Since I’ve been working on this project for Revision Hell, I thought I’d share the opening prologue now that I’ve polished and smoothed it a bit. I’m not one for prologues, usually, but these two sections set up the massive conflict of the entire book. So much foreshadowing lies in wait in these words. Keldar–the world of Survive My Fire and The Fire Within–will truly collide with the Green Lands in this book, bringing the entire story full circle.
Prologue to Return to Shanhasson, book 3 in the Blood & Shadows series.
In a wasteland of blasting sun and endless thirst, the man who’d used a thousand names and lived a thousand lives in Shadow stretched out on his face in blistering sand. Above, a massive twisted spire stabbed the sky. Poisoned waters hissed and bubbled around the tiny island. His inflamed, festering flesh bore testimony to the acidic hatred of this place.
He choked on oven-hot air, his throat and mouth desiccated. After dying countless times, he couldn’t even remember his original name any longer. He’d lost all sense of time and place. He rubbed his thumb against the small twisted iron ring on his pinky finger and shivered despite the baking heat. Soon, he would have a new name, a new body, but his purpose was always the same.
Here in these savage lands of brutal death and endless thirst, the Great Lord didn’t need a sacrifice before He could stretch out His hand to touch and mold the world to His will. They lived His Shadow every single day.
It’s the perfect place for a new beginning.
Lygon–or Yama, as the savages knew Him–moved through his mind. It felt as though rancid oil soaked through every pore and crevice of his body.
WHAT NEWS, MY MOST FAITHFUL SERVANT?
He didn’t try to speak aloud; there was no need. The Great Lord of Shadow could pull any secret thought from a man’s heart without effort. Instead, he let the words ring in his head. :Forgive me, Great Lord, but your son, Theo, the High King of the Green Lands, is dead.:
HERE IN THESE CURSED LANDS, ALL ARE MY SONS.
The ground shook, a merciless groan of laughter forced through the imprisoned earth. Yama might taint the Spire and Venom Lake, but the rest of the Trinity exacted Their punishment on Keldar fiercer than any other land in the world.
Fools, he thought. It was much better to plot according to a God’s will–even the Blackest Heart of Shadow–and live than risk eternal punishment and suffering. However, there was one small catch. He needed a new body, a new life, which only Yama could provide.
I will be Keldari this time.
The thought sent an unaccustomed shiver of dread down his spine. He’d been many men and lived many lives, some more vile than others, but he’d never actually carried a beast within him.
:What would you have me do, Great Lord?:
YOUR PURPOSE HAS NOT CHANGED. I WANT her FILLIES OF THAT CURSED BLOOD EITHER BUTCHERED OR CORRUPTED BY OURS, BUT MOST OF ALL, I WANT A SON TO SOIL THAT SHINING BLOOD WITH MY OWN. I WILL TAINT her LAST DAUGHTER FOR ALL TIME.
HERE IN THESE ENDLESS SANDS, BECOME ONE OF MY SONS AND CORRUPT HER YOURSELF.
Despite the blazing heat and burns on his body, he couldn’t help the shiver from head to toe at the thought. She had never been part of his reward, not directly at least. The Great Lord was jealous of His prizes, and the Last Daughter was the greatest prize of all.
He must be absolutely certain. :You wish me to train one of your Keldari sons to corrupt her?:
NO ONE WILL BREAK HER BETTER THAN YOU. IF YOU ARE WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE, THIS TIME YOU WILL BE REBORN KELDARI.
Something that might have been praise poured through him, although it was blackest night and smelled of rotting flesh. There was no greater reward from the Great Lord. He’d never hoped to be given this last, most important task of all. :I will pay any price to drag her into Your Shadow. What of her barbarian husband?:
Shrieking laughter crashed through his skull like boulders tumbling from the highest mountain. THE HORSE KING WILL NOT LIVE FOREVER. I NEED DO NOTHING TO SPEED HIS DEATH. THE HORSE GOD CALLS HIS SON HOME TO WHINNEY AND CAVORT IN THE CLOUDS, WHILE HIS WOMAN SUFFERS ALONE.
ALONE, UNTIL YOU ARE PREPARED.
:I am ready, Great Lord, to do Your will, no matter how dark, no matter how painful.:
A painful, metallic shriek sliced against stone directly above him. Slowly, he lifted his head, craning his neck to look up at the black rock rising above him. At first, he couldn’t see anything, not in the moonless night. The screeching came again, only feet away. Shards of black glass stabbed his upturned face.
A massive claw seized his shoulder. Talons sank into his flesh, grinding on bone. The beast lifted him off the ground.
Feathers and leathered scales filled the night, a stink of corpses roasting in the desert heat. Red serpentine eyes glowed like burning cinders, searing him with hatred. The beast lowered its head: foul breath in his face, teeth as long as small swords, salvia drizzling on his flesh, hissing and popping like acid.
Yet he didn’t cry out. Pay any price, he’d said, and he meant it.
IN THE LAND OF BURNING SANDS, THIS IS MY FORM. THIS IS MY GIFT TO YOU. LET her SHINING SYMBOL REMIND YOU OF YOUR PURPOSE. WELCOME TO KELDAR, MY MOST FAITHFUL SERVANT.
