I’m in a sneak peek mood, so here’s chapter 1 from ‘Scales & Stingers: Heroes of Avoch book 1″:
Thia forced herself to keep a steady pace as she walked toward Father Philip’s office. Running wasn’t going to help her nerves, and it might hurt someone who got in her way. It’s nothing, she told herself. Probably nothing more serious than a change in the class schedule that I have to correct and post.
The knot in her stomach didn’t go away, though.
Fifteen years spent within the walls of the cloister, in the center of Almair, and Thia had learned more than she ever would’ve in the village of River Run. She’d excelled at her classes, and won praise from her teachers. Yet most of the students saw her as one of the Fallen. They either feared or mocked her. Her innate abilities earned her the title of priestess years ahead of the acolytes she’d started classes with. Keroys himself blessed her with his presence when she was raised up. That hadn’t made things easier.
“Fallen witch,” a voice hissed at her from the shadows as she passed.
Thia didn’t miss a step. She kept her head down, ignoring the taunt as she had for years. It stung, but she’d learned how to hide the pain. As long as Keroys and Father Philip wanted her here, she would stay. No matter how much the other residents tried to drive her away.
She felt the hood begin to slide off of her head. Stopping, she reached up and adjusted it. They know it’s me. But I can pretend not to see them if it’s up. Pretend I won’t get beaten if I lose my way in the catacombs under the cloister. Pretend I’m not the one they’ll blame if something, anything, goes wrong. If it wasn’t for Father Philip’s protection, she knew she would’ve been sent to some remote village by now. Someplace where she could be forgotten by everyone else connected with the church. He took the vow he made to her, and to her father, seriously. Punishment had been swift after the first attacks by the other acolytes. That just made them more careful not to be caught. It taught Thia an important lesson, though. Trust no one who can’t prove they don’t want to hurt her.
As she rounded the last corner, she slowed down. Armed men lingered in the area in front of the door. Their heads snapped up as she approached, studying her. The silver sword and shield of Garret decorated their armor. Paladins? What business would they have with Father Philip? While it was true that those in service to Garret often worked with Keroys’s priests and priestesses, seeing them here made her heart race. It’s nothing, she whispered to herself. I’m probably needed to do a blessing for some mission they’re on.
The churning in her stomach said something different. She was a full priestess now, and would go wherever and do whatever Keroys demanded of her. Without question or hesitation. At least, not one she’d say out loud.
She kept her eyes down, her face hidden. Her hands were swallowed by the flowing fabric of her robe. Maybe none of them would notice. Stopping at the door, she glanced at one of the acolytes standing guard. “I’ve been summoned,” she said.
“He’s not alone,” the man whispered as he opened the door for her.
Thia slid through the small opening. Father Philip sat at his desk. Two men she didn’t know rose from their seats in front of the priest. “Ah, Thia. Come here.”
Thia walked toward the corner of the desk, trying not to stare at the strangers. “What did you require, Father?”
“Thia, this is Drakkus Heath. He’s the head of Garret’s Paladins from Dragonspire.” He pointed to the man closest to her. “And this is Jinaari Althir.”
“Hello,” she said, trying not to stare. Drakkus was the shorter of the two, but carried himself with a sense of command. Jinaari was almost a head taller. While she was used to being scrutinized, there was something in his dark eyes that was unsettling. He was sizing her up in some way. She nodded at each of them, then turned her attention back to the priest. Maybe that would change his focus.
“Sit down, Thia. This may take a few moments.”
She took a seat. They sat again, once she was settled, and turned their attention back to the priest. “She’s the one?” Drakkus asked.
Father Philip nodded, “Thia’s excelled at every class she’s ever taken. She’s talented, one that Keroys favors with his grace. She took her vows before any others in her group. Don’t let her demeanor fool you. She’ll do what needs to be done.”
