Chapter 1 (Remember this is before I’ve sent it off to the editor.)

Ancel Dorn inspected the wolf trap. Russet splotches, bits of grey fur, and flesh covered the jagged edges of its iron teeth. The bitter scent of blood bit at his nose. Somehow, the beast had managed to escape.

Scanning the ground, he picked out the frozen red flecks, crushed grass, and brush where the wolf had dragged itself. The trail meandered off through the clearing and into the woods where the weak light of early dawn filtered through the trees, but hadn’t yet reached the forest floor. The wolf could be hidden anywhere within the dappled shadows covering the area.

But the beast wasn’t alone. That much was obvious.

Several dozen paw prints decorated the ground. The gray wolves of the Kelvore Mountains did not abandon their wounded pack mates. Of late, they had taken to the Greenleaf Forest in greater numbers than Ancel could remember, making the game within the woods a rare commodity. The presence of this many played well into his goal.

A howl less than a mile away confirmed his suspicions. Close enough that there was no rush.

He took a cloth from his pocket and cleaned the trap, then sprinkled it with deer blood from the pouch at his hip. The scent wouldn’t quite overpower the smell of the wounded wolf, but another curious and hungry one would be along for sure. By now, the snows in the Kelvore would be too deep and would have driven much of the game down into the lower lying areas.

When he finished resetting the trap, Ancel drew his cloak around him. Bitter cold was beginning to seep in with the onset of winter. What should have been dewdrops coated the blades of grass in an icy sheen, while high above, white and gray saturated the sky like dirty milk. Heralds of a snowstorm. Ancel pulled his scarf up over his mouth, steam rising in warm wisps before disappearing. Despite the cold, his mother would have liked the weather. Winter had always been her favorite time of year.

“The quiet,” she would say. “The beauty covers the land yet still reminds you it mustn’t be taken lightly. Similar to everything else in life.”

Ancel’s hand dropped to the pendant carved in the likeness of his mother’s face hanging from the chain around his neck. It didn’t matter that it lay under his leather armor and furs. Placing his hand there felt good all the same, and like his sword, the bond within resonated deep in his core. The link gave him one of the few hopes he still clung to in earnest. The near indiscernible thrum within the silver of her hair and the golden tint of the gems in the eyes told him she was out there. Somewhere. Maybe, still alive.

The other hopes, more like reassurances, were his sword and the intricate tattoo-like artwork on his right arm that spread to his chest on the same side. His Etchings.

They oozed power, promised a reckoning when he mastered them. From time to time, they still ached. Not as much as before or as bad as what he felt in his heart when he thought about his mother, but the hurt reeked of his failure as much and more as the stink of death. No matter how he may try, it was always there waiting to greet him—the pain of his inability to help his mother when she needed him. Or to help his father. The weakness he displayed in being blinded by what he’d felt for Irmina to have almost given up on his studies. He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. It didn’t help much. There it was now, stabbing him, tiny daggers in his chest.

Not many things helped subdue what he felt now. And those that did, he reveled in. Two were before him. Hunting. Killing.

His father didn’t approve of those two or his coming into the forest alone, but at times like this, he could care less. He needed to soothe himself in a fashion that would not force him to use his power.

The other ways were knowing he wouldn’t give up in finding the black armored man who’d taken his mother, and that he could lose himself within his training. Several hours remained before the latter commenced. As for the man, he still had no clue where to begin his search. He growled his frustration.

If only this supposed teacher the netherling told him of would arrive sooner. Ancel was sure he could feel his supposed mentor, somewhere to the south, faint and tremulous, but not as distant as before. This third bond he’d gained when the obsidian creature with its tentacles, many eyes and eel like minions had Etched the drawings into his skin, was like a living thing. As weak as he felt his link to his mother through his pendant, and as strong as he felt his connection to the sword on his hip, the third was stronger. Often it tugged at him. Once it had been tiny, inconsequential, but over the past months, it had grown until it became an ever present lump in the back of his mind, pulsing and throbbing. Once he’d tried to escape from it, going high up into the Kelvore, but his location made little difference. Now he resigned himself to waiting.

And of course killing wolves.

A howl broke Ancel from his thoughts, as if reminding him there was work to do, death to embrace.

