Chapter 2

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Leithan woke up cold and wet, aching and shivering.

His nostrils flared as pungent, damp scents of moss, foliage, and rotten logs told him he was in the forest. Elissi, as the Yoxai named it. But there was also wood smoke on the air and, more subtle, the tang of blood.

Equally overwhelming, the chirping, screeching, whining, the hisses and clicks of innumerable insects. A stab of fear gave him incentive to open his eyes.

He saw huts – small Yoxai homes built with mud bricks or clay – and many people, perhaps fifty or sixty, gathered outside in the center of the compound, where a large fire roared within a circle of stones.

Leithan knew where he was.

Clan of the Raven. About six miles south of the city of New Rimar, the compound was settled on a natural plateau, somewhere on the lower slope of the volcano.

A flash of ten years ago colored his thoughts – the first time, and only time until now, that Leithan had come here. For his father's funeral. Death in Fire, the Yoxai called it, because they always burned their dead. There had been a blazing fire just like this one, the whole clan gathered, same as now.

And something else was also eerily similar.

Behind the dancing flames, Leithan glimpsed a long stone slab with a makeshift mattress, probably palm fiber, and a person on it, asleep.

Or dead.

A violent shudder seized him, and Leithan's focus snapped back to his immediate surroundings as a pair of muddy sandals stomped the ground in front of his face. Someone lowered himself into a crouch, staring down at Leithan, and he recognized Kresh, one of Nix's friends. The one who never came to the Hive.

His irises were so dark it made it difficult to see whether his pupils were dilated, but Leithan thought they might be. Kresh also had a film of sweat on his forehead, matting some of his short dark hair.

There was this strength-enhancing klar called crins, it made you warm, even when it was cold outside. Nix had told him once that it was Kresh's favorite.

Did he carry me all the way here? No way. Even high on crins, that was just impossible, or nearly so.

A boat, Leithan realized. They must've dumped my passed out ass at the bottom of a fucking riverboat and paddled upstream.

Fear took anger's place again as he realized Kresh was holding a knife in his right hand. A small stone blade, sharp and serrated, fresh blood coating the tip and dripping.

It was a scene out of a nightmare, it didn't feel like it should be real. The fear made it real though; urgent, painful and fever-cold, it made Leithan scramble to a half-seated position and flinch away. He had to get his shit together.

But then something metal-sharp poked him between the shoulder blades, and he gasped despite himself. He sat up fully straight and threw a wild glance backwards.

A Yoxai man stood there with a spear, keeping guard. He looked older than Leithan, maybe late twenties like Kresh. He also looked like he was taking his spear-wielding role very seriously.

"Spirits' fucking sakes," Leithan croaked, turning back around to face Kresh. His throat hurt like needles when he swallowed. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Trust me, we're not. Oh by the way, you woke up before your friends," Kresh told him with a cold smile. "Guess you're tougher than you look."

Leithan glanced to the side, and his heart sank hard.

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