On Warhounds, Dahoto, Grim, and Clare

“It seems to me the universe gave us three things to make life bearable: hope, jokes, and dogs. But the greatest of these gifts was dogs.” – Robyn Davidson

~

Friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears. I want to talk about dogs.

Well, more specifically, warhounds. I was walking my dog today, you see, and I got to thinking that Grim is probably one of the most fascinating characters in Fire Heart. I know that a lot of you agree with me. I did a little Favorite Character poll back when I was writing on Shur’tugal FanFiction, and Grim won by a landslide. You know why? People like dogs. They’re our best friends, after all. They’re loyal, loving, and utterly devoted. My dog Beowulf, a silver lab (I know – I’d never heard of such a breed until I got him either) holds the grand distinction of being one of the few members of a very small, very elite, and very exclusive club: Beings Who Have Never Screwed Dan Over. And all over the world it’s the same. Unless you get some raving psychopath for a pet, your dog is going to be your truest, most perfect friend until it dies – and that’s why so many people love Grim.

But where does he come from? How was he made? Why is he so intelligent? I thought it might be fun to answer these questions in a little blurb about all things Grim, so here we go. To start with, there’s…

Dahoto

The Westlands

The Westlands.

Or rather, there was Dahoto. Some of you may recall that, in Fire Heart, it’s mentioned that warhounds are unique to the Westlands. In fact, this isn’t true – not precisely. They are unique to the city of Dahoto, and Dahoto (before it was annihilated by yaru) loaned warhounds and their handlers – a group collectively known as the Dahotan First Rank – to those Lower Kingdom cities that could afford them. This was a lucrative practice, I assure you, and one based partially around the Southland custom of farming out the majority of a city’s military work to mercenary bands. I’m sure everybody remembers just how effective Clare and Grim are as a team; imagine how effective an entire company of such duos might be.

But how is it that such an effective breed of animal only exists in one city? Well, it just so happens that I’ve recently stumbled across an ancient document predating the Soréllian Empire’s expansion into Dahoto. The document appears to be a travelogue from one of the first meetings between a Soréllian government official and the enigmatic Haito. Please excuse any errors in translation – High Soréllian has been a dead language in the Southlands for nearly five hundred years, and I had to go to rather ridiculous lengths to find someone who could read even a little of it.

~

Day Ninety-Six:

Agostos says we are only three more days from the edge of Haito territory. For this I am thankful, and when I heard the news I gave praise to the Fire Father/Mother [it appears that this word was used to denote an ancient deity of some kind, and its meaning is interchangeable] in the form of a burnt offering – a magnificent boar brought down by Agostos’ men for tonight’s supper. They grumbled when I commanded the ritual, but even this far from the Empire no Soréllian would dare disobey a Legatus.

~

Day One Hundred:

Our first meeting with the Haito. They are a strange, quiet people, and I do not like the way they look at our caravan. Their eyes are a disquieting shade of emerald, and such a thing I have never seen before. They wear strange armor more intimidating than that of any legionary, and their faces are covered but for their eyes in hideous, demonic masks. Of those we met, several – I cannot be sure exactly how many, for their numbers seemed to shift like shadows/darkness/evil [apparently, as above, all three of these words were interchangeable in High Soréllian] with every glance – were accompanied by monstrously huge canines of some sort. They resembled wolves, but their eyes bespoke an intelligence that I have never seen in an animal. Their jaws hang perpetually open, and are studded with far more teeth than I can recall ever seeing in a dog or wolf. Their fur is very coarse – or so my translator tells me – and can even deflect a wayward blade or poorly aimed arrow. I write this at the onset of mid-night, for I find it difficult to sleep while my thoughts dwell on those beasts.

~

Day One Hundred and Three:

Another sleepless night. Soft but audible footfalls – I suspect of a deliberate nature – wakened me each time my mind began to drift. When I finally crept out of my tent to discern my tormentor, I saw nothing. I made to leave the tent and look around, but the instant my foot left its boundary a piercing, nightmarish din erupted from everywhere at once; it sounded like the laughter of the mad, or the shrieks of the damned, or both. Fire Father/Mother deliver me from this nightmare.

~

Day One Hundred and Four:

One of Agostos’ men attempted to toss a scrap of meat to one of the beasts. It gave the food what I can only describe as a disconsolate look and then leaped upon the man, savaging him with its jaws. It was over in a matter of moments, and I am ashamed to admit that I voided the contents of my stomach at the sight. The creature’s master said something short and sharp in his language, and it obediently went to his side. After inspecting the body – without my assistance, for I had not the constitution for such a thing – Agostos mused about the nature of the offspring between one of the Haito beasts and one of our own wolfhounds. I found this idea to be quite mad and told him so.

~

The rest is pretty boring – a lot of political talk, a lot of trade treaties, a lot of whining about the Haito “beasts.” Typical politician mumbo jumbo. Anyway, there you have it: the progenitors of the Dahotan warhounds. Will we hear more about them in Shadow Heart? Well, duh.

