The Blackest Heart
Trees full of violent crimes and grass gorged with blood. Only the dead truly know this Bloodwood Forest.
—THE BOOK OF THE BETRAYER
CHAPTER ONE CRYSTALWOOD
22ND DAY OF THE MOURNING MOON, 999TH YEAR OF LAIJON
BLOODWOOD FOREST, SØR SEVIER
Screams broke the silence that shrouded the lush black woods. Savage cries that Krista Aulbrek gathered and shoved into that nowhere, bottomless part of her mind before they could take root in her emotion. This was her first time in this place of unique strangeness, this mystifying maze of hard-edged beauty and endless dark splendor—this Bloodwood Forest.
Krista led her mare by the bit. The horse was large, magnificent, and black; Dread was her name. Her nostrils were wide and huffing, ears back. Wariness from days of hard riding infused the horse’s slow gait as together they padded through the velvety green blanket of scent and black flowers. The mare’s eyes were a hazy red color—a sign of the rauthouin bane Krista had been injecting into her young mount. Within a year those twisted eyes would flame like sparkling
red jewels, and the mare’s muscles would toughen and swell with unnatural strength. Dread would be a true Bloodeye steed then.
As she and Dread drifted their way down a gentle slope of grass and dark trees, Krista’s senses were ever heightened. Red butterflies fluttered from the lavish, mossy bracken at her every step. There was no deadfall here. Every tree was tall and thin and lanced straight toward the brassy gray sky. They were like the white birch of the Sør Sevier Nordland Highlands, only the bark of these trees was black as moonless midnight, every sinuous branch bristling with barb and thorn. Leaves of lustrous green webbed with red veins seemed to pulse and dance to the beating of a giant heart buried deep in the loamy soil.
A thick, damp air crawled through the trees and dragged over the flowers as Krista and Dread reached the bottom of the hillock and saw their first prisoner, a middle-aged woman clothed in naught but a tan smock. She was facing Krista, standing with her arms stretched behind her around the base of a Bloodwood tree, hands cuffed in irons, chains wrapped around both legs. Her eyes widened at the sight of Krista and the large black horse. Her chest heaved in panic as she mouthed a silent No!
Krista knew how she herself must look to this captive. Black leather armor, daggers strapped to her hip under crisp black sheaths, a black cape thrown over her shoulder. A sword and leather pouch were tied to the saddle of the demon-eyed horse at her side, the satchel full of poisons and tenvamaru. Yes, Krista knew a Bloodwood assassin was striking to behold. Especially one like her, flawless pale skin, long straight blond hair, bangs squared just above bright green eyes. Together, she and Dread looked cold, hard, deadly, and above all beautiful.
Other prisoners soon came into view—a hundred of them; men, women, a handful of Vallè, a mangy oghul or two. All were spread out behind the first woman. All were shackled and chained to tree
after tree, on and on into the dark distance of the charcoal-bleak forest. All had been brought up from the dungeons of Rokenwalder for this Sacrament of Souls.
The heavy wind stilled, and to the left of Krista, the forest shimmered darkly. A cloaked form materialized between the opaque depths of the Bloodwood trees, and the captive woman screamed.
Confident and tall, face hidden in the shadows of his cowl, Black Dugal glided toward Krista like a malevolent mist. Sure was his step. Silent as snow falling at night, he seeped through the trees with an unobtrusive ease. His own massive Bloodeye stallion, Malice, was a hazy silhouette of grim darkness in the woods behind him, red eyes glowing, ever watchful.
Dugal’s raven-colored cloak flowed above the grass and spindly briar. As he drew near, the familiar landscape of his face came into focus. Chiseled nose; hard lips; gray-shot beard; and veined, red eyes—all that was visible in the shadow of his hood. One deep scar in the shape of a crescent moon marked his left cheek; two others arced below his right eye and across his face to disappear under his beard. One shallow scar cut straight through his right brow and sooty eyelashes and up his forehead to become lost in the cowl of his mantle. Overall, Dugal looked sinister, tortured, and strikingly beautiful.
Beauty was the first rule of the Bloodwood assassins.
“Have you anything to say for yourself?” Dugal stepped up to her.
