This is the first snippet from the upcoming book in the Standard of Honor Series. It continues the tale of Zhanna, her Familiar, Dascha, and the people that she knows and loves.
Please remember, as always, that this is unedited!
Road to Honor - Snippet One
The fog was heavy and laden with musty and acrid scents. Zhanna, Stefan, and Mikhail stayed close together, more for comfort than for any other reason. Stefan was obviously uneasy, darting glances from side to side as he strode along close to her right side. Mikhail followed a step behind her to the left with his blade drawn in his left hand. Slung over his right shoulder were the carry bags for Noma, Tish, and Saroc. The Hidden Folk had insisted on coming along on the urgent mission to the Badger Hole Bar and Zhanna had been so rattled that she hadn’t argued much.
<< You are still unsettled, kitten. When Henley and Glenfrey came bursting in on us and said that we had come to the BHB right away, neither one of us knew what to say. >>
<< You are right, Dascha. I can’t seem to get my mental footing, and this fog is not helping. For some reason, it feels different than the last time we came this way. >>
<< I know. It’s as if something is watching us from within the fog. Last time, it just felt sort of creepy, but this time the emotion is darker and more serious. The only saving grace is if it’s this scary for us, how does it feel to the rest of them? >>
Zhanna’s mental chuckle help to break the tension, and she could finally take a breath. The relief made her able to take a quick look over her shoulder at the rest of her party. She hoped that the message that they were given was correct because otherwise, it looked like an invading army. Not only did she have Stefan and Mikhail but she had three of the Hidden Folk and the Mage Henley and his huge Familiar, the Eagle Glenfrey with her. Given the various abilities of her companions, she hoped Madrik was in a forgiving mood.
<< It could be worse, I suppose. We could have more than nine of us. >>
<<Ah… We might have a few more that you weren’t aware of. >>
Zhanna stopped cold in the middle of the pathway, causing Henley to almost trip to avoid her. Turning to stare at her Familiar, who was studiously looking straight ahead, Zhanna demanded in an irate tone, “What do you mean? Who came along that I didn’t know about?”
Mikhail answered, his eyes watching the fog and his voice tense and low toned, “I don’t think this is the right time to stop and argue, Zhanna. You can be angry later, but for right now let’s get a move on.”
Swallowing the waves of irritation that had burned every last vestige of her uneasiness out of her system, the young Witch turned toward their objective and started to walk so quickly that the rest the party had to scramble to catch up. Fuming to herself, Zhanna promised, A certain black fuzzy smartass and I are going to have a chat soon!
So incensed was Zhanna that she forgot to be unsettled by the fog and marched her way determinedly toward the Badger Hole Bar door. The mist receded from the path as if it knew that the Witch had gone from intimidated to infuriated. Seemingly, even uncanny clouds were leery of an enraged Witch.
In just a few moments, the welcoming lit sconces of the BHB external door appeared. Zhanna heard distinct sighs of relief from both her merc companions and a smaller, softer sound from the Mage Henley, following closely behind.
The first time Zhanna had come this way, they had opened the door themselves. This time, the door swung open before anyone could lay a hand on it. The light from the taproom of the BHB shown with a golden glow. The subdued sounds of conversation and activity immediately calmed Zhanna down even further.
It didn’t seem like there was an emergency, and the lack of excitement and strain relaxed Zhanna enough to bring a smile to her face as the waitress, Wynn, hurried over to her delightedly exclaiming. “Zhanna! I didn’t know you were coming. It’s wonderful to see you, but what is the occasion?”
The young Witch didn’t answer until her entire party was through the door and it had clicked closed safely behind them. Only then did she turned to her smiling friend and say, “We got an urgent summons to come here, and I thought something was wrong. So, we dropped everything and came as quickly as we could.”
Before either of the women could say anything else, Zhanna heard a shout of, “Zhanna! What brings you here?” The voice and the unusually warm greeting issued from the broad chest of the head bouncer, Alastair. The big man had come from the other side of the bar and was hurrying toward them. What caused Zhanna’s jaw to drop and her two mercenary friends to take up protective positions was the creature riding on Alastair’s shoulder.
In some ways, the entity reminded Zhanna of some of her friends in the Hidden Folk. It looked like a cross between Noma and Saroc with tufts of fur and a long prehensile tail. Much larger than any of her friends, this creature looked like it weighed about 25 to 30 pounds. It was balanced carefully on the bouncer’s shoulder with one paw hand gently braced against his head.
Of course, Alastair acted as if he didn’t notice the weight but Zhanna knew that as strong as he was, he probably wouldn’t have cared if the creature weighed 100 pounds.
Shock held the young Witch still for just a moment, long enough for the Hidden Folk that had ridden in Mikhail’s pack had time to let out earsplitting sounds and swarm down him as if he was a pile of rocks. Noma and Tish ran over to the creature that had jumped down to the floor on hearing them. They were all soon embroiled in a spinning, chattering mass of small beings.
Saroc was more restrained. Coming carefully down Mikhail, the little amphibian moved over toward the excited and chattering trio. Waiting patiently until things calmed down, he soon interjected, “Nidji, what are you doing here?”
The young Witch exclaimed, “You know him?”
