The first two chapters of The Secret Empire
I will protect the Secret Land. I will not speak of it. Outsiders will never hear of it from me. The desert will be barren to all outsiders. A land ofsand and death. To me, it will be a hidden garden of plenty. My garden. My home. My land. My people. Unless the Goddess Herself commands me, I will never leave the Secret Land. May I be cursed, and exiled to the Underworld if I break my oath. I vow in the name of Mother Amar’isis, that I will keep the secrets of Mephitia, in this life, and the one beyond.
—passage from the sacred oath of the Wings of Amar’isis
“Kill them quietly,” Bree’alla whispered.
The words echoed in Drake’s mind as she stared at him, waiting until he agreed to the vicious order. Her face was calm, as if killing the men creeping toward them meant nothing.
Drake forced himself to nod, his head barely moving. Bree’s green eyes narrowed in recognition, then she hid her dagger against her forearm, shielding the blade from the massive bright moon that dominated the sky over the shadowy landscape of the Khoram Desert.
How could she be so cold, so heartless?
It didn’t matter. It had to be done. Their journey to find the dragon hunters missing for forty years, and slay Draglûne had taken many lives already. Killing a few more deluded men who worshipped the Dragon King as a god would be a service to the people of the plateaus. He had to believe it, or pulling the triggers of his double crossbow would be even more difficult.
Bree had insisted they launch this surprise attack before entering the southern Mephitian lands. Her words had been clear. She would guide them no further until the cultist scouts were dead. Their enemies had never been this close, and turning to attack now would serve as a final warning.
The footfalls of men walking along the edge of the shallow wash made Drake’s heart pound faster. The dragon cultists were definitely following the tracks the companions’ vorrels had left only minutes before. He rechecked his double crossbow, feeling the tight cords and making certain the slender bolts lay perfectly in their tracks.
He caught a glimpse of his enemies now, and counted five, just as Bree had reported earlier when she returned from her own scouting mission. The men suddenly paused, scanning the dim horizon in all directions. Had they heard the companions lying in wait? Or perhaps the cultists were afraid of meeting the fierce Mephitian nomads that defended these lands?
Meh’fee’shuns, Drake sounded out the foreign word in his mind.
The men pointed at the string of large pack animals, and the three dogs that Dabarius led across an area of flat desert just south of them, maintaining the ruse that the companions were unaware of their pursuers. The wizard had accepted the dangerous task, and had taken charge of the precious Sacred Scrolls of Amar’isis from Bree’alla. She had promised that if the scrolls were delivered to a safe place she would introduce them to someone who knew where Draglûne’s lair was located, though she did not know herself.
Carrying the scrolls was a task that Dabarius accepted gladly, and Drake knew the wizard wanted to look at them, and see if there were spells or knowledge he could use. Dabarius acted unconcerned if he were caught alone by Mephitian raiders or the cultists themselves as he led the vorrels away. His overconfidence worried Drake, but Dabarius was probably right about being able to handle himself if he were attacked, and the rib injury he’d suffered at the Cave of Wyrms was almost healed now.
Drake could barely see the tall, four-legged, and three-humped vorrels tied together in a chain. The dragon cultists would not realize only one man led the train of animals. They would believe the companions were walking alongside the beasts concealed in their tall shadows, and giving the vorrels a much-needed rest.
On the other side of Bree, Thor and Bellor kept their heads down, but Bellor made hand signs at Drake, asking how many enemies approached.
In reply, Drake raised five fingers, then signaled with his thumb and fingers slightly apart that they were very close.
Both of the broad-shouldered dwarves tensed up, ready to attack the cultists who had picked up their trail soon after the companions had departed from the Cave of Wyrms over ten days ago. Their enemies would not have caught up to them so rapidly if they hadn’t paused to recover from their battle with Verkahna to allow Dabarius to heal.
Drake sank down as the crunching sounds of the men’s footfalls grew louder. He slipped deeper into the shadows, remaining motionless and becoming the invisible hunter his father had taught him to be when he was a boy growing up in the Thornclaw Forest around Cliffton.
An irrational fear told him the cultists had seen him. There was no real cover here in the bleak and barren desert. He needed trees and brambles to hide himself in, not a dusty wash with faint shadows. The giant, cratered moon was far too bright and closer to the plateaus during this time of the year than at any other. The cultists would strike first before Bree gave the signal to attack. Had the ambush already gone horribly wrong?
