Emiel was twice a heretic.
When he rejected the Twelve Gods for Adolsin, the church labeled him a heretic. And when he held onto the Twelve Gods’ powers after pledging himself to Adolsin, even his fellow heretics called him a heretic.
The numerous enemies Emiel had gathered over the years caused many near-death experiences. But he didn’t mind. Enemies made escapades more fun.
Emiel landed softly on the cold stone floor, his rope dangling beside him. He scanned the area. No guards this time of night. He stretched. Kesean always said he stretched like a cat. He was never sure whether she meant it as a compliment or not.
His back cracked. He grimaced. Hiding above the chapel’s rafters for seven hours had stiffened all his joints. Orin had suggested that he disguise himself as part of the wall. Unfortunately, Emiel’s shapeshifting powers didn’t work that way.
Emiel padded along the stone floor toward the exit. A chill crept through his socks. He probably should have worn shoes. But shoes were so unnatural. How could he stay on his toes if he couldn’t feel the surface he was standing on?
He arrived at twin doors adorned with fancy carvings intended to honor the Twelve Gods. As if the Twelve Gods gave a rat’s tail for the happenings on earth. Emiel considered finding a knife to make some interesting changes to the carvings. But he wasn’t sure Adolsin approved of vandalism—even if he would be defacing false deities. And Emiel had a job to do. He pushed the doors open and tiptoed into the main hall of the manor.
By tradition, the healer’s tents were located at the back of the army. When Sian passed through them to enter the playing field of war, screams of pain assailed her.
Images of raw agony, grotesque disfigurements, and gaping wounds flooded her mind and multiplied by the dozens. She pressed her hands against her ears, regretting her blessing from the gods. Some minds she hated seeing into. She crouched, shaking, as the muffled noise caused the images to fade.
“I’m sorry; I’m sorry,” Sian said to Cedric, her escort. “I didn’t expect this to happen.”
Cedric’s youthful golden curls hung in his face as he looked down at her. He gave a reply, but Sian couldn’t make it out with her ears covered.
“Can we move beyond these tents?” Sian gestured with her head. “I can’t be near them.”
Cedric’s lips moved again, then he gently took her elbow. Sian slowly stood and let herself be led away. Once she was far enough from the tents, she hesitantly removed her hands. She could still hear screams, but not enough to visualize the minds of the injured.
Sian exhaled and turned to Cedric. “I’m sorry. If I’d known I would be overwhelmed, I would have warned you.”
Cedric stared at her as if she had been possessed by a demon. “What in Thanax’s name was wrong with you?”
When the gods had begun “blessing” individuals with supernatural powers in exchange for loyalty, Clare was the first.
She hadn’t even needed to swear any devotion.
Because, unlike all the others, she had received blessings from multiple gods at once.
Clare strode out of her chambers. Her violet-tinted knee-high boots clapped against the stone floor, and servants turned their heads to get a glimpse of her. Nilde had recently ordered their craftsmen to design her a new outfit. It was ridiculous. She was supposed to be a warrior-ruler, not an emblem of fashion. But Nilde had insisted the boots and violet tunic would enhance public impressions of her. At least Clare had been able to keep the functional black-leather skirt.
“Alright, next dilemma.” Tobias tapped his finger along the table in thought.
Kristen couldn’t decide whether to sigh or not. His attempts to carry on a conversation were almost cute. Not that debating ethical dilemmas was how a girl wanted to be wooed. But at least he was trying.
She allowed a smile to break out of one corner of her mouth. “Hit me with your best.”
Except for the two people murmuring to each other on the other side of the tavern, they were alone. Usually the tavern was crowded this time in the evening, but Kristen welcomed the quiet. It enabled her to chat without being hollered at by a needy customer. She fingered the wet rag she’d brought with her when she joined him at the table.
He cleared his throat. “You’re serving tables one night when a family with young children comes in seeking refuge from Lord Felnor’s men. Feeling compassionate, you hide them in the basement. But, ten minutes later, Kornich enters with ten soldiers and demands to know the family’s whereabouts. If you don’t answer immediately, he’ll kill you. The catch is that Kornich has already set his tracker on the family. They’ll find them regardless. Do you tell or not?”
Kornich was Lord Felnor’s personal, god-blessed minion who could somehow trace people to their location. Kristen normally objected when Tobias brought the god-blessed into his ethical dilemma games. They always complicated the scenario and made it weird. This one was simple though.
“If Kornich is involved, I spill. No point dying for nothing.” Kristen crossed her arms, pleased with herself for answering quickly. Maybe he’d be impressed for once.
Tobias wrinkled his brow. “Really?”
Grimweld heard the weeping before he saw the distraught woman pushing through the throng milling about in the market. She stumbled up the steps toward where he stood guard at the citadel’s entrance. A small crowd followed her.
Grimweld readied himself. This was an opportunity to show the people how to be compassionate. To remind them that honor still existed in the war-racked lands of Morshan.
He stepped forward to meet the woman, who threw herself at his feet. She tried to stop sobbing long enough to speak. “My son … the gods be with my son …”
Grimweld knelt and removed his helmet, hoping that seeing his face would comfort her. He put his armored hand on her shoulder, conscious of the onlookers. “What happened?”
The woman shuddered. “We were coming home from the harvest festival last night with a couple friends when this—this thing lunged from the shadows. Ripped his throat open and left him to die!”
Grimweld considered the facts. “Where were you? Was this an animal? Human?” He paused. “One of the god-blessed?”
“We were in one of the alleys. I couldn’t tell whether the thing was god-blessed or not. It looked human from a distance, but it had the teeth of a jackal and the claws of a lion.” She grabbed his arm. “My son frequented some places he shouldn’t, but who doesn’t? He was a good lad, Herald! He needs the gods’ justice!”
“We will do what we can to bring him justice.” Grimweld stared her in the eyes. He needed to assure not only her, but also the growing crowd. “We built up this city for a reason, woman. We will not allow such beings to roam here unpunished.”
Serena could change the future.
Most days it wasn’t all that interesting. She’d see a potential future in her dreams where she’d break a pitcher or lose a button and, upon waking, simply take a different set of actions to avert the mishap. A far cry from the days of her youth when a warlord had tried to use her powers to win conquests. But Serena didn’t mind the slower pace. It was better when people’s lives didn’t rest on her ability to alter the future. She’d become accustomed to leisurely visions of village life.
But then she foresaw her son’s death.
Serena sat on the edge of her bed, the battered wood rough against her stout thighs. Bells rang in the distance as she rubbed her cheeks. She’d went through this routine of sitting on her cot and rubbing her face every morning when she was in the warlord’s employ. It helped her focus on changing the future. But she hadn’t needed to concentrate this hard for a while, and the circumstances were different. Wrinkles etched her cheeks after many years of living on the earth. Her hands had toughened from being a washwoman since her husband’s death.
And now the stakes were much more personal.