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Synopsis

A teenage assassin. An impossible choice. The fate of everything hangs in the balance…

Sixteen-year-old Reen swore she’d never take another life. Divinely selected to assassinate a few in order to save many, she learned to jump from shadow to shadow and claim her victims without question… until she was ordered to kill the boy she loved. But when an ancient plague returns threatening to infect everyone she knows, she is forced to resume her deadly duties.

Battling a disease that turns people into nightmarish monsters, Reen must track down and terminate those responsible before the city falls, and the evil spreads beyond its borders. But the closer she gets to the source, the more she uncovers sinister secrets that will shake the foundations of her world and everything she believes.

Can Reen defend her realm without losing her soul?

Death Warden is an exhilarating YA fantasy. If you like strong heroines, compelling magic, and dark secrets, then you’ll love C.J. Stilling’s imaginative tale.

Raven's Return

Reen had never been this close to the Storm Wall before. The red barrier of wind and lightning fell from the clouds to meet the sea five miles out, dwarfing the grand port of Targus and its flotilla of merchant ships. Although the storm made no sound, she felt it in the steady western wind as it rotated around the Haven Isles whispering its promise. As long as the wind blew, they were safe. As long as the wind blew, the Scourge couldn’t touch them. 

The wall stood as a reminder of the Life Giver’s power, of how He watched over His people. He could watch all He wanted; Reen wouldn’t change her mind. She was done killing for Him.

Sucking in the salty air, Reen opened her arms and embraced her new home. Buildings topped with red clay tiles descended south from her rooftop perch like a staircase on white stone risers. From the docks, a road wide enough for four carriages side-by-side led to the Grand Bazaar where blocks of stalls beckoned shoppers. Beyond lay the golden dome of Targus’s Performance Hall. Just the thought of hearing the Isles’ best musicians gave her shivers. Best of all, Targus carried its own promise: a normal life.

Reen shifted to the west side of the roof, the clay smooth beneath her boots. She’d worried once that growing older would mean an end to her days running across rooftops. She’d seen it in other girls. Layla Tompkin, once thin as a whistle reed, had swelled overnight to three times her size. Her hips had grown so wide a dura melon could fit between them, and her breasts had expanded to such enormous proportions Reen feared the girl might fall over and burst them. 

She’d been spared that misfortune, a guilt-gift from the Life Giver perhaps, for the path He’d given her. At sixteen, her hips were as narrow as any boy’s, and her breasts barely extended the thickness of her hands placed one over the other. While her peers had sprouted as fast as change-over crops, she’d remained short, and that suited her fine. She’d rather pass as a boy anyway. She hadn’t worn a dress or let her hair grow out since she’d lived in Catalya. Layla could have the gawking lads who’d forgotten how to look above her neck; Reen had the rooftops. 

The shrill whistle of a departing train drowned out the other sounds of the city and prevented Reen from hearing the approaching footsteps just before the back of her head exploded in pain.

She collapsed, sending a shower of roof tiles and her pack to the alley below. Rough hands stabbed into her pockets and ripped out her coin purse. The smell of sweat and cheap claris brandy filled her nose. 

The thief, a thin man in his forties, had a convict brand covering the merchant tattoo above his right eye. He’d shaved one side of his head, leaving a thick tuft of blond hair on top.

“You picked the wrong place to be stalking marks,” the man said. “This is my spot.” 

He tugged on her blue arconium ring, his tongue poking out through a gap in his teeth.

“No!” 

Reen yanked her hand back and bolted upright. Her head swam, and bile crept up her throat.

The ring had been her freedom for the last year. Not once had the arcany inside faltered. Not once had she received a vision to kill. She couldn’t lose it. 

The thief backhanded her across the face and grabbed her hand again. The taste of blood filled her mouth.

“Take the money,” she groaned. “Just leave the ring.”

Ignoring her, he hoarked up a gob of spit. It oozed over her finger, and the ring slid free, taking her heart with it. He held the band to the sun, smiling at the magic dancing within.

The blades sheathed along Reen’s forearms itched against her skin. Even though stars filled her vision, her strength was building. Without the magic of the ring to suppress them, her powers were returning.

Reen briefly entertained the idea of scaring him into giving the ring back, but dismissed the thought. If she forced a confrontation, she’d end up killing him, and she didn’t do that anymore.

“I’ll find you,” she threatened instead. 

The thief’s eyes widened at her fierceness. “Not in this lifetime, kid.”

He bent down and kicked out his foot, rolling her over the edge of the roof. Her fingers caught the lip, and she hung, suspended in the shade between the buildings over a three-story drop.

That’s when she saw him, the shadow staring at her from the wall.

