Twilight darkened the sky before Ashiera found a hiding place in a dark alley doorway. The stench of rotting fish and the brine-laden air made her swallow against the burning fluid that rose in her throat. Rustling noises brought a prayer that none of the alley’s denizens would attack her. She dozed, woke and dozed again. Memories of the past rose in broken fragments, but each time she woke, she found more pieces were joined.
Sieper. Bits of the things she’d heard years ago in the marketplace were remembered. Rumors of his ability to read the weather surfaced. How could he possess such a talent? The Mistress touched women, never men. Did he serve the Lord of Shadows? He’d spoken of ownership and of her as being a reward from the Cabal. Had Sieper been one of the men who had lurked and awaited the arrival of the gray priests?
She sighed. Would she ever regain all the memories of the time before her capture?
She rolled the too long trouser legs and used a scrap of cloth torn from her gown as a belt. The sleeves of the shirt hung well below her hands and she pushed them up. How fortunate she’d been to find Sieper’s clothes on the line. As she’d fled through the alleys, she’d peered into the streets. The few women she’d seen had been escorted by one or even several men.
While she waited for true dark, she fingered the scar on her wrist. Her hand flew to her mouth and she stifled a scream.
An obese man, head shaved and scalp oiled, faced her. He held a metal rod with a serpent curled around the staff. A globe of swirling mist topped the rod. Her body trembled. The evil in the priest’s thoughts nauseated her. The serpent raised its head. The fangs bit into her wrist and sent molten fire through her veins. An endless scream echoed in her head and she sought darkness as she had before.
When Ashiera emerged from the place where night was eternal, a few stars shone in the sky. A pale sliver moon had risen. She struggled to her feet and exercised muscles stiffened by the cramped position.
Flee. Leave the city.
The urgency of the command made her lose all caution. “Who are you?”
The Place of Choosing. You must go there.
“Where is this place?
As she left the wharf area, she slid from shadow to shadow. Now and then she heard footsteps, but whoever walked the streets moved with the same caution she employed. Finally the waterfront lay behind and she strode along a broad avenue where the Seat of Judgment stood behind a high wall. The Seat was no longer a refuge since the gray priests resided there now. Shepas barked warnings. Several times she froze and fought the urge to run and, perhaps draw attention to her flight.
At last, she reached the market near the north gate. Guards in gray uniforms trimmed with waxy yellow marched two by two in front of the gate. Was she trapped? Was there no way out of the city?
First Hero _ Sieper
A moan of pleasure escaped the lips of the woman named Ashiera. As Sieper found his release, his arms tightened around her. He rolled to his side and held her against his chest. His lips brushed her honey-colored hair. He inhaled the fragrance of the herbs she used as a rinse. As always, her amber eyes were devoid of expression.
Sunshine streamed through the windows of the sleeping chamber, clothing them in colored light. Chips of multi-hued crystals embedded in the headboard of the massive bed splashed bright tints on the sheets.
He stroked her smooth skin. “The Cabal and his mind mages named you as an undead. Thus I claimed you as my reward for their use of my ship for their cargoes.” His jaw clenched for the service hadn’t been a willing gift but one demanded. No man of Keltoi dared to refuse the orders of the priests of the Lord of Shadows.
She pressed her lips against his chest. For years, he’d carried her image in his heart, but he’d never believed she would be his for more than the single night they’d once shared. Since then, his life had changed again and again. From deck hand to officer and then to ship owner.
He thought of the day he and the Wind Skimmer had sailed into Zandara. The holds had been filled with exotic goods from the other nomes and, he’d had hopes of enough profit to outfit a second ship. Alas, those dreams had come to naught. The priests had seized control of Keltoi. Since the defeat of the Mistress, the gray robes and their minions had ruled the nome. Their taxes had eaten most of his profits and for nearly thirteen years he’d sailed at their bidding.
His hands curled into fists. “I’ve worked hard and dreamed of a fleet of ships, but these hopes slip further from my grasp.” He stared into Ashiera’s empty amber eyes. “Why do I tell you these things? Do you even hear me?”
For an instant, he thought he saw a flicker of awareness in her eyes. A foolish thought. Under the Cabal’s torture, her mind had fled.
Gently he stroked her face and traced her lips. Nineteen years ago she’d been his for a night. He’d been the one she’d chosen for her passage from maiden to woman. Their joining, hot and urgent, had created a dream of forever with her.