The five men walked only an arms length away from Drake now. He could smell their stale sweat, the campfire smoke on their ragged desert robes.
Bree’alla exploded upward and slashed the back of a man’s ankle with her dagger, sweeping his legs out from under him. He fell, and she punched him in the throat before dragging him into the wash. Drake, Bellor, and Thor struck at almost the same moment.
Drake lifted his crossbow and squeezed the triggers at point blank range. The slender wooden bolts coated with a thin layer of lamp oil penetrated the side of the men’s ribcages at the level of their hearts, puncturing their lungs. The shafts passed all the way through the dying men, then sailed into the desert.
Bellor and Thor attacked the remaining pair of trackers, the moonlight revealing their stunned and exhausted expressions. Thor smashed one in the chest with his hammer, and Bellor hooked a man’s leg with his axe using the reach of the long-handled weapon to pull him down. Thor finished both of them off with rapid blows to their skulls.
The small man Bree had dragged into the wash lay pinned under her. She pressed one hand against his mouth while holding her blade against his throat. She whispered to him ominously in the Mephitian tongue. The man’s eyes filled with terror as the dust settled.
Drake wanted to help Bree by restraining the man himself. What if the cultist slipped free and stabbed her with a hidden blade? After all they’d been through, he couldn’t risk losing her now. He would shield her with his own flesh, accept any wound, die for her if he must.
Thor held Drake in place with a firm hand, then motioned for him to reload. “She’s got him. You keep watch.”
“Ask him how many are following.” Bellor let the prisoner see the moonlight glint off Wyrmslayer, the double-bitted axe the old Dracken Viergur War Priest had carried for over a hundred years.
The dwarves loomed over the captive while Drake reloaded, and searched the night for the main group of cultists. He glanced at the two men he had killed, trying not to think about who they were or who they had left behind. They followed the orders of Draglûne, like the men he had had to kill outside the Cave of Wyrms.
This just felt so different. He avoided looking at the bodies or at the two with crushed skulls that still oozed blood onto the thirsty sand. If they had wives or children, their families would never know what happened to them. It would be the same if he died out here in the treeless desert, so far from home.
Bree’alla whispered one last warning before she removed her hand from the prisoner’s mouth. He spoke to her with a pleading, quiet voice—probably begging for his life. She asked more questions and they spoke for a few moments until the man gave a one-word answer that made Bree blink with surprise.
“What did he say?” Thor’s harsh expression fixed on the prisoner.
“There are about twenty men, and thirty vorrels behind us in the main group.” Bree shook her head, as if disgusted with the prisoner.
“They’re closer than we thought,” Bellor said, “and there are far too many to face in the open.”
“They’re not planning an open attack,” Bree said. “They’d sneak into our camp and try to cut our throats when we slept.”
Drake trusted her prediction and felt rather relieved they wouldn’t try an overt assault. With Jep, Temus and his new dog, the desert hound on guard, the assassins would never be able to approach their camp unnoticed. The dogs would smell or hear the cultists long before they got close. For an instant, he feared Jep and Temus would not obey Dabarius. He wished they were at his side—where they belonged—instead of guarding the wizard and the vorrels while maintaining the ruse.
“Is that what he said, that they are going to cut our throats when we sleep?” Thor glowered at the terrified man.
Bree glanced at Drake. “He told me they were going to kill us the next time we stopped to rest.”
“Let them try,” Thor said.
Drake eyed Bree’alla critically. “Bree, what else did he say?”
She hesitated. “He said the Iron Brothers who survived the battle outside the Cave of Wyrms fled toward the village of Mitara. A cultist leader that I know of found them and rallied them. He leads them now.”
“Who is this man who has led the chase after us?” Bellor asked.
“He’s a high ranking member in the Iron Brotherhood,” Bree said. “He’d been watching the villages in case we passed that way after we escaped from Arayden.”
“Only one man?” Bellor asked.
“He had orders to kill us,” Bree said.
“Humph.” Thor scoffed and rolled his eyes.
