The Soul Forge (chapter one sneak peak)
I now have the final cover for The Soul Forge, the third book in my Sacred Guardian series (fantasy/adventure, m/m romance). I'm really excited about it as it means we are that much closer to actually publishing the book! *bounces happily*
Scroll down and click the cut link to read a sneak preview of Chapter One in the story.
The country of Kazure bows under the shadow of war as the Shindori lords from the east continue to wage their holy crusade. Kaori Sansa, the High Lord of Kazure, is desperately searching for a way to defend his people while he struggles to determine which of the lords in his own country can be trusted to see the war through. Meanwhile, Hunter confronts his inner demons as the horrors of his past come back to haunt him, and he comes face to face with the criminal organization that enslaved him as a child. Both men must fight to uphold their oaths—both to Kazure and to each other—while the forces gathering around them are doing everything in their power to bring them down.
Chapter One sneak preview:
At night, the forest surrounding Heaven's Gate palace in the capital city of Tenkai was a warren of interconnecting trails and shifting shadows. The branches of the trees in its deeper reaches hung heavy with moss, obscuring even the minimal light of the stars. There was no telling when a path might take an unexpected turn into a secluded grove of untellable beauty, or delve into dark places too terrible to traverse. The darkened paths hid vales and vistas, tombs and treasures, and shrines to gods forgotten in these lands for generations.
Through that otherworldly realm, the hunter and his apprentice traveled.
A thin shaft of moonlight made its way through the canopy, illuminating an unusual formation of stones at the head of the trail. Possibly the stones were the work of nature; possibly they had been placed there by human hands for some unguessable purpose. Thick undergrowth choked the sides of the path; the hunter's eyes gleamed with relish as he reached for the knife at his belt and began to cut his way forward through the thicket.
"Why do I always have to be the apprentice?" Rin complained loudly, tripping over an exposed tree root.
Malo closed his eyes and told himself firmly that he wasn't going to sigh. Sighing in exasperation was unbecoming of the heir to the throne of Kazure, no matter how trying his adopted little brother was at times.
"I explained this," he said with exaggerated patience. "I get to be the hunter because I've been taking survival training with Kaori. I'm supposed to be practicing my skills."
"You're supposed to be in bed," Rin pointed out, annoyingly. "Kaori thinks we're both asleep right now."
"It's not the same playing out here in the daytime." A defensive note crept into Malo's voice despite his best efforts to suppress it. "I didn't have to bring you with me, you know."
Rin just looked at him, his eyes gleaming silvery blue in the moonlight. Suppressing a shiver, Malo looked away.
It was disconcerting how his little brother just seemed to know things sometimes, like he could read souls as easily as most people read expressions on faces. Malo was aware that his brother had a gift, even if no one else acknowledged it. At times that made him feel extremely proud of Rin, and protective of him, but at other times it was just exasperating.
"All right," he admitted, turning back to cut at the bramble in front of them. "I wouldn't really have left you behind." The forest was creepy at night, after all, and even Malo's vaunted courage had its limitations. He chewed hard on his lower lip while he sawed at a particularly stubborn patch of thicket ahead of them. "How about next time I let you be the hunter?"
Rin's answering smile was all the reward Malo needed.
The two of them were especially close due to the circumstances that had brought them together. Both of them had been victims of an organized slavers ring that made a practice of slaughtering families and selling the children they stole on the black market. Malo tried not to think very hard about the days when he had been their prisoner, even though the memory of it was never very far from him.
Rin had been just another prisoner to him then, one of many. Rin was in the process of being sold to a buyer—for purposes that Malo didn't even want to imagine—when something inside Malo had broken. He'd launched himself at their masters, attacking them bodily with every bit of ferocity he had at his disposal, and in the ensuing chaos Rin had managed to escape. During his desperate flight through the streets Rin somehow crossed the path of Kaori Sansa, the High Lord of Kazure, and his attending bodyguards. Enraged over the thought of children being abused and sold like livestock, Kaori had immediately set out to liberate the rest of them.
