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Keeper of Prophecy: A Fatal Empire Short

Keeper of Prophecy: A Fatal Empire Short

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I have never put much stock in prophecy. I may serve as the goddess’s loyal daughter, but I make my own way in this world.

In an empire beset by violence and intrigue, to put your faith in anything beyond your own two hands means almost certain death. The blood embedded beneath my fingernails confirms it.

...But some destinies, you cannot outrun.

Meet Raziel’s mother Moriah, and learn her secret past in this short story prequel from the richly imagined Fatal Empire fantasy series.

(This adventure takes place before Keeper of Secrets, the first book in the Fatal Empire series.)

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I have never understood the need for prophecy. I suppose my beliefs have been shaped by my upbringing—an unacknowledged daughter of a pureblood noble, by way of his common-born concubine. The conquering nobles who have ruled the Dharakmeni Empire for generations brought their staunch atheism with them and did everything they could to ram it down the natives’ throats. Almost all of the temples dedicated to the various aspects of the Thousand-Faced Goddess now stand empty and abandoned, echoing monuments of a forgotten time. Aside from the Keeper of Secrets, only the most harmless of the goddess’s aspects have remained unscathed. The invaders quickly learned that the fastest way to spurn those you have conquered to rise up against you is to try to wipe out their belief system in its entirety.

In any event, I have never given the idea of prophecy much thought. I have always believed in making my own way in the world. It certainly wasn’t on my mind as I fled through the Imperial City in search of sanctuary, with blood embedded beneath my fingernails and tears staining my cheeks. Aside from my dedication ceremony to the Keeper of Secrets, I have never felt the presence of the goddess in my daily life. I certainly did not feel it now as the cobblestones pelted beneath my booted feet.

Some of my hair had come loose from its braid to rise in tangles around my mouth and eyes—windblown tentacles of blond-streaked brown. I tugged a stray lock from my mouth and wrinkled my nose when I caught the coppery tang of blood on my tongue as it grazed my soiled fingers. I tucked my hair as much beneath the hood of my cloak as possible and forced myself to slow to a walk.

My heart hammered in my ears. I made a concentrated effort to slow my breathing. The heavy thumping seemed to drown out the sounds of the city around me—the murmur of voices from passers-by, grumbled curses as someone in servant livery elbowed their way past, and the occasional bark of a stray dog—all which echoed against the high buildings that crowded the narrow street. Both horses and nobles were uncommon here in the poorer quarter of the city, where an undercurrent of spoiled food and the occasional waft of stale urine hung on the air.

I ducked into the shadows of a nearby alley as my gaze swept the street for signs I had been noticed. The ammonia stink of urine intensified and I switched to breathing through my mouth. I had drawn too much attention to myself. I should have known better than to run. If I was lucky, no one was looking for me yet. But it was only a matter of time before the City Guard began their search.

They would start here. The idea of a noble committing a crime could never be publicly acknowledged as a possibility—even though the nobles made fatal jabs at one another every day as part of their political intrigues. But poison and assassins were considered part of the game. If nothing could be proved, no crime had been committed. Commoners, on the other hand, were fair game.

Even though I straddled both worlds, I had been raised in my mother’s bower, in a manse owned by my noble father. My blond-streaked hair marked me as a potential by-blow of an Abrieli noble. Most commoners would be quick to cast suspicion my way when the inevitable guards arrived, especially if it meant avoiding it themselves.

As soon as I was satisfied I had regained my composure, and that no one was watching me from outside the alley, I slipped back onto the street. I trailed in the wake of a crowd of rough-looking men, who worked at the docks, judging from their fish and brine scent. They talked loudly among themselves with good-natured cheer, clearly happy to be done for the day. I allowed them to lead me toward a tavern that bore the name of The Lusty Cock. A smile tugged at my lips at the sight of the familiar sign, painted with a crowing rooster.

The men had unwittingly allowed me to follow them exactly where I wanted to go. My senses were alert, but no one seemed to notice me trailing behind my boisterous companions—a lean shadow in a hooded cloak.

The din inside the tavern made the pack of men seem almost solemn by comparison. The afternoon was wearing on, and happy hour was in full swing. I winced as I heard a group of voices sing a rousing chorus of ‘The Randy Chandler’s Daughter’ in a clash of various keys. I inhaled the scent of ale and unwashed sweat as I angled my way toward the bar. I knew how to move through a crowd without being jostled or noticed. Still, I kept my hand close to the dagger hidden beneath my cloak, my fingers brushing the cool metal of its pommel.

I greeted the bartender with a nod and slid a few coins across the counter. He accepted them without speaking.

I left him to slip toward the back of the tavern, moving through the press of bodies like smoke. The bartender wouldn’t even need to arrange a bar fight as a distraction today. The place was packed, and no one was paying me any attention.

For now.

A pair of nondescript men hulked on each side of an unmarked door. After a slight nod from the bartender, one of them opened it for me. I slipped inside, into the familiar dank darkness. The door closed behind me.

The scent of urine and refuse returned, making me long for the comparatively fresh air of the tavern. I made a face and switched to breathing through my mouth again as I navigated the narrow hallway. The sound of a rat’s skittering feet from somewhere nearby hastened my steps. I narrowed my eyes, willing them to adjust to the change of light. Even though I knew the way, I did not want to trip and fall here, into a heap of goddess knows what, with rats climbing all over me. I stroked the battered pommel of my dagger in reassurance.

When I reached the other end of the hallway, I tapped the series of knocks that would unlock the second, unmarked door that faced me. The sound was loud compared to the echoes of my own breathing. After I had completed the sequence, I heard the muffled scrape of a wooden bar being slid aside and the door opened.

Another pair of large men greeted me with wordless nods in a nondescript alley. I left them behind for the alley’s entrance, where I peered onto the main street.

Incense hung on the air beyond the alley. I breathed it in deeply, trying to forget the smells that lingered behind me. I pressed my back against the windowless brick wall that towered over me as I looked around the corner.

The street was empty. I could hear the booted feet of the City Guard marching in unison, somewhere in the distance. If I wanted to stay ahead of them, I knew I should move now.

Even though it went against all my training and instincts, I forced myself onto the empty street. This time, there was no crowd to hide in. The temple district drew little traffic. If the City Guard saw me, I would have to make a run for it.

I moved as quickly toward my target as I dared. My booted feet seemed to whisper across the cobblestones as I darted from one shadow to the next. The abandoned temples were at least useful as places to hide.

But my target was not empty. My breath caught as I glimpsed the twin obsidian obelisks that marked the entrance to the Keeper of Secret’s Great Temple. I resisted the urge to run toward them.

The echoes of heavy boots drew closer.

With my heart in my throat, I strode across the open space. As I passed between the towering fingers of the obelisks, a wave of relief threatened to overwhelm me. Still, I did not stop or look back until I had marched up the white marble of the temple steps and crossed the temple threshold.

I closed my eyes. The tears threatened to come back again. I firmly held them in check.

When I opened my eyes again, I found a familiar figure in rumpled, dark robes approaching me—Talib.

“Moriah!” The high priest’s deep blue eyes crinkled as he smiled a greeting.

I blinked and his expression turned measuring and thoughtful as he took in my appearance. I had lowered the hood of my cloak out of habit as I had entered the temple. Then he spoke the words that have haunted me ever since…

“I’ve been expecting you.”

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