Lisa Shearin, National Bestselling Author

First three chapters of Ruins & Revenge

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“Wisdom consists of knowing how to distinguish the nature of trouble, and in choosing the lesser evil.”

The Prince

Niccolò Machiavelli

 

Chapter 1

I knew that saving the world wasn’t going to be easy, but I would have appreciated fewer personnel issues.

Though I had only myself to blame.

My strike team consisted of seven goblins—and one elf. An elf who wasn’t known for playing well with others, especially when most of those others were not only goblins, but powerful mages.

And I’d been the one who had brought him on board.

Like I said: my problem, my fault, my job to find a solution.

I stood on the beach watching our three sentry dragons being saddled and loaded for departure. Captain Calik Bakari of the Rheskilian Royal Fighter Squadron and two of his best pilots were overseeing every detail. The dragons were their mounts, but only Calik would be piloting his dragon on the journey inland. The other two would be flown by myself and another member of my team.

The two pilots weren’t happy about that, and they were making no secret of it.

I didn’t blame them, but our plans had changed.

We now had two additional team members—my son Talon, and the elf pirate captain Phaelan Benares.

Calik crossed the rocky beach to where I waited for the lecture I knew was coming.

“The ladies will be ready when you are,” he said. “Vendin and Kasit are not.”

I sighed. “Dasant and I are more than capable—”

“They know that, but understand that we’re close to our dragons. We’re going into danger, meaning their girls are going into danger—and they’re staying here. Your qualifications aren’t in question. That they’re not going is the problem. A big one.”

“Talon is going as a power boost for Agata, and extra firepower for the team. Bane isn’t going anywhere with his broken leg, so our team is down a tomb robber and demolitions expert. Phaelan can fill his boots and then some. There’re bound to be booby traps in Nidaar set against mage and magical null. Being magic users, the rest of us would set them off merely by proximity. Plus, Phaelan’s a null who knows his way around traps.”

Calik held up his hands. “Hey, I don’t need convincing, and neither do they. What they are is worried.”

“I understand.”

“They’re soldiers, and you’re in charge of this mission. They’re good at taking orders—but there’s no regulation that tells them they have to like them. They’ll just pace a rut in the beach until we get back. We’re leaving within two hours?”

“We are.”

“We’ll be ready.” He went back to where the dragons and pilots waited.

There were two other reasons I wanted to take Phaelan with us, but Calik wasn’t a magic user, and his acceptance and understanding would only go so far. His job was to fly Sapphira to the mountain said to contain the city of Nidaar, then take care of her and the other two sentry dragons while we found the Heart of Nidaar. He didn’t need to know any other details.

My team did. And to get them to accept the elf pirate as part of our team, I had to convince them we needed him.

Phaelan Benares wasn’t particularly fond of magic, even less of powerful practitioners. Though Phaelan’s feelings would probably be better described as distrust—on the extreme end of the spectrum. All of the goblins going inland were in the top five percent of the strongest mages in the Seven Kingdoms. When your mission was to keep an evil goblin military brotherhood and their alien invader allies from getting their hands on an artifact that could command the power of the earth and seas to destroy all life, you needed the best and baddest on your side. Basically, we’d crossed an ocean to piss off our archenemies by swiping a bauble that was their last chance at power. And a chance to put an end to the Khrynsani made it more than worth the trip.

Our adversaries knew we were here. One of our expedition’s ships had been blown up before we’d ever left the goblin capital of Regor. At the voyage’s halfway point, we’d been attacked by phantom ships manned by crews of demons and the dead. And once we were within sight of the continent of Aquas, Khrynsani and Sythsaurian weather wizards had conjured a storm to sink our small fleet.

We’d survived and arrived.

But I didn’t delude myself. This was where the real danger started.

It had taken four weeks to get here. We had to find Nidaar and accomplish our mission—to keep the Khrynsani and their alien allies from obtaining the Heart—as quickly as possible.

What my goblin team wasn’t quite grasping was why an elf pirate captain with no magic was a necessary addition. Telling them “because I said so” might end the discussion, but it wouldn’t make the problem go away.

That was the drawback to commanding a strike team mostly made up of your childhood friends.

