(Book #3 of the Light Blade series)

Berkley Sensation

April 2013

Chapter 1

Hatred throbbed in time with Arek’s heartbeat, the fierce emotion sustaining him as much as the blood pumping through his veins.

He kept his gaze downcast, fixed firmly on the stained wooden boards of the ferryboat. Imprisoned in the cargo cage, he felt the skin of his back twitch as the polished leather boots of the Na’Reish boat-master thudded past on his way to the foredeck. Curled and hooked on to the demon’s belt was a thin-braided lash, his preferred tool of choice when disciplining his human cargo for the slightest infraction.

Looking up at the demon had proved provocation enough. Fury roiled and knotted in Arek’s gut. The dozen welts marking his shoulders still stung. Each had been delivered with an expert hand, placed with enough force to cause maximum discomfort yet tempered to avoid permanent injury.

A painful lesson, one he craved to reciprocate with lethal intent, but retaliation meant using his Gift to kill the Na’Reish and exposing his secret. Something he couldn’t do. Not yet. The Na’Reish killed human Light Blade warriors on sight. He’d make his death count, taking out as many demons as possible, giving them no chance to drink his blood.

“’Ware starboard!” The cry came from the Na’Reish watcher standing at the bow. “Dock ahead!”

The boat-master leaned against the railing, his long legs braced wide as he peered ahead. At nearly seven feet tall, he was an imposing figure, all muscle and brawn, his purple-hued stare missing nothing that went on around him.

As he turned, the late afternoon sunlight caught the mottled pattern of demon markings on his skin. They were dark, irregular in size and shape, and almost as black as his hair. They covered the sides of his broad face before curving over his jaw and down his neck to disappear beneath the collar of his shirt. His wide grin pulled back black lips, revealing a mouthful of pointed teeth sharp enough to puncture human skin.

A shiver crawled across the back of Arek’s neck. How many humans had this demon fed on? Did he prefer the services of a blood-slave or did he drain them outright?

With the way he was dressed, he could probably afford to do the latter. From the dark leather of his polished boots, and the fine woven fabric of his shirt, the boat-master had to be Na’Reishi, one of the demon elite, perhaps a Lordlings son. Not a first get but possibly a second or third. The eldest would be at his sire’s side, being groomed for Clan leadership, not trafficking human-slaves across the border.

“Prepare to dock!” The boat-master’s gravelly bellow instigated a flurry of activity on deck.

Through the flat-steel bars of the cage, Arek watched a dozen Na’Reish warriors, all wearing leather armor and bearing weapons, emerge from the aft cabin door, then spread out to take up alert positions across the deck.

The half-dozen human-slaves on the port side of the sleek-hulled boat ceased their poling. Wiry muscles flexed as they laid the wooden poles on the deck, then crouched beside them. With no breeze and the sun still providing late season warmth, sweat shone on their near naked bodies and their ribs heaved with exertion but none voiced a complaint. Those on the starboard side pushed the vessel sideways.

The boat’s speed slowed, but with the cargo hold set low in the slave-boat, Arek saw nothing over the side railing other than open sky. After three days travelling up Whitewater River, he knew they were well within Na’Reish territory. Had they reached their final destination or was this just an overnight stop?

Arek glanced at the men and women crowded in around him. All were young and healthy, taken in raids from crofts and farms along the border to be used as blood-slaves in the coming war. His lip curled. They were a portable food supply for the demons.

His patrol had been investigating the increased number of raids, and one of the first to discover the bodies of their elder-kin and very young massacred in their homes. Eleven of the prisoners were from the village of Ostare; each of them recaptured after his Light Blade patrol had tried to free them in a rescue gone wrong.

Arek grimaced. A rescue where he’d seen Kalan, their leader and his best friend, nearly killed. He’d tried to give the others time to save Kalan. Had he survived? Had they managed to get away? Lady of Light, he hoped so.

He touched the blood-encrusted wound on his head, the one received in his gambit to give his patrol time to escape. The gash itched but at least it was healing and the motion sickness was gone. He’d been prepared for his Final Journey into the afterlife, expected it when the rescue failed, but after he’d fallen, a man named Yenass and his sister had carried him away from the fighting.

Arek’s lips thinned. Yenass had swapped clothes with him when it became clear they faced recapture. And stepping into the path of the hunting Vorc, the vicious beast used to track them, the farmer had given his life to save theirs.

Arek closed his eyes. He could still hear the sickening sounds of the Vorc’s teeth ripping into Yenass’s flesh, his agony-filled cry cut short. A swift death, thank the Lady.

Mother of Mercy, may his soul rest and find comfort in Your presence.

Arek still didn’t understand why She had accepted the farmer’s courageous sacrifice instead of his life, but whatever Her plans, he now had a life-debt to repay. Helping those from Yenass’s village escape this slave-trader would be a start.

