Excerpt for The Darkslayer Omnibus (Series 1, Boxed Set, Books 1 thru 6) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

THE DARKSLAYER OMNIBUS

Series 1

Books 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6



By Craig Halloran


Copyright © 2016 by Craig Halloran #TXU 1-611-058

Distributed by Smashwords

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recorded, photocopied, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

TWO-TEN BOOK PRESS

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ISBN Ebook: 978-1-941-208-00-7

ISBN Paperback: 978-1-941-208-01-4

ISBN Hardback: 978-1-941-208-02-1

THE DARKSLAYER is a registered trademark, #77670850

www.thedarkslayer.com

Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


CONTENTS

Book 1 - Wrath of the Royals

Bonus Story - Origin of Venir the Darkslayer

Book 2 - Blades in the Night

Book 3 - Underling Revenge

Book 4 - Danger and the Druid

Book 5 - Outrage in the Outlands

Book 6 - Chaos at the Castle

From the Author

About the Author




WRATH OF THE ROYALS

THE DARKSLAYER

Series 1, Book 1


CHAPTER 1

Two scarlet moons cast shadows on the city structures, adding a strange hue to the colorful flowers and curtains in the apartment windows above. It was one of those rare, almost pleasant, nights.. The alleys seemed less putrid and the puddles of urine far fewer than usual. Tonight, the screams of pleasure and laughter outweighed the cries of terror that filled every night in the City of Bone. It was a hot and dry evening, and many strolled along the sidewalks as the brilliant banners of the Royal housing districts billowed.

A brawny warrior strutted through the streets with a broad grin on his face. Brushing back the locks of his blond hair, revealing his hard blue eyes, he belted out an alarming tune, startling the passersby. His name was Venir, a hunter of the Outlands returned to the city to unwind. The foul city had raised him, albeit in a callous manner, and its harsh elements were little more than entertainment to him.

At his side, a slender man called Melegal matched him stride for stride, not making a sound. The two had been together a long time in the city they recognized as home. The skinny man jostled by a basking couple, tipped his cap, and hurried alongside the bigger man, eyeing a small brooch of gold in his palm.

“Heh heh,” the rogue laughed, pinning the jewelry to his vest. Venir looked up at the pair, who had stepped beneath a sign. A foul beast was colored on the placard that read: The Chimera.

“What do you think?” Venir asked, nodding to Melegal.

“Not the kind of place for our ilk. Remember the last time we dawdled with those Royals?”

Venir slapped the man on the back and smiled, “Ah, as you always say, ‘The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Come on. I’m sure the ale’s just fine.”

Melegal scowled. “Royals don’t like being cheated.”

“Does anybody?” Venir lead them inside and took a seat at a table.

The Chimera was more than just another tavern of the middle districts. It was well-known for the low-key discretion of the young Royals that tended to do whatever they wanted.

“Do as they say or die in the dungeons,” the poor storekeepers would say. “Do as they say or disappear,” the commoners would warn. When the Royals were around, one could never be too careful.

Blending in the best they could, Venir ordered the first round of drinks. “To the skim,” he said, hoisting his tankard.

Melegal nodded and said, “Certainly, but don’t overdo it tonight. You know how vengeful the Royals can be.”

His eyes met with Melegal’s, whose chin dipped a tad as he savored a goblet of wine. “I’ll try.”

The atmosphere was accommodating as Venir gambled with nubile girls in scant clothing of the finest cloth. He told tales of his exploits while rolling the rocks.

“It’s true! It’s true!” Melegal said, confirming every outlandish tale.

The minutes turned into an hour, and one hour to two as tale after tale came from Venir’s mouth. As Venir finished one swig of grog and ordered another, a tall young man clonked his tankard on their table and silence fell over the tavern. Venir’s eyes flitted towards Melegal’s. He could read the thieves lips.

Here we go.”

The young warrior bore the mark of a higher Royal house, wore clothes of the finest craft, and had the chin of a nobleman. A sword of high quality gleamed on his hip.

“My, what have we here? A warrior from the City of Three?”

“Your big ears have served you well,” Venir said, forcing a smile. “Are you here to welcome me? In Three, we have the courtesy to offer a bottle of wine or a pitcher of ale.”

“The only thing big in this tavern is your mouth, and it would do you well to close it.”

Melegal eyed Venir and gave a slight shake of his head.

Something about the young man irritated Venir, and he could not let it go. “A challenge, perhaps?”

“Hah!” The Royal dropped his fists onto his hips, head craning around. “I’ll tell you what, warrior, for the honor of the City of Bone, I accept your challenge!”

Cheers erupted from the cajolers mouths, jostling the entire tavern.

Melegal gave Venir a disappointed side nod.

The gathering crowd dragged tables and chairs from the center floor and surrounded the two challengers.

Melegal scooted along Venir's side and said, “You are an idiot. This is not the skim I envisioned, but a contest between a young and old bull.”

“I’m not an old bull.” Venir took a drink as he rose to his feet.

“Just make it quick,” Melegal muttered.

The crowd roared as Venir squared off against the leering Royal. The clinks of coins shuffled among their hands. The bar maids were pushed and pulled, back and forth, as the crowd demanded their thirsty gullets filled.

Venir’s voice rose above the mutterings of the room. “So what will it be, boy?”

The challenger stared hard in his eyes, replying in a demanding tone. “I challenge you to the Quick Fence!”

“I accept!”

The Quick Fence was one of many common tavern challenges of skill and bravado. They were a long-standing tradition in the City of Bone and beyond.

A heavy-set man in a bartender’s apron, smoking a cigar, with tattooed forearms and a pitted face, strode between the two men. He carried a chest-high, heavy, wrought-iron candle stand and set it between them on the planks.

A tiny woman with silver hair squeezed through the crowd and stuck a long, thick white candle on the stand's spike, then disappeared. The barkeep took the big cigar hanging from his mouth and ignited the wick. He placed the cigar back in his mouth and wiped his meaty hands on the sides of his apron.

Venir placed himself a sword’s length from the candle.

