The Temple…

He was dead. His body, spread-eagled on the altar, was already stiffening, the blood congealing in a sticky pool around him. His heart had been cut out, in an ancient ritual unseen for thousands of years. It lay at the foot of the Lady's statue, an ivory carving of a woman both stern and merciful, solemn and yet slightly amused. The long head artist had given Her green eyes – predator's eyes.

The priest who was to have offered Rayden' s heart had fallen forward, so that it seemed as if he was prostrated before the idol on hands and knees. Only the spreading red stain on his white robe showed that anything was wrong.

All else was still, the other priests and acolytes were dead, the only sound was the soft chiming of the silver prayer bells, swinging to and fro in the breeze.

He stood alone among the dead, a slender man clad in black, a bloody sword held lightly in his hand. He started slightly as the wind jangled the prayer bells discordantly, then calmed as he identified the sound, realized where it came from. Picking his way through the tangled bodies, he paused to glance into the old mirror hanging on the wall.

An unfamiliar face stared back at him – elegant and aristocratic, high cheekbones and glossy black hair emphasizing slanted blue-green eyes seething with something akin to madness. He raised trembling fingers to his left cheek, running them softly over four parallel, diagonal scars. Those scars were the mark of the Companions, the elite warriors who bent knee to none but their Mistress, the Lady of War. And the white lock in his hair, snow-white on jet-black, was the mark of the Shan'ri, the first of the Companions.

Rayden had been a Companion. Ah, Rayden, forgive me – I had to…

Against his will, memory came flooding back, memories of blood and death and overwhelming grief, from what seemed a lifetime ago.

Four days before…

It had been a good year. The harvest had been greater than usual, filling the granaries to overflowing, and the winter mild. The people of Waterfall City were in a mood to be generous. Their lord had guided them to a prosperous state and not one of the prosperous citizens was willing to criticize or challenge him.

The fact that nearly nine years ago Lord Kat had betrayed his predecessor and taken his place was not mentioned at all. If any thought of it, they prudently held their tongues, wary of the military power that Kai commanded as Shan'ri.

However, the issue of his predecessor's fate hung very heavily on Lord Kai's mind at the moment. At the time it had sounded like a good idea, a brilliant coup. He had seduced Valyn's wife, Renata, convinced her to betray her husband. While Valyn dealt with her he had planned to seize control of the City, and leave both husband and wife to deal with each other as they saw fit.

As long as he himself was safe within the walls.

But what he hadn't thought of was Renata sacrificing her own children to gain the Lady's favour, forcing Valyn to mercilessness, utterly crushing her on the field at Virnav.

A battle that had shocked the world.

Valyn had lost everything – trust, honour, respect and the title of Shan'ri. Kai had taken over from him and he remembered Valyn's last words before he went into lifelong exile, a whispered promise meant only for his ears alone.

"I will come back one day, Kai, and on that day I will see you dead. The Lady will have Her due…"

Kai had been young then, secure in the belief of his own invulnerability. He'd been able to ignore the warning.

Now, those words came back to haunt him. It was late at night, and the world was silent and still. Shadows swirled as the curtains billowed gently in the wind, sending a chill down Kai's spine. All his instincts told him that he was not alone. He spun around, watched helplessly as one of the shadows detached itself from the night and advanced towards him.

"Who are you?" he demanded; amazingly, his voice was calm, with only the slightest hint of a tremour.

The shadow figure laughed softly, darkly. "You know who I am, Kai…" its speech was softly accented, a soft, dangerous drawl that Kai had only ever heard one man speak with. Oh yes, Kai knew who he was.

"What do you want?" he asked again, his voice cracking slightly.

"Do you know what the penalty for treason is?" came the soft, deadly purr. A chill ran down the back of Kai's spine, and though he hated himself for it, he began to shake.

"Treason?" he blustered, trying to brazen it out. "I have committed no treason."

A soft, malevolent chuckle. "Really? Plotting against your sworn lord is not treason?" A swirl of air currents as the shadow moved closer. "Perhaps if you manage to pull it off, it is not called treason." A pause. "Publicly, at least…" He came closer again, and it took everything Kai had to stand still and not take a step back. "But you made one mistake, Kai – you let me live."

