...what are you . . . why have you come . . . who do you serve?
Magiere lay on the cold stone floor of a locked cell beneath the imperial palace of Samau’a Gaulb, the main port city of il’Dha’ab Najuum and the Suman Empire as a whole. Shackled by her wrists with heavy chains anchored in the cell’s rear wall, her wrists had long ago torn, bled, and half scabbed from straining against her bonds. And those three questions repeated over and over in her mind.
She’d heard them pressed into her thoughts rather than spoken by a voice, and they still echoed even now. Her tormentor had asked these on his first visit to her cell, though she never once heard him speak aloud. At times, she awoke thinking he stood inside the closed door, but when she opened her eyes to the complete darkness . . .
Magiere was alone until he came again and tortured her without even touching her.
Was that even possible, or did she only think so?
She didn’t know anymore.
She lay curled up with her long black hair lying tangled and lank across the floor stones. Strands stuck to her nearly white face, which was smudged and marred with filth. Her falchion and Chein’âs white metal dagger had been taken before she’d been locked away. How many days or nights had she been here?
Hunger, thirst, cold, and pain were her existence, leaving little room to feel anything else . . . except fear for what had become of Leesil. She remembered her husband—and Wayfarer, and Chap, and the few others who were precious to her—but only by memories her tormentor had somehow ripped from where they hid in her mind.
Memories of those she loved had become shadows in the dark. Whether she closed her eyes or not, only Leesil remained clear enough to hold on to . . . along with her hate for the one who’d come again and again.
Hate now kept her alive more than anything else.
A metallic clack echoed in the cell.
Magiere flinched, shuddered, and struggled to the cell’s back wall. In the beginning, she’d risen into a crouch and watched the cell door open whenever he came. She hadn’t resisted her dhampir half when it overwhelmed her in those earliest days—or were they nights? There was no way to tell the difference in the dark.
Her jaws had ached under the sudden growth of her teeth. Her irises had widened until they blotted out the whites of her eyes. And she’d lunged again and again.
Chains creaked and clattered but never broke. Their anchored brackets wouldn’t rip from the wall. All she’d done was savagely claw the air halfway to that door . . . and him. But now she curled against the back wall, unable to summon her other half so she could at least see in the dark.
Perhaps this time it was just a guard sliding in another bowl of scraps or water.
When the door opened, its hinges squealed. She scrunched her eyes, shielding them with a raised hand against the sudden but dim light of a lantern. The iron door slammed shut before she lowered that hand . . . and there he stood.
As always, he was robed in shimmering gray with shadowy but glinting strange symbols upon the fabric. That was all she ever saw of him. With his arms raised waist high, each hand was always tucked into the opposing sleeve, and the sagging hood hid his face as well. He was slender, though tall for a Suman. She’d guessed he was a he only because the robe’s thin fabric would’ve exposed a woman’s build.
On the floor to his left but back nearer to the iron door sat an oil lantern with its wick turned down low. Perhaps it was the same one as before—and before—though she’d never seen him touch it in any of his visits. And each time she’d stopped screaming, she’d found herself on the floor. When she could lift her head, the cell had been dark and empty.
She’d never heard the door reopen, let alone close, when he’d left, though a few times she’d glimpsed the Suman guards outside. Once, when they’d opened the door to slide in food or water, she’d demanded to know who he was. They’d stared at her as if she were a witless, mewling beast, and then they’d left. It had taken a few more times before one apparently understood her.
“No one come you,” answered that one in broken Numanese, and then he’d snorted with disgust. “You lone . . . till die.”
She’d stared in confusion and shrieked like a beast when he left and the door clanged shut. After several more times, she gave up trying to talk to the guards. How could none of them remember letting in the one who now stood before her?
The whispers began again in Magiere’s head.
...no one left to trust . . .
...no one will come for you . . .
...all are locked away or fled . . .
...you are alone . . . forever . . .
Like a chorus of voices that rarely spoke the same words, they never stopped so long as he was there. They scratched and skittered like bugs in her skull until she’d clamped her hands over her ears. She didn’t bother anymore, for it wouldn’t stop them.
“What do you want . . . this time?” Magiere hissed through clenched teeth.
As if rising out of those whispers, memories came again . . . of home, her long-dead mother, the bloody tales of her birth . . . of her travels, her friends, allies, and enemies . . . of an orb once under her hands but now gone and hidden by someone else.
Her parched voice gained an edge. “I don’t know anything more! So why bother? Why keep me alive?”
Out of that noise trying to smother her thoughts, one whisper rose above the others.
For a bargain with my master . . . your master.
Magiere slumped down the cell’s back wall. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked, heard the answer, and he never explained.
“Then what?” she croaked. “I don’t have anything else . . . so what do you want . . . now?”
The gale of whispers waned to a soft breeze. That brief moment was an eternity of relief. Then they rose even louder and whipped into a frenzy.
Magiere grabbed her head as his answer came.
Another scream . . . please.
Leesil slumped against a cell’s left sidewall with his chained hands limp in his lap. The only scant light came from around the edges of a closed peep-window in the cell’s iron door, and this wasn’t enough to let him see anything.
Somewhere in the dark with him, Chap and Wayfarer—a large dog and a girl in her youth—lay sleeping, each of them chained to a separate wall.
From the first night, Leesil had tried to count passing days by when guards brought food or water. They were the only ones who ever came. Even so, he wasn’t certain how long he’d been here. The guards he’d seen changed now and then. What that meant for the passage of time he had no idea, for he didn’t know the length of their shifts. What little food they brought was so bad that Wayfarer hadn’t touched it for the first few days . . . or had those been nights?
Leesil listened in the dark and heard only Chap and Wayfarer’s slow, weak breaths. He wore the same clothes from the first day he’d been imprisoned, and all of it was filthy and stank. All of his weapons had been confiscated.
On the day they’d been arrested, in anticipation of resisting, he’d dropped the pack and travel chest he carried to free himself for a fight. Then he’d realized they were too outnumbered and a fight would further endanger those he cared about. Nearly everything they owned had been left behind in the street.
Only the aging assassin—that butcher, Brot’an—had eluded capture, as if he’d known what was coming.
“A guard should . . . might . . . bring water soon,” said a small, weak voice.