But enough about history – I want to talk about…

The Warhounds

A member of the Dahotan First Rank and her warhound. (Yes, I know I recycled the Clare and Grim lineart. Just play along, you party poopers.)

A member of the Dahotan First Rank and her warhound.

Yes, I know I recycled the Clare and Grim lineart. Just play along, you party poopers.

So warhounds are big. As in, really big. As in, bigger than that. So we’ll just pretend that the above picture is of a runt warhound. Or maybe one that’s still growing. In reality, a full-grown warhound’s shoulder would reach above hip-height on Clare. For reference, Clare is a leggy 6’2″. (About 188 cm for everybody in the world who is not stuck on America’s ridiculous measurement system.) That makes the average warhound’s shoulder roughly four feet tall – about 122 cm. Their heads, naturally, reach even higher. This is taller than a Great Dane, and a warhound is even more massive.

“But hip dysplasia!” you cry. Pshaw. This is fantasy. And in fantasy, dogs either die gloriously in battle or they live until they get too old to breathe. None of this bogus genetic anomaly garbage.

So we’ve established that warhounds are big. If you remember, we’ve also established – according to Clare – that a warhound is trained from the moment it is born by only one person, and that is the person it will spend the rest of its life with. How long does one live? I haven’t the foggiest. None of them have ever survived for long enough to find out. Such is the life of a shock trooper. How exactly is one trained? Well, it just so happens that I’ve stumbled across another relic – or rather, a series of them – from Pallamar! This one is a little more recent, though – in fact, it comes from Clare’s things. (No, I didn’t stalk her and steal her stuff. Jeez, guys.)

~

Clare:

You will never believe what’s happened. I know that such matters are to be kept secret, but I am positively bursting with pride and joy: you have been selected to undergo training for the First Rank! I know that this is what you have always dreamed of, and Marya and I simply cannot contain our happiness for you. The news only just came in today, and when I saw your name cross my desk my curiosity was piqued. It seems Maeren sponsored you, and as you know he has tremendous influence within the upper echelons of the Dahotan military. Take care – I am sure he still has feelings for you. You will undoubtedly be informed tomorrow or the day after, and as I said such matters are generally kept secret. Look surprised! And go forth with Gefan’s grace and the knowledge that Marya and I know that you will succeed. 

All My Love,

Jaeme

~

Dear Mother and Father,

I am writing to you from Kyohan, thought I cannot tell you where I will be going nor what I am doing, as it is a matter of some secrecy. Suffice to say I am in good health and good spirit, for I have some exciting news: I was just last week promoted to the First Rank! Training and selection are over, and I am one of only five proud and lucky women and men to have been accepted. My first mission will be as liaison to the regulars during a ranging, but when I return I will be granted a warhound pup to train for my own. Maeren tells me that several bitches are nearly ready to birth, and should be in the act or close to it when my mission is over. I shall bring the pup by the smithy so you can see it. Take care, and say hello to the twins for me.

Love,

Clare

~

Dear Jaeme and Marya,

I hope all is well, and that the Consul is not working you too hard. As you undoubtedly know, I am now a proud member of the First Rank. I have my own warhound pup, who I have named Grim for his demeanor – not to me, for he has taken to me like I am his birth-mother, but to anyone who comes within five paces of us. I took him by to Mother and Father the other day and he nearly leaped out of my arms to get at them. I have never heard such noises come from a pup, and to be honest I was momentarily frightened. I had to chain him to an anvil just so I could speak with my parents, for he chewed through three lengths of leather in as many tocks just to get to my side. Once chained he emitted the most terrible wails, and now as I write this he acts as though he has been beaten. I suspect that this is a ruse. Just yesterday he feigned injury in order to obtain more food and a good belly scratch. He is an animal of singular intellect, even as young as he is. Also, Maeren has made another advance. I have tried to explain my feelings – or lack thereof – to him in as gentle a way as possible, but I do not think he understands. I would greatly appreciate your help in this matter.

Wishing You the Best,

Clare

~

Warhound Training Manual, Section One

A warhound is not a pet, and should never be treated as such. It is an animal of great intelligence and cunning, and care should be taken to make sure yours never has reason to challenge your authority. Many are those who have lost digits, limbs, and even lives to their warhounds. Warhounds respond best to strong, self-sure authority. When commanding your warhound you must neither feel nor show any hesitation or compassion, for they will seize upon such as a weakness and act accordingly. Below is a list of vocal and hand-signalled commands universal to the First Rank, which you and your warhound will be expected to learn before it reaches six months of age.

~

Warhound Training Manual, Section Three

Never use physical violence to train your warhound. This is the most important lesson you will ever learn. A warhound, raised properly, will obey your every command. It will do as you say, when you say, without hesitation. In time, you and your warhound will learn to communicate without even the voice- and hand-signals that you have learned. But the day you raise a hand against your warhound, it will defend itself without thinking twice. Remember this, lest you become another statistic of the First Rank.

[Beneath this, in a hastily scrawled hand]: Swatted Grim on the nose today for trying to steal a rib at dinner. Didn’t attack me. Didn’t even try to run away. Just cowered and looked at me with those sad puppy eyes. Did I get the only cowardly warhound in history?

