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Read Heretic: Sample Chapter

Heretic: Sample Chapter

Warning: The following contains some plot spoilers if you have not finished reading Warlock’s Wake.

PROLOGUE
Shield Spire

Squire Palmroy Nash From the Heretic's Quest Fantasy Series by Shannon ThomasDeep within the belly of Shield Spire, muffled by countless yards of solid stone, Dillon screamed in anguish. At first, he had roared curses and bellowed with rage. As the evening progressed, he cried and sobbed. But now he screamed. It wasn’t the sound of a man simply in pain. It was the screech of a soul trying to rip free of its own body because the agony was just too much to endure.

His voice cracked and failed him. After a moment of silence, a quiet, soothing voice said, “You have suffered greatly, Dillon. You have proven your honor and survived this purification. The Prophet forgives you of your transgressions. If you will only answer this young man’s questions, I will personally bestow the blessings required to make you whole. This pain can end. Just answer the questions.”

Dillon tried to appraise the damage they’d done to his body. The beating hadn’t been anything special. He’d received worse during his days as a trainee at the Crucible. But then all of his fingernails and toenails had been pried off. His fingers and toes were shattered one knuckle at a time. They whipped him until his ribs showed through his back. They burnt and carved on his chest. They’d pulled or broken most of his teeth, and burnt out one eye. The lid of his remaining eye had been stitched open against his brow.

He found the strength to raise his head once more. He was a Keirnan, and he was determined to die like one. Directly in front of him, Sentinel Casteel sat in a cushioned chair and sipped on ice water. Nathan Chambers, the Wrath of the Prophet, stood on the Sentinel’s right side. Palmroy Nash stood on his left. Chambers had shown Palmroy how to hurt Dillon, and the whelp had relished in the torture.

Palmroy spoke. Dillon could barely hear him, as if he was a hundred miles away, but it didn’t matter, because he already knew the questions. They were the same questions he’d been asked since he was arrested and brought to Shield Spire that morning.

“Who among our House would know how to find my uncle’s hidden sanctuary? Where has he hidden the House ax and signet ring? Who has them?”

Dillon did not know the answers to any of the questions. His two fellow soldiers hadn’t known either, and they had died slowly. Palmroy castrated one of them and let him bleed out. The other man had his guts stirred by a glowing hot poker crammed up his arse. Dillon saw the bloody knife on the table and the pokers in the fire. His time was near. They would cut him or rape him with fiery steel and then watch him die, promising all the while to save his life if he would answer their questions.

He wanted to curse them again, but didn’t know if he could form the words without his teeth. Instead, he stared into the Sentinel’s eyes and used the last of his strength to shake his head. He’d be damned if they made him scream again. He silently swore to deny them the satisfaction.

Casteel motioned to Palmroy, who pulled on thick gloves and walked to the fireplace.
Despite Dillon’s resolve, they made him scream again. And again. And again.

* * * * *

After Dillon’s corpse had been taken away, the Sentinel dismissed Chambers and Palmroy with a flick of his hand. The interrogations had thus far been total failures, but he was still in a fine mood. Alexi Keirnan was rotting in the dungeons. Convicted of heresy, the man would die in the morning. His position as commander of the Imperial military would go to Lord Clarion, the leader of Casteel’s noble house.

Furthermore, Alexi had been defeated by the Warlock, an ancient and powerful being that Casteel knew very little about, and Alexi’s battle had provided much insight while simultaneously destroying the elite of Keirnan’s military, including all three of his brothers. That, in turn, made room for Palmroy to take command of the noble house, which meant that Casteel had command of it. Only two puzzles marred an otherwise perfect day.

Sentinel James Casteel From the Heretic's Quest Fantasy Series by Shannon ThomasAlexi’s father had built a secret library to hold information that could lead Casteel and his Templars to hundreds of men and women who practiced magic without the sanction or guidance of the Serene. Casteel wanted these people destroyed, and the hidden library was the key. Only Alexi knew the secret to finding it.

The secretive lord had also hidden his family’s ax and signet ring. Both were symbols of leadership and power in his noble house. Without them, Palmroy had no hope of ever being recognized as the legitimate ruler of his family.

Casteel rose and made his way towards his bed chamber. He wanted to be well rested, because in the morning he would grant Alexi such exquisite agonies. He would break his body just as they’d broken Dillon and his friends, and then Casteel would use his power to break Alexi’s mind. Before the fallen lord felt the ax man’s mercy, Casteel would tear all of his secrets out of his skull.

