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info & synopsis

INFORMATION:

Title: The Deadbringer

Series: The Ellderet Series, # 1

Author: E.M. Markoff

Publisher: Tomes & Coffee Press

ISBN: 099719510X (ISBN13: 9780997195101)

Audience: Adult 

Genre: Dark Fantasy

Formats: Paperback, E-Book, Kindle Unlimited

Cover Artwork: Pink Pigeon Studio

Release Date: May 22, 2016

SYNOPSIS:

FINALIST MEDAL IN FANTASY from Next Generation Indie Book Awards, 2017

IN THE WORLD OF THE ELLDERET, NO ONE IS INNOCENT AND NO ONE IS SAFE.

The ashes of the Purging lie cold, and the next dance is about to begin in the Land of Moenda. Kira Vidal, a Deadbringer boy of fifteen, has escaped the fate of the rest of his kind, living peacefully with his uncle in the northern city of Opulancae. But then a strange man knocks on their door and a band of the Ascendancy’s fearsome Sanctifiers appears, hunting for Kira, and nothing will ever be the same.

The Deadbringer, the first book in The Ellderet Series, is a story of damaged heroes and imperfect villains, of a land scarred by ancient wounds that never truly healed. As Kira and the Sanctifiers approach their final confrontation, hunter and hunted alike must confront dark forces that threaten to overwhelm them all . . .

E.M. Markoff weaves together epic fantasy, surrealism, and elements of horror to spin an intricate web of darkness.


Author Bio

E.M. Markoff is a Latinx writer who was raised on a steady diet of Mexican folklore, anime, Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films, and unrestricted access to comics and books. Growing up, she spent many days exploring her hometown cemetery, where her love of all things dark began. 

Upon coming of age, she decided to pursue a career as a microbiologist, where she spent a few years channeling her inner mad scientist. Her debut novel, The Deadbringer, is the first book in The Ellderet Series and won a Finalist medal in the Fantasy category in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

She is a member of the Horror Writers Association.


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The Deadbringer Excerpt

1. Theshining city

THE DAY HAD dawned gray, as it had for the past week, thick with storm clouds barring the sun. The gentle rains of summer had been late. Now, well into the fall, as if seeking to make amends for its tardiness, the rain turned dirt into mud that splattered onto everything, turned streets into shallow streams that carried away the filth that had piled up over the long, dry summer. But the dreary weather did not deter the bustle of Opulancae.

Kira Vidal looked up at the midmorning sky with slightly uptilted, emerald-gold eyes and let the rain briefly wash his pale face. It felt cold and refreshing, just like the touch of the dead. Laughing softly, the tall youth turned his attention back to the bustle of the city and resumed his trek against the human current, his dapple gelding following close behind. He pulled forward the hood of his woolen traveling cloak, revealing long gloves that followed the length of his arms. Aside from the cloak, his clothing was entirely of supple black leather.

He was eager to be done with his errands in the newer part of Opulancae so he could ride to the Old Town to visit Elia. And he was growing tired of seeing the long-worn signs nailed throughout the city warning that Ro’Erden and Deadbringers were not welcome. He continued on, placing an order for slate and fieldstone at one shop and an order for rough lumber at another. As was customary, he paid half of the cost up front and would pay the other half when the materials were delivered.

“How’s your uncle?” asked the second shopkeeper, as he gathered the gold from the counter.

“He’s well,” Kira replied cordially. Though young, his voice was rich, with just the slightest rasp. Lowering his hood, he took a leather tie from an inside pocket and began securing a cascade of raven hair that fell to his waist. It was damp and beginning to feel unpleasant resting against his back.

“Say, by any chance, was your parlor the one that buried Mrs. Stone?”

“No.”

The shopkeeper continued as if Kira had added a why after the no. “Rumor’s been going around saying that she was murdered and that it was her daughter who did it. Thought maybe the body passed through your parlor and that you could say whether it looked like a murder.” He leaned over the counter. “I hear she looked like animals had torn her apart, and that the city authorities might petition the Bastion for aid.”