Drakkus nodded. “Good. I’ve got to return to our chapterhouse.” Rising, he looked at the other man, “Althir, you know what has to happen. Follow the law, stay true to your vows, and may Garret grant you strength in combat.”
“Milord Commander,” the other man replied as he rose, grasping his arm briefly. “I will not fail.”
Drakkus glanced Thia’s way. “He’s arrogant, and sometimes insufferable, but Jinaari’s the best I’ve ever met with a sword.” With a bow to Father Philip, he left the room. The remaining paladin sat down again. Thia felt his eyes on her.
She sat, her hands in her lap, and waited for Father Philip to say something. Anything. Was this Jinaari person on a quest of some kind? Was she supposed to bless his endeavors? “Father Philip, I don’t understand…” she started to speak.
“Thia,” he turned his attention to her, “the time has come for you to leave here. Word has reached us, and Jinaari’s Order, of a problem to the south. In what remains of Tanisal.”
Her mind reeled from his words. Leave the cloister? “I don’t…” she stammered, “I don’t understand, Father. Have I done something wrong?”
He smiled at her. “No. Quite the opposite. You’re the best we have, Thia. Jinaari is the best that Drakkus has.”
“Priestess,” Jinaari interrupted, his deep voice echoing in the room. “Garret himself reached out to my Order. Tanisal’s been taken over by evil. We think a mage by the name of Drogon is behind it.”
Thia’s pulse began to race. “Drogon?” she asked Father Philip.
“You know the name?” Jinaari asked.
She turned her attention back to him, nodding. She felt the hood slide off her head at the motion. Jinaari’s eyes widened slightly as he saw her face, but he didn’t flinch. “He is responsible for my father’s death.” She glanced back at the priest, “Are you certain?”
Father Philip nodded. “Keroys confirmed it to me, just before Drakkus and Jinaari arrived. He specifically commanded that you join the effort to cleanse Tanisal before the contagion spreads.”
She lowered her head obediently. “If this is the will of Keroys, so be it.” Rising, she was startled when the paladin did the same. “When do we leave? And is it to be just the two of us?”
“There’s a ship in the harbor. We’ll catch a ride with them, be put ashore about a mile or so from the city wall. Others are heading that way. We’ll join them before we go into the city itself,” Jinaari said.
“Then I should go pack.” She looked at the priest. “May I be excused?”
Father Philip walked around his desk. “In a moment. Jinaari, please ask one of the acolytes outside to lead you to the kitchens. I’ve already sent word. We will not send you on your way without food for the journey.”
Jinaari bowed, “It’s appreciated.” The tall man strode from the room, closing the door behind him. She watched him leave, still confused.
Turning back to the priest, Thia asked, “Have I done something wrong, Father? There’s plenty of other priests and priestesses here that can heal, or fight, do what it is that Keroys needs. Why me? I haven’t left here in over a dozen years.”
“Which is why it should be you. Beyond that our God has said so. Would you defy Keroys, Thia?” She shook her head. “I’ve kept you here far too long, thinking it was the best way to keep you safe. It’s not. Too many cannot see beyond what their eyes show them. They do not see you, Thia. They only see the reflection of who your mother was.”
“Do you think it’s the same Drogon?” She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer. Memories of that night still haunted her.
Father Philip sat on the edge of his desk. “I can’t be certain, but it’s possible. Rumors are strange beasts. You know this. If it is, he’s harnessed a type of magic that few have even tried to summon since Tanisal fell.”
“Is he one of the Forsaken?” Her eyes grew wide at the thought.
“If he is, you’ll need all the help Keroys can give you.” He pushed off from the desk and took her by the elbow, leading her toward the door. “Remember his teachings, his laws. Hold to all you know to be true, Thia. Jinaari’s the best at what he does. The others are, as well. I’m certain of it. If this is the same Drogon, you’ll be safe.”
“Are you sure?”
“He’s a paladin, Thia. One of the best fighters ever to join Garret’s Order. Trust in that. The rest will come in time.” He opened the door and waited for her to leave.
