Usvameer, somewhere outside Camp West Ford.
Blossoming Moon (spring season 7093).
The sixth year of the Rebellion.
The rain came down with a steady beat, running in rivulets down her face. It seeped into the damp wood of the open carriage floor under her and soaked the bag over her head. Dulcea swallowed water, shocking herself awake. She wheezed and coughed, spitting out the liquid in her mouth. A hot flash of pain lanced her, and she gasped for breath. A sturdy rope bound her hands behind her back and tied her feet together, restricting her movements. Recollection rushed back to her.
Had Delbin betrayed her…?
Dulcea struggled for a better position, but because of the continuous jolting of the wagon, she kept falling on her face. Someone laughed. She was in a horse-drawn carriage: she could hear the horses snorting and the clop of their hooves as the vehicle moved. She twisted her hands, trying to free herself, but the ropes held fast and cut into her skin as she wiggled.
Her captors did not speak. Dulcea knew neither their number nor their allegiance. She ceased her struggling. Her shoulders ached, and her hands were numb. She was exhausting herself for nothing.
Dulcea dug her nails into her palms, forcing herself calm. Think. Her panic faded a smidgen, and a sense of foolishness washed over her. She was not defenseless, not while she still drew breath. If she could not free herself by physical means, then she would bend minds to do it. The ranks of enchanters had not called her an esteemed colleague before the war for nothing.
She would make them free her. Dulcea attempted to summon her powers, but something blocked her illusion magic. Phantom wisps of words and images lingered at the edge of her consciousness, but she could not force them to materialize. Fear and anger made her blood run cold. Her heart thumped, writhing in agony under her ribs. All hope fled from her. They knew and had somehow robbed her of her powers.
“Delbin is a traitor,” Dulcea said in Caerynian Common, hoping to identify her captors. “Why do you follow him?”
“Silence, you wretch!”
Dulcea gasped. The reply came in Quelthae, a language known to her. Her mother tongue.
These were Silver Elves—her own people! A slight hope budded in her chest.
“Take me back to camp, and as your High General, I will show you lenience. Delbin is the one to blame. Renounce him, and his crimes will not taint you. You swore an oath to me when you joined the Caerynian army; do not forsake the fight now.”
A rough hand yanked the sack off her head. A fair-skinned elven man with silver white hair gagged her with a scrap of dirty fabric, and Dulcea fought not to retch. She glimpsed a shred of evening sky just as the man put the bag over her head again. Dulcea tried to recall her evening’s schedule. When would her generals at West Ford notice their commander’s disappearance? When would Amparo Darksun realize his dragonmistress had gone missing?
Her spirits sank. She had no duty tonight. Unless her generals had urgent need of her, no one would look for her before the morning. She was at the mercy of her captors.
Terror surged in her veins. Sweat trickled down her back despite the cold downpour. Did they have her Golden Staff of the Suns? Had Delbin kept it, hoping to become a dragonlord himself once she was dead, or did he intend to gift it to her enemy, the Saruseans?
The evening stretched on, turning into night. It had stopped raining, but she was still cold and wet. Her clothing clung to her like a leech to a bare arm. Dulcea tried to listen for any kind of hint of the place to where they were taking her. How would they deliver her to the Saruseans? The Caerynian camp was on the south bank of the River Sithra, the Sarusean on the north. They would have to take her across by boat, but the ride had dragged on for a few hours too many. Where could they be going? The retreating Sarusean army had burned all the bridges between Usvameer and Lavea, and her army controlled this side of the river.
Several hours later, the vehicle pulled to a halt. Her captors climbed out of the carriage, and her weary body jolted along the wooden floor with their movements.
“Emperor Delbin Surinquel sends his greetings.”
Dulcea’s stomach dropped. The Silver Elves had switched to speaking Sarusean; her enemy had her now. How long did she have to live? The carriage moved on; her captors different, but her fate the same. A few more hours passed on the road before a change occurred. The air turned colder, and the sound of the horses’ hooves began to echo. A tunnel? A cave?
The carriage stopped. Rough hands grabbed her and lifted her out of the vehicle. She crumpled into a listless heap, unable to stand for her weakness. Someone removed the sack, and despite the poor lighting, Dulcea perceived a group of human men in red-and-black armor standing around her. They looked fascinated, perhaps even awed. One of them grabbed her by the ropes and forced her to her feet. Another seized her by the chin and turned her face from side to side to take a better look. A third one was touching her matted silver curls the way one might touch a horse’s mane on a marketplace to examine its value. Dulcea was helpless to do anything about it.
The man holding her by the ropes gave a low whistle. “It is her!”
