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Excerpt for Inheritors of Chaos by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Inheritors of Chaos

By Barbara Ann Wright

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2019 Barbara Ann Wright

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Inheritors of Chaos

Naos has come to Calamity, and chaos has come with her. Cordelia had enough problems without teaming up with former enemies in order to defeat a mad goddess. And she doesn’t yet know that the Storm Lord has been resurrected in a new body. On the plains, the prophet Lydia is convinced that Fajir is the one chosen to stop a massive firestorm in the future, if only Fajir wasn’t so set on killing everyone around her.


With their murderous leader dead, hostilities have ceased among the drushka, but the long-living aliens are slow to adapt. The last thing they want is a drushkan king with powers none of them dreamed of before.

What Reviewers Say About Barbara Ann Wright’s Work

The Tattered Lands

“Wright’s postapocalyptic romance is a fast-paced journey through devastation. …Plenty of action, surprises, and magic will keep readers turning the pages.”—Publishers Weekly



The Pyradisté Adventures

“…a healthy dose of a very creative, yet believable, world into which the reader will step to find enjoyment and heart-thumping action. It’s a fiendishly delightful tale.”—Lambda Literary


“Barbara Ann Wright is a master when it comes to crafting a solid and entertaining fantasy novel. …The world of lesbian literature has a small handful of high-quality fantasy authors, and Barbara Ann Wright is well on her way to joining the likes of Jane Fletcher, Cate Culpepper, and Andi Marquette. …Lovers of the fantasy and futuristic genre will likely adore this novel, and adventurous romance fans should find plenty to sink their teeth into.”—The Rainbow Reader


The Pyramid Waltz has had me smiling for three days. …I also haven’t actually read…a world that is entirely unfazed by homosexuality or female power before. I think I love it. I’m just delighted this book exists. …If you enjoyed The Pyramid Waltz, For Want of a Fiend is the perfect next step…you’d be embarking on a joyous, funny, sweet and madcap ride around very dark things lovingly told, with characters who will stay with you for months after.”—The Lesbrary


“This book will keep you turning the page to find out the answers. …Fans of the fantasy genre will really enjoy this installment of the story. We can’t wait for the next book.”—Curve Magazine


“There is only one other time in my life I have uncontrollably shouted out in cheer while reading a book. [A Kingdom Lost] made the second. …Over the course of these three books all the characters have blossomed and developed so eloquently. …I simply just thought this whole novel was brilliant.”—The Lesbian Review


“Chock full of familiar elements that avid fantasy readers will adore…[The Pyramid Waltz] adds in a compelling and slowly evolving romance. …Set against a backdrop of political intrigue with the possibility of monsters and mystery at every turn, the two women slowly learn each other, sharing secrets and longing, until a fragile love blossoms between them…”—USA Today Happily Ever After



Thrall: Beyond Gold and Glory

“Once more Barbara has outdone herself in her penmanship. I cannot sing enough praises. A little Vikings, a dash of The Witcher, peppered with The Game of Thrones, and a pinch of Lord of The Rings. Mesmerizing…I was ecstatic to read this book. It did not disappoint. Barbara pours life into her characters with sarcasm, wit and surreal imagery, they leap from the page and stand before you in all their glory. I am left satisfied and starving for more, the clashing of swords, whistling of arrows still ringing in my ears.”—Lunar Rainbow Reviews


“In their adventures, the women must wrestle with issues of freedom, loyalty, and justice. The characters were likable, the issues complex, and the battles were exciting. I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it.”—All Our Worlds: Diverse Fantastic Fiction


“This was the first Barbara Ann Wright novel I’ve read, and I doubt it will be the last. Her dialogue was concise and natural, and she built a fantastical world that I easily imagined from one scene to the next. Lovers of Vikings, monsters and magic won’t be disappointed by this one.”—Curve Magazine



Paladins of the Storm Lord

“This was a truly enjoyable read…I would definitely pick up the next book. …The mad dash at the end kept me riveted. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who has a love of sci-fi. …An intricate novel…one that can be appreciated at many levels, adventurous sci fi or one that is politically motivated with a very astute look at present day human behavior. …There are many levels to this extraordinary and well written book…overall a fascinating and intriguing book.”—Inked Rainbow Reads


“I loved this. …The world that the Paladins inhabited was fascinating…didn’t want to put this down until I knew what happened. I’ll be looking for more of Barbara Ann Wright’s books.”—Lesbian Romance Reviews


Paladins of the Storm Lord by Barbara Ann Wright was like an orchestra with all of its pieces creating a symphony. I really truly loved it. I love the intricacy and wide variety of character types…I just loved practically every character! …Of course my fellow adventure lovers should read Paladins of the Storm Lord!”—The Lesbian Review



Coils


“…Greek myths, gods and monsters and a trip to the Underworld. Sign me up. …This one springs straight into action…a good start, great Greek myth action and a late blooming romance that flowers in the end…”—Dear Author


“A unique take on the Greek gods and the afterlife make this a memorable book. The story is fun with just the right amount of camp. Medusa is a hot, if unexpected, love interest. …A truly unexpected ending has us hoping for more stories from this world.”—RT Book Reviews


“The gods and monsters of ancient Greek mythology are living, breathing entities, something Cressida didn’t expect and is amazed as well as terrified to discover. …Cressida soon realizes being in the underworld is no different than being among the living. The heart still feels and love can bloom, even in the world of Myth. …The characters are well developed and their wit will elicit more than a few chuckles. A joy to read.”—Lunar Rainbow Reviewz



House of Fate

“…fast, fun…entertaining…House of Fate delivers on adventure.”—Tor.com

Inheritors of Chaos

© 2019 By Barbara Ann Wright. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-63555-295-9


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, New York 12185


First Edition: March 2019


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

The Pyradisté Adventures

The Pyramid Waltz

For Want of a Fiend

A Kingdom Lost

The Fiend Queen


The Godfall Novels

Paladins of the Storm Lord

Widows of the Sun-Moon

Children of the Healer

Inheritors of Chaos


Thrall: Beyond Gold and Glory

Coils

House of Fate

The Tattered Lands

Acknowledgments

As always, this book wouldn’t be possible without my writing groups: Angela, Deb, Erin, Matt, Natsu, Pattie, Sarah, and Trakena. Y’all only get better.

