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Path of Blood

Path of BloodThe Path of Fate Trilogy, Book Three
Roc (May 2, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0451460820
ISBN-13: 978-0451460820

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“Francis is certainly not afraid to tell it how it is, delivery a robust, action-packed story….Whatever she writes next, I will be reading.”
—MyShelf.com

“Part three of a right smart fantasy trilogy….tasty as toasted almonds.”
—Speculative Romance Online

Hailed by her peers as “promising” (David Coe),“talented” (Kristin Britain), and “masterful” (Carol Berg), Diana Pharaoh Francis crafted a unique magical world and one of fantasy’s most intriguing heroines in Path of Fate and Path of Honor. Now Reisil must fulfill her destiny as the fates of two worlds rest in her hands….

Chaos reigns in the realm of Kodu Riik. Plague continues to ravage its populace. Armies of the power-hungry Aare are on the march, slaughtering everything in their path to place a madman on the throne. And the rift between the kingdom and the land of Cemanahuatl yawns ever wider, threatening to consume both beneath waves of uncontrollable magic and destroy every living soul within them.

Only Reisil possesses enough power to breach the spellbound city of Mysane Kosk and seal the fracture. Accompanied by her goshawk, Saljane, and her lover, Yohuac, Reisil must journey across a land besieged by war and fight for a domain torn asunder by sorceries beyond imagining….

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Tapit wasn’t dead.

Reisil drove her sweat-drenched gelding across the scree, her heart thundering in her chest. She felt a sickening lurch as the rocky slope began to roll away beneath them. Ahead, Yohuac’s horse—formerly Tapit’s—bounded onto firm ground and galloped into the trees.

Indigo twisted, his haunches sliding as he scrabbled over the tumbling rocks. He neighed: a desperate, braying sound. Reisil leaned forward, catching at the rolling scree with a net of magic. She gasped at the pain, the magic flowing through her like a river of broken glass. It wasn’t as bad as it had been after she’d freed Yohuac and Baku and destroyed the wizards’ stronghold. Then she couldn’t even think of her magic, must less use it. She grinned fiercely as the rocks firmed into a stony carpet. Indigo lunged to safety with a groan. Reisil reined him in, and swung around.

Tapit appeared from behind an outcropping. Reisil tensed. Quick as a blink she let the magical net unravel. The freed rocks thundered down the escarpment between them. In the same heartbeat, Reisil reached out to Saljane.

Where are you?

The image of a glittering snow-covered peak whirled across Reisil’s mind’s eye, followed by a pastiche of blue sky, trees, and Baku’s reptilian shape.

With Baku. Mysane Kosk is not far. Saljane paused. He comes?

The fear in Saljane’s mindvoice wrapped Reisil like a nettle. It was the only thing the goshawk feared: Tapit and his ilgas and losing her tie to her ahalad-kaaslane.

Reisil glared across the churning stones. The wizard wore his hood down around his shoulders. His features were sharp and austere beneath his bristle of dark hair. She felt his dour gaze on her like a coal-hot brand.

Her hands tightened on her reins. Indigo snorted and took a step back.

He’s here.

Saljane clutched at Reisil’s mind with iron talons.

Watch well, she urged, her voice sounding thin as a frayed wire.

I will, beloved.

Reisil held her magic ready. Her skin prickled. She darted a glance about herself. She couldn’t let him drop an ilgas on her. If he did, she would be helpless, like meat on a golden platter. Infinitely worse, she’d be cut off from Saljane. The prospect was unbearable. Never again would she let Tapit do that to her. Her fist knotted. How much she would love to drive it down his throat! But she didn’t dare try. Not now. Too much was at stake and she was too weak.

She eyed the scree. It wouldn’t hold him long. Tapit was relentless. But his horse was as tired as Indigo, and it appeared the wizard had outstripped his companions. That might give Reisil the advantage she needed.

“Don’t stop running now. I was looking forward to a better fight than this,” Tapit taunted through the dusty haze left behind by the slide.

“You haven’t caught me yet. And don’t forget I destroyed your stronghold,” Reisil retorted.

“The stronghold still stands and only a handful of us lost. We are eager for your return.”

His gloating words sent a tremor through Reisil. The stronghold still stood? It wasn’t possible. She’d seen . . . .

She’d seen the entry valley cave in when she’d driven a spear of pure power deep into the mountain’s core. She’d seen rubble falling over the small group of defenders as the ground leaped and buckled. The stronghold had been crushed. Hadn’t it? But then again, she’d thought she’d killed Tapit, too. Fear slithered like a snake in her gut. She was counting on having the crippled the wizards so that she wouldn’t have to deal with them plus the sorcerers and the Regent’s army.