Leesil heard someone shift at the back wall, perhaps sitting up as chains dragged slowly across the stone floor. At the scrape and hiss of a sulfur-tipped stick, he shut his eyes against the sudden light. Blinking, he looked to where Wayfarer—once called Leanâlhâm—knelt at the rear wall, her wrists chained like his own. She touched the small flame to a half-burned-down candle already rooted to the filthy floor by melted wax.
“I’ll get you out of here,” he said for maybe the thirtieth time, though now it lacked any conviction. “I’ll find a way.”
He told her this every time she lit the candle, and she’d always replied, “I know, Léshil,” using the elven version of his name.
This time, Wayfarer said nothing.
As a mixed-blood elven girl only sixteen years old, she had her people’s darkly tanned skin, overly large but slanted eyes, and peaked ears. She didn’t have their amber irises, though, as she’d been marked at birth with darker ones. They scintillated between topaz and verdant green in bright light. Like Brot’an, she was of the elven people called the an’Cróan (“[Those] of the Blood”), from the far-off eastern continent. Where her people’s hair was mostly white-blond, hers was almost the color of her skin. And she was no taller than a human girl.
All of these oddities were supposedly from being one-quarter human.
Leesil was half elven—half an’Cróan—with even slighter peaked ears and slanted eyes. His irises were amber and his hair nearly white-blond, like his mother’s. But even in Wayfarer’s current state—starved, frightened, and with dark rings around her large eyes—her strange beauty and maybe her frailty had their effect upon men.
On their first night locked away, the cell’s darkness became too much for her—as if she didn’t have enough terrors already. One younger guard showed pity when she’d cried out and begged for light. That one brought her a candle and a thin cedar stick, along with a small clay jar with enough sulfur paste to replenish the latter. The candle was lit only for meals, or when they thought such would come. They didn’t know whether this pity would last long enough for another candle.
And whenever the candle had to be blown out, Leesil listened to Wayfarer’s whimpering breaths in the dark. Even his attempts at comforting words didn’t stop this, at least not until later, when she grew so weak she couldn’t stay awake and dropped onto the floor stones. Now she sat with knees pulled up and her chin upon them as she watched the door without blinking.
Wayfarer didn’t look at Leesil or even at the cell’s third occupant chained to the far wall. In his guilt, Leesil couldn’t bear looking at her and focused on the third prisoner in the cell.
Chap might look to most like a silver-gray wolf, though sometimes his fur had an almost bluish tint in twilight. When standing on all fours, he was taller than such an animal and longer of leg. He lay with his head on his paws, with two manacles for a prisoner’s wrists chained to the far wall fully opened and bolted together around his neck.
It was too tight a fit, and Leesil often heard his oldest friend struggling to breathe.
Chap’s body was that of majay-hì, descended from wolves of ancient times inhabited by eternal Fay spirits during the supposed mythical war at the end of the world’s Forgotten History. But he was different—more—than even this. 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.
Chap barely cracked open his eyes, and the candle’s light flickered in his crystal-like sky blue irises. He glanced once at Wayfarer before looking across the cell . . . and words rose inside Leesil’s thoughts.
—She is not . . . being given . . . enough water—
Leesil’s throat was too dry to scoff. None of them was getting enough of anything.
He hadn’t always cared for Chap dipping into his head to find spoken words in memories with which to speak to him. Now it didn’t bother him so much. Chap had to see him to do this, which meant it happened only when the candle was lit.
In the past, Chap had communicated by pulling up any memories that he’d seen in someone at least once. It was his unique talent as a Fay-born into a Fay-descended body. Through bits and pieces of a person’s own memories, he made basic notions or commands reasonably clear . . . or just manipulated those unaware that he was doing so.
Learning to use only sound—words—in those memories was a new trick.
—Ask . . . the guards . . . to bring . . . more water—
Leesil stared at Chap. “Like I haven’t tried!”
“Tried what?” Wayfarer asked weakly, and then her gaze shifted to Chap.
“Nothing,” Leesil said. “You should rest while we wait.”
Wayfarer didn’t move. Chap closed his eyes with a coarse exhale. Leesil dropped his head back against the wall.
Nearly a moon ago, they’d all arrived by ship to seek one of the last two “orbs.” Some believed the Ancient Enemy had wielded these devices a thousand years ago in its war on the world. Its living and undead minions now surfaced to seek the orbs for their master, or perhaps just for themselves. The orbs could not be allowed to fall into such hands.
With no warning, Leesil and his companions had all been captured and arrested—except for Brot’an—upon arriving in the empire’s capital port. They’d been accused of multiple murders they hadn’t committed, and then Magiere, Leesil’s wife, had been dragged off separately.
Leesil, Chap, and Wayfarer had been locked up together, but they’d not seen Magiere since.
Chap had attempted to learn what he could by dipping any surfacing memories from the guards’ minds. Those men knew only to keep their charges locked up and fed enough to stay alive. All that Chap learned of Magiere was that she was in a cell farther away under separate guard. Worse was waiting for the only hint that she was still alive: the sound of her screaming.
That didn’t come often anymore.
Leesil hadn’t heard Magiere in five days or nights, at a guess. On the first night, when he hadn’t heard her by the time another meal came, he’d felt relieved that she might’ve finally been left alone. When the next meal came, he was lost for what to feel at all. At the meal after that, relief vanished, replaced with rising fear.
Helplessness was not something Leesil dealt with well. That Brot’an was the only one free didn’t help either. If the aging assassin had come up with a way to rescue them, he’d have done it by now. And Leesil kept waiting for any sign that his wife still lived.
A shriek suddenly echoed from somewhere outside the cell.
Chap’s head snapped up as his eyes locked on the door.
Wayfarer collapsed in a rattle of chains and clamped her hands over her ears.
Leesil’s wave of relief died quickly under anguish.
Magiere was still alive, but, as always, only her screams let him know this . . . until this scream ceased more quickly than ever before. He sat up to stare at the door and then looked across the cell. Chap still watched the door without blinking, his ears stiffened upright. Several long, tense moments followed. Leesil wasn’t sure how long.
A metal clack echoed in the cell and the iron door squealed open.
Wayfarer thrashed back against the rear wall and then threw herself toward Chap. The chains stopped her, and Chap quickly shifted as far as he could to reach her. She got close enough to bury her face in his neck.
