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Read the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Son of the Prophet

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Prologue

Trans-Falls, Ravenwood

Year: Rumi 5210 Q.RJ.M (Quźech raź jin mraha—After our Lord)

Time Counted Since the Beginning of the Great Lord’s Reign

“I give you one year, Esmeray. If Hanluurasa will not have you and the Great Emperor refuses you from Sankura, then Rasa has no need of you either. One year, and that is all.” The Igentis Artigal’s words rang clearly in Esmeray’s mind as they often did on quiet, lonely mornings.

            As the memory faded, a long moment passed before her eyes blinked open. Darkness greeted her despite the patch of sunlight warming the rocks on which she had stacked her fur blankets.

            A seed of rage worked at her heart, ready to spring free and grow into an all too familiar thorny vine. But she refused it nourishment and, after a few cleansing breaths, felt the rage, frustration, desperation, and hopelessness slip away.

            With a yawn and an awkward stretch that reminded her rocky caves were not ideal Centaur homes, she took to her hooves and ran her hands across the cave walls, finding her small stash of berries and honey for breakfast.

            Though the darkness that greeted her was the same every morning since losing her sight, today felt different. Today, she didn’t have to live in bitter fear and resentment. Today, she had what the Igentis Artigal sought after—proof she had paid fully for her mistakes and attained the forgiveness of the Great Divine.

            It took her only a few minutes to gather her things: her staff Shaze-dow, two zheborgiy mushrooms, a hooded cloak to cover her face, a small water flask, and a leather tie for her hair. She didn’t bother slipping a brush through her thick pink and silver hair. She’d turned it to dreadlocks within the first few months of her banishment; why bother to maintain her once silky hair when she herself could no longer see it and strangers now only saw her as an abomination even Hanluurasa didn’t want?

            She paused at the mouth of her cave, one hand on the rocks beside her, the other touching her long, dreaded hair. It wasn’t the first time she’d worn dreads. It wasn’t the first time she’d stood on a precipice of her life either. Two paths stretched before her with no way back once a choice was made. A deep breath of resolve filled her lungs. This time, she would choose wisely.

            Picking her way down rocky steps leading to the forest below, she let her other senses guide her instead of the twine strung from her cave down the path. Eventually, the twine would run out. No use in relying on it now.

            A Ñáfagarœy, startled from its morning forage, hopped across the road, its soft fur brushing her legs. With a quiet whinny, she shied from the contact, her heart thundering like Ravenwood’s army of Centaurs.

            Ñáshaid, she cursed at herself. How will you stand before the Igentis if you are frightened by a Ñáfagarœy? But try as she did, she couldn’t muster the self-loathing she would’ve felt a year ago. Since her isolation from Ravenwood and during the time she’d spent listening to the stars and understanding the true heart of the Great Divine, she’d learned something about maintaining patience toward herself. However, she couldn’t say the same about the other Centaurs.

            As she continued along the stoney path, thankful it leveled out as it snaked through the Trans-Falls valley, she found it increasingly more difficult to grasp awareness of her surroundings. Birds called, deer grazed, and, worst of all, more Centaurs traveled the road, none of whom were happy to be sharing it with her.

            “By the stars. Is that really a Centaur?” A female’s words cut deep into Esmeray’s heart as a small rock smacked her in the back of the head. The perpetrator, a small child, laughed. The child’s parent, presumably the rude female, did nothing to correct the behavior.

            Esmeray’s slender fingers tightened around her staff as she whirled to face the direction of the offending Centaurs, venomous words on her lips.

            “It’s hard to tell. Seems more like a walking corpse to me. Her skin is too white. And by the stars, look at the scars on her body. Do you think she’s some kind of Warrior?” The father’s comment about the disfiguring scars that lined Esmeray’s once flawless black body stirred her blood.

            Forgive me, Divine. Her fists tightened. I cannot walk away and forget this one.

            Turning her white, unseeing eyes to the souls she felt lingering around her, she let her hood fall from her face.

            Gasps of horror filled the air and the young rocking-throwing Centaur screamed.

         Black blood seeped from her eyelids, and she knew her fingertips were also stained with blood, knew the dark colors shone horrifically against her blueish, starlight skin and light pink hair, knew she looked like a monster.

            “I would think twice before throwing another rock, elu lásheñ.”

