The New York Times best-selling authors of First and Last Sorcerer present the final breathtaking chapter in their epic Noble Dead saga....
With much relief, Magiere, Leesil, and Chap prepare to hide the last two of the powerful orbs. Once this last great task is completed, Magiere can take Leesil home to a life of peace. Then, rumors reach them that a horde of undead creatures, slaughtering everything in their wake, are gathering in the far east regions of the Suman desert. This gathering could be caused only by the Ancient Enemy awakening. With no other choice, Magiere tells Leesil they cannot go home yet. They must go to the desert and seek to learn if the rumors are true...and, if so, face an awakening evil: The Night Voice.
About the Author
Barb and J. C. Hendee live in a quirky little town near Portland, Oregon, with two geriatric and quite demanding cats. Barb’s short fiction has appeared in numerous genre magazines and anthologies. She is the author of the Vampire Memories and Mist-Torn Witches series. J.C.’s poetry, nonfiction, and short fiction have also appeared in many genre magazines. Their Noble Dead novels include First and Last Sorcerer, A Wind in the Night, and The Dog in the Dark.
Read an Excerpt
By Barb and J. C. Hendee
Light, salt-laden winds blew in over the evening ocean, where an aging man with white-blond hair sat leaning against the bare base of a tree. His hair might have once been even closer to white, and it now showed darker streaks, making it more white-gray than white-blond.
Only a few noises reached him from the little seaside town a short walk inland. He never looked back and only stared out over the water, as if he already knew every sound that he heard.
A pale glimmer like an old worn road of light ran from the shore beyond his outstretched legs and tall boots to the horizon, where the sun had sunk beyond sight and the ocean. He was quiet and still, for he was not truly looking for anything out there. Lost elsewhere in thought, perhaps he didn’t hear ever-so-soft footfalls among the trees. If he did, he didn’t show it. More likely, he knew those sounds as well as those of the town.
The dark, small form was lighter of foot than almost anyone else.
“So . . . where’s that husband of yours?” he asked wryly without stirring.
The short one among the deeper dark of the trees halted with a sigh.
“Oh, Father!” she whispered in exasperation. “One day, I will sneak up on you.”
He laughed, though it was a tired sound. “Not in this life, my little wild one.”
When she stepped nearer out of the trees, she was no more than a shadow, indistinct in a long robe and deep cowl. The closer she came, the more the light showed her sage’s robe of deep forest green. That in itself was strange, since no known order of sages wore that color.
Inside the cowl’s depths, twilight might have sparked a more brilliant, verdant green in her large, almond-shaped eyes. Those eyes were not unlike his, though his were the more traditional amber of their people. She slowed to a stop a few steps off and behind on his right, and he still stared out across the waters.
“I came as soon as I received your message,” the daughter said softly, taking another step. “You did not go with Mother . . . to see her.”
“No point,” her father answered with a slight shake of his head. “She’s already gone by now, and so your mother was enough.”
Silence lingered briefly.
“You did not want to go?” she asked.
“Of course I did!”
Finally, he glanced away from the light upon the water, but he still didn’t look up at her. She felt his sadness, for she shared it for the one who had passed away. Too short a life had ended, even for a human woman, an old friend to them all.
The daughter looked closely at her father’s sad and coldly angry profile. Even in the dark, she saw the lines of age on his face.
“At least she was happy again, for a while,” he added. “I’ll give him that, and she deserved it.”
Another long silence, and then . . .
“She was your friend as well as Mother’s,” the daughter insisted. “You should have gone. I would have, but I thought to come here first.”
At first, he didn’t answer. “Your mother needed to go alone this time,” he said quietly. “It’s the last time. And you don’t know everything . . . about how it might end.”
Ghassan il’Sänke was powerless to stop the motion of his legs. He strode down the darkened streets of Samau’a Gaulb, the main port city of il’Dha’ab Najuum, the imperial city of the Suman Empire. Trying to exert his will for perhaps the hundredth time, he screamed out with his thoughts, for even his voice was not his to command.
As always, it had no effect.
Trapped, he was merely a passenger . . . a prisoner within his own flesh taken over by a thousand-year-old specter.
Khalidah now ruled his flesh.
Ghassan’s body walked past people on the street who barely glanced his way. To them, he would appear mundane. 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. Though he had once worn the midnight blue robe of a sage in the order of Metaology, now his borrowed clothing—a dusky linen shirt and drab pantaloons—was no different from that of a common street vendor.
His body turned into a side alley. His head swiveled as he—as Khalidah—looked around.
Spotting several barrels halfway down the shadowed alley, he went and crouched down beside them. His left hand reached inside his shirt, and his fingers gripped the chain of a medallion, which he drew out. Panic—no, terror—flooded him, and he screamed out again.
“Buzz, you little brain fly,” Khalidah whispered with the domin’s own voice, and then came the command, cutting like a knife in only thought. Be silent!
Everything before Ghassan’s mind’s eye went black with pain. He felt the specter squeeze the medallion and focus his will to make the connection to the one other who carried such a medallion. All Ghassan could do was listen.
My prince . . . my emperor, are you there?
Ghassan heard the answer, another cruelty of awareness dealt by his captor.
Yes, Ghassan. I am here.
Ghassan’s impotence smothered his pain in despair; he was trapped in the prison of his own mind and unable to protect his prince.
The former imperial prince, Ounyal’am, had been elevated to emperor pending his coronation. Still, and as always, he trusted very few people. He trusted Ghassan almost absolutely, and Ghassan had taught him long ago how to use the medallion so they could communicate in the secrecy of thought from a distance.
Ounyal’am was likely in his private chambers, believing he conversed with his mentor. Instead, he touched thoughts with the thousand-year-old specter of the first sorcerer to walk the world.
Ghassan struggled for one instant of control over his flesh—and he failed again against the will of Khalidah. He would have wept in the dark if he could have as his prince—his emperor-to-be—asked . . .
Is all well, domin?
• • •
Gripping the medallion, Khalidah exerted more of his will to suppress Ghassan il’Sänke. That it took a little effort surprised him, but only for a passing thought. Of any body he had ever inhabited, he had never been forced to work at all to keep its original inhabitant trapped.
Still, taking il’Sänke had been a great blessing, for the renegade domin possessed the trust—the friendship—of the emperor-to-be. And he answered back while still allowing the domin to hear.
Yes, my emperor . . . simply busy. And what of you?
Ounyal’am’s answer took a moment.
Funeral arrangements for my father have been finalized. The palace is overrun with nobles and royals. I did not think court plots would ever become so thick . . . and open.
Khalidah had seen the result of the impending funeral in the city as well. Many areas had become overcrowded. Temporary housing had grown scarce.
And your coronation plans . . . and wedding? he ventured.
Another moment’s hesitation passed. Both progress, but there has been some upheaval since I announced my chosen bride.
Well, the young fool should have expected that. A’ish’ah, daughter of the general and emir Mansoor, was too cripplingly shy to fit the role of first empress. Worse, the most powerful families of the empire had all vied to place their own daughters at the side of Ounyal’am. His announcement must have come as quite a slap to their faces.
Of course there would be a backlash.
Khalidah had no interest in whomever Ounyal’am married and had asked only because il’Sänke would have. The new emperor’s trust must be maintained as a potential resource. Now it was time to press on to matters of more interest.
After recent events, Khalidah began, have restrictions on movement out of the city been eased?
Yes, as other matters have taken precedence.
Have any reports of concern come from other parts of the empire, perhaps from the eastern desert?
No . . . why? Is there something to be concerned about?
With a quick twinge, Khalidah grew cautious. Had he gone too far—been too specific—in his questions?
Like the captain of your private guard, I have always feared an assassination attempt. More so now before your pending coronation. Your death is the only way left for others to wrest authority over the empire. I protect you from without as your bodyguards protect you within the palace walls.
Yes . . . yes, of course. But no, I have not received reports of interest since my father’s death.
