Read an Excerpt
Wynn Hygeorht was hiding out in the library of the Guild of Sagecraft in Calm Seatt. The night she’d endured so far had been grueling.
Only a few days before, she had found herself thrown into the midst of a group of nine—two dogs and seven people, counting herself—that had included her companions of old Magiere, Leesil, and Chap. They’d worked in a common cause to begin locating the last two “orbs,” ancient devices they believed to have once been wielded by the Ancient Enemy in waging war on the world. Undead minions of that enemy were now surfacing to seek the orbs themselves.
The orbs could not fall into the wrong hands.
With little choice, the nine of them had split up. And tonight . . . the majority had left Calm Seatt to sail off for the Isle of Wrêdelyd, where they might catch a ship heading south to the Suman Empire. And there they would search for the hiding place of the orb of Air. Wynn had chosen to remain behind in order to search the guild’s vast archives for any clue to the location of the last and fifth orb, the one for the element of Spirit.
She kept telling herself the same truth over and over. . . . I made the choice to remain behind.
Upon returning to the guild grounds tonight, she had needed a few moments of solitude with only Shade, her dog, for company, so she’d headed for the library in the castle’s main keep. She herself might soon be forced to embark upon a journey of her own, so she tried to research possible overland routes to the south, and Shade sat quietly nearby with little to do. But it wasn’t long before Wynn was forced to face the obvious.
Her thoughts were meandering too much in other directions as she stared blankly at the pile of scattered maps. She could not maintain her focus.
“Oh, dead deities!” she whispered. “This isn’t going to work tonight. Come on, Shade.”
They left the library through its north doorway and passed the opposing archways into the kitchens and the common hall. In the latter, the great hearth at the rear still burned with low flames though the hall was empty. Even that inviting sight didn’t appeal to Wynn with so many things on her mind, most of which she didn’t want to face. As if guessing, or not giving Wynn a choice, Shade trotted ahead along the passage. Wynn followed the dog around the far corner as they headed down the corridor along the keep’s front to its main doors.
Shade arrived first and sat waiting until Wynn caught up and pushed the left door open. The dog slipped out, but when Wynn did so, she found Shade halted just outside. Shade’s tall ears were up and rigid, and Wynn stopped instantly as she followed the dog’s stare.
The courtyard wasn’t empty.
Two tall figures stood a good distance apart as they glared at each other. The closer of the pair, with his back to Wynn, was Chane Andraso, a companion who had chosen to remain in Calm Seatt with her . . . regardless that the others had wanted him gone and far from her company.
Chane was an undead—a vampire, specifically—and of a more-than-questionable background, though to Wynn he had proven himself capable of change. Over time she had accepted both his friendship and his protection in her search for the orbs.
She couldn’t see his face, only his jaggedly cut red-brown hair, which reached just past the collar of his shirt and cloak. And then his hand closed tightly on the hilt of the longer of his two swords. Chane's attention was fully fixed on the other tall occupant in the courtyard.
In the shadows of the gatehouse tunnel’s inner opening stood a cloaked and hooded figure with a strangely curved bow slung over one shoulder and a quiver of black-feathered arrows protruding above the other. Next to that quiver, the end of a long and narrow canvas-wrapped bundle stuck up as well, and it was strapped to his back with twine.
Wynn would have known him anywhere, though her mind went numb at the sight of him.
Osha brushed back his hood. The flames of the gatehouse’s great iron braziers made his white-blond hair shimmer with fiery orange. Large and slightly slanted amber eyes in his long, dark-toned face returned the same intense glare that Chane fixed upon him.
What was Osha doing here?
Osha, Brot’an, and Leanâlhâm had been the final three members of the strange group that had been thrown together in this search for the orbs. All three were an’Cróan, meaning “[Those] of the Blood”—elves from the eastern continent. All three were supposed to have sailed tonight with Magiere, Leesil, and Chap.
And yet . . . here was Osha in a standoff with Chane.
Osha suddenly sloped his left shoulder. His bow slid off and dropped, and he snatched its wrapped handle without even looking and raised it slightly as he eyed Chane. He didn’t reach for an arrow, not until . . .
Chane drew his longer sword of mottled dwarven steel.
Osha’s free hand instantly reached over his shoulder for his quiver.
Wynn inhaled sharply as her mind woke up.
“No!” she cried.
Both men froze in surprise, as neither seemed to have spotted her in the entrance’s shadows. Wynn rushed out past Shade.
Osha could easily put an arrow in Chane’s chest or throat, perhaps both, but that might not even slow Chane down. And although Chane was a skilled swordsman, it would be difficult even for him to land a blow on Osha, but if he did . . .
Wynn grabbed the wrist of Chane’s sword arm and tried to pull him back. “No!” she repeated, though her gaze remained on Osha. At the sight of her clutching Chane’s arm, Osha’s long, somewhat horselike face twisted with an emotion she couldn’t quite read.
“What are you doing here?” she called, and her fear came out with anger in her voice.
