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Elena found her throne an uncomfortable seat. It was a chair meant for someone harder and more age-worn than she. Its high, straight back was carved in twining roses, the thorns of which could be felt through her silk robe and dress. Even its seat was flat and unforgiving, polished ironwood with no pillow to soften its hard surface. For ages past, it had been the seat of power for A’loa Glen. Both kings and praetors had sat here in judgment, sea-hardened men who scowled at the comforts of life.
Even its size was intimidating. Elena felt like a child in the wide and tall chair. There were not even armrests. Elena did not know what to do with her hands, so she ended up simply folding them in her lap.
One step below her, though it might have been a league away for as much as they paid her any attention, was a long table crowded with representatives from every faction willing to fight the Gul’gotha. Elena knew what the majority here in the Great Hall thought of her. All they saw was a slim woman with pale skin and fiery hair. None noticed the pain in her eyes, nor the fearful knowledge of her own dread power. To them, she was a pretty bird on a perch.
Elena brushed aside a strand of hair from her face.
All along the length, voices cried to be heard in languages both familiar and strange. Two men on the far end were close to coming to blows.
Among the throng, there were those Elena knew well, those who had helped wrest the island of A’loa Glen from the evil rooted here. The high keel of the Dre’rendi Fleet, still bearing his bandages from the recent war, bellowed his demands. Beside him, the elv’in queen, Meric’s mother, sat stiffly, her long silver locks reflecting the torches’ radiance, a figure of ice and fire. At her elbow, Master Edyll, an elder of the sea-dwelling mer’ai, tried continually to force peace and decorum amid the frequently raucous discourse.
But for every familiar face, there were scores of others Elena knew only by title. She glanced down the long table of strangers—countless figureheads and foreign representatives, all demanding to be heard, all claiming to know what was best for the war to come with the Gul’gotha.
Some argued for scorching the island and leaving for the coast; others wanted to fortify the island and let the Dark Lord destroy his armies on their walls; and still others wanted to take the fight to Blackhall itself, to take advantage of the victory here and destroy the Gul’gothal stronghold before the enemy could regather its scattered forces. The heated arguments and fervid debates had waged now for close to a moon.
Elena glanced sidelong to Er’ril. Her sworn liegeman stood to the right of her seat, arms crossed, face a stern, unreadable mask. He was a carved statue of Standish iron. His black hair had been oiled and slicked back as was custom along the coast. His wintry eyes, the gray of early morning, studied the table. None could guess his thoughts. He had not added one word to the countless debates.
But Elena noticed the tightness at the corners of his eyes as he stared. He could not fool her. He was growing as irritated as she at the bickering around the table. In over a fortnight, nothing had been decided. Since the victory of A’loa Glen, no consensus had been reached on the next step. While they argued, the days disappeared, one after the other. And still Er’ril waited, a knight at her side. With the Blood Diary in her hands, he had no other position. His role as leader and guide had ended.
Elena sighed softly and glanced to her gloved hands. The victory celebration a moon ago now seemed like another time, another place. Yet as she sat upon her thorny throne, she remembered that long dance with Er’ril atop her tower. She remembered his touch, the warmth of his palm through her silk dress, the whisper of his breath, the scuff of beard on her cheek. But that had been their only dance. From that night onward, though Er’ril had never been far from her side, they had scarcely shared a word. Just endless meetings from sunrise till sundown.
But no longer!
Slowly, as the others argued, Elena peeled back her lambskin gloves. Fresh and untouched, the marks of the Rose were as rich as spilt blood upon her hands: one birthed in moonlight, one born in sunlight. Wit’chfire and coldfire—and between them lay stormfire. She stared at her hands. Eddies of power swirled in whorls of ruby hues across her fingers and palm.
“Elena?” Er’ril stirred by her side. He leaned close to her, his eyes on her hands. “What are you doing?”
“I tire of these arguments.” From a filigreed sheath in the sash of her evergreen dress, she slipped free a silver-bladed dagger. The ebony hilt, carved in the shape of a rose, fit easily in her palm, as if it had always been meant for her. She shoved aside memories of her Uncle Bol, the one who had christened the knife in her own blood. She remembered his words. It is now a wit’ch’s dagger.
