Juno Books

An Excerpt From Blood Magic by Matthew Cook

Chapter One

For three days we run, and the Mor follow. Three days of burning sun, and dust, and constant, grinding pain-limbs growing heavier and heavier, slowing us down, making men stumble. More and more, those who fall do not rise, and we must leave them behind.

Three nights of hurried cold camps; never risking a fire, afraid to sleep lest the enemy come upon us unaware. Three nights of scouting along our back trail, doing what I can to obfuscate the marks of our passage; a hopeless task for more than two dozen men, all heavily booted, all no longer caring to tread lightly, but I cannot help but to try.

Three days and nights since the doomed battle of Gamth's Pass, where five thousand men faced off against a force a tenth their number, and were annihilated just the same. Five thousand men cut down by the Mor's unearthly strength; stone-like limbs scything, claws ripping through manflesh and horseflesh both with appalling ease, while arrows and blades bounced like gentle spring rain from their shield-like carapaces.

I was at the rear when the final charge met the Mor's irregular battle lines, breaking like waves against a rocky

shore. I fired arrow after arrow down into the foe, knowing that only one in a hundred shafts might find some vulnerable place. My sweetlings, with their horned limbs and thorny hides, might have had better luck in the fray but I had been forbidden by the priests from calling them.

Pious fools. What good were their prayers against such a foe? What use their magics against beings of such strength? From my vantage point, I saw our line crumble, the Mor cutting it apart like monstrous ants dissecting and devouring a flailing earthworm.

Then there was nothing but screams and chaos as men abandoned their formations, scattering like leaves in a gale, screaming, shouting, begging for mercy. I ran down into the swirling melee, searching for Jazen Tor, dodging the swipes and jabs of the Mor. I found him soon after, still fighting amongst the remains of his company, and we fled.

* * *

The fourth day dawns. I do not pause for rest, but continue to scout the perimeter while the men snatch a few precious minutes of sleep. None grumble any more about relying on a woman; such prideful concerns have long since been forgotten. We are all refugees now, all prey.

My body yearns for rest, and sustenance; the hard uneven ground the men are sprawled upon looks as enticing as a featherbed. I push aside my weakness and run back along our trail, before my traitorous body can succumb to temptation. I am dismayed to find the Mor are less than three miles behind. They are gaining, moving at their implacable pace while we-burdened by our need for sleep, for food and drink-slow. If the Mor have such weaknesses, they have never displayed them.

Before I return, I kill a deer with my bow and use its still-warm body to summon one of my dark children. I place it along our trail, commanding it to kill anything that it sees. I dislike using animals, for the resulting creation is slow and stupid and weak, a pale shadow of what my sweetlings are usually capable of, but it should slow the Mor for a few precious minutes.

I return to find the sentries asleep on their feet. I clatter a bit as I roll my few meager possessions, giving them time to come awake. The sound is insufficient to rouse most of them and, finally, I must resort to shaking and shouting.

Soon, all are on their feet and we set out. The men are too exhausted to even groan, shuffling forward like zombies.

Jazen Tor, whom I allowed to share my blankets a million years ago, before Gamth's Pass, smiles and offers me a bit of biscuit.

"Eat up," he says, his voice a whispery croak, so different from his usual melodious baritone. "No need to ration. At this pace, we'll be at Fort Azure by mid-day."

I take the morsel with a nod of thanks and place it in my pouch. I am never hungry after birthing one of my precious ones, as if the act of creation fills some bodily need in me.

I lean forward and whisper, "We must increase the pace. The Mor are gaining. At this rate they will be on us before we reach the fort."

Tor looks over his shoulder at Captain Hollern. He knows, as do I, that our commander will not listen to any tactical advice I have to offer. Hollern is a follower of the Lightbringer, and barely tolerates my presence.

"I'll spread the word," Tor says with a weary sigh. "One final run, then we will be behind thick walls, eh?"

I smile in what I hope is a reassuring way and he moves back. He whispers in a man's ear and I see the glazed look of exhaustion in his eyes shift to cornered fear. Tor grips his shoulder for a moment, seeming to will strength into the man, then moves to speak to another. Soon, the column begins to accelerate, just a bit, but maybe enough.

Hollern is oblivious to the change and soon is at the rear of the group. He picks up his pace without seeming to notice, the vacant look in his eyes never flickering. I wish he would just lie down like so many others have already done, putting his command in Jazen Tor's more capable hands.