She reached for the hood, instinctively placing it over her head. She was leaving the only home she’d had for fifteen years; with no guarantee she’d be back. Keroys, I will do as you request of me. But what if I can’t remember the spells and someone dies? Or I do? Ignoring the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes, she kept her head down and kept walking. It’s a tes., I can’t, I won’t, fail. A familiar sense of duty chased away the self-doubt. Papa wouldn’t want me to be this scared.
Reaching her small room, she pulled off the robe and hung it on a hook. Her trunk didn’t hold much, but there was an old backpack buried at the bottom. Tossing it on her bed, she opened the wardrobe doors. Outside of the ritual robes she’d been issued, she didn’t have much beyond the simple tunic and breeches she wore daily. The few spare outfits she had went into the bag, along with a repair kit for her boots. She tossed her best cloak across the bed. It’s warm, and I can hide my hands in the sleeves. I hope it’s enough. I don’t know what else…
Popping a panel in the base of the cabinet, she pulled out two pouches. The small bag held the few coins she had. It should be safe there, she thought as she buried it between the clothing. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she took the time to open the other pouch. Resting within, wrapped in a scrap of tanned leather, sat an oblong box. She pulled it out, her fingers finding the three hidden copper acorns in the design. Pressing all of them at once, the box opened silently. Inside, a small assortment of items she’d need to perform some of her spells sat on a bed of gold velvet. Her father had made the box for her and it’d been years before she learned the secret to open it. Even longer to discover that whatever she put within would never run out.
“You ready?” Jinaari said from the doorway.
Thia looked up, startled. The paladin leaned against the framework, looking at her expectantly.
“Almost.” She shut the box and rewrapped it before placing it back into the pouch. Securing it to her belt, she rose from the bed. “What about you?”
“Always. What’s with the box?”
“My father made it for me.” She secured the top of her pack. Throwing her cloak on, she fixed the clasp and went to pick up the bag but he grabbed it first.
“Come on,” he said, slinging her bag onto one of his shoulders. “The captain’s waiting for us.”
“I can carry my own bag.”
“I know that. And you will, once we get closer to Tanisal. The wind’s picked up, though, and the hood on your cloak isn’t going to keep your face hidden without you holding in place. If I carry your bag, you can do that.”
“Don’t you have a bag?” She adjusted the hood, trying to read his face. Was he saying that because he thought she should be hidden?
“I sent it to the ship before coming here.” He moved aside, waving his arm, “Ladies first.”
She hesitated, then went through the door. “You’ll have to lead once we leave the building,” she told him. “I’ve not spent much time at the port. I have no idea which ship is ours.”
“That’s fine,” he said, falling into step next to her. “I talked Drakkus into giving me some things for you. They’re on the ship.”
“A chain shirt, for one. A dagger or two, as well. Your order isn’t a militant one, so I thought you wouldn’t have those.” He shrugged the shoulder that carried her pack, “Judging from the weight of this, I was right.”
“Why would I need those?” she asked.
They reached the gate leading out of the compound. Father Philip stood there, waiting. “May Keroys guide you, Thia. Keep his teachings in your heart during your travels.”
The massive wooden gate swung open, exposing them to the bustling chaos of Almair. A gust of wind flew into her face, and her hands grabbed at the hood of her cloak. “See?” Jinaari said. “Like I said, it’s windy out here.”
She skipped a few steps, trying to keep up to the paladin’s long stride. “Stay close,” he cautioned her. “The city’s big, but not everyone is welcoming.”
“I know that,” she replied.
He stopped, looking back at her. “You do. But not to the extent I do.” He gave her a direct look, “I’ll keep you safe, but I’d prefer if you didn’t make that harder than it needs to be. So, listen. Do what I say. When we’re alone on the ship, or when we reach the others, you won’t have to hide. If we’re anywhere else, keep the cloak on. Now, let’s move. The faster I get you on the ship and below deck, the better I’ll feel.” He grasped her elbow and led her through the crowded streets.