A continuing thank you to Bold Strokes Books and all its authors. When I’m with you, I’m home.

Thanks to all the readers who’ve loved this series. Let’s geek out sometime.

I love you, Mom. You made it all possible.

Dedication

For David

Chapter One

Patricia Dué had to admit that Dillon seemed to know what he was doing. Even after their former ship, the Atlas, had crashed in the mountains to the north and Patricia’s newly conquered mine had collapsed, Dillon looked confident. He marched toward the shattered tunnel, barking orders before the dust had a chance to clear.

Even Patricia responded to his commands, using her macro-psychokinetic power to lift rubble clear of the mine shaft while her follower Raquel used a mix of macro- and micro-psychokinesis to drill a hole so those trapped in the tunnels could climb out. The other members of Raquel’s group—like Patricia, former inhabitants of the Atlas—used their powers to direct Raquel’s drilling.

Patricia could sense the trapped people, too. With her myriad powers, she could help them stay alive until they were rescued. And she could heal them after that, but she could do nothing about the dead. The miners lifted the bodies free anyway, so many corpses, and Patricia thought again of Naos, of the hundreds of years she’d spent as a prisoner in a mind that used to be her own.

Patricia’s terror at seeing the Atlas blaze overhead had faded a little. She had time to escape. Even with all her power, Naos couldn’t teleport or fly. On the ground of the planet of Calamity, she’d have to walk like everyone else.

Patricia turned back to the corpses, determined that no one else would die. These were her people, now, even if telepathy had initially made them that way. She couldn’t help a jolt of guilt; she’d brought them to this disaster when she’d taken over the small community. Naos wouldn’t have come here if Patricia hadn’t escaped from their shared mind.

Every other part of Patricia rebelled against that thought. She’d treated these people well, brought them together, brought them peace with their plains and hill dwelling neighbors. So what if she’d had to use telepathy to do so? In the end, they’d been happy to be convinced. At least she wasn’t like Naos who seemed on a quest to turn everyone into clones of herself.

Patricia paused and waited for Dillon’s snide voice to disagree, to call her a coward or some other vile name, but of course, he wasn’t a guest in her mind anymore. She’d found a place to put him: in the body of Gale’s mayor, the former Liam Carmichael.

Between the power users and Dillon’s efficient orders, many of the miners made it out of the tunnels alive. Patricia watched as they hugged their comrades or wept over the dead. Some seemed to be weeping in relief that they still lived, but they didn’t know how bad things were about to get.

First of the many problems she’d have to deal with: Dillon. Dillon’s new body walked toward her with a confident stride, cockier than the mayor’s steps had been. The mayor’s body was handsome, fit, and in its twenties or early thirties. He had a brown ponytail and startling green eyes. Combined with Dillon’s cocksure swagger, it was a very attractive package, even if looking at him also made her want to smack him. She was just glad he wasn’t in her head anymore to read her attraction.

He nodded to the house where she’d put him inside his current body scant hours ago. She followed without a word, leaving Jonah, her servant inside Dillon’s old body, in charge of the miners.

The mayor’s two escorts were lying right where Patricia had left them when she’d knocked them unconscious. A young woman in leather armor and a slightly older man wearing metal; they weren’t going anywhere unless Patricia’s power let them.

“What are we going to do with them?” Dillon asked.

It was a test. Did he want her to suggest killing them so he could accuse her of being bloodthirsty, or should she say to spare them so he could call her weak?

Unless… “Nothing,” she said. She wanted to say they were his problem and leave him to it, but with Naos on Calamity, she needed allies. “With a little prompting, they’ll get used to you as the new mayor of Gale.”

He rubbed his chin, then looked at his hand in surprise as if just recognizing his new body. Her powered senses detected a wave of happiness rolling off him. “I’ll need you to pull some details from them if I’m going to pull off that charade.”

“If either of them knew the mayor well, I can.” She wished she’d paid more attention to the personality she’d pulled out of the mayor, but in her haste to bring Dillon out, she’d scattered Liam’s thoughts in her own mind, and there was no putting his memories back together again. “When did you want…I mean, are you going to Gale now, or…”

“Don’t worry, sweets.” He lifted a hand before she could protest the nickname. “Patricia. I’ll help you out with Naos, the big bad wolf.” He looked at his new body as if admiring it.

She turned away, sickened. She’d stolen yet another body, something Dillon had chastised her for, but she hadn’t had a choice. When she’d claimed his old body, it had been out of a selfish need for companionship, but now she had to stop whatever Naos had planned, both for her sake and everyone else’s.

When she looked back, she caught Dillon glancing down the front of his trousers. “Ugh, grow up,” she said.

“Just getting the lay of the land, sweetheart.” He gave her a wink.

She rolled her eyes. “I only hope you approve.”

He gave her a calculating look, then smiled, and she knew what he was thinking without reading him. He feared her powers now that he wasn’t lodged in her mind like a tick. Good, that corrected their imbalance of power a little. If he became too cocksure, she could take what she needed about combat and defense from his memory and leave him to rot, even if that left her without his forceful personality. It was good to know she had options, even if they all seemed shitty.


* * *


The sight of the Atlas flying overhead had made Cordelia’s belly go cold. She’d seen the ship before on two out-of-body experiences, and she’d never forget that sleek hull, the acres of rare metal that would drive any Galean wild.

And she’d also never forget the madwoman in charge of it.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Cordelia muttered as she’d watched the ship rattle and boom overhead, headed for the mountains in the north before its crash echoed across the plains. It would be causing havoc at the mine, shaking the mountains down around them, around Liam.

She was still staring, worry after worry piling in her mind until she realized Nettle and Horace were talking with the others, asking her what in the world was going on.