It was going to be a fantastic day, one to be remembered and savored for centuries to come.

Warlock’s Wake: Sample Chapter

Warlock’s Wake Prologue & A Portion of Chapter One
South Eastern Strogur

Ash’s massive chain-mailed fist slammed out a resonating bass rhythm against the oak door. He backed up and bellowed, “Open the door!”

His words bounced off the oak just as his fist had. The door and the home it protected answered with silence. Ash turned his back on the building and stepped out into the muddy wagon track. He looked down the hill at the deserted village of Oakhaven. In the fields, dying weeds choked rows of withered, dried corn stalks. Goats, pigs and chickens meandered about on their own agendas between the empty log lodges that had been the homes of their keepers. A crow cawed overhead as it glided towards the cornfields.

He looked to his men, two full wedges, twenty-two soldiers in all. Many of them surveyed their drab surroundings with worried eyes. Ash removed his helmet and grinned. “Look lively, you bunch of bone worms! Nothing here to worry the sons and brothers of House Gershon. We’ll be back to garrison as soon as we get these fine border folks to open the door and talk to us.”

“Maybe they’re all gone,” Stone said. “Maybe there isn’t anyone inside.”

Ash frowned at his first pointman. “Then who barred the door from within? They’re here. Take your wedge and find something to break this door. Hammers, axes, whatever you can find. Do it fast, and make sure no one wanders off alone. Defend yourselves if you’re attacked, but take any prisoners you can.”

“We have to get our answers and get back across the border. The truce isn’t broken if we don’t get caught.”Stone guided his horse down the hill. His men fell in behind him. Ash looked up at his second pointman. “Adams, spread your men out around this place. I don’t want anyone running out the back or over the roof.”

Adams straightened in his saddle. “You heard the proctor, boys! Fan out, surround the place. Make sure you can see the man to your left and right, and keep an eye on the roof.”

The men moved their mounts around the house as instructed. Ash returned to the door and beat on it again. “This is your last chance!”

Once again, only silence replied. He stepped away from the house again and scanned the sky for the sun, but it hid too. Black clouds had rolled in during the night and squatted over them, threatening to piss on them at any time.

No sky. No sun. No wind. No sound.

A chill coiled at the base of his skull and sprung down his spine like a crossbow bolt. Ash wasn’t a coward, but nothing he had seen rested well in his mind. Nothing was right. He needed to be gone from the village. He didn’t feel it or think it. He knew it. Time was running out. He swung up into his saddle and looked back to the village for a glimpse of his men.

Watching them skitter in and out of view between the homes, he fought the nagging worry in the back of his skull for ten minutes before it got the better of him.”Stone! Gather what you got and get your arse up here!” His voice sounded flat and weak in his ears. He expected the yell to echo back and forth down the vale, but it seemed to die right off his lips, stifled by the very air, as if the clouds pressed everything straight into the ground. Before he could yell again, the wedge of men formed up.A few minutes later, Stone rode up beside him.

“It’s pretty slim pickings. We found a couple splitting mauls, these threaded hooks, and a bore.” Stone pointed to the door. “I figured we could sink the hooks in there and yank it free with the horses, and if that don’t work, we’ll have to hack it or burn it.”

“All right,” Ash said, “This house is too small to hide many people, but we won’t take any chances. Send your first line to set the hooks and ropes. Have your second provide watch with crossbows. I’ll bring in Adams’ first line to pull. When the door comes free, lead in with crossbows. Maim them if they resist, but leave them alive long enough to talk. Pull out if you run into anything unexpected, and Adams’ first line will cover you with cross bows. Understood?”

“Aye, I got it.” Stone rode back to his wedge and told them their orders.

Ash rode around the side of the house until he found Adams. “Is there another way into this place?”

Adams shook his head. “Nay. The walls are logs and rock, plastered with mud. The roof is plank and split shingle. All three windows have been boarded up from the inside. The chimney is even blocked from the inside.”Ash pulled his helmet back down over his ears and felt for the chin strap. “I need one of your lines to pull the door down and cover Stone’s wedge if they fall back out of the house. You stay here with the other line. Watch the windows and chimney.” He rode back to the front and watched his men set the hooks. Thunder rumbled from deep within the clouds. The crows settled. Wind whipped up the vale, forcing the trees into a swaying dance that shook scores of red and yellow leaves from their limbs. The damp air smelled of lightning as it buffeted Ash’s face. He chewed his lip and fought his impatience.

