Gathering Darkness Page 1

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PROLOGUE

The young man woke up surrounded by fire and chaos.

Swords clashed nearby in a violent battle in the shadow of the mountains. The sharp cries of the dying sliced through the cool early morning breeze. He could smell the acrid scents of both fear and hate from those who fought for their lives. He tasted the copper tang of the blood that had sunk into the ground.

It was the taste of blood that had awoken him.

He pressed his hands against the dry earth, flames licking at his bare skin, and tried forcing himself to his feet. He failed, his body screaming from the effort.

As his vision cleared he took a better look around. He was at the edge of a camp that was currently under siege. To his left, about fifty paces away, was a forest. It was dry and sparse and dying, but it offered more protection than his exposed position by the battleground.

Two men—one short, one tall, both wearing red guard uniforms—approached him, their swords drawn.

“What do we have here?” the short one said. “A slave thinking he can escape?”

“I’m no slave.” His voice cracked, and his throat felt as dry and brittle as the ground beneath him.

“Forget your clothes somewhere, boy?” the taller guard said.

He glanced down at his bare skin. “Something like that.”

“Doesn’t matter,” the tall guard snapped. “You won’t need clothes when you’re dead. We’ll make this quick.”

The tall guard brought his blade down hard, but the young man managed to roll out of its way just in time. He pushed himself up to his feet, his legs as weak as a newborn colt’s. Muscles screaming, he staggered toward the forest line.

“We don’t have time to chase after one runaway slave.” The tall guard spoke loud enough to be heard above the noise of battle.

“You’d rather have your throat cut by a rebel back there?” the short guard said.

“The king would prefer—”

“I don’t give a damn what the king would prefer. Let’s go.”

The forest was sparse, but the young man found a dry bush to hide behind. Its branches scratched his sensitive skin, but he stayed quiet and still. The guards ventured closer, whacking at the meager foliage with their swords.

He looked down at his hand and flexed. How long would it take before he got his strength back? He’d already waited an eternity to be free.

I’ve awakened before my time.

“Maybe we should let him go,” the shorter guard said, his previous bravado vanishing as fear entered his voice. “Maybe he’s the one who set the fire back there. He could be dangerous.”

“Don’t be a coward. Strays can lead to more trouble, and more strays. I want his blood on my blade before we do anything else.”

They drew closer, and he stumbled away from his hiding spot. As he fled, he tripped on the tangled roots of a large oak tree and fell, hard, to the ground. The guards swiftly found him, and he scrambled backward until he hit the tree’s thick trunk.

“You must feel so pathetic right now,” the tall guard sneered. “Hiding in a forest, naked, begging for your life.”

He did feel pathetic. It was not an emotion he savored. “I’m not begging.”

“Oh, you’ll be begging soon enough. I promise.” The guard gave him a smile that revealed just how much he enjoyed inflicting pain and suffering on those who were smaller and weaker than him.

“What do you think?” the tall guard asked his companion. “Shall we take his hands before we kill him? Or his feet, so he can’t try to run again?”

“Perhaps we should bring him back to the dungeon to rot with the other captured rebels.”

“That’s no fun.” He touched the tip of his sword under the young man’s chin, forcing him to meet the guard’s cruel gaze. “Who are you, boy? A slave who would bow to my whip while working on the king’s road? Or are you a rebel who mistakenly believes he can change the destiny of this kingdom?”

“Neither.” His lips were parched and his breathing was shallow.

The sword wrenched his head up higher, biting into his flesh. “Then who are you?” the guard asked.

“I . . .” he began, very softly, “. . . am a god.”

“A god, are you?” The guard snorted with amusement. “I’m curious . . . how much do gods bleed?”

“Wait.” The shorter one’s voice was trembling. “His eyes. Look at his eyes!”

The tall guard withdrew his sword and took a shaky step back. “What—?”

The young man unclenched his fist and looked down at his right hand. Etched into his palm was a triangle. Its edges glowed with the same blue light that now emanated from his eyes.

“You’re a demon,” the guard whispered. “That’s what you are.”

“I already told you what I am. But perhaps you weren’t listening.” He pushed himself back up to his feet. The symbol on his hand grew brighter as he held it out to the guard. “Shall I show you instead?”

Suddenly, a single flame appeared on the dry ground in front of them. It flickered, then shot up and licked the guard’s boot. In a thin line, the fire snaked around his ankle and then began to wrap itself around his calf and thigh. He batted at it and touched it with his hand, which only made it grow even mightier. It clawed at his wrist and writhed around his arm like a bracelet.

“What’s happening?” The guard reached out for assistance, but his short friend staggered away from him.

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