We come across the Fort Azure road and our pace increases further still. Homesteads are scattered along the road. All are abandoned, all burnt. The Mor, I know, always put our settlements to the torch after raiding, as if they cannot bear the very sight of any human structure. Most are abandoned, but some are surrounded by the shattered bodies of their former inhabitants; men, women, children, limbs scattered and scavenger-chewed, heads missing. We do not stop to bury the fallen.

Mid-morning, we come to a stream and the men stop to refill their canteens. I whisper to Tor to not wait for me and slip away. I run back along our trail, gritting my teeth at the pain in my feet and legs. I will soon be behind thick walls, guarded by archers and pikemen, I tell myself. I can rest then.

I pass by one of the homesteads and check the bodies. None are usable. Without heads or limbs, the fallen are too damaged to call forth one of my sweetlings. The house has been burned to the foundation and its stones scattered. The ashen smell lies thick in my nose.

A horn blast splits the quiet air. Jazen's horn. There is only one reason he would betray his position. I run back, panting, chest like a furnace, wondering if I am already too late.

I slow as I approach the spot where I left the men. The sound of battle reaches my ears, the slithering ring of blades striking rock-like skin, the hoarse grunts and shouts of men mixed with the eerie piping of the Mor. I leave the road, slipping like a ghost into the bushes. I reach the edge of the clearing, drawing forth an arrow and nocking it to the string.

Men lie scattered about the clearing in spreading pools of blood. The survivors, with Hollern and Jazen Tor among them, stand in a tight knot, back-to-back-to-back, sixteen men against three Mor.

The Mor tower over the soldiers, eight feet of stone-gray armor and leathery flesh, their massive, clawed upper arms rising and falling like threshing tools. Weapons are clutched in the smaller, lower limbs: stone hammers and knives. The blades glow a sullen orange, hot as lava, a result of one of the work of one of their shamans.

I draw my arrow back to my cheek, searching for a vulnerable joint, then see there are bodies not five feet from my position. They are horribly torn, the edges of their wounds blackened and smoking, but the Mor have not yet torn them asunder. I smile bloodlessly and take the arrow from the string.

As I open my inner eye, my sister crows in triumph inside my head. I tell her to be still. She spares me a mocking laugh, but falls silent, gods be praised. I see the spirits of the fallen men, standing near their former vessels. The specters are dazed, wandering about, some crying, others peering at their former flesh with hopeless expressions.

Silently, I call out to the souls of the soldiers. They turn and listen, their ghostly faces pale and translucent in the wan sunlight. I whisper a song of blood and revenge, thrilling as one by one they drift back toward the fleshly remains. The first Mor does not even have time to scream out a warning as my sweetling leaps upon its armored back. Then a second of my children, and a third, tear themselves free from their still-warm cocoons, shambling forth to take their revenge.

They charge forward, their skinless, rope-muscled limbs lashing, bone blades and horns hissing through the air. As one, they clamber up the Mor's hulking body. They are surprisingly nimble for such ruined-looking things; ugly in a way that only a mother can love. I know that such alacrity will fade in time, as their tissues dry and tighten, but right now they are a whirlwind of muscle and sinew driven by the spirits of the recently dead and my own insatiable desires.

A Mor screams as the talons of one of my children saws across a seam in its armored belly. Its intestines, or what passes for them, tumble out in a vibrant blue spill, smoking in the chill morning air. The Mor warrior falls to one knee, my children still hacking and tearing.

"Kirin, no!" Hollern screams, seeing what I have summoned. "Oh, gods, no!" The remaining Mor, caught between my dark children and the remnants of the company, make a break for the trees. Jazen Tor leaps at one, his sword stabbing at his opponent's lightly armored back. His blade transfixes a stout leg, busting through the Mor's knee from behind.

It stumbles and Tor is pulled forward, falling face down, his hand still clasping his blade. The Mor turns, seeing what has hurt it. In its smaller, inner hand is a stone knife. The air ripples with laval heat.

"Jazen! No!" I scream, seeing what is about to happen. I give the silent command for my sweetlings to attack, to save him, but I know I am already too late. The Mor's blade saws across Tor's face in a shower of blood. The crimson flood boils into steam as it pours across the knife. Jazen's scream fills the world. The knife stabs down, burying itself to the hilt in his breast, just as my sweetlings pile onto the enemy.

The Mor's eyes, cloudy, jade-like, almost glowing behind the armored slit of its face armor, lock with mine as my children begin slaughtering it. I cannot tell if it is smiling behind the overlapping bone plates. Soon, my children find a weak spot in its armor and it is over. "I ordered you to never . . . to never . . ." Hollern pants. "Oh, gods! What have you done?" "Shut up or you'll be next," I say, kneeling beside Jazen, uncaring that my words or my desire to see Hollern's blood are treason. I grab the stone knife's hilt and pull it from my lover's body, all too aware that it is too late. Even through the leather of my gloves, the hilt scalds my palms. I toss it into the stream, and the water boils evilly as it sinks with a hissing splash.

