Authors: C. L. Wilson
For my Dad, Ray Richter. Every person should have a hero. You've always been mine. And for my Mom, Lynda Richter. I couldn't have done this without you. Thank you both, for everything. I'm so lucky you're my parents.
I am blessed to have the most wonderful friends, family and supporters. A special thanks to Michelle Grajkowski, my agent, for taking a chance on a 1,000 page fantasy romance from an unpublished author, and to my editor, Alicia Condon, for the same reason. You both made my dream come true. Thanks to all the critique partners who've helped me in so many priceless ways: Christine Feehan, Diana Peterfreund, Mom, Betina Krahn, Sharon Stone, Kathie Firzlaff, Carla Hughes, my sister Lisette, Tanya Michaels, Sheila Clover English and Alesia Holliday. Thanks to my dear friends Kim Klein, Keith Stringer, and April Rice who have cheered me on, and to my husband Kevin and our children Ileah, Rhiannon, and Aidan for being so understanding of all the long hours I've spent sequestered in my office.
A special thanks to bookseller Kay Meriam Vamvakias: you have no idea how much your support and encouragement meant to me. You are a true friend of the Fey.
Thanks to the richly talented artist, Judy York, who so perfectly captured my vision of Rain, Ellysetta, and the tairen on my absolutely gorgeous covers—and for letting me use them on my Web site!
And, last but not least, thanks to the wonderful men and women of Tampa Area Romance Authors (TARA) who've been my writing family for the last five years. TARA Rocks!
Loudly, proudly, tairen sing,
Softly, sadly, mothers cry
To sing a tairen's lullabye.
The Tairen's Lament,
Fey Nursery Rhyme
The tairen were dying.
Rain Tairen Soul, King of the Fey, could no longer deny the truth. Nor, despite all his vast power and centuries of trying, could he figure a way to save either the creatures that were his soul-kin or the people who depended upon him to lead and defend them.
The tairen—those magnificent, magical, winged cats of the Fading Lands—had only one fertile female left in their pride, and she grew weaker by the day as she fed her strength to her six unhatched kitlings. With those tiny, unborn lives rested the last hope of a future for the tairen, and the last hope of a future for Rain's people, the Fey. But today, the painful truth had become clear. The mysterious, deadly wasting disease that had decimated the tairen over the last millennium had sunk its evil, invisible claws into yet another clutch of unhatched kits.
When the tairen died, so too would the Fey. The fates of the two species were forever intertwined, and had been since the misty time before memory.
Rain looked around the wide, empty expanse of the Hall of Tairen. Indeed, he thought grimly, the death of the immortal Fey had begun centuries ago.
Once, in a time he could still remember, the Hall had rung with the sound of hundreds of Fey Lords, warriors,
and Tairen Souls arguing politics and debating treaties. Those days had long passed. The Hall was silent now, as silent as the long-abandoned cities of the Fey, as silent as Fey nurseries, as silent as the graves of all those Fey who had died in the Mage Wars a thousand years ago.
Now the last hope for both the tairen and the Fey was dying, and Rain sensed a growing darkness in the east, in the land of his ancient enemies, the Mages of Eld. He couldn't help believing the two events were somehow connected.
He turned to face the huge, priceless globe of magical Tairen's Eye crystal called the Eye of Truth, which occupied the center of the room. Displayed on the wings of a man-high stand fashioned from three golden tairen, the Eye was an oracle in which a trained seer could search for answers in the past, the present, and the infinite possibilities of the future. The globe was ominously dark and murky now, the future a dim, forbidding shadow. If there was a way to halt the relentless extermination of his peoples, the answer lay there, within the Eye.
The Eye of Truth had been guarding its secrets, showing shadows but no clear visions. It had resisted the probes of even the most talented of the Fey's still-living seers, played coy with even their most beguiling magic weaves. The Eye was, after all, tairen-made. By its very nature, it combined pride with cunning; matched passion with often-wicked playfulness. Seers approached it with respect, humbly asked it for a viewing, courted its favor with their minds and their magic but never their touch.
The Eye of Truth was never to be touched.
It was a golden rule of childhood, drummed into the head of every Fey from infant to ancient.
The Eye held the concentrated magic of ages, power so pure and undiluted that laying hands upon it would be like laying hands upon the Great Sun. But the Eye was keeping secrets, and Rain Tairen Soul was a desperate king with no time to waste and no patience for protocol. The Eye of Truth
be touched. He was the king, and he would have his answers. He would wrest them from the oracle by force, if necessary.
