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The Shattered Sylph
By L. J. McDonald
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 L. J. McDonald
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Ceremony of Bringing, as it was called in the jungle kingdom of Yed, was held in a great domed building with spectator seats rising in tiers. For most of the summonings there were only a handful of people watching, but this was a call for a battler and everyone was curious to see the woman die. The seats were full. Another reason for their attraction was the fact that the sacrifice was a voluptuous, soft-eyed blonde, her gaze stupid and uncomprehending even as she was carried in and strapped to the blood-stained altar, the crowd cheering at the sight of her nudity.
The man who'd been chosen to bond the battler she would draw stood at the foot of the altar, waving with a smirk at the crowd. He was dressed in the finest of clothes, a red cloak of silk around his neck despite the heat. He wore sandals on his feet and a thin golden crown on his forehead. He didn't look much brighter than the sacrifice.
Leon stood in the shadow of a servants' passage off the summoning floor. Dressed in a plain linen shift, he carried a covered tray and waited with the rest of the domestics. Once the ceremony was complete, wine and cheese would be served in celebration, though only to the participants. The audience would have to be content with merely watchinggovernment-sanctioned murder.
Murder. That was all it was, and it was a type of murder Leon had once engaged in himself, to his eternal sorrow. There were six types of sylph: water, earth, air, fire, healing, and battle. Most were lured through the gate from their own world with simple objects that appealed to their natures. They bonded to the men who called them, forced to forever obey their master's orders and feed from their energy, many even being passed down through generations of a family. The sylphs actually liked the arrangement, being single-minded creatures starved for attention. They received that attention from their masters, along with their binding gifts.
Battlers were different. What appealed to their natures was women, but when they came through, the women were killed, leaving the battlers bound unwillingly to murderers who would name them and force them into a lifetime of servitude they couldn't escape until their masters died. Leon had done exactly that, accepting a command to kill a girl in order to gain a battler. In time, he'd learned how wrong that was and what he'd really done to the creature he bound. He'd also learned what the battlers actually wanted, what in Sylph Valley they now got: willing women to be both their masters and their lovers.
In the rest of the world, battle sylphs were rare creatures, hard to control and feared by the populace for their violence and unending hatred. In the Valley, having what they truly desired, they didn't feel hate at all. When Leon had left for this mission, there had been nearly fifty of them-which horrified every other kingdom. Battlers were incredibly destructive, a single sylph able to wipe out entire armies. Not knowing how the Valley did it, their neighbors struggled to increase their own supply of battlers in the traditional, bloody way. The rumors of that happening in Yed were why Leon was here now.
Spread around a summoning circle, priests chanted and swayed, building up the energy needed to open the gate. The circle was already starting to glow, and the low-level prince, who probably never would have received a battler if it weren't for the Valley, raised his arms in triumph. He was almost dancing on the dais, grinning for the crowd the same way he'd been smiling all week, announcing in every bar and marketplace that he was the next chosen, as though there were still anyone who didn't know.
"Don't overdo it," Leon murmured, watching through a lowered brow. He couldn't go out there, though. A single servant would be noticed immediately on the shiny floor, and there were also guards inside, lined up against the back wall.
Above the circle on the dais, a second disk appeared in midair, a portal shining with different colors while the crowd sighed. On the altar, the girl simply blinked up at it, and Leon wondered if she was drugged. She barely reacted at all as the prince loomed over her, raising his dagger high in anticipation.
The chanting grew louder, the disklike gate changing from red to green to blue to black. From there it shifted to a noncolor, and the crowd roared its approval. The prince stared upward, as did his sacrifice.
Everyone held their breath: on the other side of the circle was another world, and something was peering through. An air sylph would be drawn by music, a fire sylph by art, an earth sylph by something being built, and a water sylph by something growing. A healer, the rarest sylph of all, would be drawn by someone needing true healing. But a battler? He would be drawn only by the promise of love-a promise betrayed in the first instant by a killer. Leon burned with the old shame.
It was pure luck whether what you offered would appeal to the sylph on the other side of the gate. Only another sylph could tell what lurked there, and with the exception of those in the Valley, all were bound to silence. Leon had no idea if the right kind of sylph was looking through at all, or if this gift of a woman would be rejected and the summoners would have to try again another day. It could take months or even years to find a battler, no matter what the priests promised. But Leon didn't dare take the chance. The girl hadn't been his mission when he first arrived in Yed, but she was now. Even if this attempt was a failure, he had to get her out.
