War has come to the Winter Kingdoms. The Dread will rise. Kings will fall.
Summoner-King Tris Drayke takes what remains of his army north to fight a war he is ill-prepared to fight, as reports from spies confirm Tris's worst fear. A new threat rises across the sea: a dark summoner who intends to make the most of the Winter Kingdoms's weakness.
And in Isencroft, Kiara's father is assassinated and she will now have no choice except to return and claim the crown. But she must leave behind her husband Tris and their infant son and face the dark power that threatens her rule.
THE DREAD is the epic conclusion to the Fallen Kings Cycle.
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A candlemark later, Jonmarc was seated at a large council table. As Queen’s Champion, he sat at Berry’s right hand. Berry had dressed for the occasion, attending the council in full formal regalia, to reinforce the authority of the crown.
At Berry’s left was Jencin, the seneschal. Around the table, Jonmarc saw several familiar faces. General Valjan, the former leader of the War Dogs mercenaries, Jonmarc knew and trusted. Laisren and Serg, the emissaries of the vayash moru and vyrkin, had fought alongside Jonmarc. Hant, the palace spy master, had thrown his considerable abilities toward helping Tris Drayke take back the throne of Margolan. Exeter, the head of the Mercenary Guild, was an unknown, as was Lord Alarek, the representative from the Council of Nobles.
“We’ve sent advance troops to the coast, and what ships could be mustered are in place,” Valjan reported. “Thanks to the mercenaries,” he added with a nod toward Exeter. “The Principality troops are split three ways: most went to the coast with the mercs. Some will patrol the river, to make sure none of the enemy ships slip inland. The rest will guard the palace.”
“What of the mercs?” Berry asked. “How many troops can we count on?”
Jonmarc looked to Exeter. For other kingdoms, mercenaries were usually just extra hired muscle. But Principality had a long, complex relationship with the multitude of merc groups that called the small kingdom home. A few hundred years ago, Principality had been created by the surrounding powers as a way to keep the peace over its wealth of gem mines, mines that had been a near constant source of war as the neighboring kingdoms fought for control. Battered by fruitless and expensive fighting, the other kingdoms had created Principality as its own sovereign state, but it was too small to marshal a full army from its population.
The first king of Principality, in a stroke of genius, had made it known that all mercenary groups were welcome to winter within the kingdom’s borders, provided that those merc companies swore that they would never sell their swords against Principality. Over the years, the best and most fearsome merc companies in the Winter Kingdoms found their way to Principality, as did the fastest privateers and some fleets that were probably more pirate than privateer. The kings of Principality had welcomed them all, along with their oath of fealty. As a result, Principality was heavily protected from within, and rested in the assurance that no legitimate mercenary group would agree to attack them. Now, Jonmarc hoped that the age-old agreement would be enough.
“We’ve rallied the merc troops,” Exeter reported. “Those that were traveling have been recalled, except for the ones that had already been recruited to serve the other kingdoms against the Northern threat. As for ships, we’re still counting as they come in.” Exeter grinned, showing a row of mottled teeth and a wolfish grin. “It’s been a long time since there’s been a war like this is shaping up to be. Any fighter worth his price is itching for a piece of it. And of course,” he added with a calculating look toward Berry, “for a piece of the spoils.”
“You’ll receive your customary percentage, and a bonus if my commanders say it’s been earned,” Berry replied.
“Thank you, m’lady.”
Berry looked to Laisren and Serg. “Were you able to recruit from among the vayash moru and vyrkin?”
Laisren was Dark Haven’s weapons master, and Jonmarc knew exactly how dangerous Laisren could be on the battlefield. Although he was several hundred years old, he looked to be in his early thirties, with an angular face and dark blond hair fell loose to his shoulders. The charcoal jacket that he wore made his pallor the more visible.
“Our numbers are fewer than they were at the beginning of the year due to the war with the rogues of our kind,” Laisren said. “And we are always fewer in numbers than mortals believe. Some remain in Dark Haven to protect the manor. But four of the Blood Council broods have pledged themselves to support you, m’lady. They’re still arriving, but we should have several dozen, at the least.”
Berry frowned. “And the fifth Blood Council brood?”
Laisren exchanged a glance with Jonmarc. “Astasia and her people have gone missing. We believe she’s thrown her support to the other side. The other houses are bloodsworn against her. We’ll handle that matter ourselves, if it arises.” Jonmarc could see the tips of Laisren’s elongated eye teeth in the other’s cold smile.
Berry looked to Serg. “And the vyrkin?”
Serg was a stocky man of medium build with brown hair and a close trimmed beard. His violet eyes were the mark of the shapeshifting vyrkin. “As with the vayash moru, the uprising in Dark Haven cost us many lives. But the plague brought many more vyrkin for sanctuary in Dark Haven, and these new wolf-brothers and sisters are ready to fight in your service. There are fifty of us, and we expect more to come.”