My name is Tamnais Nathrach. I’m the chief mage for the goblin royal house of Mal’Salin, a duke and chancellor to the new king, that king’s heir until he produced his own, and a nearly rehabilitated practitioner of black magic.

Now I can add leader of an expedition to hopefully save the Seven Kingdoms to that list.

Surprisingly, Phaelan had come to me and volunteered. Even more surprising—approaching shocking, actually—was that I had agreed with him.

I’d accepted Phaelan’s offer not only because I now knew him to be courageous and resourceful. My team had witnessed that bravery firsthand in Phaelan’s command of the Kraken during the attack of the giant waves, which would make his inclusion easier to accept. But I had a more personal reason. My intuition told me he would be needed. And I’d learned through past unpleasant experience that I ignored my gut feelings at my peril.

Most people have what can be called intuition, instinct, premonition, a hunch. Some listen when that little voice starts talking, others don’t. I wasn’t clairvoyant, I couldn’t see the future, but on occasion my little voice has been known to give me a shove in a particular direction. It told me we needed Phaelan Benares, and if it was steering me wrong, it would be the first time. I wasn’t about to take the risk of telling it no.

I had just learned another reason. A reason that confirmed my instincts.

I wore a piece of the Heart of Nidaar in a ring. The team’s gem mage, Agata Azul, wore another tiny nugget in a pendant. She was one of the top gem mages in the Seven Kingdoms, and I had sought her out to use her prodigious gift to help us locate the Heart. During the four-week voyage, Agata had bonded with the Heart’s fragment. That bond had saved our fleet when an unknown entity had activated the Heart against us, causing an earthquake and giant waves to destroy our ships. Agata had reached through the fragment to the Heart itself and—with a magical power boost from Talon—had calmed it, stopping the earthquake and saving all our lives.

The earthquake and the giant waves we had experienced were but a fraction of what the Heart of Nidaar was capable of. Nine hundred years ago, a group of Khrynsani dark mages found and gained access to the city of Nidaar and its Heart. Their clumsy attempts to activate and test the stone’s power had resulted in a series of earthquakes that laid waste to hundreds of miles of Aquas’s eastern coast, draining every lake and river, turning a green paradise full of life into a barren wasteland.

We didn’t know whether the Khrynsani had taken control of the stone again, or whether it had been activated by the Cha’Nidaar, the keepers of the Heart who were last seen nine hundred years ago, still determined to protect themselves and the stone. Or—like another stone of my recent acquaintance—had the Heart of Nidaar become sentient and was it now capable of protecting itself from any who traveled to Aquas’s shores?

I wasn’t the only one whose intuition was telling them that we would need Phaelan before this was all over. Agata had told me she was certain that somehow and in some way, Phaelan Benares’s presence would be critical to the success of our mission.

The stone in her pendant had seconded that motion.

Who was I to argue with a woman and her jewelry?

That was good enough for me.

Hopefully, it would be good enough for my team.

Phaelan wouldn’t exactly be welcomed with open arms, but he would be accepted—for my sake. My team trusted me with their lives, but even my word would only go so far. The rest was up to Phaelan. Not only could he not screw up, he couldn’t make even one, small mistake.

And he knew it.

Time for a team meeting.

***

Elsu Lenmana squinted against the late-afternoon sun and up at the escarpment towering hundreds of feet above our heads, a relic of the earthquake set off centuries before when the Khrynsani activated the Heart of Nidaar.

“That was some earthquake,” Elsu said.

Our team sharpshooter had a flair for understatement, a characteristic that carried over to her magic. Her gift enabled her to focus immense power with pinpoint accuracy and complete silence. Magic made noise. Elsu Lenmana’s magic did not. She didn’t need to get close to her chosen target. If she could see it, she could shoot it. Elsu could generate a needle of fire that could cut through solid rock—or anything else that got in her way.

Goblins were tall and leanly muscled. Elsu was smaller than average, curvy, and soft. Or so she appeared to a casual observer, and Elsu attracted her share of observers—casual and those with intent. She was more than capable of encouraging attention if needed for a distraction, or discouraging attention—or breathing—permanently.

“An earthquake caused by a stone whose new best friend—our team gem mage—feels certain an elf pirate captain needs to come with us,” she added.

