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“. . . and as each of you is aware, the stone we call the Paragon ‘conducts’ its gifts to those of endowed blood by way of its twenty-five facets,” Wigg told the group of keenly interested women. Out of habit, he placed his gnarled hands into the opposite sleeves of his gray robe.
“These facets allow us control of such arts of the craft as the Kinetic, the Sympathetic, the Formative, and the Causal, to name but a few,” the First Wizard went on. “However, it is the Organic facet of the stone that I wish to discuss today.” He withdrew his right hand and held up a long bony forefinger.
“It is this facet with which you are the least familiar,” he added, “for unlike all the others, it is available only to those persons of partial blood signatures. As you look to the diagram I am about to conjure, you will notice that . . .”
While Wigg droned on, Prince Tristan of the House of Galland sighed deeply. Leaning back, he raised the two front legs of his chair from the floor, ran a hand through his long, dark hair, then crossed his arms over the laces of his black leather vest. His dreggan, the curved sword of the flying warriors known as the Minions of Day and Night, rested on the marble floor beside his chair. The black quiver that held his throwing knives lay alongside it.
On an impulse, he had decided to attend one of Wigg’s lectures to the Acolytes of the Redoubt. They were the secret sisterhood of the craft, recently called to Tammerland from their various locations about the countryside. Now the red-robed women sat with rapt attention, many of them zealously taking notes in large leather-bound journals.
A short time into the lecture, the prince realized that he was already familiar with much of the subject matter, due to his recent experiences with the partial adept Abbey. He sighed again. Of all the days to come here, he thought. Unfortunately, walking out on one of Wigg’s lectures was not an option. It would send the wrong message to the acolytes, and besides, Wigg would never let him hear the end of it.
Taking another deep breath, he looked around the room.
The Redoubt, the secret underground fortress that lay directly beneath the royal palace in the capital city of Tammerland, housed many such rooms that had once been filled with eager students of the craft—before most of the wizards had been murdered and the consuls, the male counterparts to the acolytes, turned to evil. Now the Acolytes of the Redoubt sat in row after row at long mahogany tables. Before them the First Wizard lectured from a dais. A solid black panel covered the entire wall behind him. When he spoke, his words appeared in glowing azure on its surface, making it easier for the students to keep up as they took their notes. When the panel became full of Wigg’s mental scribbles, he erased them with a wave of one hand, and then new words would appear.
The rest of the huge classroom was filled with more tables, bookcases, and desks. Beakers burbled and steamed, glass tubing carried colorful liquids of who knew what to who knew where, and scrolls and texts of the craft lay all about. A chart of arcane symbols took up nearly the entire wall to Tristan’s right, their meanings lost upon him. Taken as a whole, Tristan thought, the place looked more like an antiques warehouse than a serious classroom of the craft.
Glancing back up at Wigg, Tristan realized that the wizard had stopped talking and was staring directly at him. Then Wigg raised his infamous, condescending right eyebrow.
With another sigh, the prince pushed his tongue against the inside of one cheek, gently lowered the two legs of his chair back down to the floor, and sat upright again. Apparently satisfied, Wigg continued with his lecture, leaving Tristan to reflect on the wizard’s remarkable ability to make him feel like a callow youth rather than an adult and a prince experienced in war and the horrors of incredible evil.
Scarcely a month had passed since Wulfgar—Tristan and Shailiha’s half brother—had been killed and his plan to destroy the Orb of the Vigors defeated. The Acolytes of the Redoubt had been called home to Tammerland to receive further training in the craft so that they might once more be sent forth into the countryside to perform the anonymous, charitable deeds for the citizenry that had previously been the sole purview of the consuls of the Redoubt. Many of the consuls had perished in the war against Wulfgar, their new master. Any survivors, Tristan presumed, no doubt remained at the Citadel, the island fortress in the Sea of Whispers that Wulfgar had called home.
Tristan’s expression hardened. He and his friends had been successful in defeating Wulfgar and the demonslavers, but the fates of the two Scrolls of the Ancients were still in limbo. The Scrolls held the formulas for the Forestallments—the spells that could be laid into the blood signature of an endowed person, giving him or her power in the craft of magic without years of training. The Scrolls’ importance was immeasurable.
The Scroll of the Vigors was now safely ensconced in the Redoubt, but in the final battle with Wulfgar it had been damaged, many of its secrets lost to the world forever. Wigg, Faegan, and Abbey continued to attempt to unravel its secrets, but the work went slowly and with frustratingly little success.
The Scroll of the Vagaries was still missing, presumably hidden somewhere at the Citadel. It had no doubt provided the formulas with which Wulfgar had attempted to destroy the Orb of the Vigors. He had very nearly succeeded. Until the Scroll of the Vagaries came into Faegan and Wigg’s possession, it remained a great danger.