“Elena . . .” Er’ril’s voice was stern with caution.
Ignoring him, she stood. Without so much as a word, she drew the sharp tip across her right palm. The pain was but the bite of a wasp. A single drop of blood welled from the slice and fell upon her silk dress. Still Elena continued only to stare down the long table, silent.
None of the council members even glanced her way. They were too involved voicing their causes, challenging others, and pounding rough fists on the ironwood surface of the table.
Elena sighed and reached to her heart, to the font of wild magicks pent up inside. Cautiously, she unfurled slim threads of power, fiery wisps of blood magicks that sang through her veins, reaching her bloody palm. A small glow arose around her hand as the power filled it. Elena clenched her fist, and the glow deepened, a ruby lantern now. She raised her fist high.
The first to spot her display was the aged elder of the mer’ai. Master Edyll must have caught the glow’s reflection off his silver goblet. As the elder turned, the wine spilled like blood from his cup. He dropped the goblet with a clatter to the tabletop.
Drawn by the noise, others glanced to the spreading stain of wine. Gaze after gaze swung to the head of the table. A wave of stunned silence spread across those gathered around the table.
Elena met their eyes unflinching. So many had died to bring her here to this island: Uncle Bol, her parents, Flint, Moris . . .
And she would speak with their voices this day. She would not let their sacrifices be dwindled away by this endless sniping. If Alasea was to have a future, if the Gul’gothal rule was to be challenged, it was time to move forward, and there was only one way to do this. Someone had to draw a line in the sand.
“I have heard enough,” Elena said softly into the stretch of quiet. From her glowing fists, fiery filaments crawled down her arm, living threads of reddish gold. “I thank you for your kind counsel these past days. This night I will ponder your words, and in the morning I will give you my answer on the course we will pursue.”
Down the table, the representative from the coastal township of Penryn stood up. Symon Feraoud, a portly fellow with a black mustache that draped below his chin, spoke loudly. “Lass, I mean no insult, but the matter here does not await your answer.”
Several heads nodded at his words.
Elena let the man speak, standing silent as fine threads of wit’ch fire traced fiery trails down her arm, splitting into smaller and smaller filaments, spreading across her bosom and down to the sash of her dress.
“The course ahead of us must be agreed by all,” Symon Feraoud continued, bolstered by the silent agreement of those around him. “We’ve only just begun to debate the matter at hand. The best means to deal with the Gul’gothal threat is not a matter to be decided over a single night.”
“A single night?” Elena lowered her arm slightly and descended the single step to stand before the head of the table. “Thirty nights have passed since the revelries of our victory here. And your debates have served no other purpose but to fracture us, to spread dissent and disagreement when we must be at our most united.”
Symon opened his mouth to argue, but Elena stared hard at him, and his mouth slowly shut.
“This evening the moon will again rise full,” Elena continued. “The Blood Diary will open once more. I will take your counsel here and then consult the book. By morning, I will bring a final plan to this table.”
Master Edyll cleared his throat. “For debate?”
Elena shook her head. “For all your agreements.”
Silence again descended over the assembly. But this was not the stunned quiet of before, it was a brewing tempest—and Elena would not let that squall strike.
Before even a grumble could arise, Elena raised her glowing fist over the table. “I will brook no further debate. By dawn’s light tomorrow, I will make my decision.” She splayed open her hand; flames flickered from her fingers. Lowering her hand, she burned her print into the ironwood table. Smoke curled up her wrist. She leaned on her arm as she studied each face. Flames licked between her fingers. “Tomorrow we forge our future. A future where we burn the Black Heart from this land.”
Elena lifted her palm from the table. Her handprint was burned deep into the ironwood, smoldering and coal red, like her own palm. Elena stepped away. “Anyone who objects should leave A’loa Glen before the sun rises. For anyone left on this island who will not abide by my decision will not see that day’s sun set.”
Frowns marred most every face, except for the high keel of the Dre’rendi, who wore a hard, satisfied grin, and Queen Tratal of the elv’in, whose face was a mask of stoic ice.