Very good. And then Khalidah considered another ploy, to keep Ounyal’am not only ever dependent but also useful. But too little news can be a warning. An empire that is suddenly quiet is one to watch closely for the slightest oddity. I will be in contact again soon . . . my emperor.
Good night, Ghassan.
The medallion cooled in Khalidah’s grip as he rose, dropped it inside his shirt, and strode toward the alley’s open end. It was time to return to Ghassan il’Sänke’s hidden “sanctuary” shielded from all senses by the ensorcellments of the domin’s eradicated sect. There hid a collection of people equally useful.
Magiere, the dhampir, rested in secret with her half-elven mate, Leesil. There was also a young foreign sage, Wynn Hygeorht, and her own companion, Chane Andraso, a vampire. Then there were two elven males, one young and naive, and the other elderly, able, and disturbingly with a mind that seemed impenetrable so far. There was a mixed-blood girl who was more baggage than anything. But the worst were the two nonhuman, nonelven creatures among the others.
The pair of majay-hì—Fay-descended wolves—had yet to sense Khalidah, likely because of the living flesh he inhabited. He had seen their kind begin to appear near the end of the war a thousand years ago.
Still, Khalidah almost could not believe his twisted fortune and thought it was not all luck. In the end, it was a great opportunity.
This group had attempted to kill him, and that unto itself was amusing. They believed they had succeeded, never suspecting that he had fled his previous host before death for the flesh of Ghassan il’Sänke. Even if they ever doubted his destruction, he was in the last possible host they would think vulnerable to “the specter.”
Khalidah felt il’Sänke thrash against his greater will, which was all the more satisfying. Of course, he should not chuckle to himself while walking the streets. It would look odd.
The domin’s assembled group had to be controlled—guided—in their task of gathering his god’s greatest treasures: the anchors of creation.
One each for the five metaphysical elements, they were now merely called “orbs.” These powerful devices had been created more than a thousand years ago by a god with too many names.
Fáhmon, the Foe or Enemy . . . Kêravägh, the Nightfallen . . . Keiron, the Black One . . . in’Sa’umar . . . the words in the dark . . . il’Samar, the Night Voice . . .
No, perhaps not names but titles. Even more had come and gone to be forgotten by most, but he remembered them all. And the last held the false affection of a slave’s eternal fear of his master.
Hkàbêv . . . Loved One . . . Beloved.
That title made him burn inside. Even true love betrayed countless times could become hatred equally passionate.
Centuries ago, Beloved had lost a great war upon the world and retreated into a hidden and dark dormancy. Now this god had awakened, calling its servants—slaves—to regather its prime tools, the “orbs.”
Khalidah clenched his hands—il’Sänke’s hands—as he quickened his pace. He would bring the orbs to Beloved . . . but not as his god wished.
Now deep into the capital’s east side, he turned down a dark, lampless side street past three shabby buildings and stopped before the fourth’s crooked door. Its once-turquoise paint was pale and peeling. So many cracks had spread over so many years of heat and dry wind that they were visible in the dark.
In this decrepit tenement’s top floor was a set of hidden rooms where il’Sänke had given sanctuary to Magiere and the others. The place had been ensorcelled by the domin’s sect of sorcerers among the metaologers of the Guild of Sagecraft’s Suman branch. The same sect had kept Khalidah imprisoned for more than a century before he escaped and killed all but Ghassan il’Sänke. They had a few other such places throughout the capital and even in other cities of the empire. If he chose to walk up to the top floor, at the end of its passage he would face the phantasm of a window—that was actually a secret door.
Though the window appeared and felt quite real, the scant number of people who knew the truth might explain it as an illusion. Khalidah knew this was not the case, as there was no “illusion” to be dismissed. A phantasm lived—became real—to the senses of whomever it affected. And all were affected when the passage’s end came into their awareness, their sight, or even just their touch, should that place be too dark at night to see clearly. Only several small pebbles ensorcelled by the sect allowed a bearer to experience, touch, and open the door that was hidden there.
Khalidah remained in the street, staring at the crooked, bleached, and peeling front door. With a blink, he slipped into a cutway between the buildings and entered the alley behind the tenement. In another blink, the dark behind his eyelids filled with lines of spreading light.
A double square, formed in sigils, symbols, and signs, burned brightly; then came a triangle within the square and another triangle inverted within the first. As his eyes—il’Sänke’s eyes—winked open, his incantation in thought finished faster than a catch of breath.
Khalidah’s hearing magnified instantly.
A few blocks away, he heard a scratchy-voiced woman berating a monger for trying to cheat her over a jar of olives. Though distant, many footfalls, mewling mules, goats, and haggling and bargaining accosted his heightened hearing. He shut all of this out, and then heard a thundering buzz nearby.
A fly swarmed too near him.
With a flash of a fingertip, he killed it without looking, but what he could not hear irritated him even more. Yes, he heard voices and movements inside the lowly tenement, but he heard nothing from the hidden rooms at the end of the top floor. The ensorcellment upon the sanctuary was stronger than expected.
“Ah me, my dear domin,” he whispered aloud, though it was not necessary for il’Sänke to hear him. “Such great effort and yet for nothing.”
Khalidah exerted his will, broke through, and, tilting up one ear, he heard . . .
• • •
“Chap, where’s the last of our cheese?” Wynn asked, digging into a small canvas sack. “Did you eat it? All of it?”
Chap glanced over without lifting his head from his forepaws and watched Wynn invert the sack and shake it to see if anything fell out. She was dressed in a loose shirt and pants, having left her midnight blue sage’s robe crumpled on her bedroll. Wispy light brown hair, still uncombed, hung around her pretty oval face.
“Well, did you?” Wynn pressed, dropping the sack.
He knew what she saw when she looked at him: an overly tall wolf with silver-gray fur and crystalline blue eyes, the ears and muzzle just a little long for its kind. That was because he was not a wolf.
Chap did not bother answering.
Eight people and two majay-hì, he being one of them, had been living on top of one another in two rooms for days and nights on end, and this state of affairs was taking its toll. They were safe for the moment but trapped in hiding. Their current quarters had passed from feeling overcrowded to outright stifling.
There was little enough comfort these days so, yes, he had eaten the cheese.
If there had been any more, he would have eaten that too!
Chap surveyed his surroundings for the . . . uncountable time.
Shelves lined three walls of the main room, all filled with scrolls, books, plank-bound sheaves, and other academic paraphernalia. This was no surprise in a place once a hideaway for a sect of renegade metaologer sages who had resurrected the forbidden practice of sorcery.
Cold lamps provided light, and one rested on a round table surrounded by three chairs with high backs of finely finished near-black wood intricately carved in wild see-through patterns. The lamps’ ornate brass bases were filled with alchemical fluids producing mild heat to keep the crystals lit.
The right side of the main room’s back half, just beyond a folding partition, was covered in large, vibrantly patterned floor cushions. Farther right was a doorless archway into another room with two beds. Fringed carpets defined various areas throughout the place.
For two or three people, all of this would have been a welcome luxury. For eight people and two majay-hì, it was cramped, cluttered, and becoming unbearable. There were also packs and sacks filled with personal belongings everywhere . . . aside from two large chests in the bedchamber.
“Chap, answer me!” Wynn insisted.
“Oh, leave him alone,” Magiere growled. “We can buy more cheese.”
Chap’s gaze shifted to her standing in the bedchamber’s opening. Just behind her, Leesil was fussing with something unseen.
Magiere was tall and slender with smooth skin pale to the point of seeming white. Her long black hair hung loose, but the lamps here did not provide enough light to spark the bloodred tint in her tresses. She wore the tan pantaloons favored by the Suman people and a blue sleeveless tunic. These were a stark contrast to her usual studded-leather armor and dark canvas pants.
“Don’t snap at Wynn,” Leesil admonished her, as if more tension were needed. “If Chap’s been rooting around like a hog again, I’d call him out.”
Magiere half turned on her husband but apparently bit back whatever retort came to mind.
It was an excuse for another bit of petty bickering after being stuffed away in hiding for too long.
