When a team quests to destroy the evil Beast of the West, death is to be expected. But murder by one of their own? Nobody expected that.
Zev Asterling, a brilliant yet strange man, is asked to go undercover and join this group as a new adventurer in hopes to discover the truth. But the murderer is clever and dangerous, and the truth is not always desirable. Especially when everyone is a suspect.
The Leader — though raised to be a princess, she chose to be a warrior. She's the best hope to defeating the Beast for she alone possesses the power to wield the Water Blade. But how far would she go to gain the glory of an entire kingdom?
The Right Hand — a burly beast of a man who has served the team well for years. He is trusted, respected, but also cold and calculating. He would do anything to serve the greater good and those he follows. Perhaps even murder.
The Wild Man — a former soldier of the East, a charming smile, and a deadly hand. With charisma to match his viciousness, he could be the warmth of the team or the first to cull the weakest link. Especially if that weakness got in his way.
The Witch — stolen from her family in the West and raised in the East, she is the only one of the group capable of casting spells. And the only one with divided loyalties.
The Water Blade is Book One of The Ridnight Mysteries, a new fantasy mystery series from Stuart Jaffe, author of the Nathan K novels and the Max Porter Mysteries. The Ridnight Mysteries blend fantasy and mystery elements in a way that will have readers clamoring for more.
Stuart Jaffe has been my friend for a decade, so when he pitched me a trilogy of fantasy mystery novels with a unique magic system, I was in from the word "go." The results were better than anything we could have imagined, creating a set of books that explores multiple different styles of mystery writing, all while weaving an engaging narrative and creating characters you want to spend time with. – John G. Hartness
Under the full moon, Axon Coponiv led her team towards the town of Heraldbund. They had defeated the Gibbons Gang with ease, and she knew Henlio and Pilot wanted to celebrate with the townsfolk. Particularly for Pilot, the female townsfolk. Henlio would settle in a chair, smoke a pipe, and drink while a gentle smile crept up through his thick beard. Bellemont, their witch, would most likely find a quiet place to be alone with her thoughts. After the party, Axon would find her with their horses, ready to go off to the next town. Xarad, on the other hand, might actually join Axon at the Cassunite Temple to offer thanks to the Cassun Nine—the gods and goddesses who ruled over all of life.
Axon's dark skin blended with her stallion and she liked the feeling of being a shadow in the night. As if she could become part of the land itself—solid, firm, unwavering. They crested a small hill, and Heraldbund appeared below, firelight flickering amber against the stone walls of the homes and shops. It seemed so tiny. So helpless. She would have to be the firmament beneath them, the walls against all dangers, the shadow of the King, stretching across the Frontier to protect all the little towns and villages.
She bit back a dark chuckle. If her mother could hear her thoughts, the woman would snap off a harsh word or two or seven. She would tell Axon that a Coponiv lady was meant for ball gowns and formal dinners. She should be courting a prince like her sister instead of traipsing around the countryside.
Tipping his wide-brimmed hat back, Pilot let the moonlight bathe his coal face. "Are we just going to stare at the town or can we get to the party?"
Axon looked up. The horses had come to a halt, and her team stared at her, waiting for her command. With a nod, she let them loose.
Pilot grinned and pressed his horse into action. Bellemont, dressed in the traditional Dacci garb of black strips of cloth and a veil covering her mouth, followed.
"We did well today," Henlio said, his deep, slow voice coming from somewhere behind his thick beard. He swung his robe back, allowing his armor to capture some of the moonlight. "You can let yourself relax a little."
Axon forced her lips to lift until he trotted off to join the rest. Only Xarad remained. He was young, a little naïve, but full of good intentions. Strong, too. If he had a title and a bit of money, Axon's mother might have approved of a match. Although she would also think Xarad too dumb for her daughter, too low class, but Axon wondered if her mother would forgo all her pride for that money and title.
"I'm going to the temple," she said, nodding toward the rundown structure off to the left.
Hiding a smile, Xarad said, "I never understood all that goddess stuff. My mama liked it, though. But I think I'm going to join the rest at the party. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
"You say that, but you don't look that. I mean, we beat those Gibbons bastards hard. They won't be messing around with this town ever again. We did something good, but you look like we lost."
"Just in my thoughts."
"You sure? Because it seems to me—"
"Go join the party. Everything's fine."
Xarad gave a youthful shrug—he didn't know how to read people well—and headed down the hill. Axon shook her head. Even if he were smarter or more desirable in a host of ways, he was still too young, too foolish. And too randy. In the back of her mind, she knew he wanted to get to town before Pilot stole the prettiest girls.
She gave her team a few moments to gain some distance. A cool wind blew across the fields, and the distant rustling of trees sounded like a gentle ocean tide. She inhaled and let genuine peace fill her.
It would not last long, of course. She had a mission hanging over her, but that could wait another night. Just a little longer. Enough time for her to enjoy the world as she knew it—the rolling hills, the rich forests, the untainted lands. Farms and villages spreading across this beautiful, untapped country with all roads leading back to the great King Robion and the thriving cities.
Why did people have to ruin everything good? Why couldn't they simply see how perfect the Frontier was and leave it alone?
"Come on," she said to her horse, Weaver.
After tying the reins to a tree, she climbed the steps of the open-air temple, walked across the white stone path, and knelt before the nine statues of the Creators of All. She plucked a prayer cloth from an open container and placed the cloth atop her head. She bowed. To the Deities of Life—Tiq, Goddess of Birth; Ovlar, God of Childhood; Bieck, Goddess of Adolescents; Sazieck, God of Adulthood; Orlar, Goddess of the Aged; and Wiq, God of Death. To the Greater Deities, too—Tortu, God of Women; Pralma, Goddess of Man; and Qareck, the Lord of All Existence, Axon offered her thanks for her continued success.
