AscendantSun’s memory stretches back to the bloody birth of the cosmos. Created to serve a dead god, he tired of his empty religion and adopted the faith of his former enemies. Now, a threat from the past is forcing him to choose between his new friends and his own people.
Escaping enslavement made Grael a hero in others’ eyes. As everything he has won begins to slip away, he strives to protect his loved ones from both the Elfin invaders and the machinations of his own ruler.
Everyone else considers Garscap’s childhood tragedy to be a curse, but he knows it marked him for greatness. Mercenary, manipulative and murderous, he has the mind of a great leader, but not the heart. Will his ruthlessness prove ultimately to be his people’s salvation or their bane?
Prophesy is against them. Numbers, too. But, the greatest threat is mistrust. Can they forge an effective alliance before the bright power rising in the east destroys them?
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Never enter the forest.
The Gilt Spider, the Elfin hunter of men, waited there with webs of silken gold to catch naughty little boys. Granyr had warned her son many times. Why had he not listened?
Because he was too young, still clumsy at speaking, grasping only half of what was said to him. The fault was hers. She should have kept a better eye on him. A moment of distraction had robbed Granyr of her reason for living.
Stifling her sobs, trying to rub away the tremble in her hands on her skirt, she stared helplessly at the wood encircling her farm. There was no time to search the house and shed again, not if he had blundered into the forest.
The sensible course, however demeaning, was to summon help from Pigsknuckle. If she raised the alarm, the villagers would form search parties and cover a lot more ground than she could alone. But her heart screamed otherwise. If they had let her settle in the village instead of this wild, lonely place, her child would be safe. If her husband was still alive, things would be different. She fought unwanted images of a great, y-shaped cross drenched in his blood. This was his family’s reward for his sacrifice: his wife made a pariah; the son he had never seen lost and perhaps dead.
May the Forelight damn the Pigsknucklers for their conceit. She had to find her boy.
Instinct, primal and desperate, swept her forward, her son’s pet name bursting from her chest. “Lilak, where are you?”
As she punched her way into the monster that had swallowed her child, briars mauled her face and hands, tugged and tore at her dress. Her gaze sifted the sun-dappled gloom. Any glimmer of movement might be her son. She tried to steady her rasping breath to hear his plaintive whimper.
Soon, she was adrift in the monotony of the forest, as lost as the child she sought. She shivered at the prospect of the approaching night, an inevitable pall declaring all hope dead.
A howl filled the forest and reverberated through her. Other wails rose up in answer. Her fingers sought her knife, but the scabbard was empty. She groaned at her stupidity. The blade lay in the hut, forgotten in her panic to find her child. She could only guess at the proximity of the wolf pack, but if they found her unarmed and alone, they would kill her.
Granyr searched the forest floor for a fallen branch to use as a club. Most were too rotten, too flimsy, or too unwieldy, but she eventually found a suitable one. The rough bark of her makeshift weapon chafed against her calloused palms. Its heft was reassuring, though it would be no match for a wolf pack.
A high-pitched squeal tore through the wolves’ madrigal. Her terror forgotten, she rushed toward the cry, her cudgel cradled in her arms. It had to be her son.
The howling ceased. Barking and snarling tore apart the silence. A lupine yelp was cut short by the sound of a heavy blow.
She veered toward the noise. Hunters must have happened upon the wolves’ trail. Help was nearby.
She heard the whisper of the stream before she stumbled upon it. Blood tinged its trickling waters. Shivering at the prospect of what she might find, she headed upstream. A lupine corpse bled into the brook—its body twisted awkwardly, the skull crushed in and its lower jaw unhinged and hanging in an incongruous grin.
Another yelp alerted her that the wolf’s slayer had struck again.
Granyr rushed toward the cry. Beneath a broken tree stump lay another dead wolf. Rivulets of blood flowed down its muzzle from a single puncture wound between its eyes.
A soft whine drew her attention to the bushes to her right. She cautiously probed the foliage with the club. The stick brushed through the leaves unharmed. Raising her weapon above her shoulder, she stepped into the thicket.
A snarling frenzy of fur, legs, and jaws writhed in mid-air in front of her. She brought her cudgel down on the beast, delivering a glancing blow that sent it into a convulsion of rabid barks. Unnerved by the futility of her strike, Granyr stared uselessly at the creature as it swayed from side to side. It took time to gather her thoughts. The wolf posed no threat. Hanging upside down by one paw, it could not reach her.
She glanced up at the rope from which it dangled. It was a light yellow-green cord, surprisingly slender given its obvious strength. No mortal hand could make a rope so fine. The maker of the trap was not a Stretcher, like her, or even human. It had to be the Gilt Spider. The trap holding the wolf had been intended for unwitting trespassers in the Elf’s domain.
The memory of a thousand childish nightmares made her back away from the wolf. She turned and ran in no particular direction. The forest whirled dizzily about her. A gantlet of branches lacerated her face and hands.
She burst from the oppressive gloom into the clearing around her home where she collapsed, weeping, and pounded the ground beneath her fists. Lilak was still lost somewhere in the maze of shadow behind her, perhaps already the Gilt Spider’s prey.
“Forelight, I beg you. Protect my son,” she pleaded, but her heart cried otherwise. The saints claimed that the Forelight was love itself, but what love had he shown to her? He had stolen her husband and now her boy.
She picked herself up. Her grubby fingers tried to brush away the blood, sweat, and dust caked to her face. The sun was already slipping behind the holy mountain called the Pig. Night was spreading over the valley. She couldn’t abandon her son to it. She needed a torch and her knife.
Utterly spent, she trudged toward her home, dreading its chill emptiness.
A healthy pillar of smoke rose from her home. Surely, by now, the fire should be ash. A small figure stood at the entrance. She quickened her pace. Aching muscles strained as she ran to her son and clasped him to her bosom. Here was Lilak, alive and safe! Praise the Forelight! Someone must have found him—the same person who had tended the fire—but that mystery could wait. For this exquisite moment, it was enough to embrace her son, to feel his arms hugging her neck; to have his sweet, childish babble tickle her ear. The horrors of the forest no longer mattered now. She had Lilak again.
Granyr gently held him at arm’s length. “Never wander off again,” she chided, attempting to conceal her relief with a frown. “Do you promise?”
Lilak nodded with innocent solemnity. She pressed him to her once more. Something in his hair attracted her attention, an alien thread of gold among the black. Its significance squeezed her chest so tight she could hardly breathe. The real Lilak, her Lilak, was gone forever. The Gilt Spider had taken him and what stood before her was a cruel fraud.
She shoved the sham boy away and screamed.