Chap rumbled with a twitch of jowls but did not lift his head.
Leesil was only slightly taller than his wife. His coloring was the sharper contrast. White-blond hair, amber irises, tan skin, and slightly elongated ears betrayed his mother’s people, the an’Cróan—“[Those] of the Blood”—or the elves of the eastern continent. His father had been human. Leesil too wore tan pantaloons, but his tunic was a shade of burnt-orange.
And as to the others present . . .
Wayfarer, a sixteen-year-old girl three-quarters an’Cróan, sat in one high-backed chair at the table, mending a torn blanket. Unlike Leesil’s, her hair was a rich brown, and in any direct light, her eyes were a shade of green. Chap was fond of her and, shy and quiet as she was, she clung to him the most, though she had come to look upon Magiere and Leesil almost as new parents, or at least as accepted authority figures.
Osha, a young full-blooded an’Cróan with the height as well as the white-blond hair of his people, sat across from the girl, fletching an arrow. He had proven himself an exceptional archer, though how he had come by that skill was not a subject to raise with him. Vigilant in guarding all with him, he caused little trouble, with one exception: he was obsessed with Wynn.
Any feelings Wynn had for him, she did not show. That situation bore watching, considering Wayfarer’s mixed feelings for Osha. And if that was not bad enough . . .
Chane Andraso—a Noble Dead, a vampire—stood near Wynn, as dour and sullen as always. Though he was barely tolerated by anyone here besides her, they had all been given little choice in tolerating his presence. He resembled a young nobleman, with red-brown hair and with skin nearly as pale as Magiere’s. His white shirt, dark pants, and high boots were well made, if well-worn. And he, like Osha, was obsessed with Wynn.
Chap’s gaze shifted slightly right, and he failed to suppress a snarl. Sitting cross-legged on the floor below the one window at the back left of the room was Brot’an—Brot’ân’duivé, “the Dog in the Dark.” That aging elven master assassin was one of Chap’s greater concerns.
Coarse white-blond hair with strands of darkening gray hung over his peaked ears and down his back beneath his hood. Lines crinkled the corners of his mouth and his large amber-irised eyes, which rarely looked at anything specific but always saw everything. The feature of the man that stood out the most, if someone drew near enough to look into his hood, were four pale scars—as if from claws—upon his deeply tanned face. Those ran at an angle from the midpoint of his forehead to break his left feathery eyebrow and then skip over his right eye to finish across his cheekbone.
Brot’an claimed to be protecting Magiere, but Chap knew better. Brot’an always had an agenda and would place it over the lives of anyone if a choice had to be made. He had proven this more than once.
Needless to say, Chap was in a very foul mood.
He might hate Chane for what he was, but he hated Brot’an for who he was.
As Chap’s eyes continued drifting—to the cramped room’s one other occupant—his feelings grew more complicated. The other tall but charcoal black majay-hì lay on the floor beside Wynn, where the troublesome sage still knelt with the upturned cheese sack.
Chap’s own daughter, Shade, refused to acknowledge his existence for the most part. She was not without good reason, but tonight he chose not to think about that. Instead, he swallowed down his pain and turned his attention back to Wynn, speaking directly into her mind as he could do only with her.
Now that our host has stepped out for a while, perhaps it is time to talk . . . of something other than cheese.
Wynn slapped the sack onto the floor and turned toward him with an angry frown. But the frown faded, and she did not argue, only letting out a tired sigh. Their “host,” Ghassan il’Sänke, had gone out on an errand, and time without his company was rare.
She nodded. “Yes . . . we should.”
“Should what?” Magiere asked, and then looked to Chap, knowing something had passed between the two.
Chap often spoke to Magiere, Leesil, and Wayfarer by calling up words out of their own memories—something Wynn quaintly called “memory-words.” How he communicated with Wynn was not based on pulling up broken, spoken phrases. She was the only one to whom he could speak directly in thought—after she had fouled up a thaumaturgical ritual while journeying with him in the past.
“What’s he babbling into your head now?” Leesil asked, pushing out of the bedchamber and past Magiere.
“We should settle some important things while Ghassan is away,” Wynn said to the two of them.
All annoyance faded from Magiere’s pale face. “I don’t know what. Unless you’ve come up with an idea for a hiding place we haven’t already discounted.”
Wynn shook her head, and Chap let out a long exhale.
They were not hidden away in this place by choice.
Several years ago, the four of them had found themselves embroiled in a desperate search for five “orbs” or “anchors.” Some believed the Ancient Enemy had wielded these devices a thousand years ago in its war on the world. Servants of the Enemy had hidden them centuries ago when the war had ended. The Enemy’s living and undead minions had now begun surfacing to seek the devices for their master or perhaps just for themselves.
The orbs could never be allowed to fall into such hands and had to be rehidden.
The first two that Magiere had located were those of Water and Fire. Chap alone had hidden those far up in the icy northern wastes of this continent. Wynn, Shade, and Chane had located the orb of Earth, and Chane had taken it to the dwarves’ “stonewalkers,” so that it might be safely hidden away in the underworld of their people’s honored dead. More recently, Spirit and Air had been recovered, and both of those orbs were now in chests inside this bedchamber.
This was the problem Chap and the others faced.
Wynn pushed tiredly up to her feet. “I agree with Wayfarer’s suggestion that we take the orb of Spirit to the lands of the Lhoin’na. That is at least . . . something.”
Yes, it was. The Lhoin’na—“(Those) of the Glade”—were the elves of this continent. No undead could walk into their lands because of the influence of Chârmun, the great golden tree in their vast forest, who was thought by some to be the first life of the world. As the anchor of Spirit seemed most useful to the undead—as a possible tool—Wayfarer’s suggestion had been considered seriously.
Magiere did not want either orb out of her sight. She was waiting for a plan for the orb of Air before any action was taken. Chap had another dilemma, one he could not speak of to anyone, not even to Wynn.
When he had been up north, burying the orbs of Water and Fire, he had sensed something inside them: the presence of the Fay—or rather that a singular Fay presence might be trapped inside each orb.
The Fay were the source of all Existence. He had been part of them, it, the one and the many, before choosing to be born into the body of a majay-hì pup and later walk his current path.
Now that he was in the presence of the two final orbs, he longed to privately test one of them. Would he be able to commune with the Fay as a whole, or even with the single Fay imprisoned inside any one orb? The physical proximity of both orbs taunted him, but trapped here with the others, he never had a private enough moment. He might never find that moment until Magiere decided it was time to move the orbs from this sanctuary.
Wynn faced Magiere. “If I can’t come up with something soon, do you have any ideas?”
“Maybe . . . something.”
At this from Magiere, for the first time all day and night, Chap’s mind went blank. He stared at her, waiting.
• • •
Magiere was frustrated by their failure to think of a suitable hiding place for the orb of Air, though in truth, she wasn’t overly concerned. The orb was in their possession, and that mattered the most. All five had been found, three safely rehidden, and there was a plan for the orb of Spirit. She and those she loved were in one piece and still breathing.
All in all, everything could’ve been worse.
Yes, Leesil had been somewhat snippy, but even he’d seemed more at ease in the past half-moon. The end was in sight, and once they’d hidden the last two orbs, they could go home. That was all he’d ever wanted.
Glancing around the room, Magiere realized everyone was watching her. “I could take the orb of Air out to sea and drop it at a depth where it could never be recovered.”
Leesil’s amber eyes widened slightly with hope. “Yes, that would do.”
She knew he was overly anxious to have this all finished. Most likely he would have jumped at any suggestion. The others didn’t appear quite so convinced. And at least with Chap and Wynn, there had to be some agreement before they—she—did anything.
“Why you?” Chane asked in his harsh, rasping voice.
Magiere choked back a retort. He had no place in this and was here only because Wynn insisted on keeping his company.
Leesil and I . . . would go . . . with you—
Those broken phrases out of her memories came from Chap. Of course he and Leesil would go with her. That was a given. Of late, her dhampir half had grown harder to control when she was pushed to her limits. More often, it had taken over and she’d lost herself. Only Leesil and Chap could bring her back under control.