His comrade snorted. “Like you would know! Have you ever seen her? I know I haven’t.”
“Yeah. For all you know this could be any Silver Elf girl they came across,” a third one said.
“Any Silver Elf girl would not have the Golden Staff of the Suns, though.”
“True. That thing looks real enough. The mages will take care of it. We better not touch it.”
Dulcea’s heart sank. She had hoped Delbin would be foolish enough to keep her enchanted Golden Staff. A traitor like him, the golden dragons would have either ignored him or eaten him alive.
The men spoke to one another in fast, clipped Sarusean, but Dulcea could glean enough information from their conversation to understand her situation.
“We better not touch her, either. She might put a spell on us.”
They exchanged uncertain glances. The man touching her hair withdrew his hand.
“She’s been cursed: she can’t do a damned thing to us!” The Sarusean holding her face sneered, but hesitation was clear in his manner.
Dulcea’s breath caught in her throat. A curse? It made sense now why she could not use her powers. The evil energies of the curse also explained the frequent headaches that plagued her in the days before her capture—a result of her mind trying to access sealed information.
The man straightened his tall frame, puffing his chest. A decorative metal badge on the front of his cuirass caught her eye. Dulcea supposed he was the leader of the group. He gave a slight nod, and the Sarusean holding her hoisted her over his shoulder. The world tilted, falling out of perspective.
They proceeded further into the cave, leaving the horse carriage behind in what appeared to be the stables. A dozen men were there looking after the animals, their gazes boring into her as they passed them.
Cold sweat and water trickled down her brow, stinging her eyes. This was no path under the River Sithra as she had expected, but a permanent settlement. Usvameer was not yet free. There remained at least one hidden Sarusean base in the kingdom, and the Caerynian army had not found it because their enemy had built it underground!
Dulcea shivered, absorbing the situation. How many fighters did they have here? A thousand? Ten thousand? Could they manage a surprise attack on the Caerynian camp? It would not threaten the war, but it could prolong it—as if almost five and a half years of constant warfare were not enough already.
“Breza.” The group’s leader gestured at his subordinate. “Run ahead and tell the Master we have her. Her Staff is still at the stables; they are to send someone to retrieve it.”
The man in question nodded and dashed off to deliver the message.
Dulcea frowned. The Master? Warlord Turendar, her mind supplied. She had never met the man in person, but it was he who ruled at the head of the Sarusean army in Caeryn. Back in S’Aruse, their mother country, the rumor had it that the Saruseans had a different ruler. A king. A terrible, fearsome king.
The previous morning felt like a lifetime away. Dulcea supposed it must have been long past midnight by then, but the underground base was far from quiet. They came across guards on duty and maintenance people going about their business of hauling wood, water, and animal carcasses. Some people sat in groups around campfires, immersed in gambling and eating. They all stopped in their tracks to stare at her. The place turned out to be ever larger the further toward the center of it they ventured. All over the caverns, disappearing into the distance, Dulcea could see habitation carved into the stone, and massive wooden structures and simple tents. There were smells of smoke, cooking, and open sewage, and the sound of blacksmiths hammering steel.
She had estimated wrong. This went beyond a mere base. It was an entire town.
Everyone was staring at her. Dulcea shuddered. The soldiers who had been sitting, rose to their feet, and the ones carrying a load, set their cargo down on the ground. People began to gather around them as the news spread, staring at her with dark, hard eyes. Their hostile gazes made her skin prickle. They knew who she was.
Dulcea could hear the soldiers they passed murmuring to one another.
“That’s her,” said the whispers in the crowd.
“The witch queen.”
Soldiers began to fall in behind her captors, following them at a distance. Others were gathering on the sides of the trail in front. The Saruseans holding Dulcea quickened their pace. The man with the leader’s badge walked with an anxious step, and the soldier carrying her almost stumbled in his haste. Their sudden, inexplicable nervousness made Dulcea worry.
A group of soldiers stepped across their path, forcing them to a halt.
“We’ll take over from here,” a self-important man in a red cape said. “Hand her over, boys.”
The leader of Dulcea’s group shook his head. “No. The orders were to take her to the Master.”
The caped figure laughed. “We’ll take her to Master Neros all right.”
Master Neros? Dulcea’s eyes widened in surprise. Who was that, and where was Warlord Turendar?
“The order was whoever finds her first, brings her over.” The men glared at each other.
A third group marched to join the other two, their intention clear from the start.
“Give her to us,” their leader said. “We’ll make sure she gets to the Master.”
The red-caped man bared his teeth at the newcomers. “Piss off! You have no business here!”
“Watch your tongue, or I’ll cut it off. She comes with us.”