"Shhhh . . ." I whisper to Jazen, stroking his crisped hair. "It will all be over soon. You will rise again, and we will be together. Together."

"D-d...don't...please . . ." he says, the words a bubbling hiss through the split, oozing wasteland of his face. His one remaining eye rolls and looks into my own. "Kirin...I'm afraid..."

I bend and kiss him, drawing his breath into my body. It tastes of brimstone and charred meat and his own treasured sweetness. The fiery blade has cooked him from within. I know he is in terrible pain, but cannot bring myself to do what is necessary to end his suffering. Inside, my sister spits and reviles me for a weakling, screaming that I am weak, am weak, am weak, that I will die beside him, in blood and fire. I hold him, cradled in my lap, until his breath finally stops.

Chapter Two

Kirin was not the name I was born with; it belonged to my twin sister. Back in the happy days when we were girls, Kirin was forever the dreamer, the one who had everything planned.

Those were the days when nothing was more important to her than I, her twin, her other half. Before Marcus and the ruinous events that would lead to her death and our rebirth. Kirin always knew what she wanted. At least, it seemed that way. Find the perfect men, sons of a wealthy family, then settle down in cottages on the same road, or even, if the gods were kind, neighboring town houses in the distant City; cherished wives of sophisticated, urban husbands.

She dreamed of a life filled with children and wealth, shared with dutiful, doting companions, purchased with our fair faces and slender bodies. Kirin was always the one who was so painfully aware of her gods-given beauty and what it could win for us, and who took such pains to display those gifts to their best advantage.

Growing up, she filled the air with nonstop chatter and demands. "Comb those cockleburs from your hair," she would tell me. Or "Stand up straight. Slouching makes you look common. Ladies have dignity and good posture." Or, her favorite, and mother's: "Can't you at least try to make yourself pretty?"

Kirin always dictated to me, the quiet one, the studious one, how we would live our lives. Even now she would do so, if she could. That she loathes the state of my life is no secret, for she takes every opportunity to remind me of how I am ruining myself.

Now that I am a woman grown, I can ignore her constant barbs. Most of the time. When I cannot, on those days when I am overly weary, which is seldom, or sick, which is almost never, I simply remind myself of her terrible fate, and pity stays my bitter reply.

There are days, sometimes entire weeks, when I do not curse the perverse knowledge that has allowed me to survive for so long; the same knowledge which keeps my sister bound to me. But when she whispers to me, whispers to me in the long still hours of the dark, on those days I would give every last golden rukh I have ever had or will have for a chance to go back and unlearn what I know. To join my sister in her simple, shallow plans. To be that compliant, frustrated girl again.

Mother did her best to raise us as proper young women. She spent hours with the two of us, laying out her family's tarnished silver and the yellowed porcelain that she said was too fine for any current company we might entertain. Endless lessons followed on how to lay a proper, elegant table, Mother frowning when I misplaced a fork or accidentally banged the side of my soup bowl with my spoon, or on how to start and maintain entertaining, empty conversation, steering clear of any subject that might cause offense or discord.

While we labored, she filled our ears with tales of her own girlhood. In her day, Mother had been a celebrated beauty, living a privileged life at court. Her days were filled with endless, drowsy lawn parties, where high-bred ladies met and mingled; her nights with extravagant banquets and costume balls, where the true powers of the empire plotted behind their masks of revelry.

That was during the time of Emperor Albrecht, before his assassination and the subsequent rule of Contessa, his faithless wife, who was later called by many unpleasant names, the kindliest of which was "The Mad." Before Contessa sent away all those loyal to the former Emperor; the better, or so mother always said, to clear the way for her lover Berthold, captain of the Emperor's former guard. All before my family fell on hard times, their wealth and position stripped away upon my grandfather's fall from grace and banishment from court. Kirin devoured such knowledge, seeing it as practice for the day when she would inevitably marry back into the life that had been stripped from our mother, becoming a Grand Lady of the Empire.

Following Grandfather's exile, Mother and her two sisters were sent away to live with their aunt, while my uncles, older than they and both officers in the Empire's army, left for far-away lands at the head of their companies, there to pass from my mother's stories forever. Mother later married her landlord's son, Rupert, the man who would be my father. It was the best match she could make, she often told us, under such rude circumstances.

