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Genre: M/M fantasy or spec fiction
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Blind Eye Books
Dashing soldier of fortune Valentine Strange, late of his Majesty's 21st Benhali Lancers needs money. Happily, the wealthy Holy Orders of Harappu are desperate to retrieve the diadem of the Goddess Purya from an ancient temple deep in the White Mountains--a dangerous territory Strange knows well. The pay is too good and the job sounds too easy, but Strange is not in position to refuse. When Master Aleister Grimshaw, a dangerous witch with a traitorous lineage joins the expedition, Strange begins to suspect that more is at stake than the retrieval of a mere symbolic relic.
Grimshaw knows an ancient evil surrounds the diadem. The same evil once hunted him--and still haunts his dreams. However, experience has taught him to keep his suspicions to himself or risk being denounced as a madman. Again. Harried by curses, bandits, and unnatural creatures, Strange and Grimshaw plunge onward. But when a demonic power wakes and the civilized world descends into revolution, their tenuous friendship is threatened as each man must face the destruction of the life he has known.
It was after midnight on the second night following their escape from the temple in the mountains that Aleister raised his head and began to speak. At first it was only a whisper, but Strange heard him and dismounted, squeezing along the narrow trail to the chestnut gelding.
The whisper had gained in strength and Strange could now make out words, but they were not in any language he’d ever heard.
He’d put a hand on Aleister’s thigh, jostling him. “Aleister?”
Aleister spoke his gibberish more loudly, but his eyes by moonlight were still dull and vacant.
Still, a promising sign. Strange had to believe that. Had to believe their luck had turned as they picked their way down the sheer mountainside and Aleister shouted his garbled message to the black crags.
Strange was chilled, wet to the skin. They both were, but he didn’t dare stop to find shelter. The horses’ breath smoked in the cold night. They were nearly as miserable as the humans. Human. It was unlikely Aleister knew how miserable he was. Lucky for him.
The black-edged clouds parted, and the moon appeared, a gold scythe in the purple night. A jackal cried out on the left…another answered. No lonelier sound in the world, in Strange’s opinion. They hunted in pairs, jackals, but it was unlikely they’d pose a threat to Strange’s small train.
The last time Strange had been this tired and miserable he’d been in the Lancers fighting Bazgals along the frontier. Well, at least no one was shooting poisoned arrows at him this evening, and that was something to be grateful for. He’d been tired, cold, and hungry before. Probably would be again.
And look on the bright side. At least he wasn’t thirsty. It hadn’t stopped raining for more than thirty minutes since they’d started across the mountains.
A day and a night and no sign of further pursuit and yet the eyes of the hills seemed upon them all the time. Aleister continued to rail at the stars. What was going on in that rattled brain of his?
Reluctantly Strange was forced to concede it was remarkably lonely without the often annoying, but generally amusing Master Grimshaw.
Strange glanced back. Aleister’s chestnut was close on the heels of his black. The pack pony had come up lame and he’d had to stop to shift supplies to the dead mercenary’s pony. No easy task on the narrow ledge of trail. Thinking about it made sweat break out on his back. And all the while Aleister had sat there like a statue, like a blasted-out shell. Strange had been wishing he would say something—anything.
He’d got his wish. Now he wished Aleister would shut up.
His ragged voice echoed off the rocks and rang down the canyon in strange, arcane words. Could he cast a spell in this state? That’s all they needed. Aleister wishing a rockfall down on them.
The moon sliced its way through the shroud of night and disappeared. The night grew darker and colder.
Balestra plodded down the twisting turns of a track that lay along the continuation of a shelf running along the steep mountainside. To their right, the side of the pass sloped in a precipitous drop to a river foaming far, far below—a river that had not been there even two days earlier. Above them, boulders rose like battlements. A fine place to stage an ambush. But there had been no sign of pursuit since they’d left the weird shrine in the wilderness.
Strange was taking pains to keep it that way. He kept them moving, and during the brief rest periods resisted the comforts of lantern and fire. He was trying to get them through the pass as quickly and quietly as possible—or had been until Aleister had begun raving.
It was a relief when at long last his hoarse voice fell silent again.
So silent was he, that when they reached a place in the trail wide enough to dismount, Strange swung his aching carcass from the saddle and carefully felt his way back to make sure Aleister was still there. Still breathing.
He was there. Marble cold and motionless. The pulse in his wrist—when Strange clasped it in his own—was frantically beating away as though Aleister were under some terrible strain or putting forth some great sustained effort.
The gelding blew out, and bumped Strange’s hip with his long face. A good horse and well-trained; Strange thought the animal was missing Aleister too. Well, if there was a plus side to all this Aleister was most likely breaking whatever hold the white spice had on him without having to go through the pangs of withdrawal.
“Come back.” He squeezed the chilly hand hard. “Come back, my friend.”