“It is time we stopped being a hundred causes and become one,” Elena declared. “Tomorrow Alasea will be reborn on this island. It will be one mind, one heart. So I ask you all to look to your hearts this night. Make your decisions. Either join us or leave. That is all that is left to debate.”
Elena scanned their faces, keeping her own as cold and hard as her words. Finally, she bowed slightly. “We all have much to decide, so I bid you a good night to seek counsel where you will.”
Turning on a heel, she swung from the table where her print still smoldered, a reminder of who she was and the power she held. She prayed the display was enough. Stepping around the Rosethorn Throne, her skirts brushed softly on the rush-covered flagstone. In the heavy hush, time seemed to slow. The heat of the assembly’s gazes on her back felt like a roaring hearth. She crossed slowly toward Er’ril, forcing her limbs to move calmly.
The swordsman still stood stiff and stoic by the seat. Only his gray eyes followed Elena as she neared him. Though his face was hard, his eyes shone with pride. Ignoring the plainsman’s reaction, she stalked past him and toward the side door nearby.
Er’ril moved ahead to open the heavy door for her.
Once beyond the threshold, Er’ril stepped to her side, closing the door behind him. “Well done, Elena. It was time someone shook them up. I didn’t know how much longer I could stomach their endless—”
Free of the hall, Elena stumbled, her legs suddenly going weak.
Er’ril caught her elbow and kept her upright. “Elena?”
She leaned heavily on her liegeman. “Just hold me, Er’ril,” she said shakily, her limbs trembling under her. “Keep me from falling.”
He tightened his grip and stepped nearer. “Always,” he whispered.
Elena touched his hand with her bare fingers. Though she appeared a grown woman in body, in truth, her bewit’ched form hid a frightened girl from the Highlands. “Sweet Mother, what have I done?” she moaned softly.
Er’ril turned her slightly and held her at arm’s length. He leaned closer, catching her gaze with his storm-gray eyes. “You’ve shown them all what they were waiting to see.”
She glanced down to her toes. “And what is that? A mad wit’ch bent on power.”
Er’ril lifted her chin with a single finger. “No, you’ve shown them the true face of Alasea’s future.”
Elena met Er’ril’s gaze for a breath, then sighed. “I pray you’re right. But how many will still be at that table when the sun rises tomorrow?”
“It doesn’t matter the number who stand at the table. What is important is the strength and resolve of those hearts.”
Er’ril silenced her with a shake of his head. Still holding her arm, he urged her down the hall. “We’ve licked our wounds here long enough after the War of the Isles. Your instinct is right. It is time to separate the grain from the chaff. Those who remain at the table at sunrise will be those ready to confront the Black Heart himself.”
Elena leaned into the plainsman’s support as she walked. The halls through this region of the sprawling castle ran narrow and dark, the torches few and far between. “I hope you’re right,” Elena finally said.
They continued in silence. Elena quickly regained her legs, pondering Er’ril’s words. Alasea’s future. But what did it hold? Elena frowned. Who could know for sure? But whatever path lay ahead, it would have to be tread.
Suddenly, Elena’s arm was jerked backward. She was yanked to a stop as Er’ril stepped in front of her. “What are you—?” she started to blurt.
“Hush!” Er’ril’s sword was already out and pointed toward the shadows ahead.
From out of the darkness, a figure stepped forth.
“Stand back,” Er’ril barked. “Who goes there?”
Ignoring the plainsman’s brandished weapon, the figure moved another stride forward, into the torchlight. He stood a full head shorter than Er’ril and was waspishly thin. Wearing only a pair of knee-length canvas breeches, his dark skin shown like carved ebony in the flame’s glow. The white scar on his forehead blazed, the rune of an opening eye.
Elena pushed Er’ril’s sword down and stepped nearer. It was one of the zo’ol, the tiny warriors who hailed from the jungles that fringed the Southern Wastes. They had fought bravely at her side aboard the Pale Stallion.
The dark man bowed his partially bald head. His single long braid of black hair, adorned with bits of conch shells and feathers, lay draped over his shoulder.
“What are you doing skulking in these halls?” Er’ril asked brusquely, keeping his sword unsheathed.
The man raised his eyes toward Elena. They glowed with pain and anguish.
