King's Steel, A Novel Set in the Ring Realms d cover

King’s Steel, A Novel Set in the Ring Realms by John R. Morris

King's Steel, A Novel Set in the Ring Realms 2 covers

Kallan Garrik is hunting the soulstealers who killed his wife. His determination and skill at eliminating these murderous predators earn him command of the elite Hunter’s Brigade.  A position known as The King’s Steel.

Thirty moons of tracking and killing have left him jaded and hollow. So, he is caught off guard when a routine investigation puts him on the trail of the most powerful and bloodthirsty adversary of his career.

A trail of victims leads him to Castle Basset where he meets the alluring and mysterious hunter, Vala. Even together, they are all but devastated by the monster’s strength. While recovering from their injuries, they learn their overwhelming opponent is but one of many. Their leader is focused on getting revenge against both their kingdoms…

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Chapter 1

Castle Basset

 

Silhouetted in the light of the twin moons, Major Kallan Garrik leaned over the battlement cataloging escape routes from Castle Basset’s squat towers, broad atriums, and enclosed balconies. A cutting wind brought with it the scent of ash and funeral flowers. Death. A trail of corpses had led him to this place.

He shaded light-sensitive eyes, peering down at the brightly lit veranda below. His acute hearing picked up the murmur of the party guests, the grumbling of the attendant staff, and the hushed whispers of wary guards. An electric tension crackled in the air. Hidden among the commoners and nobility mingling in the feast hall, a soulstealer stalked innocent prey.

He felt a tingling sense of attention. Movement drew his gaze to the highest of the citadel’s spires. Night-flyers fluttered around the dagger-toothed gargoyles chasing bugs. In the blue and crimson lunar glows, the stone walls shimmered as though covered with amethysts. In the shadows of a balcony, he saw a brightly dressed figure vanish behind a closing door.

Someone had been watching him. He pulled his cloak tighter against the cold, careful not to cover the hilt of his sword. His trap was set. Tonight he’d cross steel with the murderer and put an end to it all.

Kallan drew a breath and thought of his wife, Kimberly. Had the beast not killed her would he even find himself here? Probably, but not with the palpable desire for vengeance that now pushed him forward.

The chase that started many score-days ago in Deluth had led to a hundred leagues of tracking through water-towns, hill boroughs, and mountain settlements. Through the long pursuit, the monster’s killings had grown more public and gruesome, each one a painful reminder of how he’d failed not only his wife, but his men.

The reputation of the elite Hunter Brigade had suffered under his command. The creature had taken the lives of a score that they knew of and showed no sign of stopping. They’d been tasked with putting an end to the murderous bastard but had found themselves thwarted time and again.

Endless bells of tracking, fruitless chases, and so much death. His sense of duty and need for redemption had kept him going, but tonight the weight of it all pressed down harder than ever. The beast would continue to treat the populous of South Reach as prey until the day it burned.

His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword, one finger caressing the pink moonstone taken from his wife’s wedding ring. He owed her and the king a victory. More than any beast in the past, this one had to be stopped.

He strode toward the next sentry post, inhaling the heavy fragrance of the sweet sap trees from the surrounding forests. A gust of icy wind boiled up the ridge, stinging his face. Although the moons were new, Kallan could see clearly. He’d never needed the night vision enhancement the king’s mage had provided the others. Unfortunately, he didn’t like what he saw. His man was distracted.

Galvin patrolled at the head of the steps with a crossbow cradled in the crook of his arm. His breath rose in silvery plumes as he glanced at the frost moon, tapping his forehead in deference to the Goddess Frotzien.

Kallan hated leading. He felt guilty enough for his own failings, but he had a job to do. He tapped the sentry’s shoulder and stepped back. As the man spun around, Kallan raised his arm to fend off the weapon. The contact caused the bow to discharge with a twang. The bolt hissed into the dark.

“Major Garrik!”

Kallan kept his voice level. “Stay alert, Galvin. Your focus is within these walls tonight.”

The sub-captain nodded. “Sir.”

Kallan gripped his arm and lowered his voice. “We need to end it tonight. If we catch this beast, we can all go home. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, Sir!”

Kallan nodded. “Good. These are the best conditions we’ve had. If anyone escapes the fortress, the man responsible will sit in the stockade at my leisure. I don’t care if it’s the lord keeper himself. If anyone argues, send them to me. This frotting blight will not escape again. Understood?”

“Sir!”

“Now, sharpen your claws. I’m doubling the strike-bounty. If we get him without casualties, I’ll put in for magical enhancements, extra pay, and two score-days of holiday.”

Galvin grinned and shook his fist. “Done!”

