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The Second Order

The Second Order

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The Second Order

Lunghezza:
363 pagine
4 ore
Editore:
Pubblicato:
Jul 29, 2015
ISBN:
9781311125613
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

The Gandahri tribe faces extinction. A mysterious disease has inflicted everyone Ander cares about and he alone exhibits no symptoms. When he seeks help from Bresia, a neighboring kingdom steeped in war with the Second Order, Ander learns that the epidemic ravaging his people is not a disease, but a weapon, engineered by the Order to infect only foreigners. Because of his immunity, Ander is enlisted to help. And while he is desperate to save his tribe, the more he learns of the Order's diabolical plans the more he realizes that they must be stopped, and he is the only one who can stop them.

Editore:
Pubblicato:
Jul 29, 2015
ISBN:
9781311125613
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

I am not who you think I am.

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Anteprima del libro

The Second Order - B H Knudson

Prologue

The amber-lit torches ensconced on granite walls cowered one by one as the crown prince of Asgoroth ascended the spiral staircase to his father's chamber. His white robes billowed majestically despite the yellowing at his feet and the maroon stains at his wrists. His pace was swift, knowing that he had been bidden several hours ago, but he did not overexert himself. If his father died before he arrived this night, so be it.

When he reached the top floor, the light of the greater moon shined through the glass ceiling giving his otherwise black hair a bluish hue. The guards posted outside the room gave the prince a reverent nod and stepped to either side of the large, dark wooden door. Clicking the heels of their heavy boots together with a thud, they stared forward at the bare granite before them.

The prince's footsteps echoed down the long, cavernous room, his pace slowing as he passed each of the six tall stained glass windows that flanked the western wall. The curved lines of the vaulted ceiling seemed to point toward the far end of the room where his brother stood reverently beside a single fourposter bed.

Rhone, where have you been? You were sent for hours ago? The attending prince called out to his older brother from the dimly lit bedside. His tunic was the same light blue color as his concerned eyes. The fabric was lightly decorated with golden embroidery and fastened with a leather belt holding a long decorative sword sheathed in its scabbard.

I was busy. I had... things to do.

More experiments on pagan relics, I suppose?

Something like that, he said exasperatedly. What are you doing here anyway, Aldus? I thought you were supposed to be helping one of your sons with that water project by the fire fields. Heshe, Domner? Which son was it?

I was with Bre in the north. Father sent word bidding my presence a few days ago. I came straight away.

How is he?

The fever broke. I think he will be alright. He is resting now.

So it would seem.

Aldus could not tell if Rhone was relieved, disappointed or confused by the news.

The two brothers looked down in awkward silence at the King's tired face. His weathered skin was pale and riddled with age spots. His thin, white hair touched the collar of his white silk nightgown. He had lived a long and impressive life. The kind that men would sing songs about for generations.

Finally, Aldus stretched out his hand to the resting King's frail shoulder.

Father, Aldus whispered with a gentle shake.

The King stirred. Aldus shook him again with a little more force.

Father, Rhone is here.

Hmm? What's that? the King mumbled, opening his eyes slowly.

Rhone is here, father.

Ah. I can see that, the King grumbled, clearing his throat. He looked up at Aldus and smiled, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight. Then turned his attention to Rhone, letting out an exasperated sigh.

Rhone's eyes narrowed, sensing something coming that he wasn't going to like.

My sons. I am dying, the old King announced in a low, scratchy voice.

The brothers looked at each other, then down at the king, dropping to their knees.

But not today, he continued.

The princes each let out a held breath, confused but attentive.

My physicians assure me that I will live a few more months, maybe even a year. But it is clear to me, after this most recent episode, that I can no longer effectively govern our glorious kingdom. Not in my condition.

The corners of Rhone's mouth crept upward, drawing conclusions from the King's solemn words. At long last, his father would be dead and he would rule the kingdom, which by now had spanned nearly the entire continent. How long had he waited for this moment.

And I have decided that Aldus will reign in my stead as king of Asgoroth.