Krista always felt a certain thrill hearing the coldness of her master’s voice. She met his radiant, penetrating gaze with confidence, knowing now with a certainty she had achieved this goal before Hans Rake, for Black Dugal would not have appeared to her had she not arrived here first.
“I reached this place easy enough.” She did not break her eyes from his. Her fingers tightened, though, still fastened to Dread’s bit. Her skin prickled with anticipation.
“Three whole days it took,” he said. Not a muscle in him moved.
He had a way of creating tension in her like no human could. “I expected better from you.”
Despite his words, she held her head high. “I do not see Hans anywhere.”
Dugal met her statement with stony eyes. A sickly red light glared from those cold orbs. Blood of the Dragon! It was alchemy she did not yet understand—sap of the Bloodwood tree mixed with some fell drug. Her master had not yet offered her Blood of the Dragon, as he had Hans Rake. In their first year of training, Hans had compiled more kills than her. Blood of the Dragon had been his reward. And a Bloodwood assassin in training was allowed to partake of the precious and rare drug only under Black Dugal’s leave. Each year, a different reward was given to the one with the most kills. Last year Krista was gifted with Dread.
“Your name is now Crystalwood,” Dugal said almost warmly.
Crystalwood. She liked how it sounded on his tongue. Krista to Crystalwood. She was almost disappointed in herself for not anticipating it.
“I see you approve.” Only Dugal could so quickly adopt that intimate tone of a long-known friend. “I had one who struck like a spider. Another who stalked like a hawk. One who moved like silk. One as charming as a rose. All of my making. All beautiful. Now you, perhaps my greatest creation. More bright and precious than a jewel. More sharp and keen than a crystal shard. You are my deadliest weapon of all. More lethal even than Silk and the Rose combined.”
Krista thrilled at his words. She pictured Silkwood and Rosewood; the two exquisite blond female Vallè of Black Dugal’s Caste. Both had left on separate missions more than five moons ago. The two Vallè had helped Dugal train her and Hans Rake in the beautiful art of assassination. They had participated in many kills together. There had also been another teacher in the beginning—Spiderwood—an experienced but cruel-faced Bloodwood who’d mimicked the traits
of Dugal to an alarming degree. So exacting were his mannerisms, Krista wondered if he wasn’t somehow relation to her master.
“Crystalwood,” she repeated, feeling the name flow from between her lips.
Dugal gave her a placid nod of affirmation. His eyes roamed the forest beyond, settling on the woman chained to the tree. Hints of sunlight trickled through the crooked branches and leaves above like whispers through a stained-glass window and lit on the woman’s panicked face like gold.
“Come.” Dugal beckoned.
Krista’s heart failed a beat. She put her head to her mare’s neck. Felt Dread’s warmth. It always calmed her, this small thing. Helped her breathe easy. Then she let go the bit, motioned her horse to stay, and followed her master. The woman at the tree tried to shrink away as Krista and Dugal approached. Sunken flesh hung in wrinkled folds about her eyes, cheeks, and jowls. The captive’s tan shift carried an air of urine and sweat. In fact, a musty, fetid stink suffused the entire area. And the distant shrieks of other prisoners echoed through the forest.
Dugal reached one languid hand above the woman’s head. He peeled a thin strip of coal-colored bark from the tree, tossing it to the ground without thought. Red sap welled slowly from the tree’s wound. The curious sap sizzled and smoked as it crawled down the black bark. Krista ran her fingers over the surface of the tree. It was not flaky and brittle like that of a birch. It felt like moist leather—like warm human flesh. She could feel herself shudder at the unsettling sensation.
Dugal reached above the captive again, dabbed two of his fingers into the smoking sap. Tendrils of smoke drifted from his fingers, now painted in red. He stepped toward Krista and ran both fingers across her face, smearing two streaks of sizzling sap under her left eye. It stung. Krista resisted the urge to flinch away, focused on the confusion and panic on the chained woman’s face.
Dugal swiped more smoking sap from the tree. “Show me your tongue,” he ordered, his fingers coated in red again.
Krista stuck out her tongue. Dugal touched the sap to it. Initially it burned. Then she caught its divine taste and immediately desired more, eyes greedily fixed on the wound in the tree and the crimson sap hanging there, sizzling.
