Prologue

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-Ditani-

Ditani parried the assassin’s blades. The assassin was attacking so fast, his hands would blur with each strike. It took every ounce of strength and speed Ditani had to apply the defense tactics Ticca had taught him over the last six weeks and stay alive. The blows came so quickly, Ditani had no time to riposte with his own attacks.

This assassin is as fast and strong as me!

Ditani was getting an excellent look at his opponent’s weapons. They were single-edged short swords, about two feet long, with the telltale grey waves down the edge line of folded carbon steel. The rest of the blade was polished to a mirrored finish, with a copper band at the base, just before the circular silver cross-guard. The hilts were white bone or ivory, tightly wrapped with a black cord forming a diamond pattern.

He felt his stomach tighten as he realized these were not likeNhia-Samri odassi blades; they wereodassi blades. Odassi blades magically enhanced speed, strength, and stamina, and were keyed to only one warrior. They were given to every Nhia-Samri warrior after they had become a true master of dozens of fighting and survival skills. Any Nhia-Samri warrior who wielded odassi was a master killer.

The Nhia-Samri hadn’t always been the scary shadow group they had become. In the beginning, they had been highly skilled mercenary teams for hire. They followed a strict code of honor through obedience; any Nhia-Samri who failed to follow orders was expected to commit a form of ritual suicide. It was the Nhia-Samri dedication to completing the assignment that made them desirable to certain powers. Once a Nhia-Samri officer accepted a commission, it was succeed or die. They even considered succeeding through sacrificing one’s life to be a great honor.

The flaw to the Nhia-Samri way was that same dedication to one, and only one, ideal. Hence, seven hundred years ago, when the Grand Warlord and founder of the Nhia-Samri, a silver-elf known as Shar-Lumen, set out for blood revenge, they all followed. A tribe of orcs had attacked Shar-Lumen’s home Rea-Na-Rey, the capital of the elven nation of Nae-Rae, kidnapping many of the rulers. By accident, the orcs also kidnapped Kliasa, Shar-Lumen’s soul mate and future bride. The orcs, believing Kliasa was one of the rulers, tortured her to death. After that, Shar-Lumen’s heart went cold, turning the Nhia-Samri into a deadly group. Over two hundred years, the Nhia-Samri hunted down and exterminated all orcs. That didn’t quench Shar-Lumen’s burning pain, and so for the last five hundred years, the Nhia-Samri continued to accept deadly commissions, trying to satisfy their leader’s need for a blood revenge.

Despite Ditani’s extraordinary speed and strength, the warrior’s blades scored shallow cuts on his legs and arms before Ditani’s parry prevented more serious damage. Ditani let the patterns Ticca taught him flow as he recalled every bit Ticca had demonstrated. He had grown up doing a simpler martial pattern every day with his tribe in the cooler grass planes of Karakia. Ticca had shown him a dozen additional moves to his particular style which he had not known were missing; she also taught him and Lebuin new patterns. The Nhia-Samri warrior he was fighting was more than a master, and Ditani was sure this would be his last day unless a miracle happened.

We should have listened to Ticca’s warning to run. Now we are likely to die attempting to rescue her. Had I known these were Nhia-Samri warriors, I would have talked Lebuin out of the rescue attempt.

This had to be related to Magus Vestul’s death. Magus Vestul had been working on something for many years when he had declared he was going to Llino to give critical information to Duke. Ditani had never met Duke, but he knew who and what Duke was, which was to say an experienced human warrior turned into an immortal grey wolf the size of an immense horse over fifteen thousand years ago. Duke had been one of the great ancients that helped build this world, and saved all of the non-magical and magical races from extinction. Duke was the only immortal who refused to be called a God, unlike the other remaining builders of this world.

It doesn’t make sense that the Nhia-Samri would be trying to kidnap Ticca or assassinate Lebuin. Ticca is just starting her career as a Dagger and still trying to earn a name for herself. Lebuin just earned his Journeyman’s badge and didn’t even want to leave the comfort of the Guild library. I know Lebuin claims a serious and deadly rivalry with Magus Cune; but if Cune really did hire assassins to interfere in Lebuin’s path, he could not afford to hire the Nhia-Samri. Besides, the Nhia-Samri only take on high-profile, impossible targets — or whole countries, as they did when they tried to break up the Duianna Alliance of Realms forty years ago. Only powerful players in political games dare involve the Nhia-Samri. I wonder if the Nhia-Samri were mixed up in the death of Magus Vestul. Maybe they were trying to steal his research. But how could they have known about it?

