Some men tremble in the face of death.
Others bare their teeth and fight to the very end.
While I’m the cold Shadow that glides forth from darkness to slit your throat before you even know I’m there.
My name is Gregar and I’m the deadliest, most honored assassin on the Sha’Kae al’Dan’s Sea of Grass. They call us Death Riders, for we ride death like the wind across the rolling Plains. My hair is heavy with red kae’als, each bead a life that I have snuffed out in the Great Wind Stallion’s name. Vulkar, may He sire many foals.
My ivory rahke is silent and swift. When I draw it, I will not sheathe my blade until it is red with blood, whether yours or mine.
Nothing short of death will stop me, but you cannot kill me.
For I am already dead.
~ * ~
Years ago, I died on the jagged slopes of Vulkar’s Mountain. Shards of obsidian sliced me to ribbons and the rocks glistened with my blood. Yet I made it to the top. I crawled into the fiery caldera and gave my broken, crippled body to Him. Vulkar found my sacrifice acceptable and rewarded me this ivory rahke, a death sentence for any who endangers the Plains.
Even now, I heard an insistent whisper of rolling thunder in my head, insisting another shadowed soul darkened our hills. A life that I must claim. He must die to protect all we hold dear. I am Vulkar’s right hand of sacrifice. Let His will be done.
Before I could mount Shaido and ride through the night to claim my prize, Kae’Shaman stopped me. Older than the hills, his eyes gleamed with the wisdom of Vulkar. When he spoke, it was Vulkar’s voice on the Plains, so I entered his tent at once.
“You feel the Call.”
“He’s far to the north.” I nodded with a cocky smirk that I didn’t bother to hide. “He lives a night longer than most but I wager he’ll be dead on the morrow.”
Even my own people didn’t understand how I could find humor in the face of death. Why I felt no guilt when I tracked my next mark. Why I joked and smiled while another life wavered in the shadow of my rahke.
They never felt the heartfires of the earth crisp the flesh from their bones in Vulkar’s molten lake. They never suffered the cold embrace of Death’s Shadow, the insidious creep of darkness into my very soul, which makes me invisible for the kill. If I could not laugh, then I knew I would at last be wholly dead.
“He mustn’t live so long.” Kae’Shaman’s kindly face hardened with grim certainty. “He plots to allow outlanders access to the Plains. He must die this very night.”
“Tell me how and I shall make it so.”
“You must enter the Dream.”
I had heard whispered tales of such a feat but had never attempted a mark from inside his own dreams. The thought made my stomach tighten and my heartbeat quickened. In the dream realm, the Endless Night could easily reach out and taint any man.
“You are correct to fear.” I twitched with surprise that he’d read my reluctance so easily, and Kae’Shaman spared a slight smile. “Walking the Dream will draw heavily on your gift of Shadow, endangering your soul more than ever. The Endless Night waits, crouched like a starving wolf in the dead of winter, and he hungers for you, Gregar. You must dance on the rahke’s edge of Shadow and Light, becoming that which you fear in order to save that which you love most of all.”
Why did shamans always speak in riddles and grim prophesies I had no hope of understanding? Quirking my lips, I shrugged and forced a laugh despite my unease. “I love nothing so I risk nothing. Show me the way, Kae’Shaman, and my mark shall be dead before I wake.”
The sympathy on the holy man’s face made my blood freeze in my veins. “You will, Gregar. Some day you will love more than life itself. You will hold that precious heart beneath the weight of your rahke. May Vulkar guide you in your darkest hour, when the Endless Night will lure you to ravage and destroy the last light of the world.”
Resolve, cold and grim, made my heart feel like an iced boulder in my chest. “I may be shadowed, but I kill for no one but Vulkar.”