Dasant chuckled. “Don’t forget that opinion was confirmed by her pendant—a piece of that earthquake-causing stone.”

“Like that makes it sound better.”

The big goblin tossed me a quick grin, then made a show of thinking it over, complete with frown and furrowed brow. “You have to admit it sounds more reasonable than ‘Tam’s gut told him so.’”

If Elsu’s magic was a silent arrow to the heart, Dasant Kele’s was a deck-clearing cannon blast. What he lacked in finesse, he more than made up for with sheer destructive power. If something needed destroying, simply point Das in the right direction and he’d take it from there. Cheerfully.

I gave them a crooked grin. “On behalf of my gut, I’m offended. The next time it tries to warn me and save your doubting lives, I’ll keep that information to myself. Like that mountain troll ambush outside Dunmor, or that cave full of not-hibernating bukas, or—”

“Yes, we’ve all been grateful for your clairvoyant intestines,” drawled a voice from behind me.

As always, I hadn’t heard Malik’s approach, even on a rock-strewn beach. Preternaturally silent even for a goblin, it was said that Death himself envied Malik Chiali’s stealth in approaching his victims—or his friends. Malik was an equal opportunity creeper. He also didn’t suffer fools easily or gladly, and felt that the majority of the goblin population fell into the fool category. He was one of the most intelligent people I had ever known, and my friend had little patience with those less brilliant than himself, which meant nearly everyone.

“What are they warning us about this time?” he asked.

“They’re saying to take Phaelan Benares with us,” Dasant told him.

The only reaction that earned from Malik was an arched eyebrow. “Would this be in reference to Captain Benares’s swashbuckling derring-do?” he asked me.

“No.”

“His devil-may-care disregard for danger?”

“No.”

“His belief that the streets of Nidaar are paved with gold?”

I shook my head. “Jash told him they’re not. He enjoyed breaking that news way too much.”

Malik spread his hands. “Then Tamnais, my friend, I am at a loss.”

“It was Tam’s gut and Agata’s shard,” Elsu told him. “Apparently it thrummed when Phaelan asked Tam to go with us.”

There went the eyebrow again. “Thrummed?”

“Thrummed,” I said. “Agata’s description. It happened when Phaelan asked to go with us, and again when I agreed.”

“When you and your gut agreed,” Dasant chimed in.

“Yes, me and my gut. Agata told me she has experienced the same response from other stones of power. It’s an affirmation.”

Malik shrugged. “Then so be it. Far be it from me to dispute Tamnais’s viscera and opinionated jewelry.”

“Also, Bane’s in no shape to go anywhere,” I said.

Bane Ahiga wasn’t happy and neither was I, but you had to play the cards you were dealt. Bane’s cards had gotten him a broken leg in the attack on a pair of Nebian frigates. He was up and moving around, albeit slowly and with the aid of a cane. Without our fleet’s first-rate healers, he’d still be in bed. Because of their work, he was walking and getting stronger every day, but he wasn’t strong enough or fast enough for what we had to do.

He would be staying behind, working with Kesyn Badru, my teacher and mage heavyweight, as a two-man battlemagic security force for the ships. If we were successful in our quest, we needed a way to get home. If we failed, either we wouldn’t need a way home or the goblins and elves on the ships soon wouldn’t have a home to go to.

Bane had met with Phaelan and deemed him qualified for the mission. Bane didn’t give approval lightly. In fact, he’d never deemed anyone to be even remotely close to his level of demolitions expertise.

That said a lot about Phaelan’s skill. I just wasn’t sure if what it said was a good thing.

“Phaelan’s done a lot of tomb robbing and demolitions in his time,” I told them.

“Bane’s also a mage.”

I smiled slowly. “And Phaelan’s a null.”

That won me a few slow grins and nods of grudging approval.

They knew what I was saying. A null was a person who had no magic at all. If you had valuables you wanted to keep, you protected them with physical measures such as locks, and magical means, such as wards or spells. If you could afford it, you did both. This ensured that a thief who was also a mage would set off alarms and often fatal countermeasures if they got too close to a vault, or wherever you kept your valuables. Magic could be sensed. It wasn’t difficult. What was difficult for any magic user was to tamp down their magic so it couldn’t be detected at all. Most, me included, could hold it down for less than a minute. That wouldn’t be long enough to get into a vault. That’s where a null who was also a talented thief came in handy.

