These are the first 3 chapters of WEB OF EYES by Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle. These pages are raw and not completely edited, and should not be distributed or shown elsewhere. Thanks so much for your support!

Book 1 Cover.jpg

PROLOGUE

AN ILL KING BRINGS CIRCLING WOLVES.

Sir Uriah Davies, Wearer of White, and sworn protector of the Glass Kingdom had been living by those words since the King’s health declined. After decades of war, uniting the kingdoms of Pantego under the light of Iam, the one true God, the body of Liam the Conqueror had finally started failing.

King Liam’s condition was kept quiet as long as possible, but his absence from assemblies and celebrations brought whispers from all corners. Angry, envious people spoke in darkness about changing winds. For four years, Uriah had been silencing them, praying for the King’s restoration. But it never happened. 

Foreign lords jockeyed to improve their position with underhanded dealings. Members of the Royal Council bribed the Queen to increase their sway over affairs, all while, she hosted countless grand feasts and masquerades to draw attention away from her dying husband.

Uriah feared the fate of the kingdom hung by a thread when one fitful, early winter night Queen Oleander’s brother arrived in the capital city of Yarrington. Redstar, as he was known, was foreign like she had been before the King claimed and married her—a savage from the northern lands of Drav Cra. 

King Liam had long rejected Redstar’s requests for an audience, but now, with the King barely able to speak, Redstar swept into the city to beseech his sister. He claimed that as chieftain of the Ruuhar Clan, he sought support for his starving people who once were hers. 

Uriah knew better than to trust a man like Redstar, a worshipper of false gods and notorious warlock who, along with his Drav Cra brethren, raided and pillaged northern towns within the Glass Kingdom. A man who drew on the foul magics of Elsewhere, as if they were a thing for mortals to wield, using them to sow chaos. Redstar denied such claims, but survivors spoke of a half-red-faced raider wielding fire as viciously as a sword, and Redstar’s birthmark—a five-pointed star taking up the whole left side of his face—was impossible to mistake.   

Uriah warned Oleander to send him back to the tundra from whence he came, but advising the woman nearly always led her to do just the opposite. Instead, he stood outside the King and Queen’s door listening to their hushed argument. It was not his place to eavesdrop, but with the King incapacitated, he found himself doing it more and more. Oleander, more crucial than ever, was young, rash, and harsh as the tundra where she was born. Straining, he heard a clatter.

“This place has made you weak, sister!” Redstar shouted, his voice growing closer. The door nearly smashed Uriah’s face, but he repositioned himself just in time.

Redstar glared, lips pursed in anger. He was pale as snow, like his sister, except for the dark red birthmark which had earned him his name. It was said only one of the twin moons smiled on him at his birth, leaving him marked, malformed. Seeing him in person again, Uriah believed it.

“What are you looking at, knight?” Redstar spat. 

Uriah held his tongue. He had no love for the man.

Merely a boy when the King took Oleander as his own all those years ago, even then, Redstar was tempted by darkness. Uriah hadn’t forgotten the trek home when two of his own men went berserk, killing each other, and Redstar was discovered in his yurt holding a piece of his sister’s hair, blood covering his hands.

In spite of his hatred for magic—especially dark, blood magic—King Liam spared Redstar because of his relation to Oleander. Uriah called it a mistake, though he honored his king’s wishes as always.

“This way, my Lord,” Uriah said finally, gesturing to Redstar and biting back disdain.

He escorted the Queen’s brother back to the guest chamber where he would stay until morning, then retired to his own quarters. But Uriah couldn’t sleep.

An ill king brings circling wolves. It echoed in his mind. 

So, instead of lying awake, listening through the wall to the moans of his King as Oleander struggled to feed him porridge, he returned to the guest wing. When midnight arrived, his patience rewarded him. Uriah hid, then followed Redstar’s glowing torch as he crept through the dark halls of the Glass Castle. 

His face screwed in disgust when Redstar turned. It wasn’t a torch the man held, his raised hand was wreathed in flame, blood dripping down his forearm. 

Blood magic. How dare he taint this sacred castle?

Uriah edged toward a corner, peeking around to see Redstar stopped outside the door of the King and Queen’s only son’s room. Pi was weak and scrawny, but a sweet boy—a kindhearted and seemingly worthy heir to Liam’s great kingdom. Uriah had only just begun to teach him the ways of the sword, but unlike his father, he would rather bury his head in books.

Redstar raised his hand to the lock, sliding it open without even a touch.

“Pi,” Uriah whispered, rushing to the door as Redstar slipped through. He listened for a moment but heard nothing. Lowering his shoulder, he burst in to find Redstar looming over the sleeping prince, whispering in his ear.

