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Where fear is planted, hate will grow.
AN ALUVOREAN SAYING
* * *
Jason Wu had wedged himself into what he suspected might be a closet. It had never occurred to him that people who lived in a fantasy world would need a place to store their clothes, but of course they did. This particular closet was narrow and located in a dilapidated three-story house that had once been a mansion.
There were holes in the roof, mold on the walls, missing stairs on the long, winding stairways. There were tapestries on some of the walls showing ancient battles between the Scim and the Elenil, among other things, and the hallways were lit with softly glowing stones in metal settings. Doors to certain rooms were missing, and others were locked. He had managed to find this closet, though, with its door still intact and unlocked, so he could slip inside and pull it quietly shut, certain his pursuers would not find him here, not given the size of this house.
Delightful Glitter Lady, Jason's kitten-sized rhinoceros, scrabbled impatiently on the floor beside him. Jason scooped her up and held her against his chest, trying to keep her quiet. He could hear the thundering footsteps of his pursuers outside. Dee let out a low whine, and the footsteps paused. "Dee," Jason whispered, doing his best to make it clear she needed to be silent.
"I heard him," a voice called. By now he recognized the distinctive sound of a Scim. He could tell by the guttural voice that the Scim had put on his war skin, a defensive magic all Scim had that allowed them to have thicker skin, heavier muscles, and a terrifying appearance.
Dee whined again. Jason pulled her tighter against him.
Outside the closet, all sound ceased.
Jason held his breath.
"In here?" another voice asked.
"I think so. I heard the unicorn." The people of the Sunlit Lands thought Dee was a unicorn. They were a little sketchy on zoological categories. Unfortunately for Jason, their tracking skills were fully developed.
A third voice asked, "Have you checked the closet?"
"Hold," said another voice, one Jason knew well. It was deeper, more resonant, than the others. Jason could practically feel it vibrating the house. It was the voice of Break Bones, the Scim warrior who had sworn to murder Jason and then kept incessantly reminding Jason about it. "I must be allowed to kill him. But each of you may say first what you wish to do with him when the door is opened."
"I will stab him in the liver," said the first voice, and cackles of laughter came from the others.
"I will break his arms," said another.
"I will crush him with my hammer," said the third.
Jason pushed as far back against the wall as he could, feeling with one hand for a crack, a hole, a way out. But there was nothing. He was trapped.
The door flew open, and three Scim shoved and pushed, all of them trying to get in the door at once. Dee let out a delighted squeak and struggled to get out of Jason's arms.
The Scim piled on top of him, laughing and cheering as they pinned him to the floor and tickled him mercilessly. Jason begged for them to stop, and after thirty seconds or so, Break Bones called the Scim children off. They bounced out of the closet, Delightful Glitter Lady gamboling at their feet.
"Six minutes," Break Bones said. "It is the best you have done so far."
"Is Baileya back yet?" Jason asked. Baileya was a Kakri woman, a powerful warrior from a desert tribe to the north. She also happened to be Jason's fiancée, ever since he had accidentally proposed to her nearly six weeks before. The last several weeks, since they had made this broken-down mansion their base of operations, Baileya had taken to going on long patrols of the area.
Break Bones held out a wide hand and helped Jason to his feet. "She is safe, Wu Song. No one is trying to kill her."
"She'd be safe even if people were trying to kill her." You shouldn't mess with Baileya.
"Everyone's trying to kill you, Wu Song," one of the children said.
"Not you, I hope," Jason said, wrapping an arm around the nearest kid's neck and wrestling him to the ground. Soon all three kids were grappling with him. These little monsters had been his almost constant companions since he, Baileya, and Break Bones had moved in here. Nightfall was the oldest, maybe ten or so, and he was delighted by Jason's refusal to ever tell a lie. He liked to ask Jason's opinion on awkward subjects in front of the adult Scim. Then came Eclipse, an eight-year-old girl who most often won these games of Hunter and Prey. Shadow, the youngest, was a boy of around six, with a nasty habit of biting.
"Enough," Break Bones said. Jason and the kids stopped wrestling.