“Part of your final test is to never partake of the Bloodwood sap again.” Dugal’s red-streaked, stone-carved eyes bit into hers. “Even if I offer it.” Krista felt great sorrow and longing for the sap before the words were even out of his mouth.
“Death is the father of terror.” Dugal’s eyes were now trained on the prisoner. “?’Tis what men dread most. Death. But there is such beauty it.” He reached out and stroked the side of the woman’s face with the back of his hand. She cowered away from his touch. He continued, “The image of a corpse is graven into the mind of the one who sees it for the first time. That first time one sees death—not the death of a doe or a dog or a skittering gutter cat, but real death, the death of a human—is powerful. Name one other visible image as potent, as compelling, as full of beauty.”
Dugal turned his gaze to Krista. “And here you are. Crystalwood. Ready and willing to administer more cruel beauty on this lovely day.” She was always charmed by her master, even here, even conversing of sacrificial murder in a forest of midnight color and savage screams and divine burning sap. Such cruel beauty.
He was right. Five years killing, of training in dance, acrobatics, games, puzzles, stealth, lock picking, key making, thievery, crossbow, alchemy, mixing poisons, knife and sword and spear and chain-mace had led her here, to this.
Her Sacrament of Souls.
She looked up at the black tree and oozing sap. I want to taste it again. With that thought, she looked away. Sweating. When Black Dugal had first presented her with the Bloodwood leathers, she’d
imagined they would be as uncomfortable and hot as a baker’s oven. Yet that had not been the case. They were surprisingly comfortable. She had never once in five years sweated in them. Now she felt the odd sensation that the armor was somehow feeding on her flesh, consuming her like a blanketing parasite, infecting her with its sumptuous stifling caress.
Dugal’s eyes bored into hers, unflinching. “You have already killed many in my name. You are brutal and efficient and unfeeling in your work. And that is good. But today will be different. A corpse, alarming to view at first, can become delightful to observe as a work of art. Especially when created by one’s own hand. That is what you are to learn here today. The entire extent of human anatomy. Your final test. Murder in the name of art. The mother of all beauty.” The woman trussed to the tree next to them started gasping in panic at his words.
Dark gaze focused on Krista, Dugal continued, “Before, you were simply a killer. After today you will be a true Bloodwood assassin. You will become Crystalwood. And with your new name, you must forsake your past. Rid yourself of whatever heritage you still hold dear. There is no more room for tenderness of heart. No room for the longings of the past. No room for love. Today you will learn the full art of what we do.”
Krista’s stomach crawled up into her throat as her master went on. “Your mother is long dead. You were raised by your father, Gault Aulbrek. You will never again let his name pass over your lips. You are now called fatherless.”
Loneliness was growing in her breast. Bitterness too. After her father had left for war ten years ago, she had grown accustomed to her miserable, lonely life with King Aevrett and his queen, the beautiful and dignified and cruel Natalia. For five years the woman had treated her as a slave, keeping her under the wing of Aevrett’s own Knights Chivalric bodyguards at Jö Reviens, the king’s palace. And she had grown to despise Natalia for reasons she did not wish to
think of now. And she had grown bitter that her father had left her for war and never returned. Left her with an evil king and his even more evil queen.
Though she ofttimes wondered why Black Dugal trained her, ever since he had rescued her from the torment of Jö Reviens five years ago and just after her father had left for war a second time, the world had become a better place. Less sensible for sure. Less secure, yes. But better. For there was freedom in the power to kill. And cold murder was a swift cure for bitterness. And now life was soon to become infinitely more unloving and brutal and rich. And that is what she had wanted. What she had worked so hard for these last five years. This moment. This Sacrament of Souls. The completion of her training.
Neither Seita nor Breita were around to keep her company anymore, to soothe that initial apprehension she’d felt those first few years under Dugal. She had learned much from the two Vallè named Silkwood and Rosewood. But these last few moons it had only been Black Dugal and Hans Rake for companionship, that and those few fond memories of her father she held dear, and the paling remembrances of her mother. Despite her bitterness, she wanted to cling to those things still. But her previous life with her father seemed lost in a receding haze, memories fading like a moldering echo. Gault had been the steady rock on which her childhood had been forged. That was why she both hated him and loved him now. And that was at the heart of the confusion Dugal had been trying to rid her of from the beginning. He’s always been able to sense the conflict within me.
