Chapter 1

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Ryne Waldron wondered if he should kill the woman.

Blood, bodies, and screams rolled across his mind with the thought of her and those she represented. The stink of something dead or worse hung in the air. He expelled a great breath, chest heaving with the hope the stench was only death.

An old, familiar feeling, like heat seeping into a cold hearth, stirred deep within his eight-foot frame. In response, the vibrant tapestry of tattoos covering his body from foot to chin writhed. Ryne flinched, his muscled arms and broad back clenching, the scars under his leather armor drawing taut. Frowning, he stopped himself from reaching to his hip for his greatsword's hilt. His bloodlust had never risen before unless he touched his power. He shut away the craving to kill with practiced ease.

Unable to shrug off the lapse of control, Ryne stepped to the rear of one of Carnas' many rosewood and teak homes and glanced out across the Orchid Plains. Shimmering heat rose in waves, yellowed grass and flowers bowed under the sun's rays as if praying for relief, but sure enough, there she stood. Mariel—if that was even her real name—kept her gaze trained in his direction. Dark hair hung to her shoulders, and she was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and close-fitting trousers, her slight body and paler skin color the opposite of the native Ostanians. As usual, she stayed beyond the range where he could read her aura.

Ryne turned his head to the noise of a boot scraping on the wooden stairs next to him.

"See here?" Dren craned his head to peer at Ryne, his soft-toed leather boot poking at a dried bloodstain. "This is where they took Miss Corten last night."

Looming over Dren, although the sinewy man stood two stairs higher, Ryne inspected the scuffmarks.  Rust colored splotches stained the wood. Next to the steps, several flattened flowers were the only other signs of a struggle. Ryne's brow wrinkled. "Nowhere near enough blood to have been anything serious."

"Exactly." Dren nodded, scarred hands rising to stroke his short beard. "Miss Corten can hunt as well as any one of us scouts. But no one heard her sound an alarm or even cry out."

Ryne gauged the proximity to the other adjoining homes. Despite the space between houses afforded here at Carnas' outskirts, someone should have heard Miss Corten. With the recent hot weather and lack of rain, the shuttered windows on these houses would've been open. Neither the sturdy structures nor the wooden tile roofs would have kept out the sounds of the struggle or a cry for help. Not even the gales that often howled during one of the frequent thunderstorms could have drowned out Miss Corten's cries. However, there hadn't been any such wind, not the past few days. The weather had remained as it was now, hot, still, and silent with not much more than an inconsequential breeze.

Shifting uncomfortably in his fitted leather armor to sample the air once more, Ryne flicked his thumb across his nose as the whiff of something long dead, of decay and unwashed dog fur curdled his insides. "Have you noticed the smell, Sakari? It's faint, but it's there."

Sakari glided forward, his nostrils flaring. The silver flecks dominating the whites of his eyes flashed as he sniffed the air. At near seven feet—almost reaching Ryne's shoulder—today he was the opposite of Ryne in girth, his body svelte, each part fit in near perfect proportions under his scaled leather armor. "Yes," Sakari answered after a final scrunch of his nose, "Rot. Old fur. Something not quite dead."

Dren's brows drew together, his eyes narrowed, and sweat beaded his forehead. His hand eased down to his sword hilt as he glanced around, his gaze searching the woods across the expanse of pastures. "Master Waldron, you think it's a beast from the Rot?" the scoutmaster whispered, his head shifting from left to right as if to make sure no one overheard.

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