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In the dream, Ruan wasn’t hiding. His swords were strapped to his hips where they belonged. He wore the silver-edged black tunic that was the uniform of the Bladed Brotherhood. Steel vambraces on his arms, the Prophet’s cross around his neck—he was as he should be. It was everything around him that was wrong.

Fearlessness had never come easy to Ruan. He had too much imagination, could too vividly understand the powers the Brotherhood was there to defend against. He made up for it in stubbornness, in determination. In an absolute refusal to admit defeat.

Even when it was his own sleeping mind that seemed determined to break him.

He stood on the ramparts of castle Ulek. No shock to be dreaming of this place when it had been at the center of his thoughts. Given how he felt about going back, it was also no surprise that the castle his dreaming self occupied was a crumbling, twisted reflection of the actual place.

That part was fine. Ruan wasn’t one to jump at shadows. If his mind wanted to put him in a haunted house, he could deal with it. The problem was the people who were in here with him.

If people was even the word. A sea of the dead moved below Ruan, staring up at him from mostly eyeless skulls. They reached for him. They moaned and scrabbled. They called his name.

“Ruaaaaannn. Ruaaaaannn.” Except drawn out like that, it sounded like ruin, an accusation and a threat and a forecast.

There were hundreds of them, rotted and desiccated, but still moving. Ruan could feel their cold, empty hatred as they filled the ground beneath him. Tattered clothing marked them as knights, as wizards, and even one Bladed Brother in a tattered…

No, Ruan couldn’t look. Even in a dream, he couldn’t face that.

They started to climb. Dead fingers clung to stone, dragged them higher inch by inch. Ruan was surrounded. There was no place to run.

A creaking sound behind and Ruan spun to see the body hanging just above the wall. It swayed in a nonexistent breeze. Derian—Grandmaster of the Knights and traitor to the entire world. Ruan had tied the rope himself to suspend the body.

Derian, too, was looking at Ruan. His eyes had been plucked out by carrion birds, but empty sockets turned to Ruan and Derian’s rotting hand lifted, reached…

A brush of grasping fingers against Ruan’s boot and he jumped back. But there was no back. They were all around. And Derian swung closer, decaying fingers brushing Ruan’s cheek.

A sharp bark startled Ruan, sent a shock of cold clarity through him. Enough that he danced away from the closest of the dead. He swung around, searching for the source.

A dog. Unexpected and surreal, even for a dream, it stood further down the ramparts, growling and snapping at the dead trying to climb to it. Large and black, the dog was a burly mutt, but no match for an army of clawing dead. It lifted its head, looked at Ruan, and barked again.

It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Ruan twisted free of more hands and looked closer. Only then did he see the shadowy doorway behind the dog. An entrance to the castle. One that seemed free of the dead.

Ruan drew his swords, fighting free of the strange lethargy that he hadn’t realized he’d been suffering. “Wait!” he called out. He sliced and stabbed and danced away from the undead who had gotten far too close. He fought his way across to the dog, who seemed to have listened. Slashing at the rotting arms grabbing for them both, he covered their retreat into the darkness.

Inside, the darkness was a shroud, so thick he couldn’t even see back out into the courtyard. Reflexively, he sheathed a sword and lowered his hand to rest it on the soft, warm canine body at his side. The dog whined and wriggled and seemed frantically glad to have Ruan there.

Ruan didn’t know what was before them, but returning outside was out of the question. With a light hand on the dog’s ruff, Ruan had no choice but to move forward into the darkness.

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A note from Barbara J Webb

I have a discord! Come hang out with me and other fans! In addition, when you join, you’ll get a free copy of the ebook for Twisted Magic, the first book in my Knights of the Twisted Tree series!

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Barbara J Webb

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