Leesil blinked and squinted as light spilled in through the opened door, and when his sight cleared . . .
A robed figure in light gray stood inside the opening.
Leesil was too worn and shaken to say anything at first.
The figure’s sagging hood turned slowly toward all three inside the cell. When the hood’s black pit fixed on Leesil, strange whispers began building in his head . . . until he choked, convulsed, and the walls blurred and darkened in his sight. One voice in his head rose above the chaos of the others.
Where are they . . . the devices of my master?
Everything went black.
Leesil thought he might vomit from the sudden pain, and then the buzz of a thousand whispers in his head went silent all at once. When he could see again, he found himself collapsed upon the cold stone floor. He hadn’t even found the strength to push up when he saw the hood of the gray robe was turned the other way . . .
Wayfarer lay on the floor, utterly silent and unmoving. Before Leesil cried out to her, he spotted Chap. The dog’s ears were flattened as he glared up into that hood, and his sky blue eyes narrowed. Even in weakness, Chap’s jowls pulled back in a dry-throated snarl.
“What do you want?” Leesil got out as he pushed up to a sitting position. “Where is my wife?”
Chap still stared up into that hood, and the hood never turned as an answer rose in Leesil’s mind.
She is not yours anymore. And until I have what I desire, you will never see the sun . . . or have the freedom of death.
The figure turned for the open door. Only then did Leesil notice that none of the guards had come in. The one that he could see outside in the passage stood facing away as if nothing were happening.
“What are you talking about?” Leesil choked out. “What . . . what do you want . . . from us?”
The figure paused in the doorway, though it did not turn back. The storm of whispers filled Leesil’s head like a nest of wasps stirring around the answer.
Ask your . . . dog . . . since I cannot ask him myself.
The gray robe drifted out, and the heavy iron door slammed shut without a guard turning to grab its handle.
Leesil was caught in confusion. He tensed as he heard the outside lock bolt slide home. He looked to Chap. The dog’s eyes were still narrowed over a silent snarl as he watched the cell’s door. From the look of him, whatever that robed figure had done—could do—Chap hadn’t been affected.
“Who was that?” Leesil whispered.
Chap barely lowered his eyes but didn’t meet Leesil’s.
—I do not know—
“How did he do that . . . get in my head like . . . like you?”
—Not . . . like me—
Chap remained silent for so long that Leesil wondered if his old friend even knew. He looked to Wayfarer’s crumpled form. Before he called to her, he heard her shallow breaths, as if she simply slept. And Chap’s answer struck him then.
Leesil’s whole mind went blank and he grew cold. It was one word he hadn’t thought would come. That art of magic was supposed to have been wiped out long ago, but it didn’t answer his other question.
“You heard something. I can see it. What in the seven hells is that robed one after?”
Leesil waited—and waited—but not a word popped into his head. The dog lowered his eyes and, with one glance at Wayfarer, his muzzle settled on his forepaws.
Chap stared blankly across the floor in silence, not looking at anyone.
Leesil grew frantic. Whatever the robed figure wanted, it might be enough to stop Magiere’s torment.
“Chap?” he whispered, and then more sharply, “Chap, what does that . . . man want? Damn you, answer me!”
Ghassan il’Sänke slipped through the night backstreets of the empire’s capital. Once a sage in the Suman branch of the Guild of Sagecraft, he made his way silently toward the inland side of the guild’s local grounds. As on previous surreptitious visits over the last moon, he was uncertain what to do when he arrived.
He no longer wore the midnight blue robe of a domin of Metaology, for that certainly would catch anyone’s attention—too risky considering he was now an outcast and sought by both the city and the imperial guards. In disguise, he now looked nothing like the sage of rank that he had once been.
Beneath the hood of a faded open-front robe, his short chocolate-colored hair with flecks of silver was in disarray. Strands dangled to his thick brows above eyes separated by a straight but overly prominent nose. His borrowed clothing of a dusky linen shirt and drab pantaloons was no different from that of a common street vendor.
He turned into the small open market that he passed through on all such visits and headed into a cutway between two shops for a less visible approach to the guild’s complex. In part, he wondered whether such caution was needed. Few people about this late would ever glance his way.
Most of the stalls were closed with their tarp flats pulled down, and all nearby shop awnings had been lowered and shut tight. But he had learned in hard ways to be more cautious than ever before. When he slipped along the cutway, across the back alley, and then neared the next street, a new smell filled his nostrils.
Something rank cut through the alley’s stench.
At the slow click-clop-scrape coming closer, Ghassan peeked out from the cutway’s black shadows. Up the northward stretch of the next street, an old man with a cane of scrap wood shuffled nearer along the sandstone cobble. Wrapped in rags too filthy to show any hint of color in the dark, he dragged his lame foot more than the good one. Of the many unfortunate moments that must have made up this beggar’s life, he slowed in turning his gaunt face toward the cutway’s mouth.
Ghassan’s training was quicker than his caution. With barely a blink, the dark behind his eyelids filled with lines of spreading light. In an instant, a doubled square formed in sigils, symbols, and signs burned brightly. Then came a triangle within that square and another inverted within that, both at the center of the pattern. As his blink finished, he completed his incantation with a flash of thought quicker than spoken words.
The glowing pattern overlaid Ghassan’s sight of the beggar’s face.
The old man blinked as well. He looked about as if having seen something and then second-guessing upon seeing it no more. With a tired sag of his shoulders, he moved on in his click-clop-scrape.
Ghassan waited until the beggar was halfway to the next cross street before silently stepping out. He could have made the old man see someone else in his place, but to wipe his presence from the awareness of one target was much simpler.
Such were the subtleties of sorcery, especially for a master of the third and most reviled practice of magic.
Well past dusk, Chane Andraso stood on deck as a ship maneuvered into dock at the Samau’a Gaulb, the main port city of il’Dha’ab Najuum, one country in the Suman Empire. Arrival after sunset was nothing more than good fortune. Had they docked earlier—considering he was a noble dead, specifically a vampire—he would have had to wait until nightfall to disembark. Now he gazed out over the vast, seemingly endless port with mixed emotions.
He and his companions had sailed south along the coast for nearly a moon. Partly relieved to reach their destination, he struggled to suppress anxiety over what they might face here.
“It’s just as I’d imagined,” said a breathy voice beside him.
