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REVENGE TO THE TENNTH POWER
(MAMMYTH #1)



By Jack Chaucer

Copyright Jack Chaucer 2018

Smashwords Edition



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 ebook with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this ebook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Cover art by Jeanine Henning



Discover other titles by Jack Chaucer:

Queens are Wild

Streaks of Blue (Nikki #1)

Nikki Blue: Source of Trouble (Nikki #2)

Nikki White: Polar Extremes (Nikki #3)

The Password Is Wishpers

Freeway and the Vin Numbers





Table of Contents

PROLOGUE

1. BLOOD BOIL

2. THE VULTURE

3. DEATH SCREAM

4. ALL MEN ARE EVIL

5. NERA’S COUNSEL

6. ARROWS & ALLIES

7. ROYAL REVEAL

8. GRACELESS, YOUR GRACE

9. TOMB OF THE LIVING

10. MORE OF A MAN

11. THE DYING & THE DEAD

12. CLOSET IN THE WOODS

13. FORTUNE TELLER

14. ONE GOOD REASON

15. RUTT HUTT

16. FIREBALL

17. RAINING BOULDERS

18. CHANNELING THE DEAD

19. WHITE WIDOW

20. A TERRIBLE POET

21. THE HYDRA

22. DOOMED

23. NEAR KISS

24. A SWORD THROUGH THE HEART

25. HER STAGE

26. THE UNDERWORLD

27. VIEW FROM THE NINTH SPIRE

28. THE WAIT

29. NO MORE KINGS & QUEENS

30. YOU BETTER NOT FUXING DIE

31. THE MONUMENT

32. MAMMYTH O

EPILOGUE

About the author



For Wilma,

goddess of love, revenge and baked goods



PROLOGUE


The second time Antero ever laid eyes on Tenn, she appeared far too alone, young and beautiful to sing for the rag-tag regulars of a back-country shit cave like the Tomb of the Living.

For one thing, singing in public was banned for all low-born throughout the kingdom, even in the forgotten, guano-encrusted bowels of Mount Mammyth. King Ryzthar, and the monarchs who preceded him, understood well the power of song and its potential to plant the seeds of rebellion among the rabble.

Most performers here gripped an instrument, like Antero’s friend Zakk, who could unlock any sound he desired with his pilfering fingers and sawing bow thrusts across a fiddle.

Tenn, however, had nothing in her hands, which she balled into fists against the sides of her green-and-silver tunic. Her eyelids slammed shut even tighter, but for some reason, every wayward soul in the Tomb gazed at this tall, slender girl — whose long, brown hair cascaded into glowing whorls of gold in the torch light — with open anticipation and respectful silence.

Antero nearly laughed in disbelief into the void, but then her voice smacked him. It was too low and haunting; shockingly vulgar and treasonous.


Fux the king …

I will never be queen

Because of what you did to her

And what you did to me


On the day I flowered

I had already been devoured

Heart, body and soul


I have boiled your depraved priests,

leaving them to rot, a feast for Strix,

but my anger remains unquenched

So I will scorch your royal corpse

With my blood-red rage

Until the whole realm is my stage”


Zakk, burly, blonde and bearded, quaffed some ale and flashed Antero a toothy smile as he watched his friend fall for her like a rock into a ravine.

So restrained was her voice in the first chorus that Antero’s jaw dropped for her second — the same exact words, unleashed with the fury of a thousand flaming arrows. Every one hit its mark and burned true.

Her final echo seemed to travel through time itself — “age” after “age” after “age” — rocking the cave with its power.

And when Tenn finally opened her eyes amid the flickering flames, the sea-green flash of allure and pain made Antero realize he had met her once before, much higher up on the mountain.

Somehow she had brought him back to consciousness, only to fear him when he woke; when he had foolishly laughed at her strange response to his simple question.

“All men are evil,” she concluded, before she ran away.



ONE YEAR EARLIER


CHAPTER 1 — BLOOD BOIL


The king had named her Marinde, but her mother preferred to call her Tenn, as in higher than The Nine immortals who overlooked the rugged wilderness of Mammyth, a mountainous kingdom dominated by a 14,000-foot summit that stretched out along eight rocky ridges like the tentacles of an octopus.

She was five years old the last time her mother called her Tenn. No one had used that name for her since.

She could recall that Brinsma was beautiful and sad, but the fine features of her face and the sound of her voice were as obscured to Tenn’s memory now as the cloud-shrouded peak that loomed over the temple.

Protected from the west winds of Aurai by a massive rock wall that seemed to disappear as it rose to meet the 10,000-foot plateau upon which King Ryzthar sat his throne, the Temple of the Seers of The Nine, at about 8,000 feet, had only protected Tenn from the elements. Not from the high cleric. Not from his eight priests and their acolytes. Not even from her own blood, which last night had betrayed her from the very place where they had murdered her innocence so many times before.

Nine years with the Seers of The Nine had been her punishment for being the daughter of a discarded queen.

And now that she had flowered at age 14, it was time to die — a human sacrifice to The Nine: all-powerful Mammyth; the hermaphrodite god’s sons, Freyr (life) and Arus (death); Nera, wife of Freyr; Ione, barren wife of Arus; Agan, son of Freyr and Nera; Strix, the chameleon beast begot by the scandalous union of Arus and Nera; Aurai, the four winds; and Aron, scavenger of the dead.

The king had ordered the girl’s future sacrifice on the same wretched night Tenn’s mother met her fate, and now they would finally reunite in the underworld, ruled by Arus.

Eight priests, robed in black, all of whom had taken their turns with Tenn over the years, chanted their twisted prayers as they led the girl toward the stake. Two rings of red-robed acolytes surrounded the proceedings in the foreground while the high cleric, Volz Yth, remained high — staring down from his large, circular window in the temple’s ninth and highest spire. He had never touched her; only burned her with his eyes, leering endlessly and savoring every “purifying” encounter she was forced to endure with his underlings. He usually pleasured himself as well, sickening Tenn to the point where she had yearned for this moment — every second of every day. Death seemed to be her only hope, and now it was here, at twelve bells on a cloudy summer’s day.