Malo could still remember the sight of him, the day he'd come to rescue them. At first Malo had been unable to believe that this man was any more benign than the ones who had hurt him in the past, but Kaori's patient kindness eventually made it through to him. It took some doing, but Malo finally allowed himself to be brought to the capital with the rest of the refugees to be looked after there. He was put in charge of watching over the other children, and it was that task more than any other that gave him the focus he needed to start breaking free of the violence of his past.
While the rest of the rescued children were being placed with new families to replace the ones they had lost in the slavers' raids, Malo resigned himself to the fact that no one would ever want him. He didn't blame them for it; he was too volatile, too untrusting. But Kaori had surprised him again. He approached Malo and asked him to consider the possibility of staying at Heaven's Gate not as a guest, but as Kaori's adopted son. He was very serious when he described what that would mean: Malo would become heir to the throne of Kazure, would in fact be the High Lord just as Kaori was someday. There would be a great deal of responsibility placed on him if he chose to accept the offer.
In the end Malo agreed to become his son not because of the eventual power that would pass on to him, but because the thought of being a part of Kaori's family was too seductive to deny. Kaori was mated to one of his bodyguards now, a member of the elite Assassins Guild named Hunter, who had also had a role in rescuing the children from the slavers. Malo looked up to both of them and felt incredibly honored that they would choose him to be a part of their family.
It got even better when the same offer was extended to Rin, whom Malo had grown quite attached to. Rin would be a part of their family as well, although as the eldest it fell on Malo to be the High Lord's successor. Rin didn't seem to mind; in fact, Malo doubted he would have agreed to the arrangement if he had been expected to follow in Kaori's footsteps the way Malo was. He was quieter than Malo, less impulsive, with a healthy fear of strangers and a stubborn shyness around even people he had known for a long time. Malo knew the younger boy's reticence was a result of the treatment he had received from the slavers, which lingered in dreams for both of them even after all this time. Perhaps it was a memory that would never leave them.
Hunter said that such memories could provide strength, once you learned how to use them. Malo had the impression he had been through trauma of his own in the past, although if that was true he didn't speak about it to anyone—except maybe Kaori. In any case, Malo felt a kinship to him that went beyond the formal documents that made him a member of the Sansa family. The two of them were alike in ways that Malo was only beginning to appreciate, which made him feel closer to Hunter in some ways than he did even to Kaori.
A hand on his shoulder brought him back to himself with a start. He realized he had been staring into the darkness for quite a while now, reminiscing. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Rin's solemn face gazing at him with the faintest of smiles, almost invisible in the shadows.
"It's good, isn't it?" Rin said.
Of course Rin knew what he'd been thinking about; he always did. "Yeah," Malo said. "It is." He had a home, a brother, two fathers, and a future he could scarcely imagine to look forward to. Things were very good, indeed.
Rin yawned hugely then, his small fingers digging into Malo's shoulder. This time Malo did sigh, just slightly.
"It's late," he said, fighting back the stirring of guilt that rose in him for keeping the other boy up for so long. "We really should get you back to bed."
Rin's eyes brightened stubbornly. "I don't want to go back until you do."
"No, it's all right." They'd traveled for miles away from the palace already, daring the nighttime paths of the forest. "I'm about ready to head back, anyway." Shoving his knife back into his belt, he stood up and reached for Rin's hand.
If he was being honest with himself, his own eyes were growing dry and scratchy from exhaustion. It would feel good to crawl into the large, fleece-covered bed that was his and curl up to sleep, warmed by the fire in their room and gazing out his window at the moon where it sailed over the trees as he drifted off. The thought that such luxury could be his as a matter of course would have seemed laughable to him at one point in his life, but during the time since he'd come to live at the palace with Kaori he had grown quite accustomed to it.
He took a step down the path in the direction they'd come from and stopped, looking around at the trees. It was disconcerting how all of them looked pretty much the same in the darkness.
Rin looked up at him with a worried expression. "Malo?"
