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Matt Forbeck

Marked for Death

Chapter 1

“Boss!”

Kandler snapped awake and grabbed the hand on his shoulder. Head still half in his dreams, he looked up. Bright wolf-yellow eyes set wide across a dark face stared back at him over a large, flat nose. Thick black fur clung to the figure’s forearms and lower legs, and a coarse mane fell across his shoulders. Long sideburns nearly covered his pointed ears, and sharp teeth bared at Kandler’s sudden movement.

“Damn it, Burch!” Kandler said. “Don’t do that.”

“We got a body on the east ridge,” Burch said. He pulled his hand from Kandler’s grasp and stepped back into a crouch.

Late as it was-or was it early? Kandler wondered-Burch was fully dressed. He wore a short tunic of rough, steely links over a wool shirt and leggings the color of long-dead coals. A long knife rode his hip, and a crossbow lay slung across his back, next to a full quiver. His feet were bare, exposing the dark, clawlike nails on his toes, which matched those on his thin fingers.

“You sleep too deep,” Burch said.

“That’s why I keep you around.” Kandler groaned as he swept a hand through his brown, wavy hair. He kept it cropped short, not because of the few strands of gray that were starting to show but out of pragmatism. Sitting up, he felt far older than his thirty-five years. The ghosts of his old war wounds tugged at his back. He rubbed his eyes with a hilt-callused hand. “What time is it?” he asked.

“Two hours past midnight. Sun-up in three. Temmah’s up there with the body, waiting.”

Kandler sighed. “Esprл still sleeping?”

Burch nodded, the light from the everbright lantern in his hand glinting in his wide, yellow eyes. “No nightmares tonight. Norra’s my next stop.”

“Tell her it’s an emergency.”

Burch put the lantern on the windowsill next to Kandler’s bed and loped out of the room. He closed the front door to the little house behind him as he left.

By the time Burch came back with Norra, Kandler was dressed in clean clothes, standing in his house’s main room and buckling on his long sword. It was curved and sharp as a sliver of the moon, but the scabbard was simple worn leather.

Burch didn’t knock before leading the girl inside. Still dressed in her nightclothes, Norra stifled a yawn as she entered and pulled her dark hair back from her pale face, exposing her soft, brown eyes.

“What’s the matter?” Norra whispered with a frown, worry furrowing her brow. “Is someone else missing?”

Kandler picked up the lantern from his dining table and looked down at the girl. “That’s what I need to find out. Can you stay with Esprл?”

“Of course,” Norra said. “I’ll just crawl into bed next to her. She won’t miss you till morning.”

Kandler nodded his thanks, grabbed his cloak from its hook beside the door, then stepped out into the night, Burch dogging his heels. Using the hand signals they’d employed together during the Last War, Kandler motioned for the shifter to lead the way.

Burch sprang ahead, ranging back and forth across the path toward the eastern rim of the deep crater in which the little town of Mardakine lay. He moved with an easy gait and grace that betrayed his race’s heritage. Although dozens of generations or more separated the shifters from the werebeasts from which they descended, the animal in them was impossible to deny.

The night sky, starkly clear, formed an unbroken dome from one towering wall of the crater to the other. Stars twinkled overhead-distant, silent, and cold-and among them, watching like a court of indifferent judges, nine of the moons sat in their places in the night sky. Stars and moons were so bright that the Rings of Siberys seemed no more than a glow dusting the southern sky.

Kandler wrapped his cloak about him to ward off the chill. Mardakine slept undisturbed but for the walking pair. The air smelled faintly of the woodsmoke escaping from the chimneys of the houses that Kandler and Burch passed as they trudged along the lane toward the crater’s eastern rim. Burning wood reminded Kandler of one of the many stenches of the battlefield-the cooking pit, the campfire, the sentries’ torch, or the funeral pyre. Best not to think of that now.

“Who found it?” Kandler asked as they left the easternmost of the houses behind.

“Pradak and Rissa.”

“Mardak’s son?”

“And Rislinto’s daughter.”

“The rumors were true, I see.”

“Two frightened youngsters,” Burch said, “came out to watch the sky and kiss. Found a body instead.”

“Who is it?” Kandler had put off the question long enough.

At first Burch remained silent, but after a few dozen paces he said, “Not far now.”

The land grew steeper as the pair moved forward. Burch hung closer to the ground and switched naturally from walking on two feet to climbing on all fours. Kandler followed his friend’s example a few minutes later when crater floor became a leaning wall. There was a switchback trail a few hundred yards to the south, but it would be slower and wouldn’t let out at the right place.

“Where are Pradak and Rissa?”

“Temmah sent them home. They looked too scared to ever kiss again.”

Kandler laughed. “You underestimate two sixteen-year-olds.”

“Maybe.” Burch shrugged.

As they reached the crest of the crater’s ridge, Kandler looked beyond and grimaced. A wall of menacing gray wisps reached thick, swirling tendrils out over the ridge in a perpetual attempt to swallow the crater whole, town and all. This was the edge of the Mournland, a place where not even death rested peacefully. The wall of dead-gray mist towered over Kandler and Burch as they approached it. It stood more than a mile high and stretched north as far as the eye could see. To the south, it disappeared around the eastern edge of distant Point Mountain, the last of the Seawall Mountain chain that ran from the Thunder Sea at the southern shore of the continent of Khorvaire, right up to within a hard day’s ride of Mardakine. Craning his neck, Kandler could see the first hint of dawn stabbing its way over the Mournland’s permanent shroud.

“You wanna wait for daylight?” Burch asked, his broad nose twitching as he sniffed at the air. His lip curled into a hesitant snarl.

“It’s only one body, right?” Kandler paused a moment. “Right?”

“One body.” Burch nodded. “In many places.”

Kandler breathed a soft curse. “That’s something new. Where’s the head?”

Burch pointed off to his left and right.

Kandler swallowed. “Show me the face-or the biggest part of it.”

Burch bounced forward along the crater’s crest, his shorter legs moving fast to keep ahead of Kandler’s pace. When he reached a scrappy bush squatting just on the crater’s inside edge, he stopped and pointed to something lying beneath it.

Kandler knelt and shone the lantern on the thing. A pair of dead eyes stared back at him, the blue orbs frozen in their final moment of terror. The back of the head was missing, but the face was mostly intact. The skin was tanned and wrinkled. A small scar ran across the left eyebrow. Smile lines still stretched at the corners of the mouth.

“Shawda,” Kandler said. He closed her eyes, wincing at their cold stiffness. After a long moment, he turned to Burch. “Where’s Temmah?”

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