Here's the new cover. Let me know how you like it.
The small boy, tears staining his grubby cheeks, passed through the kitchen, circling its edges, hoping no one noticed him. He filched a sticky bun from a tray cooling at the end of the large table. A wooden spoon flicked his wrist, and he almost dropped the sweet.
"Ask next time, boy," said a gruff voice, and the cook laughed and shooed him on.
He flashed his practiced I’m-just-a-sweet-mischevious-boy grin back at her, while inside the worm of hatred and jealousy continued eating its way into his soul. Even the cook had the talent he lacked. He didn’t rub his wrist until he was out of her sight. She'd smacked the bruise his brother’d given him during weapons practice.
His brother beat him again. They were the same size even though the boy was older by two years. They were often taken for twins. His brother always beat him. To make it worse, Daryl felt so bad when he did—like today— that he offered hints and advice about sword moves as if he were a mighty weaponsmaster. The boy always nodded with an earnest expression, and accepted the help, hiding a burrowing worm of hatred behind smiles and gratitude. His was a small twelve-year-old body crammed to overflowing with jealousy. Hate him. Hate him. Hate him. The words pounded in his head in time with the throb in his sore wrist
He made his way down to the hall leading to the cellars. Halfway down the corridor was a heavy iron-bound wooden door. He bloodied a fingernail unfastening the rusty latch. He pushed the handle down and hauled open the heavy door, huffing with effort. The boy jumped as high as he could, snagged a torch with the tips of his fingers and flipped it out of the holder. He snatched the brand up from the floor before it could snuff out and passed into the dank corridor beyond, pulling the heavy door to behind him. His feet rang on the stone floor, and he made his way to the next room. A lone guard sat at a crude table half drunk, the remains of his meal pushed to one side.
The guard, Pol, leered at him with a look half lascivious, half fearful. The child knew he liked young boys, but he was the Guardian's son. Off limits. He pranced, slim hips swaying, across the guardroom to the dark metal door on the other side. The boy looked at the guard, his head tilted and his lips pursed in a provocative smile. He cocked a hip and rolled a hand with come-here gesture. "Open it, Pol." The guard’s broad face flushed. He ducked his head, quirked a smile and lumbered over to open the door. The boy brushed against his arm and slipped through.
He climbed down worn stone steps to a narrow corridor lined on one side by small barred cells with sturdy iron locks. Wide spaced torches threw dim light on the brick and stone walls. The cells held an air that repulsed and yet called to him. A shadowy figure huddled in one, and a pale face looked up with desperation from another as he passed. It was titillating and scary. He relished it.
Each time he came, he explored further into the labyrinth of halls. He moved beyond the spaces that were still used and into the forbidden areas where little boys could get lost. Dust and spider webs covered everything except the center of the halls where no one but him had walked for years. These underground halls enthralled him. The terror, fear, and pain-soaked stone and brick walls and floors spoke to him. He breathed deep, sucking it in. He wanted to suck it into his bones and store it there.
Some of the rooms he passed were open. Some hid behind black iron doors as massive and formidable as the first. Most of them were locked, some only latched, though the latches were often rusted shut. He had worked on them for weeks with a tool filched from the blacksmith and managed to get them open. All he found were small, dank rooms with sweating stone walls, hard bunks with a few wisps of rotted straw, a reeking hole in a corner.
But last time he came he discovered a narrow door hidden in an uncanny there-and-yet-not-there twist of the walls at the end of a long hallway. The spider webs were so thick he’d used the torch to burn his way through. Its walls were rough unbroken stone rather than the large blocks of the other passages. He'd missed it at first. It flickered in and out of his sight. Someone with talent had put an illusion on it that was decaying. It was so far back in the labyrinth of tunnels he carried chalk to mark his way so he wouldn't get lost. Arcane symbols etched the black wood door's intricate lock. He was determined to get it open. Last time the lock defeated him. He spent so much time on it that his torch sputtered and dimmed, and he'd run back before he found himself in complete darkness. This time he was better prepared. He carried a file, a small metal pry rod, and a small hammer. He didn't care if the blacksmith's assistant he had stolen them from got beaten for losing the tools. The child needed them.
Wedging his torch in a small hole in the wall that seemed fashioned for it, the boy touched the lock, jerking his fingers back from a faint tingle, but he persisted till his slender fingers swelled and bled when the ancient lock finally clicked open. His fingers stung and his wrists ached. In spite of the dank corridor, salty sweat stung his eyes. There had been a spell on the lock. The boy had no talent. He shouldn't have been able to force it open. That intrigued him. His skin flushed hot with eagerness.