"What did Wu Song do wrong?" Break Bones asked the Scim children.
"He got found!" Shadow shouted.
"He hid somewhere obvious," Eclipse said.
"He made every person in the Sunlit Lands want to murder him." Nightfall grinned.
"Hey!" Jason said, but it was true. The Elenil wanted to kill him for his role in crippling their leader, the archon (not to mention the extensive damage that Jason and his friends had caused to the archon's palace, the literal pinnacle of Elenil architecture). The Scim wanted to kill him because one of their nobles had died so he could live. The Kakri were trying to kill him as part of his engagement process to Baileya. (It was a long story, but her whole family had a year to try to kill him before they got married.) There was even some group of people he had never met, called the Zhanin, who were upset because Jason had supposedly messed up the balance of magic or something. Still, it's not like everyone was trying to kill him. Those necromancers in the north didn't even know who he was ... he hoped. And the creepy shapeshifters in the south had invited him to come to their land anytime. And the ... well, he couldn't remember all the different people in the Sunlit Lands, but so far as he knew, only four groups were trying to kill him.
"Eclipse is correct," Break Bones said. "In a closet or under a bed — this is the first place most people will look. If you are being hunted, such places are to be shunned." He looked at Jason with pity. "For the Scim, at least. Humans are not known for their cunning in battle or survival."
"Hey!" Jason said again.
"Shadow," Break Bones said, "you are the prey now."
Shadow leapt to his feet and looked around shiftily.
"Run," Break Bones said, and the boy sped from the room. Break Bones gathered the two remaining Scim children and Jason in the center of the room. "This time you will hunt as individuals, not in a pack. Eclipse, you will take the ground floor. Nightfall, the second. Wu Song, the third floor and above."
"Why are we doing this again?" Jason asked.
"To help you survive," Break Bones said.
Oh. Fine. But it's not like Jason would be hunting anyone. If anything, he would be the one hiding, just like he was hiding now in this old house. It had belonged, once, to the family of Night's Breath, the Scim prince who had died so Jason could be healed of a mortal wound. Jason had come here hoping to make peace with that — and with Night's Breath's family. But as soon as Jason had arrived, Night's Breath's wife and children had left. The Scim prince's elderly mother still lived here, but she had made it clear she remained only to guard the house ... from him. The children who remained were Night's Breath's nephews and niece. The kids had taken to Jason immediately, but the old woman showed no interest in him. Jason had to admit it hurt his feelings in a weird way. He was here, far from his own family, and when he tried to connect to this woman, she shut him out. She even turned her head away any time he entered a room. Not that it surprised him. He was terrible at family stuff. His own parents hated him and wanted nothing to do with him, so why should a family that wasn't even human be any different?
Meanwhile, Jason and Baileya had friends in danger, but Baileya wouldn't agree to travel to help them. Their friend Kekoa had sent multiple messenger birds asking for assistance, but Baileya said, "It is too dangerous at this time. One of my brothers is seeking our trail. Twice I have led him away. He is cunning and swift, and should he find us, I do not doubt he would succeed in killing you, Wu Song." Baileya's brother was named Bezaed, and Baileya spoke of him with reverence. He had killed one of their sister's suitors, and that was a Kakri man. He would make short work of Jason. At this point in the conversation, Jason had almost tried to explain to her about their accidental engagement. He had told her a personal story, not realizing the Kakri got engaged by sharing a story one had never told anyone else. Jason and Baileya were a month and a half into their yearlong engagement now, and he didn't want to break up with her. But he didn't want their engagement to be based on a misunderstanding, either. Plus, it was weird to be seventeen and engaged to a terrifying warrior maiden from a fantasy world. She wasn't even human — at least, her golden skin and shining silver eyes argued for something not quite human.
"Wu Song," Break Bones said.
"It is time to hunt," the Scim said, shaking his shoulder gently. "The other children have already begun."
Jason glared at him. "The other children?"
Break Bones grinned, his yellow, tusk-like teeth protruding from his mouth. "Prove me wrong. Be the first to find Shadow."