Then, Redstar looked up. “Shhh, you’ll wake him.”

“Step away,” Uriah demanded.

 “You should consider how you address your Queen’s brother,” Redstar replied, voice as calm as ever, like the world was his playground. His eyes rose to meet Uriah’s, mouth curled into a dark grin. 

“You should have stayed in your quarters.”

“I decided I should leave early. Can’t an uncle say a proper goodbye to his nephew?” He drew up the blankets covering the Prince. 

Pi groaned, rolled, and pulled the blankets close.

Something was missing. Pi always slept with the crude Drav Cra doll his mother had presented him on his birthing day. The Drav Cra called it an orepul and believed the idols made in their likeness contained a piece of their very souls. Uriah considered it worthless pagan mumbo-jumbo that the King only permitted to placate his wife, but Pi had an attachment to it that Uriah hoped he would grow out of soon. 

Presently, Redstar had the orepul clutched in his right hand.

“In the name of Liam and the one true God, return that to your prince at once,” Uriah said. “I don’t care who you are, warlock.” The term left his lips with venom but hearing it only seemed to embolden Redstar.

Arch Warlock now,” he corrected.

“All the same to me.”

“Of course, it is. The Queen forgets her own people.” Redstar ran his hand across Pi’s cheek, smearing blood from his sliced palm along it. Pi didn’t wake, merely twitched as if it were the midst of a nightmare. “Yet still she made him this?” 

Uriah drew his sword. “I won’t ask again.”

“You would threaten a member of the royal family?”

“There is no royalty in you, heathen.” Uriah edged closer, making sure to keep a safe distance. The stained glass of the arched window at his back rattled, rain driving sideways with the harsh wind.

“Our Lady and her chosen people are tired of being forgotten,” Redstar said. “Your queen is no longer one of us. It is time she stopped pretending.” 

“Step away, now!” 

Uriah extended his sword. The blade nearly touched Redstar’s throat, but the heathen ignored it and regarded the orepul, then the Prince. His smirk widened. 

“Farewell, my young prince,” he said. “We’ll be together again soon.” 

Uriah saw the glint of a dagger as Redstar reached into his robes. He knew harming the Queen’s brother wouldn’t be overlooked, but he was paid to protect the boy. Uriah thrust his sword at the traitor, but his blade met only air. 

Redstar was unexpectedly fast, sliding across the floor and catching Uriah’s side. The dagger drew a shallow cut, but it was enough to slow Uriah. He swung his blade in a wide arc, but Redstar was already by the window.

“Redstar!” Uriah roared as the Arch Warlock smashed the window with his elbow.

Wind and rain like ice sliced in, forcing Uriah to cover his face. Pi’s eyes sprung open as if roused from a nightmare, clutching his blanket, frantic in search of the orepul.

Redstar performed an exaggerated stage bow, then fell backward. Uriah reached for his leg, grabbing only silk before the Queen’s brother flipped back over the sill and into the night. 

Uriah stuck his head out into the driving rain and stared down the castle’s tallest spire. There was no falling body, no corpse lying in the courtyard. He was just… gone.

“Sir, what happened! I heard raised voices and... was that Redstar?”

Uriah whipped around to see one of his men, another member of the King’s Shield standing in the doorway, claymore drawn.

“Torsten,” Uriah said. “Rouse the Queen. The Prince has been robbed.”

Torsten’s gaze shifted between the frightened prince and Uriah. “What did he take?”

“The boy’s soul…”

I - The Thief

One Year Later...


“WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE between a Westvale whore and a dwarf?” Haam asked from behind the Twilight Manor’s worn bar, white shirt stained from a day's work—although he’d likely been wearing it for much longer. “One’s short, fat, and has a beard. The other lives in the tunnels of the Dragon’s Tail!”

The motley company surrounding him erupted in laughter, slapping the bar and spilling pints all over the faded wood floor. Laughing especially hard was a scruffy, red-haired dwarf, a member of a small mercenary crew hired to guard a trading caravan. Like anyone interesting who found themselves in Troborough, he was simply passing through. 

Whitney Fierstown didn’t make a sound at the joke, just sat alone at a corner table, nursing his ale. His finger drew circles around the rim of his earthenware mug, mindlessly keeping time with the out-of-tune bard strumming his lute by the hearth. 

The Twilight Manor was fuller than usual thanks to the traders, but this wasn’t Yarrington or Winde Port. Far from it. The tavern sat in the middle of a cobbled square in the quaint farming village of Troborough. 