Just as Ditani thought he was nearing the end of his long life, his miracle came. Ticca, who had been tied to a tree where the Nhia-Samri he was fighting had been torturing her, jumped into the fight.

How did she get off that tree? That’s not possible!

Ticca’s escape was made even more mysterious by the fact that she still had tightly tied ropes on her legs and wrists. The rope had been stretched around the tree, holding her in place. Two ropes dangled from her wrists and legs in uncut loops. Ticca used these ropes as she spun and attacked. She danced, causing the rope between her ankles to flutter around, trying to trip up the Nhia-Samri who slipped out of the cords. At the same time, she spun her two blades in tight circles as she attacked, causing the loop of rope between her wrists to snap out like a striking snake, almost entangling the Nhia-Samri’s arm or blade.

Unbelievable! That is the silk sword style of Yalthum blade masters! How could a farm girl raised in the far southern Rhini Woods learn that technique? I’ve seen it demonstrated once, and they said it takes years to learn, let alone master. She said she had special combat training, but this shouldn’t be possible in one so young.

Ticca spun, using her dagger and a blackened short sword that she must have recovered from the pile of equipment nearby. Ditani marveled at her speed and skill, trying to assess this young woman. Ticca was only twenty years old and stood 5’8”, with a slim, but toned, build. Even though she looked feminine, especially with her soft, dark brown, curly hair which bounced as she moved, Ticca was the most highly trained warrior Ditani had ever met. She had half a dozen rips and tears in her clothes from being tortured by the Nhia-Samri. The ripped clothing exposed welts and wounds in Ticca’s otherwise beautiful olive skin.

She is not only a beautiful young lady, but the finest and deadliest Dagger warrior I have ever heard of.

That Ticca had received special training was clear. Even more exceptional was her total dedication to the ideals of the Daggers. Her uncle had been a Dagger commander forty years ago in the war where the Nhia-Samri had attempted to enflame the kingdoms to break the Duianna Covenant of Realms. The Covenant was a treaty between all the nations of the continent, brokered over ten thousand years ago, as the Duianna Empire was breaking apart into smaller kingdoms.

While the three of them had made their way through the back trails between Llino and Algan, Ticca had trained Ditani and Lebuin in all it meant to be a Dagger. Daggers were more than highly trained, elite mercenaries; they were farmore. There were advanced Dagger tactics, signs, history, and the Dagger code. Every Dagger was continuously judged and had to uphold all it meant to be a Dagger. One of the largest surprises Ditani recalled was that Duke had started the Daggers and based them on an organization of military specialists. The military specialists the Daggers were based on had been respected throughout all the races of this world and the ones before, but had been forgotten during Imperial times. Daggers placed critical emphasis on not losing sight of any one of the three guiding principles of honor, courage, and commitment. However, the commitment wasn’t to the Daggers, but to doing the right thing, having the courage to stand up for the right, regardless of the consequences, and the honor to always step up. In the last six weeks, both Ditani and Lebuin had practically become Daggers under Ticca’s daily training.

Ticca had been drilling the three of them in two-against-one tactics, and that paid off. Ditani was able to provide Ticca aid against the Nhia-Samri warrior. Together, they fought. As Ticca parried an attack and riposted, Ditani lunged in. The Nhia-Samri bent and twisted, dodging every blow, dancing away from the entangling ropes, while managing to deliver vicious attacks at both Ticca and Ditani.

Ditani assessed whether Lebuin needed help. A short distance away, Lebuin was fighting another Nhia-Samri warrior. Ditani wasn’t sure how Lebuin had not seen her when he had been scrying on the capture and torture of Ticca. If it hadn’t been for this other Nhia-Samri, their rescue would have gone well.

The other Nhia-Samri was a woman, a bit shorter than Ticca, with long, straight, blonde hair that flowed around her like silk strands as she spun and fought Lebuin. She had toned arms and legs, shown off by the flexible, but tight clothing she wore. Although fit, she also had an attractive figure that seemed perfectly proportioned for her height. Lebuin should have had a lot more strength than she did. But she was using odassi blades as well, letting her match Lebuin’s superior strength and speed. Lebuin was doing well against her, for the moment.