“No, I know nothing of it,” said Kira, repressing a sigh. He hated gossip.

He had indeed heard others whispering terrible rumors as he went about his errands, though it was the truth that their parlor had tended no one by that name. But he had learned that it was best to feign complete ignorance, as it kept his name and his uncle’s out of the rumors. He doubted the Bastion—the ruling power in the North—would intervene in local affairs for something as common as murder. Taking his leave before the shopkeeper had a chance to ask anything else, he swiftly mounted his horse and rode off toward the river road and the Old Town.

*****

HAD KIRA WALKED that day, he would have been able to reach the Old Town by descending the narrow flight of stairs that had been carved from the side of the high bluff that lined the river, upon which the newer sections of Opulancae had been built. But he had ridden and, since his horse could not sprout wings and fly like a bird or the long-dead winged serpents, he had been forced to take the river road, which went by roundabout way down the bluff to the river’s embankments.

The Silver River had reached out beyond those embankments, submerging the ancient flood plain where the Old Town had long ago risen. Murky waters reached up to the dapple’s cannons and sloshed wildly as it trotted along. Kira’s heart ached with sadness as he neared the Old Town, for it had suffered from the heavy assault of rain, and the runoff pouring down the bluff from the surrounding city had only served to augment the damage. The ground beneath the town was a sea of knee-high water, and the modest wooden dwellings propped up on wooden stilts were islands.

Despite their misfortune, the people waved upon seeing him. They had learned to endure the many changes that life by the river brought with it. What they had not learned to endure was the harsh nature of Opulancae itself—the city their river had helped foster.

Kira dismounted and offered to help where he could, but there was little he could do that the people had not already taken care of. Still, he helped carry a bale of wool from a home that had sprung a leak, and then helped sort out the damaged material from the undamaged.

“Here to see Elia?” asked one of the townsmen.

“Yes,” said Kira. “Was her home damaged by the rain?”

“No, but we checked it ourselves. Just to make sure, you know?”

“Oh, yes! She will never admit to needing help.”

The man laughed heartily. “That she won’t! Go on, boy, we’ve kept you long enough. I’m sure she’s heard you’re here and is waiting for you to arrive. Say hello to your uncle for me.”

Bidding them farewell, Kira sloshed along with his horse in tow until he reached a wooden house built upon thick wooden stilts, surrounded by hanging baskets filled with aromatic herbs. He stepped out of the water and onto the steps that led to the porch surrounding the house. His uncle had built the porch so Elia could hang her baskets to keep them from being damaged or washed away.

He was about to knock when the door swung open. A slightly hunched, elderly woman barely reaching his chest looked up at him with pursed lips. Soft gray curls crowned her head. She motioned for him to enter.

“Foolish boy, coming here with the rain. That uncle of yours knows full well the river tends to overflow during the rainy season. Next time I see him, we’re going to have a long talk.” She waved her frail-looking hands in the air, displeased.

Kira had spent a few years as a child in the Old Town, and its people, in particular Elia, the old herbalist, held a special place in his heart. She had always been very kind to him and had taken it upon herself to be a very active part of his upbringing—much to his uncle’s dismay.

“Though late this year, it is indeed the rainy season. Regardless, I wanted to see you.” He placed a gloved hand over her head and gave her a kiss through it.

She brushed his hand away. “Don’t give me that ‘coming to see me’ business. You young folk already have enough on your shoulders without wasting your time on a bag of bones like me.”

There was a heavy weight to her brow that he had never seen before. “Did something happen?” She dismissed his question with a humph and took a seat at the dining table. Elia was rather proud, and he knew better than to press her.

Opening the oiled-leather bag slung around his shoulder, Kira pulled out two square-shaped bundles wrapped in waxed paper. He placed them on the table and unwrapped them, revealing two small cakes.

“I baked them myself. I used a bit more sugar than I would have liked—which means they are very sweet—but coffee should help wash them down.” He pulled an assortment of glass containers from his bag. “I also brought more coffee and spices to replenish your stores, since I saw that you were running low.”