He couldn't seem to stop himself from shivering. "The Council deemed it mercy," he managed to ground out. "As did I."

Another laugh that grated against his overstrung nerves. "Ah, no, no…dead, I would have been a martyr, but alive – alive, I am a very real, very dangerous threat…nine years is a very, very long time to be spent in exile. I intend to enjoy my…homecoming to the fullest."

Kai stiffened. "You…you mean revenge?" It came out as a squeak, and he hated himself for it.

"Oh, yes my friend…revenge." The figure trailed a finger down Kai's cheek in a cruel parody of a caress. Kai shuddered involuntarily, stiffening even further. "Revenge against you, and against every Companion who was involved in the betrayal, or who simply stood by and let it happen." The shadow's voice was a soft, feral whisper – hypnotic, dangerous and frightening. In that moment, Kai realized that he was going to die.

The next morning, they found his body.

The day before…

"Do you know what happened to the Shan'ri, Rayden?" It had been three days since Kai's death, and the people of Waterfall City were just beginning to get over the shock. Janys Sinclair, Lord Mayor of the City, was a middle-aged and incredibly wealthy merchant. He had gone to the Companions to see if they knew anything about the killings, for three others had died since Kai's demise.

"I know that he was murdered, Sinclair. And I know that three others have been killed as well, but I don't know why. And the 'why' is the most important part, I think." Rayden, one of the most senior Companions, was visibly frustrated. His normally impassive face showed the tightness of too much tension and not enough sleep, and his green eyes were worried.

"Well, why do you think he was killed?" Sinclair demanded, impatient of shadowy ambiguity.

"I don't know," Rayden repeated patiently. "All I know is that all those killed were Companions, and somehow the killings are connected. I don't know how, and I don't know why."

"So you're saying that someone out there has a grudge against the Companions?" Sinclair asked incredulously. He began to laugh, but trailed off uneasily as he saw the fear in Rayden's eyes.

"I think…" Rayden began hesitantly, or perhaps cautiously, "I think that someone has a definite grudge against all the Companions."

"Who, then?" asked the Lord Mayor, eagerly awaiting a solid, tangible answer to this dilemma.

Rayden raised his green, green eyes to Sinclair's, ran an uncharacteristically nervous hand through his hair. "Valyn," he said finally.


After Sinclair left, Rayden leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. For the last three days he'd been so busy running around, calming everything and everyone down that he couldn't remember the last time that he'd slept. Right now sleep was out of the question – he was so close to understanding this mystery that he feared he would lose what fragile inspiration he did have if he fell asleep. But the sun was warm and his chair was comfortable and he was so tired…

Surely it couldn't hurt if he closed his eyes for a moment, just to relax…

Some time later, a panicked, insistent voice jerked him awake. "My lord, wake up! Wake up, my lord!"

"Wh-what is it?" he asked, still half asleep, reacting entirely on instinct.

"My lord," the voice said again, almost hysterical. "There's trouble in the Great Hall! My lord Khan sent me to fetch you – he said to come at once, as quickly as possible…" The panic in his voice was enough to jolt Rayden back to full awareness.

"There's trouble?" he asked, as calmly as he could, trying to concentrate. The page nodded fearfully. "In the Great Hall?" The page nodded again, head jerking like a puppet on a string. Rayden stood up, lifted a sheathed sword off the wall where it hung at rest and buckled it quickly onto his belt. "Let's go then," he said as he headed out the door at a run.

As they ran, Rayden prayed he would not be too late. He had a fair idea of what kind of trouble awaited them…

They were sprinting desperately through the corridors when an earsplitting 'boom' came from the direction of the Great Hall. The walls shook with the force of the explosion, and the expanding rush of air knocked them completely off their feet. Shaking his head groggily he dragged himself upright, wiping the blood out of his eyes. A piece of flying shrapnel had gashed his forehead; he didn't want to think of the force of any explosion that could propel debris this far. 

It was frightening.

He heard a muffled gasp behind him, as the terrified page took off back the way they had come, not daring to look behind him. Rayden wished he could do the same – but he forced himself to continue running.