~

The short answer is: no, she didn’t. The long answer?…Well, you’ll have to wait for Shadow Heart (but not much longer!) to find out.

Advertisements

Luminiad 17:1:43-51

They fell to their knees and prayed when I passed. Some reached out to touch me, hands shaking and eyes wide with wonder. “Bless my child,” they begged. “Heal my loved one.” Hero, some called me. Savior. Messiah. But there was one title that they clung to, one that they would reach for again and again in their darkest hours. When hope failed them, when the sky swallowed the sun and darkness fell, there was one word on each of their lips: Lightbringer.

– Luminiad 17:1:43-51

Luminomachia

It has been said that during the opening moments of the Luminomachia a great war raged in the Void between the forces of the Lightbringer and the enemy. It has been said that the shining towers of the Old God’s palace crumbled and fell to an onslaught of fire and lightning. None of us mortals can know the truth, of course. Only the Ourien were privy to that knowledge, and they have long since vanished.

– From Luminomachia

by Maleakh Shah’reh Ma’Dhin

Luminiad 17:1:18-26

One of the Ourien, first among the Old God’s creations, was struck down before my eyes. And the field was silent as the grave. No cries of despair, no howls of victory. The Belahan looked at me with violet eyes, and even in the depths of evil I could see sorrow. Beauty had been slain – perfection, destroyed. I broke the silence. The sky split. Thunder roared. The hand of the Old God rained from the sky, and on that day we were given hope.

– Luminiad 17:1:18-26

Oh my God, is that – can it be? BOOK TWO STUFF?!

Hey, you know who’s been negligent in his duties? This guy! Here I am posting all these reviews that literally nobody cares about, but no more story tidbits! I know, I know, I’m a jerk – but guess what? I have something for you. A big something. Yes, for the first time ever, we get to catch a glimpse into the mind of *gasp* Insanity, everybody’s favorite psychotic stalker Fallen One! As always, this is still subject to change and is not yet a finished product. Enjoy! (I have no idea why the stupid thing keeps getting posted in two different fonts. I broke WordPress! Sorry guys, trying to fix it!)

~

The sun was just beginning to set over the western wall of Avalone, taking with it the last rays of daylight and leaving in its wake a dazzling menagerie of evening color. The clouds faded slowly from burning orange to smoldering red, and then to deep, bruised purple as the last of the crimson disk sank below the horizon. Streetlamps bloomed into being, flaring in the darkness as caretakers breathed life into their stubby candles. At the center of the city, high above even the towering spires of the royal keep, the great Avalonian clock tower tolled the evening bell.

By day Avalone was a haven for the holy, a shining beacon for those lost amid an otherwise dark and stormy sea of doubt and death and fear. But by night, after the pious had said their evening devotions and closed their eyes to await the sun’s return, the city’s darker denizens came to life. Taverns and inns lit their lamps and threw open their doors to the unwashed masses, and packs of whores roamed the streets in search of wealthy patrons or unwary drunks. Purses opened their mouths in shining smiles, spilling their innards across worn wooden tables and into the gaping maws of the grinning businessmen of the night—or, for the supremely unlucky, into the creeping hands of quick-fingered urchins and coquettish courtesans.

And deep in the bowels of Avalone’s seedy underbelly, a lone figure walked quietly down a dirty alley, her body hidden beneath a cloak and her face swallowed by the darkness of a hood. The cloak reached almost to her ankles, and had been chosen with the obvious intention of concealing its wearer from the prying eyes of those watchful enough to catch a glimpse of her. It performed its task poorly, though, unable to hide its bearer’s feminine figure beneath the fabrics that clung tightly to her disturbingly voluptuous body. She moved like a predator, silent and quick and with the liquid grace of a hunter on the prowl.

She flitted from shadow to shadow, never lingering for too long in the light and seeming almost to blend in with the darkness. Anyone looking at her would have seen little more than a blur and a flash of violet deep within the recesses of her hood. Curiously, the scent of lemons trailed after her and left a wake of freshness that belied the woman’s true nature.

A precious commodity, she mused, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. He called me precious. Precious. Me.

She could not banish the memory of her last meeting with her master, no matter how zealously she focused on the mission at hand. His face danced tantalizingly before her, taunting her with dreams of the rewards he would shower her with upon her successful return. Her previous task had been a failure, and now she hoped to redeem herself in his eyes.

A low grumble gave her pause, and she halted half-inside a pool of light, listening intently for any sign of an enemy. They were everywhere in Avalone, and far more prominent in the holy city than was usual. But the next few moments revealed her suspicions to be only paranoia; it was a haggard man, not a Titan.

“Hello, love. Fancy a go at the old snake?” The voice’s owner stumbled out of the shadows, his entrance preceded by a foul stench—a putrid mixture of stale sweat and cheap liquor. He looked like a drowned rat, covered as he was in coarse stubble and an assortment of filthy rags that would not have passed for clothing in even the poorest Eastland caravan.