Tenn had requested to be left unbound because she wanted to die. She would not run. She had even volunteered to light the pyre herself.

“Please, I beg you, hand me the torch as soon as your prayers are done,” she had told Volz Ein, the lead priest. He simply nodded, almost regretfully, like he would miss her.

“No doubt you will,” she whispered to herself when he had turned to lead the procession.

The three winds of Aurai left unblocked by the cliff above them swirled as the priests covered their heads with their black hoods and encircled Tenn from a safe distance. She was actually at the center of four circles — one ring of tinder and logs, one ring of priests and two rings of acolytes. The ancient order’s green-robed novices, deemed too young and unworthy to witness a human sacrifice to The Nine, remained cloistered inside the temple.

Tenn, wearing her usual dirty gray robe for the occasion, stumbled over some sticks, spun around and then backed up against the hard, thick wooden stake. As the metallic bells began their shrill gong from the temple’s eighth spire, she took a deep breath of thin alpine air and peered around at her executioners. When she exhaled, the winds seemed to still and Volz Ein approached. The torch, already lit by one of his underlings, quickly consumed Tenn’s vision once she gazed at the licking flames. Her heart suddenly raced as the priest passed her the torch and retreated to his circle.

The chanting had long stopped.

The heat of the torch singed her face.

The dry wood surrounding her seemed to hunger for her downward thrust.

The clang of the twelfth and final bell had expired.

“Any last words?”

The unmistakably nasal, mocking voice of her very first rapist, priest Volz Zin, seemed to echo off the rocks behind her. Tenn couldn’t see him, just like that first time, but she could feel where he was.

Tenn hissed. The taste of burnt bile filled her mouth as she slammed the torch into the tinder and shouted, “Tenn is higher than The Nine, you wretched, evil swine!”

Her hysterical shriek that followed drowned out the collective gasps of the eight who encircled her. She watched them lower their hoods, and then she stood firm against the stake in awe as the flames shockingly drew away from her feet, snaking across the dirt in eight sizzling spokes toward the alarmed priests. They each retreated a few steps and the flames died out at their bare feet.

The ensuing eerie silence, quickly knifed by screams of agony in every direction, jarred Tenn to tears. She had braced for a horrible and liberating death, but now she was very much alive and shivering uncontrollably, as she felt the heat leave her body instead of consuming it.

She dropped to one knee and continued to tremble, but she kept her head up enough to see the priests desperately clawing at their necks and ripping at their robes. When they all fell to the ground and writhed like overturned beetles, the two rings of acolytes behind them backed away, but Tenn could still see the terror in their eyes, even through the rippling heat waves.

She struggled to make sense of it all. Perhaps her blood had not betrayed her after all. And perhaps she had just boiled theirs, cooking their disgusting bodies from the inside out.

Though the stench of burning flesh nearly made her wretch, Tenn forced herself to stand up and think about the unthinkable: an opportunity to escape.

She looked back one last time and, no longer sensing the sting of his stare, her eyes flicked upward, to the ninth spire. The massive window was empty. The high cleric must be scrambling down the long, spiral stairs to get to her.

Tenn thought of her mother for one beautiful second, laughed out loud for the first time in her memory and then discovered what it was like to run as fast as she could.

How she’d descend a mountain that would soon drop off rapidly from the current plateau, she didn’t have a clue, but at least it wasn’t time to die yet.

Instead, it was time for this high-born girl to get as low and out of sight as Mammyth would allow.



CHAPTER 2 — THE VULTURE


Hagema felt the pull of gold, but not nearly enough pull from her supposedly manly fellow rock climbers.

“Did you two dawdling fux stop to talk again?” she yelled down from the top of Ass Head, the pinnacle of a rocky headwall that apparently looked like the head of an ass to some lackwit shepherd who’d craned his neck from Aron’s Ravine centuries ago.

“Zakk’s slower than a pregnant ox today … and he’s sweating ale again!” Antero’s voice rose up, muffled some by the cliff.

A rope-and-knots expert, Hagema gave the line a tug and made sure it was still secure around the boulder next to her. Then she walked back to the edge of the cliff and barked, “Move it! You know we can’t be up here long.”

Low-born were not permitted this far up Mount Mammyth per orders of the king, and prospecting for gold at 6,000 feet could get a low-born thrown to his or her death. This brazen trio of gold enthusiasts, however, had proved before that the king’s soldiers rarely patrolled the mountain’s steepest routes, preferring to stick to the wider trails that did not require ropes and rock-climbing skills.

Antero and Zakk finally hoisted themselves up and joined Hagema on Ass Head moments later. She gave a mocking clap before helping them unclip from the rope.

“My ancient 40-year-old mother climbs faster than you two,” the stocky 22-year-old redhead said, quickly coiling up the rope.

“The bigger the fux, the harder,” gruff-voiced Zakk replied with a grin, visibly winded as the 18-year-old wrung the sweat out of his long, blond ponytail.

“The hardest,” 17-year-old Antero added, jerking his thumb into his own bare chest before taking a drag from his water skin. He hadn’t bothered to put his long, matted and tangled brown hair into a ponytail, so he looked like a talking mop.

“No time to drink and fux around up here,” Hagema snapped, donning the coil like a garment and charging ahead toward a small stand of pine trees. “Our new stream of gold is this way.”

“She better be right,” Antero told Zakk before following her along the narrow, dirt path.

The three loggers by trade hoped to retire early if they could pillage enough high-altitude gold from the rocky pockets of Mammyth, and by extension, King Ryzthar. With the winds of Aurai blowing favorably on a summer’s day and some low clouds helping to obscure their ascent up the ravine’s rocky rim, Hagema, Antero and Zakk knew it was the right day to try their luck. They had left the backside of the mountain before first light, traversed through the forest to the east side of Mammyth and methodically climbed out of the imposing bowl of rock.

A far less populated kingdom than the flatter Ibelynth across the Sea of Freyr, the untamed vastness of Mammyth offered a certain protection to those bold enough to take risks.