A null and thief such as Phaelan Benares.

In addition, the Khrynsani would be looking and listening for goblins. Not listening with their ears, but with their magical senses. An elf registered differently than a goblin; an elf null would register as background noise, if at all.

One thing I wasn’t going to tell my team was to behave with Phaelan. Every man and woman on my team, regardless of race, had better be able to take care of themselves. Phaelan would be no exception. My team had spent four weeks at sea on ships captained by his siblings. I was sure they’d heard plenty of stories. They knew what they needed to know. Phaelan was more than capable of taking care of himself. If one of my people took teasing one step too far, they’d find that out for themselves.

I took every mission seriously, and I felt the same way about my entertainment.

Elsu was watching me. She smiled very slightly. “Sounds like we’re taking an elf.”

 

 

Chapter 2

We would be traveling light, and that included food and water.

No goblin liked field rations, but I would gladly give up gourmet dining to have a week’s worth of food that fit in a small pouch at my waist. I could fight or run for my life and not be weighted down. While the taste left much to be desired, you felt full after eating it, and your strength never lagged. As far as I was concerned, when you were in the desert, you couldn’t ask for more than that.

Water was more difficult. We each could carry only one waterskin; fortunately, one of our team members had a gift that kept on giving. Water, that is.

Count Jash Masloc was a mage and my best friend. He controlled a microportal to a mountain stream outside of Dragalon. It was just large enough to get a small bucket or a waterskin through for refilling. Each dragon would have a collapsible leather bucket strapped to her saddle. The stream had never run dry. Jash’s stash had come in handy many times, but it would be life-saving over the next few days. He was also our team tracker. Jash could sense life signs. If there was an ambush ahead—or we neared a lost civilization living inside a mountain—he would know about it.

We’d sent Indigo, one of our firedrakes, to the top of the escarpment as a lookout. The images sent back to us via the spy gem he wore on a harness showed an empty landscape. Empty of an ambush, at least. There were plenty of rocks. I knew full well that just because we couldn’t see any threats didn’t mean they weren’t lying in wait for us. Hopefully, Jash wouldn’t earn his keep that quickly.

The sun was setting beyond the mountains that were our destination, but it was already dark on the rocky beach at the foot of the escarpment. We were dressed for flight and protection from the desert winds in close-fitting leather with minimal seams, though I was certain sand would find a way in. It always did. Personal comfort wasn’t our priority.

I’d had goggles made that would darken to protect goblin eyes during the day and clear after dark to maximize our superior night vision. I’d had Bane bespell a pair for Phaelan to allow the elf to see as well in the dark as a goblin. The goggles fit closely around our eyes to protect against blowing sand.

We were as ready as we were going to be.

Our three sentry dragons each carried two saddles: one for a single rider and a second that would accommodate two.

The two-seat saddles would be positioned behind the wings, with the single saddles mounted at the base of the dragons’ necks. The three lightest team members would ride there. That would be Agata, Elsu, and Talon. Since we had the two pieces of the Heart, Agata and I would fly together, along with Phaelan, on Mithryn. Elsu would fly with Dasant and Malik on Amaranth. And Talon would fly with Calik and Jash on Sapphira.

Elsu was an experienced flier, Agata was unfazed by most anything, but Talon was eyeing Sapphira with trepidation.

I came up beside Talon, but kept my voice down. “What’s the problem?”

“Not flying. It’s flying up front.”

“The lightest fly up front.”

“Talk about incentive to gain weight.”

“Calik will be right behind you.”

Talon snorted. “And you’ll have Phaelan behind you.”

“Hopefully not screaming in my ear.”

Phaelan had only one previous flight under his belt and made no secret of the fact he’d hoped it would be his last. Right now, he was standing in front of Mithryn, out of her biting range, but perfectly inside her turn-to-ash zone. A frozen grimace that I think he intended to be a smile was locked on his face.

I strolled over.

“I take it you’re trying to make friends?” I asked him.

“I wanted to properly introduce myself.”

