From bestselling author David Dalglish comes the final book in this epic fantasy trilogy that started with the critically acclaimed Soulkeeper. Featuring a warrior priest battling monsters, it’s perfect for fans of The Witcher and Dungeons and Dragons.
Sweat rolled down Brittany Eveson’s neck and forehead, little rivulets stinging her eyes on their way to the tip of her nose. With her every push-up, the growing drops would shake and fall to join the puddle beneath her.
Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine. Sixty.
Her arms burned like fire. Her heart hammered inside her chest. Both sensations kept her body rising and lowering above the stone floor of her room. More drops fell, growing the puddle. She’d have wiped her face with her shirt, but it’d be pointless. The cloth was already soaked through with sweat.
On sixty-seven, her shaking arms collapsed. She landed chest first upon the floor with a thud. With her eyes closed and her cheek pressed to the cold stone, she softly groaned. Just a little break, she told herself. Just a moment to catch her breath.
A knock on the door opened her eyes. Had she slept? She honestly didn’t know. Time seemed to flow weirdly in this room of hers.
“One moment,” she said.
Vertigo washed over her the moment she spoke. Brittany clenched her hands into fists and rode it out. Things had improved over the past week, but it still unnerved her when she spoke and heard a distinctly foreign voice coming from her throat.
You’ll get used to it in time, Adria had told her during one of their many private sessions. Maybe so, but never completely. One didn’t forget the sound of their own voice.
It took longer than she’d anticipated to get to her feet. Her arms didn’t want to cooperate. Sixty-seven push-ups and already her body was ready to call it quits. What a joke.
“Come in,” Brittany said when she finally opened the door. Adria stood on the other side with her hands clasped behind her back. Even with her face hidden behind her black-and-white mask, there was no mistaking her. An elaborate jewel-encrusted silver pendant hung from her neck, a triangle with a bright daytime sun in the top-right corner. That pendant marked her as Vikar of the Day, a rank she was temporarily filling while Londheim awaited the election of a new Deakon to appoint an official replacement.
“Shouldn’t you be wearing a white suit?” Brittany asked. She turned from the door and pulled off her soaked shirt. The church’s novices kept a small basket in the corner for her dirty clothes, and she tossed her shirt into it while opening a drawer of her lone dresser. Her options weren’t many, just a few pieces in various shades of gray. Adria kept offering to take her on a trip to some clothing shops, which Brittany flatly refused. She’d not left this small, square room since her very first day back from . . . from her own grave, really. Was there any other way to put it?
“I only recently had my measurements taken with a church-approved tailor,” Adria said. “It will take some time, and truthfully, I’m not sure how happy I will be to leave my dress behind.”
Brittany grabbed a shirt at random and turned. Adria’s eyes quickly looked to the floor, which earned her a derisive snort as Brittany pulled it over her head.
“They’re just tits, Adria. For Sisters’ sake, they’re not even mine.”
Those brown eyes snapped back up to hers.“You shouldn’t refer to your physical body as belonging to another. I believe it will slow your integration.”
“Acknowledging this isn’t my body is the only thing keeping me sane,” Brittany argued. “My body was capable of one hundred push-ups and sit-ups without rest. This one is skinny, weak, and better suited to wielding a dagger than my axe. Speaking of, have you made any progress in bringing me a replacement? It’d help with my practice.”
Adria gestured to the cramped room. It was four walls, a bed, a lidded chamber pot, a dirty clothes basket, and a dresser. Nothing fancy, but given the purported destruction of the Cathedral of the Sacred Mother, everyone was making do with significantly less finery these days.
“And how would you swing it without carving grooves into the walls?” the Vikar asked.
“Fine. Get me a sword, and maybe I’ll leave this room more often. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“What I want is for you to start living.”
“And how exactly do I go about that when I’m stuck with these?” She gestured to the chain tattoos across her throat, placed upon the body when the woman was a young soulless. “How might I explain away this? Sorry, inquisitive guard, I’m not soulless. I’m actually a recently deceased person hopping into a new body, but I understand the confusion.”