Thia worked to keep the hood up, her mind trying to make sense of it all. This was happening so fast. It hadn’t even been an hour since she got the summons. And here she was, being escorted through the city to a ship that would take her to a ghost town. Where she’d meet other strangers. And, together, they were supposed to cleanse the ruins? Of what? How? The questions she didn’t ask earlier formed in her mind. Next time, she chided herself, ask them before you agree!
“In here,” Jinaari whispered, shoving her into a building. He slammed the door behind them and held a finger to his lips as he pressed his head to the door. “This way,” he said, taking her elbow again.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I saw someone. He wasn’t thrilled when Drakkus chose me for this assignment. He’s also notorious for killing any Fallen he finds.” He led her through a maze of hallways.
“I’m not Fallen. I’m human.”
He looked at her. “I see it. It doesn’t matter to me. Garret said you’re coming, as did Keroys. When two Gods talk to me, I listen. However,” he moved his head around, scanning the junction, and then moved her forward, “Alesso isn’t as flexible. His family was taken by the Fallen when he was a child. He’d see your eyes and reach for his sword, regardless of orders.”
They reached the end of the hallway. Two windows, covered in heavy fabric, flanked the exit. Jinaari moved one aside, peering outside. “Good,” he said as the curtain moved back into place, “we’re within sight of the ship. The storm’s gotten worse, though.” He stared at her cloak, “There’s no time to fix it here. We move fast, and stay with me. The goal is to get on our ship. I know the captain. He’s not going to let anyone on board that isn’t part of the crew, or a paid passenger. Which is just you and me.” He moved the curtain again, waving her closer. “It’s the last ship at the end of this dock, the Ninaa. See the man at the end of the ramp? Lots of feathers in his hat?”
Thia peered outside and located who Jinaari described. “Yes. What’s his name?”
“Sylver Stone. If I tell you to run, head to him. I’ll take care of any pursuit.”
A knot of fear formed in Thia’s stomach. “Why would anyone be chasing us?”
“That’s a question for another time. Something feels off. Just do what I said, okay?”
She nodded. “Stay with you unless you say different, then go to the captain and get on the ship.”
“Here,” he slid her pack off his shoulder. “If I have to fight, I can’t have this.”
She put her arms through the straps and settled it on her back. Jinaari reached out, adjusting the hood slightly. “Ready?”
Grasping the fabric of her cloak under her chin, she nodded. He eased open the door, peering outside, before entering the busy street. “Come on,” he motioned to her.
She moved quickly, keeping pace with him as he strode toward the pier. Their captain caught sight of them, shouting orders to his crew while watching them approach.
Thia let out a scream as an arm circled her waist, lifting her off the ground momentarily. Her hood fell back, her pale blonde hair blowing in the stiff wind. “Consorting with the Fallen now, Althir? I didn’t think you were this kind of ‘honorable’.” A male voice sounded in her ear.
She twisted her body, struggling to free herself. Whoever held her tightened his grip, forcing her closer to him.
“Let her go, Alesso. This is bigger than any grudge you have. The Gods are involved.” Thia snapped her head up at Jinaari’s voice. His sword was out, his eyes looking at her captor.
Thia’s heart hammered in her chest as fear set in. “Where were the Gods when my family was taken, Althir? Maybe this witch knows how to find them. I won’t know until I ask.” Alesso’s body shifted as he changed his stance.
“She’s part of my task, Alesso. You were there, when it was given to me. Put revenge aside long enough to obey Garret’s will.”
Thia slammed her foot onto his. He screamed in surprise; his arm relaxing. Breaking free, she ran toward the captain. The captain gestured toward her as the sound of swords meeting rang out. She stopped as she got to him, turning to see Jinaari and Alesso fighting.
