“Trouble, you have a special customer,” Hal said as soon as he entered the kitchen.
Arden Lesstymine, known to everyone in the village as Trouble, slid a sheet of freshly baked meat pies onto a cooling rack. “Please don’t let it be Conn again. My ass is still sore from his pinching.” She peered out of the cracked door, praying the lecherous blacksmith wasn’t sitting in the main room.
“No, this one’s a stranger, and a real kook at that.” The beefy innkeeper leaned against the door frame, pointing him out. “You must be some kind of magnet for the crazies.”
“Why do you think I ended up here?” She smoothed her apron and shoved the swinging door open.
Arden approached the table and studied the new customer. His frail body trembled like the last leaves on the branches outside, and his snow-white hair stuck out in every direction. What troubled her the most, though, was his constant muttering. She waited for a lull in his private conversation with himself, but when it never came, she cleared her throat. “Can I get you something?”
His body jerked at the sound of her voice, and he lifted his head. Feverish bright blue eyes ringed by a yellow-green halo stared back at her so intensely, she took a step back. Yep, definitely crazy. And definitely a foreigner based on his coloring. Most of the natives of Ranello had dark hair, dark skin, and dark eyes. “Yes,” he whispered before resuming his low, incomprehensible ramblings.
She flicked her thick braid over her shoulder and went back to the kitchen. Hal and Jenna, the other barmaid, stifled their laughter as soon as she entered. “Let me guess—you led him right to my table, didn’t you, Hal?”
He shook his head. “He walked straight past me as if I wasn’t there.”
“Besides, you know how to handle his type better than me,” Jenna added. “He probably wanted to stare at you or something.”
Arden’s jaw tightened. Every time she walked in a room, she felt dozens of eyes on her. Her golden hair stood out in the sea of brunettes that surrounded her, along with her blue eyes and delicate features. All gifts from her father, according to her mother. Unfortunately, she’d never had a chance to meet the man who sired her and thank him for making her the only freak in the kingdom.
“I think he’s too busy talking to himself.” Arden filled a tankard with ale and placed one of the meat pies on a plate. Maybe the aroma of rosemary and mushrooms that rose from the meal would pull him back to reality. “Here’s to hoping he pays.”
With her chin held high, she marched back into the main room and set the meal in front of the old man.
“Thank you,” he said and reached a shaky hand for the pie.
She paused for a moment to take a good look at him. His threadbare cloak hung limply off his bony shoulders, and the skin on his hands wrinkled like onion paper when he moved his fingers. How old was he? Poor man. He probably has no idea where he is. “I’ll come by and check on you later.”
She spun on her heels and collided with a hard mass behind her. A hand grabbed her arm to steady her. “Excuse me,” a voice said from under a heavy brown hood.
The warmth from his touch spread through her body like a wildfire. A soft, musical accent marked him as a foreigner as well, along with the bright green eyes that burned from under the hood. When did this little village on the remote edge of Ranello begin to attract so much attention? Not that she minded meeting new people, especially ones who spoke like the new stranger. She’d much rather listen to his ramblings than those of the old man’s.
She tried to peer past the shadows and catch a better glimpse of his face. “Can I get you anything?”
The stranger sat at a nearby table and focused his attention on the old man. “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Coarse fur grazed her fingertips, and she looked down at the large red wolf that brushed past her and settled down at the stranger’s feet. She resisted the urge to bolt for the door, as did just about every other patron nearby. Everyone, that is, except the old man, who continued muttering to himself while he ate.
“And for your wolf?” she asked in a slightly higher pitch than normal.
The stranger chuckled. “He’s already had his fill.”
Arden backed away slowly and waited until she was about ten feet away from the wolf before she turned and ran back to the kitchen. “What is going on tonight? Did the moons line up in some unusual formation?”
Hal glanced up from Jenna’s overflowing cleavage. “What do you mean?”
“Now we have another foreigner with a wolf in the main room.”
“A wolf?” Hal’s heavy feet thumped across the wooden floor. “Not in my inn.” The kitchen door swung open with a bang, and he stomped toward the hooded stranger. “Sir, I don’t know how things are done where you’re from, but we do not allow creatures like that in public houses.”
The wolf lifted its lips and growled.
“I suggest you remove the finger you’re pointing at him before he removes it for you,” the stranger replied in a low, even tone.
