Whisked from humdrum Alabama to the fantastical land of Tandara by a mage who won't take no for an answer, Raine Stewart finds herself tangled in a muddle of magic. A Dark Wizard is out for her blood, a demonic golem has orders to dispatch her . . . and she stinks at magic. Being a wizard, even a baby wizard, is harder than Raine thought.
Raine and her companions find sanctuary amongst the famed warriors of the snow-capped nation of Finlara, and Raine is reunited with her dear friend, the frost giant Tiny Bartog. In short order, she unearths a magic mirror, a dread curse, and a tragic, ill-fated love affair.
Safety, however, is an illusion. The dreaded Magog's Eye is still missing, and war looms. It seems an entire world hangs in the balance, waiting to see whether Raine will be able to harness her magic. But with a little help from her friends, she'll survive . . . she hopes.
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Seratha smoothed the wrinkles from her rough woolen smock and rapped on the iron-bound door. There was no answer. Summoning her courage, she knocked again.
"Enter," a man said from within.
The sound of the deep, masculine voice sent a shiver of mingled dread and anticipation through the anxious novice. She'd been a disciple at the Tower three full cycles, and though she'd glimpsed the High Seer many times from afar, she'd never been within a stone's throw of him. Nor would she be now but for the sudden arrival of their guest.
Sending a hasty prayer to Gar that the drek herder on their doorstep did not shame her, she pushed open the heavy door and slipped inside with her head bowed. The heat in the room was stifling and the sweet herbs burning in the braziers tickled her nose. Squelching the sudden urge to sneeze, she wriggled her toes in the thick Esmallan rug beneath her bare feet. She hadn't been warm since she'd left her father's tent. Situated on a rocky jut of land that overlooked the Gray Tides, the stone spire that housed the seers was bitterly cold, battered by squalls and salt spray, and the stinging winds that swept down from Northern Sethlar and the far reaches of Udom.
Lifting her head, she risked a quick peek at her master. To be in the same room with the High Seer made her head swim. The object of her perusal stood at a window with his back to her. Emboldened, she examined the rest of the chamber. Unlike the spare, cheerless quarters set aside for the initiates, the master's tower apartments were luxurious, as befitted one of his eminence. Costly tapestries hung on the walls, adding color to the drab stone and keeping the chill at bay. With a mild sense of shock, Seratha saw that a wood fire burned on the hearth. Wood was rare and costly along the rocky coast, and she and the other novices labored in the stinging wind, gathering peat, dung, and driftwood to keep the relentless chill at bay. Near the fireplace were a heavy table and high-back chair with carved armrests. Scrolls crammed with rows of spidery writing lay scattered across the gleaming tabletop and spilled from baskets onto the floor.
Turning her head, Seratha caught a glimpse of the master's solar through a partially open door. As a new candidate, Seratha went without shoes and slept on the hard floor. The High Seer slept on a huge bed piled high with thick furs.
The man at the window turned and Seratha's thoughts scattered to the wind. Zared was a tall, imposing man, with long blond locks liberally streaked with silver and a blade of a nose. He wore a flowing robe of sky blue, the color reserved for masters of divination. The light through the glazed windows sparkled on the silver embroidery that embellished the pointed sleeves, collar, and hem of his garment. To the dazzled novice, he seemed a god.
His pale gaze scanned her, taking in her bare feet, the kerchief that covered her hair, and the unlined dark blue shift that marked her as a proselyte. A slight crease formed between his brows. "What insolence is this? Why do you trouble my repose, recruit?"
Seratha flinched at the censure in his tone. Naadra, the seer and skaldiff assigned to the apprentices, had threatened to beat her soundly should she displease the master.
"T-the skaldiff sent me, High One," Seratha said, pleating the folds of her shapeless dress. "I am to inform you the Durngesi has returned."