“It’s the Atlas,” she said. No one on the planet had seen it except for her and the people who’d been alive two hundred and fifty years in the past when the Atlas had first come to this planet and launched Cordelia’s ancestors to the surface to be their worshipers. Now the truth was out, and people knew that the original Atlas inhabitants who’d remained in space so long ago weren’t gods. They were all on the planet, revealing themselves as human, but they still had powers that put everyone else to shame.

And the greatest of them just joined the party. “Naos is on board, has to be.”

“Why would she come here?” Nettle asked, sucking her sharp teeth.

“Are you sure?” Horace said at the same time.

“Can you reach Liam?” Cordelia asked Horace, hoping his telepathic abilities could stretch that far.

He frowned and shook his head. “Finding one mind among so many would be difficult, and with that Patricia woman around…”

Cordelia nodded. Patricia had easily subdued him when they’d visited the mine. But with Naos around, maybe Patricia would let down her guard or turn the mine back over to Gale in order to have some allies. No matter what, she had to see that working with someone was better than facing Naos alone.

“Can you astral project that far?” Horace asked.

Cordelia shook her head. The ability to leave her body was quite handy in many cases, but her range wasn’t that far. That fact comforted her most of the time. Remembering when Naos had separated her mind and body still gave her nightmares.

“Do we go back?” Nettle asked, her head swinging between the mine in the distance and the long road back to Gale. In the swamp where her kind, the drushka, lived, the whorls and marks on Nettle’s dark brown skin would have camouflaged her against the surrounding trees, but here on the plains, where the only colors were the green of the grass and the white of stone, she stood out starkly.

As for her question, Cordelia had no answer. Part of her wanted to run back to Liam at the mine, but if Patricia didn’t want to let him go, there was little Cordelia could do. She needed Simon Lazlo, and he was in Gale. He was the linchpin who could combine enough power to bring someone like Naos down.

The sun was setting. Cordelia needed to decide. She wanted to hurry back to Gale so she could collect Simon, then take him to the mine to free Liam. But the track leading from the mine to Gale meandered between hillocks and ravines that cut through the plains. With lanterns, her party of paladins and scouts could stumble off the track and get lost, eating up more time.

“We set up camp.”

By the time they unpacked, it was already dark, and everyone fumbled through setting up tents. Cordelia didn’t feel like sleeping. She stripped her armor off and sat outside, staring at the blackness to the north. No giant balls of fire were consuming the mountains; she supposed that was a good sign. She didn’t like the idea of leaving Liam to deal with Naos’s shit, but he was already dealing with Patricia’s. He’d been a fine soldier—better at taking a punch than giving one, but still—and now that he’d been living outside his hard-ass mother’s influence for nearly a year, he’d come into his own as a leader.

She clenched her fists, fighting the urge to run to him through the dark, and trusting that he could handle Patricia, make an alliance with her.

But he couldn’t handle a fight with the biggest, baddest power user in the universe. By the time Cordelia gathered Simon and got back to the mine, Naos could burn it all to the ground.

Horace sat beside her, and she expected a lecture about going to sleep, but he only said, “Why would Naos come here now?”

“To fuck with us,” Cordelia said, certain of it.

“But she can fuck with us from space.”

“Simon cut her a bit last time they fought, made it so she can’t possess people.”

“So?” He tossed a clump of grass into the fire, looking pissed. “She can still harass people telepathically. She could grab an asteroid out of the sky and throw it at us. Why put her body in jeopardy?”

“Maybe she likes the thrill.” She remembered their last encounter, how tired Naos had seemed after tangling with every other power user on the planet, but she’d been determined as well, angry. “Maybe she thought of a plan.”

Horace sighed, a big sound she could relate to, the sound of someone who was tired of being fucked with.

Cordelia nudged him and smiled. “You ready to kick her ass?”

He nodded, his dark eyes fixed on the fire. He pushed his brown hair off his forehead and rested his narrow chin in one hand. “But then we get left alone for a while, right? With nothing to worry about except sleeping?”

She thought about it and shrugged. “I could do without the mad, power-hungry gods, but if regular people didn’t try to kill me now and again, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Instead of laughing, he seemed thoughtful, opened and closed his mouth several times.

“Out with it,” she said, thinking of a recent conversation she’d had with his lover, Simon, about how their lives had changed. When he stayed silent, she remembered how quickly he’d volunteered to come on this mission when he could have stayed home and worried about nothing much.

“I get it,” he said at last. “When we were living out on the plains for months, there was always something to do, mostly minor emergencies, but something. When we got back to Gale…” He hung his head. “I’m afraid I’ve become addicted to adrenaline.”

“Happens to the best of us.”

“Not to me,” He put his head in his hands, and the firelight brought out gold highlights in his hair. “I’ve always wanted to be content.”

She put an arm around his narrow shoulders. “You can be content and not be standing still. And once we sort Naos out, there’ll always be more to do in Gale.”

“I want to learn how to defend myself,” he said. “Without powers.”

She thought of how easily Patricia had thrown them around. “Being able to fight didn’t save me from Patricia, either.”

“Even so.” His eyes seemed haunted for a moment. “With my power to regenerate my own cells, I could live…a really long time.”

She nodded slowly. She supposed the idea of living longer than everyone else was a daunting thought. At least he’d have Simon to never grow old with. And he could regenerate anyone else he really wanted. She shivered at the thought. The threat of dying had been part of her life so long, she couldn’t handle the idea that it wasn’t in her future. “When we have a moment, I’ll show you a few things.”

He gave her a grateful smile. She returned it, then yawned, the stress of this whole situation getting to her. Her back felt like a bag of sand.

“May I?” he asked, his hand hovering.

“Please.” She was so glad he now asked instead of just helping. Most people didn’t mind the occasional jolt of healing. She probably hadn’t minded in the past, but with all the various powers flying around lately…

His power flowed over her like a warm bath, soothing her muscles. She hesitated a moment, afraid not only of looking weak but of feeling weak. He probably already knew what she had in mind, being a telepath and all. She trusted him not to dig in her thoughts, but she was probably projecting for miles. “I, um, could use a good night’s sleep if you’ve got one handy.”

He grinned. “My pleasure.”

