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    Chapter 1

    Ildevar Wyyld, founding member of the Reth Alliance, gazed out the window of his study, his hands held studiously behind his back as he examined the grounds around his palace. Three of the twenty members of the Grand Alliance Council, those who'd helped him create the Alliance in the beginning, sat inside his study. They'd all brought news and the news wasn't good.

    "So. Solar Red has been in hiding all along. Do you think they remember what forced them from our Alliance to begin with?" Ildevar moved away from the window and sat behind his desk with a sigh.

    "My spies tell me that many among them are long-lived, if not immortal. Of course, they remember. We all know, too, that revenge is in their blood. Even if they'd been ousted three thousand years ago instead of three hundred, they'd still seek vengeance. My informants also tell me that Solar Red has created an offshoot of their religion, called The Red Hand. This is gaining a legitimate foothold on many worlds, some of them ours," Diedrick, First Grand Alliance Advisor, muttered angrily.

    Farle, Nineteenth Grand Alliance Advisor, blinked at Diedrick. "You think they're torturing and killing already? Within the Alliance?"

    "They can't help themselves. And the more pain they can create before their victim dies, the greater pleasure they derive from the death." Nevarr, Fourth Advisor for the Grand Alliance Council observed. "Brother, what are we to do?" He turned to Ildevar.

    "We cannot reveal ourselves. We are the last of our race as it once was, and we will die if we are discovered," Ildevar shook his head. "I fear that these murderers have allied with our enemy and they will recognize our hand if we intervene. Others must wage this war for us. If we die, the Alliance dies with us and the peace we have worked so hard to create and maintain will cease to exist."

    "Who will wage our war, brother?" Diedrick asked. "Who among our Alliance holds the strength to defeat them?"

    "The one who defeated them before, brother," Ildevar replied. "She is stronger, now."

    "You have not heard my news," Nevarr sighed.

    "What news do you bring?" Ildevar lifted an eyebrow at his Fourth Advisor.

    "That Black Mist is conspiring with Solar Red. Therefore, they are also conspiring with The Red Hand and any other criminal faction that can put two murderers together. If Solar Red is seeking vengeance against the one who defeated them before, then Black Mist is likely taking on their cause—for a fee, of course."

    "Black Mist. Even we cannot find them, they are so cunning," Diedrick muttered angrily. "And they move about our Alliance at will. How many kings, queens and heads of state have they assassinated already?"

    "Too many," Ildevar agreed. "Any death can be bought from Black Mist, including that of those who have paid them in the past. They have no care for any, it appears. They only care for the money that murdering brings."

    "Is there anything we can do, then?" Farle asked. "We expect the Queen of Le-Ath Veronis to be our champion in this cause, but will we just sit on our hands while she protects us?"

    "The Five-Year Conclave is swiftly approaching, too," Ildevar agreed. "This is the first she will attend, and that can offer an easy target for any would-be assassin."

    "Find someone who can travel to Le-Ath Veronis soon. Someone who will be our eyes and ears there and report their findings to us. Admit it—even we do not know the full extent of her capabilities. We may be throwing an innocent before butchers if Black Mist is involved in this."

    "Black Mist is involved, I swear it," Nevarr said. "Money has already changed hands. One of my trusted Warlock spies handed the information to me yesterday."

    "They'll have difficulty reaching her on Le-Ath Veronis."

    "Not as much as you might think, brother."

    * * *

    Tiearan Briar studied Corent River, who sat nearby, lost in melancholy. They'd chosen the riverbank beneath the willows for their meeting, and Corent was so immersed in thought he ignored the willow branch that brushed his shoulders as the wind stirred. Corent was half-Green Fae, one of the rare half-Green, half-humanoids that lived in a secluded area on the planet of Vionn. The small race called themselves Green Birth, and they'd existed on Vionn for more than a thousand years.

    The Green Birth Fae had been ousted from one world to the next throughout millennia, until they'd become increasingly hemmed in. Their particular sect did not kill; they existed solely upon a plant-based diet and were restricted to living upon worlds that held the precious crystal—Indis-Banuu—holder of the sun.

    "We came here for the crystal, rare as it is," Tiearan sighed. Corent lifted the transparent crystal drop that hung about his neck and stared at it.

    All Green Fae knew the sun's light and power gave them additional strength to do their work. The crystal they employed held the sun's light and the Green Fae's power, often for days, enabling them to work in the evenings or on cloudy days when the sun did not shine through.