One scene was engraved on her memory, the one memory most fond, the one memory she knew that Dugal could not bleed from her yet—her last look at her father as he’d ridden off to war in Aeros Raijael’s army after his last visit to her five years ago. Dressed in splendorous bright armor and gleaming sword, Gault had sat high and tall atop the warhorse that bore him away from her. His last gesture had
been a low, graceful bow from his saddle as he’d handed her a garland of blue Nordland roses tied about with a dark blue ribbon—a ribbon she wore around her left ankle to this day. Always hidden.
Caring. Death. Longing for the past. Murder. All incompatible objectives. And Dugal reads me like an open book. A creeping malady gathered in her swirling thoughts. Dugal was correct. Emotions would make her weak. It was why she buried them in that bottomless part of her mind. She wanted that maleficent part of her mind that Dugal had been fostering in her to triumph in the end. She was motherless. Fatherless. She had been for a long time. Left adrift and alone in a world that did not look kindly upon abandoned children. Gault had been everything a father should be. But he was now ten years at war, five since she had last seen him—likely long dead. Yes, she was fatherless. And she didn’t care. And the taste of the Bloodwood sap was been so exquisite. . . .
“It is as you say.” Krista met Dugal’s gaze, refusing to blink. “I am now named fatherless.” A small silver dagger, a natural extension of her hand, snapped like lightning from the folds of her leathers. She held up the blade. “I await my Sacrament of Souls.”
The woman shackled to the tree shrieked in terror. Her cry set off a chain reaction of horrified screams from the other prisoners, which resounded in the distance. But Krista did not flinch. She met Dugal, eye to eye. Then her master whirled soundlessly and took his leave, disappearing into the maze of trees from whence he’d come, his red-eyed stallion, Malice, waiting in the gloom.
† † † † †
Krista faced the woman, tilted her head, taking the captive’s measure. The prisoner’s lungs began to heave. Tears welled like fire behind her eyes as she pleaded, “Please, miss, let me go. I know I’ve wr-wronged the throne of Raijael. I know my crimes. But I—I don’t belong
here. I’m not like the rest. I swear it. I was only in the dungeons of Rokenwalder for a day when they took me. You must have mercy.”
“Ah,” a voice sounded behind Krista. “A mercy I hadn’t gotten here sooner.”
In one fluid motion Krista whirled, silver dirk at the guard, ready. It was Hans Rake. He sat royal and tall astride his Bloodeye stallion, Kill. Cursing herself for not paying better attention to her surroundings, Krista looked at him blankly, blade still gripped in her hand.
“Well, Krista, have you a new name?” Hans’ voice carried a throaty, indignant lilt. He wore the same black leather greaves and armor as she, marking him as one of Black Dugal’s Caste. Along with the twin daggers at his belt, a crossbow and quiver of arrows were strapped to his back in plain view. Hans Rake had a slightly hooked nose, squared jaw, and a face that continually bore a peevish, conceited expression. But it was a face graced with solid cheekbones and fiery green eyes—confident, cunning, brooding, mischievous eyes. And like Dugal’s, they were faintly streaked with red. His hair was shaved far above his ears on both sides of his head, blue Suk Skard clan tattoos covering either side of his scalp. The strip of dirty-blond hair atop his skull was a two-inch-high row of carefully formed spikes from his forehead to the nape of his neck.
Both Krista and Hans were seventeen; both had spent the last five years under Black Dugal’s tutelage, killing in his name. But three days ago they had been set to the final game, their very last test to become full Bloodwoods, their final pilgrimage to this, their Sacrament of Souls. It had started in Rokenwalder, with a slew of clues and puzzles that had led them here. Hans now knew well that she was finally in favor with their master. She could tell her arriving here first bothered him greatly. For Hans Rake always quailed to please Black Dugal more than she.
“So, have you a new name, my love?” he asked again.
She had reached the Sacrament of Souls first. Her reward was her
new name. Crystalwood. A name she could not divulge unto Hans until he too had a new name. But when would Dugal give him that name?
“I am not your love.” Krista continued her blank stare.