Elena moved a step forward and was surprised to feel Er’ril’s grip tighten in warning. Would the plainsman’s suspicions never end? She shook free of his hand and approached the small shaman. “What’s wrong?”
As answer, the man lifted his arm and opened his hand. Resting on his palm was a tarnished silver coin imprinted with the image of a snow leopard.
“I don’t understand,” Elena said. She knew from talking with her brother Joach that this small man was considered to be a shaman of his people, what they called a tribal wizen. She had also learned that the man had some ability to use talismans to speak across vast distances. He had done so with Joach in the past.
The small man raised his coin higher, as if this was explanation enough.
Misunderstanding, Elena reached for the coin, but the man’s fingers closed, keeping her from touching it. He dropped his hand. “He calls,” the shaman said, backing up a step. “Death draws near to all of them.”
Er’ril moved to Elena’s side. “Who? Who calls?”
The small man’s eyes flicked toward the plainsman, then back to Elena. He struggled with the common tongue. “Master Tyrus, the man who rescued my people from the slavers.”
Er’ril glanced to Elena. “He must mean Lord Tyrus, captain of Port Rawl’s pirates and heir to the throne of Castle Mryl.”
Elena nodded. Tyrus was the man who had lured off Mycelle and a trio of her old companions: Kral, Mogweed, and Fardale. For two moons now, Elena had heard no word of the party, except that they sought to regain Castle Mryl and the Northwall from the Dark Lord’s forces. “What do you know of them?”
The shaman bowed his head, struggling again with the common tongue. “I hear a whisper. Pain. Fear. A call for help.”
Elena turned to Er’ril. “They’re in trouble.”
Er’ril’s lips tightened to a hard frown. “Perhaps, but if so, I don’t see what we can do. They could be anywhere by now, lost deep among the endless forests of the Western Reaches.”
“But there must be a way,” she mumbled. She swung to the zo’ol warrior. “Did you learn anything else?”
The shaman shook his head. “I hear only one other word. I no understand. A curse, I think.”
“What was it?”
The small man’s dark face scrunched with thought. “Gr-graff-on.”
Elena’s brows pinched together. She frowned. What did that mean? It was nonsense.
Then Er’ril jolted beside her. “Griffin!” He stepped nearer the small man. “Did you say ‘griffin’?”
The shaman brightened, nodding vigorously. “Yes. Graff-on! Yes, yes!” His eyes were wide, clearly hoping this was significant.
“I still don’t understand,” Elena said.
Er’ril stood silent, gaze turned inward, brooding on some past event. His voice was soft when he spoke, breathless. “A Weirgate.”
The single word drew a gasp from Elena. Weirgate. The word froze her heart. She remembered the massive statue of a monstrous black bird, a mythical wyvern. But it was more than just a loathsome sculpture. Carved of ebon’stone, it was a foul construct of power, a portal to a well of dark magicks called the Weir. Elena recalled her mind’s brief brush with the evil inside the statue. Her skin prickled with just the memory. She had almost lost Er’ril to that evil.
Er’ril continued to speak. “Back when I freed the book, the darkmage Greshym told me of the other Gates. He said there were four. The wyvern we had already encountered, but also three more: a manticore, a basilisk, and—” Er’ril’s gaze fixed back on Elena. “—and a griffin.”
Elena choked on her own words. “But . . . but a Weirgate in the Western Reaches? Why? What is it doing out there?”
“I don’t know. Greshym hinted at some plan of the Gul’gotha. Something to do with positioning Weirgates at key sites around Alasea.”
“Like at Winter’s Eyrie,” Elena added. She remembered that that had been the ultimate destination of the Wyvern Gate before they had stopped it. “What could the Dark Lord be planning?”
“Even Greshym didn’t know,” Er’ril answered, but he nodded toward the zo’ol shaman. “But obviously, whatever the Black Heart’s plan, it poses a danger to the others out there.”
Elena studied the small warrior. “Can you reach Lord Tyrus? Find out more?”
He raised the coin again. “I try many times. The coin has gone cold. Empty. A very bad omen.”
Elena straightened. “Then what do we do? We can’t just ignore this message.”