The boat jolted, the hollow thump as it hit something reverberating through the entire hull. Arek blinked. Those around him remained seated. A few, like him, watched the activity on deck with wary interest. Many though wore blank-eyed stares, their shoulders slumped, seemingly resigned to their fate—serving as slaves to the Na’Reish.

Tension chewed his innards. There was no way he’d call any demon master. Flexing his wrists and hands, Arek ignored the burn as the coarse rope bit into his abraded skin, but the knots binding him were too tight.

He’d expected the diligence of the Na’Reish warriors to slacken off during their journey, particularly once they’d crossed the border between human and demon territory. Yet day and night, every few hours, the bonds were scrutinized, eliminating any chance of breaking free.

“Tie off!” The boat-master turned toward the cargo-cage and flicked a hand in their direction. “Get them unloaded and processed for auction.”

They were being sold? Every muscle in Arek went tight. The woman nearest him gave a soft, desolate cry.

“Processed?” hissed the man beside him. “I ain’t bein’ auctioned like a bleater by these cursed demons!”

Several others echoed his fierce protest. Arek swallowed a savage grin. These people might be farmers and crofters, but they had heart. He reached out and clasped the farmer’s broad shoulder. Dark eyes locked with his.

“Be patient,” he murmured, just loud enough for him to hear. “Wait until we disembark. Remember, their warriors go first, then us. If we can knock the gangplank into the water it will cut their number in half. Give us time to get away.”

Hope flared in the man’s gaze. “It could work. Iffen there’s a chance some of us’ll get away, I’ll take it, and so’ll the others.”

He relayed the impromptu plan to those closest to him, and in turn they spoke to their neighbors. Talk died down as one of the Na’Reish deckhands moved from the foredeck to follow the boat-master’s order and unlock the cage.

The hinges grated loudly. Arek’s pulse raced as the door swung open. It was a relief to stand and stretch, even if it meant being herded like bleaters, single file, to the gangplank. He and the farmer joined the line last.

The riverbank beyond the wooden dock was little more than a wide, sandy clearing edged by thick forest. A stable and small set of stockyards stood on one side, while thick wooden poles with iron rings and chains rose like denuded trees on the other. Arek’s gaze narrowed. He doubted the poles and chains were for tethering the shaggy war-beasts corralled in the yards.

Blackened stones ringed a dead fire pit in the center of the clearing. One of the boat-hands was setting up a makeshift table and chair out of crates beside it. He placed a thick ledger and stylus on the table. Some sort of record keeping?

Ten Na’Reish warriors, their boots thumping in a staccato rhythm, headed down the gangplank. They took up sentinel positions around the edge of the clearing. The nearest directed the first humans off the boat and to the left, toward the stockyards.

Arek pressed close to the farmer. “Ready?”

They stepped off the gangplank together. The man dropped to his knee on one side and hooked his hands under the planking. Casting a swift look over his shoulder, Arek did the same on the other. A deckhand had a foot on the top of the gangplank.

“Now!” he hissed.

Even with bound hands, they managed to haul the heavy wooden structure free of the boat. It clattered against the dock and collapsed into the water with a splash. The deckhand followed with an even larger spray of water. Defiant shouts filled the air behind them.

Arek pivoted, grinning when he saw four villagers leap upon the lone Na’Reish warrior nearest to them. Their combined weight took him down. He sprinted to help. Roars of rage came from around the clearing.

“Run!” someone cried. Men and women scattered in all directions.

Arek slid into the struggle with the downed Na’Reish warrior, ignoring the burn of gravel on his bare feet. The tangle of bodies heaved as the demon struggled to free himself. The half-dozen bodies piled on top of him negated the advantage his enhanced strength usually gave him. Sunlight caught on the silver-etched hilt of a dagger on the demon’s belt. Arek yanked the curved blade free of its scabbard and summoned his Gift. It surged inside him.

As the demon roared out his anger, Arek plunged the sharp tip deep into his side, and pushed his power through the blade toward the heart. The demon’s cry ended on a strangled gasp. He ceased struggling. Purple eyes stared sightlessly skyward.


Fierce satisfaction burned through Arek. Elation lit the faces of those around him. He sliced the rope binding the wrists of those closest, then his own.

“Into the forest!” he urged. “Go, now!”

Shouting behind them warned Arek the boat-master was organizing his crew. They had mere minutes before more Na’Reish joined them on the shore. The trees were closer than the river, and with nine enraged Na’Reish warriors bearing down on them, retreat seemed the sensible option. With cover, they could lose their pursuers and he stood a better chance of eliminating them.

And, by the Lady, kill the demons he would.

Or he’d die trying.

Copyright © 2009-2014 Kylie Griffin