Here’s the next chapter of Death’s Queen

As promised, here’s the next chapter.

 

 deathsqueen-final-small

Chapter One

Lamarra stumbled through the gray world, her path illuminated by two weak mage globes summoned by one of her captors. The globes floated a few paces ahead but did little to brighten her present location. In fact, the pale light seemed to leach all color from this new world she walked in. Her skin had the white pall of a corpse. The end of her braid, where it thumped against her breast with each step, looked a washed out gray instead of her normal dark brown. Even the rich blue of her riding cloak was muted and dulled as if some power was draining all life and color from her.

Mentally frowning at her fanciful thoughts, she shoved them aside. It was nothing more than her weak night vision and the strange glow of the mage globes that made her think such. Her body and clothing had just as much color as they had this morning. Her life force wasn’t being sucked away by some dark magic—at least, not now that she was away from the acolytes.

This tunnel, steeper than the last, heralded her decent deeper underground. Even without the increased slope, the hint of staleness in the air would have told her as much.

Focusing on her surroundings, as well as forming logical thoughts, was difficult since her head still reeled from the trip through the fire magic portal her Larnkin called a Gate. When it had first happened, the ringing of her ears and the stabbing pain that started behind her eyes had encompassed her entire head with each beat of her pounding heart. She’d thought she’d come under attack from some new threat.

When none had presented itself, she’d understood her kidnapping might actually be a rescue attempt to save her from the pursuing acolytes. The sudden change in pressure caused by travelling through the Gate from the forests just outside of the port settlement of River’s Divide to this new location—wherever it was—must be the origin of the uncomfortable sensation stabbing into her brain.

Once these Elementals had forced her and two of her santhyrian companions through the Gate, her guards had immediately driven the santhyrians off while they herded Lamarra deeper down these tunnels.

Her youngest sister, Sorsha, and the stallion mage Shadowdancer had not made it through the Gate and she worried what had become of them. Were they even now captured by the acolytes? Surely, they had escaped.

Shadowdancer was the swiftest of the santhyrians and Sorsha had been drawing on power to form some kind of powerful spell. Lamarra had felt the power just before she herself had been forced through the Gate.

She prayed that her sister and the big santhyrian had been able to escape. They must have. Lamarra was certain she would have felt it if her sister had been killed.

Her magic had always been able to sense death.

Like now. Her magic stirred awake, sensing it near.

Lamarra shivered and rubbed her arms while she glanced ahead at the two guards in the lead. There were two more behind as well. But she didn’t turn around to stare at them. To be truthful with herself, she didn’t want to look upon their painted features again.

They had been painted up to look like the dead. Gray, charcoal, and white paint covered their bodies. She knew they were called tomb guards because the santhyrian, Summer Flame, had shouted a warning into her mind before they were both captured. She didn’t really know the santhyrians that well, not having spent as much time with them as her two sisters had, but she’d come to trust the horse shapeshifters because her sisters trusted them.

Summer Flame had been greatly concerned by the tomb guards’ sudden appearance and Lamarra was certain her life was about to get far more complicated.

Her magic had assured her these tomb guards were not evil, nor did they serve the dark—nothing like the acolytes and their master—but Lamarra had known all her life that she was fated for something dark and terrible. In her dreams, she’d seen tunnels very much like these and figures she’d always assumed were dead, but now she thought her visions might have shown her these tomb guards with their death paint.

There was something else in her dreams. A power. Vast. Old. Something with great patience and as unstoppable as the forward march of time.

And that power and presence was here in these tunnels.

It was building now, pressing against her shields. Even as she continued to walk surrounded by her four guards, the power probed at her mental barriers, seeking a way within. Her Larnkin seemed unconcerned by that other presence, or perhaps reassured was a better word. Lamarra wasn’t so trusting and tightened the bubble of impenetrable magic more securely around her body and mind. This new power didn’t feel like what her phoenix or gryphon guards used. This was a more intense magic—older perhaps, certainly stronger.

And she sensed it wanted her mind, body and soul.

Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself and tightened her mental defenses another notch. That other power—a definite presence—wasn’t put off by her fortress-like defenses. It continued to flirt and dance across her shields and then in a sudden, swift attack it breeched them like they were no longer there.

‘I mean you no harm,’ a hauntingly chilling voice whispered. Everywhere and nowhere at once. ‘You are here for your own protection. The acolytes cannot easily follow you here. Be at peace.’

Lamarra froze in place as the unheard words flowed into her mind. She couldn’t stop them and was equally unable to form a response.

