Description: Angus is frustrated. King Tyr has confined him to Hellsbreath and he doesn’t know why. Embril went with the patrol to the Angst temple to safeguard The Tiger’s Eye, but she has failed—or worse, she has betrayed him. Either way, the nexus has been disturbed and Hellsbreath is in danger—and it’s his fault. Commander Garret won’t let him go after her, so all he can do is wait for Hobart and Ortis to return. But when they do…
Note: Angst draws upon several elements from the first three books as it ties things together and brings the series to a close. As such, readers will have a richer experience if they begin with first book (The Tiger’s Eye, which is currently free) and progress through the rest of the series in order.
Here is the beginning of the book:
The early morning air was brisk and salty as it wormed its way under Taro’s threadbare cloak, but he didn’t mind the intrusion; it was more like a kiss from a dear friend than distant kin who wouldn’t go away. The weatherworn path up the steep little cliff was another matter. He had loved it when he was young and vigorous, but with each passing year it had become steeper and more rugged, and the walking stick wasn’t helping nearly as much as it once had. But he was familiar with the exertion, and his task was vitally important. At least that’s what he told himself each morning as he made his daily journey up the steep cliff before the disappointment of another day without a vision.
He paused in the gray shadow of the cliff and gazed west. The glimmer of light on the sea whispered of the night’s passing and hinted of morning’s birth, and he quickly turned away. He was still a hundred steps from the top, and it would be past dawn by the time he reached the shrine. Not that it mattered; there was no sentinel waiting to be relieved, not since Humphrey had abandoned him. He didn’t blame Humphrey, though; the poor boy had tried for ten years to have a vision before he had finally given up. He shook his head and shuffled slowly forward.
A part of him envied Humphrey’s loss of faith and wanted to join him, but he couldn’t. He had had a vision. It had happened when he was a young man, and he hadn’t understood the flashing images at all until after the events they depicted had begun to take place. One by one the images had come true, all but the last one. It was that last image that kept him climbing up the cliff each dawn—that and the hope that he would have another vision. There were so few Seers left who had had visions—real visions, not those daft divination spells the wizards used. Take away their spells, and they were as blind to the future as everyone else. But not him! He was an Elder of the Sacred Order of Prophetic Sight! He lifted his head with pride and set his jaw as he plodded up the slope at a slightly faster pace. Then some of the energy fled from him. He was almost upon the most difficult part of his daily climb: the stair. Long ago, someone had chiseled a dozen steep steps into the cliff face to connect two natural ledges. The steps were smooth, and on mornings like this, the dew made them treacherous. So did his bum knee.
He came to the first step and paused for breath. It was only a foot high, and he used to spring lightly up onto it in his youth. But that was long ago, and now he almost had to sit down and scoot up the stairs backwards like a toddler. Almost. “Return to that from which we came,” he muttered as he shifted his walking stick to his left hand. He positioned it for leverage and moved as close to the step as he could get. Then he hunched over and reached down with his right hand to wrap his bony, arthritic fingers behind the back of his right knee. He leaned against his walking stick and lifted. It was a precarious perch. The staff shook in his uncertain, painful grip and he teetered on his left leg as he dragged the toes of his right foot up the front of the step until they reached the top. Then he slid his foot forward and let go. He used both hands to steady himself with the walking stick while he levered his left foot onto the step. It was time-consuming. It was painful. But it worked—for now. Another year? Another month? He shook his head and positioned himself for the next laborious step.