“You’re a liar,” she shouted back, refusing to let him see her doubt.

“You shall see for yourself soon enough. You should not have run away. You belong to us. As does the property you took with you.”

“Never. I am ahalad-kaaslane. I’ll not let you take us again. And if I haven’t destroyed the stronghold, I’ll come back and do it. That much I can promise you.”

“Ah yes. Ahalad-kaaslane.” He said it the way one would speak of a rat infestation. “Where is your bird? That was our mistake. To be one of us, you must be rid of your pet.”

“To be one of you?” Reisil repeated, mouth dropping open.

“Of course.”

Reisil’s teeth cracked together as she snapped her mouth shut. She shook her head in disbelief. “After all of you I’ve killed? You’re howling mad.”

“We know how to muzzle your bite. You will be made to heel.”

He sounded so sure, so smug. Anger flamed in Reisil and power crackled around her fingers. She would never succumb to them again. Her lip curled and she pulled her arm back feeling the magic surging through her. But reason caught her. She balled her fist, forcing the power down with effort. “How do you think you’ll catch me? I know about the ilgas. I won’t walk into that trap again.”

Tapit smiled. It was the first time Reisil could ever remember seeing such an expression cross his basalt features. Fear screwed through the marrow of her bones.

“Not that trap, no.”

Reisil recoiled, then felt a small smile begin. Tapit had revealed his weakness. He loved the hunt, the struggle. Don’t stop running now… He wanted her to sweat, to fear, to fight. He relished it. So much so that he wasn’t going to even try to use his power against her in a head-on battle. That wasn’t sporting. He wanted to match wits, to finesse her, to draw this hunt out. And she was happy to oblige. It gained her time.

And she’d begin right now.

Baku?

The coal-drake’s awareness bubbled in her mind. His presence was muted, as if he had to push through a dense, fibrous mist to reach her. The effects of the magic leeching from Mysane Kosk. It was the reason he hadn’t been able to speak with their friends who camped near the destroyed city. He couldn’t tell Juhrnus they were coming, or ask for help. But it also meant that Tapit would have a harder time tracking them. The wizard had the ability to sniff out their magic footprint, but soon it would be smothered by the tide of magic rolling out of Mysane Kosk. It was the reason Reisil had sent Baku and Saljane ahead. To hide them from Tapit and to warn those gathered at Mysane Kosk that she was coming.

I have an idea, but I need your help. Can you do it? she sent to Baku, picturing for him what she wanted him to do.

The coal-drake did not respond immediately. Reisil got the impression he was considering whether he wanted to help her. She held her breath. He had every right to resent her. If only she had learned faster, if only she could have rescued him from the wizards sooner. But she hadn’t known what to do and instead she’d been forced to watch silently as Kvepi Debess tortured Baku. Sometimes she had even helped. It was the only way to discover the key to unlocking the prison spells. It wasn’t until later that she could tell Baku, and by then their delicate trust was ruined.

Can you do it? she pressed gently.

When his answer came, he sounded hollow.

It will be difficult. The magic thickens here…I will try.

Hurry.

Reisil waited, not watching Tapit, but his leggy roan mare. The horse tossed her head, ears twitching. Then suddenly she leaped into the air, twisting and bucking. The wizard gave a startled yell and fell onto the scree. The hillside began to roll again. The mare came down and bolted, disappearing over the ridge. Tapit tumbled down the slope like a bundle of rags.

She won’t soon trust him again, came Baku’s smug voice.

Well done, Reisil said, following Yohuac’s trail into the trees. By the time Tapit could bespell the mare to stop, he’d have a good walk to retrieve her. It gave them a little breathing room.

“A very little,” Reisil muttered.

Yohuac was waiting just inside the trees. He smiled crookedly at her scowl. His scalp gleamed white through the stubble of his hair. Scars showed livid on his head and neck. There were plenty more hidden by his clothing.

“You shouldn’t have waited.”

He only shrugged.

Reisil blew out a tense breath. “Come on then. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

She took the lead, angling down a steep ravine and following it up across a ridge. Clouds thickened above, and as evening approached, a heavy, solid rain began to fall. She looked back at Yohuac. He had begun to list to the right, his hands clamped around the pommel, his shoulders bowed. He couldn’t keep on much longer. Reisil swallowed her frustration. It knotted in her chest like a handful of brass nails. He was doing all he could. The wizards had nearly killed him. It was a lot that he could sit a horse at all. She scanned the wood slope, angling up along the ridge. They would have to stop and rest, and hope Tapit didn’t overtake them in the night.