Berry nodded. “Very good.”
“Your Majesty.” Hant’s quiet voice made the room fall silent. The late King Staden had once introduced Hant to Jonmarc as his “best rat-catcher.” Hant was a small man with dark eyes that did not miss any motion. He said little, but knew everything that went on anywhere in Principality. Hant might not be a warrior like most of the others at the table, but Jonmarc knew the spy master was equally dangerous in his own way.
“You have news, Hant?”
“Not as good as what the others have reported, but important nonetheless.” Hant looked at the group seated around the table. “My sources in the city have continued to investigate the attack at the Feast of the Departed. The serroquette’s information was correct. More than a few of the Durim were active before and after the attack.”
“Were?” Jonmarc met Hant’s eyes, and the spy master gave a cold smile.
“Were. My associates are very effective in rooting out vermin.”
Jonmarc’s smile mirrored the chill in Hant’s expression. He’d gone up against the Durim himself, in that battle and before, in Dark Haven. The Durim were the fanatical devotees of a long-renounced goddess, Shanthadura, the Destroyer. Long ago, Shanthadura had demanded blood offerings and human sacrifice. Peyhta, the Soul Eater, Konost, the Guide of Dead Souls, and Shanthadura, the Destroyer had been worshiped as the Shrouded Ones, and their reign of bloody devotion had held sway in the Winter Kingdoms for centuries. Four hundred years ago King Hadenrul had displaced the worship of the Shrouded Ones with devotion to the Eight Aspects of the Sacred Lady, exiling or destroying those who would not abandon their murderous rites.
“I’d like to tell you that the problem is solved, but unfortunately, although we’ve captured quite a few of the Durim, someone or something is still causing problems. Buka, for one.”
“Is Buka one of the Durim?” Berry leaned forward. “He seems to share their love of cutting up victims and leaving a bloodbath behind.”
Hant frowned. “I don’t think so. The Durim we interrogated seemed to be truly ignorant of his crimes.” He shook his head. “Unfortunately, I think we have a separate problem with Buka. And it’s getting worse.”
Jonmarc moved to see Hant better. “How many people can one man kill?”
Hant grimaced. “Apparently, this one has a talent for killing, and for not getting caught. That’s bad enough. But there’ve been reports of other problems near the sites of the killings.”
“What kind of problems?”
“Ghost attacks.” Hant met Jonmarc’s eyes. “You traveled with Martris Drayke. I believe you and the Queen both saw, first hand, just how dangerous angered ghosts can be.”
Despite herself, Berry shivered at the memory. To escape the slavers that had imprisoned them two years ago, Tris Drayke had used his power, then mostly wild, raw and uncontrolled magic, to set the wronged ghosts of a haunted forest on their captors. It had been more terrifying than any battlefield horror Jonmarc had ever experienced. The ghosts had been merciless taking long-overdue vengeance, so much so that only bloody bits of the slavers remained after the fighting was over.
“I remember,” Berry murmured.
“Now imagine ghosts like that in a tightly packed city, bound to the place where the body was found. We’ve tried all the normal ways to set spirits to rest, even called on the mages we could find, but nothing’s worked yet.” He sighed. “Unfortunately, we’re short on summoners, and Tris Drayke has his own problems in Margolan.” He met Jonmarc’s eyes. “Do you think that the serroquette you brought with you could help? What was her name?”
“Aidane.” Jonmarc replied. “As I understand it, Aidane’s gift lies more in being possessed by spirits than in dispelling them. If this Buka favors young women victims, then we could end up with a bigger problem if the ghosts were to take her over.”
Hant nodded. “I thought of that. And I agree, it’s too risky to take her near the places that are being haunted. But perhaps, with her skills, she’s heard something from the spirits? I don’t pretend to know how these things work, but I’d like to talk with her.”
“Agreed.” Berry gave her consent, but with a glance to Jonmarc that made him sure Berry would expect him to be present to watch out for Aidane’s safety.
“I’m placing General Valjan and General Gregor in charge of establishing a line of defense along the coast,” Berry said. “They’ll be leaving with their troops within a few days. As Queen’s Champion, Jonmarc will serve as my proxy. He and Prince Gethin will lead another division north as soon as we’re sure that the situation in the city can spare them.”
Jencin frowned. “Prince Gethin is a guest, m’lady. Is it wise…?”
“Gethin petitioned the crown in person, accompanied by his ambassador, asking for the privilege of representing Principality in the conflict,” Berry replied shortly. “I understand the sensitive nature of his position, which is why I’ve assigned him to Jonmarc.”