Returned. The discovery that this was not the Durngesi's first visit to the tower had come as a nasty shock. Seratha had left her former life behind when she pledged her body and gifts to the Circle. To her dismay, her past had followed her. Her fears had eased when she'd seen the man. The tribes that roamed the Durngarian Plain were large in number, and she did not recognize him. Whatever brought him here did not concern her.
"Ah." Zared folded his long-fingered hands. "Show him in."
Seratha nodded and scurried from the room. She rushed down the tower steps, almost tripping in her haste to do her master's bidding, and found the visitor lounging at the bottom.
"He will see you," she said, frowning at the man's temerity. "Why did you not remain in the scullery, as you were bid?"
"I did not find the dirty pots to my liking."
The Durngesi returned the dagger he was examining to his boot. He was dressed in a tan tunic, breeches, and worn boots, but he bore himself with the arrogance of a king. A drekalli skin hung from his broad shoulders and his dark hair was tied back with a strip of leather.
More likely a bit of intestine, Seratha thought with a sniff of disdain. Waste was abhorred by the tribesmen of the plains, and every part of the drekalli, the enormous, horned animals they herded, was used.
She folded her arms and surveyed the man's lean form, taking in the bone- handled knives strapped to his muscular legs and sheathed at his waist.
"You cannot enter the high one's presence armed," she informed him from the steps. "The inhabitants of this place abjure violence."
"I am not armed. I left my bow and snare at the gate."
"What of your daggers?"
He regarded her in evident astonishment. "A Durngesi is never without his knives. You should know this, little sister."
Seratha opened her mouth to chastise him roundly for the familiarity of his address — he was no kin of hers — and closed it again. She would not argue with an uncivilized brute who understood neither her talent nor the path of discipleship and service — the path of a visionary whose dreams would lend counsel to kings, while this one gathered drekalli dung for his fire.
Drawing her dignity around her, she swept back up the stairs without bothering to see whether he followed.
Opening the door, she announced, "The Durngesi, High One."
The Durngesi sauntered past her into the chamber and looked around. If he was daunted by the magnificence of the High Seer's accommodations, he did not show it, though a simple herdsman could not be accustomed to such splendor.
Timidly, Seratha lingered in the shadows by the door, awaiting some sign from her master, torn between her reluctance to intrude upon the high one's affairs and her fear of the skaldiff's cane. She would stay, she decided after an agony of uncertainty. The high one had not dismissed her and might desire refreshment. Naadra had stressed the importance of showing proper deference and an eagerness to please. Seratha found the prospect of attending her master simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. She straightened her spine. She would serve Zared, and gladly. The Durngesi, too, she conceded with less pleasure, at her master's behest.
The High Seer had resumed his post at the window, his face to the sea. Slowly, deliberately, he turned. Despite her agitation and uncertainty, a thrill shot through Seratha. This was her master, whom she gladly served, this towering, splendid man of the shining locks and fierce brow. Superior in every way to the Durngesi with his dusty boots and skin cloak, she thought, regarding Zared with breathless admiration.
She tensed, ready to fly should he indicate disapproval at her continued presence, but he spared her not so much as a glance.
His frowning gaze was on the Durngesi's daggers. "What is this? How dare you come into my presence armed."
"I did not think it necessary to relinquish my knives, as I wore them when last we spoke," the Durngesi said, seemingly unmoved by the seer's ire. "But, now I think on it, our previous meeting was at night, was it not? Doubtless, you did not notice my steel in the gloom."
"Doubtless I did not, else I would have insisted you leave your weapons at the door."
"Very well. As I offend, I shall go."
"Wait," Zared said as the Durngesi strode for the door. "Keep your knives, then. But in future know this. The seers of Shadow Mount fortify themselves with knowledge, not the brutal weapons of man."
"Indeed?" The Durngesi turned to face Zared once more. "And, yet, you tortured one of your own ... and rather brutally, or so I am told."
From the shadows, Seratha saw Zared's face darken in anger. She kept perfectly still, frightened and intrigued by the unfolding drama and the tension that crackled between the two men.