As darkness fell, the two found a traveler’s pine and took shelter under its sweeping boughs, staking the horses out in a nearby clearing.

Reisil dug a hole and built a tiny fire. She set a pot over it and made a hearty soup of roots and dried meat, crumbling into it stale acorn cakes. “I can’t wait to eat some real bread,” Reisil said to Yohuac who sat shivering beneath both their blankets. “And hot kohv. With nussa spice.”

“The bread I would like. But you may keep your kohv,” he said, accepting the cup of soup and wrapping both his hands around it.

“That’s right. You like that other stuff, what do you call it?”

“Xochil. It has…character.”

“Mmm. I don’t much care if my kohv has character.”

“Your kohv is like— It’s like the sun without heat, with flame. Xochil lights fire to the soul.”

“Sounds unsettling.”

“Someday you will try it and see.”

Reisil finished eating and scooted over next to him, curling close against his side. He put an arm around her shoulders and snugged the blankets around her. Soon their shared warmth permeated them both. Yohuac’s hands began to wander over her, absently at first, and then earnestly. Reisil caught them.

“You need to rest. You are still not well.”

Yohuac’s dark eyes shone like polished onyx. “I am well enough for this.” He bent and kissed her. Reisil kissed him back. She pushed aside his clothing, grappling him close against her, his heart beating rapidly beneath her fingers. There was an urgency to their lovemaking. They hadn’t laid together since Tapit had sent them fleeing; neither knew when they’d have the chance again.

Time was running out.

Reisil nestled against Yohuac’s side, their legs tangled together. His chest rose and fell in a slow rhythm. She stared up at the branches overhead. Time was running out, and she still had no solution to Mysane Kosk. She’d thought about nothing else since escaping the wizards, and she still had no ideas.

She sighed and sat up, pulling her clothes on. She crawled out from under the drooping branches of the great pine, needing to be out under the sky. The rain had settled into a soft drizzle. Mist wound through the trees. The pungent scent of pine, hemlock and cedar filled her nose as she drew a cleansing breath. She closed her eyes, listening to the patter of the rain on the trees, the rush of the wind through the treetops, and the trickle of water across the ground.

She wondered where Tapit was. Her stomach tightened and she scanned the treeline. Nothing. She turned and climbed up the slope to the top of the ridge. There was nothing to see. The mist filled the hollows and valleys in softly glowing gauze. Gray hid the moon and stars. She sat down on a boulder, unmindful of the rain soaking her clothes.

She didn’t know how long she sat before Yohuac appeared out of the drizzling wet like a ghost. He settled beside her, not touching. She was glad of that.

“What good am I if I can’t figure out what to do?” She demanded suddenly, the sudden sharpness shattering the rhythmic peace of the rain. She flushed hotly and clamped her lips together. But the words were coming now and she couldn’t stop them. “It all seems impossible. Like a lock without a key. Reisil dug her fingers through her hair. “The Lady told me I have judgment, that I’m capable of making the right choices for Kodu Riik. But the Lady was wrong. I don’t know how to stop the plague or the spell the wizards cast. And now Tapit is chewing at our heels.”

“You will find a way. I am certain.”

“And if I don’t? Kvepi Debess said that I wasn’t really a healer. That I was better at destroying. Battlemagics, he said. What if that’s true? Right now Kodu Riik and Mysane Kosk needs a healing. What if I can’t do it?”

Yohuac didn’t need to answer. She knew what he was going to say. But he said it anyhow. “Then all will be remade. Nothing we care about will remain.”

“That’s helpful. Got any other advice?”

“It is what is.”

Reisil chewed the inside of her cheek, tasting blood. The pain felt like punishment, one that she deserved. She’d been keeping a terrible secret. One she didn’t want to admit, even to herself. But what if it was the reason she couldn’t find an answer? The words tumbled inside her, hot and jagged. She didn’t want to confess it, didn’t want to say it aloud. She forced the words past her constricted throat.