She turned to him, her violet eyes flashing in the dim, flickering light from the street lanterns, and gave him her most lascivious smile. Prey, she thought with a giggle, causing the man to break into a gap-toothed grin. Prey for the madness.

“Why, yes,” she breathed, her voice a sultry husk. “Yes, I would indeed. ‘Tis a fine night for a…go at the old snake.

The drunkard rasped a chuckle and stumbled toward her, arms outstretched toward her chest. Before he could touch her, though, she caught him by the throat in an iron grip and forced him to his knees. “What—?” he choked.

“You like snakes, do you?” she hissed, and her tongue darted out to moisten her lips. When it came out a second time, it was forked. “Snakes are one of my favorite creatures. ‘Tis a pity the Dark One only crafted one child to resemble them, no?”

The man’s eyes widened as terror, its progress slowed by the drink clouding his head, finally wormed its way into his mind. Her hand tightened on his throat and his mouth opened to scream, but the only sound that left his lips was a strangled hiss. She cackled when he clawed ineffectually at her hand, and his eyes opened even further as her jaw gaped impossibly wide to reveal a mouthful of curved, needle-like fangs.

His headless body fell to the ground with a fleshy thump a moment later, blood spurting from the raw, ragged stump of his neck. “Delicious,” she hissed, licking a stray fleck of crimson from her lips. “My thanks, Master Snake.”

She was gone in the next instant, a shadow in the night. The dusty streets of Avalone were crowded even so late in the evening, and to walk among the mortals was an invitation for discovery—especially when there was a Titan in the city. And those meddling sandmen, she thought with disgust. Such a bother. ‘Tis a shame Agony refuses to let me kill them. She briefly contemplated attacking them anyway; she was confident that, with stealth on her side, she could easily dispatch them one by one. But the thought of the Titan gave her pause; Renne had always been strong, and it had taken a tidal wave of foes to finally finish her off. This new one, she was sure, would be no different. And there was something strange, too, some new level of hatred that she had felt emanating from the earth Titan in Spaertos.

And the little sandmen never go anywhere alone, she thought sullenly. To her right loomed the royal palace, the very heart of Avalone, and she hesitated for only the span of a tick before darting back down another fetid alleyway. Her wrath would have to wait—she did not wish to meet her end as Pestilence and Strife had. No, now was not the time to fight. Agony had been right about that.

Agony…

She shivered with pleasure at the thought of his name, and her lips curled into a sultry smile. He called me precious, she thought again, remembering their night together after her return from Horoth. Precious…precious…called me precious… Her hands went unconsciously to her breast, her loins, and she twitched with excitement. She imagined they were his hands once again, caressing her, hitting her, tearing at her flesh—

An involuntary gasp escaped her lips, prompting what she had taken for a pile of rags to shift and grumble unhappily. “Who’s that?” the pile called in a shaking, gravelly voice. “I ain’t got no more money, right? Leave me alone. I’ve got a knife—stay back or I’ll—”

“Quiet,” Insanity hissed, and the pile gave a choked gurgle before falling back and jerking spasmodically as blood spurted and bubbled from the new, gaping hole in his throat. She giggled and continued on her way.

King killing was something she was not a stranger to—she had, after all, slain the world’s most notorious king five hundred years ago, if only indirectly. But even aside from Davin Tyrhanann, her list was long and bloody. Karkash had felt the touch of her feet over a dozen times since the Great Fall, and she had slowly but surely shaped the Empire into a tool for the Fallen to wield at their leisure.

Ainos, too, had twisted beneath her fingers, and the man who now called himself the island’s sovereign was a devout follower of the dark gods that made their home in the Southern Marshes.

Agony had been especially pleased with that one—it had been her own personal handiwork, and keeping the Ainoan king under the inconstant curtain of insanity had been an achievement in and of itself. It was no simple task to keep a man just sane enough to rule a kingdom, and Agony had acknowledged her accomplishments for many nights thereafter, inflicting such pain and pleasure upon her that her mind could scarcely recall the memories, so clouded were they by ecstasy.

But this time it was different; the so-called King of the Faithful was no Karkashian or Ainoan, and the Inner Kingdoms had never before suffered under the hand of Insanity. Behelahan, she mused with a giggle. They call us Behelahan here. Such a silly name. At least the Titans gave us one that has meaning. Fallen had a decidedly nicer ring to it. Not so many syllables. Syllables. She giggled again. Now there is a funny word…

Where before her machinations had always been to shape and forge, now they were simply to destroy. Yet Alton Seriperco was too heavily guarded to confront him in person—to even set foot in Avalone had been a monumental task, especially with the Southlanders’ inherent mistrust of violet eyed individuals. And the boy had the added benefit of living under the unwitting protection of a Titan. Insanity had no intention of forfeiting her life for the sake of murdering one man, but still… I would rather do it with my bare hands, she thought glumly, and shrugged her shoulders, shifting the weight of her passengers’ bulk on her back. ‘Tis a disgrace to have to rely on such creatures.

