Hello My Dearest Readers! With the excitement of A Trial of Petal and Poison coming soon, I wanted to start sharing with you Praetorian Rising for a little teaser. Enjoy the first two chapters of Praetorian Rising, and welcome to the Rogue Rebellion!
My heart shall love,
My sword protect,
My courage remain,
My strength withstand,
I serve you Ma’Nada.
With every breath,
I praise the day,
We embrace again as equals,
In the great halls of Cydonia.
Wind whistled through the dense overgrowth of Dun L’er Forest, a high-pitched whir of warning dogging his every step. The rustling maple and stark pine trees hunched like ghostly sentinels, the foggy fingers of breaking dawn stretching toward him as he ran. They were watching him, the ancient eyes of the forest, their aged and weathered limbs creaking against the pressured air. They would hold his secrets in their entombed silence, but the gods knew what he’d done.
Panic slipped down Vesyon’s spine, a rivulet of ice pushing his legs to move ever faster. There was no going back now, the deed was done. He had her. They had escaped.
“We’re almost there,” he whispered as he readjusted the precious form cradled in his arms. Tucking away the young woman’s brilliant tumble of red hair beneath the dense fur of his cloak, he pushed through a bramble bush as he continued south toward Sierra Village. Thankfully, the beasts tracking him had lost his scent miles behind his current location. He no longer heard the crash of paw on his heels. Despite the small reprieve, he kept moving. One could never hide from the High Court for long within the depths of Aspera. The eyes of the crown stretched far and wide.
As he pressed into the barrier lines of Sierra Village, Vesyon was vividly aware of the dangers that came with anyone seeing the young woman tucked into his arms. Thankfully his destination wasn’t far—just beyond the forest’s edge—but he could never be too careful.
Her breath was warm against the crook of his neck, a slow and steady reminder of the depth of her induced sleep. He was grateful for it, wishing she could remain in a peaceful swirl of dreams instead of waking into the harsh reality of her impending future.
A mysterious and silent creature followed him in quick pursuit, dodging between bush and boulder to keep pace with Vesyon’s steady gait through the dense forest terrain. Short tufts of black and brown fur camouflaged the creature’s every move, allowing him to accomplish his task of the silent companion with pristine perfection. After so many years together, Vesyon couldn’t help but think of his small feline friend, Neeko, as one of his closest confidantes.
Up ahead, past the battered wooden fence skirting Sierra Village, he saw a dulled lamp light flickering wildly in the grey of early morning. The orange glow of electricity was like a beacon perched on top of a well-weathered cabin. He hurried toward the sagging walls and ancient, slatted roof with eager anticipation.
An elderly man with a grizzled grey beard stepped out of a low-slung doorway, intrigue and growing curiosity spilling across his creased face. His milky blue eyes and the weight of age contrasted the sharp edges of Vesyon’s youthful appearance.
“It’s been a long time, my dear friend,” the man, Peter Schroder, remarked with a mischievous grin. “I’m surprised the guards let you sneak by.” His anxious gaze swept over the deserted village grounds, his caterpillar brows furrowing into a single line. The cracked skin of Vesyon’s lips stretched wide with affection as Peter caressed the dagger hidden in his waistband like a cherished friend. Being the town butcher had its positives for Peter; no one questioned his love of sharp blades.
“Too long,” Vesyon replied in earnest agreement, readjusting his hold on the sleeping woman as he ducked through the cabin’s doorway.
A flicker of shocked bewilderment crossed Peter’s face as he glared at Vesyon’s precious bundle. Would the girl remember the old man? Or dismiss him as a stranger? Vesyon couldn’t be sure. His eyes traversed the broad lines of the man’s face with grave worry, not wanting to throw his old friend into the storm of chaos she would invoke, yet knowing he had few other options.
“You weren’t followed?” Peter asked although he knew the answer. Vesyon wouldn’t be in his home if he’d been tracked. It didn’t mean they were safe, only that they had a little time to discuss details. Vesyon shook his head before setting the young sleeping woman down on the fire-warmed hearth and wrapping fur blankets securely around her shoulders.
The old man’s living quarters were nothing more than a single room: kitchen, living room, and bedroom, all scarcely lit by a swinging bulb over the kitchen table and the glowing fire in the corner. Electricity was a luxury in the rundown villages of Aspera, but Sierra Village made do with what it had. Aside from the electric icebox in his butchery, Peter kept his home largely stripped of those technological advancements the wealthier villagers possessed. The old man wasn’t one for fancy. He had a simple and functioning home and it was a welcoming stop after Vesyon’s long, brutal journey through the wilderness of Aspera.
Above their heads, through the latticework, was an attic large enough for Peter’s eight-year-old grandson. Young Lunci’s soft snores drifted down to Vesyon’s sensitive ears pushing a momentary smile across his stern features. Despite Vesyon’s impromptu appearance, the kid slept through the commotion, for which Vesyon was grateful. The details he was about to unload onto Peter wouldn’t be well-suited for a young boy’s mind.