“It might be my fault,” she said tightly. “I know, I know, like I know my own name, that I am supposed to save the nokulas. The Lady said to protect all her people, and she meant the nokulas too.” She paused, tasting the bitterness of her feelings. “But— I do not want to. They took the Iisand, they took Sodur—”

She broked off and swallowed. How much of what Sodur had done to her had been because he was turning into a nokula? Would he have turned the ahalad-kaaslane against her if the nokulas hadn’t infected him? She curled her hands into fists. She hated them. Almost as much as she hated the wizards. “They’ve slaughtered entired villages. I’ve seen it. They’re vicious. They like to torture people, and they don’t care about who they used to be. They don’t care about Kodu Riik. And they aren’t helpless. Tooth, claw and magic. They’d just as soon kill us all as not. They aren’t really ours anymore. They don’t belong in Kodu Riik.” She spit the last words with a venom that came from the deepest part of her soul.

“You wish to see them exterminated.”

“Of course not!” Reisil said quickly. And was astonished to find it was true. Somewhere deep inside burned the hope that they could be returned to themselves. That she could have Sodur back. Finding the plague-healers had fanned the flames of that hope. But either way…she was supposed to save them. The Lady had given her no choice. Being ahalad-kaaslane meant obeying the Lady, even when She had abandoned Kodu Riik. Even if it meant watching her friends die to help save the monsters that wanted to kill them. Reisil’s lip curled in silent fury.

Yohuac began coughing beside her and she suddenly became aware how wet he was. She jumped to her feet, frowning.

“You shouldn’t be out in the rain. Why aren’t you asleep?”

He reached out and curled a long, damp tendril of her hair around his fingers. Reisil leaned into his touch. “I sleep better with you.”

“I don’t think I’m going to sleep well for a long time to come,” Reisil said. She stood. “Come on. You need to get dry.”

Under the traveler pine, she rekindled the fire and made more soup. While it cooked, she and Yohuac dressed in dry clothing from their packs. The soup bubbled and sizzled as drops spattered into the fire. Reisil rescued the pot and served them both. This time Reisil sat opposite to Yohuac to avoid temptation. When each had scraped the bottom of the bowl, Reisil turned her attention back to Yohuac. She wrapped her arms around her legs. Weariness made his shoulders droop and dulled his eyes. Worse were the scars that marked him from head to foot. She was responsible for some of those. And there were more to come. She gathered herself.

Throughout the five weeks since their escape from the wizards, she’d been content to drift from moment to moment, speaking little, thinking even less. It had been a time of healing, a chance to rebuild their strength. But Tapit’s arrival had shattered their idyll and it was time to get back to work.

“Tell me about your magic. What you can do.”

Yohuac’s body twitched, his expression shuttering. He sat straight, his legs crossed, fingers laced tightly together. His mouth pinched together.

“Understand that I was never supposed to use magic,” he said harshly. “I was meant to be a vessel—to win the pahtia and become Ilhuicatl‘s son-in-the-flesh. In the following year of celebration, every woman in Cemanahuatl would come to my bed. On each I would get a child. Even barren women. In this way, the nahuallis thought to revive the magic in our people.”

Reisil nodded, unnerved by a sudden avalanche of jealousy. He’d told her this once before. But then he didn’t mean anything to her. Now…Her toes curled inside her boots.

“Are you saying, you don’t know what you can do?” Reisil asked, frowning.

He lifted his shoulders in a jerky shrug.

“You’ve never tried anything at all?”

He looked away, his face wooden.

“Yohuac?”

“It’s useless. I can do nothing.”

Reisil straightened, sensing there was more. “You have tried something. What happened? What aren’t you telling me?”
Yohuac stared back at her. When he spoke, his voice was a rocky whisper. “I can’t.”

Reisil leaned forward, touching his arm with her fingers. He flinched. “I need to know. You’re a piece of this puzzle and I have to know what you are if I’m going to succeed.”

He swallowed, his throat jerking, and then nodded. “As you wish. But be warned…”

And then he lifted his hand, holding it out, palm down. After a moment, bits of dirt danced into the air and began to rotate slowly. Their speed increased, drawing up more dirt, twigs and needles. Soon a small tornado whirled beneath Yohuac’s hand. It began to widen. Reisil could feel the tug of coiling wind. The fire flamed higher and then guttered as the funnel pulled harder. Pressure built against Reisil’s lungs and she fought for breath. Dark spots clouded her vision as flying debris stung her face and hands.

“Yohuac stop!”

He looked up at her, his mouth a stiff line. Blood trickled down his cheeks and forehead where he’d been struck by a chunk of wood. He jerked his head, fear flickering in his eyes. Reisil’s stomach twisted. He couldn’t stop. By the Lady, he couldn’t stop!