Still, one random royal patrol in the wrong place at the wrong time could lead to a fight to the death. Swords were too cumbersome for Hagema and her younger friends on the demanding climb, so they sheathed daggers around their waists in case of a confrontation. In three previous trips up into forbidden elevations, the trio had come away with zero gold and zero run-ins with the king’s soldiers, so they considered themselves fortunate enough to keep looking at least.

Other prospectors had told stories of finding gold, particularly on the more dangerous east side of the mountain where Ryzthar’s castle and the temple loomed, but no one had actually showed off the gold in the caves Antero, Hagema and Zakk frequented, likely out of fear of getting stabbed and robbed.

Ione’s Stream, named after the goddess of ice, flowed down the alpine ridge and pooled in a flatter, wooded area just to the southwest of Ass Head. That’s where Hagema and her cohorts began chiseling away at the rocks and crevices along the sides of the pool with small iron picks.

The sun goddess Nera, high in the sky now, had begun burning a hole through the cloud layer and adding to the sweat on Antero’s back as he toiled.

“Remind me why we don’t do this in the winter,” he muttered.

“Because this is all ice in the winter, you stone head,” Hagema replied, causing Zakk to crack up.

“I know. I just like to hear you get worked up,” Antero said.

“How about you focus on finding me some gold instead so I can buy me a proper girlfriend,” Hagema said in between scrapes of rock.

The boys laughed. “My sister likes you,” Zakk said, referring to his 15-year-old sister, Toree.

“Not in that way,” Hagema corrected him. “She’s too young anyway, though I do like that red streak in her hair. Red heads are special.”

“You’re special, all right,” Antero ribbed her.

“Speaking of red streaks, do you see what I see flowing down toward us?” Zakk asked, wading through shallow water to get a better look at a more elevated pool. “I’m serious.”

Antero and Hagema joined him next to the small waterfall between pools and cupped the water. Sure enough, there was a reddish tint.

“Red? We want gold!” Hagema said, swatting the water away in disgust.

“I know, but this is fuxing strange,” Zakk said.

“Tastes like blood,” Antero noted after cupping some water with his hands and drinking it.

“Are you crazy? Don’t be drinking it then,” Hagema warned. “Ione probably cursed this stream.”

“Why would she do that?” Antero wondered.

“Because she probably sees what we’re doing up here and goddesses don’t like low-born, cave-carousing, forest-dwelling grubs like us,” Hagema pointed out.

“Um … guys,” Zakk said, gazing and then pointing up toward the sky.

“Holy …

“Mammyth,” Hagema finished Antero’s thought.

“Let’s get the fux out of here,” Zakk huffed, stuffing tools back in his belt.

“This is worse than a royal patrol,” Antero said. “Any ideas?”

“It’s too late,” Hagema spat. “It spotted us.”

Strix, taking the form of a massive black-and-gray vulture with a blood-hued beak, banked left and began swooping toward them. When its orange-yellow eyes fixed on the three targets and blackened, Antero shouted, “Run! Three different directions!”

“There’s basically two!” Hagema shot back. “The third is leaping off Ass Head to our deaths!”

“You two go that way and I’ll lure him up here,” Antero said, pointing and then scrambling up the jagged rocks to a higher elevation.

“That’s suicide!” Hagema screamed at his backside.

Zakk yanked on her arm and dragged her until she reluctantly followed.

The beast shrieked overhead, spinning Hagema and Zakk back around just in time to see it pluck Antero off the ridge with ease.

“No, you fuxing buzzard!” Hagema shouted. “Bring him back here!”

Antero could barely breathe as the vulture’s gnarled claws painfully squeezed his ribs like a vise. Strix circled low one time to show off his trophy to Antero’s cursing friends, and then soared through the air.

Antero felt a paralyzing chill as he got dragged into a cloud. Then he lost consciousness when his compressed lungs seized up.



CHAPTER 3 — DEATH SCREAM


Volz Yth’s hands shook much harder than usual on the slow ride up to Ryzthar’s castle. He tried to convince his mind it was just the vibration of the ox-pulled cart along the stone-carpeted Passage to the Gods.

The views were breathtaking off to his right as Nera chased away the clouds, but the high cleric’s eyes were closed, and his ears still burned from the shriek of that witch-blood girl, followed by the ensuing screams of death — his entire circle of priests claimed by Aron and his death lord, Arus, in the blink of Freyr’s eye.

The sun goddess warmed Volz Yth even now, as the cart crested the ridge and leveled off at about 10,000 feet. The high cleric finally opened his eyes, gasped for air and saw the castle straight ahead. Mounted on a bed of rocks, it soared 200 feet with high stone walls, two watch towers and four balconies on each side that could be closed against the weather. Mammyth Tower rose above all in the center, but even that was dwarfed by the rock-domed summit 4,000 feet up — a holy place reserved only for immortals.

A phalanx of red-plated soldiers nodded in deference to Volz Yth as he stepped down from the cart with the help of his driver, Aco. A loyal servant for more than a decade, the young man bowed and seemed visibly shaken as he handed his master off to the king’s guard.

The high cleric nodded to Aco and shuddered through an exhale before following his silent escort squad up the smooth slab that served as a ramp. They marched through the portal of a rock-wall outer perimeter and beneath a giant marble statue of Mammyth — personified as half man on the right side, half woman on the left and topped by a nine-pointed crown of gold. The statue’s sandaled feet seemed to make the high cleric hunch as he trudged under the ornate outcropping and into the castle’s main entrance.

Waiting up on an east-facing balcony, King Ryzthar stroked his beard and stared beyond his mountains, beyond the Sea of Freyr, all the way to the blurry outline of Ibelynth’s coast. He had been informed of the high cleric’s visit, but not the reason. Volz Yth wanted to deliver the news in person.

Some part of Ryzthar already knew the reason — the same part that tormented him with nightmares of Brinsma gouging out his eyes and chopping off pieces of his body as he watched from above, as if pinned to the ceiling.