My sister's bottomless appetite for Mother's tales was not one I shared. For my part, I was never happier than when I was able to slip away and wander my father's modest holdings, exploring every stream and copse, often alone, but sometimes accompanied by the children of his field hands or tenants. I played come-along-sweet, or take-the-castle, or sometimes even the-ogre-and-the-maiden with them, laughing and running and acting out in a most unbecoming manner.

I suppose in many ways it was an idyllic childhood, despite my boredom and disinterest in my sister's prattle. We seldom fought, for Kirin had inherited not only Mother's leaf-green eyes and pale skin, physical traits we, naturally, shared, but also her skill for inspiring guilt with a simple glance or weary sigh. No, it was easier to allow myself to be drawn along in her wake, and to let her chart the course for the adult life that still seemed so very far away. Alas, childhood, like all things, must eventually pass.

Marcus Allaire, the youngest son of Richard the Huntsman, was the sort of boy that all the girls told stories about. Clean-limbed and blessed with a strong chin, flowing nut-brown hair and eyes the color of a cloudless summertime sky, it seemed destined that girls would swoon at his feet. And swoon they did, amongst the buzz of gossip and chatter that always followed in the wake of his enormous black charger. He often rode through town after a successful hunt, mounted in the saddle proudly, his massive bow aslant across his back and his latest kill draped across his saddlebags, a look of insufferable smugness twisting his full lips.

I admit that I despised him. He never went to the school that Mother demanded we attend and Father worked so hard to afford; Marcus often said such learning was beneath a man of action like himself. I remember many an afternoon, walking home from a long day of instruction, when he and his cronies would descend on us, hooting and cat-calling, their ponies splattering us with mud as Kirin and I clung to one another.

Such teasing, of course, ended as soon as our breasts began to swell, replaced with a different but equally unwelcome sort of attention. Almost before I knew it, Kirin's flush of rage shifted, becoming an altogether different kind of blush when Marcus's eyes would roam over her body.

I had always assumed my sister's all-consuming ambition and endless fascination for Mother's tales of courtly life in the City would armor her against pretty, callous fools like Marcus. Assumed her dalliance with him, which began in the spring of our fifteenth year, was a passing thing, another trophy in her long chain of broken hearts. At first I even admired her for her boldness, for the Allaire family was not one to be trifled with, particularly the cruel, if lovely, Marcus.

So I willfully ignored the signs as their involvement deepened, becoming more open. Their displays of affection grew, from furtive kisses stolen behind Miller Osram's granary to public strolling and hand-holding of a most alarming nature. Later, she began to slip from the house in the dead of night, creeping out our window after she thought me safely asleep. When she returned, her eyes were bright, like a fever victim's, and straw was tangled in her hair. When I demanded that she tell me what had happened, she laughed at me and called me a little girl and a fool.

I tried to warn her, but she, of course, had heard all the same stories about Marcus as I. How he had been caught, unashamed, even proud, with the Widow Marsten at the scandalous age of fourteen. How he had professed his endless love for Anna Coltsfoot, a girl who later ran away from home with him for three days and nights before her father and brothers went and brought her back from whatever hideaway she had allowed herself to be taken to.

All the girls knew about how Anna had been quite suddenly and without explanation sent far away to live with relatives a month later, just as we also knew that Marcus had boasted about his conquest of her in the tavern upon his return. We all knew the reason for her banishment, even though we would never openly admit it, for such talk was unseemly for young ladies such as we.

Why would Kirin continue to pursue this rough, callow young man, a person of limited prospects and questionable family, knowing full well his roguish reputation? True, the Allaires made a decent living, as their furs were of the best quality, but they were, when all was said and done, country folk, uneducated and coarse, certainly not what Mother had trained Kirin to pursue.

The more I tried to convince her of the danger of her actions, the firmer she became in her defense of him. It was as if a madness had come upon her, one that drove deeper and deeper the more that I tried to show her the error of her ways.

Mother, of course, eventually found out about Kirin. How could she not, with every tongue wagging about it? Their quarrels filled the air for many nights, drifting down from upstairs while I sat with Father, trying to read from one of my storybooks while he quietly drank glass after glass of bitter wine.

He did not interfere; he never did, for Mother had made it quite clear that his assistance was neither helpful nor welcome. Still, I shall never forget the way he would turn his bloodshot eyes up, searching the top of the stairs whenever the yelling became particularly loud, like a hound patiently awaiting its master's summons.

I still do not know if Mother finally realized Kirin was more than her match for stubbornness, or if she had some other, deeper scheme in mind, but eventually the quarrelling, like a wild fire that has finally exhausted its fuel, stopped. Even after Mother had given up, however, I still tried to make my sister see the folly of her decision.