She rolled up onto her knees, her heart pounding in her ears. Her head ached like it was being squeezed in a vise and she wheezed as she tried to breathe. She reached for her magic. It filled her raw channels in a flood of pain. She ignored it, feeling the ground beneath her knees beginning to shudder as the great pine that housed them began to uproot itself.

She released her magic slowly, in loose, gauzy strands. They wound around Yohuac and the maelstrom, wrapping them in a smothering ball like sticky silk. Reisil bore down carefully. Her magic rolled through her like new lava. It swelled and pushed against her fragile control. Reisil trembled as she fought to hold the flow steady. Yohuac thrashed against the wild tide of his own raging power. It ricocheted violently within the cocoon Reisil wove. Its whirling edges tore the strands. As fast as she repaired them, they were torn again.

She could see his panic—felt its echo pounding its fists inside her. Yohuac’s eyes bulged as he fought with silent desperation. Sweat ran down Reisil’s forehead and stung her eyes. Her chest ached and her jaw hung open as she gasped for air. Dirt and needles filled her mouth. She coughed. Her magic roared as her concentration slipped. Frantically she grappled at it, fire running through the marrow of her bones. Desperate, she let it flow faster, knowing neither she nor Yohuac could last much longer before they both exploded in flames. The sticky strands whipped from her hands in thick ropes. Soon she could no longer see him behind the wrap of magic. She tightened. Slowly she could feel the maelstrom beginning to subside as she pushed against it.

Reisil felt something give, like a stubborn lock turning. Relief rushed over her. She let go of the cocoon, letting her magic drain away. Debris pattered down onto the ground, dust hazing the air. Yohuac keeled over on his side, panting heavily. Reisil sucked in a deep breath and then another, feeling her spinning head beginning to steady. She crawled over to Yohuac, pulling the blanket over his clammy length.

“So you can move the earth. I thought that was just in bed,” she rasped, resting her forehead on his shoulder. She wrinkled her nose, smelling her own stink of sweat and fear.

He slid his arms around her. “You should see what I can do with wind.”

Reisil closed her eyes. Yohuac had far more power than she’d ever dreamed. No wonder the wizards wanted him back. He is what he was bred to be. The seed of the nahualli magic. And they didn’t bother to train him. Idiots. Being this close to Mysane Kosk isn’t helping.

“I’ll show you how to control it.”

She was surprised when he pushed her away. “No. I am not meant to use this power, only to carry it. It is forbidden.”

Reisil’s eyes narrowed. “You have to. I can’t do this alone.”

“Don’t forget the nahualli—Nurema. Baku has his own powers as well. And your friends. They are very resourceful.”

Reisil bit back her reply. He looked haggard. His skin was scraped raw. She would work on convincing him later. “They’ll have to be.”
Reisil clambered to her feet, banking the fire. “You rest. I’ll keep first watch.”

“Don’t forget to wake me. You need to rest as much as I.” Yohuac waited until she nodded agreement before closing his eyes and dropping instantly into a heavy sleep. Reisil donned her green cloak and crawled out from under the tree. She took up a position in the shadow of a narrow ledge.

The mist grew thicker, even as the rain pelted harder. Soon it was difficult to see more than a few yards. Nor could she hear anything but the rushing wind and the rattling water.

Her eyes grew heavy and she knuckled them, watching the mist slide in and out of the trees. And then she went cold, her skin prickling.

She wasn’t alone.

She stiffened, blinking the rain from her lashes as a monstrous shape shivered into being before her.

It was the color of moonlit water, with silver eyes that curved like a bowl. Its face was heavy-boned with jutting jaws and dagger teeth. Its body was muscular, fluid and sleek—like a mountain lion. Its fingers moved like tentacles and were tipped with thick, tearing claws. Its feet were bony and long, with talons that curved like scythes and bit gouges in the dirt. A long tail twitched slowly back and forth behind it.

Reisil stared up at it in frozen horror, too stunned to defend herself.

Nothing remained of the man he’d been. His expression was alien, his body monstrous. But there was something about the tilt of its head, the way it turned sideways to look at her, like a bird.

“Sodur,” she whispered past the hard lump lodged in her throat. “By the Lady, it’s you.”

Chapter 2

The world spun around Reisil. She smelled the tang of wet bark and pine—the fresh-washed scent of the mountains. Impinging on it was a cold, flat odor that made her skin crawl and lungs ache. Roaring filled her ears like the sound of stampeding horses. Behind her, the rock shelf dug unforgiving into her back as she shoved away from the nokula. She scrabbled for a weapon, finding a sharp-edged stone. This was not Sodur. Could not be Sodur.

