Path of Blood
The Path of Fate Trilogy, Book Three
Path of Blood
Open Road Media
Originally published by:
Roc (May 2, 2006)
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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….
Praise for Path of Blood:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.”