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Starlight's Children (Agents of Kalanon Book 2), page 1

 

Starlight's Children (Agents of Kalanon Book 2)
 


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Starlight's Children (Agents of Kalanon Book 2)


  Starlight’s Children

  By Darian Smith

  ***

  All material contained herein is Copyright © Darian Smith 2017. All rights reserved.

  ISBN 978-0-473-40148-1

  ***

  For more works by this author, please visit:

  www.darian-smith.com

  ***

  Other Agents of Kalanon books include:

  Kalanon’s Rising

  Other titles by this author include:

  Currents of Change

  Shifting Worlds

  The Psychology Workbook for Writers

  TABLE OF CONTENTS

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-One

  Author’s Note

  About the Author

  Shifting Worlds

  Currents of Change

  PROLOGUE

  The walls were made of smooth blocks of polished dark glass—dark like the smoke from green wood and incense burning. The people here had smoked the glass the way his people smoked fish strips to infuse them with flavor and preserve them for later. The glass blocks were infused with darkness and evil intent. The House was built of blood and sand and buried beneath the oasis like a grave.

  Shool pulled his light cloak around him tighter, making sure to hide his face, despite the veil of cloth he wore beneath the hood. He could only hope it served its purpose. The style and fabric were local, but even a glimpse beneath it would reveal his true nature.

  “Are you sure this is the place?” He turned as the nomadic traders heaved their cargo of crates into place with a thud. Each crate was as long as a man and built of dark, polished wood and had been carried through the desert slung on hammocks between camels. The journey had not been pleasant.

  At least here they were insulated against the heat above ground. The coolness was strangely alien after so many days in the arid sands. The smell of the place was sterile—none of the earthy scents one would expect from an underground network of tunnels. Just glass, sand, the warm wood of the crates, the oil of the lamps, and the stink of unwashed camel riders.

  Selara, the leader of the nomads, flashed him a smile. Her skin was deeply bronzed and her eyes dark as the smoke in the glass. Her hair was cropped short and threaded with silver. “Getting nervous, Faceless One?” she mocked.

  He scowled, though she couldn't see it behind the fabric. “I told you not to call me that.” She'd found his disguise amusing from the start and made fun of it, drawing the analogy to the Nameless god, or Hooded One. Anyone who had no respect for her own gods could not be trusted.

  Selara shrugged. “Relax. Wait here with the supplies. Those you seek will find you soon enough.” She clicked her fingers and the rest of the nomads filed back out of the glass-walled room the way they'd come.

  “Wait!” He heard the panic in his own voice. “I'll need you to guide me back to Baloos after the meeting.”

  A small fishing town, Baloos was little more than a port on the way to somewhere else. What few buildings it contained were strung with nets and buoys and smelled of fish guts and brine. It was a barnacle on the ass of the desert, but it was his only way home.

  Selara spread her hands wide as she backed away down the corridor toward the surface. “If your meeting goes well, you'll be supplied with a guide to take you back. If it does not . . . you won't need one.”

  Shool swallowed his response and turned away from her as she left, determined not to make a fool of himself. The mission had been difficult, but things of value took effort. This deal would give him the power to keep his people safe. It'd taken him three weeks to figure out which traders to approach. Three weeks of speaking the locals' filthy language, wearing their filthy clothes and pretending to be one of them, watching every moment for the signs that would lead him to this place.

  Despite the odds, he had made it through the burning sands. He could not have done so if he'd been unworthy. No matter what happened next, he would succeed.

  His upper lip curled, brushing against the fabric that hid his face. Unworthy indeed. His skin crawled at the thought of that cool, smoked glass tarnishing his purpose, but he straightened his spine. His resolve was strong. His people were at risk. They must be like the mighty palm tree and bend beneath the pressure of destiny, but they must not break. He would not let them break.

  The soft sound of sand being brushed over the hidden trap-door entrance at the top of the stairs marred the silence of the room. The nomads were gone now and there was nothing to do but wait. He hoped he would be acknowledged before the oil in the lamps ran out.

  The door at the other end of the room was polished metal, almost as shiny a surface as the glass walls. At last, after what seemed an eternity, it opened.

  A young man entered, carrying a tray with a glass of chilled juice. His cropped hair was golden, his clothes dark brown and of a simple cut. His bare feet made no sound on the glass floor. He nodded silently and offered the glass.

  Shool reached out a gloved hand and took the glass, but did not sip from it. One did not partake lightly of the food and drink here. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “When will your master speak with me?”

  The corner of the young man's mouth twitched into a half smile. “What makes you think I'm not the master?” His voice was soft and high.