“You can only keep your name from me for so long.” Hans now held his head high and regal, as if he were looking down his nose at her. An aura of dominance and strength suffused him. “Or has our master finally taken you into his secret councils?” He smiled a mischievous smile. “Do you share secrets with him?”
Krista felt her entire body grow rigid. She didn’t want to be goaded by his haughty innuendos now. With Hans, it was always there, that hint of flirtation, constant insinuation, always directed at her, and always with a certain cruel, yet mannered charm. It was all in his game. She remained silent under his intimate gaze.
Hans looked past her to the woman chained to the tree. “Or perhaps this dead dungeon slut keeps counsel with our beloved Black Dugal. Or perhaps she has been given a new name too.” He dismounted his Bloodeye steed, drifted toward the captive. “What is your name, woman?”
The captive said nothing, frozen in fear.
“Yes, this one will be mine.” Hans’ fingers coiled through her natty hair. “Naught but a pile of shivering, blubbering meat meant for my blades.” He glanced Krista’s way, saw the dagger still in her grip. “A new name you may have, but still you carry the same silver as I.”
Krista remained silent, calm. Hans turned back to the captive, and his expression relaxed into wistfulness. “See, m’lady prisoner, we don’t get to fashion our own Bloodwood daggers until after completing our Sacrament of Souls. We must gather the red sap of these trees . . . and then gather your blood.” He trailed off, traced steady fingers over the woman’s neck, digging his fingernails in. Blood trickled down her pale skin as she whimpered in pain. Behind Krista, Kill whinnied in approval.
“A silver blade is never thirsty.” Hans continued his seemingly idle regard. “But give me a black one of my own making . . .”
The captive screamed as her eyes bounced between Krista and Hans and out into the vast, wretched forest as if searching for escape or rescue. Hans frowned his displeasure. “All the wailings and protests in the Five Isles will not save you. The locals dare not venture here. They claim this forest is haunted.” His eyes roamed the trees in lazy regard. “Oh, and I would say this place is most haunted, and about to become more so. These trees drink the blood of the dead. The blood of you prisoners nourishes the soil. I imagine our Sacrament of Souls sustains this forest. Am I being deliberate enough, making clear our aim?”
“Please, no.” The woman gave one last primal plea, eyes bouncing again from Hans to Krista and back to Hans. “Have mercy, both of you, please.”
Though Hans Rake ofttimes liked to act the part, Krista knew he was no brutish, slit-eyed thug from the gutters of Rokenwalder. He was slick and smooth and aware and lucid at all times. But he carried in him some monstrous feral need for butchery and violence that could manifest itself in spectacular wicked fashion. She, too, felt those same longings for chaos and violence. It was the one way in which they were shockingly similar. They had killed together before. This was their Sacrament of Souls. And together they would kill everyone here.
Hans’ flat eyes appraised the woman as he touched her face lovingly, his thumbs sliding up under her ears, caressing the hinge of her jaw. He dug in swiftly and jerked out violently, dislocating her jaw. Her eyes widened in both surprise and pain. Her screams turned to muffled gurgles as Hans took his dagger to her windpipe.
And with that, Krista found herself wondering what her father would think of all this: the Bloodwood training, all the killing she had done in Black Dugal’s name, this Sacrament of Souls. What
would Gault Aulbrek think of her life as an assassin these last five years? He had been so serious about perfecting his own sword craft, so earnest in his study of war, so beholden to his Lord Aeros. She had admired that devotion in him. And as she watched Hans carve into the woman, she indeed wondered what her father would say to her now.
After a time, Krista turned away from Hans Rake and his bloody labors. Let him have the first victim. What did she care? She preferred to work alone. And there were a hundred other prisoners awaiting. Sheathing her dagger, taking Dread again by the bit, she stepped lightly, the soil at her feet a sponge of thick grasses and black flowers. She passed Hans and his desolate victim on her way toward the center of the lush woods and the rest of the quivering captives—canvasses for her art, her final Bloodwood test.
Before she disappeared into the black forest of prisoners, Krista saw Hans look up from his work and throw her a coy, curling little smile. Red butterflies still danced in the air, and somewhere in the distance came the lone shriek of a crow. Krista Aulbrek would walk among the dead soon—the dead of her own creation.
And with her new name—Crystalwood.