The Great Hall looked like a scene straight out of a nightmare. Broken bodies were scattered everywhere, most of them bearing the four scars of the Companions, but not all. The glass of the windows had been blown outwards by the blast, but there was no fire damage. The explosion had been only air – compressed into an incredibly small area by magic, and then released.

The work of a highly skilled master of magic.

Standing in the middle of the devastated Hall Rayden turned in a full circle, extending his senses, searching in vain for signs of life. He sighed. Valyn had caused the explosion, of that he was certain. Magic had a certain 'taste' or 'feel' to it, and each individual's magic had a unique taste. The Hall was awash in the residue of strong, disciplined magic – it all but shouted Valyn's name, the taste was so strong.

"But why?" he asked himself. That was the sticking point. "Why would he make it so obvious?" He raked his fingers through his hair in frustration. "It doesn't make sense! Why?"

"I've been asking myself the same questions, Rayden. I was hoping you could give me some answers." At the first word Rayden had whirled around, hand dropping automatically to the hilt of his sword. He sighed and released it as he recognised the speaker. A short, stocky man stepped out of the shadows, his blunt, weathered features creased with the amused satisfaction of having taking Rayden, whose composure was notorious, by surprise.

"Shan." Rayden couldn't quite hide his relief. "I thought that you were dead."

"I very nearly was," Shan smiled a little bitterly. "I came in here earlier to see Valyn busy killing every Companion he came up against." He paused for a moment. "It was incredible…one man with a sword against twenty of the best Companions ever trained, and he killed them all, making it look easy. They had almost no chance. It was like…I can't explain it." A shadow crossed his face – something like awe, or perhaps even humility. "Have you ever seen him fight?"

Rayden only nodded.

"Then you'll know what I can't explain…"

Oh yes, Rayden understood. Valyn Cai'ran Andenais, the Firedancer, had been the deadliest fighter the Companions had ever seen in all the long centuries of their existence. Since he had turned twelve, no one had ever defeated him.

"He has always been good," he began hesitantly. "But he killed only a few before unleashing the explosion, didn't he?"

Shan raised an eyebrow. "I wouldn't call twenty men 'only a few', but yes, the explosion was the real killer. And now," his voice lost its easy amiability, "will you please tell me what's going on?"

Rayden hesitated, sighed, pushing his hair back again. "I don't know, not for certain. But as to what I suspect is happening…I would say that Valyn is exacting vengeance on all those who were present nine years ago."

Shan stiffened, aghast. "Then that means he's targeting the Companions. Every single one of us."

He nodded wearily. "Yes, it does…taking his personal vengeance, and avenging his children. But what I can't understand is just why Renata sacrificed her children in the first place." He clenched his fist as he remembered that horrible day, so long ago… "They were only two years old, for the Gods' sakes…"

Shan snorted derisively. "She knew she had no chance of defeating Valyn on her own – not the Lady's Chosen, the first of us all…she sacrificed them to gain Her favour through blood magic of the darkest and most vile."

"Blood Magic…" Involuntarily, Rayden shivered, his hand moving automatically in the sign against evil – blood magic was very powerful, but it required the death, and the heart, of someone dear to the practitioner…and the thought of Renata deliberately sacrificing her own children in such a manner was…not something he liked to remember.

"Yes," Shan agreed wholeheartedly, "Not a nice thought." His smile became sardonic, his voice dry. "I can see why Valyn killed her. But why is he killing us?"

Rayden raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps he simply wants to avenge Renata's death?"

"That would be interesting," Shan shot back. "He killed her himself."

Serious now, he shook his head. "No – he was forced into it. I think he's doing this to make up for their loss – even hers. He honestly loved her, you know."

"Well, he has a strange way of showing it." Shan scowled. "So, that's it? He's going to kill us all because his wife and children died. I suppose that's as good a reason as any to die…"

Rayden laughed softly, closing his eyes in amusement. "Hmmm, true…do you know what day it is today, Shan? I'd at least like to know what day it is if I'm going to die, and I've been so confused lately…"

But another voice answered him. "It is the Spring Equinox, today…" At the sound of that voice, a soft, dangerous drawl, Rayden's face went bone white. He knew that voice – knew it as well as he knew his own. It was most definitely not Shan's…

He didn't turn around. "Greetings, Valyn…" Beside him, Shan was slumped over, a knife buried in his throat, his eyes already glazed in death.