The color drained from Hal’s face. “But I have to worry about the safety of my customers. A wolf is a wild beast.”
The stranger ruffled his pet’s fur with his hand, and the wolf lowered his head. “I have him under perfect control. So long as no one provokes Cinder, you won’t have to worry about the safety of your customers.”
“I can refuse to serve you.”
“It seems like you’re a bit late for that.” He nodded toward Arden, who’d been watching the entire exchange with a tankard and plate in her hands.
“Trouble, I forbid you to serve him.”
The clank of coins on the wooden table sounded behind them, and Hal’s eyes grew large enough to reflect the gold in front of him.
“This should cover the inconvenience.”
Hal scooped up the coins and retreated to the kitchen without another word.
“You could’ve bought the entire inn for a few coins more,” Arden said to the stranger as she set the meal on the table.
He shrugged. “What would I want with it?”
“No idea. Burn it to the ground so I could leave this town and wouldn’t have to deal with Hal anymore?” Even though she was trying to make a joke, the words hit a little too close to what she desired. She knew there had to be a place where she wouldn’t draw stares and pointed fingers, but she feared what could happen to her if she dared to strike out on her own. She saw what happened to her mother when she tried it.
His fingers wrapped around her wrist when she tried to leave. Again, the warmth from his touch both soothed and excited her. “You’re not from here, are you?”
“I was born here in Wallus.”
“You don’t look like a Ranellian.”
She jerked her hand free. Just what I needed. Someone else reminding me that I didn’t belong here. “Sometimes variety is a good thing.”
The stranger chuckled again. “Perhaps, Trouble.”
Damn, she wished she could see his face to know what he found so amusing about her. His rumbling laughter sent shivers down her spine. Stop it, her mind ordered. You’re all wound up because he’s new in town and doesn’t immediately cross the room to avoid you. Of course, imagining the lean-muscled body under the cloak didn’t help matters. Blood rushed into her cheeks, and she returned to the kitchen before he could ask any more questions.
Ale foam coated Hal’s upper lip. He wiped it away when he saw her. “As soon as he’s done eating, get him out of here, Trouble. You got that?”
“He paid you enough money for a month in your best room. Let him and his wolf eat in peace.”
“It’s more than the wolf that bothers me. He ain’t from around here, and strangers who don’t show their faces are usually bad news.”
Arden peeked out the door at her customers. The stranger picked at the meat pie and tossed bits of it to his wolf. His attention never wavered from the other foreigner, who remained completely oblivious of anything around him. “I think he’s looking out after the old man.”
“Which means they’re both kooks.”
“Why should you care? You’ve got gold in your pocket, and they aren’t hurting your business.”
Hal grabbed her face in one hand and squeezed her cheeks until she cried out. “That’s enough sass from you. Just remember, I’m the only one in this town who’ll tolerate your antics.”
Anger flared deep within her, fire flowing through her veins. It burned brighter inside her as his grip tightened. She wanted him to hurt as much as she did, maybe even worse. Flames sparked from her skin.
He released her face with a yelp, blisters already forming on his fingertips. “Why, you little witch!”
“What did she do this time?” Jenna asked.
“She burned me.”
Arden took a deep breath and exhaled through her teeth. Damn it, she didn’t mean to allow her temper to get the better of her again. She’d managed to go almost a whole year without doing anything that would make people suspect she was a witch. At least nothing caught on fire this time. She grabbed the full pitcher of ale from Jenna. “Take care of Hal. I’ll tend to the guests.”
She slipped into the dim room, far away from their accusing glares. One of these days, they were going to burn her at the stake if she wasn’t careful. She wasn’t sure why Hal spared her this long. He either feared her or felt guilty about the way he treated her mother. As much as she hated it here, it was better than being executed or cast aside. She grazed her fingers over her pendant and silently reaffirmed her promise never to make the same mistakes her mother did.
She made the rounds without looking anyone in the eye. The less people knew about what just happened in the kitchen, the better. She finally came to the old man and refilled his empty tankard.
“How much?” he asked.
He stopped muttering long enough to fumble through his robes and pull out a money pouch. A five-lora coin rolled toward her.
“I’ll be back in a moment with your change.”
He shook his head. “Still hungry.” His gaze appeared as hollow as his gut must have been before he came here.