“You really shouldn’t be here,” Peter said, his tone strained yet friendly. Trespassers weren’t welcome in the village, and Vesyon knew the consequences of being caught inside the grounds by the wrong person.
“I had little choice as my message relayed to you,” he replied smoothly. Which was almost true, but he wasn’t ready to think over the details of his decision. Few were trusted by Vesyon, and Peter was a hardened man through experience, but his wide-open heart offered unending compassion for those without a leg to stand on. Leaving the girl in Peter’s hands was the safest choice imaginable.
Peter’s lips parted, his features laced with hesitation. Nodding at the sleeping girl, he asked, “You really think she’s ready for this? For what position you’re about to put her in?”
It was a substantial question. Vesyon wasn’t sure of the answer himself. He sat down on a wicker stool, pulling the heavy fur cloak from his shoulders. The heat billowing from the hearth felt good. He closed his eyes for a moment of peace within the comfort of warmth.
Removing a rusted poker from its hook on the wall, Peter shuffled the coals in the hearth with quick, sharp stabs, stoking the smoldering wood into a soft flame. A smile curled the corners of Vesyon’s lips as he observed Peter through the hooded sweep of his sooty lashes. Despite the frailty implied by age-spotted hands and knobby knuckles, the man held his own.
Approving of his freshly stoked fire, Peter nodded once before grabbing a plate of meat slices from the kitchen table and offering them to Vesyon. Politely declining, Vesyon finally replied, “I have no idea.”
Pulling a worn pipe from his cloak, Vesyon opened a thin canvas bag filled with the dried leaves of his favorite tobacco. He carefully pressed the delicate bits into the pipe’s mouth and stared into the dancing flame in the hearth with a sense of momentary calm that he knew wouldn’t last. The second he walked out the door, the chaos would consume him again. It was only a few minute’s reprieve—a moment to catch his breath—he told himself even as his legs twitched to be on the move again.
“LeMarc had her locked in his dungeon for the past seven years,” Vesyon said, his voice tinged with a hint of vexation as he pulled a knife and flint stone from his pocket.
He ignored Peter’s stern glare at the disrespectful use of the High King’s first name. Vesyon would never think of LeMarc Lowenhaar as a king, let alone the High King of Aspera. The man was a deceitful, power-hungry monster. Vesyon saw no reason to show the man any sort of respect, whether in his presence or not.
“We honestly can’t be certain of anything.” Vesyon lit his pipe and puffed three times in quick succession to catch flame on the dried leaves. The sweet tang of tobacco smoke filled Vesyon’s lungs, and he sighed in relief at the tingling sensation buzzing through his veins as he exhaled.
Peter’s gaze shifted to the bundle of fur by the hearth and landed on the heavy brown boots poking out the bottom. “She looks so fragile. Is there no other option? No one else?”
Vesyon studied the girl’s delicate features bronzed by the glow of the fire. Peter was right; despite her age, she looked too young and innocent for battle. She was someone he’d give his life for; Vesyon hated knowing what she was about to endure. “She’s all we have. Our rebellion can’t wait a second longer—she must be prepared.”
“How long will she be here?” Peter whispered, pulling the fur blankets more securely around the young woman. Bitter fall air seeped through a cracked windowpane, and Peter shivered. Vesyon wondered if it was from the weather or the burden he’d just heaped onto the old man’s shoulders. “It’s going to take time to assess how destructive her induced amnesia is. From what Langhorn expressed to me, she might not remember anything at all.”
Vesyon’s upper lip twitched at Peter’s probing words, a subtle tic of the displeasure he tried to hide. Hopefully, Langhorn had succeeded in obliterating everything the girl had endured over the last seven years. If she was lucky, she’d wake up without recalling the smallest detail of her life before that point. It was cruel to rip away someone’s identity, but they’d had no choice. If even an inkling of her memories survived, they’d all pay for the horrible atrocities inflicted on her mind, body, and soul while she’d been locked inside LeMarc’s torture chamber.
Peter’s eyes studied Vesyon’s unshaven face before he lowered his creaky body onto the stool near the fireplace. Bones snapped and popped as he settled into the sagging wicker, reminding Vesyon of the extreme fragility most Asperians developed from lack of proper nutrients over the years. He winced with barely concealed worry, but thankfully Peter didn’t notice.
“Tea?” the older man asked, pushing a heavy blackened pot into the heat.
Vesyon nodded, knowing he should leave, but not wanting to be rude or end this rare feeling of comfort. He had asked Peter for an incredible favor. He owed the elderly man a moment of company despite his growing urgency to leave. No one knew he was here; he had time to drink a cup of tea—but only one.
