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  • Emilie Knight

Era of Undying (Prologue and First Three Chapters)

Prologue


The night was warm, though clouds hung heavily, obscuring the moonlight over the countryside of Ichorisis. The pleasant weather made the small caravan of travelers settle down early by the fire. There were maybe a dozen people in the caravan, so one could easily assume they were just a family of merchants. One aspect that contradicted that idea was how little the group was carrying. Pen had been watching them long enough to know that once anything of value came into their hands, it was quickly sold or hidden away. She had been following them for a while and learned that they hid the most valuables items in a small lock box tied to the leader’s horse.

The leader of the caravan was close to the fire, carving into a boar. His arms were painted crimson past his elbows. Everyone else was strewn about doing various tasks, but most of them were sitting lazily by the fire, listening to a short man with scar tissue covering his left arm tell a hunting story. Soon afterwards when the boar was cooked, they all ate and talked and laughed. When most of the boar was gone they settled down for sleep leaving the half eaten carcass over the coals. The leader had eaten with gore still on his hands but had washed up in the nearby creek before using a saddlebag as a pillow. Two of them stayed awake to keep watch. One stayed by the horses, while the other walked around their makeshift perimeter. Neither saw Pen crouched behind the thorn bush.

Silently, she crept out from the bush to follow the man behind the tree line. He kept the caravan in sight but wandered a good distance into the trees. She wondered what he was doing; he wasn’t patrolling. He walked aimlessly, then stopped. She heard running water then realized he was relieving himself. He was clearly relaxed and sensed no danger. She picked up a rock and threw it. It thunked against a tree and fell into a bush. The man glanced toward the rustling noise but dismissed it. She almost felt bad at how easy this would be. Then her stomach growled. Gritting her teeth and clenching her stomach muscles, she stifled the noise, but her nerve wavered. Her last proper meal had been three days ago. Doing her best to ignore the hunger pains, she gripped her knife. As the man was arranging his trousers, she stood behind him and struck.

One of Pen’s hands covered his mouth first, catching him off guard. He grunted in surprise, but the blade across his throat silenced him quickly. He panicked and buckled as his life pulsed from his throat, but she kept her hold. He was heavy, but she managed to ease him to the ground in near silence. No one moved in the camp, and no one heard their friend die. It took a moment for the blood to finish flowing out, and she cringed when he coughed more over her hand. It wasn’t the first time she’d felt that much blood, of course, and it was by no means the last; it had to be done. She wiped her hand and knife on the dead man’s woolen tunic, then turned back to the shadows.

Keeping low, avoiding the dry twigs, she made it around the camp to where the horses were tethered. The other man was leaning against a tree, flask in hand. He was closer to the camp, so she couldn’t kill him without exposing herself or spooking the horses. She didn’t want to risk sneaking closer to the horses and the strongbox, he was beside the leader’s horse. She hid behind a thick oak tree and searched around for a dry stick on the ground. She stepped down hard. It made a crisp snap in the silence.

The man looked up and gazed into the darkness in her direction. Pen darted from one tree to another and crouched under the pine branches. He saw her. Stepping away from his tree, he peered into the forest and came closer. He glanced at his companions, then back at the trees. He put the flask away and unsheathed his sword silently, presumably so as not to alarm the others, and then approached her hiding place. He passed her, then paused. Her heart was in her throat. She prayed he wouldn’t shout.

“Who’s there?” he called.

It wasn’t enough to wake the camp, thankfully. The man grumbled “rabbit”, sheathed his sword, and turned back. He passed her again, and she slipped out of hiding to stand behind him. She must be quick and silent: she stabbed the knife into his ear. She used too much force, though, and he hit a maple tree while falling, rattling the branches. He was dead, at least.

She took a breath, forcing her heart rate to slow. She saw no sign of anyone stirring in the camp, so she approached the horses again. The leader of the caravan might have been sleeping on his saddlebags, but the lockbox was attached directly to the horse’s saddle, hidden under leather. He probably thought it was safer because it was unexpected. The lockbox was strapped to the saddle, with two locks on the straps themselves. Luckily, the dozing horse provided a little cover, but Pen was still within the ring of firelight, and her legs were exposed. She took out her lock picking pins and went to work. The second lock gave her a harder time, but both clicked open. The lid of the small box squeaked, but no one noticed. Inside was a silver pendant with a ruby on a thin chain, and a gold ring. Their price could buy her food for at least a week.

