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The Curse in the Gift (The Last Whisper of the Gods Book 2)
 


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The Curse in the Gift (The Last Whisper of the Gods Book 2)


  The Curse in the Gift

  Volume 2 of The Last Whisper of the Gods series

  By James Berardinelli

  © 2015 James Berardinelli

  Cover art by Jacob Atienza

  Map by James Berardinelli

  Table of Contents

  PROLOGUE: THE CURSE

  CHAPTER ONE: SILENCE FROM THE SOUTH

  CHAPTER TWO: PLIGHT OF THE HUNTED

  CHAPTER THREE: LESSONS LEARNED

  CHAPTER FOUR: THE LORD OF FIRE

  CHAPTER FIVE: THE MAW OF THE CRAGS

  CHAPTER SIX: THE HERALD’S TALE

  CHAPTER SEVEN: TWO QUESTIONS

  CHAPTER EIGHT: DONNING SACKCLOTH

  CHAPTER NINE: THE HEAT OF PREPARATION

  CHAPTER TEN: THE VISE CLOSES

  CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE PORTAL’S CALL

  CHAPTER TWELVE: THE MISSING TRIO

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN: THE BROKEN COVENANT

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN: AN ARMY AT IBITSAL

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN: THE PRELATE’S GAMBIT

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN: THE SHORT ROAD

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: THE PRISONER’S ADVICE

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: A WATERY EMBRACE

  CHAPTER NINETEEN: THE LORD OF EARTH

  CHAPTER TWENTY: UNION OF EQUALS

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: THE IRON KING

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: A SECOND DEMONSTRATION

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: PRICES

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: TOURNAMENT

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: EVERYTHING CHANGES

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: THE CHALLENGE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: THE HEALING OF WOUNDS

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: RUTHLESS ENOUGH

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE: A CONFRONTATION

  CHAPTER THIRTY: ANOTHER KIND OF HEALING

  CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE: THE QUEEN’S REPAST

  CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: REMOVING THE STOPPER

  CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE: A STORM TO THE SOUTH

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: THE LAST DAY OF PEACE

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: THE FIRST DAY OF WAR

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX: THE BATTLE OF VANTOK

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN: REINFORCEMENTS

  CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT: THE TEARS OF A QUEEN

  PROLOGUE: THE CURSE

  As all ages begin, so must all ages end. The Age of Wonders, as men had come to call it, opened when the gods turned their attention from other matters to the world of Ayberia, where their creatures were spreading across the main continent and fashioning crude tools from the materials at hand. The Age of Wonders closed with the death of the gods. Nothing lasts forever and the gods, weary of the unending sameness of eternity, characterized by repetition and inactivity, simply decided to be no longer. For entities that had lasted since the dawn of time, the choice might have seemed precipitous, but they selected it with equanimity. Oblivion was an enviable state. Today, they were. Tomorrow, they would not be - not that the concept of time had any meaning for them. Tomorrows, todays, and yesterdays were much the same - an endless, unbroken cycle that would continue with or without them. They had set it in motion; they were not needed to keep it going.

  At the dawn of The Age of Wonders, the gods shared all the mysteries of the universe with their creations. They nurtured them and gave without bounds, expecting only worship in return. It was a small thing, but an important one. All parents desire the adoration of their children. Tribute fed the gods; they needed no other sustenance. It helped to keep the infinite loneliness of eternity at bay. They provided access to their powers of chaos and order, the means by which all things - earth, air, fire, water - were kept in balance. Men called this “magic”, but they were ill-prepared for the gift. They abused it. It changed them. They withheld their worship and began to look inward, not outward, for salvation. The gods were wroth.

  In response to the affronts of pride and arrogance, the gods stripped magic from the world and closed it off to their creations. They punished with famine and drought and deprivation. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Men wailed and the gods, in their infinite compassion, relented, but all was not as it had been. The secrets of magic were revealed only to four humans of every generation. Each was a master of one element. They called themselves “wizards.” There was a Lord of Fire, a Lord of Earth, a Lord of Air, and a Lord of Water. Only when one died could the mantle be passed to another. For many years as men count time, this was the way of things. But men by nature are imperfect and the gods had not reckoned on the corrupting influence of magic. A taint crept into the power and those who wielded it began to decay from its use. Body and mind, they would wither away to nothing, their lifespans drastically curtailed.