“Do you have an idea of where the High King is?” Peter asked as he handed Vesyon a steaming cup of lavender tea.
Vesyon blew across the rim of the dingy grey mug, watching tendrils of steam curl into the bitter air and disperse like mysterious ghosts. “I don’t have a clue,” he replied. “Metus—”
“The King Regent,” Peter corrected sharply.
“Yes,” Vesyon replied, trying to hide the smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. Peter hated the High King and the King Regent as much as anyone else involved with the rebellion, but he believed in respecting the titles of those in power, and Vesyon wasn’t one to press that button too hard. “He’s still managing the throne and has been since the Praetorian Exile. However, I don’t believe for a second that LeMa—the High King—” Vesyon corrected, “is idly sitting by. His absence is worrisome, but more than that, his complete silence over the last seven years proves Langhorn right. The High King is up to something of grand proportions, and I want to ensure I’m ready when he lays out his cards.”
Glancing out the frost-riddled window, Vesyon smiled with genuine affection at Neeko, perched like a sentinel on the windowsill, his mouth full of fresh forest mice. Beyond the cat’s silhouette, thick clouds were rolling in over the forest canopy. A storm was coming, and it was time to leave. He still had so much to do, and not nearly enough time to do it.
Tipping his mug up, Vesyon took a hefty gulp and almost choked as the scorching heat burned its way down his throat to his belly. He grunted in mild discomfort, prompting an arched brow of bemusement from Peter, but Vesyon waved him off and blew more intently on his tea. “I can’t thank you enough for this Peter. I have no possible way to repay you for taking care of her.”
Peter shook his head, a tender grin running over his lips. “Consider it a payment repaid to a dear friend—one very much deserved, mind you.”
Vesyon opened his mouth to protest, but Peter raised a withered hand to ward off even the smallest objection. “I have always hated being in debt to favors, especially when it comes to friends. As I see it now, watching over her is a small contribution toward what you have given me these past years. If my wife were here, or my daughter,” Peter said, tears glistening at the corners of his eye, “they would say the same.”
A zing of guilt struck deep in Vesyon’s chest. Peter’s beloved family hadn’t escaped the slaughter. Behind closed eyes, their hollowed faces appeared, thick red blood streaming from the gashes in their throats, their twin bodies slumped on the ground, lifeless. Vesyon disagreed with Peter. The man was giving far more than Vesyon had ever returned.
Sipping his only moderately scalding tea, Vesyon’s gaze drifted back to the young woman’s face. “Knowing she’ll be with Neeko and you puts my mind at ease.”
Peter chuckled, his milky eyes twinkling with mirth. “I might bore that poor cat to tears in this village. The most exciting adventure he’ll have is chasing down a rat. Are you sure he is actually willing to stay?”
“Willing is a strong word.” Vesyon eyed Neeko perched at the window, his stoic haunches barely twitching in the bitter rush of wind snaking down the mountain and through the village grounds. He would miss the little fur ball, but it was the only protection he could provide that would remain at Camille’s side. In the coming moon cycles, she would need security and companionship. With a slight smirk Vesyon dumped the ashes from his pipe into the dwindling flames of the fire. “He’ll stick by her though, and that’s what she’ll need.”
“Well, as far as Count Jenkin is aware, I have a distant relative staying with me until further notice. He’ll meet her as soon as she acclimates to the village. I don’t expect a warm welcome,” Peter said with a slight frown. Pretending the woman was a distant relative of Peter was the only way to ensure the villagers wouldn’t shun or forcibly remove her. Sierra Village wasn’t in the practice of being hospitable to strange folk, and despite every excuse Vesyon had fed himself to keep Camille close at hand, this was ultimately the best plan of action. “But they will accept her well enough,” Peter assured, assessing Vesyon’s pinched expression with obvious concern.
“She’s with you Peter. She’s in good hands. Teach her everything you know about hunting, trapping, and tracking. She’ll be a bit rusty when she wakes.”
Peter nodded. “Any idea when you’ll come back for her?” he asked, taking the half-empty teacup from Vesyon and placing it on the bare kitchen table with a subtle ‘clink.’ As the flames in the hearth stretched out their last arms in a dance of withering energy, Vesyon packed away his pipe and tobacco pouch before shrugging into his heavy, fur-lined cloak.
“You have twelve moon cycles. I will come for her then,” he said. Their eyes met, and they grasped each other’s hand in farewell. Peter’s shake was firm, but Vesyon felt the tremble beneath the steel exterior. Vesyon plucked the heavy iron pistol from his belt and placed it on the rickety table beside the door. The smell of gunpowder singed the lining of his nostrils, sharp and bitter, and recognizable to any warrior.
Peter eyed the weapon warily. “Is that necessary?”
“Just in case,” Vesyon said with a final glance at the young woman shrouded in fur blankets. “I’ve given you two bullets. It’s all I have left. Hopefully, it’s enough for you and Lunci if our plan turns south.”