“It’s appreciated, but I’ve told you not to bring me such expensive things. I don’t like feeling like I’m a leech.”

“You’re not, and besides, I bought these with my money, not my uncle’s, so it’s my call how I decide to spend it.” She mumbled under her breath but said nothing more. Kira removed his damp traveling cloak, hung it on a hook near the door, and set about to making coffee. It was something he always did when he visited her.

Elia called to him. “Well, just make sure you make enough. No sense in just wetting your lips and then being left wanting more.”

He laughed warmly. Her sharp tongue was one of the reasons he adored her so much. His uncle, on the other hand, often commented that instead of age having claimed her posture, it should have claimed her tongue.

Once the coffee was brewed, he brought it over and laid out everything they would need to share the small meal. Elia took a bite of her cake. “Not bad. I wouldn’t advise dropping your trade as a mortician for that of a baker, but”—she closed her eyes and sipped her coffee—“your skill at brewing flavorful coffee is quite impressive. I’d like to think I had a hand in this, but I’m sure your uncle would say otherwise.”

“I’m sure he would if he could, but he’s more a tea drinker, so he would have to keep his opinions to himself.”

“As best he should.” She soaked a piece of cake in the coffee and idly nibbled it. “Kira, do you ever think of your parents?”

“Every now and again. But honestly, I don’t—and can’t—imagine my life without my uncle. Although, I know he thinks of my mother, his sister. Every year, during the weeks leading up to my name day, he becomes very morose and tends to stare at me when he thinks I’m not watching.”

She frowned. “You don’t bear much of a resemblance to your uncle, except in height. He confessed to me that your mother died giving birth to you. But, I’m pretty sure he told you that?”

“Yeah, he did. But he simply refuses to speak of her. And of my father—my uncle never knew who he was.”

“Unsurprising. Many children born during the Purging don’t know their fathers.”

Kira devoured his bit of cake and chased it down with a few sips of hot coffee. “My uncle does say that I didn’t get my eyes from his side of the family, so my father must have been from the Western Mountains. But he doesn’t ever talk about those years, though I have tried asking. I’ve always been curious to know what the Land was like during that time.”

“The Nightmare Lords damn those years. Nobody wants to remember them.”

A question came to Kira, one that he could not resist asking. “Elia, have you ever seen a Doll?”

She shot him a mischievous grin. “So, when you’re curious, this bag of bones is finally good for something, hmm?”

Kira felt the heat rise to his face. “That is not what I meant!”

She laughed, obviously satisfied with his reaction. Then, flatly, she said, “I have seen a Doll.”

“Really?”

“Should I say ‘no,’ instead?”

“No, no, no,” said Kira, rushed. “It’s just that I know my uncle has seen a Doll, but he won’t tell me. Or at least I think he has. Actually, I’m not sure.”

“Awfully curious, aren’t you?”

“Of course! I mean, it is a part of the history of the Land. I guess my problem is that I’m not sure if I believe what I’ve read concerning Deadbringers and their Dolls—that Dolls were no different from the soulless, reanimated Risen. That they were monstrous corpses.”

“If the Ascendancy heard what you thought of the printed words they spread as truth, you would not be sitting here. We may not be in the South, but watch that tongue of yours. I wouldn’t put it past the people of Opulancae to cry to the Bastion that you are a traitor.”

“The Bastion is not the Ascendancy.”

“Humph. A horse is a horse even if you dress it in silks.”

“Fine, fine. Now tell me what Dolls looked like.”

Elia took a curt sip from her cup. “A Deadbringer’s Doll had fake eyes that never blinked and were vacant and glassy. Their skin was lusterless, their lower arms and hands often discolored, as if they had been dipped in a deep red dye. Not surprising, considering they were once alive. But no, the ones I saw were not ‘monstrous.’”

“And?” asked Kira, trying to hide his excitement.

“And what?” Elia said tartly. “I can only tell you what a Doll looked like, not how one was made.”