Er’ril finally sheathed his sword with a sharp snap. “It was their choice to venture into the western wilds. We cannot spare any forces on a futile search.”
“You have your own battles to fight, Elena. And a night to consult with the Blood Diary and decide on a plan for the war council tomorrow. You have burned your commitment into the ironwood of the table. You must honor your word.”
“But how can I? If Aunt My is in danger—”
“Mycelle is a skilled swordswoman and now a full shape-shifter again,” Er’ril interrupted sternly. “Like the others, she must face the threat with her own strength and skill.”
Elena’s consternation could not be hidden.
Er’ril gripped her shoulders. “I will check with the Brotherhood’s library here. See what I can find out about these Weirgates. But you must remain focused. You’ve a long night ahead of you. I suggest you rest, sleep. Put aside these worries for this one night.”
“How can I?” she whispered softly and pulled away. “How do you shut out your heart?”
“By knowing there is nothing your worrying will do to help Mycelle and the others. If you take on their burden and your own, both will suffer.”
Elena nodded, her shoulders slumping. Er’ril was right. She had made a commitment to point the various factions in one unifying direction. She had asked the leaders around the long table to look to their own hearts and be ready to put aside all distractions. Could I do any less now?
She raised her face to Er’ril and hardened her countenance. “I will do as you say.”
Er’ril nodded, satisfied. “Then let’s get you to your room. I will wake you just before moonrise.”
She nodded and moved forward, suddenly very tired. She touched the zo’ol shaman’s shoulder as she passed him. He still wore a worried, sick expression. Whatever he had felt from Lord Tyrus had shaken the man deeply. “We will learn what we can this day,” she promised him. “Fear not. If there is something we can do, we will.”
The shaman bowed his head, pressing the back of his fist to his scarred brow.
Elena moved on down the hall, her thoughts still on her lost friends. Silently, she prayed them safe, but in her heart, dread settled like a thick mist inside her chest. And within this fog of worry, another emotion flared brighter: a growing sense of urgency.
Something was wrong out there.
She knew it as surely as she knew the moon would rise full tonight. And if she was to be honest with herself, this dread was not new to this moment. For the past two days, everything had seemed wrong to her: sunlight had seemed sallow, voices had become strident, food bland, her skin had even seemed to itch constantly. Since this morning, Elena had felt as if the walls of the castle were closing around her.
In truth, this cloying sense, more than anything else, had driven her to stand before the council and demand an accounting of them. Er’ril may think her brave and bold, but honestly, it was only exasperation and worry. She had acted because time was narrowing for her—for them all. She had been unable to sit quiet any longer.
Elena glanced behind her, searching for the small figure of the zo’ol wizen. But the man was gone, swallowed in shadow.
If only her fears would disappear as easily.
From the heights of the easternmost tower of the keep, Tol’- chuk watched the salvage work among the docks and through the maze of half-submerged towers below. Crouched amid the tumbled blocks of granite and volcanic stone of the ruined tower parapet, he was alone with his thoughts. Ever since the elv’in warships had destroyed the tower, none dared risk the unstable ruins—except Tol’- chuk. It was his haven.
As he stared, voices from the docks reached up to him. Men called to one another—some in barked orders, some in comradely song. At the sea’s edge, nets and ropes worked at dredging masts and sections of hull from the tangle of debris caught among the avenues and streets of the sunken section of A’loa Glen.
It was a daily chore. With each morning’s tide, the dregs of the last moon’s slaughter washed ashore. It was as if the Great Deep sought to expel the pain and bloodshed from its salty depths. And not only broken ships floated and rolled in the stagnant waters, but also the bloated corpses of men, dragons, and tentacled monsters. The stench in the morning drew scores of seabirds to the feast.
Like marauders in the night, the men and women laboring below wore scraps of cloth across their mouths and noses. But the rotting reek did not bother Tol’chuk. To him, the smell was somehow fitting. Even before the war had started, Tol’chuk had been unable to cleanse the stench of death from his nose.
Turning his back on the sea, Tol’chuk fished out the chunk of crimson heartstone from his thigh pouch. Here in the shadows cast by the western section of the castle, his stone glowed with its own inner light. Where once it had blazed like a ruby sun, it now only shone with a feeble, almost sickly glimmer. Tol’chuk held the crystal toward the points of the compass: north, east, south, west. Nothing. He felt no familiar tug on his heart. The crystal that had once guided him did so no longer.