The prince was yelling in triumph, pumping his arms above his head, and the crowd was cheering again. Something came through the gate, and Leon inhaled as he felt it, for no other sylph radiated this kind of aura. Huge and incorporeal, the battler looked like a black cloud laced with lightning, eyes glowing red, while black wings made of smoke arced out to either side. He came through the gate, cooing lustfully at the girl as she squirmed, staring back up at him. Purring, he reached for her.
"Now!" the lead priest called. "Do it now! Kill her and bind him!"
That's how it was done, how it had always been done. This time, though, the prince threw down the knife and turned. He looked out at the priests, the idiotic happiness gone from his face, and started to change.
"Don't do it," Leon breathed, knowing his partner could hear him.
His words went unheeded, which was no surprise. From face to feet the prince changed, growing taller, his hair lightening to blond, his eyes paling to gray. Anger twisted his expression and hate flared out, the loathing of a battler in a full rage. The priests gaped in momentary shock, the crowds screaming, and then the man thrust out both arms.
A wall of destructive energy flashed forward, slamming into the line of priests with vicious force and turning them into chunks of quivering meat, passing through and slamming into the guards who'd been lining the walls, blowing them backward as well, though by then much of its strength had been spent. In the stands, the crowds screamed in terror, scrambling over each other in their drive to escape. Chaos took control of everything, while on the altar the new battler cooed and tried to figure out how to mount the sacrifice.
Leon yanked the cloth off his tray to show the short sword replacing the cheeses he was supposed to be carrying. The servants with whom he'd been standing had already fled, which was good; he wouldn't have let any of them stop him from running out into the hall, racing on sandaled feet toward the altar.
He was in fantastic shape, but was still forty-seven years old and no match for all those guards that his battler hadn't killed. A few of them looked as though they'd only been stunned, and more would come in response to the fleeing spectators. Ril had managed to kill all of the priests, though. Without them, no more sylphs could be drawn, which meant no more battlers for the kingdom of Yed-which wasn't their mission, but Leon had always been an opportunist, and Solie had admitted that she didn't want them to be a threat anymore.
He reached the dais and altar. On it, the new battler was trying to gnaw through the blonde girl's ropes without hurting her, and Leon had a moment to wonder just how idiotic the thing was. Apparently, shape-shifting into a human form hadn't occurred to him. He was still smoke and lightning, unable to make physical contact.
For now, Leon ignored him. His own battler lay sprawled on the stone at the foot of the dais, one hand trailing on the floor.
"Ril," Leon gasped, kneeling beside him. "Get up."
Ril just groaned. He was a battler, but he'd been injured badly in a fight six years before, only surviving thanks to the efforts of a healer sylph named Luck. His ability to use his own powers was severely restricted as a result. His recognition of those limitations was even more incomplete. Leon never would have brought him, but even if the battler hadn't needed to stay close enough to feed from his energy, Ril had given him no choice, and for the sake of his pride, Leon agreed. Besides, Ril was the only Valley battle sylph with a man for his master except the queen's battler Heyou, who also had a male master, though one even older than Leon and in no way interested in intrigue. To bring a healthy battler along would have meant bringing a female, most of whom were middle-aged widows, and none of whom was prepared for the kind of danger this mission entailed.
But neither was Ril. Leon breathed his sylph's name, shaking his shoulder. "Come on, wake up." He wanted to push his energy at the battler but didn't know how. Half the time he couldn't even feel Ril draining him unless Ril took too much, and for the last six years the sylph hadn't needed much at all.
Up on the altar the new battler screamed in growing disappointment and more than a little desperation. Ril shifted, groaning and opening his eyes. He processed Leon's smile in a daze and pushed himself up onto his hands. "I guess that took a bit much out of me," he admitted.
Leon didn't reply. Just changing shape took nearly everything Ril had, and was excruciatingly painful as well. Leon would have forbade him to do it again if he hadn't sworn never to give the battler another command, and if they hadn't needed him to become the prince to get close to the priests and the girl.
As the only ones in the Valley with any experience at the job, the two of them had come to gather intelligence on Yed and determine the kingdom's actual threat. They'd already done the same in Para Dubh, and even in their original home of Eferem, where Leon had needed to be very careful while setting up a small spy network, just in case someone recognized him. That had left Ril to do most of the work. They'd spent months at a time away from home on these jobs, but it was necessary. Sylph Valley was a new kingdom with no real allies; they needed all the information they could glean. Battle sylphs were a tremendous equalizer, but there were ways to cripple a kingdom despite them. Ril had just done so, after all.