Before she could respond to Chap, Brot’an rose straight up and stepped closer.
“What of the orb of Spirit?” he asked flatly. “While you are at sea, will some of us take it to the Lhoin’na?”
That was the crux of the problem; Magiere had no intention of trusting anyone else with an orb. She tilted her head up slightly to look him in the eyes.
Aside from being a former member of the Anmaglâhk, a caste of assassins among the an’Cróan elves, he was also a greimasg’äh—“shadow-gripper”—and a master of their ways. She wasn’t intimidated by him or by how he tended to use his height to intimidate others.
“No,” she answered. “Leesil, Chap, and I will take both orbs, drop the one of Air at sea, and then take Spirit into the Lhoin’na lands.”
“And what about the rest of us?” Wynn asked.
Magiere would trust her life to Wynn, but not the orbs, not with Chane around.
Wayfarer dropped her head, her face hidden by dangling hair.
Magiere suspected the girl assumed she would take part in delivering the orb of Spirit to the Lhoin’na—as it had been her idea. That wasn’t going to happen.
Osha’s expression flattened. He’d followed Wynn here and often seemed uncertain of his place in this larger group. He rarely caused trouble but too often agreed with whatever Wynn wanted.
“Can the three of you protect two orbs?” he asked, suddenly stern of expression.
This took Magiere by surprise. Of late, Osha’s grasp of languages other than his own had improved a bit, but asking a forceful question wasn’t like him. She didn’t like being questioned, not now. Still, she held her temper. This was too important, and any flash of anger would just start another heated argument.
“Yes,” she answered carefully, remaining calm. “The three of us can travel faster by ourselves, and we can protect the orbs.”
Wynn’s brow wrinkled, and then she sighed in resignation. “I suppose that is best. A small group is less likely to attract attention, and you three are . . . able in that regard.”
And the most trustworthy, Magiere thought with a quick glance at Brot’an, though she didn’t say it.
Brot’an’s expression was unreadable. Likely, he wasn’t going to let this drop so easily but would bide his time.
“So we’re really going to do this?” Leesil asked. “Get these last two hidden?”
“And then what?” Wayfarer asked softly, her head still down.
“We go home,” Magiere answered, and stepping closer, she put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “And that means you too . . . with us.”
The girl was an orphan, thrust by circumstance into the care of Brot’an. Magiere had no intention of leaving her with him.
Wayfarer looked up, eyes wide, but then glanced at Osha.
“So,” Wynn said, cutting off any more from Magiere, “how do we begin? I suppose we find a ship? Did you plan to simply slip up on deck one night and drop the orb over the side when no one is watching? We’ll need to book passage for three on a vessel making a long voyage in a straight run with few if any stops. That is the only kind likely to head out into deeper water for speed.”
“No,” Magiere answered, “I was thinking of our manning something smaller by ourselves. We wouldn’t need to sail far before—”
The sanctuary door opened, cutting her off.
Domin Ghassan il’Sänke stepped in. He was tall for a Suman, with dusky skin and peppered hair. Though he’d been more than useful in recent days, Magiere didn’t trust him any more than Brot’an—maybe less.
He took in the sight of the gathering, and the sudden silence as well. Clearly, he could tell he’d interrupted some discussion.
“Have I missed something?” he asked.
Magiere let out a long breath. There was no sense putting this off. “We’re going to hide the orb of Air. So we’ll be relocating both orbs soon.”
“You might hold off,” he said sharply.
Magiere was taken aback.
Ghassan rarely showed anger, though he had a barbed tongue. His tone wasn’t lost on Leesil either.
“What do you mean?” Leesil demanded.
Ghassan ignored him and remained focused on Magiere. “I mean that something has happened that might prohibit moving the orbs . . . or make the task too dangerous.”
“What is that?” Wynn asked.
Magiere could almost feel Leesil tensing as he stepped near, shoulder-to-shoulder with her.
Ghassan remained fixed on her as he went on. “I have spoken with the new emperor. He related reports of strange movements in the east. Bands of unknowns have been spotted in the desert but only at night. When approached, they fled and vanished, even in the open. There was also mention of bodies found . . . torn apart, partially eaten to the bones, or merely pale and desiccated in the heat and—”
In midsentence the domin scowled, flinched, scowled again, and appeared to turn menacing. Then some sudden shock spread over his dark face, as if a thought came to his mind that startled him. All of this quickly vanished, and he was calm and attentive again, as if waiting for a response.
Magiere was too puzzled and wary to say anything.
• • •
You will stop! Ghassan ordered with every particle of will he could gather.
He tried to seize control of his body, or at least his own mouth and tongue, and failed. The ancient specter had been distracted, focusing hard on his lies to Magiere and the others.
Ounyal’am had related no such reports, and the specter’s blatant lies were intended to keep Magiere from relocating two orbs . . . and to keep those devices within its reach. But Khalidah had not been ready for such a sudden assault from within.
For the first time, Ghassan had felt his captor’s hold falter amid distraction. Ghassan had seized that moment, which passed and was now gone. Pressing down wild hope and desperation, he quickly refocused.
A second push to seize control drained him utterly without effect.
Enough, you little gnat, Khalidah hissed within their shared thoughts.
Ghassan flinched as everything went black, and he no longer saw through his own eyes. Raking pain like claws tore down his back in the darkness, then down his chest, and then his face, and he screamed.
Be silent, be still . . . or you will be gone entirely.
At those words in the darkness, a shaft of light came a stone’s throw away, as if shining down from somewhere above. In it stood a dimly lit and spindly figure in a dark robe coated in scintillating symbols, which undulated with the cloth as the figure stepped nearer. The face seemed marked and withered.
I tolerate you only for the memories you have that are useful to me.
And closer still, those marks on its old face of wrinkles, narrow chin, and pinched mouth were patterns and symbols inked upon pallid skin. But its large, sunken eyes—the irises—were as black as the ink . . . black as the darkness all around Ghassan.
Annoy me again, and you will be the last of our kind, our art, as I was—am—the first!
The light vanished. Once again, Ghassan was pressed down into the darkness.
Lost in the dark of his own mind—his prison—for a moment he curled up and wept. But for one instant only, he had almost seized control in Khalidah’s distraction amid fear and anger.
And then Ghassan heard another voice, as if the specter let that one in to taunt him.
“What are you saying?” Wynn asked.
• • •
Leesil couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and he feared what was being implied. Small bands in the desert seen only at night? Bodies eaten to the bone? Pallid corpses as if drained of blood? He stared at the domin, but Ghassan’s dark brown eyes fixed on Wynn.
“I am saying the Ancient Enemy may be awakening,” the domin answered. “It is calling to and sending out those who still serve it.”
Leesil went cold and then hot in a flash. Everything was almost over and done . . . They would soon be going home.
Magiere took a quick step toward the domin.
“That’s all you have?” she snarled at him. “All the more reason to get the orbs out of reach!”
Chap was suddenly at Leesil’s side but raised no memory-words. Of all the times he’d blathered into Leesil’s head, this wasn’t a time to say nothing. Wynn appeared too stunned to speak as she backed up a step on Chap’s other side. Then Shade closed to the outside of Wynn, and all of them just stood there.
“Domin . . . ,” Wynn started, using his old title. “The new emperor told you of this? Is he sending soldiers? What is he doing to help the nomads or tribes out there? Is anyone going out there to confirm this?”
“None at present,” Ghassan answered. “The reports are too scattered, and he would not understand what they mean as we do. With the coronation pending, there are many nobles, dignitaries, and the royals of the seven nations gathering in the imperial capital. Their security takes precedence.”
“And what exactly do you think it means?” Leesil asked, feeling his self-control slipping away.
“I told you,” Ghassan answered calmly. “Except for the undead, what creatures drain their prey of blood or eat them while alive?”
Leesil had never heard of any flesh-eating undead, but that was a minor thing at the moment.