The barkeep raised his arms, bringing a hush into the room as he flipped up his hands. He blew a thick ring of yellow smoke into the air. “Best of three!”

Venir squared off on the man before him. He wanted to knock the scowl off the Royal's face. Something about the young man didn’t sit well with him. “What’s your name, boy?”

The young warrior’s cheeks reddened. “Don’t call me boy, Three-born! You’ll never forget who I am when this is over! Not after I carve my name, Tonio, into that ruddy hide of yours.”

Venir rubbed his calloused hands over the grip of his broadsword. The women whispered in excited voices, stating their preferences, either the rugged man from Three or the captivating Royal. Their colorful words brought a thin smile to his face.

“I hope you have plenty of coin, Three-Born. By the looks of you, I’d say you don’t.”

A handful a snickers spread across the room.

Venir retained his poise as things began to simmer in his gut. The face of the spoiled man before him reminded him of so many of his transgressors from before. He focused on the candle’s burning light.

“I’ll have plenty after this,” Venir said, fingering his pommel.

“We’ll see.” Tonio readied himself.

The barkeeper hushed the crowd and raised his arms high.

“Go!”

Venir yanked his sword from the scabbard, swinging hard, but the candle was already falling to the floor.

Tonio pumped his arms, raising his blade high in the air and spinning on his heel.

In unison, part of the crowd chanted, “Tonio! Tonio! Tonio!”

Venir handed his sword over to the barkeep, who eyed it, wiped the blade down, and returned it back to him. He slammed his weapon back in the sheath with a grunt.

Melegal was almost smiling as he pressed the betting odds with the excited crowd. The skim was on.

The barkeep wiped the waxy residue off Tonio’s blade and handed it back.

“One for the Royal—Tonio!”

It drew another raucous cheer from the crowd.

Tonio pounded his chest and sucked in several quick breaths as he waited for the next signal.

Venir eyed the Royal as the candle was replaced.

He’s good.

He rubbed his hilt again and closed his stance in a bit farther.

The crowd quieted as the barkeep raised his hand.

Quick. Quick. Quick.

“Go!”

Blades licked out faster than the ale-glazed eyes could gather.

The top of the burning candlestick fell to the floor. The crowd looked at the barkeeper, muttering about who had won. Many voices spoke up for the Royal.

“Tonio!”

“He won!”

“I saw it!”

“Me, too!”

Even Venir wasn’t certain.

“Hold! Hold!” the barkeep shouted at the top of his lungs, forcing back the eager crowd. “I must check the blades!”

The barkeep first inspected Tonio’s sword with a keen, smoke-reddened eye, wiped it down, and returned it to the somber-faced young warrior.

Venir watched as the barkeep’s fingernail revealed the residue of white candle wax at the tip of his blade. Yes!

“The warrior from the City of Three is the victor!” declared the barkeep.

More shouts of encouragement came to the aid of Tonio.

“You can do it, Tonio!”

And the insults flew at Venir.

“Son of a trollop!”

“Inbred cattle molester!

While the barkeep replaced the candle, Melegal placed more bets and glared at Venir. The rogue's hands and lips worked the gamblers like a master magician. Slender fingers flashed up and down, beckoning for more coins. He could see that icy glimmer in Melegal’s eyes saying to him, Don’t foul this up.

He prepared for the final round. Focus, Venir. Focus.

Tonio spit at his feet.

“Luck! I haven’t been beaten in two years, and I’m not about to end my streak to some cretin like you. I’m the best, and you won’t ever beat me again.”

Venir glowered back. Something about the Royal went under his skin, into the bone. Win or not, he wanted to chop the young man’s head off. One slice. “For Bone!” the Royal shouted to his mouthy cadre decorated in pompous clothes.

“Bone—Bone—Bone …” they chanted.

Venir eyed the flame. Tonio gripped his blade as the sweat began to bead on the man’s creaseless forehead. Smoke and sweat smothered the tavern air. The barkeep stepped back and raised his arms high as the chants subsided.

“GO!”

Shing!

The thick white candle-top hit the floor, still burning.

Tonio looked at the candle with his jaw on the floor. The crowd gasped, many rubbing their eyes. The Royal’s sword was half drawn from its sheath.

Venir stood there with his thick arms crossed over his broad chest, smirking as Tonio’s eyes met his.

“Looks like you lost your streak—boy!” He wanted to laugh, but held it back.

“Keep practicing! You can only get better!”

Tonio shook with rage as his brethren dragged him away, kicking and screaming.

“Cheater!”

Venir paid him no mind as he headed back to his table.

Melegal was collecting money from several scowling faces as the wary barkeep gave him an odd look, gathered the candle stand, and sauntered away. A minute later, the crowd went back to their drinking and swindling, while Tonio and his ilk slunk farther away.

Venir sat down, grinning from ear to ear.

“Pretty fast, huh Melegal,” he said with a wink.

“Did you have to draw that fast?”

“I couldn’t take any chances. Besides, he’s good. But … he’s a cocky one, even for a Royal. He needed a lesson. Who knows, maybe it’ll do him some good.” He gulped from his mug and wiped the froth on his sleeve.

Melegal shook his head.

“I doubt it. Not those Royal types; they’re all rotten to the core!”

It was true. The Royals were a vindictive bunch. But so was he.

“Yes, so why pass up an opportunity like that? Nothing like a little pleasure at their expense for a change. They’ve had plenty at ours.”

The thief’s face only darkened.

“Uh … anyway, how’d we do?” Venir said.

“Better than usual. These guys have deeper pockets than the crowds we’re used to skimming. Let’s get a couple of drinks and then get out of here. I’m leery of these Royals and the City Watch.”

• • •

The tavern was full of drunkenness, raunchy jokes, and coarse laughter. Arguments, broken pottery, and the occasional whiff of vomit wafted in the air. Melegal watched the beefy bouncers escort debilitated men outside by the scruffs of their necks, adding a solid kick in the pants that sent them reeling into the dirt. Only the Royals were exempt from such treatment.