Chane glanced down as Wynn Hygeorht stepped to the railing. She was so short she could have stood beneath his chin. Though in her early twenties, she looked younger, or at least she did to him. For a moment, his gaze locked on her pretty, oval face of olive-toned skin surrounded by wispy light brown hair.
With heat lingering from the day, she had packed away her cloak and wore what she often called her “travel robe.” This marked her as a scholar—a “sage”—from the Guild of Sagecraft, specifically its founding branch in her homeland of Malourné, far to the north. Back there, all sages dressed in full-length robes, but this shorter one stopped at her knees. Beneath it she wore pants, tunic, and boots to move more easily. Still, the robe was the wrong color for her.
Not long before, Wynn had worn gray for the order of Cathology, until she had been forced to change orders for a number of reasons. She now wore the midnight blue of the order of Metaology.
Chane was still unaccustomed to this; he would always see her as a cathologer . . . a preserver of knowledge itself.
Wynn looked away from the port and up at him. Her gaze ran over his pale face and red-brown hair. A puzzled frown then clouded her expression. Not wishing her to think he was studying her, he turned his attention back to the port that awaited them.
“Isn’t it what you expected?” she asked.
In truth, he had not given this much thought or expected anything in particular. Now, upon their arrival, the place looked too . . . foreign.
His night vision was far better than that of the living. By the clear sky and three-quarter moon, he could see that most of the buildings nearest to the piers were only one story high. Many of the structures beyond peaked high above the waterfront buildings. Some had to be huge, by a guess, especially those set farther and farther into the immense capital of the Suman Empire. Every structure within sight was mostly golden-tan sandstone except for heat-grayed timbers and planks or the occasional dyed wall or pinnacled dome with colors faded by the desert sun.
“Do you know where to find the guild’s Suman branch?” he asked in his nearly voiceless rasp. He had once been beheaded by one of Wynn’s past companions and then brought back to his undead existence for a second time by someone else. His voice had never healed.
“I’ve a rough idea,” Wynn answered as she turned the other way and looked to their two companions down the railing. “Shade . . . Osha . . . the ramp will be down soon. Time to gather our belongings.”
Shade, a long-legged black dog resembling an overly tall wolf, stood only a few strides away. With her forepaws up on the railing, she too looked out into the city. Then, dropping to all fours, she padded to Wynn’s side.
Chane studied Shade’s every movement in concern.
Before this voyage, the dog had been badly injured and nearly killed. Though she appeared fully healed, he still did not want her exerting herself unnecessarily. It was a strange thing for him to care so much for anyone or anything besides Wynn.
Shade, a majay-hì, was a natural enemy of the undead. Yet in recent times she had fought at his side—both with and for him—and not only for Wynn’s sake. He could not help his concern for her in turn.
All such thoughts faded as Chane glanced toward the aftcastle door.
The fourth member of their group had turned to readying the last of their belongings. An exceptionally tall elf with long white-blond hair hefted several packs.
From what Chane understood, the word in the an’Cróan elven people’s language for the man’s name—Osha—meant “a sudden breeze.” To Chane, Osha was a sudden and unwanted interloper who had forced his company upon Wynn. Unfortunately, Wynn did not see things this way, which was all the more irritating to Chane.
In grudging fairness, Chane had to admit that Osha was astonishingly skilled with the long, curved bow strung over his right shoulder. His shots struck with more accuracy than should have been possible. Over his left shoulder was a quiver of black-feathered arrows, as well as a narrow wrapped bundle tied to his back.
Osha raised his head with the usual dour expression on his long, horselike face. This softened only whenever his large amber eyes fixed on Wynn.
“All is ready,” he answered to her.
Though Osha now struggled less with tongues other than his own, Chane had rarely met anyone as inept with languages. He looked away, scowling for reasons besides those concerning the elf.
Around them, sailors tossed down lines to men on the pier, and Wynn suddenly stepped off to join Osha by the small pile of their belongings.
“Come, Chane,” she called without looking back. “You’ll need to carry the chest.”
Following her halfway, his gaze lowered to a travel chest at Osha’s feet. It was much heavier than it appeared, for inside it lay the orb of Spirit. The one called the Ancient Enemy and other names and titles had once wielded that potential weapon in an all but forgotten war upon the world.
The thought of the chest’s contents sharpened Chane’s anxiety. He had brought Wynn all this way, at her insistence, to reconnect her with past companions, but Magiere, Leesil, and Chap were hunters of the undead and certainly did not accept Wynn’s connection to Chane.
They would never accept him either.
More than anything, he feared what might happen should Wynn be forced to make a choice.
“Are you all right?”
Startled, he raised his eyes to find Wynn frowning at him again. He quickly stepped in to heft the chest.
“The ramp is down,” he said. “Let us go.”
Still frowning, Wynn turned the other way and grabbed her staff leaning beside the aftcastle door. It was taller than her head, with its upper end sheathed in leather over the long crystal atop it. She picked up the last pack and headed for the ramp as Shade closed in at her side.
Wynn let out a breathy sigh, perhaps as daunted as Chane over what they would face in the next step of this journey.
“All right, then,” she said without looking back. “Everyone stay close.”
Wynn tried to keep a confident air as she led the way down the pier toward the city. Though she’d come searching for Magiere, Leesil, and Chap, the only way she could think to find them was through one Suman sage of Metaology.
Moons ago, she and Magiere had agreed to split up in the search for the remaining two orbs: Spirit and Air. In all, there were five of these devices, hidden centuries before by minions of the Ancient Enemy. Upon learning of the orbs’ existence, Magiere, Wynn, and their other companions had soon found themselves embroiled in a desperate search to find them all and keep them from the wrong hands. Three had been recovered—and safely rehidden—leaving only two left to locate.
So Wynn had remained up north with her small group to search for the orb of Spirit. Upon finding it, she’d immediately sailed south to reconnect with Magiere, who, in her search for the orb of Air, had taken her group south to this very port, seeking assistance from Domin Ghassan il’Sänke—at Wynn’s suggestion.
The domin had once spent time in Wynn’s guild branch.
Unfortunately, he was unpredictable, perhaps untrustworthy, and always had his own agenda. One couldn’t even guess what he might do or why. Still, when Wynn and her oldest companions in this search had last been together, she couldn’t think of anyone better, let alone able and willing, to help Magiere.