“And when have you ever heard of any traveling in packs?” Ghassan continued. “Undead are solitary creatures for a reason—to avoid exposing themselves for too many deaths at a time in a given place. And why would one or especially more be in a desolate area with so little to prey upon? They are gathering and not by their own choice. The Enemy is awakening . . . and it may have even become aware of orbs close within this land.”
Osha, Wayfarer, and Chane had not moved, but Brot’an now crossed the room slowly.
“If that is indeed the case,” he said, “we cannot drop the orb of Air into the sea. Nor can we hide the orb of Spirit with the Lhoin’na.”
Magiere turned to him. “Why not?”
“Because we may have need of them,” Brot’an answered. “We may need all five. What other weapons or method might destroy so powerful a being, finally? If not, how long before this happens yet again? I will not tolerate that for my people, let alone any other.”
Leesil felt a knot in his stomach. What was happening here?
“I fear Brot’an may be correct,” Ghassan added, lowering his head and meshing his fingers together.
“No!” Magiere nearly shouted as she lunged a step toward Ghassan.
That caught Leesil’s whole attention, for this was now getting dangerous. Before he made a grab for her, she twisted on Brot’an.
“We don’t know anything other than secondhand rumors!” she went on. “You’re both guessing, and even if such rumors were true, it’s more reason to hide the orbs where no one finds any or all of them again.” She turned back to Ghassan. “That’s when it’s finished . . . when I’m finished!”
Though panicked that Magiere might lose control, Leesil couldn’t help hoping she was right. But the knot grew in the pit of his stomach.
“For safety’s sake,” Brot’an added, “we must gather all five orbs to be ready for any contingency. For anywhere that any of us have gone in hiding them means someone may have been followed . . . to a place where one or more orbs are now unguarded.”
Leesil knew the second part of this statement wasn’t true. Two of the orbs had been hidden in a way that they would never be found, and the third was guarded by the stonewalkers.
A low, rumbling growl built up, and Leesil glanced down at Chap, but the dog still hadn’t called up memory-words in his head. Leesil began to fear that Chap might even be considering Brot’an’s mad notion.
A long moment passed.
Leesil stood there, watching Ghassan in silence and waiting for Magiere, Chap, or anyone to say something.
“Magiere?” Wynn began, and half turned to glance up at Chane, who had his hand on her shoulder. Did she expect answers from the vampire?
Magiere shook her head. “I can’t listen to this anymore, and I can’t—” Breaking off, she strode for the door out of the sanctuary.
Leesil followed her, as he always would.
Wynn watched Magiere and Leesil walk out.
Then she flinched when the door slammed shut, and as the sound faded, Ghassan’s whole sanctuary fell into silence. The domin’s revelations had left her reeling. She knew things couldn’t be left like this, but no plans or decisions were possible without Magiere and Leesil—especially Magiere. She glanced down at Chap.
“Come on,” she half whispered to him. “We’d better go after them.”
“Not alone,” Chane rasped, stepping closer.
Wynn struggled for the best response. Though she would welcome his company, Magiere, Leesil . . . and Chap most certainly would not.
“No, it’s all right,” she said, and then looked down to Shade. “Sorry, but you stay too.”
Chane scowled. Shade rumbled and twitched one jowl in clear disagreement. It was hard to tell what the dog disliked more, staying behind or being forced to.
Wynn started for the door and paused before Ghassan.
“You handled that badly,” she said, and then turned her head toward Brot’an. “Both of you. Chap and I will go after Leesil and Magiere . . . alone! The rest of you stay here until we get this sorted out.”
With Chap waiting at the door, she hurried onward before anyone could think to argue. Chap had been uncharacteristically silent, which worried her, but there was no way to keep him out of this.
Once outside the sanctuary, she pulled the door closed and watched it vanish. Suddenly, she faced only a dead-end wall with an old window. The battered shutters were open over the alley below, as if the rooms she’d just left didn’t exist and the dingy passage ended at the tenement’s back wall.
The phantasm placed upon the sanctuary by Ghassan and his eradicated sect of sorcerers had kept everyone within safely hidden. He’d given her an ensorcelled pebble that would allow her mind and senses to evade this defense. She’d rarely had to use the pebble, as someone inside could hear her knock and open the door from within. But this end wall and its window, so real to all senses, still made her shiver.
“You lead,” she told Chap. “See if you can pick up a scent.”
She expected him to answer into her head—to at least say something—but he didn’t.
Instead, he turned away silently, and Wynn followed him all the way down the passage and then down the far stairs. At the bottom, he veered away from the front door and headed toward the back door that led to the rear alley. Maybe he’d smelled something to lead him that way, though Wynn couldn’t see how amid the stench of the old tenement or the decrepit district around it. Chap paused at the door, waiting until she opened it.
Wynn peeked out both ways, and there were Magiere and Leesil just to the left. They were both crouched down, leaning back against the alley wall and talking too quietly to hear.
Chap pushed out around Wynn’s legs, and thankfully neither Leesil nor Magiere frowned at the interruption. Leesil was closer, and he eyed the door after Wynn followed Chap, perhaps wondering whether anyone else was coming.
“Just us,” Wynn said quickly.
Leesil locked eyes with Chap, so the dog must have said something to him in memory-words. Even in the darkness, Wynn saw strain—pain—spread across Leesil’s face. Magiere’s expression was blank, almost cold, and she wouldn’t look at anyone.
“We’re not going back in there,” she whispered, almost echoing Chane’s rasp.
Chap circled around and dropped on his haunches beside Magiere. Although Chap was Leesil’s oldest friend, since before Leesil even knew he was more than a dog, lately Chap had been much in Magiere’s company—and confidence. At least since their time in the prison below the imperial palace.
Wynn crouched beside Leesil and leaned out to keep sight of Magiere. “Staying out here won’t change anything.”
Of course this was obvious, but she hated being the voice of reason in forcing Magiere and Leesil into something they didn’t want to do. Wynn had been stuck in this position too many times over the last few years. At the same time, she understood why they—especially Leesil—had to get away from Ghassan and Brot’an. She found some relief in that herself, but their situation was growing more awkward and tense.
“You don’t agree with Brot’an, do you?” Magiere asked. “You don’t want to regather the orbs?”
Wynn clenched her jaw.
“I don’t want any of this,” she answered as calmly as she could. “But you heard Ghassan. The Forgotten War started somewhere near what is now the Suman Empire. If anything he heard is even partly true . . . I don’t think we can ignore it. Do you?”
No one spoke.
Leesil hadn’t said anything since Wynn stepped out into the alley, and that made her feel even worse. At times, going through him to get to Magiere was the easier way, but not this time and not when it was about this. He’d always hated what they were doing concerning the orbs, finding, attaining, and hiding them, even more so after Brot’an reappeared in their midst. This time, things would have to work the other way, with convincing Magiere first. So why wasn’t Chap doing something?
“You think it’s that easy?” Magiere nearly hissed.
Wynn stiffened upright at the threat in her voice, but Magiere was fixed on Chap. Wynn expected Chap to snarl or snap in response, but he didn’t. He sat, focusing on Magiere’s face until she finally dropped her head onto her pulled-up knees. Leesil didn’t move.
At least Wynn now knew Chap was trying. When he took something seriously, everyone else had better pay attention, and hopefully Magiere would.
“What do you think we can do about it?” Magiere whispered without lifting her head.
Wynn now wished she were the one who could talk into Chap’s head. He looked right at her, and huffed once for “yes.” It was less than a blink before she guessed it was her turn, so she readied for an onslaught before answering.
“We have to do as Brot’an suggested, at least as a contingency. The orbs might be the only weapons powerful enough to use against the Enemy, if it comes to that. What would become of the world—again—if that thing, whatever it is, really is awakening? If so, we don’t have anything else but the orbs.”
“No!” Leesil shouted.
As Leesil turned on Wynn, Magiere gripped his upper arm and jerked him back. Chap snarled, rose on all fours, and bared his teeth at Leesil. Wynn sat there on the alley floor, shaking.