He didn’t follow her into her tent, but he didn’t have to. As soon as her eyes shut, she fell into a deep sleep, not even waking when Nettle crawled in beside her.

When they reached Gale the next day, Cordelia found it quieter than usual. People hurried through the streets rather than congregating and sharing news. She hoped it was only the arrival of the Atlas that had everyone spooked, but she knew they couldn’t be so fortunate as to have only one crisis at a time.

She dodged the questions of those who tried to stop her and went to the Paladin Keep first. Private Jacobs informed her that Simon Lazlo had been attacked twice, once when he was almost burned to death in a warehouse, then his home was raided by a group of kidnappers trying to steal the Storm Lord’s children. And the paladins hadn’t been fast enough to save one of them.

Face flushed and angry, blue eyes flashing, Jacobs reported that Miriam, one of the telepathic yafanai, had been left for dead outside Gale, her newborn stolen from her, but Simon had saved her life and wanted to go after the kidnappers.

Cordelia was torn. She’d rather march on the mine and use Simon’s power to bash Patricia into acquiescence. Then they had to prepare for Naos. On the other hand, a kidnapped baby needed her help. That was a problem she could put her blade to, not one that would be solved with mind-fuckery.

Before Cordelia could speak, the ground in front of the keep churned, and several brown roots burst into the light, bringing with them Pool, the tall, lean, green-haired drushkan queen. Her long brown face seemed grim, narrow mouth turned down, green eyes hard and unblinking.

“I have heard of the baby being taken, Sa,” she said before Cordelia could greet her.

Cordelia nodded. The drushka hated the idea of anyone attacking children. As nasty as relations had gotten between Pool’s drushka and the drushka from the swamp, they’d never involved children in their fights.

“My scouts tell me these cowards have fled Gale,” Pool said. “Their trail leads into the plains.”

“Going where?” Cordelia asked. “Jacobs said they used powers, so they’re yafanai, not plains dwellers. Pakesh is the only plains dweller with powers, and he was attacked along with Jacobs and Simon.”

“Perhaps they have struck some bargain with another clan,” Pool said, lifting her hands and dropping them. The stern look on her face said she wasn’t interested in what the kidnappers might now be doing or their motives. She only wanted them dealt with, and Cordelia was inclined to agree, though they had to decide which problem to deal with first: a stolen child or the madness of Naos.

It was time for a council of war.

Chapter Two

Simon sat among the branches of Pool’s large tree, communing with Pakesh, the only plains dweller known to have yafanai powers after his people had stolen some of the drug that made those powers possible.

Only he’d eaten the drug instead of injecting it, and it made his telepathy and macro-psychokinesis fluctuate wildly, enough for him to need a babysitter for his power.

“Relax,” Simon said, sensing Pakesh’s tension.

Pakesh sighed and drew his legs up. He ran his hands through his dark hair, then rested his face in his palms. The drushka had left them alone for this practice, and nothing but the wind sighing through the leaves surrounded them.

Despite the comforting surroundings, Simon could relate to Pakesh’s discomfort. He’d had many problems to frustrate him lately: people trying to kill him, caring for Dillon’s children and their mothers. And he still hadn’t shaken the guilt for Gale being sacked by the boggins, never mind that he’d only augmented their intelligence under Dillon’s orders.

Still, Simon had helped. He’d loved Dillon. He couldn’t help carrying a little blame for everything Dillon did because he hadn’t stopped Dillon.

He’d made up for it since then by healing Gale’s population after they’d been poisoned by the drushka and bolstering their crops so no one would go hungry. He couldn’t blame Pakesh for letting something weigh on his mind.

But Pakesh wasn’t even trying.

“Pakesh—”

“I don’t want this anymore,” Pakesh said, voice muffled by his hands. “I couldn’t stop the people who tried to kill you, who took Miriam’s baby.”

A series of images flashed across Simon’s mind’s eye: going through the warehouse, something being dropped on his head, the sight of Miriam falling under an attack, the screams as Pakesh’s power broke loose. If Simon hadn’t recovered, Pakesh would have torn the building down around their ears, maybe even the whole of Gale.

“That wasn’t your fault.”

Pakesh gave him a look that was far too astute for a fifteen-year-old. “That doesn’t matter.”

“You can learn to control—”

“I don’t want to learn!” The anger in his voice was enough to rattle the windows. “I want to go home.” His voice broke on the last word. Before he’d gotten his power, he’d been part of a large family, comfortable with children, beloved by everyone. With the power had become unpredictability and ostracization. His journey with Simon had started out a grand adventure, but after all that had happened…

“You can’t go home yet,” Simon said softly, soothing the boy with power. “Not until you learn—”

“Take it away,” Pakesh said, not looking at him, cheeks burning in shame. “Take the power away as you once took Horace’s and your own.”

Simon took a deep breath, trying to hide his shock and think of something to say. He’d stripped away his own power and that of Horace so no one could use them to gain immortality, but their powers had come back.

Because they were micro-psychokinetics. Healers. With Pakesh, the power might stay gone.

“You should think about this. I don’t know if I could ever bring it back for you.”

“I have thought. I don’t want it back.”

Simon sensed his pain, his regret. He’d been so proud when he could use his powers to help people, but he was also right in that he’d ended up hurting someone more often than not. And Simon didn’t sense any doubt.

“All right,” Simon said.

“Now?”

“So soon?” Even after what Pakesh had said, Simon still expected him to think about it, to use his powers one last time, to dwell on what might have been, but his face held nothing but anguish, and from what Simon could sense, he seemed to be straining to stay away from his powers, if such a thing could be said about part of one’s own brain.

Pakesh nodded, and Simon nodded back. Without ceremony, he fell into his own power, closing his eyes to concentrate. When he’d done this to himself and Horace, he’d been in a hurry, hurting both of them. Now he went carefully, cell by cell, rearranging Pakesh’s brain until the power centers had been eliminated. Horace had always been afraid of doing this, afraid of causing Pakesh brain damage, but Simon couldn’t deny him.