A heavy silence descended. No words were necessary. Peter understood the weight of his role in Vesyon’s plan, as well as the consequences. There was no other route, no other option. They had one path: forward.
Peter nodded. “She’ll be ready.”
“Keep her safe, Peter; keep her hidden from the High Court. No one must know she’s here.”
Peter stared at him, his wild caterpillar eyebrows dipping over squinted blue triangles before consenting with a curt nod.
“I need to get back to Romeo Village before the High Court realizes what I took from them—I can’t leave Phillip alone with the mess they’re in right now. The poor man hasn’t yet recovered from what happened in Charlie Town.”
Peter raised an impatient hand. “I know. No need to explain.”
With a quick nod of appreciation, Vesyon ducked out the wooden door and disappeared into the dark forest, not once looking back.
The woman’s eyes fluttered open, and she shied away from the intruding light and heat that assaulted her fragile senses. She couldn’t place her location, and her back ached with stiffness as though she hadn’t moved in ages.
“Awake, are you? It’s about time. You’ve been sleeping for days.”
The woman sought the source of the voice: an old, scruffy man perched close to the glowing hearth. She didn’t consciously snap to attention or shove the fur blankets to the floor. She didn’t feel the blade’s smooth wooden handle as she yanked it from the old man’s belt and didn’t hesitate to angle the freshly sharpened metal against his throat.
“Where am I?” she croaked, her throat raw as if scratched with sandpaper. It felt like she hadn’t spoken in years. But that couldn’t be right, she’d just been—she paused. She couldn’t remember where she’d last been. “Who are you and what do you want with me?”
“I’m a friend, and I want nothing but to keep you safe,” the old man said carefully, holding himself stiffly against the blade. “Do you remember how you got here?”
“No,” she snapped in sharp frustration. “Where am I?”
“Sierra Village. In my home,” the old man said, keeping his eyes locked on hers. “Hungry? I can make you something.” He gestured to the kitchen area, but she refused to look anywhere but at his face while deciding whether he was lying or not.
Keeping him in sight, she surveyed the small room, noting small knick-knacks, a wooden bowl filled with overly ripened apples, and a bedframe near the hearth with a feather mattress and an aged brown quilt. It wasn’t a prison or holding cell. It was the old man’s home—and a cozy one at that. A small, iron kettle hung over glowing coals, probably boiling water for tea. The comforting aroma of fresh rye bread wafted from the pantry and the scent of smoked turkey wrapped in salted bindings made her mouth water. She briefly eyed the nearby electric icebox. Her stomach growled.
Scowling stubbornly, she retorted, “I want answers. I don’t need your food.”
“It would seem your stomach says otherwise. I’m not a threat, child. I’m here to help you.”
The woman pressed the knife harder against his skin. “‘Help me?’ You want to help me? Then give me answers!”
He stared at her blankly, and she seethed.
“Who are you?” the woman shouted wildly, body shaking in terror. “Help me by telling me who you are!”
“I won’t hurt you,” he said, raising his hands in a show of peace. “My bones are far too old and fragile.” The woman remained steadfast, blade to his throat, and the old man chuckled. “My name is Peter Schroder and you’ve been in my care for a week. You won’t remember me, but we have met before.”
His features twitched, and she sensed a deep sadness emanating from his entire being as he spoke. Their last meeting hadn’t been a pleasant one, it seemed.
“Where? How do you know me? When did you last see me? When?!” The woman’s words tumbled out in rapid fire, but Peter remained calm and collected.
“I don’t have all the answers to your questions, child. But I promise you’re safe in my care.”
His response failed to temper her racing heart, but she removed the blade and stepped back. She remembered nothing about herself, not even her own name. Where had she been born? Who were her parents, and where were they? This man wasn’t familiar in any way.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, sitting on the bed and placing the knife beside her. She gathered the furs that had pooled around her worn leather boots and pulled them tightly around her shoulders, shaking her head. She’d smelled that knife, its hard steel tang, before visually locating it on Peter’s belt. She’d identified every entrance and possible exit in the tiny home before her fingers had even reached the blade—they amounted to four if she counted the little window above her head. She even heard the soft rush of breath from a sleeping child overhead in a makeshift bedroom loft—all of these skills, and yet she couldn’t recall anything before the moment she’d opened her eyes.
Peter appeared to understand her fright and confusion and busied himself with stoking the fire into a decent flame as she angrily wiped moisture from her eyes. “Your name is Camille Scipio,” he said, “and you were brought to me eight nights ago by a close friend. I’m to care for you until he returns.”
“Cam-EE-ill,” she said, rolling the syllables of her first name around her tongue but feeling no familiarity.
“I have no doubt you’re wary of your surroundings right now, but in due time, things will come back to you,” Peter added with a small smile.
