Table of Contents
ON DARK WINGS
PART ONE - RIFT
PART TWO - MASKS
PART THREE - MARIUS
PART FOUR - CATALYST
EPILOGUE - CASTLE CITY
About the Author
ALSO BY MARK ANTHONY
ON DARK WINGS
The dragon folded its wings against its sleek body; the stones of the keep shuddered under its weight. Four years ago, when they had first encountered Sfithrisir in a high valley in the Fal Erenn, Grace thought the dragon looked like an enormous sooty swan. Now it seemed more like a vulture. Its featherless hide absorbed the starlight, and its eyes glowed like coals. The small saurian head wove slowly at the end of a ropelike neck, and a constant hiss of steam escaped the bony hook of its beak.
Fear and smoke choked her, and Grace fought for breath and to keep her wits. She had to have both if she was going to survive.
“Answer . . . answer me this, and an answer you shall have,” she said in a trembling voice, speaking the ancient greeting which she had learned from Falken. “One secret for one secret in trade. Why have you—”
“Mist and misery!” the dragon snorted, the words emanating from deep in its gullet. “There is no time for foolish rituals concocted by mortals whose bones have long since turned to dust. I did not come here to barter with you for secrets, Blademender. The end of all things comes. Have you not seen the rift in the sky? Surely it has grown large enough that even your mortal eyes can see it now. And it will keep growing. Now it conceals the stars, but soon it will swallow them, and worlds as well. It will not cease until it has consumed everything there is to consume, until all that remains is nothing. . . .”
We live our lives a circle,
And wander where we can.
Then after fire and wonder,
We end where we began.
“Forget not the Sleeping Ones.
In their blood lies the key.”
The dervish stepped from a swirl of sand, appearing on the edge of the village like a mirage taking form.
A boy herding goats was the first to see him. The boy clucked his tongue, using a switch to prod the animals back to their pens. All at once the animals began to bleat, their eyes rolling as if they had caught the scent of a lion. Usually a lion would not prowl so near the dwellings of men, but the springs that scattered the desert—which had never gone dry in living memory—were failing, and creatures of all kinds came in search of water and food. It was said that, in one village, a lion had crept into a hut and stolen a baby from the arms of its sleeping mother.
The boy turned around, and the switch fell from his fingers. It was not a lion before him, but a man covered from head to toe in a black serafi. Only his eyes were visible through a slit in the garment, dark and smoldering like coals. The man raised a hand; its palm was tattooed with red lines. Tales told by the village’s elders came back to the boy—tales about men who ventured into the deepest desert in search of forbidden magics.
Obey your father and your mother, the old ones used to tell him when he was small, else a dervish will fly into your house on a night zephyr and steal you away. For they require the blood of wicked children to work their darkest spells.
“I need . . .” the dervish said, his voice harsh with a strange accent.
The boy let out a cry, then turned and ran toward a cluster of hovels, leaving the goats behind.
“. . . water,” the dervish croaked, but the boy was already gone.
The dervish staggered, then caught himself. How long had he been in the Morgolthi? He did not know. Day after day the sun of the Hungering Land had beaten down on him, burning away thought and memory, leaving him as dry as a scattering of bones. He should be dead. However, something had drawn him on through that forsaken land. What was it? There was no use trying to remember. He needed water. Of the last two oases he had gone to, one had been dry, and the waters of the other had been poisoned, the bloated corpses of antelope floating in its stagnant pool.
He moved through the herd of goats. The animals bleated until the dervish touched them, then fell silent. He ran his hands over their hides and could feel the blood surging beneath, quickened by fear. One swift flash of a knife, and hot blood would flow, thicker and sweeter than water. He could slake his thirst, and when he was finished he would let the blood spill on the ground as an offering, and with it he would call them to him. They would be only lesser spirits, enticed by the blood of an animal—no more than enough to work petty magics. All the same, he was tempted. . . .
No—that was not why he was here. He remembered now; he needed water, then to send word, to tell them he was here. He staggered toward the circle of huts. Behind him, the goats began bleating again, lost without the boy to herd them.
This place was called Hadassa, and though the people who dwelled here now had forgotten, it had once been a prosperous trading center built around a verdant oasis. Over the decades the flow of Hadassa’s spring had dwindled to a trickle. The merchants and traders had left long ago and had not returned; the city’s grand buildings were swallowed by the encroaching sand. Now all that remained was this mean collection of huts.
When he reached the center of the village, the dervish stopped. The oasis, once a place of sparkling pools and shaded grottos, was now a salt flat crazed with cracks. Dead trees, scoured of leaf and branch, pointed at the sky like burnt fingers. In their midst was a patch of mud, churned into a mire by men and goats. Oily water oozed up through the sludge, gathering in the hoofprints. The dervish knelt, his throat aching.
“You are not welcome here,” spoke a coarse voice.
The dervish looked up. The water he had cupped dribbled through his fingers. A sigh escaped his blistered lips, and with effort he rose again.
A man stood on the other edge of the mud patch. His yellowed beard spilled down his chest, and he wore the white robe of a village elder. Behind him stood a pair of younger men. They were stunted from a poor diet, but their eyes were hard, and they gripped curved swords. Next to the man was a woman who wore the red serafi of a seeress. In youth she had been beautiful, but the dry air had parched her cheeks, cracking them like the soil of the oasis. She gazed forward with milky eyes.
“The cards spoke truly, Sai’el Yarish,” the woman said in a hissing voice. “Evil flies into Hadassa on dark wings.”
“I cannot fly,” the dervish said.
“Then you must walk from this place,” the bearded man said. “And you must not come back.”
“I come only in search of water.”
One of the young men brandished his sword. “We have no water to spare for the likes of you.”
“It is so,” the old man said. “A change has come over the land. All that is good dwindles and fades. One by one, the springs of the desert have gone dry. Now ours is failing as well. You will not find what you seek here.”
The dervish laughed, and the queer sound of it made the others take a step back. “You are wrong. There is yet water to be found in this place.” From the folds of his serafi, he drew out a curved knife. It flashed in the sun.
“Do not let him draw blood!” the blind woman shrieked.
The young men started forward, but the mud sucked at their sandals, slowing them. The dervish held out his left arm. The knife flicked, quick as a serpent. Red blood welled from a gash just above his wrist.
“Drink,” he whispered, shutting his eyes, sending out the call. “Drink, and do my bidding.”
He felt them come a moment later; distance meant nothing to them. They buzzed through the village like a swarm of hornets, accompanied by a sound just beyond hearing. The men looked around with fearful eyes, and the blind woman swatted at the air. The dervish lowered his arm, letting blood drip from his wound.
The fluid vanished before it struck the ground, as if the hot air gobbled it.
“Water,” the dervish murmured. “Bring me water.”
A moment ago they had been furious in their desire. Now they were sated by blood, their will easy to bend. He sensed them plunge downward, deep into the ground. Soil, rock—these were as air to them. He felt it seconds later: a tremor beneath his boots. There was a gurgling noise, then a jet of water shot up from the center of the mud patch. The fountain glittered, spinning off drops as clear and precious as diamonds.
The village elder gaped while the young men dashed forward, letting the water spill into their hands, drinking greedily.
“It is cool and sweet,” one of them said, laughing.
“It is a trick!” the blind woman cried. “You must not drink, lest it bring you under his spell.”
The young men ignored her. They continued to drink, and the man in the white robe joined them. Others appeared, stealing from the huts, the fear on their sun-darkened faces giving way to wonder.
The seeress stamped her feet. “It is a deception, I tell you! If you drink, he will poison us all!”
The village folk pushed past her, and she fell into the mud, her robe tangling around her so that she could not get up. The people held out their hands toward the splashing water.
The dervish bound his wound with a rag, staunching the flow of blood, lest the bodiless ones come to partake of more. Morndari, the spirits were called. Those Who Thirst. They had no form, no substance, but their craving for blood was unquenchable. Once, he had come upon a young sorcerer who had thought too highly of his own power, and who had called many of the morndari to him. His body had been no more than a dry husk, a look of horror on his mummified face.
Water pooled at the dervish’s feet. He bent to drink, but he was weak from hunger and thirst, and from loss of blood. The sky reeled above him, and he fell. Strong hands caught him.
“Take him into my hut,” said a voice he recognized as the village elder’s.
Were they going to murder him? He should call the morndari again, only he could not reach his knife, and he was too weak. The spirits would drain his body of blood, just like the young sorcerer he had once found.
The hands bore him to a dim, cool space, protected from the sun by thick mud walls. He was laid upon cushions, and a wooden cup was pressed to his lips. Water spilled into his mouth, clean and wholesome. He coughed, then drank deeply, draining the cup. Leaning back, he opened his eyes and saw the bearded man above him.
“One such as yourself came here not long ago,” the old man said. “We feared him, but he worked no spells. He babbled that his power was all dried up like the springs, that magic was dead.”
“Did you kill him?” the dervish said.
The other shook his head. “He was mad. He ran into the desert without a flask of water. The ground shook when you worked your spells. We have felt many such tremors of late. Some have been strong enough to knock down all of the huts in a village. Do the spirits cause the trembling?”
The dervish licked blistered lips. “No—perhaps. I don’t know.”
The morndari were attracted by the tremors, that he did know. That was how he had followed them. How he had found it.
The old man set down the cup. “All the tales I know tell that a dervish brings only evil and suffering. Yet you renewed our spring. You have saved us all.”
The dervish laughed, a chilling sound. “Would that what you say were so. But I fear your seeress was right. Evil does come, on dark wings. To Hadassa, and to all of Moringarth.”
The other made a warding sign with his hand. “Gods help us. What must we do?”
“You must send word that I am here. You must send a message to the Mournish. Do you know where they can be found?”
The old man stroked his beard. “I know some who know. But surely you cannot mean what you say. Your kind is abomination to them. If they find you, your life is forfeit. The working of blood sorcery is forbidden.”
“No it isn’t,” the dervish said. He looked down at his hands, marked by fine white scars and lines tattooed in red. “Not anymore.”
It was the quiet that woke Sareth.
Over the last three years he had grown used to the sound of Lirith’s heartbeat and the rhythm of her breathing. Together they made a music that lulled him to sleep each night and bestowed blissful dreams. Then, six months ago, another heart—tiny and swift—had added its own cadence to that song. Only now all was silent.
Sareth sat up. Gray light crept through a moon-shaped window, into the cramped interior of the wagon. She had not been able to make the wagon any larger, but by her touch it had become cozier. Bunches of dried herbs hung in the corners, giving off a sweet, dusty scent. Beaded curtains dangled before the windows, and cushions embroidered with leaves and flowers covered the benches against either wall. The tops of the benches could be lifted to reveal bins beneath, or lowered—along with a table—to turn the wagon into a place where eight could sit and dine or play An’hot. Now the table was folded up against the wall, making room for the pallet they unrolled each night.
The pallet was empty, save for himself. He pulled on a pair of loose-fitting trousers, then opened the door of the wagon. Moist air, fragrant with the scent of night-blooming flowers, rushed in, cool against his naked chest. He breathed, clearing the fog of sleep from his mind, then climbed down the wagon’s wooden steps. The grass was damp with dew beneath his bare feet—his two bare feet.
Though it had been three years, he marveled daily at the magic that had restored the leg he had lost to the demon beneath Tarras. He would never really understand how Lady Aryn’s spell had healed him, but it didn’t matter. Since he met Lirith, he had grown accustomed to wonders.
He found her beneath a slender ithaya tree on the edge of the grove where the Mournish had made camp. A tincture of coral colored the horizon; dawn was coming, but not yet. She turned when she heard him approach, her smile glowing in the dimness.
“Beshala,” he said softly. “What are you doing out here so early?”
“Taneth was fussing. I didn’t want him to wake you.” She cradled the baby in her arms. He was sound asleep, wrapped snugly in a blanket sewn with moons and stars.
Sareth laid a hand on the baby’s head. His hair was thick and dark, and when they were open, his eyes were the same dark copper as Sareth’s. However, everything else about him—his fine features, his rich ebon skin—was Lirith’s.
The baby sighed in his sleep, and Sareth smiled. Here was another wonder before him. For so long, Lirith had believed herself incapable of bearing a child. Years ago, after her adoptive parents were murdered by thieves in the Free City of Corantha, she had been sold into servitude in the house of Gulthas. There she had been forced to dance for the men who paid their gold—and to do more than dance. Countless times a spark of life had kindled in her womb, only to go dark when she consumed the potions Gulthas forced all the women in his house to drink. Finally, no more sparks kindled.
Lirith had wept the night she finally told Sareth these things, thinking that once he knew what she had been in the past he would turn away from her. She was wrong; her revelations only made him love her more fiercely. That she could endure such torture, yet remain so good, so beautiful inside and out, showed there was no one in all the world more deserving of love than Lirith.
Besides, even if she could have conceived a child, he could not have given her one. Or so he had believed. When the demon below Tarras took his leg, it had taken something else—something intangible, but no less a part of him. He could love Lirith with all his heart, but he could not make love to her.
Worse, both of them had dreaded the day when the laws of his people would sunder them, for Sareth could only marry one of his clan. Then, not a month after Queen Grace destroyed the Pale King, they feared that day had come when the Mournish arrived at Gravenfist Keep. Though they were great wanderers, never to Sareth’s knowledge had the Mournish traveled so far north. What brought them there could only be of the greatest importance.
“She is of our clan,” his al-Mama said, touching Lirith’s cheek with a gnarled hand.
“How?” Sareth had finally managed to say.
The old woman let out a cackle. “I am old, but I am not blind. I saw the look in your eyes when you gazed at her. But the laws of our people are clear, and you are of the highest blood of ancient Morindu. You above all must not marry outside our clan.” Her gaze softened. “Yet I would not see you be in pain. I studied the cards for long hours—more precious time than these old bones should spare—and at last I saw the truth.”
They listened, amazed, as al-Mama told the tale she had pieced together by gazing at the T’hot cards and speaking to elders among the various bands of Mournish. Twenty-seven years ago, a band of Mournish from the farthest south were run out of the Free City of Gendarra by an angry guildmaster. He had purchased a love potion from one of the Mournish women, and it had worked as she said it would, granting him the love he deserved. However, this had not been the love of the beautiful lady he admired, but rather that of a sow who merrily trotted after him everywhere in the city. For as a selfish man he deserved no better.
Enraged, the guildmaster sent his mercenaries after the Mournish, and they were waylaid. Most escaped, but not all. One wagon was caught and burned, and the young Mournish couple within died. They had had a baby, an infant girl, and it was believed she perished with her parents. Only it was not so, and al-Mama’s cards had revealed the rest of the tale, which no one had known until then: how the infant had been thrown into a thicket of bushes when the wagon toppled, and how a day later she was found by a tradesman on his way home to southern Toloria. He took the baby with him, for his wife had always wanted a child.
Thus Fate had taken Lirith away from the Mournish, and Fate had brought her back—to her people, and to Sareth.
When the Mournish departed Gravenfist Keep, Lirith had traveled south with her people and her husband, and life had seemed joyous beyond imagining. Then, one night a little over a year ago, as the two of them lay together, they had discovered one more wonder wrought by Lady Aryn’s spell. Their bodies had become one, and they had laughed and wept with a pleasure neither had thought themselves capable of. Over the moons that followed Lirith’s belly had swelled, and here now in her arms was the greatest wonder of all: little Taneth, dark and sweet and perfect.
Lirith sighed, turning her gaze toward the east.
Sareth touched her shoulder. “Are you sure it was because of Taneth you came out here, beshala? Is there not another reason?”
She gazed at him, her eyes bright with tears. “I don’t want you to go.”
So that was what this was about. Last night, a young man from another Mournish band had ridden hard into the circle of their wagons, bearing ill news.
“I do not wish to leave,” Sareth said. “But you heard the message just as I did. A dervish has come out of the desert, or at least one who claims he is a dervish. He must be seen.”
“Yes, someone must go see him. But why must it be you?”
“I am descended of the royal line of Morindu.”
Lirith’s dark eyes flashed. “So is your sister, Vani. She is the one who was trained at Golgoru. She is the T’gol. It is she who should be doing this thing, not you.”
Sareth pressed his lips together; he could not argue that point. Three thousand years ago, the sorcerers of Morindu the Dark had destroyed their own city lest its secrets fall into the hands of their foe, the city of Scirath. The Morindai became wanderers and vagabonds, known in the north as the Mournish.
After their exile, the Morindai forbade the practice of blood sorcery until Morindu was found again. However, there were those who defied that law. Dervishes, they were called. They were renegades, anathema. The silent fortress of Golgoru had been founded to train assassins who could hunt down the dervishes and destroy them with means other than magic.
Sareth moved to the edge of the grove. “My sister is gone, and the cards reveal not where, though al-Mama has gazed at them time after time. I know of no way to find her—unless you think Queen Grace may have heard some news.”
Lirith shook her head. “You know I have not Aryn’s strength in the Touch. I cannot reach her over the Weirding, let alone Grace. They are too far away.” She frowned. “Indeed, it seems my ability to reach out over the leagues grows less these days, not more. I can hardly weave the simplest spell of late. The Weirding feels . . . it feels tired, somehow.”
“Perhaps it’s you that’s a little tired, beshala,” Sareth said, touching Taneth’s tiny hand.
She smiled. “Perhaps so. Still, it is strange. I will have to ask Aryn about it the next time she contacts me.”
While Sareth did not doubt Lirith was happy living among the Mournish, he knew she missed her friends. The Mournish had journeyed to Calavere—where Aryn and Teravian ruled as king and queen over both Calavan and Toloria—only once in the last three years, and they had not returned at all to Gravenfist Keep, where Queen Grace dwelled. Still, the three witches could speak from time to time, using magic, and that was a comfort.
An idea occurred to Sareth. “Why don’t you and Taneth go to Calavere, beshala? It will not take you long to journey there, and the roads are safe. Aryn is to have her own child soon, is she not? I am certain she will enjoy seeing our little one. And when I am finished with my work in the south, I will send word.”
“I believe you are trying to distract me,” Lirith said, giving him a stern look. However, she could not keep it up, and she laughed as she hugged Taneth to her. “I confess, I long to see Aryn with my eyes, not just hear her voice over the Weirding. And if I stayed here, I imagine I would do nothing but fret and worry about you.”
“Then it’s settled,” Sareth said. “You will go to Calavere at once. I will ask Damari to accompany you.” He scratched his chin. “Or maybe I’d better make that Jahiel. He’s much less handsome.”
“Damari will do just fine,” Lirith said. Then her mirth ceased, and she leaned her head against his bare chest, Taneth between them. He circled his arms around them both.
“Promise me you won’t worry, beshala.”
“I will be waiting,” was all she said, and they stayed that way, the three of them together, as dawn turned the sky to gold.
Sareth left that day, taking only one other—a broad-shouldered young man named Fahir—with him. Word had been sent to the fastness of Golgoru, in the Mountains of the Shroud, but there were few T’gol these days. Nor was it likely one would reach Al-Amún sooner than Sareth; from here it was only a half day’s ride to the port city of Kalos, on the southern tip of Falengarth, at the point where the Summer Sea was narrowest. Sareth hoped to reach the city by nightfall and book passage on a ship tomorrow.
Before he left, his al-Mama called him into her dragon-shaped wagon and made him draw a card from her T’hot deck. His fingertips tingled as they brushed one of the well-worn cards, and he drew it out. As he turned it over, a hiss escaped her.
“The Void,” she rasped.
There was no picture on the card. It was painted solid black.
“What does it mean? Do I have no fate, then?”
“Only a dead man has no fate.”
He swallowed the lump in his throat. “What of the A’narai , the Fateless Ones who tended the god-king Orú long ago?”
She snatched the card from his hand. “As I said, only a dead man has no fate.”
His al-Mama said no more, but as Sareth left the wagon he glanced over his shoulder. The old woman huddled beneath her blankets, muttering as she turned the card over and over. Whatever it portended, it troubled her. However, he put it out of his mind. Perhaps the dead had no fate, but he was very much alive, and his destiny was to return to Lirith and Taneth as soon as possible.
They reached Kalos that evening as planned and set sail the next morning on the swiftest ship they could find—a small spice trader. Fahir, who had never been at sea before, was violently ill during the entire two-day passage, and even Sareth found himself getting queasy, for the Summer Sea was rough, tossing the little ship on the waves. The ship’s captain remarked that he had never seen such ill winds this time of year.
Fortunately, the voyage was soon over, and they disembarked in the port city of Qaradas, on the north coast of the continent of Moringarth, in the land of city-states known as Al-Amún. Sareth had traveled to Al-Amún several times in his youth; it was a custom among the Mournish of the north that young men and women should visit the southern continent, where most of the Morindai dwelled. Qaradas was just as he remembered it: a city of white-domed buildings and crowded, dusty streets shaded by date palms.
“I thought the cities of the south were made of gold,” Fahir said, a look of disappointment on his face.
Sareth grinned. “In the light of sunset, the white buildings do look gold. But it is only illusion—as is much in Al-Amún. So beware. And if a beautiful woman in red scarves claims she wishes to marry you, don’t follow her! You’ll lose your gold as well as your innocence.”
“Of the first I have little enough,” Fahir said with a laugh. “And the second I would be happy to dispense with. This is my first trip to the south, after all.”
They headed to the traders’ quarter, and Sareth examined the front door of every inn and hostel until he found what he was looking for.
“We will be welcome here.”
In answer to Fahir’s puzzled look, Sareth pointed to a small symbol scratched in the upper corner of the door: a crescent moon inscribed in a triangle. This place was run by Morindai.
Inside, Sareth and Fahir were welcomed as family. After they shared drink and food, the hostel’s proprietor suggested a place where camels and supplies for a journey could be bought at a good price. Sareth went to investigate, leaving Fahir with orders to rest, and to not even think about approaching the innkeeper’s black-haired daughter.
“By her looks, I think she favors me,” Fahir said. “Why shouldn’t I approach her?”
“Because by her al-Mama’s looks, if you do, the old woman will put a va’ksha on you that will give you the private parts of a mouse.”
The young man’s face blanched. “I’ll get some rest. Come back soon.”
They set out before dawn the next day, riding on the swaying backs of two camels as the domes of Qaradas faded like a mirage behind them. At first the air was cool, but once the sun rose heat radiated from the ground in dusty waves. All the same, they drank sparingly; it was a journey of six days to the village of Hadassa, where the rumors of the dervish had originated.
During the middle part of each day, when the sun grew too fierce to keep riding, they crouched in whatever shade they could find beneath a rock or cliff. They were always vigilant, and one would keep watch while the other dozed. Thieves were common on the roads of Al-Amún.
Nor was it only thieves they kept watch for. While the sorcerers of Scirath had suffered a great blow in the destruction of the Etherion over three years ago, recently the Mournish had heard whispers that their old enemy had been gathering again. Even after three thousand years, the Scirathi still sought the secrets lost when Morindu the Dark was buried beneath the sands of the Morgolthi. Because the dervishes sought those same secrets, where one was found the other could not be far off.
The days wore on, and water became a hardship. The first two springs they came to had offered some to drink, though less than Sareth had been led to believe. However, after that, every spring they reached was dry. They found no water, only white bones and withered trees. Doing their best to swallow the sand in their throats, they continued on.
Fahir and he never spoke of it, but by the fifth day of their journey Sareth knew they were in grave danger. There were but two swallows for each of them left in their flasks. It was said that Hadassa was built around an oasis. However, if its spring had gone dry like the others, they would not make it back to Qaradas alive.
You could cast a spell, Sareth thought that night as he huddled beneath a blanket next to Fahir. Once the sun went down the desert air grew chill, and both men shuddered as with a fever. You could call the spirits and bid them to lead you to water.
Could he really? The working of blood sorcery was forbidden among the Morindai; only the dervishes broke that law. True, the elders of the clan had allowed Sareth to use the gate artifact to communicate with Vani when she journeyed across the Void, to Earth. However, that had been a time of great need, and it was not a true act of blood sorcery. Sareth had spilled his blood to power the artifact, but he had not called the bodiless spirits, the morndari, to him as a true sorcerer would.
Besides, Sareth asked himself, what makes you believe you could control the spirits if they did answer your call? They would likely consume all your blood and unleash havoc.
Yet if he and Fahir did not find water tomorrow, what choice did he have but to try?
The next day dawned hotter than any that came before. The white sun beat down on them, and the wind scoured any bit of exposed flesh with hard sand. They were on the very edge of habitable lands now. To the south stretched the endless wastes of the Morgolthi, the Hungering Land, where no man had dwelled in eons—not since the land was broken and poisoned in the War of the Sorcerers.
The horizon wavered before Sareth. Shapes materialized amid the shimmering air. He fancied he could almost see the high towers of the first great cities of ancient Amún: Usyr, Scirath, and the onyx spires of Morindu the Dark. . . .
Sareth jolted from his waking dream. He lay sprawled on the sand as his camel plodded away from him. Fahir slumped over the neck of his own camel as the beast followed its partner toward a cluster of square shapes. That was no mirage; it was a village.
Sareth tried to call out, but his throat was too dry. A moment later shadows appeared above him, blocking the sun. Voices jabbered in a dialect he couldn’t understand, though he made out one word, repeated over and over: Morindai, Morindai. Hands lifted him from the ground.
He drifted in a void—as dark and featureless as the card drawn from his al-Mama’s deck—then came to himself as something cool touched his lips. Water poured into his mouth. He choked, then gulped it down.
“More,” he croaked.
“No, that’s enough for now,” said a low, strangely accented voice. “You have to drink slowly or you’ll become sick.”
Sareth’s eyes adjusted to the dim light. He was inside a hut, lying on a rug, propped up against filthy cushions. A man knelt beside him, holding a cup. He was swathed from head to foot in black; only his dark eyes were visible.
Fear sliced away the dullness in Sareth’s mind. Was this one of the Scirathi? They always wore black. He remembered how he had been tortured by the sorcerer who had followed them through the gate to Castle City. That one had enjoyed causing Sareth pain.
No, they always wear masks of gold. The masks are the key to their power. This is no Scirathi.
Fresh dread replaced the old. Sareth pushed himself up against the cushions, knowing he was too weak to flee.
“What have you done with Fahir?”
“Your friend is being cared for in another hut,” the dervish said. “You need not fear for him.”
Sareth licked his cracked lips. This was not how he had intended for things to unfold. He had planned to come upon the dervish unaware, so the other could not cast a spell, only it had been the opposite, and now he was in the other’s power. He tried to think what to say.
The dervish spoke first. “You’re her brother, aren’t you? Vani, the assassin. We knew she was in communication with her brother through the gate artifact, and the resemblance is clear enough.”
Confusion replaced fear. How could the dervish know these things? And why did his accent, strange as it was, seem familiar?
“Who are you?”
The dervish laughed. “That’s a good question. Who am I indeed? Not who I was before, that much is certain.” The dervish pushed back his hood. His pale skin had been burnt and blistered, and was now beginning to heal. “However, I used to be a man called Hadrian Farr.”
Sareth clutched at the cushions. “I know who you are. Vani told me of you. You’re from the world across the Void. How can you be here?”
The other made a dismissive gesture. “That’s not important now. All that matters is that you take word back to your people.”
“Word of what?” Sareth did not care for the other’s proud manner of speech. “Why don’t you tell them yourself?”
The dervish moved to a window; a thin beam of sunlight slipped through a crack in the shutters, illuminating his sun-ravaged face. “Because, once I am done here, I must go back. Back into the Morgolthi. After all these ages, it has finally been found.”
“What are you talking about?” Sareth said, rising up, angry at not understanding, angry at his fear. “What has been found?”
The dervish—the Earth man named Hadrian Farr—turned and gazed at him with eyes as sharp and gray as knives.
“The lost city of Morindu the Dark,” he said.
Outside the hut, the wind rose like a jackal’s howl.
Beltan knew there was no way out of a fight this time.
Not that he minded, he had to admit, baring his teeth in a grin. After all, during the course of his five-and-thirty years, he had been a knight of Calavan, a commander in Queen Grace’s army, a master swordsman, and a disciple of the war god Vathris Bullslayer. It went without saying that he enjoyed a good battle.
The monster hulked before him: gleaming red, belching heat and smoke, blaring a shrill cry to signal its aggression. Beltan’s fingers tightened around a shaft of cold steel, green eyes narrowing to slits, nostrils flaring. He sized up his enemy, and each of them tensed, waiting for the other to make the first move. Both of them knew there could only be one victor in a duel like this. And by Vathris, Beltan vowed it was going to be he.
The traffic light changed. Beltan floored the gas pedal, double-shifted into third, and spun the steering wheel. The black taxicab roared in front of a red sports car, cutting it off, and whipped around the traffic circle.
“Hey there!” came an annoyed voice from the backseat of the cab. “I told you to be careful. I’ve got a tart on my lap.”
It was one of the magics of the fairy blood that ran in Beltan’s veins that it helped him to understand the language of this world. Even without it, he probably could have made do, for he had learned much about the world Earth in the last three years. All the same, some words—like tart—still had the ability to confound him. He glanced in the rearview mirror, not certain if he would see a pie on the man’s lap, or a saucy-smiled wench like one might find in King Kel’s hall.
It was pie. Though it wasn’t just on his lap. It was on his shirt and tie as well.
“Sorry about that,” Beltan said cheerfully.
The man dabbed with a handkerchief at the crimson goop on his shirt. “I wouldn’t be expecting a tip if I were you.”
Beltan wasn’t. He didn’t drive the taxi because they needed the gold; he did it for fun. Behind him, the driver of the red sports car honked his horn and made a rude gesture. Beltan stuck a hand out the window and waved, then turned down Shaftesbury Avenue.
He dropped his fare in Piccadilly Circus—the man paid with a sticky wad of cherry-covered pound notes—then maneuvered the cab through the frenzy of cars, buses, and tourists that filled the traffic circle. A group of men and women wearing white bedsheets like they were some sort of ceremonial robes clustered beneath the winged statue that dominated the center of the Circus. They held up cardboard signs bearing hand-scrawled messages. The Mouth is Hungry, read one of the signs. Another proclaimed, Are You Ready To Be Eaten?
The people in white sheets were almost always in Piccadilly Circus these days. More could be found haunting other busy intersections around London. The tourists gave the sign-holders a wide berth, edging past them to snap furtive pictures of the statue before retreating. Above, gigantic neon signs blazed against the dusky June sky, glimmering as if made of a thousand magic jewels.
After several quick offensive maneuvers—and a few more offensive gestures from other drivers—Beltan was out of the Circus and heading down Piccadilly Street, toward the Mayfair neighborhood and home. Driving a taxi in London was definitely a warrior’s job. All the same, it had not been Beltan’s first choice of occupation.
After arriving there, he had assumed he would join the army. Peace was simply the time a warrior spent sharpening his sword before his next battle, the old saying went, and Beltan wanted to make sure his sword—and his mind—stayed sharp.
He knew this country had a queen. No doubt she was good and just, for this land was free and prosperous. So he decided to go to her, kneel, and pledge his sword. However, when he went to her palace, the guards at the gate had given him dark looks when he spoke of presenting his sword to the queen, and he had been forced into a hasty retreat.
After that, he asked some questions and learned one could join the army simply by speaking to one of its commanders and signing a paper. He went to see one of these commanders—sergeant was his title. He was a doughy man, and didn’t look like he had swung a sword in a while, but Beltan treated him with deference. He bowed, then informed the sergeant that he had served in the military all his adult life, that he was a disciple of Vathris, and had heard the Call of the Bull.
The sergeant didn’t seem to know what to make of all this, which seemed odd, but Beltan explained, and the man’s face turned red.
“We have quite enough of a problem with that sort of thing already,” he said, shaking his head. “Good day!”
Later, when Beltan stopped for an ale at a pub where other men who had heard the Call of the Bull often gathered, he had told this story, and the bartender said he wasn’t surprised, that in most places in the world men like themselves weren’t welcome in the military.
That seemed nonsense to Beltan. The generals of this land could not think it was better to send into battle men who would leave families behind, rather than men who were comfortable in one another’s company and who would leave no children fatherless should they never return from war.
And do you not have a child, Beltan?
He turned the cab onto a narrow lane and had to concentrate as he wedged it into a parking spot that was no more than four hands longer than the car itself. There was no doubt that having fairy-enhanced senses was an advantage when parallel parking.
Beltan paused a moment to clean out the cab, using a discarded newspaper to wipe the pie off the backseat. As he did, a headline caught his eye: CELESTIAL ANOMALY EXPANDING.
The article below discussed the dark spot in the heavens that had been detected some months ago. Beltan had never been able to see this dark spot himself—the night sky was obscured by London’s bright lights—but he had watched a program on the Wonder Channel about it. Men of learning called astronomers had discovered the spot by using giant spyglasses that let them see far into the heavens. They did not understand what caused the darkness—some suggested it was a great cloud of dust—but according to the article in the paper, it had just blotted out Earth’s view of two more stars, and the pace of its growth seemed to be increasing. Soon now it would be visible to the naked eye, even in London.
While the astronomers in the article claimed the anomaly was too far away to affect Earth—out beyond the farthest planet—a few people claimed the blot was going to grow until it consumed the sun, the moon, and everything. People like the sign-holders in Piccadilly Circus. So far, no one took those people seriously.
Beltan stuffed the trash in a nearby bin, locked the cab, and headed toward the narrow building of gray stone where they lived on the third floor. It was a good location, as there were a small, friendly pub and several eating establishments in the alley next to the building, and all sorts of markets lined the street before it. With the tall buildings soaring around like parapets, it made Beltan think of living in a modest tower on the edge of a bustling castle courtyard.
In other words, it felt like home.
He stretched his long legs, bounding up the timeworn steps, and started to fit his key into the front door. As he did, a tingling coursed up his neck, and he turned. Just on the edge of vision a shadow flitted into the alley, its form merging with the deepening air. Compelled by old instincts, Beltan leaped over the rail and peered into the alley. Four people sat at a table in front of the pub, and a waiter was setting up chairs outside one of the restaurants. There was no sign of the shadow.
All the same, Beltan knew his senses hadn’t lied to him. Something had been there. Or somethings, for it had seemed more like two shadows than one. Only what were they? He had felt a prickling, which meant danger. Perhaps they had been criminals, off to do some wicked deed. Sometimes the fairy blood allowed him to sense such things.
Whatever it had been, the shadow was gone now, and his stomach was growling. He headed back to the front door, let himself in, and bounded up two flights of steps to their flat.
“I’m home,” he called, shutting the door behind him.
There was no answer. He shrugged off his leather coat and headed from the front hall into the kitchen. Something bubbled in a pot on the stove. Beltan’s stomach rumbled again. It smelled good.
He headed from the kitchen into the main room. It was dark, so he turned on a floor lamp— even after three years, being able to bring forth such brilliant light by flicking a switch amazed Beltan—then moved down the hall. Their bedroom was dark and empty, as was the bathroom (a whole chamber full of marvels), but light spilled from the door of the spare room at the end of the hallway. Beltan crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe.
“So here’s where you’re hiding.”
Travis looked up, setting something down on the desk by the window, and smiled. Beltan grinned in return. A feeling of love struck him, every bit as powerful as that first day he saw Travis in the ruins of Kelcior.
“What are you smiling about?” Travis said.
Beltan crossed the room, hugged him tight, and kissed him.
“Oh,” Travis said, laughing. He returned the embrace warmly, but only for a moment before his gaze turned to the darkened window.
Beltan let him go, watching him. Travis’s gray eyes were thoughtful. He looked older than when Beltan first met him; more than a little gray flecked his red-brown hair and beard. However, the years had done his countenance good rather than ill, and—while sharper—it was more handsome than ever. Beltan’s own face had been badly rearranged in more than one brawl over the years. How Travis could love someone as homely as he, Beltan didn’t know, but Travis did love him, and these last three years had been ones of quiet joy and peace.
Only they had been years of waiting as well. The Pale King was dead, and Mohg was no more, but Earth and Eldh were still drawing near. What that meant, or how soon the two worlds would meet (if they would even meet at all) Beltan didn’t know. But somehow—maybe through some prescience granted him by the fairy’s blood—he knew Travis’s part in all this was not over. And neither was his own. Sometimes, in the dark of night, he found himself hoping he was right—hoping that one day the waiting would be over, and his sword would be needed again.
You’re a warrior, Beltan. You aren’t built for peace.
He dismissed that thought with a soft snort. This wasn’t about him and his warrior’s pride. Something was troubling Travis; Beltan didn’t need magical senses to know that.
“What is it?” he said, laying a hand on Travis’s shoulder. Then he glanced at the desk and saw the frayed piece of paper lying there.
Beltan sighed. “I miss her, too. But wherever she is, she is well. She knows how to take care of herself.”
Travis nodded. “Only it’s not just her, is it?” He kissed Beltan’s scruffy cheek. “It’ll take me a few more minutes to finish burning dinner if you want to take a shower.” Then he was gone.
Beltan hesitated, then picked up the piece of parchment. It was as soft as tissue. How many times had Travis read the letter?
Probably as many times as you have, Beltan.
One cloud had dimmed their happiness these last three years, and that was thinking of all those they had left behind. Grace, Melia and Falken, Aryn and Lirith, and so many others. But of them all, none were in their thoughts more than one.
“Where are you, Vani?” he whispered.
He had asked himself that question a thousand times since the day they found the letter in her empty chamber at Gravenfist Keep. It had been early spring, just a month after Queen Grace slew the Pale King and Travis broke the Last Rune. A caravan of Mournish wagons had arrived at the fortress, bearing the happy news that Lirith was one of their own, that she and Sareth could wed. Yet the Mournish must have brought other news, for the next morning Vani was gone.