Magiere had always been the volatile one.
Yet now it was Leesil tipping on the edge of reason, panting in anger. And Wynn couldn’t blame him, for there was a part of her beneath reason that wanted to just go away and hide where no one could find her.
Leesil wrenched his arm out of Magiere’s grip and settled back against the alley wall.
“Stay out of my head!” he snapped, though he didn’t look at anyone.
He didn’t have to. Chap sighed and turned from Leesil to Magiere.
“We gather nothing,” Magiere said, “until we know what’s happening out there . . . in the east, in the desert.”
A voice in every language Wynn understood filled her head.
She is right in one part. More answers are needed.
At these words, Wynn kept quiet, fearing any hint of a silent exchange might set Leesil off again.
But I will gather the other orbs, Chap went on, and you will go with Leesil and Magiere. As for the others . . .
Chap’s head tilted upward, and Wynn followed his gaze up the back wall of the tenement. All she saw was a dark hint of that one disturbing window frame. He continued to speak to her, and occasionally, she couldn’t help nodding.
• • •
Magiere managed to remain sitting there in the alley, though inside she’d felt she might rip apart. Chap and Wynn were clearly plotting and planning, though there was little to hear other than Wynn’s occasional acknowledgments.
Leesil ignored everyone.
Magiere couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing him again.
They’d been on the verge of being done and going home. How much farther could she push him before she lost him entirely? When she glanced over at him, there was Wynn still sitting beside him, but entirely fixed on Chap.
What were those two up to?
Leesil finally turned his head, but his eyes narrowed at Wynn.
“Look at you,” he said. “Look at what you’ve done, though it’s bad enough with him,” and he cocked his head toward Chap. “I’m getting tired of the mistakes, blind leaps, and—”
“You think you know everything I’ve been through?” Wynn cut in. “Just because I told you the short version?”
“I know you took up with that thing up there,” Leesil shot back. “Chane’s no better than whatever is out in that desert.”
“You don’t know that either!” she countered.” I don’t make assumptions on what little you’ve told me, so don’t you ever talk to me like some—”
“Enough, both of you,” Magiere ordered.
Everyone fell silent again.
Whatever cracks Magiere felt in her resolve, she saw the same widening among all of them.
The rest . . . should be . . . said . . . to everyone.
Magiere looked into Chap’s eyes, though in the dark she barely saw their crystalline, sky blue color.
I do not . . . wish . . . to explain . . . more than once. Do . . . you . . . still . . . trust me . . . in this?
And what if she said no? She didn’t know whether losing Leesil or letting the world burn in another war would be worse right now. She couldn’t make the choice herself.
“Yes,” Magiere answered weakly.
• • •
Back in the sanctuary with everyone gathered, Chap braced himself as Wynn laid out the plan as he had instructed. As he expected, Leesil was the first to slip into an outrage.
“Did messing with the orbs make you stupid?” Leesil panted, turning from Wynn to Chap. “You’re taking him”—he jutted his chin at Chane—“to get the orbs you hid up north in the wastes?”
Chane appeared shocked as well. Magiere fixed Chap with a glare, her breath visibly quickening. Wayfarer and Osha were equally stunned, though Osha’s rapid blinks betrayed doubt that he had heard correctly. Brot’an stood by the rear window and expressed no reaction at all.
Ghassan put one hand thoughtfully to his mouth. “Why Chane and the elder majay-hì?”
To Wynn’s credit, in speaking for Chap, her voice barely wavered.
“Because Chap is the one who hid the orbs of Water and Fire. He won’t divulge their location to anyone. No one can force that information from him. Chane gave the orb of Earth to the stonewalkers for safekeeping through one of their own, Ore-Locks.” She turned to Chane. “Neither Ore-Locks nor his sect will relinquish it to anyone but you . . . and maybe not even you without some convincing.”
Chane’s shock passed, replaced by suspicion. “And where will you be while . . . if I take this lengthy journey?”
Chap tensed, ready to act.
“With Leesil and Magiere, and Ghassan and Brot’an,” Wynn answered, “scouting in the east.”
Osha went rigid, but it was Chane who stepped in on her. “Out in the desert, with possible packs of undead? I will not leave you to that!”
Chap snarled, clacked his jaws, and drew everyone’s attention. The idea of traveling alone with that undead repulsed him, but he was equally disgusted by the vampire’s belief that no one else could protect Wynn. None of them could afford to be so overprotective anymore.
“This has to be done!” Wynn insisted, not backing away from Chane. “You and Chap are the only ones who can gather the three hidden orbs. Once you reach the wastes up north and are back on land, you’ll travel by night. The two of you can move faster on your own.”
She paused and addressed everyone in the main room.
“The rest of us will take the orbs of Spirit and Air across the desert. We’ll head east along the base of the Sky-Cutter Range. Once we get far enough, we’ll start scouting for any sign to verify that these reports are true.” She faced Chane once more. “Please, do this for us, for the world. Ore-Locks won’t give the orb to anyone but you . . . not even me.”
Chane stared at her but said nothing more.
Chap grew uncomfortable at the clear connection between those two. His stomach rolled every time Wynn said “please” to that monster. Still, there were larger issues at stake, and he studied the others.
Leesil had withdrawn, settled in a chair at the table, and turned his back on everyone. Magiere was visibly tense—no, taut and stiff—as if holding herself in. Wayfarer looked uncertainly from Osha to Magiere, then to Leesil, and finally back to Osha again. Shade pressed in against Wynn as if fearing someone would suggest they be separated.
Brot’an had still not reacted at all, and as to Ghassan . . .
The fallen domin watched Wynn expectantly. With a brief glance at the others, he finished on Magiere, and his gaze lingered too long for Chap’s comfort. The one person Ghassan did not look at was Chap himself.
“There will be a lot to prepare,” Magiere half voiced, turning to Chap. “You’re going to need chests for the three orbs. Plus gear and supplies for traveling up north. Same but different for the rest of us heading into the desert.”
She appeared no more enthused than anyone, but at least the discussion had turned to something useful.
“We’ll need to gather any coins we have,” Wynn added, “and separate local currency from the rest to use for important things, like passage for Chap and Chane. The logical order would be for the two of them to retrieve Chap’s orbs first and then stop at Dhredze Seatt for Ore-Locks’s orb on the way back. It’s going to be a very long journey . . . and the same for the rest of us.”
“How will they find us upon their return?” Wayfarer asked.
Chap was surprised she’d spoken at all, and at “us,” he winced. She turned to him with open worry on her young face. She was as attached to him as to Magiere or Leesil, but her question was based on an assumption that had been put off until now.
“There is a better path than traveling all the way back to here,” Wynn answered, and then once again addressed Chane. “On your way back, disembark at Soráno, travel inland to the Lhoin’na lands and down to the way we took into Bäalâle Seatt . . . on the north side of the Sky-Cutter Range. Once through the seatt, you can meet up with us on the range’s south side.”
Chane did not nod or otherwise agree in any fashion.
Though Chap certainly did not relish passing through a lost dwarven seatt partially destroyed a thousand years ago, he saw no faster alternative to rejoin the others, and time itself was their first enemy in all of this.
“So we’re actually doing this?”
Chap swung around at Leesil’s harsh words.
Leesil sat at the table, all of its other chairs still empty. Then he added, “Instead of hiding the last two, we’re gathering all five?”
Chap longed to call up memory-words to explain yet again that they had no choice. But there were no words that could ever take away Leesil’s pained disappointment.
It was Wynn who turned to Leesil, speaking in a clear but quiet voice. “We can’t stop now, or everything we’ve fought for . . . all our efforts will have been in vain. Our aim was always to save the world, not just to hide the orbs. We’ve believed all along that hiding the orbs would accomplish that, but now we see what really has to be done. I know you thought we were near the end . . . that our struggles were almost over . . . but we have to finish this.” She paused. “We must.”
Leesil listened but didn’t respond.
Magiere stood watching Wayfarer.
Magiere—and Leesil—had come to care deeply for the girl. They would not want to take her into the desert and further danger.
