In Othir, he was at the top of the food chain—an assassin beyond compare, a dark shadow in the night. But Caim left that life behind when he helped an empress claim her throne. And now his past has come calling again.
Searching for the truth behind the murder and disappearance of his parents, Caim discovers a land in thrall to the Shadow. Haunted by temptations from the Other Side, he becomes mired in a war he does not want to fight.
But there are some things a son of the Shadow cannot ignore, and some fights from which he can’t run. In this battle, all of Caim’s strength and skill won’t be enough. For none can resist the Shadow’s Lure.
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By JON SPRUNK
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2011 Jon Sprunk
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCaim drew in a breath and held it. The bow shaft creaked as he pulled the string back to his ear.
Forty paces away, the target turned his head, but then went back to his meal. Caim measured the distance again, allowing for wind and a slight difference in elevation. The temperature had dropped to near freezing with the sun's setting, which would affect the arrow's flight.
"Still playing around out here?" a voice whispered in his ear.
Caim shivered as Kit passed through him, and then she was beside him. Her hair gleamed like quicksilver in the dying light.
"You're going to shoot without giving him a chance?"
"Don't—" he said as she leaned across his field of vision to look down the arrow.
The mark glanced up again. Caim's hands were cramping from the cold, the bowstring biting into his fingers.
"—move," he breathed.
But it was too late. The stag gathered its legs and leapt away between two leaning evergreens. Snow from dislodged branches showered over its trail. Caim ducked away from Kit and tracked his quarry's movement through the thicket. Time slowed. In the space between two heartbeats, he found the target and shot.
The arrow spun in a tight spiral as the stag emerged from the trees, hooves churning in the deep snow. Caim leaned forward as the arrow and its target collided. The stag's high-pitched squeal startled him when the missile punched into its side. The arrow struck high and behind the foreleg. The stag foundered, but then it took off through the snow. How long could it run? By the brightness of the blood running down its tawny coat, the shot had punctured a lung.
Caim fumbled for his quiver as he ran after it, but the stag raced like lightning through the snow. In another few heartbeats, it would be gone. His breath burned in his chest as the creature passed behind a thick bole. What emerged on the other side nearly caused Caim to stumble in his tracks. It had the rough size and shape of the stag, but its coat was silky black like the fur of a jungle cat. Two slender horns of bone-white ivory rose from the back of the narrow skull. A twinge ached in Caim's chest, and the stag returned, galloping away through the snow. Without thinking about it, he reached out to the shadows gathering in the trees around him. The stag snorted as a ribbon of darkness fell over its face. It slid in the snow, just a momentary hitch in its gait, but that was enough for Caim to draw and fire. The second arrow went high. He shot the third almost without aiming. It looked like it was going to veer wide until the stag blundered into its path. This time the animal fell.
When Caim caught up, the stag was kicking weakly on its side. There was no sign of the strange transformation it had undergone. Caim drew one of the long suete knives sheathed in the harness at the small of his back and put the animal out of its misery. He tied its legs together while bright red blood pumped out into the snow.
Kit floated at his side and watched the animal's last throes. "Did you see the way it looked at you? It was the saddest thing I've ever seen."
Kit continued to chatter as Caim dragged the carcass in the direction of his camp. He hadn't known what to expect when he decided to come north. Eregoth loomed in his memory like a half-forgotten nightmare, but the last Nimean outpost was six days behind them and they hadn't seen another living soul since. Of course, he traveled cross-country, avoiding anything more established than hunting trails. Game was plentiful; he wouldn't starve if he could manage to keep from freezing to death. But he hardly slept anymore, and when he did the dreams were waiting for him, worse than before. And he saw things, too. Shadow things, like what happened with the stag. They appeared without warning, day and night. Ever since Othir.
"You're passing it," Kit chided over his head.
Caim stopped beside a screen of brush. Through the canopy of tree branches, the sky was a sheet of cobalt. The moon hung low, a slender sickle among the evening's first stars. He dropped his prize and knelt down to clean it. With the bloody meat in hand, he kicked snow over the carcass and tromped through the undergrowth.
His camp was a lean-to and a fire pit, which had gone out in his absence. Once he got the fire going again, he spitted the meat and set it over the flames. Then he cleaned his hands in the snow and settled back against the tree supporting his impromptu shelter.
Kit appeared before him, standing in the fire. Her arms were folded across her chest, a bad sign. Caim took a deep breath to prepare for the onslaught.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Waiting for my supper."
"You know what I mean!" She waved her hands over her head. "Why are we here?"
"You know why, Kit." He broke a pair of semi-dry branches in half and tossed them into the fire. "You were all in favor of this before."
"Back in Othir. You heard me explain it to Josey. You didn't have any objections then."
"Yes, I did. I just didn't voice them."