"It's all right." He refused to admit that he was getting nervous. He knew he'd cut their way through several patches of bramble to get here, but had they made the entry to this new path from over there? Or had they joined the path from further up the hill? The canopy was thick enough here that he couldn't see the sky, so he had no frame of reference to tell which direction would lead them back to the palace. He was sure they'd been traveling east when they left earlier that evening, but which way was east? If he chose the wrong direction, he knew they could walk for hours without ever coming across civilization.
The low rustle of a branch in the darkness made him jump. He reflexively reached for his knife with one hand, pulling Rin to stand behind him. Shielding the smaller boy with his body, he bared his teeth and tensely faced the figure he could see separating from the shadows of the brush beside them. He found it difficult to hear over the frantic thundering inside his chest; he was certain at first that they'd had the misfortune to stumble across a murderous bandit, or a demon, or some other dark denizen of the forest. Then the indistinct figure resolved into the outline of a tall, slender man dressed in dark clothing and an impressive complement of weaponry.
Malo's hand clenched spasmodically around the hilt of his knife. "Naoki," he groaned. Embarrassment over his earlier terror made his face go hot.
Naoki Souboru was a quiet, dark man with quiet, dark eyes who always looked as if he were intensely aware of everything that was going on around him. He was a member of the royal Assassins Guild and had served as one of Malo and Rin's personal bodyguards ever since they agreed to become a part of Kaori's family.
"Forgive me, Master Malo," he said with a small smile, bowing slightly. "It seemed to me that you and Master Rin were in some manner of distress."
Malo bit back a word that Kaori would definitely not have approved of, anger tightening his insides. In truth, he wasn't sure who he was more annoyed with: Naoki, for being here even though Malo had been certain they'd left their security detail behind at the palace, or himself for being gullible enough to believe it.
The members of the Assassins Guild were without a doubt the best fighters in the entire country, although their preferred approach to fulfilling their duties was often stealth over brute strength. They were infamous for their skill at various fighting styles and their efficiency in carrying out the difficult—oftentimes clandestine—tasks that Kaori gave them. In addition, they were personally responsible for the High Lord's safety, and that of his family.
When Malo had first come to live at Heaven's Gate he had been immediately taken by the thought of joining their ranks. "Can I become a member of the Assassins Guild someday?" he'd asked, his mind filled with dreams of achieving the glory and notoriety that came of being one of the country's most legendary soldiers.
"You have a much higher calling now that Kaori has adopted you," Hunter had told him. "As heir to the throne of Kazure, you are a member of the Sansa family. It is the responsibility of the Assassins Guild to protect you now, in addition to the High Lord."
That thought was definitely going to take some getting used to. "And Rin, too?" he'd asked, to cover his confusion.
"And Rin, too," Hunter confirmed. "You are both members of the High Lord's family now, and heirs to both his power and his legacy. It is an important responsibility to live up to."
Part of that responsibility apparently included having a bodyguard follow him around every second of the day. One of Malo's favorite pastimes was attempting to elude them, although now he was beginning to wonder if he had actually succeeded in doing so as many times as he'd thought he had.
"It's getting late," Naoki said, with perfect deference. "Would you like me to escort you back to the palace so you can get ready for bed?"
Rin, not understanding that their honor was on the line, nodded sleepily and rubbed at his eyes. Malo ground his teeth in frustration.
"I suppose you're planning to tell Kaori we were out in the woods past our bedtime," he groused, releasing his grip on the knife in his belt and falling reluctantly into step at Naoki's side.
Naoki's steps were slow and sure, without so much as a pause to consider which direction to take. How on earth did the man know which way to go? It was like he carried a compass around inside his head. "So long as your safety hasn't been compromised," he said, "I see no reason to inform the High Lord of matters that would only upset him." There was a shadow of a smile on his face, so faint Malo might have imagined it.
Malo grunted under his breath and said nothing further on the matter. In his own way, Naoki wasn't really that bad.
