****This is a rough edit- and, due to Blogger, the formatting is hinky. BUT If you've read the first three books in The Lost Ancients series- ya might like a sneak at book 4- out January 2017****
The Sapphire Manticore
Elves sing worse than Crusty Bucket on a two-day bender.
You really would think a race of impossibly gorgeous and magical beings like elves would have voices to make the angels weep with envy. You’d be tragically wrong. For the past week, a band of elven knights, Alric, and I had been hiking through increasingly heavy woods, the trees getting denser as we headed west and ascended a series of small mountains. I love trees, I really do, but it felt like the forest around us was pushing against the knights’ singing and amplifying the horrifying sounds back at us. As I lay there in my tent, listening for the seventh evening straight to the warbling cries of a pack of pretty-but-tone-deaf elven knights, I found myself very grateful I’d never heard Alric sing. It might have put me off him for good.
Alric was asleep in the tent next to mine—at least I assumed he was asleep. His snoring was being drowned out by the horrible massacre of an innocent song taking place in the center of camp. That was another thing—Alric rarely snored. I’d heard him snore once, when he was exhausted and severely injured. Granted, after the events of the last week, he was probably both of those. Technically, he’d been one-step from death when Orenda and I pulled him away from that final path after he almost lost a fight against a syclarion.
He was starting to look better, at least from what I could tell, since the knights kept him and I apart as much as possible. Yet the snoring was getting worse.
The only thing possibly worse than the singing and the snoring was the fact that they sang the same long, over-dramatic dirges each night. In the same order. Moreover, they didn’t believe in drinking. That had to be a knight thing. I’d never seen Alric seriously drunk, but I’d seen him drink enough to know that elves drank. But not these sanctimonious knights.
They’d captured Alric and I right after saving us, and my friends, from a band of rakasa. Rakasa were a subterranean traveling tribe of nasty little creatures with huge heads and more teeth than I wanted to think about. We’d just fought off a band of syclarions and humans bent on claiming the latest deadly Ancient relic we’d found—the emerald dragon—for themselves, so none of us were in good shape when the rakasa attacked.
The elves hadn’t saved us out of the goodness of their hearts, though. They had been hunting Alric for a couple of weeks, even going so far as to trick a pair of changelings into working for them and impersonating Alric in my home town of Beccia for a few days. Alric was really pissed when we found out that they’d been behind that one. So mad he forgot to snore that night. The knights were after him in order to drag him back home to stand trial for stealing the very same Ancient artifact he’d given to them months ago—the glass gargoyle.
During the battle with the syclarions, I’d ended up with a magical sword that appeared out of thin air in front of me. It was a type of blade called a spirit sword—one of a group of magical elven blades that I knew nothing about. Evidently, Alric was also caller of one of them. The fact that Taryn St. Giles, a-non-elf—aka me—accidentally called one didn’t sit well with the elven knights, so I got dragged in on this trip as well. I’m not sure how I called the damn sword, but I made sure to send it back out of their reach before they tied me up. I wasn’t completely sure how I did that, either. Even now I felt it lurking around the edges of my psyche. Part of me wanted to call it to me and challenge the dozen badly singing knights out there to a fight and get Alric and me away from here.
If I could, which I couldn’t. Sadly, my sword fighting skills were nowhere near good enough to even think about challenging one of them. Not to mention that on the lives and continued freedom of my faeries and Bunky, my chimera construct, I had promised not to do that very thing. Yes, we were seven days away from them, but part of the deal had been that the knights would never go after them or tell their people about them—ever. I’d added the last part the first morning after I’d heard their singing. If I was going to suffer like that, the girls and Bunky needed to be safe forever.
Elves were strange. At least elven knights were. They’d been dispatched to bring Alric back at whatever cost. Yet, to bring me along without fighting, or calling the spirit sword in anyway, they swore not to tell their own people about important things like faeries.
Alric assured me they would keep their promise. Apparently, while he was a champion liar, the knights were made of different stuff. I assumed the rest of the elven people fell somewhere in between the two extremes.
That was another reason I wouldn’t call the sword and fight my way free. I’d always been interested in the elves and the mysterious race that vanished before them, the Ancients. Now I was going to see an honest to goddess hidden elven enclave.
Granted, not completely of my own will, and not under great circumstances, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about finally seeing what had become of the elves when they left the rest of the world behind over one thousand years ago. Yet if this trip took much longer, and the knights kept singing every night, I was going to be completely mad by the time I got there.