He lifted the crystal toward the evening glow. Deep within the facets, he stared at the shadow at its heart: the Bane, the shadow in the stone, a curse laid upon his people by the Land itself for an atrocity committed by one of his great ancestors, the Oathbreaker. Tol’chuk had been assigned to correct his ancestor’s crime by the ancients of his own tribe. He had been gifted with the stone, a vessel for his people’s deceased spirits, as a guide. But the Bane had nearly completed its curse. It had grown as it fed on his tribe’s spirits inside the crystal. When Tol’chuk had begun his quest, the tiny worm had been difficult to see through the thousand facets of the crystal, but it was now plainly evident, well fed. It was changing, too. Like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, the Bane had grown into a shadowy creature, curled and lurking inside a ruby cocoon. But what was it? What was it becoming?
Tol’chuk lowered the large gem.
In truth, what did it matter? The spirits of his ancestors were almost gone, eaten away. Tol’chuk leaned over the dark stone. Why had the Heart of his tribe led him to this wit’ch? Was there a clue hidden in this fact? By helping her, would he be helped? He had no way of knowing. But what other course lay open to him?
Tol’chuk fingered open his pouch as he stared again at the scavengers below. He watched the birds wheeling in the sky, crying and cawing over the feast on the beach. He saw sharks fighting over a netted corpse. He turned away. Life always feeds on death, he thought morosely.
Struggling to force the heartstone back into its pouch, he grumbled and fought the straps. Then the stone, as if angry at his tussling, flared bright. Tol’chuk gasped. The stone rolled from his clawed fingers to rattle across the floor of the tower. It settled to a stop beside a toppled pillar. Yet it continued to shine like a star.
Tol’chuk squinted, eyes tearing from both the pain of the brightness and from relief. The Heart had come alive again.
He crawled to his feet, leaning on a knuckled arm. His other hand shaded his eyes from the glare. Then a shadow appeared from the very heart of the intense ruby sheen. It grew larger with each thunderous heartbeat in Tol’chuk’s ears. The darkness swirled up from out of the brightness. Fear froze Tol’chuk in place.
The Bane. It had come to claim him.
Still, Tol’chuk did not move. In fact, he straightened from his crouch. If death came for him this day, he was ready. The ruby brightness was all but eaten away by the swirling blackness. Then the shadows grew denser; the crimson brightness an aura around it. Still the brightness stung, like the halo of an eclipsed sun.
The swirling cloud of shadows coalesced on itself, a form taking shape. Even with the glare, Tol’chuk’s eyes grew wide at the sight. Soon the image of an og’re, sculpted of shadows, grew before him. Hunched, bent-backed, it knuckled on an arm the size of a tree trunk, a bristle of spiny fur trailing down its bare back. Large eyes, swirls of dark clouds, stared back at Tol’chuk. It could have been a dark mirror image of himself—and in some ways it was.
He stepped forward, tears blurring the miracle. “Father?”
The shadowy figure still did not move, but a crinkle of amusement seemed to mark its face. Eyes traveled over Tol’chuk’s upright form. “He-who-walks-like-a-man.”
Tol’chuk glanced down at his posture, then bent to knuckle on his clawed fist.
“No,” the figure said, its voice sounding both like a whisper in his ear and a call from far away. It spoke in the native og’re tongue. “Don’t. The Triad named you truly.”
A shake of shadowy head. “I don’t have much time. I must speak quickly.”
“But the Heart? It glows again!”
“Only for the moment.” The dark og’re raised his eyes toward his son. “I am the last of the spirits in the stone. It is our blood ties that have kept me from the Bane for this long. But as the sun sets, I will be gone.”
An angry grumble flowed. “Stones fall from heights, and water runs downhill. Even an og’re cannot fight these things. And you are an og’re, Son. Accept my fate as I do.”
“I come at my end with a single guidance for you. As the Bane nears, I sense the path you must take next. But from here you must walk without the spirits. You must walk alone.”