Still, Melegal worried. As Venir relished the company of the comely women, he became loud and rowdy. Venir bought escorted women drinks, recited piss-poor poetry, offered flirtatious words, and even bought a drink for a thirsty-looking dog. Most didn’t mind his bold behavior, but others began to grumble. He’s going to find a knife in his throat. Still, free drinks made many friends—as long as the gold lasted.

Venir had the remaining dwellers' attention as Melegal slunk farther from the table and fingered his recently acquired coins. The muscles in his back became taut as he noticed the younger Royals had further isolated themselves from the crowd. Their heads were down and they stared Venir’s way. There was venom in their whispers. The Royals of Bone never took losing well, even worse to an outsider. He motioned Venir’s way, Time to go.

As a beauty twirled her finger in Venir’s ear, the big man frowned and shook his head.

He’ll never learn. So be it; I’m going. As Melegal got up, two voluptuous ladies in short silk dresses pressed their full bodies into his face. Their wily whispers in his ears raised goose bumps on his arms. One moment Melegal's skinny legs couldn’t find the exit fast enough, the next his instincts beckoned for him to stay. He eased back in his chair. Why can’t all of Bone’s women smell and look so amazing? Overwhelmed by the women’s arousing splendor, he soaked it in. The Royals were the furthest thing from his mind when those thoughts were interrupted as the women suddenly slid away.


CHAPTER 2

“Bish! Where are you women going?” Venir said it as if he’d been woken from a dream.

All of the women scurried away from his table as Tonio and his brethren arrived. Venir eyed them. “What now, ladies?”

One Royal with shifty eyes and a goatee spoke up. “Tonio, challenge him to a real man’s game! The Strength Test!”

Word of a new challenge energized the deadened crowd. Unintelligible shouts of encouragement rang out from all corners, shaking the crystals that dangled from the chandeliers.

“What do you say?” Tonio demanded of Venir. “Care to put your coin on a true challenge, Three-born?”

Venir looked at Melegal, who shook his head, his slender smile turned upside down. Venir felt good, loose, up for anything—and his pride wouldn’t let him back down from a man like Tonio. He swung his arm over the back of his chair and teetered back on two legs.

“I don’t know, boy,” he slurred, “I’d be afraid I might end another one of your streaks!”

“Ooh!” The growing throng laughed along.

Tonio pulled off his shirt and tossed it to the ground. Underneath he wore a sleeveless leather jerkin that revealed his long, muscular arms. “Let’s see what you say after you eat the floor, mongrel!”

Venir staggered up, pointing and winking at one of Tonio’s friends. “Let’s go then, you double-cur-eating son of a mid-wife!” he said with a smile.

But no one laughed. Instead, the charged up crowd began exchanging coins.

Melegal struggled to keep up with the bets, salivating as his gray eyes gleamed with silver.

The roars rose to a deafening crescendo as Venir and Tonio squared off. The Royal was a towering athlete, with broad shoulders and powerful arms. The younger man’s chestnut eyes glared into Venir’s.

Renewed agitation stirred inside Venir. How many Royal faces like this one had tormented him? His humorous side was replaced by something else. His inner anger stirred.

Tonio was almost spitting as he thumped his chest.

“I’m taking you down, Three-Born! No one’s ever beaten me at this!”

The barkeep stepped between the two large bodies and spoke loudly.

“No kicking, biting, head butting, or tripping! Your hands must be locked on the other’s upper arms at all times. Whoever forces his opponent on his back first, wins!”

The onlookers sized up the pair of giants, and many coins shuffled in Tonio’s favor. Venir removed his heavy hooded smock with white wolf-fur shoulders, typical of a man from the City of Three. Underneath, he wore a leather tunic that exposed his iron-thewed arms.

“Great Bish!” someone said.

The bets began to shift again. Tonio’s friends looked at one another.

“Take up your positions!”

Tonio's eyes widened when he clamped his large hands onto Venir's biceps. Tonio’s nails dug into his scarred arms. A look of uncertainty filled Tonio’s face. He locked onto Tonio’s smooth and sinewy arms, gripping right below the biceps, and held them tight. He could hear metal coins shuffling as Melegal continued taking more bets. His blue eyes blazed into the man.

“Are you ready?” the barkeep shouted.

He nodded as Tonio stared at him in anticipation.

“Last chance to save your gold, boy.”

“Never!”

“We’ll see, then!”

“GO!” the barkeep shouted.

Venir pulled his arms in a terrific upward tug, drawing Tonio in close. He was shoved back, boots digging for footing on the planks below. The young man was every bit as strong as he appeared.

“Blast!” Venir murmured as he fought for his balance.

The crowd whooped and hollered at the thrilling sight of the two men going head to head.

Venir twisted and jerked, back and forth, like a stubborn child. Tonio moved with speed, balance, and power. He was proving to be a difficult match. Venir’s mind became slow and groggy, but he held on.

He’s good. Bone!

He shuffled back and forth as the two danced like bears, knocking over tables and chairs. The crowd filled his ears like thundering horses. Venir was in a lull, his body trying to awaken as he battled to shove the aggressive man back. One slip and he would be on his back.

Venir slammed into the bar.

The crowd let out a triumphant roar.

The young warrior’s comrades, full of fire and liquor, chanted obscenities at his back. The Royal of Bone was good, very good, and the crowd knew it.

Venir looked up just in time to see his opponent spit snot in his face. His blood bristled. Enough! The time for the charade was up. He took the offensive, his large hands squeezing hard, choking the blood flow in Tonio’s arms. Tonio gasped as Venir half-jerked the young warrior’s arms out of their sockets. Tonio bit his lip. Venir squeezed deeper.

The younger warrior tried to pull away.

“No!”

“Yes—boy!”

The Royal fought back with skill and natural athleticism. Hatred grew between the two as they tossed back and forth. Venir was awake now, the droll of ale and grog flushed out in battle. He strained against the Royal’s powerful limbs. The crowd was going wild.

The match was taking longer than he had anticipated. What started out as a simple skim for extra gold was now a full-fledged battle. He could feel the man’s labored breaths on his neck, while his own lungs began to burn. He short-stepped the man back and forth, but Tonio fought on, bumping his head under Venir’s chest and trying to wrench his arms from his shoulders.