It seemed reasonable that the first person she should speak to would be Ghassan il’Sänke. If anyone might know the whereabouts of Magiere and those with her, it would be him.
As Wynn dodged between passersby on the waterfront, she licked her lips, now drying in the night’s hot air. She was well aware that she didn’t have much to go on in her search, and she turned her attention to the sights and sounds of the capital.
The air of the waterfront was tainted with spices and dust that mixed with the odors of sea brine and masses of people. She wondered how strong the scents might become inside the city’s narrow ways. And if it was this bad to her, it must be so much worse for Shade’s nose.
As if that thought called the dog, Wynn felt Shade press up against her thigh. She glanced down and saw the dog’s ears were half flattened; Shade never liked crowds.
Most of the dusky-skinned and dark-haired people on the waterfront wore light, loose-fitting cloth shifts or equally loose leggings or pantaloons. Wraps upon their heads were done up in all sorts of mounds, short or tall, thick or thin. Perhaps there weren’t as many people as there would be during the day, but there were far more than she’d seen in any port at night during her travels.
Some herded goats or carried square baskets of chickens or birds she couldn’t name. Many spoke to one another, but she couldn’t follow much of what was said. She read the common dialect of Sumanese quite well and even spoke a bit of it, but all languages in common usage tended to evolve like living things. Her knowledge of it was more scholarly than practical.
A number of people glanced at her or her companions, and she could hardly blame them.
Osha towered over everyone, and though he was dressed in brown pants and a simple tunic, his tan skin and large but slanted amber eyes were exotic in this place. Worse was his white-blond hair, which glowed too brightly whenever he passed under an oil lamp.
Chane wasn’t much better, with his pale face and jaggedly cut red-brown hair. Dressed like a traveling nobleman in a well-tailored but well-worn white shirt, dark pants, and high boots, he would likely be fixed upon by any cutpurse around. That is, until they spotted the two sheathed swords at his waist instead of one. Fortunately, his unusual eyes might not stand out as much as Osha’s in passing. Once, Chane’s irises had been light brown, but the longer he existed as an undead, the more they lost their color. When he grew angry or agitated, they turned crystal clear.
Wynn looked down once more at the tall black dog—or wolf—walking at her side. She buried her small fingers into the fur between Shade’s shoulders, mostly for her own comfort.
Who wouldn’t glance at all of them?
Looking into the city, she saw no trees or plant life anywhere, only an endless stretch of light-toned buildings. They stepped off the pier’s landward end and onto the walkway along the shore.
“You know . . . where go?” Osha asked in his broken Numanese.
It was easier for the two of them to speak in Elvish, he in his an’Cróan dialect and she in that of the Lhoin’na (“[Those] of the Glade”)—the elves of this continent. But he often attempted either Belaskian or Numanese, either for practice or to be polite.
In the journey’s previous moon, he’d improved a little in both . . . sort of.
“Where to go,” she corrected, glancing back at Osha following behind Chane. “From what I’ve read, the guild’s Suman branch is a huge compound with numerous structures located on the capital’s northwest side. If we stay near the waterfront, we should spot it down an inland street.”
Chane frowned, as if he’d expected her to know more—or perhaps because she spoke to Osha and not him.
Wynn turned ahead, taking a slow breath. Dealing with those two in their separate feelings for her, let alone any feelings she had for either of them, wasn’t something she could let distract her right now.
A sandstone arch stretched between two buildings like a gate into the city. Wanting out of the crowd and trying to appear confident, Wynn walked through the arch. When they reached the next street parallel to the waterfront, she turned north again. Along the way, she peered up the side streets, looking for one wide enough that it might reveal their destination.
Shade kept pressed into her leg, and when Wynn glanced back, she noticed that Osha was carrying his own belongings on his back and both of Chane’s packs in his arms. Wynn carried her own pack over her left shoulder, and Chane carried the chest with the orb—which was heavy—but Osha was burdened with everything else. She would have noticed sooner if she hadn’t been so distracted.
And then Chane looked back as well and half turned. “Put one of my packs on top of the chest.”
Osha slowed, keeping more than an arm’s length behind Chane. “I . . . fine.”
Chane moved on with a subtle sneer, and Wynn sighed as she headed onward. She’d hoped the two would’ve learned to tolerate each other by now. This quietly hostile competition was becoming annoying.
The mainway was almost as well lit as the waterfront by streetlamps hung high at every intersection. As she’d expected, the smells grew stronger, trapped by still air between the buildings. The scent of jasmine sharpened in her nose, though she saw none blooming along the rows of shops and eateries they passed. It thickened even more as she passed a dark-haired woman in a gauzy wrap and bangles of brass around her neck and wrists.
Even the people here overperfumed themselves; without warning, memory-words rose in Wynn’s mind.
—Too many . . . people . . . too many . . . smells—
“I know,” she whispered.
Shade was no ordinary dog as a majay-hì. She was descended from wolves of ancient times inhabited by the Fay during the Great War at the end of the world’s Forgotten History. The descendants of those first Fay-born had become the guardians of the elves, first the Lhoin’na and then later the separate an’Cróan on the world’s far side. In the lands of the latter, Shade’s homeland, majay-hì barred all but the elves from entering their vast so-called Elven Territories. More than this, and due to a plan hatched by her father, Chap, Shade had traveled across the far ocean and the whole central continent to protect Wynn.
Among a few unusual abilities, Shade communicated with Wynn by raising memory-words in her mind.
“We’ll find the guild soon,” Wynn added, scratching lightly between Shade’s shoulder blades. “We’ll be welcome there and maybe it won’t be so . . . scented.”
In truth, she didn’t know what kind of welcome they would receive. As a sage, she should be offered shelter for herself and her companions. But of the few Suman sages she’d met, even fewer shared much about the customs of their own branch. She respected Domin il’Sänke’s knowledge and abilities but didn’t exactly trust him. He had assisted her in the past, but at other times he’d done everything he could to stop her own pursuits.
“Wait, stop,” Chane rasped.
Wynn looked back to find him halted before the side street she’d just passed. He jutted his chin up that street.
“This looks best, if we need to go farther inland,” Chane added.