But Kirin had won, a fact she was all too aware of. She no longer argued; she simply reminded me that Mother had grown silent on the issue, and suggested I do the same. When it was obvious she would brook no further discussion of the matter, I gave up, an act that I fear she must have seen as permission for what happened next.

Marcus's boyhood friend was Urik, Miller Osram's son. Both my sister and her loutish new beau made it clear that if I were to take up with Urik, all parties would be quite satisfied with such a development. Urik was not unpleasant to look upon, even though he did share his father's barrel-chest and ruddy complexion.

His hair was sandy blond and receding, a fact he tried to conceal by allowing it to grow long, wearing the corn silk curls about his shoulders. Worst of all, Kirin often spoke of his prospects and his family's modest wealth, trying to tempt me with visions of the life of ease that she had somehow managed to mislay in her pursuit of Marcus.

By late summer, my sister's courtship had flowered into a full-fledged betrothal. Kirin set the date: our sixteenth birthday, the day we would officially become women.

Urik followed suit days later, stammering out his proposal with one knee sunk in the mud behind his father's mill. He looked so confused, kneeling there in the dirt, his face even redder than usual, either from embarrassment or excitement. I bade him wait three days for my answer, and went to see my sister.

She knew. Of course she knew. She and Marcus had it all planned, just as she always did. Certainly it would not do for Kirin to wed while her sister did not. All of my attempts to remind my sister of her grandiose schemes and plans, as well as Marcus's childhood cruelty, were fruitless.

When it was clear my resistance was enduring, she stopped speaking to me for a time; I usually capitulated to her demands without much of a fight. The next day she came to me, an unexpected ally at her side. Mother. Kirin prattled endlessly about the size of Miller Osram's warehouses and how his flours were prized by the finest bakers in the far-off City, a fact that Mother found endlessly fascinating. That Mother no longer turned her shrew's eye on Kirin's continued courtship by Marcus was not lost on me.

When Kirin's arguments were all played out, it was Mother's turn. Where my sister's flawed logic and empty promises failed, Mother's tears and sobbing entreaties triumphed. I did not, nor do I now, understand why Mother gave up on her dreams for our family's return to the good life in the City, but Kirin had certainly said something to her during their heated arguments, discovered some chink in the armor of Mother's resolve, for all she could speak of was how we should look to make the best match that we could under the circumstances.

When I reminded her that she had made a similar bargain years before, she slapped me. The blow, so unexpected, for Mother had never raised anything but her voice to me, brought stinging tears to my eyes. We ended up in each other's arms, sobbing, Mother's tears wetting my shoulder while Kirin sat, smiling, untouched by the storm she had called down.

Eventually, I bowed to their wishes and accepted Urik's ring, telling myself over and over that he was indeed the better half of the pair. He was occasionally thoughtful and generally mild, a man who often brought me untidy bouquets of pansies and boxes of sweets imported from the far-off City.

That he usually ended up eating the majority of the candy himself did not trouble me, for was I not always told the thought is more important than the deed? I will grow to love him in time, I told myself every night, over and over, until the words became a jumble of meaningless sounds.

As summer slid towards autumn and my wedding, I resigned myself to my fate. My only consolation was that I would no longer have to deal with Marcus once the deed was done. I would be a proper woman, a wife and later a mother, burdened with the myriad chores of keeping my husband's house and rearing his children, far too busy with life's details to be troubled with Marcus or even, should I choose it, Kirin.

In that, of course, I was wrong.

Our wedding was a complex affair, what with two brides and two grooms and the attending families of all, but we managed. Kirin looked so happy in her sky-blue wedding silks, standing before the priest. I managed to say my vows without stumble or stammer, which was all I had asked for from the fickle gods.

The Allaires brought their entire clan, all six brothers and their wives and their feral children. As the evening wore on and Father's wine flowed, brawls broke out, every one a knot of chaos with an Allaire brother at its heart, laughing as they punched and kicked. Mother was horrified and retired early, before the worst of the night's embarrassments. If Kirin noticed, she gave no sign; her attention was only for her new husband.

I watched Marcus as well. I knew what kind of man he was, what kind of man he must be, coming from such a feared and wild family. My mistake was thinking that my poor, sweet, dimwitted Urik was any better.

Had I known on that day I was following Kirin down a road leading only to blood and pain and death, I would have fled, gods forgive me, abandoning her to the fate she so stubbornly insisted for herself. But, of course, we never know what fate the gods have in store for us, do we?

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