“Sorry. I let my curiosity get the better of me.” Elia took a deep breath, failing to repress a shuddering sigh. He eyed her quizzically. “What’s the matter? And don’t tell me ‘nothing.’”

She sighed heavily once more. “Must something be wrong? Can’t an old woman sigh if she wants to?” Rising from the table, she walked over to an ornate cabinet and retrieved a red lacquer box. Taking her seat once more, she opened the box and held out a blue amber comb.

“This was given to me by my partner when we first started seeing each other. When my daughter came of age I gave it to her. She left it behind.” She wet her lips. “I’m old. I don’t have anyone to leave my belongings to, and of the little I own this is the most precious. I know you’ll take good care of it.”

He took the comb from her. Though delicate in appearance, it was firm and heavy. “Thank you. I’ll take good care of it.”

“Then it’s settled. Next time you visit me I want to see your hair set with that comb. Gods know you have more than enough hair to play around with. It might even help you find a pretty girl.”

Kira sighed. He was glad to see Elia back to her sharp self but wished she had chosen another topic. “It’s not that easy. You know that. Besides, I don’t want to fall in love and then wind up accidentally killing them.”

“Nonsense! You’re here, after all. Assuming that touching problem of yours was passed down from your father—because your uncle surely doesn’t suffer from it—it didn’t stop him from seeking out and bedding your mother.” He winced, and she added, “Eutau wasn’t very pleased when I discovered what your touch could do.”

“No, he wasn’t. I think it was one of the reasons we moved away from the Old Town. He was afraid that other people would become aware of it and that my life would be in danger.”

Elia’s mouth twisted. “Your uncle can have a cruel tongue and a violent temper when he chooses to, especially when he believes your life is in danger. He’s very passionate about keeping you safe, but you can’t hide behind those parlor doors forever, even though I’m sure Eutau wishes you would.”

“He’s the only living person I can interact with normally without having to wear these gloves for fear that I might hurt him. I love him dearly and will be content with my life as long as he’s with me.”

“A sweet sentiment to have, but also a dangerous one. We are not gods, but mortals whose lives quickly dwindle. One day he will die, and you will find yourself all alone in that grand house surrounded by the dead. That is not life.”

Despite his better judgment, Kira smiled. “If my fate is to be surrounded by the dead, then so be it. As for my uncle, I’ll make sure he never dies.” Elia looked at him through narrowed eyes. “A joke, my dear lady,” he teased. “Besides, happiness isn’t dependent on finding a partner, and the people of Opulancae are not really my type.”

She laughed heartily. “By the gods, now that is something I can agree with.”

Kira would have liked to spend more time with Elia, but the afternoon was passing and his uncle would be waiting. He rose and bent down to kiss her farewell, but he was stopped by her wrinkled hand.

“None of this glove nonsense,” she said, protesting. “Either kiss me proper or don’t kiss me at all.” He concentrated and kissed a bed of gray curls. Her hair was soft and smelled like lavender.

He would leave money with the candlemaker’s son and see to it that she wanted for nothing and had plenty of everything, as he always did. Bidding her farewell, he took his cloak, mounted his horse, and rode away from the shallow sea that was the Old Town.

 

2. Locked Doors

SHE HAS BEEN washed, clothed, and made up. Have you decided whether or not to have a viewing?”

The man sitting opposite him looked up in anguish. The cup of tea he had received sat untouched and cold. “I don’t want people to see her as she is. I know she would’ve hated having people gawk at her.” His body began to tremble. “I won’t let them laugh at her. I won’t! I won’t!”

Eutau leaned forward, arms resting on his knees. He was an austere-looking man with dark hair and pupil-less eyes the color of an oncoming storm. The softness in his voice seemed out of place. “She had been sick for quite some time?”

“Yes. But it wasn’t her fault! She was a good and caring person and it wasn’t right that she should’ve been stricken so ill.”

“Indeed, she must have been a kind woman. Even in death, the gentleness of her spirit is evident.”