Without thinking, his eyes scanned the letter. However, he needn’t have bothered to read, for he had the words committed to heart. The letter was addressed to him, and to Travis.
I hope you both can forgive me, but even if you cannot, I know what I do is right. I think, in time, you will agree. It does not matter. By the time you read this, I will be gone. There is no point in trying to search for me. I am T’gol. You will not be able to follow my trail, for I will leave none.
For many years I have known it was my fate to bear a child by the one who will raise Morindu the Dark from the sands that bury it. As so often happens, my fate has come to pass, but not in the way I imagined. I will indeed bear a child by you, Travis Wilder, but not to you. And nor to you, Beltan of Calavan, though you are the one who made her with me. Instead, I choose to be selfish and take her for my own.
Why? I am not certain. The cards are not yet clear. But I have spoken to my al-Mama, and one thing is certain: Fate moves in a spiral about my daughter. She is at the center of something important. Or perhaps something terrible. What it is, I cannot say, but I intend to find out. And if it is dangerous, I will protect her from it. Even if it means keeping her from her father. From both her fathers.
Again, I beg your forgiveness. I have taken our child away from you both. In return, I give to you something I hope you will find equally precious: I give you one another. Do not squander this gift, for what I have taken from you cannot be replaced. You must love one another. For me. For us. Just as I must do this thing for our daughter.
May Fate guide us all.
That was it. There was no more explanation, no chance of stopping her. She was simply gone.
What she meant when she said lines of fate swirled around her—around their—daughter, they didn’t know, and nor had Vani and Sareth’s al-Mama offered more explanation. The old woman simply cackled and said that each had their own fate to worry about. “Except for you, A’narai,” she had added, pointing a withered finger at Travis.
A’narai. The word meant Fateless. Which made no sense to Beltan, because the Mournish seemed to think Travis was the one destined to find the lost city of their ancestors one day.
“I think fate is nothing more than what you make it,” Grace had told Travis and Beltan that night, after a celebratory feast in the keep’s hall—one of a dozen such feasts King Kel had arranged since their victory over the Pale King. “The only way to have no fate is to never really make a choice.”
Maybe she hadn’t been trying to tell them what to do. Or maybe she had, for she had left something in Travis’s hand when she went: half of a silver coin. Either way, that night they made a choice.
“I don’t think Eldh needs me anymore,” Travis had said as they stood atop the keep’s battlements.
Beltan wasn’t so certain that was true, but there was one thing he did know. “I need you, Travis Wilder.”
Travis gazed at the silver coin on his palm. It was whole now, a rune marking each side. One for Eldh, and one for Earth. He looked up, his gray eyes the same color as the coin in the starlight. “Come with me.”
So much had happened in the time they had known each other—so much pain, sorrow, and confusion. All of that vanished in an instant, like ashes tossed on the wind.
“Haven’t you figured it out by now?” Beltan said, laughing. “I’m always with you.”
Travis gripped the coin, and they embraced as a blue nimbus of light surrounded them. And that was how they came to Earth.
Beltan opened a desk drawer and placed the letter gently inside. Then he headed to the bathroom, leaving a trail of clothes behind him. Hot showers were a luxury he did not know how he had ever survived without. How could he ever go back to bathing in a tub of lukewarm water or, worse yet, diving into a cold stream?
I knew this world would make you soft, he thought as he stepped under the water and grabbed the bar of soap. The sharp, clean scent of lavender rose on the steam. Ah, good—Travis had finally gone to The Body Shop as Beltan had been pestering him to.
He washed away the day’s layer of car exhaust and sweat, then stepped out of the shower. Living on Earth hadn’t made him quite as soft as he had feared. Once it was clear he would not join the army, he had worried he would go all to flab like many warriors who traded their swords for cups. Then he had discovered a place down the street called a gym.
At first he had taken the various mechanical contraptions inside for torture devices. Then a young man with large muscles had shown Beltan how to use them. He went to the gym often now, and he was happy to note that his ale belly was a bare wisp of its former self.
He toweled off, then scraped his cheeks with a straight razor, preferring the blade to the buzzing device Travis had bought him one Midwinter’s Eve, leaving a patch of gold on his chin and a line above his mouth. His white-blond hair seemed determined to keep falling out, but a woman at a shop next to the gym had cut it short, and had given him a bottle of something called mousse. (That was another one of those confusing words.) The mousse made his hair stick up as if he had just gotten out of bed, but that seemed to be the fashion of this world. Besides, Travis said he liked it, and that was all that counted.
He picked up his discarded clothes on the way to the bedroom, traded them for fresh jeans and a T-shirt, and appeared in the kitchen just in time to see Travis set dinner on the table.
“It smells good,” Beltan said. “What is it?”
“What do you think it is?” Travis asked with a pointed look.
Beltan eyed the full bowls. “It looks like stew.”
“Then let’s call it that.”
Travis said he was a poor cook, but Beltan thought everything he made was excellent. Then again, Beltan thought any food that didn’t bite back was good, so maybe Travis had a point. Beltan ate three helpings, but he noticed Travis hardly touched his own food. He never seemed to eat much these days, but Beltan tried not to worry about it.
“I don’t think I need food like I used to,” Travis had said once, and maybe it was true. Even without going to the gym, he looked healthy. He was leaner than when they first met, but well-knit and strong.
All the same, sometimes Beltan did worry. A few times, after they had made love, Travis’s skin had been so hot Beltan could hardly touch him, and he had seemed to shine in the dark with a gold radiance. While Beltan didn’t like to admit it, those times made him think of the Necromancer Dakarreth, whose naked body in the baths beneath Spardis had been sleek and beautiful, gold and steaming.
The blood of the south runs in his veins now, Beltan, just as it did in the Necromancer’s.
Beltan didn’t know what it meant—only that both he and Travis had been changed by blood. And maybe that was all right. Because, no matter what had been taken from them, if they could still love one another, then they had everything.
“I’ll get the dishes,” Beltan said.
“No,” Travis said with mock sternness, “you’re going to go watch TV while I clean up. Remember, I’m unemployed at the moment, and you’re the hard worker who’s bringing home the bacon.”
Beltan frowned. “Was I supposed to stop at the butcher and get salt pork on the way home?”
Travis laughed, and it was a good sight to see. The bookstore where he had worked for the last year had closed, and he hadn’t found a new job yet. That was probably why he had been reading Vani’s letter. He had been home by himself all day, and sadness usually waited until people were alone to creep in and touch them. However, the mirth in his eyes seemed genuine.
“Go,” he said, pushing Beltan into the living room.
Beltan did as commanded. He sat on the couch, listening to the cheerful clatter coming from the kitchen. Maybe they should call Mitchell and Davis Burke-Favor. It had been over a year since the two ranchers had last journeyed from Colorado to London for a visit. It would be good to see them. Then again, their ranch kept them busy, and it was hard for them to get away. Beltan hoped Travis would find a job soon. Not that they needed the money; the Seekers had taken care of that.
It had been Travis’s idea to go to the Seekers as soon as they reached Earth. He reasoned the organization would find them sooner or later. Besides, it had been good to see Deirdre Falling Hawk, though there had been no sign of Hadrian Farr—nor had the last three years brought any news of him, at least as far as Beltan knew.
Travis and Beltan had cooperated with the Seekers, submitting to interviews and writing lengthy reports about Eldh—its geography, peoples, languages, cultures, history, politics, and magic. In exchange, the Seekers had given them new identities, along with the papers to make them legal. They were now, officially, Travis Redstone and Arthur Beltan. The Seekers also granted them an amount of money that had no meaning for Beltan, but which according to Travis meant they would never want for anything for the rest of their lives.
All the same, they had to do something. Beltan had wondered if Travis wanted to return to his hometown, to Castle City, to rebuild the tavern he had once owned there. However, when he mentioned this, Travis had asked how Beltan liked London.
Beltan liked it very much. London was like nothing on Eldh. The ancient city of Tarras seemed a simple village in comparison. They had bought the flat in Mayfair, and had found jobs. Since then, they had spoken little with the Seekers, and it had been over a year since they had last seen Deirdre. Evidently, as far as the Seekers were concerned, Travis and Beltan’s case was closed, and that suited both of them just fine.
Beltan picked up the remote and switched on the television: another one of those marvels he had begun to take for granted. There was an astonishing array of choices called channels on TV (many displaying sights as vulgar as they were fascinating), but of them all Beltan’s favorite was the Wonder Channel. He enjoyed learning about this world that was now his home. Over the last three years, he had read voraciously—now that he could read, thanks to Grace’s tutelage in the Library of Tarras— though one day, after noticing the way he squinted at a page, Travis had taken him to a doctor to get him a pair of reading spectacles. The spectacles helped, but sometimes, like tonight, Beltan’s eyes were too tired for a book.
Television wasn’t as good as reading, but Beltan still liked it, and he pressed a button on the remote, changing to the Wonder Channel. A show called Archaeology Now! was just starting. He had seen this program before. It showed live footage of archaeologists working at various sites across the world, hoping to catch them at the very moment of a great discovery.
Archaeologists, Beltan knew, were learned men and women who dug up and studied the remains of ancient cultures and civilizations. It intrigued him to know that, in its past, Earth had been more like Eldh, but the problem with this show was that archaeology was, by any estimation, tedious work, and usually involved scraping away at dirt with tiny little picks and brushes. The pert young woman who hosted the show did her best to make every chipped bead or broken piece of pottery that came out of the ground seem like a breakthrough discovery, but often her smile seemed more than a little strained.
“Today, we’ll take you to the jungles of Belize,” her excited voice blared through the TV’s speakers, “where archaeologists are about to open the tomb of a Mayan princess that has remained hidden for over a thousand years. After that, we’re off to Australia, to uncover what could be the first signs of human habitation on that continent. And finally, we’ll venture into a cave to discover what incredible artifacts were revealed by a recent earthquake on the island of—”
A knock sounded at the door of the flat. Beltan muted the sound on the television and stood. The knock came again, hard and impatient.
“Coming,” Beltan grumbled, determined that this time he was not going to buy anything from whoever was on the other side of the door. He undid the lock and threw the door open.
So his instincts had been right after all. Their peaceful time in London—the waiting—was over.
She looked older than he remembered, her face honed by care, but she was still lithe and beautiful, wearing an aura of danger as well as sleek black leathers. In her arms she held a small girl with gray-gold eyes. The girl laughed and reached a chubby hand toward Beltan.
“Please,” Vani said, her voice low and urgent. “Let us in.”
Travis had always liked the simplest things best.
After the Second War of the Stones—much to his horror— Grace had wanted to make him a baron of Malachor. There was a ruined castle in the west of the Winter Wood, she said, only three days’ ride from Gravenfist Keep. He could take five hundred men and twenty Embarran engineers with him. In a year, the castle would be in good working order. His men could bring their families from the south; they could hunt the forests and clear land for farming, and Travis could be their lord.
“I’ll need smart and trustworthy barons if I’m going to have a chance of making this kingdom work again,” Grace had said with such characteristic matter-of-factness it made him laugh.
However, to be a baron—to have a great hall and vassal lords and servants—was the last thing Travis wanted. A two-bedroom flat in London was more than enough castle for him, and he was content to share the duties of ruling it with Beltan. The sorts of things he had done today—watching ships pass beneath Tower Bridge, walking home through the energetic streets of the West End, cooking a dinner that Beltan wolfed down no matter how awful it was—those were all he desired. Maybe it was because of everything he had witnessed in his time on Eldh, but these days Travis didn’t need much to be happy.
Only if that was so, why had he felt so gloomy today? Yes, he had lost his job at the bookstore and hadn’t found another to replace it. But money wasn’t a worry, and another job would come along. That wasn’t what was troubling him, and that wasn’t what had made him read her letter.
The dishes were done. Travis pulled the sink plug, leaned on the counter, and stared as the dishwater swirled down the drain. It circled around and around before vanishing.
Spirals are symbols of great power, spoke the echo of Jack Graystone’s voice in his mind. They attract magic, and trap it within them.
There had been a vast spiral inside the White Tower of the Runebinders, Travis remembered. It had drawn them into its center, and there he had first come face-to-face with wraithlings. The pale beings had come to take the Stone of Twilight from him; they had reached out spindly hands, and in their touch was death. Only then, without even knowing how, Travis had bound the tower’s broken foundation stone. The tower’s magic had awakened; the wraithlings were destroyed.
Looking back, Travis supposed that was the moment he became a wizard. However, that life was over. He wasn’t a wizard anymore. The Great Stones were a world away, on Eldh; he had given them to Master Larad for safekeeping. True, there was magic here on Earth, but it was a faint shadow of what it was on Eldh. Travis hadn’t even attempted a spell since the day he and Beltan came to Earth.
Yet if he wasn’t a wizard anymore, why did it feel like he was the thing trapped in the spiral?
Until it happened, Travis had never believed he could be so happy as he had been these last three years in London. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t someplace just because that was where he had ended up, but rather because he had chosen to be there. To be here, with Beltan. Yet he couldn’t leave the past behind, not completely. Jack’s voice still spoke in his mind from time to time, along with the voices of all the Runelords who had gone before him. Travis would never truly escape the spiral of power that had drawn him in, that had taken him to Eldh.
Nor were the voices the only reminders of what he had been, for sometimes his right hand ached to hold the Great Stones again, and if he looked in those moments, he would see a silvery symbol glimmer on his palm: three crossed lines. It would vanish after a few seconds, but it was always there, just beneath the surface. Waiting.
Once a thing is made, it cannot be unmade without breaking it. That was what Olrig—the Old God who was also the Worldsmith and Sia and the hag Grisla—had said to Master Larad, when Larad asked to be a Runelord no longer. The same was true for Travis. He could not change what he was.
Only what was he, exactly?
First Jack had made him into a Runelord. Then the fires of the Great Stone Krondisar had burned him to nothing before making him anew. And there was one more transformation that had changed him. . . .
A compulsion came over Travis, so swift and strong that a small paring knife was in his hand before he realized what he was doing. He longed to see blood, to see if here on Earth they would come if he called. He pressed the knife against the skin of his left forearm . . .
A noise broke the spell; he jerked the knife away. It had left a white mark in his flesh, but it had not drawn blood. He swallowed the sickness in his throat, then forced himself to set down the knife.
Out in the living room, the blare of the television ceased. A moment later came the sound of the door opening. He thought he heard a low voice saying something. Then the door shut. Beltan must have told whoever it was to go away.
Travis picked up a damp plate and a dish towel to give his trembling hands something to do, then headed into the living room. “Who was at the door, Beltan? I didn’t hear you—”
The plate slipped from his wet fingers. It seemed to make no sound as it struck the floor, shattering into a dozen white shards.
“You look well, Travis,” Vani said. Beltan stood just behind her, but Travis couldn’t look at him. He stared at the T’gol.
She wore supple leathers as she always had, and her gold eyes were just as piercing. However, her black hair was longer than he remembered, frosted by a streak of white that started at the peak of her brow. Though her bearing was as proud as always, there was a weight to her shoulders and a shadow on her expression he had never seen before.
“You look tired,” he said.
She nodded. “We have journeyed far to get here.”
It wasn’t until she spoke those words that he realized she held a child in her arms: a girl with dark hair, clad in an ash gray dress. She seemed too large to be three years old—Travis would have guessed her to be five—but there was no doubting who she was. The resemblance to each of them was plain to see: her sharp cheekbones, his high forehead. Travis looked at Beltan. The blond man’s eyes were locked on the girl.
“Please set me down, Mother,” the girl said in a voice that was precise and articulate despite a marked lisp.
She slipped from Vani’s arms, padded across the floor, and crouched beside the broken plate. She arranged the pieces, fitting them together with motions that seemed too skilled for such tiny hands.
The girl looked up at Travis. “Make it whole.”
He was too startled to do anything but kneel beside her and place a hand on the broken plate.
“Eru,” he said, trying to gather all the force of his will into the word.
He heard a chorus of voices echo the word in his mind. Only the chorus became a dissonant chord. The familiar whoosh of magic in his ears ceased, and he felt a wrenching sensation deep inside. He lifted his hand. The shards of the plate had fused together into a melted gray blob.
The girl frowned. “It didn’t work right.”
“No, it didn’t.” Travis held a hand to his throbbing head. Both Vani and Beltan glanced at him, her expression curious, his concerned.
The girl moved to Beltan, took one of his big hands, and curled her own hand inside it. “Hello, Father.”
Beltan’s expression transformed into one of wonder, and his hand closed reflexively—gently—around the girl’s. She turned, her eyes on Travis now. They were gray, like her dress, but flecked with gold.
“Hello, Father,” she said again.
Travis couldn’t speak. For so long he had wondered if she was fair-haired or dark, if she had all her fingers and toes; he had tried to picture what she would look like, the image in his mind changing a little with each passing month. Now she was here, so much like he had imagined, and utterly different, and he had no idea what to say to her.
Beltan knelt, laid a hand on her shoulder, and gave her a solemn look. “What is your name, child?”
Her look was as serious as his. “My name is Nim.”
Again the voices spoke in Travis’s mind, echoing the name. Only it wasn’t just a name, it was a rune.
“Nim,” Travis murmured. “Hope.” He moved toward Vani. “Did you name her that?”
The girl—Nim—laughed, all traces of seriousness gone. “Don’t be silly, Father,” she said. “You did.”
“I told her she was my greatest hope,” the T’gol said to Travis, “and that it was you who told me the ancient word for hope was Nim.”
Travis tried to clear the lump from his throat. “You spoke about me—about us—often?”
Vani nodded. “As soon as she could speak—which was quite early—she always wanted to know everything I could tell her about you both. She can be quite . . . persistent.”
“You’re very brave, and your father was a king,” Nim said, pointing at Beltan, then she pointed at Travis. “And you’re a great wizard.”
Travis glanced down at the melted plate, and his stomach churned.
“Nim,” Vani said, kneeling beside the girl, touching her arms, “why don’t you go play in the bedroom for a while?”
The girl heaved a dramatic sigh for the obvious benefit of Travis and Beltan. “That means she wants to say things to you that I’m not supposed to hear.”
“Yes,” Vani said, gold eyes flashing, “it does.” She turned Nim around and gave her a gentle but firm push toward the hallway. Nim made a show of dragging her small black shoes on the floor, then vanished into the bedroom. The door shut behind her.
“So now what?” Travis said, his voice going hard.
Both Vani and Beltan stared at him.
Travis had always imagined that, if this moment somehow ever came, he would feel immeasurable joy. And for a moment he had. It was good to know Nim’s name, to know she was whole and healthy and beautiful. Only that moment was over, and now anger oozed from Travis, hot and thick, like blood from a reopened wound.
“You can’t do this, Vani.”
“What you’re doing.” He clenched his hands into fists and advanced on the T’gol. “Don’t you understand? We’ve been happy here. For three years, we’ve been just fine without you.”
“Travis . . .” Beltan started to say, laying a hand on his shoulder, but Travis shook it off.
“We didn’t have a choice,” he said, moving in until his face was inches from hers. “And you know why? Because you left us.”
“I had my reasons,” she said, her voice cool. “Did you not read the letter I left for you at Gravenfist Keep?”
Travis let out a bitter laugh. He had read it all right, over and over, and each time it made less sense than the last. “It doesn’t matter why you did it. You went, and you took something away that we can never get back, not even now that you’ve brought Nim here. That was the choice you made, and I don’t know what you’re doing in London, or how you even got to Earth, but you can’t just walk through that door like nothing ever happened. You don’t have that right. You gave it away the night you left us without even bothering to say good-bye.”
As he spoke, his voice had risen, and her body had grown rigid, her eyes sparking. She was T’gol; she could reach up and snap his neck with her bare hands before he could blink. In fact, she looked as if she wanted to do it right then. Beltan started to reach for her, but she shut her eyes and turned away, crossing her arms over her stomach.
“I know,” she said. And again, the words soft and broken, “I know.”
Travis wanted to harden his heart, to refuse to hear the sorrow, the regret, the anguish in her voice. Only wasn’t that what he had given up so much to fight against? Those whose hearts were made of cold iron rather than weak, mortal flesh?
The anger drained from him like the dishwater in the sink, leaving him empty and shaking. He felt Beltan’s strong arms wrap around him, and he leaned his head on the blond man’s shoulder.
“Maybe you’d better tell us why you’ve come,” Beltan said, the words gruff, and Vani nodded.
Ten minutes later, they sat around the kitchen table, drinking mugs of coffee Beltan had brewed. Nim was in the living room now, lying on her stomach on the floor, drawing with a pencil and some paper Beltan had found in the desk. Before heading into the kitchen, Travis had paused for a moment, watching her. The pencil seemed far too large for her fingers, but she moved it across the paper with deliberate motions, sticking out her tongue as she concentrated.
“She seems older than three winters,” Beltan said. “She looks like five, and speaks as if she is older than that.”
Vani wrapped her hands around her mug. “She’s always been that way. She was born after only seven moons, as if she was anxious to be out and learning about the world.” She smiled, and the expression smoothed away some of the lines from her face. “She was only six moons old when she first spoke, and then not simply a single world. I will never forget it. I was cradling her in my arms, and she said, ‘Set me down, Mother.’ I did, and she walked over to a pebble and picked it up. I’ve never seen a child speak or walk so early.”
“I heard her,” Travis said. “When she was still in your womb, Vani. It was in Imbrifale, after you and Beltan had passed through the Void, when I spoke the rune of fire to warm you. To warm her. I heard her voice in my mind. It was so small, I thought I was just imagining it, but . . .”
“You weren’t imagining. What did she say to you?”
Wonder filled Travis, just as it had then. “She said, ‘Hello, Father.’ ”
Beltan’s eyes shone, and he gripped Travis’s hand.
There was so much Travis wanted to know, so many questions to ask—where they had been, what they had done—but before he could speak, Vani reached inside her leathers, drew out a small object, and set it on the table. It was a tetrahedron fashioned of perfect black stone.
“The gate artifact,” Beltan said, leaning over but not touching the onyx tetrahedron. “So that’s how you reached Earth.”
“My people have had it in their keeping these last three years,” Vani said. “I gave it to them when they came to Gravenfist Keep.”
“Before you left,” Travis said. The words sounded harsher than he intended, but he didn’t care.
“Yes,” Vani said, turning her gold eyes on him. “Before I left. Then, a few weeks ago, I went to my people, to ask if I might have the artifact back. I found them in the far south of Falengarth.”
Beltan picked up the coffeepot and refilled their mugs. “Were Sareth and Lirith with the Mournish?”
“I fear I missed them. My brother had taken a ship across the Summer Sea, to Moringarth, a week before I arrived, and Lirith had gone north with their son, Taneth, to visit Aryn at Calavere.”
Despite everything, Travis couldn’t help smiling. So Lirith and Sareth were parents now. A sudden desire to see them, to see everyone they had left on Eldh, came over him. Only that was impossible, wasn’t it? Even as he thought this, his fingers crept toward the fragment of the gate artifact on the table; he jerked his hand back.
“Why did you go to your people to get the gate?” Beltan said.
“For the same reason I left you three years ago and could not return.”
Travis took a breath. “And what reason is that?”
“I am fleeing the Scirathi.”
They listened, too stunned for speech, as Vani described in brief but vivid words why she had left Gravenfist that day three years ago, and where she had been in the time since.
She hadn’t known the sorcerers of Scirath were pursuing her, at least not at first. After leaving Gravenfist Keep she had journeyed south, sailing across the Summer Sea to Al-Amún, seeking out oracles and seers, trying to understand the fate her al-Mama had seen in the cards.
Your daughter is not yet born, the old woman had told Vani, yet already powerful lines of fate weave themselves around her. You dare not stay, lest you be trapped in the net.
It was there, in Moringarth, where the Scirathi first attacked her. Several of the gold-masked sorcerers had surrounded the hostel where she was staying. She was heavy with child then, and she could not have fought them, except that they seemed unwilling to harm her. They only wanted to capture her, to keep her from escaping. One cut himself and began a spell of binding. However, Vani managed to take his knife and cut him deeper, so that more blood flowed than he had intended. Many spirits came in answer to his spell, and they consumed his blood, draining him dry. The other sorcerers were forced to weave their own spells to keep the ravenous morndari under control. In the confusion, Vani fled.
After that, she was vigilant, and they did not catch her unawares again. However, she was forced always to keep moving. By the time she gave birth to Nim she was on a ship sailing north. For the next three years she kept traveling from place to place, never staying in one spot for more than a month or two, and never daring to return to a location where she had been before, for fear they would be waiting for her.
When she finished, Travis and Beltan could only stare at her. Through the door they heard Nim humming as she drew. At last Travis forced himself to speak.
“So have you learned what the Scirathi want with you?”
“They don’t want me.”
“Nim,” Beltan said, his voice hoarse. He stood, pacing around the table. “It’s Nim the sorcerers want, isn’t it?”
Vani nodded, her expression haunted.
Beltan slammed a fist on the countertop. “The filthy Scirathi—I will kill them all with my bare hands.”
Sparks shone in his green eyes. Alarmed, Travis rose and moved to him, touching his arm. For a moment Beltan was rigid, then he sighed and his shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, Travis. It’s only . . . we’ve just met her, and now they want to take her away.”
Travis looked at Vani. “What do they want with her?”
“I would that I knew,” Vani said, gazing at her hands splayed on the table. “But whatever the reason, the Scirathi have grown more relentless in their pursuit these last weeks. I could not stay anywhere more than a few days before I was forced to flee. That was why I sought out my people and asked for the gate. I knew it was the only way to escape.”
Travis gazed at the piece of the artifact. “How did you open it, Vani? The gate.”
Beltan gave him a startled look.
Travis sat again. He slid his hands across the table toward her own but did not touch them. “The blood I filled it with beneath the Steel Cathedral would have been consumed when you and Beltan returned to Eldh. So what blood did you use to open the gate?”
Vani opened her mouth, but no words came out.
“It’s all right, Mother,” said a small voice behind them. “You can tell them. I don’t mind.”
Nim stood in the kitchen door, holding a piece of paper.
“Tell us what, sweetheart?” Travis said, keeping his tone light, unsure how much she had heard.
The girl pranced to the table and set the paper down. “How we came here. Look, I drew you a picture. It explains everything.”
Travis turned the paper around. The drawing was made up of simple but expressive lines. At the bottom of the paper was a small black triangle. Above the triangle was a large circle with wavy edges. On either side of the circle stood a stick figure, one tall, the other short. The shorter figure held a hand toward the triangle. Small black shapes like teardrops fell from the little figure’s hand onto the triangle.
Only the drops weren’t tears, Travis knew. A sweat sprang out on his skin.
Vani picked up the paper, folded it in half, and gave it back to Nim. “It’s time for you to go to sleep.”
“I know,” the girl said. “I can put myself to bed. I just wanted my fathers to kiss me good night first.”
They did. Beltan picked her up and hugged her, and Travis gave her a solemn kiss on her forehead. She ran to the door, then stopped and looked at Vani.
“I’m lucky, Mother,” she said.
Vani’s gaze was thoughtful. “How so, daughter?”
“Most children have just one father. But I have two.”
With that, Nim was gone. Travis and Beltan sat again at the table. Vani stared at the door where the girl had vanished.
“How?” Travis said simply.
Vani didn’t look at him. “She told me to do it. I refused at first—older though she seems, she is only three—but the sorcerers were close behind us, and I knew my people would not be able to delay them for long. I had little choice. And I learned early on that she knows things. Things she shouldn’t know, yet does all the same.”
Beltan pressed his hand to the inside of his right arm.
“So her blood activated the gate,” Travis said, feeling ill.
“She didn’t even cry as I pricked her finger with a needle.” Vani hesitated, then touched his hand. “Somehow, through some magic of the Little People, she truly is your child, Travis. Even as she is my child, and Beltan’s. She is what she is because of all of us.”
Travis struggled to comprehend. How could Nim really be his child? The Little People had tricked Vani and Beltan, making each think the other was Travis. The two had lain together, and Nim was conceived. But it was only illusion; he hadn’t really been there. Or was it some enchantment of the Little People? Some magic that had taken something from all three of them and imparted it to Nim?
“There’s something else I have not told you.” Vani circled her hands around the onyx tetrahedron—the topmost portion of the gate artifact. “It has been three weeks since I came to Earth. It took me that long to find you, for I began my search in Colorado.”
“Sorry,” Travis said. “We didn’t know we needed to leave a forwarding address.”
Vani did not smile. “I kept the lid of the gate artifact so that I might remain in contact with my people. While a Mournish man or woman’s blood is not enough to open the gate—”
“It’s enough to send a message,” Travis said. “Yes, I know. Are you saying you’ve heard something?”
“Hold out your hand.”
Travis did so, and she set the onyx tetrahedron on his palm. It was warm, and he felt a hum of magic. Blood flowed beneath his skin. Blood of power. Just the proximity to it was enough to awaken the artifact. A tiny, transparent image of a man appeared above the tetrahedron.
It was Sareth. He held a knife, and there was a dark line on his forearm.
“Sister,” the image spoke in a reedy but clear facsimile of Sareth’s voice, “I returned from the south, from Moringarth, only today, and our al-Mama tells me that you are already two weeks gone. I wish that I could speak with you in person. But I fear, whatever dark wonders you might tell me, the news I bear would be darker yet.”
A grimace crossed the image of his face. “I must be brief. Let me say this: I think it is fate you chose to journey to Earth. In Moringarth, I spoke to a dervish, and though what he told me seems impossible, I am certain it is true. The burial place of Morindu the Dark has been discovered. Already the Scirathi seek it out, and our people move to hinder them and reach the city first. And, sister, this news is even stranger than you imagine, for the dervish who brought it to me is a man from Travis Wilder’s world, a man named Hadrian Farr. He says word must be sent to Travis, that the time draws near when he must return to Eldh and—”
The image of Sareth flickered, then vanished. The tetrahedron grew cool and heavy in Travis’s hand. He could feel both Vani’s and Beltan’s eyes on him as he set it on the table. His mind buzzed, and his hands itched. What had Sareth been about to say before the spell of blood sorcery ceased? What was Travis supposed to return to Eldh and do?
They want you to raise it, Travis. To raise it from the sands that swallowed it long ago. Morindu the Dark, lost city of sorcerers.
He shoved his chair back from the table and stood.
Beltan’s green eyes were worried. “What are you doing?”
“I’m calling for help,” Travis said as he picked up the phone and dialed.
“Come on,” Deirdre Falling Hawk muttered as the train rattled to a stop at the Green Park station.
The doors lurched open, and she squeezed through the moment the opening was wide enough. “Mind the gap,” droned a recorded voice, but she had already leaped onto the platform, breaking into a run as her boots hit the tiles. Travis hadn’t said why he wanted her to come over, but there had been something in his voice—a sharpness—that made her heart quicken. Besides, Travis and Beltan hadn’t invited her or any other Seeker to their flat in the three years since they had come to London. Something told her this wasn’t an invitation for a drink and casual conversation.
She gripped the yellowed bear claw that hung at her throat as she pounded up the steps and into the balmy night. A man wearing a grimy white sheet stood next to the entrance of the Tube station, holding a cardboard sign, a blank look on his face. The sign read, in neatly printed letters, You Will Be Eaten.
“Are you ready for the Mouth?” he said as she passed him, the words accompanied by a puff of sour breath.
Deirdre ignored him—the Mouthers were everywhere in the city these days—and darted across Piccadilly Street. She had never been to Travis and Beltan’s flat, but she knew exactly where it was. The Seekers had a penchant for keeping tabs on otherworldly travelers. Even those whose cases were closed.
Except the case would never really be closed, whether the Seekers were actively investigating it or not. And it wasn’t just because of the phone call from Travis that Deirdre ran headlong down the sidewalk, daring other pedestrians to get in her way.
Just before the phone rang, she had been sitting at the dining table in her flat, working on her laptop computer, doing some cross-indexing between two databases. It was tedious work, but necessary as well. The kind of work she’d been doing a lot of lately.
Not that she wouldn’t rather have been investigating rumors of unexplainable energy signatures or artifacts of unknown origin, journeying to exotic locations, poring over lost manuscripts, or decoding hieroglyphics. However, if there were any otherworldly forces lurking out there, waiting to be discovered, then they were studiously avoiding her, because she hadn’t worked on an interesting case in over a year, and the last several leads of any promise she had found had all run into dead ends.
Eyes aching from staring at the computer, Deirdre had just decided to call it a night when the machine chimed. On screen, a message appeared.
Do be sure to take this call.
That was all. There was no indication of the sender, no box in which she could type a reply. She was still staring at the message when the phone rang, causing her to jump out of her seat.
If the call had come a minute before, she would have been tempted to let the answering machine get it, to soak in a bath before going to bed. After all, what could be so important she couldn’t deal with it tomorrow? Deirdre didn’t know, but the message on the computer screen changed everything. She lunged for the phone, unsure who it would be on the other end, though somehow not surprised when it was Travis Wilder.
“Deirdre, I’m so glad you’re home,” he had said, his words clipped. “Can you . . . can you come over right away?”
“Of course,” she had said. “I’ll be there in half an hour.” She hung up and glanced at the computer. The message was gone, but she knew now who had sent it.
It was he. There was no other possibility, even though he hadn’t contacted her in over three years. The last time had been just a few weeks after the events in Denver, when the Steel Cathedral was destroyed, and the truth about Duratek’s involvement in the illegal trade of the drug Electria was revealed. After that, for a time, she had hoped. Every phone call, every e-mail message, had caused a jolt of excitement.
Only they were never from him. Whoever the mysterious Philosopher was who had helped her in the past, he had fallen silent. But hadn’t he said it would be like that? It may be some time until we speak again , he had told her at the end of their first and only telephone conversation. But when the time comes, I’ll be in touch.
That time was now. Yet what did it mean? Something had happened—something had changed—but what?
You know what it is, Deirdre. Perihelion is coming. Earth and Eldh are drawing near. That’s what he told you three years ago. Maybe it’s close now. Maybe that’s why everything is changing. . . .
She turned down a deserted side street, half jogged the last block to their building, and started up the steps. Just as she reached the door, the short hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Again she gripped her bear claw necklace—a gift from her shaman grandfather—and turned around.
The black silhouette of a figure stood on the edge of a circle of light cast by a streetlamp. A thrill of dread and wonder sizzled through Deirdre. Was it him? Surely he was keeping watch on Beltan and Travis. How else would he have known Travis was about to call her?
The figure reached out a beckoning hand. As if compelled by a will not her own, she started back down the steps.
“Deirdre!” a voice called from above. “Up here.”
She turned and looked up. Beltan leaned out of a window two floors above her.
“I’ll let you in,” the blond man said, then his head ducked inside. A second later the building’s front door buzzed, and the lock clicked.
Deirdre glanced over her shoulder, but the circle of light across the street was empty. She pulled on the door before the buzzing stopped, then bounded up two flights of stairs. The door of their flat opened before she could knock on it, and she was hauled inside by strong hands.
“It’s been too long since we’ve seen you,” Beltan said as he lifted her off the floor in an embrace.
“So you’re going to crush me as punishment?” she managed to squeak.
Beltan set her down and straightened her leather jacket. “Sorry. For me, hugs only come in one strength.”
“That would be maximum,” she said, returning his grin. However, her smile vanished as she caught Travis’s troubled gray eyes. He moved forward and laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Thank you for coming.”
“I’ll always come when you call, no matter how long it’s been or how far away you are. But what’s going on? And why couldn’t you tell me over the phone?”
He stepped aside. The first thing she noticed was the broadsword hanging above the sofa; that had to be Beltan’s. Then her gaze moved down, and she saw the woman sitting there. The woman stood, stretching limbs clad in supple black leather.
“Oh,” Deirdre said, and would have fallen to the floor if not for Beltan’s strong hands.
They set her on the sofa, propped her up with a pillow, and pressed a glass of porter into her hand. A few sips of beer revived her enough that she was able to tell them she was fine, though she wasn’t certain that was really the case.
For the last three years, Deirdre had done her best not to think about them. The Seekers had officially closed the Wilder-Beckett case. The gate to the world AU-3—to Eldh—had been destroyed, and Duratek Corporation had been destroyed as well. The company had been dismantled by the governments of Earth; its executives were in jail or, in many cases, dead. There would be other investigations, maybe even other worlds. But the door to this one had been shut. It was over.
At least, that was what she had told herself. But deep within, Deirdre had known it wasn’t over, not truly. They had all of them been waiting, that was all. Waiting for a day when two worlds would draw closer. Waiting for a time they would be called again.
“All right,” Deirdre said, setting the empty glass on the coffee table. “Who’s going to tell me why I’m here?”
Vani and Beltan both cast glances at Travis. He sat down on the sofa next to her and took her hand in his.
“I supposed I always let myself believe it was just a story, that there was nothing behind it.” His gray eyes were solemn. “I thought it would never come. Only now it finally has.”
Deirdre shook her head. “I don’t understand. What’s come?”
“Fate,” Travis said.
Before Deirdre could ask what he was talking about, Vani spoke, and for the next several minutes Deirdre listened as the T’gol explained how and why she had come to Earth, and of her last three years fleeing from the Scirathi. Vani’s words were terrible and fascinating, but Deirdre found it hard to focus on them. A droning noise filled her skull; there was something she needed to tell them, but what was it?
She stared at the T’gol. Vani’s face was sharper than before, but still lovely, even delicate. Tattoos like vines accentuated the exquisite lines of her neck; thirteen gold rings glittered in her left ear. However, Deirdre knew it would be a mistake to let that beauty lull her. Vani was an assassin, trained since girlhood in the arts of stealth, infiltration, and killing in swift silence.