I grinned. “Oh, she remembers who you are. Not only are sentry dragons very intelligent, they have long memories. You were less than polite last month in the warehouse before we set sail. All three dragons were right there when you said you weren’t having any overgrown, fire-breathing lizards on your ship.”

Mithryn narrowed her red eyes and rumbled deep in her chest.

“And you just reminded her again,” he said without moving, including his lips. He tried smiling again. “I believe the lady and I may have gotten off on the wrong foot.”

I leaned toward Mithryn. “He means he was rude.”

“I think she knows that.”

“Oh, I know she knows that.”

Phaelan straightened his flight leathers. “I want to apologize.”

“Then you should be talking to her, not me.”

Phaelan cleared his throat and took a single step forward—a single, highly nervous, step forward.

“Madam, my behavior was boorish and inexcusable, and was based on unfamiliarity and ignorance on my part. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me and . . . uh, and not drop me to a messy death over this godforsaken continent.”

“At least he’s honest about his motivation,” I told Mithryn.

The dragon snorted in a blast of sulfuric smoke. That it was in Phaelan’s direction was merely a coincidence.

Maybe.

Phaelan held firm as long as he could, but his eyes started to water as he was forced to turn away, coughing. “Is that a yes?” he rasped.

“Dragons value actions over potentially empty words,” I told him.

“Wise.”

“They are. Think of it this way—your legs will be strapped in, so while she’s probably tempted to do a couple of barrel rolls just for fun, Agata and I will also be her passengers. Mithryn likes us. Our fighter squadrons choose

female dragons over males because they’re more focused. The males are too easily distracted. That means these ladies are professionals and know how to act like it. Not to mention, Mithryn knows you’re carrying Nebian black powder and a few of Bane’s toys.”

“Nope.”

“Nope, what?”

“Nope, I’m not carrying any of Bane’s toys. Bane checked my demolition gear and approved. Me going instead of him is bad enough, he didn’t want to give up his goody bag, too.”

Flying with Phaelan behind me was going to be nerve-racking enough without knowing precisely what he was carrying in his pack.

Think positive thoughts, Tam.

“Well, between liking us, and you carrying explosives, Mithryn will behave.”

Phaelan flashed a grin. “I’ll take it.”

I tried to smile. “See, you can be wise, too.”

“Good, because I’m starting to think the wise thing to do is stay right here.”

“Mithryn will—”

“This isn’t about the dragon,” Phaelan said. “It’s about the rock. What’s this I hear about Agata’s pendant liking me? I’ve got news—I don’t like it, and I’m not going to sweet-talk it into changing its mind.”

“It would not change anything if you did,” Agata said from behind him.

Phaelan didn’t jump at Agata Azul coming up behind him on silent feet. He clearly wanted to, but he’d made admirable progress in adjusting to goblin stealth. On some level, I think he might even have sensed Agata behind him.

“And it didn’t indicate like or dislike,” she continued. “Merely approval of your presence on this mission.”

“Yeah, so it can kill me.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Phaelan saw the shard hanging outside of Agata’s leather armor, raised both hands and took a step back. “Kill me, get me in its crosshairs, destroy my life. I’m a Benares. Bad things happen when rocks with names attach themselves to us.”

Agata frowned in confusion. “It was a benign reaction. I sensed no animosity. In fact, the shard responds to me in precisely the same way as it did to you earlier.”

“And it likes you? For a painless, non-evil reason?”

“Yes.”

The tension eased from Phaelan’s shoulders, but didn’t completely go away. It was all we could reasonably expect right now.

“You can’t blame me.” Phaelan’s eyes flicked nervously to the shard. “That rock on the end of your necklace came from the Heart of Nidaar, right?”

Agata nodded. “That is correct.”

“That thing’s mother tried to kill all of us. What if that little nugget wants to take us home to mama so she can finish the job?”

I had to admit that was a good question. And especially astute coming from Phaelan.

“Stones of power do not attack on their own volition,” Agata assured him. “At least this one doesn’t,” she added, as much to me as to Phaelan.

Agata knew my experience with the Saghred had made me want to avoid contact with stones of power at any cost. But in this instance, I had no choice. The Heart of Nidaar had to be found and kept out of Khrynsani hands. No one was more qualified to hunt down Khrynsani than I was. During the voyage to Aquas, Agata had gone out of her way to allay my fears by assuring me that most gems were benevolent and their magic beneficial.