Ancel brought two fingers up under his scarf into his mouth and whistled. The sound cut through the twitter of nearby birds, sending them into silence. Then Ancel broke into a jog, heading toward where the bloody trail entered the Greenleaf Forest.

A barking grunt answered.

Moments later, a shaggy, gray-white form bounded out from among the trees ahead of him. Charra, his daggerpaw, had grown quite a bit larger over the past months, much faster than any other beast of his kind. He now stood a good eighteen hands tall at the shoulders, bigger than the average horse. From across the way, his eyes shone like golden torches. The daggerpaw’s bone hackles spread even wider now in a soft mane down his back and along his sides. When they hardened, they stood erect, some of them more than a foot in length, their edges as sharp as a honed blade.

According to the netherling that had given Ancel his Etchings, Charra was one of them. Ancel still found that difficult to believe. Besides his uncanny ability to understand Ancel and his larger than normal size, Charra appeared to be a daggerpaw. Not once had he displayed any transformation into a multi-tentacled, gigantic, shiny black creature with dozens of eyes.

Ancel drew up short just before Charra. “You head northeast. Get ahead of them and cut them off. I’ll get the hurt one while you occupy the others.”

Charra whined his assent and loped off into the shadowy forest.

One foot tapping time on ground frozen hard, Ancel listened for the barking grunt from Charra. He checked and rechecked to make certain his sword was secure in its scabbard. As if he needed to; the link told him it was there, but some habits were hard to shake. He considered removing the short bow from his shoulder, but decided against it. The weapon was perfectly fine. He’d oiled the bowstring just that morning, and the arrows jutting just above his shoulder from the quiver on his back were in tip top condition. So he waited.

And waited.

His brows drew together. Surely, Charra should have located the wolves by now?

Still nothing. Under his scarf, Ancel scratched at his beard as he pondered the delay.

That’s when he heard the sound.

A low growl. Followed by another, deeper rumble.

Not east. West.

Battle energy edging up through his body in faint ripples, Ancel turned ever so slowly toward the growl.

At the edge of the woods to the west stalked five wolves. As expected this time of year, their fur had grown extra thick, making them appear even bigger than usual. Jaws spread in snarls, white teeth exposed, they advanced with caution. One step. Pause. Another step. Pause.

If he backed up at all, the wolves would charge. He let out a slow breath. Either way they would attack. Ancel’s left hand came around in a blink to snatch the bow from his shoulder.

Snarling, the wolves bounded forward in response to the sudden move.

Battle energy surged within Ancel. Eyes riveted on the charging beasts, bow held before him, his right hand shot up over the same shoulder. He plucked an arrow from the quiver and nocked it all in one smooth motion.

Forty feet or less separated him from the wolves. Seconds before they would be upon him.

Despite the knot forming in his gut and the thump of his heart, he delved deep into his mind with practiced efficiency. There, he found the calm of the Eye. His emotions skittered outside of it, trying to worm their way in. Right now, he needed one feeling. Emptiness. The cold hearted indifference of one who could stare down death and not flinch.

Twenty feet.

Without thought, he aimed and loosed.

A yowl sounded.

One wolf staggered. The others came on faster, galloping.

Arrow. Nock. Loose.

Another painful cry.

This time a wolf fell.

Arrow. Nock.

They were on him, bounding into the air.

Ancel leaped to the side, hitting the ground and brush in a roll, ignoring the pain of the quiver digging into his back as he crushed icy leaves beneath him. He dropped his bow in the process, and when he came to his feet, he already had his sword brandished.

The wolves skidded to a halt. One of the ones he’d shot was limping over, whining with every breath, an arrow in its side. The other was motionless.

Snapping and snarling toward each other the wolves spread apart. Mouths to the ground, jaws full of slobber, they surrounded him.

Ancel spun in an attempt to keep his eyes on each one, but it was futile. Every time he turned away from a wolf, he needed to spin to cover his rear as he heard the beast charge. But each movement was a feint. They were measuring him for an opening.

Where in Hydae was Charra?

As if in answer to his silent question, Charra’s gray-white form blurred out from the forest’s edge. Before the closest could turn, the daggerpaw’s jaws closed on its neck. A yowl choked off as bone snapped. Charra threw the carcass aside.

