There is no mercy in the demon realm. No escape. In this place of desperation and conflict, anyone who is not purebred is virtually powerless. Until a blind priestess lays claim to a half-breed warrior, body and soul…
Hunted and marked for death by Na’Reish demons for their half-blood heritage, theNa’Chi are searching for a new home—something an alliance offered by the human leader could provide. With both races divided by prejudice, when Light Blade rebels brutally attack the Na’Chi, the alliance seems doomed to fail.
Varian, leader of the Na’Chi, a hybrid race of gifted warriors, is cursed with the darker impulses of his demon heritage. Controlling the part of himself that craves the high of the battle is a struggle he’s afraid he’ll lose—until he meets Kymora Tayn, a priestess driven to serve her deity. While he’s unwilling to trust anyone outside his people, he finds himself drawn to Kymora’s strength and passionate nature, and discovers she has the power to calm the darkness inside him.
When the Na’Reish raid human territory for blood-slaves and kickstart the war, the key to the survival of both races—Na’Chi and human— is an alliance. However when Kymora is kidnapped, pitting human against human, Varian realizes he must embrace his darker half, not only to save the alliance…but also the woman he loves.
The note of panic in the child’s high-pitched cry had Kymora scrambling to her feet, the half-mended shirt falling from her hands to the ground. Her fingertips brushed over the coarse-textured wattle and daub wall of the croft until she found her staff. Sweeping the staff in front of her, she stepped out from the shade into the biting warmth of the afternoon sun.
“Evie, over here!” she called, recognizing the voice. Three strides and the hard sound under the heel of her boot told her she stood in the middle of the pathway among the row of huts lining either side of it.
At the edge of her mind, the young shepherdess’s aura flared, brushed hers, but she was too far away for Kymora to read it accurately. The rapid thump of boots on hard-packed ground grew louder as they came in her direction.
A hollow wooden scraping came from her left, the door to the house being pushed open. An earthy, wild, wind-swept scent wafted through the air. The odor varied Na’Chi to Na’Chi but the rich base note of the half-human, half-demon race was always the same.
“Kymora, what’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know, Lisella.”
The door creaked and a hand touched her elbow. The half-blood woman’s gesture let her know she was there beside her, a courtesy all the Na’Chi had learned in the weeks she’d been living with them.
“Temple Elect! They’re killing the flock!”
The child’s aura was a seething mass of darkness edged with the roughness of barely contained terror. Had she been able to see, Kymora had little doubt Evie’s face would have borne a wide-eyed, fearful expression. The ability to read auras compensated for the absence of that sense.
She stretched out her hand to the child, tempted to hurry to the girl but the ground was too uneven. Each row of huts had been built half a dozen steps apart, leaving a corridor for foot traffic, but with young children using the pathways as play areas, even the smallest hole or hollow dug by little hands made traversing the thoroughfares hazardous.
Such a small thing challenged her independence and left her feeling vulnerable, a sensation she disliked. A lot. There were times, like this, when her blindness left her feeling like she was a child again, learning to cope with her disability when she’d first lost her sight. For now, it stopped her from rushing to comfort the child.
She grunted as the ten-year-old barreled into her. Small arms reached around her waist and squeezed tightly. She smoothed a hand over the girl’s trembling body; the harsh sound of her gasping only reinforced the terror she could feel beneath her hands.
“Shh, you’re safe,” she crooned. “Tell me what you saw.”
“Rahni and I were watching the fl-flock from the rocks when we s-s-saw men coming over the hill.” The girl shuddered. Her aura pulsated so viciously Kymora fought not to wince. “They were so qu-quick . . . we couldn’t stop ’em. They started k-killing the bleaters. . . .”
Lisella moved closer. “Geanna and Eyan were the watchers today,” she murmured. “Why didn’t they spot them first?”
A cold knot of unease curled in Kymora’s stomach. Na’Chi senses were three times as acute as humans. Disregarding that, the scouts were highly skilled warriors and never derelict in their responsibilities. What had happened to them? “How many were there, Evie?”
“I’m not sure, maybe ten. They’re c-coming this way!”