“Yes. I knew him from when we were both very young. Before we came through the cold doors. However, I have no knowledge of how he got here, or even why.”
Madrik had come up to the group silently, going unnoticed until that moment. He caught Zhanna’s eye and suggested, “I believe it would be better if you joined the rest of his party over at the table. When they came through the left door and explained their dilemma, there were a lot of people here who suggested options. But we kept watching the right-hand door looking for the solution and had about given up. Now you have come, and I can feel the BHB’s satisfaction.”
Zhanna felt a cold shiver run down her back as if someone had stepped on a grave nearby. Looking up in consternation, she saw that Stefan and Mikhail had drawn closer to her in a protective shield and Henley had stepped to one side as if to defend her also.
“Madrik, what is going on? Even the air feels strange right now, and nothing seems quite solid.”
The strange creature spoke for the first time. In a voice as deep as most humans, he said, “You must be the Witch that is the pivot of all of this. You’re probably confused, and at least we have some of the pieces of the puzzle for you. Please join my companions and me for a drink and a discussion.”
Glancing around quickly, Zhanna didn’t see any other option reflected in her companion’s faces, and without a better solution, she chose to follow the creature across the floor to the large and comfortable table beside the fireplace. Waiting for her at the table were two more creatures that looked like Noma and Tish. They were silent and motionless, staring with large eyes at the group approaching them.
They so reminded her of her Hidden Folk friends that Zhanna couldn’t maintain her anger although her unease never left her. The table was large and easily accommodated all of them. The BHB even sent up a thick tendril that made a comfortable perch for Glenfrey. Clacking his beak in relief, the large Golden Eagle settled his feathers and turned first one side of his head and then the other to thoroughly examine the beings that were waiting.
No one spoke at, some of them not knowing what to ask and others not knowing what to say. Finally, the young Witch couldn’t bear it any longer, “Please, can you explain to us what’s going on? Obviously, it is something that’s very important but we have come hurriedly from our home to be here, and I have no idea why we were summoned.”
The discussion got general for a while as Noma and Tish introduced, at least in a general way, the others of their race. Although they had not personally known each other, there were enough connections of family and lineage, of geography and clan, that the Hidden Folk seemed to accept each other at face value.
Zhanna could see that Stefan and Mikhail were calming down as the familiarity and the confidence of the Hidden Folk became more apparent. While the young Witch was relieved, she couldn’t help but wonder where these strange waves of feeling were coming from and why this is such an urgent mission.
Wynn had come over and brought drinks and food to everyone. It was only when the smell of hot grilled meat permeated the air that Zhanna learned that she had more than her visible party members to contend with. Popping his head out of Mikhail’s pack, TT’s Uncle Jack looked around quickly. He then hopped lightly to snag his share of the warm food. Before Zhanna could say anything, the white shape of a small Persian cat emerged to join in.
By this point, Zhanna was beyond quibbling with the stowaways. She noticed that Dascha easily made space for the two other cats in the companionably shared dish of food. She also saw that the strange Hidden Folk were frightened of both the cats and the giant Eagle. However, whatever drove them was strong enough either from fear or devotion to make them move past the presence of uncontained predators in the room.
Finally, the discussion focused on the problem and the help that was required. The three Hidden Folk were from a world that they had traveled to through the same type of transportation doors, the ones that Zhanna’s Hidden Folk referred to as “cold doors,” when they left their home planet.
<< I bet that’s a story to hear some time! It sounds like everybody left the world all at the same time but went to different destinations. I wonder why? >>
<< Dascha, we can find that out later. Right now, I’m just trying to figure out why were the ones that got called on this. >>
Finally, the young man who looked like Noma started to speak. He started off rather shakily, but his voice strengthened as he got into the meat of his tale. “The world that we are coming from, the place that we live now, sounds very similar to what you have today. It has seasons and dense undergrowth, interesting godlings and many people. However, there is an infestation of Magic users that rely on blood sacrifice and pain to power their magic. They are evil, and we have tried to stay out of their way and protect our friends from them whenever we can.”
Stefan asked, “How powerful are they?”
The small Hidden Folk male responded, “I’m not sure that I’m qualified to tell you how strong they are. They are far more powerful than we are, and they can kill at a distance.”
The small female interjected, “But only if they can see you, so we stay hidden most of the time.”
Nodding his head in acceptance, the senior mercenary proceeded to question the three of them on the exact issue and problem that they needed to be solved. While he was finding out the information, Dascha leaned against her Witch in comfort.
<< At least we know how to deal with the blood mage. >> Dascha’s mental voice was slightly relieved but had a base of sadness that Zhanna didn’t understand. Resolving to herself that she would ask her Familiar about it later, the Witch continued to listen.
The young male was still talking, “Without warning, a large city has appeared in the middle of one of the plains. It is full of magic and all sorts of interesting things that the blood mage’s want.”
The young female interjected one more time, “They are almost crazy with desire for it, but the city is keeping them out. Every once in a while, in the early light, you can see dim shapes moving through the city. The blood mages are trying to get to those dimly-seen people. They can’t seem to, and the evil ones keep sacrificing more people to overwhelm the defenses with sheer power.