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Jaleigh Johnson

Unbroken Chain: The Darker Road

PROLOGUE

THE VILLAGE OF TINNIR, RASHEMEN

4 MARPENOTH, THE YEAR OF DEEP WATER D RIFTING (1480 DR)

The body is here, sister,”said the ethran, the village healer. “Bhalla be merciful, the blood-”

“Be quiet,” Sree hissed. “You’ll wake the child. I’ll not have her remember her mother this way.” However, Sree did smell the blood. Behind her mask, the reek of it mingled in her nostrils with the scent of cold earth.

The house was an old stone nub set into the side of a low hill. Heather roots poked through the ceiling. Wisps of smoke and ash rose from a dying cookfire, and by the light of the gray-gold embers, Sree saw the body of Yaraella lying on her back in the corner of the main room.

Slack fingers cradled an ivory-handled knife protruding from her abdomen. The blood pool had soaked her thick brown braid and spread to the threshold of the small bedchamber Yaraella shared with her daughter, Elina.

“Wait outside,” Sree instructed the ethran.

Sree stepped over the coagulating pool and entered the bedchamber. Yaraella’s child was barely four years old. She slept soundly, buried underneath thick wool blankets with only her tiny nose and a thick mop of brown hair showing.

Bhalla, show mercy, Sree prayed silently, echoing the ethran’s words. Let her sleep through this nightmare.

The witch lifted the sleeping child and the blankets from her bed and carried her quickly from the hut. The little girl sighed once and buried her face in Sree’s shoulder. She didn’t wake.

Outside, the horizon shone gray with predawn light. The air tasted of frost, and Sree’s boots crunched on the white-tipped grass. Reina, the ethran, was waiting. Though she was not yet a hathran like Sree, the younger witch wore a mask at Sree’s command. Pain and grief lay heavily on the village tonight. The witches would show neither emotion.

“Take off my cloak,” Sree said. “Put it around the child. Cover her head with the hood, or the frost will have her ears.”

Reina did as Sree told her, and when she’d properly swaddled the child, Sree handed her off to the ethran. Removing a folded piece of parchment from her pouch, Sree read Yaraella’s letter again silently. The parchment was ash-stained from lying too near the fire. Addressed to Elina, it was a short message, full of love. It would be years before the child could read it herself.

“Why did she do it, Sister?” Reina asked. “She left her child behind, alone in the world.”

“She is no more alone than you or I,” the hathran said calmly. “Elina will be cared for. I’ll see to it myself.”

“But will she be like her mother?” Reina stroked the child’s back. “Bhalla forbid such a thing, if death be the result.”

“We must not let it happen,” Sree said. Squinting in the dim light, she thought she saw something in the child’s hand. She folded back the hood of her cloak to see. The child clutched a small square object against her chest.

“What is it?” Reina asked. “A doll?”

Sree shook her head. “It’s a box.” Gently, she worked it from the child’s grip. The box was made of dark wood with purple heather flowers painted on the lid. Sree opened it and peered inside.

“What’s in it?” Reina asked.

“Nothing,” Sree said. No cherished treasures, no memories of the life the little girl had shared with her mother. Sree gripped the box tightly and then slid it into the pocket of the child’s sleeping shirt. “Whatever was in it is gone now.”

IKEMMU, THE SHADOWDARK

4 MARPENOTH, THE YEAR OF DEEP WATER DRIFTING (1480 DR)

Ilvani fell asleep in her bed surrounded by carved wood and stone boxes, glass spheres, and even rags hastily bound with string-anything that would hold memories. Precious creatures they were, but easily lost. She had to keep them confined, or they would fly away on the wind. She’d already lost too many.

Ilvani dreamed, and in her mind, she gasped at the vision rising before her eyes, a landscape she’d only ever beheld in books and paintings. She saw a vast pine forest in shades of deep green, the ground covered in snow. Clouds veiled the winter sun. What light there was reflected diamond bright off the snow. She stood on a path that wound through the trees and disappeared into shadow.

She walked barefoot, wanting to feel the cold, soft snow beneath her feet, but the dream denied her these sensations. The air was full of silent expectancy. Without knowing how, Ilvani understood that someone waited for her here.

A white rabbit appeared in front of her. When it saw Ilvani, the creature hunkered down in the snow, pressing its body flat against the ground until only its black eyes were distinguishable from the white blanket.

Ilvani stepped forward and extended her hand to the creature. The rabbit jumped up on its hind legs, nose twitching, and vanished.

“Where did you go, little snow rabbit?” the dreaming Ilvani said. Her words turned to fog on the air and disappeared. Another memory gone, but that didn’t trouble her. Only the vital ones were worth catching.

“Will you help me?”

The voice drifted down from the pines. Ilvani looked up and saw a young woman perched on a bare branch. Her tattered wool skirt bunched underneath her, exposing legs blue with cold and feet as bare as Ilvani’s. A thick brown braid lay against her neck. Her face was the color of the snow.

Humans are so beautiful, Ilvani thought, but this one’s eyes give her away. They were glass spheres, black like the snow rabbit’s but empty.

“I can’t help you,” Ilvani said. “You’re dead.”

A trickle of blood ran down the woman’s leg behind her knee. It dripped from her heel and made a bright stain on the snow.

“Won’t you help lift me down?” the woman pleaded. Her dead eyes filled with tears. She reached for Ilvani with strong, solid arms, arms she should have been able to use to lift herself down from the tree.

Ilvani looked at her own arms. They were thin gray sticks, kindling from a dead fire. They had power but no strength. She already knew their limits. In a dark hole in the ground, she’d been tested and failed.

Involuntarily, she touched her hair. The pale red strands had grown back, but they were still uneven, wild. It sickened her to run a comb through them. The comb always turned to fingers, and the fingers reeked of dirt, sweat, and her blood.

Ilvani dropped her hand to her side and waited until her trembling body calmed.

Memories were strange and malicious creatures. The cruel ones refused to fade, and she’d never found a box that could hold them.

“Are you all right?”

Ilvani had almost forgotten the dead woman and her rabbit eyes. The dream went on without her. If she wanted it to end, she must play her part.

She stepped to the foot of the pine tree and raised her gray arms. “Give me your hands,” she said. “I’ll help you, snow rabbit, but then leave me alone.”

The woman clasped Ilvani’s forearms. A shock, like a spell gone awry, shot into her chest. Gasping, Ilvani dragged the woman from the tree, and they fell, stumbling, into the snow.

Except it wasn’t snow. Ilvani looked around and beheld the vastness of the Shadowfell plain. Purple lightning

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