Prologue

‘It is time.’

Mock and his Paleskin woman looked up at him. The rest of the shamri gathered behind him, prepared to step in if they had to. Not that Thall needed their help, but a show of strength would only help move things along without the need for threats and violence.

Whether Mock liked it or not, this had to be done.

Thall dropped his eyes to the bundle squirming in its Paleskin mother’s arms. He could feel the power radiating around it like a hum in the air. Even at two days old, it was more powerful than Thall could ever hope to be.

Mock slowly stood, hands at his hips where his belt of knives would usually be. His face was hard, his eyes dark. His shoulder muscles were bunched around his neck. A forbidding man. He would make a great clan leader one day.

‘Have no fear, she will suffer no harm,’ Thall said.

‘You sure it will work?’ The Paleskin woman said.

‘As long as the wark still stands, your daughter will know nothing of her power.’

Mock’s eyes glinted into his. ‘Let it be known that I do not trust you, old man.’ His eyes swept over the rest of them. ‘Or any of you.’

‘Be that as it may, this has to be done. You saw her darkness.’ He glanced at Mock’s Paleskin lover. Her bright eyes met his. ‘The both of you did. Just as we shamri sense it now.’

Like a dark hole that was only growing bigger.

The rest of the shamri shifted anxiously behind him. The char, the ash, the sucking tar. They had all seen it. In their dreams and in their nightmares. If she wasn’t contained, she would be the end of the Quarthi, maybe the end of the entire land.

He had never been more certain. The Mother didn’t lie.

Thall held out his hands.

Mock and the woman looked at each other. Then she stood. ‘Zin, her name is Zin.’ Tears glinted on her cheeks.

‘Zin.’ Thall nodded, though it didn’t matter what her name was. The Mother cared nothing for names or individual identities.

With the baby resting in his arms, he turned and walked away. The rest of the shamri followed. He could hear the Paleskin woman crying.

The wark he had chosen to bind her powers to wasn’t far away. By the time they reached it, the red glow of the setting sun had bent beneath the weight of darkness.

It reared high above. An ancient ren with twisting tentacular roots that coiled through the earth. More draped from its branches, creaking in the gentle breeze. Its bark was blood-red. Fitting, for what it symbolised. To those who didn’t possess the power of the shamri, it looked like any ordinary tree. Thall knew better. It was so much more. Something magical, powerful. A direct link to the Mother’s beating heart. Like a limb or a vein.

The child stilled in his arms, as though it sensed its power too.

The shamri gathered beneath the wark’s shadow, lit a fire and drew the power of the chokra into their lungs. Its white haze filled the woods in a mist. The baby gave a little cough. The shamri worked their magic, stirring up the life of the forest, of the wark, through dance and song. The flames flickered against their bare skin. Their long hair spun through the air. Their voices rose into the highest branches. Three of the shamri had hair as white as his and yet they leapt and whirled like they were young again.

He could feel it now—that vibration. That deep thudding. It pounded through his boots, up through his legs, his hips. The beating of the Mother’s heart. The baby began to cry. The flames flickered, then roared high into the wark’s branches: yellow, green, purple. It turned the shamris’ eyes black.

The baby wailed. Thall’s skin tingled as her power washed over him. She wanted him to stop. Lots of power she might have, but she didn’t possess a mind that could control it.

Not yet.

And she would never get the chance.

Shamri Flip handed him the knife. Holding the child in one arm, Thall made a shallow cut just above his elbow. He felt a sting. Blood trickled down his wrist. The baby screamed. The thudding filled his heart, his mind, until it pounded behind his eyes, and there—it suddenly appeared before him: the world of ash and char.

The Darkness. The morgrar.

The shamri had disappeared, as had the wark and the great forest. His boots were steeped in sludge and he was surrounded by an endless nothing. No trees, mountains, water. Not even rocks. The baby continued to wail and it seemed to echo impossibly around him. Two moons sat in the sky, one yellow, the second a sickly green. And the stink! The place was rancid. The air seemed to sit heavily in his lungs. His skin beaded with sweat.

The air shimmered around him, then rippled, as something solid began to take form, like a fish rising to the surface in a flowing river. He stepped back, hand at the knife at his belt. A figure stood before him. Naked and motionless. A woman with dark hair and eyes so black they were like holes in her head. He could feel the hate rolling off her. Thall glanced down at the baby. Zin had stopped screaming, her little fists clenched tight as she glared up at him with those same black, hate-filled eyes.

At a second ripple, Thall tightened his grip on his blade. It was a man—of sorts. He stood behind the woman, one hand on her hip, the other wrapped possessively around her waist. If Thall thought the woman was disturbing, she was nothing compared with him.

He shivered.

Zin wailed again. There was a lurch, a surge of nausea and suddenly he was back in the forest, staggering on his feet. Woozy, dizzy. His blood had trickled into the baby’s hair and down over her face. The tingling power fizzled. The fire shrank to its usual size.

Then the singing ceased. The shamri watched him, panting, waiting, their skin gleaming with sweat. Were they successful? He closed his eyes and took a breath, preparing himself for the worst. But his mind was clear. The world of ash and char—the Darkness—was gone.

He opened his eyes. ‘It is done.’

The shamri seemed to sag. Two collapsed on the ground, the rest sat heavily or drank deeply from their waterskins.

Thall looked down at the child. No more black eyes. No more hate. Wailing at the top of her lungs like any ordinary baby.

Normal.

Perfectly normal.

And yet his heart wouldn’t stop pounding.

 

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