Finally, the hooks and ropes were set in the door and tethered to the horses. Stone signaled that his men were ready. Ash waved to the horsemen. All five riders dug their spurs into their mounts, and the horses lunged forward in unison. The slack snapped out of the ropes and the door flew free from its frame with a crack that shamed the rumbling thunder. Stone and his men rushed into the house with crossbows ready, barking orders as soon as they entered.

“Drop the ax!”
“All of you against the wall!”
“Turn around! I said TURN AROUND!”

Other voices, in a Strogun dialect, yelled back. Women screamed and children cried. Stone yelled a few more orders, both to his men and to his new prisoners. A few minutes later he came to the door and motioned to Ash. “We have them under our thumbs. Three men, four women, and two children. They were armed, but didn’t resist.”Ash dismounted and walked into the house. The prisoners stood in a line against the back wall. From the filth that caked their skin and clothes, it was obvious none of them had been out of the home in days. The entire place stunk of old sweat, piss and shit. Ash curled his lip. “Did I hear one of these urchins speak to you in Strog?”Stone nodded. “None of them speak Sarveki. Or at least none of them will admit it. Redhurst here can translate though.”

Ash surveyed the prisoners. He stepped up to the youngest man, barely more than a boy. “What’s your name, son?”

Redhurst spoke quickly. The prisoner brushed his tangled mess of red hair out of his face, keeping his eyes on Ash as he turned slightly to speak to Redhurst. The guttural syllables rolled out of his mouth like rocks.

“He says his name is Phillip,” Redhurst said.

Ash waved his hand around in the air and pointed out the door.

“What happened here? What has happened to your village?”

Redhurst translated the question. Phillip shook his head and clasped his hand over his mouth. Ash pinned him to the wall by his throat with one hand and ripped open his tunic with the other. Phillip clawed at the armored wrist. “Tell him that he can answer my questions and we’ll leave without hurting anyone, or he can refuse, and I’ll strip him naked, lash him to a barrel, throw slop in his crotch, and let the pigs eat their fill.”Phillip shook his head as Redhurst spoke. Ash nodded with certainty, smiled a sinister smile, and hooked two fingers under the waist of the man’s breeches. The prisoner looked away from Ash and spoke, pausing briefly for Redhurst to catch up.

“He says that all was well until the snows melted and the leaves woke up. Then, before planting, men started disappearing in ones and twos as they hunted and forested in the deep woods. The remaining people pulled in closer to the village and planted more corn to make up for what the woods wouldn’t provide this season. They honored their missing, who they thought had to be dead, but then people disappeared right out of the village at night, first one at a time, but eventually whole families vanished without a trace.”

Ash grabbed Phillip’s chin and forced his head up. “How many?”

Another few words passed between Redhurst and the prisoner.

“He says everyone in the entire village except for these in this house was taken, eighty-three all told.”Ash backed away from the man. He thought for a moment about the tale. “Taken by what?”Redhurst relayed the question, but received no answer. Phillip only shook his head and tried to look defiant even though tears cut valleys in the mud on his face.

Signaling to Stone, Ash said,”Go get a barrel, some rope, and one of the pigs. Redhurst, tell him where Stone is going. Tell him I’m going to make him watch me have some fun with that brunette over there before we feed his prick to the pigs.”

The man slumped as Redhurst finished the translation. He waited in silence until Stone rolled a barrel into the house. Ash slipped the point of his dagger into the prisoner’s waistband and looked at him. Phillip threw his hands up and choked back sobs as he spoke.

Redhurst stepped closer to hear it all. “He says the Warlock has been seen in the deep woods, both before the snows fell and after they thawed. The Warlock has taken his friends and family, taken them to feed his spells and to make his potions.”

Ash frowned. He had feared magic was involved, and sometimes it was not good to be right. “Warlock?” he asked. “Tell him I want to know more about this Warlock.”

Phillip didn’t wait for a translation before speaking again.”The Warlock is an ancient being,” Redhurst said. “He’s a sorcerer of unimaginable power that has lived since the Walking Days of the Prophet. He isn’t seen for generations, and then suddenly he returns. Sometimes to help and sometimes to torment. No one understands why he does what he does, only that he has enough power to do what ever he want-”A heavy plank swung past Ash’s face, close enough for the wind of its passing to make him blink. It swooped around and caught the prisoner squarely in the face. Bones crunched. Blood, spit, and teeth splattered the other prisoners. Phillip fell to the muddy dirt floor and twitched.

