Home > The Song of the Marked

The Song of the Marked
Author: S.M. Gaither

Chapter One



Casia hated thunderstorms, because they reminded her of the night she had watched her mother kill her father.

A bone-rattling BOOM in the present, and suddenly Cas was unwillingly back in the past, nine years old and crouching behind the claw-footed chair, smelling the dust in the suede fabric, feeling the rough floor beneath her bare feet while her tiny body quivered from a mixture of fear and sickness.

Another clap of thunder. Back in the present, Cas shifted closer to the rocks lining the mountain path. The rain started to fall in earnest. She gave her head a little shake, trying to spill the remnants of memory from it. She couldn’t stay in that memory. Not tonight.

Too many things were riding on tonight being a success.

Swiping the damp strands of hair from her eyes, Cas settled into a crouch, making herself as small as possible before creeping forward into the shadows cast by the rock ledges and the sparse bit of vegetation still growing this high up. She gripped the rough, knobby branch of a leafless and crooked tree, and then froze beneath it as she heard a low hissing sound. Her hand cautiously reached for the bow across her back.

The hissing soon grew louder, accompanied by the whisper of scales sliding against stone.

“Rock viper,” she muttered to herself as she reached for an arrow, her eyes wide and scanning the nooks and crannies for its hiding spot…


A pair of yellow-slit eyes locked on her face. It flung itself from the ledge in the next instant, lashing toward her with its mouth open, its fangs flashing along with the lightning—

Her arrow was faster. It pierced the creature in mid-air, causing it to break into a violent, twisting dance as it fell. The viper landed belly-up and thrashed against the gritty ground for a few seconds— thump, thump…thump……thump—before the stillness of death overtook it.

Cas put a boot on its shovel-shaped head and yanked the arrow out, wiped the blackish blood off on a nearby cluster of weeds, and then continued on her way.

There were likely more of those serpents lingering nearby, so she kept her bow out, nocking and readying an arrow every time she rounded a corner or crested a steep rise of the pebbly path—although the vipers were the least of her concerns, really, in spite of the poison they carried.

There were far worse creatures that haunted these paths.

Feral dogs, and the malevolent kui spirits, and countless other nasty things made of teeth and claws and ire… And most of those things would not be felled by a single arrow.

There were also soldiers allegedly waiting in the pass just ahead of where she stood, and that was perhaps the most unnerving thing of all.

That skinny passage ahead was known as The Bone God’s Pass—so called because of the white, crystalline structures that reached out from its rock walls like skeletal fingers. A half-mile of those clawing fingers awaited, according to the map Laurent had given Cas. After that, the pass would give way to a wider road, one that curved toward a gate made of metal and arched stones and white trees that twisted together in a way that could only be described as unnatural.

That stone and metal gate was the ultimate point that she and her team were attempting to reach. Beyond it, the domain that was known as Oblivion—at least in the common tongue— awaited anyone who was brave enough to keep going.

This would be the first time Cas had seen it all in person. Her chest tightened a little more with every step she took toward it. She rarely thought of herself as brave; she had simply become well-practiced at doing things in spite of her fear.

Investigate the Oblivion Gateway.

Bring me proof of whatever the king-emperor is up to.

Those had been her lord patron’s instructions. This was the reason her team was here in spite of the danger and the fear—because of those specialized soldiers from King-Emperor Varen’s army, his so-called Peace Keepers, that were allegedly here as well. Her patron wanted to know why those Peace Keepers were here. Nobody frequented this dismal place without purpose. Most went out of their way to avoid it, actually, because most believed that the Bloodstone Mountains were cursed.

And perhaps they were.

Or the domain of Oblivion was, at least.

Nestled in the northernmost ridges of the Bloodstones, that domain was a place covered in silver-black clouds that frequently swallowed people up and never spat them back out.

Explanations for what lay beneath those clouds varied.

Some said the cover was a natural barrier created from the decay of strange flora and fauna underneath it.

Others claimed that Kerse, that ‘Bone God’ who was otherwise known as the Middle-God of Death and Destruction, had made a secret home there. That he still visited it whenever he grew tired of the various heavens that he and his fellow deities had long ago ascended to.

Still other stories said there was a monster hiding deep in the heart of that silvery darkness, and it stalked the edges of its territory without rest, breathing sickness and famine and disaster out into the empire whenever it grew angry or restless.

The truth was that nobody honestly knew what happened in the shadows of Oblivion. And the not-knowing was enough to convince most that it had to have been something wicked and wild at work—something wicked and wild that the king-emperor may or may not have been tangling himself up in.

Cas wasn’t sure what she believed about this place. Not yet. But she tried not to think of the more terrifying stories she’d heard about it as she continued to wind her way through the uneven paths.

As she came closer to the Bone God’s Pass, she returned her bow to the sheath slung across her back, and she reached instead for the small dart gun tucked inside her coat. The darts she carried tonight were tipped with a toxin derived from killsweed. Despite the plant’s name, this particular toxin was only meant to make a grown adult sleep very soundly for a very long time. She wasn’t here to kill.

Not this time, at least.

Between the last king-emperor’s rule and the Fading Sickness that had been ravaging the Kethran Empire for the past few decades, she couldn’t help feeling there was enough death in the world without her gratuitously adding to it.

The path forked, and she took the route to the left. If she recalled that map she’d studied correctly, the Bone God’s Pass was just around the corner ahead. She crept along until she reached the edge of that corner. Paused for a moment to steady herself, pressing her back against a smooth bit of rock. Then, shielding her face from the driving rain with one hand, her dart gun balanced and raised in the other, she took a deep breath and rounded that edge—

Only to find that the entrance to that pass was unguarded.


She had expected at least a few guards here, as the narrow way would have been an easy place to head off potential spies and intruders such as herself, and to keep them from creeping too close to the Oblivion Gate.

She might have thought it a stroke of good luck… if she actually believed in that sort of thing. But Asra, the woman who’d raised her, had taught her long ago that Luck was a lesser-spirit that only the lazy and the foolish prayed to.

Cas kept her guard up as she made her way down the hill. It was even darker here— almost like descending into a pit. She had a Fire-kind crystal in the small pouch attached to her belt, but she preferred not to use it; such crystals did not come cheap, for one thing, and she was also wary of attracting more attention to herself.

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