His hands rose. He summoned power effortlessly and wove it with consummate skill. Silvery white Air formed magical webs that he laid upon the doors, walls, floor, and ceiling. A spidery network of lavender Spirit joined the Air, then green Earth to seal all entrances to the Hall. None would enter to disturb him. No scream, no whisper, no mental cry could pass those shields. Come good or ill, he would wrest his answers from the Eye without interruption—and if it demanded a life for his impertinence, it would be unable to claim any but his.
He closed his eyes and cleared his mind of every thought not centered on his current purpose. His breathing became deep and even, going in and out of his lungs in a slow rhythm that kept time with the beat of his heart. His entire being contracted into a single shining blade of determination.
His eyes flashed open. Rain Tairen Soul reached out both hands to grasp the Eye of Truth.
"Aaahh!" Power—immeasurable, immutable—arced through him. His head flew back beneath its onslaught, his teeth bared, his throat straining with a scream of agony. Pain drilled his body like a thousand
blades, and despite twelve hundred years of learning to absorb pain, to embrace it and mute it, Rain writhed in torment.
This pain was unlike any he had ever known.
This pain refused to be contained.
Fire seared his veins and scorched his skin. He felt his soul splinter and his bones melt. The Eye was angry at his daring affront. He had assaulted it with his bare hands and bare power, and such was not to be borne. Its fury screeched along his bones, vibrating down his spine, slashing at every nerve center in his body until tears spilled from his eyes and blood dripped from his mouth where he bit his lip to stop screaming.
he gasped. "I am the Tairen Soul, and I will have my answer.”
If the Eye wished to cement the extinction of both tairen and Fey, it would claim Rain's life. He was not afraid of death; rather he longed for it.
He surrendered himself to the Eye and forced his tortured body to relax. Power and pain flowed into him, through him, claiming him without resistance. And when the violent rush of power had invaded his every cell, when the pain filled his entire being, a strange calm settled over him. The agony was there, extreme and nearly overwhelming, but without resistance he was able to distance his mind from his body's torture, to disassociate the agony of the physical from the determination of the mental. He forced his lips to move, his voice a hoarse, cracked whisper of sound that spoke ancient words of power to capture the Eye's immense magic in flows of Air, Water, Fire, Earth, and Spirit.
His eyes opened, glowing bright as twin moons in the dark reflection of the Eye, burning like coals in a face bone white with pain.
With voice and mind combined, Rain Tairen Soul asked his question: "How can I save the tairen and the Fey?”
Relentlessly, absorbing the agony of direct contact with the Eye, he searched its raging depths for answers. Millions of possibilities flashed before his eyes, countless variations on possible futures, countless retellings of past events. Millennia passed in an instant, visions so rapid his physical sight could never have hoped to discern them, yet his mind, steadily commanding the threads of magic, absorbed the images and processed them with brutal clarity. He stood witness to the deaths of millions, the rise and fall of entire civilizations. Angry, unfettered magic grew wild in the world and Mages worked their evil deeds. Tairen shrieked in pain, immolating the world in their agony. Fey women wept oceans of tears, and Fey warriors fell helpless to their knees, as weak as infants. Rain's mind screamed to reject the visions, yet still his hands gripped the Eye of Truth, and still he voiced his question, demanding an answer.
"How can I save the tairen and the Fey?”
He saw himself in tairen form, raining death indiscriminately upon unarmed masses, his own tairen claws impaling Fey warriors.
"How can I save the tairen and the Fey?”
Sariel, his beloved mate, lay bloody and broken at his feet, pierced by hundreds of knives, half her face scorched black by Mage fire. She reached out to him, her burned and bloodied mouth forming his name. He watched in helpless paralysis as the flashing arc of an Elden Mage's black
blade sliced down across her neck. Bright red blood fountained—
The unutterable pain of Sariel's death—tempered by centuries of life without her—surged back to life with soul- shredding rawness. Rage and bloodlust exploded within him, mindless, visceral, unstoppable. It was the Fey Wilding Rage, fueled by a tairen's primal fury, unfettered emotions backed by lethal fangs, incinerating fire, and access to unimaginable power.
They would die! They had slain his mate, and they would all die for their crime!
His shrieking soul grasped eagerly for the madness, the power to kill without remorse, to scorch the earth and leave nothing but smoldering ruins and death.