The nokula stood an armslength away, the rain beading on its silvery hide. It was elegant in a savage way. It watched her. She shifted, making no attempt to move. She didn’t want to get any closer to those knife-filled jaws than she had to.

You are hunted.

Reisil shuddered and jerked away, yelping as her head bounced off the stone shelf. Needles splintered through her skull and she was grateful for the pain.

“Don’t,” she said, holding up the rock, though she hardly knew what she might do with it. “Stay out of my head.”

We must speak. I have little time left. The words crawled across her mind, sticky and prickly and slimy at once. Reisil’s gorge rose and she swallowed noisily.

“Who are you?” she asked, though the cadence of his words and the brusque edge to his tone had already confirmed her first thought. Sodur.

The nokula smiled. Or Reisil thought it was a smile. Perhaps it was a snarl. They were likely the same. The voice in her mind sounded amused and predatory.

You have already guessed.

Unbidden, an image rose in her mind of Sodur. It was a bittersweet memory, from before his betrayal, before he made everyone think she was the worm in their apple. He was showing her around the Lady’s Temple for the first time. He had led her beneath the trees, their leaves sifting together softly in the breeze, the air smelling soft of wisteria and roses. His back had been to her as recited the history of the Temple.

As the memory rolled through her mind, Reisil’s teeth clicked together and her skin went clammy. She was seeing it exactly as she remembered, from her perspective. Sodur’s back had been turned. Fear uncoiled in her chest. Somehow he’d plucked it from her mind. Furiously she slammed her mental barriers shut, ejecting him forcefully out of her thoughts.

A faintly startled expression crossed his animal face.

Reisil’s chin jutted. “Stay. Out. Of. My. Head.”

He opened his mouth. His rounded tongue lolled out, slithering in the air like a snake with its tail caught in a trap. Nonsensical breathy sounds issued forth.

For a moment Reisil wanted to laugh. The next a tide of fury and bitterness rose up in her. He was manipulating her again. Making her do things his way. Did it never stop?

She took a breath, counting to ten. She let it out with a whoosh and glared at him resentfully. She needed to know what he could tell her about Mysane Kosk and his fellow nokulas. She didn’t have a choice.

Fine. What do you want?

You must not go to Mysane Kosk.

Why not?

Sodur made a guttural sound and swiped suddenly at his head with a heavy paw. Sparkling ridges rose where his claws scraped painful, deep furrows into his flesh. If it could be called flesh. Reisil gasped and drew back against the rock.

You are hunted, he repeated, his voice sounding tinny and frayed.

Tell me something I don’t know.

Not just the wizards. They…We …want you.

He cuffed at himself again and hunched lower to the ground. Reisil watched in fascination as he twisted his head as if to escape some sort of painful sound. Suddenly an unearthly wail rose out of the night. Reisil found herself raising the rock above her head. The sound went on and on. An earthquake began deep in her gut, moving outward and growing more powerful with every breath. Her arms and legs shook with its palsy. The rock dropped from her limp fingers.

Then a wordless screech broke across Reisil’s mind like a crystal knife, shattering the howl into pieces. Reisil slammed closed her mental barriers.

Dear heart, thank you.

It is really Sodur?

He hasn’t been Sodur for a long time.

Before she could answer, another shape emerged out of the misty trees. It was half-again as large as the Sodur. It reminded of her of Baku, with elegant ripples of muscle and a long, reptilian body. It radiated tension and threat. Reisil swallowing jerkily. Could it be? How could Lume have turned into something so big? And yet she didn’t doubt it was Sodur’s ahalad-kaaslane turned nokula. Somehow the lynx had become this hulking brute.

She felt the scritch of claws against her mental walls and stared in repulsion. Lume too?

The beast bared his fangs at her and pressed close to Sodur, who nudged him with his shoulder in affectionate acknowledgement. Lume regarded Reisil, dipping his head with something like an apology. Reisil lowered her mental walls uneasily.

They didn’t plan for us, Sodur said, stroking Lume in a loving way that struck Reisil as somehow reassuring. Maybe something of Sodur yet remained. Maybe he could still be recovered.