Whitney stared through the dirty, cloudy window beside his table, completely unsure why in the name of Elsewhere he found himself back in the town he’d grown up. It had been many years since he fled the small life for adventure, so long, nobody recognized him. So long, he learned his parents had both passed a while back at the hands of a plague in the town’s water supply. So long their shoddy gravestones were weathered, the names barely legible.

It was tough to say the news made him sad. He’d never been close with them, especially not his ceaselessly grumpy father who cared about nothing except for the next harvest. But a new family now lived in the farmhouse he’d grown up in. A husband and a wife, and two kids who’d never amount to anything in this place. One of the children, a particularly scrawny boy, played swords in the square with his younger sister just as Whitney remembered doing with his only childhood friend, a Panpingese orphan named Sora. 

The boy parried and dodged, not just swinging the stick but allowing himself to be stabbed and prodded on occasion as well—the sign of a smart child preparing himself for the harsh realities of life. Any man Whitney had ever met who fancied himself an unconquerable hero found his head on the wrong end of a spike. They were only the stuff of myth and legend, nothing like how he and Sora used to imagine.

The thought of her brought a smile to his lips. He'd only just gotten in that night, and he didn't plan to stay long, but she hadn’t shown her face. He’d passed the home where she’d grown up on the edge of town, under the care of the nutty town healer, Wetzel. Nobody was home, and the barely-standing shack seemed abandoned, though it always had. 

Whitney only dreamed she’d moved on as he did so long ago, and figured that old Wetzel had probably kicked the bucket by now. He’d been ancient when Whitney was a child. A few times that night, he considered asking Haam about her but didn’t feel like getting into a whole thing about who he used to be, or worse, finding out the plague had claimed her too. 

He preferred the dream, and not a soul in the tavern remembered him, even Haam. He doubted she would either. It was like he was a ghost visiting his old life.

“Need another, traveler?” Alless, the barmaid asked from a few tables away. Whitney remembered her when he was a boy as well, the stuff of fantasies, or rather, she was. Age had robbed her of much of her beauty.

No fantasies left in this gods-forsaken place.

Whitney waved his hand dismissively, and she returned to the back of the bar and whispered something to Haam. He shooed her away, eager to keep his attentive crowd with more crude jokes, obviously thrilled to have so many visitors. The man had tended the Manor as long as Whitney could remember, and unlike Alless, he’d already been so old back then, he still looked the same save for a rounder belly. 

The Twilight Manor served as the center of all things social in Troborough, which was rarely all too much. Throughout the day, it had just been Whitney and few others shuffling in, pontificating, playing gems, and drinking. The farmers would talk about their yield or share rumors of far-off places none of them would ever visit. The same mind-numbing shog everyone went on about when he was a boy.

But the red-haired dwarf and the small band of mercenaries injected a bit of new life into the place when they’d arrived. The little man had spent the better part of the evening boasting to Alless about his prowess with ladies and how many “full-sized” women he’d laid with while serving in the King’s army. A gray-skinned Shesaitju gentlemen also serving in the dwarf’s mercenary company sat quietly nearby, looking exhausted.

Not to be outdone, Carlo, the town’s resident good-for-nothing-but-reminiscing-about-his-days-in-the-Glass-army drunkard spoke of his role in the Third War of Panping, when King Liam himself had led the charge against the heartless Mystic Order. He cursed the dwarves of Brotlebir and how, like cowards, they’d refused to charge that day.

If Whitney didn’t know better, the way the man talked, he’d think him a King’s Shieldsman. But Whitney did. It was all hog’s piss. The same story Carlo had been telling since Whitney was a child. Nobody noteworthy wound up settling down in Troborough, and nobody in Troborough ever did anything noteworthy.

“What’s got ye sour, boy? Ye look as dissatisfied as me wife.” Whitney hadn’t even seen the red-haired dwarf take the chair opposite him, grinning like a madman with his yellow teeth and an eye looking in each direction. Red whiskers, like straw poking out of a barn pile, covered most of his face. 

Dwarves… Only thing they’re good for is their treasure chests.

“Just tired,” Whitney said out loud. 

He peered longingly back to his ale, the heady foam finally receding. He was never one to back down from a verbal spat, but the dwarf’s question was one he’d been asking himself since he arrived in Troborough. He’d lost track of the years he’d spent roaming Pantego, thieving and swindling his way to being wanted in more cities than he had fingers until, eventually, every score in every land started to feel the same as the last. Some rare treasure no lord or lady even needed. 

He missed the challenge. The adventure.

