Book 1 Chapter 19

Nothing felt right in Nefol anymore, not since the day TsuYa took leadership of the city. KoGuRai wasn’t much of a feely-feely guy, but even he could see the shadows that ghosted through the streets. Once he washed the sour taste of defeat from his mouth, it wasn’t hard to tell that something was happening there, something that TsuYa, in all his short-sighted glory, didn’t seem to perceive.

Or isn’t allowed to know about.

People were coming up missing. A few at first, but now more and more often. Others were starting to talk about it. Fear crept over the hushed words of the common people. Nefol was no longer the safe haven it had once been.

For KoGuRai, happiness fled from the city years ago, when his father set out on a mission and never returned. With a heart full of spite and vengeance, he took his father’s place on the Council, enacting plans that would bring Nefol to its knees.

But this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

Now he was set on leaving the city. It was forsaken by their so-called Patron anyhow.

Once I get things organized, Mother and I will head out for the Gatherings. I’m sure some of the Rai clan will take us in.

KoGuRai kept his head down, hooded and obscured as he crept through the streets. He was surprised that TsuYa didn’t order action against him when his rival took control of the Council. Maybe he had other things on his mind. Or maybe something else, something bigger, was keeping TsuYa from his revenge.

It’s not like him to put off things. I thought he’d have shoved that scythe down my throat by now.

Either way, KoGuRai wasn’t going to risk the chance of being spotted, not when he was so close to leaving. The time would be right soon enough, but knew he had to do it properly to avoid being followed or hunted down.

I don’t know what Tsu will do if he finds me. But I’m not going to stick around and find out.

His boot squelched as he slid around a dark corner into an even darker alley.

That didn’t sound pleasant.

KoGuRai paused, hesitant to look down. When he did, he wished he hadn’t.

Several tiny skitter corpses lay in different states of mutilation, strewn across the grimy stone. Skitters were a normal enough rodent to find in Nefol — small, furry and quite the pain in a city. They were prey for larger creatures, and KoGuRai had seen his share of dead skitters in the past. But this was something different.

Under the looming shadow, only a few feet away, a rather large skitter hunched over the torn form of another, feasting in grotesque relish. KoGuRai felt his stomach churn at the sight of it. While skitters did eat whatever they could scavenge, meat and all, eating each other wasn’t normal.

Not knowing why, the man reached over, grabbed a nearby bottle and lobbed it at the creature’s turned back. Two unfortunate things happened; his aim was off by more than he would have liked, and he earned the skitter’s very annoyed attention.

“Ugh!” KoGuRai pulled back as the skitter faced him. Nauseous revulsion consumed his senses.

Two dripping black eyes peered out of a half-rotted head, where strips of black flesh and matted fur hung in various stages of decomposing melt. Clumps of body were simply missing, exposing dark rot and bone, a nightmarish and twisted impossibility moving before his eyes. Its mouth opened, emitting a terrible scream before rushing KoGuRai with bristled aggression.

Ancient Rai instincts moved his body. Before he could think straight, KoGuRai swept out his spear and plunged the point into the creature. That’s when he realized his third mistake.

Oh, Lord Zemi’s Light!

The creature burst apart on contact, pieces splattering to join the fallen bodies of the others. Parts of it still writhed, the head screaming in fury as the bottom of KoGuRai’s boot crushed down on its brittle skull.

The smell!

It was all he could do to not sick-up on top of the scene. Instead, he stumbled out of the alley, shaking his spear rapidly. Splotches of discoloration marred the bone where the black blood sizzled and smoked, eating into the weapon’s blade. With a shout, KoGuRai kicked off his boot, just in time to see the hole spreading through the sole, too.

What was that thing?!

Gathering his senses as well as he could, KoGuRai thrust the spear tip into the nearest rain barrel, rapidly washing the blood off the point. He didn’t dare touch it… already the spear blade was pitted and brittle.

Leaning his back against the wall, he fought to calm the drumming of his heart and catch his breath. Sickness still wracked his body, his hands shaking on the haft of his weapon. If he had any doubts as to the darkness that was infecting Nefol, they were all blown from his mind now.

As KoGuRai grappled with the bitter thoughts, he heard the sound of running feet in the distance. He side-stepped into the shadows, his ears tracing the motion. More than one person. They seemed to be approaching. Heavy breathing – they had been running for a while.

“Don’t stop… don’t stop!” a voice confirmed his thoughts. “We’re almost to the wall.”

KoGuRai ducked back behind a stack of crates as three shadows rushed past him. He remained unseen as they scrabbled towards the tall stone city wall. The structure was easily three times their height, hewn of rough and uninviting stone.