Prince Rhone felt as if he had been punched in the gut. His head swirled, confused by the pronouncement.

What? His bright brown eyes turned to his younger brother like pointed daggers, barely concealing the rage that was bubbling inside him.

He has named me his successor, Aldus said timidly.

Rhone looked back down at his ailing father trying to stay calm, but his emotions boiled over.

You are leaving the kingdom to this… this, half-breed? he thundered, nostrils flared.

Now, now. You will still be high prince. You two can work together to find a role that best suits you and your, um, talents.

Best suits me? Father, you can't be serious.

Aldus understands the needs of the kingdom, son. He has been managing things quite well for the past few years, delegating responsibility to his sons throughout the kingdom most effectively. You, on the other hand, still have no legitimate heir.

"But father, it is my birthright. Would you defile the throne of your forefathers with him? The son of a pagan savage?"

Aldus is just as much my son as you are, Rhone. I have considered this for some time now, and my decision is final.

Rhone's lip curled with disgust. A vein bulged in his forehead and his face was bright red as he stepped away from the bed. He looked out the stained glass window and breathed deeply as he bit down on the first knuckle of his clenched fist.

The silent tension in the room was palpable.

Aldus nervously inched toward his elder brother and extended a comforting hand onto his shoulder.

My first act as king will be to name you high commander of the army, or master of currency, whatever position you would like. How does that sound, brother? Aldus offered, trying to seem merciful, but only sounding desperate.

Rhone was silent. He stared out the window blankly, and Aldus looked back to his father and shrugged. An uncomfortable minute later, Rhone finally turned with a forced smile.

High commander of the military you say?

He reached for the sword at Aldus's waist, pulling it free from its scabbard.

I suppose I could get used to that title, he said coolly.

Aldus let out a sigh of relief and smiled triumphantly at the bedridden King.

Rhone held his brother's sword up to the light and dusted it off with a small cloth he had drawn from his pocket.

Still, he said calmly inspecting the edge of the blade.

This whole thing would have been much easier if you had died yesterday as I had intended.

Aldus frowned, looking from his brother to his father and then back again, confused. The King was also bewildered by Rhone's cryptic words, but confusion quickly turned to horror as Rhone, his first-born son, stepped in his direction with the sword outstretched and pointed at his chest.

Long live the King, Rhone said, his voice ice cold.

Before Aldus could react, his brother had plunged his sword deep into his father's heart.

Guards! Rhone yelled. Guards, the prince has assassinated the King!

Aldus's face turned pale as he watched the white silk of the King’s nightgown turn bright red. His father coughed in agony, his eyes bulging. Rhone dropped Aldus’s sword onto the marble floor, the sound echoing in the empty chamber. Then Rhone pounced on his innocent brother just as the guards flooded into the room.

Take him. He has killed the King, Rhone yelled again.

The guards seized the younger prince, who was too stunned to struggle free.

It's a lie! Aldus yelled finally. It was Prince Rhone.

But the guards paid him no heed. After all, it was Rhone who had stayed in Wrolstad, and it was Rhone that these guards were ultimately loyal to.

To the dungeon with him, Rhone commanded. On the morrow, his crimes of treason will be met with justice.

No! Aldus protested. This cannot be!

More guards poured into the room, restraining the younger prince.

Your punishment will be swift, brother. The only acceptable course of action is execution.

No! Aldus screamed. You won't get away with this, brother. My sons will avenge me.

Take him away!

The guards whisked the accused out of the room, taking with them the commotion of the evening's drama. When the room was finally silent again, the new King looked out the stained glass window. He surveyed his new kingdom below then closed his eyes and let out a relieved sigh.

Part One: Fall of the Gandahri

Chapter 1: Harvest

There are few things as unsettling as waking up in a torture chamber, especially when you can't remember how you got there. Ander had been raised by a tribe of desert nomad and was used to a transient lifestyle, but even that hadn’t prepared him for the disorienting uneasiness he felt finding himself in such a place.