“Since we killed the other leaders in Arayden and at the Cave of Wyrms,” Bree said, “this vile man controls the Iron Brotherhood in the Khoram Desert now. He is called, Shai’keen.” The loathing in Bree’s voice made Drake wonder about the kind of atrocities Shai’keen had visited upon Bree’alla’s people.
“Tell me about this man,” Bellor said.
She released her hold on the prisoner and stood up. “Shai’keen is a heartless assassin.”
Thor stared at her flatly. “Like you?”
She glared at the dwarf. “He’s killed many of my order in Arayden. And their families. Shai’keen is the main reason why there are so few Wings of Amar’isis left in Arayden.” Bree sheathed her dagger and rested her hand on the grip of her longsword. “He is nothing like me.” She glared at Thor, her expression promising violence if he insulted her again.
“Now, now,” Bellor said. “Thor, stop being rude to our guide. Accept our apologies, Bree’alla. Please.”
She turned away. Drake wanted to believe Bree wasn’t a killer like Shai’keen. She wasn’t an assassin, was she? He thought of her more as a spy, and a swordswoman for the Wings of Amar’isis. Who the Wings actually served, he did not know, and Bree wouldn’t say. Ever. There must be a High Priestess of Amar’isis that Bree reported to. He had long suspected that she was taking them to a hidden temple dedicated to the Winged Goddess.
“We’ll be wary of this Shai’keen,” Bellor said.
Thor snorted with disgust. “I have no doubt I’ve killed better men than him.”
Bree stepped away from the prisoner, and tossed his short sword and knife into the center of a spiny bush. The man trembled as he clutched at the bleeding wound on the back of his ankle. She whispered to the others in case the man knew the Nexan tongue. “It’s decided. There’s too many of them to fight. We should catch up to Dabarius. We have to get through the gap between Zaratek’s Deep and the Sand Lake before sunrise or the way will be closed to us. We can’t be on this side of the gap after sunrise.”
“Closed by what?” Drake whispered.
She turned away, her eyes fixed on the horizon outlined by the silvery moonlight.
“Go on ahead.” Thor motioned to his friends as he looked over the prisoner. The dwarven warrior squeezed the handle of his blacksteel war hammer. “I’ll take care of him.”
“He’s wounded,” Drake said, his blood rising with disgust. “He’s no threat to us now. They’ll come after us no matter what we do. Leave him.”
“No.” Bellor spat out the word, surprising Drake with his angry tone. The old dwarf bypassed Drake and locked eyes his former apprentice, as if one hundred and fifty year old Thor Hargrim, full Dracken Viergur Priest and Champion of the Drobin Army had returned to being a lowly apprentice in need of correction. “Thor is right. We’re not going anywhere until this man is taken care of. Thor, bind his wound and give him some of your water.” Bellor said something else, this time in Drobin. The words hung in the air and Drake wished he’d paid better attention to the language lessons Bellor had given him in Khierson City.
The younger dwarf nodded, and reluctantly tore a strip of cloth from a dead man’s robe, and tied it around the bleeding gash on the back of the cultist’s ankle. Thor handed the Mephitian a small waterskin, and motioned for him to drink. Thor flashed a reassuring smile at the man, and Drake thought there might be hope for Thor yet.
The dragon cultist tipped his head back and gulped the water. After his third swig Thor bashed him on the back of the skull with a precise blow from the shaft of his hammer. The man collapsed and lay unmoving.
Drake gasped in shock.
Bellor turned away with a satisfied look as Bree shrugged, unconcerned.
Thor picked up the waterskin, wiped off the spout, and avoided Drake’s gaze while he had a long drink.
“How could you do that?” Drake pulled the waterskin away from Thor and wondered if Bellor had told him to do that. Only callous Drobin soldiers bound for the Underworld would do such a thing. Thor and Bellor were different. Weren’t they? If Dabarius had seen this he would probably kill Thor with some of his Lightning magic or choke him with one of his special battle holds.
Thor glanced up at Drake. “You’ve had too much sun. He’s not dead. It was a stunning blow. Good soldiers follow orders, and I followed Master Bellor’s. I made certain he won’t be telling his fellows about us for a few hours. If he even remembers us.”
“Lower your voices,” Bree’alla whispered.
Drake knelt beside the Mephitian who was still breathing—although very slowly. The man would remember them, especially Bree. She was unforgettable.
