Chains of Blood by ML Spencer is the first book in The Chaos Cycle, a standalone series set in the same world as The Rhenwars Saga. Chains of Blood features a new generation of heroes and demons charged with defending the Rhen against an ancient collective society. New readers will enjoy the depth of the world without feeling lost within it, while fans of the original saga will appreciate the familiar setting.
In Chains of Blood, Rylan Marshall discovers his entire life has been a lie. Recipient of a legacy he never knew existed, Rylan is attacked, his young daughter taken from him. His assailant leaves him with two gifts: the gift of magic and an unbreakable oath to Chaos. Rylan blames himself, even though he knows it wasn’t his fault. The life he knew was over, and war is coming. A new enemy, stronger and more cunning than any his people have ever faced, threatens his already war-torn homeland. Will Rylan use his newfound power to make a stand? Or will his oath to darkness turn him into an adversary?
Below, check out the first chapter of this hotly anticipated book by ML Spencer. Make sure to add it to your Goodreads list!
Gift of Darkness
The inn’s door blew open with a shriek.
Rylan Marshall flinched at the noise, his hand moving to the hilt of the sword resting at his side against the table. One of the inn’s customers bolted up, trudged across the room, and slammed the door shut. Rylan’s fingers loosened on the hilt, eventually retracting. The tension that gripped his shoulders took longer to go away.
Seated across the table, his father offered a sympathetic smile. “Can always tell when a man’s served time at the front. The nerves get stretched, like catgut. It took me four years before I stopped jumping at every barking dog.” He drained his whiskey and let out a slow sigh. “Some men never lose it…” He set the spent cup down on the table, then scratched his head. His auburn hair was cropped shorter than he usually liked to wear it, peppered with far more grays than Rylan remembered.
“I’m just glad to be home,” Rylan said with a sad smile. He raised his cup to his lips and drained the last of his whiskey.
Outside, the wind gave a ghoulish moan.
He poured himself what was left of the bottle and tossed it back in one swallow, setting the cup down harder than he’d intended. He ran a hand through his thick black hair, then cast a sideways glance at his father. “You should have seen what they did to their own vanguard at Edden’s Ford. We had them trapped against the water, so they turned their weapons on their own men. They forded the river on a bridge of corpses. Walked right over them.”
His father shook his head. “Desperate men do desperate things,” he muttered. For a moment, his eyes grew haunted. He stared down into the shadows of his cup, absently sliding a fingernail along the rough grain of the table’s surface. The air moving in under the door fanned the table lantern, bringing Clemet’s mind back from whatever hell it had wandered into. He took a measured sip from his cup, then signaled the inn’s proprietor for another bottle.
Rylan raised his hands in defeat. “No more for me,” he said, then pushed his chair back. “I’ve got to be heading back. Korey’ll be up waiting for me, and we’ve got an early day tomorrow. I’ve decided to take him into Auberdale. Get him a good pair of shoes,” he added with a smile. “The ones he’s got have holes in them.”
“While you’re there, get yourself a pair,” his father said, gesturing down at Rylan’s worn boots, which had seen many miles and many battles. He dug a small handful of coins out of his pocket and slid them across the table. Rylan opened his mouth to protest, but Clemet cut him off before he could get the words out.
“Go on, now,” he insisted, waving him away. “I’ve still got another round left in me. I’ll walk you out, though.”
“My thanks,” Rylan managed, knowing that arguing wouldn’t get him anywhere. He pocketed the coins then stood up, taking a moment to stretch his legs and gird his sword belt. The Farlow Inn hummed with the sounds of subdued conversations. Only a few patrons were gathered in the common room, all locals. A haze of pipe smoke fogged the air, the aroma combining pleasantly with woodsmoke coming from a river-rock hearth on the far wall. Rylan pulled on his coat and followed his father out the door.
The smell of the hearth trailed after them into the night. Outside, Clemet embraced him and clapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s good to have you home, son,” he said with a sincere smile. “Tell your mother I’ll be along in a bit.” He gave him another squeeze, then turned and walked back into the inn.
Obscured by clouds, the moon was reduced to a thin yellow haze that shed an anemic light over the town. Rylan thrust his hands into his pockets and strolled with his head bowed, enjoying the warmth of the liquor in his belly. The dust-paved streets of Farlow were quiet, almost ghostly in their stillness. Not a soul was about.