There was much Vani alluded to that Deirdre already knew, things she had learned when she first met the T’gol and which Deirdre had included in her reports to the Seekers: how Vani’s people believed Travis Wilder was the one destined to raise Morindu the Dark from the sands that had swallowed it long ago, and how the gold-masked sorcerers, the Scirathi, hoped to reach it first, to steal the magics entombed within for their own purposes.
“Only what exactly is buried in Morindu?” Deirdre said as she rubbed her temples, voicing her thought without meaning to.
“Good question,” Beltan rumbled. The big man sat on the floor, making steady progress through an enormous bowl of popcorn.
“My people cannot say for certain,” the T’gol said, prowling back and forth before the curtained window. “No records survive from the last days of the War of the Sorcerers. We have only what our storytellers have passed down. Nor were any of the Morindai there at the very end, for the people of Morindu were ordered to flee the city as the army of Scirath approached. Only the Seven A’narai, the Fateless Ones who ruled in the name of the god-king Orú, remained behind. They and the Shackled God, Orú, himself.”
The War of the Sorcerers. Deirdre had heard Vani speak those words before. In Denver, the T’gol had told them of the great conflagration that, three thousand years ago, had engulfed the ancient city-states of Amún on Eldh’s southern continent. The sorcerers, powerful and angry, had risen up against the arrogant god-kings of the city-states, seeking to cast them down and take their place. However, Morindu was unique, for it was a city of sorcerers, ruled by the most potent among them. In fear and mistrust, the other city-states named it Morindu the Dark.
Near the end of the War of the Sorcerers, a great army led by the sorcerers of Scirath had marched toward the city. Rather than fall to its foes and let its secrets be plundered, Morindu had chosen to destroy itself. When the army arrived, they found only empty desert.
Soon after that, the War of the Sorcerers ended in a violent cataclysm that destroyed the city-states and blasted all of Amún, transforming it into a wasteland. What few people survived fled north to the shores of the Summer Sea, to begin civilization anew in Al-Amún. Eventually, some of the Morindai found their way across the sea, to the northern continent of Falengarth, and there became a wandering folk known as the Mournish. These were Vani’s people. However, Vani was no mere gypsy. Deirdre knew the T’gol could trace her lineage all the way back to the royal line of Morindu the Dark.
“All right,” Beltan said around a mouthful of popcorn. “If the Mournish don’t know what’s buried in Morindu, then tell me this: What do the Scirathi think is buried there? What are they so eager to get their paws on?”
Vani rested her hands on her hips. “Many things, I imagine. Books of spells. Artifacts of power. Treasures of gold and gems. Or perhaps—”
“Blood,” Travis said. “They want blood.”
Deirdre shivered. At one time Travis had possessed an artifact shaped like a gold spider, a living jewel called a scarab. The scarab had contained three drops of blood taken from the god-king Orú. With it, Travis had been able to activate the gate artifact, opening a crackling doorway to Eldh.
“You think they want blood of power,” Deirdre said. “Blood from the god-king Orú.”
Travis shook his head. “No. I think they want Orú himself.” He turned his gaze on Vani. “He’s still there, isn’t he? The Seven stayed with him to the end, and they buried him with the city.”
Vani knelt on the floor. Beltan gave her a suspicious look and edged the bowl of popcorn out of her reach.
“We suppose he is still there,” the T’gol said. “But we do not know.”
“You mean his body,” Deirdre said. “It’s been three thousand years. It’s not like Orú can still be alive.”
Vani shrugged. “Who is to say what can and cannot be? It is said Orú was five hundred years old at the time Morindu was destroyed. He was the most powerful sorcerer ever known. So powerful that Fate itself tangled around him, its strands unraveling, so that only the Seven A’narai could stand in his presence. Yet in time that power consumed him. He fell into a deep slumber, and so it was that the Fateless Ones drank of his blood, becoming sorcerers of dreadful might themselves, and ruled in his name.”
“Okay,” Deirdre said, hoping logic might make all of this seem less terrifying. “Let’s pretend for a moment Orú is somehow still alive, buried beneath the desert. What would happen if the Scirathi found him?”
“That must not be allowed to happen!” Vani said, her eyes flashing. “With Orú’s blood, there is no limit to the evils the Scirathi might work. I have no doubt that they would first hunt my people, slaying the Morindai down to the last man, woman, and child.” Vani stood, pacing again. “But that would only be the beginning. With Orú’s blood at their command, they might enslave all of Moringarth—all of Eldh. They would dominate its people with all the hatred, all the cruelty, they have fostered in their hearts all these ages. Nothing could stand before them. That is what the Seven understood. That was why they destroyed their own city.”
Travis cleared his throat. “The way you describe them, the Scirathi make the Pale King sound like a chap who just wanted to come out of his kingdom and play.”
Vani raised an eyebrow. “Compared to what the Scirathi might become, he was.”
“Wait just a minute,” Beltan said, a handful of popcorn halfway to his mouth. “Weren’t all of the Scirathi killed when the demon destroyed the Etherion in Tarras?”
“All of the Scirathi in Falengarth, yes,” Vani said. “But far more yet dwell on Moringarth. If each of them was to drink of the blood of Orú, they would become an army such as you cannot imagine.”
“She’s right,” Travis said, slipping from the sofa to the floor and sitting across the coffee table from Beltan. “Remember what happened to Xemeth after he drank from the scarab? He would have destroyed us if it hadn’t been for the demon. And he was only one man, and not even a sorcerer at that. The blood made him . . .”
Travis gripped his right hand inside the left, and Beltan gave him a look of concern. Deirdre wondered what he had been about to say.
“All right,” she said, trying to get all of this straight in her mind. “I understand that Orú’s blood is powerful, and that the Scirathi would do anything to get their hands on it. But Morindu has been lost for ages. Why is this so important now? And what does any of this have to do with me?”
“I believe this will answer both of your questions,” Vani said, setting a tetrahedron of black stone on the coffee table. “Travis?”
Travis hesitated, then reached out and touched the stone. Deirdre sucked in a breath as the image of a man appeared above the tetrahedron. She had never seen him before, but their kinship was clear in his striking, angular features, and she knew he was Vani’s brother. This was a message from Eldh.
The message was brief, and it changed everything. By the time the image of Vani’s brother vanished, Deirdre’s heart was racing.
“You bastard, Hadrian,” she murmured. “You fabulous bastard. You actually did it.”
“Did what?” Beltan said, brow furrowing.
She hugged a throw pillow to her chest. “He had a Class Zero Encounter. Translocation to another world. Something every Seeker has worked for, and something none of them has ever achieved.”
“Maybe I should be a Seeker,” Beltan said brightly. “I’ve been to another world. This one.”
Despite the buzzing in her head, Deirdre grinned at the blond man. “Don’t be such a show-off.”
She reminded herself that she was having multiple Class One Encounters herself at this very moment—something rare enough in the history of the Seekers. Resting her chin on a hand, she gazed at the onyx tetrahedron. What did it all mean? How had Farr gotten to Eldh? And why was he the one who had told the Mournish that Morindu had been found?
You always were a fast learner, Hadrian. They said you’re a dervish, which I gather is some sort of sorcerer. I wish I could talk to you now. I know I should do something, but I have no idea what.
The only thing she knew for certain was that this case wasn’t over. In fact, she had the feeling that—despite everything that had happened—it had only just begun.
“So now what?” Deirdre said.
“Now Travis must fulfill his fate,” Vani said as if everything had already been decided.
Beltan’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“Travis must return to Eldh,” Vani said, standing. “He must journey into the Morgolthi and reach Morindu before the Scirathi.”
Beltan jumped to his feet. “Why don’t you go find it yourself, you and the Mournish? It’s your bloody city.”
Vani kept her eyes on Travis. “It is his fate to do it.”
“Why?” Beltan said, cheeks ruddy. “Because you want it to be?”
Vani’s face was hard. “No, because it is. Our oracles saw it long ago: The wizard who came to Eldh to defeat a great evil in the north would also be the one to raise Morindu. This task is his.”
“Don’t you think he’s done enough already? He gave up everything to fight the Necromancer, and the Pale King, and Mohg. He’s done enough for the world. For both worlds. This is his time now. Our time. And you can’t just walk in here and take it from him. By all the gods, I won’t let you!”
Deirdre felt she should turn her head, that she shouldn’t be seeing this, only she couldn’t look away. She had never seen Beltan cry before, but he was weeping now, tears running down his cheeks, and the big man’s anguish made her own heart ache. Even Vani did not appear unmoved. The T’gol cast her eyes downward, but again she said, her voice low this time, “It is his fate.”
Travis laughed, and all of them stared. It was a bitter sound. He was gazing down at his hands. “I still can’t figure out how it can be my fate to find Morindu if I’m supposed to be one of the Fateless.”
“What you say is true,” Vani said, kneeling beside him. “But it is the fate of my people to find Morindu through you.”
Beltan wiped the tears from his face with a rough gesture. “Then you have no idea what his fate really is. For all you know, you’re telling him the wrong thing. Maybe it’s because he refuses to go to Eldh that you find the city yourselves.”
Vani started a hot reply, but Travis held up a hand.
“It doesn’t matter. Even if I wanted to try to find Morindu—” he gave Vani a sharp look “—and I’m not saying I do, but even if I did, I couldn’t. There’s no way for me to get back to Eldh.”
Deirdre ran a hand through her close-cropped hair. “What about the artifact?” However, even as she spoke, she remembered what she had learned before about the way the gate artifacts functioned.
“This is only part of the artifact,” Vani said. “With it, I can receive messages from my brother. But he has the greater part, and without it we cannot open a gate.” She gave Travis a piercing look. “But do you not have other means to travel between the worlds?”
Beltan let out a loud guffaw. “You mean you just assumed he could go back to Eldh?”
Vani gave him a dark look but said nothing, and it was clear this was exactly what she had believed.
“It’s not like he can just snap his fingers,” Beltan said, grinning, though it was a fierce expression. “By Vathris, even I know that much. True, he could use the Great Stones to travel between worlds, but he left them in Master Larad’s care. And the silver coin he has only works in one direction, to bring him to his home—and that’s here.”
Vani gave Travis a stricken look. “Is this true?”
“You doubt Beltan?” he said simply.
She hunched her shoulders and looked away.
“What about Brother Cy?” Deirdre said.
She was as surprised as the others that she had spoken—after all, they were the otherworldly travelers, not she—but now that their eyes were on her, she felt braver. In his reports, Travis had spoken of the mysterious preacher Brother Cy, and Deirdre had encountered one of his cohort, the purple-eyed Child Samanda. According to Travis, Cy, Mirrim, and Samanda were Old Gods. A thousand years ago, they had helped to banish Mohg beyond the circle of Eldh, only in the process they were exiled with him. Then, when Travis inadvertently created a crack between the worlds by journeying back in time, Mohg was able to slip through the gap into Earth—and so were Cy and the others.
“Brother Cy helped you get to Eldh more than once,” Deirdre said. “Couldn’t he help you again?”
Travis’s face was thoughtful. “I don’t think Brother Cy is here anymore. When Larad broke the rune of Sky, Mohg was able to return to Eldh. I think Cy and Mirrim and Samanda went as well. It’s their home, after all. I don’t think we’ll be getting any help from them this time around.”
“There must be another way,” Vani said, her words imploring.
Travis laid a hand on the T’gol’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Vani. But even if I wanted to help, I can’t. You have to face the fact that there’s no way for any of us to get back to—”
The telephone rang.
They all gazed blankly at one another for a moment, as if the sound had jarred them out of a spell, then Beltan picked up the cordless phone and held it to his ear.
He cocked his head, then held the phone out toward Deirdre. “It’s for you.”
Deirdre fumbled as she took the phone. Who could be calling her here? She hadn’t told anyone where she was going—not the Seekers, not even her partner Anders. However, as soon as she heard the rich, accentless voice emanating from the phone, she knew who it was.
“Turn on the television,” the nameless Philosopher said. “I think you’ll be interested in what you see.”
There was a click, and a dial tone replaced his voice. Deirdre set down the phone, her heart pounding.
“Who was it?” Travis said.
She licked her lips. “Where’s the remote control?”
A minute later, they gathered around the television. In quick words, Deirdre had described the message she had received on her computer just before Travis called and what he had said just now on the phone.
“You say this Philosopher friend of yours hasn’t contacted you in over three years.” Travis said. “I wonder why now?”
“Let’s find out,” Beltan said, and clicked a button on the remote.
The television glowed to life, displaying a scene of a blue ocean breaking against white rocks. The camera panned, focusing on weathered columns—what looked like the remains of an ancient Greek temple—rising toward an azure sky. A small graphic image in the corner of the screen advertised the name of the program: Archaeology Now!
“Wait a minute,” Beltan said. “I was watching this show hours ago. How can it still be on?”
He punched the remote, trying to change the channel, but it no longer seemed to function. The volume came up.
“I didn’t do that. What’s wrong with this thing?” Beltan banged the remote against the table.
Travis grabbed his arm, stopping him. “Listen,” he said.
Now the television showed a man dressed in khakis standing next to one of the columns. “—and which were opened by a recent earthquake here on the Mediterranean island of Crete,” he was saying. “Tonight, we’re taking our cameras and you into one of those caves, not far from the ancient palace of Knossos, to an excavation where Dr. Niko Karali is hoping to uncover evidence that could further our understanding of ancient Minoan culture, and perhaps provide new clues to an age-old mystery: why the thriving Minoan civilization vanished almost overnight three thousand years ago. As always on our program, we have no idea what we’ll find, because everything you see is live. So let’s head—”
The sound cut out, and the video began to move rapidly.
“Don’t look at me,” Beltan said, pointing to the remote control, which sat on the coffee table.
Despite the announcer’s statement, Deirdre was certain this show was anything but live. It had been recorded earlier that night, and now it was being played back for their benefit. The video became a blur of images too fast for the eye to decipher. Then the video froze, and a single image filled the screen.
It was a stone arch, or part of one at least, set against rougher rock. A hand held a brush, clearing away dust and debris from one of the stones of the arch. Beneath the brush, Deirdre could just make out a series of angular marks.
She clapped a hand to her mouth at the same moment Travis swore.
“By the Blood,” Vani whispered, her gold eyes wide.
Beltan cast them an annoyed look. “Great. Am I the only one who doesn’t know what that writing says?” His expression grew thoughtful, and he rubbed his arm. “Although I feel like I should know.”
Deirdre gripped the silver ring on her right hand. The ring Glinda had given her. She didn’t need to look to know that the angular characters etched inside it were shaped just like those on the television screen.
Travis drew closer to the TV. “I’ve seen writing like that before.”
“It is the ancient writing of Amún,” Vani said. “Few know it now. Even I cannot read what it says, though there are some among my clan who could. And there are others . . .”
“You mean sorcerers,” Travis said. “There was writing sort of like that on the stone box that one Scirathi created to hold the gate artifact.”
“Not sort of,” Vani said. “The writing is identical.”
All of them seemed to understand at once, as if a jolt of electricity had passed between them, carrying the knowledge.
“A gate,” Deirdre said. “That arch is a gate, isn’t it?”
Or part of one, anyway. She didn’t need to wait for the archaeologists to uncover the entire thing to know that they wouldn’t find the arch’s keystone—that it was missing.
Only it wasn’t missing. Deirdre knew exactly where it was: in the vaults of the Seekers. The Seekers had discovered it in the tavern that sat on the same spot that centuries later would house Surrender Dorothy. It was in researching Glinda’s ring that Deirdre had discovered the existence of the keystone, for the writing on the ring and the keystone were identical.
Travis pressed his hand against the television screen. “Maybe there is a way back,” he murmured.
Vani’s eyes shone, and Beltan gave her a dark look. However, before the blond man could speak, the sound of small feet broke the silence. Deirdre tore her gaze from the TV. A girl stood at the end of the sofa. Her hair was dark, but her skin was moon-pale.
“You must be Deirdre,” the girl said, her words articulate, though must came out as muth.
“Nim,” Vani said, kneeling beside the girl. “What are you doing out here? You’re supposed to be in bed.”
Nim. Deirdre didn’t recognize the name. However, she knew who this girl was. It was Vani and Beltan’s daughter.
“I can’t sleep,” Nim said.
Vani brushed her hair from her face. “And why is that, beshala?”
“Because there’s a gold face outside my window,” the girl said yawning. “It keeps watching me.”
Vani held the girl tight. “It was a bad dream, dearest one. That was all.”
However, there was doubt in the T’gol’s eyes, and a terrible certainty that the girl hadn’t been dreaming came over Deirdre. Fear cleared her mind, and at last she understood what it was that had been troubling her all evening, what it was she had forgotten.
“Vani,” Deirdre said, her mouth dry. “You came to Earth to escape the Scirathi, right?”
“Yes,” the T’gol said, clutching Nim to her. “Why do you ask?”
Sickness rose in Deirdre’s throat as she recalled the picture he had sent her during their final conversation three years ago: an image of two figures in black robes slinking down an alley in a modern Earth city, their faces concealed behind masks. Gold masks.
Deirdre drew in a breath. “Because I think they’re already—”
Her voice was drowned out by the sudden sound of shattering glass.
The bones would always be there.
Over the last three years, the grass of the vale had grown up around them, lush and dense, and had crept up the sides of the larger mounds, shrouding them in green. Just that spring, on the sides of those mounds, a tiny flower of the palest blue had begun to bloom in profusion. No one—not even the eldest of the witches, and the wisest in herb lore—had ever seen a flower like it before. And while no one was certain who had first used the name, soon everyone called the little flower arynesseth.
In the old language, the name meant Aryn’s Tears. Almost as soon as the name came into use, a story sprang up around it, growing as quickly as the grass in the vale. It was said, in the days after the Second War of the Stones, brave Queen Aryn of Calavan stood upon the wall of Gravenfist Keep, and there she let fly the ashes of the knight Sir Durge, who had been noble and true above all other men. The wind carried the ashes out into the vale of Shadowsdeep, and one could always know where they came to rest, for in those places the arynesseth bloomed the thickest.
In places like this.
Grace Beckett—Queen of Malachor, Lady of the Winter Wood, and Mistress of the Seven Dominions—stood at the foot of the mound she had ridden to that morning. It was one of the highest in the vale, rising up no more than a furlong from the Rune Gate, whose gigantic iron doors hung open, steadily rusting away.
As her honey-colored mare Shandis grazed nearby, Grace knelt and parted the grass with her hands, revealing a skull bleached white by sun and rain and snow. The skull was elongated, the eye sockets large and jewel-shaped. There was no mouth. She let the grass fall back and stood, holding her right arm against her chest. The wraithlings had perished. So had the feydrim , and their master the Pale King. All the same, the pain in her right arm lingered on, just like the bones beneath the grass. Just like the memories.
Grace started up the side of the mound. It was Lirdath, and even this far north in the world the morning was already growing fine and hot. Soon she was mopping the sweat from her brow with a hand and wishing she had chosen something lighter than a riding gown of green wool.
After several minutes of steady work, she reached the top of the mound. She panted for breath and pushed her blond hair from her face; it was getting too long again. Others might have thought it beautiful, a gilded frame to her regal visage, but to Grace it was simply a nuisance. She would take a knife to it as soon as she got back to the keep.
Hands on hips, she gazed around. She could see the whole vale from up there. Sharp mountains soared against blue sky, and in the distance Gravenfist Keep rose like a mountain of gray stone itself. Summer had come, and the vale was a verdant emerald. Still, here and there white patches gleamed like snow.
She half closed her eyes, and through the veil of her lashes she could see it again, pouring out of the mouth of the Rune Gate like a foul exhalation of hatred: the army of the Pale King. Its ranks of feydrim and wraithlings and trolls, heartless wizards and witches, was without number, and they had come for one purpose—to cast the world into shadow forever.
Only they had failed, thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of countless men and women. And of one man more than any other. Grace knelt, letting her fingers brush across the arynesseth that bloomed atop the grass-covered mound. She plucked one of the small white-blue flowers. Its scent was faint and clean, like snow.
“I miss you, Durge,” she murmured. “I could use your help. There’s still so much more to do.”
She stayed that way for a time, content to listen to the wind and the far-off cries of a hawk. At last she stood, and as she looked back toward the keep she saw a horseman coming. His need must have been great for him to make no effort to conceal himself.
By the time the horseman reached the foot of the mound, she had descended to meet him.
“I thought I might find you out here, Your Majesty,” Aldeth said as he climbed down from a horse as gray as his mistcloak.
Grace raised an eyebrow. “All I told Sir Tarus was that I was going for a ride in the vale. How did you know to find me here?”
“I serve you with all my heart, Your Majesty,” the Spider said with a rotten-toothed grin. “But that doesn’t mean I have to tell you the secrets of my craft.”
She folded her arms and waited patiently.
Aldeth threw his hands in the air. “Well, fine, if you’re going to torture me like that. He can’t blame me for not being able to resist your spells.”
“I’m not casting a spell, Aldeth,” she said, but the spy seemed not to hear, and he rattled on for several minutes about how it wasn’t his idea to go to Master Larad, how he had been dead set against it, knowing how offended she would be, but how Sir Tarus had insisted that they ask the Runelord to speak the rune of vision, and how he—Aldeth—would never have dreamed of compromising his queen’s privacy in such a manner.
“No, you’d simply sneak after me.”
“Exactly!” the Spider said, snapping his fingers. “That way, you’d never even know I was—”
He bit his tongue, and he looked as if he was going to be sick. Grace couldn’t help a smile. He really was getting better; a year ago he would have dug himself a far deeper hole before having the sense to shut up.
“Oh, Aldeth,” she said, patting his cheek. Then she climbed into Shandis’s saddle and whirled the mare around. As she did, she cast one last glance at the Rune Gate.
Last summer, at Sir Tarus’s urging, Grace had finally ordered an exploratory mission into Imbrifale. Tarus himself had led the small company of knights through the gate, with the Spiders Aldeth and Samatha serving as scouts. Master Larad and the young witch Lursa had gone as well, for there was no telling what fell magics might remain in the Pale King’s Dominion.
For an entire month, Grace had paced the outer wall of Gravenfist Keep, gazing out across the vale, waiting for them to return. She had hoped to be able to speak across the Weirding to Lursa. However, the moment the troop passed through the Rune Gate, all contact with them ceased, as if their threads had been cut by a knife. The Ironfang Mountains, woven with enchantments to imprison the Pale King, proved a barrier that could not be pierced by thought or magic.
At last, on the first day of Revendath, they returned to Gravenfist Keep. The company had not lost a single member on the journey; however, all of them suffered in spirit. None seemed able to speak of what they had found except for Master Larad, and even he spoke in halting words, so that it took many days before Grace finally learned all they had discovered.
Imbrifale was dead. Nothing lived in that Dominion—not men or monsters or animals, or even trees or plants. Every living thing that had dwelled there had been infused with and twisted by the Pale King’s magic over the centuries. Nothing had not been bound to him, and when he and his master Mohg had perished, so did all else.
What had happened in the thousand years the Rune Gate was shut would never truly be known, for no written records had been found, but some things could be gleaned from what the company saw. They came upon terrible cities, built like the hives of some insect species. There the feydrim and other inhuman slaves of the Pale King were bred and born, fed through holes in tiny chambers, where they either perished or grew strong enough to break their way out.
Other cities were more like the castles and keeps of the Dominions, though sharper, harsher, made only for function, with no consideration for beauty or comfort. There the human subjects of the Pale King had dwelled, and beneath one such keep they had found a labyrinth of chambers that contained stone tables large and small, and racks filled with knives and curved hooks. In one such chamber they discovered a cabinet containing iron lumps, some the size of a man’s fist, some tiny, no larger than a robin’s egg. In the next chamber was a pit filled with bones, many of grown men and women, but others the birdlike bones of infants—the remains of those who had not withstood the transformation.
Elsewhere the company came upon mines: immense wounds gouged in the land, oozing fetid liquids and emitting noxious fumes. Near each mine stood a foundry, many of them still filled with half-finished machines of war. At last they had reached Fal Imbri, the Pale King’s palace, and they had looked upon his throne: a chair of iron forged for a giant, carved with runes of dread, its edges sharp as razors.
The throne was empty. The company had turned around to begin the long journey home.
“Do you want us to go back there, Your Majesty?”
Grace turned in the saddle. Aldeth was gazing at the open Rune Gate, his expression grim, his gray eyes distant. He seemed not to notice the way his hand crept up his chest.
“No,” Grace said softly. “There’s nothing for us there.” She forced her voice to brighten. “Now come, let’s go see what Sir Tarus wants with me.”
Half an hour later, they rode through an arch into the courtyard between the main tower of the keep and Gravenfist’s outer wall. Once this place had thronged with warriors, rune-speakers, and witches desperately battling to hold back the army of the Pale King. It was crowded today as well, though there were far more farmers, weavers, tanners, potters, merchants, and blacksmiths than there were men-at-arms.
Over the last three years, Gravenfist Keep had become less of a military fortress and more of a working castle. Most of the men who had marched here with Grace had stayed, and their families had come north to join them. There were now a number of villages in the valley, and farms were springing up in the fertile lands between the mountains and the Winter Wood—lands that had lain fallow for centuries.
There had been a brief time when Grace had considered relocating her court to the old capital of Tir-Anon, some thirty leagues to the south; that was where the kings and queen of Malachor had dwelled of old. She had journeyed there the autumn after the war, along with Falken and Melia, but they had found little. Tir-Anon had been utterly destroyed in the fall of Malachor seven hundred years ago. There was nothing save heaps of rubble overgrown with groves of valsindar and sintaren. They had returned to Gravenfist sober, and determined to make it their home.
“There you are, Your Majesty,” Sir Tarus said, rushing up as Grace brought Shandis to a halt before the main keep. His face was nearly as red as his beard.
“So it appears,” she said. “Thanks to a little help from Master Larad, Aldeth here was able to ferret me out.”
She glanced to her left, but where the spy had ridden a moment ago there was now only empty air. A sigh escaped her. “I wish I could disappear like that.”
Tarus clucked his tongue. “Queens don’t get to disappear, Your Majesty.”
“And why is that?”
“Because they must be ever available to their counselors, vassals, and subjects, of course.”
She allowed him to help her down from her horse. “That’s exactly why I wish I could vanish sometimes.”
“None of that now, Your Majesty,” Tarus said, giving her a stern look. “There’s work to be done.”
Grace sighed. This was part of an ongoing battle with Sir Tarus. She had made him her seneschal three years ago (after Melia gently pointed out that Grace didn’t have to try to run the kingdom all by herself), and in the time since Tarus had taken the job seriously. Too seriously, she sometimes thought. He worked at all hours of the day and night, and he hardly seemed to smile anymore. Where was the dashing young knight with the ready grin she had first met in the forests of western Calavan?
He’s still in there, Grace. Just older, like each of us.
A groom came to take Shandis to the stables, and Tarus walked with Grace to the main keep.
“Well,” she said as they approached the doors of the great hall, “were you going to tell me what was so urgent it couldn’t wait? Or are you simply going to spring it on me and see if I faint from shock?”
“Now that you mention it, I was sort of favoring the latter option,” Tarus said. “Only then I reconsidered,” the seneschal hastily added when she gave him a piercing glance.
However, even after he told her what had transpired, Grace still felt a keen jolt of surprise as she stepped into the great hall and saw the two men standing before the dais. One she did not recognize at all. He was a younger man, short but well built, dark-haired, and clad in a gray tunic. His face was squarely handsome, but softened by a sensuous mouth. He held a staff carved with runes.
The other man she did recognize, but only after careful consideration. When she first met him, at the Council of Kings in Calavere, he had been a corpulent man dressed in ostentatious clothes, his gaze haughty, his thick fingers laden with rings.
The years had aged him greatly. He was rail-thin now, and wore a simple black tunic and no jewelry. His bulbous nose was still ruddy—a testament to a past penchant for too much wine— but his close-set eyes were clear and sober. He and his companion knelt as she entered.
“Rise, Lord Olstin of Brelegond, please,” she said when she managed to find the breath to speak. “You are welcome in Malachor.”
A sardonic smile played across his lip, though the expression was self-deprecating now rather than arrogant as it once had been. “You are kind, Your Majesty. Kinder than you have either right or reason to be. Though it has been nearly five years, I have not forgotten how uncivilly I treated you at the Council of Kings, and I warrant you have not forgotten either.”
Grace winced, for it was true. She remembered well how Olstin had wheedled and cajoled, attempting to play her against King Boreas, and then—after she ordered him to step away from a serving maid he had slapped—had threatened her.
“You didn’t know at the time I was a queen, Lord Olstin.” She couldn’t help a small laugh. “Of course, I didn’t know I was a queen, either. So let’s call it even, shall we?”
“I don’t think so, Your Majesty,” Olstin said, approaching her. “You see, we are not even at all.”
Tarus cast Grace a sharp look, but she gave her head a small shake. “And why is that, Lord Olstin?”
“Because Brelegond owes you something, Your Majesty. It owes you its gratitude, and its allegiance.”
Grace was too astonished by these words to reply, but Sir Tarus took her arm, led her to the chair atop the dais (she refused to call it a throne), and sat her down. Additional chairs were placed for the guests on the step below Grace, and Tarus found a servant to bring them all wine, though Olstin chose water instead. Gradually, Grace’s shock was replaced by fascination as she listened to Olstin speak. Little news had come from the Dominion of Brelegond these last three years. It was farthest of all the seven Dominions from Malachor, and during the war it had been sorely damaged by the Onyx Knights.
The rebuilding had been slow, according to Olstin, but over time much had been accomplished. King Lysandir, who had been chained in the dungeon beneath Borelga after Brelegond fell to the Onyx Knights, had never truly recovered from his ordeal, and had passed away last winter. His niece, Eselde, had been crowned queen, and under her rule Brelegond had regained its former strength; indeed, it was stronger than it had been before the war.
“The gods know we were a foolish people, ruled by a foolish, if not unkind, man,” Olstin said. “We were the youngest of the Dominions, and so became caught up in fostering the appearance of prosperity and importance, rather than doing anything to truly be prosperous or important. However, young as she is, Eselde is quite practical. Even before her uncle died she was ruling in all but name, and she has accomplished much in a short time.”
“I’m glad,” Grace said, and she meant it. “But now, Lord Olstin, you must tell me what you need.”
Olstin laughed, wagging a finger at her. “No, Your Majesty, this rudeness I will once again do you: You must not dare to offer Brelegond help, at least not now. Much news has come to us these last years, and we are quite aware of all you have done. You have helped Brelegond, and all the Dominions, quite enough. Now it is our turn. My queen knows Brelegond is the last of the Dominions to offer allegiance to you as High Queen. We hope we shall not be the least.”
Again Grace found herself speechless as Olstin described Queen Eselde’s offer of gold, resources, and men to help in the restoration of Malachor. Grace’s first instinct was to decline; Brelegond needed these things for its own rebuilding. However, a meaningful look from Tarus reminded her that Malachor’s coffers were rather empty at the moment, and there was much work yet to be done. So she accepted, with no qualms at expressing the humbleness she felt.
“I have one other thing to offer you,” Olstin said when the business had been concluded. He gestured to the young man who had listened silently and intently throughout their conversation. “This is my nephew Alfin. For many years, out of ignorance, we forbade our young people who displayed a talent for runes or witchcraft to pursue such arts. Perhaps, if we had chosen differently, we might have stood against the Onyx Knights. Regardless, we are changing that now. Alfin has learned much on his own, but he would join your new order of Runelords, Your Majesty, if you would accept him.” He glanced at the young man fondly. “I am partial, of course, but he has talent I think.”
“I believe that remains to be seen, uncle,” the young man said, blushing. The combination of humility, fine looks, and obvious intelligence made for a fetching combination that was not lost on Grace. Or on Sir Tarus by the way the knight gazed at the other man.
“I think he looks very promising, Your Majesty,” Sir Tarus said and, for the first time in a long time, smiled.
“Indeed,” Grace said. She was still no expert on the subject of human feelings—she never would be—but she had learned enough to see that Alfin returned Tarus’s smile with far more than polite interest.
“Come,” Tarus said to the would-be Runelord. “I’ll take you to meet Master Larad.”
After the two men left, Olstin confessed his weariness from traveling, and as he pushed himself up from his chair Grace noticed the scars on his wrists; King Lysandir was not the only one who had been hung in a dungeon by the Onyx Knights. She had a servant show Olstin to a chamber upstairs, then found herself alone in the great hall.
Grace was often by herself these days. Being a queen was a lonelier job than she had imagined. But that was all right. She hadn’t become a doctor on Earth to make friends, and she hadn’t become a queen to make them, either. Although her job now wasn’t putting broken people back together, but broken kingdoms.
She glanced up. Hanging above her chair, near Durge’s Embarran greatsword and the shards of Fellring, was a banner emblazoned with a silver tower. When she first saw such an emblem, on the shield of the Onyx Knights, the tower had been set against a black background, and above it had been a red crown. However, this banner was as blue as the sea, and above the tower flew the white shapes of three gulls.
The banner had been a gift from Ulrieth, the Lord of Eversea. Two years ago, in this very hall, Grace and Ulrieth had signed a treaty, forging a peace between the lands of Malachor and Eversea. The treaty proclaimed that both kingdoms were equal and independent, that one should never seek to rule over the other, and also that should one face a threat, then the other would come to its ally’s aid.
It had been a triumphant day. Talking with Ulrieth, Grace knew that the dark spell the Runelord Kelephon had cast over Eversea was finally broken. The order of the Onyx Knights— who had slain Grace’s parents and caused so much strife in Eredane, Embarr, and Brelegond—had been disbanded.
“We are a people of peace now,” Ulrieth had said. He was a white-bearded man who carried much sorrow—and much wisdom—on his brow. “We have no more taste for war. And we remember from whence we came.”
He had shaken Grace’s hand and, after seven hundred years, Malachor was finally whole again. For after Malachor fell, some of its people had fled to the far west of Falengarth, founding the kingdom of Eversea. Many others went south, forging the seven Dominions. Grace was Mistress of the Dominions, and so with this treaty all the descendants of Malachor were united once again.
The signing of the treaty almost hadn’t happened, though, because Grace had had a difficult time coming up with twelve nobles to be her witnesses. Her kingdom was so new it didn’t have nobles. Before the signing, she had hastily made earls and countesses, barons and baronesses, of those she relied on most: Tarus, the Spiders Aldeth and Samatha, the witch Lursa, Master Graedin (much to his delight), Master Larad (much to his chagrin), and of course Falken and Melia. Both the bard and lady had protested, of course—until Grace lamented she wouldn’t have enough nobles to sign the treaty, at which point the two had relented to becoming the count and countess of Arsinda, a fiefdom between Gravenfist and Tir-Anon that these days was thickly overgrown with forest.
In addition to her own homegrown nobles, King Vedarr of Embarr had attended the ceremony; it had been good to see the grizzled old knight—now the ruler of Embarr—who had helped to defend Gravenfist so staunchly. King Kylar of Galt had also come. The king no longer looked so young, and while he still stuttered, people had stopped calling him Kylar the Unlucky. Rather, he was called Kylar the Rock, for during the war, and against overwhelming odds, he had held back the Onyx Knights who had tried to press into Galt from Eredane.
The new king of Eredane was also at the signing. His name was Evren, and he was a distant cousin of former Queen Eminda, who had perished at the Council of Kings. It had been hard for Eredane to find an heir to its throne, for the Onyx Knights had murdered virtually all in the royal line. However, the people of Eredane seemed to have done well in rallying behind Evren, for he was a thoughtful, well-spoken man.
Grace had believed all was in order, but two days before the signing she found she was still one noble short. She had counted herself among the twelve needed to witness the document, only to discover Ulrieth had twelve in addition to himself. Luckily, at the last moment, she realized there was one more noble she could call upon. A messenger was sent with the fastest horse in Malachor down the Queen’s Way to the petty kingdom of Kelcior. Two days later, just minutes before the treaty signing, he arrived in all his bluster and swagger. He had burst through the doors of the great hall, and the first words out of his mouth were—
“Hello there, Queenie!”
Grace gasped as the booming voice shocked her out of her reverie, though for a dazed moment she wondered if he wasn’t a figment of her memory. But no, his burly figure couldn’t be anything but real. After three years of growth—and with the help of a witch’s potion, some rumored—his red beard was bushier than ever. And, if it was possible, he seemed even larger than the last time she had seen him.
His laughter rang off the stones as he strode through the doors of the hall to the dais. Something limp was slung over his massive shoulders, and only as he tossed it on the floor did she realize it was a stag.
“You look sad, Queenie,” King Kel thundered, “but I know something that will cheer you up.” He gave her a wink and rested his boot on the dead stag. “Let’s have a feast!”
A visit from King Kel always raised her spirits, and by the time Grace stepped into the great hall that night, she found both the hall and her mood much transformed. Trestle tables had been pulled out to offer plenty of places to sit, and the high table now commanded the dais. Torches infused the air with smoky light, and the music of drone, lute, and pipe drifted down from the gallery, played by unseen minstrels.
“Let’s dance, Queenie!” Kel said, pouncing on her the moment she passed through the doors.
Grace’s first instinct was to curl up and play dead, as dancing with King Kel was much like getting mauled by a bear. However, she was too slow, and he grabbed her hands, proceeding to toss her about in a series of wild motions that could be termed dancing only by a person of uncommonly generous spirit.
Fortunately, before the centrifugal force gave her an aneurysm, servants entered bearing goblets of wine. Kel liked drinking better than dancing, and the only thing he liked better than drinking was eating, and the servants had brought in trays laden with food as well. The gigantic man let Grace go in the middle of a spin and stalked toward the servants; they backed away like small, frightened animals.