Camille looked up at him with curious, searching eyes, before staring at the skinny black and brown cat by her feet. “That’s all you have to say?” Camille asked, furtively reaching down to scratch the cat’s furry head.
How curious, she thought with each stroke, that this cat’s presence makes me feel—calmer.
“I’m afraid so. I’m to care for you until it’s no longer needed. That’s all I know.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything,” Camille countered. “Who left me here? You said it was a ‘friend.’ Who are they, and how do they know me?” Her bottom lip poked out with indignant frustration as she turned an icy glare on the man, hoping it would force loose a sliver of information. The man was like a new gravestone, unyielding and aloof, hiding the depth of its secrets far beneath the surface.
“I can’t say any more, child. I apologize. But I can assure you that you’re safe and most welcome in my home,” Peter said, moving slowly to pour Camille a steaming cup of tea.
She accepted the chipped stone-ware mug and sniffed at the purple-tinged liquid inside. It smelled flowery. “What’s this? Some sort of draught to knock me out?” Her stomach gurgled again in a desperate plea that she indulge despite her misgivings.
Peter glanced at her with a comical expression. “It’s just a cup of lavender tea.”
Camille couldn’t muster the energy to question him further. Sudden heaviness weighted her eyelids, dragging her down with more insistence than her stomach’s hunger pangs. She sipped the warm liquid that tasted of lavender and mint and set the cup down as the cat jumped up beside her. Petting the cat as he cuddled against her hip, Camille slid down on the flat feather pillow and drifted back into a heavy sleep.
The wind picked up, whipping against the ancient trees of the Dun L’er Forest like a hungry monster, every branch alive in the dance of early Fall. Despite the pounding sense of danger riding every wind wisp, Peter was relieved. The uprising was finally underway—a whisper of reckless abandon hummed through the bitter air—and this time they’d be ready.
Peter shuffled from the kitchen counter to the whistling kettle to pour himself a fresh cup of tea before he settled down across from the sleeping Camille with a plate of turkey and cheese. Neeko was curled into a ball against her stomach, purring contently. The pair of them appeared at ease in slumber, short-lived but much needed. It had been so long since he’d last seen her, but even to his old and frail eyes she hadn’t changed in the least.
He recalled the first time he’d seen her face, seven years before on a night chilled by the oncoming of winter. Her eyes had blazed a deadly black, and her entire body had been slathered in blood—she’d worn it like a token of achievement.
He should fear having her there after witnessing what she’d done to the ones he loved. Almost his entire family had been slaughtered right before his eyes, one after the next, in swift slashes of metal. Whoever hadn’t escaped his village when she’d arrived had died—yet she’d left him and his grandson untouched. Not a word had been expressed, not a single sound had crossed her lips, as she stared down at them, eyes ablaze with ballistic rage, before she turned and walked away.
He didn’t know then, or now, why she’d kept them alive, but it was enough of a reason to allow her into his home. Peter believed Vesyon—Camille was the key to their rebellion, and her past was not a reflection of who she was, but what she was capable of being. Aspera had suffered enough under the strong arm of the High King. Allowing this woman to sleep under his own roof was the least he could do to aid the rebellion if it kept their weapon safe from the High Court’s greedy fingers.
He’d made a promise to Vesyon, an honest vow to keep her protected and hidden no matter the consequences. Despite the truth of his word to lay down his life to protect Camille, his grandfatherly worry for the small child sleeping above their heads prickled at his conscience. But, without her help in the rebel movement, Aspera would fall, and there’d be nothing left to fight for: no viable future for his grandson, Lunci.
“Please, Mother Ma’Nada, giver of life and protector of this land—please guard my family against evil,” Peter whispered as he brought his palms together before his chest. He repeated the prayer over and over again, his words a steady stream of faith and devotion. The Mother Ma’Nada, though fierce and powerful in the many stories of his faith, had always bestowed good fortune on Peter. The loving goddess had never abandoned him through his many battles, and he held tight to his faith with white-knuckled determination.
The storm began its rhythmic song as the wind whistled through the empty grounds of Sierra Village, picking up speed and rattling the fragile windowpanes in Peter’s kitchen. His eyes flicked back over to where Camille slept, her vivid red hair cascading over her shoulders in wild curls. Though he couldn’t see them now, he’d been utterly surprised earlier to learn she possessed green irises identical to her mother’s. She looked so much like a normal girl of seventeen: lithe and gawky, with muscled biceps, curls that flowed halfway down her back, and a spray of freckles over her petite nose—but he knew better.
She was their only weapon against High King LeMarc. But, if she failed to learn to control the monster living inside her, no one would be able to survive her next explosion.
“Ad Astra per Aspera,” he whispered, sipping his tea. “To the stars through difficulty, Camille.”
