Acquiring the Mark of Caine

For two years, Allister Caine has been on the run, a fugitive in the aftermath of the Cygnaran civil war that saw a new king assume the throne. His old connections severed, Caine has taken to hiding in the town of Prescott, where nobody knows his name. But soon enough, this will change. Everyone will know Allister Caine—but for all the wrong reasons. In the following excerpt from the forthcoming book, Mark of Caine by Miles Holmes (available October 12), “Of Blood and Bargains,” Caine finds himself in the hands of a woman who will set that change in motion…

“Wait for me, dammit,” Caine shouted, his breath hanging in the midnight air. He moved at nearly a jog, but the Radiz woman was ever ahead and never closer. Near as he could tell, the tangle of brier they skirted was guiding them to the woods west of Gus River’s Mill. He absently brushed his coat clear of brambles as he struggled to keep the woman in sight. In frustration, he watched her closely for a moment, then closed his eyes in concentration. At once, he vanished, to appear at her side an instant later.

“What’s yer hurry?” he huffed.

She slowed, half-turning to regard him with the same mischievous eyes he had seen in the King’s Boot. “I am in no hurry. You are simply slow.”

Caine frowned, still catching his breath as he kept pace with her. “I reckon no one’s ever said that to me before.”

He caught her hand in his, its coolness nearly a match for the night air. She stopped then and looked back his way quizzically. With his free hand raised to ask for mercy, he paused to look back the way they’d come. The valley behind them twinkled with the tight knot of lights that was Prescott at the bottom of its gentle bowl, and the footpath they traveled was faintly visible in the moonlight. “Assuming my heart doesn’t explode first, where are you taking me?”

The dark-haired woman pointed ahead with her free arm. Through a break in the thorny shrubs, a solitary shack— somewhere between quaint and derelict—had appeared. A wagon and horse were hitched alongside it, and a faint curl of smoke turned upward from the chimney inside. Caine thought it was quaint, though hardly what he’d expect from a Radiz woman.

“My home for now.”

As they entered the cottage through a decrepit wooden door, Caine noted the candles set in circles on the floor and along every surface. A hearth illuminated a table, a simple cupboard, and washbasin that sat next to a bed strewn with chicken feathers and green baubles. He spied a trio of trunks bound in chains along one wall. The space smelled faintly of rot, and he expected to find dead vermin in a corner or two. “Charming.”
The Radiz paid him no attention, setting her candles alight until their glow joined that of the hearth to make the entire room flicker red. He slouched onto a chair in the corner, his elbows resting on knees.

The woman moved from her candles to one of the trunks. “I want you to tell me,” she said as she rifled through its contents.

“Tell yeh what?”

“Are you worthy??”

Again, that perfect accent. Caine licked his lips, gazing over to the woman’s bed.

“I’m not sure I follow.”

She turned with an ugly curved dagger in her hand. Strange runes glowed along the blade. Thamarite runes, Caine noted. Not that Caine knew a great deal about such things, but he could recognize them. Thamarites knew a lot about magic others did not but had a dubious reputation. It did confirm this Radiz was a witch. She watched him studying her weapon, her eyes now glimmering with the same light as the runes. “You have seen my gift. It is mine to give, so tell me: are you worthy?”

“Well this came to nothing fast.” Caine stood to go, certain nothing of his life would qualify him as worthy for much of anything in any capacity.

“Sit down,” she commanded, pointing to a chair in a corner. Her face became sober, absent of all its former mischief. Between the ugly dagger and the magic he’d seen her demonstrate, the notion that this woman might be another one of Rebald’s contract killers finally crept into his head. He liked to think he wasn’t that naïve. Besides, she didn’t quite fit the profile. And she could have made her play long before now if all she wanted was his head.

Caine sat down again.

Across from him, she sank to the floor cross-legged within her circle of candles. The broad bowl of the copper brazier in front of her glowed in the candlelight. On it were more deep markings associated with the black magic of Thamar. The tip of her dagger played along her overturned forearm, dipping toward the glyph that had been carved there. As blade met glyph a faint crackle of magic arced between them.

“I have been watching you.” Her almond eyes were like slits now.