"Greetings, Rayden…" Almost unwillingly, he turned around. Even after nine years, Valyn hadn't changed at all. He was a little older, a little harder, but still the same man Rayden had once loved like a brother.

"Are you quite well," the familiar stranger asked in oddly ironic concern. "You look a bit pale…"

Rayden laughed, and smiled a bit lopsidedly, a strange mixture of amusement, cynicism and infinite weariness. "No, I'm quite well, considering the circumstances…" he looked up to meet Valyn's eyes. "Are you going to kill me, now?"

Valyn only smiled. "Are you going to let me?"

Rayden closed his eyes, saying nothing. When he opened them again, he drew his sword, determined not to go down without a fight, fully prepared to kill his oldest and most trusted friend. Valyn drew his own sword and saluted Rayden, pressing the cool steel to his forehead and whispering an ancient invocation. Rayden returned the gesture, and the fight began.

From the start, Rayden that he had very little chance of defeating Valyn – he was simply not good enough. But he had to try. He let himself go, became one with the sword, one with the world around him. Attacking, he engaged Valyn in a series of strokes – thrust, parry, lunge and slash and feint, lunge again…then parry desperately as his move was anticipated. Each and every time his blade was turned, seemingly without effort, and soon he was on the defensive, trying only to stay alive.

Driven by desperation his moves became frenzied, like wild slashing in the dark, and he soon realized that something was wrong. He should have been dead by now.

Valyn was only toying with him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of white. Priests. He had badly underestimated his opponent…

In a last, desperate effort he threw himself at Valyn, who easily avoided him and tripped him, sending him crashing to the floor, gasping as the priests moved in to subdue him. His survival instinct took control as he kicked and fought and struggled against the hands that tried to pin him to the floor, but it was useless. There were too many of them.

He was going to die. On the Spring Equinox, the festival of renewal and rebirth, on the ninth anniversary of Virnav, the Lady's ceremonial priests were going to kill him. Priests who were only ever used for the ancient, almost forgotten rituals of sacrifice and blood.

So. Now he understood.

If it was done properly, if there was enough power in the ritual, Blood Magic could bring about reincarnation…

The Temple, Now…

The man closed his eyes as the memory came back to him in all its vivid and horrifying glory. Rayden had died, the last of his Companions, the last of the witnesses, the last of his most beloved friends. It was done.

Some unknown instinct caused him to turn as the Lady appeared. She gazed impassively at the carnage – at the dead priests, at the bloody sword in his hand. A small, enigmatic smile touched Her lips.

"Are you satisfied now, my Firedancer?"

He turned his haunted eyes towards Her, letting Her see everything that he felt, with no masks or barriers to protect his deepest self. He was Hers. He had ever, always been Hers. "Yes," he said, slightly hoarse, "it is finished."

"So you have had your vengeance?" Amusement danced about Her lips, amusement at the antics of foolish mortals.

He shook his head slowly, almost dreamily. "Vengeance? This was not about vengeance…at least, not completely…"

"Then why," She asked with deliberate precision, "did you go to such lengths?"

He smiled, and it was not completely sane. "Powerful Blood Magic, Lady, requires a large amount of blood…"

She raised an eyebrow. "Including the priests?"

His smile grew distinctly cruel. "Including the priests. No one must know of this."

She seemed satisfied with that. "So what happens now?"

He shrugged. "We wait."

Through the temple's open roof he could see the moon, a full moon, as it had been on this same night exactly nine years ago. As it rose fully into the night sky, he found himself hoping, as he hadn't let himself hope since Virnav.

It had to work.

It had to.

The silence was broken as the prayer bells chimed softly, a prelude to the sound of light footsteps. Two young children stepped out of the shadows. Tears burned in Valyn's eyes, tears he had never let himself cry, when they asked, hesitantly but hopefully, "Father?"