The elves’ most recent attempt at calling large antlered wildlife to them cut off with a suddenness that was as shocking as it was welcome. This wasn’t routine. I could recite the complete set of their songs and lyrics by heart and would probably be able to continue to do so when I was old and gray. Providing I got to live that long, at any rate. For them to stop before finishing their line-up—even worse, stop mid-lyric—was unheard of.
Even Alric’s snoring stopped.
I waited a few moments and rolled to my knees when nothing happened. The silence was so thick outside my tent I feared I’d finally lost my hearing from listening to the dirges night after night.
I’d just geared myself up to peel back the flap of my tent when the ground rocked underneath me. I swore as soon as my ass hit the ground. Earthquakes were exceedingly bad news. They were often tied to those nasty little rakasa. After the trouncing the elven knights gave them, I’d hoped they’d taken off far, far away. Or at least stayed hidden to regroup so I could freak out about them another time. Nevertheless, the most immediate source of my swearing was that my ass hit a sword that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
I slid the sword out from under my butt to make sure it was the same one I’d called during the fight seven days ago. It was. Elaborate and beautiful with markings deep in the blade, it was literally and figuratively a gorgeous pain in the ass. “You can’t be here,” I whispered to it. Yes, I felt silly. But if the thing could come and go as it pleased, it might be able to understand me. “Seriously, you know these elves. They seem to think they can control you if you hang around.”
The hilt felt a bit warm to my hand. Great, not only was I calling some mystical elven blade without knowing how, it was also now talking to me. Or the events of the last few months were finally driving me crazy.
The sword wasn’t going anywhere, no matter how hard I thought about leaving, so I dropped it onto my blankets and stuck my head out of the tent. The knights were all serious killers now. They had formed a circle with their backs to the fire. Swords out, and while they weren’t in full armor at the time, they still stood as if they wore it.
We all waited for something to happen. Well, everyone was waiting except Alric. He’d stopped snoring, but I’d figured he’d be out there looking for whatever was causing the trouble regardless of his ability to stop it. But the flap of his tent hadn’t moved.
Not that Alric couldn’t fight. Right now he was blocked from calling his sword—unlike mine, his listened to the knights’ decree—and both of us had our magic blocked by these lovely pendants the knight captain had dropped around our necks the first night on the road. Whichever of the knights had been running a blanketing spell on our magic when they first captured us, apparently couldn’t hold it forever.
The very first night I received a nasty little jolt from the lime green pendant just by thinking of magic. Now it had settled down to where I could think about those things, I just couldn’t reach for magic. Except for whatever magic was pulling that damn sword to me.
I turned around and saw that the blade had taken off again of its own accord. It had appeared five times since the fight back at the ruins, and each time it was when I was freaking out about something.
One of the knights shifted back slightly, and a moment later the ground before him exploded.
A rakasa, looking bedraggled and in bad shape, leapt out of the hole and flung itself at the knight.
The creature was like most of its kind, about three feet tall, grayish skin, a head far too big for its body, and a mouth filled with far too many sharp, tiny, teeth. This one looked even skinnier than usual. The rags that served as clothing really were rags as opposed to a fashion choice.
It was amazing how much detail one could absorb in a split second when terror was flooding the brain.
I went back to my pile of bedding—if that damn sword showed up when I was scared, then it should be in my hand now—but no sword.
“Seriously?” I pushed aside my blankets, but nothing. I wished for about the thousandth time since this unwanted trip began that my best friend Covey, or even Harlan, was with me. Even if they didn’t have ideas about dealing with the stupid sword, they might at least make me feel better.
The noise outside of the tent wasn’t good, and I shouldn’t go out there without a weapon and with no magic. Yet some messed up part of my head kept telling me that I had to see what was happening. Curiosity was a serious issue with me.
The elven knights slaughtered the rakasa when they first met them five days ago. Just one should have been no problem.
I almost threw up when I looked out of the tent. The knight nearest the hole was lying on the ground clasping his ripped-out throat. The two knights closest to him were injured; one was limping, the other was holding his left arm oddly, but at least they were still alive. Luckily, at this point, the rakasa was not.
The knights pulled their dead comrade away from the hole, shoved the rakasa’s body down it, and began piling rocks, tree parts, anything solid they could find over the hole. One of them saw me and motioned for me to come out and help. I was technically their prisoner, but as so gruesomely demonstrated right in front of me, they might be my only protection against ending up like the knight lying behind the fire now.
I shot a quick glance toward Alric’s tent, but the flap hadn’t even moved. I debated darting over there to make sure he was okay, but the knight who had motioned to me was still watching and looking pissed. I didn’t think they’d hurt me, at least not until they got home and had me in front of their superiors. Then again, I also didn’t think they could sing that badly. Obviously, my knowledge about living elves was pretty faulty.