"I will," Jason said forcefully. He strode out of the room and immediately had no idea what to do. Finding a half-pint Scim in a dilapidated mess like this place would be a challenge.
Delightful Glitter Lady romped down the hallway. Jason followed her into what must have once been a ballroom. Or maybe something else, because Jason thought a ballroom would be on the ground floor, but this room was large, and there were many gigantic pieces of furniture covered with moldering cloths. The floor was tiled in blue and white, creating mosaics of the moon in various phases, but the tiles had been pried up in a bunch of places, revealing the wooden boards beneath.
Dee sniffed twice, then sneezed, almost knocking herself over. Jason had been keeping her at kitten size because he didn't trust the floors in this place. He worried she could fall through a rotten board in her larger sizes.
"I know you're in here, Shadow," Jason said. He could hear the uncertainty in his own voice. He shivered. Anything could be under these sheets. He yanked one off, letting it fall to the ground. It revealed a sort of low sofa with no arms. He pulled another sheet to discover a pair of chairs. He would have to uncover them all, he knew, because Shadow was exactly the kind of kid to hide under a moldy sheet if he thought it would give him even a minute's advantage in a game like this. There were at least thirty sheets. Jason sighed and got to work.
About ten sheets in, Dee made a high-pitched whine. "What is it, girl?" She snorted and shuffled toward the back of the room. Jason smiled. She smelled Shadow. He bent down low and whispered, "Where's Shadow, girl? Do you smell him?"
Dee made a quiet, distressed honking, looking at another large sheet-covered item near the wall.
"In there?" Jason walked to the sheet. It had to be a cabinet or something like that. It was taller than Jason by several feet and nearly square in shape. He yanked on the sheet, and a cloud of moldy dust rained onto him. He sneezed, grumbling to himself, and tried to shake it off. He studied the wardrobe that had been revealed. It was made of some dark wood and looked ancient. A star had been carved into the front of it and painted silver. A slight shuffle came from inside. Shadow was exactly the kind of kid who would hide in a closet immediately after being told not to hide in closets.
Dee turned in a tiny circle, whining.
"What's the problem, girl?" Jason put his hand on the door. The kids liked to say all the terrible things they would do when they found him, delighting in making it sound as terrifyingly gory as possible. Since Jason didn't tell lies, his threats sounded lame in comparison. "When I find Shadow, I am going to gloat about how I found him so fast and say that I'm better at Hunter and Prey!"
Jason flung the door open.
Shadow was inside.
A golden arm was thrown across the little Scim's neck. A young man with flashing silver eyes and loose, flowing clothes stood behind him. A knife point pressed against Shadow's cheek. Shadow struggled, and the man constricted his arms, pinning the Scim child.
"Be very quiet, Wu Song," the man said. "I have no desire to hurt this child. But if you call for help, I will." Jason opened his mouth, but the stranger's knife point pressed in, and a bead of blood appeared on Shadow's cheek. "I will take his eye if you scream."
"That is what a real threat should sound like, Wu Song," Shadow said. He had that defiant, almost nonchalant look he would get in his eyes right before he bit one of his siblings. Showing fear was not encouraged among the Scim.
"Well," Jason said, very quietly, "I did find you pretty fast. I am better at Hunter and Prey. Obviously."
The man's eyes flicked toward the room's entrance and then back to Jason. "There is room in here for one more," he said.
"Um," Jason said, "maybe if we were closer friends."
The man pushed on the knife again, and Shadow's eyes widened. Jason's hands clenched. He wasn't a warrior. He was terrible at Hunter and Prey. He needed to be protected, and he was useless with any weapon. But he wasn't about to let someone threaten a child and get away with it. He opened the second door of the wardrobe and stepped into it, Dee scrambling at his feet.
"Close the doors," the man said.
When the doors were closed, the stranger's silver eyes shone out with a powerful light. The man spoke, his voice steady and low. "My name is Bezaed. My mother is called Willow, and my grandmother, Abronia. I am here, brother, to kill you before you can marry my sister Baileya."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Heartwood Crown"
Copyright © 2019 Matt Mikalatos.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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