Perhaps sensing her thoughts, a low, burbling growl emanated from beneath her cloak. She ignored it. They would do nothing to harm her, and if they even attempted to use their powers on her… She stifled a fit of laughter. Madness was the ultimate corruption; what further damage could a night terror hope to do against her? No, if the creatures made so much as a single move to harm her, she would grind them into paste beneath the heel of her boot. For a moment the thought was so delicious that she was nearly tempted to kill one simply for the sake of having done so, but the thought of Agony’s anger stayed her hand. What she least wanted was to upset the one thing she desired even more than eternal life.

A towering stone building loomed before her, all white marble and sculpted columns, and the alleyways ended abruptly as the myriad streets converged to form one enormous stone plaza. Gone were the revelers and ne’er do wells of the dirty backstreets. Here people milled about in scattered crowds, paying little attention to the Fadorés that cried the word of God to the sullen streets. The building was the High Temple of Gefan, the convergence point for nearly every road in Avalone, and the courtyard was a locus for the Faithful to congregate and hear their savior’s will—or speak it, were they fortunate enough to belong to the Clergy. A shining silver trilix rose from the very center of the plaza, the twisting arms managing to seem somehow both peacefully beautiful and frighteningly domineering at the same time.

How very much in common we have, Insanity thought with a grin. She had always found it astounding that the Lower Kingdoms had lost their faith so quickly after the Great Fall. How many years had it been before they had forgotten the Titans completely? One hundred? No, even less than that. She took it as a sign that the time of the old gods had long since passed; the world did not need the Titans anymore. Except for the Northmen and the desert folk, she mused. How tenaciously they cling to their warped versions of the old ideals.

She made her way across the plaza, careful to keep her hood drawn and her head down. She had forgone her usual revealing attire in favor of the less attractive but more practical raiment of a commoner. Detection was not something she could afford, and with a Titan on the prowl she could not depend on the shadows alone to hide her. Now only the odd person looked up at her, and of those only a few stared for any length of time. The very, very few who looked too long found themselves suddenly staring at a nightmarish scene concocted entirely by their own minds. They stumbled away with their hands to their heads, mumbling incoherently. Anyone they passed took it as nothing more than religious fervor.

Insanity rarely cared to personally oversee her victims’ nightmares, instead letting their minds run wild all on their own. All their imaginations required was a small touch from her power, and their most terrifying fantasies became real. What they saw was of no consequence to her; all that mattered was that they were affected, and that once they were, her power could manipulate them like marionettes. In fact, the only one she had ever taken any interest in over the entirety of her long life was…

She stumbled as the toe of her boot caught on the raised lip of a stone, but caught herself quickly. A hand touched her shoulder, and she whipped around to see a Fadoré looking at her with concern. “Are you well, my child?” he asked. “Hurt? Sick? Please, rest in the Temple.”

“I am fine,” she hissed, and the man’s eyes widened at her flare of anger. “Remove your hand, or be without it.”

“I meant no offense,” he murmured, bowing his head and shuffling quickly away.

She shook her head in confusion as the memory of Horoth found its way to the surface of her mind, just as it had all too often over the past few weeks. Why could she not banish the image of that man from her thoughts? Standing there in the snow, defiant even in the face of death. He was certain he could not kill me, she thought. And yet…he did not seem to care. Why? Why?! Does he not fear death? That look in his eyes—the cold fury that seemed to burn a hole through her—had haunted her with each waking moment, and when she closed her own eyes she could still see those icy blue orbs glaring back at her. Even the pleasure pits in the Black Fortress had done nothing to spare her from the memory—only Agony had been able to free her from Willyem Blackmane’s grip, and then only for a short time.

But did he know? she wondered. Did he know that I was afraid? His own fear had been hidden beneath a wave of defiant hatred, never truly surfacing until her mention of the woman Clare. Her death, she was sure, would be the only sure way to destroy him. Nothing else would be able to stand in his way—not even Agony. Of that she was certain. Nobody else had ever shattered her nightmares before—nobody. His had been special, a world crafted entirely for him instead of simple random hallucinations. And she had even stayed to personally oversee that the dreamworld killed him. But he fought me, she thought, stunned. In my own realm, he fought me and won. Who is this man? He is so much more than Davin could ever have hoped to be.

At that thought a low chuckle seemed to emanate from all around her, tumbling and rasping and clawing at her mind, but the people close to her seemed oblivious. She felt the icy hand of fear grip her heart as shadowy fingers danced up her spine, and she shivered. She knew the Dark One was not there—at least not physically—and yet it took all of her willpower to resist the urge to turn around.

Mine, a voice whispered in her head, echoing around inside her skull and slithering across her skin like a snake. Mine.

“No,” she murmured, but the defiance she sought eluded her, leaving her voice a tinny, shaking shell of its normal self. She heard the laughter again, louder this time, enveloping her like a blanket. Her vision blurred as something stirred deep inside of her, struggling to break free of the ever-weakening chains that bound the darkness to her soul. She clutched involuntarily at her chest and let out a small gasp.

Soon, the voice hissed, and the struggling subsided as the thing inside of her lapsed back into quiescence. You stole from me, but soon I will have it back. I already have three of you. It will not be long now, not long at all.