He woke slowly to the distant peel of what sounded like a church bell. His head ached, and he could tell that one eye was swollen. His left shoulder was completely numb and the other throbbed with hot pain that stretched all the way down to his hands that were bound over his head. It was hard to tell how long he had been unconscious or slumped over on his knees, but it had been long enough to leave him stiff all over.

Where am I? How did I get here? The thoughts echoed in his mind. He struggled to piece together the last forty-eight hours, but it was all a blur. Whatever drug had knocked him out had also left his mind sluggish. All he knew for sure was that he was in the middle of something very important and he had recently been betrayed.

He slowly licked his cracked lips and drew in a breath. The dusty air tickled his throat, causing an involuntary cough that ripped through his chest like sandpaper through a straw. Ander winced in agony then tried to open his one good eye.

The room was dark except for a single beam of golden light that peeked through a small hole in the thatched roof and illuminated the dust motes as they floated through it. The space seemed mostly empty. Ander was in the center, the thick rope that bound his hands suspended from the rafters above.

As his eye adjusted to the darkness, Ander could distinguish a rusty metal door directly in front of him. Beside the door stood a small, wooden table with several objects. It didn't take long to realize that the objects on the table’s surface belonged to him. A small glass box, a bracelet, two tusk daggers, and a sand-gem.

Ander looked at the smooth, amber-colored stone and laughed at the irony of it all. Sand-gems were supposed to be good omens, a sign of a change in fortune. But there had been nothing but misfortune since the day he found it.

Seeing the gem had jogged his memory in part, so he closed his eye and tried to remember what had happened next.

How long had it been? A few days? A week? A month? It was hard to tell. He visualized finding the stone and the day that followed to the best of his ability.

He remembered that the pink sky had glowed particularly vibrant when the sun had set over the endless sand dunes of the western desert. Ander could see himself gripping the worn leather reins of his tired houndsteed, giving a strong tug.

Come on, boy, he called in desperation.

The great beast looked back at his rider with indifference and continued to graze. There was no way they would make it to the next crop and then back to the encampment by dark. Ander let out a deep sigh and slowly slid off his saddle, rounding the animal to come before its massive forelegs. He reached around and grabbed the weathered bridle in an attempt to lead the giant canine on foot. After a few steps, it was evident that his steed was in no mood to cooperate.

Okay, Max. We can rest for a bit.

Ander slumped down and sat on the sandy ground with his back against a nearby palm tree. He pulled his satchel around his body and opened it on his lap to survey its contents.

Seventeen. he whispered to himself, methodically counting the objects.

That was a disappointment.

He reached in and pulled out one of the brilliant blue orbs he had collected. He dusted off the sand and held it up to his face, watching the world outside warp within the globe’s iridescent casing. It magnified the few faint stars that struggled to be seen as the pink sky turned purple.

Max didn’t seem to notice.

With a small bite into its membranous skin, the plump fruit erupted, filling Ander's mouth with the refreshing water within. He pulled off his linen headdress and used it to wipe the sweat from his forehead. His dirty blonde hair was wet and disheveled. He closed his eyes, resting his head against the palm tree. The desert breeze was calming after a particularly frustrating day, but Ander still found it difficult to relax. He sat back, looking out across the magnificent landscape before him and listened to the wind rattle the trees behind.

As he rested his hand on the sandy ground, his finger unexpectedly brushed against something smooth. He squinted at the faint amber twinkle in the dust below and snatched up the small stone, inspecting it in the remaining daylight.

It was a sand-gem.

Delighted to stumble across such a rare treasure, he tossed it into his satchel.

Before he could even consider that the day might not have been a total loss, however, Max suddenly stopped grazing on the jungle brush and looked up, startled by some distant sound. Then, in an instant, the houndsteed bolted along the vegetation line. Ander jumped to his feet, dropping his satchel on the ground, but the dog was already out of his view.

Max! Ander shouted. Where are you going?

Ander started to run, but knowing that he could not catch an adult houndsteed at full speed, he slowed his pace.

