Pure evil rises once again in Albia…
Three years have passed since Baron Reen’s trial. A terrible accident on the island of his exile has transformed him into a nightmarish scarecrow creature with dark, mysterious powers. Staging his own suicide, Reen breaks free of his prison and, with the help of the former queen Sofira, embarks on a ruthless quest for vengeance against his worst enemy, the woman responsible for the overthrow of his schemes and his own ruination: Brynne Sullyan.
Sullyan is tasked with investigating Reen’s suicide. The missing body and a series of disasters in Port Loxton—a vicious murder, a brutal ambush, and a devastating fire—raise suspicions in her mind. She probes deeper, determined to uncover the truth, unsuspecting of the evil that’s about to be unleashed…
Lerric, aging client-king of Bordenn, stood in the dark doorway. A damp, noisome smell assailed his nose, the drip of water reached his ears. Lerric shivered, his reaction not wholly due to the chill in the air.
Deep within the lightless room he detected a hint of movement. Creaking leather, a hiss of pain. Lerric stepped one pace farther from the door’s protection and raised his lamp. As soon as the faint yellow light touched—and flinched from—the dark form huddled on the truckle bed along the far wall, a vicious curse sounded. A crooked hand flew up to shield eyes that could no longer bear good, honest light.
“Put that out, you bloody fool! Would you blind me entirely?”
“Ah … your pardon.”
Lerric shuttered the lamp and gloom reclaimed the cell. When his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, the king assessed the cell’s lone occupant.
Habitually dapper and well-fed, his body had assumed scarecrow proportions. A parody of his former self. The fastidiously clean and expensive raiment was replaced by a thin, shabby robe of dusty black. A darker blot amid the shadows, it barely disguised the gaunt frame it covered.
Gone were the arrogant swagger and confident poise, replaced by a savage desire for revenge, a thirst for retribution. Three years of incarceration and hopelessness, of nursing raging grievances, hadn’t lessened the pious fervor and deeply-held beliefs. Thirty-six interminable months of imprisonment and deprivation had served only to deepen his determination to rid the land of those to whom he owed his life. Those without whose mercy he would have suffered a horrific and agonizing death.
His eyes, damaged and unable to focus, peered peevishly at his visitor as he levered his skeletal frame upright. The tortured creature that had once been Baron Hezra Reen stood, leaning on a wooden cane as gnarled and lined as the liverish skin of his face, and bared his yellow, decaying teeth at the well-dressed man by the door. His host.
“Well? Are you going to stand there all day gawping, Lerric?”
His harsh tones lashed the older man. Lerric winced and pried his eyes from the cane clasped so tightly in the other’s hand, thinking—hoping—it must be a trick of the gloom that made it glow a gory red.
His daughter had convinced him that this withered being held the key to avenging her disgrace, yet Reen’s shocking physical aspect and aura of menace eroded Lerric’s confidence in the wisdom of allowing Sofira her way. How could she still profess to love this ill-tempered, wrinkled shell of a man, this ranting, obsessive bigot? He only had her word that the scarecrow’s mind was still sharp, undamaged by years of incarceration. After all, Sofira only had his letters on which to base her assertion.
It suddenly crossed Lerric’s mind that those letters could have been written by someone else purely to convince Sofira of the Baron’s sanity. Although who on that gods-forsaken island—or was that a contradiction in terms?—Reen could have found to write them for him, the aging king could not imagine. It was nothing less than a miracle he had even found a carrier for his messages, given his status as prisoner and traitor. But gold was gold, and there was always someone willing to risk the High King’s wrath for a price.
And even though he had played his part, Lerric had yet to learn the full story behind his unwelcome guest’s liberation.
Despite his curiosity, Lerric had been reluctant to make this visit. His own men had retrieved Reen from captivity, brought him south laboriously by boat and by land after plucking him, half-dead and raving, from the sucking arms of the sea. The operation had gone off without a hitch, yet something about their eyes and manner had alerted Lerric to the possibility not all was as it should be. His men had been unwilling—or unable—to speak of what disturbed them, and it had not escaped the king’s notice that none of them had come near him since. Two of them seemed to prefer the uncomfortable duties of the watchtower, while the third had not been seen at all. Remembering their furtive looks and uneasy shifting as they reported Reen’s arrival, Lerric experienced a shudder of unexplained fear.