Ditani felt his pride swelling as he watched Lebuin apply the same techniques Ticca had taught them, holding his own against the female Nhia-Samri. Lebuin’s shoulder was bleeding from her initial surprise attack, which had caused Lebuin’s loss of control over the magical entanglement. Lebuin had trapped the Nhia-Samri warrior that was trying to kill both Ditani and Ticca.

Lebuin had not inherited his mother’s line’s height, standing 5’11” to Ditani’s 6’1”. Lebuin was not dressed as well as his normal style, wearing the Dagger warrior leathers and a simple cotton shirt under leather armor. He’d gotten those clothes from the Dagger Nigan in Llino when they had traded places to try and lure off the assassins hunting Lebuin. Lebuin had filled out, bulking up in muscle mass in the last six weeks, as they had traveled to Algan through the woods and forests. Lebuin’s sandy brown hair was shoulder length, with a slight wave to it, which looked good with the beginnings of his beard growing back. Lebuin’s skin was a lighter tanned red than Ditani’s.

He has learned so much in the last six weeks. I wish Mother could see this. She would be proud.

Lebuin was fighting much better than any who knew him would have believed. Ticca was a good trainer, but Lebuin had the unusual experience of getting over a year of elven combat and magical training since he left the Guild six weeks ago from Kliasa, Shar-Lumen’s dead soul mate. Ditani was still amazed that Magus Vestul had never figured out that Kliasa, who had been an elven artifact maker, although she had been dead nearly seven hundred years, was still present spiritually. When Kliasa had been murdered, she had refused to go to the next realm of life without her love and soul mate, the elven Lord Shar-Lumen. Instead, Kliasa had used her great elven mage skills to remain close to this realm of existence in the odd dimensional area between this life and the next. Of course, Shar-Lumen didn’t know this either, and he went insane, seeking a blood revenge for Kliasa’s death. Shar-Lumen had more power than most, being the Grand Warlord over all the Nhia-Samri.

After a time, Kliasa learned how to see what was happening in this life through her magical artifacts, such as the boots she liked to make. Recently, she had learned that if someone slept in contact with one of her magical artifacts, she could interact with that person. In that strange dream-like interaction, years could pass in a single night. Ticca was wearing the magical boots Kliasa had made for Vestul as a gift. Both Lebuin and Ticca had spent a few nights each, living through years of training by Kliasa of all she could teach. Ticca and Lebuin both showed all the signs of their elven training in their graceful movements. Kliasa had also taught both of them the elven rituals, history, and language. If they lived to see Rea-Na-Rey, they would be welcomed as true elf-friends, a very rare honor for anyone of any other race.

Ticca had given up on the silk cord style and shifted to a close-in fighting style, far closer than Ditani could match. The break they needed came when the Nhia-Samri stumbled. As Ticca kneed him in the groin Ditani leapt in, attacking with both blades and scoring a hit on the Nhia-Samri’s shoulder. The Nhia-Samri rolled back and lunged back in, attacking both of them.

Ditani dodged away from Ticca as she dodged in the opposite direction. The Nhia-Samri jumped back, recovering. Ticca spun in so fast, she was a blur. The Nhia-Samri was halfway into a parry when the copper bands at the base of his blade flared with a golden light. The warrior froze, staring at his own blades.

Ticca’s strike landed unhindered, and her dagger plunged into the Nhia-Samri’s chest all the way up to the hilt. Ticca wasted no time. She twisted the dagger, cutting open a larger hole before pulling her dagger back out with a spray of blood.

The Nhia-Samri didn’t seem to notice that blood was pouring from his chest. He looked up from his glowing odassi with a joyous look. “That explains it. You’re Gods. I have fought Gods. There can be no higher honor.”

He collapsed to the ground, but Ditani was no longer looking at him. At the mention of Gods, Ditani spun to stare at Lebuin and the other warrior. Lebuin held one of the Nhia-Samri’s odassi in his hand, and the pale faced frozen woman stared at Lebuin with her mouth open.

Oh, no! He isn’t ready for this! Mother, help him!


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