Kallan descended the stairs two at a time. The clack of his boots echoed as he crossed the courtyard to the looming structure. When he entered the massive arched doorway, a servant removed his cape. Faint whispers of music reached his ears. He adjusted his sword and gave the tunic of his dress uniform a final tug.

As he strode down the long hallway he studied the armor, paintings, and tapestries that told heroic stories of the House of Basset. One painting gave him pause. It depicted a bloody battle on a snow-covered bridge. He shuddered. The artist had been there, the details were too accurate. He forced himself to continue.

Passing between the glass paneled doors of the lord keeper’s ballroom, he smelled the mint scented candles in the immense gold and crystal chandelier. Beneath it, bright colors spun and flashed as the highborn wove intricate patterns on the ballroom floor.

The commoners huddled around an ale barrel tucked under the curve of an extravagant stairwell. They looked like a patchwork quilt, stitched together from a hodgepodge of their best leather coats and dyed muslin dresses.

The entire village of Clath was here tonight. Kallan smiled as he remembered the look on Lord Basset’s face when he’d insisted upon it. His good humor, such as it was, turned out to be short-lived. The hair on the back of his neck began to prickle. Someone watched him again. Turning, he gripped his sword and scanned the crowd. The sensation passed.

A movement drew his attention to the top of the stairs. A tall woman dressed in yellow silk stepped off the landing. Unlike the other ladies, she wore her long auburn hair down. Little more than a dollop of rouge warmed her tan cheeks. For an instant she gazed at the crowd with a serious expression, then as people took notice of her, drew herself up and flashed a million-candle smile.

She descended the slate steps trailing a silk glove on the purple gnome-wood banister, nodding and acknowledging the people that greeted her. Attractive and graceful, her blue eyes flashed as she met the gazes of the men and women. He watched until she disappeared into the crowd. The tilt of her chin, the steady bearing, this was no kind of tame socialite.

It reminded him of Kimberly. She’d been a feisty handful with a spark of defiance and ambition. He took a deep breath and forced his mind away from the recollection. He needed to focus on the mission. There’d be time to consider the past after he finished this bloody task.

Kallan returned to studying the room. A pair of handlers led a muzzled fire-eater to the fireplace. It had been fed its fill of volcano peppers, and the squat smelly creature had bloated to bursting.

Glancing across the crowd he spotted the lord of the keep beckoning for him. He frowned. What trivial complaint would this be about? Kallan locked gazes with him, showing no intention of moving. After an awkward moment, the lord crossed the room.

Basset stood, his barrel sized body supported by spindly legs and his face spider‑webbed with burst vessels. He wore a battle coat with gold shoulder aiguillettes he hadn’t earned and insignias of valor that belonged to a warrior, not a diplomat who couldn’t lift a sword. Kallan frowned.

Face flushed, Lord Basset tugged at his collar. “Garrik, these commoners are ruining my ball.”

The fop wore soldier’s clothing and dropped the courtesy of rank? Kallan reached into his pocket and pulled out a pulsing blue privacy gem. He held it up for the nobleman to see. Basset frowned and nodded.

Crushing the fragile gem, Kallan felt the energy spread around them in a sound deadening barrier. He didn’t want others overhearing details about the investigation.

The nobleman glanced right and left. “You’ve overstepped your authority by allowing these…low borns into my party. To add insult to injury, you’re using my ball to hunt soulstealers, whatever those are.”

Kallan eyed him. “The king authorized this investigation. However, if you feel it’s too much of an imposition, go ahead, dismiss the crowd. You can explain to his majesty that your party was more important than catching the demon.”

Basset’s eyes widened. “Nonsense, you wouldn’t–”

Kallan held up his hand and displayed his brigade signet.

“I report directly to the king, so whether you help or hinder, he will know in full.”

The keeper drew himself up, shadowed eyes reappraising the situation. He leaned in, stinking of honey powder. “You know our supplies of Crown Brew have been dreadfully curtailed. If I cooperate, you’ll perhaps mention it to his majesty?”

Kallan quelled the urge to punch the man who worried more about comforts than the safety of his citizens. He sighed. “Aye. For your full cooperation. Make sure your guards know, no one is allowed off the premises. Have them keep everyone together in groups, your servants and staff especially. It should prevent the creature from singling out an isolated victim.”

The keeper’s brow furrowed. “If there is no target, how will you flush the beast out?”

“I’ll find him,” Kallan said. “I know his smell, and his thirst for blood will force him to take risks.”