Once she came to a halt, Grace found herself near the dais. Gentle hands helped her up the steps and sat her down in her chair at the center of the table.
“Thank you, Falken,” she said, giving the bard a grateful smile.
“Here, dear,” Melia said, handing her a glass of wine. “This should help you forget the ordeal.”
Grace drank, and after a few sips the room’s spinning slowed to a leisurely roll.
“So did he ask you to marry him again?” Falken inquired.
Grace sighed and nodded. Kel asked her to marry him every time he visited.
“I’m big, you’re pretty, and we’re both royalty,” he would say. “What match could be better?”
Melia patted her hand. “Don’t worry, dear. I’m sure Sir Tarus will keep him away from you.”
“Actually,” Falken said, “I think Kel could stuff Sir Tarus in his pocket and use him as a handkerchief.”
Grace laughed. “It’s all right. I can handle King Kel.” After all, she had faced far greater perils. Besides, Kel was an important ally now that the seven Dominions had all agreed Kelcior was to be recognized as a sovereign kingdom. And while she had no intention of ever accepting them, she thought Kel’s proposals were sweet. After all, it wasn’t as if other men were beating a path to her door.
You know that’s not true, Grace, she chided herself. King Evren of Eredane would marry you in a heartbeat to gain a favorable alliance.
But that wasn’t what Grace had meant.
“Is something wrong, dear?” Melia said, concern in her golden eyes.
“I’m fine,” Grace said, and she tried to produce a smile, but it came out more as a grimace, so she took a sip of wine to conceal the expression. What was wrong with her lately? Ever since spring a gloom had kept stealing over her, even though she had every reason to be happy.
Two of those reasons were sitting next to her now. Grace didn’t know what she would have done without Falken’s and Melia’s advice these last years, or their company. She had never known her parents, but she often let herself imagine they had been like the bard and the lady.
Falken’s hair was more silver than black these days. In the time after the war it had become clear to all of them that the bard—who had lived for over seven hundred years—was aging. Though they hadn’t realized it at first that summer in Perridon, the curse of eternal life Dakarreth had cast on Falken was broken when the Necromancer perished. Falken was mortal again.
However, he was still the same Falken, and if he looked more wolfish than ever, he still had the same ringing laugh, and the same magical silver hand. Their work done at last—Malachor avenged, and the Necromancers destroyed—he and Melia had finally been able to acknowledge the love they had borne one another for centuries. They had wed two years ago, and they intended to live out the rest of their days here in Malachor.
The rest of his days, at least. For Melia was the last of the nine New Gods who descended to Eldh to work against the Necromancers, and though a goddess no longer, she was still immortal. What would happen to her once he was gone—once all of them were gone?
“Are you certain you’re well, dear?” Melia said. Falken had gone to fetch them more wine.
Grace hesitated, then decided to tell the truth. “I was just thinking about you and Falken, about how you’re . . . and one day he’ll . . .” She couldn’t bring herself to speak the words.
Melia did. “How one day he’ll die, you mean?” She let her gaze follow after the bard, her expression full of love. “But that’s no reason to be sad, dear. That time is long off yet. Besides, we all must die one day.”
She brushed a hand through her hair, and Grace saw it for the first time: a streak of white marked Melia’s blue-black hair. All at once the lady’s words struck Grace. We all must die one day. . . .
She clutched a hand to her mouth, unable to stifle a gasp.
Melia studied her, then nodded.
“How?” Grace finally managed to speak.
“I chose mortality when we were married,” Melia said.
“You . . . you can do that?”
“I can, and I did. It was the one power left to me. And nor can the decision be reversed.”
“Does he know?”
“Not yet. But he will in time.” She touched Grace’s arm. “Please, Ralena. Let me be the one to tell him.”
“To tell who what?” Falken said, setting down three goblets and sitting next to the two women.
Grace drew in a deep breath. “To tell you how much we love you,” she said, and kissed his cheek.
The feast continued with much cheer. Falken and Melia danced until Kel cut in and began tossing the small, amber-eyed lady about as if he were intent on juggling her, much to both her and Falken’s mirth. Lord Olstin made a brief appearance and paid his respects to Grace, though he ate little and drank nothing, and soon retired. His nephew, Alfin, stayed a good deal longer, though Grace had little opportunity to speak with him, as Tarus kept the young Runelord largely to himself throughout the evening. Grace wondered if they had made it to see Larad yet.
Speaking of Master Larad, where was the Runelord? Of all her advisors, he had in many ways become her most valuable. Ever since they first met him, Larad had done what he believed was right regardless of what others wished, and regardless of the consequences to himself. While that trait—and his acerbic nature—made him difficult to endure at times, she always considered his point of view seriously.
At last she gave up searching the hall for Larad. However, she did come upon Lursa. The Embarran witch was married now; her handsome warrior had finally won that battle—or perhaps it was the other way around, for he had traded his sword for a plowshare. After her wedding, Lursa had become Matron of the witch’s coven at Gravenfist Keep. Grace wove with the coven when time allowed, but since that was almost never these days, she always enjoyed hearing from Lursa what patterns they had been fashioning.
Lately the witches had been working on spells to encourage crops to grow faster and bear more fruit. However, they had been having considerable trouble completing the enchantment. There was a gap in their weaving that would not be soon mended, for last winter the spry old witch Senrael had passed from the pattern of life into the warp and weave of memory. While another witch deemed old and wise enough had donned the shawl of Crone, Senrael was sorely missed.
“May I take my leave, Your Majesty?” Lursa said, her intelligent gaze straying across the hall. “I see Master Graedin, and I want to speak to him. Earlier this year, it seemed I was making progress in rune magic. Once I spoke the rune of fire, and I swear I made a candle flicker. But now I only seem to be getting worse. Lately nothing happens at all when I try to speak a rune.” She sighed. “I suppose it’s hopeless to think I ever could.”
Grace felt a note of concern. Lursa was usually brisk and cheerful, but her expression seemed dull now, even despondent.
“I’m sure Master Graedin will help you sort things out,” Grace said, and granted the witch leave to go.
Lursa crossed the hall to where Graedin stood against the far wall. The young Runelord was as tall and gangly as ever, and a grin crossed his face as Lursa approached, though his smile soon faded as they spoke. No doubt Graedin would help Lursa with her problem. He had suspected there was a connection between rune magic and the magic of the Weirding well before it was revealed that Olrig, patron god of runes, and the witch’s goddess Sia were one and the same—and were in fact simply two guises of the being known as the Worldsmith.
Except Olrig and Sia weren’t the Worldsmith anymore. The world had been broken, and the fact that it had been remade exactly as it was before didn’t change the fact that someone else was the Worldsmith now.
I miss you, Travis, Grace thought. And Beltan, too.
Sometimes when she thought of them her heart ached, just as her right arm did when she remembered standing before the Pale King. She missed them even more than she did Lirith or Aryn, for at least she could speak to the two witches from time to time, even if it was only across the threads of the Weirding.
Not that she had spoken to them often of late. Lirith was too far to the south for Grace to contact on her own; she could only do it with Aryn’s help. And Aryn had been too busy in recent times for idle conversation. She was a queen now, not of one Dominion but two. Teravian was not only King Boreas’s son, but Queen Ivalaine’s as well. As Ivalaine had had no other heir, Teravian was now king of Toloria as well as of Calavan, and Aryn was queen of both realms.
They spent their time traveling between the two courts, and by all accounts had done much to earn the admiration and loyalty of their subjects in both Dominions. But their labors had prevented them from journeying to Gravenfist save once, and Grace doubted future visits were in the cards, given that Aryn was now expecting her first child. Still, it was enough to get occasional reports, and to know that despite their labors both Aryn and Teravian were happy, and these days very much in love.
However, as much as she cared for all her friends, it was to Travis her thoughts most often turned.
I want so badly to talk to you, Travis, Grace thought, gazing into her goblet of wine and wishing she had the power to see a vision in it as Lirith sometimes could, wishing she could get a glimpse of him. I think you’d understand what I’m feeling better than I do.
Only what was she feeling? It was so strange. There was a sorrow, yes. But there was something else: a tinge of nervous expectation. But what exactly was she expecting to happen?
For them to not need you anymore.
It was the dry doctor’s voice that spoke in her mind, making its diagnosis. The thought startled her, but not so much for its suddenness as for how true it felt.
You did your part, Grace, you gave Malachor a second chance to be. But its people don’t need a queen, not anymore. They’ve built this kingdom themselves. Why can’t they rule it themselves?
Yes, it made sense. If Travis could create a world, then depart from it, why couldn’t she do the same with a kingdom? She pressed a hand to her chest, feeling the rapid beating of her heart.
“Are you all right, Your Majesty?” spoke a sharp-edged voice.
Grace looked up from her wine to see Master Larad standing above her. He was clad in a twilight blue robe. His eyes glittered in a face that was made a fractured mosaic by a webwork of fine white scars.
She sighed. “Why does everyone keep asking me that tonight?”
He shrugged but said nothing. Larad never offered an answer unless he had a strong opinion.
“Did you speak to Alfin, the young man from Brelegond?” she said in hopes of changing the subject.
“Yes, for a few moments.” Larad’s expression soured. “Before Sir Tarus whisked him away. More confirmation will be needed, but I believe Alfin has significant talent.”
Grace smiled. “So, is everything well in your new tower?”
She had ordered a tower to be raised on the south side of the keep for the use of Larad and the Runelords, and construction had just recently been completed. The tower included a chamber on its highest floor built to house the three Imsari, for it was the mission of the new Runelords to guard the Great Stones. The tower also housed a runestone: a relic covered with writings of the Runelords of old, and which the new Runelords were actively studying. The runestone had been discovered beneath the keep last year, when the Embarran engineers performed an excavation in order to make some repairs to the foundations.
“It’s not my tower, Your Majesty,” Larad said, glowering. “It is yours. The Runelords dwell here at your pleasure.”
“No,” Grace said softly, tightening her right hand into a fist. “No, it’s not up to me. This is your home.”
Larad gave her a speculative look, but he did not respond to this statement. Instead he said, “I am sorry to disturb you during a time of merriment, Your Majesty, but I have made a discovery that I did not believe could wait.”
Actually, Grace suspected Larad was not sorry at all to disturb her with important news, and that was one reason she appreciated him. “What is it?”
“There’s something wrong with the runes.”
“You mean there’s something wrong with a specific rune you’re trying to understand?”
He sat at the high table beside her, his dark eyes intent. “No, Your Majesty, I mean with all runes. I began to suspect something was amiss about a month ago. Some of my fellow Runelords were beginning to have difficulty speaking runes they had previously mastered. They would speak a runespell just as they had before, but only a feeble energy would result, or no energy at all. I sent a missive to the Gray Tower, hoping for advice from All-master Oragien, and last week I received his reply. It seems the same troubles have been plaguing the rune-speakers there. Since then, I have performed many experiments, but only today were my misgivings proven beyond doubt.”
“How?” Grace said, her throat tight.
Larad held out his hand. On it was a triangular lump of black stone. One side was rough, the other three smooth and incised with runes. “This is a piece of the runestone, the one that was discovered beneath the keep.”
Shock coursed through Grace. “Why did you do it? Why did you speak the rune of breaking on the runestone?”
“I didn’t, Your Majesty,” Larad said with a rueful look. “This morning, one of the apprentices discovered this piece lying next to the runestone. It broke off on its own. And once I examined the runestone carefully, I saw many fine cracks that had not been there before.”
“But you can bind it again,” Grace said, glad the music drifting down from the gallery masked the rising pitch of her voice. “You can speak the rune of binding and fix it.”
“So I thought, until I tried.” Larad tightened his hand around the broken stone. “Despite all my efforts, I could not bind this piece back to the runestone.”
That was impossible. Larad was a Runelord—a real Runelord, like Travis Wilder. Speaking the rune of binding should not have been beyond him. Only it was.
Grace recalled her earlier conversation with Lursa. “You should talk to the witches. They’ve been having difficulty weaving a new spell. Maybe it’s not just rune magic that’s being affected.”
Larad raised an eyebrow. “If so, that is dark news indeed. I will speak to the witches. Perhaps they have sensed something I have not.”
And I’ll speak to some witches as well, Grace added to herself, resolved to ask Aryn and Lirith about it the next time they contacted her.
Larad begged his leave, and once the Runelord was gone Grace was no longer in the mood for revelry. She bid Melia and Falken and Kel good night, putting on a cheerful face. Even if Master Larad was right—and Grace had no doubt he was— there was no use spoiling the revel for everyone else until they knew more.
She left the great hall, ascended a spiral staircase, and started down the corridor that led to her chamber. The passage was dim, illuminated by only a scant collection of oil lamps, and as she rounded a corner she did not see the servingwoman until she collided with her. The old woman let out a grunt, and something fell to the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Grace said, stumbling back. “I didn’t see you there.”
The other wore a shapeless gray dress and oversized bonnet. She bowed low and muttered fervently, no doubt making an apology, though Grace couldn’t understand a word of it.
“It’s all right,” Grace said. “Really, it was my fault.”
However, the old woman kept ducking her head.
So much for the whole not terrifying the servants thing, Grace thought with a sigh. She glanced down and saw that the object the old woman had dropped had rolled to a stop next to her feet. It was a ball of yarn. Grace bent to pick it up.
“Oh!” she said.
Carefully, she pulled the needle from the tip of her finger. It had been sticking out of the ball of yarn, but she hadn’t seen it in the dim light.
“Well, I suppose that evens the score,” she said with a wry smile.
Grace stuck the needle back into the ball of yarn, then held the ball out. The old woman accepted it in a wrinkled hand. She muttered something unintelligible—still not looking up —then shuffled away down the corridor, her ashen dress blending with the gloom. Grace shrugged, sucked on her bleeding finger, and headed to her chamber.
Two men-at-arms stood outside the door. Though it irked her they were always stationed there, they were one of the concessions she had made to Sir Tarus. The men-at-arms saluted as she approached. Grace gave them a self-conscious nod in return— she still had no idea how she was supposed to greet them, if at all—then slipped into her room and pressed the door shut behind her, sighing at the blissful silence. Maybe the men-at-arms weren’t such a bad idea after all. They could keep King Kel from barging in at odd hours and asking her to dance.
Bone-tired, she shucked off her woolen dress and shrugged on a nightgown, wincing as she did. Though the pain in her right arm never entirely went away, most of the time it was a dull, bearable ache. Tonight, however, despite all the wine she had drunk, it throbbed fiercely.
She held her arm to her chest, gazing at the lone candle burning on the sideboard. Its flame blazed hotly, just like his eyes had, burning into her as he raised his scepter, ready to smite her down. Only at the last moment the sky had broken, and as he looked up she had thrust the sword Fellring through a chink in his armor, up into his chest, cleaving the Pale King’s enchanted iron heart in two.
Fellring had shattered in the act, and Grace’s sword arm had been numb and lifeless for days afterward. Only slowly, over the course of many months, had she regained the use of it, and she knew it would never be the same again. But none of them were; the battles they had fought had changed them forever, and maybe it was all right to have some scars. That way they would never forget what they had done.
Grace blew out the candle and climbed into bed.
It wasn’t long before a dream took her, and an hour later she sat up, staring into the dark, her hair tangled with sweat. She clutched the bedclothes, willing her breathing to slow.
It was only a dream, Grace, she told herself, but it was hard to hear her own thoughts over the pounding in her ears.
It had been a wedding. The dream was so vivid, she could almost see them still: a king dressed all in white, and a queen clad in black. A radiance emanated from him, and he was handsome beyond all other men; a halo of light adorned his tawny head like a crown. She was like night to his day: dark of hair and eye and skin, a mysterious beauty wearing a gown woven of the stuff of shadows. They gazed at one another with a look of love. He took her dusky fingers in his pale hand as the priest—a commanding figure all in gray—spoke the rites of marriage.
Only before the priest could finish the words, a figure strode forward, a gigantic warrior. The people who had gathered to witness the marriage fled screaming, and the priest ran after them. The couple turned to face their foe. The warrior was neither light nor dark, solid nor transparent. He could be seen only by his jagged outlines, for where he was there was nothing at all, and he held a sword forged of nothingness in his hand.
You are the end of everything, the white king said.
The black queen shook her head. No, she said, her dark eyes full of sorrow. He is the beginning of nothing.
The warrior swung his empty sword, and both their heads, light and dark, fell to the ground, their bodies tumbling after.
That was when Grace woke. She climbed from the bed, lit the candle with a coal from the fire, and threw a shawl about her; despite the balmy night she was shivering.
Grace didn’t usually place much stock in dreams, but once she had had dreams about Travis Wilder that had come true, and this dream had been unusually vivid, like those had been. Only what did it mean? She didn’t recognize the light king or the dark queen, though in a way they made her think of Durge’s alchemical books. She had paged through some of them when she packed up the knight’s possessions a few months after he died. The books had been written in a kind of code and were rife with metaphorical tales about fiery men marrying watery ladies, resulting in the birth of new child elements with fantastical properties, such as the power to turn lead to gold, or to cause a man to live forever.
However, the king and queen in her dream hadn’t created something new. They had been slain. Slain by . . . nothing. Grace had no idea what it meant, if it meant anything at all. Which it almost certainly didn’t, she reminded herself. Dreams were simply the brain’s janitors, cleaning out the day’s synaptic garbage.
All the same, she knew rest would be impossible for the remainder of the night, and she felt trapped in the stuffy chamber. She needed to get out, to breathe some fresh air.
She padded to the door, weaving a quick spell about herself, so that the men-at-arms outside would detect her passing as no more than a fleeting shadow. It was a simple spell, but at first the threads of the Weirding seemed to slip through her fingers and tangle themselves in knots.
You’re just half-asleep, Grace, that’s all.
She concentrated, and after some effort the spell was complete. It unraveled after less than a minute, but by then she was already ascending a spiral staircase and was well out of sight of the men-at-arms. Getting back into the chamber was going to be tricky, but she could worry about that later.
Pushing through a door, Grace stepped onto the battlements atop the keep. The night was clear and moonless. A zephyr caught her hair, brushing it back from her face, and she breathed deeply, feeling the sweat and fear of her dream evaporate.
Grace approached the south side of the battlement and cast her gaze upward. The stars were brighter and far closer-seeming than those of Earth, as if Eldh’s heavens were not so very distant. She searched for a single point of crimson among the thousands of cool silver, hoping to glimpse Tira’s star. It wasn’t the same as hugging the small, silent, flame-haired girl who had become a goddess, but seeing her star always made Grace feel a little closer to her.
However, there was no sign of Tira’s star near the peaks of the mountains. Maybe the hour was later than Grace thought. She craned her neck, raising her gaze higher into the sky.
It felt as if an invisible anesthesia mask had been pressed to her face, filling her lungs with cold, paralyzing her. The wind snatched her shawl from her shoulders, and it fluttered away like a wraith in the gloom. In the center of the sky was a dark hole where no stars shone. The hole was larger than Eldh’s large moon, its edges jagged like the warrior in her dream.
Only that was impossible. A circle of stars couldn’t simply vanish. Something was simply covering them up—a cloud perhaps. She blinked; and then she did see something in the dark rift: a fiery spark. Was it Tira’s star?
No. The spark grew brighter, closer, descending toward Grace. A new wind struck her face, hot and acrid, knocking her back a step. Vast, membranous wings unfurled like shadows, and the one spark resolved into two: a pair of blazing eyes. Even as Grace realized what it was, the dragon swooped down, alighting atop the battlement, its talons digging into solid stone as the keep groaned beneath its weight.
Grace knew she had to flee. She should run down the stairs and sound an alarm. Only then the dragon moved its sinuous neck, turning its wedge-shaped head toward her, and she could not move. So close was the thing that she could feel its dusty breath on her face as it spoke, and in that moment she realized she had met this creature once before.
“The end of all things draws nigh, Grace Beckett,” the dragon Sfithrisir hissed. “And you and Travis Wilder must stop it.”
The dragon folded its wings against its sleek body; the stones of the keep shuddered under its weight. Four years ago, when they first encountered Sfithrisir in a high valley in the Fal Erenn, Grace had thought the dragon looked like an enormous, sooty swan. Now it seemed more like a vulture to her. Its featherless hide absorbed the starlight, and its eyes glowed like coals. The small, saurian head wove slowly at the end of a ropelike neck, and a constant hiss of steam escaped the bony hook of its beak.
Fear and smoke choked her. For some reason the reek made her think of the smell of burning books. Grace fought for breath and to keep her wits. She had to have both if she was going to survive.
“Answer . . . answer me this, and an answer you shall have,” she said in a trembling voice, speaking the ancient greeting she had learned from Falken, and the proper way to address a dragon. “One secret for one secret in trade. Why have you—?”
“Mist and misery!” the dragon snorted, the words emanating from deep in its gullet. “There is no time for foolish rituals concocted by mortals whose bones have long ago turned to dust. I did not come here to barter with you for secrets, Blademender. The age for such petty games is over. Did you not hear what I spoke? The end of all things comes. Have you not seen the rift in the sky? Surely it has grown large enough that even your mortal eyes can see it now. And it will keep growing. Now it conceals the stars, but soon it will swallow them, and worlds as well. It will not cease until it has consumed everything there is to consume, until all that remains is nothing.”
Grace gritted her teeth and did her best to look the dragon in the eyes, though matching the weaving of its head made her queasy. Sfithrisir wasn’t lying about the rift; dragons could only speak truth—though that truth was always twisted to their own ends.
“I don’t understand, Sfithrisir,” she said, sticking to the truth as closely as she could, but formulating it carefully, like a dragon herself. “I thought the destruction of the world was what your kind craved.” The dragons had existed long before the Worldsmith created Eldh, dwelling in the gray mists before time.
“The end of the world, yes! How I loathe this wretched creation.” His talons raked the stones, cracking them. “It is a prison, binding us and everything in it. Blast the Worldsmith for making it.”
Despite her fear, Grace managed a grim laugh. “Travis Wilder is the Worldsmith now.”
“Do you think I do not know that, mortal?” The dragon ruffled its wings. “I am Sfithrisir, He Who Is Seen And Not Seen. In all of time, no one’s hoard of secrets has been greater than mine. I know what Travis Wilder has done. Runebreaker he was. He destroyed the world just as I knew he would. Only then he betrayed us by making it anew. That I had not foreseen, and if I could, I would burn him to ashes for it.”
Grace held a hand to her forehead. “If you’re so mad at Travis for forging the world again, shouldn’t you be happy about the rift in the sky?”
“You know nothing, mortal. Do you think this material thing you see before you is all that I am?”
The dragon sidled closer and the air about it rippled, distorting everything around it like images seen through crystal. It felt as if Grace’s own body was stretching and contracting in impossible dimensions. The sensation was not painful, but wrenching and deeply wrong.
“You believe order gives power and purpose,” the dragon said. “But you are mistaken. Order only limits, confines. In the chaos before this world existed, there was such freedom as you cannot possibly imagine. There were no limitations, no arbitrary rules to be obeyed. I would destroy this world, yes. I would return to the mayhem of before.”
“Then why fight against the rift?”
Sfithrisir’s wings spread out like smoky sails. “Because the rift discerns not between a world of stone and air and water and fire, or a world of formless mists! At the rift’s borders, all of being ends—order and chaos alike. It is the annihilation of all existence, not only for this world, but for all those worlds that draw near to it.”
A shard of understanding pierced Grace, freezing her heart and shattering her soul. She could comprehend destruction. A rock could be crushed to dust, a piece of wood burned to ash, a living organism sent back to the soil that gave it life. But in each case something—dust, ash, soil—remained. Travis had destroyed the world Eldh when he broke the First Rune, but even before he forged the world anew something had existed. He had told her about it: the gray, swirling mists of possibility.
But the rift was not like that. Inside it was neither light nor dark. It was a place without potential, without possibility. It was a vacuum, a field in which nothing existed, or could ever exist. In that moment, in the presence of Sfithrisir, Grace truly understood what the rift was. It was Pandora’s box emptied of everything it had contained.
It was the end of hope.
Grace clutched her stomach. She was going to be ill. No human mind should try to comprehend what hers just had. But already the crystalline moment of understanding was passing, her mortal faculties too feeble to hold on to it.
“It’s . . . it’s like the demon below Tarras, isn’t it?” she gasped. “The sorcerers had bound one of the morndari, and it wanted to consume everything in the city. It almost did.”
“Wrong again, mortal. The spirits, the beings which the sorcerers call Those Who Thirst, come from a place which is like this world reflected in a mirror. It is the opposite of this creation in all ways, a place not of being, but of unbeing. Yet all the same, it is something; it exists. The rift will eradicate the morndari just like everything else.”
Despair weighed upon Grace, pressing her down like a hundred blankets. The dragon’s words rang in her mind. The world would cease to be. And those worlds which drew near it.
Earth, she said to herself. He means Earth. But the name hardly felt real, as if the world it signified was already gone, its lands, its cities, its people swallowed by the rift and replaced by nothing at all.
“How?” Grace said. “How can Travis and I do anything to stop it?”
“I am wise beyond all,” Sfithrisir said, letting out a soft hiss of steam. “Yet even I do not know the answer to that question.”
Sudden anger filled Grace. She clenched a fist and shook it at the dragon. “I don’t believe you. You’re supposed to know everything. Even Olrig had to steal the secret of the runes from you.”
Sfithrisir’s head bobbed in what seemed a shrug. “And can you truly steal knowledge, mortal? Is not the knowledge retained by the one it is stolen from even as the thief makes off with it?”
Grace’s anger faded. Somehow the dragon’s words made sense to her. Olrig stole the runes from the dragons, who had heard them spoken by the Worldsmith. But Olrig was the Worldsmith.
There have been countless Worldsmiths, Grace. Olrig or Sia or whoever the last Worldsmith is wasn’t the first. The world before this one was destroyed, and afterward only the dragons remained. They’ve always been there, watching, listening, hoarding knowledge. Then Olrig learned the runes of creation from them, just like all the other Worldsmiths before him must have, and used the runes to make Eldh.
Which meant, much as the dragons loathed creation, they were part of its cycle. And that was why Sfithrisir had come to her. If the rift continued to grow, Eldh would never be created again. Or destroyed again.
“You don’t know we can stop it,” Grace said, looking up at the dragon, meeting its smoldering eyes. “If there’s nothing in the rift, then your knowledge ends at its borders. There’s no way you could possibly know that Travis and I have the power to stop it.”
The dragon’s wedge-shaped head ceased its constant movement. “Perhaps your mind is not so limited after all. No, I cannot see into the rift, and so I know not how it can be defeated. All the same, much as I loathe this creation, I know it must be saved, and that you and Travis Wilder have the power to do so. The knowledge of it is woven into the very fabric of this world, and I have read it there. I do not know how to close the rift. But this one thing I do know: Only the Last Rune can save this world.”
“You mean the rune Eldh?”
“No,” the dragon hissed, eyes sparking. “Eldh was the first rune spoken at the forging of this world, and it was the last rune at the end of this world. But what will be spoken at the end of all being, of all worlds? Even I do not know the rune for that.”
The dragon uncoiled its long neck, stretching its head toward the sky, spreading its wings. Red light tinged the horizon. Dawn was coming. The dragon beat its wings. Its talons left the stones of the battlement.
“Wait!” Grace shouted over the roar of the wind, reaching a hand upward. “How can I find out what the Last Rune is?”
“Seek the one who destroyed this world.” Sfithrisir rose upward in a cloud of smoke. “He will come in search of it.”
The creature beat its gigantic wings, and Grace was knocked back by the blast. By the time she looked up, the dragon was a red spark in the gray sky. The spark winked out and was gone.
Footsteps sounded behind her, and Grace turned to see Sir Tarus along with the Spiders Aldeth and Samatha running toward her across the battlement.
“Your Majesty!” Tarus said breathlessly as they reached her. “Are you injured? By all the Seven, that was a sight I never dreamed I would see in my life. Are you well? Did it harm you?”
She was so dazed she could only shake her head.
Samatha gripped a bow, aiming an arrow at the sky, then swore. “It’s gone. I can’t see it anymore.”
“It’s not as if an arrow would have done you any good against a dragon,” Aldeth said with a snort.
Samatha lowered the bow and glared at him, the expression making her face even more weasel-like. “And how would you know? Have you ever met a dragon before?”
“No,” Aldeth said. He looked at Grace, his gray eyes solemn. “But Her Majesty has.”
Grace gazed up at the sky. It was getting lighter. The stars had faded, and she could no longer see the rift. Only it was still there. And it was growing.
“What is it, Your Majesty?” Tarus said, touching her arm. “Are you certain you are not harmed?”
“I’m fine, Sir Tarus. Let’s go downstairs. I need to talk to Melia and Falken at once.”
However, it was Aryn and Lirith she spoke to first.
Their voices came to her across the Weirding just as the sun crested the summits of the southern mountains. She was in her chamber, hastily donning a gown so she could go downstairs, when Aryn’s voice spoke to her as clearly as if the blue-eyed witch had been in the chamber.
Grace, can you hear me?
She gripped the back of a chair, gasping in surprise and delight.
Aryn, yes, it’s me. I can hear you just fine.
Happiness hummed across the threads of the Weirding, and love. But there was more. A sense of urgency, and something else. Before Grace could ask about it, another voice spoke— deeper, smokier.
Sister, it is so good to be with you again, even if only over the web of the Weirding.
Despite all that had happened, Grace couldn’t help smiling. “Lirith,” she murmured aloud. Then, in her mind, How is Sareth? And little Taneth? And your al-Mama?
Very well, though given to fussing a bit.
Which one do you mean?
All three of them, I confess, Lirith said, her laughter like chimes in Grace’s mind. But I departed the south several weeks ago. Taneth and I are in Calavere now, with Aryn and Teravian. They’re both doing well, and Aryn looks beautiful.
No, I look large, came Aryn’s reply. I don’t think I’m ever going to have this baby. I’m just going to keep getting more enormous. Soon I won’t be able to fit in the castle at all, and Teravian will have no choice but to erect a gigantic tent for me in a field.
Grace could imagine Lirith pressing dark, slender hands against Aryn’s belly. Do not believe her, Grace. The baby is healthy and will come very soon. And I can see in Teravian’s eyes every time he looks at her that he has never found his queen more lovely.
Grace didn’t doubt it. She sighed, wishing she could be there with the two witches and spend all day laughing and talking about such simple joys. Only . . .
What is it, Grace? Aryn said. Something is wrong, isn’t it? Lirith was certain of it when she woke this morning.
Grace gripped the chair. Have you had a vision, Lirith?
No, I haven’t. And that’s what’s so strange. I haven’t had a vision in months. Or at least . . .
At least what?
She could sense Lirith struggling for words. I suppose I have had visions. Or what feels like a vision of the Sight to me. The same queer feeling comes over me, and my gaze goes distant, or so Sareth tells me, and I have the usual headache when the spell passes. Only it’s as if the magic is broken somehow. I never see anything with the Sight anymore. Instead, I see nothing. Nothing at all.
A coldness came over Grace, and she sank into the chair. Your magic isn’t broken, Lirith.
She told them everything, sending words, thoughts, and feelings over the Weirding, so that in moments they knew all that had happened. I think you did have a vision, Lirith. If Sfithrisir is right, if the rift keeps growing, then that’s all there will be in the future: nothing. Just as you saw.
She could feel both Aryn and Lirith recoil in horror. However, neither had seen the rift, nor had they heard of anyone who had. That gave Grace a small amount of hope. The rift must only be visible in the far north. That meant it was still small. And that meant there was still time to do something. At least, she had to believe that.
Do you think the rift has something to do with what’s happening to rune magic? Lirith said.
Grace curled up in the chair, hugging her legs to her chest. I suppose it’s too much to believe it’s a coincidence. And it’s not just the Runelords. Lately, the witches here have been struggling with weaving spells.
That is troubling news, came Aryn’s reply. I confess, it was more difficult than usual to reach you over the Weirding. Were it not for Lirith’s aid, I’m not sure I would have succeeded.
So magic was being affected in the south, not just the north. That was troubling news.
I have to go, Grace said reluctantly. I have to talk to Melia and Falken about what we’re going to do.
Wait, Grace, Lirith said, and something in her voice made Grace sit up straight in the chair. We have news ourselves. Such strange news . . .
Grace stared, her body going numb, as she listened to Lirith speak of the letter she had received from Sareth just last night, brought to Calavere by a rider from the south. After three thousand years, Morindu the Dark, lost city of sorcerers, had been found. But it was not so much the news that stunned Grace as the name of the dervish who had brought this knowledge to the Mournish.
Grace, I’m getting tired, Aryn said when Lirith finished. I know there’s so much to talk about, but I can’t hold on to this thread any longer. It keeps slipping through my fingers. We’ll have to talk again later.
“No, wait!” Grace cried out, standing. “Please don’t go!” But their threads had already slipped away.
She moved to the window, gazing outside, letting the morning sun fall on her face. A hawk wheeled against the flawless blue sky.
“How?” she murmured, her hand creeping up her chest, pressing against her heart. “How did you get here, Hadrian?”
That was a question that would have to wait. However, this news changed everything. Grace no longer needed Melia and Falken to help her decide what to do. She already knew.
Seek the one who destroyed this world, the dragon had said. He will come in search of it. . . .
Travis would help her find the Last Rune—the rune that had the power to stop the rift.
And now she knew where she would find Travis.
Grace turned from the window, opened the door, and went downstairs to tell Melia and Falken that she was leaving Malachor.
Vani and Beltan were already moving toward the back of the flat before the sound of falling glass ceased. The blond man paused to grab his sword from the wall above the sofa. Its broad blade gleamed, a decoration no longer.
“Travis,” he said gruffly, “you and Deirdre stay in here.”
Travis gave a wordless nod, then the knight and the T’gol vanished into the darkened hallway. His heart raced, but all it would take was a single spell cast by a sorcerer and its beating would stop forever.
He bent down on one knee. “Come here, Nim.”
The girl walked to him, her gold-flecked eyes solemn, and pressed a small hand against his cheek. “You shouldn’t be afraid. Mother always sends the gold men away, and this time she has my father Beltan to help her. He’s very strong, you know.”
Despite his fear, Travis couldn’t help smiling. “Yes, he is.” He scooped the girl into his arms, amazed at how light she was, and stood. Deirdre was frantically dialing a number on her cell phone.
“What are you doing?” Travis whispered.
She held the phone to her ear and ran a hand through her shaggy red-black hair. “Calling for backup.”
Holding Nim, Travis took a step toward the hallway. He couldn’t see Beltan and Vani anymore; they must have slipped into the bedroom. There was no sound now. What was happening in there?
By the hand of Olrig, why don’t you go find out for yourself? Jack Graystone’s voice spoke in his mind. You’re a Runelord, Travis. You can take out a mere sorcerer. You’ve done it before.
Yes, he had slain a sorcerer before, but not with rune magic. It had been in Castle City, in the year 1883, when he had finally come face-to-face with the Scirathi who had followed them through the gate. A drop of blood from the scarab had entered Travis’s veins, and that blood of power had allowed him to turn the death spell back on the Scirathi, slaying him.
That’s right, I quite forgot, Jack’s voice spoke excitedly in his mind. Runes won’t be much help on this world without the Great Stones to lend them some punch. But you’re a sorcerer now yourself, and a fine one at that. You have nothing to fear from them, my boy.
Travis was quite certain Jack was wrong about that. All the same, he started toward the kitchen to get a knife.
Behind him, Deirdre swore softly. Travis halted and turned around. “What’s the matter?”
She lowered the cell phone. “My partner, Anders, wasn’t home. I was leaving a message on his machine, only then there was a burst of static and the phone went dead.”
Nim tightened her arms around Travis’s neck. “The air feels funny,” she said. “It’s all tickly.”
Travis tilted his head back and shut his eyes. He didn’t know how she had sensed it, but Nim was right. Power crackled on the air.
His eyes snapped open. “Deirdre, get away from the—”
The front door of the flat burst open in a spray of wood.
Deirdre stumbled to her knees under the force of the blast, the cell phone flying out of her hands. Travis hugged Nim to him. In the doorway stood a figure clad in black, a serene gold face nestled into the cowl of its robe. Before Travis could think, the sorcerer raised a hand, stretching its fingers toward him.
Nim screamed, and Travis felt his heart lurch in his chest.
“Meleq!” he shouted.
The rune was weak—weaker than he would have expected even here on Earth—but it was enough to lift a chunk of wood from the floor and fling it at the sorcerer. The blow was far too feeble to cause damage, but on instinct the sorcerer moved his hand to bat the chunk of wood aside. Travis felt his heart resume its rapid cadence.
A sick feeling came over him, just as when he had tried to bind the broken plate and failed. The sorcerer stepped through the door. Travis swallowed the bile in his throat.
“Sinfath!” he shouted again.
This time it worked, though again the rune was pitifully weak. All the same, a foggy patch of gloom precipitated out of thin air around the sorcerer. It would obscure his vision, but only for a moment.
“Come on,” he croaked, grabbing Deirdre’s hand and hauling her to her feet. Clutching Nim to his chest, Travis ran toward the hallway, Deirdre stumbling on his heels.
They were only halfway across the living room when the windows shattered, knives of glass slicing the curtains to shreds. Black gloves parted the tatters of cloth, and a second figure hopped down from the windowsill, robe fluttering like shadowy wings as it alighted on the floor.
Travis stopped short, and Deirdre crashed into him. He shot a glance over his shoulder in time to see the last effects of his runespell dissipate. The first sorcerer stalked toward them, while the second positioned himself in front of the entrance to the hallway, blocking their egress.
“What do we do?” Deirdre hissed, grabbing his arm.
“Nothing,” he said.
