Home > Raven Unveiled

Raven Unveiled
Author: Grace Draven

 

 

      CHAPTER ONE

 


   After two months of relentless tracking, the once feared empress’s cat’s-paw had finally run his prey to ground outside the haunted ruin of Midrigar. If Siora thought to hide from him here in the hopes the stories of the trapped and restless dead might scare him away, she knew him not at all.

   He’d once been the lackey of a demon dressed in a beautiful woman’s body and survived the employment. Nothing so insipid as a ghost would stop him from hunting down his treacherous servant.

   She probably thought he meant to kill her. He’d been an assassin after all, and his fury over her betrayal had nearly consumed him once. The anger still simmered inside him, but he hunted her not to kill her but to make her apologize—on her knees if necessary—to a small child. That, more than vengeance meted out through death, was what drove him across the Empire.

   The moon played coy behind tattered clouds and spilled argent light over the shattered city, casting the broken bones of its towers in stark relief against a star-salted sky. An unquiet tomb under an indifferent heaven.

   Gharek growled, the sound making his horse’s ears swivel back. He patted her neck, wishing he was comfortably ensconced in one of the better inns’ finer rooms, with a sweet-smelling whore to keep him company. Or better yet, out of Kraelian territory altogether, safe with his daughter and the people he’d paid a fortune to see to her care while he roamed a collapsing empire in search of the beggar bitch who’d turned on him and ruined his and his daughter’s lives.

   Instead of a posh room shared with an accommodating woman, he rode through a woodland devoid of sound, its silence absolute, as if it dared not flutter a leaf or creak a branch for fear of attracting the attention of what might lay behind Midrigar’s tumbled walls. Despite the strangeness that sent a crawling feeling over his skin, Gharek didn’t waver in his tracking.

   A trek through the forest was as good as any for avoiding Kraelian troops on patrol. Despite the raids from Nunari clans, the main trade route remained a busy one, serving Guild and free traders as well as battalions of Kraelian soldiers sent to fight the rebellious Nunari. He stayed off the road for those reasons and others, as much a fugitive as his quarry, as fiercely hunted by those he’d once wronged.

   Gharek’s search for Siora had finally proven fruitful in the last week. The right questions asked of the right people in the villages where he’d stopped had yielded reliable information. A woman, not much bigger than a child but with the knowing gaze of a crone, had offered to act as liaison between the grieving living and their beloved dead for the fee of a belsha or two. She’d managed to swindle coin out of their families before others drove her away. Shade speakers were barely tolerated even when many believed in their talent.

   He’d set off for Wellspring Holt, a bustling trader’s town that had so far managed to escape the worst of the raids. Siora would find it easier to hide there than in the smaller towns and villages. Hiring a tracker might prove a faster method for finding her, but Gharek preferred working alone, especially since he had his own secrets to keep. As the empress’s cat’s-paw, experience had taught him that his skills weren’t suited for teamwork. The mad empress might be draga spittle splattered on Domora’s battlements now, but it didn’t change the way he hunted quarry—always alone.

   While he’d altered his appearance with a new beard and shorter hair to avoid being recognized, he wasn’t taking any chances by keeping company with anyone for any length of time. Bounties for the cat’s-paw, alive or dead, were generous, and those hoping to claim such rewards numerous.

   He’d crossed a sea of fields—some plowed and seeded, waiting for harvest, others left fallow—and came upon a stone circle in the middle of a pasture. No sheep or cattle grazed nearby, and Gharek’s mare balked when he tried to steer her closer. He gave in to her protest and rode past the monument erected to some long-forgotten deity. These ancient places held on to their power long after their supplicants had turned to dust. Whatever lingered here, his mare wanted nothing to do with it.

   If anything hid within the circle, he’d have seen it already, but nothing disturbed the wild flowers growing there, and he disregarded it, turning his attention toward a ramshackle barn nearby. The horse offered no resistance when they stopped in front of the structure. Gharek tied her to one of the few posts still standing from the remnants of a fence and went inside, his instincts practically making his veins hum with the certainty his target had stopped there or was still there.

   Sunlight had cascaded through holes in the roof, illuminating a half dozen empty stalls. Mice fled in every direction on a chorus of tiny squeals when he entered, their feet leaving patterns in the powdery dust coating every surface.

   But it wasn’t their tracks that held his attention. He’d crouched to examine a set of much larger prints—human, those of a woman or child with flat feet who walked lightly. The shoe tread pattern was unique and Gharek instantly recognized Siora’s distinctive footprints. Nothing else in the barn so far gave him a clue to her presence, and the prints might well belong to someone else, but his gut had yet to fail him. This was Siora’s marker.

   The prints tracked in two directions, and he’d followed the pair leading farther into the barn’s depths to what was once a provender room. He paused in the doorway, letting his eyes adjust to the greater darkness there. Patterns on the floor’s disturbed dirt told him she’d slept here, at least for a short time, likely taking what shelter she could find during the night away from other predators, besides himself, that hunted during the small hours.

   He’d pivoted, noting the walls with their cracked plaster and bowed framing, the slope of the roof on the verge of collapse. A stiff wind would bring the place down in a rotting heap. Best not to linger and end up entombed beneath the wreckage.

   The sight of one of the room’s walls as he turned to leave had made him recoil.

   As Dalvila’s erstwhile cat’s-paw, he’d witnessed levels of depravity and cruelty that defied description and decayed a part of his soul every time. The empress had more than earned her reputation as a mad and murderous ruler. Her subjects didn’t know the half of it. Gharek remembered every person he’d dispatched on her orders, though unlike her, he meted out death in a manner efficient and quick. Time had made every memory sharper, made his spirit ever more numb to his actions, but even he sat up some nights and brought in the dawn with a flagon or two of wine, afraid to close his eyes and subject himself to the nightmares of remembrance and the empress’s monstrous indulgences upon her victims.

   He’d sometimes wondered if she was even human and had decided that in the end it didn’t matter. She was vile, and he served her will, thus making him as vile as her. He was as beyond redemption as she was, holding on to his last scrap of humanity for his daughter’s sake. Estred would never know the depths to which he had plunged in order to keep her safe and cared for. If she did, she’d hate him. Rightfully so.

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