Their mission had now changed. They had to save that girl, and because she had a battler, she and her sylph had to be taken back to the queen.
Carefully, Leon pulled Ril to his feet. He turned to the altar, very watchful that he made no threatening moves. Battlers didn't generally like men, and if this one felt threatened ... Then again, the sylph hadn't felt threatened by Ril committing mass murder three feet away.
The girl was staring up at the battler, her chest heaving. She was a gorgeous thing, but from the look in her eyes was either drugged or not terribly smart. Given he was still trying to bite through her bonds, neither was her battler. He could shape-shift into anything he wanted, but all he'd done so far was try to turn into a solid version of himself. That gave him real teeth and a mouth, but he couldn't use them effectively, as he was flopped off the edge of the altar and had no legs.
Slowly, Leon reached out and put his hand on the girl's gag. "Name him," he whispered. That would complete the bond and make her the battler's master. She blinked at him, and he pulled out the gag.
"What?" she gasped.
"Wat," the battler purred.
"Oh, that's just perfect," Ril groused. "And I thought Heyou was a stupid name."
"I gather your kind has its morons, too," Leon commented. Ril just shrugged, watching a few of the guards, who were stirring by the wall.
"Who are you?" the girl whimpered.
"Wat!" Wat said.
"My name is Leon Petrule," Leon told her, cutting her wrists and ankles free from their bonds. Grabbing Ril's cloak, he handed it to her so she could cover herself. "This is Ril. We need to get you out of here."
"Why?" she asked. Her lip was quivering and tears shone in her eyes.
Ril looked over his shoulder at her. "They want to stab a knife in your heart and turn him into a slave." He jutted his chin out at Wat. "Now tell him to make himself look like a human, and both of you come with us."
"We'll take you somewhere safe," Leon added. "You have to trust us."
The girl looked at him uncertainly, and then at Wat. "You can do what they said?"
Wat thought about it. "Yes," he said slowly.
Her eyes lit up. "Oh! Can you look like my first boyfriend?" Ril rolled his eyes, and Leon had to resist the urge to slap a hand over his face.
"He can't look like someone he hasn't seen, girl. Just tell him to look human."
"Oh, okay. Look human."
Wat blinked and shimmered, condensing into an average-looking man, much like one of the bodies lying nearby. Like her, he was completely naked.
"Wow," the girl breathed. "What's your name?"
"But what's your name?"
"We don't have time for this!" Leon shouted. The stunned guards were starting to push themselves upright. Ril didn't have the power anymore that he used to. Once, he would have been able to wipe out the entire hall, but now he didn't have much left for a second shot, and Leon didn't dare ask Wat to do anything. Not if it required actual thought.
"Like calls to like, I suppose," he muttered, helping the girl down before grabbing her by the arm and towing her across the floor. Wat followed docilely.
"And what does that say about you and me?" Ril groused, bringing up the rear.
"You want something?" Wat asked.
They went through the servants passage in which Leon had waited, the girl whining fearfully the entire way. Leon was careful not to let go of her, or to let Ril fall too far behind. He wasn't entirely sure if human weapons could kill a battler, and he had no desire to find out. Wat stayed close to the girl, nearly tripping over her, and Leon had to bite down the urge to tell him to back off. This did not look to be an easy trip home. At least the battler didn't seem threatened by any of them. Leon suspected he was too stupid for that-which was actually a lucky break for them, at least for now.
As a group, they ran down the corridor into the building's kitchens, Ril locking the door behind them. The subsequent corridor led past pantries and cold-storage rooms filled with ice, now seemingly deserted. Leon was pretty sure there were still a few servants in hiding, but so long as they stayed that way, he didn't care. He kept his sword ready though, just in case. He couldn't be positive there wouldn't be more guards, either. There had been very little time to plan this mission. Their biggest advantage was that no one was expecting it. Leon already had ideas for changing the Valley's summoning ceremonies as a result. They only had a handful of priests themselves, and none of them were ever guarded.
For now, he focused on escape. He wasn't an expert on the layout of the building, but he did know the corridor they were in would bring them outside and behind. But while the door had been left open during the ceremony, now he sucked in a breath as he saw that someone had locked it behind them when they fled. Leon cursed. The girl only stared dumbly, while Wat started rubbing himself up against her. Distressingly, she didn't seem to mind much.
Ril stepped forward. "Move," he growled, pushing his master back.
Excerpted from The Shattered Sylph by L. J. McDonald Copyright © 2010 by L. J. McDonald. Excerpted by permission.
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