He moved the torch closer to better see the door. The strange markings carved on the lintel hadn't been above any of the other doors. This door was wood, smooth, dark, fine-grained. Just above the latch was a tiny mark, worn smooth. He traced it with his fingers to be sure it wasn't just a defect in the wood. Like the ones on the lock, it wasn't like any symbols or letters he had seen before. He lifted the latch, smooth and black like the lock, coated with dust and cobwebs, but not rusted at all. He felt the same slight sting. It wasn't talent. That he knew. He could sense talent in others though he had none. The only person on Adalta with no talent. His insides twisted and he swallowed against the old rage.
He hesitated before he opened the door, the hand holding the torch shook. Sudden warmth pulsed low in his groin. There was something powerful behind that door, and he longed for it. He pushed it open and stepped into a hall of smooth walls that flowed in wild curves, arcane symbols carved in measured places along it. Small sharp rocks littered the floor, unlike the smooth hallways behind him. He checked his torch—halfway burned, but this time he had an extra. The boy wasn't expected back until dinner. No one would miss him. No one ever missed him, he thought, with a sourness he could taste. Except The Good Brother. The Talented Brother. The familiar fury in his chest beat with the beats of his heart and pushed him on.
The boy stepped through the door feeling as though he stepped into a new life, a life with the power he had lacked since his birth. The long narrow hallway in front of him disappeared into darkness beyond his torchlight. Tripping in his eagerness, he walked through the twisting corridor that appeared endless; the only sounds his quick footsteps and his eager breath. Finally, the passage opened. He stared in awe at an enormous space, glittering walls and ceiling disappeared in the darkness beyond the light of his torch. Scattered columns ran from ceiling to floor. But the cavernous space didn't make him feel small. A terrible power pressed against his body. He craved it, breathing it in through his open mouth, tasting it.
Tense, quivering with anticipation, he approached one of the pillars. Its surface was smooth and covered with vertical rows of symbols in narrow columns, calling to his anger, pulsing with faint light. I can figure these symbols out. I know I can. They hold the secrets to the power I want. I know they do. I don't need to dance around waving a silly sword; there is power here. I'll be stronger than my brother. I know I will. He traced the unfamiliar, angular symbols with trembling, mangled fingers. He watched, frozen, as his dark blood sucked into the carved symbols. A surge of hot light knocked the boy to the stone floor, senseless.
When he came back to himself, an enormous figure stood above him, hazy and flickering in the torchlight. The child shook in fear and awe seeded with eager curiosity, even glee that aroused pleasure deep and low in his belly.
"Who are you who comes to me?"
The deep, resonant voice echoed through the chamber. It filled the boy's head until he thought it would burst. Black wings of pierced metal spread huge behind the towering figure. The boy could see the pillar through the being that was both there and not there. Its humanoid body was half mechanical and half flesh. The insect-like face with deep-set dark gold eyes was close enough to human to be terrifying. A gold medallion swung on a chain from one clawed hand, clutched by digits with tiny gears for joints. The being stared at the boy for a long time. He didn’t move. He couldn't move.
"You are but a child." Vipers of anger and frustration coiled through its cold words.
The being held the medallion out, closing it in the boy's hand. A delicious shudder moved up from the pleasure in his belly as the being's fist closed over his. Metal talons pricked his skin, leaving a weeping red weal across the back of his hand.
"I am the Itza Larrak. The last of my kind. It has taken me long and long and long to create you. You will bemy freedom and my revenge." The lipless mouth twisted. "The longer revenge ages, the sweeter it tastes. And mine has been aging for five hundred of your years."
Readen didn’t move, didn’t blink. His eyes burned. Sharp shocks danced in and over his body, through his muscles, up and down his bones.
The Itza Larrak’s delicate, pierced metal wings opened and closed with a faint discordant ring. "I will teach you."
The Itza Larrak faded until it was gone, but the faint ringing still echoed, and the menace lingered. The boy stood, frozen until they died away. The medallion in his hand burned cold, frigid with latent power like that of the Itza Larrak and the strange blood touched symbols on the pillars.
I will take it, The boy's thoughts soared. I will take the power in these markings even if it means years of bloody aching fingers. The Itza Larrak will teach me, and I will learn. He pulled the chain over his head and tucked the medallion inside his shirt.
It seared his thin chest like arctic ice.
Cold, alien power spread through his young soul.