He flinched at the memory of seeing his own beating heart — freshly carved out of his chest — splashing into the boiling water. Her laugh, which used to fill him with joy and contentedness when he courted her so long ago, had changed to all the wrong notes, haunting him to the point of screams.

Ola, his current young queen, shook him until he woke, but Ryzthar never really woke. The night always followed him around, as it did now, even as he gazed into the bluest of skies on the sunniest of summer days.

“Your grace, the high cleric, Volz Yth,” announced his most trusted guard, Bazel, stirring the king from his self-induced fog and spinning him around on the balcony.

“Indeed,” Ryzthar replied, nodding as Volz Yth bent the knee. “We’re good.”

Bazel and another guard retreated into the castle proper, and the salt-and-pepper-haired king motioned for the high priest to join him by the balcony’s stone wall, which came up to their waists.

Ryzthar and Volz Yth both stood about six-foot-three, not counting their nine-pointed gold crown and black-cone hat, respectively, but the burdens they carried at this moment seemed to shrink their normally imposing figures.

“I can tell from your dour face the news is …”

“She escaped,” Yth interrupted with a gasp, like he still couldn’t believe it himself. “Your daughter.”

“Former daughter ... from a former queen … a very dead queen,” Ryzthar corrected him forcefully, as if trying to drown out the impossible news and cast away his own demons all at once.

The high cleric bowed his head as a strong gust buffeted their lofty perch.

“How?” the king demanded, his unrelenting green eyes fixed on Volz Yth’s tired, somber visage.

“Some kind of black magic, I suspect,” he mumbled.

“Speak up to your king!” Ryzthar shouted.

The high priest straightened, his amber eyes alarmed, his large nostrils flaring on his bulbous nose.

“She killed them all!” he countered sharply, emotionally, with a sweeping hand gesture. “Your former daughter, fresh with menstrual blood, used blood magic to boil the blood of all eight of my priests in the whip of Strix’s tail! The sacrifice you ordered nine years ago has born poison fruit — not the favor of the gods!”

Ryzthar had patiently let him speak his piece. Then he pounced, choking the high priest with both hands at his neck, pushing him against the balcony wall and threatening to shove him over the edge. The jagged rocks waited 150 feet below.

“You blame me for offering a sacrifice to the gods when it was you and your Seers who fuxed it up?! Nine grown men and all of your worthless underlings can’t handle a waif of a girl?!”

The high priest’s eyes turned frantic as his airway continued to be cut off by Ryzthar’s firm grip.

“I should throw you to Aurai right now and let the winds take you to Arus so you can rejoin the rest of your useless priests in the underworld!” the king shouted.

Ryzthar gave him one last hard squeeze and dropped him on his side of the wall. Then he stepped back and watched as Volz Yth gasped and rolled around, pathetically low, pathetically human.

“I’m going up there now!” the king declared, pointing toward the summit. “Fux your rules, cleric!”

He began to step right over Volz Yth, but the high priest reached up with one hand and tripped the king, causing him to stumble and fall to one knee.

Ryzthar screamed and the two guards burst through the door in an instant, their eyes wide at the sight before them.

“Stand him up!” Ryzthar ordered as he slowly stood back up himself.

The guards yanked the cleric up and each held an arm. Ryzthar snarled at Volz Yth and then punched him hard in the gut. The priest doubled over in pain.

“I will go up there or you will go down. Understood?” the king seethed, gesturing toward the rocks below.

Volz Yth slowly got his breath back and tried to respond. The king waited for his answer.

“No mortal … but the high cleric … is permitted … up there,” Volz Yth huffed in between shuddered breaths. “You would curse yourself … and your realm?”

The king laughed and spat at his feet.

“I am already fuxing cursed! The gods bewitched me into falling for Ola, only to have two more daughters and still no male heir! Brinsma has haunted me since the night I had her stoned to death, and now her daughter uses sorcery to escape you and your feeble order of wisdom-less priests. You are no mystical high seer! You are low and unfit to return to the Temple of the Nine. Eight seers are already with Arus. Might as well make it a full set and start over. I wash my hands of his kind, guards. Throw him over the wall!”

Volz Yth hissed and struggled like a cornered animal, but the guards made short work of heaving him off the balcony. The soldiers then stepped aside as Ryzthar surged forward and leaned over the wall to have a look.

The high cleric’s death scream echoed off the rocks long after his face smashed into them.



CHAPTER 4 — ALL MEN ARE EVIL


Her hands, elbows, knees and feet were scraped and bloodied, but Tenn had managed not to fall off the mountain as she descended uneven rocks and thorny shrubs that ripped and shredded her dirty gray shift. Her left nipple and right hip were now exposed to the world, but so far no one had caught her from behind and no one had startled her from below.

Tenn’s pace quickened as the ledges became less scary and the air thickened slightly on a warm afternoon. Though it seemed like she had made good progress, in reality she had only dropped from about 8,000 feet to 7,200 feet over the precarious terrain. There were many trails and preferred routes on this mountain and its sister peaks, but Tenn didn’t know any of them. Regardless, the pains of this journey felt like a rush of adrenaline compared to what she had endured at the temple. Tenn forced her mind to forget about that and focus on being as sure-footed as possible.

Indeed she was so focused on looking down in front of her that she didn’t even notice the beast just twenty yards to the left of her, toying with some prey on a rocky outcropping.

Strix’s vulture head rotated, its right eye fixed on the girl. The sudden screech that erupted from its curved beak froze Tenn’s body and wrenched her neck with a 90-degree pull. She had never heard a sound like that, and the huge and hideous buzzard staring back at her did not seem real.

Until it screeched again.

She trembled as her stare-down with the beast continued, but for some reason, she did not look away. Whatever happened back at the scene of what was supposed to be her death had given her strength — the kind she had never known before. And the ensuing escape, with its intoxicating rush of proper pain and wind-fueled freedom, had nurtured that power even more.

Tenn quickly made up her mind and her legs followed. She didn’t run away. She ran toward the beast, intent on shooing it off the cliff.

