Chapter One: Warnings

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A sharp intake of breath alerted Tarek that the note from his aunt wasn't good news.

Brie crumpled the paper in her rough hands, her shallow-set, brown eyes unfocused. Tarek placed a hand on his mother's shoulder, feeling nothing but bone under her rough fabric of her dress. Her head snapped up, her face pale as she clutched his arm. "Go find Olden. Quick now. They're coming."

Ma didn't need to name who they were.

Tarek removed his jacket off the coat rack on his way to the door.

"I want to come." Vesia's twelve-year-old body slammed into him as she grabbed the back of his shirt, pulling him to a halt.

Dislodging her grip, he turned to her, bending slightly until he was level with her green eyes, the same shade as his. Strands of brown hair fell across her gaunt face. "You don't have anything warm to wrap yourself in, and it's chilly outside. Besides, I'm sure he's at the tavern, and that place smells of troll's feet."

Vesia stomped her foot. "I've had to drag him home a time or two, just like you."

"Please stay." He lowered his voice, whispering, "Keep Ma calm till I get back."

Folding her arms over her chest, she let out an irritated snort but nodded in agreement. He tugged at her ear, then hurried out of the door.

Outside, he slipped into his muddy boots that pinched his toes. He set off at a slow jog, seriously doubting the threat of invasion was as imminent as Ma feared. His aunt and uncle, who owned the house they currently occupied, had left everything behind to make a run for it. But Olden, his father, refused to leave the family home based on rumors. Besides, no one in his right mind would waste any effort taking over this sand pit someone had named DeTiere.

Still, Ma refused to rest until Pop was home and they were making plans on where to go next. Tarek sighed. Another move. For once he'd love to find a nice town where they could all settle down and stay more than a few months.

Only the stars and quarter moon lit the narrow dirt road that ran north and south through DeTiere. He stopped at a crossroad. To his left, steep cliffs full of caves guarded the eastern boundary, offering a bit of shelter and security. Tarek shuddered. Just not enough security. A cool wind blew sand into his face from the miles of open desert surrounding the small oasis.

He turned right toward the town center. Some oasis, he chuckled. At one time the stone buildings, adorned with clay statues and metalwork, might have been something. Unfortunately, when more of the surrounding villages were taken over by the Racan King, DeTiere fell into disrepair as people abandoned their homes to save their lives.

Bright lights and lively music from the Traveler's Inn spilled out onto the deserted road. Strange that no matter how destitute conditions might be, the tavern always seemed to flourish.

Tarek came upon a body lying face down in the dirt.

He immediately recognized the close-cropped, gray-speckled head. Taking a couple of tentative steps forward, he watched Olden's back for the rising and falling of breaths. A drunken snore rumbled from the heap. Tarek sighed a breath of relief.

"Wake up." Tarek nudged his boot none too gently into Pop's ribs.

Olden came up with a furious yell, his arms swinging wildly.

Dodging his father's fists, Tarek grasped the back of his dirty shirt, dragged him to the nearest horse trough, and dunked his head into the mucky water.

"All right!" Olden shouted on the third dunk, trying to push away from the basin smelling of algae and dead things. "All right, I say. Leb go ob me, you blasted scamp!"

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