He caressed her breasts. Her nipples tightened and she moved against him. Though her mind had fled, her body remembered the ways of passion. He wanted to hear his name on her lips, but since the day he’d claimed her from the pens, she hadn’t spoken.
He kissed her. Regret that he’d begun what there wasn’t time to finish filled his voice. “My love, we must leave soon. The Wind Skimmer sails on the evening tide. Until I return you will bide with Maran’s wife.” He pulled her to her feet. “Remember, you are mine.”
Was that a flash of denial he saw in her eyes? Her forehead wrinkled and she opened her mouth. A croaking sound emerged. He waited. Would she speak?
First Villain - Lugal
Lugal, the Cabal, stared into the globe atop the serpent rod and willed the mists to clear and show the past. He never tired of watching the defeat of those who had served the Mistress of the Moons. The battle had depleted his predecessor’s powers and had allowed Lugal to challenge for the rod that marked him as one of the Triad of rulers. The swirling clouds parted to reveal a woman’s face.
A roar of rage rose from his lips. He knew that one. He’d questioned her and watched the serpent animate and mark her with its fangs. Thus, she belonged to the Lord of Shadows. What had gone wrong? Had her flight into darkness nullified the venom? The veins of his neck were engorged with rage. He sought to clear her face from the globe.
“Not so! I won’t have this.”
His jaw clenched and he thought of what he’d seen nearly thirteen years before. The then Cabal and the mind mages had joined the champions of the Gladius and the minions of the Thamaturg. The forces of the Mistress had been defeated. His anger escalated. Something had gone wrong and now, a second eclipse approached.
The globe darkened. The woman’s face vanished. Lugal’s anger erupted.
As though a miniature cyclone entered the room, wind whipped his robe. Papers whirled through the air. The draperies at the windows shredded beneath the storm. The shutters crashed against the wall. Outside the sky darkened. Lightning flashed and crackled. Rain fell in torrents.
Slowly, Lugal’s rage subsided. He lumbered down the hall to the audience chamber of the place that had once been the Seat of Judgment. Upon his entrance, the coterie of first-level mind mages rose. He walked to the dais. As he sat, his robes swirled around his ankles. “The woman. The one who was a seer, Ashiera. Bring her from the pens.” His fleshy fingers tightened around the rod. The snake stirred.
The Right Hand snapped his fingers. Two mages departed the chamber. A short time later, they returned. The master of the pens walked between them.
“Where is she?” Lugal asked.
The pen master knelt on the first step. “Two months ago a sea merchant, one Sieper, came to me. He bore an order from you giving him his choice of women. After he paid the tax, he took her.”
Lugal leaned forward. Why hadn’t the man reported the incident? He curbed the desire to lash the pen master’s mind. He had no time to train another. He turned to the Right Hand. “Send mages and guards to the sea merchant’s house and bring the pair to me.” If she’d slipped from his grasp his plans for gaining ascendancy were ruined.
Four mages marched from the room. Lugal called for food. Women dressed in diaphanous robes of rainbow hues glided across the gray-tinged yellow marble floor. One bore a flagon of wine. Others held platters of fruit, cheese and sweets. Three women played flutes, two plucked lyres and one tapped a hand drum. Half dozen women danced to the music, contorting their bodies into near impossible positions.
Lugal leaned forward. He ran his tongue over his fleshy lips. While sampling succulent bits of pina, manga and quava, he selected the women who would attend him this night. He reached for a wine cup and signaled the servant to pour. He slid his hand beneath her thigh-length robe and kneaded her hip.
Once his appetite for food had been sated, he clasped rung-clad fingers on his obese abdomen. His thoughts centered on his plan to seize control of the priesthood. The Lord of Shadows had no need for swords of fire or noxious and poisonous vapors when he and his mind mages could use the winds to control the people. Lugal wondered why he had to share the rule with Sargon and Gamish.
He nodded. His quest for supremacy had been born in poverty. His skills as a thief had brought him to the attention of the priests and his talent had been revealed. Rapidly he had risen until he’d become the Right Hand of the former Cabal. He would succeed in Keltoi just as he had since entering the service of the Lord of Shadows.
Hours passed before the quartet of mages returned. They bowed and their leader spoke. “The sea merchant’s house is closed and the servants are gone. His ship sailed on last evening’s tide.”
“She must have gone with him.”
Lugal’s hands clenched. “Send the fastest clipper and an octet of mind mages after him. The woman is mine.” He rose and in a swirl of robes lumbered from the audience chamber.