Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

            Ara stood before the lake, the smattering of deer blood tight and uncomfortable on her arms. The water seemed to beckon her with a cool whisper, and she longed to slip between its waves like a bird through the clouds.

            With a thought, she separated a tiny piece of her soul—not enough to use any of her five senses. Just enough to give her a sense of her surroundings. Images appeared in her mind. Squirrels and trees, rocks and rabbits. Not even a hungry mountain lion to bother her horse or the deer strapped to his saddle. No warning of danger.

            She’d felt something earlier, but it had slipped from her like a fish through her bare hands. She tossed a glare at the forest. “I will not be afraid.”

            To prove it, she unwound the laces of her soft leather boots, threw her cap to the ground, and untied the leather cord that kept her waist-length braid in place. She took off at a run, splashing in past her knees before diving down.

The water was cold enough to shock the breath out of her. But though freezing, its embrace felt like the arms of an old friend. At the bottom, she did a summersault before kicking off. Shattering the tension at the surface, she glided to the shallows. Scooping handfuls of sand, she scrubbed the blood from herself and her shirt before rinsing the grit away.

Wringing out her hair, she sloshed to the shore and paused for one last drink of the beauty around her. Though softer now, the water’s rhythmic voice still beckoned to her, tempting her to stay and play. But dusk had already sent wisps of darkness into the day. And even with the warning her Gift gave, she dared not stay out past dark.

As she turned to go, her gaze brushed the border of trees. Something out of place caught her eye.

Her gaze snapped back to the evergreens west of the lake. She took a quick step forward. Shoving her wet hair under her cap, she whistled to Talbot. His head popped up. Grass stuck out at odd angles from his muzzle. With the deer carcass strapped to the saddle, he lunged awkwardly toward her.

Keeping her eyes on the adjacent shore, she yanked the hobbles off. He shoved her with his nose, looking for his treat for coming when she’d whistled. Ignoring him, she sent her soul out again. Still, she saw nothing, sensed nothing. Slowly, she combed the area over, searching for inconsistencies.

But it wasn’t any of her physical senses that finally alerted her to the presence. It was the light—light that seemed to emanate from an empty bit of forest. She came closer and sensed power pulsating through her. She felt stronger suddenly, like a wilted flower after a rainstorm.

She struggled to come closer, but she was like a mouse trying to climb up a greased spoon. Gasping, she suddenly found her soul firmly back in her own body. Had whatever that was done that? If it had, its Gift was immensely stronger.

Dread filled her as she remembered sensing something earlier and dismissing it. Now, Ara focused on breaking that defense down

So, the Assassins have come for me at last.

But they wouldn’t take her without a fight. She snatched her bow from the saddle and fitted an arrow, but she had nothing to aim for. Feeling vastly alone, she called with as much courage as she could muster, “Who are you?” Her ears peaked for a response. None came. Separating a tiny sliver of her soul, barely enough to feel anything at all, she reached toward the void and asked, “Who are you?”

Lodan.”

Ara jumped as the voice flooded her. She had never communicated with her Gift before. The sound of it was distinctly male. Hesitantly, she tried again. “What do you want?”

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