First Rider's Call

Page 157

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“Let me go, Garth!” She squirmed violently, but he held her firmly against himself.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “That’s Alton, your friend—remember?”

Oh yes, she remembered.

“Not my friend,” she said, “illusion!”

“—been acting odd of late,” Ty said of her, and there was general agreement among the Riders.

“Not Alton—the wraith!”

“I don’t know what she’s talking about.” The voice was Alton’s, but the intelligence behind it was not. “I thought she cared for me.”

Karigan recognized the taint of Mornhavon in the illusion, and now she knew why he had left her, so he could attend to this illusion. It was he who had given Varadgrim the appearance of Hadriax el Fex a thousand years ago, it was he who gave him Alton’s form now.

Captain Mapstone stood before her, full of concern. “Karigan?”

“It’s a trap—the wraith—not Alton!”

Garth was strong, but Karigan had trained with Arms Master Drent and learned how to bring a strong man down. An elbow to the gut, a heel to his instep. She twisted her leg behind his and shoved him off balance. Down he went like a massive tree.

Karigan ripped her saber from Ty’s grasp and held it before her to stave off her fellow Riders, her friends. They put their hands to the hilts of their own swords, and she could only guess what was going through their minds. Yes, they would be thinking, Karigan has finally gone mad. She wasn’t sure they were far off the mark.

It wasn’t her friends she wanted to engage, however. Her focus was the mind behind the illusion, and the only way to get him to do what she needed him to do was to goad him. Goad him as he had goaded her. She tried to push back her fear.

“A paltry illusion,” she shouted at Varadgrim. “The captain knows the truth of my words.”

From the corner of her eye, she saw the captain quickly assess her. Then the captain ordered the Riders to arm themselves. The swords, however, were held toward Varadgrim, not Karigan.

Her relief was minor, considering the magnitude of what she was attempting to do. “You are not as powerful as you think,” she told Mornhavon.

“Girl, I could pick up a boulder and drop it upon you.” It was revolting to hear the words spoken with Alton’s voice. “I have seen in your mind your revulsion at the things that could be done to those you hold dear. Those things I could make reality.”

Bile rose up in her throat, but she must not let the fear overtake her. “I don’t think so. You are so weak you must use others to do your bidding.”

He laughed. The illusion around Varadgrim dissolved, and Karigan prepared herself for what she thought would happen next, but it didn’t.

Garth was suddenly after her, swinging his sword. By the bewildered look in his eyes, Karigan knew Mornhavon had seized control of him. Karigan blocked his blows.

“You’ll have to do better!” she cried, and she ran away from Garth; she ran for the breach, away from the Riders, and right past Varadgrim.

Yes, run to me. Mornhavon’s voice was low and breathy in her mind.

THE VESSEL OF MORNHAVON

Laren watched in bewilderment as Garth fell limp to the ground and Karigan charged toward the breach and vanished through it. Then an Eletian emerged on the edge of the encampment and fluidly took an archer’s stance, spines bristling on his shoulders and forearms. His bow was drawn taut, a white arrow nocked to the bowstring. The steel tip shone in the sun like a star.

His eyes narrowed as he focused his line of sight, and loosed the bowstring. The arrow sang, a beautiful sound as it sped by them and into the breach.

Laren cried out, and thought to go to Karigan, but an enormous winged creature rose above the breach and flicked out its tongue as it surveyed them. The wraith bared steel. Not a sword of ages ago, but new steel, and from the look of it, forged by the king’s own smiths. Undoubtedly it had been taken from a dead soldier.

The Riders and soldiers were caught between two horrors—the winged monstrosity above, and the wraith.

The shadow of its wings moved over Laren and she flinched as the creature screeched at them. It lunged down and she watched helplessly as it clenched Dale in its talons. The Rider screamed and kicked as she was lifted from the ground several feet, the avian flapping its wings and creating a fetid wind. Dale’s shoulder and chest blossomed with blood.

Riders and soldiers ran to aid her, but the creature threatened them with its sharp beak, its head swiveling on a long, snakelike neck.

Ty evaded the avian’s beak and hacked at the talons that held Dale, partially severing the avian’s leg. It jerked up, and Dale cried again. With another strike from Ty’s sword, the leg was severed and Dale dropped to the ground, talons still hooked in her shoulder.

The avian rose into the sky with blood showering from the stump of its leg. Singing arrows, harmonious and deadly, streaked through the air and thudded into the avian’s breast and beneath its wing. It screamed and plummeted earthward, and all beneath scattered. When it hit the ground, dust rose up around it. Its neck convulsed, then it moved no more. Smoke curled up from its wounds.

Laren ran to Dale’s side, and was joined by Yates. “We need to . . .” But he was already prying the talons out of Dale’s shoulder. Justin hovered nearby. “Ban dages!” she told him.

Justin nodded and whistled to his horse. Several horses had scattered at the sight of the avian, but Justin’s mare trotted over immediately and he set to foraging through his saddlebags.

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