“I’ll see what I can find in the kitchen.” She cast a quick glance at her other customer. His tankard remained filled to the brim, but she could have sworn she saw him grinning at her. Fixing her courage in place, she pushed the swinging door open.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t toss you out on your ungrateful ass right now,” Hal said as soon as she set the pitcher down.
Arden brushed past him and cut a slice of apple pie. “Because you need someone like me to keep the weirdoes happy. Besides, Jenna can’t see past her bust to do any of the cooking.”
Before he could get another word in, she went back into the main room and placed the pie on the old man’s table.
“What kind of pie is it?”
“Apple. Eat up. You need to put some meat on your bones before winter comes.”
“My favorite. Would you care to sit with me?”
She looked over her shoulder. It sure beat going back to the kitchen and facing Hal’s wrath. Besides, the old man actually seemed coherent now that he had some food in his stomach. “For a few minutes.”
The mass of wrinkles in his face parted to reveal a smile. “Thank you.”
She sank into a chair next to him and watched his shaking hand stab the flaky crust and dig into the sweet golden filling.
A moan of a pleasure escaped from his lips with the first bite.
“Where are you from, old man?”
He stopped chewing. “A bad place.” Then the muttering returned.
So much for trying to find out more about him.
The fork rattled against the empty plate, but the old man pressed his fingers against the crumbs, scooping up every last morsel.
She reached for the plate. “Enjoy it?”
His hand clamped over hers, but it didn’t tremble like before. “Very tasty,” a deep voice murmured.
Her breath caught in her throat. He didn’t sound like the same person anymore. She tried to pull her hand away, but he held on. Her skin crawled from the contact. This was what she got for being nice to a poor old man.
“Almost as tasty as its maker.” The yellow-green halo in the old man’s eyes glowed brighter. His finger stroked the inside of her palm. “Such a pretty little girl, you are.”
He threw back his head and laughed. Behind him, the hiss of a sword being pulled from its scabbard filled her ears between the throbs of her pulse. “I want to stay with you a bit longer,” the dark voice said from the old man’s mouth.
Arden focused the fire in her mind, but fear held her back. She didn’t need to use her magic in full view of everyone in Wallus, but she doubted she’d be able to overpower him any other way. “I mean it, you don’t want to piss me off,” she whispered.
The grin fell from his face, and his eyes bulged. He slumped forward onto the table, revealing the dagger protruding from his back. Grey stone replaced his flesh, spreading out from the hilt like ink on paper.
She screamed, and pandemonium erupted. Customers bolted from their chairs, running through the front door into the night.
A strangled cry gurgled from his throat, but his hand still clamped around hers in a rock-hard vise. As the stone encased his face, a green mist rolled out of his nostrils and filled the space between them. Cold terror prickled along her spine, and dark shadows flittered on the rim of her peripheral vision. What in the name of the three moons was going on here?
The mist drew closer, filling her mouth and nose. She gagged and tried to pull away from it, but it surrounded her like a shroud, choking her. Her lungs screamed for air. The mist poured into her when she drew a shaky breath. Every muscle in her body tightened, and the room went black.
Devarius Tel’brien caught the barmaid before she hit the ground, cursing under his breath. No wonder the owner called her Trouble.
She seized in his arms, her eyes rolling back until only the whites showed. His gut clenched. Loku had chosen her instead of him. Once again, he’d failed to protect the Soulbearer. There was nothing else left for him to do but guide her through the transition and take her to Gravaria for more formal training.
His gaze swept over the statue that remained of Robb’s body. The poor human was never meant to bear the weight of Loku, and neither was the naïve girl he held.
Cinder growled next to him. Dark figures with glowing red eyes poured into the main room of the inn. Undead. “Great, this night just keeps getting better.”
The hiss of an arrow sang in the air, and he ducked under the nearest table. He’d gone from tracking down an escaped Soulbearer to hiding from assassins and zombies. Who had Robb pissed off? He reached for the vials on his belt and launched three of them at the shadows. Grunts filled the air when they exploded. He charged, using the confusion to his advantage. A flash of golden light erupted from his palm, and the walls of the inn rattled from the impact of the undead bodies slamming against them.
“Light up, Cinder.”
The wolf’s growls grew louder, flames dancing off his fur. He leapt toward the nearest enemy with a snarl.
Dev picked up his sword and swung at the neck of another undead. Up close, the face appeared grey and waxy. Fresh undead. Lucky for him, that usually meant untrained and stupid, even if they were stronger than seasoned soldiers. His blade sliced through the neck of his attacker. The head rolled across the floor, and the body collapsed.