    "The Red Hand religion is an evil, Father Tiearan," Corent muttered. "They spread superstition and murder in the name of their god. They whisper the word magic as if it is a curse. How is this a curse?" He swept his hand toward the fertile fields about them.

    "When we first came, we took what none wanted—the most undesirable portion of Farus," Tiearan said. "Nothing grew here except stunted trees and weeds. None challenged when we paid what we could for the land and began to farm. Now that it is a rich and fertile garden, they desire it. They cannot buy it back from us now—we do not wish to sell and Farus' new King is too poor. His people are on the verge of revolt because he is taxing them too heavily. King Rindil, who has inherited a destitute country from his father, is now listening to the Pelipu in Ialus, who thinks of us as demons."

    "They will not understand that it takes our power and Indis-Banuu to keep these fields, orchards and vineyards alive," Corent snorted. "Traders seek us out for the excess that we raise."

    They wish to kill us anyway, because they have no understanding," Tiearan agreed. "We could leave—it is true—we have left many worlds for much the same reason. But no other world has given us the gift of children, as this one has," Tiearan sighed. "We did not know that mingling with the Vionnu who have come to live and work beside us would produce children. You and the others like you are a joy to us. Yes, we could Flash away from this world and start again elsewhere, but we would be forced to leave our half-Fae children behind. Your bodies will never survive the Flashing, my child. You would be left behind with the peaceful Vionnu and would become a target for a vengeful religion and a greedy King."

    "I know it is against our code to kill, Father Tiearan, but many among our Vionnu allies have offered to take up weapons, although their hearts are not in it."

    "They have no training for such," Tiearan huffed. "It would be as slaughtering innocent children. The Pelipu has spread his lies and now his followers believe it is our intent to bed their virgin daughters and produce demon children until all of Vionn is consumed."

    "They will torture us, before we die by their hand," Corent's voice held sadness.

    "Rindil has accepted money from the Temple already, and has begun building an army. The Pelipu will send seasoned troops to add to Rindil's. What do they think we will do against so many? We have no weapons and no desire to use them, should we have any." Tiearan focused on Corent's face. "I am grieved that things have come to this, child," he said.

    Corent gazed back at Tiearan. Tiearan was quite old, although he looked very young. Tiearan had the long, pale-gold hair of the Briar clan; Corent's hair was a light blue-green, which often turned a deep blue if he stood in the sun long enough. His mother always told him that his hair reflected water and sky, depending on whether he was in sun or shade.

    "What shall we do, then, father Tiearan?" Corent and every half-Fae child had grown up with their Green Fae mothers teaching them to call the older males father. And the older males treated the children as if they were theirs, teaching them small things, smiling often and handing out praise when it was deserved. Corent had known that love from the beginning. He was now in danger of losing that, in addition to his life.

    "Child," Tiearan sighed, "we are sick inside our hearts. We wish to leave, but we cannot take our half-Fae children off this world with us."

    "Do you regret our births?" Corent asked, studying Tiearan's expression.

    "We do not regret our children, only what may happen to them."

    "Shall we merely sit back while they take us, then?"

    Tiearan watched Corent. Corent's face reflected his mother's—Rain of the River clan. She was worried for her half-Fae son. Rain was the one who'd offered a suggestion and now most of the elders were considering it. They had gone as far as to approach a Karathian Warlock on a nearby world, but he was one of the mercenaries who traveled beyond Karathia's orbit and asked an exorbitant price, which the Greens couldn't pay.

    The Green Fae seldom dealt in gold or precious gems; they dealt mostly in trade—for metal objects and other goods, which they did not manufacture and had little desire to do so. What little they had in the way of riches (as calculated by the Vionnu) was garnered through trading. They traded away what others considered wealth for nails, hinges, glass bottles, corks, and other items that were needed. Most of the gold they received was paid to the crown as taxes.

    "We have come up with an idea," Tiearan finally said. Corent's attention was immediate. "I have not told you before, child, about some of the worlds outside our own. A world lies a few Flashings away where there are real magic wielders," Tiearan snorted. "And the Pelipu worries about us."

    * * *

    Winkler was having a second helping of ribs and grinning at me. "Do I have a bedroom at the palace, now?" he teased.

    "Honey, I think you can have just about anything you want," I replied, smiling like an idiot at my wolf. We'd been talking nonstop ever since he'd folded in. The wolf I'd seen in a carved box at his funeral had been made to look and smell exactly like him. It just hadn't been him, and he'd smiled and kissed me—several times—as I wiped tears away and described the service.

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