"My apologies," a scratchy voice said. Off to the right, an old man wearing the robes of a Shul stepped out from a small shack. "I did not realize anybody had come to pray."
Axon touched her head to the stone in respect. "I didn't mean to bother anybody. I simply wanted to offer my gratitude to the Cassun Nine."
"Oh? You are with our town's heroes. I should be thanking you."
The Shul meandered toward her and settled at the foot of Ovlar. Spending an entire life at this temple and leading prayers in the open had weathered his skin. Yet his eyes managed to offer her all the warm welcome she needed.
"It's only me. My team doesn't practice the faith."
"Yet you do. And that is plenty. It's not like when I was young. Not anymore. Back then, we would have to bring in extra benches to accommodate everybody. Now, we are fortunate if we receive one or two visitors. Unless it's one of the Holy Days."
"That's a shame. No, it's worse than that—it's wrong."
The Shul shrugged. "Change is inevitable. The Temple of the Cassun has always been tied to the King. And while King Robion has done a fine job, as have so many before him, I do not think the kingdom has much longer to last. If the kingdom falls, so does the Temple."
"Why would you say that? The kingdom is strong. All of the Frontier is strong." She wondered if he could hear her doubt.
"People don't follow the old traditions anymore. They question the institutions we hold sacred. In the East, they've done away with the monarchy entirely. They think they can do better on their own. In the West—well, we don't call that area the Feral Lands for nothing."
Axon placed her hand on the hilt of her sword. "As long as I live, I will protect this realm. The King, the kingdom, the Cassun Nine—it won't end here."
He patted her shoulder. "May the Lord of All Existence hear your words. Please, pray."
Axon lowered her head as the Shul settled in front of her with a groan. He took hold of her hands and bowed. Murmuring a prayer, his head lifted and lowered twice over her hands. Axon closed her eyes, bowed her head, and listened.
His hands were cold and damp like the statues after an evening rainstorm. And much like the calm following such a storm, Axon's tensions released. She thought she smelled fresh grass and new life. How her teammates could shun the incredible gift of the Cassun Nine, Axon did not understand.
The Shul stopped speaking mid-sentence. Axon felt a shudder through his fingertips, and she glanced up. The blood had drained from his face, leaving behind a pasty pallor like bleached stone. In his eyes, his clear haunted eyes, she saw a struggle—as if he had two competing dreams battling for his attention.
She felt a jolt in the back of her head—like the one she had felt when ... but she didn't want to think about that. Her eyes focused higher up as fiery clouds formed in the sky. They billowed and tumbled until they obscured the moonlight. With her heart pounding, she tried to push away the horrible sights. Her skin blistered under the growing heat. The Shul had disappeared, and her body lifted from the ground. Her stomach flipped as the land left her. She rose, higher and higher, until she heard it behind her.
Her body turned and she stared into the blood moon eyes of the foul creature. Its serpent head sat upon a neck as long as a castle tower. Black, oily tendrils writhed along its surface. Axon gazed downward—all of the world below had become a sea of thrashing, oily shapes. She had to remember to breathe.
From deep in the waters, a blue light formed. Nothing but a small dot at first, it soon grew brighter, wider, until it broke the surface with blinding light. Beautiful and terrifying blinding light.
The Shul's grip on her hands tightened, and Axon's eyes snapped open.
The oily sea, the fiery clouds, the blinding light, and the Beast itself—all gone. She knelt before the Shul in the open-air temple, and her racing heart pulsed against her chest. The full moon cast its light upon them, creating gentle shadows across the stone.
"Please," she said. "Let go."
His grip tightened. "Your kingdom is a blasphemy."
"What?" She tugged at her hands, but the Shul refused to release her. "What's going on?"
With a vicious snarl, he bared his teeth, and in a voice not his own, he said, "The worthless below celebrate a victory while I am the foot that crushes you all."
The old Shul rose, never letting Axon free, and arched his head back to look at the sky. Axon fought the urge to knee the Shul in the groin and force his grip loose. Her mind swirled with the strange images she had seen, and part of her thought that perhaps the images had continued. Perhaps none of this really happened at all.
But then the Shul's head split open. A crack formed on his forehead and carved a jagged path down the middle of his body. He screamed like a beaten child until the crack cut through his throat. His voice diminished into a quiet gurgle. And then no sound at all.
Pushing out of the top of his skull, a dark creature spewed forth like an insect breaking through a chrysalis. But this was no delicate butterfly. This was a servant of the Beast.
The creature appeared to be composed of the waste and sludge of the world—its malleable body as foul as the stench floating off of its repulsive skin. As the Shul fell to the stone floor, Axon's hands were freed.
She jumped back and pulled her sword. Instinct and well-trained muscle memory kept her going. She learned long ago that luck often played a crucial role in battle. This proved no different.
The vile thing that birthed itself from the Shul's body made the mistake of raising its head toward the statues towering over it. Perhaps it thought they were creatures in their own right. Axon took full advantage.
As she launched forward and swung her blade across the muscular, foul neck of the creature, as its head tumbled away from its shoulders, as it slumped over and sprayed clumps of oily goo on the ground, she wondered if luck had nothing to do with it at all. Perhaps the Cassun Nine smiled upon her. Perhaps the blue light she had seen confirmed what she wanted to believe in—her true mission, her calling.
But those thoughts would have to wait. Screams cried out from the town below.