"You speak of Glory?" The High Seer waved a hand in dismissal. "She betrayed her vows and was punished accordingly. I cannot expect an outsider to understand."
"I understand many things," the Durngesi said softly. "I understand that she served the Circle loyally for more than a thousand years. I understand you maimed her most cruelly. I understand that none of the gentle, peace-loving disciples who served beside her offered her aid, or protested her mistreatment."
"She betrayed us. Glory should rejoice that I let her live."
"Rejoice at being blinded?" Something ugly gleamed in the Durngesi's eyes and was gone. "But why do we banter? That which you seek has been found."
"You have located the god stone?" Zared stepped closer, his expression eager. "This is excellent news. I trust you told no one of our arrangement?"
"Once a seeker accepts a task, his loyalty is to the taskmaster and the taskmaster alone ... until the task is accomplished."
Removing a leather pouch from his belt, the Durngesi tossed it onto the table by the fire. The High Seer crossed the room in two strides and snatched it up. With shaking hands, he fumbled at the laces and upended the bag. A brilliant jewel dropped onto his palm. Seratha inhaled, amazed at the gem's transcendent glow.
Zared's long fingers closed around the shining treasure. "Mine," he whispered. "Despair, Glonoff. Behold me and tremble."
"I take it you are pleased?" the Durngesi drawled.
"Yes, yes." Zared's glittering gaze shifted from the jewel to the Durngesi. "You have done well."
"I am gratified." The Durngesi inclined his head. "My recompense?"
"Of course. You have earned it and more." Striding to a chest beneath a window, Zared opened it and took out a bulging pouch. "Five hundred magraks, as promised."
Seratha's eyes widened. Five hundred magraks was a fortune in Shaddish gold.
"Keep your money," the Durngesi said. "I ask instead that you release the novice Seratha."
"What?" Seratha forgot her proper place and rushed into the room. "We are not of the same tribe. You have no right."
"You are mistaken." The Durngesi's tone was gentle. "Open your eyes, child."
Seratha looked at him closely and felt the blood drain from her cheeks. The drekalli hide he wore shifted and blurred and became a dog skin. Two metal clasps, each bearing the likeness of a pair of running hounds, held the garment around his broad shoulders. The rumors were true, then. Delcan Eldurn had joined the Great Hunt and the Durngesi had chosen a new trivan. Such news had reached even Shadow Mount.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I don't care. I won't go with you." Seratha threw herself at Zared's feet. "Do not send me away, High One, I beg you. I am yours."
Zared frowned down at her, as though seeing her for the first time. "She has taken the vow. Only death or dishonor can release her."
"She is still a novitiate. She has yet to take her final vows. Give her to me."
"Take her, then, if you want her so badly," Zared said, twitching the hem of his robe from her grasp. "She is nothing to me."
"Master." Seratha lifted her tear-streaked face to the High Seer. "Please. Do not send me away."
The Durngesi went to her and helped her to her feet. "Cease your wailing, child," he said. "This one is not worth the salt in your tears."
"Yes, he is," Seratha wailed and covered her face with her hands. "He is a great man, the High Seer of Shadow Mount."
"Zared has betrayed the Circle," the Durngesi said calmly. "He has been selling prophecies — and to the Dark Wizard, no less, judging from the Shad Amaran gold in his hoard."
Seratha dropped her hands to stare at Zared in shock. "But that is forbidden. The visions are a gift, a boon not even the gods are granted. They are not ours to barter."
"So young and naive," Zared said, giving her a pitying smile. "I was once like you, before I met Glonoff. Do you know the birthright of a seer, child? A few, brief years lived in squalor. Underfed, unrewarded and unrecognized, while lesser men live as kings." His hand clenched around the jewel. "Glonoff showed me the truth, showed me how well and truly I have been cheated. Is it fair, I ask you, that wizards like Glonoff wield magic and live on, century upon passing century, while we — while I — wither and die?"
"Yours was the choice to join the Circle," the Durngesi pointed out. "No one compelled you."