Simon checked him one last time, making sure everything was in place before he withdrew his power. When he opened his eyes, Pakesh was beaming. Well, Simon hadn’t accidently wiped out his ability to be happy.

“I can’t feel it,” Pakesh said. Then he frowned. “I can’t quite remember what happened at the warehouse, but…” He shook his head, and his smile was back.

Well, a little damage had been inevitable. “No other gaps?” When Pakesh shook his head, Simon nodded, happy for him.

Pakesh stood. “Will you tell Horace I said thank you?”

“You’re going now?” Simon asked, gawking.

“I meant it when I said I want to go home.” He stood and reached for Simon’s hand. “I’ll go to Wuran’s clan just east. I’m sure they can tell me where my people are.”

It wasn’t a far walk to where the Uri usually camped, but Pakesh would still need some supplies. He waited just long enough for Simon to get a few things together for him from the drushka, and then they had Pool hand them down to the ground where they walked to Gale’s eastern gate. Simon watched the boy walk into the distance with hardly a backward look.

And he’d barely had time to feel any loss from the boy’s absence before he heard Cordelia and Horace were back through the northern gate and wanted to meet with him in the Paladin Keep. They’d heard about Miriam and her baby, and he had no doubt they wanted to talk about Naos going overhead in the Atlas, too.

Even after Simon had healed Miriam, he hadn’t been able to face her. When he got to the meeting room in the keep, he couldn’t look at her because he hadn’t been able to prevent her child being taken. He distracted himself by hugging Horace hello and holding his hand, wishing they could be alone for their reunion. He greeted Reach and Nettle as well, who explained they were only waiting for Cordelia.

Simon led Horace to a corner where a pitcher of water waited. After pouring a drink, he told Horace about Pakesh while Miriam sat at the table alone, and Nettle and Reach spoke quietly in drushkan.

“You did the right thing,” Horace said quietly. “We should have seen it coming that he’d want his power gone.” His power flowed over Simon, not just soothing but reassuring, loving. “Maybe we should have offered it from the first.”

When Simon nodded, Horace glanced at Miriam before his voice spoke in Simon’s mind. “How is Evan?”

Simon sighed, wishing there wasn’t a need for Horace to ask about the baby telepathically, but he clearly didn’t want to mention another child in front of Miriam. Of course, she was a telepath, too, but Simon trusted that Horace’s shields were tight enough to block his signal from going anywhere but between the two of them.

“Fine,” he whispered. “We’re all living in the tree.”

Besides Miriam, the other mothers of Dillon’s children had been moved to Pool’s tree for their protection. It was safe enough.

Unless Naos killed them all.

“I heard that,” Horace said, adding a glower.

“I hoped we were done with Naos,” Simon said.

“We wounded her. We didn’t kill her.”

“She can’t possess people. I’m certain we hurt her telepathy in other ways.”

Horace shrugged. “It’s hard to predict what someone with brain damage will do. And we’ve already seen what such massive power can do to a human mind.” He shuddered, no doubt remembering his friend Natalya. But Naos had helped her even though she had a fragmented personality. Now she was split in two, with Patricia Dué taking over Gale’s mine and Naos coming from heaven to screw with them all.

“I felt something,” Simon said. “When we struck at Naos that last time, I felt part of her…leave. I thought it was just her power dimming, but I guess that was Patricia.”

Horace winced. “I helped treat a mind fracture years ago. It’s rare, but it happens. Abuse caused that one, not an influx of power.” He tilted his head. “I wonder if one of my patient’s personalities would have taken a new body if there’d been one available.”

Simon shuddered. “Maybe the woman calling herself Patricia is all that’s left of Naos, and the Atlas just fell out of the sky.”

“Is that possible?”

“No. Its manual systems were designed to prevent orbital decay.” He sighed. “But we can dream.”

Cordelia strode through the door at last with Pool behind her. “Sorry we’re late. There was some problem with the wells, and Pool—”

Miriam stood, her black eyes hard as obsidian. “I’m going after the bastards who kidnapped my son. Are you coming or not?”

Cordelia lifted an eyebrow as she sat, but she was smart enough not to snap back. “Pool talked me into it, yes.”

“We will take the tree and the children and mothers,” Pool said. “All children are welcome in my branches.” Her bright green eyes were kind. Taller than other drushka, she loomed even when seated. Her skin was nearly the same color as the wooden table, with more lines and whorls. Dark as tattoos, all drushka had them. But unlike most drushka, Pool’s hair was a peculiar green tint shared only with other queens.

“But won’t you be taking the children to them?” Simon asked.

Pool wrinkled her nose. “Only if they can find them, which they will not.”

Simon shook his head. “I don’t know if I can leave Gale right now.”

“You will be safe in the branches, too, shawness,” Reach said.

No doubt the paladins agreed. And Gale might even be safer without him. The remaining Storm Lord worshipers had burned down the Yafanai Temple to get to him, after all.

“And Naos?” he asked, hating to throw a wrench in the works, but a kidnapped child wasn’t the only problem they had to consider.

Cordelia sighed loudly and leaned back in her chair. Tall and muscular, she was imposing, but she seemed world weary now, different from the firebrand who’d once punched him for lying to her. “We can plan as we go,” she said. “We’ll need all the info you can remember.”

He nodded and knew that had to be good enough. If they acted fast, they could catch the kidnappers before Naos had a chance to do anything. And if she made it to Gale while they were gone, maybe she’d follow them rather than flatten the city.

On the planet, she’d be as slow as everyone else. The Atlas wasn’t made to fly or land inside an atmosphere. If she’d managed to put it down without killing herself, she’d still crashed. It wouldn’t be going anywhere again.

“When do we leave?”

“Now,” Miriam said with a scowl.

Cordelia’s mouth twisted, but she nodded, too.


* * *


Lydia watched the battle and wished she could help. She didn’t have any combat skills besides a few wrestling moves she’d learned from the plains dwelling Engali. She wasn’t a tactician. With her prophetic powers, she could venture into the future and see how this battle turned out, but that wouldn’t help anything in the present.

And if she saw something bad, she’d have to watch it twice.