  Men were not dissuaded, however. They had so little time to begin with that the loss of years meant little if those years could be spent wreathed in glory. The gods watched with growing anger as the wizards accumulated more adulation, once again usurping what was due to the gods. With each successive generation, it worsened. Temples were built to honor the greatest of wizards. Men prayed to other men, venerating their magic-wielding fellows.

  The gods were kind and loving but they were also jealous. They retaliated against this blasphemy by once again stripping magic from Ayberia and its denizens. This time, when men wailed and gnashed their teeth, the gods were not moved. Stubbornly, men tried to touch magic, but death waited for those foolish enough to defy the prohibition of the gods. This judgment lay upon the world for nine centuries. Over that time, magic faded from the minds of men. Wizards became creatures of legend. The time of magic became a myth. But the gods did not forget.

  When it came time for the gods to depart, they knew they must once again bestow upon mankind the gift they had withdrawn. Only by doing so was there a hope for balance throughout the created universe, and Ayberia in particular. Caretakers were needed: beings elevated to a level where they could assure the future of the world by contending with one another until equilibrium was achieved. Nothing would be certain, of course, especially once the gods were gone. If one caretaker toppled the others, chaos would overwhelm balance and spread like a plague throughout creation. There was only so much that could be accomplished - the hope of a future, but no more than that. The gods were powerful and time had little meaning for them, but they were not omnipresent. So, with their last whisper, the gods gave a gift to Ayberia and then winked out of existence, leaving their whole of their universe to fend for itself. But within the gift lay a curse. For the taint remained and those who embraced magic would face not only a terrible hunger if they refused to use it but the decay of body and mind when they acceded.

  Such was the way of things when The Age of Wonders gave way to what would become known as The Age of Contention.

  CHAPTER ONE: SILENCE FROM THE SOUTH

  All of Vantok, greatest city of the South, lay before King Azarak as he gazed out over its buildings from the vantage of the rooftop gardens of his palace. This was his kingdom; these were his people. And they were dying. The relentless heat bubbling up from the area known as The Forbidden Lands was sapping the life of the city and the will of its citizens. If not for the low angle of the sun in the sky, one might easily assume it was a late Summer morning. But it was the second week of the warmest Winter Vantok had ever seen.

  Azarak’s cool blue eyes roved from left to right and back again, scanning the city he had come to love above all else. Even if everyone left Vantok, he would remain, ruler of a ghost city. A welcome breeze stirred from the north, teasing with a reminder of the cold which held sway as close as a week’s walk away. It ruffled Azarak’s short-cropped reddish-brown hair and brought a flicker of
a smile to his lips. His face, with its bronzed skin and slight goatee, looked older than its 27 years. Even dressed informally in a light tunic and loose pants, Azarak looked every inch a king.

  Yet even as he scanned the quiet majesty of his city, Azarak found his eyes drifting to the south, drawn like iron to a lodestone to the distant horizon.

  Where is he?

  It had been eight weeks since Sorial and his four companions departed on their quest to penetrate The Forbidden Lands on a search for the portal of Havenham. The trip should have taken no more than three weeks in each direction. There should have been word by now. The silence was stubborn and spoke of ill possibilities. As each day passed with no news, Azarak became increasingly convinced of the mission’s failure. The why of it hardly mattered. They could have been killed seeking their goal or Sorial might have been rejected by the portal. At best, they might have become lost or been unable to find the portal, but even those possibilities weren’t encouraging. Prelate Ferguson, the orchestrator of the journey, seemed unconcerned, arguing that expectations of anything less than a full season were unreasonable. He claimed he wouldn’t contemplate the loss of Sorial and his fellows until Winter was done. But Azarak was a pragmatist and he couldn’t share what he deemed to be irrational optimism.