“You’re even uglier than the priests!” she shouted as she sprinted toward it.

But then Tenn skidded on some loose stones and stopped completely when Strix morphed before her eyes. Suddenly she was surrounded by nine snarling gray-and-white wolves. The saliva slowly dripped off their fangs and she felt more than a moment of doubt. Had The Nine come back to claim her life after all?

That thought steeled her yet again.

“I will not go back!” she screamed, quivering as her eyes scanned each yellow-eyed wolf in her vision. She could feel the hot breath of the ones behind her and quaked even more. “I’ll leap off that ledge first!”

Of course, she’d have to break through the ring of wolves to even get the chance.

When the wolves growled and all took a step toward her, she crouched and did her best to look menacing just like them. Then she pounced at the two wolves standing most in the way of the ledge, but there was nothing to grab or tackle when she hit the ground hard. Her forearms burned, but her eyes rejoiced when she looked up to see Strix, back in vulture form, shrieking above her and flying away.

Still in shock from the sensory overload of the bizarre encounter, Tenn didn’t trust her eyes at first when she realized there was a man lying still on the edge of the ledge, just ten feet away, clad only in dirty breeches and leather hiking boots.

Warily, she padded across the rocks to stand over him. Long and pale, lifeless and bloodied, he had a nasty gash zigzagging across his bare chest.

Tenn knelt down and, despite her rightful fear of men, slowly reached out to touch his muscular arm. It felt cold and she recoiled. He seemed too young, maybe even too handsome, to be dead. She hesitantly extended her hand a second time, hovering over the bloody wound and then searching for his heart. When she brushed his skin with her palm, the man’s eyelids fluttered and his mouth opened to suck for air.

Tenn sprung backward like she had rousted a snake, and then instinctively covered her exposed breast with her hand.

Her heart raced as the young man with the long, sandy-brown hair tried to sit up and regain normal breathing.

Antero groaned from his injuries and struggled through blurred vision to make sense of the scene around him. He was only a few feet from plummeting to his death, so he rolled away from the edge and his wounds stung from the sudden movement. As he gingerly shifted position, he sensed someone else move away from him. Slowly, he focused on a tall, thin, bloodied young girl, partly covered in rags. She backed away even more as he became aware of how nearly naked she was.

He coughed and tried to speak, but his throat was so dry. He recalled Ione’s Stream and wished for a gulp of cold water, but then he remembered the blood, and Hagema and Zakk, and their shocked faces as the grotesque vulture seized him, squeezed him and stole off with him.

“Who are you?” he finally managed to ask the timid girl with the dazzling sea-green eyes.

She looked so out of place, maybe even lost, this high up Mammyth, but then again, perhaps so did he.

Though she was half-turned to flee, the girl still looked him in the eyes as she tried to form a reply.

“I’m, I’m … I’m in a lot of trouble,” she stammered.

Antero was so incredulous at that answer that he laughed and paid for it with searing pain, causing him to groan again.

The girl shook her head and began walking away.

Antero stood up too fast, felt woozy and dropped back down on one knee.

“Wait,” he pleaded, reaching out to her.

She stopped and turned around once more.

“All men are evil,” Antero heard her say, this time with no stammer. “I must go.”

Stunned, he watched her run back toward the ridge line and disappear into the mountain.



CHAPTER 5 — NERA’S COUNSEL


The Passage to the Gods could only ferry the king so far. At 12,800 feet, Ryzthar had to leave the snorting, laboring oxen behind and climb the summit dome himself, one rock at a time, like any other mortal.

He told his soldiers to stay behind with the cart — only a king could hope to meet with The Nine, and even his presence, he feared, would be taken as a brash and desperate affront to the immortals. High clerics always had forbid monarchs from appealing to the gods directly. That was their role. But Ryzthar had no high cleric or any of his eight immediate possible successors to worry about at the moment. They were all dead. So in the interim, before the temple elected a new top tier of seers, he aimed to seek an audience with The Nine himself and beg for counsel.

With an oak-hewn staff in his right hand and a wineskin latched to the belt around his black-bear robe, the stubborn king ascended into the increasingly brisk gales and thickening clouds. It may be summer down at the lower elevations, but the goddess Ione usually defended the summit with wild or wintry weather. Hurricane-force winds, thunderstorms, ice storms, snow storms, dense fog and even hail the size of human heads — any or all of these could be awaiting the intrepid monarch.

Ryzthar, a husky man but still relatively fit at thirty-five years old in a realm where forty-five was considered knocking on Arus’ gate, stared into the swirling gray and gasped for as much of the thin air as his lungs could hold. Then he took a quick drag of red wine to boost his courage and resumed climbing.

In less than an hour, he stood within 100 feet of the summit, but he could not see it. The gray-and-white howl blasted his face. Even when he did open his eyes, the black spots crowded his vision — his exertion in the high altitude was bringing on a migraine and unrelenting wooziness. The buffeting wind intermittently carried pellets of ice, stinging his face and crystallizing his beard.

The king then stumbled on an uneven rock, dropped his staff and fell, banging his right shoulder into the base of a boulder. As he rubbed the painful bruise, the boulder seemed to give off heat, warming him.

Slowly, he stood back up and placed both hands on the rock, which was as high as his chest. The warmth pleasured his hands, and soon radiated and tingled through the rest of his body.

“What is this?” he asked as the winds of Aurai whipped against him from ever-changing directions.

“Stone,” a young woman’s voice answered.

Ryzthar kept one hand on the boulder as he turned to find the source of the voice, but all he could see were the clouds and the damn black spots eating away at his field of vision.

“Who speaks to me?” the king shouted, again placing both hands on the boulder and rubbing it.

“Nera,” the goddess announced.

The king quickly dropped to both knees, his hands still attached to the boulder.

“Nera … beautiful sun goddess, may I see you?” Ryzthar asked, his voice crackling with anticipation.

“No,” she replied. “Ione has dressed me today and, for once, I am grateful. What brings a troubled king up so far? To catch sight of me naked?”

The king paused to weigh her words, delivered in a saucy, mocking tone that made the monarch shiver.