“We will live forever,” Insanity whispered, trembling. “You will be dead soon, and then—”

The laughter enfolded her once more, and then the Dark One faded away. She could still feel It, though, like an infection deep in her gut. The Dark One never left completely.

And the Dragon King would speed them along into Its clutches—into the deepest, darkest reaches of Kotaros. The very idea of spending an eternity in torment as the plaything of a deranged god sent a lance of fear through her heart. But we can still kill him, she thought desperately. There is still time. That woman—she is the key.

Yes, she was sure of it—Clare’s death would ruin the Blackmane, once and for all, and it was the only way to ensure his complete demise. The only way to ensure the Fallen’s survival. But he was so protective of her…even before she had entered the dream, he had managed to fend off Insanity’s nightmares. To hold even one at bay was no easy task, but all of them? It boggled her mind. And the way that whore of a woman had manifested in his final nightmare, as if she were actually there with them…

Could it be? she wondered. Is she the next Phoenix Empress? No, no—I would have felt something. We all would have. ‘Tis impossible. Even Agony had come to the conclusion that the Empress simply did not exist any longer; perhaps Koutoum’s female half had merged once more with its partner, and Willyem Blackmane was the fire god’s only avatar. It would certainly explain his apparent love for that weak, pitiful, hideous whore of a mortal—

Insanity stopped, her head cocking to the side in confusion. Jealousy? she wondered, aghast. From me? Over a mortal? But yes, the more she thought about it, the more she realized it was true: she was jealous of Clare. Clare. Mortal Clare. Jealous of her.

And there was something else, too—something so unexpected that she had nearly risked capture by the Titans in Horoth, though she still did not realize why. A part of her had wanted Will—had wanted him to take her and throw her to the ground as Agony did, to beat her and rape her and claim her for his own. He appeared in her mind as a towering column of flame, an inferno of pain and desire. Each time she thought of his eyes she shuddered in terrified ecstasy, and when he had touched her…

People were staring at her now, whispering to each other, and she realized that she had not moved for some time. She started off at a brisk walk, mentally berating herself for needlessly endangering her mission. She forced herself to concentrate, banishing thoughts of the Dragon King. But no matter how she tried, he stayed in the back of her mind, watching, waiting, glaring at her with that burning, frozen hatred.

Will’s Madness

Anybody curious about what Insanity did to Will at the end of Fire Heart? Well, in celebration of the launch of the website (finally!) I’m posting a few pages of Chapter One of Book Two. I think I have this one pretty much locked down, but remember that some things may be subject to change in the final product. Enjoy!

~

Warm rays of sunlight caressed his bared back and a cool breeze played across his skin, providing a delicious contrast of sensations. He could hear the soft roar of the waterfall behind the house, and somewhere a songbird provided a lilting tune that cut through the white noise and gently toyed him into wakefulness. He did not open his eyes, but simply lay on the soft sheets for a time, enjoying the morning’s beauty with the hint of a smile on his face. The dream was still fresh in his mind, but it was waning quickly. Thank the spirits for that, he thought.

A slender-fingered hand slid gently up his arm, and a moment later he felt naked, cool skin press against him from behind. His smile broadened.

“Good morning,” Clare whispered, her breath tickling the back of his neck. He rolled over with a rustle of sheets and came face to face with her.

“It is indeed,” he said softly, his gaze drawn first—as it always was—to her violet eyes. He planted a gentle kiss on her lips, and when he made to draw away a moment later she leaned in and kissed him far more deeply.

“That’s what a kiss should feel like,” she said with a grin. “But I suppose yours will have to do.”

“I could try again, you know,” he chuckled. “I’m always looking to improve.” She simply smiled and made no reply, so he leaned in and kissed her once more. Her lips were cool and soft, and this time he did not pull away for a long while. The taste of her was, as always, intoxicating.

“Someone’s awfully affectionate this morning,” she gasped after he pulled away. Her breath was coming heavier, and he could feel her breasts moving rhythmically against his chest. The effect was, to say the least, arousing.

She squirmed against him and giggled. “The children are still asleep,” she whispered, brushing her lips against his neck. “If we’re quiet…”

They were—for the most part. It was soft and slow and beautiful, and when they were finished she lay atop him and gently played her fingers up and down his neck. He ran his hands along the skin of her back, reveling in its smoothness. For a long while they stayed that way, neither of them speaking, both simply enjoying the other’s company. He buried his face in her hair and inhaled softly; the scent of lemon flooded his nose and he smiled against her skin, pressing his lips gently against her temple.

“Will,” she whispered after a time, “what’s wrong? You seem troubled.”

He turned his head away as memories of the dream came unbidden to the forefront of his mind. “I…it’s nothing.”

She raised her head, locks of hair framing her face in a dark curtain, and frowned at him. “’Tis something indeed, I think,” she said. “Why do you hide it from me? Is it Garren again?”

“No, no,” he said, “it isn’t Garren. It’s…” He trailed off and breathed a sigh, feeling silly for letting a dream have such an effect on him.

“What?” she asked, her violet eyes beseeching.

