darkness. Beyond pain, he felt only the expanding pressure of the
thin stake of amber being hammered through his right eye.

While his brain lay slowly dying, Bevan felt his body coming back to
life.

 

 

 

 

 

The Deadwalk
CHAPTER TWO

 

“Damn!”

Riordan impaled a tuft of grass with her broadsword. “I almost had him.” She
plunged it deeper into the soft earth. “How could I let him get past my
guard?”

With a groan of defeat, she thrust Nhaille's sword into the grass beside her
own and glared at it in disgust. The chore of cleaning weapons fell to the
loser.

“But I wasn't supposed to lose!”

She cast a quick backward glance at the source of her irritation, finding him
in the jumble of bricks they laughingly called the bath house. Freezing water
cascaded over his bare chest. Muscles clenched against the cold. At another time
she would have been interested in this blatant display of maleness.
Kayr-Alden-Nhaille was a handsome man, even at twice her age. During her exile
she'd had few opportunities to observe men up close. Lately, she'd found her
attention wandering to thoughts of romance. But on this evening, thoughts of
revenge and victory crowded out primal urges.

Furiously, she replayed the match in her mind. Her footwork was beyond
reproach, strategy her best ever. The match should have been hers. Would have
been, but for that last overly-confident move. Nhaille had seen quickly through
the false bravado and promptly dispatched her.

Her hand strayed to the ragged tear in her padded leather practice vest. It
hurt surely enough, but not as much as her pride. The dire purpose behind the
match had ceased to matter and become instead a matter of her own dignity. She
lusted after that sweet rush of triumph. More than ever she wanted to beat him
at his own craft.

“I just want to see the look on his face!” Riordan smiled with great relish.
“I'll make him polish my sword until it gleams.”

But the King's Captain was not about to lose for her encouragement. The fate
of a nation was at stake, as he was so fond of reminding her. An age-old
prophecy named her its savior. On that flimsy possibility, her youth vanished
into an endless chain of summers spent training for its inevitability.

“Prophecy be damned!”

Riordan yanked off her helm and ran a hand across her face. The May evening
was unseasonably warm. Casting a furtive glance to ensure she wasn't observed,
she undid the cloth that covered her hair. Silver-blonde tumbled over her
shoulders. She unbuckled her vest and tossed the leather down on the pile of
gear. Flopping down beside it, she rested her arms on her knees and stared west
over the countryside toward Kanarek.

Tall spires taunted her from the distance with the promise of urban delight.
Her only knowledge of her birthplace came from one faded map. She memorized the
maze of streets, clinging persistently to dreams of home.

Dusk cooled the evening breeze, drying the sweat that soaked the front of her
shirt. Riordan sighed. She'd best apply herself to the task at hand before the
light vanished altogether.

Black clouds drifted lazily across the swollen sun hanging precariously on
the horizon. The sight brought her back to the present with a jolt. Squinting
into the sunset, she made out the foggy edge of a bank of billowing smoke.
Riordan traced the dark cloud back along its path to...

Kanarek!

Riordan snatched up her abandoned gear. Ignoring the painful protest of tired
muscles, she raced down the hill.

“Nhaille!” The hills threw her voice back at her mockingly.

He emerged suddenly from the bath house, hauling on the shirt that bunched
stubbornly against his wet body. Momentum pitched her forward, nearly running
him down.

“By the Gods, Riordan! What is it?” With a fencer's grace, he sidestepped the
near collision and bit back an oath. Balling his fists against his hips, he
regarded his charge with supreme displeasure. “Must you announce your presence
to the entire countryside?”

Riordan skidded to a halt. “Smoke,” she got out between panting breaths. “On
the horizon. Kanarek's on fire!”

“Impossible,” Nhaille snapped. His eyes flickered angrily from her face to
the two swords that had obviously not yet seen any attention and the practice
vest that dangled from one hand.

Riordan dragged in another breath. “I saw smoke. Huge clouds of it. Really,
Nhaille.”

Nhaille sniffed the air. As though he could see through the hulk of the house
before him, he looked toward the horizon. Perhaps he sensed something in the
air, or maybe her horror-stricken expression got through to him because he paled
visibly. With long strides, he gained the summit in seconds, Riordan close
behind him.