He turned the spits. "Then you forfeited your chance."
"I'm voicing them now! Look at you. You're half frozen, living like an animal. And you don't have any idea what you're searching for. Do you?"
Caim grunted, but it came out like a clearing of his throat. When was the last time you agreed with anything I did, Kit? But she was always there, every time he fell down, even if sometimes it was only to throw salt in his wounds. "I'm tired, Kit. Let it go."
She floated over to sit beside him and leaned against his arm. Ghostly tickles raised gooseflesh under his leathers. "Why don't we go to Arnos? Just the two of us, down to the Midland shore. Bright beaches, clear waters. By the time we get there, it would be warmer—"
He scooted away from her. "Cut it out, Kit."
With a last glower, she vanished. No sparkles, no glitter. Out in the gathering darkness, an owl hooted. The air seemed colder when she was gone. What was he trying to prove? That he didn't need anyone? He'd spent most of the first week after he left Othir looking over his shoulder, hoping Josey had ignored his admonition not to come after him. Even after he stopped looking back, that didn't make his decision to continue north any easier. The encounter with Levictus was still fresh in his mind.
The wind died down for a moment, making the sorcerer's next words resound like thunder crashing over Caim's head. "She dwells in the peerless realm of her ancestors, beyond the veil in the Land of Shadow."
The Land of Shadow. Children's nonsense. But it wasn't. Caim reached out his hand and called to the darkness. A patch of shadow appeared in his palm. It came with hardly any effort. The shadows. The stag. His dreams. What else was changing?
Caim gave a mental push and the shadow slid away. After giving the spits another turn, he ducked inside the lean-to, where his few possessions were pushed against the canvas wall. On top of the pile lay a long bundle wrapped in burlap. He reached inside and pulled, and the sword slid clear of its housing with a whisper. The black blade reflected no shine from the firelight. It had lain in the ground behind Kas's cabin for almost twenty years, yet showed not the least sign of tarnish.
Where did you come from?
As if in answer, a tremble slithered up his arm. And then the night came alive. The sky lightened to milky gray. The trees stood taller and shed their shady cloaks, and the snow gleamed beneath him like a blanket of stardust.
Caim thrust the sword back into its scabbard. When his hand left the hilt, his vision returned to normal. With a grimace, he folded the burlap over the end and shoved the entire thing under a blanket, where it made a conspicuous hump. He pulled over the bulging satchel. Under layers of spare clothes, he found a narrow book bound in a black cord. It was Archpriest Vassili's personal journal, given to him by Josey. There had also been papers for safe passage, but he'd burned them. From what he had seen journeying north, any document found on his person tying him to the new empress would do him more harm than good. If things had been bad in Nimea before the Church's downfall, they were worse now. There was no law beyond the length of a sword's blade. The nobles squabbled over land rights while the commons stole off to become brigands.
Caim cracked open the book, and a square of parchment slid out onto his lap. He held it up. A capital letter J was stamped in gold wax over the fold. A letter from Josey, tucked where he would find it. Was it a plea for him to come back? Or a warning to stay away and never return? He shoved it in the back of the book.
The lines on the book's smooth vellum pages were penned in Vassili's cultured hand. He read a page or two each night. So far he hadn't found anything useful, mostly passages about the archpriest's early days as a praetor in Belastire.
Caim touched the key-shaped pendant, another gift from Josey, under his shirt as he flipped through the pages until something caught his eye.
Eighth day of Atrius, 1123 We have arrived in Othir after fourteen days on the road. Despite the speed of our passage, I was the last of the conclave to arrive, a fact which shall no doubt be used against me. We were received at DiVecci in the afternoon. Just as I suggested in my treatise, the Inquest has been expanded several times beyond their original ... The next couple words were indecipherable. Then: The oubliettes beneath the castle stink of river water and are bursting with prisoners, many of them imperialist agitators, but one caught my attention. Something about his eyes. I have decided to return tomorrow and inquire about him.
Hearing the sizzle of dripping fat, Caim lurched forward and caught the meat before it fell into the fire. He peeled off strips with his teeth and hissed as he gulped down the steaming flesh, then turned back to the journal. The text went on to tell how Vassili liberated a young man from the torture cells beneath Castle DiVecci and decided to keep him as a ward.
The prisoner's name was Levictus.
By the time Caim finished the page, the sun had gone down. He put the book away, tossed another couple of branches on the fire, and crawled under his shelter. As he lay there, gazing up at the stars through gaps in the canopy, Josey intruded into his thoughts. What was she doing? Was she safe? Had she forgotten about him? But the more he thought of her, the more he knew he'd made the right decision. She was an empress now, and he was a penniless freebooter without a home or history.
His last thoughts, as he drifted off, were about Kit. He regretted the way he had spoken to her. Promises of making it up to her lulled him into an uneasy slumber.