Rin's hand was tight around his as they walked. True to form, he had fallen silent at the Guild member's appearance even though Naoki was someone he had become well acquainted with over the past months. Rin rarely spoke around others for all that he felt comfortable talking for hours on end to Malo. Malo wasn't entirely sure why that was, except that he knew Rin felt a bond with him from the time they'd spent together in the slavers' camps. The knowledge of that touched him, and humbled him in a way, because he felt the same bond. Even though they had been accepted into the royal family and were surrounded by friends and servants who would do anything for them, their past together was something only the two of them shared…and ever would.
"This is the old part of the forest," Naoki said, glancing around at the trees as they walked. "Among the servants who've lived at Heaven's Gate the longest, it's known as the Elderwilde."
"Elderwilde?" Rin echoed in a hushed voice, intrigued into forgetting his shyness for a passing moment.
"Yes, Master Rin." Naoki nodded down at him. "I don't think anyone really knows what's in there. No one much travels these paths anymore; I think most people have forgotten they're even here."
Malo strongly suspected that Naoki was only humoring them, substantiating their decision to venture deep into the forest to explore when they should have been safely abed. At the same time, he was excited at the idea that they might actually have found their way into a more mysterious part of the forest than they'd seen up until now. "Is the old forest more dangerous than the rest of it?" he asked.
"Who can say?" Naoki shrugged. "There are strange things in these lands. Old things. The High Lord's mother used to worship the goddess Ranmei in the woods behind the palace, and there are powers in this place more ancient still." Seeing the questioning gleam in Malo's eyes, he elucidated, "Shinja has always been alive in these lands, but ever since High Lord Kaori took the throne the Great Serpent's presence can be felt even more strongly."
Malo felt Rin's fingers tighten around his hand as a reflexive shiver passed through him. Shinja, the Sacred Guardian of Kazure, was most often depicted as a giant, winged serpent who answered to the call of the High Lord. Malo had heard the stories: Kaori had summoned the great serpent on more than one occasion to protect Kazure, and would do so again if their country's security was threatened. It was the reason the High Lord was held in such venerable status among their people; he, and he alone, had the power to call on the sacred beast. Someday, that power would fall on Malo when he took up the crown. He would be lying if he said the thought of it didn't intimidate him as much as it thrilled him.
They passed the rest of the trek back to the palace in silence. Soon, Malo began to recognize the trees and the slope of the land around them and knew he had returned to more familiar territory. He caught a glimpse of the bright magelighting that illuminated the palace courtyard and had to fight back a yawn as his body instinctively reacted to the nearness of home. He was tired, even if he didn't want to admit it, and he was looking forward to sleeping in his warm, safe bed.
Naoki escorted them to the corridor outside the bedroom he and Rin shared. "Good night," he said, giving them another small, respectful bow. "Sleep well tonight, young masters."
"G'night, Naoki," Malo said, fighting back another yawn. "Thanks for walking us back to the palace." At his side, Rin remained silent and looked at their bodyguard with solemn eyes.
Inside their bedroom, Rin turned to look at Malo. "Do you think Shinja really lives in those woods?" he asked.
"Of course not," Malo said reflexively, annoyed by the question. He still thought Naoki had only been humoring him, and he didn't enjoy being treated like a child.
"Where does Shinja live, then?"
That question made Malo pause, because he really had no idea of the answer. The great serpent had to live somewhere, didn't it? Was it really so inconceivable that it made its home in the old woods outside the palace where the High Lord lived?
"I don't know," he admitted, helping Rin shimmy out of his tunic and into a dressing gown that he could wear to bed. "Maybe there is some kind of power in those woods, after all."
"Do you think we could find it, if we looked hard enough?" Rin asked, gazing up at him sleepily as he climbed into his bed.
"I don't know. Maybe, if Naoki lets us." Malo pulled the sheets up to cover Rin's small body, making sure the blankets were layered thickly enough to keep him warm throughout the night. Once the younger boy was tucked firmly underneath the sheets, Malo moved to his own side of the room to prepare for bed.
It was just as satisfying as he'd imagined it would be to crawl into his bed and curl up into the warmth underneath the sheets. At the other side of the room, Rin's form was already draped in the unconscious stillness of sleep.
"The Elderwilde," Malo murmured as his eyes drifted closed.
He knew his dreams tonight were going to be good ones.