“Your words are kind. But her body is wasted, her beautiful black hair thinned, balding. She is a shell; the last days of her life ensured as much.” The man paused, shoulders slumping, head bowed low. “It’s so awfully quiet without her. A part of me is grateful to the gods that she’s no longer suffering, but the other part is stricken with grief, for I will never see her again. And, especially, not the way she was. Is it evil for me to feel this way?”

“No. The conflict you feel is testament to the love between the two of you.” The man smiled weakly. It was the first time Eutau had seen him smile since he had come seeking their services. “I know this is hard for you, but would you like to see her?”

The man’s smile vanished, and he drew a trembling breath. “Yes.”

They left the spacious sitting room. As they entered the hallway, three small creatures scurried past. The smallest of the three, having trouble keeping up, ran back toward Eutau and went up on tiny hind legs. Eutau bent down and held out his hand. It climbed up his arm happily, swishing its bushy tail to and fro, and settled around his neck under an uneven mess of dark hair, where it proceeded to wash its short brown snout and the fluffy white tufts that adorned the tips of its pointed ears.

“Such odd looking kittens,” the man said, his voice uncertain.

“Kittens? No. They are pointed-ear woodrats. This one is named Belle.”

“Rats! Are such creatures not diseased?”

Eutau concealed his annoyance with a smile. “You are thinking of city rats. But, you are correct—many are diseased. Sadly, Opulancae suffers from quite a plague of them. Some worse than others.”

The man said nothing more and quietly followed Eutau to the viewing room that was directly across from the sitting room. In the center, propped upon a worked-metal table, was a pine casket with dainty lilies carved into the sides.

Eutau cautioned the man. “I beg that you do not touch the lilies, for the stain has not yet cured. The weather has not been cooperative.”

Nodding, the man approached the casket and peered in. He wheeled about, outrage marring his face. “What cruel joke is this? This woman is not my partner!”

Eutau took the man’s outburst in stride. “Is she not? Look closer.”

“Do you take me for a fool not to recognize my partner of so many years?”

“What your eyes sought was the wasted body she passed away in. My nephew was able to restore a bit of her dignity by fashioning a wig from his own hair. A small thing it may seem, but, I agree, the change is shocking.”

The pained man looked back at the body lying in the casket and, after a brief moment, broke into uncontrolled sobs. “It is her! Forgive me, my beloved, for not having recognized you! This must be a dream, ah yes, it must be. If so, let me never awaken.”

Eutau went back to the sitting room to indulge in a cup of tea while the man wept to his heart’s content. He drank slowly. The way the man was carrying on, there was no need to rush.

The sitting room had always been his favorite spot in the house. Large stained glass windows generously lined one wall from ceiling to floor. Even on dreary days like today, enough light still managed to pour in. It saved him from having to ignite the oil lanterns for their clients. The other walls were a deep shade of red with white trimming, while the floor was covered with woven wool carpets inlaid with intricate scrolling designs. The carpets, along with many of the other furnishings, had been imported from Florinia, a city in the South.

Recalling the man’s expression upon seeing his partner, Eutau smiled. It was more than a wig Kira fashioned for her.

Belle had abandoned his neck in favor of seeking shelter underneath his high-collared shirt. Her efforts had burst open many of the buttons, exposing his chest and stomach. She pressed her tiny body up against his waist, shivering.

Keeping one hand cupped around his shirt so she would not slip out—which she was precariously close to doing—and holding the teacup with the other, he took a seat on a carved wooden recamier. He carefully set his tea down on the green medallion upholstery to better focus on Belle.

Coaxing her out of his shirt and onto his lap, he grabbed a nearby blanket, swaddled her in it, and laid her down near the headrest. He then began to refasten the buttons of his shirt but paused, his fingers tracing the length of a thick scar over his heart. Starting at the base of his neck and running all the way down to his waist were numerous uneven, red-black scars that marred his muscled body. He pulled up a long sleeve, revealing more scars on his arm, then sneered bitterly and began refastening the buttons.