Wynn nodded and headed for the side street. From what she saw, there were no street signs or markers pointing toward anything, and she grew worried. In order to find Magiere, she needed to find the domin, and to find him, she needed to find the guild. Then she spotted an elderly man with a heavily lined dusky face coming her way, and she tried her best in simple Sumanese.
The man stopped, blinked several times, and took in the sight of her companions. Perhaps his eyes widened a little at the huge black “dog,” since few Sumans would have ever seen a “wolf.”
“Guild . . . Sagecraft?” she asked in Sumanese, hoping either word came out like a question.
He looked over her short-robe and nodded once. Instead of answering, he held up six fingers and then pointed up the way. Before she could nod, he pointed northward and held up four fingers. Wynn smiled—six blocks inland and four to the north.
“Thank you,” she said, or hoped it was a close equivalent.
He nodded more slowly, with a smile of his own, and continued onward.
Wynn pressed on along the route she’d been given. Before she’d even finished the final four blocks, she saw a low wall beyond and out the end of the street.
“There it is,” she said, though likely the others saw it before she had.
She quickened the pace and soon reached a seemingly endless stone wall stretching in both directions. It was surprisingly short and was probably just something to mark the extents of the grounds and keep the public from wandering in. Standing on tiptoes, Wynn pulled herself up to peek over the wall’s top.
Around a vast courtyard stood numerous enormous buildings of tan stone with ornately peaked rooftops. The courtyard had been painstakingly cobbled with dark brown and red tiles in an arcing diamond pattern. Paths between buildings were well swept and benches had been placed at comfortable intervals. She felt a little daunted at the sight of it all.
These grounds were far larger than those of the Numan branch, which by comparison looked like little more than a squat stone keep tucked tightly inside a four-towered old wall.
“The entrance,” Chane said, pointing.
Following his finger extended along the chest’s side, Wynn indeed saw an opening about forty paces to the right down the wall.
“We’ll have rooms and supper soon,” she assured, leading the way. Much more important, they should soon learn where to find Magiere.
Upon reaching the entrance, she halted before a set of opened iron gates between two immense sandstone columns. Four men—obviously not sages—were stationed inside the columns, and all four turned to stare at her.
They wore identical tan pants of fine fabric tucked into matching tall, hard boots. Dark brown tabards overlaid their cream shirts, and red wraps were mounded atop their heads. Each had an ornately sheathed curved sword tucked into the heavy red fabric of his waist wrap.
Wynn hadn’t expected armed guards. She was staring at them with growing concern when one barked a question in Sumanese. She didn’t quite catch it and shook her head.
“Do any of you speak Numanese?” she asked.
All four guards looked over the visitors with a wariness that bordered on fear of a threat.
Wynn’s worry increased, though she resisted glancing back at either Chane or Osha. She hadn’t heard Chane drop the chest yet, so that was good, but Osha could draw and nock an arrow faster than a man could draw a sword.
Then Wynn heard the sound of packs being dropped on the street stones behind her.
Both men, along with Shade, were far too protective of her. When Shade rumbled at the guards, Wynn clenched her fingers on the dog’s scruff. One guard with a close-trimmed beard took a step toward her.
“I speak your tongue,” he said, eyeing her robe. “What is your business here, sage?”
His accent was thick, but his command of Numanese was sound, and at least he recognized her for what she was. Still, none of the guards stepped aside, and intuition warned her not to mention Domin il’Sänke just yet. This unexpected “welcome” at the gate left her wondering if the domin might be a questionable figure within his own branch.
“I am visiting from the Numan branch,” she answered. “Could you please direct us to High Premin Aweli-Jama.”
Asking to see the branch’s highest-ranking sage was presumptuous but safest. For the sake of good manners, Aweli-Jama would have to offer hospitality to a fellow sage—albeit a foreign one—and her companions.
The bearded guard simply studied her. Then his gaze shifted beyond her, likely to Osha and Chane. He twisted slightly, whispering something to the other guards, and then . . .
Wynn’s mouth gaped as he turned away and walked across the courtyard. She watched as he entered the beautiful sandstone building straight ahead with six peaks along the top of its roof. Her view was then cut off as the other three guards positioned themselves across the entrance’s opening. There was another strange thing Wynn noted.
Though it was well past dusk, the evening meal couldn’t have finished long before, and yet she saw no one walking the paths of this huge complex. There had to be many sages of all ranks staying on the grounds full-time, especially in a place as big as this.
So where were they? Had a curfew been ordered for some reason?
“What is happen?” Osha whispered in Numanese.
“Happening,” she corrected. “And I’m not certain.” She eased and then squeezed her grip on Shade. “Anything?”
That was all that was needed between them in situations like this. The dog could catch rising memories within anyone in sight and show such to Wynn, so long as they were touching. Wynn waited three breaths, far too long for any sights or sounds to enter her thoughts.
Shade shuddered once beneath her hand and whined in agitation.
At that, one guard lifted a hand to grip the hilt of his sword.
“Easy, sister,” Wynn whispered to Shade. “What’s wrong?”
—Nothing . . . is . . . there—
Wynn’s confusion increased at these words called up and then reassembled from her own memories of things heard from others in the past. What did Shade mean?
—No . . . memories— . . . —All . . . blank—
Wynn’s breath caught. No one’s thoughts were ever completely blank, at least not at all times. Something was blocking Shade from dipping the guards’ memories. How—or, for that matter, why? No one here could’ve known they were coming, let alone what Shade could do.
Movement across the tiled courtyard caught Wynn’s attention.
Four people walked brusquely toward the gate, and the guard who had told her to wait led the way. Behind him came a tall man hidden within the gray robe of a cathologer, with the full cowl up and shadowing his face from the courtyard lanterns. Last came a more disturbing pair: a stout man and a spindly woman, both robed in midnight blue, like Wynn, for the order of Metaology.
That the high premin was flanked by two metaologers was troubling, especially after what Shade had claimed. As far as Wynn knew, conjury was favored among metaologers of this branch versus thaumaturgy in the Numan branch.
This time, Wynn did glance back . . . just in time to see Chane whisper aside to Osha. The chest now sat on the street, along with the packs Osha had carried.
Osha silently nodded to Chane.
“Oh, not again,” Wynn moaned under her breath.