They’re going to climb it? Are they nuts?

Nefol’s gates were generally guarded, but mostly against things trying to get inside. People who were attempting to sneak out any other way were certainly up to no good.

The echo of more armored feet sounded sharply off the buildings, causing KoGuRai to duck back again.

Or being chased with no other option.

“Hoist her!” one voice called. “Quickly… I hear them!”

The two larger shapes lifted the third smaller one, pushing it up the side of the wall. KoGuRai could make out the delicate features of a child swathed in a long, heavy cloak. A little girl’s hand reached up in desperation along the stone, but she wasn’t high enough to see the top.

“I can’t!” her voice sobbed down to them.

“Use your wings!” a man’s voice told her.

In one word, the world froze around KoGuRai.


“I can’t!” she cried again.

“Drop the cloak! We don’t have a choice!”

One of the men pulled the heavy cloak away from the girl’s back. It was like KoGuRai’s memories-turned-reality — a pair of moon-lit wings spread from her shoulders… smaller and more fragile. Perhaps very new.

So much like JouKa…

Despite the wings, the girl clung to the face of the stone, petrified with fear. She obviously didn’t know how to use them, and they appeared to weigh her down in the process of wall climbing more than anything else.

That’s when the armored footfalls rounded the corner.

“I’ll buy time! Get her out of here!” one of the men barked, turning to face the incoming group.

A spiral of light enveloped him, his own wings unfurling with a brilliant pulse of energy. They were wide and large, the wings of one who knew flying well. As the shimmer of the feathers drew inwards, the man pulled his weapon from his side and advanced without fear.

The wings seemed a whole lot less scary when KoGuRai got a glimpse of the other men who just joined the fray. Something about them felt wrong, in the same way the infected skitter in the alley had. Shadows seemed to dance around their feet in ways that shadows should not move. Their bodies were lined with strange blue runes, flickering ghostly in the moonlight. KoGuRai couldn’t tell if the runes were part of their heavy leather armor, or etched into their skin.

The man holding the girl threw his cloak over one shoulder, his own wings outlined in soft energies. He grasped the girl around the waist, securing her before beating his wings downward. Half-leaping for the top of the wall, he struggled to lift the weight of himself and the girl together.

The clash of weapons and sparks of ghost-light filled the alley. KoGuRai could only see shapes and motions, illuminated by random pulses of chilling blue. The lone winged man fought off four others, desperate to block their path long enough for his companions to escape.

The runed warriors tore into the battle without mercy. They quickly overwhelmed the lone winged fighter, weapons ripping into his body and sending feathers scattering into the night. If they had any remorse in the slaughter, KoGuRai couldn’t see it. Instead, they pressed forward, making for the two other winged figures with intense speed.

“Give us the girl!” one demanded. It was disorienting to think that the runed shape had a voice that sounded anything like a person’s.

The other winged man drew his weapon in response, still fighting to hold the girl upwards in his free hand, “You have to go! You have to fly!”

The girl’s voice broke in a scream as the runed warriors leapt on the winged man, dragging him to the ground. She was left to dangle, clutching the stone on her own. KoGuRai could see her strength giving out. There was no way she was going to make it to the top of the wall.

Her grip came loose, wings flailing as she fell with a thump. While the warriors were still busy with the lone winged man, she had enough sense to push herself up on her hands and knees and make a stumbling run.

Right for his hiding spot.

Oh no! Not here!

Chills prickled over his skin as her winged form appeared at the corner of the crates. She froze, not expecting to see someone hiding there.

He froze, too, peering up to meet the pleading green-eyed stare. Tears ran tracks through the grime on her face. She struggled forward a little, mouthing the word “please” over and over again. Begging him.

All KoGuRai could do was stare at the girl, the memories of JouKa filling his vision. One hand twitched, with the natural urge to do the right thing. But as the sound of the armored footsteps came closer, KoGuRai didn’t dare move. The girl gave a cry as a large hand lifted her from the ground, pulling her back around the side of the crates again.

“We’ve got her,” a gruff voice said.

“Take her to the Spire. And bring the bodies of the others… I’m sure there’s something XaNi can do with them. Make it unseen,” ordered another voice.

“Yes sir,” the armored footfalls began to move away from him.

KoGuRai held his breath, pressing against the crates. The girl’s cries bore sharply into his mind — he knew they were meant for him. Begging him to do something. He couldn’t respond. To make himself known would mean a death like the winged men. Instead, he hid, shivering there for a very long time, until the cries faded into nothing more than an echo of fear in his mind.