On a rock-strewn stretch of plains, Mamet wielded her sword against an opponent who had a red eye painted on his leather shirt. If it wasn’t for the odd symbol, he could have been Mamet’s kin. He probably was in some distant fashion, but he’d been tainted by the power of the mad goddess, Naos, and now all of her old followers seemed determined to murder everyone they met.

Samira and Mamet stood back-to-back, their dark hair mingling, though Samira’s long locks fluttered in the wind, while Mamet’s short hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. They both frowned in concentration. Mamet fought well, but she could only handle one opponent at a time. Samira flexed her macro-psychokinetic power, throwing enemies across the field or bashing them into rocks. Like Mamet, she tried to wound since these enemies could be brainwashed innocents. Neither of them relished a fight.

Lydia stood in the stirrups of her ossor. She kept their small herd of the large insects well back from the fight, ready to ride in for a rescue should anyone need it. She could just see Fajir behind a clump of rocks. Unlike Samira and Mamet, her face was as serene as someone in deep meditation. Her long dark hair flowed around her shoulders as she whirled and danced across the field, her bone sword moving like an extension of her arm. She reaped the Naos worshipers like vengeance come to life.

Lydia wanted to believe Fajir was simply enjoying her brief bout of freedom. As soon as the fight was over, Samira would knock her around until she submitted to be tied up again. Fajir had almost strangled Lydia on a battlefield much like this one, and part of Lydia’s job was to watch her during combat to make sure she didn’t try to kill Samira or Mamet while they were fighting the Naos worshipers.

Lydia felt a tempting pull inside. She could easily see how this fight would end and know just when Fajir would be subdued. But if her power to see the future showed her something awful, there’d be no stopping it.

Plus, she couldn’t help a nagging feeling that looking into the future somehow set it, making her personally responsible for any bad outcome. That guilt had led her out here to begin with; she’d dreamed that Fajir would save the plains from a coming catastrophe, a huge fire. So, she’d known Fajir would get loose from the Engali, and Lydia had felt obligated to follow her and make sure she didn’t kill anyone else while she was saving the world.

How to stop her, though, was a different story.

“Samira, now!” Lydia called as Fajir slayed the last of her opponents.

Fajir glared, the large teardrop tattoos on her cheeks looking like holes in her face, but she didn’t have long to sneer before Samira’s power sent her rolling across the landscape.

“Stop!” Fajir cried. When she came to a rest, she held up her hands. “I submit, curse you!”

Mamet sent the last of their opponents running, though they’d no doubt return, compelled by their goddess. Mamet sheathed her sword and retrieved a coil of rope from her pack, following Samira toward Fajir.

Fajir stood and held her hands out, swinging her glare between Lydia and Samira. She saved a smirk for Mamet, the woman she’d once tortured.

Mamet didn’t look her in the eye, scowling as she tied Fajir’s hands and jerking the rope tighter than was necessary. If Fajir felt any pain, she didn’t show it, only smiling harder. Samira and Mamet mounted their ossors, letting Fajir march in front of them. The large insects shied from the bodies in the field.

Leaving Samira to watch Fajir, Lydia guided her ossor close to Mamet. “Are you all right?”

Mamet frowned hard, her dark eyes locked on Fajir’s back. She seemed so much older than her twenty years. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand being near her.”

Lydia nodded. Samira had told her about the torture Mamet had suffered, all because someone in Mamet’s clan had killed Fajir’s partner. Lydia wouldn’t have wanted to spend time around her torturer either, if she had one. And Mamet had a kind heart. She couldn’t just strike someone down, no matter what they’d done. The kindness might have seemed foolish to some, but it had won Mamet Lydia’s friendship and Samira’s love.

“You can go back home to the Engali,” Lydia said. “Both of you. I’ll watch her.”

Mamet gave her a kindly but condescending smile.

Lydia rolled her eyes. “Just because she was killing me when you found us doesn’t mean she’ll catch me off guard again.”

Mamet shook her head and gripped the reins so hard, her knuckles went white. “I won’t take chances with your life.”

“Seconded,” Samira called.

Lydia stood in the stirrups and grinned. “Stop butting in on private conversations.”

“Stop having private conversations where anyone can listen.”

“All of you should shut your mouths,” Fajir said over her shoulder.

Mamet bared her teeth, and Fajir laughed. She seemed to feed on Mamet’s hatred, unapologetic for her past deeds.

“I’d say let’s take her back to the Engali,” Samira said, “but you’d just argue.”

Lydia sighed from her toes. She didn’t need to argue. She’d seen Fajir loose in the future, so Fajir would be loose. It didn’t matter what any of them wanted, but she couldn’t explain it yet again, tired of wasting her breath. “Try it if you want.”

Samira rolled her eyes. “No, no. These Naos fanatics are out here killing people, and my conscience won’t let them run amok any more than yours will.”

The day before, a group of Sun-Moon worshipers whom Fajir had saved had returned to thank them. When Samira asked where the regular patrols from Celeste were, the worshipers told them that the Sun-Moon had pulled in their soldiers to guard the wounded city of Celeste, leaving the outer villages to fend for themselves.

Lydia wondered if their faith was wavering. She’d heard that the Sun-Moon listened to their worshipers’ thoughts; they had to hear the suffering and were ignoring it.

The encounter had quieted Fajir for a time. While they were hunting Naos fanatics and protecting Fajir’s people, she didn’t complain as much. And she’d found new delight in tormenting Mamet.

As she marched, Fajir turned her head side to side as if stretching. “You can release me, Nemesis,” she said to Lydia, a nickname that Lydia loved then hated from one moment to the next. “I’ll continue to kill these plains vermin. In your name, if you like.”

And once she was done with the fanatics, she’d kill any other plains dwellers she happened across. Lydia rolled her eyes. This was her first time trying to control the future in any way since she’d realized it couldn’t be changed. She’d tried when she was younger, but what she saw always came to pass. At least this time she could make sure Fajir only killed those who were out to commit murder.

She thought of the fiery winds from her vision, of Fajir striding toward danger, the only one brave enough to stop the architects of the inferno. Lydia didn’t have the courage to follow her own future and see if it all worked out.