“It’s a dream I had,” he mumbled. “It was strange. Almost…almost like a dream within a dream within a dream. First we were…” He broke off and laughed at how ridiculous his next words would sound. “First we were Titans. But something happened…something bad I can’t quite remember…I think I killed a lot of people, and then you hated me for it.”

“What!” she said. “Oh, Will, you know I could never hate you—”

“I know, I know,” he said softly, and he patted her hip reassuringly. “It was just the dream. But then I dreamed I woke up in…a castle? Yes, it was a castle, and we were the king and queen of Avalone. Except some of the people didn’t like how we were ruling, and they led a revolt, and…”

“And what?” she prompted gently.

He inhaled deeply and let his head fall back down onto the pillows, so that he could see only the ceiling. “They killed you,” he said in a small voice. “They…did terrible things…” he turned his head away and said nothing more. Clare did not respond, and after awhile he felt her head fall back down to rest lightly against his chest.

“Anyway,” he said after composing himself, “the third dream was pretty much the same. Except we were blacksmiths in Dahoto, and this time it was yaru that came for us.”

“Did I die?” she asked softly, and he nodded. “The children?” Another nod. After a moment, in an even quieter voice: “Did you?” He hesitated, and then shook his head. “Well,” she said firmly, “I’m not dead. ‘Twas only a dream.”

“I know,” he whispered.

“Will,” she said, and her fingers tilted his face so that he was looking at her. “I am alive. Everything is fine.”

He gave her his best smile, but it felt hollow. The look on his face must not have been convincing, for she leaned in and, wrapping her arms around his head, kissed him passionately.

This time their lovemaking was faster, almost desperate, and they clung to each other like drowning people to driftwood. When at last they fell back to the bed they lay intertwined, their breath coming hot and heavy.

“Such stamina,” Clare said, her words coming out in a breathy gasp, and she laughed.

Will gave a laugh of his own, but it was half-hearted. “I’ve got a good reason to keep going,” he said, and though the words were not forced, the smile he gave her was.

“Feeling better now?” she asked, and he nodded despite the untruth behind the gesture. She smiled all the same and sat up abruptly, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed and getting to her feet. She stretched, arching her back like a cat, and then disappeared into the closet.

Will sat on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands. The dream was so real, he thought. And now I can’t get it out of my head. In fact, it was beginning to feel less like a dream and more like a memory; he could vividly recall in disturbing detail both of Clare’s deaths, down to the expression on her face and the tears in her eyes as she died.

He shook his head and rose to his feet. No use dwelling on it. Clare reappeared a moment later wearing a summer dress, a commoner’s garment. Will smiled when he saw her, and this time it was genuine. She truly was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.

“I was hoping I could entice you into making a trip to the river today,” Clare said, walking up to him and looping her arms around his neck. “There is nothing here that requires your immediate attention. And the children would love it, you know.”

Will gave her a quick peck on the lips. “Of course,” he said. “Garren can wait. I haven’t spent enough time with my family lately.”

“Too true,” Clare smiled. “’Tis a lonely house without my husband to fill it. Now let’s hurry—I’ll go wake the children while you get dressed.”

She darted away, closing the door to their bedroom softly behind her. As soon as she was gone Will heaved a massive sigh. Truth be told, he could not remember what it was Garren wanted—only that it was an exorbitant amount of something. Could it be money? That, he reasoned, was the logical answer. Money…money that Will did not have. That thought gave him pause for a moment. Why don’t I have money to give him? We can’t possibly be poor…

He looked around his bedroom, taking stock of their belongings. Nothing was overly fancy or flamboyant, but each piece of furniture was of good make and bore the signs of a careful hand. Perhaps…had he made them himself? He smacked himself on the brow and shook his head in silent amusement. Of course he had made them—he was, after all, a carpenter. And business had not been going well recently, leaving him with little money to pay Garren for…

My debts. Memory crashed into him like a tidal wave. That’s right. I borrowed money to start my business, but now I can’t pay it off. He sighed once more and massaged his temples. That stupid dream addled my mind more than I realized. I can’t even remember who in the Void I am.

When he was finally dressed he went first to his children’s room. All three beds were empty, and when he called for them his only reply was the ever-present roar of the waterfall. “Huh,” he said aloud, and went outside.

Clare was waiting for him, standing barefoot in the grass. “What took you so long?” she asked with a smile, threading her arm through his. “The children were so anxious to go that I sent them ahead.”

Will smiled at her. “Shall we?” he asked, and they started off at a leisurely walk.

It was a beautiful summer day, and the temperate forests that encompassed Reldren provided the province with a cooling wind to counter the heat of the summer sun. Butterflies flitted randomly about, never sure of where they wanted to go and only slightly more certain of how they were going to get there. Their flouncing flight found a tune to dance to in the form of birdsong, and the finches and thrushes that populated the evergreens were only too happy to add their music to the mix.

They walked in silence for a time, their arms around each other’s waists and their hips just barely touching. Will felt a sense of peace and contentment settle over him that, he realized, he had not felt for a very long time. “I love you,” he said quietly, catching Clare’s violet eyes with his own. She smiled at him and leaned in to kiss him.