A building across the street gave a sharp crack. “Settling,” as his mother would call it. The noise startled him. At the front, he’d learned not to trust sounds he didn’t expect. He glared at the house, resenting it, and forced his hands back into his pockets. He walked on down the street, his right hand fingering the coins his father had given him. Another gust of wind came up, ruffling his hair.
Up ahead, a shadow crossed his path and disappeared down a side street. Human-shaped. At least, he thought it looked human. It could have been anything. Something about it tugged at the hairs on the back of his neck. Rylan paused and brought a hand up, scratching the week-old growth of whiskers on his face. He shrugged off the feeling and walked on.
He left town on a narrow, gravelly path leading through acres of cornfields toward his own homestead. Tall stalks rose around him, walling the path to either side, swaying back and forth between gusts of wind. Overhead, the moon dodged in and out of the clouds, the path ahead alternating between silver and shadow.
A scratching noise like metal against metal came from the field to his right.
Rylan stopped, frowning, and turned in the direction of the sound. He could make out an opening in the rows of corn, as though someone had left the trail and carved a path through the stalks. He started toward the opening, then stopped himself. Whoever was out there, it wasn’t his business. He had a family to get home to. He turned and continued on.
The cornfield ended with a long row of sycamores, a windbreak that wasn’t doing much of a job. On the other side, Rylan could make out the lights of his parents’ farmhouse glowing warmly through a lacy silhouette of leaves. His mother was still awake.
The scratching noise came again.
Rylan whirled toward it.
Behind him was another human-like shadow, only this time standing in the center of the path.
It was gone as soon as he saw it.
Rylan blinked. His stomach tightened, and his brow broke out in a sweat. A feeling came over him in an icy wave—one he recognized. It was the same feeling he got when staring across a battlefield at enemy lines.
“Who’s there?” he called into the darkness, taking a step forward.
A rush of wind trilled the leaves of the sycamores.
Whoever it was, he didn’t want them near his home. Hand on his hilt, he started back toward the cornfield. The night grew alarmingly quiet. The sounds of his boots crunching on gravel rang much louder than they should, echoing through the darkness in the absence of other noise. The wind had stopped. The limbs of the trees swayed to a standstill.
Rylan walked back out into the field, the moon casting his shadow ahead of him. His eyes scanned the path to either side, seeing only tall walls of cornstalks. Until he came to the opening in the rows. He stopped, considering the trail. A stale breeze wafted past him, carrying a rank odor. Rylan drew in a deep breath, gathered his courage, then walked into the corn.
Following a dark and narrow path, he had to fight with the rough stalks, pushing them out of his way as they raked his skin. Part of him didn’t want to keep going. But another part of him did. From ahead came the scratching sound again, louder this time. It scraped like a dull knife down his nerves. He pushed aside the last row of stalks.
Another shadow streaked across his vision.
It lunged for him.
Rylan’s reaction was primal and automatic. He bared his sword and swept it around in a two-handed arc. The blade parted the shadow without connecting with anything.
Startled, Rylan took a jolting step back. The shadow swept forward, reaching out for him. He spun back around—
—and cried out, stumbling away from the face of a man standing only inches from him. His fingers opened on their own, and the sword fell from his grip.
The man reached out and caught his arm. Rylan stood frozen, the fear in his gut a paralyzing venom. The hand tugged at his arm, and he walked woodenly forward, his feet moving of their own accord. The shadowy man led him back into the ring of trampled cornstalks.
Rylan’s eyes went to the remains of a good-size fire that had been built in the center of the circle. He recognized the smell now: burnt human flesh. He’d smelled that stench before on the battlefield. His gaze was glued to the pile, unable to look away. Before him, the blackened flesh took on definition. Thin arms, twisted legs, distorted face. Small, like a child.
He flinched away, his gaze settling on a small leather shoe with a hole in the toe.
Rylan collapsed to his knees, throttled by horror. A soul-wrenching cry welled up from his depths, twisting his guts.
His assailant stepped forward out of the shadows. The man had a gray and angular face. His piercing eyes bored into him through a mat of long, oily hair. He reached out his hand, as if offering to help him to his feet.
Rylan dodged past him and scrambled toward the charred remains of his boy. But the gray-skin man sprang in front of him, cutting him off. Rylan sank to his knees, all his strength pouring out of him in a flood.