Chap had known this even before they returned to the sanctuary tonight, so he had made another suggestion to Wynn based on things she had told him. In turn, he had instructed her regarding what should come concerning Wayfarer’s assumption about traveling with Magiere and Leesil.
Before Wynn could say anything further . . .
Enough for now. Everyone needs time to absorb all of this. Find something to distract them for a while.
To her credit, Wynn did not acknowledge that he’d spoken to her. Instead, she headed across the room.
“It’s getting late, and we haven’t eaten, though we’re still out of cheese,” she said rather pointedly. “We have jerked goat meat and figs, some olives and flatbread, so we should put something together for supper.”
Once she took charge, all discussion of journeys ceased, and again Chap watched as Magiere’s worried eyes strayed to Wayfarer.
• • •
Wynn reached for the canvas sack she’d dropped in one chair and then heard someone closing from behind her.
“I’ll put the blankets away and come help you.”
It wasn’t the voice Wynn had expected, which was Magiere’s, and she spun to face Wayfarer. The girl sounded quietly agitated, and Wynn suspected Wayfarer merely sought any distraction from the heightened tension in the room.
Before Wynn could reply, the girl rushed off toward the bedchamber. She wanted to follow, but that would’ve looked too obvious, and she turned to the others.
“Osha, could you pass out these figs?”
Chane drifted to the far end of the front bookshelves near the door and stood staring at her. Shade joined him, and this made Wynn feel worse. She couldn’t deal with either of them right now. Osha came over, took the figs without a word, and began handing them out. Everything had turned awful, and it wasn’t even close to over yet.
“I’ll get the jerky,” Magiere said.
Wynn nodded and kept her expression still, or so she hoped, but her thoughts wouldn’t let go of something else Chap had suggested—insisted—while they were in the alley. It wasn’t that she disagreed; no, quite the opposite. But there was more to do, more to prepare, before it came out to the entire group.
Wayfarer was unsuited for a long desert trek, let alone what might be found at its end. Of course Magiere and Leesil knew this, but they would both be unwilling to let the girl out of their sight—more so when it came to where Chap wanted to send the girl . . . along with Osha and Shade.
Wynn couldn’t catch her breath in thinking on what those last two might say or do when they heard.
It is time, while the girl is alone.
She stiffened at Chap’s words in her head. Crouching by her shopping bags, she wondered how she might slip into the bedroom without the others noticing. There seemed no way to avoid it, and when she finally rose . . .
Wayfarer reappeared in the bedchamber’s archway. Slender as a young willow in a smaller version of clothing Magiere and Leesil had adopted, she wore a red sleeveless tunic with her tan pantaloons.
“Wynn,” the girl called hesitantly, “could you help me with the blankets?”
That was a transparent excuse. Wayfarer had handled bedding on her own more than once. However, it was an excuse for Wynn not to have to sneak away. She went to Wayfarer, but the girl didn’t turn into the bedchamber.
Wayfarer leaned closer and then hesitated. Up close, the girl’s eyes were a dark, shadowy green in the dim light.
“Bring Chap,” she whispered.
Wynn hesitated. Looking back, she found Chap watching them both. The others were still passing around food, and then Chap was right next to Wynn before she said anything. He’d either caught something in her thoughts or perhaps saw Wayfarer’s hesitant whisper.
Wayfarer grabbed Wynn’s hand—rather bold for the shy girl—and pulled her into the bedchamber. Chap followed.
It was a simple room with two beds. Several packs and a travel chest sat near one wall. Two additional chests—both containing an orb—were positioned between the beds. Wayfarer hurried to the travel chest.
“I need to show both of you something,” she whispered, kneeling down and pulling out a book, which she held before Chap. “Do you remember this? I—I took it. I know it was wrong, but I could not bring myself to put it back.”
Wynn approached. “What is it?”
Before Wayfarer could answer, Chap did so into Wynn’s mind.
A book she found in the library at the Guild of Sagecraft’s annex in Chathburh. It is filled with information and illustrations pertaining to Lhoin’na artisans. I did not know she had taken it.
In spite of everything that had happened tonight, Wynn was a little shocked. “Oh, Wayfarer. It must be returned.”
The girl blushed in embarrassment. “I felt . . . compelled . . . because of something I found in it.” The girl paged rapidly through the book, passing many hand-drawn illustrations, some tinted with faded colors, until she stopped at a detailed illustration.
“This is a story,” she explained, “about five finely crafted urns stolen by outsiders. A group of the Lhoin’na guardians called ‘Shé’ith’ went after the thieves to retrieve the urns.”
Wynn frowned. “Yes, I know the Shé’ith, but what does . . .”
She lost that thought when she looked more closely at the illustration. Something there, and she wasn’t yet certain what, fixated her. Three elves with long hair held up in topknots rode horses galloping at high speed. She made out the fleeing band of thieves, smaller in the image’s background. The riders had to be Shé’ith. Their intimidating leader held an unsheathed sword swung back, low and wide, as if ready for a strike.
Wynn’s gaze locked on that sword.
Compared to the rider’s grip, its handle was long enough for a second hand. The blade was slightly broad, though not like Magiere’s falchion. It was straight until the last third that swept back slightly to the point. Small details were hard to make out, but it looked like the crossguard’s two struts swept back at the bottom and forward at the top.
It seemed familiar, though Wynn couldn’t place it.
Wayfarer quick-stepped past Wynn and Chap to the doorway, peeked out once, and then put a finger over her lips. She rushed to the far bed and knelt, then slid out a long and narrow canvas-wrapped bundle from beneath the bed.
Wynn’s jaw dropped at what Wayfarer was doing.
She knew what was in that canvas, though she’d never seen it firsthand. Osha had once described it to her, and Shade had shown her a flicker of a memory stolen from him.
The Chein’âs—“the Burning Ones”—who lived in the earth’s heated depths, made all weapons and tools of white metal gifts for the Anmaglâhk. Those in turn were the guardians of Osha, Brot’an, and Wayfarer’s people, the an’Cróan. Osha had once been Anmaglâhk, but he had been called to the Chein’âs a second time.
They had violently stripped him of gifted weapons and tools when he refused to give them up. They forced a sword of white metal on him among other items, and he was no longer Anmaglâhk. Osha reviled that blade so much that, to the best of Wynn’s knowledge, he had never opened the canvas wrap himself. Brot’an had taken the blade to be properly fitted with a hilt before they had left their people’s territory.
Wynn didn’t believe Wayfarer knew the sword’s whole story. Osha didn’t willingly speak of that terrible experience and had told Wynn only under duress.
Wayfarer reached toward the bundle.
“No!” Wynn whispered, even more shocked at this invasion of Osha’s privacy.
Without even pausing, Wayfarer ripped loose the twine to expose the sword. Chap pushed past Wynn to stare at the blade, and the plain sight of it hit Wynn with a sharp realization.
It looked exactly like the sword of the Shé’ith in the book’s illustration.
“I recognized it,” Wayfarer whispered. “Anmaglâhk do not carry swords, but Shé’ith do, and the Chein’âs gave this one to Osha.”
So the girl did know the story, at least in part. This bothered Wynn for some reason, as it meant Osha had shown Wayfarer the sword itself. That was the only way the girl could have made the connection.
“Do you see what this means?” Wayfarer asked. “The sword must be a link between Osha and the Shé’ith.”
Wynn didn’t know what to think. And why should it bother her that Osha shared more with Wayfarer than with her?
Pushing this last concern aside, Wynn wondered if she could perhaps use what Wayfarer had just related to progress the discussion toward what Chap had earlier requested . . . no, commanded.
It appeared that Wayfarer could catch the conscious memories of the majay-hì with a touch. There was only one other person Wynn knew who could do this. And Wynn didn’t count herself, as her own ability to do so with just Shade was different.
So far, Wayfarer’s ability had been tested only with Chap and Shade. They were both more directly Fay-descended than any other majay-hì, possibly back to the first of their kind. This still left Wynn wondering about the girl’s name given by the an’Cróan ancestors.