We have resisted the call to come to Mysane Kosk, he continued, oblivious to the whisper of thought. But the pull is strong. Soon we must go. He whipped his head from side to side as if to dislodge a swarm of biting flies. This must be quick. Everything I say, everything I think, the rest know. We share a mind; they would silence me—

He recoiled suddenly, collapsing on the ground and twitching spasmodically. He emitted an aching cry that sounded like a soul-riven rashani and made Reisil’s intestines contract. He flailed and clawed furrows into his neck and face. Lume nuzzled close and his touch seemed to lend Sodur the strength to resist the invisible onslaught. He rolled to his feet, staring at Reisil with that unnerving, lidless gaze. There were chunks of silvery flesh clotted in his claws. The gashes gaped bloodless like wounds on a corpse.

I still don’t understand what you want.

He gave a frustrated sigh. It sounded so…human…Reisil stared askance.

Imagine a school of fish, the way it turns and moves as if of a single mind. So are nokulas. The individual cannot resist. His mind conforms, like sand under the lash of the wind and sea.

But you are here even though the rest don’t want you to talk to me?

The Sodur nodded in that oddly human fashion.

Lume and I have resisted. And some others. Ahalad-kaaslane mostly. But the others are very strong.

He was referring to the wizards who had been caught up in the spell they cast at Mysane Kosk. Reisil knew it without his having to say it.

You must not go to Mysane Kosk. You must get far away.

Why?.

They know you have come to destroy Mysane Kosk. They will stop you. They mean to…convert…you. It requires only that you be drawn inside the circle surrounding Mysane Kosk. You will become nokula. There will be no hope for Kodu Riik. Get away where they cannot find you! And do fool yourself. This is no illness that can be cured or reversed. The change is irrevocable. You can neither save us, nor can you be saved if you are changed.

She eyed Sodur closely, ice spiraling down her spine and boring into her stomach. Here was a danger she hadn’t considered. Bright Lady, what could she do? She could defend herself with magic, but could she fight them off without killing them? Or worse, without destroying Mysane Kosk and Kodu Riik with it? Could she fight them off at all? They were made of magic. And the change was eternal. There was no reversing it. The spark of hope she’d nurtured for Sodur and the Iisand guttered and went out. She shoved the pain of that final loss away, focusing on the problem at hand. The entire cadre of wizards who’d created the spell had become nokula. She couldn’t begin to guess how powerful they were. Reisil licked her lips, taking a slow breath, fear clamping her throat. But she couldn’t run. Kodu Riik would still be destroyed, not to mention the rest of the world and Cemanahuatl.

Sodur picked this out of her racing mind. She felt his urgency shoving at her with physical force. She pushed back, anger and resentment hardening in her chest.

“Do not try that again,” she said, her voice like metal.

You must go! To stay—to be caught—you will destroy Kodu Riik!

His frantic words lashed her mind and black streaks sizzled across her vision at their intensity. She doubled over, bracing herself against the rock shelf and locking her knees against the agonized clench of her body.

“To leave means the same.” It was all she could do to force get the words out. “The only hope is to continue. If I don’t save Mysane Kosk then Kodu Riik dies too.” Her body shuddered and spasmed as agony burrowed into her mind, chewing nerves and shredding bone.

No! They will not allow it! They will take you!

The battering on her mind redoubled. Reisil sobbed and fell to the ground.

Sudden fury erupted in her mind. A tearing beak and slashing talons. Saljane. The goshawk ripped at Sodur’s hold on Reisil’s mind. He gave a high-pitched yelp and reeled backward. Lume crouched, a growl sounding loud in his throat. Into the battlefield of Reisil’s mind bounded his animal presence. He howled and launched himself at Saljane, following Reisil’s mental tie to the goshawk. But Reisil had defeated a harder foe in Baku. Freed of Sodur’s onslaught, she snatched Lume and flung him forty paces to crash against the thick bole of an ancient hemlock.

There was a crackling sound like bones snapping, but Reisil couldn’t care. He vanished from her mind. Breathing heavily, she quickly reconstructed the blockade protecting her mind, holding fast to Saljane’s fierce strength.

Lume lay in a limp heap at the base of the tree. Sodur had not moved, had not made a sound. He might as well have been made of stone. Reisil could not read the expression on his face. And she would not open her mind again to hear his words.

When he continued motionless, watching her, she gritted her teeth and strode over to Lume, driven by her healer nature and the memory of the lynx. As she neared, the great beast’s skin began to wriggle and distort. Knobby shapes thrust angularly outward, distorting the silvery expanse of his hide. Reisil halted in her tracks, fear curling through her. It looked as if something was inside trying to escape. Then as abruptly as they began, the motions ceased. Long moments trickled past, marked only by the sough of the wind and the drip of the rain.