Kymora’s stomach knotted. With the appearance of the Na’Chi in human territory, the myth associated with their rumored existence had been dispelled, shocking many. After five hundred years of war with the Na’Reish, many had assumed they were just like the power-hungry demons, especially when it became known that they possessed traits similar to their Na’Reish heritage—particularly the need to consume blood.
Some hostility was to be expected, but a physical attack on the Na’Chi? Surely these renegades had read the missives sent out by the Blade Council explaining that the Na’Chi had received the blessings of the Lady, their deity?
Why would anyone risk censure for breaking the laws of sanctuary by attacking the Na’Chi?
“And Rahni, where’s he?” Lisella’s soft voice came from down low, as if the Na’Chi woman had crouched to be on eye level with the child, and drew Kymora’s attention back to the present.
“He’s gone to warn those gathering berries.”
Relief surged through Kymora with that news. The young Na’Chi teenager tended to act first and think later. For him to err on the side of caution meant a large number of men were making their way toward the village. She inhaled a steadying breath, frowned, and then drew in a deeper one. A faint acrid odor stung her nostrils.
“Lisella, do you smell smoke?” she asked. Lisella’s boots scuffed the ground as she moved farther away from the side of the house.
“Mother of Mercy, I can see it!” A tremor of anger threaded her voice. “They’re burning the crops! Evie, find Giron. He’s working in the crafters’ hut. Tell him to find Varian. He’s in the Sharvadan Forest training with the Light Blades.”
Kymora released the girl and listened to her run off into the village. A hot breeze caressed her face. The odor of smoke grew stronger.
“Lisella, the children.” Goose bumps lifted along her arms. Today there were more of them than adults in the village. Would there be enough time for them all to escape? “They’re going to take longer to get up the mountain path and to the caverns.”
Months of work were being destroyed by the flames, and not just with the crops. She’d been working for weeks to convince the more reluctant members of the Na’Chi that integration into human society would help each race accept one another. To establish that bond, she’d convinced crafters and Light Blade warriors to live with them and share their skills with one another.
With the ranks of Light Blade warriors at an all-time low, and the Na’Reish border raids for blood-slaves increasing, the Na’Chi’s expertise was needed. With their own limited numbers, they’d spent the last twenty years learning to hide and ambush the Na’Reish—techniques the Light Blades needed now. She knew her brother, Kalan, hoped that by having them learn these specialized skills, it’d prove an advantage in any future confrontation with the Na’Reish.
She grimaced. This attack would only reinforce the Na’Chi’s fears and misgivings now. The Na’Reish demons outnumbered them all two to one. Humans and Na’Chi needed one another if they were going to survive any conflict with them.
The breeze picked up strength. The scent of smoke saturated the air. It took very little to imagine the flames engulfing the houses.
Kymora tightened her grip on her staff. “We need to split up and warn everyone.”
“Kymora, your brother wouldn’t like you left unguarded.”
“The children should be seen to first.”
“As leader of the Temple, you can’t risk your safety.” A twinge of guilt raced through Kymora at Lisella’s gentle censure. The Na’Chi’s hand patted her shoulder. “Let’s warn people together. We need to move fast and you’ll do that better with someone beside you.”
Kymora gritted her teeth. She might be blind, and it would hamper the speed of her escape, but it didn’t mean she was helpless. Why was Lisella ignoring the fact that she could defend herself and had done so since her early teens? While she was a good friend, there were times Lisella was as overprotective as some of the other Na’Chi were disdainful of her disability. A trait inherited from their Na’Reish heritage.
“We don’t have time to argue. Nor will I need your help.” Kymora thumped the butt of her staff on the ground. “You know this isn’t just for decoration. Get everyone to the safety of the caverns. I’ll check the houses around here and follow with whomever I find.”
“You’re as stubborn as Varian.” While the woman grumbled, she could hear a tolerant smile in Lisella’s voice. “Be careful. You know what he’ll do if you come to harm.”
Duty and honor formed the backbone of the Na’Chi warrior-leader, something she’d realized from almost the first time they’d met in the Lady’s Temple and Varian had claimed sanctuary for his people from her. When it came to protecting those under his care, he was ruthless, and in the last few months, he’d informed her in no uncertain terms she fell within those boundaries living with them in the rugged foothills overlooking Sacred Lake. She inhaled a steadying breath.