Reen hadn’t seen her custodian since the day when she’d first put on the ring ten months ago. So much for hoping he’d left. He looked the same as always in his tricorn hat and slim-fitting coat that fell mid-thigh. Though the shadow showed no expression, Reen imagined him chastising her for neglecting her duty. How long would he wait before asking her to kill again?

The thief slammed his heel into her hand. The crunch of bone sent lightning agony up her arm. Reen bit off a scream, and then she was falling. 

The deep shadow between the buildings called to her, and she listened. A familiar feeling of weightlessness washed over her as she willed her form to merge with the darkness. The thief’s grin turned to shock as Reen’s body puffed away into smoky wisps and reappeared safely on the cobbles below. 

Lying on her back, Reen memorized the man’s face as the pain in her head blackened her vision. Right before she lost consciousness, she watched the thief slip her ring into his pocket and walk away, taking the dream of a normal life with him.

* * *

“Reen, you okay? Reen?”

A meaty arm shook her shoulder and jogged her awake, making her head throb with each shake. Placing her uninjured hand on the arm, Reen pulled herself vertical. Her other hand went to the back of her head, and she winced as damaged fingers touched a large bump and came away wet with blood.

Reen glanced up at her friend. Was that the right word for Cron? It didn’t seem strong enough. Partner? Companion, maybe? If friend was the right word, he was the only one she had. 

“I think I have a concussion,” Reen said. 

“A concussion? That’s when you hit your head, right?”

Worry filled Cron’s bloodshot brown eyes. In his gentle way, he eased a massive arm around her. Though ten years her senior, she thought of him as a younger brother—not that she’d ever had one. Cron looked up to her, relied on her, and she owed him.

“Where are the bastards?” he asked. “They get the jump on you?” His saber clattered against the alley wall as he looked around. Even if the thief had lingered, one look at Cron would have scared him away. At over six feet tall with a chest as wide as a horse, Cron was a mountain of muscle—though much of it was layered with fat.

“Just one bastard. He stole my ring.”

“The one that stops you from seeing—“

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you take care of it?”

Even though they’d had this conversation before, he refused to understand.

“I told you. I don’t kill anymore.” 

“But you’re a death warden.”

“Don’t say that,” Reen snapped.

“Sorry.” He shuffled from foot to foot. “Maybe we should get you to a healers hall?”

She looked at Cron again. Both of him. That wasn’t good. Normally, the idea of paying to heal a head bump like hers would be a terrible waste, since she’d soon get better on her own. Her custodian would see to that. But every minute she waited meant the thief, and her ring, got farther away. It was worth the cost. 

“Fine.”

He smiled, like he always did whenever she approved of one of his suggestions.

* * *

The Healers Hall occupied the small northern wing of Saint Thomlin’s Cathedral. Thanks to Cron, Reen found herself lying on a cot, her face aimed at the wall, grateful to be horizontal. It was a lovely wall—solid, unmoving, and only slightly blurry. On it hung gilt-framed paintings as old as the city itself. Like all religious artwork, they had the same theme. Saint Thomlin receiving his vision to rescue people from the Scourge. Saint Thomlin setting sail with the Exodus Fleet. Saint Thomlin and the Council of Twelve building the three great cities. For all the talk of Saint Thomlin being a humble man, he sure received a lot of attention.

Shifting her head, Reen spotted a boy near her age in the corner writing in a large book. What had he introduced himself as? She fought through the fog in her head to remember. Bastien, that was it. Reen had kept her head down and eyes closed while he’d led them through the maze of hallways, so she hadn’t gotten a good look at him until now.

He wore the red jacket of an arcanist and bore the corresponding caste tattoo of three interlocking circles. He must be some kind of healer, but apparently not the type to deal with her kind of injury. He lifted his head, and Reen jerked back, making the room tilt like a ship at sea.

Those eyes. If she saw nothing but those eyes, she’d swear he was Erend. He wasn’t, of course. Erend was dead, and a blond besides, but she’d never seen anyone else with amethyst eyes. 

Most inhabitants of the Haven Isles looked similar because the majority of the Exodus generation had come from Berlain in the Old World: fair-haired, pale-skinned, and brown-eyed. But some people had been refugees from other lands, and their foreign heritage popped up occasionally, like Reen’s caramel skin and black hair. And like Bastien’s eyes. Old world traits, they were called. Maybe it was because of her time with Erend, but Reen was a sucker for eyes.

She pushed the thoughts of Erend aside, angry for even thinking of him. Bastien smiled but returned to his book when she scowled at him.