By the time he mounted the twelfth—and final—step, his breath was coming in short, raspy gasps. Sweat clung to his neck despite the chilly sea breeze, but he didn’t pause for long. The last bit of the ledge was an easy incline that widened out and bent inland, and the morning was already snapping free of the darkness. He needed to reach the top before the sun rose above the shrine if he was going to see if his vision had been fulfilled. If it hadn’t, he could rest in the shrine until he felt up to going back down the path. If it had come true…
Well, Taro wasn’t sure what would happen if his vision came true—when it came true. Each of the other parts of his vision had led him to the next one. But this was the last part of his vision, and it would come true here. He had to believe that. But when? He had thought it would happen quickly, but half a lifetime had passed him by while he was waiting for it, and if it didn’t come true soon, the rest of that lifetime would trickle away! Even so, he still remembered the lofty, youthful ambitions he’d had when he had started out on his quest so long ago. But as the passing days grew into weeks and months and years, those ambitions had faded. So had his hair and muscle tone. Now, all he could hope for was to live long enough to see his vision fulfilled, and whatever happened afterward didn’t really matter anymore. It was ironic, really: he was a Seer who couldn’t see past the vision that had held him in place at the shrine for so long. It was as if time had frozen in that future moment that had yet to come and it wouldn’t thaw out again until that moment got here.
Seer, Taro scoffed as his walking stick tapped out a rhythmic tune. Only because I had a vision—one vision. He shook his head as the familiar sadness descended upon him. One more vision than anyone else has had. The Sacred Order of Prophetic Sight used to be something in Weji’s day, but after centuries of dwindling numbers and dwindling visions, there were almost no real Seers left. Oh, they still tried to have visions, but it just didn’t work anymore. It was as if the gods had gone to sleep and the Seers were floundering in the darkness they had left behind. He scowled and the clacking of his walking stick became more urgent as he cursed his blasphemous doubts and redoubled his determination to have another vision before he died. It had better hurry up.
When he reached the point where the path leveled off, he finally slowed to catch his breath. The sun was above the eastern horizon, still half-hidden behind the shrine. It gave the decrepit building a quaint aura that made the crumbling walls and collapsing roof look rather serene, as if the sun itself was blessing it. The overgrowth of trees and vines only made it seem more idyllic, as if nature itself was gently cradling the shrine in its palms. Then he noticed that part of the north wall had collapsed inward during the night, and he stopped. A slow smile eased onto his lips and he took in a sharp, excited breath. At last! he thought. The vision is complete! The collapsed wall, the radiant sunbeams—they were what he had been waiting for ever since he had discovered the old shrine! It was exactly like the image of his vision! Exactly. It didn’t even have the blurry distortion of his deteriorating eyesight. His hands began to shake, and the tip of his walking stick rattled on the hard-packed trail.
He hesitated for a long moment before plunging down the path through the overgrowth, easily sidestepping the fallen log and familiar tangle of nettles. The wind was softer, warmer up here, but it still whistled through the new opening in the north wall. That sound! he thought, feeling as giddy as he had the day he had become a Seer. I know that sound!
He hurried into the inner chamber. The whistling wind was shrill, as if it was being forced through a broken flute. Rubble tapered from the north and stretched halfway across the first room, and he had to scamper around melon-sized stones to reach the room where he had tried to bring a vision to life each day for decades—without success. But today would be different! He was certain of it! His vision had long ago shown him the sign, and now that sign was here! He pushed aside the tattered, dirty cloth he had hung up where a door had once stood, and suddenly stopped. When the north wall collapsed, it had knocked down part of the back wall of the inner chamber, and there was another room behind it, a room he had never found during those first few months of frantic searching. How could he have missed it?
He moved closer, tapping the pile of rubble with his walking stick as he approached the fallen inner wall. Some of the stones were loose and shifted position, and he poked at them more firmly. When they had settled more firmly into place, he clambered cautiously onto them, scraping his knees and shins against their sharp edges. It didn’t matter, though; this was what he had been waiting for, and a little more pain, a little more blood was not going to stop him from reaching his goal! It was his destiny to find out what was in that room! He was certain of it!
When he reached the top of the rubble, he gasped and sagged down onto the stones. The room was a vision chamber—a real vision chamber, not the makeshift one he had been using for all these years. The brazier—a brass one with ornate handles and runes on its sides—seemed to grow out of the floor, and the floor itself was tiled with an ornate mosaic that depicted what could only be Weji’s vision of the Bindergraff! A joyous tear dropped from his eye as he slid forward over the rough slope and came to rest on the floor inside the vision room.