“Get on board, Milady,” Sylver Stone commanded. “Jack! Take her to my cabin when she’s onboard.”
Thia ran up the ramp. A woman met her, “This way.”
“He’s on his way. We won’t leave him behind. Come on. We have to get you out of sight.” Jack grabbed her arm and led her toward a small door nestled under the wheel.
“Stay here. When we’re underway, we’ll show you where you’ll sleep.” Jack left the room, closing the door behind her.
Thia fell into a chair, her hands cradling her face. All sense of security and normalcy evaporated. What had she gotten herself into? The motion of the ship changed. Raising her head, she looked out the closest window and saw the ship at the next dock begin to retreat. We’re leaving? What about Jinaari? Standing up, she grabbed a low beam on the ceiling to keep on her feet. Orders were being shouted out on the deck. The door opened again, and Jinaari came in. A red blotch spread down the ragged edges of the torn sleeve of his shirt. Thia shrugged off her pack and unclasped her cloak, tossing both onto the bed resting under a window. Walking over to him, she said, “You’re hurt.”
“It’s a scratch. He got a lucky shot in.”
“Sit down,” she told him. “I can take care of it.”
“It’s nothing,” he protested, but he did as she asked.
Moving aside the ripped portion of his shirt, she located the wound. It was small, but his blood kept seeping out. Not wanting to explain what she was doing, she tapped into the place of her soul where her magic resided and drew a finger across the wound. It closed beneath her touch. “There,” she said as she moved away.
He looked at his arm, then back at her. “So, that’s why.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was told you would be necessary, but not why. You’re a healer, aren’t you?”
“I have a small amount of proficiency in that, yes.”
“I think, Thia, that it’s time for you and I to get to know each other better.” He nodded toward the other chair. “Take a seat.”
Nervously, she did what he suggested. She kept her head down and waited. This was how it always started. First, they’d be happy she could help them. But then they’d want to know who her parents were, why she didn’t live in Byd Cudd with the rest of ‘her kind’.
“I’m not going to hurt you, priestess.” His voice was soft, and without fear. “I swore an oath to Garret to protect you. I also don’t judge people based on how they look. Your actions today, on the dock…healing me just now…they tell me more about you than anything my eyes see. I do have questions, though. If I ask them, will you answer truthfully?”
“You doubt me because I’m half Fallen,” she whispered. It wasn’t a question, but a statement.
“No. I prefer to start out with the truth.” He leaned forward, resting his arm on the table between them. “I have to trust the people I travel with. And you have to trust me in return. Most of that is earned, and you’ve given me enough so far for me to learn a few things.”
“You’re a healer, and a good one based on how whole my arm is. You’ve spent a number of years behind the walls of your cloister, hiding from the world. But how did you go from living in Byd Cudd to being a priestess of Keroys? There’s never been any worship beyond that of Lolc Aon allowed in that city.”
“I never lived there. I lived with my father, in River Run. When I was ten, the villagers turned against us. Father Philip saved me, but Papa was killed. I began my studies at the cloister because I had nowhere else to go.” She looked up at him, trying to keep her voice even. “I devoted myself to lessons because books didn’t taunt me. They didn’t laugh at me, point fingers, or blame me for their own mistakes. Every other acolyte I trained with called me ‘Fallen witch’. One went as far as to try and poison a stable hand and say it was my doing. You talk about needing to trust me? Keroys ordered me to be here, and I’m here, but every part of me is waiting for you and these friends of yours to do exactly what every other person has. As much as you say I need to earn your trust, the same can be said about you.”
He leaned back and looked at her. She couldn’t read his face. “Your father was human? And he raised you?”
“Do you know who your mother was?”
“No. Papa never told me her name.”
Jinaari nodded. Standing up, he looked at her. “That’s enough for me. No matter who your parents were, Thia, it’s your actions that matter. And I’ve seen enough to know you won’t run from a fight.” Without another word, he turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.