The healer walked into the room. She was an arcanist too, of course, and like all true healers, she bore the scars of her profession. Cuts, some fresh, covered her arms. More injuries would mark her back and legs, but her crimson dress covered them. She must have started young to bear so many scars, for there wasn’t a trace of gray in her long blond hair.

Setting a stool by Reen’s head, the healer hummed to herself and closed her eyes, her head bobbing to the beat of her own song. Seconds later, she opened them wide and looked accusingly at Reen. 

Yes, I’m a girl, Reen thought, knowing that her boy clothes and thin frame hadn’t fooled the woman’s arcany. The healer resumed her humming and pulled a large arconium marble from a pouch so clear only the distortion of light passing through it announced its presence.

She brought it to her lips and exhaled. A wisp of red smoke left her mouth and filled the marble, coalescing into an image of the woman. The smoke carried one of her memories, the foundation for any arcany. Reen had never known an arcanist personally—her last encounter with them had been less than pleasant—but Caspari had explained the basic idea to her. Sacrifice a memory to fuel a related effect. Give up the memory of staring at the sun for one minute to power a lantern for years. Or, in the case of healers, give up the memory of becoming injured to cure the injuries of others.

The memory powering Reen’s blue ring had remained a mystery to her, but in the healer’s larger marble, she saw the woman holding a small whip, its ends covered in her own blood from flogging herself. That was the price most healers paid, self-inflicted injury to provide enough memories to fuel their arcany.

The healer placed the marble against Reen’s forehead. The small orb started to glow and radiated a warmth that spread through her whole body. Reen relaxed as the ache in her head subsided and her vision grew sharper. She flexed her hand as the bones knit inside. The memory in the marble faded, gone forever.

Cron reached into his purse and removed five silver oaks, most of the money they had left. The woman smiled and took it along with her now empty marble.

“Wait here while your mind reorients,” she said, then offered a glass of water. Reen sat up to take it, grateful the room decided to remain still. 

“Thank you,” Reen said. The healer smiled and patted her on the shoulder before leaving.

Reaching into her salt pouch, Reen sprinkled a few grains into the water before taking a sip.

“They give me the creeps,” Cron said. He meant it as a whisper, but his voice filled the room, causing Bastien to smirk from his corner. “Why would anyone become a healer if it means hurting yourself all the time?”

“But they don’t remember getting hurt.” Reen gave her head an experimental shake and touched the back of it. Other than the caked blood, everything felt normal. “Once they give up the memory for the arcany, they can’t recall the pain.” She envied them that. They say memories fade over time, become less vivid, or disappear altogether. Life Giver’s mercy, she prayed that was true.

Cron frowned. “They still got the scars though. Can’t forget those, can they? And why do they use those marble things?”

“It’s a safeguard,” Bastien said, not taking his eyes off his book. Reen wished he would. “Arcany is dangerous, especially in healing. All memories are connected. If a healer draws directly on a memory, and it is insufficient, the magic will consume other memories until the task is finished, or the mind is empty. With an arconium marble, the healer can specify the exact memory to sacrifice. If it isn’t enough for the job, the arcany simply fails. No harm done.”

Cron grunted, but didn’t ask any more questions. He didn’t like looking stupid in front of strangers.

Reen stood up and stretched, feeling like herself again. Time to catch a thief.

As she gathered her things, a groan came from the other side of the room. Two cots stood between her and a fireplace, each occupied by a boy wearing the navy blue uniform common to elite city schools. They were in rough shape. Their hair had fallen out, black lines crawled across their swollen faces like spider webs, and their breathing was rhythmic—deep inhalations followed by sharp exhales. Something about it bothered her, then she realized what it was: they were breathing in perfect unison, in and out, always together. 

Cron moved to her side. “What’s the matter?”

Reen looked past the cots. Her custodian was there but no longer a simple shadow. His black form took on three dimensional substance as he stepped out from the wall and doffed his tricorn hat. Reaching inside it, he withdrew a sword, long and midnight black. He held it vertically over one of the sick boys and thrust down, the tip emerging through the bottom of the cot. Leaving the blade quivering inside the boy’s body, her custodian drew a second sword and repeated the action with the boy in the other cot.

His blades did no actual damage. They never did. That was Reen’s job. He marked the victims; she did the killing. But she didn’t kill anymore. She’d sworn she never would again.

Two flapping shapes fell from the ceiling and landed on the bodies, wisps of shadow trailing behind them. As they settled, Reen recognized them as bats, but their skin was torn, strips of bone visible underneath. Their eyes weren’t black, but a soft glowing red. Never before had she seen omens like these, although she’d heard of them.

These two boys had the Scourge.

Trembling, Reen backed up and glared at her custodian. This must be a trick to test her resolve, to get her to kill. There was no way the Scourge could be inside the Storm Wall. 