Ander let out another frustrated sigh. He continued to walk along the vegetation line and after a short while, he could hear the sound of barks echoing in the distance. In time, the barking grew louder, accompanied by the sound of jingling saddles and giant paws in the sand.

A tall, dark figure materialized in the distance.

Yo ho, friend, he called with a chuckle in his voice. Ander, is that you over there?

In the pale moonlight, Ander discerned a slender figure atop his hound, leading Max behind him. Ander recognized the line of glass buttons that lined the left side of the rider's chest, faintly reflecting moonlight as he approached. Ander was simultaneously relieved and embarrassed to see his dear friend, Penry.

Yes, Penn. It’s me. Ander called back.

I seem to have found a stray houndsteed. Are you missing one? Penn asked playfully. His lanky frame atop the massive houndsteed towered above Ander.

I am. He just ran off. He must have smelled you coming.

I haven’t seen you harvesting today. Did you go into the jungle?

No.

Then where have you been all day?

Ander looked at his friend, unsure how to answer the question. I had... difficulties getting around.

They both looked at Max.

Max licked his lips and barked happily. Penn laughed from his belly.

Really? This is how far you got today? You must be joking.

I hate riding those stupid things, Ander muttered.

Penn laughed even harder.

It’s not funny, Ander retorted. As Penry passed with Max in tow, Ander climbed up onto the saddle. Penn let out one last whimper of a laugh as the two friends continued back to the caravan in the moonlight. After a while, they could see a fire lit in the distance.

So, how many did you harvest today?

Seventeen. Well, sixteen. I just drank one.

Sixteen? That’s it? You are going to be in so much trouble when we get back.

I know.

Penn shook his head and laughed again. His olive skin seemed to darken with the night sky, highlighting his large green eyes that sparkled in the light of the moons.

Here.

Penn reached down to one of his saddlebags, pulled out a filled satchel and tossed it over to Ander.

Ander caught the satchel with disbelief and opened it up to inspect its contents.

Seriously?

Yeah, don’t worry about it. I gathered a lot today.

I can’t take these. They are yours.

Honestly, don’t worry about it. I owe you from the rock snake thing last week.

I was on duty. You don't owe me anything for that.

Well, I reaped a lot today. So, you should take them.

You sure? Ander asked, but Penn had already moved ahead, effectively ending the conversation. Ander squeezed Max with his legs to get him moving. Max was much more cooperative when other houndsteeds were around, but he still required some coaxing.

As the fire got brighter, the two could easily spot the Great Hall of the Gandahri Tribe; the large rectangular tent in the center of camp. Tall rods made of green duneglass supported dark brown walls that were lavishly decorated with rhinocat pelts, woven reeds, and ornate blue-green feathers. Round duneglass lanterns hung from each support pole, each unique and beautiful, and provided just enough illumination to light the rest of the tent. Atop the mobile structure, a tall duneglass pole towered above the camp. Its dark green banner waved in the desert breeze, proudly displaying the Gandahri crest: a golden rock snake wrapped around a tusk blade flanked by palm leaves.

As they approached camp, Ander watched the shadows dance with the greenish light refractions on the canvas tents that surrounded the great fire. He was suddenly filled with anxiety when he realized that tonight Mara was to take her oath and they were going to be late. The feeling did not last, however. Panic soon turned to quiet resignation; he was already late, and there was nothing that could be done to change it. He and Penn rode softly to the far side of camp, slipping in silently as to not draw attention to themselves. They tied up the houndsteeds in the stables and unfastened their saddles. Ander scratched Max behind the ears, in a final attempt to get on his good side, but the dog only grunted and licked himself indiscriminately.

Ander and Penry put away the rest of their gear and headed for the gathering near the Great Hall. When they passed by the commissary, Ander pulled the sand-gem he had found from his satchel and emptied the hydronia he and Penn had gathered into the appropriate bin. Normally, someone would be there to take inventory, but the whole tribe was at the ceremony. Ander looked back at Penn as if to say looks like I won’t be in trouble after all. Penn rolled his eyes but silently smirked back at him.