“The Heart was being wielded by a person or persons,” Agata was saying, “either defensively due to fear of us, or with malicious intent against us.” She stepped forward and placed a hand lightly on Phaelan’s arm. His tension lessened a little more at her touch. She had done the same to me more than once. It had worked then and was working for Phaelan now. “It’s our job to put a stop to both.”

Agata Azul, calmer of earthquakes and jittery pirates—and nervous goblin mages. A truly gifted lady.

“But I’m not a gem mage,” Phaelan’s gaze was curious now, and aimed at the pendant—and Agata’s chest. “What can I do?”

“For one, our target isn’t where you’re looking,” I said pointedly. “It’s up there, across a desert, and somewhere inside those mountains. We’ll need every advantage we can get. You and Talon are officially advantages, perhaps even weapons. I never leave behind weapons I might need.”

“And your team agrees?”

“We do.”

Jash.

In addition to being my best friend and second-in-command, Jash Masloc was a cheerful teaser of a certain elf pirate captain.

He glanced at Phaelan’s flight armor. They wore the same size, so he’d given the elf one of his own sets. I’d had all of our armor bespelled so it would blend with the terrain we’d be crossing by changing color like a chameleon.

“Sorry it’s not your usual crimson,” Jash noted.

Phaelan turned his arms this way and that. “But it is sleek and flexible.” An instant later, he had drawn one of the curved swords slung across his back, tossing it lightly from one hand to the other, with a meaningful look at Jash. “And not one leathery creak. I approve.”

“We goblins pride ourselves on our stealth,” Jash said. “Our armor is made accordingly.” The words weren’t there, but the intent was, and I knew Jash’s intent. Yet another goblin trait other races found off-putting. If Jash turned his intent into action and attempted to sneak up on Phaelan, even in jest, the joke would not be well received.

He and Phaelan had locked eyes. I read them both. Jash was teasing, mostly. Phaelan was saying to bring it.

I stepped between the two of them. “Gentlemen, and I am using that term lightly right now, I need—and will have—cooperation, not confrontation, between each member of this team. If that is going to be a problem for either one of you, change your attitude. Now.”

Jash and Phaelan’s eyes had remained locked while I spoke.

After a brief hesitation, Jash extended his hand. “I started this the day we sailed, so it should fall to me to apologize. Sometimes my idea of good, clean fun isn’t the same as others’. If I have delivered insult, it was not intended.”

Phaelan shook his hand. “I assure you, if you’d crossed my line, you would know.” One side of his mouth tipped up in a crooked grin. “I can also assure you that I’ll always give as good as I get, and then some.”

Jash’s answering grin was an exact match.

Great. Now it was a competition.

They wouldn’t kill each other, but the bickering and barbs to come might drive me to kill them.

I draped an arm around their necks, giving a quick squeeze to make my point. “Just be sure neither one of you crosses my line. Understand?”

“Understood,” they said in unison.

At least they said it together. For now, I’d take what I could get.

 

 

Chapter 3

Agata, Jash, and I took Mithryn to the top of the escarpment.

Agata’s connection with the Heart of Nidaar via her pendant had saved our lives once. Now it was time for the little shard to help save the lives of everyone in the Seven Kingdoms by showing us the way to its home.

Indigo’s scouting flight had shown no ambushes waiting for us. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust what we’d seen via the spy gem in Indy’s harness, but there was more to black magic than met the eye. I knew what the Khrynsani were capable of, and that included being able to conceal themselves in plain sight. The Sythsaurians were still largely an unknown variable, but their magic, like themselves, was completely alien.

Jash was there to sense the unseeable.

However, Jash’s gift involved being able to sense that something was alive. The Sythsaurians had two legs and two arms, but did they have heartbeats, blood flow, and body temperature on par with goblins, elves, or humans? We knew their magic was powerful, but how powerful? Powerful enough to cloak themselves beyond what a mage of Jash’s skill could sense? I had no doubt we’d find out the answers to those questions over the coming days, but I didn’t want our first mistake to be fatal. So as a precaution, Agata would remain veiled and shielded on Mithryn until we were absolutely certain there was no danger. She was too valuable to the mission to needlessly risk her safety.