The crowd pressed closer. Dulcea watched them shifting between ogling her and staring at the groups arguing over her. The atmosphere had morphed, and she shivered at the ominous sense of expectation sweeping through the soldiers like a tidal wave. The man holding her dug his fingers into her thigh with sudden force, the rag in her mouth muffling her pained yelp.
There were angry shouts from the crowd.
“Dulcea the witch queen!”
“Not so mighty now, is she?”
The crowd chorused, feeding each other’s agitation and frenzy.
Her captor dropped her to the ground. “Damned woman! I’m not getting killed for you!”
Her breath escaped her lungs. Dulcea tried to roll and get to her feet, but the tight ropes binding her hands and feet restricted her movements, and she fell face down on the cavern floor. Her heart hammered in her chest, and her arms and legs were jelly from the long hours of forced immobility. Ever more men flocked to the scene, eager for a piece of the action. Fights broke out around her. No one maintained authority anymore, and the growing mob was howling for her blood.
Several dozen hands fought to grab her. Dulcea tried to cringe away from them, but there was nothing she could do. The Saruseans were either fighting each other or trying to get their hands on her. To Dulcea’s horror, they seemed to have forgotten about taking her to Master Neros. They were not trying to kill her, either; instead, they were pulling at her hair and tearing at her clothing.
A swift knife thrust sliced the ropes, and as soon as her hands and feet came free Dulcea tried to kick, claw, and fight, but it was useless. She was alone against a hundred, her mind cursed and her body weak. The soldiers were laughing and shouting obscenities at her, rending the last pieces of her clothing and groping at her exposed skin.
The lights went out without warning. Everyone halted; even the men on top of her pulled back in confusion. There were shouts and sudden screams of agony from the crowd. Dulcea did not understand what was going on, but she guessed from the pattern of the sounds that someone was clearing a path toward her. Several pairs of hands grabbed her and dragged her back upright.
The torches, lamps, and cooking fires flickered back to light, as if a dark spell had passed. Dulcea found herself surrounded by a group of men and women in black robes. The mob held back at a respectful distance, although there were still a few furious shouts in her direction. Dulcea dry heaved, feeling shaky and nauseous from the narrowness of her escape. She did not want to consider what would have followed had these priests or mages not interrupted. By now she was only wearing ripped deerskin trousers and an elven corset, and she had lost one of her boots.
They took her into a temple deep inside the underground base. Where the stone halls before had been gray and bare, the temple was colorful and decorated with walls of rune stone. Dwarven, she supposed, for they were neither of elven nor human origin. A man awaited her there. Based on the fabulous serpent embroidery on his robes, he was likely to be a high priest of Asherac.
“Well met, Dulcea Lightbringer.” The man’s tone was polite, and his voice had a clear, ringing note to it. “I am Neros, a high priest of Asherac, and the master of this fortress. Welcome to Serpent Rocks.”
She swallowed. The reprieve was over, and the fear was rushing back into her.
“Have you no manners to greet your host, my lady?”
Dulcea glared at him in cold silence. She had no desire to speak with him.
Neros tapped his chin. “You understand what I am saying, do you not, Lightbringer? I thought your kind learned enough to speak the language of the lords. Or did the men outside perhaps frighten you speechless?”
Dulcea stared hard at him. She would not allow him to see her flinch.
“I understand what you are saying,” she said in Sarusean. “Your men do not frighten me.”
The high priest grinned. “Make no mistake, my lady. They would have torn you to pieces. They have lost everything they have because of you, and even your renowned magical powers would not have saved you.”
Dulcea fought not to shudder. She righted her lithe frame as best as she could.
“Your reasoning makes no sense. We are not thieves. We only want to take back what is ours.”
Neros laughed. “That is your version. Why is it any worthier than ours? Caeryn has been home to us for six long centuries. Most of us have never been to S’Aruse. We bow to its king only because our parents teach us so. You are not simply taking back what is yours. No, you are stealing these people’s hopes, the only home they’ve ever known. You seek to drive us to the unknown, to a land we do not know.”
“This continent was ours before you came and put us in chains.” Dulcea gritted her teeth.
“I cannot help the decisions a king made six hundred years in the past.”
“You destroyed our culture! You raped and pillaged like it was your born right!”
“Again, I am not accountable for what an ancestor of mine did six centuries ago. The history of this world is full of violence. We have always fought for our own place. This land is mine.”
“Your king did not need to conquer. Dranmore is wild and empty, and most of Lavea and Miranma are uninhabited.”
Neros made a dismissing motion with his hand. Dulcea shut her mouth.
“Enough. We will never see eye to eye on this.”