The presence lingered in her mind briefly before disengaging, slipping away again as fast as it had come. Her magical gift reverberated in response, wanting to follow that presence to its source. Her Larnkin stirred, eager to follow in the wake of that other power.

Sharp cold reason held her feet rooted to the ground. Did she truly want to go running toward what her power told her was likely her death waiting for her?

Yes. No.

She needed to think.

To get her bearings. To shove useless emotion away for a time.

But clear, reasoning thought was so very difficult with her Larnkin clamoring for her to run toward that fierce dark power somewhere in the tunnels ahead.

Behind her, the magic of the two guards bringing up the vanguard of their little group, drew nearer. The press of their power now added to what was already raising the hair on her arms and making gooseflesh race across her skin.

Before something else stirred her magic into greater disobedience, Lamarra started forward again.

Her captors seemed unaware of the invisible power swirling and eddying around them. Perhaps because they were surrounded by it all the time?

She slowed a second time, and the male phoenix in the lead glanced back at her and gestured for her to continue on down another corridor.

What would he do if she stopped again and refused to move?

Probably nothing good for her dignity. There were enough of them that even if they hadn’t towered over her, they could truss her up and carry her where they wanted without breaking stride.

No, a physical fight was not one she could win. Also, as much as she didn’t want to admit it, she was curious about that voice in her mind. Him she wanted to know more about.

However, she still had her dignity and her Stonemantle stubbornness. She wasn’t going to just go meekly without some explanation. Although, the situation could be worse. They hadn’t tied her hands or otherwise manhandled her. In fact, they seemed to wish to treat her with as much respect as possible given the circumstances. Straightening her shoulders, she lengthened her stride to catch up with the two guards in the lead.

The male phoenix—she didn’t yet know his name—halted at an intersection and rested one hand against the lintel. His talons flicked across the surface, reading the crevices in the stone. Leaning forward, he blew dust from the surface, revealing runes etched into the stone. As his talons followed the curving designs, the runes glowed like white stone in the moonlight. He again looked back at her and then gave her a slight bow and gestured for her to proceed him down the tunnel.

They continued in silence for another length of tunnel and then her magic snapped to attention as something new grabbed her attention.

A deep throbbing issued from somewhere behind them.

The muscles along Lamarra’s back tensed but she managed to keep back any betraying sounds of alarm from escaping.

The phoenix didn’t break stride at the sudden noise; instead, he waved a hand at the darkness. Four more mage globes ignited, giving her better light to see by.

The brighter light didn’t really offer any more reassurance though. Now she could see the phoenix’s appearance and coloring far more clearly. She transferred her gaze to the gryphon. She only knew what it was by the descriptions in Ashayna’s letters. But this massive winged and furred creature had to be a gryphon.

This Elemental’s long wing and tail feathers were painted in the same chalky whites, pale grays, and inky blacks as the phoenix.

Tomb guards indeed.

Had it not been for the warmth of living flesh, she would have believed them to be dead.

This was not how she’d seen her day progressing when she and Sorsha fled the human settlement of River’s Divide at dawn in an attempt to escape Lord Master Trensler and his acolytes. As plans went, it had been hastily constructed, involving two horses, a mad ride into the forest and a meet up with their horse-like santhyrian allies.

They had escaped River’s Divide, but never made it to their older sister’s location. Lord Master Trensler’s acolytes had picked up their trail.

While these subterranean tunnels were chilled and didn’t inspire an abundance of comfort, she was better off than if she’d gotten devoured by acolytes. An acolyte’s victim didn’t long survive having their magic and life energy stripped away. So unless whatever the tomb guards called master wanted to eat her, she supposed she was farther ahead.

For now. And Ashayna had mentioned getting lost in tunnels below Grey Spires, the Elemental’s city, so Lamarra was relatively certain that’s where her captors had brought her. If that was the case, there was still hope.

If she acted meek, it might gain her a chance to escape later, and once she made it to the surface, she’d seek out Ashayna and Crown Prince Sorntar. With that bare-bones plan in place, hope kindled in her heart. The goal of escape gave her new purpose and she felt stronger.

And if she remained calm and obedient, her captors or rescuers—she still wasn’t quite sure what to call them—might let slip some valuable information she could use later to her advantage. They might also have the means to learn what became of Sorsha.

Not that she would learn anything if she kept as silent as them, though. She spoke up, “While I do appreciate the rescue from Trensler’s acolytes, will you tell me why you brought me here?”

Silence and the heaviness of stone answered her.

“Where are you taking me?”

Her captors—she was going with captors since rescuers would usually communicate with the person rescued—continued in silence.

“Then at least tell me who you are taking me to.”

Not so much as a glance in her direction.