Behind the second sorcerer, the air in the hallway rippled, like the surface of a pool disturbed by a falling stone. Travis’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a feral grin, and the Scirathi tilted his gold mask to one side in what seemed a quizzical expression.
“You forgot something,” Travis said.
The dim air of the hallway condensed in on itself, solidifying into a thing of sleek fury. The Scirathi started to turn, but he was too slow. A fist lashed out, striking him in the face. There was a bright flash of gold, and the sorcerer screamed. He groped with trembling fingers, touching the scarred ruin of what had once been his face. His gold mask clattered to the floor across the room.
For eons, the Scirathi had poured all their will and energy into the forging of the golden masks. The masks channeled their magic, focused it, granting a sorcerer abilities that otherwise would lay beyond his skill. Yet there was a price. Over time, the Scirathi had become dependent on the masks, and so without the devices they were powerless.
The sorcerer started to stumble toward the mask, but Vani landed soundlessly next to him. She laid her hands on either side of his head and made a motion so gentle it seemed a caress. There was a popping sound, and the sorcerer slumped to the floor.
Beltan jumped over the corpse, sword before him.
“Travis,” he growled. “Duck.”
Travis knew not to question. He grabbed Deirdre, pulling her to the floor along with Nim, and rolled to one side. He looked up in time to see the remaining sorcerer reach a hand toward Beltan’s chest to cast a death spell. However, the blond man’s sword was already moving. The Scirathi’s hand flew off, hitting the floor with a thud. A hiss escaped the mouth slit of the sorcerer’s mask, and he clutched the stump of his wrist to his chest. Beltan pulled his sword back, preparing a killing blow.
“No, Beltan,” Travis said, the words sharp. “Wait.”
Beltan gave him a puzzled look, but he did as Travis asked. Travis set Nim on the floor next to Deirdre and stood. The sorcerer let out another venomous hiss, reaching toward Travis’s chest. Only his hand was gone. Blood rained from the stump.
The red fluid vanished before it touched the floor.
Travis could hear it now: a buzzing noise, growing louder. The sorcerer jerked his gold face upward. Yes, he heard, too.
“You called them to you with your spell,” Travis said softly. “Now they’re coming.”
The sorcerer frantically clutched the wounded stump of his wrist, trying to staunch the flow of blood with his robe.
It was no use. They howled in through the window like a swarm of angry insects. Travis knew they would be invisible to the eyes of the others, but he could see them as tiny motes whirling on the air: sparks of blackness rather than light. Travis knelt and shielded Nim’s eyes with a hand.
A part of him watched with disinterested fascination. He had always wondered if the morndari existed on this world. But of course they had to; otherwise the magic of the sorcerers would not work here. The spirits had passed through the crack Travis had opened between the worlds in 1883, just like the power of rune magic.
Only just like rune magic, the morndari were far weaker here on Earth. They should have consumed the sorcerer’s blood swiftly, granting him a quick, if not painless, end.
Instead it was slow. Horribly slow. He waved his remaining hand in frantic motions, as if he could beat them away, though that was impossible, for they had no substance, no form. They swarmed around the stump of his hand like bees around a flower dripping nectar, consuming the blood that poured from it. Then, hungry for more, they passed through the wound into his veins. He fell to the floor, back arching, crimson froth bubbling through the mouth slit of his mask.
At last the sorcerer went still. His body was an empty husk; there was no more blood to drink. The morndari buzzed away and were gone. They had been sated, for now at least.
Deirdre wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “What the hell just happened?”
“A sorcerer must control the flow of his blood,” Vani said. “He did not, and so the morndari he summoned turned on him.” She moved forward and picked up Nim. “Are you well, daughter?”
The girl gave a somber nod. “My father Travis is a powerful sorcerer.”
Travis felt Vani’s gold eyes on him.
“Yes,” the T’gol said. “He is.”
“What was in the bedroom?” Deirdre said, looking as if she was trying hard not to vomit.
“A stone through the window,” Beltan said. “It was a distraction, meant to separate us. It nearly worked. I should have known the Scirathi would try a trick like that. They’re sly dogs.” He looked at Vani. “I wonder how they knew you and Nim were here.”
Travis crossed his arms over his chest, trying not to think of the way his own blood surged through his veins. “I have a better question: How are the sorcerers here on Earth at all? Sareth has the one gate artifact, and the other was lost when the Etherion collapsed.”
“Perhaps it was found,” Vani said.
Beltan pulled the robes of the sorcerers over their faces. “And maybe they still had some of the fairy’s blood. I mean Sindar’s blood. He gave himself up to the Scirathi so he could get to Earth and find you, Travis, to give you the Stone of Twilight. The sorcerers might have preserved some of his blood.”
Travis couldn’t help a grim smile. As usual Beltan saw the simple solution the rest of them had overlooked. “That explains how the Scirathi got here, but how did they know you were here, Vani?”
“I would give much to know the answer to that,” the T’gol said. “I cannot believe they followed me.”
Nor could Travis. The T’gol could make herself virtually invisible when she wanted. No one could have followed her, not even a sorcerer. All the same, somehow they had known she and Nim were there.
Beltan picked up the gold mask, which had fallen to the floor. “Vani, do the Scirathi usually attack in twos?”
The T’gol shook her head. “There will be more. We must go.”
“Go where?” the blond knight said.
“The Seeker Charterhouse,” Deirdre said, gripping Travis’s arm. “There’s no place in the city with tighter security. Not even Buckingham Palace.”
Beltan tossed down the mask. “We’ll take my cab.”
Vani moved down the hallway. “We will take the fire escape and go through the alley. The front of the building might be watched.”
However, by the time they peered around the corner of the alley, the street beyond was dark and silent.
“Can you see anything?” Beltan whispered to Travis.
Travis could see in the dark better than even Vani; it was one of the ways he had been changed by the Stone of Fire. But there was nothing there. In fact, he had never seen the street so utterly devoid of signs of life. Every window was dark; even the street-lamps seemed dim, their circles of light contracted.
Beltan motioned for the others to follow and led the way to his cab. They climbed in—Beltan and Vani up front, Travis, Nim, and Deirdre in the back. Beltan cranked the key in the ignition.
Nothing happened. Beltan made a growling sound low in his throat. “By the Holy Bull’s Big Bloody B—”
Vani slapped the blond man’s cheek. Hard.
He shot her a wounded look. “What was that for?”
“I think it was for swearing when children are present,” Deirdre said, hugging Nim on her lap.
“No,” Vani said, then reconsidered. “Well, yes, now that you mention it. But it was mostly for this.”
She opened her hand. On her palm was what looked at first like a crumpled piece of gold foil.
“Get out of the car,” Travis said. “Now!”
They scrambled out of the taxi. Travis grabbed Deirdre, spinning her around, searching for any signs of them on her or on Nim.
“Are you trying to make me throw up?” the Seeker said, staggering.
“Gold spiders,” Travis said. “Do you see any gold spiders on you or Nim? The Scirathi create them. They move like they’re alive, only they’re not. They’re more like little machines, filled with venom. One bite and you’re—” He clamped his mouth shut, aware of Nim’s wide eyes locked on him.
“I don’t like spiders,” the girl said, pronouncing the word thpiderth. “They have too many legs.”
“I’m with you on that one,” Deirdre said in a cheerful voice. “But look—they’re all gone now.”
They were, as far as Travis could tell, though there could be more of them in the taxi, hiding in niches and recesses, waiting to crawl out when a hand passed nearby. It didn’t matter. The car was dead.
“We must go,” Vani said, giving him a sharp look.
Travis started to reply, then froze. He saw them before the others possibly could have, making out the hump-backed shapes against the gloom. They loped down the street, moving swiftly on both feet and knuckles. A moment later Beltan swore, and Vani went rigid. So they had seen the things as well.
“Run,” Travis said. “Now.”
They turned and careened down the street. Travis muttered the runes of twilight and shadow through clenched teeth. They only seemed to work half the time, and when they did they were pitifully frail, but he had to hope their magic would conceal the five of them. Because there was no way they could outrun the things that were after them.
Beltan took Nim from Deirdre, holding the girl easily under one arm as he ran.
“Are those things back there what I think they are?” Deirdre said between ragged breaths.
“They are if you think they are gorleths,” Vani answered. “I am not certain how many are following us.”
Travis tried to count the shadows he had seen. “Too many,” he said, and ran faster. The gorleths were abominations spawned by the Scirathi, creatures pieced together from the blood and flesh of multiple beasts. Their strength, hunger, and desire to kill knew no limits.
“Where are we going?” Beltan asked as they rounded a corner.
Travis pointed. “There. The Tube station. We can catch a train to the Charterhouse.”
They pounded the last hundred yards to the entrance of the station, and Travis uttered a constant litany of runes as they dashed down a flight of steps. It was late, and there was no attendant on duty in the booth next to a bank of turnstiles. Deirdre stopped, searching in her pockets.
Travis stared at her. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for a ticket. Ah.” She pulled a small cardboard rectangle from her pocket, put it in the slot, and passed through the turnstile.
Vani jumped over the turnstile after her. Beltan handed Nim to the T’gol and followed suit, as did Travis.
Deirdre grimaced. “Well, if I had known we were going to be a gang of hoodlums, I would have saved the fare.”
“Come on,” Travis said, grabbing her hand.
They dashed down the steps that led to the southbound platform of the Jubilee line. They could take the train to Westminster, then catch either the District or Circle line to the Blackfriars station. From there it was only a few blocks to the Seeker Charterhouse.
And what if the Scirathi know where the Charterhouse is? What if they’re staking it out?
Travis set aside the question. They could worry about that on the train ride there. They halted at the edge of the platform. Travis leaned out, peering down the lightless tunnel, hoping to feel the puff of air that would indicate an arriving train.
“How long until a vehicle comes?” Vani said, cradling Nim. The girl seemed unable or unwilling to blink.
Travis peered at the electronic sign over the platform. It was blank. There were no other passengers in sight; the platform was deserted.
“I don’t see a schedule anywhere,” Deirdre said, gazing around. “The trains don’t run as often this late at night.”
“Or maybe not at all,” Beltan said. He knelt to pick up a length of yellow plastic tape from the tile floor—the kind of tape often used for police or construction barricades. The blond man held out the tape. Words were printed on it: DO NOT ENTER. CLOSED FOR MAINT—
“Great Spirit protect us,” Deirdre murmured, gripping her bear claw necklace, but Travis knew it was too late for that, that there was nothing to protect them now.
Vani turned, arms locked around Nim. “We were herded here. This is where they wanted us to come all along.”
Even as the T’gol spoke, the first hungry, guttural sounds skittered along the curved tile walls of the station.
There was a stairway at either end of the platform; the growling noises emanated from both.
“Get ready, Vani.” Beltan said as he raised his sword. Travis hadn’t realized the knight had carried it all this way.
“Deirdre, take Nim,” Vani said, handing the girl to the Seeker. “I must be free to fight.”
“I don’t want you to fight the ’leths,” Nim said, then began to cry.
Vani caressed her damp cheek. “You must be brave, daughter.”
Nim nodded, her sobs ceasing if not her tears, and Deirdre hugged the girl tight, looking as if she was trying to be brave herself.
“Travis,” Beltan said, alternating his gaze between both stairways, “can you speak any runes that might help us?”
Travis was so tired. Speaking runes on Earth was like running through water: great effort for little effect. “I’ll try.”
The first dark forms appeared at the foot of both stairways. They were the size of apes. But then, the gorleths had been apes once—or at least part of them had. Chimpanzees were one of the animals the Scirathi used in fashioning the gorleths here on Earth. What other animals they had used, Travis could only imagine. Muscles writhed under the skin of their humped backs, their digits ended in curved talons, and knifelike teeth jutted from their maws.
Beltan and Vani each faced one of the stairwells, with Travis, Deirdre, and Nim between them. The first gorleths had already covered half the distance across the platform, their talons scraping against the tiles, making a sound like fingernails being dragged across a blackboard. Their pale eyes shone with hungry intelligence.
“Not to rush you, Travis,” Beltan said, holding his sword ready, “but now would be a good time for those runes.”
Travis drew in a breath, but he felt so weak—just like rune magic did here on Earth.
By the Lost Hand of Olrig, that’s no way for a Runelord to think! Jack Graystone’s voice thundered in his mind. You’re a wizard, Travis, on this or any world. Now speak a rune. Gelth should do nicely, I think.
This time Jack was right. Travis clenched his right fist, knowing without looking that the silvery symbol—three crossed lines, the rune of runes—had blazed to life on his palm.
“Gelth,” he intoned.
Again he felt the deep wrenching sensation inside, as if someone had just punched him in the gut. The rune had no effect.
Beltan tightened his hands around the hilt of the sword. “Travis . . .”
There was love in the blond man’s voice, and urgency. The gorleths were so close Travis could hear their whuffling, could smell the putrid reek of their breath.
“Gelth!” Travis shouted, straining with all his being.
This time a thousand voices chanted the rune in his mind, and he felt a hum resonate through him like a tone through a pitchfork. Instantly, tiny, glittering crystals precipitated out of thin air, frosting the gorleths’ dark fur, and sheeting the tiles of the platform with a glaze of ice.
On Eldh, Travis would have been able to conjure an ice storm; he could have frozen the gorleths solid. However, in some ways, the coating of ice was equally effective. The curved talons of the gorleths could find no purchase. The nearest creatures let out shrieks of fury as they fell, skidding across the platform.
One slid close to Beltan, and the blond knight took the opportunity to swing his sword, lopping the beast’s head off. Another gorleth flew over the edge of the platform. There was a sizzling sound as the creature struck one of the electrified rails on which the trains ran.
Vani gazed at the smoking gorleth, then glanced at Beltan. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
The blond man snorted. “I think everyone is thinking what you’re thinking.”
Three more gorleths remained close by and were starting to slowly crawl toward them, while five or six of the beasts clustered at the foot of each stairwell, testing the ice with their talons; it was already beginning to melt. They could fight four of the creatures, maybe five. But not a dozen of them, not even with Beltan and Vani.
The T’gol prowled toward one of the nearby gorleths, moving across the ice as surefooted as if it were rough cement. Beltan started to do the same, but he swore as he nearly lost his footing, only catching himself by digging the point of his sword into the ice.
Travis knelt and touched Beltan’s boots. “Krond,” he murmured.
“What are you doing?” Beltan yowled stamping his feet. “That’s hot!”
The ice melted through to the tiles where his boots touched.
“Oh,” he said, then started toward one of the struggling gorleths, able to move across the ice now, if not as quickly as Vani. The creature reached for him, trying to rake open his stomach, but Beltan swiped with his sword, sending the beast’s arm spinning across the ice. He kicked, and the gorleth flew over the edge of the platform, striking the rails. Again came the sizzle of electricity, a sound that continued as Vani heaved first one, then another gorleth over the edge. However, one of them raked its claws across her leg, and she limped as she came back toward them, trailing a line of blood.
“It is a scratch,” she said in answer to their looks, but her words were more for Nim’s benefit than theirs. The ice was growing slushy beneath her feet, not just Beltan’s.
“Gelth,” Travis said, pressing his hand against the floor, murmuring the rune over and over. The tiles froze again, but they began to melt almost immediately. Despite the chill that radiated from them, Travis was sweating, and he couldn’t stop shaking. He kept speaking runes.
A group of gorleths edged away from one of the stairwells. They crept across the ice, pressing themselves against the wall at the end of the platform for support, moving toward the edge.
“What are they doing?” Beltan said.
Vani’s gold eyes narrowed. “They’re learning.”
When they reached the edge of the platform, the beasts lowered themselves into the trench where the trains ran, careful to avoid the electrified rails. Slowly, the gorleths began making their way parallel to the rails. Creatures from the other end of the platform were following suit. Travis knew what would happen when they reached the center of the platform. They would climb back up; and then there would be no escaping them.
Deirdre eyed the advancing monsters. “Travis, stop it with the ice runes. I think we need to run for the stairs.”
However, even as she said this, several more gorleths appeared at the foot of each stairwell. Vani and Beltan stood at the edge of the platform, ready to try to fend off the creatures when they started to climb up, though there were far too many of them. The snarls of the gorleths echoed off the curved walls of the tunnel, a cacophony that drowned out the voices of the Runelords in Travis’s mind. He stopped speaking the rune of ice and knelt on the tiles, bowing his head, exhausted.
A puff of air caressed his cheeks—warm rather than cold, smelling of steel and soot.
In Castle City, Travis had often stood on the boardwalk in front of the Mine Shaft Saloon, facing toward the mountains. He would feel an ache of possibility in his chest as he waited for the wind, wondering what it might blow his way. Only he knew what this wind was bringing. Already he could feel the tiles vibrating beneath his knees.
“Vani, Beltan! Get back!”
The two hesitated, then stepped away from the edge. Travis stood and grabbed Deirdre, pulling her and Nim back. The first gorleths, three of them, started to scramble up onto the platform, their eyes glowing with malice. They opened their fanged maws and roared.
The roar grew louder, deeper, filling the tunnel like thunder. The gorleths shut their maws, but the roar continued. Their pale eyes flickered with confusion, and they turned to look down the tunnel—
—just as the oncoming train struck them.
Two of the gorleths went flying through the air, their bodies limp and broken before they crashed onto the tiles. The third was caught between the train and the platform, its body smearing into a stripe of black jelly. The gorleths in the trench shrieked, then their cries were cut short.
Beltan, Vani, and Deirdre all stared, motionless with shock, but Travis knew they only had a moment. The ice had melted. Already the gorleths from the stairwells were loping toward them across the platform. The train slowed, wheels screeching in protest.
“Everyone!” Travis shouted. “Get into the train!”
His words shattered their paralysis; they started moving. The train rattled to a stop, and a set of doors whooshed open before them.
Anders stood on the other side.
“Hello there, mates,” he said in his cheery, gravelly voice. As usual, the Seeker wore a sleek designer suit that could barely contain the bulk of his shoulders. His close-cropped hair looked freshly bleached—an unnatural contrast to his dark beard and eyebrows.
“Anders,” Deirdre breathed. “How—?”
Travis shoved Deirdre, pushing her through the doors.
“Mind the gap,” intoned a voice over the loudspeakers. The gorleths snarled as they drew close. Vani and Beltan jumped into the train, Travis on their heels.
“Close the doors!” Anders shouted into a black walkie-talkie.
The doors whooshed shut just as the gorleths struck them. The train rocked under the blow. Vani and Beltan stumbled back, and talons slipped through the crack between the doors, wrenching them open. A snarling head shot through the gap, and before Travis could scream, the thing’s maw clamped around his upper arm.
The gorleth’s teeth sank easily into his flesh. He could see the creature’s gullet moving. It was suckling, pulling blood out of the wound with terrible force, swallowing it. A buzzing noise filled Travis’s ears. The world began to go white, and he no longer felt pain.
He watched through a veil as Vani and Beltan shoved on the doors, closing them, catching the creature’s neck as in a vise. It opened its maw to let out a hiss, releasing Travis’s arm. Travis stumbled back, and Beltan’s sword flashed. The gorleth’s head rolled to the floor, and the doors clamped shut. Outside the windows of the train the creature’s decapitated body slumped backward onto the tiles.
Vani took Nim from Deirdre. The girl was not crying. Her face was ashen and her eyes were circles of fear as she stared at Travis.
“Anders,” Deirdre said, grabbing her partner’s arm, “get this train running again.”
“You got it, mate.” Anders raised the walkie-talkie and pressed a button. “Eustace, take us out of the station. Now.”
The train lurched into motion, pulling away from the platform. Travis caught one last glimpse of the remaining gorleths on the edge of the platform, swarming around the headless body of their kin. Then the train passed into the darkness of a tunnel, and he felt strong hands lowering him into a seat.
“Travis, are you all right?” It was Beltan, his green eyes worried.
“He has lost much blood,” Vani said.
Before Anders could react, she tore one of the sleeves from his suit coat and bound it around Travis’s arm.
“Hey, now!” Anders said, annoyance on his pitted face. “You don’t just go making bandages out of Armani.”
Travis shook his head. The fog was beginning to lift. “I’m fine, really. I just got dizzy for a moment.”
But was it the loss of blood that had made him dizzy, or the smell of it? It filled his nostrils now: the rich, coppery scent. Were the morndari still sated? Could he not call them to him with blood such as his?
“Travis?” Beltan touched his cheek.
He focused on the blond man’s face, letting the desire to work blood sorcery fade away. Only it didn’t, not completely.
Deirdre slumped back against one of the seats. “How did you find us?” she said to Anders. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”
“I got your message, mate,” Anders said, gripping a pole as the train rattled around a corner. “I must have just missed you, only when I called back you didn’t answer. It sounded like you’d gotten yourself into a bit of a scrape, so I decided to investigate. I went to the Bond Street station to hop on the Tube to Travis and Beltan’s neighborhood, and I knew something was definitely wrong when I ran into this chap.”
The Seeker picked up something resting on one of the seats: a gold mask. There was a small hole between the mask’s eyes.
“Needless to say, I was a bit surprised,” Anders continued, clearly enjoying telling the story. “This fellow here wiggled his fingers at me, and I suppose my heart should have exploded. Only I think something made his magic go all wonky. He got flustered, and I took the chance to get a shot off. Turns out their masks don’t stop bullets so well. Eustace showed up then. You remember him, Deirdre—the new apprentice you met the other day, scrappy lad. He had caught some chatter on the police radio scanners, something about a commotion at the Green Park station, and right away we had a pretty good notion what was up. So Eustace headed to the front of the train. There was no sign of the driver, but he got the train running, and here we are.”
Deirdre stood and gave Anders a fierce hug.
Surprise registered in his vivid blue eyes and—for a moment, Travis thought—a note of wistfulness. “Now there, mate, that’s enough of that. You would have done the same for me. Besides, I don’t think partners are supposed to fraternize quite like this.” He gently pushed her away.
“Are we heading to the Charterhouse?” she asked.
“On the double. I’d say it’s the only safe place in the city for these folks right now.”
“I do not understand this,” Vani said, sitting next to Travis. Nim was curled up on her lap. The girl’s eyes were closed now, but Travis was certain she was listening to every word. “There is no way the Scirathi could know I brought Nim to Earth,” Vani went on, her face hard with anger. She looked at Travis. “How could they have followed me across the Void, let alone to your home?”
Anders cleared his throat. “Actually, miss, I don’t think they did. I found something on the body of that sorcerer fellow— something that tells me it wasn’t your daughter they were after.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a sheet of stiff paper. It was a photograph of a man.
“By the Blade of Vathris,” Beltan growled. “I swear I’ll kill them all!”
Another wave of dizziness swept over Travis, and not just from loss of blood. The man in the photo was him.
It was far after midnight by the time they gathered in a mahogany-paneled parlor in the Seekers’ London Charterhouse.
Deirdre sank down into one of the parlor’s comfortably shabby chairs. For the first time since they heard the sound of glass breaking in Travis’s and Beltan’s flat her heart rate slowed to a normal cadence, and a feeling of safety encapsulated her, as familiar and reassuring as the embrace of the wing-backed chair.
It had taken over two hours to get through all of the Charterhouse’s security checkpoints. While it hadn’t been difficult to gain entry for Travis and Beltan—their files were on record with the Seekers—new dossiers had to be created for Vani and Nim. Fingers were printed, retinas scanned, and Deirdre’s authorization codes processed. She had thought the security guards would call Director Nakamura for confirmation, but to her surprise they hadn’t. It seemed Echelon 7 clearance was good for more than just access to Seeker databases.
“How long can we stay in this place?” Vani said, prowling around a Chippendale sofa where Nim lay curled up. The T’gol limped slightly, favoring her injured leg. The nurse—there was always one on duty at the Charterhouse—had cleaned and bandaged the wound.
“You can stay as long as you need to,” Deirdre said.
Vani gripped the laminated ID badge that hung from a lanyard around her neck. “And we can leave at any time?”
“Of course you can leave,” Anders said, hanging his torn suit coat on the back of a chair. “Not that I’d recommend it. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s not exactly safe out there.”
Vani spun around, advancing on him. “You Seekers are arrogant fools. I have watched you. You believe you know everything, yet there is so much you cannot understand. Is it truly so safe here?”
“Not if you keep talking like that, it isn’t,” Anders growled, cracking his knuckles.
Vani treated the Seeker to a scornful look. “If you think simply because you have large muscles that you have any chance against me, then you deceive yourself.”
“It sounds to me like you’re the cocky one,” Anders said. “Just because you’re some superspooky assassin type doesn’t mean you know every trick in the book. I worked security long before I became a Seeker, and I don’t need muscles to take out the likes of you. Go on, Deirdre. Tell her how I aced all those logic tests the Seekers gave me.”
Beltan interposed himself between the Seeker and the T’gol. He faced Anders. “I doubt I’d do very good on those tests, but my logic tells me you’d better back off if you want to keep your brain inside your skull.” He glared at Vani. “You, too. Do you think this is a good example for Nim?”
Vani’s scowl became a worried expression. “She is asleep.”
“Not anymore,” Travis said.
Nim was sitting up on the sofa, her gray eyes wide. “Are you going to hurt the bad man, Mother?”
Deirdre pushed herself from the chair, then knelt on the carpet next to the sofa. “Don’t be afraid, Nim. Anders isn’t a bad man.”
“Yes he is. That’s why Mother wants to hurt him.”
“No, he’s my partner, and he helped us get away from the monsters. Don’t you remember?”
Nim hesitated, then nodded.
“Anders and your mother are just a little tired, that’s all. We’re all tired.” Deirdre smiled, touching the girl’s chin. “You, too, I bet. Why don’t you go to sleep?”
Nim held her hands out before her. “No, I don’t want to sleep. I won’t see the gold men if my eyes are closed. They want to take me away from my mother because I’m a key. That’s what they tell me, only their mouths don’t move.”
“Hush, daughter,” Vani said, sitting on the arm of the sofa and stroking Nim’s dark hair. “There is no need to fear. You are safe here.”
“That’s right,” Deirdre said, doing her best to sound convincing. But they were safe there. Underneath all the rich wood paneling, every door in the Charterhouse was made of tempered steel fitted with electronic locks. This parlor was like a bank vault. Nothing could pass the doors. Or the windows. “Show her, Anders.”
The Seeker moved to one of the windows. “See that little beam of green light here? That’s a laser. Look what happens if something gets in the way of that beam.” Anders stuck a finger in the path of the laser beam—then snatched his hand back just in time to keep it from getting smashed as a row of gleaming metal bars whooshed into place, covering the window.
Nim clapped her hands. “Again!”
After several more demonstrations of the automatic safety features of the windows and doors, Nim was finally content to lie down on the sofa. She yawned and stuck a finger in her mouth, and her breathing grew slow as her eyes drooped shut.
Deirdre would have liked to curl up herself, but there was too much to try to understand. They moved to the other side of the parlor and spoke in low voices so as not to disturb Nim. A sleepy-eyed butler brought coffee, and Deirdre helped Anders pour cups for all of them.
“It’s not fair,” he grumbled in a low voice as they stood at a sideboard, backs to the others. “I get the train rolling along, smash all the baddies, and somehow I’m still the bad man.”
“Don’t worry about Nim. She just doesn’t know you like I do. Remember, I didn’t exactly trust you at first, either.”
However, in the time since, Deirdre had learned that she could rely on Anders in any situation. In fact, she trusted Anders more than she had ever trusted Hadrian Farr. With Farr, she had always felt there was some deeper agenda she didn’t know about, that if he ever thought he needed to, he would abandon her in an instant. Then he had, and now she knew why. Somehow he had found a doorway to Eldh, and he had taken it, leaving her behind. She supposed she couldn’t blame him for that.
Only she did. Farr had found what they had always sought together, and he had gone on without her. Something told her Anders wouldn’t do the same—that if he found a portal to another world, he would hold the door open like a gentleman and let her go first.
“You trust me now, don’t you, mate?” he said, pouring cream.
She laid a hand on his broad shoulder, drawing closer. Anders wasn’t handsome, but damn if he didn’t always smell good. . . .
Stop it right now, Deirdre.
Her hand pulled back. She wasn’t certain when she realized she could fall in love with Anders if she let herself. It wasn’t at all like what she had felt for Farr when she first met him. Back then, she had been as infatuated with the idea of the Seekers as with Farr’s film noir good looks. It was hard to say which of them had seduced her.
With Anders, it was different. There had been so much to get through: her mistrust, the fact that he had worked security, and the realization that underneath that heavy Cro-Magnon brow lurked a sharp mind. Even then she probably wouldn’t have realized the truth if it hadn’t been for Sasha.
“Quit glowing,” Sasha had said to her one day.
“What?” Deirdre had said, utterly confused.
“I said quit glowing. You’re like a night-light.”
Deirdre was scandalized. “I don’t glow.”
“You do when you look at Anders,” Sasha had said with a wicked grin. “Grant you, we’ve all gotten rather attached to the big lug, and not simply because he makes heavenly coffee. But it’s best to keep one’s professional relationships from becoming unprofessional. And by that I mean personal. I know you agree, darling.”
Just to confuse things, which Sasha had a great fondness for, she gave Deirdre a warm kiss on the lips before sauntering away on her lanky supermodel legs.
Ever since then, Deirdre had been careful, and as far as she knew Anders didn’t suspect anything. Which was good. Deirdre valued him too much as a partner and a friend to ever do anything to jeopardize their relationship.
“Come on,” she said, leading the way as he carried a tray of coffee cups to a table in the corner. While Nim slept, the adults gathered around the table, trying to make sense of everything that had happened.
“So it was me they came looking for,” Travis said, looking at Vani, “not you and Nim.” He touched the bandage on his arm and winced.
Vani circled her hands around her cup. “Yes, but it does not matter, for they have learned I brought Nim to Earth. There is nowhere I can take her now that will be safe from them.”
“But why do they want us?” Travis said, his gray eyes serious. For the first time Deirdre noticed that they were flecked with gold, just like Nim’s.
“You’re the one fated to raise Morindu,” Beltan said. “They must know that.”
“That is impossible,” Vani said, her visage darkening. “Besides the people in this room, and Grace Beckett and her closest companions on Eldh, only a few among the Mournish know this fact. I do not believe our closest friends have betrayed us to the Scirathi.”
“All the same,” Beltan said, using a cloth to wipe the edge of his sword, “they must know. And that means the Scirathi will come again.”
Deirdre cast a glance at the sofa where Nim lay. Something the girl had said echoed in her mind. “What did she mean?” She turned her gaze on Vani. “Nim said something about how the Scirathi wanted her because they think she’s a key. A key to what?”
Vani sighed, brushing her sleek hair from her brow. “I do not know what she means. A few times she has told me that the Scirathi have spoken to her. However, her story keeps changing. First she said they told her she was a precious jewel, then it was a little spider, and now it’s this—a key, she says. But I can only imagine she was dreaming. They have never gotten close enough to speak to her.”
“Haven’t they?” Travis said. “They were right outside her bedroom window tonight. Besides, you’ve forgotten how . . .” He cast a furtive glance at Beltan. “She’s not like other children, Vani. You know she’s not.”
Deirdre had heard the story: how the fairies had tricked Beltan and Vani, making each believe the other was Travis. While under the fairy spell, they had conceived Nim between them. Only it was more than that. Duratek had performed experiments on Beltan, infusing him with fairy blood. In a way, Nim was a fairy child. What that meant, Deirdre wasn’t sure, but the girl was certainly not a typical three-year-old.
Talk turned then to the matter of the stone arch—the gate— that had been discovered on the island of Crete. Vani was convinced it was a sign of Fate that the arch had been uncovered just when Travis needed to return to Eldh in order to fulfill his destiny.
“I don’t know if it’s Fate,” Travis said, gazing down at his hands. “But I’m willing to bet it’s not a coincidence that gate came to light on this world just when Morindu has been found on Eldh. There has to be a connection. Only what is it?”
Vani reached across the table, gripping his hands. “You are the connection, Travis Wilder. Don’t you see? The gate has come to light because Morindu has been found. It wants to take you there.”
He snatched his hands back. “What it if I don’t want to go?”
“You will go, because it is Fate.”
“I don’t have a fate,” Travis snapped, and Beltan cast him a worried look.
Vani seemed undisturbed. “Perhaps not. But my people do, and that fate is bound up with you. You will go to Morindu. We must go to this gate at once. Your blood will awaken it.”
“Blood,” Deirdre murmured, her mind humming. She glanced at the sofa and Nim’s sleeping form. “It’s what you and Nim have in common, Travis. That’s what connects you. Blood of power.”
Beltan cast a startled look at Nim. “A jewel, a spider, a key. Those things she said—all those words could be used to describe a scarab.”
“And the scarabs contain Orú’s blood.” Deirdre felt hot, a sheen of sweat breaking out on her skin. “That’s why the Scirathi want both of you. Either one of you could be used to open a gate.”
“Or perhaps open something else,” Vani said, her coppery face turning ashen. “Why did I not see it before?”
Anders refilled her empty coffee cup. “Sometimes it’s hard to see the truth when you’re too close to it.”
Deirdre had to agree with that. And there was one truth the others couldn’t see yet. “The gate on Crete won’t do you any good. You won’t be able to open it.”
Vani scowled at her. “Why is that?”
“Because the arch isn’t complete. The archaeologists won’t find the center keystone with it.”
“This is madness,” Vani said, clenching her hands into fists. “You only say this to keep Travis here. How can you know the keystone will not be found?”
“Because it’s in the vaults of the Philosophers.”
Deirdre couldn’t help feeling a little satisfied as they all stared at her. It was good to be the one with the astonishing revelation for a change.
“You remember the Philosopher who was helping me?”
Anders cocked his head. “He hasn’t contacted you again, has he, partner?”
Deirdre thought of the message on her computer screen, just before Travis had called. “Actually, I think maybe he has. But he first helped me to learn about the keystone over three years ago.”
It had been almost that long since she had gone over her notes on the case, but it didn’t matter; she remembered every detail of the mystery as if she had just uncovered it. Anders knew all of this already—she had vowed not to keep any secrets from him, and she had kept that promise—but to the others it would all be new.
She began by explaining how her shadowy helper—the one who she was convinced was a Philosopher—had first contacted her, just after she had stumbled upon a computer file with her new Echelon 7 clearance. A file that was deleted from the system the moment she found it.
Deirdre had never learned what was in that file, but soon after she made another breakthrough with the help of the unknown Philosopher. She explained how she had stumbled across a reference to the keystone in the archives of the Seekers while researching an old case, one concerning a Seeker named Thomas Atwater. In the early seventeenth century, Atwater was forbidden to return to a tavern where he had worked prior to joining the Seekers. The tavern had stood on the same spot where the Seekers would later discover the keystone, and which, three centuries after that, would house the nightclub Surrender Dorothy.
Talking about Glinda was still difficult, even after this long. Deirdre gripped the silver ring Glinda had given her as she described the nightclub and its half-fairy denizens. Duratek had been using them, hoping to learn from the experiments they performed on the folk of the nightclub, then had destroyed the tavern once they gained access to a true fairy.
“Are you all right, Deirdre?” Anders asked, his voice husky. As always, he pronounced her name DEER-dree, but she no longer found it quite so annoying as she used to.
She did her best to smile. “I’ll be fine. Really.”
“You said there was writing on the keystone,” Travis said, his gray eyes curious. “Were you ever able to read it?”
Deirdre nodded. “My mysterious helper gave me a photograph of a clay tablet that bore the inscription on the keystone, as well as the same passage written in Linear A. Back then, I wondered at the connection, but now it’s fairly obvious.”
“To you, maybe,” Beltan said with a grunt.
She grinned at the blond man. “Linear A is the writing system used by the Minoan civilization on ancient Crete.”
Vani’s expression was guarded. “So what does the inscription on the keystone say?”
“It says, ‘Forget not the Sleeping Ones. In their blood lies the key.”
“The key,” Travis murmured, looking at Nim. However, whatever he was thinking, he kept it to himself.
There was one last thing she had to tell them. Deirdre took off the silver ring Glinda had given her and showed them how the same inscription as on the keystone was written inside it. However, there was one thing she did not tell them, and it was the one secret she had allowed herself to keep even from Anders: how, in the moment they had kissed, Deirdre had loved Glinda with all her being.
“ ‘The Sleeping Ones,’ ” Beltan said, scratching the tuft of blond hair on his chin. “That doesn’t really sound familiar. What does it mean?”
No one, not even Vani, offered an answer.
Deirdre slipped the ring back on her finger. “The inscription talks about blood, and traces of blood were found on the keystone—blood with DNA similar to Glinda’s. Whoever they were, these Sleeping Ones were important to the folk at Surrender Dorothy for some reason.” Though why that was, they would never know, thanks to Duratek.
“This all seems a small complication,” Vani said, standing and stalking around the table. “True, the gate will not be complete without this keystone. However, it could be in a vault in this very building. Cannot this Philosopher ally of yours deliver the keystone to us?”
Deirdre opened her mouth, not certain how she was going to answer that. Would the unknown Philosopher really respond to a direct request for help? Before she could speak, there was a knock at the door, and the butler entered. On the silver tray he carried was not another pot of coffee but a manila envelope.
“A message just arrived for you, Miss Falling Hawk,” he said, holding the tray toward Deirdre.
She stared at the envelope. “Who’s it from?”
“I have no idea, miss.” The butler looked slightly ruffled, as if she were accusing him of snooping.
She took the envelope off the tray. “Thank you, Lewis.”
The butler retreated from the parlor; the door shut.
“It’s from him, isn’t it?” Travis said. “Your Philosopher friend.”
Anders thumped the table. “Well, that was right on cue. He’s an eerie fellow, but you can’t fault his timing, now can you?”