Suddenly Lume gave a loud chuff and rolled lightly to his feet, his brilliant silver eyes hard, his head ducked low. Reisil lunged away, her magic balled ready in her hands. But faster than a thought, Sodur rushed between, one taloned claw splayed over his companion’s face, the other held up curved and ready as he watched Reisil.

Reisil and Sodur stared at one another, held in place by threat and— Memories of Sodur skipped across Reisil’s mind. His kindness when she’d refused the bond with Saljane, his strength when she struggled to find out who she was, his guidance when she felt so lost. It hadn’t been all lies.

Magic pulsed through her. It filled her. Reisil gasped from the shredding pain of it. She felt like she was bleeding to death. Still she held, eyes fastened on the six curving scythes tipping Sodur’s claw.

“You were wrong before and you’re wrong now. If you want to help, convince your new friends to stay out of my way. You, too.”

His head tilted. Sodur remained a menacing statue. He would stay frozen, she realized slowly. Until he could speak to her again. She clung more tightly to Saljane.

Speak.

I can no longer resist them. They will have all I know.

Reisil didn’t answer for a long moment, realization dawning. A slight sigh escaped her.

You want me to kill you, to keep them from taking you. They have enough of you to keep you from doing it yourself, she said.

Yes.

There was a desperate wealth of hope in the word. Reisil could see the logic. Sodur knew so much about the ahalad-kaaslane, about her, and about Kodu Riik. That knowledge would could only help the nokulas. She shook her head, pulling her magic in and sending it back to where it belonged. She sagged as it drained away.

No.

He snarled. Reisil found herself smiling at his fury, her cheeks feeling cramped and stiff.

They already have other ahalad-kaaslane—who knows how many? They have the Iisand—I’m assuming he’s already gone to them, right? Reisil nodded at Sodur’s faint affirmative. And you have said they can read your mind. Likely the real damage is done. But there’s a chance you’ll still be able to help me. I don’t think they can make you or any other ahalad-kaaslane forget your vows to the Lady and this land.

She squared her shoulders.

“It’s a chance. You have to take it. I know, I know, the Lady wants me to save Mysane Kosk. And the nokulas. Tell them that. Tell them if the spell the wizards cast to create the nokulas isn’t stopped, it will destroy Kodu Riik. It will destroy the entire world. Maybe if they know that, they’ll give me time to find a way. But either way, it’s time you stopped sabotaging me and do something helpful.”

They will not risk letting you go free. You are too dangerous. Again pressure rose in her mind, hammering at her. Go!

She slammed her mental walls shut for the last time. She shook her head. “I’m going to Mysane Kosk. You do what you have to do.”

With that she turned and strode away in measured steps. Not running, though every minute she half-expected to be knocked to the ground. Her mouth was dry and she felt cold. She slipped through the mist between the trees. When she thought she was out of sight, she glanced over her shoulder and then jeered at herself. They could be right beside her for all she knew. She couldn’t see them unless they wanted to her to.

Could she?

Her steps faltered. Reisil stopped, turning. She refocused her eyes, looking about her with spellsight. The world glowed in muted pastel shades of life—the foundation of magic. But nothing else. So either they remained behind, or they were invisible still.

Reisil spun around and hurried through the darkness. She and Yohuac had to leave now. And they’d not stop again until they reached Mysane Kosk.

Saljane! Take Baku. Go to Mysane Kosk. Go now, fast as you can. Warn the others. I’m coming and bringing the wizards and nokulas with me.

For a moment Reisil thought of Tapit and smiled. Her blood roared and her hands trembled. But it wasn’t fear. She felt more like mother bear protecting her cubs. And she was done running.

What the Reviews say

There are many surprises and plot twists in the storyline; some so delightfully shocking and incredible that they will stun the reader as they are cleverly worked into the book and provide the unexpected. This is just part of the charm of PATH OF BLOOD, an entertaining and magical tale written by great worldbuilder Diana Pharaoh Francis. — SF Revu

PATH OF BLOOD is “as tasty as toasted almonds. A series I will definitely NOT be taking to the used book store. Recommended if you like fantasy trilogies with a different take on worldbuilding than your standard medieval fantasy”. — Speculative Romance Online Magazine

Francis is certainly not afraid to tell it how it is, delivery a robust, action-packed story….Whatever she writes next, I will be reading. — MyShelf.com

Francis has created a unique, fully-realized fantasy world that combines classic fantasy with coming of age. Worth the read, with one of the most stubborn heroines to ever meet her destiny. Save a few hours because it is hard to put down. — ConNotations