Home > The Ippos King (Wraith Kings #3)

The Ippos King (Wraith Kings #3)
Author: Grace Draven

Chapter One

Eyes watched him from their darkness and waited.

Serovek swung out of bed and padded naked to the wash basin and pitcher on the table near the shuttered window. Sleep eluded him and galla dogged his dreams. In the suffocating darkness of his bedchamber, he imagined their ravenous gibbering ghosted against his ears.

He cracked open the shutters to let in the fading moonlight cresting the tops of stately firs that marched in ranks down the slopes of the mountain into which High Salure was built. Its pale illumination allowed him to light a candle with a piece of char cloth. The wick sputtered to life under his hand, casting a small pool of light onto the table.

A crackling noise inside the pitcher warned that the cold pebbling his skin, steaming his breath, and making his toes curl against the stone floor was deep enough to skim a layer of ice on the water. Serovek tilted the pitcher and filled the basin before plunging his hands into the water and splashing his face.

The bracing cold made him gasp but also obliterated the last lingering threads of the nightmare still entangled in his mind. The revenant whispers of vanquished demons disappeared with them.

This wasn’t the first time he’d abandoned the comfort of his bed or the occasional bedmate to contemplate the sliver of horizon just beyond the rocky terrain of his mountain home. Then, as now, Serovek wished the illusion of easy-going strength he cultivated was real. He strove not to crouch in a corner, knife in one hand, as the memory of malevolent shades swarming the ruins of Haradis in a cacophony of screeching madness pursued him. On the worst nights, he wanted to screech right along with them.

Long months had passed since he’d returned to High Salure, human once more, whole in body if not necessarily in mind or spirit. The galla were gone, immured in their ethereal prison by the efforts of five warriors and the sacrifice of one. Cold reason was not enough to extinguish the guilt that sacrifice engendered.

Dawn peeked around the mountain’s edge as he dressed in a heavy tunic and breeches, tugged wool stockings onto his chilly feet and slipped on a pair of worn boots. The bed, with its pile of soft covers, didn’t tempt him. He’d simply toss and turn again or lie on his back staring into the dark until the restlessness drove him mad.

A flicker of motion at the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he strode to the small scribe’s desk set in one corner where an array of scrolls and ink bottles spread across its surface. An unfurled sheet of parchment, trapped under a river stone at one corner, shivered in the draft whirling in from the partially open window.

Serovek tapped it down with one finger to hold it still. The scrawl of words in black ink were barely visible in the predawn gloom, but he didn’t need to read them to know what they said. Their message remained burned in his mind from the previous evening when he'd read it before the hearth in his hall.

Lord Pangion,

* * *

I hope this message finds you in good health. Since your return of my brother’s body to his family’s care, we have received a request from the Jeden Order to have him brought to the monastery there. We wish to adhere to this request as we feel the monastery was more Megiddo’s home than my estate, which he only occasionally visited.

* * *

Unfortunately, we don’t have the means or the people to spare to transport Megiddo to the Lobak Valley where the monastery resides. As such, I ask this favor of you, a comrade of my brother in the galla war: provide an escort of your men from your garrison to accompany Megiddo’s body to the monastery, where we hope his spirit might find some measure of peace in knowing he’s among his brethren.

* * *

Your servant,

* * *

Pluro Cermak

The message, polite and to the point, offered nothing on its surface that might inspire nightmares—other than Megiddo’s name and that of the galla. If he were honest with himself, Serovek had suffered many a sleepless night prior to the letter’s arrival. What was one more in the long procession?

He traced the curves and loops of Pluro Cermak’s script across the parchment with one finger, lost in thought. He suffered no reluctance at providing the escort Megiddo’s brother requested. It was the least he could do, though he wondered what had inspired the monks of the Jeden order to ask for the body. Was it simply because they valued one of their own? Even caught as he was between the living and the dead? Did they not have enough to concern them with the valley’s simmering unrest?

The news of the warlord Chamtivos’s defeat and the return of the valley to the monastery’s control had managed to reach as far north as Belawat. Chamtivos’s bid to invade and control the area had been thwarted by the combined forces of the local population, the Nazim monks of the Jeden order and a small contingent of Ilinfan swordmasters. Peace came at a high cost, and Belawat had issued a warning to all its traders to exercise caution when traveling to and from the valley.