Ash yelled in surprise. He recoiled away and drew his sword all in one reflexive motion. His men forgot the unconscious boy and looked back to the other prisoners they were supposed to be watching. One of the Strogun men held the board in his hand. Ash leaped forward, sword leading the way, but stopped just short of landing the strike. He held the tip just below the man’s chin.

The prisoner dropped the board. He spit on the blade and whispered in a voice that dripped venom and malice. “No one else will talk to you of this, you gutless Sarvek bastard, no matter what you do to us. You can do nothing that compares to what is in store for us. Shut your mouth and do as you will.”

Ash pushed the tip of his sword into the man’s breast bone. “You speak Sarveki? Why didn’t you open the door? Why let me scare the boy like that?”

The man pushed against the tip, forcing the blade through his tunic and into his skin. Ash withdrew his sword to keep the man from impaling himself. The man replied with a few short bursts of Strogun. Then he turned his back on Ash and stood with his arms crossed.Redhurst went pale as the man spoke. Ash grabbed him by the gorget and shook him. “Redhurst? What did he say?”

Redhurst blinked and stammered. “H-he said that we were dead the moment we breathed the cursed air of this place, that we’re dead and don’t know it, that we couldn’t know it because we haven’t heard the inhuman screams of our kindred rising out of the deep woods as their pain is harvested, but soon we will know, soon we will hear the screams for ourselves as they’re ripped out of our own bodies.”

Ash sheathed his blade and looked around. A few of his men smirked at the translation. A few were obviously horrified. A few eyed the women and hadn’t even heard Redhurst’s words.

“Keep it in your pants till we get back to Najelm, boys,” Ash said. “Leave these fools here to suffer the fate they fear, and we’ll call it even, since they made us rip down the door when they could’ve just let us in. Redhurst, tell them if they really want to die, they should leave this house while we’re still within bow range, because we’ll shoot them if we see them again.

Eagle clanner from Warlock's Wake
Everybody pack up. I want to be on the road in ten minutes. We have a long way back to Najelm, and I have a lot thinking to do before I send out a report to the First City.””But sir,” Stone said, “You don’t really believe this nonsense, do you? An old weather wizard might have enough spark to terrify this border trash, but we’re trained Sarveki soldiers. We’re sons of Gershon. We’re also tired, our supplies are low, and it’s going to pour the rain. We could fortify one of the abandoned homes, just for the night–”

Ash silenced him with an upheld hand. “I’m not staying here another second. I’m not worried about this Warlock so much as I am the state of our barracks. We have a lot of cleaning to do.”

“Cleaning?”

“Aye. I expect we’ll have some prestigious company after I send this report to the First City–probably Templar avengers and war mages, but you never know. They might even send ol’ Keirnan himself.”

Stone frowned. “We’ll have plenty of time to clean. This late into the year, they’ll wait until Planting to send anyone.”

Ash knew Stone was right, but he didn’t fuel the argument with a reply. He slapped his pointman on the back and laughed. As he walked out of the hovel, thunder cracked and lightning slithered out of the clouds. The storm had begun.

(A Portion of) Chapter One
On the Strogun Border

Death had the woman’s scent in its nose, and it tracked her with merciless diligence that only a force of nature could possess.Driven by panic, both the woman and her horse surged forward, willing their bodies to endure strain and agony far above thresholds their flesh had ever endured before. Though neither spared the energy or time required to look behind them, they both knew the beast still followed.

Beyond reason or understanding, it tracked them. No matter how quietly they tread, it heard them. No matter how far they waded down the stream, it smelled them. No distance was too great to lose it; no speed was fast enough to outrun it.

A creature of nightmares, an ill-begotten bastard of magic and inhuman imagination, the beast was all claws and teeth, nothing but rage and terror given life and form. It had been created only to kill her. It couldn’t be distracted or bargained with. It didn’t stop and didn’t tire.

The scout was not as resilient. Days without food or sleep weighed heavily on her. Her body was a vessel for pain. Her injuries and saddle-weary legs flared with every step the horse took.