“Not at all, Nera. You say I am troubled. Why do you speak to me this way, beautiful sun goddess?”

“You sound troubled, King Ryzthar,” she replied. “Do you grieve your queen?”

“My queen is very mu-mu-much alive,” he yammered. “Ola is …”

“Do you take me for a fool? The very goddess who lights your kingdom and your brother’s kingdom across the sea? The goddess who feeds your subjects and feeds you?”

“No, great Nera, I beg your pardon,” the king said, his head bowed by the blasts of wind and his own stupidity in the presence of an all-knowing immortal. “I see now that it is Brinsma of whom you speak.”

“Do you grieve her?” the goddess asked a second time.

Ryzthar again paused, cursing at himself for this high-altitude gamble; this avoidable predicament.

“No, I don’t,” he admitted, not wanting to cross Nera again. “She didn’t revere the gods. She practiced black magic … witchcraft! Surely you don’t take her side, beautiful sun goddess?”

“You called Brinsma beautiful many, many times … and yet you had her stoned to death. Is she still beautiful, King Ryzthar? Beautiful like me?”

The trick questions and the waves of heat now crashing through him from the stone made him sweat underneath his bear robe. He snatched his hands off the rock and wrung them fretfully, unable to stop the burning and itching.

“This was a mistake,” he mumbled.

Nera heard him just fine despite the four-pronged howl of Aurai.

“What was?” she ridiculed him. “Coming up here? Killing your queen over your lust for another? Casting away your first-born daughter, Marinde, so she could be turned into a sexual play toy for the depraved creatures who make a mockery of the beautiful, ancient temple … a temple dedicated to us?”

“Please stop!” Ryzthar shouted into the unrelenting gale.

“Yes, that’s right. That’s what your daughter screamed. When you were cozy in your castle, did you hear her cries from her underworld cell?”

Ryzthar looked down at his fallen staff and cursed himself loudly yet again.

“I want to thank you,” Nera said.

“Why?” he pleaded, gazing up again into the clouds, desperate for hope.

“For killing Volz Yth … he was such a disgrace to Mammyth, to all the gods really,” she said. “Rather, thank your guards for that. They killed him. You couldn’t quite finish the job.”

“I could have,” Ryzthar protested. “I let them finish him off. That’s their job.”

“And what is your job, your grace?” Nera toyed with him.

The king scowled at her tone.

“To rule this pile of rocks and keep you immortals happy,” he shouted at the stone. “A fuxing impossible task.”

“So jaded,” she said. “So ungrateful. So hopelessly incapable.”

Ryzthar shook his head and spat at the ground.

“Oh do fux off then. You think it’s easy being a mere mortal? I don’t need your immortal superiority ox shit!”

Nera laughed, her echo bouncing from boulder to boulder, up and down the summit cone.

The king, rattled by fear and anger, began to twitch.

“Still think I’m beautiful?” she asked. “No … now we’ve arrived at some truth.”

Ryzthar searched his shaken soul for some words, some courage.

“The truth is I should have believed in bloody witchcraft instead of you and your kind, goddess. Then maybe Brinsma would still be alive and I wouldn’t be up here acting like a simpering fool right now.”

“Believe whatever you want to believe and say whatever you want to say to suit your purpose … just like you always do,” the goddess said.

“The truth is betrayal and murder and abandonment of one’s heir, no matter the sex, are some heavy stones. Do take care not to get crushed.”

“Is that a threat?” he snapped.

Nera’s voice suddenly cranked up in speed and force to match the pummeling winds.

“You should be troubled, King Ryzthar. My son, Agan, appeared to your queen before her death and agreed to watch over your daughter. He watched and watched while you forgot and forgot about her, your own royal blood. He could not truly help her until the seers commenced with your sacrifice — we did not accept your sacrifice of her to us. That was another of your mistakes, and a very grave one indeed. Royal blood mixed with witch’s blood pooled with the powers of the blood god himself and backed by his mother, the goddess of the sun — Marinde is someone else now. Someone far more powerful, and she barely knows it yet.

“So if you came up here to ease your troubled mind, you came to the wrong place. And if you came up here for counsel, here it is: best stay out of my light or she will find you sooner.”



CHAPTER 6 — ARROWS & ALLIES


Tenn’s knowledge of the vast mountain essentially dead-ended at the east-facing temple plateau, so her frantic descent into the unknown had taken her from the outstretched hand of a wounded stranger, down a ridge flanked by steep ledges and into a dark forest of pine that put her spine on edge.

The initial adrenaline of defying death, embracing freedom and fresh air, and finding a young man as vulnerable as her — at least until he woke up — had been replaced by the pain in her scarred, bare feet, the hunger in her gut and the fear of what might jump out at her from behind the next tree.

After washing up in a frothy, swift-moving brook and cupping her hands to her mouth to quench her thirst, Tenn spied a more worn trail with a floor of soft pine needles. Her instinct told her not to take this path, but her feet won out and her mood improved. With rocks and underbrush no longer jabbing at her heels, ankles and toes, the girl tripled her speed.

The problem was she had no idea what she would eat or where she should spend the night, never mind an ultimate destination. Her mother was long dead, her father could have received word of her violent escape by now and ordered a hunting party, and she knew no friend or ally. She was just a high-born prisoner on the run, a streak of gray-and-dried-blood tatters with sweat-soaked hair that still reeked of the smoke that should have been her funeral pyre.

Two hours later and about 1,700 feet lower, Tenn ducked for cover as two men forked onto her path leading an ox cart full of food and other supplies — no doubt headed for the king, temple or some high-born hamlet above the tree line proud of its beautiful vista. This was her best chance to try to grab something to eat, but what if she got caught?

Tenn hid behind a thick-trunked tree about twenty-five feet away and watched the two oxen slowly pull the long, wooden cart along the path. It was loaded with stacks of freshly butchered pork and venison, as well as straw baskets full of fruits, vegetables and loaves of bread. She did not see any salt fish from the Sea of Freyr, but she could smell it. Her mouth watered, her stomach growled and her aching feet moved her closer to the cart before her brain could override them.