A twig snapped behind her.

She spun with knife in hand, but pain erupted in her head and everything went black.

She was on the ground when she came to with a splitting headache. Panic grabbed hold of her when she realized she couldn’t move. Her hands were tied behind her back, and her feet were bound too. The panic nearly won when she realized she was by the fire, with the entire camp surrounding her.

“I’ll admit I didn’t take you for a woman at first.”

The leader stood over her with his arms crossed. He was a big man with thick black hair and beard.

She shifted to her knees, which was awkward with her hands tied, but she managed. Her vision was blurred from the blow, but it was clearing. There were eleven men and women standing around her, three of them behind her, and one small figure sitting by a tree behind the leader.

“You even killed two of my best fighters,” the leader said casually, as though this were an everyday conversation.

“Even the best can get lazy and ignore the shadows.” She couldn’t feel warmth spreading from where she was struck so she didn’t think she was bleeding; there would probably be a good bruise later. She started twisting her wrist into the rope.

“Let’s just kill her. She murdered Belos!” said a skinny man holding a bow.

“And Hason,” a woman added.

The rest of the followers muttered in agreement.

The leader raised a hand and they stopped grumbling.

“Not until we’ve had a little chat,” the leader said. He knelt before Pen. “Did anyone send you?” His voice made her want to shiver despite the fire’s warmth.

She looked him directly in the eye. “No.”

“Are you alone?”

“No,” she lied. She wasn’t sure if he believed her. He had a good face for gambling.

“What are you doing with your arm?” He sounded intrigued but not entirely distracted.

“Escaping.”

He laughed.

She felt her wrist sting, then blood trickled down her hand.

He chuckled and stood. “I honestly don’t know if I want to kill you or let you join us.”

“She murdered Belos!” the skinny man yelled again.

“I know he was your brother, and I will mourn him too.” His steely voice made the other man look away. “She struck silently, and that could be useful. But considering I don’t let anyone already in kill a member without due punishment, I can’t just let in someone who did kill a member. Killing her would be safer and easier.”

“She’s pretty, though, sir,” a burly man said. “Can we play with her first?”

“Normally I wouldn’t care, but she’s proven to be an efficient assassin. I don’t think—”

She willed her blood to rise. Sensing there the three stood behind her she shot her blood toward them, striking two in the throat and one in the eye. At the same moment she hardened it into a blade to cut the ropes. As the first three fell gurgling and screaming, she stood to face the others, snaking the strings of blood around so it floated in front of her.

All of her opponents had drawn their weapons, but now they froze. Three tendrils of solid blood floated several feet from her wrist, sharpened to points facing the bandits.

Staying calm was a challenge, but she managed it. Panic would cloud her thoughts and thin her blood.

“I don’t believe it,” one man muttered.

“M’lady,” the leader said. One of his hands held an axe, but he raised the other to show peace. “No one else needs to die tonight. You can walk away, and no one here will repeat what happened.”

“Rumors spread like wildfire,” Pen replied.

“Not this one. You can keep what was in the lockbox, plus anything else I have of value. You can take what you need and go.”

“The hell she will!” the skinny man shouted.

He fired an arrow at Pen’s heart.

One tendril caught the arrow, twisted it around, and stuck it into his neck. Three more men charged her with swords in hand. Two were pierced through the heart, but the last one was too close. Pen retracted the tendrils and dived under his blade, which was aimed at her head. She changed her blood into a blade and stuck him in the gut. He fell groaning while she stood with a crimson blade in hand.

One woman charged at her with a hammer. Pen killed her with a dodge then a slice to the neck, following through to the next man, lopping off his arm before stabbing him in the chest. Another turned to run, but she extended her sword into a spear and got him in the back. That left the leader, who had stayed back until now. She faced him.

He had his axe at the ready. She considered switching to a sword for speed but kept the spear for distance.

“Damn that Hados, he was always a wild card,” he growled. “You’re the Blood Warrior.”

She stayed quiet.

“If you leave me be, I’ll tell no one of this.”