  Shool leaned closer, peering through the veil. The boy had a strong face, but there was nothing in his bearing of leadership. His skin was soft and there was little muscle on him. “Do not play games.” Shool shook his head and looked away, setting the glass he had taken down on one of the crates as though it were a table. “I have important business to discuss.”

  “Then, by all means,” spoke another, deeper, voice. “Let us discuss it.”

  The new figure stepped from the shadows, appearing to have melted out of the glass block wall. His hair was gray and caught at the back of his neck in a thong. He wore a loose, flowing tunic and trousers the color of sand and he moved with an easy grace. A thick-linked silver chain circled his throat, with a black opal in the center, colored stars whirling in its depth.

  The newcomer waved his hand and the golden haired boy vanished through the doorway, his eyes downcast.

  “Why have you sought us out?”

  For a moment, Shool hesitated. How much could he afford to reveal? At last he steadied his breath and pushed back his hood. T
here was no one here to report to those back home about what he was doing. The time for subterfuge had passed. “I wish to strike a deal. The tree of my people is weighed down by its own fruit. I need your help.”

  The gray haired man smiled. “How poetic. We don't see many of your kind here. Speak plainly.”

  Dread was like swallowed seawater in Shool's gut. “There have been . . . difficulties . . . of a particular nature. I wish to obtain your assistance.”

  “Less poetic, but no more plain.”

  Shool scowled. “You know what I mean.”

  The gray haired man leaned back, almost perching on the edge of a long wooden crate. “Yes,” he said. “I do. Do you?”

  “Of course I do or I wouldn't have come!”

  Gray-hair spread his hands, palms up. “Very well, I believe you.”

  “So you will help?”

  “Perhaps. It will be expensive.“

  Shool nodded. He'd been expecting this. “I have no money as such, but I have heard you will trade in other commodities.“

  An eyebrow raised. “Such as?”

  “Information.”

  “Go on.”

  Shool swallowed and tugged at the seam of his cloak. “I can tell you a secret about the great magus of Kalanon,” he said. “About how he is bound to the throne and how he stays alive. You could do great things with that knowledge.”

  The gray haired man shrugged and looked away as if bored. “We already know this. Our great things are underway.”

  Shool's fingers clenched on the hem.

  The black opal sparkled as the man tilted his head back again, the gesture layered with significance. “Surely you have other things you can offer?”

  “Th-there are limits to what I can offer. There are rules.”

  The gray haired man shrugged again. “I'm sure there are. Oh well. It seems our discussion is over.” He clapped his hands three times and several young men filed into the room. They all wore the same nondescript brown clothing and moved silently on bare feet. “Once we have put away our supplies, someone will show you to the surface.”

  “No, wait!” Shool tugged the hood and veil back into place as the newcomers began lifting the crates and carrying them back through the polished metal doorway. His need for discretion warred with the urgency of his task. “I need your help.”

  “I'm sure you do.” The gray haired man watched as the crates were carried swiftly away, into the depths of the underground complex. “However, you have brought nothing to trade and I give nothing away for free.”

  “But this is important!” Even beneath the cloak and the desert warmth, Shool felt a chill grasp him. He couldn't fail after such a journey. He must not. “This is not your standard employment. It is a holy task—a sacred duty!”

  Gray-hair chuckled, deep and gravelly. “Not my duty. I doubt we serve the same gods anyway.” He took an end of one of the crates himself, lifting his share of the weight with very little effort and began moving toward the door.

  “No! I will not let you abandon me!” Shool grabbed the man's arm and pulled him back.

  The gray-haired man’s fingers slipped and the crate tilted and fell. The crack of it hitting the floor was loud and sharp, like the snap of bone, as the lid split open. He turned on Shool, eyes hard as glass. “Your death will be the stuff of nightmares.”

  Shool let go and took a step back. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean . . . I just . . .”

  “Father, look.” One of the younger men pointed to the fallen crate.

  Sawdust, herbs, and salt had spilled out through the cracked lid, exposing something more ominous beneath—a pale, bloodless hand.

  The room went still as all eyes focused on the hand. Its skin was dry and crusted with salt. The edges had started to blacken around the fingernails.

  Shool swallowed. “Was . . . that what you ordered?”

  The gray haired leader ignored him and bent down to tip the crate on its side. The remaining pieces of the broken lid fell apart and the full desiccated corpse tumbled onto the floor.

  He turned to look at Shool. “It appears you have something to offer us, after all.”

  CHAPTER ONE

  Brannon watched as the horde advanced. Younger than him by far, they were eager, energetic, and unstoppable. They filled the spaces of the room like sharp-edged grains of sand pouring into an hourglass. He scratched at the scar that ran along his cheek from his ear. There was no stopping it now.