Blood flowed from his palms as he pushed himself up to his feet and looked through the dust-filled air. Where is it? he wondered, his heart beating more fiercely in his chest than it had in a very long time. He quickly scanned the room and saw a flimsy gray cloth hanging in a narrow opening. The incense chamber! His hands were shaking as he hobbled toward it, a smeared trail of blood spatters following in the wake of his tattered cloak.
He stopped before the cloth and closed his eyes. He took a deep, calming breath and whispered a brief, reverent prayer to any gods who might be listening, and then he nudged the cloth barrier aside. It was ancient and crumbled at his touch. Chunks of it fell to the floor with a muffled puff of dust. He opened his eyes, and they grew wide with excitement. A strangled gasp caught in his throat as he saw the shelves of incense jars nestled in the alcove. He reached out for the nearest jar and lifted it. It was heavy, and the seal was still intact! He brought it to his chest and cradled it in his arms as if it were a newborn babe. It’s full! he thought, sagging to his knees and ignoring the agony in his right leg. He bent his head over the jar and rocked back and forth. “It’s full,” he sobbed. “It’s full.”
King Tyr vigorously scrubbed his left hand, silently counting each stroke of the sudsy brush until he reached twenty, and then he moved up to his wrist and worked the brush back and forth in little jerky motions all the way around the wrist until he had made twenty complete revolutions. The forearm was next, and this time he used long, flowing motions, repeating each swath twenty times before moving on to the next one. He was about to scrub his elbow when Captain Blanchard burst into his bath chamber. His hand paused in the middle of the eighteenth swath, and his fingers tightened convulsively around the brush until his knuckles were as white as the lather surrounding them. He scowled at Captain Blanchard—the fool knew better than to interrupt his bath!—and waited.
Captain Blanchard’s eyes stared over the king’s head and his arms were held stiffly at his sides as he stopped and assumed a perfect military stance. He removed his cap, folded it crisply, and held it lightly in his right hand. His uniform was almost immaculate, but there was a slight blemish on the third button and he had scuffed the tip of his right boot. King Tyr glared at the offending scuffmark and demanded, “What is it?”
“Sire,” Captain Blanchard said, bowing his head and dropping to one knee. “I beg forgiveness for this intrusion but a matter of some import demands your attention. There has been a—” he paused for a moment “—disturbance beneath the castle.”
King Tyr’s scowl softened somewhat. Disturbances beneath the castle were not really his concern. They happened on occasion, of course, but—
His eyes narrowed and he lifted them to study Captain Blanchard’s face. It was a lovely face, perfectly symmetrical with the cheeks angling down to a sharp nub of a dimpled chin. His moustache was trimmed with precision, as were his eyebrows. There was no hint of stubble on his chin, as if he had just shaved (perhaps he had?), and his wavy black hair framed his head like a cowl. His attention to such details was one of the reasons the king had promoted him to the position of Captain of the castle guard, where appearance was of utmost import. “What sort of disturbance,” he asked, his tone soft and deceptively steady as he turned his attention back to his forearm and restarted the swath at one.
“A loud one, Sire,” Captain Blanchard said without looking up. “It shook the foundations of the castle and echoed through the lower chambers. The servants in the affected section are refusing to return to their stations. They think a dragon is down there.”
A dragon! King Tyr thought, half-smiling to himself. What would the servants do if they knew there was a dragon down there? Not the kind of dragon they had in mind, of course, but one just as deadly—more deadly, perhaps, since its claws stretched to the far ends of the kingdom and beyond. It didn’t roar, though; the death it brought was as silent as a shadow’s kiss. His smile blossomed as he thought of that shadow and how it had helped maintain order in his land for centuries. He finished washing his forearm before he glanced back at Captain Blanchard, who was still standing at attention with his eyes staring at the wall above him. “You have investigated?” he asked.