  Of course, if Sorial returned today, there would be a problem. His intended bride, the Lady Alicia, had fled Vantok seven weeks ago and hadn’t been heard from since. All indications were that she had gone north in the company of a paid man-at-arms, a rogue of Sorial’s acquaintance, and Sorial’s mother. Aside from a few early sightings on the road to Basingham, they hadn’t been seen. Azarak’s best spies were looking for her, but they were frustrated in their efforts by bad weather and worse luck. Perhaps it was just as well that Sorial had vanished.

  Objectively, it was a beautiful morning. With the full brutality of Summer’s heat in retreat, this was the kind of day when being outside was a joy. The market would be abuzz, farmers would be in their fields, and children would be playing in the streets. It was almost enough to make one forget how dire Vantok’s future might be. The latest census put the permanent population in excess of 25,000 souls, all of whom might be homeless, rootless wanderers in another year or two. No matter how he wracked his brain, his thoughts returned to a single question: how did one combat magic if not with magic?

  * * *

  The trial of Lieutenant Horspath lasted longer than expected, consuming not only the entire morning, but the first few hours of the afternoon. The throne room, where the proceedings were held, was filled to capacity. Ever since Horspath’s arrest, there had been great interest in how the king would rule. The lieutenant was a well-liked and respected leader of the Watch. His men would lay down their lives in defense of his reputation. But he was accused of a long list of crimes against the men and women he was supposed to protect. The citizenry - at least the peasants - wanted blood.

  Azarak had appointed Horspath to his current position, so the king felt a burden of responsibility for the man’s actions, which included extortion, intimidation, theft, and most likely murder. Yet, although he was the highest ranked member of the Watch to stand trial for offenses of this sort, he wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last. Since Azarak had instituted mandatory conscription, opportunists had invaded the guards’ ranks. Weeding them out was a necessary and unpleasant business but, like all unwanted growth, once one was extracted by the roots, another would replace it.

  The people demonized Horspath, turning him into a scapegoat for all the ills suffered over the past two seasons. It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provided the demoralized citizens of Vantok a tangible focus for their bitterness. On the other hand, it meant that the trial was a sham. If Azarak found the man innocent or pronounced too lenient a sentence, riots would be unavoidable. Fortunately, Azarak was convinced of Horspath’s guilt on a majority of the charges. However, his decision to impose a prison term of no less than 10 years in Vantok’s deepest, dankest dungeons wasn’t met with universal approval. Most of those in attendance were hoping for, and expecting, the headsman to gain a new client.

  Ten minutes after the ordeal was over, Azarak was seated in his private audience chamber, the windowless room where most of the real business of governing was done. He had doffed the heavy robes of state he always wore while in public, but was still regally attired. The heavy, gem-encrusted crown of Vantok had been replaced by a lighter circlet.

  By his side stood Toranim, his close advisor and friend. Thirty-three years’ Azarak’s senior, the older man had been chancellor to the king’s father as well as one of Azarak’s teachers. Toranim had aged noticeably since the days when his wooden stick would rap his unruly pupil’s knuckles, but he was still a commanding figure. His once-dark hair had gone gray and he had recently begun sporting a mustache. His steely eyes were as lucid as ever and, despite his advancing age, his mind showed no slippage. He was a handspan taller than his liege so, when they stood together in public, he was careful to stand far enough behind Azarak to make them appear to be of the same height.

  There was one other man in the room, sitting across the broad table from the king. Still in chain link armor with the dust of the road on his clothing and in his hair, he had been ushered in to see Azarak immediately upon his arrival. The king knew the soldier on sight: Kubrizik, one of the scouts sent on a mission to the region bordering The Forbidden Lands. He was the first to return.