“Gods,” Basset muttered. Even though they were warded by sound-deadening magic, he lowered his voice. “Wouldn’t it be better to put a few of the common folk out on the back veranda? If this creature is so hungry, wouldn’t that…”

“Your grace,” Kallan failed to curb the snarl in his tone. He gripped the hilt of his sword, voice rising. “Are you suggesting we use your people as bait?”

Basset made furious down motions with his hands. “Major Garrik, discretion. Discretion! There may be readers of lips!”

Now he remembered rank. Kallan pulled the sword part way and stared at the noble. “No, your grace,” he said. “We will not be offering any bait. Follow the plan or I will ensure the king knows you chose to put citizens in harm’s way for your own expedience.”

Basset backed up a step, face draining of color. “Be at ease, Sir!” He coughed. “It will be as you ask. You have my word.” He paused. “Major, I’ve co-operated with this ball, as you have requested. But I have been tasked to negotiate with our neighbors to the south. I will have very important guests arriving tomorrow. Please assure me this…horrible business will be finished by then.”

“Our hunt will end tonight.” Kallan shoved the sword down into its sheath with a clack. After everything he’d seen while chasing this beast, how could he let this selfish noble burst his calm? He needed to be done with this benighted task before he went mad.

Lord Basset cleared his throat. “Sir Garrik, are you all right?”

He steadied his breaths and caressed Kimberly’s gem before replying. “I’m just tired.” Tired of everything…leading, killing, and dealing with selfish fops who don’t deserve their titles. “This beast has murdered two score. Don’t make its next kill easy.”

“Very well,” Basset acquiesced. “I will inform the guards and have the staff gather as requested.” With a nod, he turned away.

Maybe he was cursed somehow. No other soulstealer had deviled his tracking and tactics like this. In the last town, the beast had forced him to choose. He’d saved the boy bleeding to death in the street and let the beast escape.

Suddenly, the hair on Kallan’s nape stiffened and his mind itched as if insects crawled inside his head. The stalker watched him now.

“Wait,” he said, halting the lord keeper mid-turn.

The nobleman raised an eyebrow.

“After you’re done, I need to meet with anyone new to the area. Anyone who arrived within the last ten-day or so.”

Basset sniffed. “I’ll vouch for all the highborn,” he said. “I’ve spent considerable time in their company. However, there must be a handful of townsfolk that could be suspects.”

Kallan scowled. “Your grace, I will not be second guessed. This creature arrived in the last ten-day and can be posing as a commoner or a gentleman. If it is discovered that you shielded the culprit from my investigation, you’ll become an accomplice and be subject to the same punishment.”

The nobleman swallowed. He drew himself up and straightened his coat. “Your point is well taken. I will make the necessary arrangements.”

He watched the keeper push through the crowd, gathering guardsmen as he went. The old fool had planned to withhold some names. Kallan sighed. No doubt he’d be reprimanded later for his lack of diplomacy, but so be it.

A nagging doubt ate at him. Maybe this creature wasn’t more powerful than the others. Perhaps he’d simply lost his edge. His father could, and probably should, dismiss him.

With those sour thoughts in his head, he prowled through the crowd, sniffing for a hint of the killer. The commoners and nobles were becoming increasingly agitated. He heard whispers about a soulstealer being in town. His stomach twisted. How did that get around? He’d left explicit orders to be discreet. He didn’t want the people to panic.

A quarter bell passed and still no hint of the beast. Not an auspicious start to the operation. When a mousy woman dressed in keep livery appeared out of the crowd, he met her gaze.

“Sir Garrik, the lord keeper requests your presence on the terrace. He said it should be private enough for your interviews.”

He nodded and followed her to the back of the banquet room where several guards had been posted. On the terrace overlooking a view of the lake, the keeper stood waiting for him with a small group of people.

Basset introduced the first as Rolf, a landholder from the north. Kallan shook hands with a tall thin man with black hair, close-set eyes, and fidgety hands. He carried himself arrogantly, but his stance betrayed his lack of weapon training.

Rolf gestured toward the crowd, almost spilling a plate of food. “Where I come from, we never associate with commoners.”

Kallan imagined himself backhanding the man. “A shame. You might have learned some manners.”

Rolf’s face reddened. “Why, I–!”

He stopped as Kallan put a hand on his sword.

Scowling, the fellow retreated, casting an angry glare at Basset.

Kallan had just gestured for Basset to invite the next person over when a sensation hit like a jolt of lightning. He felt paralyzed. Hunger, hostility, and contempt lashed through his consciousness.

The jangling sense of being overwhelmed lasted only a few moments but left him shaken. He scanned the room to see if anyone else had experienced the powerful projection of thought. Apparently no one had noticed. The party continued.

A chill ran down his back. This time, the beast hunted him.

 

King's Steel print cover