“Do you know who killed your partner?” she asked, wanting to piss Fajir off as much as Fajir angered everyone else. “Did you kill that person already, or do you enjoy wasting time killing others?”

Fajir’s expression turned to stone before she looked ahead again. Lydia glanced at Samira, who shrugged. Mamet sneered. At last, Lydia had hit one of Fajir’s nerves. She didn’t press, keeping further attacks in reserve for when she needed to shut Fajir up again.


* * *


Nemesis’s words rang in Fajir’s skull. Scant days ago, she’d had a chance to kill the vermin who’d murdered her beloved Halaan. The Galean Cordelia had offered to help her hunt that one vermin down in exchange for Mamet’s life, and Fajir had agreed.

On the cusp of the moment, when she’d imagined her future stretching ahead with no purpose, she’d changed her target to the vermin’s baby daughter. Cordelia had spoiled her shot, but Fajir still carried the vision of a glorious circle of violence that ended with Halaan’s killer surrounded by a mountain of dead: family, friends, everyone he knew. Then and only then would he know her pain.

Then Nico, her stalwart supporter, had abandoned her. He was a fellow widow whose own partner had been his true love. He’d admitted his feelings for Fajir, then said that if she wouldn’t truly avenge her partner’s death, she didn’t want to move on with her life. If she wanted the violence to continue, there was no help for her.

As if she needed help. She’d seen her true purpose: to kill and kill and kill until either she died, or all the vermin were dead. All widows were supposed to do whatever they could to prevent others from dying as their partners had. Nico kept a house in the wilderness as a sanctuary for those who lost their way. Others became doctors or cared for the elderly, smoothing the transition to death as best they could. Fajir was supposed to protect her people from the occasional plains dwelling vermin who tried to kill them, but if all the vermin were dead, none of her people would ever be murdered by one again.

Simple.

Then Nemesis had come into her life and told her she would live to save the plains from some inferno, that only she would have the courage to challenge whoever created that chaos. It was probably just another vermin, but Nemesis seemed determined to keep her in bondage until it happened. Whenever Fajir had tried to kill her, Nemesis used her power of future sight to anticipate Fajir’s moves, or her friends saved her. It wouldn’t always be so, but Fajir grew tired of waiting.

She thought again of the goddess Naos, who had appeared to her in the guise of Halaan, offering to free her if she would go west and kill someone specific. Fajir had agreed, thinking she would get to this person after carrying out her own plans, but Naos had sensed her thoughts and rescinded her offer. That was fine. Fajir was tired of gods anyway. Hers had refused to free her from these three, citing their fear of Simon Lazlo.

Pitiful. Gods weren’t supposed to fear anything, not even each other. Not only did her Lords leave her in bondage, they abandoned their people to a horde whose goddess didn’t even walk among them. Nico was probably fuming, desperate to protect those who might lose their partners.

At least she was doing what he could not. And if she submitted to the wishes of her captors enough, they would let down their guard and become fodder for her sword.

The day grew long, and her captors made camp. Fajir grimaced as they tied her hands behind her back, trusting her less in the darkness. Wise, but she wished they were just a little stupider.

They chattered as they prepared their evening meal. Fajir leaned against a boulder and watched the stars appear, wondering if Halaan was watching, wondering if he was proud. Nico had said that by leaving Halaan’s killer alive, she was denying Halaan rest. Fajir thought he would be happy to forgo rest if all the vermin died, and no one would have to suffer as she’d suffered. Surely that would make him happy.

She searched her memory for any sign that it would, finding nothing in their life to compare. Instead, she found as she did every day that she saw his smile less clearly, could not quite remember his laugh or which ear he kissed first when trying to get her to forgive him. Was this the course he’d want for her?

She gritted her teeth. Such thoughts were for weaklings. The fastest way to find out what he wished was to ask him, and to do that, she needed a vermin to kill her. And that could only happen after she’d slaughtered as many as she could. She supposed she should feel grateful that she was doing so now while also protecting her people.

A shout echoed through the darkness, a cry for help. Fajir rolled onto her feet, fighting for balance. “Let me loose!”

“That might not be one of your—” Samira started.

Fajir rushed forward, bowling Samira over with one shoulder. Samira fell with a cry, and Mamet leaped to help her as Nemesis gawked. Fajir ran toward the noise. Even with her hands bound, she could help some poor villager in need.

And if some vermin managed to plunge a sword through her chest, so be it.

Her captors cried out, but no invisible hand swatted her down. The light was fading; she could see enough to run and follow the shouts. In a hollow beyond a line of rocks, two groups faced off, some bearing the Naos eye and others in clothing like Cordelia had worn, the trappings of Gale. A piercing cry carried on the wind, an infant’s voice.

Fajir stumbled to a halt. Neither of these were her people, but she’d never pass up the chance to kill some vermin. She took a step when a pull from behind stopped her. Nemesis stood there, yanking at the rope, Fajir’s sword tucked under her arm. In a moment, Fajir was free. She reached for the sword, but Nemesis hopped back and threw the sword over Fajir’s head to land in the grass.

Fajir had to chuckle. She could grab the sword and attack Nemesis in a moment, but Mamet and Samira were running up behind. Better to do what she’d wanted in the first place.

Fajir scooped up her sword and ran into the fray, pausing only when one of the vermin flew away from the Galeans as if pushed with an invisible hand. So, they had power users among them. That was good. After she finished the vermin, perhaps she could convince the Galeans to free her.

She put that thought away as she tore into the vermin. Some were skilled, but none could match her; they crumpled like paper. Her sword twisted through them, scattering blood to the wind. Soon, all the vermin were dead. She turned to find the Galeans staring and her captors approaching from the side, a torch bobbing between them.

“Don’t move, Fajir,” Samira said.

Fajir breathed hard and tensed. Now, with the gratitude shining on the Galeans’ faces, she could confront Samira and hope these Galeans fought her power with their own.

But by their stares, she knew some feared her, too. “I am Fajir,” she said in their language, hoping that would put them at ease. “Who are you?”