“Tired?” the dwarf scoffed. “What’s a pale farmboy like ye got to be tired about?”

Whitney glanced up only with his eyes. If there was one thing he couldn’t stomach, it was being lumped into the same meager vocation as his insignificant father. Whitney had seen things nobody in Pantego could imagine, made a name for himself coast to coast.

“Farmboy?” He rose from his seat. “You hear that?” Whitney said loudly to anybody who might be listening. “I think this little half-pint, rock-eating dwarf just called me a ‘farmboy.’”

The Twilight Manor went quiet—not dead silent, but enough for Whitney. The bard stopped playing—thankfully. Several regulars turned their attention to him. The members of the trading caravan all slid forward, eager for a show as if used to their mate causing trouble.

“Aye, I did.” The dwarf slammed his mug on the table, ale splashing over the side.

“Just making sure you were talking to me,” Whitney said. “You dwarves spend so much time down in the dark, sometimes I worry you can’t see straight.” Whitney hiccuped. He had to use his chair for support.

“At least we can hold our drink, farmboy.”

“You really don’t know who I am, do you? Tell him Haam!”

“Here we go again,” Haam grumbled. “Another adventurer who’s put down one too many. “He threw his towel over his shoulder and climbed down the stairs leading to the storage basement, probably for some peace and quiet. 

“Okay… I’ll handle it.”

After a few tries, Whitney climbed onto the table and stared down his nose at the dwarf. It made the burly little man’s features darken in anger. If Whitney had learned anything a short while back while slumming in the subterranean dwarven kingdom of Brotlebir, it was that dwarves hated when a human drew attention to how short they were. That, and the things they made from gold were gold all the way through.

“My name is Whitney Fierstown! Yes, yes,” he said in practiced rhythm, performing an exaggerated bow, “the same Whitney Fierstown of Westvale fame. He who stole the Sword of Grace from right under Lord Theroy’s nose while the right bugger slept face-down in a puddle of his own spit. Had myself a throw with his lady daughter that evening as well.”

Whitney’s laugh was joined by a few others. He hopped down from the table, his voice growing louder after he steadied himself from nearly slipping in a puddle of the dwarf’s spilled ale.

“The Mischievous, Master of Mayhem,” he continued. “The very same credited for single-handedly delivering the Splintering Staff out of the hands of the Whispering Wizards. You know them, dwarf? Whitney Fierstown, Savior of the Sullen and Surly—that's you. Hope of the Hopeless and Helpless. Thief of all thieves. The Filcher Fantastic himself.”

Loud whoops and whistles erupted from the bar. Whitney bowed again, looking up to lock eyes with the fuming dwarf, a humorless smile playing at the edges of his mouth.

"And you call me a farmboy?” Whitney asked. “Someone get this sad dwarf another ale. He’s either too drunk or not drunk enough.”

The dwarf appeared thoroughly unimpressed. Whitney rounded the table, his gaze never leaving the dwarf. He plopped back into his chair, grabbed his ale, and kicked his feet up on the table.

There were a few scattered hand claps before the people of Troborough returned to their business. He wondered how many times they’d heard passer-throughs boast about similar feats, if he was becoming as bad as the dwarf or even Carlo.

The bard started plucking his lute again, struggling to find the melody. Alless made her rounds, dodging the grabby hands of several toothless men. Haam had returned now, polishing mugs and not paying attention. Even the members of the trading caravan expected more of a show.  

The dwarf calmly stroked his beard once, then took his turn climbing the table, even though the thing was nearly the whole height of him.

“And I be Grint Strongiron!” he shouted. The poor bard’s notes trailed off from yet another distraction. Grint’s companions unenthusiastically tapped their mugs on the bar in support while everyone else ignored him. 

 “Son of a drunken wife-beater,” Grint went on. “Brother of a coward. Me wife’s uglier than the south end of a horse-headed north. I got seven fingers, nine toes, and enough spawn to start a small war.”

He took two wobbly steps toward Whitney.

“I’ve broken more bones than I be able to count, many of them me own. I helped dig out the throne room of the Dragon’s Tail alongside Brike the Pickaxe when yer great, great, grandfather was still an ache in his own grandfather’s britches.”

He leaned over, getting as close to Whitney as he could without toppling over.

“Ye say ye’ve stolen from a lord and some wizards?” he continued. “But ye ain’t done nuffin till ye tooken from a king!”

Whitney’s head cocked to the side before he laughed deep and hard. He looked around, but not a soul was paying attention any longer. Even Grint’s companions had returned to their mugs.