They weaved through the empty tents of the encampment and made their way toward the light of the fire. As they drew nearer, they could hear the voice of the priest.

The gods have shown mercy to us, the priest’s deep voice echoed in the dim light of the raging fire. They have preserved us. Protected us. Strengthened us. They give us life, and bless us with new life. They promise us glory in the afterlife. And what do they ask in return?

He paused as his piercing grey eyes scanned the congregation.

Our will. He placed his hand over his heart.

Our desires. He pointed to the grey streaks of hair that adorned his temples.

Our minds. For that is the only thing we possess that is truly ours to give.

The priest drew a deep breath and closed his eyes. The slow rhythm of low drums began to fill the night air. Penn and Ander watched in reverence with the rest of the Gandahri. Ander touched the scar that ran across his forehead and thought back to his own ceremony, which seemed so long ago. He knew what was coming.

The drums grew louder, the rhythm quickened, and the priest turned to Mara, who was kneeling against a short altar built specifically for this ceremony. Mara’s face was pale and her teeth clenched down tightly, but her wide green eyes remained fixed on the cleric before her.

In a flash, the priest drew two small objects from his robe. The first was an orb of hydronia that had been harvested that morning. The second was a small dagger carved from a rhinocat tusk. Its duneglass hilt was etched with an ornate spiraling pattern, the tusk blade slightly curved and sharpened to a fine point. The red light of the fire shined through the prism of the orb, casting an array of warm colors onto Mara’s face. The priest approached the altar and addressed Mara directly.

Sionamo Elam!

Sionamo Elam, Mara repeated.

It is time... to awaken!

Mara closed her eyes, then opened them resolutely. She looked to the sky and recited her covenant.

Gods of my ancestors, hear my oath. I am awake, and I freely give myself to the Gandahri.

The priest pressed the dagger to Mara’s forehead and ran it slowly from one side to the other. As the blood trickled down her brow, the priest raised the hydronia orb high above his head with both hands. Then, in one fluid motion, he ripped the orb in half and showered its contents over Mara’s open wound. The fire roared, and the onlooking crowd erupted with applause. While the observers sang a verse of Sionamo Elam (the hymn customary for the occasion), the priest dressed the wound with oil and bandages; setting his healing rune aside to make sure a scar would form.

Well, there you have it, Penry said under the din of the crowd. Mara is a woman now.

A woman? She is barely thirteen, Ander scoffed.

Penry stuck out his chin with his eyes closed and recited, She has taken her oath freely. She has sworn allegiance to the laws and customs of the tribe, committed to uphold and strengthen the Gandahri people, its customs, rites, and culture. So, in the eyes of the gods, she is no longer a child.

Ander rolled his eyes.

Yeah, yeah. I know the mantra. It's just that she seems so young to be given any real responsibilities or to be in charge of anything.

Oh, I get it, you are bitter that the women are in charge around here.

No, that's not it at all. You know as well as I do, that if the men were in charge like they used to be, we would still be hunting rhinocat in the jungle. No, I would much rather harvest hydronia. I just worry about Mara picking the next site for the encampment. I mean, that girl couldn't read a star chart to save her life.

Penry knew this was true and blurted a laugh.

The Gandahri were a nomadic people, always moving along the edge of the jungle. Wherever they camped, they planted hydronia seeds, fully knowing that the precious water-filled fruit would not be ready to harvest for many years. And so it was for generations; the caravan always moving, depending on the crops that were planted by their ancestors to provide the sustenance for future generations to come. They kept detailed maps and records of their history, meticulously tracking the stars and seasons to determine the next place to settle.

Penry started to shuffle, like he was getting ready to retire for the evening.

Do you know what her new position will be? Ander asked Penry.

I think I heard the Matriarch say she was to be the assistant stable master to begin with. Oh, and she will be on the lower council.

Ander perked up at this news. Perhaps his fortune was beginning to change already. The lower council was responsible for assigning everyone to his or her weekly tasks.

Ander hoped

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