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and you don't laugh at me 'cause I'm not.
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My heartfelt thanks go out to the Gibson Hall Grid. You know cryptography, so I don't have to. And much love to the usual suspects: Gena, Boo, Beth, and Rocki. All fabulous authors and amazing friends.
Rothkalina, the Kingdom of the Rage Demons
In ages long past
Cadeon Woede came upon the headless bodies of his foster father and brothers first, the three slain in a desperate defense of their home.
Their remains littered the ground near a demolished section of the barricades around their farmstead. Cadeon recognized the merciless slaughter as the work of revenants, corpse creatures dispatched by Omort the Deathless, their kingdom's most dreaded enemy.
He shuddered in stunned disbelief, his mind refusing to accept this. . .
The girls -
Like a shot, he charged up a hillock to the smoldering shell of the family's house. His foster sisters might have escaped into the forest. Heart thundering, he searched the ruins, praying to find nothing within. Sweat rolled down his face and into his eyes, mingling with the swirling ash and soot.
In the area where the hearth used to be, he found what was left of his younger foster sisters. They'd been burned, and while they were still alive. Their muscles had contracted in the heat, their little bodies curling up on the floor.
He lurched outside, retching until his throat was raw. No one had survived.
Running his forearm over his face, he staggered to an old oak, sinking down against it. In the space of a day, everything he'd loved in the world was dead.
The threat of Omort had hovered idly over the land for decades, yet the dark sorcerer had chosen this time to attack. Cadeon feared he knew why.
Mine own fault. He buried his head in his hands. All of this is my doing.
To most who knew him, Cadeon was a simple farmer, with few cares. But he'd been born a prince and was his brother's sole heir to the throne. He'd been ordered to return to Castle Tornin to defend the capitol.
Cadeon had disobeyed. The one who controls Tornin controls the kingdom. . . .
Cool steel suddenly pressed against Cadeon's neck. He glanced up without interest. A demon had hidden behind the tree, and now had drawn on him. A rage demon.
"My master said you would return," the swordsman said. By the look of his weapon and tunic, he was an assassin dispatched by Omort. A traitor to his own kind.
"Be done with it," Cadeon whispered as a stream of blood welled at the edge of the sword. He had no cares now. "What do you await - "
Without warning, an arrow embedded itself into the assassin's neck; he dropped his sword to futilely claw at it, ripping at his skin while Cadeon watched dispassionately. As the bastard slumped to his knees, still digging at the arrow, a troop of cavalry neared.
The leader, clad in light armor, wore a fearsome black helmet - a notorious one. It was King Rydstrom, leader of all the rage demons. Cadeon's true blood brother.
Rydstrom removed the helmet, revealing his battle-scarred visage. Most saw this sight and grew weak with fear.
Resentment boiled in Cadeon's veins. His mind flashed to the last time he'd seen Rydstrom - when Cadeon had been only seven. As his brother's heir, he'd been separated out of the royal family twelve years ago, sent to live hidden in anonymity far from the oft-targeted Tornin.
The memory of his banishment rushed over him. . . . As Cadeon's carriage had rolled away, Rydstrom - who'd once been more like a father to him - had stood with his shoulders back, his face expressionless.
Cadeon remembered wondering if his brother had cared at all that he was leaving.
Now the king wasted no breath on greetings to his younger brother, nor did he bother to dismount. "I'd commanded your presence at Tornin. "
To sit as regent while Rydstrom had journeyed off to defend against the aggressing Vampire Horde.
"Yet you refused to return with my guard?" Rydstrom said harshly. "And then you evaded them like a coward?"
Cadeon hadn't evaded the guards out of cowardice. His foster family had his first loyalty, and they'd needed his help. Because he could read and write and teleport, Cadeon was the natural choice to go afield and seek help for the blight on the area's crops.
And no one had ever suspected that Omort would truly attack. "Have you come to kill me for that?" Cadeon asked, his tone indifferent.
"I should," Rydstrom said. "I've been advised to. " Cadeon's gaze flickered over Rydstrom's trusted officers, staring down at him with thinly veiled hostility. "You've been branded a coward. And not only by our enemies. "
"I'm no coward. It wasn't my life - I hardly know you or that family. "
"None of that mattered. It was your duty to be there," Rydstrom said. "The castle had no leader within. Omort seized on that and launched his rebellion, sending this scourge across the country. He has wrested control of Tornin. He possesses my crown. "
"I did not lose your crown because of one decision. 'Tis not so simple a thing," Cadeon said, though he suspected otherwise.
"It is. The tides of war can be swayed by a word, an act, even the absence of a leader in the stronghold of a kingdom. "
If true, then Cadeon's loved ones would still be alive.
"Let me explain this to you," Rydstrom bit out. "A childless king goes off to defend a surprise attack, and his sole heir, the last male of their line, repudiates his responsibilities. We couldn't have signaled our vulnerability more clearly. "
Cadeon swiped at the blood on his throat. "It was not my crown, nor my concern. "
With his fangs sharpened in aggression, Rydstrom dismounted. He drew his sword as he strode toward Cadeon, raised it - and seemed surprised when Cadeon refused to back up.
But his brother didn't understand; Cadeon should've died here. He had nothing to lose.
Cadeon didn't flinch, didn't blink, when the sword sliced down. A flicker of interest arose in Rydstrom's eyes as he beheaded the assassin behind Cadeon.
"Do you want to avenge the deaths of these people, brother?"
Rage filled Cadeon's chest at the idea, determination welling inside him. He grated, "Yes. I want to kill Omort. "
"How do you expect to do that without training?"
Cadeon's peaceful existence had left him ill-prepared for war. "If you train me, I won't stop until I have his head," he vowed. "And once I do, I'll pluck your crown from it and return it to you. "
After a lengthy silence, Rydstrom said, "A life driven by revenge is better than a life driven by nothing. " He turned for his horse, saying over his shoulder, "We camp in the forest this eve. Tend to your dead, then find me there. "
Cadeon would, because he wanted to destroy Omort. But he also wanted to atone for his failure.
Because of his decision to turn his back on his blood kin, Omort controlled Rothkalina - and Cadeon's foster family was dead.
Revenge and atonement. Cadeon couldn't do one without the other.
Yet as Rydstrom mounted his stallion, his soldiers gazed at Cadeon with an expression of hatred, tinged with disgust. They clearly thought Cadeon should die.
I had best get used to that look, he thought. Even at his young age, he knew he'd be seeing it for the rest of his life.
Or until I get that crown back. . . .
Stupid. . . safety lock," Holly Ashwin muttered as she fiddled with the nozzle of the pepper spray in he