"The starry-eyed delusions of youth, but, as the years passed, I found the reality unbearably dreary." Zared's long fingers stroked the gem. "But this changes everything."
"A god stone is a mighty thing. What will you do with it?"
"I weary of half-glimpsed visions and fleeting dreams. I want power, more power than any wizard. I would be omniscient."
"Ah," the Durngesi murmured. "I thought it might be something of the sort."
Zared frowned at him. "You puzzle me, seeker. To have a thing such as this" — he held up the jewel — "and cede it without a fight, I cannot understand."
The Durngesi shrugged. "I am a simple man. I am content to bear witness to your inheritance."
Zared's eyes widened. "You would be my herald?"
"All shall hear of your triumph, I promise."
"That is good."
"Are you ready, Zared?" the Durngesi asked softly.
"I am ready." Zared lifted the jewel, his face shining with anticipation. "Hear me, stone, and heed my command. Make me all knowing."
Seratha felt the room still, as though the universe held its breath; then the god stone flared, bright as a star. The incandescence spread from the gem to Zared, filling him with light.
His radiant form expanded. "At last, I see the infinite." Throwing his head back, he laughed. "Look upon me, Durngesi, and weep, for I am become the sun."
"'Tis you who should weep, Zared," the Durngesi said, "for you have asked what the stone cannot give. Even the gods are not all knowing."
"What?" Rooted to the spot by his enormous limbs, Zared screamed in horror. His hands were bigger than the wheels of an ox cart and his skin, a moment before aglow with light, had turned to stone. "No, stop! I take it back. I did not mean it."
The god stone burned brighter, unheeding. Taller and taller, Zared rose until his grossly distended head pressed against the turreted ceiling. The beams creaked and groaned and gave way at the pressure.
"Quickly." The Durngesi pulled Seratha toward the door. "Before the tower comes down upon our heads."
He guided her, numb and unresisting, down the winding stone steps and into the courtyard. The pavers split, and huge fissures opened in the ground, spewing chunks of earth and rock, as the tower behind them shook and rumbled. Screams came from within the turret, and servants and seers poured out, fleeing in terror from the collapsing structure.
The skaldiff Naadra stumbled into the courtyard. "You," she said, spying Seratha. She raised a thin arm. "Why do you linger in safety while our master and brethren are within? Help them."
"Help them yourself, woman, and you will," the Durngesi said. "This one is no longer yours to command."
Placing his arm around Seratha's shoulders, he turned and led her away.
"Where are you going?" The skaldiff's voice rose shrilly. "Do not walk away from me, novice. You will be punished for your insolence. I will — "
A loud crash ended Naadra's tirade. Seratha looked back. The skaldiff had been crushed where she stood, buried beneath falling debris. One hand peeked from beneath a huge stone. The skaldiff's fingers twitched and went still. Seratha stared at the grisly evidence of Naadra's demise and felt nothing but relief. The beatings and abuse were at an end.
"Hurry," the Durngesi said, taking Seratha by the arm.
Dodging falling stones, he guided her away from the crumbling spire, through the gate, and up across the land bridge that connected Shadow Mount to the mainland. They reached safety and stopped to look back.
"It was a lie," Seratha said. "Zared was nothing he pretended to be."
"Let not rancor take root, lest it consume you. Envy and resentment were Zared's undoing."
"The members of the Circle have the sight. Why did they not see their own doom?"
"Dreams are fickle, and seers seldom foresee their own troubles. You know this."
The Durngesi was right. Worry and emotion blinded a seer to the cares of their loved ones and themselves. This was as it should be, the novices were taught, for the life of a prophet was a life of service to others.
"I was a fool to join the Circle," Seratha said. "It was a sham."
"Nay, child. The seers did much good, ere Zared tainted their purpose."
An ashen-faced woman shoved past them with her skirts pulled up around her fat knees. "Merciful gods," she said, panting.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Muddle of Magic"
Copyright © 2017 Alexandra Rushe.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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