            The air grew painfully quiet. She sensed movement as the young Centaur raised his arm.

            Don’t let my magic fail me now. Esmeray narrowed her eyes and bared her sharpened teeth.

            The rock streaked toward her. With a snap of her fingers, she felt the magic jolt through her body, forcing its way through rusty barriers in her mind and struggling against promises she made to herself before finally leaving her fingers. Inches from her, the rock froze midair before changing course and careening back into the young Centaur’s nose.

            The forest erupted in crying, shouts of anger, and hooves as Esmeray turned and galloped away, praying the road didn’t take too many sharp turns. Zuru kid. She spat on the road. He deserves a crooked nose for the rest of his life. I hope they can’t find a healer to fix it.  

            Once the raging family had faded behind her, she slowed to a trot, her heart racing and mind dizzy from the small amount of magic. Releasing it had been harder than she’d hoped it would be. Hanluurasa had done a superb job of making sure she would never possess the power to repeat her mistakes. Leaning heavily against her staff, she sucked in air that burned in her lungs. But a small smile spread across her sharp teeth. Despite the struggle her magic brought, she still wasn’t as helpless as she had believed. Where once she had been bitter over the disfigurement of her body, now she was grateful. No one would recognize her as the Priestess of Hanluurasa who’d nearly brought ruin to Ravenwood. Instead, the horrors would fade away into legend and myth without a face or name to connect to Esmeray.

            Like Artigal, she had been renewed by the Great Divine and given a second chance—a chance to change the world for the better. First, she would alert Artigal of the revelations she’d gathered from the stars; then she would find a way to undo the binding of the Corrupt Magic, Kijaqumok, that had suppressed the forest into the Sleeping. For even if all she accomplished was righting the wrongs she had committed against Rasa, it would be enough to be proud of, even if Artigal and the Emperor were the only ones who knew.

            She only had to convince Artigal to let her try.

            “Esmeray?” A familiar milky voice called gently to her.

            It didn’t take her long to figure out where he was. His magical presence was overwhelming, and she instantly recognized the Pure Magic, Shushequmok, within him. It was the same Magic whose channel she utilized to listen to the stars now that she couldn’t read them directly. I hope he can feel it in me just the same as I feel it in him.

            “Igentis.” Though the aches in her scars screamed against the movement, she attempted to bow low before her ruler, the very authority she had once sought to kill.

            A warm hand touched her shoulder. “No need. We are alone.”

            Thankful, she straightened, wishing more than anything that she could see his face, read his body language, look into his eyes, and read his thoughts. “How did you find me? You didn’t know I was coming today. I sent no messenger.”

            A chuckle rang in his voice. “You are not the only one who can read the stars, Esmeray.”

            But am I the only one who can hear them? She kept the question to herself.

            “You have something for me.”

            Throwing back her shoulders and finding a sliver of the pride she’d used to carry with such surety, Esmeray nodded. “I have read the stars and by the powers that created Hanluurasa, I watched the Duvarharian deity, the Great Lord Joad, bestow a prophecy upon the Dragon Riders.”

            “When?”

            “Two weeks from today when all the heavenly bodies dance the Unurarujax.”

            Artigal’s demeanor darkened. “And what will the prophecy foretell?”

            “The rise of a traitor and the destruction of the Duvarharians.”

Chapter One

Peace Haven, Duvarharia

Year: Rumi 5310 Q.RJ.M (Quźech raź jin mraha—After our Lord)

Time Counted Since the Beginning of the Great Lord’s Reign

100 Years After the Dragon Prophecy

Dust flew behind a Duvarharian boy as he raced down the road, dodging a dragonet, vendors trying to sell their wares, and beggars seeking alms. “Thanatos, wait! Slow down!” Each breath burned his lungs as his legs screamed in protest. Curses tumbled from his lips as his older brother only called back, “Last one home is a rotten hatchling!”

            Putting on an extra boost of speed, the boy ducked under and through the towering legs of a dragon, narrowly missing being stepped on. The great creature rumbled in amusement as, only moments later, the boy collided with another Duvarharian Rider.

            A sharp rap of pain jolted through his head as stars sparked across his vision. Rocks dug into his hands as he scrambled back to his feet, coughing against the small cloud of dust he’d breathed in during the fall. Frantically, he searched the crowd for the dark-haired boy he had been chasing. He couldn’t spot him.