Hide and seek
Eleven moons later…
The sun hung low in the distant clouds, the branches above Camille’s head heavy with the multicolored leaves of early Fall. Camille was easily concealed behind an ancient trunk covered in sickly grey moss, yet her heart pounded all the same. A small, piercing ache to broke between her lungs. How long had she been running for this time? She heard soft steps closing in on her and knew her hiding spot wouldn’t last long. A twig snapped in the distance and her stomach twisted; it was time to relocate.
She could smell the tangy scent of his sweat; he was beginning to tire, but his footsteps were nearing. She racked her brain for a plan as she pressed aside a wayward branch, crouching in a hunting stance.
Her instincts told her to act first and think on her feet, and that innate, animalistic sense of battle preparation still startled her. How did she know these things? The storm flowing in over the Iron Mountains visible just north between the treetops and the valley twenty feet to the west had a fourteen-degree downward slope. Slight, yes—but enough to enhance her speed by fifteen percent if she really pushed herself. She never could figure out how she was able to make these automatic calculations, but they were useful in her hunting process nonetheless. Mainly when she was the one being hunted.
Camille leaped from her temporary sanctuary and dove toward the heavy brush five feet to her left, swiftly running down the sloping valley deeper into the woods. She heard his soft footfalls turn to heavy thudding as he crashed through the dense forest, speeding like a raging bull in her direction.
Ducking behind another large aspen trunk, Camille held her breath, forcing herself to remain silent as she dug her nails into the thick tree bark. She heard the assailant stop just behind her new hiding spot, and her heart slammed against the confines of her ribs.
Camille closed her eyes and prayed the forest would grant her a reprieve; that some branch might fall to the earth and create a diversion, or some bird might fly past so she could sneak away.
“Ah ha!” the little boy screamed as he jumped around the wide tree trunk followed by a mewling Neeko. “That’s three for me. I found you in less than forty minutes this time,and without any help from my handy hunting partner,” Lunci exclaimed happily, before performing a little victory dance.
“You are a worthy opponent in this game of hide-and-seek,” Camille said, unable to restrain the enormous smile streaking across her face. They’d been playing all day, and still, he wasn’t tired of it. Nor was she, in all honesty. Camille loved the moments she shared with Lunci, even though she was almost ten years his senior. He reminded her of what it was like to be a kid again, and considering she couldn’t remember her own childhood, Camille welcomed the chance to live vicariously through Lunci whenever possible.
Lunci was unusual for a nine-year-old. He never wanted to hunt with boys his own age, and girls who glanced at him with innocent flirtation received nothing more than a sweet smile and a passing glance. Peter passed it off as nothing more than a young state of mind, but as much as Camille loved Lunci’s penchant for fun, she felt his childlike demeanor stemmed from something deeper; perhaps even something traumatic.
“Round four?” Lunci asked with a grin, one that Camille knew would disappear when she informed him it was getting too late to play in the deepness of the forest they’d migrated to.
Although they were still within the gated confines of Sierra Village, they were far enough away to cause Peter to worry. “It’s getting pretty late there, mister. I think we should start heading back. Your grandfather will have my head if I keep you in the forest past sundown.”
“Awww—come on!” Lunci whined. She feigned toying with the idea of refusing him, loving the way he stamped his feet and kept repeating, “Please, please, please!” with his hands clasped.
“Okay, one last time. But after that we are going home,” Camille said sternly, making a mental note to pick a secure hiding spot that was within sight of the village grounds. Lunci broke out into another little jig before slumping to the ground, hands over his eyes as he began to count backward from thirty.
She ran a medium distance away, making sure to keep Lunci within earshot, taking heavy steps so he could detect her path more easily. She never dared go too far from him and held her hunting knife with her just in case any real predators decided to join the game. Despite the fact it was her day off from hunting, Camille wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring fresh game home for Peter to sell.
“All right, ready or not, here I come!” Lunci yelled into the thick foliage.
Camille smiled when she heard him rustle through the same bush she’d just passed a few moments earlier. He usually spent a few moments trying to decide which direction she’d gone in, but apparently, he’d conveniently forgotten to close his eyes this time. She took extreme pride in his growing abilities to track prey. It was a small lesson she carefully explained over their months of weekly playtime, but she would let this little cheat slide under the radar.
Camille made a quiet trek back up the sloping valley toward Sierra Village, ensuring she heard Lunci’s footsteps close behind her. Her stomach growled at the idea of dinner filling her to near-bursting, but tonight’s offering would only be a small plate of food despite the fact she lived with the village butcher.
It was two days before the Moon Tax was due, and only the wealthy didn’t dread the offering. The rest of the village scrounged for food to meet the High Court’s demands, but luckily Camille’s hunting skills and market trades kept Peter’s table filled through most of the month.