“Must you sound so bitter? I’m looking into solutions. Surely something minor as wearing a scarf or disguise is worth this new chance at life?”
Brittany’s mind flicked through ideas of what that new life might even mean. Patrolling as a Soulkeeper again? Moving back in with Devin in the home they’d shared? Or perhaps joining Bailey and Hanna on their trip to the Winding Gardens, obediently carrying her younger siblings’ things while . . .
No, wrong, wrong, she thought, her insides churning hard enough that she grabbed the dresser to steady herself. Tommy is your brother. Tommy, not Bailey, not Hanna.
Her spell did not go unnoticed. Adria reached for her hand, only to have it brushed away.
“Are the memories still confusing you?” she asked, showing no sign of being upset by the rejection.
“It’s getting better,” Brittany said. She rubbed at her eyes, as if she could scrub away her frustrations. “Not at night, though. When I dream, I dream of this body’s past. She might have been soulless, but she had a name, and a family. I can almost feel myself going numb and falling into that past persona. It’s . . . disconcerting.”
“The physical body creates and stores memories and emotions,” Adria said. “The soul does likewise, but for a permanent remembrance, and therefore it is much stronger. The life your soul lived will slowly burn out the old existence.”
“You make it sound like I’m murdering the previous owner. Don’t talk like that again. It’s creepy.” She glared at the mask. “And take that thing off. I’m family, not one of your subjects needing prayers.”
Adria put a hand to the bottom of her porcelain mask but then hesitated. Brittany crossed her arms, and her expression made it clear there’d be no more conversation until it was gone.
“If it will make you feel better,” her sister-in-law said at last. She pulled the mask off, revealing her pale face and shadowed eyes. Errant strands of hair clung to her cheek and neck. Brittany fought to suppress a reflexive wince.
“You’re not sleeping well, are you?”
“Is it your turn to aid me?” Adria asked, a small smile curling the sides of her mouth.
“If not me, I hope someone else is. You look worse than I do, and I’m recently back from the dead.”
“It’s merely stress. Others suffer far worse than I.”
“Others suffering doesn’t mean you should also suffer.”
“You’re right. It means I should work that much harder to stop those others from suffering.”
“I was thinking it meant you should take a nap every now and then, but you’ve always been the hardest worker among us. No wonder you’re acting Vikar. Well, that, and the ability to resurrect people probably played a hand in it.”
Adria visibly cringed at the remark. For whatever reason, she didn’t like it when Brittany commented on her newfound abilities. There was surely a reason for that, but Adria was more elusive than a barn mouse about how or why. On the third day of Brittany’s renewed life, Adria had spent several hours detailing some of the changes that had happened upon the Cradle. The stories sounded insane, of gargoyles and lapinkin, crawling mountains and time-controlling faeries living in forest villages. Wildest of all, her younger brother supposedly could wield magical spells. The image of her kindhearted Tommy roasting enemies with fire seemed so ridiculous, she couldn’t help but laugh when Adria told her.
“It’s true,” Adria had insisted.
“Oh, I know,” Brittany had told her. “Any other time, I might have doubted you, but I’m sitting here in a stranger’s body. There’s not much room to doubt.”
Adria had spent the fourth day discussing the more recent events in Londheim, and of the newly renamed Westreach in general. She spoke of the madman named Janus, a magical renegade group known as the Forgotten Children conquering the district of Low Dock, and of the grand cathedral’s burning. In all these stories, Adria remained vague about her own capabilities, suggesting that her prayers to the Goddesses were more powerful than the other keepers’.
Her self-imposed break over, Brittany returned to the floor. She bent her knees, put her hands behind her head, and began her sit-ups. It hurt like the void, and it might take multiple sessions, but
damn it, she was going to hit her one hundred before the day’s end. Adria watched quietly for a minute, the silence not entirely unwelcome. Sometimes Brittany caught her tired sister-in-law whispering little prayers whenever she thought it unnoticed. Anxiety Brittany didn’t even know she had would ease, and it’d seem like her memories would clear from the fog surrounding them. It never lasted more than an hour or two, but it was a welcome reprieve despite the guilt she felt for needing help from her exhausted, overworked sister-in-law.