For the last ten months, she’d told herself any deaths that happened after she’d blocked her custodian weren’t her fault, that the sanctioners bore the responsibility of keeping the streets safe.

And what of the Life Giver’s promise? What did the consecrists spout in the cathedral every Salisday if not the message that the Life Giver cared so much He made the Storm Wall to keep them safe? Now he’d decided to lay that responsibility on her shoulders too?

The decision hovered before her. Kill or bear the guilt of the consequences. Kill or watch the city fall to the plague that had destroyed the Old World. Kill or risk watching the light die from a another boy bearing Erend’s eyes. Kill. Kill. Kill.

Storm Him! Why her? If the Life Giver really cared, He’d do it Himself or raise up another Saint Thomlin, someone strong enough to handle a parade of victim’s faces haunting their dreams every night.

“Are you okay?” Bastien asked. “You look pale. Should I call the healer back?”

He couldn’t see the omens or custodian’s marks. He wasn’t a death warden. Reen’s hand inched toward one of her blades, but she yanked it away. She spun to face Cron and pointed to the two boys.

“Cron, you need to kill them.” 

“What?”

“Kill them now!” He could do it. Cron was a warrior. He’d been a sanctioner once. 

“Are you crazy? They’re just sick.” He said the words, but hesitantly drew his saber anyway. He knew she didn’t yell fire without cause.

But it was too late. She’d waited too long.

The bats leapt into the air and faded away. The two boys’ breathing stopped while Reen’s echoed in her ears. The old children’s rhyme sprang to her mind.

One . . . two . . . they’ll come for you

The souls climbed from the bodies, ghostly imitations of who they once were. Although still bald, the black lines had gone. They looked around, confused. Maybe she was wrong. The souls looked normal. 

Three . . . four . . . lock the door

The souls should leave now, fade like the bats and depart for the Life Giver’s judgment. Reen relaxed as one of the souls took a step, but then it stopped. Black strings held it back, connecting it to the body. The soul fought, yanking and straining. More tendrils of black snaked out, wrapping around it, pulling it towards its former host.

Five . . . six . . . beware their tricks

Both souls fought now, battling the blackness. Where the tendrils struck, their ghostly flesh fell away, exposing muscle and bone. The souls screamed silently as their ripped and wounded forms disappeared back into the bodies.

Seven . . . eight . . . it’s too late

As one, they opened their eyes. Beneath their lids stood nothing but unyielding blackness. Their pulsing flesh turned sickly gray, and their bodies swelled unevenly, ripping the school uniforms they wore. Spikes the size of knitting needles burst from their skin, piercing the remnants of their clothes and the bottoms of the cots. Their fingers lengthened into sharp points.

“Reen?” Cron asked, his voice rising.

Reen yelled over her shoulder at Bastien. “Get out!” 

Cron stepped forward and swung his saber at one of the transformed, opening a gash along its arm. Black fluid oozed from the wound. With jerking movements, the two creatures climbed to their feet.

Reen pulled on Cron’s arm. “We need to go.”

He nodded, grabbed the cot she’d been laying on, and threw it at the transformed, buying enough time for them to dash through the room’s only exit and into the hall. Cron heaved on the door, desperate to shut it before the transformed escaped. A thick gray arm squeezed out, preventing it from closing. Cron dug in his heels and pushed his back against the door. Reen pulled a dagger from her sleeve and jabbed it into the arm. The limb quivered and withdrew. The door slammed shut, sealing the transformed inside.

Reen glanced around. Arconium lamps dotted the corridor, stretching into the distance. “Where’s Bastien?”

He was still inside. The stupid boy hadn’t run. 

A bang like a battering ram splintered the latch. The door opened several inches before slamming again.

“I’ll get him,” Cron said. He set his shoulders and prepared to attack.

Reen pushed her weight up against him. “No.”

“You’re not going to let him die, are you?”

He might be dead already. She pictured those beautiful eyes turning black and monstrous. Another bang told her at least one of the transformed was busy. 

“Whatever happens, don’t try to fight them,” she told Cron. “If the door breaks, you run and spread the alarm. Get them to summon the Mysterium. Understand?”

Cron pressed his lips into a tight line and nodded. 

“Trust me.” Reen reached up and touched his face, attempting to display a confidence she didn’t feel. Inhaling deeply, she stepped into the shadows between the arconium lamps and disappeared.

About the author

I have a PhD in immunology, a background in artificial intelligence, and an ongoing war with my son for high scores in classic arcade games. In my spare time, I like watching sappy Japanese anime with my daughter and spending time with my amazing wife who is patient beyond measure. view profile

Published on November 15, 2019

100000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

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