Master of Crows (Master of Crows #1) by Grace Draven

CHAPTER ONE

“Yield to me, Master of Crows, and I will make you ruler of kingdoms.”

Silhara of Neith groaned and doubled over, clutching his midriff.  Blood streamed from his nose and dripped on the balcony’s worn stones.  The god’s voice, familiar and insidious, wrapped around his mind.  Transfixed beneath the rays of a jaundiced star, he huddled against the crumbling parapet, fighting an evil the priests assumed long vanquished.

The god seduced him, filled his head with images fantastic and horrific—sacrificial blood pooling on a killing stone, armies marching across a sun-scorched desert, a sea of starving people kneeling in adulation.  Magic surged through him, a colossal power bred of hate.  Unstoppable.  Terrifying.  He was drunk on the knowledge that the armies moved on his orders, and the people worshipped at his feet.  The victims sacrificed were offered to the god, and Silhara reigned over all before him.

The voice sang its malevolent song.  ”You will be an emperor unchallenged, a sorcerer unequaled.”

Silhara ground his teeth against the agony splitting his skull.  “And be a thrall to a beggar god?” His lips bled with the question.  “I will not yield.”

Soft laughter echoed within him.  “You will, Avatar.  You always do."

The god released him suddenly, a wrenching pull that almost sucked the marrow from his bones.  He cried out and dropped to his knees.  The visions and the voice faded, leaving an unseen foulness in their wake.  The saltiness of blood burned his throat; sweat and urine drenched his robes.  Poisonous light pulsed from the yellow star above him.

Silhara collapsed on the balcony floor.  “Help me,” he prayed to no one.

His servant found him hours later as the rising sun set fire to the eastern horizon.  Silhara clambered to his feet beneath Gurn’s steadying hands.  The giant gazed in sympathy, gesturing at the mage’s face.  Silhara touched his nose, tracing a rough, crusted line from nostril to jaw.

“Blood?”

The servant nodded and nudged him toward his room.  Silhara ignored him and gazed at the star suspended like a cats-eye moonstone on an invisible cord.  No true illumination flowed from the star’s center, only a turbid haze that suffocated the sky.

“Gurn, can you see the star?”

Gurn shook his head, blunt features wary.  His hands traced intricate patterns, and Silhara sighed, his suspicions confirmed.  While anyone possessing a thread of intuition might sense the god’s presence, the Gifted alone saw the physical manifestation.  The priests of Conclave were surely running around in their seaside fortress, panicked over the knowledge that their illustrious forbearers had ultimately failed to defeat the god called Corruption.

Suspicious of Silhara’s activities and resentful of his refusal to swear allegiance to them, the priests—pretentious clerics who couldn’t scratch their backsides without uttering an incantation—would turn a baleful eye on him now.  Still, the malevolent force hovering at his back and slithering into his consciousness with promises of untold power and subjugation made Conclave nothing more than a nuisance by comparison.

Silhara picked at his soiled robes, disgusted.  Corruption’s presence lingered in the smell of his sweat, his clothing, even his hair.  He spat twice, ridding himself of its taste.  “That parasite has reduced me to a babe,” he said.  “I pissed myself.”

He stripped off the ruined garments, dropping them in a damp pile at his feet.  Naked and shivering in the cool, pre-dawn air, he motioned Gurn back and recited a spell.  His clothes burst into flame, leaving a circle of blackened ash on the stone pavers.

Gurn’s mouth turned down in disapproval.  Silhara smiled.  He knew that look.  Paupers did not destroy good clothing, no matter the justification.  “They had Corruption’s stench on them, Gurn.”  Just as he did now.  “Power like that defiles whatever it touches.”

He strode to his room, grateful for the warmth from the hearth fire blazing in the corner.  Gurn had brought wash water and laid a clean, threadbare shirt and breeches across the bed.  Silhara went directly to the wash bowl, desperate to scrub Corruption’s taint off his skin.  He reached for the sponge, hands still trembling from the residual shock of the god’s assault.

The subtle voice returned, whispered in his mind.  “Welcome me, servant reborn.”

Silhara growled low in his throat.  He couldn’t deny such seduction, more deft than the practiced hand of any painted whore.  The visions of empires at his feet and limitless power at his fingertips were the god’s bait.  Greater men than he had fallen before such temptation, and there were many men greater than he.

Gurn’s light touch on his shoulder brought him back to earth, and he banished the enticing thoughts.  Blood from his nose trickled onto his hand and ran across his knuckles.

“Peace, Gurn,” he said.  “I’m not broken yet.”  The servant’s eyes narrowed at his words, but he stepped away and allowed his master his bath.

Water sluiced over Silhara’s arms and torso as he issued instructions.  “Prepare one of the chambers on the third floor—whichever one doesn’t have a hole in the roof.”  Gurn’s eyebrows rose.  “I’m inviting a guest to Neith.”

The giant servant’s eyebrows lifted higher.

Gurn’s reaction amused him.  No one visited Neith.  The manor’s reputation as the home of a dark mage—a crow wizard—kept all comers at bay, and Silhara encouraged that reputation, uninterested in entertaining dull aristocrats or killing young sorcerers intent on making names for themselves by challenging the notorious Master of Crows.

