Home > The Price of Valor (The Shadow Campaigns #3)

The Price of Valor (The Shadow Campaigns #3)
Django Wexler

Prologue

IGNAHTA SEMPRIA

Such pretty country, to be soaked in blood.

South of the city of Desland, the valley of the river Velt flattened out into a rolling carpet of fields, gridded by neat hedgerows and punctuated by tiny orderly hamlets, each with its tall-spired church tipped by a golden double circle. The river itself traced out a series of lazy curves, as though exhausted by its frantic descent from the highlands, and it flashed like molten silver in the warm autumn sun. Here and there, lone hills rose from the endless flat farmland like islands jutting out of the sea, crowned with gnarled, ancient trees, the last remaining strongholds of the great forests that had covered this land before the arrival of men.

Atop one of those hills, at the edge of one of those primeval woods, a man sat cross-legged on a boulder and stared down at the plain below. He was a young man, barely out of boyhood, with nut-brown hair and a wispy mustache. Dressed in leathers and homespun, he could have been mistaken for a native, the son of a peasant farmer come to trap or gather wood in the old forest.

In fact, he was a very long way from home, and he had no interest in firewood or game. His name was Wren. In his saddlebags, carefully folded and secured inside a lockbox, he carried a velvet mask sewn with a layer of glittering, clicking obsidian. It marked him as a servant of an order out of legend, one that was supposedly a hundred years dead: the Priests of the Black, fell agents of the Elysian Church, its spies and inquisitors.

Even within the hidden fraternity who carried out the will of the Black Priests, Wren was of a special breed. He had spoken the true name of a demon, and would play host to the creature until the end of his days. When his death came, he would be condemned to eternal torment for daring to traffic with the supernatural. He had accepted this burden, and the certainty of this ultimate fate, to serve the Church and save others from suffering similar punishment. He was one of the Ignahta Sempria, the Penitent Damned.

* * *

Wren stared down at the plain, across the miles, to a place where many campfires had lately burned like fireflies. At that distance, most men would have seen nothing but the fields and the rivers, but Wren’s demon was with him. He could feel it in his eyes, a tight feeling like someone twisting knotted cords around his skull, and it sharpened his vision to excruciating precision. Tiny men in blue milled and marched and formed ranks, teams of horses were harnessed to cannon, and cavalrymen checked their saddles and mounted. An army, preparing for battle.

The brush beside him rustled. With his demon’s strength wholly poured into his eyes, Wren’s hearing was no better than a normal man’s, and only the discipline of long training kept him from starting at the sound. Instead he let out a long breath and forced himself to relax, letting his demon return to its resting state. Between blinks, the clarity of his vision faded, though it still would have put any hawk to shame. Sound rushed back in, every tiny rustle and animal noise of the forest now as obvious as a fanfare. He could hear the heartbeats of the two men who now stood beside him, and their breathing was as loud as the rasp of a bellows.

“The Vordanai are breaking camp,” he said. He spoke in Murnskai, the native tongue of those raised in the fortress-temple of Elysium. “But not to retreat. Vhalnich will offer battle to di Pfalen.”

“Bold,” said the man on his left.

He was much older than Wren, well into middle age, with a bald dome of skull sticking up from a ring of black and gray. His name, the only one that Wren had ever heard anyone use, was the Liar. Like Wren, he was dressed in simple peasant garb, but his hands might have invited comment: his nails were each at least an inch long, and painted with gleaming white resin.

“Di Pfalen has the numbers,” Wren said. “He has broken his force into three columns to attempt to cut off Vhalnich’s escape.”

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