The room brightened as Cinder’s flames engulfed another undead, and Dev scanned the room for the necromancer controlling the animated corpses. No sign of him. Just more undead pouring through the front door, surrounding them.
“Cinder, protect the girl.”
The wolf retreated behind him and flanked the other side of Trouble.
The undead slowed their steps and formed a semi-circle around them. He counted at least a dozen in the main room of the inn. Who knew how many waited for him outside? Their emotionless faces revealed nothing of their intentions, but the glow of their red eyes intensified.
There were only three ways to kill undead: burn them, behead them, or kill the necromancer responsible for them. Words formed on his lips, and the magic within him hummed to life. It flowed from his center and down his arm like a tidal wave. As the last syllable of the spell hung in the air, a stream of fire rushed forward from his hand, igniting his attackers. They flailed backwards with a high-pitched wail. The flames from their limbs licked the curtains and wooden furniture of the room, and smoke choked the air.
Trouble’s body stopped jerking. He flung her over his shoulder and ran for the kitchen. Relief washed over him when he saw the gaping back door. Lady Luck hadn’t totally screwed him over tonight.
The blazing inn captured the attention of most of the bystanders on the one dirt road that ran through this town, but Dev stuck to the shadows. No need to entice them to form a lynch mob. Based on the warm reception he’d experienced earlier this evening, a foreigner like him wouldn’t have a chance at justice if these simple folk got a hold of him, especially once they realized he wasn’t human. He lost count how many times he’d cursed Robb for coming to this backward kingdom.
“My inn!” the burly human who tried to threaten him earlier shouted, his face red. “That witch set it on fire to spite me.”
Dev turned his head to the rump that lay beside his cheek. “A witch, eh? When this is all said and done, you’re going to have some explaining to do, Loku.”
Cinder crept ahead, peaking around corners before he ventured forward. Dev followed him with silent footsteps. The sharp points of the girl’s hips dug into his collarbone, but at least she was light enough not to hinder his movements. He slipped through an alley at the edge of the town and found the grove of trees where he had tethered his horse. Once again, Lady Luck smiled on him. The horse was still there.
He tossed Trouble over the saddle and mounted the horse behind her. For a moment, he closed his eyes and tried to sense the presence of dark magic. Years of his knightly training didn’t fade when he was sentenced to become the Soulbearer’s guardian. Part of him wanted to hunt down the necromancer responsible for tonight’s attack. Creators of such atrocities didn’t deserve to live.
Cinder’s whimper interrupted his concentration. When he opened his eyes, the wolf licked the girl’s dangling arm.
“All right, I’ll take care of her first.” He’d pledged centuries ago to protect the Soulbearer, and Trouble needed all the help she could get.
Sulaino hid in the shadows, searching the night for the yellow-haired girl. She either burned to death in the flames or found another way to escape.
A crowd gathered around the inn and tried to douse the fire. A futile effort. It would take a deluge from the heavens to put that inferno out. He could call on one, but why bother? He liked the townsfolk standing in one place, where he could easily pick them off to replace the members of his army who burned inside.
He turned to his minions. “Kill all the men, but bring all the women to me. I must find the girl who trapped the god’s soul.”
A dozen figures emerged from the nearby shadows, weapons raised. Completely occupied by the fire, the humans didn’t notice his undead soldiers until their blades impaled the first victims.
Sulaino grinned while he listened to their screams. Nothing like the sound of terror on an early autumn night. He stroked the scar on his left cheek. If his estimations were correct, he’d easily replace the soldiers he lost in the inn. Soon, he’d have enough to challenge King Heodis and have his revenge. And if he could capture the soul of the chaos god, nothing could stop him.
His soldiers brought him the first two women they captured. Tears streaked through the soot on their cheeks, and sobs racked their fragile human bodies. He examined the first one. The wrinkles that lined her face spoke of the many years of life she had lived. She was far too old to be the girl he sought. “Finish her,” he said with a wave of his hand.
His soldier remained expressionless as he slit her throat in a quick strike. Blood gurgled out from the wound, and the old woman collapsed into a heap at his feet.
The other woman screamed and strained against her captor. “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll do whatever you want. Just please don’t hurt me.”