Deirdre was beyond words. She forced her trembling fingers to open the envelope. Inside was a folded up sheet of newsprint. Trying not to tear it, she unfolded the sheet and spread it on the table. It was a page taken from the Times—the coming day’s edition, according to the date. It must have come right off the presses.
They all leaned over the page. At the top was a large article about Variance X, the growing stellar anomaly that astronomers had observed beyond the boundaries of the solar system. However, the article didn’t hold Deirdre’s attention. Nor did the headlines about devastating typhoons in India, or the jittery United States stock markets. Instead, her eyes were drawn to the small headline at the bottom of the page: DARING ARCHAEOLOGICAL THEFT ON CRETE.
Numb, she scanned the article. It described how a stone archway was stolen mere hours after it had been revealed live on the program Archaeology Now! There was no clue as to the perpetrators, but one worker at the site reported seeing men dressed in black and wearing masks.
Vani looked up, her own face becoming a mask: one of fury. “Sacred Mahonadra, they have taken it!”
Beltan and Travis exchanged a grave look, and Deirdre understood what it meant. Somehow, the Scirathi had taken the gate, and without it there was no way to open a doorway to Eldh. But the gate wouldn’t do the Scirathi any good either, not without—
A sound like the crackle of electricity permeated the air, along with the metallic scent of ozone. Deirdre turned, and her heart became stone. On the other side of the parlor, a circle of darkness hung in midair, rimmed by blue fire. Nim was no longer on the sofa. Instead the girl padded across the carpet on bare feet, approaching the mouth of the portal.
Vani sprang forward. “Nim, get away from that!”
Fast as she was, Beltan was ahead of her, leaping over the back of the sofa. Travis scrambled after them.
Nim stopped before the dark circle and gazed into it. After a moment she nodded, the way a child might when obeying an adult’s instructions. She held her chubby arms out.
“No!” Beltan shouted.
A pair of black-gloved hands reached out of the circle of blue sparks, snatching up Nim. The girl screamed.
“Mother!” she cried, twisting in the gloved hands that gripped her, looking back, her eyes large with fear.
Beltan dived forward, lunging for the girl. His arms closed around empty air, and he crashed against an end table. The hands pulled Nim into the blazing iris of the portal, and both they and the girl vanished. At once the gate began to shrink in on itself, a blue eye winking shut.
Travis thrust a hand into the rapidly dwindling circle. Azure magic crackled around his wrist, biting his hand like a hungry maw.
“You must not let the gate close,” Vani said, her voice hard as steel. “There is no other way we can follow her.”
Travis nodded, his face lined with pain. However, the blue circle constricted more tightly about his wrist. Beltan lay on the floor. He wasn’t moving.
“Anders, help me,” Deirdre said as she knelt beside the blond man. Anders helped her roll him over. He was breathing, but his eyes were shut, and there was a bruise forming on his forehead. Anders helped her haul his limp body onto the sofa.
“Vani,” Travis gritted between clenched teeth. “My bandage. Take it off. I think it was my blood they used to open this gate. They must have gotten it from the stomach of the dead gorleth.”
Her eyes blazed. “What fools we are! We should have known they would do this.”
Travis flinched as she jerked the bandage off his wound. Blood began to ooze forth.
“More,” he said.
She dug her fingers into the wound, and a moan escaped him. Blood flowed freely from the gorleth’s bite marks, running down his arm. When it reached his wrist, the circle of blue sparks flared, then began to expand outward. Travis stuck his other hand into the opening, gripping its blazing edges, straining as he forced it wider. More blood flowed down his arm, and it vanished as it reached his wrist. The gate was consuming it.
Travis staggered. His face was white, and alarm coursed through Deirdre. He’s lost too much blood. He’s going to pass out.
“Do not stop!” Vani said, her voice a cruel slap.
Again Travis strained. The gate expanded a fraction; it was as wide as his shoulders now.
“Hello there, mate,” Anders said as Beltan drew in a shuddering breath and sat up on the sofa.
“What’s going—?” The blond man’s eyes went wide. “Travis!”
Travis cast a look of pain, sorrow, and love over his shoulder, his eyes locking on Beltan’s.
“Now, Vani. Help me.”
In a single motion, the T’gol gripped his shoulders and pushed him forward, into the mouth of the gate. However, she did not loosen her grasp on him, and his momentum carried her forward as she dived into the circle after him. Travis’s feet vanished, then Vani’s, as the ring of azure magic rapidly contracted.
“No!” Beltan shouted, pushing himself free of Deirdre and Anders, throwing himself forward. However, before he could reach it, the blue circle collapsed into a single point, then disappeared.
The gate had closed.
“So, dear,” Melia said, regarding Grace over the rim of a steaming cup of maddok, “I hear you had a chat with a dragon.”
The amber-eyed lady sat beside the window in the chamber she and Falken shared. The chamber was small, but it was the sunniest in the keep, and that was why Melia had chosen it over grander rooms. She had been born long ago in a land far warmer than this, and her bronze skin seemed to absorb the morning light that streamed through the window.
Daylight had diminished Grace’s dread a fraction—the rift was invisible against the flawless blue sky—and she gave Melia a crooked smile. “News travels fast.”
“No, dragons travel fast,” Falken said, his hair disheveled from sleep. He poured a cup of maddok and handed it to her.
Grace sighed as she breathed in the rich, slightly bitter aroma, then sat in a chair opposite Melia while Falken perched on the windowsill.
“You’re blocking my sunshine, dear one,” Melia said in the kind of pleasant tone that demanded immediate attention.
“I thought I was your sunshine,” Falken said dryly, though he hastily hopped off the windowsill and retired to another chair.
A black cat sprawled on the carpet, licking a paw as it regarded Grace with moon-gold eyes. It had finally outgrown its seemingly eternal kittenhood over two years ago. Grace should have realized then that Melia was no longer immortal.
“So what did the dragon speak to you about?” Melia said, her amber eyes as curious as the cat’s.
Grace gripped the hot cup. “Nothing.”
A frown shadowed the lady’s brow. “If you’d rather not tell us, that’s your prerogative, but please don’t speak a falsehood, Ralena. Sfithrisir is not one for idle conversation. I doubt the dragon flew all the way here from the Fal Erenn simply to tell you about nothing.”
“But that’s it,” Grace said, struggling to find a place she could begin. “That’s exactly what the problem is. It’s nothing at all.”
Falken raised an eyebrow, glancing at Melia. “I think the dragon addled her wits.”
“They’ve been known to have that effect,” the lady agreed.
Grace set down her cup and stood. “It’s the rift in the sky,” she said, shaking with frustration and fear. “It’s growing. It’s going to annihilate this world, and Earth, and any other world that lies close to them, and when it’s done, there won’t be anything left. There’ll be nothing. Nothing at all.”
Melia and Falken were no longer smiling. As precisely as she could, Grace recounted her conversation with Sfithrisir. When she was done, both the bard and the lady stared, their faces ashen.
“This cannot be true,” Melia said, shivering. The sun had gone behind a cloud. “Things cannot simply . . . cease to be.”
Grace looked at Falken. “You’re the one who told me dragons can only speak the truth.”
“That’s so,” Falken said, doubt in his faded blue eyes. “But you have to be wary of what a dragon says. They speak the truth, but they also twist that truth to their own ends.”
Grace thought about this, then shook her head. “He was afraid, Falken. I know that seems impossible, that a creature that existed before the world was even created could feel fear, but he did, I’m sure of it. Whatever the rift really is, Sfithrisir is terrified of it, and he can’t stop it.”
“And you believe Travis can?” Melia said.
“I have to.”
Falken rose from his chair. “What will you do, Ralena?”
She gripped the bard’s hand. “I am making you regents of Malachor, you and Melia both. I want you to keep things running. It won’t be hard—Sir Tarus pretty much does everything. All you have to do is put my stamp on things once in a while.”
Sorrow shone in Falken’s faded blue eyes. “So you’re leaving us.”
She nodded, unable to speak for the tightness in her throat.
Melia stood, her blue gown fluttering as she drew close. Tears streamed from her amber eyes, but she smiled. “Do tell Travis hello for us when you find him, dear.”
Then Grace was weeping, too, as she hugged them both.
Preparations for her departure began at once. Horses were readied, supplies packed, and a proclamation granting regent power to Falken and Melia penned, though Sir Tarus handled the majority of this, and mostly what Grace did was tell people they couldn’t come with her.
Aldeth and Samatha were the first, though the two Spiders were squabbling so intently over which of them should be the one to go south with Grace that they hardly heard her say that both of them were staying there, and she finally had to shout.
“But you’ll need a spy with you, Your Majesty,” Aldeth said, looking as if he had been slapped.
“The idea is to find Travis, not hide from him. Besides, Malachor needs you both. I won’t be able to focus on my task if I have to worry about what’s going on here.” Grace lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ll sleep much better if I know you two are keeping an eye on . . . well, I dare not say, but you know exactly who I mean.”
By the look in their eyes, they didn’t have the foggiest idea who she meant, which was precisely Grace’s intention. Trying to figure out who she was referring to ought to keep them occupied while she was gone. Although, as the two Spiders vanished, she supposed she had just doomed everyone in the keep to weeks of constant spying.
Master Graedin came next, then King Kel, and even the witch Lursa. Grace thanked them but told each that they could not come on the journey, that this was something she had to do alone. She was taking a small retinue of knights with her for security on the road, but that was all. Both Graedin and Lursa were disappointed but wished her well, and while Grace feared King Kel would maul her after she refused his offer of company, instead he caught her in a bear hug.
“My little Queenie is all grown-up now.” He released her, then sniffed, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. “Go on, then, fly from the nest. Have your adventure out in the world. But don’t you forget me, lass.”
Grace winced, probing her aching ribs. “I honestly don’t think that’s possible, Your Majesty.”
By late morning everything was ready for her departure, and the good thing about having to tell everyone they couldn’t come with her was that she had already taken care of all her good-byes. Or make that almost all, for there was one person who hadn’t come to her. She found him in the highest chamber of his tower, his face close to the runestone; both face and stone were covered with a webwork of thin lines.
“Your Majesty,” Master Larad said, looking up. “Forgive me—I did not see you there.”
She approached the runestone. “It’s getting worse, isn’t it?”
“I found another piece sundered from it this morning.”
So the power of magic was continuing to deteriorate. “I think maybe I know what’s happening,” Grace said. “What’s affecting magic.”
“You mean the rift in the heavens.”
She stared at him. “You know about it?”
It almost seemed a smile touched his lips. “You were not the only one looking at the sky last night, Your Majesty.”
“I suppose this means,” she said, moderately perturbed, “that you’re not going to be at all surprised when I tell you I spoke to a dragon?”
He shook his head.
Giving up all hope of ever astonishing Master Larad, Grace told him everything Sfithrisir had said, and what she had decided to do. When she was done, his scarred face was expressionless. However, a light shone in his eyes, though it seemed more curious than alarmed.
“I am not certain how this knowledge helps me, Your Majesty. However, it cannot be chance that the rift has appeared just as the power of magic is faltering. I will focus my studies on it.”
She touched his arm. “If anyone can find a way to keep magic from getting any weaker, it’s you, Master Larad.”
He pulled away. “Dragons cannot lie, Your Majesty. You must find Travis Wilder. Is it not time for you to depart?”
She moved to a narrow window. From there she could see the keep, blue banners bearing the white star of Malachor snapping above. “Yes,” she murmured. “It is time.”
“You sound as if you’ve decided something, Your Majesty.”
Grace hadn’t meant to speak aloud, but she longed to tell someone what she had been thinking. She looked down at the people moving in the bailey below. They were her subjects, yet at that moment she felt so distant from them. They were like patients who had been discharged from Denver Memorial Hospital; they didn’t need her anymore.
“Melia and Falken will be good regents,” she said, “but in time I think the people of Malachor should elect a leader.”
“Elect?” Larad said, a note of scorn in his voice. “You mean let the people choose who their ruler will be?”
“Yes.” She turned to face him.
His eyes narrowed. “And whom do you think they would choose?”
Almost never had she seen Larad laugh, but he did now, a sound at once ironic and genuinely mirthful. “I think not, Your Majesty. Yours is a keen mind, but I think in this matter reason has eluded you. I have heard what you speak of before—the absurd notion that common people are capable of choosing their own ruler wisely.”
“It isn’t absurd,” Grace said, a little angry now. “People can make wise choices for themselves, if they’re given the chance.”
“Perhaps,” Larad said, though he did not sound convinced. “But even if the people of Malachor did choose their leader, whom do you think they would select? A man who spends all day studying runes in a tower? The people do not follow you because they have to, Your Majesty, but because they wish to. They have already made their choice. There is no need for them to elect a—”
The Runelord staggered back, gripping the window ledge for support. “You’re not coming back. You’re leaving, and you don’t intend to return to Malachor, do you?”
So he had seen the truth—the truth which, like a dragon, she had concealed in a fog even from herself. She crossed her arms over her chest, her heart beating with anguish. Or was it excitement?
“I don’t know if I’ll come back, Larad,” she said softly. “I honestly don’t know.”
He said nothing. She had finally managed to astonish Larad, but already his shock was gone, or at least concealed, and his eyes were hard and unreadable once again.
“Farewell then, Your Majesty,” he said.
Grace found she had no words to reply. She nodded, then descended the stairs, leaving the tower of the Runelords.
A short while later she mounted Shandis beside the gates of the keep. Four stern-faced knights sat ready on their chargers. There was no wagon for supplies, only a packhorse that carried the absolute minimum, for Grace intended to ride fast. She arranged her riding gown over the saddle, then sighed. Now came the hardest good-bye of all.
“No, Sir Tarus,” she said as the red-haired knight placed his foot in a stirrup, ready to mount his charger.
He turned around. “Your Majesty?”
She could not bring herself to speak the words, but by his stricken look he understood her. He drew close, clutching the hem of her gown, and shook his head.
“No, Your Majesty.” His voice was ragged with despair. “Please do not do this thing to me. Do not command me to stay.”
She had to keep her voice hard, or she would not be able to speak at all. “You must, Sir Tarus. Melia and Falken cannot run this kingdom without your help.”
His face grew red, but from grief this time, not frustration. “I am your seneschal. I serve you, Your Majesty.”
“And so you must do what I bid,” she said, hating how cruel the words sounded.
“Have I served you so ill, then, that you must leave me behind?” He was weeping now, and Grace nearly lost her resolve, for in that moment she finally understood why he had been so stern these last three years, so grim and determined.
He had been trying to be Durge.
“No, Tarus,” she said, on the verge of weeping herself. “You have served me better than any other. And that’s why I must ask you to do this. For me. And for Malachor.”
“But I have every reason to go with you.”
She thought of the young Runelord Alfin, and despite her sorrow she smiled. “I believe you have a better reason to stay, Sir Tarus.”
She bent over and kissed the top of his head. Then she urged Shandis toward the gates, the four knights behind her, and without fanfare or further farewells, Grace, Queen of Malachor, left her kingdom.
She spoke little with the knights who accompanied her as they rode south from Gravenfist Keep along the Queen’s Way. When she gave Tarus the names of the warriors she wished for her retinue, she had deliberately chosen the most reticent and taciturn in the keep; she had no desire for idle conversation on this journey.
Her only purpose now was to ride as swiftly as possible, to reach Sareth, and have him lead her to Hadrian Farr. Not because she wished to see the Seeker—though, she was forced to confess, the thought of seeing him again did give her a strange thrill she couldn’t quite analyze. For a reason she couldn’t name, she kept trying to picture him, though all she could seem to see were his eyes: dark, mysterious, compelling. Not that it mattered. All that mattered was that Farr could lead her to Morindu the Dark. And if she found Morindu, then she would find Travis—she was certain of it.
The weather was fine and clear, and they made good time that first day. Over the last few years, the Embarran engineers had labored on the Queen’s Way, clearing away fallen trees, replacing cracked paving stones, and shoring up bridges. By nightfall they had covered nearly all the ten leagues of the Queen’s Way the Embarrans had repaired. They were deep in the Winter Wood now, and they made camp in a grove of valsindar trees as the last sunlight filtered between silver-barked trunks.
They ate a supper of the foodstuffs that would not keep— bread, a clay pot of butter, fruit, and some roasted chicken, which was already a little questionable after a full day riding in their saddlebags—then readied for sleep as purple dusk crept among the trees. The summer night was balmy, and the four men spread blankets on beds of old leaves, while Grace slipped into a small tent they had set up for her. She wouldn’t have minded sleeping out in the open like the men, but maybe it was better not to. This way she wouldn’t try to peer through the leafy branches of the valsindar to see if the dark hole in the sky had grown.
Grace had just shut her eyes when she heard the ringing of steel. She threw back the flap and scrambled out of the tent. All four of the knights stood with their swords drawn. As Grace’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, fear stabbed at her heart. A figure stood on the edge of the clearing where they had made camp, hooded and robed in black.
“Move, and you will be slain,” said one of the knights—a stout, gray-bearded man named Brael.
“How about if I simply speak?” the figure said in a sardonic voice, and before the knights could move, the one cloaked in black uttered a word in a commanding tone. “Lir!”
There was a flash of blue light, and the knights staggered back. However, the light quickly shrank to a ball hovering above the man’s palm, and in its soft glow Grace saw that the man’s garb was not black, but rather deep blue. There was a look of satisfaction on his scarred face.
The knights recovered, and looked more ready than ever to use their swords. However, Grace hurried forward.
“That wasn’t particularly wise, Master Larad,” she said in a sharp whisper. “These men might have killed you.”
The Runelord simply shrugged, as if to say he was less certain of that outcome than she.
Brael regarded Larad with suspicion. “This one must have been skulking after us all day, Your Majesty. I’d like to find out why. I’ve always thought he had a crafty look about him.”
“You can put that sword away,” Grace said to Brael. She gave the other knights what she hoped was a commanding glance. “All of you. I’ve been expecting Master Larad. Though he’s a little late.”
Brael gave her a startled look. He began to speak, but she turned her back on him, and she knew the knight would not dare to question her. Being a queen did have certain advantages. She heard the men grumble as they sheathed their swords. Taking Larad’s arm, she steered him to the other side of the grove. The ball of blue light bobbed after them.
“You can thank me later for saving you from getting your head lopped off,” she said quietly. “Right now, I want you to tell me what you think you’re doing. And I had better be mightily entertained by the story, or I’m handing you back over to Brael.”
“I’m coming with you,” Master Larad said.
It was a statement, not a request. Grace knew it was neither useful nor queenly, but she could only gape at him.
“I must speak with Master Wilder,” the Runelord went on. “After you left my tower, I considered all that you told me. I can only believe the rift and the weakening of magic are linked somehow. Perhaps both arise from the same cause. In which case, my recent studies regarding magic may prove useful to Master Wilder in his search for the Last Rune.”
Grace finally found her tongue. “And it didn’t occur to you this morning to ask if you could come with me?”
“It did, and I rejected that idea, for I knew you were refusing all who asked.”
“So you decided to follow me without my permission.” She placed her hands on her hips and glared at him. “What’s to stop me from sending you back to Gravenfist?”
“You won’t, Your Majesty.”
“And why not?”
“Because yours is a logical mind, and you’ve already realized that I must come with you on this journey.” He nodded to the ball of light. “Even this simple runespell is proving a challenge to maintain. Something must be done before all magic ceases to be, and our chances of finding a solution are greater if Master Wilder and I can work together.”
Grace was angry enough to disagree out of spite, but before she could, the dry doctor’s voice spoke in her mind.
He’s right. You didn’t refuse the o fers of the others because you didn’t want their company, but because you knew that this time they couldn’t help you. However, Larad is a Runelord. There’s a significant probability he can help Travis discover what the Last Rune is.
Even so, she had the feeling Larad was not telling her all his reasons for following her. The Runelord had a history of keeping his true motivations secret. However, he also had a history of doing what he believed was for the greater good, without regard to the cost to himself.
She looked him in the eye. “No more tricks, Master Larad. From now on, if you want something, then you ask me for it. Do you understand?”
His scarred face was as unreadable as ever. “Yes, Your Majesty.” He closed his hand around the ball of blue light, snuffing it out, and night closed back in over the forest.
Dawn found them already riding down the Queen’s Way. Larad had ridden after them on one of the trusty mules the Runelords favored. With a rider, the mule would not be able to travel as fast as the horses, so they had transferred the foodstuffs and gear to it, and now Larad bounced in the saddle of the former packhorse. The Runelord was every bit as poor a horseman as Travis. Grace was beginning to think a talent for wizardry precluded any ability whatsoever for riding. Luckily, the horse was a placid beast, and it bore Larad with a resigned look on its long face.
They moved at a steady pace over those next days, though their progress seemed maddeningly slow to Grace. On the second day they left behind the section of the Queen’s Way the Embarran engineers had repaired. While the road continued to cut unswervingly over the landscape, its stones were cracked and weathered, or in some places gone altogether, replaced by grass or trees, so that the way could be discerned only as a flat space between two sloping banks. However, all of the bridges they came to still stood, arching over stream or gorge, a testament to the skill of the ancient builders who had erected them.
On their fourth day they left the silvery trees of the Winter Wood behind and found themselves riding over plains that had been baked gold by the summer sun. To their left rose the Fal Erenn, the Dawning Fells: a purple-gray range of mountains, their tumbled brows crowned by circlets of white clouds. For the first time in a long time, Grace found herself thinking of Colorado. The Beckett-Strange Home for Children—the orphanage where she had spent most of her childhood—had been built on a high plain not so different from this. Except its windows had all been boarded up, shutting out the beauty of the mountains.
“What is it, Your Majesty?” Master Larad said as his horse veered close to Shandis. “Is something amiss?”
She smiled, not taking her gaze from the mountains. “No, I was just looking out the window.”
The next afternoon they came to a crossroads. A timeworn statue stood watch over the meeting of ways, a nameless goddess who gazed with moss-filled eyes. The main road continued on straight, while a smaller path led off to the left, winding up a steep embankment. Grace had never been that way—despite many invitations over the last three years—but she knew that if she followed the path she would come to a valley and a half-ruined keep on the shores of a lake.
She had long wanted to visit Kelcior, though she was always afraid doing so would convince King Kel she had at last acquiesced to his proposals of marriage. Now it was but an hour’s ride away. However, Kel was not at his keep; he had remained in Malachor to give Melia and Falken advice on ruling in her absence.
“The bard has more experience at wrecking kingdoms than running them, in case you didn’t know,” Kel had told Grace in a gruff attempt at a whisper that half the keep could hear.
Besides, she didn’t have even an hour to spare. Now that they had left the forest behind, Grace had been able to see the rift again at night. It was still there, and she was certain it was larger than when she first saw it—a dark hole twice the size of Eldh’s enormous moon.
They left the silent goddess at the crossroads and rode on.
Three days later they came to the town of Glennen’s Stand. The town stood on the banks of a stream a few furlongs from the Queen’s Way: a hundred or so slate-roofed houses clustered beneath a hill with a modest stone keep. As they drew near, Grace noticed that here and there a section of a pale stone wall still stood on the perimeter of the town, though in most places it had been knocked down and its stones hauled away. A lot of walls had been torn down since the war, Grace thought as they rode closer. And not just those around towns.
They found Glennen’s Stand crowded, dirty, and thronging with life. There were at least as many animals as people, and all of them were talking, laughing, or braying loudly. The Dominion of Eredane had suffered longest under the oppression of the Onyx Knights, and its people were perhaps the most grateful to be freed from it. As they rode through a market in the heart of the city, Grace saw folk selling mysteries—small figures carved of wood, representing the gods of the seven Mystery Cults— and hedgewives hawking potions. Such acts would have been punishable by death under the rule of the Onyx Knights. Now they were practiced in broad daylight.
They reached the edge of the market. There, an old woman was taking small bottles of green glass from a table where they had been displayed and, one by one, opening them and pouring their contents into the gutter.
Grace pulled her horse away from the others and rode close. “What are you doing, sister?”
The woman did not look up. “Wrong,” she muttered. “All wrong.”
“What’s wrong?” Grace said, shaking her head.
“My simples, that’s what. All the good has gone out of them. There’s no use in selling them anymore. This morning I tried to weave a spell of plenty over my hens. Only they pecked at each other, and broke one another’s eggs. Sia is angry. She has placed a curse on the world.”
The crone took another bottle and poured out its contents. The emerald fluid blended with the sludge in the gutter. Grace opened her mouth, but then she saw Brael motioning for her to follow. The old woman kept muttering as she emptied out her potions. Grace turned Shandis around and followed after the others.
They rode on, to an inn near the town’s center. After a discussion with the proprietor, who was as jovial and red-faced as an innkeeper should be, they were led to rooms on the upper floor. Now that they were in Eredane, Grace should have presented herself to King Evren to request permission to ride through his Dominion. However, there wasn’t time for such formalities; the king’s castle of Erendel lay fifty leagues to the west. She told the innkeeper she was the daughter of a Calavaner merchant traveling on business for her father. No one would question her story. There were many travelers on the roads these days—another benefit of freedom.
They took their supper in a private dining chamber and retired early to their rooms. As night fell, music and laughter rose from the common room below, but Grace felt no temptation to go down and join in the merriment.
It was after midnight when she woke. The inn was silent, and starlight filtered through a crack in the shutters, slicing across the chamber like a silver knife. Grace tried to will herself back to sleep, but it was no use; her bladder would not be denied. She rose and used the chamber pot, then started back to bed.
Halfway there, she halted and moved to the window. She hesitated, then opened one of the shutters. The window faced north, and she wondered if she might be able to see it: the rift.
No. A haze of smoke hung over Glennen’s Stand. She doubted if the folk in this town even knew it existed. How could they, if they had been so willing to sing and clap and laugh in the common room below? Only perhaps some did know. Grace thought of the old woman in the market, pouring out her potions. Sighing, she reached to close the shutter.
And froze. A shadow moved in the narrow street below. It slunk toward the inn, keeping low to the ground, avoiding any stray beams of light that spilled from nearby windows.
It’s just a dog looking for scraps, Grace told herself, even though she knew it was too large to be one, that it moved nothing like a dog.
A night breeze wafted down the street, and the shadow’s outlines appeared to ripple. The thing’s motions were slow and purposeful, almost languid; it seemed to ooze rather than creep as it drew closer to the inn, heading straight for the wall below her window.
A door opened across the lane, and a beam of firelight fell onto the street. In an eyeblink the shadow slipped into the alley between the inn and the stable, vanishing as if absorbed by the darkness. Grace snatched the shutter back and locked it with an iron bar, her heart thudding.
She considered waking Brael. However, that was absurd. What would she tell him? That she had looked out her window and had seen a drunken man crawling home? For that was surely all it had been. She climbed back into bed, and at last she fell asleep.
By daylight, the memory of the shadow was less sinister, and she nearly forgot about it until Larad asked her as they rode from the town how she had slept, and she mentioned it to him.
“You should have come to me at once, Your Majesty,” the Runelord said, his expression stern. “I could have spoken the rune of vision. We might have gotten a glimpse of it.”
These words startled her. “It was only a shadow, Master Larad.”
“If you wish, Your Majesty.”
However, rather than reassuring her, the Runelord’s words ate at her like acid all that day, and she resolved that if she saw something out of the ordinary again, she would alert Larad at once.
Only she didn’t, and as they continued their journey south, it became harder to maintain the same keen sense of urgency she had felt on setting out from Gravenfist Keep. Instead, the monotony of the journey dulled the edge of her fear as well as her mind. Every day was the same: The mountains rose up to their left, the plains swept away to their right, and the road stretched on before them: straight, predictable, and—as far as the eye could see—endless.
Her urgency might have been renewed each night if she could see the rift, only she couldn’t. The air in southern Eredane was moist, and at night all the stars were lost in haze. By day the weather was unseasonably hot and muggy, and she found the woolen riding gowns she had packed heavy and oppressive.
At last, on their twelfth day out from Gravenfist, the Queen’s Way veered sharply in its course, turning to zigzag its way up a steep ridge in a series of switchbacks. They had reached the juncture of the Fal Erenn and the Fal Sinfath, the Gloaming Fells.
All that day they climbed upward, and in some places the road was so steep they were forced to dismount and walk in front of the horses so as not to exhaust the beasts—though Larad’s mule plodded along as placidly as it had when the road was level.
They reached the top of the pass just as night began to fall. Before them lay the rock-strewn highlands of Galt, while behind and far below lay the rolling fields of Eredane. Grace panted for breath, for they had gone the last half mile on foot. Then she turned around, and her breath ceased. They had ascended far above the hazy air of the lowlands, and there was nothing to block her view.
“It has grown,” Larad said beside her.
A hard wind scoured across the highlands, evaporating the sweat from Grace’s skin. Though the stars were only just beginning to come out, there could be no doubting it: The rift had indeed grown, eating a dark hole in the northern sky. The dullness of boredom vanished; fear once again sliced into Grace’s chest with a sharp blade. She welcomed the pain, for it cleared her mind and reminded her of her purpose.
Larad touched her arm. “Look, Your Majesty. Down there.”
It took Grace a moment to see it in the failing light. Below them—far, but not so far as she might have liked—a dark blot moved along the road. It progressed rapidly, smoothly, ascending toward the highlands like a drop of dark liquid flowing up rather than down.
“It seems your shadow has followed us,” the Runelord said softly.
Grace knew it was anatomically impossible, but it felt as if her heart was lodged in her esophagus. “Can you see what it is?”
Larad held out his right hand. “Halas,” he whispered. In the gloaming, the silver rune shone clearly on his palm: three crossed lines. At the same time his eyes glowed crimson, like those of an animal caught in the beam of a flashlight.
The night was deepening. Grace couldn’t be sure, but it seemed the shadow halted, then flowed toward a crevice in the rocks, vanishing.
She clutched the sleeve of Larad’s robe. “Did you see what it was?”
“No,” he said, the red light fading from his eyes. “Whatever our stalker might be, I think it realized we had detected it. Even as I gazed at the thing, it seemed to melt away into the rocks. I doubt we will see it again tonight. Or at all, after this. It is likely to be even stealthier.”
Grace wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. “But why would someone be following us?”
Larad did not answer. The sound of boots against gravel approached. They turned to see Sir Brael walking toward them.
“The men have found a flat space just off the road,” he said. “A stone shelf affords some protection from the wind. Shall we set up your tent there, Your Majesty?”
Grace thought of the way the shadow had moved with liquid stealth along the road. “No,” she said, shuddering. “The moon will rise soon, and it’s close to full. We ride on to Castle Galt. We can be there by midnight if we hurry.”
They reached Castle Galt just before midnight, as Grace had hoped. It was not a vast, walled complex like Calavere, but rather a blocky tower keep perched on a windswept spur of rock. They pounded on the gate, and though the guards answered, they were suspicious of any travelers who arrived so late, and would have turned them away. However, at that moment the king himself came downstairs, clad in a nightshirt and carrying a candle, drawn by the commotion. He recognized Grace at once, scolded his guards—though not too harshly, at Grace’s urging, for they were only doing their duty—and ushered the travelers inside.
Grace pleaded with the king to return to his bed, and not to let them be a trouble, but he would not hear of it, and called for a late supper to be set on the board in the hall. His twin sister, Kalyn, appeared—looking fresh-faced as ever, despite being disturbed from her rest—and served them bread, meat, and ale with her own hand. Grace was careful to take only a polite sip from the tankard of dark, foamy brew that was set before her. She had heard stories about Galtish ale, and most of them ended with falling down and taking a long time to get up again.
“C-c-can you tell us the reason for your j-j-journey south, Your Majesty?” Kylar said when they had finished eating. “I c-c-confess, I am surprised to see you here. Since the shadow appeared in the northern sky, most people k-k-keep close to their homes and do not stray far. These are strange t-t-times, to be sure. Goats go lost, and their owners don’t b-b-other to look for them. Old women stare at their looms as if they have never woven cloth in their lives. And it seems every other c-c-cask of ale my steward taps has spoiled.”
“I’m sure Queen Grace’s reasons for traveling are her own,” Kalyn said crisply. She glanced at Grace, concern in her gentle brown eyes.
“Of c-c-course,” King Kylar sputtered, looking mortified. The tassel at the end of his nightcap bobbed up and down. “P-p-please forgive me for b-b-being so rude, Your Majesty.”
Grace pushed away her tankard. “No, I won’t forgive you, because you have every right to ask, Your Highness. You’ve been so kind to take us in at this late hour. I want very much to tell you, and—”
Larad gave her a sharp look.
“And it’s best if you don’t,” Kalyn said, touching Grace’s hand. “Don’t worry, Your Majesty. We know that whatever you’re doing, it’s for the greater good. We needn’t hear the particulars.”
Grace sighed. “Thank you.”
“Now,” Kalyn said, “there is one thing you must tell us, and that is how we can help you.”
After an abbreviated but welcome night’s rest, they set out again an hour after dawn. Grace considered telling Kylar to keep watch for their shadowy pursuer, then decided against it. Whatever the shadow was, it would not be lingering in Galt. The only thing Grace knew for certain was that it was following her.
“Is something wrong, Master Larad?” she asked as they mounted the horses. The Runelord’s face was gray and pinched, and he seemed unable to stand up straight.
She couldn’t understand his muttered reply, though she caught the words “hammer” and “skull.” Apparently he hadn’t heard the stories about Galtish ale.
They made good time that day—despite Larad’s indisposition—for King Kylar kept the section of the Queen’s Way that passed through Galt in good repair. The pack mule was now laden down with supplies from Kylar’s larder and wore something of a betrayed expression on its long face. The beast really hadn’t signed on for all this, Grace supposed. She had taken to calling the mule Glumly, for that was he how did everything, though he never balked and always kept pace with the horses.
They spent that night at a small, cheerful inn, though Larad hastily retreated to his room, hand to his mouth, when the innkeeper set a foaming tankard before him. The next day the road descended a rocky valley, following the course of a noisy stream, and by evening they made camp on the edge of greener, gentler lands. As they set out the next morning, Grace found herself leaning forward in the saddle, and it was afternoon of the day after that—their fourth out from Galt—when they crested a rise and she finally caught sight of what she had been straining to glimpse: a castle with seven towers rising on a distant hill.
“Calavere,” she murmured, her heart quickening. Shandis let out a snort, and even Glumly pricked up his long ears. They cantered the last league to the castle, not afraid of tiring their mounts, for despite their haste Grace intended to stay there for a day. It would be good to rest—if only for a short while—in the company of friends.
When they arrived at Calavere’s gates, they found Aryn, Teravian, and Lirith waiting for them.
“How did you sense we were near the castle?” Grace asked as she gripped Aryn’s hands. “I can hardly reach more than a hundred paces with the Touch these days.”
I don’t need magic to sense when you’re coming, sister, came Aryn’s warm reply over the Weirding. My heart knows.
Grace laughed, holding the other witch tight, and for the first time in days she thought nothing of dragons or rifts or shadows. Teravian and Lirith pressed forward then, and there was a good deal of embracing all around—so much so that even Master Larad could not escape a hug or two, despite the Runelord’s best efforts.
However, that evening found them all in a grimmer mood as they gathered in Teravian’s chamber for a private supper. Though the fare set on the table by the servants—roasted goose, golden loaves of bread, berries and fresh cream—was far more sumptuous than anything they had gotten on the road south, Grace found she had little appetite as she listened to Aryn and Teravian speak of affairs in Calavan and Toloria.
There had been a good deal of unrest already that summer. The weather had been unusually hot; it had seldom rained, and when it did the storms were violent, pounding the crops in the fields to pulp. A two-headed calf had been born at a farm not far from the castle—an event considered an ill omen by most folk. Stranger still, stories told that the old witch who had gone to dispel the curse that hung over the farm had dropped dead when she tried to weave the spell.
“But can that be, sister?” Lirith said, looking at Aryn.
The young queen hesitated, then nodded. “It could, if the threads of the Weirding tangled around her tightly enough. Her own thread might have been strangled.”
Lirith clasped a hand to her mouth.
“A week ago, my castle runespeaker tried to speak the rune of purity at dinner,” Teravian said. “Only he couldn’t. ‘My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth every time I try to speak a rune,’ he told me. The poor man was nearly in tears. He returned to the Gray Tower the next day, saying that he would have a replacement sent to Calavere right away.” He looked at Grace. “But I don’t suppose one will come?”
“Not if the rift keeps growing,” Grace said, trying not to think of the witch who had been strangled by her own spell. “Have you seen it here? I don’t know if it’s visible this far south yet—the last few nights have been cloudy.”
Teravian picked up a glass of wine but did not drink. “Yes, we’ve seen it. Ten nights ago, it appeared in the north—a dark hole in the sky, just like you described.”
“Are people afraid?” Grace said.
Teravian frowned. “That’s the peculiar thing. I thought they would be. I thought there would be fire and panic, and I was ready to send my guards out to stop it. Only there was no need. The people go about their daily lives as before. They tend to their fields, their shops, their children. Only there is no joy to it, no meaning. They’re going through the motions, that’s all. Folk have stopped leaving offerings at the shrines of the Mystery Cults. They say the gods have abandoned them, only they do nothing to bring the gods back. It’s as if they’ve run out of—”
“Hope,” Aryn said softly. She sat in a chair near the window, her left hand resting on her full belly. “They’ve run out of hope.”
Teravian set down his goblet and knelt before her. “There is hope, Aryn.” He laid his hand over hers. “It’s right here.”
Despite the dread that seemed to be a permanent fixture in her chest, Grace found herself smiling. Aryn and Teravian hadn’t chosen one another. If fact, given a choice, surely either would have selected almost anyone else. All the same, in the three years since their marriage, love had grown between them, and it was all the more precious because it had been so un-looked for, like a flower blooming in the midst of winter.