Placing the shuttered lamp on the floor, he advanced into the cell. The scarecrow watched him approach, peering myopically, beckoning Lerric closer within range of his failing eyesight. Almost mesmerized, Lerric obeyed.
The unimaginable tortures Reen had suffered during his exile, agonies which had warped and twisted his body and rendered his skin painfully sensitive to daylight, had turned the once-arrogant little man into a human mole. Reclusive, given to fits of ranting interspersed with hours of religious chanting, he was a figure of nightmare. Lerric wondered what his daughter’s reaction would be when she finally saw the man she professed to still love. The man for whom Lerric had agreed to pawn his kingdom—and maybe, he thought with an icy shiver, his very life.
Sofira had assured her father she and Reen had long since forgiven each other their mutual betrayal at Reen’s sham of a trial. Reen understood she had only been trying to protect her position and her children. He knew she was only posturing when she had insisted upon his execution; she would never have let it be carried out. She would have rescinded the order had she retained her crown. And she knew, she avowed—although her father heard the hidden note of outrage quivering just below the surface—that Reen’s impeachment of her that was the cause of her losing her husband, her children, and the crown that was rightfully hers, had been forced from him under severe duress by their powerful and scheming archenemy. The enemy who was still riding high on the triumph of that success, and who still held the High King in the palm of her hand.
“Sit, sit,” grumbled the scarecrow, waving a bony claw toward the only chair in the room. Lerric sat, his aging bones aching in the moldy damp, feeling far less a king and more the supplicant under the fervid light in the other’s dark-gray eyes. Casting a look at the leather-sprung truckle bed as the wasted man sat once more, Lerric summoned the courage to speak.
“Are you sure this is what you want? Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the palace, or even a private house? I have plenty. I could vacate one for you. No one need know you were there—”
The cane’s heel struck the stone floor with such a violent crack it made Lerric jump. The word was spat with force and Lerric fell silent. The wizened claws gripping the cane turned white with the preternatural strength of their grip, and the lined, hawk-like face thrust close. The all but useless eyes, their whites now yellow and veined, snapped with anger and a thin line of spittle hung from the cracked lips.
“Have I not told you I must hide?” the dreadful voice wheezed. “Have I not told you the reason why I may never walk in daylight? Did I not tell you why I must languish like this, hidden deep in the rock of the earth? If I do not they will find me, Lerric; they will root me out like hounds on a scent and tear me to pieces. They are merciless. They are godless. They are vengeful heretics. I have told you all this, and yet you offer me your comforts? Pah!”
Lerric leaned away from the spray of spittle that accompanied this rant. There was an unholy light in the feral eyes, a sly twist to the mouth. He was surely unhinged. What had he done, thought Lerric, what had he unleashed by giving way to his daughter’s tearful pleading? Oh, but it was too late now—far too late.
“No,” the wheezing scarecrow went on, leaning back, the demonic glint fading, “I must stay well hidden. And I no longer need what you would call ‘comforts,’ not after three years of incarceration in a living hell. She saw to that. But the tables are turning. I have learned why I was seemingly abandoned by my God and left to rot. I am the stronger for it, believe me. I have learned secrets they’ve never even dreamed of. Secrets they wouldn’t want me to learn. Oh, yes.”
The emaciated form leant forward, crooking one long-nailed finger under Lerric’s nose. “I am the stronger now. Do you hear me? I have unlocked the powers granted me by God; granted me through suffering in order to do his will. I have the power to defeat them—to defeat her—and no one can stop me. With your support we can finally drive them out, rid our lands of their blasphemous ways, their unnatural powers, and restore your daughter—my Queen—to her rightful place. With me to guard and guide her, we will be invincible. No one will touch us, no one will harm us. You will see your daughter reign supreme and all Albia will revere her!
“Once she and I are wed—ah! Then, Lerric, then you will see!”
Lerric hid his face in his hands to blot out the terrible sight of this gaunt figure, scrawny arms raised high, the thin and threadbare robe falling back from limbs devoid of muscle, skin devoid of life, bone devoid of blood. Horror stole over Lerric as he listened to the creature he had agreed to champion, and to whom his beloved daughter had pledged her body. For surely it was no longer human, this skeletal, ranting fanatic; and for one redeeming moment Lerric was sorely tempted to slide his dagger from its sheath and plunge it into the breast of the treacherous creature that had once called itself Baron Hezra Reen.
And maybe it would have saved Albia, Lerric, and many, many others much misery, anguish, and horror.