            Ozi, he cursed.

            “Well, don’t just stand there, help me up!”

            The boy winced at the young woman’s tone and quickly stuck out his hand in assistance. Her own coughs mingled with the laughter of the market around them. His cheeks burned.

            Once she was steady on her feet, she rubbed her eyes, muttering curses under her breath.

            “I’m deeply sorry about that, miss. I’m afraid I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going.” He clasped his hands in front of him and drew a line in the dirt road with his boot.

            When his eyes met hers, burning with such hate and rage, he wished he’d simply left her sitting in the dust.

            “You again. Are you always this stupid or just around me? Źebu quhuesu dasuunab,” she cursed, reaching back to strike him across the face.

            Before her blow could land, he ducked and pelted away as quickly as he could.

            Heart pounding so rapidly he thought it would give up and burst, the boy didn’t stop running until he could no longer hear the girl’s screaming rage of how he had ruined yet another of her good dresses. Her threats of revenge were unfortunately not lost in the wind.

            I wonder if she would let me pay the damages in femi since she’s always saying, “I’ll pay”. A small chuckle graced his lips, but the humor didn’t last. The girl was Brina—the only daughter of a powerful Peace Haven Council member. She had six wildly protective older brothers who made sure to teach anyone a painful lesson if they crossed her.

            Tears stung the young boy’s eyes, but he furiously wiped them away lest his blurred vision led to another unfortunate collision.

            When he surveyed his surroundings, he realized he’d run so far, he wasn’t sure what road he’d turned down. Thanatos was nowhere to be seen, and the suns were beginning to set over the treetops.

            Dragging his feet, he took several deep breaths, trying to recall what Thanatos had taught him should they ever get separated.

            The suns set in the west. The Council Hall’s dome is south of home. From the top of the small hill he’d crested over, he could see the great circular walls of Peace Haven’s arena. That means I must turn around. So, he did. And now look for the tree. He could just barely see the grand tree standing proudly above the rest of the forest near his home.

            A sigh of relief left his lungs, and he changed his course. Now that the anxiety had faded, he allowed himself to study this new section of Peace Haven he found himself in.

            It was poorer than the sectors he and his family frequented. Houses and stores weren’t made with the familiar crafted granite or marble. Instead, they were built more from brick, mortar, or stone. They didn’t shimmer in the setting suns like the high sector buildings did, but he didn’t find them all that homely either. He found something oddly comforting about the humble buildings, and he believed a certain beauty was hidden in the cracks and imperfections of the buildings where water had worn them away or vines had pried them apart.

            Taking a different road than the one that had led him on this adventure, he passed over a small bridge, stopping a moment to watch the Qeźujeluch lizards as they ducked underneath the large lily pads.

            “By the gods, Thaddeus, where have you been?” Thanatos’s voice caught the boy’s attention. “Please tell me you didn’t come all the way over here just to look at the Qeźujeluch?

            Thaddeus’s face burned as he jumped away from the railing. “N—no. Of course not.” He hated how guilty his squeaky voice sounded, despite being honest. “I ran into …” He nearly spoke her name but caught himself. Thanatos hated that he let her bully him, hated the thought of her brothers getting ahold of him. But Thaddeus didn’t want his older brother to think him weak, as someone who always needed protection. “… into someone, and I thought they were going to skin my scales, so I started running. I didn’t realize where I was going until I stopped.” The road was full of hard rocks, and he kicked one before chewing the inside of his cheek.

            Thanatos rolled his bright blue eyes and threw a heavy arm around his younger brother, playfully dragging him along. “What a story. Mother won’t buy it for a second. Come on. Home isn’t too much farther. Gods of all, you’re a dusty mess!”

            Thaddeus yelped as Thanatos playfully slapped his arms and legs, sending a dust cloud into the air.

            They took turns chasing each other until the roads were familiar again and familiar gigantic trees loomed over them, blocking the last few rays of the suns’ light.

            “Thanks for coming to find me.” He snuck a glance at Thanatos, who nodded curtly.

            “Don’t mention it. Mother’s too strict when it comes to curfew. I was planning on staying out late tonight anyway.”