Osha’s eyes narrowed as they shifted to Chane, though two fingers of his raised hand still touched the black feathers of an arrow. When those large amber eyes turned back on Wynn, his hand lowered a little, though he still held his bow at the ready. His brow smoothed, and his eyes widened in wonder . . . or relief, as if he’d found something dear that he’d lost.
Wynn swallowed hard. This was a mess she didn’t need. Chane’s feelings for her were . . . complicated. Her past with Osha was . . . more complicated.
She glanced up, and Chane now looked down at her hand gripping his sword wrist, but he didn’t try to pull away. His handsome face was always deathly pale, and since he’d risen from death, there was little brown that remained in his eyes.
Those eyes now had no color at all. They were like glittering crystals, especially when he—or Wynn—was threatened.
“No,” she repeated quietly.
Chane’s jaw muscles bulged in a clench, though with his mouth shut tightly, she couldn’t be certain of any change in his teeth. Suddenly it occurred to her that Osha might have a reason for not having joined the others on the ship. Her anxiety over a possible clash between the two men gave way to more fear.
“Where’s Magiere?” she called, looking to Osha. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
That lost, relieved look vanished from Osha’s face. He finally lowered his empty hand, and the bow as well, as he stepped toward her. Beneath Wynn’s grip, the tendons in Chane’s wrist tightened even before Osha stopped a few paces off.
“All is well, I believe,” he answered in the an’Cróan’s older dialect of Elvish. “Magiere and the others reached their ship and are gone.”
Wynn shook her head. When she spoke, she kept to Belaskian for Chane’s sake.
“Then why aren’t you with them?”
“I stayed to help in your task,” he answered ardently, and then he too switched to Belaskian. He didn’t look at Chane as he added, “I not leave. I stay . . . with you.”
Wynn took one quick upward glance. Chane’s upper lip curled back, and his irises still had no color.
Osha’s declaration sank in. Magiere and the others had sailed away, and Osha was stuck here by his own choice. She couldn’t send him away, even if she wished to, and she couldn’t abandon him—not him—in a world he knew too little about. And worse . . .
Some part of Wynn began to ache at the sight of Osha, as if she had stumbled upon something unwillingly lost nearly two years ago.
More than a half moon later and many leagues south from Calm Seatt, two days out from the port of Soráno, Magiere stood on the deck of the Cloud Queen and stared out over the ocean as wind pulled at her dark hair. Behind her, she heard a too-familiar squabble begin again.
“Paolo!” a female voice squeaked. “Look at what you’re doing. You’re wasting half that fish.”
“If you can do better,” someone answered, “I’ll take Alberto and go play rings . . . and you can gut these all by yourself!”
Magiere shook her head and turned from the rail. A trio of three young people sat on the edge of the large central cargo hatch, where they were attempting to clean and slice up a pile of fish for the ship’s cook. What had the cook been thinking in giving that task to these three?
Nearest to Magiere was a small boy named Alberto, and sitting beside him was a boy of about thirteen called Paolo. Both were now part of the ship’s crew. But the final member of the trio was the female scolder, who wasn’t part of the crew.
Wayfarer, once called Leanâlhâm, was only a passenger, like Magiere.
Even dressed in her faded maroon pullover and threadbare pants, Wayfarer was a beautiful girl, about sixteen years old. Beautiful even for her own kind, though perhaps more so to some humans’ eyes . . . especially the boys’.
Wayfarer’s eyes had the unearthly largeness and slight slant of her mother’s people’s, the an’Cróan, but where the an’Cróans’ larger irises were amber, hers were the color of the dark, damp leaves and needles of the forest. Likewise, her hair was nearly brown rather than the white blond of elves. The reason for both oddities was that she was a quarter human.
Magiere’s eyes lingered with the usual mix of affection and worry on the girl, for in all that had happened before now on this voyage, Wayfarer was now her charge and Leesil’s.
The girl looked up to find Magiere watching her.
“Magiere,” Wayfarer implored, “would you come show Paolo what to do? Since he will not listen to me . . . and is ruining perfectly good fish.”
In a way, such a firm request, tainted with a little ire, was a miracle unto itself. Not long ago, it had been a challenge to get the girl to speak at all. However, Magiere did not particularly relish the thought of jumping in the middle of this argument.
“I’ve got it,” a familiar voice called from the stern.
A slender figure jogged out of the aftcastle door to below, and a different affection flooded Magiere. Even after their years together, she still sometimes just stopped to take in the sight of Leesil.
With oblong ears less peaked than a full-blooded elf’s, he shared other traits with his mother’s—and Wayfarer’s—people of the eastern continent. Beneath a ratty green scarf wrapped around his head, strands of silky white-blond hair hung around his narrow, tan face. Beardless like full-blooded male elves, he was average height for a human, though short by an’Cróan standards, unlike Magiere, who was nearly as tall as he was. Even on the ship, he wore his old scarred-up hauberk with its iron rings.