The soft pitter-patter of rain rapped against the stained glass windows, blurring the world beyond. It was getting late, and Kira had not yet returned from his errands. Eutau had no doubt that he had gone to visit Elia in the Old Town. If so, Kira would return soaked from head to toe, especially if the river had overflowed. Stew was the correct choice.

Having finished his tea, Eutau went back to the viewing room and knocked on the door.

“Can I come in?” he asked. A stuffy-nosed “Yes” answered him.

The man had pulled up one of the chairs and positioned it next to the casket. His face was swollen, his eyes raw, but there was a peace about him that had not been present before. “I’ve decided to have a viewing. This way people will remember her as she was.”

“Tomorrow, then. The viewing shall be held in the morning and, in the afternoon, the burial.”

“Will the headstone be ready also? I requested quite a bit of work.”

Eutau took a contemplative breath. The man had indeed commissioned an intricate headstone: a broken column, three feet high, partially draped by a veil and lightly entwined with broken rosebuds.

“Stonework is my nephew’s talent, not mine. Since he is not here, I can give no sure answer.”

The man waved a hand. “I’m sorry. Please don’t worry. Your parlor has been too kind to both me and my partner. I’m sure the fine wig the young sir fashioned must have taken time. The headstone can wait. Besides, this foul weather would hinder the placement of the headstone, correct?”

“Yes, it could shift. Your understanding is much appreciated.” Eutau inwardly counted his blessings. Some clients could be very demanding when it came to having intricate headstones done on such short notice.

The man eventually left and, at last alone and with the day’s affairs finally settled, Eutau made a mental list of what he would need for tomorrow while he tidied up the parlor. He wrinkled his nose as he closed the doors to the viewing room. The faintest smell of rot lingered in the air. He took a handful of incense sticks out from the drawer of a writing desk in the sitting room, lit them, and placed them all about the first floor. Scented smoke quickly filled the air.

Unlike you, my dear nephew, I am not fond of the smell of rot.

The thought put an unpleasant frown on his face, for it reminded him of the growing friction between them. Eutau had dismissed it as concern over Kira’s growing abilities but, in truth, the answer was simple. Kira’s physical resemblance to his father as he aged was growing uncanny, as was his ever-increasing infatuation with interacting with the dead. It was his insistence in wanting to create a Doll that irked Eutau the most. Yet, despite resembling that man, Kira was nothing like him. Kira’s personality was more akin to his mother’s, as were his eyes. For Eutau, the eyes were what kept him from becoming lost in memories he fought desperately to keep buried.

The doorbell rang.

Brought out of his morose contemplation, Eutau abandoned the sitting room and went out to the foyer. He opened the front door. Before him stood a tall, portly man who worried his hands as he spoke.

“Uh, yes. I’m sorry to be calling at such a late hour.”

Eutau gave an exaggerated sigh. “The downside to being a mortician is that the living do not have a set schedule for dying. Please, come in.” The man entered the foyer, his eyes darting from one corner to another. “What can I d—’’

“I need the service of a Deadbringer!”

“Deadbringer,” Eutau said calmly. “Is that what they are calling morticians these days?”

“My mother was murdered. The local authorities believe my sister is to blame because all property was left to her. Also, it doesn’t help that they found her unconscious in the same room as our mother. But she’s innocent! I know she is!” The man took in a deep breath. “My sister is a strong woman, but the attack from all sides has been too much for her. Currently, she’s living with my partner and me. She’s in a pitiful and delirious state. I’m afraid of what she might do to herself.” He looked down at the toes of his muddied boots, voice trailing off. “Please . . . please . . . I don’t want to lose her as well.”

“I am sorry for your plight, but you are in the wrong place. Also, a word of friendly advice, it is not wise to openly state your interest in a race that cannot be sought out or consorted with, on pain of a swift death from the authorities.”

“Please, don’t push me out! Please tell me I’m in the right place! I’ve already been to some of the other parlors in the city and they ran me out most viciously, assuring me I was mad.”

Eutau was unsure what to do with the man, who seemed on the verge of having a seizure. “I am sorry that this is happening to you, but how you came to such a notion is absur—’’

“Worthington!”