The morning sun filtered down through the leaves and branches of the ancient trees, warming her as the ground evened out. Grateful for easier terrain, she let the horse set its own pace for a time. Holding the reins in her left hand, she let her right trail down until her fingertips brushed the hilt of her sole remaining dagger. The scabbards of her other blades held nothing but despair. Her ravaged saddle bags carried nothing but hunger.

As she sat back in her saddle, the toll of the previous days hit her in full force, and her mind wondered away into half-awake daydreams and nightmarish recollections of what had come before.

It had all started with the missing villagers in a border town named Najelm, but the search had evolved into a Strogun witch hunt.While stalking a mage was never safe or easy, she’d been on enough hunts to expect the unexpected. Who they found, and what he could do, far exceeded the unexpected. This mage’s power was impossible.The scout slumped over in her saddle, half-asleep, half-dead, and lost halfway between past and current horrors. Both sleep and nightmares invaded her mind. Her head rested against the horse’ mane as she succumbed to the onslaught.

Unsure of their destination, her horse plodded onward, following the stream south as it wound down through the hollow.

* * *

Jess chirped a bird call to alert her scouts. Once they all looked her way, she followed with a hand signal for them to converge on her position. The four women gathered about their leader.

“Anything to report from the night watches?” Jess asked, her voice barely louder than the early morning breeze. The others matched her hushed tone as they replied.

Mary cinched down her bedroll. “Nothing happened on first watch.” “Second watch was quiet too,” Alli said.

Sarah combed leaves from her hair and pulled it back into a pony tail. “I heard a pack of prairie jackals howling and carrying on during my shift.”

“I heard them on my shift too,” Angel said.Jess looked at Mary and Alli as she bit her lip to hold in a laugh. “You hear that, gals? Our two cherries heard prairie jackals.” The other two stifled chuckles.Jess grinned at the two rookies. “We’re days and days into the old trees. Prairie jackals stay on the prairie, hence the reason we call them prairie jackals. You might have heard wolves, but not jackals. You two won’t live this one down. Prairie jackals. Heh!”

Sarah and Angel looked at each other and nodded, neither willing to admit they had heard wolves.

Jess laid out the orders for the morning patrol. “We’re in Strogur by now, ladies; truce or no truce, if we’re found by a strog border patrol or even by the locals, none of us will live to see hearth or home. So we skirt the wagon track from now on. No one rides on the road for any reason. I’ll take Sarah on this side, you other three take the north side, with Mary in lead. Use only bird calls and hand signals unless absolutely necessary. Watch for any sign of strog activity or the missing villagers. Questions?”

The four women shook their heads. Their leader ended the meeting with a nod, and they all finished with the morning business. Two stood watch while the other three strapped on hardened leather armor, checked their weapons, saddled their horses and lashed their gear into place. Then they switched places and the two initial guards readied themselves for the day.

Alli and Angel fell behind Mary as she walked her horse down the hill to the wagon track. She checked left, checked right, and then stood still as death while listening to the waking forest.

Nothing stirred. She crossed the wagon trail quickly and disappeared into the dense tree trunks on the other side. One by one, five minutes apart, Angel and Alli joined her. When all three had crossed and mounted, Mary chirped to Jess. Jess whistled a reply, and they moved slowly westward down the wagon track, deeper into the borderlands, closer to enemies known and unknown.The day passed uneventfully until they found a mongrel trail that crossed the road and ranged northward. Jess and Sarah crossed the road and joined the others. The tracks were unmistakable. Prairie jackals. A huge pack, thirty or more. The tracks were less than a day old.Sarah clapped Angel on the back and grinned triumphantly. The cherries had been correct.

Jess coaxed her horse close to the others. “Any ideas as to what could cause such a huge pack to stick together, or why they’d be so far from the grasslands?”

All shook their heads. None of them had ever seen the like.

“What’s the call,” Mary asked. “Continue towards Oakhaven or follow the jackals?”

Jess alternated her gaze from north to west and back again. “We go north,” she said finally. “We’ll follow the jackals for the rest of the day, and if we turn up nothing in that time, we’ll back track and continue west.”

Sarveki Scout from Warlock's Wake
The trail led the Sarveki scouts on a journey due north, veering east or west only when it encountered rock outcroppings too large for the canines to scramble over. Overhead, the colossal old trees formed a full canopy of freshly sprouted leaves that blocked all but the briefest glimpses of the sun. Underfoot, sparse brush dotted the ground. The terrain steepened and pale rocks cut up through the leaves more frequently as the day wore on and the trail continued north into the foothills of the Mirrored Mountains.

