Official release date on Amazon/Kindle/Apple/B&N: August Tennth


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.


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.



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