Tristan’s mood lightened as his thoughts turned to the Conclave of the Vigors. He had ordered the formation of the Conclave just after Wulfgar’s death as a replacement for the Directorate of Wizards, the previous governing body of Eutracia. Nine of his closest friends and allies now served on the Conclave with him. Wigg and Faegan, of course, as well as Tristan’s twin sister, the Princess Shailiha, and his beloved Celeste. They were joined by the partial adept Abbey—Wigg’s longtime love; Tyranny, the female privateer who now patrolled Eutracia’s oceans with her fleet; and Adrian, the young acolyte whom the wizards had selected to represent the women of her fledgling sisterhood. The warrior Traax, commander of the Minions of Day and Night, and the hunchbacked dwarf Geldon, both of unendowed blood but great loyalty, completed the nine.
But though the Conclave was in place, and the task of rebuilding the war-torn lands of Eutracia and Parthalon had begun, Tristan had other concerns, ones that lay much closer to his heart.
His azure blood, for one. Due to the supreme quality of his endowed blood, Tristan was the only person in the world ever to employ the craft without having first been trained, or having one of his many Forestallments activated. But when he had performed that unparalleled feat—when he had employed the craft to destroy the Sorceresses of the Coven—his blood had turned a bright, glowing azure—the color always associated with any significant use of the craft. This transformation had created a host of new problems, all of which now seemed too vast and complex to overcome.
First of all, the wizards refused to train him in the arts of magic as long as his blood was blue. They also prohibited him from wearing the Paragon. Only the wearing of the Paragon would enable him to read the Tome, the great treatise of the craft. The prophecies written in the Tome stated that he must decipher the entire treatise in order to fulfill his destiny. Then, as the proclaimed Jin’Sai, or “Combiner of the Arts,” he was to join the two sides of the craft for the good of the world. Should he fail or die in his attempt, it was written that his twin sister Shailiha, otherwise known as the Jin’Saiou, would take up the task. If he could, he would spare her that burden.
But the concern that bothered him most—the one that was never far from his heart and mind—was his love for Celeste.
She was the love of his life—a sentiment she returned with an equal if not greater ardor. They had been overjoyed when her father, Wigg, had given the prince his blessing to pursue his daughter’s heart.
But soon after the physical consummation of their love, the wizards had come to them bearing devastating news. Information only then gleaned from the newly acquired Scroll of the Vigors dictated that the two of them must never be intimate again—at least until the riddle of Tristan’s azure blood could be unraveled and his blood returned to red. If Celeste—or any other woman, for that matter—were to become pregnant with Tristan’s seed, the resulting child would be deformed beyond description, and would also constitute a grave threat to the well-being of the craft of magic.
They had only been together once, but Tristan feared that Celeste might already be pregnant with his child. He had seen the familiar glow of the craft build around her and then vanish just after their wondrous interlude that morning beneath the great oak tree.
Since that fateful day, Tristan and Celeste’s love had grown, but now they courted each other chastely, much the same way the Orb of the Vigors and the Orb of the Vagaries constantly whirled about each other but could never touch. As it was with Tristan and Celeste, so it was with the Orbs: union would be devastating. While he considered the painful irony, Tristan looked sadly down at his hands.
“And because of these facets of the craft, partial adepts can also sometimes be herbmistresses or herbmasters.” Wigg’s voice broke in upon Tristan’s thoughts. The prince looked back up at the First Wizard of the Conclave.
“Among their other varied skills, partial adepts may also practice the fine art of blaze-gazing, but this expertise is rare,” Wigg went on, his words continuing to materialize on the black panel behind him. Soon he would wave his hand once more, and the writing would disappear. “Given these proclivities for such talents,” he continued, “it should also become abundantly clear that—”
The classroom’s double doors blew open with a deafening crash, and Faegan soared through as though his life depended on it.
It was rare to see the ancient levitate his wheeled chair, much less use it to go flying about. Something lay across his lap—something dark and charred-looking. As Faegan lowered his chair to the ground, the prince felt his stomach turn over. Lying across the old man’s useless legs was the horribly burned body of a child.
“Wigg!” Faegan shouted, as he levitated the badly injured child onto a clear section of tabletop. “Come here! I need you!”
Wigg dashed from the dais. In a flash Tristan was by their sides as the two wizards called on the craft in a desperate attempt to heal upon the child.
The young boy looked dead, yet his chest stubbornly rose and fell in staggered, wheezing lurches. The entire top half of his torso was charred; most of his hair had been burned away. Much of his face was unrecognizable. The sickening stench of burnt flesh began to fill the room.
Sobbing openly, Faegan looked up at the prince and struggled to get the words out.
“So many . . .” he said, his body shaking. “There are so many more . . .”
Reaching up, the old wizard took hold of Tristan’s hand. His grip was cold and clammy, as if some of the life had gone out of him.
“The courtyard . . .” he whispered. His hand tightened urgently around Tristan’s. “You must get to the palace courtyard . . .”
His mind awash with worry for Shailiha and Celeste, Tristan ran to gather up his weapons and tore from the room.