“I can take care of myself.” She made a shooing motion. “Go warn the others. I’ll start here. Go!”
Gathering her skirt in one hand, Kymora moved as swiftly as she could, calling out as she reached each house, warning those within so they could begin their escape. The scuff of boots along on the pathway and the occasional curt instruction assured her the exodus was progressing.
The Na’Chi had spent all their lives hiding from patrols in Na’Reish territory. Escaping detection was their specialty, and achieving it was done in silence. While they’d enjoyed much more freedom inside human territory, they’d limited their contact with humans and now were forced to fall back on ingrained survival habits. Something they shouldn’t have to do. Her jaw tightened and her temper flared. It wasn’t right.
A soft sob caught the edge of her hearing. Kymora turned and felt her way along the wall of one house. “Is someone there?”
“Temple Elect! Everyone’s gone. . . .”
Kymora tried to place the very young voice. “Why didn’t you go with them, Tovie?”
“I was on the necessary. . . .” The six-year-old Na’Chi boy hiccupped. “Henna didn’t wait for me. . . .”
“Search the houses! Kill any Na’Chi you find!”
The nearby shout drew a whimper from the child, and a chill coursed through Kymora. Who were these attackers? She pulled Tovie closer, her arm tightening around his shoulders, the danger to his life stark and immediate. He had to flee. Now.
Strangers’ voices, all men, called to one another. They hadn’t wasted any time, covering the distance between the crops and the village in just a few minutes.
From the hails and chatter, the search seemed methodical, organized, rather than haphazard and random. Not something expected of farmers or townsfolk, more like disciplined warriors. Light Blades.
Renegades. Kymora’s pulse leapt. Surely not. If they were Light Blade warriors, how could those sworn to serve the Lady do something like this? It went against the tenet of protecting the Lady’s children, and She’d declared the Na’Chi as her children. Light Blades were supposed to stand against injustice not instigate it.
“The bad men will hurt me, won’t they?” the boy asked, his solemn question too worldly wise for his age.
“I won’t let them.” Kymora ran a reassuring hand over the side of his face. The wetness of tears coated her fingers.
Precious seconds bled away as she tilted her head. The warmth of sunlight hit her right cheek. At this time of day, Tovie needed to go right to find the uphill mountain path that would lead him to the others. She prayed the Na’Chi and everyone else had made it to safety without being seen.
“Tovie, you need to get to the forest, then make your way to the caverns. Keep behind this row of houses and use all the boulders along the edge of the gully to stay out of sight.”
“Like Rissa taught us in hidey-go-seek?”
Lady bless the healers’ apprentice for teaching the Na’Chi children that game. Kymora smiled. “Yes, exactly like that. Ready?”
A small hand gripped hers. “But what about you?”
Her stomach knotted. As tempting as it was, she couldn’t risk his life by expecting him to help her. There was no way she was going to be able to keep up with the boy, not without both of them being spotted and caught.
Pottery shattered nearby; the violent sound seemed too deliberate to have been an accident. Wood splintered, the noise just as startling and shocking. Under her hand, Tovie flinched. She hugged the boy tightly.
Were the intruders looting or destroying the Na’Chi’s possessions? Belongings they’d made by hand with the crafters. Kymora regretted the loss. Hours of painstaking work destroyed in less than a heartbeat. Through the wattle and daub wall of the house next to them, someone uttered a curse.
“I’ll be all right. When you see Lisella, tell her I stayed behind. Go on now,” she whispered, mouth close to his ear. “Keep low and run!”
The child took off.
A small spurt of unease curled in her stomach at her decision to remain behind. Should she stay hidden or reveal herself? Surely the renegades would be less likely to harm a human than a Na’Chi? Regardless, Tovie needed time to make his escape.
Sweat prickled the sides of her face and under her arms as she fingered the amulet around her neck. The indented circle etched into the middle represented the sun and cycle of life, the wavy beams the symbols of strength, a gift of life the Lady bestowed upon them all.
“Mother of Mercy, help me stand against the ignorance of hatred,” she murmured, and made her way back to the main pathway running through the village.
“Faral, have you found any sign of the demons?”