Feeling bold with the men and the oxen facing up the trail now, Tenn lurched out of the trees and reached for the nearest basket of bread. The cart was just slow enough for her to grab a full loaf off the top of the stack with both hands and freeze for a second as the rest of the cart went past her. Then she crouched in place, not wanting to risk making a sound by running. The end of the cart was beyond her by fifteen feet, but one of the men turned to the other and his peripheral vision caught sight of her — a filthy girl squatting with a stolen loaf of bread in the middle of the path.

“Hey, halt! A fuxing thief!” he yelled as the other man turned around now and the cart jerked to a stop.

Tenn began to run straight down the path, away from the men, but the first man was fast and he tackled her in less than a minute. She held the bread to cover her exposed breast as he flipped her over, and the second man soon hovered over both of them with an iron cleaver in his hand.

“What have we here?” the taller of the two asked as the first man got off her and stood up to have a better look. Tenn froze in place, trembling on the pine needles. The predatory looks in their eyes made her feel helpless all over again, even though she was outside the temple now.

“All men are evil,” she muttered, her teeth suddenly chattering, even on this summer day. She still clutched the loaf of rye bread like she was willing to die for it, and glanced with panicked eyes from one man to the other, trying not to dwell on the cleaver.

“And all women are thieves and whores,” the one with the cleaver said. “But some are better at it than others. You’re not so good at thieving, are you?”

“I hope you’re better at whoring then,” the shorter, stockier man said. “You can keep the bread in exchange for your hand,” he added, nodding at his buddy’s cleaver, “but you owe us both a fuxing good time for making us stop the cart and delaying our delivery. That’s called fair trade. Understood?”

Tears began rolling down Tenn’s cheeks, but she refused to whimper or cry. She tried to think, to move, but she simply felt paralyzed … and so, so hungry.

So she ignored them and took a big bite of the loaf. The men laughed when her breast became exposed, but she sat up and chewed ravenously. The act of eating also helped break her out of her temporarily paralysis.

“We’ll take that vigorous bite as a yes,” the cleaver man said with a lustful grin.

“And we appreciate you delighting our eyes with a little taste of what’s to come,” the other man added with a chuckle.

“Who said this was going to be a long, boring fuxing trip up today?”

“I did. I fuxing stand corrected.”

As they carried on like two roosters clucking over a hen, Tenn continued to chomp and chew and stew. She had never wanted to be a motherless prisoner or a fire-reversing murderer of priests or a bread thief or the butt of ox handlers’ jokes, and yet here she was. And now she was expected to get on all fours again and take it from behind two more times? Two rapes for a loaf of bread? Oh, and her hand would get chopped off after that. Fair trade in the Kingdom of Ryzthar.

She would not submit this time, she determined. She would fight both men to the death for a loaf of rye and to resume her freedom.

Then an arrow whizzed from out of the trees and struck the man with the cleaver in his right arm. The butchering tool fell harmlessly to the ground as he cried out and doubled over.

The other man unsheathed a dagger from his belt holder and waved it around, searching for the person who fired the arrow. His eyes darted in every direction as Tenn remained sitting, watching and chewing her bread. She peered around with a hint of hope.

“Who fired on the king’s supply guard?” the dagger man screamed. “Come out and show yourself, coward, and accept your justice!”

A young woman with black hair, a black tunic and a black arrow pointed straight at the dagger man stepped out from behind a tree.

“I did,” she said. “Why go hunting when you did all the work for me?”

The dagger man stepped toward her.

“Take another step and I’ll rip this one through your heart!” the woman warned in a strong and sure voice. “You won’t be raping anybody today so get back on your cart and go. In exchange for letting you live, please leave the entire basket of bread and one deer behind. Fair trade. Understood?”

“Go fux yourself!” the cleaver man said in between groans as he righted himself and began tugging at the arrow in his arm.

“Very well,” the woman replied calmly.

She fired a second arrow through the cleaver man’s chest and he fell to the ground. Horrified, the dagger man charged at the woman. She didn’t have another arrow ready in time and started running down the path away from Tenn.

Sensing an almost-electric energy building inside her, Tenn stood up and unleashed it with an exaggerated stomp of her right foot into the ground. A streak of fire spread quickly along the path until the flame engulfed the dagger man up to his shins. He screamed in agony, briefly high-stepping before he keeled over, the flames consuming him and eventually crisping him.

Winded and wide-eyed, the woman in black soon stood over the burned body in amazement.

“How?” she asked as Tenn followed the flame she created and extinguished it with each step.

“I thank the gods and I thank you for saving me,” Tenn said.

“You command fire and yet you need saving?”

“My powers are new to me and unpredictable, so I envy your skill with that bow and arrow,” Tenn said, holding out her hand and offering the shorter, wiry woman a chunk of rye bread.

“No, you eat it. You look like you haven’t eaten … or washed … in weeks,” she replied. “My name is Jett.”

Tenn nodded, smiled and stared into her chocolate-brown eyes. There was something different about Jett — perhaps the potential for trust, Tenn sensed.

“I’m Tenn,” she finally replied.

Jett, who carried herself like she was at least a couple of years older than Tenn, smiled back and tilted her head slightly.

“Intriguing name for an intriguing girl,” she said, her pale face pinking at the cheeks. “I think we better get you a few more provisions off that cart and get us both the fux out of here. Killing the king’s supply guards could cost us both our heads.”

Tenn nodded. “I was already in trouble before all of that. Now I really need to hide.”

“What did you do?”

“I burned some other asshole rapists to death,” Tenn said matter-of-factly.

That raised Jett’s sleek, black eyebrows. They locked eyes again.

“I’m glad you’re on my side … I am on your side, right?” Jett asked.

Tenn couldn’t believe her ears. Someone wanted to be on her side?


“I haven’t had anyone on my side since my mother was killed many years ago. If you want to be on my side, I accept you with open arms,” Tenn said, literally opening her arms.