“Don’t worry about him,” Bree said, “it would have been kinder if we’d killed him.”
They all looked at her.
“Shai’keen will murder him?” Drake asked.
“No. He’ll probably leave him behind,” Bree said. “He’ll be gone from this world soon enough. Didn’t you see how pitiful they all looked? These trackers were half-dead already. They’re too weak to face us. Shai’keen is sending them all to die. They don’t have enough vorrels to carry supplies for that many men and trek this far into the Khoram and back out.”
“And still they come after us,” Bellor said. “Zealous fools.”
“Verkahna was one of their gods,” Bree said, “and Shai’keen cannot let her death go unavenged. No matter the cost or pain.”
Drake remembered the excruciating journey from Arayden to the Cave of Wyrms without enough water or rations. That had only been a few days. He couldn’t imagine a nearly two-week trek deep into the Khoram with limited supplies.
Movement to the north caught Drake’s attention. A man rode a vorrel at the very limit of Drake’s vision. The Clifftoner pointed and motioned for his friends to duck down. More riders slowly appeared in a column.
“It’s Shai’keen,” Bree whispered.
“Have they seen us?” Bellor asked.
“They have,” Bree said, “we must run.”
I shot the Giergun war chief in the chest from forty-five paces. His soldiers dragged his body into the trees and I ran for my life.
—Gavin Bloodstone, from the Bloodstone Chronicles.
Drake aimed at the riders in the distance. Hitting one of them from this range, just under fifty yards, would be extremely difficult, even though the Drobin made spring-steel crossbow arms of Heartseeker could easily cast a bolt that far. He tried to pick out the rider with the most confidence. If he could kill their leader, Shai’keen, what would the followers do?
“Killing one of them might not slow them down,” Bellor said.
“What if I killed Shai’keen?” Drake whispered, thinking of a story his grandfather had once one told him. “Which one is he? The first rider or the second?” He considered switching out his bolts. He needed his best long-range shafts for this. He reached for the special quiver on his belt, which held his thorn bolt, the symbolic shaft every hunter from Cliffton earned when he became a man. He was surprised for an instant when his fingers touched the second bolt in the quiver. Ethan’s thorn bolt. Though his deceased best friend had not earned it, Drake had made the shaft and carried it as a tribute to his friend.
“Forget it. I can’t tell which one is Shai’keen,” Bree said. “We have to go. Now keep your heads down, and stay in the wash.”
The two thorn bolts stayed in Drake’s quiver. A hunter only used them in the most dire of circumstances. This was not the time.
Bree’alla ran south along the wash, and Drake followed, watching her back and the approaching riders.
Thor gritted his teeth. Bellor took in a lungful of air, shook his head, and ran after Bree. Drake followed as Bellor and Thor struggled to keep up as they fled from Shai’keen and the riders. Their route wended its way toward Dabarius and the vorrels who had disappeared from view moments earlier. The riders followed, but at a slow pace. Perhaps they hadn’t seen them after all?
A few paces beyond the wash, Bree came to an abrupt halt and knelt down. A bleached human skeleton lay on the ground. The skeleton’s hands and foot bones were missing, and cut marks indicated the limbs had been severed by an axe or sword. Withered leather straps attached to stakes had once tied the person to the ground. No evidence of clothing remained.
Drake remembered what Bree and Dabarius had told them. The desert tribesmen would stake intruders under the sun. Their stripped bodies would be covered in oil that would cook them during the hottest part of the day. Their feet and hands would be severed, and then cauterized with torches. They would suffer a slow, agonizing death as the sun killed them.
Bellor and Thor caught up and stopped beside the skeleton. The two Drobin gazed into the desert using the bright moonlight, and their dwarven eyes unhindered by the night, to see further than Drake could. He paid close attention to Bellor, wondering if the War Priest sensed any restless spirits.
Thor motioned left and right. “There are more lying in a straight line in both directions. How far does it go?”
“From the Sand Lake to the edge of Zaratek’s Deep,” Bree’alla said.
Drake reeled at the distance, the sheer carnage. “How many?”
“Over a thousand, perhaps twice that,” Bree said, “I don’t really know.”