At the end of every moon cycle the buffoon Grenswald, a foul-mouthed, grubby man thicker than he was tall, came to town in a cloud of stale whiskey and body odor. He would barrel his way from door to door, collecting items he deemed “presentable” to the High King’s court. Even though Camille had only lived in Sierra Village for a year, she clearly understood what it meant to hate the High King, his cruel Moon Tax, and the disgusting people he kept readily at his beck and call to maintain total sovereignty.
Camille led Lunci further up the hill toward the heart of the village, snapping twigs and rustling leaves as she did so. Ducking around a relatively large boulder and scurrying through a thick bush, she hid, waiting for Lunci to reach her spot. She hunched down and slowed her breath to an inaudible pace, but after a few moments realized she no longer heard Lunci in the distance.
Her stomach clenched, a searing jolt of panic zipping through her system at the sudden silence of her surroundings. What if Lunci was hurt? Would she have heard Lunci if he screamed? Camille bounded out of the underbrush and still heard nothing but her own ragged breaths—not even a distant bird call. Something was wrong. She felt the unleashed gallop of her heart pounding out a thunderous tempo inside her chest. Usually, Neeko would bounce back and forth between her and Lunci, his tracking senses far superior to any human’s. But she didn’t even see his bushy black tail anywhere amongst the darkening forest terrain.
No need to panic, she reminded herself, trying to calm the erratic burst of fear crashing through her body. Last week, Lunci had gotten distracted by a small family of squirrels in the trees, but Camille had been high up on the hill and observed him the entire time. This was different. She couldn’t hear him at all, couldn’t see him, and the forest’s ever-present cacophony of twitters had stilled.
The eerie silence cut into her calm reserve, grating against her skin with unrelenting harshness, and just like when she slipped into hunting mode, a tingling, unnatural heat grew beneath her eye sockets.
She grasped her hunting knife tightly before racing back through the forest along the path she’d just taken. This time she was silent, shifting through the damp leaves and twigs beneath her feet without the slightest sound. In the distance were heavy footfalls pounding against the earth directly north of where she’d last heard Lunci.
“Please don’t be hurt; please be ok,” she whispered on repeat under her breath as she moved. There was no way she would allow the what ifs to cloud her focus. Lunci had to be ok, she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if anything happened to him.
Rounding a tree she’d passed earlier, Camille stopped dead in her tracks to listen. She heard distant voices from the village, a subtle hum of wind whistling through the trees, but no sign of the boy.
“Lunci?” Camille said evenly, trying to keep her voice neutral. “Lunci, it’s time to get home now.” Nothing.
“Lunci! Neeko!” Camille repeated, not caring any longer whether she sounded worried.
What if he was on the ground bleeding from an attack? What if she’d overestimated her ability to keep him protected from such a distance?
An internal flood of dread permeated her system making it almost impossible to think—and that’s when she saw them through a thick bramble bush: heavy-lidded, blood-red eyes the size of her fists and oddly human in appearance.
Fear invaded her senses, leaving her frozen on the spot. She’d heard of a shadow beast, a monster roaming Aspera in the dead of night: The Chimera.
Soft footsteps came treading up the path behind her, and Camille’s back went rigid; Lunci had found her.
“Lunci! Don’t come any closer,” she instructed, keeping her focus on the stark red eyes. Her tear ducts began to water in her desperation to keep the red eyes in sight, but the moment she blinked, the gleaming red stare was gone. She held stiff and silent, counting the seconds before the monster decided to attack.
“A little jumpy there, sweetheart?”
Camille leaped a foot in the air as a sultry voice assaulted her tender, overly aware ears. Whipping around with her knife at the ready, she careened off-focus when she located the man who’d addressed her. “Who are you?”
Leaning against an ancient tree, arms casually folded across his chest, stood a young man not much older than she. Blonde wavy hair fell back from his angular face, with both sides shaved and the top left long. The man dragged a hand through his thick strands, gaze never leaving her. His irises were the strangest hue Camille had ever seen: a bleached blue, almost devoid of color; like the bright tinge of the sky at high noon.
“Well hello to you too,” he responded, pushing away from the trunk to saunter closer, a broad grin spanning his face. He glanced at the dagger she still held and chuckled. “You thinking of stabbing me? Or do I get a proper hello?”
Camille kept the knife raised, a slight tremor in her hand. “Stay back stranger, who are you?”
She fought to keep the raging monster coiling inside her from surging to the forefront. She’d spent the past eleven moons working to keep her inner beast on a tight leash. It had taken several moon cycles living under Peter’s roof to understand that her wild range of emotions didn’t have a specified direction or focus. When she was happy, she was ecstatic; when Camille was annoyed, she became unreachable; fear turned into unimaginable terror, and anger transformed into explosive fury. Nothing was at equilibrium within Camille, raging out of control at the tiniest shift.
The stranger’s brows knit together with apparent confusion, his lips pursing in contemplation. “Do you not recognize me?” he asked softly, all form of humor dissipating.