Five of them gathered around a sixth holding the infant. “Sebastian,” one said. “We’re from Gale.” He turned toward Fajir’s captors. “Samira?”

She gawked. “Sebastian! What are you doing out here?”

“Gale’s become…dangerous.” He glanced at Mamet and Lydia, then his mouth fell open. “Aren’t you the prophet?”

Lydia waved slightly, so awkward. “Not anymore.”

One of the others mumbled something about betraying the Storm Lord. Samira frowned hard, but Lydia shrugged. Ah, a schism.

“The Storm Lord is dead,” Samira said.

“He will return!” one of the Galeans yelled.

Fajir smiled. Any moment now. It was dark enough; they might not catch her movements.

“Everyone, be calm,” Mamet said, holding up her hands.

She would die first.

The Galeans grouped tightly together, the one with the infant fading to the back. Samira put her hands on her hips and seemed ready to yell when Nemesis stepped into the middle, all of her shyness gone.

“We are not going to stand out here in the dark and fight about the freaking Storm Lord,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what any of us believes; there are dangerous people out here. That’s one of them.” She jabbed a finger in Fajir’s direction, drawing all eyes to her, and Fajir wished she could leap the distance and throttle her.

“Let’s go back to our camp with its nice campfire and talk. And if you don’t mind, we’re going to tie up our personal Naos-fanatic-killer first, or she will murder all of us.”

The Galeans muttered, but several took a step away from Fajir. She only had time to renew her vow to kill Nemesis when Samira’s force wave blew her over, sending her sword bouncing from her hand. She spat when Mamet tied her up and promised that even if Halaan did not require it, she would kill these three several times over!

Chapter Three

Lydia didn’t care for the visiting Galeans, not at all. She hadn’t been close with any of them, and they spoke with too much reverence for the Storm Lord. They also cast a lot of hateful glances toward Samira and Lydia, pissed that not every yafanai had been in the Storm Lord’s pocket.

At least Fajir was tied up, or she’d have found a way to use the newcomers to her advantage. The malice glittering in her eyes would have frozen Lydia to the spot a few weeks ago, but she’d grown used to it.

At camp, the Galeans stayed on one side of the fire, leaving Lydia, Samira, Mamet, and Fajir on the other.

“Why did you leave Gale?” Samira asked.

They’d probably been thrown out now that the Storm Lord was dead, but Lydia said nothing. The Galeans’ whispered conversation cut off as suddenly as if someone gagged them.

“It’s safer out here,” Sebastian said.

“Why?” Samira asked. “What happened?”

Sebastian began a story about the drushka poisoning Gale and abducting everyone who didn’t succumb. Lydia’s mouth dropped open, but she breathed a sigh of relief when someone added that Simon Lazlo and Horace Adair had healed the victims and few had died.

Another Galean spat to the side. “If the Storm Lord hadn’t been distracted by people like them in the first place, the chaos with the drushka never would have happened.”

“People like them?” Lydia asked, clenching her fists.

“Troublemakers. Renegades.”

Lydia sneered. Zealotry was just one of the many reasons she’d never socialized with other yafanai even though she’d worked and lived in the temple. Before she could fire back, Samira touched her arm.

“What happened to the people who were abducted?” Samira asked.

“Rescued by the paladins,” Sebastian said.

The man who’d grumbled stood up this time. “The drushka never would have attacked us if the paladins had stayed in Gale where they belong!”

Lydia snorted. “Armor and guns wouldn’t have done anything against poison.”

“What would you know, traitor?”

Lydia shot to her feet, sick and tired of people who didn’t know her passing judgment on her. “I lost the love of my life in that boggin fight, the one the Storm Lord started!”

Now the Galeans were on their feet, too, yelling, pointing fingers. All of Lydia’s anger and grief for Freddie came rushing out of her. Now that the shouting had started, Samira was on her feet, too. It wouldn’t be long until they were throwing power around. Lydia felt a tingle pass over her scalp, meaning someone was using powers already, most likely a telepath.

“Who the fuck was that?” Samira yelled. A wave of force came off her, guttering the campfire. “One of you just used telepathy. Where the fuck do you get off reading minds uninvited?”

“Things have changed,” Sebastian said. “We’re bringing worship of the Storm Lord back, starting with his children.”

Lydia frowned. What children? The only child here was the infant. She stared. Could that be the Storm Lord’s child?

The tingle fluttered over her scalp again, this time carrying a noise like droning insects. Lydia tried to cry a warning, but the sound overwhelmed her, cutting off her voice. She fell to her knees as she tried to think through the power assaulting her. It hammered at her mind, tossing away who she was and what she was doing.

Someone was yelling. Fajir. Lydia struggled to focus. Fajir’s foot jolted through her bleary vision and connected sharply with her thigh; Lydia’s mind came back with a snap.

“Rise, Nemesis!” Fajir screamed. “Or they will kill us where we sit!”

Lydia stumbled to her feet. Several Galeans were on the ground, no doubt thrown by Samira, who knelt in the dirt, head in her hands. Mamet grappled with someone, but another crept up behind her and cracked her across the back with a wooden staff.

Lydia grabbed Fajir’s sword, but one of the Galeans rushed her. The skin of her arms tickled before burning, the pain building as if she was covered in stinging insects. It had to be the work of micro-psychokinesis, but he didn’t have a fraction of Horace’s or Simon’s strength. She fought the feeling, swinging the sword to drive him away. He darted around her clumsy swing.

Lydia fell into her power and saw his future self grab at her from the left. In the present, she dodged, keeping Fajir between them. Fajir reared up and bashed her head into his nose. He yelped and scrambled back, hands on his bleeding face. Lydia fumbled with Fajir’s bonds.

“I don’t know why you’re helping,” Lydia shouted, “but I’ll take it.”

“Worry not, Nemesis,” Fajir said with a cackle. “No one will kill you but me.”

“How comforting.” Her hands went numb as the buzzing assailed her brain again. She stumbled and dropped Fajir’s sword, fighting to tell up from down. “Shit!”


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