I made sure to stay within their eyesight. They were jumpy enough that I didn’t want them freaking out that I might be trying to run away. Silently, I found a few more large rocks and dragged them over the hole.
I didn’t know if the rakasa had tunnels all over the place, or if they made them as they went. Some of the larger rakasa holes we’d found a month ago had clearly used pre-packaged spells and blasting sticks. But they seemed to be able to travel quickly underground which would need more than purchased explosives.
The hole we were filling in was barely wide enough for a child to crawl into. That and the fact only one came through, not a swarm, told me this one might have been on his own.
Which meant working this hard to cover the hole was pointless. Not to mention if they could dig their own holes without blasting powder, there was no reason they couldn’t pop up anywhere around here.
I so wanted to go climb a very large tree right now and stay up there for a few days.
“You could just put it down.” Alric’s voice came from right behind me. Unfortunately, I had no idea he was out of his tent, let alone hovering over me. So I couldn’t be blamed for throwing the small rock I had in my hand into the air. Nor should I be blamed for accidently almost hitting one of the knights with it.
“Or you could do that.” Alric dropped his voice so low I almost didn’t hear him over the yelling of the knight in question. “I wouldn’t recommend it though.”
“To arms! We’re under attack!”
I spun completely around, expecting to see all of the knights aiming their swords in my direction. Apparently, none of them had been looking my way and had no idea where the rock came from.
That wouldn’t last long if Alric let out the laugh I could tell he was holding in. I shot him a glare and he dropped it, replacing the look with one of appropriate concern at the situation.
As irritated as I was with him both for sneaking up on me, then laughing about the result, it was good to see Alric smile. Because of the spell Orenda and I had used to try to save his life after fighting off the syclarion guards, Alric’s ability to glamour was gone, and his hair was starting to fade to its normal blond since he didn’t have access to dye.
Therefore, the Alric I’d known over the past six months or so wasn’t the one standing before me. Like the knights now fortifying our camp, Alric was a pureblooded elf. Like their leader, Alric was also an elven high lord. It appeared to be a genetic bloodline thing and the distinctive marking on his left cheek—a light-colored, rune-like symbol—was now very noticeable. Alric as I mostly knew him looked either like a very handsome human, with black hair and green eyes, or a half–elf. Alric without his glamour was a blond-haired, emerald-eyed, poster child for the Elves-Are-Insanely-Good-Looking fan club.
Without the glamour his eyes were wider, greener, and slightly tilted up at the ends. The elven lord rune on his cheek seemed to be placed to accent his high cheekbones, even though I’d found out he’d been born with it.
He was a good couple of inches taller than me, slender but with enough muscles to fill out a shirt and pair of pants nicely. He was also intelligent, crafty, sneaky, and possibly the love of my life.
I was still dealing with the last bit.
Alric and I had been having a rough time as of late. His pretending to be someone else yet again—and lying to me and everyone else as well—made it hard to create anything sort of like a real relationship. Alric’s first duty was to his people—a clan of elves that, like most all of them, had been hiding for the last thousand or so years. They were content to let the rest of the world think they’d vanished like the Ancients before them. They’d sent Alric out to spy on the outside world, to see if they could come out of hiding, but more importantly to track down a dangerous relic from the time of the Ancients—the glass gargoyle.
I’d met him when he became a high-paying bounty in my home town of Beccia and I was reluctantly working as a bounty hunter when one too many of my digger patrons died and I had rent to pay. He didn’t stay captured and had been a messy part of my life ever since.
When he’d almost died in my arms seven days ago, I realized I’d fallen in love with the bastard.
“There’s nothing more for you two to do.” The captain of the elven knights finally noticed Alric and me standing about. “Go back to your tents.”
Alric gave a silent, florid bow to the knight, winked at me, and sauntered toward his tent. He wasn’t happy his people were accusing him of being a traitor and stealing from them, but he wasn’t going to let these knights see it.
I went to follow him and a zip of blue flew across my sight line in the trees. I shook my head. The only being I knew who was that small, and blue, was my faery, Crusty Bucket. However, she, along with everyone else I cared about in the world, should be on her way to Beccia. To lay low, stay safe, and hope the mayor of Kenithworth didn’t come after them when he found his soldiers and syclarion enforcers dead at our former dig site.
I peered into the trees, but I didn’t want to annoy the elven captain by taking too long to obey. I must have been imagining things. The faeries were far from here. They had to be far from here. I was being cautious by watching that spot as I went back to my sad little tent.
I studiously ignored the vision of second blur, a green one this time, that I caught just as I entered my tent.