Kymora tightened her grip on her staff. The man was no more than a stone’s throw away, the ripe odor of manure in the air indicating he was near the animal enclosure. The gravelly voice wasn’t one she recognized, but then there were thousands of Light Blade warriors and she didn’t know them all.
A muffled reply in the negative came from a distance. Taking a fortifying breath, she tapped her way from the cool shade of the house and used the heat and angle of the sun on her face to guide her down the pathway.
“The Na’Chi are all gone.” She mustered all her confidence to keep her voice raised and strong. “These people have been given sanctuary within human territory. You’re breaking the Chosen’s covenant. Who are you?”
A door hit the wall of the house as if someone had flung it open, and hasty footsteps scuffed the ground. “Veren?” Another male voice, higher pitched. Even without sensing his wavering aura, the tremor in it betrayed the man’s nervousness. “Is she one of them?”
“I’m Kymora, the Temple Elect.” Kymora held her ground as running footsteps converged from several directions. Lady’s Breath, how many of them were there? Surely her title as leader of their religious order would protect her? She swallowed against a throat suddenly gone dry. “The destruction you’ve caused is intolerable.”
“The Lady’s Handmaiden?” The nervous man’s sudden intake of breath came from her left. “Veren, we weren’t told there’d be any humans here . . . especially not her!”
“Who told you that, countryman?” Kymora asked.
“Hold your tongue, Faral,” snarled the gravelly voice. Stale sweat and the iron tang of blood wafted on the gentle breeze, becoming stronger with the nearing sound of footsteps. “I don’t care if she’s the Temple Elect or my mother. Anyone who supports those demons betrays us. . . .”
The darkness in his tone made her shiver. Kymora opened her mouth to rebuke him. Something struck in the face, hard enough to buckle her knees and send her to the ground. She lost her grip on her staff, heard it land at her feet.
Stunned, she sprawled there. Tears burned in her eyes. Small pebbles and debris pricked through the material of her dress, but the sting of them poking into her was nothing compared to the pain throbbing in her cheek. It radiated into her jaw, paralyzing the side of her face.
“Veren, you can’t do that! She’s the Lady’s Handmaiden!” Faral’s pulsing aura reflected Kymora’s shock. “What about the tenet of respect . . . ? She deserves better than this!”
His reference to the Lady’s ideology consolidated her suspicion. There was a chance these were Light Blade warriors.
Fingers tangled in her hair and jerked her head upward. She cried out, one hand reaching up to relieve the pressure, the other clawed over hot dirt and rough-bladed grass, searching. She found the end of her staff, closed her fingers around it. With a cry, she swung hard. It cracked against something soft and a howl of pain rent the air. She was released.
“Lady of Light!” Veren’s hoarse curse shook with anger.
She scrambled away from him. Her boot caught on the hem of her dress, it tore, and she stumbled before righting herself.
“You dare attack a Handmaiden?” Adrenaline gave her strength even though she wasn’t able to disguise the quaver in her voice. She lifted a shaking hand to her aching jaw. “You swore to serve the Lady by protecting the innocent and those in need, to respect those who served Her in her Temple. Everything you’ve done here today is wrong!”
“The only thing wrong is allowing those half-bloods to live among us!” another voice retorted behind her. She swung around. “Councilor Davyn warned us . . .”
“Shut up, Bennic. . . .” Veren hissed.
So these men were supporters of Davyn? The ex-Councilor had manipulated others for years, driven insane by his need to avenge his daughter’s death at the hands of the Na’Reish. What twisted, venomous lies had he told them? Her brother and the Blade Council needed to know about this.
“Faral, does your family know you’re a part of this? Would they approve of you attacking defenseless children? Of killing those who’ve done you no harm?” she asked. Were they all fanatics or could she count on the support of some of them? “Are you willing to sacrifice your honor and bring shame to your family by defying the Lady’s will? The Chosen’s mandate? You’d risk having your rank revoked?”
“Where’s the honor in a leader and priestess who ally themselves with a race who will use us as blood-slaves,” the third man declared, his deep voice rich with righteous anger.
“The Na’Chi don’t enslave humans.”
Veren snorted. “So, that half-blood whore of Kalan’s didn’t drink his blood?”