“There,” she said indignantly, pointing out the billowing cloud that was
taking up more of the horizon with every passing second.

He sighted down the line of her arm. Clouds, dyed crimson by the sunset, bled
into the smoke like a festering sore. For several moments neither of them spoke.
With a sinking heart Riordan watched his mouth harden into a grim line.

“What is it?” she asked, knowing it was nothing good if it made Nhaille look
like that. “You don't think...” She couldn't say it, couldn't bring herself to
ask if, after all those years of doubt, the prophecy had suddenly fallen upon
her.

The dying sun tinged his face scarlet as he turned to her. “I don't know.”
Nhaille reached for the sword she still held forgotten in her hands. Buckling it
low on his hips, he started back down the hill. “But I intend to find out.”

Like a shadow, she fled after him.

“Saddle the horses,” he ordered, suddenly taking notice of her. “Just in
case,” he added more gently. He gripped her by the shoulders. “Wait for me
here.” The look on his face invited no protest. “Do not show yourself no matter
who comes to the gates.”

Swallowing hard past the rising lump of dread in her throat, she nodded.
Nhaille strode away from her, disappearing silently into the darkness. For
several seconds she stared in the direction he'd taken, while that feeling of
cold horror spread slowly down her spine.

“Do it now, Riordan,” came his stern reminder.

She came to her senses, realizing she was standing still as if her feet had
taken root. Without a backward glance, she bolted in the direction of the
stables.

Smoke darkened the sky prematurely. Wind rose up, scattering it in their
direction. Strayhorn caught the scent and whinnied nervously as she bolted
through the stable doors.

“Easy.” She patted his ebony flank and wished wholeheartedly there was
someone to reassure her. But he sensed her fear and tossed his head restlessly.
Stormback paced in the narrow confines of his stall, clearly wondering what
lunacy had their mistress contemplating a ride after dark.

“Please don't let it be true.” Her hands shook, she fumbled with the leather
straps of the saddle. “Please let it be a cooking fire that got out of hand.
Anything but the fall of Kanarek.”

Strayhorn stamped angrily, baffled at being saddled and stuck in his
stall.

“Great,” Riordan muttered under her breath. “Now I've spooked the horses.”
She forced the tremors from her hands and petted his muzzle. “It's probably just
a mistake,” she told them in soothing tones, as much to console herself. “So you
two just be patient. I'll be back in a few moments.”

Strayhorn regarded her with one skeptical eye. Riordan raced back toward the
house for supplies.

“Blankets, canteen, rations. Gods what do you pack to answer a prophecy?” She
grabbed the saddle bags Nhaille kept by the back door in case of emergency. “How
can we possibly fight an army that can draft the dead into its service?”

Her hand closed on the hilt of her sword. The cold metal seemed woefully
inadequate against the dire forces legend foretold.

The Sword of Zal-Azaar is our only hope, she heard Nhaille say as clearly as
if he'd been standing next to her.

“Come back soon, Nhaille,” she prayed to Nuurah, Goddess of Mercy. “Tell me
there's nothing to worry about.”

“Gods, what if he doesn't come back?” The thought lingered in her mind. “Why
didn't I listen to him?”

Stubborn, he called her. Just like your father. It had the undeniable ring of
truth. She'd scoffed at his warnings and daydreamed through his lectures. She'd
laughed in the face of prophecy, steadfastly refusing to believe something she
could neither prove nor deny.

“Forgive me, Nhaille. I promise I'll never daydream again.”

Now the prophecy might actually have found its way to her door, her mind was
a whirlwind of disconnected thoughts. Panic clamored for her attention. She
couldn't give in to it.

“Kanarek is depending upon me.”

A deep shudder worked its way from head to toe and she thought of the gory
paintings in the scripture Nhaille kept buried in the root cellar. Drawn in
thick strokes of red, black and gold it showed an army of slack jawed corpses
led by a tall Haelian rider. On the opposite page a silver-haired Kanarekii
warrior thundered down the hillside toward them bearing the legendary Sword of
Zal-Azaar.

A supreme accident of birth named her that warrior.

The trouble with prophecy, Riordan decided, was that no one asked you if you
wanted to be one.