“What will you do now?” Her tone was venomous. “Throw me back out to the wolves?”
“No. There is a different fate my Lord Turendar has instructed for you.”
Dulcea had no wish to speak with Neros, but she wanted to know what the Saruseans had in mind for her. Perhaps they meant to imprison her. Or perhaps they intended to send her to S’Aruse. If they kept her alive, there remained a chance for escape. She would not give in to despair yet.
“I am glad you should ask, my lady. A great honor awaits you,” the high priest said. “It will be dawn in a few hours; a poetic moment for the dying of light, would you not think? A new age will begin.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“At dawn I will sacrifice you to Asherac, and you will serve until the end of time as the Dark God’s handmaiden.”
Dulcea tried to suppress her shivering. She turned her head to the side and said nothing. She wished the men outside had finished their intended task. The thought of suffering once in their hands was infinitely preferable to an eternity of pain and humiliation in the House of the Dark God Asherac.
Neros pressed a hand to his chest. “I wish to stress what a great pleasure this is to me. Your life is the most significant sacrifice I have ever had the honor of offering to my god. I doubt such a prize will fall into my hands again in my lifetime. I believe I do not exaggerate when I say that today is the most important day of my entire life.”
Dulcea glowered at him, fisting her hands. Bitter contempt boiled in her veins.
“Is there anything you wish to say to me, my lady?” He sounded almost kind. “Speak freely. Is there some final message you wish to leave? Or perhaps a final desire we may grant? Food, water, clothing? I would gladly see you spend your last moments in relative comfort. It is unnecessary to torture you. You might receive plenty of that after your death, I imagine.”
Dulcea wondered if Neros was insane, making her an offer like that.
“I have nothing to say to you. You are all murderers and madmen.” His deceptive kindness made her uncomfortable.
“As you wish.” He did not appear offended. “I must take my leave of you now, my lady. It is time for me to prepare for the ritual. We will see again at dawn.”
The lesser priests took Dulcea away, escorting her into a large candle-lit room dominated by a massive stone altar. Dulcea could see old blood stains covering the altar and turned her face away. A sickening, burning sensation swelled in her stomach.
She tried to think of a way out of this situation, but she was alone and without her powers. How had they cursed her? How had she gotten so careless? Had she truly been so sure of her victory that she had ceased to pay attention?
A shiver ran through her. With a sinking feeling Dulcea realized her error. They had been right all along. Amparo Darksun, her dragon guardian and the leader of the Golden Clan. Myoden, her second-in-command and a long-time friend. All her other generals, too: Haden, Tarim, Nemnyan, and Hai’Mezene. Even Lady Pendralyssa whom they had lost three months ago during the siege of Fellmaar…
They had long admonished her for her recklessness. She had always dismissed their concerns with a smile, with great confidence in her own powers, but now she would learn her lesson the hard way.
The priests and priestesses lifted Dulcea on the altar and chained her hands and feet into its four corners. The metal of the manacles felt cold and heavy on her slender wrists. Dulcea shrank away with disgust and horror from what has happening to her, but her pride kept her silent. What use would it be to scream? Begging, crying, and fighting back would not stop them; it would only make them spread the word that Dulcea Lightbringer made a pitiful fool of herself in her final moments.
The priests left the room, and Dulcea collapsed on the stone slab, astonished at finding herself alone. Her heartbeat slowed and her breath calmed. She would have a moment of free thought before they came back at dawn.
Dulcea was now certain she would die. She could not think of any way of stopping it. Her spirit would not be free but bound forever to the monstrous god whom the Saruseans served. The mere thought of it almost paralyzed her, but she kept telling herself to remain calm. She would not show her fear to them. She would think of the sunlight filtering through the foliage back home at the Silverwoods, and that light would keep her from sinking into permanent darkness.
Dulcea stared at the black ceiling, shivering from the cold of the underground. She attempted to recount all the important things in her life before it was to end when out of nowhere she heard a soft voice.
“A damsel in distress.” To her confused surprise, the language spoken was Caerynian Common instead of Sarusean, the tone of the words fascinated. “A maiden sacrifice.”
Dulcea thought she saw a shadow move from the corner of her eye, but when she turned her head to look there was no one there. For an instant, fear took her breath away.
The seconds ticked by, but nothing happened. She saw no one.
“Aren’t you going to ask who’s there?” the voice asked her after a moment, sounding amused.
It was a man’s voice, deep and smooth—almost familiar, like something half heard in a dream.
She drew in a shuddering breath. “Who are you?”
“I could tell you my name, but it would mean nothing to you,” the voice said. “I can tell you what I am instead: I am the beast that has come to collect you.”