They followed the jackal trail easily enough; the ground was obviously torn in their wake. Jess was grateful for the easy tracking, since it freed them to search for any sign of the missing people, but not one sign was found, not one human footprint, not one strand of hair, not one scrap of clothing. Her team ranked among the very best. If they didn’t find sign, it simply wasn’t there to be found.

Between the massive tree trunks, the seasoned scout caught glimpses of the four other women under her command as they rode in a wide search formation, fifty feet between each rider.

Mary followed Jess in the chain of command. A fearless warrior and master tracker, Mary had accomplished more in her twenty-four years than many people did in their entire lives. She was the most petite among them, but the deadliest by far. Her slight build, straight blond hair, and fine cheek bones made her look frail, like a sparrow or a wren, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Alli was the oldest of them all. At thirty-seven, she should have been in command of an entire wave, or retired, but her love of cheap booze and good times ensured her rank remained low while her disciplinary record grew to legendary proportions. Grey hairs showed in her brunette curls, and the years had laid lines in her face, but they did little to diminish her solid good looks or the fire that burned in her heart.Sarah and Angel were brand new recruits, and Jess figured both women would make a life of the army, because the regular world offered little for them.Angel was not the brightest star in the sky, and even months of conditioning in the Crucible failed to shape her into anything but the dumpy, freckled, short girl that she would always be. To her credit, she was too dense to be consciously aware of her bleak prospects, and she had one of the keenest eyes for distance that had ever aimed a bow in Lord Keirnan’s army.

Like Angel, Sarah’s opportunities in the common world were few and far between, but her size and intelligence were her curses. Few Sarveki men cared for a woman who could out-smart and out-work them without breaking a sweat, and Sarah possessed substantial brains and brawn in equal measures. She looked to Alli as a role model and had already adopted many of her troublesome habits. If the trend continued, she would have to remain in the army to stay out of prison.

A long track of muddy, trampled turf brought Jess back to the problem at hand. She knew what her soldiers thought, because she thought it as well. It was nearly impossible to find such a large pack of jackals. It was equally impossible to find them so deep into the forested hills where other, more lethal predators normally had dominion. Most unnerving was the trail that led ever north, always up, almost as if the animals were being driven, or summoned. Neither prospect boded well.Around mid afternoon, the scouts ran into a solid stand of pine trees. The four collapsed back to Jess, who remained centered on the jackal trail, which led directly into the tangled thicket.They had a bite to eat and rested their horses while Jess decided their next move. Hacking a trail through the pine would destroy her unit’s stealth and mobility, but there was no end to the trees in sight, not in either direction, and there was no guarantee the jackals had emerged on the other side. The scouts took machetes from their packs and cut a single file path into the pine.

They emerged an hour later on the north side, sweaty and itching, flogged nearly to death and stinking of resin. The jackal trail continued into the mountains. They remounted and rode on.

The sun had fallen behind the western hills when the women hit yet another stand of pine a few hours later.

Jess decided to push forward until they reached the other side or ran out of daylight. She didn’t like the prospect of camping with the pines to their backs without knowing what lay on the other side. Night approached quickly in the deep forest and high hills, but none of the usual night sounds came with the dusk. The entire world seemed to wait in silent vigil.Two hundred feet into the net of interwoven pine branches, the horses caught wind of something they didn’t like. All five mounts planted their hooves and refused to be coaxed another step. Jess left Sarah and Alli with the animals and continued up the hill with Angel and Mary.Another fifty yards north, the stench of rotting meat crept down the hill and filtered among the trees. It smelled like a slaughterhouse under the noon sun. The three paused and listened. Faintly, the echoes of jackal barks and yelps echoed into their ears. Closer and louder, wings fluttered and flapped.

Jess took the lead and breached the wall of trees just as night came full on. The scouts yanked free of the prickly trail and stumbled into a cave mouth framed in pale stone. Five feet high and four feet wide, the dark hole gaped at them and contrasted sharply against the rock. A dozen vultures squawked and launched into clumsy flight.

While Angel ran back to the horses to retrieve torches, Jess and Mary hunkered down outside the cave entrance and listened to the jackals’ yelps and howls waft up out of the depths with the carrion stench.Behind them, Angel staked a lit torch by the entrance of their trail. She used it to light two more, which she handed to Jess and Mary. She strapped three more to her quiver, strung her bow, and signaled she was ready. Jess and Mary drew their swords. Jess took point, and the three scouts crept into the cave.