Bringing Megiddo to his religious brethren carried risk to his living but soulless body protected by magic and to those who would bring it back to the Order. Unwelcome guilt coursed through him. He had men to spare who would do an able job of bringing the monk home and returning to High Salure unscathed. Still, it somehow felt both wrong and unfair that he not be among their contingent. The monk deserved the respect and recognition of being accompanied by a high-ranking Beladine, especially one who had fought beside him and failed to save him from a horrific fate.

A quiet tap on his door pulled him from his grim thoughts. “Enter.”

The door opened with a creak, revealing a servant carrying a tray with a steaming pot of tea, a cup, and a plate of bread with butter and a cellar of salt. “Fair morning, my lord,” the man said as he placed the tray on the table where the candle dripped a slow death into its shallow holder. “Something to break your fast.” He reached up to close the shutters.

“Leave them.” Serovek ignored his puzzled expression. “I won’t remain long enough in here to bother starting a fire in the hearth, and the chamber could use an airing.” Only innocent shadows, fading with the growing morning light, lingered in the corners, yet he fancied they flickered and gleamed in spots as if eyes watched him from their darkness and waited.

The servant bowed. “Will you require anything else, my lord?”

Sounds rose from the bailey below the window, the early rising of High Salure’s garrison. A hodge-podge concert of soldiers' boisterous and often vulgar conversations, the whistles and commands to the horses, the clop of hooves on cobblestones, the hollow exhalation of the forges brought to life in the smithy. . . so many everyday sounds he’d grown accustomed to during his many years as margrave in this mountain fortress. They were the stuff of life, of breathing men and women, of hard work interspersed with light-hearted revelry or annoyed bickering, drunken brawling, and practice fighting. He recalled Haradis once more, shattered to its foundations, a silent mass grave once the galla were herded back to the nightmare realm from which they had emerged.

“My lord? Is there anything else you need before I leave?”

He’d forgotten the servant standing nearby awaiting his reply. Serovek waved him away. “No, that will be all.”

The man bowed and backed out of the room, closing the door behind him with a quiet click. Serovek scrubbed a hand across his cheeks in a weary gesture. His beard was sorely in need of a clipping, and with the hesitant arrival of spring, he might as well just shave it off completely to stay cool for the summer months. One of the three garrison barbers had already set up his chair and knives in the bailey, hawking his services to those soldiers going about their morning tasks. His voice was loud enough to wake the sleeping mountain gods, and Serovek wondered why no one had yet dumped the man in one of the horse troughs to shut him up.

He returned his attention to Cermak’s letter, considering. While Brishen Khaskem had no control or say in Megiddo’s continuing fate, Serovek knew he'd appreciate news of the man who fought beside him against the galla. The prince regent had his hands full with raising and training the infant queen regnant while trying to keep the traumatized Kai kingdom she’d inherited from her slaughtered father from completely falling apart or falling into civil war, but Serovek believed Brishen would want to know.

He dragged a stool to the desk and sat down. The cold made his hands stiff, and he blew on them to warm his fingers before reaching for a quill. Tantalizing aromas of herbs and spice drifted to his nose from the still hot teapot, but breakfast would have to wait a little longer.

The ink in the inkwell had thickened to sludge, and he held the glass over another lit candle until the flame warmed and thinned the ink. He looked forward to writing this letter. Brishen had replied to the previous letters to him with an invitation to visit Saggara and partake of its hospitality. Belawat might consider Bast-Haradis an uneasy neighbor at best and a possible enemy at worst, but Serovek considered Brishen Khaskem a friend and looked forward to seeing him once more.

His lips turned up in a smile as he wrote. Winter had enforced a near total isolation for the garrison. Except for the necessary descent into the lowlands for patrol, those of High Salure had stayed close to home to wait out the snows and avalanches. It had been three months since Serovek crossed into Kai territory to visit the Khaskem and his pretty human wife.

And his magnificent second-in-command, sha-Anhuset.

The quill paused in its scratching on the parchment. Serovek rubbed absently at his midriff, a habit these days he hadn’t bothered trying to break. Every so often his muscles there would contract—memory of a moment when the Kai woman had rammed a sword blade into his gut with all her formidable strength before wrenching it free on a gush of agony and blood. The act hadn’t been one of aggression but of brutal necessity, and he knew, down to his bones, that were the Kai able to weep as humans did, tears would have welled in sha-Anhuset’s firefly eyes when she stabbed him.

He sighed and returned to writing. Mooning over the dour Anhuset only served to distract him from his purpose, and he put her from his mind to concentrate on his message to Brishen. When he finished, he sanded the parchment, folded it closed and sealed it with a wax stamp of his family crest.

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