“Ain’t thought I said nuffin funny, Thief,” the dwarf said. “Even from his bed, the King of Glass still be stealin food from me family’s mouth. Ye’d be doin the world a favor, showin the old prick what the feelin be.” 

“Steal from the King?” Whitney said, incredulous. “What would you have me do, traipse into his throne room and take the Glass Crown right off his head?”

Grint jumped down, missing the landing either for lack of judgment of too much drink. Maybe both. He stumbled into the next table, disturbing two old men in dirt-covered shirts. His Shesaitju friend went to steady him, but Grint shook him off before turning back to Whitney.

“If that’s what ye gotta do,” he said. “Otherwise, this li’l display of yers is just shog and spit.”

“Shog and spit, you say?” Whitney asked.

“Aye. Heard the King of Glass be havin himself another masquerade in a few nights—one of them fancy balls nobles like so much. If yer so good, I be bettin ye could sneak right in, couldn’t ye, farmboy?”

Whitney let his feet fall from the table and leaned forward, circling the rim of his mug again.

“Steal the Glass Crown,” he marveled. Against all odds, he found himself in the town he’d left behind, hoping he might find some inspiration for a new adventure where it all started. And just when he thought life was getting boring…. It happened. Finally, a challenge that might be worth putting his drink down for.

Whitney tapped the top of his head. “All right, dwarf. Next time you see me, I’ll be wearing it.”

II - The Knight

“FILTH AND BRAGGARTS, all of them!” the boy whispered through gritted teeth from beneath his sheets. “Liars, thieves, drunks, and murderers!”

Torsten Unger, the Wearer of White, leader of the King’s Shield, had been winding down for the evening when he heard those words in the voice of Prince Pi. Torsten looked around, confused. The boy had refused to leave his room at the highest point atop the West Tower of the Glass Castle since before the last Dawning ceremony when Pantego’s two moons passed before the sun and signaled the turning of a new year. 

Torsten peeked out of his room, his gaze met by one of the newest members of the King’s Shield out on patrol.  Sir Rand Langley placed his fist over his heart, as was customary when greeting the Wearer. 

“Did you hear that?” Torsten asked.

“Sir?” said Rand.

“The uh… never mind. It’s late. Tired is all.”

Rand looked at him, puzzled. “Goodnight, sir.”

Torsten tipped his head and waited for Rand to pass. He’d spent the day overseeing the induction of that very young man into the King’s Shield. The trek down from atop Mount Lister, where Iam was closest and custom dictated the installation take place, had them all exhausted. It was rare that Torsten could shift focus from matters of the kingdom, or filling the needs of Queen Oleander and her sickly husband, so he was happy for the diversion. 

Iam had gazed down upon the ceremony with great joy, no doubt. But even with the Vigilant Eye of the one true God watching over them, Torsten knew the Glass Kingdom would soon need all the security it could get. Rand was a promising recruit, young and a bit overeager, which showed as he fumbled through his vows, but Torsten had a hard time faulting anyone for wanting to serve. Especially since, according to the royal physician, King Liam’s death was imminent. It didn’t matter how much he, or Oleander, or anyone else living in the Glass Castle tried to hide it.

Once Rand turned the corner, Torsten focused back on Pi’s voice. It was less of a voice now really, and more like a feeling. He left his quarters, hoping to avoid catching any eyes, but even if he hadn’t held the station of the Wearer of White, he was hard to miss. More than once he’d been mistaken for a half-giant. His chest was thick as an iron keg, requiring specially crafted armor from Hovom Nitebrittle, the castle Blacksmith. He stood closer to seven feet than six, and his hands were large enough to pop a man’s skull.

As he passed more Shieldsman and castle guards, he saluted each in turn but never spoke a word. How could he say he was following an invisible voice to the Prince's bedroom in the middle of the night?

The arched stone and stained glass door stood a whole head taller than Torsten. He cracked it enough to see a sliver of the Prince’s chambers. It felt dirty, wrong—although he had no ill motives. But the Queen had forbidden anyone, even the Wearer of White, from seeing her despondent son. It had been that way since his predecessor, Sir Uriah Davies, caught the Queen’s heathen brother whispering madness into Pi’s ear and fleeing with his most prized possession.

It took Torsten a moment to figure out where the boy was, then he saw the bulge in the sheets. A moment later, Prince Pi cast off the covers and stood. He was so young, yet his hazel eyes spoke of a lifetime of horrors. His head was cocked to the side while he paced, his messy, dark, hair hanging limply like a wet blanket. One thing was certain, he looked neither sickly nor grief-stricken. 