  The room was a semicircle of stone blocks in the east wing of the hospital. Brannon's back was to the wall opposite the entrance, his mentor at his side. A corpse lay under a sheet on the table in front of them—a single brick of flesh that was the only barrier to hold back the crowd. He could hear them whispering to each other, an avalanche of sound. He'd never faced a group like this before. Not even in the war. Not without a weapon.

  Master Jordell handed him a scalpel from the tray next to the table. “You look nervous.” The old man had a hint of an upturn to the corner of his lips.

  Brannon scowled. “And you look far too pleased with yourself.”

  “They're only students,” the old man said. “Hardly the Nilarian army back to cause havoc. And since you refuse to take on another apprentice, this is the best way I can think of for you to carry out your responsibilities to the physician college.”

  “I think I'd rather face the Nilarian army,” Brannon muttered. He lay the scalpel down beside the body he was about to autopsy for the class. “And you know what happened with the last apprentice you gave me.”

  Master Jordell snorted. “That was nothing to do with either of us and you know it.” He shook his head sadly. “She was a clever one. Such a waste.”

  “Yeah.” Brannon took a deep breath. The shock of what had happened still felt fresh, despite the intervening weeks. Thinking about it meant thinking about what would happen next and Brannon would do anything to avoid the reality of that chore.

  He watched as the students settled into their seats Very few of them would actually go on to conduct autopsies in their professional lives as physicians, yet this class had attracted record numbers. He could guess why. The name “Bloodhawk” echoed in excited voices throughout the room. It was a wartime remnant—a title he would never live down no matter how many lives he saved as a physician. Some scars never faded.

  Brannon felt a touch on his arm.

  “You're thinking about the execution again?” Master Jordell's voice was soft, almost impossible to hear over the sound of the students.

  “It's not an execution. It's trial by combat. Roydan's a nobleman and he has the right to choose that.”

  “Yes, but trial by combat against you. And you can't afford to let him live through it. Kalanon can't afford for him to live through it. No matter your personal feelings.”

  Brannon stared at the still figure beneath the sheet in front of them. “It's against the King's Champion.”

  “The King's Champion is you.”

  He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Most of the time. Yeah.”

  Master Jordell squeezed his arm. “Do you remember the medical tents during the war? I know you were a fighter then, not a healer, but you must have had occasion to visit from time to time.”

  Brannon felt his fingers stray to the scar on his face. “Yeah, I did.” He'd seen more good men and women in those tents than he cared to think about.

  “There were two basic types of problems we dealt with in those tents,” Jordell continued. “The first were the immediate injuries. The cuts, stabs, arrow holes—the things that would bleed a soldier to death quickly. The other was the slower kind. The wound that became infected. For them, it was a battle to turn it around with medicines and poultices but if the infection was severe, we had to cut it out to stop the spread.”

  Brannon nodded. “I remember.” More than one veteran had left those tents with part of an arm or leg removed. “That's a little different to the trial.”

  Master Jordell shrugged, his bon
y shoulders sharp. “Perhaps. Or perhaps Duke Roydan made himself an infection. As the King's Champion, you are Kalanon's physician—cutting out the bad flesh for the safety of the country as a whole.”

  Brannon frowned. “Do you believe that?”

  The old man raised a finger. “What I believe is not important. It's what you believe that matters.”

  Brannon forced a smile. “I believe we have a class to teach.” He glanced up at the students, who were settling down at last. A black-robed figure was moving between them, making its way toward the front of the class. “Gawrick? Blood and Tears, what's he doing here?”

  The magistrate made his way through the crowded students. They parted around him like flesh to a surgeon's blade. Or a warrior's. He was a middle-aged man, with brown hair parted in the middle and a manner that aged him more than his years. Brannon had encountered him before.

  “Sir Brannon.” Magistrate Gawrick's voice was sweet with smiles and false courtesy. “I'm here to relieve you of your duties in this investigation. I'm sure you have many better things to do than to delve into such a pedestrian affair as a street mugging gone wrong.”

  Brannon raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

  The gathered students fell silent. Their eyes gleamed with interest.

  Gawrick nodded. “Our people have the investigation in hand. Your investigative team is not needed here.”

  Brannon glanced at Master Jordell, whose expression was carefully neutral. The old man said nothing. Brannon gestured to the autopsy table. “I wasn't aware this was a crime under investigation. Are you saying you've solved it already?”

  The magistrate pursed his lips and two little lines appeared on his brow. “More or less. We have yet to find the perpetrator, but we have a witness who saw what happened.”

  “Then, by all means, bring him in. It would be helpful to know what he saw.”

  Magistrate Gawrick folded his arms. “Be that as it may, this is not a case within your jurisdiction. The magistrates have it in hand. There is no need for the Master of Investigations to get involved.” He spoke the new title as though he disliked the taste.

 
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