Talkative bunch.

Lamarra sighed and studied her surroundings in more detail. Maybe she could learn something even if they chose not to talk.

The mage globes illuminated numerous rooms to her left and right. From the glimpses she caught, many had once been richly appointed, but now had the air of long abandonment. None offered anything she could use as a weapon.

A small part of her attention noted it might be possible to lose her captors in this rabbit warren of rooms. That unruly hint of Stonemantle stubbornness which always stirred at the worst times awoke now and demanded she escape when they rounded the next bend. If this one sloped back up to the surface, she should seize her chance, biting and kicking her way free of her captors if need be.

But then cold, logical reason returned, shoving the Stonemantle bravado back where it couldn’t get her into any more trouble. Likely, the only thing she would gain after a long struggle of stomping and punching, would be numerous scratches and bruised pride for her attempt.

Had she possessed the skills of her oldest sister, she might actually have a chance at escape, as Ashayna could cripple an assailant and make a break for freedom. Sorsha, on the other hand, would certainly have attempted escape but likely would have failed or angered her captors in the attempt and made her situation worse.

Lamarra, preferring brains over brawn, decided to wait and learn more about her reason for being here. Besides, her Larnkin seemed content enough.

She refocused her attention back on her surroundings. No longer with thoughts of escape, but with speculation about the purposed of each side room. It helped keep the panic at bay.

They were just passing what might have been a great hall, its walls lined with beautiful murals. The toe of her boot caught the corner of a carpet and she tripped. Had it not been for her captor’s quick reflexes, she would have pitched forward to her knees. Or worse, her head.

A stinging along her forearm drew her attention down. Four long, bloody scratches marred her right arm from elbow to wrist. A few beads of blooded welled from the scratches. All in all, the deadly talons tipping each of his fingers could have inflicted much worse damage.

However, the sight of her bright red blood welling from the scratches had a strange effect on her captor. He stood frozen for a moment, transfixed almost, watching the thick drops of blood fall to the dusty ground. His mask of indifference changing to one of horror, he collapsed into a deep bow, prostrating himself full length on the floor in front of her.

After several heartbeats he still made no move to stand; she cautiously took two steps back. He took no note. She took another few steps back, stopping only when she nearly collided with the gryphon.

In body shape, the gryphon looked like a blending of lupwyn and phoenix. Exactly as Ashayna’s letters had described, the fur covered the lower body before gradually blending with the feathers of head, wings and tail. This creature took what was deadly from both and blended them together into one beautiful killing machine. A predator with the ability to both out-run and out-fly its prey. The thought sent a chill through her.

“Perhaps nature did give us an unfair advantage, yet we do not use it wantonly.”  The words had the slightest of hisses accenting some words. Not realizing the gryphon could speak aloud, Lamarra was barely able to mask her surprise and ignorance in time. Somehow, she knew offending a creature with such a deadly hooked beak probably wasn’t in the best interest for her  survival.

“Might I at least have your name?” She then gestured at the male prostrated on the ground. “And his as well.” And while you’re at it, if you could explain why there is a phoenix guard groveling at my feet…

That he wouldn’t get up hinted at some deep reverence she would very much prefer not be directed at her.

The gryphon canted her head in what Lamarra took as agreement. Though, she didn’t know if it was her plea or something else that made the gryphon answer.

“Raikena.” The gryphon bowed until her beak touched the ground. “I have been a tomb guard for more than three millennia, twice that I have lived. For all that time I have been loyal to my king.” After she straightened, she circled around Lamarra and nudged the phoenix. “This is my apprentice. We are in Sorrow—the city below the Elemental’s grand capitol of Grey Spires.”

The male still didn’t move, so Raikena focused on Lamarra instead. “There are things in this world more powerful than you can imagine, some are of the light while others are of the shadow. Some so beautiful to inspire awe, yet if you look with more than your eyes you will see the dark tint of evil. While others, who would inspire fear at first glance, serve the light. My King is one such being. He wishes to speak to you. Know that you have nothing to fear from him.”

Lamarra was not in a position to argue with a gryphon easily five times her own weight, so she nodded in agreement, but wondered how terrible this king was that a loyal guard would give her a warning about his hideousness.

“My Order is ancient and has been known by many names throughout the ages of time –Tomb Guards, Painted Ones, Watchers of the Dead. The names are many and not important. Most do not call us anything for they would rather forget. Only the living rulers and the council still honor us.” She paused, perhaps remembering a time when that was not so. “But that matters not, for we serve our purpose regardless.”