“Is there anything else you need?” Adria asked once her hidden prayer was finished.
“Some books might be nice. Are the Tomms Brothers still printing their weekly news leaflets?”
Brittany’s body shook for a moment and then she collapsed onto her side, having not yet reached fifty. She gasped in lungfuls of air while wishing for the millionth time that the previous owner had commanded the soulless to run the occasional mile to keep in shape.
“I wouldn’t mind a few of those to read,” she said after collecting herself. “It’d be nice to catch up on what’s been happening while I lingered in a grave for . . . how long was I dead, actually?”
“I’ll look into acquiring some,” Adria said, pointedly ignoring the question. “As for your axe, I suppose I could ask Devin if he kept your old one after . . . well . . .”
“My what? My first death? My temporary funeral? What should we call it, Adria? It’d help if we settled on a term so you stopped dancing around it like I’m some fragile child. I was dead. Now I’m not. It won’t hurt my feelings to acknowledge that fact.”
A hard smirk crossed Adria’s face.
“Fine. I will ask Devin if he kept your axe after he buried you, or if he returned it to the sacred division because he couldn’t bear the sight of it. Is that better?”
Brittany shifted so she was sideways. Too much time focusing on her arms and abdominal muscles lately. Had to work the rest of her as well. She balanced on one foot and hand, then lifted and lowered her hips. Within seconds her sides were burning.
“You haven’t told Devin, have you?” she asked. Her gaze lingered on the dirty space beneath her bed, as if she weren’t interested in the answer. She didn’t know who she was fooling, though. The only thing keeping her going over the past week of nonstop drills and exercises was the thought of seeing him again . . . yet perversely an overwhelming fear of meeting him was why she had not left her room.
“It is not my place to do so,” Adria said. She slipped her mask over her face and tightened the strings behind her head. “Take all the time you need, and don’t rush yourself.”
Brittany switched to her other side. Lift and lower. Steady, rhythmic movements. The only part of life still under her control.
“You’re yet to give me an answer,” she said. “How long was I dead?”
Adria crossed her arms, no doubt frowning behind that black-and-white porcelain mask.
“I think you should be in a better mind- set before learning this.”
“I’ve seen your face, Adria. I know it’s been years. I just want to know how many.”
The woman sighed.
“Six. Six years.”
Even braced for the knowledge, she still felt stabbed in the gut. Six long years for everyone she’d known, and yet only the blink of an eye for her. Precious Goddesses above, Tommy was almost as old as she, in a sense. And if that much time had passed . . .
“Has he moved on?” she asked, halting her exercises. She struggled to force the question out in the foreign voice created by the stranger’s tongue inside her mouth. “Has he found someone else?”
The soft fall of Adria’s shoulders gave the answer long before her words confirmed it.
“Yes,” she said. “I believe he has.”
Brittany swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat.
“Good,” she said. “Good for him.” Damn it, these stupid tears. She didn’t want them. She didn’t want any of this. “Does . . . does he know how I died?”
Adria’s head tilted the slightest amount.
“We were told you died of heart failure.”
Still a secret, then. Brittany couldn’t decide if that was a blessing or a curse. Perhaps both.
“I’d like to be alone for a while,” she said, pointedly dropping the subject.
“Of course.” Adria dipped as if bowing to a superior and then turned for the door. Helpless frustration pushed Brittany to ask one last question before her sister-in-law might leave.
“Why did you bring me back?” she asked. “Why give me this body, this life, if he doesn’t even need me anymore? My time was done, Adria. My life, my pain, my loving and living and dying, it was done.”
Even with her mask to hide behind, Adria could not bring her-self to turn and face her.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” she said.
“Do you still believe that?”
Adria said the only answer Brittany would have accepted.
She said nothing.