When sticking your head over the top of a cliff in a hostile environment, a little caution could go a long way toward a longer life. Once Agata had determined our direction, the others would join us. She needed an accurate reading, and seven goblin mages and a nervous elf pirate would kick up more psychic noise than anyone, regardless of how talented, could be expected to work around.

Our shielded heads rose over the edge of the escarpment, and then the rest of us, and we remained in one piece. Just because no one waited to separate our heads from our shoulders wasn’t reason enough to lower our defenses or paranoia. Both were equally valuable survival tools.

Mithryn touched down on a vast plain of rock almost gingerly, as if she expected the ground to crumble beneath her claws. We weren’t about to let down our guard, but we all at least started breathing again.

We stayed still, silent, and cloaked, with Mithryn ready to dive over the side of the escarpment if anything that wasn’t us so much as blinked.

“Nothing,” Jash said quietly from the saddle behind me.

I trusted Jash’s assessments.

But caution outvoted trust as I slid silently from Mithryn’s back, shields and veil still firmly in place.

Jash did the same.

I used every sense I had—magical and mundane—as I scanned as far as my eyes could see.

Not a trace of life.

I glanced at Jash. He nodded, and we dropped our shields and veil.

We were safe.

At least for the next five minutes.

The view via Indigo’s spy gem hadn’t done the sunset justice.

Magnificent was the only word that could even come close to describing it, and even that fell short. We stood there, gaping at the beauty of the copper and golden glow of the sun’s rays against the plain of broken rock stretching to the haze in the distance that was the mountain range, our destination.

Jash shook his head in wonder—or dismay. “Not one stone standing on top of another.”

“No obstacles means we can fly in low and fast.”

My friend chuckled. “Phaelan’s gonna love that.” He squinted. “How far away are those canyons?”

“The first one is just past the halfway point,” I told him.

“That’s a lot of desert to cross to get to any kind of cover.”

Behind us, Agata cleared her throat. Loudly.

I knew I’d forgotten something.

Mithryn was still veiled, so it was disconcerting to see Agata drop her shield and veils and slide down the dragon’s flank to land solidly on the ground.

I murmured a few words and Mithryn winked into view.

Agata stood perfectly still for nearly a minute, staring at the mountains in the distance. “They look so close.”

“Four days by foot,” I said. “All night and then some by dragon.”

“That’s not nearly close enough.” She indicated my right hand. “I need your ring now.”

I slid the ring off and passed it to her.

The ring and pendant had been gifts to my ancestor, Kansbar Nathrach, from Baeseria, the queen of Nidaar, for revealing the Khrynsani plot to steal the Heart.

While our goal was to find the Heart of Nidaar, I held a secondary hope that the Cha’Nidaar still lived in the city. Kansbar’s story had ended in suicide, the result of psychic rape inflicted by his Khrynsani interrogators. I very much wanted to meet the people who had helped him—the ancient golden-skinned cousins of my silver-skinned race.

Agata had removed her gloves and slid the ring onto her index finger, turning the stone around to face inward. The gem mage then knelt, placing her hands flat on the ground, fingers spread and pointing to the west, toward the mountains.

Jash and I waited.

We neither spoke nor moved, and had stilled our magic to ensure that nothing would interfere with what Agata was attempting to do—establish contact with the Heart of Nidaar to give us the stone’s exact location and our flight path.

A vibration came up through the soles of my boots. A vibration that quickly turned to a rumble, as if the land itself were growling.

Mithryn shifted uneasily. Agata remained kneeling with her eyes closed in concentration, so I forced myself to remain still. I quickly held up a hand to tell Jash to do the same.

Agata slowly rubbed the rocky ground with both hands, speaking soothing words I couldn’t make out. I didn’t need to know what they were. They weren’t meant for me. I wasn’t the one getting angry. However, I did have the market cornered on scared—for Agata. I wondered if stones of power could hold a grudge. Agata and Talon had stopped it from killing us all when we arrived at Aquas. Now, we weren’t off the coast in ships. We were standing on the land it called home. I wasn’t exactly feeling welcome, but I wasn’t the one who’d thwarted its attack.

Agata opened her eyes. The rumbling stopped.