“A final warning to turn back.” Bellor tugged on his beard. “And yet I don’t sense the spirits of any of these men lingering—and there are always those who don’t pass to the other side.”
“Will they do this to us if they catch us?” Drake asked.
She nodded her head. “The nomads will inflict this punishment upon all of us if they catch us. Anyone who crosses the border like we are planning will suffer the Seh’ken’rah.”
“The what?” Bellor asked.
Bree’alla hesitated, her face grim. “The tribesmen call this death the Seh’ken’rah, the Embrace of the Sun.”
Bellor ground his teeth, Thor cursed under his breath, and Drake looked for Shai’keen and the riders behind them.
“We cross this boundary if you want to find Draglûne’s lair.” Bree stood up. “I’m going to take us a secret way. With any luck, they won’t be able to follow.”
“Lead on,” Bellor said, motioning for her to continue.
A short time later, covered in sweat despite the cool desert night, the breathless companions caught up to the wizard and the string of ten vorrels a half-mile south of the gruesome border.
The tall, dark-haired wizard lay on his belly at the crest of a low dune. He waved for them to crouch down as they approached. Bellor collapsed on the soft sand and tried to catch his breath while Bree, Drake and Thor crawled up to see what Dabarius was looking at.
Jep and Temus, Drake’s two bullmastiff dogs who had been guarding Dabarius, wagged their tails and sniffed at them all. The dogs greeted Drake with dry noses, then ringed Bellor who appeared to need the most attention. The slender desert hound, a saluki that had once been owned by the cultists of the Cave of Wyrms, rubbed against Drake, his slender tail whipping about as it prodded him with his long snout. He patted the gentle dog. “I’m all right, Skinny. Now sit.” The dog licked Drake’s hand. “Sit.” The hound sat down, its sad brown eyes never leaving him as he joined his friends lying on the dune.
“The scouts are dead?” Dabarius asked.
Bree nodded. “Why’d you stop?”
Dabarius pointed straight ahead—due south.
A line of mounted vorrel riders in white robes and head coverings who carried slender lances waited at the crest of a dune ahead of them.
Drake counted at least a dozen. They didn’t look like Shai’keen’s men.
“They’ve seen me and the vorrels,” Dabarius said. “They’ve sent a rider galloping to the southwest.”
“Nomads?” Bellor asked as he crawled up to join them, his breathing still ragged.
Bree didn’t respond for a long moment. “We can’t get past them without a fight and dozens more will be here by sunrise.”
“We’ll have to try,” Bellor said.
“Impossible,” Bree said. “Even if we eluded them tonight, they would find us in the morning.“
Drake decided he wasn’t going to become part of the skeletal boundary.
He would go back and they would ambush the main group of cultists. They were numerous, but weakened. Maybe they could win.
“We can’t go back,” Bree said, reading his expression. “Shai’keen is in our way, and the chasm of Zaratek’s Deep to the west bars our passage.”
“What about East?” Drake asked.
“The Sand Lake lies there.” Bree’s eyes reflected the moonlight, and he saw hesitation—worry. “It’s not far from here. I’d planned to skirt the edge of it to avoid being spotted by the nomads. Now we can’t.”
“What way can we go?” Bellor asked.
The moonlight hit Bree in the face, and her scant freckles stood out more as she paled. “We’ll have to go into the Sand Lake.”
The fear in Bree’s face and the worry in her voice unsettled Drake even more. What was she so afraid of in the Sand Lake?
“The nomads won’t follow us there,” Bree said, her voice monotone, as she answered the question hanging in the air.
“Then what’s the matter?” Bellor asked. “We’re not going to stay here and end up mutilated and staked out under the sun.”
“There are worse ways to die.” Bree’s words and expression were deadly serious.
“What are you not telling us?” Bellor asked.
“It would be better to leave that unsaid for now.” Bree avoided looking at anyone. “Some things are drawn to you by the mere mention of them.”
Bellor’s golden-brown eyes looked haunted as he nodded in agreement.
“Ask nothing more for now,” Bree said. “If we hurry, we can enter the Sand Lake just after the sun has risen. Then we trek south and get out before sunset.”
“And if we don’t get out before the sun sets?” Bellor asked.
Bree let out a long sigh. “We’ll wish we had tried to fight our way past the nomads and risked the Seh’ken’rah.”
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