“Had enough,” Venir snorted.

The Royal's forehead walloped him in the nose, watering his eyes. Blood trickled down Venir’s face, covering his chin and dripping to the floor. The sight of blood drove the men and women into such a frenzy that the head barkeep stood atop the bar waving a large oaken club.

Venir growled and snarled; half-man, half-bull, and all warrior. Enough was enough. With arms locked on Tonio like a vice, he drew the young man in close.

“Down you go!”

“Never!” Tonio cried out.

Venir crossed Tonio’s arms and pulled him in tight, turned his hip under the man, and lifted Tonio’s entire body over his own head. He slammed the Royal into the hard oaken floor with all his might.

CRACK!

The air exploded from Tonio’s mouth.

Silence filled the room.

Most of the crowd gawped at Venir, but some cheered. It was a contest that would be remembered. Venir wiped his hair from his face, sucking in breath as he looked down at his opponent.

Tonio was limp, yet breathing. As they lifted him from the floor, Venir noticed it was the planks on the floor that had cracked, not the warrior’s back.

Too bad.

Venir watched them go, holding a rag to his nose that a patron handed him. With a sigh her rubbed his head. Taking a seat, he watched Melegal retrieve their winnings from many hapless faces. The crumpled heap of his opponent disappeared with his companions out the back of the Chimera. For some reason, he wished he had killed the man.

Melegal sat down beside him, pointed at his nose and said, “Want me to fix that?”

“Huh? Oh, no, I wouldn’t want you to get dirty.” Venir pinched his hands over his nose, and, with a nasty crunch, shoved it back into place. Tears streaked down his cheeks. “Is it straight?”

“Straight enough … like it matters.”


CHAPTER 3

It was well into the morning as Melegal and Venir sat in the tavern, which had begun to clear out. A couple of ladies had made their way back to the table, and Venir was beginning to act like his old self.

Quick to act, but slow to learn, Melegal thought, patting the tiny purse of coins concealed along his thigh.

“By Bone, Venir,” Melegal said, “it almost looked like you weren’t in control of that whole bout. It could have cost me.”

“You mean, us, don’t you?”

Melegal shrugged. “You’ve already spent your share.”

Blue eyes glowered at him as Melegal motioned to the women in the nooks of Venir's arms.

Venir smiled, squeezing the ladies as he tossed his head back. “Ha! That Royal surprised me is all I can say. I have a broken nose to show for it. But don’t worry, I won’t be so careless next time.”

Now it was Melegal’s turn to laugh.

“You said that last time.”

“No I didn’t.”

“I’m certain you did. But memories often escape that thick skull of yours.”

“Don’t worry, warrior,” said one of the buxom honey-blonde women who hung on Venir’s bruised arms. “We’ll take care of you.”

“That’s a great idea.” Venir rose from the table. “Let’s get out of here.”

Melegal grabbed his woman by the hand and followed.

Into the empty streets they went as Venir belted out a rousing tune.

“Shush, fool, you’ve made enough noise down here tonight. I don’t want the City Watch all over us,” Melegal said, looking over his shoulders.

If Venir heard, he didn’t show it as on and on he went.

Somewhere hidden in the nearby shadows, eyes watched them go, following every staggered step. The Royal games had just begun.


CHAPTER 4

Days later, the heavy rains washed the stagnant filth back into the sewers of the city. People filled the streets with buckets and soap, storing fresh water and washing off weeks of the sandy grime that caked them. Rain was a rare blessing in the city centered in the Outlands, and baths were not a commodity of the impoverished.

Sheets of the warm drops drenched Venir. Dark, wet, and drunk, he sloshed through the flooding streets, a jug of wine nuzzled in the nook of his arm, singing a warrior's song. People shuffled away. He belched and bustled past them, saying, “Get out of the way!”

Venir was on his own, doing what he wanted—escaping the pursuits of the Outland world. He wanted to live another wild night. Women, song, drink, and dance—the best his remaining coins could buy. He smiled as rain dripped over the chiseled features of his face. There was more amusement to be found.

Hours earlier, Melegal had opted out of a return to the Chimera. The rogue tried to talk Venir out of it, but his mind was set. He would go back and win the crowd once more with his tales of glory.

"Have at it," the thief had said as he stormed away.

Pah! Venir didn’t need a babysitter if he was only going among the city bred children.

He whistled a tune he had heard somewhere earlier in the dreary day. He hoped to bump into some of the people he’d impressed a few nights earlier. Venir no longer wore the special hooded smock from the City of Three. The significance of that never entered his inebriated mind.

Now, he looked like nothing more than an oversized commoner in the garb of a layman. His mind was on more of that premium dark grog, and maybe a bottle for the road. His dry mouth began to water despite the soaking rain. Maybe someone would want to buy him a bottle, he thought, laughing out loud. He wouldn’t stay too long. He would bump elbows and soon be out of there, without any trouble. It’s the least I can do.

Dripping wet and wearing a tattered brown cloak and muddied boots, he stomped inside, oblivious to the glares. He couldn’t have been more out of place if he had a dead cat strapped to his head. It was early, the tavern was quiet, and only a handful of commendable types and others filled the room. Frowning faces looked up from their food, then down again, muttering amongst themselves. He went up to the bar, sat down on a stool, and barked out a greeting.

“A fine evening! A bottle of grog, if you will.” He dropped his coins on the bar.

The same pock-marked barkeep from nights earlier nodded, pouring the grog in a polished rock-cut tumbler that he placed on the bar. Venir took it in his hand, sipped it, nodded at the cigar-smoking barkeep, and drained it.

“Ah!” he said, clonking the empty tumbler back on the surface. Behind him, another patron scurried into the back, looking back and forth. The barkeep nodded as the patron slipped away. Venir paid the gesture little mind, only watching the man’s meaty forearms pour more dark amber fluid into his cup.

“Thanks,” he muttered, tossing the man another coin.

“No problem,” the barkeep replied, sweat beading his brow.