“Yes, they must pay for their sins,” Pi said. “The Buried Goddess demands it, and she will do it, not I.” His head twitched so hard Torsten worried he’d snap his own neck. Hearing a boy so young speaking of the Buried Goddess startled him.

Torsten instinctively stepped backward as the Prince abruptly crossed the room. There was no doubt he’d heard Torsten’s footsteps, but he seemed entirely unconcerned. The pale light of Pantego’s moons gushed in through the window. Beyond its arch, Torsten could see Yarrington’s twinkling lights—candles, lamps, and campfires. Those paled in comparison to the false light reflected off the castle's spires and the flat, glassy plain of Mount Lister overshadowing them, a monument of the ancient God Feud.

Torsten drew a deep breath before cracking the door a bit more. Countless angular symbols were hastily etched in stone walls, smeared with blood. The Prince may have been young, but it appeared Pi’s devotion to the Buried Goddess exceeded even that of her cultists. Torsten had cleared plenty such miscreants from basement shrines throughout Yarrington since having joined the King’s Shield, and even more as Wearer of White. 

Most believed Nesilia had been dead for thousands of years after Iam brought an end to the God Feud that ravaged Pantego, and Torsten numbered among that lot. Legend was, and so her followers believed, she was not dead, only buried beneath Mount Lister—waiting to exact vengeance upon the One who buried her.

Did the Queen know of Pi's obsession?  She’d never mentioned a word of it to Torsten. The Nothhelm family, which had ruled over the Glass Kingdom for centuries, served and revered Iam—the one true God. What would the people of the Glass Kingdom think if they knew the King's only son was a heretic worshipping the false goddess Nesilia? 

The voice filled Torsten's mind again, this time louder. He grasped his head, slithering his fingers through his hair, biting back the urge to scream. He rolled his head in sharp circles, gnashing his teeth as the foreign words bombarded his mind. When it was over, he looked up to see the Prince clutching his own head.

“Buried, not dead. Buried, not dead,” Pi muttered over and over. “The color crimson and a thousand eyes. I see the color crimson and a thousand eyes!”

Torsten’s heart pounded, threatening to burst through his rib cage. He saw large tears flow freely from the young boy's eyes, and his own eyes began to water. The Prince now stood in the middle of his chamber—a room that would dwarf most houses. A circle surrounded him, painted in red on the dark stone floor. Torsten noticed a bloody bandage wrapped around Pi's hand. 

He knew blood magic when he saw it. 

The Prince raised his voice, beginning a chant. The words drifted in and out like the flight of galler birds in spring, ebbing and flowing, sharp tucks and broad swoops, impossible to know where one word ended and the next began. They would seem nothing more than mindless blabbering to any hearer, and that's what they were to Torsten—nonsense.

Pi’s eyes rolled, only the whites showing. He convulsed, head whirling and hands flapping. Torsten flinched and bit back disgust. At that moment, Torsten finally understood the Queen's eternal dourness. It was her brother Redstar’s fault, but Oleander blamed herself.

Torsten remembered that day vividly when he found the former Wearer of White in these very chambers after Redstar fled, having attempted some terrible curse on the Prince. The Queen’s brother’s cold heart matched the bitterness of the northern land from which he hailed. When he visited the castle a year ago, Uriah warned against trusting him. Torsten felt it too, that unsettling feeling just from being in the presence of such a heathen. The Queen still let him in. Blood was blood after all.

As Uriah had expected, he’d betrayed the Queen—why wouldn’t he? Oleander had been taken from Drav Cra to become King Liam’s wife at such a young age. From the tundra to the throne. She had been given a crown while Redstar was left amongst the remnants of their clan after the slaughter, left to pursue his lust for magic until, according to Uriah, he was named the chieftain of his clan as well as Arch Warlock of all the Drav Cra.

Queen Oleander tried to hide her brother’s betrayal out of embarrassment, but Torsten was the first to see the boy that next day. He was inconsolable. Redstar had stolen the young prince’s orepul and fled to the Webbed Woods, where any who followed soon met their end.

The Queen blamed the loss of the pagan idol for her son’s madness, believing it held a part of his soul. She sent Uriah with a small battalion to the woods to retrieve Redstar and the stolen effigy, but they never returned. Torsten was named Wearer in his place, wearing the helm Uriah left behind, with no choice but to follow her orders as she sent more and more to their doom. 

Presently, as Pi finished his words, a small spark—an ember—grew in his hand above a spot of blood, but quickly faded. He cursed loudly, words he shouldn’t know at his age.

“It won’t work without it!” He picked up a wooden chair and heaved it through the open window to the pasture below, no small task for a boy his size.