Rain yanked his hands from the Eye and flung up his arms to cover his face. His breath came in harsh pants as he battled to control his fury. Once before, in a moment of madness and unendurable pain, he had unleashed the beast in his soul and rained death upon the world. He had slain thousands in mere moments, laid waste to half a continent within a few days. It had taken the combined will of every still- living tairen and Fey to cage his madness.
Please," he begged, clawing for self-possession. He released the weaves connecting him to the Eye in the frantic hope that shearing the tie would stop the rage fighting to claim him.
Instead, it was as if he had called Fire in an oil vault. The world was suddenly bathed in blood as his vision turned red. The tairen in him shrieked for release. To his horror, he felt his body begin to dissolve, saw the black fur form, the lethal curve of tairen claws spear the air.
For the first time in twelve hundred years of life, Rainier vel'En Daris knew absolute terror.
The magic he'd woven throughout the Hall would never hold a Tairen Soul caught up in a Fey Wilding Rage. All would die. The world would die.
The Tairen-Change moved over him in horrible slow motion, creeping up his limbs, taunting him with his inability to stop it. The small sane part of his mind watched like a stunned, helpless spectator, seeing his own death hurtling towards him and realizing with detached horror that he was going to die and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.
He had overestimated his own power and utterly underestimated that of the Eye of Truth.
"Stop," he shouted. "I beg you. Stop! Don't do this." Without pride or shame, he fell to his knees before the ancient oracle.
The rage left him as suddenly as it had come.
In a flash of light, his tairen-form disappeared. Flesh, sinew, and bone re-formed into the lean, muscular lines of his Fey body. He collapsed face down on the floor, gasping for breath, the sweat of terror streaming from his pores, his muscles shaking uncontrollably.
Faint laughter whispered across the stone floor and danced on the intricately carved columns that lined either side of the Hall of Tairen.
The Eye mocked him for his arrogance.
he whispered, his eyes closed. "I deserve it. But I am desperate. Our people—mine and yours both—face extinction. And now dark magic is rising again in Eld. Would you not also have dared any wrath to save our people?”
The laughter faded, and silence fell over the Hall, broken only by the wordless noises coming from Rain himself, the sobbing gasp of his breath, the quiet groans of pain he didn’t have the strength to hold back. In the silence, power gathered. The fine hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. He became aware of light, a kaleidoscope of color bathing the Hall, flickering through the thin veil of his eyelids.
His eyes opened—then went wide with wonder.
There, from its perch atop the wings of three golden tairen, the Eye of Truth shone with resplendent clarity, a crystalline globe blazing with light. Prisms of radiant color beamed out in undulating waves.
Stunned, he struggled to his knees and reached out instinctively towards the Eye. It wasn't until his fingers were close enough to draw tiny stinging arcs of power from the stone that he came to his senses and snatched his hands back without touching the oracle's polished surface.
There had been something in the Eye's radiant depths—an image of what looked like a woman's face—but all he could make out were fading sparkles of lush green surrounded by orange flame. A fine mist formed in the center of the Eye, then slowly cleared as another vision formed. This image he saw clearly as it came into focus, and he recognized it instantly. It was a city he knew well, a city he despised. The second image faded and the Eye dimmed, but it was enough. Rain Tairen Soul had his answer. He knew his path.
With a groan, he rose slowly to his feet. His knees trembled, and he staggered back against the throne to collapse on the cushioned seat.
Rain gazed at the Eye of Truth with newfound respect. He was the Tairen Soul, the most powerful Fey alive, and yet the Eye had reduced him to a weeping infant in mere moments. If it had not decided to release him, it could have used him to destroy the world. Instead, after beating the arrogance out of him, it had given up at least one of the secrets it was hiding.
He reached out to the Eye with a lightly woven stream of Air, Fire, and Water and whisked away the faint smudges left behind by the fingers he had dared to place upon it.
«Sieks'ta. Thank you.»
He filled his mental tone with genuine respect and was rewarded by the instant muting of his body's pain. With a bow to the Eye of Truth, he strode towards the massive carved wooden doors at the end of the Hall of Tairen and tore down his weaves.
He sent the mental call to the Fey's strongest living
even as he reached out with Air to swing open the Hall's heavy doors before him. The Fey warriors guarding the door to the Hall of Tairen nodded in response to the orders he issued with swift, flashing motions of his hands as he strode by, and the flurry of movement behind him assured him his orders were being carried out.