Sheli’câlhad—“To a Lost Way.”
Poor Wayfarer had cringed from that second name, especially after the one given her at birth—Leanâlhâm, “Child of Sorrow.” Then Magiere—with Leesil and Chap’s help—had given the girl a third one: Wayfarer.
Perhaps “To a Lost Way” meant something other than what the girl and others thought. In the forests of the Lhoin’na, Wynn had met someone utterly unique, or so she’d thought back then.
Vreuvillä, “Leaf’s Heart,” who was the last of their ancient priestesses, was called the Foirfeahkan. She ran with the majay-hì who guarded the Lhoin’na lands. On Wynn’s visit there, she had more than once seen the priestess touch a member of her large pack and then know things she couldn’t have experienced herself.
Yes, what must be done might be easier now. So finish this.
Wynn wasn’t so certain as she dropped her gaze to meet Chap’s stare. The girl’s strange gift was too close to that of the wild woman of the Lhoin’na forests. “To a Lost Way” could apply to the calling of the last of the Foirfeahkan.
Wayfarer looked between the two of them in puzzlement. “Well?” she whispered. “Do you see where Osha needs to go?”
There was a hint of challenge in her question. Before facing Magiere and Leesil, Wynn had to get Wayfarer to understand another possible meaning for a reviled name.
Not long ago, the girl had suggested to Magiere that Osha and Wayfarer herself take the orb of Spirit into Lhoin’na lands while Magiere and Leesil dealt with the other orbs. Oh, yes, Wynn had heard about this from Chap.
Now everything had changed. The orbs were no longer to be hidden, and no doubt the girl assumed she would be going with Magiere and Leesil. Yet Wayfarer still had reasons to separate Osha from the others . . . or rather from Wynn.
“Osha needs to meet the Shé’ith,” the girl said emphatically, “and perhaps learn why he was given a weapon like theirs. The Chein’âs are one of the five ancient races, possibly the oldest one, so there must be a reason.”
Wynn almost couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The girl’s own notion was halfway to what Chap wanted. For one, he did not want the girl traveling with Magiere in the desert, hunting possible groups of undeads. He wanted her safe, and she could not journey to a place of safety alone. But there was more . . .
Chap’s eyes had narrowed on the girl. That Wayfarer still waited for a response meant that Chap also hadn’t given her one. Wynn grew angry, for obviously he was waiting for her to do it.
Chap turned a sudden glare on Wynn.
Wynn glared back before turning to Wayfarer, and then she thought of something to make her point more clearly than words.
Stepping to the bedchamber door, she called, “Shade, come in here.”
Wynn turned back before Shade entered, but Shade stalled in the doorway at the sight of her father, Chap.
“In . . . now,” Wynn whispered.
Shade’s jowls wrinkled at that, though she padded in three more steps before stopping again.
“I have something to show you,” Wynn said to Wayfarer, and then leaned down to touch Shade’s back as she closed her eyes.
There was one relevant past moment she shared in kind with Shade. Majay-hì, who used memory-speak among their own kind, had far more vivid powers of recollection. Wynn knew so from having shared in Shade’s memories of what they had experienced together. She opened her eyes to meet Shade’s crystalline, sky blue ones watching her without blinking.
“Show her,” Wynn said, cocking her head toward Wayfarer, “and be nice about it.”
Shade wrinkled her jowls again as she turned toward the girl.
Wayfarer backed up against the bedside. “What are you doing?”
“Something words can’t do as well,” Wynn answered. “Don’t be afraid. Shade has something I want you to see . . . experience . . . and it is nothing frightening, I swear.”
Shade crept in on Wayfarer and stood waiting. When the girl finally reached to touch the side of Shade’s face . . .
Wynn couldn’t help but remember once more.
When she, Shade, and Chane, along with Ore-Locks, had gone to Vreuvillä’s home in the forest, the priestess had stopped and tensed for an instant. A circlet of braided raw shéot’a strips held back her silver-streaked hair. That hair was also too dark for a Lhoin’na, let alone an an’Cróan—just like Wayfarer. She was also deeply tanned from her life out in the wild. Standing there in her pants, high soft boots, and a thong-belted jerkin, all made of darkened hide, she was small for her people. She looked like some wild spirit embodied in the flesh of an elf, neither truly Lhoin’na nor an’Cróan.
Though there were faint lines in her face, she did not move or act like an old one, yet her very presence carried the weight of long years. One of the pack who flanked her drew near, and in the same instant, she looked down . . . and touched that silver-gray female.
Vreuvillä’s large amber eyes lifted again, though her long fingers still combed lightly between the tall ears of the silver-gray majay-hì—and it followed her gaze. She stared beyond Wynn as her nostrils flared once, as if she were both seeing and smelling something that wasn’t there. Something had passed between the priestess and one of her pack.
Wayfarer cringed back against the bedside, staring at Shade. And those bright, fearful eyes turned on Wynn.
“What—what—,” the girl stuttered.
“Osha isn’t the only one,” Wynn began, “who has a reason to go to the lands of Lhoin’na. You are not as alone—or as ‘lost’—as you thought. That isn’t what that name . . . that other name . . . might mean.”
Wayfarer peered cautiously at Shade without a word.
That is enough for now.
Wynn looked to Chap.
We tell Shade last, once Wayfarer and Osha accept what they must do. I will see the three of them partway there, and thereby keep our youngest ones out of harm’s way. That leaves us both with one less worry.
One less but not none, Wynn noted as she thought of whom she had to face now in all of Chap’s scheming. Magiere and Leesil, in being forced to accept Wayfarer’s being sent away, would be only slightly worse than Shade for being sent off with the young pair. And at the thought of dealing with Magiere next, Chap went on . . .
It will not be your last time. While I am away, it falls on you to keep Magiere and Leesil from recklessness, to keep them safe as long as possible.
Wynn felt so tired. All she wanted to do was curl up in a bed and sleep, but that was not going to happen.
What had the Chein’âs really intended for Osha by giving him a weapon of a make from a land halfway across the world? And why in the same place where there was a woman who potentially had the same ability as Wayfarer, who bore a hated name given by ancient spirits of another of the five races? Those thoughts gave Wynn a quick chill.
In all of this, both Osha and Chane would be away for a long while. She still couldn’t see what to do concerning their feelings for her—and hers for them. At least she could escape that, but not forever. If there was a forever.
Whatever came in the end, it would be Magiere and possibly Leesil who would have to face the final challenge. But with all others involved, someone had to get them that point.
That fell upon Chap . . . and Wynn.
Four nights later, Chane stood on the docks of the Suman Empire’s capital port, preparing to board a ship for a long journey in the company of a majay-hì who hated him. Osha, Wayfarer, and Shade were joining them on the voyage as well, though they would go only partway to another destination. Somehow—and Chane was still not quite sure how—Wynn had convinced Osha to accompany Wayfarer to the forests of the Lhoin’na.
Even on the docks, the hot and dry air was thick with the scents of spice, brine, people, and livestock. Most of the dusky-skinned citizens walking near the piers wore light, loose-fitting cloth shifts or equally loose and light leggings or pants. Wraps in varied colors and patterns upon their heads were done up in short or tall, thick or thin mounds. Some people herded goats or carried square baskets of fowl.
A large Numan vessel waited thirty paces down the dock from where Chane stood. He still could not believe what he had been forced into accepting.
Everyone who would remain behind for the desert search had come to see off the others. This was not a night like any other, past or yet to come.
The decision had been made—or forced—to gather the three hidden orbs. From then on, every spare moment had been filled with preparations. He and Wynn had had no time to speak of anything that mattered to them, to him.
Wynn had soon realized that Chane would encounter issues in communicating with Chap along the way. The only reason that Magiere and Chap could exist in close proximity to Chane was because of the arcane “ring of nothing,” as he called it, that he wore on his left hand. As a dhampir and majay-hì, hunters of the undead, they were driven into a hunting rage if they neared anything undead.