“Well,” she began, “It’s not what I would call happy that we’re here.”

I remained absolutely still. “I got that impression.”

“I’m still getting that impression,” Jash said. “As in, I’m still feeling a shaking.”

“That’s you,” I told him.

“Oh. Well, you can hardly blame me.”

I didn’t. We had to find the Heart of Nidaar, and not only did the Heart probably not want to be found, it didn’t even want us walking on the continent it had claimed for its own.

Agata still had her hands flat on the ground. “I would compare it to a growl.”

“Do you still say someone was at the controls when the Heart caused that monster wave?” I asked.

“Normally, I’d say yes, but—”

“This isn’t normal.”

“No, it most definitely is not.”

“Kansbar didn’t mention anything about the Heart being sentient.”

Agata stood. “I’m not getting open hostility, more like a warning. The Heart is so attuned to Aquas that it can sense those who don’t belong standing or walking on its surface. I think it’s not having a more violent reaction because we carry pieces of it in the pendant and ring. It may be confused as to how pieces of itself came to be outside of the city. Whenever we land, I should dismount first. Hopefully that will prevent the Heart from striking with an actual earthquake.”

“At least we’ll be flying and not walking,” Jash noted. “Mithryn, my love, have I told you how beautiful you are today and every day?”

The dragon gave him a flat look.

“Did you get a direction?” I asked Agata.

“See those two really tall mountains to the left?”

“Yes.”

“And the slightly smaller one in between?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the one. Or the best I can tell with this growling. It should get clearer the closer we get.”

“Should.”

Agata shrugged. “Gem magic isn’t an exact science.”

Jash squinted against the setting sun. “How far would you say that is?” he asked me.

“If we fly all night, we should be close by sunrise. Barring any interruptions—or eruptions.”

“Barring those.”

We all knew this would be the easy part. The difficulty and danger would come once we were underground and closer to the Heart.

I suspected that Sandrina Ghalfari had been able to track our fleet through me. We had both signed our names in blood to the front page of Rudra Muralin’s record of Kansbar’s torture. That had done more than enable us to read the words on the pages; it had linked us on some level, the same level that had allowed Sarad Nukpana to infest my dreams. We’d all signed and read the book. Yet, I couldn’t locate Sandrina. I didn’t know why. Perhaps, since Sandrina and the interrogation record were both using Khrynsani magic, she was immune from tracking by non-Khrynsani forces.

There were entirely too many questions and not nearly enough answers, or even logical reasons.

If Sandrina had already reached and gained control of the Heart, she’d also be able to track us using the shards in our possession. I’d taken to warding myself. Agata and I had agreed to do the same to the shards once we started our flight inland.

“Will warding the shards affect the Heart’s ability to perceive us as friendlies?” I asked her.

“I will still be able to correct our flight path as needed,” Agata said. “And I would imagine the Heart will still be able to sense the shards.”

Jash shifted uneasily. “Is that a good or a bad thing?”

“Yes.”

“I shouldn’t have asked.”

“I would advise that the crews stay on the ships as much as possible,” Agata told me. “The Heart’s influence lessens over water.”

“So ‘less influence’ is what stirred up that mammoth wave?”

Agata tried a smile. It didn’t quite make it. “Less is relative.”

“What’s to stop it from kicking up another wave once we’re gone?”

“We—and any Khrynsani or Sythsaurians—will keep it occupied with our presence. I believe the Heart will save its strength for what it sees as a more immediate threat.”

“And since we have two pieces of it, the Heart likes us?” Jash ventured.

“I wouldn’t go that far. However, I don’t think the Heart will destroy us outright until it has more information.”

“So we don’t make any sudden or aggressive moves.”

“I wouldn’t advise it.”

I had a pleasant thought. “And if the Khrynsani have yet to reach the Heart and don’t have a piece of the stone with which to soothe or at least confuse it …”

Agata’s smile made it this time. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near them right now.”

 



One Response to “First three chapters of Ruins & Revenge”

  1. Rasmusb says:

    Oh that was awesome! Thank you for such a large first chunk — but waiting for the pre-order to go live/deliver the book will still be painful.

    I do wonder what it is with Benares’ and powerful rocks. 🙂

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