Chane must have sensed something, for anytime those two agreed about anything it meant there would be trouble. Osha shrugged his left shoulder, and his bow slipped off and dropped down his arm. He caught it without even looking, but at least Chane hadn’t yet reached for one of his swords.
“You will not bring that canine onto the grounds.”
Wynn flinched around toward the gate and came face-to-face—or face-to-throat—with the sage in gray. He was tall for a Suman, and both metaologers still flanked him. The four guards had broken into pairs at both of the gateway’s columns.
“Such beasts are not permitted here,” High-Premin Aweli-Jama declared, for that was who he had to be.
Of all the things Wynn expected to hear first, that was not among them.
Other than his accent, his Numanese was perfect, and up close it was easier to see his face. He was likely in his mid-sixties, at a guess, and his gray hair was cropped short beneath his cowl. Dark-toned skin covered a slightly wizened and narrow face with slanted cheekbones. He pressed his hands nervously together, though his expression was unreadable.
“Good evening, High Premin,” she said politely as she stroked Shade’s back. “I am Journeyor Wynn Hygeorht of the Numan branch. This is Shade, who is not a common animal and will harm no one. She travels with me for my protection, as do my other two companions.”
Both metaologers were entirely fixed on her, but she’d been the subject of scrutiny many times before. Both were middle-aged, which suggested they each held at least the rank of domin.
“We have come a long way, and we’re weary,” she added. “If we could only—”
“Why are you here with so much protection?” Aweli-Jama asked abruptly. “Your branch’s council did not inform us of sending a journeyor.”
This grew stranger and stranger.
“I wasn’t aware anyone needed to be informed for a passing visit,” she answered, still not giving him the real reason she had come. In the brief silence that followed, she listened for the slightest sound behind her. Both Chane and Osha were quiet and hopefully hadn’t moved.
Aweli-Jama shook his head in what appeared to be a dismissal.
“Of course not,” he answered flatly, as if her comment was pointless. “I meant that if I had been informed, I could have responded with proper regrets to your premin, who might have informed you. At this time, you and your companions cannot be accommodated based on recent and unanticipated concerns for security. I am sorry you have traveled such a distance, but please seek lodgings elsewhere.”
Without another word, the high premin began to turn away.
Wynn’s jaw slackened until her lips parted. Something here was very wrong . . . from guards posted at the gate to Shade’s inability to pick up any memories to Aweli-Jama’s refusing shelter to a journeyor sage of another branch. The metaologers turned to follow the high premin as the guards spread out to block the way in.
Her thoughts raced for something to say that might stall the high premin for an instant. She stiffened when Chane’s hand settled on her shoulder, for she hadn’t heard him close in behind her.
“Do not mention . . . the others,” he whispered in Belaskian.
After an instant of confusion, she realized he meant Magiere, Leesil, and Chap, but she had to say something.
“Premin,” she called. “I’ve come to see Domin Ghassan il’Sänke.”
That was the last topic she wished to raise openly, but it was the only thing she could think of in an instant. She had to get in there and find the domin.
“May I at least speak with him,” she went on, and then half lied, “He was one of my tutors when he visited Calm Seatt.”
High Premin Aweli-Jama stopped abruptly, as did the pair of metaologers.
Chane tried to still his mind amid the overriding sense—the stench—of fear emanating from the Suman sages. It was so strong that the beast inside of him, his inner feral nature, strained at its bonds. Fear made the beast hungry for prey, and Chane bit down until his jaws ached.
When Wynn spoke il’Sänke’s name, the sages halted and that stench thickened.
Chane fought to clear his thoughts amid the beast’s snarling.
The high premin spun and fixed on Wynn. For an instant, fear was evident on his lined face. This vanished as his expression became outwardly cold and measured.
“Why do you wish to see him?” Aweli-Jama asked with a slight tremor in his voice.
The metaologers had also turned, one eyeing Wynn, who retreated a step and bumped into Chane. The other looked over everyone with her, one by one.
“As I said,” Wynn answered, her voice wavering. “He was my tutor during his stay in the north. I wish to pay my respects. It would be rude to come all this way without doing so.”
Aweli-Jama’s cold expression remained unchanged, though his voice became even and more controlled. “What exactly is your mission here, Journeyor?” His gaze shifted upward. “One that requires a swordsman and a Lhoin’na archer.”
This high premin would not know that Osha was of the an’Cróan elves from the eastern continent. Chane had no intention of enlightening him, and instead wondered how Wynn would answer. He pushed that aside, trying to clear his head again so he could listen to how the premin would respond to Wynn’s next words.
“No mission, Premin,” she replied. “I’m simply . . . journeying to learn about a land and people I’ve never seen for myself. While I’m here, can I not see my old tutor and thank him for his kindness? Why would you force me to be rude in not doing so?”
The premin studied her long in silence, perhaps trapped by the cultural manners Wynn intimated. His expression remained flat, though the stench of fear had not lessened.
Chane eyed the guards. Behind Wynn’s back, he slowly inched his free hand across toward the hilt of his longsword. The two metaologers worried him the most, but if anything happened, Osha could disable at least one while Chane readied to hold off the guards.
“Domin il’Sänke is not in residence at present,” Aweli-Jama said, “but as you are a past student of his”—he half turned, sweeping a narrow hand toward the main building with the six-peaked rooftop—“perhaps we can accommodate you . . . until he returns.”
The beast within Chane lurched back in wary retreat; the premin was lying about something.
In the past, he and Wynn had used this odd ability of his. She would ask questions, and behind her, keeping his thoughts still, he would squeeze her shoulder when the beast grew wary or outright vicious. For whatever reason, his inner nature knew when it heard a lie. But the question—and its answer—had been too broken, mixed, and vague to know which part was the deception.
“No,” he whispered behind Wynn, lightly squeezing her shoulder. Then he spoke openly to the high premin. “We do not wish to be a burden and will seek arrangements in the city.”
“There is no need for that,” Aweli-Jama countered. “Journeyor, please bring your companions. We will find all of you some comfort.”
The metaologers eyed each other. Both stepped forward, with the woman positioning herself behind the premin and the man to his left. Two guards nearest to each side column stepped forward to the edge of the street.
This might have looked like they’d made room for the visitors to enter, but not so to Chane. When Shade growled again, Chane slipped his free hand up behind Wynn to close it on the longsword’s hilt.