The necromancer stepped closer to her and tilted her head back so the firelight enhanced the curve of her face. Such a pretty young thing. He brushed back the stray curls that fell around her cheeks and glanced down at her generous cleavage. The smell of her fear aroused him. He studied her closer and recognized her from the inn. “What is your name?”
“Jenna,” she replied in a trembling voice.
He pressed his lips against the flesh of her neck. She shuddered beneath him, and his cock stiffened. She tasted like smoke and salt. How long had it been since he’d had a woman come willingly into his bed, especially one terrified as she was? “And you’ll do whatever I want, Jenna?” he whispered in her ear.
She bit her full bottom lip, nodding. Another tear streaked down her cheek, and he caught it with his lips. So delicious.
“And do you know what I want from you?”
She nodded again and turned away from him.
He reached into her mind, feeding off her fear. She thought he only wanted her body, and she was willing to give it to him. What interested him far more was her dread. To have one person so terrified of what he might do to her thrilled him. Soon, the whole kingdom would share her fear.
“First, tell me the name of the yellow-haired girl.”
She wailed. “This is all Arden’s fault, isn’t it?”
He chuckled. “That’s for me to know.” He trailed his fingers along her neck, over the tops of her full breasts. “Shall we find a more private place, or do you prefer the streets?”
She glanced over her shoulder where his undead soldiers finished off the last of the townsfolk behind her. Her breath quickened, and her body shook. “Please, let’s find someplace more private.”
Jenna led him into one of the open houses and up the stairs to the bedroom. The sheets still retained the heat of their former occupant, who was now probably lying dead in the street. Without waiting for his command, she began to remove her clothes and lay still as he climbed on top of her.
A few minutes later, a shudder tore through him as he came inside her. He tightened his grip around her throat and pressed harder, strangling her cries. Her eyes dulled in the moonlight, and her body grew limp underneath him. A wave of euphoria washed over him as he watched the life drain from her pretty face, heightening the pleasure of his orgasm while he consumed the last traces of her soul.
He buttoned his trousers in silence. She had served her purpose well, but now he was finished with her. His mentor, Oztom, always raved about the taste of innocent souls. Sulaino disagreed with him. Innocent souls tasted sweet, but they carried no substance. Thieves and whores were much more filling. Their transgressions supplied more than enough power to fuel his magic.
Now, back to work. First order of business: animating the fresh dead waiting for him in the street below. Then to track down Arden and claim the divine soul residing in her.
The last of the three moons sank below the tree line before Dev finally climbed down from his horse and spread out his bedroll. His body ached and demanded sleep, but duty kept him from giving into it. She would have his bedroll tonight. He would stand guard.
Trouble slid from the saddle and landed in a small heap at the horse’s feet. If what he’d seen before held true, she would be out until midday. He scooped her up off the ground, arranging her gangly limbs on the soft blankets. His jaw tightened as he examined her and the way her bodice hung loosely on her lack of cleavage. Why had Loku chosen her?
And yet, as he studied her closer, his curiosity increased. He told her earlier that she didn’t look like a Ranellian. In the four months he’d travelled this kingdom, the monotony of its citizens blurred together. The same dark hair, dark eyes, dark complexions over and over again. Then this little barmaid collided with him. Her golden hair reminded him of a summer wheat field glowing under the sun. A breath of fresh air in the dreariness.
But more than her appearance caught his attention. In every town Robb visited, the people pointed and stared. A few even threatened to kill him. Yet she’d shown the old man compassion, treating him like a person rather than a raving lunatic.
“Is that why you chose her, Loku? Because she was kind to you?”
Trouble’s brows furrowed together, but her eyes didn’t open. She rolled over onto her side and curled up into a ball.
More than just her coloring bothered him. His fingers brushed her hair back to reveal her ears. Scars covered the skin on top of them, but they didn’t form the distinct points he would’ve imagined finding. If she had elvan blood, then someone had deliberately tried to hide it.
He traced the length of her ear from the rough scars to the delicate lobes. She moaned in her sleep. He jerked his hand away. What secrets did she keep?
His blood chilled, and he backed away from her. Like the other human Soulbearers before her, Loku’s presence would slowly drive her insane. Humans were never meant to contain him. They were too weak, too easily swayed into doing his bidding. No wonder Loku preferred them.
It was just a matter of time before she aged prematurely and started muttering responses to the voice in her head. For the first time in a century, a Soulbearer’s fate frightened him.