Adept (The Essence Gate War, Book 1)

CHAPTER 1

Halthak watched the sword arc through the night air toward him. He resolved once more to deny his assailants the satisfaction of seeing him struggle further, and braced himself to accept the strike. At the last moment, however, his survival instincts betrayed his will, and his arms rose of their own volition to cross over his head in feeble defense. The blade bit into his flesh, a kiss of fire the length of his forearm, laying it open. Halthak bit back a cry and fell to his side in the dirt, curling around the injured limb.

His attacker rocked back on his heels, roaring with laughter. Several of the other men brayed their own amusement from their positions around the camp. The wildest part of Halthak roared to the surface, gibbering in animal fury for the blood of his assailant, but he quelled his savage lineage with a control born of a lifetime of practice.

Drawing a shuddering breath through clenched teeth, he examined his arm. The bleeding was profuse, but the blade had not quite reached the bone. For a moment he considered not repairing it, considered allowing this wound and the ones that would follow to weaken and kill him. It would put an end to their entertainment, and the thought brought him a grim sense of satisfaction.

Again a spark of defiance within him flared against giving in so easily. He blew out a shaky sigh. In any event, the pain from the gash was severe, and he need not endure such discomfort while he waited for a clean killing blow.

He concentrated for a moment and felt the familiar suffusion of warmth spread through his injured flesh. The wound sealed up before his eyes, his pebbled grey skin pulling closed and becoming whole again. Even the faint white scar would be gone within a few days, he knew, under other circumstances. Halthak pushed to his knees once more, drew the perspiration from his heavy brow with a sleeve, and raised his eyes to his assailant.

Mercenaries, bandits––whatever they might call themselves, they were human predators, drawn to the region by the promise of reward from a wealthy port city in need. Unfortunately, Keldrin’s Landing was very remote, being at the farthest edge of explored territory, and travelers on the way were vulnerable to more than just the strange creatures rumored to besiege the area. Especially lone travelers who were far too trusting by nature, Halthak thought bitterly. Being a half-breed, visibly only half human and an outcast of two societies, did nothing to help matters.

Not all of the bandits took delight in his torture. He saw a few, in fact, shift and exchange uneasy glances. Even if they were uncomfortable with the proceedings, however, they still stood back and allowed it through their inaction. Any distinction between these men and their leader, he decided, was too fine to matter much at the moment.

Vorenius, the bandit leader, dropped to one knee before him, still chuckling. He propped an elbow on his forward knee and leaned in close. A confident leer twisted his coarse features, but Halthak noted the way his trailing hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. This close, Halthak could smell the liquor that hung on his breath and soaked his unkempt beard, but he knew better than to blame its influence for the man’s actions. The mercenary had intended this betrayal from the outset, he was convinced of that much now.

“Proving your bravery by straying within reach of your unarmed captive, Vorenius?” The words were out before his sense of self-preservation could strangle them, but the sarcasm he