“I can’t do that.” She didn’t enjoy killing, but it was necessary. No one could know she existed. Not after what happened to the last Warriors.

“Fine, then.” He had no intention of dying.

He stalked to the left. She followed, stepping over a body. He lunged with the axe, but she parried with the spear. His fist flew, catching the side of her face.

Stunned, she staggered back but managed to avoid his next swing. She caught his axe with her spear and pulled him off balance, hitting him over the head with the end of it. Then she melted her spear, changed it into a hammer, and brought it down on the back of his head.

He went down hard but caught himself on his knees. She sharpened her hammer into an axe and embedded it in his skull.

She slumped among the bodies next to the fire, panting, and listened for any movement, tense with anticipation of another attack, but none came. Then she remembered the small figure by the tree. She stood and saw a boy, perhaps ten years old, hiding behind the tree. He was staring at her and trembling.

The boy bolted into the forest. She swore and followed him. The chase only lasted a few minutes before she lost him in the gloom. She cursed louder. The boy would tell people what he saw. Rumors of her existence would spread. Cursing again, she went back to the dead camp.

She cleaned any dirt or blood that was not her own off her axe. Once it was clean, it lost its form and melted back into her wrist. Despondent, she sat by the fire and ate her fill of what was left of the boar. There wasn’t much after having been picked over by a dozen people. At least her stomach was full for one more night. She then took a pack and filled it with what food was left, along with the valuables the traveling bandits had hidden on them as well the jewelry from the lockbox.

She took the saddles off all of the horses except the leader’s. It looked the strongest; a big gray and black speckled stallion. Hefting the new pack and mounting her new horse, she rode off.


Chapter One


The day was cheery enough. Clouds filled the sky, casting gray over the marketplace, but it was relatively warm for the ninth moon of the year. The city of Stymphalia was lively, and the western market was crowded with merchants, fishmongers, blacksmiths, and a very large number of people. Pen stood uncomfortably at the edge of the crowd. She swallowed her nerves, since there was no way to avoid them all.

The cobbler’s shop was almost empty, which was a blessing. There was only one other patron, who left shortly after Pen entered. The cobbler, who had light blue hair, fixed his attention on her.

“And how might you be today, m’lord?”

She pushed back her hood, revealing dark purple hair that hung to her shoulders.

“My lady,” the cobbler corrected himself quickly. “My apologies.”

“It’s alright. I need new boots. Preferably tall ones to survive the mud.” A hole had finally been worn through the side of her current pair.

“Boots, m’lady? Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a pair of sandals or slippers? In fact, I’ve just finished a pair of sandals that tie all the way up the leg.”

“Boots are fine.” Pen began playing with two coppers from her purse.

“Very well.” He led her to one side of the shop, having seen that she could pay well for his work; a pair was only worth one copper.

It took some time to find a good pair. Pen wasn’t particular about style, but she wanted to be comfortable, and most of these boots were too big. She paid the cobbler two coppers and walked out with simple black leather boots.

Pen stopped at a stand and bought a meat pie from a small girl and her mother. The pie was good, but she couldn’t place the taste of the meat. It could have been cat. The pie brought up the memory of her son Alard, who had always enjoyed the pies she had made. Her husband Arch loved them too, when they could afford the beef. She’d never thought of making one from a cat, Alard liked cats as a pet: she couldn’t make him eat one. The taste of the pie died in her mouth at the thought of her family. She missed them. Her throat tightened at the thought of their deaths.

“—looked terrified.”

Pen had perched on top of a low wall to eat her pie when a voice caught her ear. Taking a quick, casual glance, she saw it came from the guard of the city watch.

“Of course he was scared. The kid saw his family killed,” his companion said.

“Not just killed: slaughtered by the Blood Warrior. I was there in the Hall, heard him with my own ears.”

The pie didn’t taste very good any more.

“The kid was scared, so of course the facts were vague,” his friend said. “Besides, it’s just a kid with an imagination, a traumatic event, and a rumor that crops up every year or so.”

“Still, those rumors have done more than crop up. What about that inn? There must have been at least twenty men in there.”

“I heard it was a savage with an axe from the mountains, but I also heard it was three travelers from across the river. Even heard it was a witch with a pointy hat.” His voice had become mocking.