Venir stared at the man’s smoky eyes and sniffed the intoxicating liquor, pausing before he drained it. He licked his teeth and smacked his lips. Something didn’t seem quite right, but the grog tasted fine.

“That was good,” he said, grinning. “How about another? Make it two!”

It wasn’t long before he was feeling at home. More rain-soaked patrons sauntered in, leaving burning looks on his broad back as he welcomed them. Satisfied, Venir sat at the bar, hunched like a yeti. He caught a fine red head eyeing him. Smiling, she came over as he gestured for her. She was voluptuous, smelling like a dozen different flowers, with the mouth of an ornery troubadour. He captivated her with his story from a few nights before. Her painted eyes were inviting as she twirled a lock of his hair and straddled one long leg over his.

She whispered in his ear, jostling his manhood.

“I wish I could have been there to see it.”

They shared a few more rounds, and the barkeep offered him another drink. She tried to pull his arm away.

“Perhaps you should slow down. I want your company all night. Another round might put you down.”

Venir laughed.

“There’s no chance of that,” he said, ogling her.

He turned to the other patrons and toasted her, roaring his drunken thanks and describing her comely body in a booming voice that all could hear. Then he shot back the grog and slammed the tumbler down. There was a low, wicked chuckle from somewhere in the room.

The grog had tasted different this time—more bitter and intoxicating. The face of the captivating woman before him began to twist and contort.

“What is happening?” His arms stretched out towards the woman’s contorted face.

Venir’s body shivered and the floor wobbled. He heard her voice, but couldn’t understand her words. Distorted laughter came from her perfect red lips. His brows buckled as he growled, clutching at the bar, hanging on for his life. Then the floor smashed him full in the face. He didn’t feel a thing.


CHAPTER 5

He awoke disoriented, chained, and hanging by his arms in the middle of a small, smelly cell. An angry grunt aggravated the throbbing in his head. His hands were numb, and they bled within the tight shackles on his thick wrists. His sudden snort jostled an unkempt, heavyset guard who was leaning against the wall, asleep in his chair. The young guard rubbed his eyes and tilted all four legs back to the stony floor, then scratched his unshaven chin and looked through the bars at him.

“Finally got yer hide, didn’t they, thug?” The jailer spit tobacco through the cell bars, but it fell short of Venir’s swelling feet.

Venir uttered a faint laugh, drawing a perturbed look from the man’s pimply face. The guard unlocked the cell, swung back its barred door, strode up to him, and spat thick, dark tobacco juice full in his face.

“What d’ya think of that?”

“I think,” he replied in a threatening voice, “you’ll be the first to die.”

The guard slammed his fat fist straight into his stomach. “Ow! Blast it!” The guard winced, shaking his wrist and gave him an uncertain look, then stepped out of the cell, locking it shut. Holding his wrist, the man skittered out of sight, and a heavy door opened and closed in the distance.

Venir checked out his dreary surroundings. Bone! Dungeon floors were like a second home to him. They were all the same, no matter where you were—foul, and slick with centuries old muck and grime. It was not something he ever got used to, but he had been in worse. The chubby city guard was the same as the rest, fresh meat, trained to punish or kill.

As black spittle ran down his chin onto his chest, he tugged at his chains. They were rusted, and made for a lesser man. The cell door looked like its better days passed decades ago. A solid kick would take it from the hinges. He had barreled through thicker steel when he had to.

Why was he here? He traced the last steps he recalled. The Chimera. A cherry headed woman with an unrivaled plunging neckline and soft milky thighs was there. A faint smile crossed his cracked lips. The grog—syrupy, biting, and divine—had turned his belly sour. Drugged? Poisoned? He wanted to figure it out. He thought of wrenching the chains from the walls and walking out, but he was drained and sluggish. His eyes ached when they opened. It wasn’t in him.

Patience was the better plan, but one could never trust the City Watch, controlled by the Royal brethren. They would slit a woman’s throat with little more than a word; he had seen it before. If someone had drugged him, he wanted to know who and why. He was perturbed and embarrassed to have been duped at the tavern. To make matters worse, his nose was aching, and the rest of his body throbbed under his skin. But it could have been worse. Nothing felt broken, not even a rib. He was lucky all he had was a headache and not a cracked skull. He had tasted steel-toed boots before. But who would have gone to all this trouble over him? It must have been the Royals; he had crossed their turf once too often. I hate it when Melegal’s right.

He drifted into sleep only to awaken to biting pain and discomfort as he shifted in his shackles. The next few hours were agonizing. He dozed off and was heavy in dreams when the sound of footsteps disturbed his sleep. His mind seemed to trudge through the mud, eyes cracking open to see what was about to befall him.

Four figures strode into full view at the cell door: the chubby guard who had spat on him, a rugged-faced man marked as a warden, a tall, familiar brown-haired man, and an older, elegant and powerful-looking man. Royals. His blood began to stir.

The pair of Royal men both towered over the guards and looked to be father and son. He knew one of them well enough, and his nose ached at the sight. Their rich clothing bore the insignias of upper-class Royals, and their appearance in the dungeon seemed misplaced. He shifted in his shackles, head down and eyes up.

The ugly warden with the rough voice spoke first.

“It hasn’t taken you long to wind up here again, I see.”

Venir didn’t reply, but was all ears.

“You’ve been brought in for assault on a Royal and theft,” the warden continued, “and threatening a city watchman. What do you say to that, scum?”

“It’s crap,” Venir responded, his voice dry and cracked. “I’m here because I beat that loudmouthed little braggart in a fair challenge. I embarrassed him and all of his little brood.”

Tonio’s face reddened with fury as he gripped the hilt of his longsword.

“That’s not true!”

A strong hand held his grip in place.

“Father, he tried to cheat me. I broke his nose for it. Look!”

Venir winced at the lies.

“Did you tell your father how many coins you lost, boy? It was quite a bit, I recall!”

Tonio shook with rage.

“Lying crook! You attacked me from behind and stole my money!”