“Why?” was all he could get out.
“Because it is your fate.”
The words were meaningless. None of this was happening. He must have been asleep. Dreaming. More human-like shades slid forward to encircle him. Rylan’s stomach heaved, and he vomited. He sank back, drawing his legs up to his chest and smothering his face with his hands. His cheeks ran with tears, his body wracked by sobs.
“Why?” he moaned again.
“Because of who you are.”
He looked up at the man through thick layers of incomprehension. “Who I am…?” He shook his head. “I’m nobody…”
This wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening.
The thin lips drew back in a smile, baring teeth. The gray man knelt before him, staring into his eyes. “We bring you a great gift, Gerald. Think of it as your inheritance.”
Rylan’s thoughts lurched. His brain jammed like stuck gears. “Who’s Gerald…?”
They had the wrong man, the wrong family. This was all a mistake.
But his boy lay smoldering in front of him, and the devil-bastard who’d killed him wasn’t going away.
Rylan’s anger exploded, wrenching fear aside. He struck out with a fist and hit a wall of solid air. The bones snapped in his hand. He opened his mouth to scream, but something slammed him to the ground, knocking the air from his lungs. The gray-faced man stalked toward him, his face frozen in a look of intense calm.
Gasping, Rylan rolled over and pushed himself to his feet. He backed away from the man, circling the edge of the clearing. His assailant pursued him, maintaining his distance, his flat expression never faltering.
Rylan sprang for his sword. His hand closed on the hilt, and he brought the blade up.
The weapon dislodged itself from his grip and flew back at him, the pommel driving hard into his temple. Dazed, Rylan staggered.
Something knocked him off his feet and hurled him to the ground. Rylan lay there, blinking slowly, as the demon-man came to stand over him. Gritting his teeth, Rylan forced himself to move, pushing himself to his hands and knees. A foot shot out, taking him in the ribs. Another kick knocked him back to the ground. Rylan glared wrathfully up into the man’s stone-calm face.
“You son of a whore!” he rasped. Spitting a mouthful of blood, he pushed himself upright.
The gray-faced man knelt in front of him, staring into his eyes with an infinite glare.
Rylan brought his hand up to throw a punch at the man’s windpipe. The gray man moved with the speed of a snake strike. He caught Rylan’s fist and gripped it hard. Then something struck him, and he gave a grunt.
Rylan felt a stirring in his fingers. A strange power flowed into him from his assailant’s body, moving through his hand, washing up his arm, flooding into him. It swept through him, engorging him, awakening every fiber of his being with an exhilaration that transcended anything he’d ever known. The energy swelled, rapturous, until the ecstasy became unbearable.
The flood of energy ceased.
He collapsed, falling face-first onto the trampled cornstalks. He lay there for several minutes, twitching and gasping. When he could finally open his eyes, he saw the gray-faced man lying dead beside him. With a cry, Rylan jerked back.
Another man appeared, taller than the first, stepping into the circle through the ring of shadows. This man wasn’t gray. He had olive skin and a hawk-like nose. He wore his long brown hair pulled back from his face. The man stooped in front of Rylan and peered at him. The shadows in his eyes were endless and harrowing.
“You will repeat after me,” he said calmly. “I commit my soul to Chaos.”
Rylan gaped up at him, shaking his head. “No.”
The man leaned closer. “Yes. Or I swear by Xerys, your daughter will meet an excruciating end.”
Rylan shook his head, unable to draw breath through his horror.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Say it!”
Not Amina too. Not my baby girl…
Trembling, he whispered, “I commit my soul to Chaos…”
“From this day forth, I will be the obedient servant of Xerys.”
Rylan stared at his son’s charred body, trembling in revulsion. He shook so hard it was difficult to get the words out. “From this day forth, I will be the obedient servant of Xerys…”
“And may not even death release me.”
“No…” Rylan wheezed.
“Say it!” the man hissed.
Rylan sucked in a long, shuddering breath, then whispered, “And may not even death release me…oh, gods. Please help me…”
“Only one god can help you now,” the man assured him, straightening.
Rylan collapsed, wracked in sobs.
Behind him, he heard footsteps walking away. “I’m taking your daughter back with me,” the man informed him. “Someday I will call, Gerald. And you will come.”
The man-like shadows swirled away into darkness. The olive-skinned man disappeared with them.
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