He cocked his head, fixated on the line her blade traced over her bare skin.

“You are not like them.” She led with her chin in the direction of Prescott. “You only pretend. You have a powerful gift. Like me. You do not want to be found. Like me.”

He nodded.

“Why are people looking for you?”

“I ain’t gonna lie to yeh, lady. I leave heartbreak most places I been.”

“Like the girl?” She turned the point of her blade toward him.

“Yeh saw that, did yeh?” He sighed, thinking back to his encounter with Silvie. “If only that was the extent of it. The kind of heartbreak I’m talking about is in the widows I leave behind, if yeh take my meaning. That’s what they pay me for. Well, they used to, back in the day. Yeh know the funny thing?”

Her eyes were piercing and steady. She didn’t rise to the rhetorical question, but he knew she was listening just the same.

“If I’d just been a good dog, there’d be no need for all this skulking. But the moment I aim to do right? The moment I put my foot down?” He shook his head. “Well, yeh see for yerself the fuss that’s gone and made.”

“Maybe it is your destiny.”

“Then, lady, I’m as good as dead already.” He shook his head a second time, this time more forcefully. “I ain’t going back.”

She nodded, her smile returning as her blade continued to wind its way over her arm. “This answer pleases me.”

Caine snorted. “What’s yer story, then? I still ain’t even heard yer name.”

“Ask me again the next time we meet.” She smiled seductively.

He shrugged. “Fine, then. Keep yer secrets.”

“Sit. Sit here.” She beckoned with her blade opposite the brazier.

Caine followed her lead. The woman seemed to draw magic from within as he imitated her and sat down cross-legged. Her eyes closed, and she drew deep breaths. The bowl seemed to glow as no candle could. He sniffed, finding her perfume stronger by the moment.

“If yeh won’t tell me yer name, least yeh could do is tell me what yer ward there does.”

He wondered if she’d even heard his words. The Radiz’s eyes remained shut, and she had begun to whisper in an unfamiliar language. Then, without warning, her whispering stopped. Her eyes opened and focused on him with unnerving intensity.

“You will move through this world as a wraith. By your will, may you move unseen in sunlight and glimpsed only under the moons of Immoren. The weapons of men will not find you—their very minds will cloud in your presence. This is my gift. Do you accept it?” She held her hand out over the brazier. Her dagger waited close by.

He looked at both. With a breath, he held out his hand. “Not many surprises left in this world for the likes of me. What have I got to lose?”

The dark-eyed woman smiled. She clasped his wrist firmly, pulling it over the brazier. When her dagger found his upturned forearm just below the elbow, the blade burned white-hot against his skin. His eyes watered from the pain, and he trembled as the blade slowly etched a glyph. She resumed her whispered chant faster and faster.

Caine looked down to avoid the sight of his wounding and tried instead staring at the copper brazier. A dribble of his blood trickled down into. A hiss rose from the heat marked with acrid smoke. He blinked. He could swear the smoke moved as though living, wriggling like a serpent as it curled up and out of the bowl.

“Too late to change my mind?” he muttered.

Whatever the effects of the mushroom extract or his uiske had been, they were well past now. This was neither imagination nor hallucination.

This was black magic.

He watched the curl of smoke grow larger, coiling around to fill the room. As it grew, it enveloped both of them, and the room took on an unearthly aura. Everything he saw became warped and devoid of all color. Curiously, the smoke neither choked his lungs nor brought tears to his eyes. The Radiz woman seemed to not notice it at all as she dug the last mark of the glyph into his arm, chanting still. With each breath he took, Caine found himself swaying a little more, gradually losing his balance. He looked up now, numb to the pain. He thought he could see a face over him. He thought it was his own.

Suddenly, the woman released his arm, and he collapsed. Darkness draped over him, leaving only her voice echoing around him as if he had fallen to the bottom of a deep pit.

“Go forth,” she said.

But he found he could not.

***

Mark of Caine by Miles Holmes will be available in digital and print formats on October 12 at Skullislandx.com, Amazon.com, and in digital formats at barnesandnoble.com, drivethrurpg.com, and iTunes.com.