There is more than one road to redemption.
Sometimes the past can't be forgotten. Sometimes the truth refuses to be buried. And sometimes the dead won't stay dead.
It began as a simple request: Journey to the Northern Jungles and bring a wayward son back to the safety of his farm and family before the racial tension that is building between humans and dark elves erupts into civil war. But life is never simple for Sevy, and she soon finds herself entangled in a bloody battle of good versus evil, love verus hate.
Old friends and enemies reunite, familial bonds are broken, and loyalty is tested. And in the midst of the steamy, sultry jungles, the ghosts of a serial killer's victims come out to play. Sevy, as petulant and irascible as ever, must overcome her personal demons in order to expose a madman and bring peace back to the kingdom. But just how much of her sanity must she sacrifice to help her friends? And how can she save anyone when she can't even save her own soul?
This was her favorite dream. She loved the feel of her heels clicking across the cobblestones as she rushed down the street. Look there, the cherry red door, a beacon which called her waylaid soul back to haven. Back to home. Nothing changed. Everything as it had been. As it should be.
And look. There’s Turlan dozing on the stoop with a shining green bottle propped between his knobby knees. Sweet old man. Maybe later she would sit and listen to one of his stories. Hello, Turlan. Good to see you too. Sorry, no time to chat right now.
Inside. Smell of a happy, cozy fire. Fresh flowers placed in a vase of water on the table in the common room. Forget-me-nots. Fitting, don’t you think? Laughter all around. People smiling, calling her by name. Revik! When did you get here? A glass of heady ale held out in each of his hands. One for him and one for her. Something not quite right about that, but don’t think on it now. No time for a drink, Revik.
Upstairs? No. She knew where to go. Down the hall, into the kitchen. Open the door to the right and sitting at the desk, buried in some dusty old book—he would be there.
But wait. Where was he? And who was that?
A man stood gazing out of the window and into the courtyard. She stopped. This was wrong. This was not the way the dream was supposed to go. The room grew and then shrank. The space between them disappeared. Suddenly, she was near enough to touch him. But who was he?
His hands, covered with wisps of grey hair, were clutched together behind his back. He was nodding his head, wordlessly answering some line of questioning that only he could perceive. Frail form, frail as Turlan, the bumps of his crooked spine visible through skin and cloth.
Back away, Sevy. Don’t go any closer.
Every fiber in her being urged her to run, but she could not resist. Closer, and now she could hear him. Was he speaking or merely breathing? Impossible to tell. But the sounds went on, rising and falling like waves lapping against the hull of a boat. His hands; why were they so interesting? He held something in them. Something that squished as he squeezed his fingers together.
No, no, no! I do not want to see this! I don’t want to have anything to do with this! I will have no part in this, I swear by the gods!
Too late, Sevy.
He turned around. She didn’t want to look. She knew he wanted her to. He smiled at her. The way the woman had smiled, the way the boy had. He would not go away until she looked.
Please leave. Leave me alone. Whatever I’ve done, I don’t deserve this.
And now he placed something into her hands. Take them. Feel them. Wet and cold things. Yes, look at them. The whites shot red. The ring of color, as green as her own, nearly swallowed by the swollen blue-black pupils.
She held them. Her fists constricted around them, tighter and tighter, finally feeling them burst against her palms as she looked up into the man’s face, and saw him, still smiling, tears of blood issuing from sockets of mush and bone.
She was awake and screaming. For a second, she thought her dream had followed her into reality when she looked up into circles of red. It was just Revik, thank the gods. His eyes were intact and his mouth was not plastered with that disturbing grin. He pleaded with her to relax, avowing that it was just a nightmare, swearing that everything was all right.
He was such a good liar. She almost believed him. She heard movement to her right. There was Yy’voury, staring at Sevy as one would a casket about to be lowered into the ground. She held Trena as one would a child, patting the head, directing it to her shoulder. Trena of the perpetual tears. But who were they for? Surely not for Sevy.
Warmth rose from the ground underneath Sevy’s legs and she realized with a grimace that, in her fear and sickness, she had wet herself. Revik would have a heyday with that, wouldn’t he? But he didn’t seem to find it as amusing as he should have. She laughed for him. What else could she do?
“Please hang on, Sevy. We’re almost there.”
“Where is there?” she asked him, though she didn’t feel her lips move, or hear any sound come from her mouth other than a rasping hiss.
He gave a yell. She didn’t know why. And then the world was upside down. In a feat of exceptional strength, he had somehow thrown her over his shoulder, his arm braced against the back of her knees. She protested. She was a trim woman, but by no means was she the little doll that Yy’voury was and he was in no condition for this exertion. She could feel his misery ringing through his muscles as he held her.
Yy’voury on one side, bolstering him up. Amazingly, Trena on the other, doing the same. The animals had never seen such a spectacle, had they? With nothing else to do, Sevy watched their feet slipping and skidding through the spongy mulch. Two pairs of women’s feet, one set slender and blue, the other pink with swollen ankles. Two pairs of men’s feet.
Wait. Two pairs of men’s feet? Her eyes burned. They became pin cushions for a dozen seamstresses. She wanted to rub them, but didn’t have the strength to lift her arms. She was sightless suddenly, and cried out.
“It’s all right, Sevy.”
Panic in Revik’s voice, but not for the reason that Sevy was panicking. Her vision cleared and she stared at that extra set of feet again, at the grey hairs sprinkled over the tops of them. See how they did not leave an imprint in the mud as the others’ did, how they seemed to glide above, moving but not moving.
“So it’s you,” she said. “You did follow me. What do you want?”
No need to ask if anyone else could see him. She already knew that they could not. If she wasn’t so afraid, she might have had a good chuckle. Was she such a waste of time that Annu-nial couldn’t be bothered to make an appearance? Would she be guided into death by a bunch of mutilated flunkies? Or was this a celestial experiment? A test to see if her mind could be broken as effortlessly as her body.
“Get away, devil. You won’t have me. Not yet.”
“That’s the spirit, Sevy. Show ‘em what a stubborn little beastie you are!”
Revik said that. Or he had, once upon a time.
To stop herself from staring at those uncanny feet, Sevy twisted her neck to the side and looked up as far as she could. The sky was green and grey. Would it never be blue again? She missed the blue. She missed the sun. She missed a thousand things, or she would have if she could remember anything other than this moment, this instant of dread.
She did not fear death. Too many times she had been its messenger. Too often she had immersed herself in its cold company, aching for the release she could not provide for herself. She knew why now; why she had never been able to summon the courage to free her soul the way she had freed so many others.
She did not fear death. That was the easy part. What she feared came after. She feared what Annu-nial would see when she took Sevy by the hand and looked into her heart. There was no deliverance for the damned. She would not be ushered to the land of Promyraan. Her loved ones would not be waiting with open arms to welcome her.
Dim recollections of melodic chanting and burning incense. Of sitting on her mother’s lap, listening to a man in a robe speak of Annu-nial’s maimed son, Koad-wykeir, who was charged with meting out unending, righteous retribution. Deafened so that he could not hear the cries, blinded so he could not see the tears, tongue torn out so that he could offer no words of solace. Hell is what we make of it, the priest thundered, and Sevy trembled against the folds of Mother’s dress. For she had known even then, hadn’t she? That she was different than her sisters, than the other children. That there was a darkness in her that could not be contained and that the fates would find some way to release it. And release it they had, more times than she cared to count.
Her life had been made up of horror after horror. Gods only knew what awaited her after death, but if the wraiths that haunted her were any indication, she was in for one hell of a ride.