“No,” Camille snapped. “Should I?”
“How long have you lived in this village?” he said, ignoring her question.
“That’s none of your business.”
He shook his head. “Can’t have been more than a few months; maybe a year. Sweet Mother Ma’Nada, I can’t believe it. It is you, Camille?”
How does he know my name? Camille narrowed her eyes, taking in his appearance. She noticed three hefty throwing daggers and a short-nosed sword with an ample blade. His clothes were well-fitted and made for travel; a loose cotton shirt and black vest were layered beneath a brown leather coat, and black pants tucked into dirty black leather boots. She could smell the bag of coin hanging on his hip filled with copper duggars, silver rubles, and golden gilders—enough money to buy a year’s worth of food for Peter and Lunci.
“Who are you?” Camille insisted, glancing around for any sign of the boy.
“A drifter. I have no name,” he said sarcastically, flinging his arms out like he was presenting himself to the royal court.
“What do people call you then?” Camille retorted.
He smiled. “You can call me anything you like, sweetheart.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively at her, drawing closer.
“What are you doing in my woods then, Drifter? And how do you know who I am?” Camille asked, instinctively stepping back. She continued to scan the forest in a slight panic, still unable to detect Lunci or Neeko nearby.
“Your woods?” he said, the corners of his lips quirking. He was annoyingly easy to look at, and Camille found it very distracting. His left cheek boasted a soft dimple with every smirk and smile—an uneven flaw in most but endearing on him. “I didn’t realize these trees were spoken for.”
“You’re in Sierra Village. You aren’t one of us. So, who are you? And how did you get past the guard tower?”
“Your ‘guards’ are quite seriously the most moronic Asperians I’ve ever seen. Those lazy bastards wouldn’t know how to guard their dinner against a pack of puppies, let alone an entire village against a Chimera attack. I mean, honestly,” the drifter continued, ignoring Camille’s incredulous expression as he took another step toward her. “Now—are you planning on putting down that little toy of yours?”
“No!” Camille shot back, lifting her dagger more prominently in front of her. “Not until I know whether you did anything to Lunci.”
“Ah, I see,” the stranger cooed, looking to his right and left in a conspiratorial fashion. “You’re looking for the little blonde boy, yes?”
“If you hurt him, so help me—”
“Whoa, whoa…easy there, sweetheart. He’s fine. The boy’s about fifty yards south of us.” The drifter rubbed at the back of his neck, and Camille was immediately drawn to the flexing of his muscles.
Every facet of the stranger seemed slightly familiar to her: his mannerisms, his movements, his voice. The man’s scent, especially: it was one of oak and pine, soap and musk, and it sent her pulse galloping.
“How do you know where he is?” she growled, trying to keep her anger from building further.
“Ease up Cam, your temper isn’t necessary.”
She felt a pinch embarrassed but wasn’t ready to let down her guard. The stranger seemed to understand this and sighed loudly, his shoulders slipping with apparent perplexity. “Perhaps if you dialed back that temper, you would’ve been able to deduce his location yourself,” he snapped, looking to a spot just over Camille’s shoulder.
Camille didn’t want to glance away from the drifter for even a second, but Lunci’s careless steps were approaching. She took one more step away from the man before spinning to face the rustling leaves on her left.
Lunci broke through the bushes in a childlike gallop. “I got you! Thought you could hide from me, but none can escape the power of the incredible Lunci!”
Lunci leaped at her with careless abandon. Camille twisted away to avoid stabbing him, causing the silver amulet she always kept hidden under her clothing to swing free, pinging loudly against the flat side of the blade.
“What’s wrong?” Lunci rasped, eyes going wide at the sight of the knife.
Neeko picked that moment to join them, a low and menacing hiss escaping his throat as he stared at the spot where the red-eyed beast had been.
Camille whipped about, searching the now-vacant spot where the drifter had stood. “Neeko, do you smell something?” Camille whispered. Neeko hissed in response, the fur bunching up around his neck as his tail swished back and forth.
“Camille, what’s going on?” Lunci’s voice shook as he edged closer to her, looking in the direction Neeko hissed.
“Where were you?” Camille said, grabbing Lunci’s hand as her emerald eyes scanned the bushes for a pair of blood-red ones. She led them quickly around fallen trees and piles of dead leaves, constantly scanning their surroundings as they followed the slope of the hill toward the village.
“Where was I?” Lunci said, sounding confused. “I was looking for you! Why’d you quit hiding?”
Camille didn’t answer. Instead, she continued to drag Lunci toward the safety of the village. As they left the tree line, Camille stole one more glance into the forest edge searching for the truth of what she’d seen. Without warning, Lunci’s hand slipped from her grasp, and the side of her face smacked into a solid, hairy body that reeked of stale fish and week-old perspiration.
Stay tuned for Chapter 3……