            A smile decorated Thaddeus’s face. He knew Thanatos never stayed out later than when Mother told them to be home. Neither of them wanted to face her lectures about rising crime and the increase in kidnappings of young men to fill the arenas with fresh blood. And even though neither boy had heard the statistics firsthand, the border wasn’t far away, and all the stories said Wyriders were a vicious and bloodthirsty race.

            Nearly a half hour after the suns dipped below the horizon, they arrived home. Even though their tardiness wouldn’t go unnoticed, both boys took care to slip into the house as quietly as possible. If their mother didn’t see them come in, they’d at least have the chance to come up with an excuse like playing predator and prey.

            “Thanatos. Thaddeus. Do you have something to say for yourselves?"

            The boys stopped dead in their tracks as the door clicked shut behind them, the small sound deafening in the sudden silence.

            Slowly, they turned around.

           A woman with long, hip-length black hair, olive skin, and eyes the color of emerald stood with her hands firmly on her hips, her lips pursed in a thin line.

            After a quick moment of stunned silence and whirling thoughts, excuses bolted out of the boys’ lips and tumbled over each other.

            “Thanatos left me behind and—”

            “Thaddeus was distracted and couldn’t keep up—”

            “I ran into someone! I had to help them up.”

            “He wasn’t paying attention.”

            “I got lost.”

            “He wanted to look at the Qeźujeluch.”

            “I did not!”

            “Did too!”

            “Did not!”

            “Did too!”

            “Boys!”

            Their attention snapped to their mother as their mouths clamped shut.

            Her eyes sparkled with something that could be mistaken as mirth, though the rest of her body disagreed. “You know how I feel about curfew.”

            Thanatos groaned, and she shot him a scathing look that had him clasping his hands and twiddling his thumbs.

            “The Vuk Quseb are always looking for young men just like you to kidnap and throw into the arena. They don’t care if you think you’re too fast for them or can lose their tail. They have hounds and tracking vultures and are always on the lookout for easy prey. Most of the kidnappings happen after dark on nights just like tonight! Is that what you want to happen?”

            Both their heads hung low.

            “No,” Thanatos muttered.

            “That’s what I thought. Now, you’ll be in this house before sunset from now on, or I’m not letting you roam the city alone. I’ll send one of your tutors along with you.”

            “No!” The boys shouted a little louder than they meant, so they each repeated their promise in a lower tone. “We promise to be home before dark.”

         “Good.” Their mother’s face softened, and she quickly planted a kiss on Thaddeus’s head before turning to Thanatos. He dodged her kiss, and she lightly smacked the back of his head.

            “Oh, Thanatos. Don’t be so stubborn. You’re not yet old enough to skip a mother’s kiss.” With surprising agility and strength, she dashed after her laughing son, pulled him into her arms, and showered his forehead and hair in kisses as he squealed and frantically tried to escape.

            When she finally released him, all three of them were breathless with laughter. Thaddeus let himself be pulled into a group hug, feeling the comforting warmth of his mother’s arms around him. He thought back and realized he’d never seen his mother truly angry before, no matter how much trouble he and his brother got into. Rumors lingered in the city of her wrath and something about her past, but as she whispered endearing words to him and Thanatos in her native tongue, he couldn’t imagine her being anything other than kind, caring, and nurturing.

            He sighed and squeezed them harder, ignoring Thanatos’s playful groans of discomfort.

            “Alright, tyän setyäg. Go change your clothes. I have a surprise waiting for you in the kitchen.”

            Thaddeus quickly broke away from her arms, racing to the long hallway that branched out of the grand living room they were in.

            “Thaddeus! Walk, don’t run please. This is a house, not an arena, and Arella the sun be blessed, try not to leave that dust cloud on the floor!”

            “Okay!” He only slowed his pace to a fast walk.

            “Yes ma’am?”

            He tried not to roll his eyes and thanked the gods she couldn’t see his face. “Yes, ma’am,” he called back.

            As he entered the glass hallway, he faintly heard her call Thanatos back.

            Hesitating near the entrance of the hallway, trying to appear as if he were watching the little stream that ran under the enclosed glass bridge, though it was much too dark to see, he strained to hear what his mother was saying.

            “Thanatos … much younger than you … can’t be left … in the city … your job to protect … keep that in mind.”

            Thanatos’s voice was too quiet to hear, but Thaddeus sensed a sincerity in his tone—a tenderness toward his younger brother that he would never dare to show him face to face.