Circumstances had changed.  As much as Silhara despised the idea, he needed Conclave’s help.  Nothing was immune to destruction, not even a god.  The priests returned his contempt in full measure, but they might each use the other in the common goal of defeating Corruption.  Conclave was known to turn a blind eye to crow mages and their forbidden arts if such practices aided them.  Silhara wanted one of Conclave’s novitiates, a cleric-scribe versed in ancient tomes, one with knowledge of forgotten and arcane languages.  Killing a god required magic far older and much darker than a Conclave ritual, and such knowledge was often buried in dead languages or ancient scrolls.  Conclave had its strictures, but its scribes were unmatched in their skills for translations.  He had little doubt an exception to the ban on reading the black arcana would be granted if necessary.

Morning brought burgeoning sunlight streaming through the open window as he finished his bath.  A discordant caw greeted the day, followed by a symphony of like calls.  A black mantle of crow wings burst from the orange grove, blotting the sky before veering north to circle the manor.

The mage smiled.  He’d send his letter by messenger crow.  The priests would cluck, conjecture and wonder why the Master of Crows, who had always rejected their overtures and insistence for allegiance, suddenly asked for aid.  They would answer, eager for the chance to place a Conclave spy in his house.

He turned away from the window, from Corruption’s star still hovering low on the horizon, and sat at his writing table.  The surface lay buried beneath scrolls, inkwells and broken quills.  Finding one quill still whole, he pulled a piece of blank parchment from beneath a stack of manuscripts and dipped the quill in a nearby inkwell.  For a moment, the tip hovered over the paper.  Silhara smirked and wrote.

The old gods are not dead.  Your demon has awakened…

CHAPTER TWO

Martise studied the long path leading to Neith manor and considered whether she was an apprentice or a sacrifice.  The scent of curse magic streamed from the fog-shrouded road, making her nostrils twitch.

“I still allow you the choice, Martise, but there’s no turning away once we take this road.”

She gazed at her master, saw the silver chain holding her spirit stone threaded through his fingers.  Cut into flawless facets that caught the sunlight and bounced rainbows into her eyes, the azure jewel was the cage for a part of her soul.  Memories assailed her.  At seven years old, she’d been terrified of the stern, beak-nosed priest who’d assessed her with an icy, measuring eye and bought her from a starving mother with a handful of coins.  He’d enslaved her with a magic that had made her scream in agony, one that ensured she would serve the house of Asher until her death or until Cumbria sold her and passed on the secret of the stone to a new master.  Or until she won her freedom.

Recommended
  • Stephenie Meyer: Twilight (Twilight #1)
  • Stephenie Meyer: Midnight Sun (Twilight #1.5)
  • Stephenie Meyer: New Moon (Twilight #2)
  • Stephenie Meyer: Eclipse (Twilight #3)
  • Stephenie Meyer: Breaking Dawn (Twilight #4)
  • Gayle Forman: Just One Day (Just One Day #1)
  • Gayle Forman: Just One Year (Just One Day #2)
  • Gayle Forman: Sisters in Sanity
  • Charlaine Harris: Midnight Crossroad (Midnight, Texas #1)
  • E.L. James: Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades #1)
  • E.L. James: Fifty Shades Darker (Fifty Shades #2)
  • E.L. James: Fifty Shades Freed (Fifty Shades #3)
  • Abbi Glines: Fallen Too Far (Rosemary Beach #1)
  • Abbi Glines: Never Too Far (Rosemary Beach #2)
  • Abbi Glines: Forever Too Far (Rosemary Beach #3)
  • Abbi Glines: Rush Too Far (Rosemary Beach #4)
  • Abbi Glines: Breathe (Sea Breeze #1)
  • Abbi Glines: Because of Low (Sea Breeze #2)
  • Abbi Glines: Hold on Tight (Sea Breeze #8)
  • Abbi Glines: Simple Perfection (Perfection #2)
  • Top Books
  • E.L. James: Fifty Shades Darker (Fifty Shad
  • Elle Kennedy: The Deal (Off-Campus #1)
  • C.L. Wilson: The Winter King (Weathermages o
  • J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Chamber of
  • Mariana Zapata: Under Locke
  • Jane Harvey-Berrick: Dangerous to Know & Love
  • Elle Kennedy: The Score (Off-Campus #3)
  • E.L. James: Fifty Shades Freed (Fifty Shade
  • Jeaniene Frost: One Foot in the Grave (Night Hu
  • J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Ha
  • Olivia Thorne: All That He Wants (The Billiona
  • Grace Draven: Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)
  • Olivia Thorne: All That He Loves (The Billiona
  • Tara Sue Me: The Submissive (The Submissive
  • Loretta Chase: Dukes Prefer Blondes (The Dress
  • Tiffany Reisz: The Saint (The Original Sinners
  • L.A. Casey: Ryder (Slater Brothers #4)
  • E.L. James: Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Sha
  • Tiffany Reisz: The Siren (The Original Sinners
  • J.D. Robb: Immortal in Death (In Death #3)