Jett beamed and hugged her tight. Then she said, “Let’s stock up and head further down the mountain. If you want to get low and out of sight, I know plenty of deep, dark places.”



CHAPTER 7 — ROYAL REVEAL


Tenn awoke screaming and thrashing around on the cave floor, nearly rolling into the small campfire, but Jett grabbed her in time and wrapped her up in a strong embrace. They stayed like that until Tenn’s breathing returned to normal.

“So … do you want to talk about what happened to you?” Jett finally asked her in a soft, tender voice that caught Tenn off guard. She shifted to face her, but it took a while before she allowed herself to gaze into Jett’s fire-lit eyes through hay-tangled hair.

“They destroyed me,” Tenn whispered, fighting tears until there was no use. Down they came.

Jett gently wiped them with two brushes of her fingers.

“Who? How?” she asked.

“The nasty priests … at the temple,” Tenn replied, her eyes still alarmed, like she hadn’t fully emerged from her nightmare yet.

Jett nodded, though she could not relate to this high-born girl’s experience. She was low-born and had never been half-way up the mountain, much less within sight of the Temple of the Seers of The Nine.

“Were you dreaming of them just now?” Jett asked.

Tenn nodded. “They haunt me … even after I escaped … even after I watched some of them die, boiling from the inside out, which was still too good for them.”

“Fux them then. They’re gone now,” Jett said, her hard-edged voice back like when they met. “I’d never let them hurt you again, even if they were alive.”

Tenn forced a smile through sobs. “I was just a little girl … and they took turns …”

“You don’t have to tell me if …”

“I must … tell someone … or I will explode … from the shame and the filth and the pain and the anger,” Tenn gasped.

This time, Jett just let her tears fall and her words flow.

“They all did it the same way … one thrust for every god … Aron, Aurai, Strix, Agan, Ione, Nera, Arus, Freyr … the fuxing groan as they came … and then one last ram for Mammyth … ripping me apart so I could never heal. … Such a fool. I felt so happy when I realized they couldn’t kill me … that I was capable of killing them instead … so happy and free running down the mountain … but the joke is on me … because I can never escape the torture I endured. It will always scar my brain, my heart, my body. … I will never sleep with a clear head or without fear of waking up just like you found me tonight.”

Now a tear streaked Jett’s cheek, too.

“I am so sorry, Tenn. You deserve so much better.”

“And you are the first person who has cared enough to hold me like that … to listen to me. … You also deserve better … to know the truth, because I am putting you in danger.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am … was … the king’s daughter,” Tenn said, studying Jett’s stunned face.

“Not possible. Here? In a shitty little cave with me?” Jett gasped, her hand on her chest. “You’re royal blood?”

“I am.”

After Tenn told her the whole story, Jett pulled her close for another embrace.

“I now believe in my heart I was meant to find you,” she whispered in the younger girl’s ear. “I know it. And I will slay it, this pain you feel. I promise.”



SIX MONTHS LATER


CHAPTER 8 — GRACELESS, YOUR GRACE


Queen Ola kissed her two young daughters and whisked them down the long hall so she could have a word with the king.

“Why have you been avoiding me like a low-born with the plague?” she asked, her blue eyes boring a hole into Ryzthar’s back.

He clenched his mug of ale and spun around to face her instead of the roaring brazier. It was the middle of winter, and the isolation of the castle had only worsened his pangs of dread and the endless mental replays of his vexing encounter with Nera.

“I have a lot on my mind,” the king replied, barely restrained.

“I think we should try again … tonight,” said Ola, a twenty-six-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty who did her best to fight the misery, but the losing battle was taking its toll, aging her too fast and making her heart beat irregularly, especially when she was around the king.

“I’m not in the mood,” Ryzthar grumbled, not looking her in the eyes.

“You blame me for no male heir and yet you don’t do your part to try,” she replied sharply.

“I have tried. We have tried. It doesn’t matter.”

“Why do you speak like this?”

“Because the gods have cursed me. Freyr … god of life and fertility … just fertile enough to grant me three children, all daughters. And Nera and her fuxing son, Agan … don’t get me started.”

“Such a harsh and bitter tongue,” Ola interjected with a gasp. “And you wonder why you’re cursed?”

“Actually, I’ve been cursed since the day I back-handed Brinsma and traveled to Nine View to fux you!” Ryzthar snapped.

Ola scowled as he ranted.

“I traded the most beautiful woman in the kingdom for the second-most beautiful woman in the kingdom because I couldn’t stand to be around that first witch …”

“And now you can’t stand to be around me … your second prize,” she seethed.

“Two women, three daughters between the two of you … one queen is dead and haunting me; one daughter escaped death and is out there somewhere plotting against me — with The Nine on her bloody side — and now the queen who is alive is torturing me with her presence and demands!” the king shouted before draining the rest of his ale and tossing the mug down the hall. It bounced off the sprawling red rush and onto the hardwood floor, echoing as Ola’s labored breaths turned into sobs.

Two servants, who simultaneously responded to the disturbance through open doors at opposite ends of the massive room, spun right back around and exited upon taking in the uncomfortable scene.

The queen backed away from the king, but she still glared at him and held her hand to her racing, careening heart.

“Am I next then? And our daughters … are they next?” she asked.

“If I thought I could stand another queen in my life, who knows? But I absolutely fuxing couldn’t, so you are safe and they are safe.”

“Such a comfort … thank you, your grace,” Ola mocked him.

“One torments from the underworld at night and the other to my face during the day — how much can one man take?” the king asked the high, distant ceiling with his arms outstretched.

“Why don’t you kill yourself then and spare the rest of us?!” Ola snarled.

Ryzthar smiled and then grimaced, his guts roiling inside him.

“Get out of my sight, woman, before I have you sent some place where your wretched, treasonous voice will never be heard again!” he barked.

Ola flicked her furious eyes from the king’s venomous glare to the crooked index finger that pointed toward the far door. She straightened, sucked in some thin, stale air and fired off a parting shot with a low growl.

“You certainly are graceless, your grace. You deserve yourself … and no one else.”




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