While Magiere wore a hand-and-a-half, long-bladed falchion sheathed on her hip, and a white metal battle dagger at her back in a sheath, a pair of strange-looking winged punching blades hung in their odd sheaths from Leesil’s belt, strapped down against his thighs.
In the spring breeze, Magiere’s shirt clung to her beneath her studded leather hauberk. Pushing back her black hair, she knew its bloodred tint probably showed under the bright sun. Everyone here was now accustomed to that, just as she had grown used to her overly pale skin sometimes stinging under the bright sun’s glare.
Leesil’s amber-irised eyes, so subtly slanted, looked down at the trio. “What is . . . problem?”
His grasp of Numanese, the more common language of this continent, was still questionable, but it was the only language Paolo and Alberto spoke.
“She says he’s ruining that fish,” Alberto answered in his small voice, jutting his short chin at Wayfarer.
“Am not!” Paolo added.
Magiere agreed with Wayfarer: there wasn’t much left of the fish that Alberto held.
Leesil knelt between the boys and eyed Paolo. “Give me knife. I show . . . take out bones.”
With a sigh, Paolo surrendered his knife, and the argument ended.
Magiere raised her eyes and spotted the final two members of her group coming out of the aftcastle door. The one in the lead was nearly a head taller than anyone on board.
Coarse white-blond hair with streaks of gray among the strands marked him as old for an an’Cróan. He was deeply tan, with lines crinkling the corners of his mouth and his large amber-irised eyes, which at times never appeared to blink as he watched everything. But the feature that stood out most was the four pale scars—as if from claws—that ran at an angle down his forehead and through one high and slanted feathery eyebrow to skip over his right eye and reach his cheekbone.
Neither Magiere nor Leesil could pronounce his full an’Cróan name, so they’d shortened it to simply Brot’an.
Among the Anmaglâhk, that caste of assassins who viewed themselves guardians of the an’Cróan, he was one of a few remaining “shadow-grippers,” the masters of the caste’s skills and ways. But Brot’an no longer wore his caste’s garb of forest gray hooded cloak, vestment, pants, and felt boots. Instead he wore simple breeches and a weatherworn jerkin—more scavenged human garb, like Wayfarer’s. Unlike the girl, who was merely trying to blend in among human cultures, the old assassin had an additional reason for his change of attire.
Brot’an was at war with his own caste, but to Magiere he was still an anmaglâhk. If she forgot that for even an instant, there were always those scars on his face to remind her.
“Another disagreement?” he asked, frowning slightly as he observed Leesil and the young ones.
“A squabble,” she answered.
“My people’s children do not . . . ‘squabble.’” His eyes narrowed a little, as if Paolo and Alberto were a bad influence on Wayfarer.
“She’ll miss them when we have to leave,” Magiere countered.
A deep growl pulled Magiere’s attention. Behind the tall shadow-gripper stood a large silver-gray wolf, almost bluish in the bright day.
Chap was taller than any wolf, for he wasn’t one. His body was that of a majay-hì, but he was different from even them and his mate, Lily, as was his daughter, Shade, though in a different way. He was a Fay spirit born years ago by his own choice into a majay-hì pup—a new Fay-born in the body of a Fay-descended being. And his daughter, Shade, shared half of that strangely mixed heritage.
Chap was also Magiere and Leesil’s guardian and guide—and an overbearing know-it-all. He also hated Brot’an, and he had a long list of reasons for this, which resulted in his penchant for watching the old assassin nearly all the time.
The dog rounded the old assassin and came closer to Magiere.
—Paolo is . . . good . . . for Wayfarer— . . . —He . . . lets her . . . be a girl—
Those words rose in Magiere’s mind as Chap called them up in pieces from various memories he had seen in her over time. This was his new method of “speaking” to her, Leesil, or Wayfarer, though he never did so with Brot’an, as far as Magiere knew. Chap found he could never get inside the old assassin’s thoughts.
“I know,” she answered. “But once we reach Soráno, we’ll have to find a new ship.”
Brot’an was accustomed to her speaking aloud to Chap and to hearing only her half of the conversation. He looked ahead, out over the waves, and added in Belaskian, “How long to Soráno?”
“About two days. That’s what one of the sailors told me.”
“Is there no way to change Captain Bassett’s mind? We were fortunate to have found this ship traveling all the way to il’Dha’ab Najuum. It may be difficult to find another in a smaller port.”
Magiere agreed with the latter part, and it worried her, but she shook her head. “Bassett won’t change his mind.”
Brot’an had to know this, so asking was pointless and not at all like him. Magiere had learned well that Brot’an rarely did anything without a purpose.
They all had to reach il’Dha’ab Najuum, the westernmost kingdom of the Suman Empire, as quickly as they could. That was the first place where they might begin trying to locate the orb of Air. Magiere, along with Leesil and Chap, had already secured two of the five orbs—Water and Fire—while Wynn had secured a third, that of Earth. Chap had hidden the first two, and no one else knew where. Wynn had sent the orb of Earth to a place of safety in the dwarven underworld.
Only Air and Spirit remained to be found, but it wasn’t even that simple.