* * *
Caim could tell he was dreaming by the phosphorescent tint of the starshine and the springy softness of the grass underfoot. He stood beside a split-rail fence as tall as his chest. Beyond it stretched a long yard of tar-black earth. He was eight years old again. Small. Scrawny. Weak.
The fence rail was coarse under his palms. A big man knelt in the center of the yard. Caim's breath remained trapped in his lungs as he looked upon his father. Over him towered a cloak-shrouded scarecrow. Moonlight illuminated the face of a young Levictus, with a midnight blade in his hand. The scene played out as it had a thousand times before. The blade swooped down. Caim bit his lip to stifle the scream. He wanted to run away, but he could only stand and watch as his father crumpled to the ground, the familiar sword's hilt protruding from his chest.
Levictus turned, and another figure came into view, garbed in a black cloak like the wings of a giant bat. A cold finger of dread scratched down Caim's backbone. He started as a dry branch snapped beneath his foot. The figures looked toward him from across the yard.
A sharp pain pierced his right ear. Caim tried to let go of the rail, but his hands wouldn't obey. Shadows swirled as the figures melted away into the night, leaving his father alone in the yard. Caim wanted to go to him, but his head hurt so much. He focused on his fingers, willing them to let go. His arms shook with the effort.
Just ... let ... go....
A titanic roar jerked Caim awake, to find a huge shape looming above him. Massive jaws studded with fangs opened beneath a snub nose. Tiny eyes peered from under tufts of dark fur. Caim started to lift his arms, but the bear's plate-sized paw knocked him sideways.
Rocks gouged his back as he skidded over the hard ground, and another roar filled his ears. He reached for his knives, but his right arm was pinned underneath him. The fingers of his left hand were stiff with cold, but he made them curl around a hilt and pull it free. As the animal lurched over him, Caim thrust upward. The knife's point struck hide as hard as old timber, and the air rushed from his lungs as clawed paws came down on his chest. The bear's jaws gaped wide, spewing the stench of rotten meat into his face. Caim freed his trapped arm in time to wedge it between his throat and the bear's teeth. The jaws slammed shut on his forearm. Spots of light danced in front of Caim's eyes as he stabbed repeatedly into the animal's side, but he might as well have been chopping down a tree with a spoon. Growls pierced his skull as he was thrashed from side to side. Biting back on his fear, Caim reached out to the shadows. He could feel them lurking around the edge of the camp, but he couldn't summon the momentary calm he needed to call them. The spots began to swirl as his free hand swept back and forth across the ground, searching for ... for ...
I'm going to die.
With that realization, the terror receded long enough for him to detect a familiar feeling in his chest, a tugging he'd felt before. Then a horrific screech split the night, and a long, low shape rose above the bear's rugged shoulder. Blacker than the night sky, it clove to the darkness. Wide, lambent eyes gazed down as its mouth closed around the bear's neck.
The bear roared and threw Caim away. He rolled over several times before crashing into the base of a tree. He tried to sit up and sucked in a short breath as a sharp pain erupted down his leg. He lay still, gasping in the snow, as the two beasts rolled across the ground, clawing and biting at each other. The bear's struggles grew weaker by the heartbeat; its attempts to dislodge the huge shadow slowed until the great animal finally collapsed in a heap.
A cold dread settled in Caim's stomach as the shadow beast released the bear's throat and stared at him from atop the shaggy corpse. Then it climbed down out of sight and disappeared. Caim craned his neck, but there was no sign of it. The pressure in his chest faded.
Caim reached up to touch the side of his face. His fingers found a warm slick of blood and the loose flap of his earlobe attached by a thin membrane. With a grunt, he tore off the skin and dropped it in the snow. His body hurt all over. His forearm throbbed where the bear's teeth had shredded his jacket sleeve and the flesh underneath. Lines of blood dripped down his hand to stain the snow. A darker pool was spreading under his left leg from a set of long parallel gouges.
Moving slowly, Caim crawled past the carcass to the remains of his fire. He blinked back the darkness from the edges of his vision. He couldn't afford to pass out. Even if he didn't freeze, he would bleed to death before morning. The warmth of the fire pit felt good against his face and hands. Working quickly, he shoved his knives into the bed of coals. Then he sat up, wincing, and pulled open the gashes in his pant leg and sleeve. Blood poured from both sets of wounds. He pulled the first knife out of the fire and slapped its glowing red tip against the raw meat of his thigh. Blazing pain shot straight to his brain. For an instant he was back on the roof of the palace in Othir. Josey's face hovered over him, saying something, but he couldn't hear a word.
Excerpted from SHADOW'S LURE by JON SPRUNK Copyright © 2011 by Jon Sprunk. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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