It was preposterous now. One lie would come after the next. It was their kind’s way. I should have killed him. He knew it was best to remain silent, but silence was not his forte.

“You mean your father’s money? And how would you have seen me attacking you from behind?” He was almost laughing now.

“He’s a liar, Father! He didn’t beat me! He’s a thief! Open the door! Open it so I can slit his throat!” Tonio was losing control. “I’ll tear this vermin to pieces! You scum! You’ll rot in this cell or die by my sword!”

A sharp backhand slapped into Tonio’s frothing face. Venir laughed out loud. Silenced and dejected, Tonio looked away, holding his lip.

“I bet that stung,” Venir said. “Ooof!”

The warden slammed his stick into Venir’s gut. It could have been worse; he could’ve lost his tongue for it, but he couldn’t resist. You gotta keep a sense of humor, even on the worst days.

Tonio stormed from the room, wailing obscenities. When the young Royal was out of shouting distance, the father prepared to speak. The city guards kept their eyes downcast like fearful children about to be stricken. Whoever the man was, he had great command of his subjects. An uneasy feeling crept over Venir. He crossed the wrong people. His vacation in the City of Bone was over.

The older Royal’s words seemed to control the air with the power of a strong breeze.

“No food and ten lashes a day until I return.” Before the man left, he turned, casting a sharp glance his way. “What a waste of a man. I could have used a brute like you. If you were one of us, you might not be left in the rot. See to it he doesn’t regain his strength. I like seeing them die at their worst, not their best.”

The Royal father turned and walked away, leaving Venir with a sinking feeling.

“Unless you’re lucky enough to die within a week,” the warden told him, “you’ll be calling this dungeon home for most of your life. You'll probably just have your decrepit body hanged or quartered. I‘d like to see a big fellow like you pulled apart. Now that’d be something I’d pay for. Heh heh. You messed with the wrong people. They’ve got the power to make you pay every moment of your last days. You should know that.”

“I can leave when I choose,” Venir said, shifting in his shackles, but his words were not convincing. “Nobody can do anything about it.”

The warden laughed.

“Sure. Go ahead! Run all you want, they’ll catch you. The Royals always get their man. War games, and you're less than a pawn.”


CHAPTER 6

The guards left him hanging alone in his cell, crushed by his thoughts. War games. Those were things he had avoided over the years, now he was caught in the middle. He was but a commoner to them, no more or less, to die at their whim.

He had taken his own games too far. The Outlands were dangerous face-to-face with the elements, but the belly of Bone was just as bad. Now he was in the same place he had crawled out of years ago. He had been charged with lesser charges before, but not by a Royal. His prior shenanigans roused little fervor and cost no more than a few days in a dingy hole. This time, Royals had it in for him, and his future in City of Bone, and perhaps in all of Bish, was uncertain.

If a Royal accused you, you were guilty. You were either indebted with impossible fines, killed, or spent years—decades even—in the dungeons to rot. Many opted for suicide, which sometimes passed the burden onto a family member to finish suffering their fate. The easiest way to thrive in Bone was by steering clear of the Royals or doing as they said. It was slavery without saying so.

As bad as that seemed, it was easy to avoid such troubles because the Royals were a fragment of the wretched population. One could lay low after a frivolous encounter; the twisting city offered many places to hide, and the common faces were easy to forget.

In addition, the City Watch was incapable of enforcing all the ludicrous accusations of the Royals. There was too much crime and not enough manpower. The City Watch and Royals had enemies that didn’t like them, either, and did not fear to strike back. Several areas were not even patrolled, and these were the areas Venir frequented. He was safe in the dark, local areas, and the guards there only pursued criminals who had just committed a major offense. And anyway, major crimes were more lucrative for the city guards. The petty ones were given little regard.

So why was he captured, shackled, and left to perish in the rot? After some hard thinking and remembering his encounter with Tonio several days ago, it dawned on him. The Royal warrior’s ego was bigger than his own. All of this over a fair bet. There was no honor in it, but Royals only had honor among their own.

As he hung in the gloom, his own faults became clear. He had ignored his friend’s warnings, failed to play by their own rules, even. Booze and ego intertwined into a bad mixer of poor judgment and lust. Ah, but that fire-topped wench was worth the shot. Still, his actions were a no-no in their business. A rich, smart, and vengeful man could just pay a spotter to alert him when a foe was around. It wouldn't take more than an urchin or a decrepit geezer seeking a goblet of wine to track a man for miles around.

He winced as he struggled within his confines, noting the trickle of blood oozing down his wrists.

He should have known this bratty Royal would have it in for him, but Venir was cocky and stupid sometimes. Unlike most people in the City of Bone, he never felt in danger there. He hadn't since he was a boy. He was too weathered by his ventures in the Outlands, a hardened soldier, and he had seen horrors the common people had never heard of. Besides, dark grog could make a red-blooded man feel invincible, and in his case, it worked most of the time. Only one thing made him feel mightier: Brool, his war-axe.

So here he was in a dank gray cell, hanging in chains, feeling hungry, foolish, and hung-over. A slow hour had passed before he heard a scratchy voice from a pile of rags adjacent to his cell.

“Ahem … are you enjoying yourself?”

It was Melegal, huddled in a heap of cloth that began to take shape. He was glad to see the man. He had long gotten over his amazement at the rogue’s way of appearing out of nowhere.

“No … just hanging,” he replied in a sour voice.

“Better hanging in here than outside from a noose,” Melegal said, dusting off his clothes. Melegal explained that as soon as he’d found out Venir was in the dungeon, he had himself arrested for calling a City Watchman a “big, ugly, cow-loving orc-face.” Then the rogue had escaped his first cell and managed to sneak into Venir's. Melegal wanted to make sure he got out of jail; he needed him around for protection and profits. This was the surviving nature of their relationship, and it worked well. The thief had been raised from birth in the City of Bone and knew its history well. Venir had met with him in one of many orphanages he wound up in not long after the underlings slaughtered his family. Venir hit it off with Melegal, though most did not. The orphanage offered the adventuresome boys few comforts or choices. Their days were filled with hard labor, which they performed beneath the castles of the great city. Months would sometimes pass before he ever caught a glimpse of sunlight.