Jonmarc kept his face neutral, even as his fingers began to drum against his chair under the table. First I’ve heard this. Gethin had to know when we were in the salle, and he didn’t tell me. He’d better expect a good pounding the next round I go with him.
Berry gave him a slight, knowing smile. “Your presence is required at dinner tonight. Our guests will be the prince and his ambassadors.”
Jonmarc gave her a look that he knew she would read correctly. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Berry regained her solemn expression and returned her attention to the seated group. “Gentlemen, you know what we’re facing. The Winter Kingdoms hasn’t seen an invader from beyond the Northern Sea in generations. You and your forces are the only thing standing between Principality and invasion. I pray to the Lady for your success.” With that, Berry rose and swept out of the room, followed closely by Jencin and surrounded by the palace guards. The rest filed from their places without conversation, and scattered in different directions as they left the war room.
Jonmarc headed down the corridor toward the stairs that would take him to Aidane’s rooms. After the briefing, he’d come up with quite a few questions for the serroquette.
“Vahanian! I’d like a word with you.”
Jonmarc’s hand was on the pommel of his sword as he turned. He recognized the voice even before the figure of a man strode into the torch light. Gregor.
“You went over my head to Valjan and Hant. Why?” Gregor was a dark-haired man with intelligent, brown eyes and a hard line to his mouth. Years ago, Carina had been unable to save Gregor’s brother. Gregor had never forgiven that, and the few times he and Jonmarc had crossed paths had not been pleasant.
Jonmarc stood his ground, hand firmly on his sword. “Because I knew they’d listen. And you wouldn’t.”
“You brought that damned ghost whore into the palace.”
Jonmarc clenched his jaw. “Aidane carried essential intelligence information to the queen at great personal risk, and she put herself further at risk to identify the traitors at the coronation. She saved the queen’s life.”
Gregor’s lip twisted. “You’d know all about whores and that ilk. You shame the queen with your presence and with the vermin you bring with you.”
A killing glint came into Jonmarc’s eyes. “And what “vermin” would that be?”
Gregor spat to one side. “Whores. Biters. Shifters. You probably had something to do with the fact that we’re coddling that Eastmark prince, didn’t you?”
“Gethin is here at the invitation of King Staden. I had nothing to do with it.” Jonmarc paused. “And he hardly needs coddling. He’s much better in a fight than you are.”
Gregor reddened, and Jonmarc thought the general might swing at him. Veins stood out on Gregor’s neck, and Jonmarc guessed that it was taking great effort for Gregor to control himself. “I’ve heard the stories about you. My brother and I were mercs, too. We fought for those bloody Eastmark bastards who thought they were too good for us, for sathirinim. You should know that. They betrayed you worse than anyone.”
Jonmarc was losing his fight to keep his temper. “So one minute I’m vermin, and the next I’m a martyr?”
“You leave a trail of dead men in your wake, Vahanian. I don’t trust you, your biter friends or the Eastmark bastards. They threw our mercs into the front lines first, to draw fire before they risked their own precious skins. And now they send one of theirs to marry the queen, and you, of all people, you’re going to stand for it?”
Jonmarc saw the glint of Gregor’s drawn blade and parried fast and hard. Practice against vayash moru opponents gave him an edge in strength and speed. He sent Gregor’s sword scuttling down the corridor, and body slammed the general against the corridor wall.
“Take your opinions about Eastmark and shove them up your ass.” Jonmarc’s voice was a hiss, close to Gregor’s ear. Gregor struggled, but Jonmarc kept him pinned with a blade at the general’s throat. “I’ve been betrayed by too many people to blame it on anything more than old fashioned greed.”
He twitched the blade slightly under Gregor’s chin, raising a thin line of blood. “This is the second time I’ve let you off without breaking some bones or running you through. So you say one more word to anyone about “vermin” and I’ll slit that tongue of yours and pin it to the wall for a trophy. I’m expecting you to do your duty and keep your opinions to yourself.” He poked the tip of his blade into the soft skin beneath Gregor’s chin. “Do you understand?”
Jonmarc pushed away hard from Gregor, giving himself space and slamming his opponent into the wall again for good measure. He kept his sword in hand as Gregor straightened his uniform and recovered his sword.
“Is it your doing that my men and I are in the first wave, while the Queen’s Champion takes his time to reach the battlefield?”
“Thank the queen for that decision, not me. Perhaps you didn’t notice that so far, there’ve been more casualties here in Principality City than on the coast?” Jonmarc sheathed his weapon in disgust. “I don’t have time for this. Now get out of my way or, by the Dark Lady, I’ll cut a door right through your hide.”
“I’m leaving.” Gregor turned and strode away. Jonmarc did not relax from a ready stance until he was certain that Gregor was truly gone.