            Before he could be caught eavesdropping, Thaddeus rushed through the rest of the tunnel and darted into the first door on the left of the hall, opposite his parents’ room.

            Dashing into the room he and Thanatos shared, he quickly stripped of his dusty clothes, tossed them into a pile on the floor to forget about later, and was dressed in a fresh tunic and pants just as Thanatos stepped into the room.

            “Who’s the slow old dragon now?” Sticking his tongue out at his brother, Thaddeus dashed past him and back into the hallway, feeling a breath of air across his shoulders as Thanatos futilely swiped at him.

            “You rotten hatchling!”

            Thaddeus couldn’t hold back his ringing laughter as he raced back across the glass bridgeway and into the living room, making sure to slow to a walk in case his mother was watching. Though he knew Thanatos would find a way to get even with him, the look on his face had been worth it.

            Stopping at their collection of instruments to his right, he paused, knowing Mother would want him to wait for Thanatos so they could see the surprise together. He dragged his fingers across the side of their grand piano then danced them across the keys. The notes brought a sigh to his lips, and quickly, he played a short scale. Resisting the urge to sit down and practice, he meandered over to the plush couches, exercising all his self-control to not peek through the slightly open kitchen door.

            I wonder what Mother made for us.  He didn’t smell anything cooking. Usually, her delicious creations would permeate the air with tantalizing scents. Today, however, he only detected the sweet scent of zinligil zupe drifting in from the garden on crisp, cool summer air.

            A hand reached around his head and locked him in a playful chokehold.

            With a yelp of surprise, Thaddeus fought against his brother, trying every tactic his father had taught him to escape these sorts of holds. But despite Thaddeus’s training, Thanatos’s superior strength won.

            The door to the kitchen opened, and their mother stepped out, a disapproving look on her face. She didn’t have to say a word for the boys to jump apart, trying to act innocent of their mischief.

            Gesturing for them to come over, she disappeared into the kitchen. They quickly followed, tripping over each other and pushing each other out of the way, trying to be the first to see the surprise.

            After stomping on Thanatos’s toes, making him bite off a curse and jump in suppressed pain, Thaddeus dashed the last few feet to the door, swinging it open exuberantly.

            He froze in shock.

            “What? What is it?” Thanatos was right behind him, just about to push him out of the way, when he also froze.

            “Father?” Thaddeus took one unsure step into the kitchen as the man sitting on one of the tall stools swiveled around to face them, a broad grin across his golden, stubbled face.

            Tears of joy sparkled in his eyes as he nodded and opened his arms.

            "Father!"

            Without another moment’s hesitation, the boys rushed to the man and decended upon him with playful wrestling and tight hugs.

            The kitchen rang with joyful laughter and tears of delight from both the parents. Soon, though, the laughter was replaced with an endless stream of interrogation.

            “Hold on, little dragonets!” Their father roared with laughter as he brushed them off him and pushed them toward their own chairs. With wide eyes, they jumped onto the seats, nearly climbing over the island counter to be close to him once again. Their bombardment of questions had yet to cease.

            “Boys! Let your father catch his breath! He’s only just arrived home and hasn’t even had the chance to change his own clothes.”

            The blonde man shook his head, waving his hand. “Oh, Naraina. They’re only curious is all. Acting just like proper Duvarharians.”

            “Didn’t you go to see the Centaurs, Father?” Thaddeus’s question was quickly repeated by Thanatos. Though the dark-haired boy was nearly two years older than Thaddeus, his eyes sparkled with the same child-like wonder as his brother.

            With a somber face, their father nodded. “Yes, I did.”

            The boys yelped with excitement. Their home of Peace Haven was so far north in Duvarharia, it wasn’t often they heard stories of the Centaurs down south in Ravenwood. However, they were lucky enough to have an ambassador for a father who always brought home such wonderful stories. Sometimes Thaddeus wondered how much of the stories were true, but he never deemed it important to destroy the magic of his father’s storytelling by asking.

            However, today was different. A certain darkness shone through their father’s eyes as if everything he were about to say was not only very true but also very serious.

            “However, they weren’t just any Centaurs.”

            An unusual hush fell over the kitchen.

            “I met with the council of the United Tribes of Centaurs and the Igentis Artigal himself.”

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