The tunnel was roughly oval in shape. The floor and walls were seamless and smooth except for the watermarks left by a long-dead stream. Baby stalactites rippled across the low ceiling. The women made their way carefully down the steep decline.The close rock walls multiplied the rotten stink and clamoring racket a hundred fold. They pulled their tunics over their noses, but it helped little. The stone and their skulls vibrated with the jackals’ noise. Jess kicked vultures out of her way. Angel glanced behind them on every other step, because there was no way to hear anyone or anything coming behind them. The narrow passage continued into the earth, wandering left and right but always sharply down.Two hundred yards into the mountain, they found the missing villagers.

The cave ceiling disappeared beyond the reach of the torches. The walls opened up left and right and also ran out of the light. The floor continued on for a few yards in all directions, forming a rough semicircular dais and then dropped off straight down, leveling out again twenty feet below. Darkness hid all but a few feet of the lower level from their torches.Congealed blood and the dead, decomposing bodies of the villagers covered the little bit of the lower floor they could see. Beyond the small globes of torch light, a legion of yellow canine eyes caught the traces of illumination and reflected them back at the women. The cavern fell completely silent except for the awful resonant buzzing of the flies.

Jess loosed the three torches Angel carried, lit them, and flung them to the outer limits of vision provided by the two torches she and Mary already carried. The jackals growled and wailed furiously. Most of the canine army fled to the outer fringes of the light and laid in wait, invisible in the shadows, except for their glowering yellow eyes.

The three torches in the pit didn’t reveal the entire cavern, but they showed more than enough. Angel puked over the ledge. Jess and Mary gagged.

Bodies lay everywhere. Women, men, children-all strewn about and piled on top of one another. Rot had claimed them all, though some had been dead longer than others.

Most missed eyes and fingers. Some were little more than skeletons with a few tatters of remaining flesh. Maggots gleamed and writhed in heaps of rotten gluttony. Flies and putrid blood carpeted the stone between piles of bodies.The bodies nearest the bottom of the dais were freshest. Among these, viscera criss-crossed like rigging on a war galley. A few of the jackals slept, wrapped and tangled in the leagues of entrails. A young man with tangled red hair topped the closest pile, bent backwards and tossed over his dead comrades.Jess wondered if he was the man she’d read about in Ash’s report, if the final survivors of Oakhaven had met the force that had terrified them so.The relative silence broke. The jackals growled and snarled at the human intruders, but few ventured into the torch light. Angel nocked an arrow and shot one of the mongrels that slinked closer.

Sparks flew from Jess’s torch as she twirled around. “Dammit, Angel, did I say to shoot?”

Before Angel replied, Mary stepped forward with her head cocked back, her gaze focused on the wall above them. She raised her torch as high as she could reach. In the utmost fringes of light, tarnished bronze torch sconces threw shadows on the stone wall. Spread five feet apart, they ringed around the cavern. The closest sconces held torches that still smoked and smoldered.

Jess cocked her head back. “How did you know those were there?””I caught sight of one when you spun around to cuss Angel,” Mary said.

Angel walked to the edge of the dais, turned, and looked back to the wall, searching for a way to climb it. The smooth, pale stone offered no solutions. “They must be twenty-five feet up,” she said. “How do you suppose we’re supposed to light them?”

“Ash said there’s supposed to be some kind of warlock running around. Maybe they’re magic torches.” Jess’s tone was sarcastic, made so by her anger towards the impulsive archer, but as soon as she mentioned “magic,” the torches in the sconces erupted with flames. All three women cursed and jumped in surprise. Angel teetered on the edge of the pit and flailed her arms around, trying to regain her balance. Mary caught her companion by the belt before she fell.

The torches formed a ring and defined the edges of the cavern. The ceiling still loomed out of view, but the walls formed a circular room 200 feet in diameter. The new light revealed a few more bodies beyond what they had already seen, but the corpses were no better off than the rest. The jackals had nowhere to hide from the light, and they howled louder than ever before.Without warning, the wild animals charged the human intruders, but the twenty-foot dais stopped them. They jumped, snapped, and clawed at the women and surged forward, piling on top of each other in a growing heap of canine bodies. Angel took aim at a jackal closest to the ledge.Behind the scouts, a clear tenor voice said, “Only a fool worries about a dog while sneaking in the dragon’s den.”