“I get it, probably nothing.”

“Although, I am impressed by the man who survived the spear through the chest in that inn.”

“I heard someone survived falling off the west guard tower yesterday.”

“He was definitely a lucky, drunk fool.”

Pen forced down the morsel in her mouth and threw the rest of the pie to a stray dog. The guards had left a bitter taste in her mouth despite the pie. She knew the attack of which they spoke. The boy with those bandits had escaped, and she had let him. She could have tracked him down but chose not to. Finding him would have been the only way to ensure his silence, but that would have meant killing him. Pen knew rumors were spreading, they always did, but she had had no idea the boy had been heading for the capital! Leaving now was the best idea, but it was dusk, which was when the city closed its gates for the night. She hoped luck was on her side.

It wasn’t. Standing at the corner of the street, watching the cold iron gates close, Pen considered sneaking out, but she didn’t want to stir up any trouble or draw attention. She turned on her heel and walked to the nearest inn, not wanting to go back to the one she’d used last night lest someone recognize her.

This inn was larger than the last one, with three floors. The traffic in the area must contribute to its patronage. With the last of her spoils from the road bandits Pen paid for a flagon, some cooked chicken, and a room. She took her food to the corner of the tavern, beside the unlit fireplace. With her back to the wall, she ate and listened.

There was the usual chatter of people complaining about taxes and about other people, or swapping stories of war and spoils. The tavern was large and it was darkening with the setting sun. The innkeeper came out of the kitchen and lit the fire, brightening the room again. The shadows were pushed back and twitched along the walls. The smell of smoke filled the air, mixing with the chicken and too many unwashed bodies.

A group close by caught her attention. They were talking about the king collapsing in court today. She felt like she should be worried, like everyone else, but although she had been born in this land, the people were never part of her home. She hardly cared about the royal family; people were necessary to life, of course, like the cobbler, but she paid them no mind and they left her alone. She preferred it that way, but there were exceptions, of course, like the road bandits. Once her chicken was finished and the flagon empty, she went upstairs to sleep. She had lucked out with the bed this time; there were no bugs.

Pen woke the next morning with rain pounding on the window. That was good: it would cover her tracks as she left. Breakfast was a thick porridge that she heard the innkeeper priding himself on. Pen thought it was rather bland.

A man entered the inn, judging by his armour, he was another member of the city guard. He probably wanted some of that bland porridge before starting his rounds. Pen allowed herself one look at the guard to note his position in the room, but her glance became a stare. The boy from the road bandits’ camp was with him. The guard was probably taking him to an orphanage after breaking his fast.

Pen pulled up her hood, pretending to be cold, and kept her face down, forcing herself to eat at a normal pace. She tried not to think about how dead the boy’s eyes looked, but failed. The room was calm, with most of the patrons most likely nursing headaches from the night before, based on the commotion she’d heard from her room.

“Oi, bard.” A man tossed a youth by the fire a coin. “Play something cheerful.”

“Anything in particular?” the bard asked.

“Nah, just something to wake up to.”

The bard tuned his lute and began a song about a girl and her knight.

Pen gulped down the rest of her breakfast. The bard was seated behind her, and the boy was watching him.

“That’s her!”

The bard stopped singing. All chatter died. Pen sensed the boy pointing at her before she looked up. The entire inn had turned to face her. None looked friendly, but most were just confused by the interruption.

“What?” Pen acted just as confused. Her heart thudded in her ears, but she managed to maintain an appearance of calm.

“It was you that killed them. You killed my father!” the boy shouted “You made your blood move.”

The entire room was still with rising tension. The guard loosened the sword at his belt.

“What?” Pen scoffed, playing dumb. “I understand you must be grieving, but don’t accuse the first person you see, boy.”

She stood to leave. Luckily, she had brought her pack downstairs with her.

“Hold on.” The guard blocked her path to the door. His hair was purple, like her own, but lighter. The stubble matched. “Murder is a heavy accusation to walk away from.”

“What do you suggest I do then? My husband is waiting for me in the next city,” Pen lied. “Besides the boy is wrong.”

“We’ll send word to your husband and bring him in as a character witness, but you’re coming with me.”

The entire tavern was watching, but she could only feel the accusation in the boy