Red bled down Charra’s fur and covered the knife sharp protrusions of his bone hackles. Too much blood for the one bite he’d just inflicted. Neither had he speared the wolf before he attacked.

What—. The answer tore from among the trees with bloodthirsty growls.

Four more wolves.

Ancel almost smiled. A trap all along.

Charra spun to face the threat. Ancel took several steps back while he faced the other wolves on his side. With Charra providing protection to Ancel’s rear, maybe he stood a chance.

The wounded wolf eased to the ground, its breaths laboring heavily. One of the others whined. A bark answered from the ones Charra occupied. The wolf in front of Ancel loped over to its counterpart on the ground and smelled it. Ancel shifted his gaze to track the beast. It gave one plaintive moan then a growl like distant thunder.

Ancel’s heart thumped at the sound.

With a sudden lurch, the wolf faced Ancel and bounded forward. At the same time, snarls issued behind the youth, followed by Charra’s barking grunt. From the corner of his eye, Ancel saw the other wolf on his flank lunge.

Ancel met the first one head on as it soared through the air. Sidestepping slightly to allow the creature to bypass him, he sliced. Silversteel met fur. Flesh parted, blood spurted. A sharp yowl sounded as the beast dropped to the ground. Ancel was already turning to face the other one, throwing his cloak up for protection.

As the second wolf hit his cloak, Ancel tried to drop to one side and roll. Pain lanced up his arm. The wolf had its jaws locked on him, and even through the thick fur pelts, cloak and leather armor beneath, the crushing power of those canines bore down on Ancel.

He hit the ground hard, the wolf atop him worrying at his cloak and arm.

A snarl made Ancel glance up.

The wounded wolf had somehow risen to its feet and limped over, its jaws spread in a rictus. Golden brown eyes stared into Ancel’s own.

He tried to bring his sword up, but it was trapped beneath him.

Time slowed. The wolves shoulder muscles bunched.

No choice was left to Ancel. He reached out for his power.

The wolf jerked, released an abrupt yowl, and pitched over. An arrow jutted from its neck.

A second later, the one worrying Ancel’s arm gave a matching plaintive cry and fell dead, blood spurting from a similar wound. Ancel kicked the beasts off him and rolled over.

His father, the hood of his fur jacket thrown back, face stern, controlled his horse between his legs, his oversized, black longbow in hand. Stefan nocked another arrow and aimed toward Charra.

When Ancel looked over, he saw the four wolves dead, but five more had joined the fray. Blood covered Charra’s bone hackles in dripping rivulets.

The bowstring twanged and another wolf fell. The others turned tail and darted toward the woods.

Heart still thumping, Ancel scrambled to his feet, his breaths coming in short bursts. He sheathed his sword.

“In Ilumni’s name, didn’t I warn you about coming in here alone?” Stefan’s voice was steel.

Ancel turned to meet his father’s furious glare. “Yes, Da.”

“So why are you here? You could have died today, boy.”

“I’m not a boy any—”

“When you act like this, you are. Have you learned nothing?”

“Da, it’s just—”

“There’s no excuse for foolishness. For unnecessary risks or for taking out your anger on the wildlife. Hunting for fur is one thing, but wanton killing is another.”

Ancel hunched his shoulders and averted his eyes from his father’s stony gaze. “I’m sorry, Da.”

“Son, you could have gotten yourself killed.” Stefan’s voice became tender. “You’re more important than ever.”

“I know. I’m just so tired of waiting, Da.”

“Patience and perseverance go hand in hand for any task to be completed,” his father said, quoting the Disciplines. “Restraint. Try to remember that when you feel the way you do.”

“Yes, Da.”

At that precise moment, Charra gave an abrupt barking grunt. The daggerpaw stared off into the trees.

Ancel began to turn when a presence in his mind seemed to encompass his every thought. The lump that had grown ever since he received his first Etching felt as if it would explode from within his head. Ancel squeezed his eyes tight and brought a hand up to his temple. The feeling pulled him toward the direction in which Charra stared and growled.

“Dear gods, what is that?” Stefan murmured, voice shaky.

Ancel opened his eyes. His father had his bow drawn fletching to ear and pointed toward the tree line.

There, among the shadows, lurked a man-shaped, hulking form at least seven or eight feet in height.

Chapter 2


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