“I can't do this!” she protested to Nuurah, who had long ceased listening,
and ran to fill the canteens.

Boots, armor, a second shirt, an extra knife all went into the pile in the
hall and still there was no sign of Nhaille. That more than anything else made
her nervous. Nhaille was exact to a fault. If he said he wouldn't be long, he
would return without delay.

Something was horribly wrong. The air vibrated with impending disaster.

Giving up on absent gods, she cursed the ancestors who'd damned her to this
fate by every demon in Al-Gomar, The Seven Hells.

Shraal. The pale willowy beings of temple paintings. Shraal who had ruled the
world with their terrible weapons. The soul-stealing Sword of Zal-Azaar was
countered only by the Amber Orb, slivers of which could reanimate the dead.
Shraal fought with Shraal. Shraal destroyed all they built. Tall cities lay in
ruin, the scorched earth barren and wasted. Shraal descendants crawled into the
forest, intermarried until their proud achievements became no more than dim
memory and legend. The Sword and the Amber they hid among the impenetrable
magenta mountains, having lost the knowledge to destroy them.

In a time of great need, so the prophecy said, a princess, thirteenth in line
to the throne of Kanarek would awake the Sword and rescue them.

“Moraah!” Riordan groaned, calling on the Goddess of Courage. “How did I come
to be born under such an unlucky star?”

She'd known the moment she saw those black clouds that the prophecy she'd so
fervently denied had fallen upon her at last.

And destiny, as Nhaille was fond of telling her, was not to be tampered
with.

“I wish I'd listened to you, Nhaille.” A more distressing thought occurred to
her. “I wish I'd listened to my father.”

She'd done everything but, she realized with a pang of regret. During the
long years of exile, she raged against the unfairness of it all, refusing to
mind the lessons Nhaille taught her, lying awake at night plotting her return to
Kanarek. She made only one attempt.

Once, in the hours of early morning, certain Nhaille was safely asleep, she
crept from the house intent on saddling a horse and riding for Kanarek. Nhaille
headed her off at the gates. He said nothing as he hauled her back to the house.
Alone again in her room, she wept in frustration and agonizing loneliness.

When he found her crying, she expected the worst. Normally, the King's
captain was stern to a fault. But that night, he'd taken her into his arms and
held her tenderly.

She could still feel his strong arms around her, the touch of his lips
against her forehead, the press of his muscular body against hers. She'd clung
to him like a child and sobbed until she'd soaked his shoulder.

Still, he said nothing, only held her and murmured her name soothingly.
Eventually, he pulled away, embarrassed, and left as silently as he came.

Shortly afterward, her father came to visit.

He seemed to fill the main hall, towering over her. Her eyes traveled upward
over the fine black boots caked with mud, to the dark green breeches. His
quilted jacket was nicely made. Although the cloak that covered it all was a
nondescript black, the wool was finely woven and lined with fur. His right hand
bore an intricately-carved ring with a flaming ruby at its center. His ring of
office, she realized, gaping openly at this imposing personage who was her
closest blood relative.

Dark brown eyes bored through her, a penetrating gaze made all the more
intimidating by his bushy brows and curly black hair. Her coloring must come
from her mother's side of the family, she thought absently. For some reason she
had always assumed she more closely resembled her living parent. Yet she could
see her own expressions in the hard set of his mouth, and his straight nose was
her own.

Until that moment, she had doubted. She imagined a dozen different scenarios:
that Nhaille had kidnapped her and was yet holding her for ransom, that she was
actually Nhaille's own daughter, got upon some high-born lady, a source of
disgrace.

This commanding presence before her was no doubt the King. And he was most
displeased with his youngest child.

“Have you any idea the dangers I've risked to make this journey?”

Such was his greeting.

Flinching beneath his glare, Riordan dropped her eyes. “I'm sorry, Sir.”

“Your disobedience places us all in jeopardy,” he railed, repeating all that
Nhaille had told her and more. “The entire kingdom of Kanarek depends upon
you.”

Her eyes brimmed with tears, but he continued undaunted. Launching the words
at her like so many spears, he shattered her dream of the loving parent as
surely as Nhaille had botched her plan of escape.

“All I wanted was to come home.”

“That is not possible, Riordan.”

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