  The soldier drank deeply from a chilled goblet of wine to wash the dirt of the journey from his mouth before turning his attention to the king. He was clearly weary, having ridden hard for three days to deliver his report. It was succinct and to the point: something was happening in The Forbidden Lands. He didn’t know what, but all was not as expected. He had found numerous nomad encampments recently inhabited and newly abandoned. There were no traces of the men and no indication where they had gone. In fact, during the week he had patrolled the border, he had seen no one else, living or dead, but ample evidence existed that people had been there as recently as several days before his arrival. The heat assailing Vantok lessened the closer one got to The Forbidden Lands, approaching what could be considered “normal” for this time of the year.

  After hearing Kubrizik’s report and asking a few questions, Azarak dismissed the man so he could return to his wife and children. The king pondered quietly for a few moments before motioning for Toranim to take the seat the solider had vacated so they could face each other as they discussed what this might mean.

  “What’s the total number of men we sent to The Forbidden Lands?” Azarak knew the approximate figure but wanted specifics.

  “Twenty to patrol the border, either singly or in pairs. A lone group of six was sent to penetrate into the region. And eight more were dispatched last week to search for Sorial and his party.”

  “I suppose others might yet return.” Azarak’s voice held no trace of optimism.

  “It’s possible, Your Majesty, but they’re all overdue. It appears Kubrizik was overlooked by whatever eliminated our scouts.”

  “Overlooked or allowed to escape. His observations may be designed to provide us with a message; the difficulty is in decoding it. What are they trying to tell us?”

  “It could be an attempt to hide something transpiring in The Forbidden Lands. Our scouts are our eyes - put them out and we’re blind.”

  “Perhaps,” acknowledged Azarak. “But I think it’s an invitation. He, whoever he is, wants me to send more men, proceed with a large force into The Forbidden Lands to investigate. Divide and conquer. Whatever portion of Vantok’s army he can destroy there leaves fewer men to face when he comes north. You know as well as I do that one of the most basic tactics of war is to choose your battlefield.”

  “If you’re right, this is another sign that war is coming. Should I send more scouts?”

  Azarak disliked the idea of deploying men on suicide patrols, but he needed information. More importantly, he needed to know when
and if troops were spotted moving north. “Volunteers only, in groups of no less than three. Offer them double pay for the duration. They aren’t to penetrate The Forbidden Lands yet and they’re to turn back if threatened in any way. Engagement with the enemy is a last resort. I want messengers on fast horses actively moving between all patrol groups at all times and as soon as anyone is reported missing, the operation is to be suspended.”

  “It won’t be enough. You know we’ll lose men.” Toranim’s voice was somber.

  “I know, but maybe we’ll learn something useful, like how they’re killing well-armed, trained soldiers when the only inhabitants are supposedly ill-equipped nomads, hunters, and traders who avoid direct contact with city-dwellers unless they have something to sell.”

  “As you command, Your Majesty.”

  Scouts dying in and near The Forbidden Lands was a bad sign, but there was one young man above all others whose life or death most concerned him. Without magic, Azarak didn’t think he could win this war.

  * * *

  Several days later, Azarak received a request for a private audience from a priest named Farber, a member of Prelate Ferguson’s inner circle. There was little to distinguish Brother Farber from the hundreds of men of similar rank who had succeeded within the cloistered confines of the religious life. One of the objectives of the Temple was to depress individuality so active members of the order were encouraged to look and dress alike: anonymous gray robes, a tonsured head, shaved eyebrows and no facial hair, and meticulously manicured fingernails. As was common among the devout, the small finger on his left hand had been removed at the first knuckle. That one so young - Farber couldn’t have been much beyond the early years of his third decade - had risen so far within the Temple hierarchy bespoke of commitment and intelligence. Ferguson surrounded himself only with the best and the brightest.

  To accommodate Farber’s request for secrecy, Azarak and Toranim agreed to meet the priest in the private audience chamber rather than a more public locale where such a session would customarily occur. It was unlikely, however, that the prelate would remain ignorant of the meeting. The palace staff was peppered with spies whose primary loyalty was to Ferguson; little that went on within these walls remained hidden from the prelate unless Azarak went to great pains to achieve that goal.

 
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