Pi peered over the edge to find the chair cracked and splintered two stories below. He planted a foot on the sill and pulled himself up, standing there a long while, teetering back and forth. Torsten threw the door open and watched as Pi tilted forward, catching himself at the last instant. Torsten was halfway across the room when without a word, Pi stepped back down, took a few steps, and collapsed on the floor.

Torsten froze. He checked to be sure the boy wasn’t conscious. Even the Wearer of White could lose his head for entering the Prince's room unannounced and unwelcome, but he had to figure out what was going on.

Everywhere, strewn across every desk, table, and flat surface were notes upon which were the scribbled writings of a child.

Torsten read them silently. THE COLOR CRIMSON AND A THOUSAND EYES.

Torsten shuffled some more papers and slid open a drawer. Inside, he found a large stack of parchments with the same three words etched on every bit of white space: BURIED, NOT DEAD.

Torsten had heard those same words muttered in shadow from the mouths of the realm's cultists, but he couldn’t understand where a boy whose life kept him confined to the Glass Castle could have learned them?

If the Queen, a devout—if not a bit lax on her attendance of services—follower of Iam despite her Drav Cra heritage, had known her own son was attempting to commune with the Buried Goddess… Torsten didn't know what she would do. Maybe she’d simply refuse to believe it. Or perhaps she did know, and this was just another of her many secrets? Was that why she refused to have any priest, even Wren the Holy, attend to Pi and try to undo whatever foul influence Redstar’s visit had on him?

Torsten regarded the Prince, who now slept innocently like a child should. The sight of the bloody, candle-lined circle surrounding his body sent a shiver up his spine. He sunk back out the way he came, taking care not to be seen as he descended the spiral stairs into the anteroom below.

He reached his chambers without complications and removed his armor while staring out his window on the north side of the castle. Torsten grasped the necklace that had been hanging from his neck for as long as he could remember, a pendant of Iam’s Vigilant Eye presented to him by King Liam himself when he’d been knighted. As he looked out over Mount Lister, he let his mind wander to the shocking and blasphemous things he'd seen and heard.

"Iam help us," he said.

III - The Thief

 “Stop, thief!” a Yarrington guard shouted.

Whitney tore around the corner of one of Old Yarrington’s winding streets. He accidentally plowed over a nobleman, who fell into his wife and knocked her over as well. Whitney paused just long enough to help her up, peered over his shoulder at the two guards rounding the corner, and dug in again.

“Sorry, milady,” he said, bowing his head as he went.

Whitney thrived in chaos. This had been his passion since the day he’d left the farm—the thrill of being chased by guards armed to the eyeballs after snatching some rare treasure. But even as he dodged an especially deep puddle in the cobblestone road, narrowly escaping a third guard new to the chase, he found himself going through the motions. 

The massive, armored man splashed face first into the water, arm still stretched out toward Whitney's ankle, The sound that followed told Whitney the other two tripped over the newcomer, but this time, Whitney didn't look back. He veered off toward the stable of one of Old Yarrington’s many mansions. The horses inside whinnied, startled by the sound of clanking iron of armor from the recovered guards still in hot pursuit. If that wasn’t enough, thunder cracked, sending the equine beasts into a frenzy.

One painted horse burst from its pen. The gate swung open, nearly clipping Whitney’s side, forcing him to cut a sharp turn. Wetness plastered his face as he slid in what he hoped was mud. He cursed his luck. He’d already stolen some costly clothing to wear for the masquerade, and now they were ruined. 

But that wasn’t why the guards were after him. The small gem in his pocket he’d snagged from a noblewoman in broad daylight was enough to get him thrown in the district lockup. Fleeing the guards to the heart of Old Yarrington, however, would land him in the castle dungeon. They’d be too lazy to drag him flailing and screaming anywhere else. It was all part of his greater plan to infiltrate the royal masquerade. 

That furry dwarf will eat his words.

The party started in mere hours, and Whitney had to be in the castle when it did. Although intended to celebrate King Liam’s birthday, rumors hinted it would be a final send off to the King who’d done more to shape the Glass than any other.

Whitney’s mother once told him, “The only thing worse than stealing is stealing from a dying man.” Even though the Queen would have a man hanged merely for whispering about the King’s alleged condition, Whitney knew there was a bit of truth to every rumor. This year or next, it didn’t matter—everyone knew the Glass Kingdom stood on the precipice of a new ruler. The sky seemed to as well. Fog laid like a thick blanket over the streets of Yarrington and rain fell in heavy sheets as if Iam Himself were in mourning.