The dragon opened its jaws wide and closed its mouth over his head. He couldn’t help but scream as the beast devoured him.
He opened his eyes and winced at the brilliant sun making its climb in the sky. So hot, so fierce; he’d never felt the heat of the sun so miserably until he’d come to…
Startled, he jerked upright. A black dragon was sprawled on the sands, already decaying. The smell of roasted meat was thick in his nostrils. A young man hacked beneath the beast’s chin and removed two small dripping sacs. By his baggy trousers, fancy coat and wide-brimmed hat shading his eyes from the miserable heat, he must be a Far Illione trader. Likely a well-to-do son with decent breeding, making a dollar or two for his family, hoping to find a way to escape this hellhole and make his way to court.
How do I know this?
“A foul beast.” The man grimaced. “Prepare the oil, and then I’ll ensure it’s delivered directly to her hands.” He turned, pale eyes sharp as steel. “What’s the matter?”
He blinked at the other man, trying to decide whether he could trust him or not. Nausea burned up his throat. His entire body screamed with remembered pain from rending teeth and claws. He distinctly remembered a dragon eating him, ripping him limb from limb, but then the dragon had folded up, somehow, and slipped…inside out.
Ice picks darted deep into his skull and he couldn’t stifle the cry of pain.
“Can you keep your part of the bargain?”
“What…” He swallowed, wincing at the blades shredding his dry throat. “What bargain?”
The other man harrumphed and squatted beside him. He didn’t neglect to note the blade in the man’s hand, stained with blood. The putrid musk leaking from the sacs made him gag.
“You’re going to make a seductive oil that the High Queen of the Green Lands will find very, very amusing to be sure,” the man spoke slowly, as if he were too stupid to understand. “Then you must find a way to get your lazy dirty hide to Shanhasson, into her Court, and then, ultimately, into her bed. Simple, iyeh?”
The last word was spat forcefully, a mockery, if only he knew what it meant.
Breathing deeply, he forced his body to accept the foreign odors of this place: the rotting dragon, the stink of its glands dripping some noxious fluid onto the blasted sands; the rank body odor of the man beside him; and the scent of his own body, sweat mixed with an exotic spice he couldn’t quite place.
It smelled…right, that scent, soothing his unease. It was his scent, blending with the reek of the dragon until even it smelled right.
His stomach calmed, as well as his mind. The High Queen of the Green Lands was definitely someone he knew. The dragon had surely been a dream. Now, if he could only remember…
“Tell me, my young friend,” he began casually, but the trader’s eyes widened with shock.
“Your voice.” Suspicion narrowed the trader’s eyes and he drew back warily. “No Keldari talks like that.”
He kept his face smooth and unconcerned, even though his mind lurched. Keldar, yes, the place of dragons, poisoned sands, and savages. He glanced down and noted the rough black garb he wore, the curved blade on the sand beside him, covered in dried blood. Lightly, he touched his head, trying to remember how he’d killed the dragon. “The dragon must have knocked me unconscious. I’m afraid I don’t remember much at all. What’s my name?”
The trader inched backward, his hands smoothing the fine linen of his shirt. “Mykal.”
A dull black ring on the man’s right hand sucked at the brutal sunlight, a black hole of evil that made him narrow his gaze in recognition. Odd, wasn’t it, that he recognized a ring but not his supposed name?
“You’re Mykal tal’Mamba.”
Ah, it was beginning to come back to him. Tal, chief, he knew, of the tribe of Mambas. Appropriately named, to be sure, for the mamba was the deadliest snake in all the desert. Before the thought had even crystallized in his mind, his body exploded up with the curved blade in his hand. He knocked the young man to his back and planted a knee on his throat. “I’ll uphold this bargain, munakur, else the sands swallow me for all time.”
Wheezing, the man flailed at him with the knife, but Mykal effortlessly blocked the blade with his own. This man had never been skilled with a blade; he knew that, now, as he also knew that he himself could dance the blades with any warrior on the sands and best him. Cocking his head, he let his gaze travel down the man’s fancy clothing to fine leather boots and back up.
His gaze stopped on the ring. He stared a moment, and then deliberately examined the dragon corpse. Its left front paw had been hacked, its claw missing. “I believe you took something that belongs to me.”
Babbling choked entreaties, the man’s cries rose to a wail as the scimitar cut through his pinky. Mykal picked up one of the leaking sacs and dropped it into the man’s wounded hand. He howled, heels drumming on the sands, but the fluid cauterized the bleeding stump.
“Go to Shanhasson.” Mykal claimed both sacs for himself and shook the severed finger from the ring. Closing his eyes, he slipped it onto his left hand. The ring fit his finger perfectly, as he expected. Sands shifted within him, settling, filling up the empty spots of his memory. Without opening his eyes, he unhooked the leather packet–which he now remembered preparing with his own hands–from his belt and dropped it onto the trader’s chest. “Trade my oil to Her Majesty.”
He let the young man scramble away, cradling his wounded hand to his chest. His pretty white shirt was ruined, stained by blood and burned by the dragon musk.
Raising his voice, Mykal yelled after the fleeing trader. “Tell Shannari dal’Dainari that soon I’ll soar over her Shining Walls!” He rubbed his thumb over the ring and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I have a purpose.”