Eutau froze. “Excuse me?”

It took a few seconds for the man to realize that he had been asked a question. “Worthington is an old friend of the family’s. He confided in me that the owners of a mortician’s parlor were the ones responsible for bringing to justice the murderer of his youngest son. He said that the parlor worked in conjunction with the Bastion and that the Deadbringer was one of them. Worthington didn’t name the parlor or the Deadbringer—he also mentioned something about a binding seal. Please, sir, I’m not mad, nor do I mean any offense to your person if such an accusation offends you. But if I am mistaken, please tell me so!”

Eutau schooled his face to remain impassive, but inwardly he was a hard knot of anger and concern. Already the man was causing trouble by visiting the morticians’ parlors in Opulancae and giving the same idiotic speech. If rumors begin to spread of Deadbringers residing in Opulancae. . .  Their only saving grace was that the man was aware that the Deadbringer he sought had ties to the Bastion and so was not a fugitive.

Eutau resisted the urge to grate his teeth. As he thought how to respond, he caught sight of Kira hiding in the shadows of the hallway adjacent to the foyer. He had come in through the kitchen. It would not do for the man to see him. Thinking quickly, Eutau asked, “If your need is so great, then why did you not go straight to the Bastion?”

A flash of something akin to triumph passed over the man’s face. “I feared that if I went first to the Bastion they would bar me from seeking the Deadbringer or turn me away or lock me up. I realized that if I could find the Deadbringer on my own and explain my situation, maybe then the Deadbringer could intervene on my behalf.”

“And the thought of coming face-to-face with a race so feared it was hunted to extinction was preferable? Your excuse is rather weak.”

“It’s all I have.”

Eutau pinched the bridge of his nose and hoped he was making the right decision. He was about to give instructions when it suddenly dawned on him that they had not exchanged formalities.

“Do you also have no name?” he asked testily. “It is poor manners to propose business without introducing oneself.”

“My sincere apologies,” the man said, abashed. “I’m Nathaniel Kirk Stone. But please, call me Nate.”

Eutau forced a smile, trying to conceal the fury that he was sure was welling in his eyes. “I strongly suggest, Nate, that you make time to visit the Bastion and ask to see Agent Kim Lafont.”

“But what if the Bastion or this Lafont don’t believe my story and think I’m seeking a Deadbringer for some malevolent purpose? I don’t want to be locked away or put to death!” Stone’s voice had taken on an unattractive high pitch.

Now he is concerned! Eutau thought, frustrated with the man and greatly wanting him to leave so he could speak with Kira and then step outside for a much-needed smoke. He wrapped an arm around Stone’s shoulder, shuffling him to the door.

“I regretfully assure you that neither death nor eternal imprisonment await you. Although, make sure to ask specifically for Agent Lafont.”

Stone’s shoulders twitched as he spoke. “Does this mean that . . . are you the Deadbringer?”

Eutau did not answer, instead repeating his instructions and adding, “Do not fret, for I personally will inform the Bastion of your plight . . . in detail.” The portly man went pale. It was the reaction Eutau had wanted to see. Eutau walked the man out of the parlor, waited until he had mounted his horse and galloped away, and then slammed the door shut and locked it.

Only then did Kira walk out from the shadows, his clothes sopping wet and his feet bare. Eutau examined him. He left his boots in the kitchen. They must be a mess.

“I made stew,” said Eutau.

“I saw.”

“I have to call on Kim. Tonight.”

“I know. But we will eat together before you ride out, right?” Concern filled Kira’s eyes. He was well aware of the consequences that would result if word of his existence spread.

Eutau smiled reassuringly and pressed the palm of his hand against Kira’s cold cheek. “Go change into dry clothes. I will warm up the food and we will eat together, as we always do.” Kira nodded and vanished up a flight of stairs. Alone, Eutau ran his fingers through his uneven hair and cursed to himself. Dammit, why now? He turned down the hallway that led to the kitchen. As he passed the viewing room, the faint scent of rot caught his nose.

It was going to be a long night.