“Osha?” he rasped without looking back.
“Yes,” came the firm answer from behind and off to Chane’s left.
He knew Osha had nocked an arrow and would cripple the left-side metaologer first. He disliked assaulting sages, but there was a hidden danger here, and Wynn came before all else.
Chane pulled gently on Wynn’s shoulder as he slid his left foot back.
Shade pulled out of Wynn’s grip and sidestepped in front of her.
“There is no need for this,” Aweli-Jama insisted with a tinge of desperation. “If you will simply—”
Wynn dashed around behind, startling Chane, but he kept his eyes on the high premin. All four guards drew their curved swords. The male metaologer’s lips moved as if speaking, though Chane heard nothing.
“Osha!” he rasped.
“No!” Wynn shouted. “Don’t hurt them.”
No arrow struck either Suman metaologer.
In panic, Chane froze over what to do. He would not hesitate to disable or even kill armed soldiers, most like city guards, but sages were another matter. At one guard’s advance, Shade inched forward a matching step, and her hackles rose with her snarl.
Chane was about to order everyone to run when that first guard paused while looking beyond him. A puzzled frown formed on the man’s face.
“Chane, duck and cover!” Wynn cried.
He almost turned—and then her staff thrust out around his left side. The long crystal at its top end was unsheathed, and he swore under his breath.
Chane spun away as he whipped up his cloak’s hem to shield his face.
Osha stalled at Wynn’s order contradicting Chane. With an arrow drawn back, he had shifted his aim to the darkly robed man with a raised hand. He did not wish to harm a sage, but neither would he allow anyone to harm his Wynn.
The premin’s face twisted with alarm as her staff’s crystal lanced out around Chane’s side.
“Chane, duck and cover!”
Osha froze, knowing what would come next but not what to do about it. And too much happened all at once.
Chane whirled away as he jerked up his cloak. All four guards drew their swords. One made a rush forward quicker than the others. Shade lunged to intercept the man.
Osha heard Wynn’s harsh whispers. He did not understand her words, but he knew what they meant. He barely scrunched his eyes shut as her staff’s crystal flashed. Brilliant light, like a sudden noon sun, made his eyes sting beneath his eyelids.
“Run!” Wynn shouted.
Amid the sound of running feet, and just before Osha opened his eyes, he heard Chane utter a grating hiss. Wynn rushed for the packs nearby as Chane snatched up the chest, and Osha saw Shade ram a startled guard in the chest with her forepaws. That man went down, but . . .
The male sage in dark blue still had a hand raised and outstretched. Unlike the others, that one did not blink his eyes in trying to clear his sight. He fixed on the dog.
“Shade!” Osha shouted and released the bowstring.
The dog wheeled, racing away after Wynn, as the arrow hit. It struck directly into the sage’s dangling sleeve. Force jerked the man’s hand aside, and he stumbled back in fright and shock.
As the fallen guard struggled to get up, the other three, the other sage in dark blue, and Premin Aweli-Jama were all trying to clear their vision from the flash of Wynn’s crystal.
Osha spun as Shade raced by him. Only one of the packs he had dropped remained on the street stones. Grabbing its strap, he slung it over his shoulder and ran along the wall after the others. Then he heard the premin shouting in his people’s guttural tongue.
The only word Osha understood was “journeyor.” There was only one person the high premin wanted caught.
Wynn and Shade ran on ahead with Chane following, the chest in his arms. On his longer legs, Osha knew it would not take long to reach them—but even while carrying the heavy orb, Chane was just as fast.
Osha hated working with—fighting beside—Chane, as if it was acceptable for that undead thing to be in Wynn’s company. There was no other choice—he would always put her well-being above all else, no matter what it took.
Osha heard running feet coming behind him.
Wynn couldn’t believe—or understand—what had happened as she ran, panting, along the outside of the low wall. She carried her own pack and one of Chane’s. Hopefully Osha had been able to grab Chane’s other pack.
She’d clearly understood what the high premin had shouted to the guards.
“Get the journeyor! I do not care what happens to the others, but bring her back alive.”
The premin wanted her taken prisoner after she’d mentioned Ghassan il’Sänke.
What had happened here and what had the domin done?
Glancing back, she saw Osha and Chane closing rapidly on her as Shade sped out ahead. Back along the wall, the four guards were coming with swords drawn. Chane would kill any one of them if necessary. And then what?
She and her companions would be “wanted” by local authorities, if they weren’t already. All of Chane, Osha, and Shade’s overprotectiveness had pushed everything out of control. If they’d only given her another moment or two, she might have salvaged an opportunity for their greater needs—but no.
The “boys” and her “sister” had done it again.
Fright and fury pushed Wynn faster. When this was over—if they got out of trouble—she’d put all three back in their places . . . again. And she couldn’t let herself be captured, not even to save one of them.
She had to find Magiere, Leesil, and Chap. To do so, she had to find Ghassan il’Sänke. He was the key to everything.
“Valhachkasej’â!” she swore as she ran. “Where are you, Domin?”
In truth, Ghassan was uncertain what kept drawing him back to survey the guild grounds. Still, he watched its inland wall and the street along it in both directions. This place was now a danger to him.
If a member of the guild or the city guards spotted him, he would be taken at any cost. Still, he could not rest idle. He returned here again and again, as all other avenues in his search had revealed little to nothing. And he had no choice but to keep out of sight.
A moon ago, he had been arrested, dragged before the imperial court, and faced the imperial presence of Prince Ounyal’am himself, the remaining heir to the empire’s throne. In that moment, Ghassan had not known how many of his secrets had been uncovered.
“Is your high premin correct?” the prince had demanded before all present. “What is this I hear of a hidden sect among the metaologers, including you . . . Domin? Is it true that all involved but you are dead?”
The questions had shocked him more than being arrested. Too much was becoming openly known by too many, and it was all true.
Ghassan had been part of a secret sect—a subset within his own order.
It was also true that Prince Ounyal’am knew this long before he had asked.
Conjury was preferred among Suman metaologers versus thaumaturgy in the guild’s Numan and Lhoin’na branches. Ghassan was well versed in conjury and soundly knowledgeable in thaumaturgy; the opposite could also be said of metaologers elsewhere. But that did not account for what else he had learned, starting half a lifetime ago.