Aryn had bloomed herself. The lovely but tentative young woman Grace had first met in this castle was gone, replaced by a beautiful and regal queen. Her blue eyes were still vivid, but tempered with wisdom now, and her raven hair framed a porcelain face that was sharper than before, but no less kind. She seemed complete: a woman, queen, and witch in the full of her power. Even her withered right arm, so small and delicately twisted, was a part of the whole.
Teravian had changed as well. Although he would never be brawny like his father, King Boreas, his lean frame had filled out, and he no longer hunched his broad shoulders. He wore a black beard now, like his father had, and when he bared his teeth in a grin, he reminded Grace of bullish King Boreas indeed—so much so that she felt a pang of grief in her chest. However, when he grew serious and thoughtful, which was far more often, it was his mother, Queen Ivalaine, who was reflected in the young king’s visage.
“What I hope,” Aryn said, shifting in the chair and grimacing, “is that this baby comes soon.”
“It will,” Teravian said.
She glared at him. “You can’t know that.”
“Actually, I can,” he said, his voice growing testy. “I have the Sight, remember?”
“No, you don’t. I could be ready to explode, and you wouldn’t know it, because the Sight isn’t working anymore. Is it, Lirith?”
The dark-haired witch took a step back. “I believe I’ll stay out of this one, sister.”
Grace didn’t dare demonstrate her mirth, but inwardly she laughed. Although Aryn and Teravian had found true love, that didn’t mean they had entirely forgotten how to argue. In fact, they seemed to remember quite well. Fortunately, their quarrel was interrupted as Taneth began to cry.
Master Larad held the baby out at arm’s length, a distasteful expression on his face. “I think it wants something.”
“Perhaps to be held like a child rather than a sack of grain,” Lirith said, hurrying over to the Runelord.
“I do not believe giving it to me was a wise idea,” Larad said. “I have no talent for comforting children.”
“It doesn’t take talent, Master Larad,” Lirith said. “Only knowledge. Surely a scholar such as you is not afraid to learn something new.”
The Runelord glowered at her, but he did not disagree.
“Here, place your arm under him for support, and let his head rest in the crook of your elbow. And keep him close against you. Babies want to feel they are safe and loved. There now.”
Taneth had stopped fussing, and his eyes drifted shut. The corners of Larad’s mouth twitched in the hint of a smile, then he looked up and glared at the others. They all studiously turned their attention elsewhere. However, when Grace stole a glance a few minutes later, she saw Larad in the corner rocking Taneth with awkward but gentle motions.
All the next day, they spoke not of the rift and the weakening of magic, but of mundane things—babies, and weaving blankets, and the day-to-day drudgery of running a kingdom— which, with the help of much wine come evening, soon led to mirth.
However, they were all sober the next morning when Grace and Larad set out from Calavere—along with Lirith and Taneth. Aryn’s cheeks were dry, but by the redness of her eyes Grace knew she had been weeping.
I want to go with you, sisters, Aryn’s voice quavered across the threads of the Weirding.
And we want you to come, Lirith spun back, but you know you must stay. They both need you.
Aryn sighed, touching her belly with her left hand, and leaned her head against Teravian’s shoulder.
“Do you have everything you need for the journey?” the young king asked.
“We do,” Grace said. Glumly was once again laden with supplies, and looking forlorn as usual. “Thank you.”
Master Larad and the knights already sat astride their mounts. Lirith climbed into the saddle of her horse, and Grace handed Taneth up to her. She nestled the baby in a linen sling, so that he was held securely against her breast. It was time for Lirith and Taneth to return to their people; Sareth was waiting.
Grace embraced Aryn and Teravian, kissing them both and climbing onto Shandis before she could begin weeping herself.
Teravian’s face was grave, and tears shone in Aryn’s blue eyes. But all she said was, “Give Travis our love.”
The journey south was strangely pleasant. Grace was glad to no longer be the only woman in the party; Lirith’s company was a rare gift, and it was wonderful to finally meet little Taneth. The weather was fine and sunny, and as they rode through familiar lands they eschewed inns, instead camping in copses or dells, or more than once in the shaded enclosure of a talathrin, an old Tarrasian Way Circle.
The Way Circles were always built around a spring next to which grew alasai, or green scepter—an herb good for removing the taint from meat, and whose clean, sharp scent was a balm to the lungs. When she drank from the spring in a talathrin, Grace always remembered to sprinkle a few drops for Naimi, goddess of travelers, as Melia had taught her to do. Nor did she worry about the shadow that had been following them when she laid down to sleep. There was no magic in the Way Circles, but a goodness abided in them; nothing would harm them there.
Although they traveled from sunrise until late afternoon each day, it took a fortnight to reach Tarras. Grace let out a breath of wonder when she glimpsed the ancient city rising up from the azure waters of the Summer Sea in seven circles of white stone. People went about their business as they had for a thousand years. But why shouldn’t they? Magic was practiced by northern barbarians, not the civilized people of Tarras. And the rift was not visible there, so far south in the world. It had been many days since Grace had seen it last, low in the northern sky.
As they rode close to Tarras, Grace thought it would be good to go into the city, to ascend to the First Circle, and pay a visit to Emperor Ephesian—her cousin many times removed. However, there was no time for catching up with old acquaintances. They rode past without stopping.
Now, each day they journeyed, the air grew a little warmer, becoming gold and honey-sweet with the perfume of unfamiliar flowers. They followed the coastline, riding along a road lined with a green-gold colonnade of ithaya, or sunleaf, trees. Below, the ocean crashed against white cliffs while gulls wheeled above.
At last they could go no farther; they had reached the southernmost tip of Falengarth. As twilight fell—nearly a full month since they had set out from Gravenfist Keep—they ascended a bluff above the sea, passed through a grove of ithaya trees, and rode into a circle of painted wagons shaped like animals both ordinary and fantastic.
Before they even dismounted, Sareth was there. He caught Lirith and Taneth in his arms, pulling them down to him, and embracing them with ferocious strength. Nor was Grace forgotten, for after he finally released Lirith, Grace found herself hugging the Mournish man. She breathed in his spicy, familiar scent, and only then realized how much she had missed him and his deep, bell-like laugh.
The Mournish gathered around the travelers, leading them into the circle of light while music and the rich scents of cooking wafted on the air. Women in colorful garb approached Brael and the other knights, placing circlets of flowers around their necks, and even Master Larad was treated to a warm welcome. Perhaps warmer than the Runelord might have cared for. He was obviously flustered as three young women slipped necklaces of flowers over his head, and he looked as if he was about to speak stern words of reproach, only then a fit of sneezing took him, and he sat down hard on a stump. The women laughed and clapped their hands.
For a time, Grace let herself forget why she had journeyed there. She sat on a log on the edge of the firelight, eating nuts and drinking smoky wine, and swaying in time to wild music as many of the Mournish men and women whirled about the bonfire in a dance, scarves, jewelry, and smiles all flashing. Sparks rose up to the sky, and as Grace followed them upward she saw a point of crimson light. Tira’s star was not low to the southern horizon as it was in the north, but instead high in the sky.
“I love you,” Grace murmured like a prayer. Maybe it was at that, for the little red-haired girl was a goddess now, and the center of the world’s newest Mystery Cult.
And perhaps its last as well. Grace’s gaze moved northward. She could not see it, but she knew the rift was still there, and still growing.
The wind rustled through the leaves of the ithaya trees, and only then did Grace realize that the music had stopped. She lowered her gaze and was startled to see that the bonfire had burned low, and that the Mournish were gone. How long had she been gazing at the sky?
“Come, Grace,” Sareth said, kneeling before her. “My al-Mama is waiting for you.”
She looked around. There was no one in view save Sareth and Larad. “Where did everyone go?”
“Lirith has taken Taneth to his bed, and your knights have been shown to theirs. Come.”
Grace and Larad followed Sareth to a wagon on the edge of the circle. It was shaped like a dragon, its sinuous outline blending with the night. Sareth opened the door and indicated they should climb the steps and enter.
The cramped interior of the wagon was lit by a single candle. In the dim light it took a moment to pick the woman out from the various bundles of cloth and dried herbs. She look like a bundle of rags and sticks herself. Sareth’s al-Mama was far thinner than the last time they had met; her bones were prominent beneath skin as translucent and yellow as parchment. Grace didn’t need to probe along the Weirding to make her diagnosis. Jaundice. Liver failure.
“Yes, yes,” the old woman said testily. “I’m dying. And it’s about time. These old bones are long overdue for a rest. But that does not matter now. Come closer so these old eyes can see you.”
The old woman leaned forward as they approached. Though clouded with cataracts, her gold eyes were still bright. At last she nodded and sighed, leaning back on her pallet.
“So you have come, as has been fated. I am satisfied. You will find him, and you will help him reach it.”
Grace swallowed. “You mean Morindu.”
“Of course I mean Morindu!” the old woman snapped. “But who is this with you? I see a cloak of power about him, though its cloth is unraveling. A great wizard of the north, he is. Yet he is not the one. What role is his to play?”
“Can you not see in your cards?” Larad said, gesturing to a deck of worn T’hot cards scattered on a table.
“Bah!” the old woman spat. “The cards are useless now. The threads of Fate are all tangled. Nothing is clear. A darkness looms before us, and I know not what lies on the other side, if anything lies there at all. But this I do know.” She pointed a thin finger at Grace. “You will find him, and you will lead him to his destiny. I have summoned ones to help you on the journey. That is all I can do. As for the rest . . .” She lowered her hand and heaved a rattling sigh. “It is up to Sai’el Travis.”
Grace wanted to ask her more—how she was supposed to find Travis, what she should tell him when she did, and what they needed to do.
“Go,” the old woman said, her voice a sullen croak. “I wished only to look upon you, and now it is done. I will not see the end of this, but now I know that an end indeed draws nigh. Go, and leave me to my own end.”
Grace met Larad’s eyes, and the two of them stepped from the wagon. They found Sareth standing near the remains of the bonfire.
“She’s dying,” Grace said.
Sareth nodded, his coppery eyes reflecting the glow of the embers. “So she has told us many times. Only this time it is true.”
Grace touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t be.” Despite the sadness in his voice, he smiled. “Hers has been a long and wondrous life. And perhaps it is better this way. Perhaps it is better if she does not see . . .”
Grace tightened her grip on his shoulder. “We’ll find him, Sareth. We’ll find Travis.”
“I know you will. But there is one thing you do not know. At this time, my sister Vani is on Travis Wilder’s world, on Earth. Even now she searches for him.”
Hope surged in Grace’s chest. She started to ask Sareth how this could be, but Larad sucked in a breath.
“We are not alone.”
Even as he spoke, three dark forms parted from the darkness beneath the ithaya trees. Grace went cold. Had the shadow followed them there, bringing others like it?
No, these shadows moved not with strange fluidity, but rather with feline stealth. Even as they stepped into the starlight, Grace knew what they were. Two of them were men, one a woman. Intricate tattoos coiled up their necks, and each one’s left ear bore thirteen gold rings. All wore sleek black leather.
“T’gol,” Grace whispered.
Larad gave her a startled look. “You mean assassins?”
“No that’s not what the word means,” Sareth said. “In our tongue, T’gol means to protect. My al-Mama summoned them from the Silent Fortress of Golgoru. They will accompany you on your journey.”
“Why?” Grace said.
One of the T’gol moved forward. He was tall and slender, his eyes the color of aged bronze. “It is for this that our kind has trained for a thousand years, Sai’ana Grace. Three of us were chosen for this highest honor. We will accompany you on your journey to the dervish, as well as to the ancient city of our people. We are yours to command.”
Three T’gol—three warriors all trained like Vani—following her orders? The thought stunned Grace, even as it renewed her will.
“We leave at dawn,” she said.
“We will be ready.” The T’gol made a sharp gesture with his hand, then he and the others melted away into the shadows.
Grace, Master Larad, and the three T’gol left the circle of the Mournish caravan before dawn. Only Sareth and Lirith rose in the gray light to see them off; the other wagons were dark, their doors and windows shut.
The Mournish man was clearly torn. Last night, he had started to speak as if he was going to accompany Grace on the journey. However, a stern look from Lirith had silenced those words.
“You have already done the work of the T’gol once, when you sought out the dervish,” Lirith murmured, bending over Taneth’s head. “This time the T’gol have come to do what is their rightful task. It is their duty to seek out Morindu the Dark.”
“And what of my duty?” Sareth had said in a low voice, his face bathed in the glow of the fire’s last coals. “I am descended of the royal line of Morindu. Should I not be there when the city comes to light once more?”
Her voice was hard. “If the royal line is truly so precious as you say it is, then it is your duty to protect it and stay with your son.”
Sareth had pressed his lips into a tight line, holding back any other words he might have said. And though his eyes were troubled, they were full of love as well. The Mournish man had won this argument once; now it was Lirith’s turn.
Sareth was not the only one who was upset at not continuing south with Grace. Earlier that morning, after they rose in the dark before first light, she had commanded Brael to ride back to Gravenfist Keep with the other knights. The gray-bearded man was clearly upset.
“The southern continent is a queer and dangerous place, Your Majesty,” he had said, sputtering. “You cannot possibly think to go there alone. We are coming with you.”
“I won’t be alone. And you’re not coming with us. That’s an order, Sir Knight. I need you to tell Melia and Falken that we made it this far safely. And tell them we’ve learned Vani has already gone to find what we seek, to bring it back to us. They’ll know what the message means.”
The anger faded from Brael’s eyes, replaced by anguish. However, a knight could not disobey a direct order from his queen, and he gave a stiff nod. “May Vathris walk with you, Your Majesty.”
Grace hoped he did; she was going to need all the help she could get.
“It is nearly dawn,” spoke one of the T’gol—the tall man who moved like a dancer. His name was Avhir, Grace had learned. “We must leave now, Sai’ana Grace, if we are to reach the city of Kalos before nightfall.”
Already the eastern horizon was brightening, and below the cliffs the Summer Sea shone like a mirror of beaten copper.
Sareth touched Grace’s cheek with a warm, rough hand. “May Fasus, God of Winds, speed you on your journey, and back to us.”
Lirith handed Taneth to him, then moved forward to throw her arms around Grace. I cannot see the future, sister, she said, her voice humming along the threads of the Weirding. I cannot see if you will return to us.
Grace embraced the witch, concentrating on this moment so she would never forget it. Good-bye, sister.
Lirith turned away, brushing her cheeks with her fingers, and took Taneth back, holding the baby tight against her.
Grace mounted Shandis, and as the knights were to take all of the horses with them back to Gravenfist, Larad awkwardly climbed into Glumly’s saddle. The T’gol would go on foot; they did not need mounts to move swiftly.
“Do not trust the dervish,” Sareth said. “You believe you know him, but you do not. The desert changes a man, as do the secrets one might discover there. He has called the morndari to him, he has worked blood sorcery, and he cannot possibly be the same as you knew him.”
Avhir gave Shandis a slap on the rump, and the mare started into a trot down the path that led from the Mournish circle, Larad’s mule following. Grace gazed back over her shoulder, and she thought she saw two dim figures beneath the ithaya trees waving farewell. Then the path began to descend the side of the bluff, and the figures were lost to sight.
“I want to thank you,” she said to Avhir, who walked beside Shandis. “For coming with me.”
He did not look at her. “There is no point in thanking me, Sai’ana Grace. We come because it is our fate.”
Grace smiled. “That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it all the same.”
Either these words annoyed Avhir, or he did not know what to make of them, for he stalked away without replying and approached the other two T’gol. With some effort Grace had been able to learn their names. Kylees was a fine-boned woman whose lovely face was marred by a persistent scowl, while Rafid was a compact man, as short and muscular as Avhir was tall and lithe.
Avhir spoke something in a low voice to the other T’gol. All three wore grim expressions. Grace sighed. Something told her she was going to have to rely on Master Larad for lively conversation on this trip.
All that day they traveled along the road that followed the sinuous line of the cliffs above the sea. Once the sun rose into the sky, the outlines of the T’gol blurred, and they seemed to vanish. However, Grace knew they were still there. From time to time she could see a shimmering on the air, like that of a heat mirage, and if she looked at the ground, she would detect a faint shadow.
Despite her hope for a little conversation to pass the time, she spoke little to Master Larad as they rode. The Runelord seemed intent on studying the landscape, the trees, and the plants. All would be exotic to a man born and raised in the far north, and were no doubt intriguing to his inquisitive mind. Grace decided not to lament the silence. After all, she had other matters to mull over.
Do not trust the dervish . . . the desert changes a man . . .
What had Sareth meant by those words? Did he believe Hadrian Farr to be dangerous in some way?
All dervishes are dangerous, Grace. By definition. They’re people who’ve shunned the laws and ethics of their society in order to learn ancient secrets of sorcery. There’s no way you can trust someone like that. They’ve already shown they’re not beholden to anything. Anything except the quest for knowledge, for power.
Only Farr hadn’t given up the laws of his society. He wasn’t one of the Mournish; he was from Earth. And while she supposed it was possible Farr did crave power, she thought it more likely his thirst for knowledge had compelled him to become a dervish. Farr was a Seeker through and through; more than anything he wanted to learn, to comprehend mysteries no other person before him had. That wouldn’t change just because he somehow found a way to Eldh.
Or would it? He has worked blood sorcery, and he cannot possibly be the same as you knew him. . . .
Perhaps. But had she ever really known Hadrian Farr anyway? He had helped her, yes. First on that October night when all of this began, when he aided her escape from the ironheart detective at the police department, and again when she and Travis returned to Denver in a desperate attempt to save Beltan’s life. But while he had had files and photos and documents about her, she had nothing to tell her about Farr. Other than his eyes, she still could not picture him in her mind. He was like a vague silhouette, wreathed in cigarette smoke and lit from behind. What would she say to him when she saw him? She didn’t know. All the same, a thrill ran through her when she thought of seeing him again, of being close to him. Unconsciously, she urged Shandis into a swifter pace.
Late that afternoon, as they neared the port city of Kalos, one of the T’gol reappeared; it was the woman, Kylees.
“Avhir has gone ahead to arrange passage on a ship,” the assassin said. She resembled Vani only in that she was lean in her black leathers, and her dark hair was closely cropped. She was smaller than Vani, even petite. Clad in one of the colorful dresses favored by young Mournish women, she would appear pretty and vulnerable. Grace had no doubt many large, strong, foolish men had thought the same thing. Just before their necks snapped.
“Is Rafid with Avhir?” Grace asked.
The T’gol scowled. “Do you think I am not strong enough to protect you as well as Rafid or Avhir if your pursuer appears?”
That wasn’t what Grace had meant. She had only been trying to be polite.
“Keep close,” Kylees said, and moved swiftly down the road.
Grace did as instructed. She had told Avhir about the shadow that had followed them, and though they had seen no signs of pursuit, it was a good idea to stay vigilant.
They reached the city just as the sun melted into the sea. Kalos was situated on a narrow peninsula that formed the southern tip of the continent of Falengarth, and so was surrounded by water on three sides. On the east, tall cliffs formed a deep harbor, and this—along with the fact that the Summer Sea was narrower here than anywhere else—made Kalos a bustling city of traders, merchants, pilgrims, and other travelers. It was a good place to begin a journey. And to lose pursuit.
Avhir appeared as they rode through the city’s gates. “I have found a ship to bear us across the sea,” he said to Grace. “Tonight we will stay at a hostel in the Merchant’s Quarter. Try not to speak to anyone, but if you must, tell them you are the daughter of a northern spice trader and that you are here on an errand of business for him.”
That wasn’t going to be a problem. Grace didn’t plan on engaging in any idle chitchat with the locals. When they reached the hostel, they retired at once to their rooms and did not leave again until first light, when they set out for the shipyards. Though the sun had not yet risen, Kalos was already awake and bustling with activity. Grace bought dates from a smiling, toothless man, and she and Master Larad made a breakfast of them as they rode through the city.
They were nearly to the docks when Grace saw a man in a white robe surrounded by a crowd of people. She supposed he was a priest of one of the Mystery Cults, preaching to a group of followers. However, as she and Larad drew nearer, she saw that the man’s white robe was dirty and ragged, and that it did not bear a holy symbol of any of the New Gods. Instead, a blotch as black as old blood was painted on the center of robe, over his heart. The man was speaking, his voice chantlike, but the people gathered around him seemed not to listen; instead, they stared at the ground or into thin air with slack expressions. They were filthy, their faces darkened by flies.
“You!” the man said, his voice rising into a shout. He was pointing at Grace and Larad. “Do not think you can flee it on a ship! It does not matter where you go. The Mouth will eat you.”
Grace pulled on the reins, bringing Shandis to a halt. He was right. What did she think she was doing? There was no point in going south across the sea. Nothing she could do would change anything. She started to nudge Shandis toward the man in the dirty white robe.
“Come, Sai’ana Grace.” The air rippled, and Avhir was there, gripping Shandis’s bridle. “The ship is ready to sail.”
Grace blinked, and the torpor fell away from her, replaced by urgency. Yes, they had to go at once. She and Larad rode after Avhir as the T’gol led the way into the dockyards.
The ship Avhir had arranged for their passage was a sleek two-masted spice trader. It reminded her of the Fate Runner, the ship on which she had first journeyed to Tarras and which had carried her back north, only to founder and sink off the coast of Embarr after they were attacked by Onyx Knights. She thought about Captain Magard, and his rough, kindly humor. And the way he had died in the keep of Seawatch—the same keep where Lord Elwarrd had died rather than let his ironheart mother deliver Grace to the Pale King.
For a short while, Grace had almost believed she could love Elwarrd—if that was even something she was capable of. It was only now, as she thought of him for the first time in years, that she realized how much the handsome, dark-eyed lord had reminded her of Hadrian Far. . . .
“Is something wrong, Your Majesty?” Larad asked as they dismounted at the end of the pier.
Yes, Grace suddenly realized, there was. “I forgot about Shandis and Glumly. What are we going to do with them? We can’t just leave them here.”
Larad looked as if he would be perfectly content to leave the mule behind, but Grace sighed, stroking both Glumly’s and Shandis’s muzzles. Fortunately, she had worried for nothing.
“I have hired a courier to return your mounts to the Mournish,” Avhir said, appearing out of thin air, and Grace was too grateful for his words to be annoyed at the way the T’gol had startled her.
“That was kind of you,” she said.
He waved the words aside with a long hand. “It was not done out of kindness. You must focus on your fate. Your mind must not be distracted by petty concerns such as the welfare of an animal.”
Grace didn’t care what he said. It felt like kindness. She kissed Shandis’s flat face and tried not to cry. “Lirith will take good care of you,” she said, then she stepped back as a young man led the honey-colored mare and the mule away.
They boarded the ship, and apparently they were the last cargo to be loaded, for almost at once the plank was pulled back, the lines thrown down, and the sails unfurled. The ship pulled away from the dock, speeding out into the harbor and toward open sea. Grace gripped the rail and faced into the wind, letting the spray moisten her face.
“Something is wrong with this ship,” Master Larad said behind her. “Terribly wrong.”
Grace turned around. The Runelord clutched one of the masts. His face was an unnatural and vivid shade of green.
“The floor is heaving as if it’s about to rend apart,” the Runelord gasped. “This cannot be right. We must abandon ship!”
Grace couldn’t help a laugh. “Not just yet, Master Larad. The rolling is perfectly normal. And it’s called a deck, not a floor.”
“Normal? You mean this is how it’s going to be for the entire passage?”
“No,” Grace said cheerfully. “Once we’re out of the harbor, the rolling will be much more pronounced.”
Larad stared at her, an expression of horror on his scarred face. Then he ran to one side of the deck and leaned over the rail. Grace didn’t know the rune for nausea, but it seemed Larad was quite familiar with it. Fortunately, she had packed some herbs in her luggage.
You’d better go brew him a simple, Grace.
She went in search of Avhir, to find out where her things had been stowed. The T’gol found her first.
“We have conducted a search of the entire ship, Sai’ana Grace,” the T’gol said. Even in the bright morning light, it was hard to look at him, as if his body was a projection that was slightly out of focus. “There is no one on board save for ourselves and the crew.”
Grace nodded. It was impossible that someone could be on the ship and the T’gol would not find them. Even so, she had made her own inventory as they boarded the ship. She had used the Touch to seek out and locate the life thread of every living organism on the ship, down to the last rat. It had been exhausting work—the web of the Weirding had kept knotting and tangling in her fingers—but she had done it, and she knew Avhir was right. Whoever or whatever had been pursuing them, it was not on this ship.
“The passage to Al-Amún will take two days, Sai’ana Grace. I suggest you use that time to rest. I will show you to your quarters.”
She took Avhir up on his offer, but she did not stay in her tiny cabin belowdecks. Instead she fashioned a quick simple and went in search of Master Larad. On deck, the crewmen were lashing down ropes; they had given the ship full sail now that they had left the harbor behind.
“Excuse me,” she said to one of the sailors—a man with blond hair and a boyish face. “You haven’t seen a sick wizard around, have you?”
“No,” the sailor said.
He was tying a rope to a metal hook. As he worked, Grace noticed a rather nasty-looking gash on his arm. It was fresh and had barely begun to scab over. He had probably gotten it while working the ropes; a loose line could crack like a whip.
She started to reach for him. “Would you like me to take a look at that cut? I’m a healer.”
“You’d best leave me be and go to your cabin,” he growled. “A woman has no business on a ship. It’s bad luck.”
Then he turned his back on her, grabbed a rope, and scrambled up into the rigging. So much for that sweet, boyish face. She started along the deck, continuing her search for Master Larad, and hoping her sea legs decided to show up soon.
She found the Runelord still leaning over the rail. With effort, she managed to get some of the simple down him, and then with the help of Kylees transferred him to his hammock in the main hold belowdecks. Grace had asked Rafid for help first, but he had scowled and stalked away. A moment later Kylees appeared.
“What’s wrong with Rafid?” Grace asked.
“He will not touch a sorcerer except to slay one,” Kylees said.
“Larad’s not a sorcerer. He’s a wizard.”
Kylees did not answer. Despite her small size, she looped Larad’s arm around her shoulder and hauled him to his feet.
Grace spent most of the voyage at Larad’s side, bathing his brow with a cool cloth and getting what herbs into him she could. Blessedly, the passage was short and the winds fairer than usual of late, and it was just after dawn two days later when they sailed into the harbor at Qaradas.
Master Larad’s condition improved almost immediately upon disembarking, though he remained pale and weak. Grace knew that speed was of the essence, but she wondered if it wouldn’t be better to wait a day in the city to let Larad recover his strength.
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” the Runelord said, “I would rather ride at once. At the moment, I wish to get as far away from water as possible.”
“Then you shall get your wish,” Avhir said, appearing out of a swirl of dust. “The others have arranged camels and supplies for our journey. We will set out for Hadassa at once.”
Grace bit her tongue to keep from thanking the T’gol. She cast a glance at the ship—her last connection with the lands of the north—then followed Avhir and Larad through the gritty streets of Qaradas.
The blond-haired sailor walked along the pier, away from the docked ship.
“Where are you going, Madeth?” a rough voice called out. A group of his crew mates gathered near the end of the pier. “We’re off to find ourselves some wine and dancing women. I’ve heard that in Qaradas they wear nothing under all those fluttering scarves.”
The sailor called Madeth did not stop walking.
“Ah, forget him,” said another man. “He’s still a boy. He’d only get in our way.”
The sailors moved away down the dock. That was good. He could not allow himself to be seen.
Why? a part of him started to question. Why can’t I be seen? Where am I going?
However, those tremulous thoughts were quickly drowned out by a surge of hot blood in his brain. His legs pumped with mechanical efficiency, carrying him into the city. His eyes scanned back and forth until they found what they sought: the mouth of an alley between two white buildings. He moved into the alley, away from the hot eye of the sun, letting the dim coolness envelop him.
The alley was empty save for a dog that snarled at him. Its ribs were showing. He ignored the beast as he had the men. It was time.
He pulled away the rag he had bound around his arm two days ago. The wound beneath was puckered like an angry mouth. Pus oozed from beneath a crusted scab, and red lines spread out from the gash, snaking up his arm. He had gotten the cut while loading the ship, gouging his arm on an exposed nail while he hoisted crates on the dock at Kalos.
And then what happened? He tried to remember. He had cut himself, and then all at once everything went dark, as if a shadow had fallen over him. There was pain—far more pain than a simple cut on his arm should cause, coursing through his body. And then . . .
Oh, by all the gods, then—
Again blood sizzled in his brain, erasing the thoughts. With his free hand he dug under the scab, prying it loose, and pressed his fingers into the wound, opening it up and tearing it wider.
Blood gushed out, and Madeth screamed.
He staggered back against the wall. Dark red fluid poured down his arm, raining onto the ground and pooling there. The puddle grew larger, then the blood began to flow—not down the gutter—but upward, into the air. It gathered in on itself, rising up before Madeth, twisting and writhing like one of the water-spouts he glimpsed from time to time on the open ocean. And which he would never glimpse again.
His heart ceased its work; there was nothing left for it to pump. The column of dark fluid undulated and took on a new shape: that of a man. Two hot sparks appeared in its face, glowing like eyes. They watched as the empty husk of the young sailor slumped to the ground. The dog’s snarling became a piteous whine as it backed deeper into the alley.
A glistening arm lashed out, reaching much farther than a normal man’s might, and the whining was cut short. The arm retracted, drawing the body of the dog closer, and in a moment its empty body lay crumpled next to that of the sailor.
The creature’s body rippled with pleasure. It re-formed itself into a tight ball and rolled to the back of the alley, then let itself sink back into a puddle on the ground. This form took the least energy to maintain, and it was best to conserve; soon, it would need all its strength. It would rest while the hot eye glared down from the sky. Then, when darkness covered the world, the hunt would begin again. She was close. It could taste the nearness of her blood. It would pursue.
And when this over, when it had brought its creators to what they sought, it would drink her dry.
Deirdre winced as a crash emanated from the other side of the paneled mahogany door. This was not going well. They had left Beltan alone in the parlor, hoping some rest might calm him. Instead, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. Another crash sounded. She tried to picture the parlor’s decor. There weren’t any Roman busts, Ming vases, or priceless medieval artifacts in there, were there?
Not anymore, she thought.
She looked up to see Anders hurrying down the corridor, a satchel in hand. Thank the Great Spirit, he was back.
“How is he?” Anders said in his gravelly voice. He had donned a fresh suit—one with two sleeves.
“Fabulous,” Deirdre said. “In a screaming, thrashing about, throwing things against the wall sort of way.”
“I figured as much,” the Seeker said. “Big warrior types never have tidy little emotional outbursts. He’s got to be pretty broken up.”
Something thudded against he wall, rattling it.
“Him and the parlor,” Deirdre said. But that wasn’t fair. Beltan was just displaying what all of them were feeling inside. The Scirathi had taken Nim. Travis and Vani had followed through the gate, but there was no way to know if they had succeeded, if they had managed to pursue the sorcerers to Eldh, or if they had been lost in the Void between the worlds. Beltan had just met his daughter. Now he might well have lost her forever, and his life mate as well. Given similar circumstances, Deirdre doubted her outburst would have been very tidy either.
“I brought some of his clothes from their flat,” Anders said, hefting the satchel. “Maybe a shower will help settle him down and clear his head. Let’s talk to him.”
Deirdre was doubtful, but it was worth a try. “You go first.”
Anders opened the door, then ducked as a coffee cup whizzed over his head, past Deirdre, and shattered against the wall of the corridor.
“Hey, now,” Anders muttered under his breath. “I hope that wasn’t aimed at me.”
“You’re the one who wanted to go in,” Deirdre said, and shoved him in the back, urging him forward.
No more projectiles hurtled their way as they entered the parlor and shut the door behind them. The destruction was not as bad as Deirdre had feared, and was largely limited to their coffee cups and saucers from the night before. She made a quick survey of the room. There was a large Grecian urn on a pedestal next to the fireplace, looking both priceless and fragile, but it was untouched.
The same could not be said for Beltan. He stood in the center of the room, hands empty and twitching, staring blankly. An ugly bruise darkened his right temple. She had never known what a proud warrior defeated looked like; she did now.
“Good morning, mate,” Anders said, his voice a touch too far on the cheery side. “I brought you some fresh clothes. I thought you might like to get cleaned up.”
Beltan said nothing. He did not look at them.
Deirdre gathered her courage, then moved to him, touching his arm. He was shaking.
“Beltan, please,” she said, trying to meet his eyes. “Talk to us.”
“Why?” the blond man said, his voice hoarse. “What can you say that will change anything? Travis is gone. He has left me.”
Anders set down the satchel. “He didn’t leave you, mate. He went after Nim. I’d say there’s a pretty big difference between the two.”
“And yet either way I am still here, without him,” Beltan said. “I am alone. It is hopeless.” He turned away from Deirdre, scrubbing his face with a hand, but not before she saw the tears that ran down his cheeks.
“Well, now,” Anders said, “that doesn’t sound very warrior-like to me. I don’t think Vathris would approve of that kind of talk.”
“And what would you know of Vathris?” Beltan snarled over his shoulder.
Anders shrugged thick shoulders. “Not much, I confess. Just what you wrote in your reports for the Seekers.”
Beltan flinched. “It doesn’t matter what Vathris would think. There is nothing I can do.”
“You sound pretty sure. But maybe for a moment stop thinking about what you can and can’t do. Why don’t you tell me what you want to do?”
“What do you think I want to do?” Beltan clenched his hands into fists, advancing on the Seeker. “I want to go after them. I want to find them and help them!”
Anders was grinning. “Now that sounds like a man of Vathris.”
Beltan blinked, and for a moment shock replaced anguish, then shame. “You are right. As long as I am alive, I must try to find a way to reach them.” He gave Anders a grudging look of respect. “You would make a good warrior, you know.”
Anders winked at him. “Been there, done that, mate. I’m the brains now, not the brawn.”
“Warriors can have brains.”
“I suppose they can at that,” Anders said wistfully.
They sat down at the same table where they had gathered last night. Deirdre called for Lewis, and the butler brought a plate of sandwiches as well as coffee and new cups. He cleared away the broken shards of china without batting an eye, then silently slipped from the parlor. To be a butler for the Seekers was to quickly learn not to ask questions.
“I feel strange,” Beltan said. “It’s like I’m made of water inside, not muscle and bone. I want to swing my sword, but there’s nothing to swing it at, and my hands are shaking so much I don’t even think I could hold it. What’s wrong with me?”
Despite feeling watery herself, Deirdre smiled. “Nothing’s wrong with you, Beltan. You’re afraid, that’s all. Welcome to the club. It’s how a lot of us feel a lot of the time.”
His jaw dropped. “And yet you still keep on going? You must be very brave. I don’t know if I am strong enough to do this.”
“Maybe a sandwich will help,” Anders said, taking one and pushing the plate toward Beltan.
“I doubt it,” the big man said, then took three sandwiches at once.
The food did seem to help. Beltan’s color grew better, and as they spoke a fierce light ignited in his eyes.
“You’re right,” he said around mouthfuls of food. “I know I have to do something, and I will. Only I don’t know what it is, or even how to find out. All I know is that somehow I’ve got to get to Eldh.”
“There might be a way,” Deirdre murmured.
Only when she saw both Beltan and Anders staring at her did she realize she had spoken the words aloud.
Anders leaned over the table. “All right, out with it. What’s going on in that crafty little noggin of yours?”
“There’s only one way to get to Eldh,” Deirdre said, “and that’s to use a gate.”
“Only there aren’t any gates,” Anders said. “You can bet those sorcerer baddies took their gate artifact with them when they went.”
“You’re forgetting about this.” Deirdre picked up the newspaper the mysterious Philosopher had sent last night.
“All right, so there’s another gate,” the Seeker said, confusion on his pitted face. “But the sorcerers have the arch, too.”
“No they don’t. Not all of it.” Deirdre couldn’t believe she was saying this. “The arch isn’t complete without the keystone, and right now it’s still in the vaults below this Charterhouse. If we could somehow get the arch . . .”
She couldn’t finish the sentence. They had gone to a great deal of trouble to steal it; surely they wouldn’t leave it unguarded. However, she had said enough. Beltan leaped to his feet.
“We must take the arch from the Scirathi!”
Anders raised an eyebrow. “Now that’s a bit of a bold plan, don’t you think?”
“It’s not a plan,” Deirdre said, doing her best to backpedal. “It’s just one possibility, that’s all. One very ridiculous, stupid, unlikely possibility.” However, it was too late; the damage had been done.
“It can work,” Beltan said. “It has to—it’s the only way.” He locked gazes with Deirdre. “Promise you’ll help me.”
Deirdre swallowed hard. “I don’t know . . .”
Beltan made a growling sound low in his throat. “You have to help me get that gate. I will not lose Travis. I will not!” His hands twitched, and he started for the Grecian urn.
Deirdre jumped up and stepped in front of the big man. For a moment she wasn’t so certain that was a good idea. No doubt, when tossed against a wall, she would make every bit as satisfying a smashing sound as the urn. He reached for her.
She grabbed his hand, holding it. “I promise, Beltan. On the Book, I swear it. Anders and I will help you find a way to get to Travis if it’s the last thing we do.”
And it very well might be. However, the words seemed to calm him. He returned to the table, and Deirdre let out a breath. Had she really just offered up her life to save an old vase? But she hadn’t promised they would try to take the arch back from the Scirathi, only that they would help Beltan find Travis.
Is there really a di ference between the two, Deirdre? You know there’s no other way to Eldh besides the archway.