“And I love you,” she said.

When they finally reached the river the children were nowhere in sight. Will found this troubling at first, but Clare seemed indifferent. And after a moment, he thought he could hear them laughing and playing some way off, so he let the matter drop. Clare led him by the hand to a small pool that time had carved into the side of the bank, where the river could rest and swirl into a playful eddy. She sat down at its edge with her feet dangling in the cool water. Will took his boots off and joined her a moment later.

It was midday by the time Will began to worry about the children. He had not heard their cries for some time, and the niggling fear that one of them had gotten hurt was rapidly worming its way into his mind. When he voiced his fears to Clare, though, she only smiled.

“They’re probably off by the diving rock,” she said. “They always run off like this, remember?”

He nodded slowly. He did remember, and his fears began to ebb. His children had always been the adventurous sort, quick to get into trouble but even quicker to find a way out. He leaned back on the palms of his hands and idly kicked his feet in the water.

“Such a beautiful day,” said a deep voice behind them, and Will whipped around so quickly that he heard his neck pop. He knew that voice—Garren. He was standing only a few paces behind them, with two very large men on either side of him. Will felt a chill run through his body.

“The sun is shining,” Garren continued, “not a cloud in the sky, the birds are singing…and the Blackmane family has decided to spend the day at the river.”

Something about the way Garren said “family” made Will leap to his feet. “Where are our children?” he snarled, his hands curling into fists. Fear shot through him with an electric jolt. Clare rose warily beside him but said nothing.

“Children?” Garren asked in mock confusion. “Do you mean…oh, these children?” He held out one hand, palm up, and Will felt a sensation akin to his innards suddenly falling out of his body. Garren was holding three small fingers that ended in red stumps; little trails of crimson stained his skin as they rolled across his palm. “I found three children playing just around the bend there,” Garren explained, as though telling a mildly interesting tale to an old friend.

“You…” Will whispered, but his throat closed involuntarily. His teeth clenched together and the muscles in his neck bulged. He could hear Clare sobbing beside him, but it seemed far away, almost unreal.

He charged at Garren like a raging bull, hands outstretched to choke the life out of the man. Will had forgotten about the strongmen, but a fist to his gut instantly reminded him. The wind rushed forcefully out of his lungs, and the blow lifted him into the air for an instant before he fell coughing and gagging to his knees, doubled over with his arms around his middle. “Stop!” Clare screamed, and he felt her arms go protectively around his shoulders. “Please stop!”

“No,” Garren mused, “no, I don’t think so.” Will lifted his gaze just in time to see Garren point at Clare with his chin. “Grab her,” he said. “We might as well get something out of this mess.”

“No!” Clare screamed, her voice filled with panic, and she scrambled away as the four men made for her. Will, summoning every ounce of strength he had, forced himself to his feet and lunged for the closest one. The bodyguard casually backhanded him, sending Will stumbling away, and followed the slap with a fist to the jaw. Stars twinkled in front of Will’s eyes, and he tasted blood. Somewhere along the way he had managed to land flat on his back, and now he was staring up at the blue summer sky through a ring of trees. He tried to move his jaw; pain lanced from his head all the way down to his shoulder. Broken, he thought absently.

Clare’s screaming instantly cleared the fog from his mind, and he rolled over and pushed himself to his feet. The dream came rushing back to him unbidden, and he realized with horror that the terrible premonitions were about to come true: Clare was going to die. His Clare. The Clare he loved more than life itself.

And he could do nothing to stop it.

He raised his head and saw his nightmare laid out before him with crystalline clarity. One of the big men was holding Clare’s hands behind her back, and her face was pressed into the ground. Her violet eyes were filled with primal, animalistic fear, and Will felt his heart fall out of his chest as she caught his gaze. He made to stand, to go to her, to do anything—but once again, a meaty fist crashed into his face, this time caving in his cheekbone. The pain was so intense now that he felt almost numb to it, and it was with a detached sense of wonder that he noticed how his vision was now slanted downward and to the left on one side. Distantly, he felt iron hands holding him immobile.

It was when they tore her dress apart that his vapid mind received yet another jolt, and he writhed and screamed like a caged animal, struggling furiously against the implacable grip of his captor. He saw everything, wishing desperately to look away and yet unable to, held as he was by her violet gaze as they ravaged her again and again. And when they had finally finished taking their pleasure Garren pulled a dagger from his hip. Will screamed something incoherent, screamed so loud that his throat seized and he could scream no longer, and then fell limp, sobbing uncontrollably when Garren plunged the blade into Clare’s back.

She let out a little gasp of surprise, and her eyes widened for a tick of the clock. The dagger had punctured her lung, and when she coughed little bright-red flecks of blood dotted her lips. Garren stabbed her once more, the motion almost dismissive, and then got to his feet. Clare’s head lay on the grass, her eyes half-open but seeing nothing. She let out one last little breath, nearly imperceptible amid the birdsong and river thunder, and then she was silent.

And with a gasp and a start, Will woke up.