“But why? If the Bane empties the stone, why continue?”
“All is not lost, my son. There is still a way to destroy the Bane, to revive the Heart of our people.”
“I don’t understand.”
The details of the figure began to fade, as did the radiant crimson glow. Even the voice began to fray. “Take the stone . . . to where it was first quarried.”
The answer was a brush of wind in his ear. Tol’chuk staggered back. He gasped. “No.” But he knew he had not heard falsely.
The image faded back to shadows. “Do as you are bid . . . for your father’s memory.”
Tol’chuk clenched both fists. What he asked was impossible, but still Tol’chuk nodded. “I will try, Father.”
The shadows receded into the brilliance. A last whisper reached him. “I see your mother in you.” The glow faded back into the stone. “I go happily, knowing we both live on in you, my son.”
Then only the dull stone remained on the cold granite.
Tol’chuk could not move. There was not even a glimmer left in the crystal. Finally, he crossed over and gathered it in his clawed hands and sank to his knees, cradling the Heart of his people in his lap.
Tol’chuk sat until the sun lowered beyond the western horizon, unmoving, except for the roll of an occasional tear down a cheek. Finally, as his tower was swallowed by darkness, Tol’chuk lifted the stone to his lips and kissed the faceted surface. “Good-bye, Father.”
Joach hurried down the abandoned hallways, praying to escape. His breath was ragged, and his fine clothes dusty from racing through these unused corridors. He paused and listened for a moment. He heard no sounds of pursuit. Satisfied, he slowed his pace and removed a handkerchief to wipe his brow. That had been too close!
He came upon a small winding stair on his left and took it. The walls brushed his shoulders on either side. Clearly here was an old servants stair, too narrow for regular traffic. He took the steps two at a time. If he could reach the main floor of the Great Edifice, he knew the way by heart to the kitchens. His belly growled its complaint at the thought of a loaf of bread and a bowl of barley stew. His narrow escape had cost him his dinner—but it was a small price to pay.
Joach clambered down the last of the stairs and pushed through the narrow doorway. He was instantly assaulted with the clamor of the kitchens: pots banging, fat sizzling, and the roar of the head cook over the organized chaos. The double-wide kitchen doors opened to his immediate left. Firelight from the row of hearths flickered like sunset on the walls. From this haven, the aromas of roasting rabbits struck his nostrils. Bread, fresh from the ovens, flavored the air with the resins of rye and onions. Joach was drawn toward the smell, enthralled as if still under the darkmage’s spell. Forgetting his frantic flight a moment ago, his limbs moved of their own accord toward the noise and scents.
He entered the kitchens, bumping into a young scullion girl with her hair pulled back in a single tawny braid under a stained handkerchief. She kicked at him, clearly thinking him one of the other kitchen workers trying to grab more than a loaf of bread. “Och! Get off me, you oaf! I’m no tavern wench.”
Joach took an elbow blow to the midriff before he could grab her arm and gain her attention. “Hold on!”
She turned, finally seeing him. Her skin was dark, a deep bronze that matched her rich golden hair. Her eyes traveled up from his black boots, over his fine gray breeches, to his emerald silk shirt with a gray formal cloak over his right shoulder. Her gaze settled on his face.
Panicked, she dropped to her knees. “Lord Joach!” Her cry drew many other eyes. The clamor of the kitchens died around him.
Joach’s face reddened to match his fiery hair. He reached and pulled the young girl to her feet, but the muscles of her legs seemed to have vanished. She was like a limp doll. He had to hold her steady. “I am no lord,” he said. “I’ve worked in these same kitchens.”
“Aye, he did!” a rough voice called out. A large man pushed through the gawking kitchen help. He wore a stained apron over his swollen belly. His cheeks were still ruddy from the flames. It was the head cook. Joach recognized the man from the time when Joach had been enthralled to Greshym. The large man swung his wooden ladle toward the head of a thin potscrubber. “And if you all don’t get back to your chores, I’ll tan your arses but good.”
The crowd dispersed around them both, except for the girl. She took a step back but no farther. Her eyes were huge.
The cook tapped his large spoon into his other meaty paw. “I don’t figure you’re down here to fetch someone’s supper.