“I don’t want to be the cloud that rains on the parade,” Anders said, taking a sip of his coffee, “but even assuming the Scirathi hand over the arch when we politely ask for it, and even assuming that keystone fits, how are we supposed to activate the gate? In case you’ve forgotten, that takes some extra special blood, which we just happen to be fresh out of.”
“Oh, that’s not a problem,” Beltan said. “I kept this.”
He pulled a dark, wadded-up piece of cloth from his pocket. It was the sleeve of Anders’s suit coat, which Vani had used last night as a makeshift bandage. It was crusted with dried blood— Travis’s blood.
Anders let out a low whistle. “Warriors can have brains indeed.”
“Is anyone going to eat that last sandwich?” Beltan said, and reached for the plate before either of them could answer.
An hour later, Deirdre sat at her desk in the basement office she shared with Anders. Beltan was all for making a raid on the Scirathi right away, but Anders had managed to convince the blond man to get some rest first. Besides, they had no idea where the Scirathi had taken the arch after they stole it from the site on Crete. It could be anywhere in the world.
Deirdre supposed she should rest, too. She hadn’t gotten a wink in twenty-four hours, and sleep deprivation wasn’t generally part of the formula for successful research. However, she felt jittery and strangely alert. As foolish as her promise to Beltan was, she didn’t regret it; she wanted to help him find Travis. After all, Hadrian Farr had managed to find a way to Eldh. Why couldn’t she?
Is that what this is, Deirdre? asked a detached aspect of herself—the wise voice she didn’t always listen to but should, the shaman in her. Is it all just some competition with Hadrian Farr? He got to Eldh, so now you have to as well?
Before she could answer that, Anders set a steaming mug of coffee amid the stacks of papers on her desk.
“Nice way to include me in that little vow of yours, mate. How did it go?” He raised his husky voice into a falsetto. “ ‘Anders and I will help you find a way to get to Travis if it’s the last thing we do.’ ”
Deirdre winced. “Sorry about that. I didn’t have much time to think. I was protecting a very important urn.”
“It’s all right,” he said, sitting on the corner of her desk. “I want to help. Bloody hell, what red-blooded Seeker wouldn’t want to? Opening up doors to other worlds . . . that’s what we’re all about. It’s what I signed on for. So let me know what I can do.”
Deirdre felt her dread recede. Even when things looked hopeless, Anders was incessantly cheery. Only it wasn’t annoying, now that she thought about it. Instead, it was heartening. . . .
“What is it, mate?”
She shook her head. “What is what?”
“Do I have a bit of sandwich on my face or something? You were looking at me funny just now.”
Horror flooded Deirdre. She must have been doing it again. Glowing. Quickly, she grabbed a random folder, opened it, and bent her head over the papers inside.
“There’s one thing that would be a big help,” she said. “See if you can get any images of the arch from newspaper and television sources. Our first step is to learn everything we can about the arch. If we do, we may find a clue that will tell us where the Scirathi have taken it.”
“Now that’s thinking like a Seeker, partner. I’ll get right on it.”
After Anders left, Deirdre cleared everything off her desk, then spent the next several hours welded to her notebook computer, typing and clicking as she called up every document related to the keystone, the Thomas Atwater case, Greenfellow’s Tavern, Surrender Dorothy, and Glinda. Once she had gathered all the printouts and photos, she shuffled them on her desk, moving them around like the pieces of a puzzle, trying to see if they fit together in a way she hadn’t seen before.
The DNA sequence of Glinda’s blood had been the clue that first led Deirdre to the keystone. A sample of dried blood had been collected from the keystone centuries ago, and it had just recently been sequenced in part of an ongoing effort to analyze all organic samples in the Seeker vaults before they deteriorated. The sequence from the blood on the keystone had been incomplete, but it had been enough to know it was statistically similar to the sequence of Glinda’s blood.
Knowing what Deirdre did now, that made sense. The keystone had been collected at a location that in modern times corresponded to the nightclub Surrender Dorothy with its half-fairy denizens, like Glinda. And which, in the seventeenth century, had housed Greenfellow’s Tavern.
Only what was the link between Glinda and Thomas Atwater? That was a question Deirdre still couldn’t answer.
Atwater joined the Seekers as a young man in the year 1619, shortly after the order was founded. As a condition for acceptance to the Seekers, the Philosophers forbade him ever to return to Greenfellow’s Tavern, where he had worked before joining the Seekers. However, some years later, it was discovered that Atwater had returned to the tavern, though the Philosophers had never punished him for this clear violation of the Seventh Desideratum. Not long after that, Atwater died at the age of twenty-nine, no doubt of one of the many diseases prevalent in that era. But what did he, and Greenfellow’s Tavern, have to do with the keystone?
Forget not the Sleeping Ones. In their blood lies the key. The words were inscribed on Glinda’s ring as well as on the keystone—although the keystone was so worn no one had ever been able to decipher the symbols. Deirdre only recognized them because she had studied the ring so closely. And even if the symbols hadn’t been worn with time, they still wouldn’t have been decipherable, because they weren’t written in any language known on Earth. After what they had seen on the television last night, she knew now that the symbols were written in an ancient language indigenous to the southern continent of the world Eldh.
The language of sorcerers.
Except the language is known here, Deirdre. At least by one person.
She picked up the photograph the mysterious Philosopher had sent her: the photo of the clay tablet, which showed the inscription written in the same language as on the keystone as well as in Linear A. All of her searches for the tablet in the archives of the Seekers had come up empty. That meant this tablet had to be in his private collection. Three years ago, Deirdre had given a copy of the photo to Paul Jacoby over in linguistics, and he had been able to translate the portion written in Linear A.
The linguistic connection between the keystone and Eldh was a new piece of the puzzle. Only it didn’t make the picture any clearer. The arch was a gate—a gate created by sorcerers. But why had they fashioned it? How had it ended up buried on Crete while the keystone came to rest at the site of Greenfellow’s Tavern? And who were the Sleeping Ones, and what was their blood the key to?
Deirdre stared at the documents and photos until her head ached, but all she came up with were more questions. By the time Anders returned that afternoon, she was staring at the wall like a zombie.
“Afternoon, partner,” Anders said, shrugging off his suit coat.
She didn’t answer.
“What’s the matter, mate? Cat got your tongue?”
“More like my brain,” she croaked. She took a deep breath, trying to clear her mind. Coffee. She needed coffee. Her eyes strayed toward the percolator.
“I’m on it,” Anders said before she could speak the word, grabbing the empty coffeepot.
Twenty minutes later she sat at the timeworn mahogany table that dominated the center of their office. Deirdre gripped her second mug of coffee and enjoyed the pleasant tingle as caffeine permeated her brain.
“So did you get them?” she asked Anders.
“Did he get what?” Beltan said from the doorway.
Deirdre glanced up and smiled. By his much improved appearance, the blond man had gotten a shower as well as some rest. His green eyes were clear, though his face was still grim.
Anders set another mug on the table, as well as a plate of shortbread cookies. Beltan took several of the cookies, crammed them in his mouth, and chased them down with a long swig of the scalding coffee.
“So what were you supposed to get?” he said, eyeing Anders.
“Photographs of the arch.” Anders had rolled up his shirtsleeves and had loosened his tie, which was as close to casual as Deirdre had ever seen him. “It turned out it wasn’t too hard. I’ve got a source at one of the satellite television companies. He dubbed a copy of the archaeology program to tape for me. I saved some stills from the tape, but they were a bit on the grainy side, so I took them down to the lab for computer enhancement. The techs said they’d have them done by—wait a minute. Here’s Eustace now.”
A speck of a man appeared in the doorway. Even sitting, Deirdre was nearly as tall as he. His thick shock of brown hair stood straight up—an effort to win him another inch, perhaps— and he wore wire-rimmed glasses as well as an eager expression.
Eustace bounded into the office, holding a large manila envelope, and his blue eyes went wide behind his glasses. “Is that really him? The otherworldly traveler?” The apprentice didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he approached Beltan, who towered above him. “I can’t believe this is happening. I’m having my first Class One Encounter, and I’ve only been a Seeker for six months.” He thrust out a hand. “I’m terribly honored to meet you, sir. Is there something you can tell me—some bit of knowledge from another world you can impart?”
Beltan squinted down at the young Seeker. “The cookies are not for you.”
Deirdre could see Eustace silently repeating the words to himself, as if trying to fathom the wisdom they contained. And there was wisdom in them, because if given cause, Beltan might scoop the small Seeker up and crumple him into a ball like so much aluminum foil.
Luckily, Eustace appeared uninterested in the cookies. He kept gaping at Beltan with a look of awe.
Anders cleared his throat. “So what do you have for us, Eustace?”
The young man snapped back to his senses. “The techs in the lab told me to bring this to you right away.” He handed the envelope to Anders. “So what’s in it?”
Anders grinned. “None of your business. At least not until you’ve got Echelon 3 clearance. Which you’ll never get if you don’t keep at that research Nakamura assigned you. So scurry along now.”
Eustace cast one last glance at Beltan, then hurried from the room, shutting the door behind him.
“Let’s see those photos,” Deirdre said.
The lab had done a good job. Though still a bit grainy, most of the symbols were clear, incised into the stones of the arch with sharp, angular lines. When she was finished examining the photographs, she slipped them back into the envelope.
“So what are you going to do with those?” Anders asked.
She sealed the envelope with wax. “I’m going to send them to Paul Jacoby over in linguistics. He was able to translate the passage in Linear A on the clay tablet, and I know he’s been comparing it to the passage written in the language of the Scirathi. I’m going to see if he has enough information to decipher any of these symbols.”
Anders cleared his throat. “And you think we can trust him?”
“I don’t think we have a choice. We have to learn everything we can about the arch if we’re going to have any chance of using it.” She sighed. “That’s assuming, of course, that we ever find it. I don’t know how we’re going to manage that one.”
Beltan frowned at her. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Not particularly.” She glanced at Anders.
“Don’t look at me, mate. I’m beginning to think I’m not the one with the brains here, after all.”
“You don’t have to be smart to think like a thief,” Beltan said, pacing lionlike alongside the table. “The Scirathi must want the arch for something important. Why else would they go to all the trouble of stealing it? However, it’s worthless to them if they don’t have the keystone. That means at some point they will have to come for it.”
“But the Scirathi can’t know the keystone is here,” Deirdre said, trying to follow his logic.
“They could be made to know.”
Anders let out a low whistle. “So you want to set a trap for them, to lure them with the keystone and nab them.”
“No,” Beltan said, his voice hard, “I want to let them capture the keystone. Once they have it, they will surely go to where the arch is located. All we have to do is follow them.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“I did not say it would be easy,” Beltan growled. “I imagine it will be anything but. Yet it is our only chance of getting to the arch.”
Anders looked queasy. “I suppose it is. All the same, I can’t imagine the Philosophers will let us take a priceless artifact from their collection and dangle it out there like a piece of bait.”
“They will, if you convince them to.”
“I don’t know, mate. . . .”
Beltan leaned on the table, green light flickering in his eyes. “You promised to help me.”
Deirdre knew she had to intervene before this came to blows. “It’s a good plan,” she said, standing up and touching Beltan’s shoulder. She felt the big man relax. “But we still need to learn what we can about the arch before we do this. If we’re going to follow the sorcerers back to where they’ve hidden the arch, then we have to be ready to act when we get there. We won’t get a second chance.”
Beltan grunted; he couldn’t disagree with that.
Anders gave her a grateful look. “There’s one thing about all this that doesn’t make sense. The Scirathi already had a gate, and they used it to kidnap Nim. So what do they need the arch for?”
Deirdre chewed her lip. She couldn’t answer that one. “The only ones who know the answer to that question are the Scirathi themselves.”
“Then why not ask one?” Beltan said.
Anders scowled at him. “This is no time for jokes, mate.”
“I’m not joking.”
By the look on his face, Deirdre knew he wasn’t. Anders stared at him, then suddenly grinned.
“I’m starting to like the way you think. Better to do something, however bonkers, than to sit around on your bum. Mind if I join you on your little hunt?”
Beltan nodded. “Your help would be welcome indeed.”
An alarm sounded in Deirdre’s skull. She gripped Beltan’s arm. “We don’t know how many Scirathi are still on Earth. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I can’t just wait here, Deirdre. I need something to do. And this can help us, you know it can.” His expression softened a fraction. “Don’t worry. We won’t take unnecessary risks.”
“Come on, mate,” Anders said, putting on his suit coat. “Let’s go see if we can nab ourselves a sorcerer.”
Once they had gone, Deirdre spent the remainder of the afternoon combing through the documents on her desk—ostensibly trying to find any clues she might have missed, but mostly trying not to think about Anders and Beltan, or what might be happening to them.
They’re big boys, Deirdre. They can take care of themselves.
Then why did she feel like she needed to run after them and protect them? Especially Anders. He was strong. He had a gun, and he was trained to use it. But he didn’t have experience facing enemies with magical powers, not like Beltan did. Except that wasn’t true; Anders had taken out the one sorcerer at the Tube station.
Deirdre rose and moved across the office. He had left the sorcerer’s gold mask on his desk. She picked it up, touching the bullet hole between the mask’s eye slits. What if that had been a lucky shot? Anders might not be so fortunate the next time he came face-to-face with a sorcerer. Or make that sorcerers. She went back to her desk, propped up the mask against a stack of papers so that its serene gold face seemed to gaze at her, and kept working as the wall clock ticked away the silent seconds.
The back of her neck tingled, and she looked up.
Sasha stood in the doorway, slender arms folded, leaning against the doorjamb.
Deirdre gasped. “How long have you been there?”
“Just a minute or two,” Sasha said, her red lips parting in a smile. “I was watching you.”
Deirdre scowled, now more annoyed than startled. “You shouldn’t do that.”
“I know. I’m a naughty girl. But you look so adorable when you’re working manically, I couldn’t resist.”
“I was probably picking my nose,” Deirdre said.
“If only. I would have snapped a picture.” Sasha gestured to the tiny digital camera that dangled from a silver chain around her neck. She wore it all the time these days, like a piece of jewelry, and was constantly catching people in compromising positions and displaying the resulting snapshots on her computer. “Do you mind if I come in?”
Before Deirdre could answer, Sasha sauntered languidly— she never merely walked—into the office. Today’s fashion included saffron slacks and a fluttery chartreuse top that made her look like an exotic bird. Her coffee-with-cream skin gave off a healthy glow despite the office’s fluorescent lights, which made Deirdre—who wasn’t exactly well acquainted with the sun these days—look like she had consumption.
After all their years working together, Deirdre still wasn’t entirely certain what Sasha did for the Seekers. She was an attaché to the Director of Operations, which meant these days she spent most of her time with Richard Nakamura. Although precisely what she did for Nakamura, Deirdre couldn’t say. All she knew was that, more than any other Seeker, Sasha seemed to have her finger on the pulse of the organization. Nothing seemed to happen that she didn’t know about first, or know more juicy details about than anybody else.
Probably because she’s always spying on people. And who knows? Maybe that’s her real job.
Deirdre wasn’t worried. Nothing she was doing here was clandestine. In fact, she had already begun to draft a preliminary report on the events of the last thirty-six hours for Nakamura. Deirdre might as well give Sasha a copy since she was there. She opened the document on her computer and clicked PRINT.
“So what have we here?” Sasha said when Deirdre handed her the copy, still warm from the printer.
“A draft of a report I’m writing for Nakamura, to keep him apprised of what we’re doing.” Deirdre sat on the edge of her desk.
Sasha folded the papers without reading them. “That’s good of you, but it’s not necessary. You’re Echelon 7, Deirdre. You’ve got free rein on this mission—it’s under your complete control. There’s no need for you to submit a report until you deem the case is closed.”
Deirdre wasn’t sure whether those words were reassuring or not. It was good to know she wasn’t going to be second-guessed all the time. On the other hand, she wasn’t entirely certain she knew what she was doing here. How did the Desiderata apply when the otherworldly being you had vowed not to interfere with also happened to be a dear friend you had vowed to help? It was hard to rely solely on one’s own judgment.
“Take the report to Nakamura anyway,” Deirdre said. “I don’t want there to be any secrets here.”
“Funny you should mention secrets,” Sasha purred. “That’s just what I came to talk to you about.”
Deirdre gripped her bear claw necklace. “What do you mean?”
Sasha glanced at the door, then drew in close, her expression no longer one of sly amusement, but rather solemn. “Do you remember how I once told you to keep your curiosity outside the Seekers, that it was better not to turn up stones left untouched?”
Deirdre felt a chill pass through her. She could only nod.
“Well, maybe it’s time to start turning up a few of those stones after all.”
“What are you talking about? What stones?”
Sasha picked up the gold mask and ran a long finger over it. “So this is one of the masks they wear. Those sorcerers you’ve written about in your reports. It’s so much more beautiful than I ever would have thought. Only it covers ugliness, doesn’t it? Ugliness and hate.”
None of this made any sense. Deirdre ran a hand through her close-cropped hair. “Sasha, what is this really about?”
The other woman was silent for a time. Finally she spoke in a low voice. “The sorcerers aren’t the only organization that requires its members to wear masks, Deirdre. Sometimes the Seekers do, too. And you can’t always know what’s behind those masks. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes they’re keeping secrets to protect you. And sometimes . . .”
Deirdre was sweating, but she felt cold. “What do you know, Sasha? If you know something, you have to tell me.”
Sasha shook her head. “All I know is that there are secrets. Things that most of us don’t know, that others don’t want us to know.”
“Secrets like what?”
Sasha set down the mask. “This was a mistake. I’ve told more than I should have. But I just wanted you to . . . you need to keep your eyes open, that’s all.” She started toward the door.
Deirdre stood up, her heart thudding in her chest. “Sasha, please. You’ve got to tell me what you’re talking about.”
Sasha hesitated, then glanced over her shoulder, her dark eyes unreadable. “Has Anders ever told you why he can carry a gun when no other Seeker is allowed to?”
Deirdre could only stare.
“Take care of yourself, honey,” Sasha said, then headed out the door, leaving Deirdre alone.
It was late. Deirdre gazed out the window of her flat, watching as rain snaked in rivulets down the panes. She held a glass of scotch in her hand; she hadn’t taken a sip since she poured it two hours ago.
Has Anders ever told you why he can carry a gun when no other Seeker is allowed to?
Like uninvited guests, Sasha’s words from earlier that day slipped into her mind. Deirdre tried to ignore them. She didn’t know what Sasha was trying to do, but she wasn’t going to suspect Anders of wrongdoing. Not after he had saved her life— and the lives of others—multiple times. Not after she had vowed she was going to trust him.
But what if you’re being blind, Deirdre?
Was that her Wise Self speaking, the shaman in her who often saw things in a clearer light? Or was it her Shadow Self— her darker and more destructive side—that was speaking?
You’ve developed feelings for Anders—you can’t deny that you have. And what if that’s what he’s been counting on? The co fee, the flowers, the designer suits and expensive cologne— what if it’s all been part of a precise operation, one designed to charm you, and to distract you from things you would otherwise see. Great Spirit, no one can be that cheerful all the time. It has to be an act.
No, she wouldn’t believe that. Anders was a good man. A true heart beat in that barrel chest of his, she was sure of it. Besides, if someone had wanted her to be seduced, surely they would have sent an agent more suave, more good-looking than Anders to do the deed.
Or would they? Not if they were clever—not if they knew Deirdre well. She had fallen for a striking, mysterious man once—for Hadrian Farr—and she wouldn’t make that same mistake again. If Anders had been too slick or handsome, her guard would have gone up at once. Instead, Anders had infiltrated the barriers of her affections like a stealth jet, flying low and under the radar.
This is ridiculous, Deirdre. Now it was neither her Wise Self nor Shadow Self talking. It was just her plain old Angry and Afraid Self. Anders isn’t an airplane, he’s a person, and he hasn’t been keeping secrets from you. You know it.
Really? Or had her judgment been impaired by broad shoulders, a gravelly voice, and crinkly blue eyes? Because, much as she had done her best to ignore it these last three years, Sasha was right—there was one secret Anders kept from her. He still had never told her why he was allowed to carry a gun when no other Seeker had that privilege.
Not that she was entirely sorry that was the case. More than once he had used that gun to protect her and others. All the same, the fact that he did carry it nagged at her, now more than ever. He had told her his story—how he had worked security for the Seekers before becoming an agent, and how, since he had the proper training to use it, Nakamura was letting him keep the gun temporarily, until a final decision about it came down from the Philosophers.
But such a decision had never been made, at least not as far as Deirdre knew. So why did Anders carry a gun? Did he have special connections in the Seekers? That seemed absurd; Anders was still only a journeyman. However, the fact that a former security guard had been admitted to the organization at all was unusual. It could be there was more to Anders’s becoming a Seeker than was visible on the surface.
Deirdre sighed. Her head throbbed, and it was long past her bedtime. She could think about all of this tomorrow. She started to push herself up from the chair—then froze.
Something moved in the darkness outside the window.
She leaned forward, until her breath fogged on the glass panes. She had only glimpsed it for a second, but it had been a vaguely manlike shape, she was sure of it. Only it hadn’t been down below on the street. Instead, it had seemed to float in the night, directly outside the window.
There was a soft click as the door of her flat closed shut. The glass of scotch tumbled to the floor. Heart pounding, Deirdre sprang out of the chair and whirled around.
There was no one there.
“Anders?” she called out. “Is that you?”
He had a key to her flat; he always took care of her house-plants when she was away. But there was no answer. Not that she expected any. Whatever Sasha thought of him, Anders was a gentleman; he always knocked before entering. Besides, he had said he was going to stay at the Charterhouse that night to keep an eye on Beltan.
Earlier that evening, the two men had returned: wet, hungry, and more than a little grouchy from their mad hunt for a sorcerer. They had found no signs of the Scirathi in the city. Not that Deirdre had expected any different; it wasn’t as if sorcerers tended to hang out at the local coffee shop. Though maybe the blood bank would have been a more likely place to find them.
Despite their failure, Beltan’s resolve to find one of the Scirathi had not lessened, and Anders wanted to keep close to the blond man in case he decided to try continuing the search on his own. Deirdre had agreed; in his current frame of mind, it was best if Beltan wasn’t left alone.
And what about you, Deirdre? Are you alone right now?
She didn’t know what she had glimpsed in the window, but there was one thing she was certain of: Whatever it was, it hadn’t been outside her flat.
It was a reflection in the glass. A reflection from behind you. Someone was in here.
Whoever it had been was gone now. A thorough exploration of all the rooms of her flat—as well as the closets—confirmed her instincts. The intruder had fled. She headed back to the kitchen, thinking maybe she had better give another glass of scotch a try. Her hands shook as she tilted the bottle, and she slopped half the liquid onto the counter. She reached for the roll of paper towels.
A manila envelope lay on the countertop. She had not put it there.
Deirdre gulped down what scotch she had managed to get into the glass, then picked up the envelope. There was a lump inside it. She undid the string, opened the flap, and tilted the envelope. A small black cell phone slipped out. She drew in a deep breath, then picked up the phone and switched it on.
She was so startled she nearly dropped it. She fumbled with the buttons, then held the phone to her ear.
“Good evening, Deirdre.”
She had known it would be he. Once before he had made contact with her in this fashion. All the same, a thrill ran through her at the sound of his rich, accentless voice.
“Who was just in my flat?” she said. “You or one of your minions?”
Laughter emanated from the phone. “Minions? What a marvelous word. It makes me feel like a villain just to say it. I really must try to have more minions.”
“So it was you.” Fear rippled through her, and excitement. He had been here, in her flat—her Philosopher. She moved to the window and peered out into the darkness and the rain. “Where are you?”
“Close, Deirdre.” His words were a murmur in her ear. “I am always close now. The worlds draw near. And so does the end.”
“The end of what?”
“Why, of everything.”
Deirdre sank down into the chair. She had to be smart, she had to think of the most important questions and ask them first. He wouldn’t stay on the phone long; he never did.
“Where is the arch?”
Again he laughed. “That’s why I like you, Deirdre. You always get right to the point.”
She bit her tongue. If she was silent, he would have to keep speaking. There was a dreadful pause in which she feared he had hung up. Then, once more, his rich voice emanated from the phone.
“It’s nearer than you might think. However, I’m not going to tell you where it is. Now is not the time to seek it out.”
“Why?” she said, unable to stop herself.
“Because if you do, you will die. So will the man from the otherworld, the knight Beltan. I cannot let that happen.”
This time it was he who paused. Deirdre had no choice but to say something or risk the conversation ending. “Beltan is determined to find the arch, and I can’t control him. Today he and Anders went looking for a sorcerer to question.”
“That’s an excellent idea. Do go have a chat with a sorcerer. That will help you see your next step is not to seek the gate. There are other mysteries that must be attended to first.”
Deirdre clutched the phone, as if that could keep him from hanging up. “But how can we find a sorcerer? We don’t even know if there are any left in London.”
“There are. Their work here is not done. Finding the girl, Nim, was simply a happy accident. An act of Fate, as they might say. It was not the reason they came to our world.”
“But where can we find one of the Scirathi?” she said, unable to keep the words from sounding as desperate as they were.
“That’s simple enough. The man Beltan possesses something the Scirathi crave, something that is sure to tempt them into the open. As for where to go—I think you already sense the answer to that. They know now what flows in Travis Wilder’s veins. They are keeping watch, just in case he returns.”
Deirdre thought maybe she understood, but she had to be certain. However, he spoke again before she could.
“By the way, your friend Sasha was right in what she said to you earlier today.”
“What?” It was the only word she could manage.
“You do not know what you think you know, Deirdre. That is the one thing—the only thing—of which you can be certain. Do not let yourself believe you can trust anyone other than yourself. Even within the Seekers, there are those who would work against you.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, her pulse thudding in her ears.
“Why do you think I always make contact with you in such a secretive manner? Contrary to what you might believe, it’s not for my amusement. I do it because there are those who, if they knew I had told you the things I have, would not hesitate to—” He paused; she could hear his breathing. “No, that’s not important now. All that matters is that you understand one thing: There is much you do not know, much you cannot even guess at. And there are those who will do anything to keep it that way.”
The phone was slick in Deirdre’s hand. “What should I do?”
“I can’t tell you that, Deirdre. But I will give you something to think about. The sorcerers used Travis Wilder’s blood, taken from the belly of the gorleth that attacked him, to power the gate artifact in their possession and abduct the girl.”
“We already know that.”
“Good. Now ask yourself this: How did the sorcerers know they could do that? How did they know that blood of power, blood that could fuel their gate, ran in Travis Wilder’s veins?”
Deirdre hardly heard his words. She could feel him starting to slip away. “Please, don’t go. There are so many questions, and I don’t have any idea how to get the answers.”
“That’s not true, Deirdre. You’re a resourceful woman. I have every faith you’ll find a way to get those answers of yours.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “And I think a time is coming when all questions will be answered. Perihelion approaches. This world and the otherworld draw nearer every day. It is not chance that the earthquake on Crete revealed the arch. Things long buried are now coming to light because they need to be found.”
“What do you mean?” Deirdre said, clutching the phone. “What things need to be found?”
But the only reply was the drone of a dial tone in her ear.
It was well after ten o’clock by the time Deirdre straggled into the Charterhouse the next morning. She stopped at the front desk, picked up a pen fastened to a chain, and signed in on the clipboard. The receptionist, Madeleine, looked up from her computer, though her fingers continued to flay the keyboard.
“How good of you to join us today, Miss Falling Hawk,” she said, peering over moon-shaped reading glasses.
Deirdre was not in the mood for irony. “You misspelled ‘Sincerely,’ ” she said, pointing at Madeleine’s computer screen.
The receptionist gave her a sour look, which Deirdre could at least appreciate for its honesty, then pushed her glasses up her nose and studied the screen. Deirdre made her way down the hall and descended a flight of stairs to her office.
Anders wasn’t there. She didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved. With regard to the lack of coffee, it was certainly the former, but otherwise it could only be the latter. Surely he would have seen it on her face the moment she looked at him. Doubt.
She tossed the newspaper she had bought on her desk and slumped into the chair. There was a note neatly tucked under the blotter. She pulled it out. It was written in Anders’s cramped, precise hand.
Good morning, partner!
Beltan and I decided to get an early start. We’re o f to nose about the city. Back by noon. Shall we lunch at the M.E.?
Deirdre winced. Gods, even when he wrote he sounded insanely chipper. She started to toss the note in the trash can, then stopped, folded it carefully, and tucked it back beneath the blotter.
She hated this. She hated the way she felt, and she hated what she was going to do. However, she had no choice. Once again she asked herself the question that had been eating at her.
How did the sorcerers here on Earth know about the blood of power that runs in Travis’s veins?
The only people who could possibly know that information were Travis’s closest companions. And any Seeker who had read the Wilder-Beckett case files. Deirdre could not believe Beltan or Vani had informed the sorcerers. That meant there was only one other possibility.
There’s a traitor in the Seekers, and Sasha must know it—or at least suspect it. That’s why she was trying to warn you yesterday. Someone with access to the reports about Travis is in league with the sorcerers.
And, much as it turned her heart to ash to admit it, all the signs pointed to one person. He had read all the reports about Travis. He was capable of keeping secrets; the gun he carried proved that. And the night they were attacked by the Scirathi, he had shown up at the Tube station almost too miraculously.
Only that doesn’t make sense, Deirdre. If Anders was really working for the Scirathi, why did he save all of you that night?
For the same reason he brewed fabulous coffee and brought flowers to the office. To win their trust, their affection.
Think about it, Deirdre. No one actually saw him shoot that sorcerer he claimed he killed. You read his report. Even Eustace didn’t see it happen. A Scirathi could simply have given Anders one of their gold masks to use as a prop, to help back up his story.
The thought made her sick, but she couldn’t dismiss it. Her grandfather had always told her to trust her instincts. And all those instincts told her that Anders was concealing something.
So what was she going to do?
Keep him close, Deirdre. And don’t act as if anything’s changed. Whatever his work is, it isn’t done; otherwise, he wouldn’t still be playing this game. The longer you can make him believe you know nothing, the better your chances of figuring out what it is he’s up to.
Deirdre massaged her throbbing temples. She had spent all night going over these thoughts again and again. Right now she wanted to think about something—anything—else. She unfolded the copy of the Times she had bought and bent her head over it.
However, she found little solace in reading the paper. On the front page there was an article about the worldwide increase in violent natural phenomena over the last few months. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes—all were happening with greater frequency than normal. The article discounted the common belief that the change in the Earth’s climate was a result of the celestial anomaly, and instead offered various theories about possible geologic and meteorological causes. However, Deirdre knew the article was wrong.
It’s perihelion. That’s what the Philosopher said. Eldh is drawing close, and somehow it’s a fecting Earth. It’s like the pull of gravity.
Only it wasn’t gravity, it was something else. But what then? Magic? All Deirdre knew was that it wasn’t chance that an earthquake had shaken Crete, revealing the stone arch.
And what about the dark spot in space? It can’t be chance that it’s appeared now as perihelion approaches.
According to a report she had seen on a morning TV news show, the anomaly was now visible to the naked eye in the northern hemisphere—at least to those who didn’t live in major cities. However, even if it hadn’t been cloudy the last several days, Deirdre doubted she would have been able to see it through the glare of London’s streetlights.
And maybe that explained why people in the city continued to go about their lives as if nothing had changed. That morning, Deirdre had taken the Tube with countless people trudging to their jobs, the expressions on their faces as dull as the leaden sky. On the streets, double-decker buses ferried tired, trapped-looking tourists to Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s. Ships oozed up and down the sluggish Thames. Yet surely, if people could see the dark spot in the sky, they would be panicking.
Or would they? Because even if they couldn’t see it through the London fog, people had to know it was there. Just as it had expanded in the sky, stories about Variance X had grown more prominent on television and in the newspaper. Reports about it were everywhere. Only no one seemed to be paying attention.
Except for the Mouthers. Deirdre had passed several of them that morning, standing on a corner outside the Blackfriars Tube station in their white sheets. Each member of the group had carried a sign that bore, not words, but instead a black circle scrawled on white cardboard. They did not accost passersby, but simply stared, their eyes as vacant as the circles on their signs.
Deirdre had ignored the Mouthers, as had everyone else passing by. No one ever looked at the people in white, or up at the sky. Or, it seemed, at the articles in the newspaper.
Maybe people are tired of hearing about disasters, Deirdre. Fires. Floods. Wars. Famines. Maybe there are too many troubles here on Earth to worry about something in the sky.
Maybe. But while others might be disinterested, Deirdre was anything but. Like the storms and earthquakes, Variance X had to be related to perihelion somehow. She leaned over the paper, scanning the article in the Times .
It began with a summary of what was known about the anomaly: how it had first been detected a few months ago, at a distance of about 10 billion miles from Earth—or fifteen hours as the light beam flies. At the time, the anomaly was dubbed Variance X by skeptical astronomers. The name was a joke. Over the years, various astronomers had put forth the theory that the solar system contained a dark, distant tenth planet— Planet X. Such a planet had never been found, and those who theorized it existed were generally regarded as pseudoscientists and crackpots.
However, no one was laughing now, for the joke soon ended as countless observatories around the world confirmed the existence of Variance X, as well as the fact that it was growing.
Some researchers speculated that the anomaly was indeed a tenth planet, surrounded by a cloud of black, icy comets, approaching the solar system on the short end of its elliptical orbit. Others suggested it was a disk of dark matter that until recently had been angled with respect to Earth so that it was invisible, like a dinner plate turned on edge. Now, as the disk rotated on its axis, it was coming into view, and blotting out Earth’s view of the stars beyond it. Others suggested Variance X was a cloud of light-absorbing gas trailing a small, wandering black hole.
However, one researcher—an American astronomer who had recently accepted a position as a visiting professor at Oxford— had proposed a very different theory: that the dark blot was in fact an instability in the fabric of space-time. So far, according to the newspaper article, most leading astronomers had rejected that theory.
Yet perhaps such an explanation is unthinkable, the article went on, not because it is impossible, but instead because the consequences are so dire. If Variance X is a rip in space-time— the cloth from which our universe is cut—what’s to stop it from unraveling? Nothing, says American astronomer Sara Voorhees. According to Voorhees, unless the instability that gave rise to it somehow corrects itself, the anomaly will keep expanding until the universe is torn apart in one final, violent blending of matter and antimatter that will leave nothing at all. It’s not difficult to see why that prospect has proven unpopular.
Feeling ill, Deirdre folded the paper and tossed it in the waste bin. What did it all mean? Maybe two different worlds were on a collision course. Maybe that was what perihelion meant. If so, then there was no hope for anyone on Earth or Eldh.
Except, the problem was, Deirdre did have hope. She couldn’t wait quietly for the end of the world like the Mouthers; she had to do something. And she was going to. With a deep breath she rolled up her sleeves, turned on her computer, and got to work.
By the time Beltan and Anders showed up, she had a plan.
“What’s going on, mate?” Anders said, setting a tall paper cup on her desk. “You’ve got an extradetermined look about you today.”
She picked up the cup and took a sip. It was coffee: rich, bitter, and with just the perfect hint of cream. “Have you found a sorcerer yet?”
“No,” Beltan said, slumping into a chair next to her desk. “It’s like looking for something very small lost in an enormous pile of things that are also very small. Only not the same as the first thing.”
“You mean it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Anders said.
Beltan frowned at him. “By Vathris, why would anyone look for a needle in a stack of hay?”
“It’s an expression. It means just what you said.”
“I’m talking about people, not needles. And how did it get in the hay? Did some mad seamstress put the needle there?”
“Never mind,” Anders growled. He shrugged off his suit coat and glanced at Deirdre. “As you can see, we haven’t exactly made a lot of progress in our hunt for a sorcerer.”
Muscles played beneath the skin of his forearms as he loosened his tie. Deirdre gulped the scalding-hot coffee.
“Don’t worry,” she said, her throat burning. “I think I’ve got it figured out.”
“You’ve got what figured out?” Beltan said.
“How we’re going to catch a sorcerer.”
They waited until nightfall. The Scirathi were more comfortable working under cover of darkness; that was one of the few things they had learned in their dealings with the sorcerers.
And what about Anders? Deirdre thought as they drove in a black sedan along Shaftesbury Avenue. What’s he learned about them?
She glanced at him as he drove. Would he betray her tonight? After all, if he was really working for the sorcerers, he couldn’t allow her to catch one of them. Except he had to, if he was going to keep up his act; he would have to go along with her plan.
As the lights of the city came on against the gathering dusk, Anders turned the wheel, guiding the car onto a narrow lane. Beltan’s and Travis’s flat was just ahead.
“We already checked out the flat,” Anders had said earlier that day, when she told him where they would go that evening. “Beltan and I sniffed all around his old neighborhood and didn’t see a thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a sorcerer lurking about there—returning to the scene of the crime and all that. But if so, he won’t come out to play.”
“He will if you make him want to,” Deirdre had said.
It was time. Anders brought the car to a halt two blocks away from the flat. Deirdre climbed out. Beltan unfolded his long frame from the backseat.
“I’m ready,” he said, one hand in the pocket of his jeans.
Deirdre touched his arm. “Make sure you’re seen.”
He nodded, then turned and took long strides down the sidewalk, vanishing into the gloom.
Anders leaned out the window of the car. “Is your radio working, mate?”
Deirdre held the device to her mouth to test it. She heard her voice emanate from inside the car. She gave him a thumbs-up, then tucked the radio into her jacket pocket, alongside something else.
“Good luck,” Anders said, winking at her.
The car sped away down the lane. Deirdre didn’t like letting him go by himself, but she had no choice, not if this plan was going to work. Besides, it was too late for him to warn them. If one was keeping watch, then at that moment he was already observing Beltan open the door of the flat. Deirdre looked at her wristwatch, letting thirty more seconds pass. Then she started