The gryphon stopped and cocked her head to listen. In the distance there was another dull boom and the ground shook from some great shock. “The Elementals know you are with us. They are young and persistent and want answers about what has befallen their crown prince. We must go. Once King Soryn has met you, he will tell them what he knows of Prince Sorntar and your sister.”

“Something has befallen Ashayna and her bondmate?” Lamarra frowned, eyeing the gryphon with a hard look. “You know something. Tell me.”

The guard’s great crested head tilted one way and then another, her feather ruff fluffing up until it reminded Lamarra of a lion’s mane.

“I have already said more than I should. King Soryn will tell you the rest.”

Sensing the gryphon wasn’t going to say more on this particular topic, Lamarra tried another tactic.

“Very well. You aren’t permitted to tell me more about why I’m here. But what about him?”  She gestured at the male still prostrated on the ground.

“My apprentice?” The gryphon huffed, sounding mildly perturbed. “By spilling your blood, the boy broke his vow to do you no harm. While it was simply youth and clumsiness on his part, you are still within your rights to decide his punishment. But as his mentor, I would humbly request his punishment be transferred to me.”

Lamarra hadn’t realized that one of her guards was a youth. As a phoenix, he towered over her. She glanced between the two, wondering why she, a prisoner, had so much power over them. Nervous sweat made its way in a thin trickle down her lower back.

Both her sisters were host to powerful Larnkins. She knew hers was equally powerful. Just what did fate have planned for her?

“But it was an accident.” Lamarra didn’t want to defend one of her captors, but the minor wound had been caused by the tiniest miscalculation. There had been no hostility or wish to do harm behind the incident. “That doesn’t explain why his punishment would fall to me.”

“Simply put, we are yours to command.” The gryphon allowed empty silence to stretch for the length of ten heart beats. “Because of that, you can offer forgiveness for his transgression.”

Hers to command? Her heart began to pound, cold fear mixing with the need to run. But the otherness living in her blood stirred. Lamarra kept her mind blank, allowing that other to impart information to her in its wordless way. As her Larnkin looked over the male prostrate on the floor, studying him, she shared bits of knowledge. He was young as the gryphon had said, barely into adulthood, not much more than a boy for all his height and outward discipline. He had been born of two tomb guards and had grown up among the secrets and silence of the city beneath the city of Grey Spires. Lamarra was more than a little horrified on his behalf.

Had he grown up never seeing the sun? What kind of monster would allow such?

At her thoughts her Larnkin stirred again, showing her a small mountain village where children played under the watchful gaze of far fewer adults. Narrowing her focus upon the adults, she scrutinized them. Within this small village, they did not wear the paint of the tomb guards, but they still bore the tattoos.

Was her Larnkin showing her how the tomb guards raised their young? It seemed so.

Still not sure if she was reassured, but not having the time to dwell on this new revelation, she looked down at the youth stretched out at her feet.

“His punishment is up to me? Very well.” She switched her focus to address the youth. “The time you have already spent laying prostate upon this cold floor is punishment enough. Speak your name and rise.”

There was a long pause, followed by a muffled, “I am Trissain.”

“Good. That’s a start. I am Lamarra. Now I order you to get off the floor.”

After a slight hesitation the phoenix rose from his prone position to stand at her side. “My Queen, may I never fail you again in this life or the next.”

The youth stood ramrod straight, his gaze locked on her booted feet.

Ah. He was awaiting orders, she noted with one small part of her mind.

The rest of her awareness was consumed by what he’d called her.

Queen. Dread coiled in her stomach. By the light, what had she gotten herself into?

Since this day had just taken one turn for the worse after another, nothing should have surprised her at this point. Oh, but it did. It did indeed. A tomb guard now addressed her as his queen.

She knew what was to come next. It was the same in her dreams. A bride for death itself. A sacrifice for the good of all creation. She, a human woman with a very powerful Larnkin, was to become a monster gifted with strength enough to defeat an even more terrible monster—Lord Master Trensler.

Her throat tightening with fear and the foolish urge to cry made swallowing hard. Lamarra supposed she had reason to thank the terrible nightmares which had plagued her since early childhood. They had given her some warning of her fate. Her Larnkin flooded her mind with sensations of warmth, belonging, acceptance, and…oh gods… love as she tried to console her host.

“Trissain has said far more than was his to share.” The gryphon glowered at the youth but he remained silent now.

“However, that does not change the facts and, regardless, all will be well young Lamarra,” Raikena added, her earlier commanding voice edged with compassion. “Come now and trust to the will of the Creators.”

When the gryphon turned and vanished back down the dark corridor, Lamarra followed behind. It wasn’t like she really had a choice and dread still paced every step of the way with her.

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