Many hopeless and pain-filled years passed for him, but Melegal always hung by his side. Days went by without food, and he watched many die without hope. Others disappeared. Out of all the children he had come to know, Melegal would have been the last he guessed would survive. He did what he could, and the scrawny crumb-snatcher did the same for him. He and the thief grew bold enough to escape and live on their own in the City of Bone. Once they found freedom, they never looked back. Their past was best forgotten, but it always lingered.

The pair managed just fine despite their young age. But over time, Melegal branched out to test his own skills, while he, who had been born in the Outlands, was drawn to the barren landscapes and forests where he felt most at home. It wasn’t long after the underlings overtook outpost thirty-one that Melegal had come back to settle again in Bone. Venir spent his time in many lands and cities, but much of the time he came back to Bone. This had been going on for the past five years.

He looked across at Melegal, thinking how funny it was that this gaunt man always looked the same. The thief’s face was neither welcoming nor threatening and his steel-gray eyes drew a savory woman now and then. The man had a smile, but saved that for the fairer sex. His half-shaven face, salt and pepper hair, and dimpled chin gave the man an older appearance. As far as he knew, they were about the same age, but neither could tell for sure.

The rogue was still wearing loose-fitting drab clothes and had on an odd black cloth hat. It hung like a wet leaf down the right side of his head. Why it was so special to his friend, he did not know.

Their friendship had been sparked in the orphanage, the day some bullies snatched a similar hat from Melegal. Venir had whipped the bullies that same day and taken back the hat. He did not know why he did it, but he was beaten for it, as good deeds were often punished along with the bad. The raw-boned boy had been at his side ever since.

Men always hated Melegal’s hat, but women of late, for some reason, loved to play with it and comment on it. He never understood the importance of the hat, but found it funny when his friend explained that it made him look “distinguished.”

“So, do you want me to get you out of this one?” Melegal unlocked his cell and walked in. “Shall I sneak you out again? Maybe I’ll unchain you, stupid.”

“Just get me some food and drink, Melegal.”

“Oh no.” The thief wagged his finger. “They clearly stated you’re not to eat for two days. Sorry, but rules are rules.”

Not this again. He knew Melegal was mad at him for his blunder, because it would cost them business while he wasn’t on the streets.

Melegal leaned against the wall, cleaning his nails with a thin blade. Venir knew his friend wanted him to admit his mistake. Melegal always played these games, but had never gotten him to acknowledge any failure. And Melegal was always too impatient to pass up the next business transaction. The man wanted to regain his lost profits.

Venir closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the man had disappeared. He grunted and closed his eyes again. He heard nothing. Where is he?

The minutes seemed like hours. The sound of footfalls caught his slumbering ears. He cracked his eyes open, expecting to see his friend. Instead, two familiar guards entered, one carrying a whip in a coarse hand.

The dungeon warden looked at him with big, cruel fish-eyes. The chubby recruit fidgeted with his neck collar, eyes wide, like a child on the first day of school.

“On yer feet, dirt!” The warden snarled. “Time for yer beating.”

“I’m sorry, trout face, but I can’t,” he said, twitching his feet.

“Ew … that will cost ya an extra ten, deadman. I’m gonna enjoy this,” said the warden with a sinister gap-toothed smile.

The recruit gave a nod, sticking his chest out a bit farther, while looking over the warden’s shoulder. It was a bonding moment between student and teacher. Venir almost laughed, but his head hurt too much. His limbs were stiff and aching, his head still full of bad medicine.

“Spread yer legs!” said the torturer in his ear.

The man’s foul breath reeked of tobacco juice and decaying teeth. The warden kicked his legs into a wide straddle. His predicament was getting worse, and the cavalry didn’t seem to be coming his way. Where is that thief?

He hoped the thief was hidden somewhere in the dungeon, but there was no sign as he strained his head around. The warden punched him in the jaw, rocking back his head as he closed his eyes and grimaced. He heard the rattle of chains as the warden went over the steps.

“One, two, three,” the warden flipped his wrist, “wupash!”

Venir heard a sharp crack. There was no pain, but sweat began to glisten on his head.

“That’s how you do it, boy. What you learned in training has no meaning here. Go ahead, give my lash a go.” The warden passed it over to the eager recruit’s hands. Crack! The warden rubbed his chin. “Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Venir chest tightened. His breath became short. Where are you Melegal? They’re about to get cracking!

“Tell you what, I’ll do the first fifteen,” said the ugly torturer, holding out his hand, “and you finish the last five. Well … maybe seven. It’ll be good training for you. Now, pay attention. You don’t have to hit hard to make it hurt. Just watch the ol’ expert. I’ve done it a thousand times.”

The warden snapped the whip with another crack that cut through the stale air. The recruit nodded as the warden reached to rip off Venir’s shirt.

Suddenly, the door burst open.

Finally!

Tonio strode in, shoving his way in front of the two guards. The Royal was consumed with rage and began spitting obscenities in Venir’s face.

Not Melegal. Not good!

He mustered enough strength to roll his eyes at the belligerent man.

“Hand over the whip!” Tonio screamed at the warden.

“Don’t you give me orders!” the warden said in a growl. “That’s my job!”

Tonio rolled up on his toes and sneered down on the man.

“Oh, so you don’t mind losing favor with a high-ranking Royal, do you?”

The warden started to stammer, but a hard slap across the cheek stopped him.

“I could have you killed, and you know it!”

The grizzled warden stood his ground, looking for a moment like he might turn the whip on the Royal brat.

Tonio hissed in his ear, “If you even think of using that whip on me, I’ll flay the skin off your back and the backs of everyone in your family, while the fat farm boy over there digs your grave to dump you in.”

The warden held Tonio’s gaze while fire burned in both men’s eyes. At last, the warden handed over the whip. Venir braced himself. Impending pain was on its way.

“Remove his shirt!” Tonio ordered the recruit, who looked at the warden.

“Do as he says,” the warden said with a quick, begrudging nod.