Frustration burned through Kymora’s veins at the accusation. Annika’s feeding from Kalan had saved her life after being stabbed by Davyn, his plot to prove she was the animal he assumed her to be thwarted. Despite trying to keep that incident low-key, neither Kalan nor the Blade Council had been able to stop gossip. Bless the Lady only a select few knew how the Na’Chi suffered the blood-addiction rather than the usual enslavement of human to demon. She inhaled a calming breath.
“The messages you sent out to every town and village . . . Is it true all Light Blades have demon blood in them?” Faral’s question held such confusion and uncertainty. His emotions were so tangible his aura throbbed.
“The history annals of Chosen Zataan revealed that truth. Copies were sent with the messages. Didn’t you read them for yourself?”
“Lies! The messages held lies!” Scorn and derision laced Bennic’s deep voice. “If Light Blades or those with Gifts are supposed to be of demon-get, then where are the body markings on our skin? Why don’t we crave blood?”
Kymora shivered, the stark confirmation of their Light Blade identity established with his words. She turned toward him. “Master Healer Candra believes the traits have weakened over time, or that some never inherited them.”
“Dominant traits and inherited features? Passed on through bloodlines? You make us sound like livestock,” he hissed. “Our Gifts are Lady-given and have nothing to do with demon blood!”
“Then how do you account for Annika being able to heal and kill with a touch?” she argued. “Sensing human emotions, connecting with animals, manipulating energies . . . the Na’Chi all possess skills as varied and as similar to our own Gifted.” Their auras swirled and contorted with dark tendrils of hostility and resistance. “How can you ignore the Lady’s words? She’s accepted them as Her children as much as you or I.”
“Veren? You told us Kalan made up that lie, that the Lady would never utter such blasphemous words. You said Davyn declared the Na’Chi were as dangerous to us as the Na’Reish and had to be killed so our people would no longer be divided . . . so the Blade Council could focus on the Na’Reish threat across the border.” Faral’s bewilderment held a hint of anger. “What’s the truth?”
Kymora’s heart pounded on hearing the lies told to Faral. How many other Light Blades had been led astray by Davyn’s deception?
“What does your heart tell you?” she countered. “Think of your families, your homes. The Council will place sanctions on anyone who supports you because of what’s happened here today, but I can speak on your behalf if someone has misled you.”
“Don’t listen to her.” Bennic’s voice deepened further with his reprimand. “She’s trying to divide us.”
“The truth, Faral, is that the Na’Chi will turn on us. No alliance will hide their true nature. They’re just like the Na’Reish,” Veren stated. His rasping laughter sent a shiver along her back. “As for the Council placing sanctions on us, you need to bear witness, and that’s not going to happen, priestess.”
Despite the heat of the sun beating down on her, coldness spread throughout Kymora. Dear Lady, was he going to kill her? Would the others stand by and watch? Slowly she repositioned her feet to widen her stance and brought her staff across her body in a relaxed but ready position.
“Do you really think you can fight us off?” Ugly laughter mocked her again. “You’re blind, Temple Elect.”
Her heart hammered in her chest. Five was the best she’d ever managed to defend herself against, and then only for a short time. Her breathing quickened. Why hadn’t she listened to Lisella and accepted her help?
She kept her voice firm and steady. “If you know I can fight, then you know it means I’m not helpless.”
“It’s nine against one. Even sighted you’d be hard-pressed to prevail against us.”
Kymora swallowed hard and drew on every shred of strength she possessed, determined to face the impossible. Lady willing, she would survive. She had to. The Blade Council needed to know of the threat to the Na’Chi.
“Veren, no. . . .”
“If you can’t stomach this, Faral, then leave.” Her attacker stepped closer. She sensed others closing in on her. “Let those loyal to the cause deal with this.”
Goose bumps prickled over Kymora. The cause? Davyn’s cause? The ex-Councilor’s influence was a greater threat than the Blade Council had anticipated. Veren’s use of the term cause suggested more than the few gathered around her. How many others were there committed to seeing the Na’Chi dead and the alliance fail?
“Lady protect Your servant,” she murmured.
If Veren believed her blindness made her an easy target, he’d soon discover just how thorough her training with the Temple guards had been, and how very wrong his assumption was.
They all would.
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