Good conditions for a thief... usually.

Whitney shook off his stained sleeve and squinted back at his pursuers. While Liam the Conqueror was bedridden, his guards were very much alive, and he couldn’t let them catch him yet. Though, from the sound of it, they weren’t fairing much better in the wet conditions. 

He jumped back to his feet, and as he ran, he scoured the map of Old Yarrington he’d purchased down in South Corner. It was yellowing and brittle—and apparently out of date. Whitney turned another corner and wound up face to face with a wall made of solid stone piled three meters high.

This was supposed to be a garden.

He slid to a stop before the towering wall, kicking up mud. He used to love this part, thinking on his feet, improvising in the face of certain doom. But lately, it had all become so mundane, whether it was a lord’s mare or a lady’s gem. He found himself disheartened, frozen, wondering if he should just slip away and end this wild boar chase. 

Whitney shook the thought away, unwilling to chance facing the dwarf in defeat. He shoved the mud-slick tip of his boot into an almost imperceptible notch in the stone and pushed himself up just enough to wrap his fingertips around the lip of the wall. One hand slipped on the smooth, wet stone. He squinted back after he caught his balance to see the guards closing in, but the heft of their armor slowed them. If he had trouble climbing the wall, those lumbering fools wouldn’t stand a chance. Besides, he didn't want to escape, or else he would have by now. But if they caught him now, it would make it seem too easy. He needed them angry to ensure he'd make the castle dungeon.

Once more, he dug in and thrust upward. This time his fingers found purchase, and he yanked himself up. Wiping his face and glancing back at the guards, he decided it hadn’t been mud he’d slipped in earlier. He fought back the urge to vomit over the edge of the wall.

This isn’t worth it, he thought. Nothing seemed to be worth it anymore. Piss in the wind and shog in my mouth.

Again, he forced himself to focus. He could only count two guards through the driving rain now, both struggling to pull themselves up the wall, shouting up at him to stop. He looked in all directions for the third guard before swearing and hopping down the other side. Again, his foot slipped in what definitely wasn’t mud, sending him into a split. He used the momentum to roll, thoroughly tarnishing his new clothing. Nonetheless, he was soon on his feet again, running.

Mud spattered below, rain fell from above. Visibility wasn’t great, but he could just make out the outer wall of the Glass Castle now, looming in the distance as if taunting him. 

He peered back again. Now, none of the city guards could be seen. When he turned back around, the third and missing one stood in the path before him. He was a hulking brute with a scar from what appeared to be a bad burn covering the bulk of his face and neck.

Why is it always the big one?

The guard reached for Whitney with both hands.

Whitney easily dodged the man’s thick, sausage-like fingers and threw a punch of his own. The guard smiled down at him mirthlessly as his blow landed harmlessly against his boiled leather armor. Whitney put on a nervous grin, then aimed for the man’s bare elbow with his next punch, just below where the arm pads stopped. 

His fist cracked hard against bone. Whitney yelped and flexed his hand. He probably broke a knuckle, but the blow forced the guard to stop momentarily and shake out his arm.

A moment was all Whitney needed. 

Behind him, he heard the clatter of the other two guards who’d decided to take the long way around the wall. Whitney slipped past the hulking guard and ran. So far, in spite of a couple hitches, the plan was working. Only one thing remained. It needed to look absolutely real.

He reached a locked, iron gate at the end of a street serving some Royal Councilman’s absurdly large mansion, still under construction. He shook the gate, a family crest—a ship and a coin—rattled against the metal. The fence was so high he’d never be able to climb over it, but this was a dead end he'd prepared for.

At least that old map was good for something.

He stopped, feigning surprise, frantically looking for a way out. He attempted to scamper up the slick iron bars in futility, then turned back toward the guards. 

He dug his hand into his wet, muddy pocket and produced the little gem he’d swiped. “Look, fellas,” he shouted over the din of rain as he walked toward them. “I think this is a misunderstanding.”

“Lady Holliday’s jewels jumped into your pocket then?” the hulking guard asked. The others bellowed in laughter.

“Here, you can have it back. No harm done, right?”

“Wrong.” The big guard approached slowly, the other two behind him.

Whitney held his breath. There were plenty of joys to be found in thieving, but the next few minutes would not count amongst them.

When the brute was only paces away, Whitney feigned left, then spun and went right instead. He knew it wouldn’t work, but it needed to appear like he wasn’t ready to give up just yet. As expected, the hulking guard planted his feet. Whitney braced for what he knew was coming. The man reared back, and a second later, Whitney Fierstown was swept off the streets of Old Yarrington.