“I’m gonna scar every inch of his filthy back,” Tonio said, strutting around the room cracking the whip, “and make him scream for mercy! I may even bust his nose again!”

The chubby recruit ripped Venir's cotton jerkin down to the waist in a few tugs. The recruit stumbled back, staring at Venir in confusion. Imprinted between his knotted shoulders over the bullish muscles of his scarred back was a large black V.

Tonio cracked the whip.

“Let me flay that stupid tattoo off your back, dog!”

Venir was subdued, and his head drooped. Yet, his breathing was growing heavier, and the room seemed to darken as something bustled in the torch light. Unnoticed, he appraised the rusty shackles around his ankles. Gotta do this before he tears the skin off my back. He had been whipped before and never gotten used to it. If he could avoid it, he would, but his body wasn’t responding to his commands fast enough. No woman was worth a whipping. Redheads.

Tonio drew back the whip. The rookie guard took a long step back while the warden grinned. The musty hot air filled with anticipation.

The whip came down in the middle of the tattoo spanning his expansive back.

Crack!

Venir had no control over the snarl that ripped from his parched lips. His corded arms were as taut as steel as he wrenched the metal loop out of the stone ceiling. He twisted his legs from the rusting shackles on the floor. A loud ringing followed as he ripped the chain clean from the weathered wrist cuff. A full two feet of heavy chain now hung in his clutched palm like a snake of steel. He glowered at Tonio with blazing fury..

Tonio shuffled back alongside the stunned warden. On a foolish instinct, the grim warden charged him.

Crunch!

Venir shattered the man’s jaw with his fist, dropping him to the cobbled floor. The warden was out cold. He turned on Tonio. The Royal dropped the whip and went for his sword, which was half out of its sheath when the thick chain smote his hand, breaking bone. Tonio screamed, cursing and clutching his wrist.

Tonio grabbed for the whip with his other hand, but Venir whipped the chain across Tonio’s shoulders. The painful expression on Tonio’s face would last the young warrior his lifetime.

With a face full of agony, the tough Royal stood straight up, one fist raised as the other dropped to his side. “You’re nothing but a street dog!” Tonio cried, too arrogant to acknowledge the danger. “That’s all you’ll ever be!”

Venir twisted the chain off his right cuff and tossed it to the floor. He closed in on the defiant Royal, who punched him in the jaw with a hard smack that drew blood. He spat it out, blocked the next punch, and countered with a right uppercut to the belly, lifting the man off his feet.

“Ooomph!” Tonio fell to his knees, winded but groaning as he rose again. Venir unleashed his anger, shattering his ribs with hammer-like blows, dropping the Royal to the floor like a bag of sand.

Somehow, Tonio struggled back to his feet. He tried to spit out a curse, but only produced bloodied spittle that ran down his scabbed chin. Venir blackened the man’s eye, broke his nose, and shattered that loudmouth’s jaw with a mallet of a punch. Tonio was out cold, his face bleeding on the cobblestone floor.

Venir breathed heavily as he eyed his surroundings. He noticed the trembling recruit holding out a ring of keys with his eyes shut. He knocked him out with a single blow, and scooped up the keys.

Despite all of the violence, only a minute had passed since the whip had crossed his bleeding back. The constant rumblings from the streets above had muffled the chaos from those who might have been close enough to hear. Guards would be coming soon. He scanned for Melegal, but the thief was gone, leaving behind only a small red apple in his cell. With the keys and the apple, Venir slipped out of the old dungeon.

It was dusk outside the small compound as he made his way deep into the worst part of the city. He snatched a cloak from a merchant stand and pulled it over his shoulders before heading back to his stomping ground, the Drunken Octopus. Melegal sat back in the corner, by a stone fireplace, with food, grog, and ale ready.

Venir wasn’t feeling happy. “What happened to you? I got whipped—blast you!” He grabbed a loaf of bread and stuffed it in his mouth, washing it down with pitcher of ale.

The thief tilted his head and matter-of-factly said, “You had it coming, buffoon.”

He would have split another man for saying that, but Melegal was his friend. He nodded as he wiped his mouth and sat down. “So I did.”

Not much was said while he stuffed bites of cheese and meat in his face, his hunger surpassing his anger.

“Coffee!” he yelled, hitting the table.

Melegal sipped at his wine.

“So, the new guard seemed to recognize you.”

He shrugged. “He didn’t look familiar. I may have met him sometime, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. There are still normal people out there, you know. Where do you think all this food comes from?” He waggled a chicken bone in his friend’s face.

“Smarter than he looked, taking a shot on the jaw to save his job. It might even get him a promotion.”

Venir gave the thief a funny look. How had Melegal gotten back here so fast? He let it go.

“It was either that or die.”

“Oh, I know how you farm boys stick together. You wouldn’t do that.”

“Sure.” His once snarling lips now began to form a relaxed smile. “You could at least have stolen the whip!”

“Oh, I thought you pig herders enjoyed that sort of thing. Why end your fun? Besides, I thought you were looking a little homesick.”

“You’re sick in the head, Melegal,” he said, losing his smile.

“Well, who’d notice better than you?” The thief retorted with a deadpan face.

Venir grunted and chewed as his friend poured more wine. A scrawny waitress with short-clipped hair brought over a pot of coffee and poured him a cup, spilling it on the table. He scowled at her, and she scowled back before walking away.

“I hate her. She always spills something.”

“Well, you’ll live. She looks better than the orcs of Two-Ten.”

“Not much prettier, though.”

“Hah. She’s not that bad. Just a dirty little waif. She’ll come around.”

Venir didn’t say a word, he just sipped his coffee.

Melegal continued, “I’m getting curious. You’ve changed since I last crossed the Outlands with you, and you spend so much time out there these days. One day, I might even follow you there again.” The thief began cleaning his nails. “People around here talk about you, you know.”

Venir half smiled.

“You wouldn’t want to go back. There are no easy pickings in the Outlands. Still, it would be good to have you along again.”

“I hear stories, you know. Most of the good ones mention the Darkslayer. Do you ever come across him?”


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