Captain Blanchard nodded. “Yes, Sire,” he said. “I searched the chambers where the disturbance occurred and interrogated the servants at length, but all I have been able to determine with any measure of certainty is that a deafening roar issued up through the floor. The roar was accompanied by a violent jolt that was strong enough to knock dust from the ceilings and walls.”
King Tyr grimaced as he scrubbed at an imaginary spot of dirt inside the crease where his elbow folded up. “Have the servants clean up the dust at once,” he ordered. “We must not have an untidy castle.”
Captain Blanchard lowered his gaze to the floor and shuffled from one foot to the other. “They will not, Sire,” he said. “They are afraid the dragon beneath the castle will eat them. I have threatened punishment, but they refuse to go back there until the guard has investigated what lies beneath us.”
“I have ordered it,” King Tyr said, his tone offhandedly dismissive. “They must obey.”
Captain Blanchard nodded slowly, but he didn’t leave. While he stood there, King Tyr finished cleansing his elbow and started the long swaths that would wash his upper arm. He waited until he had finished with it and switched the brush to his other hand before he turned to face Captain Blanchard. The man’s lips were pressed tightly together in a most unseemly manner, and there was an unappealing runnel in his forehead that ruined the perfect symmetry of his face. “What is it, Captain?” he demanded.
Captain Blanchard gulped before he answered, “They are right, Sire. We need to investigate it. There may be old, forgotten tunnels down there.”
King Tyr turned away and said, “No.”
“I will tend to it myself,” King Tyr interrupted.
“Captain,” King Tyr said with the sharp tone of an order. “If there is nothing else, please tell Phillip that I require his services.”
Captain Blanchard looked as if he wanted to continue his protest—that runnel did not sit well on his face!—but he didn’t. Instead, he nodded sharply, bowed slightly, donned his little cap with a crisp, efficient move, twisted on his heel, and strode purposefully toward the door.
“And Captain,” King Tyr said as he reached the door. “Give the servants my assurance that it is perfectly safe for them to resume their duties. I expect the area to be spotless when I visit it later this afternoon.”
“Of course, Sire,” Captain Blanchard said. “Will that be all?”
“Rest easy, Captain,” the king replied in his most reassuring tone. “There is no need for you to be concerned about this disturbance. I am well aware of what lies beneath the castle, and there is nothing there that need concern you or the servants.”
“Yes, Sire,” Captain Blanchard said as he walked briskly out the door. When he was gone, King Tyr felt his own brow furrow and wondered how it affected his own symmetry. He almost rose from the tub to check the mirror, but if he expected to finish his bath on schedule, he couldn’t afford another distraction. He bent to the task of scrubbing his right arm and had reached the elbow when Phillip, his faithful new manservant, entered.
“Sire?” the young man asked. He was a prim little fellow, this son of Felix—who had served his father and himself for nearly forty years before growing too forgetful to be trusted. It was such an unfortunate task, and he regretted it as much as he regretted anything, but he couldn’t have Felix’s senile tongue chattering away the secrets he knew, could he? Besides, the old man had already groomed his son to take over for him.
“I have a task for you,” King Tyr said without looking up. “Send word to Rascal that I need to know what happened beneath the castle. He will know what I mean. When he arrives, notify me without delay. Wake me if necessary.”
“At once, Sire,” Phillip said as he bowed and turned away.
A dragon in the cellars! King Tyr thought as he lifted his left leg and began working the brush over his thigh. If they only knew….
Taro looked at the jar of incense sitting beside him and wondered how much of it he should use to trigger the vision. There had been shelves of the stuff in the little alcove, and that suggested they had used a lot of it. Or was it just stored there for a long time and used sparingly? He wished he knew the answer, but the instructions had been lost at the same time the recipe for the incense had been lost. At least this time, he wouldn’t have to use his own concoctions to try to induce a vision!
He laughed. Those concoctions had never brought a vision, but some of them had made him light-headed and giddy. Others had made him nauseous or given him a headache. One had put him to sleep for three days. How frantic he had been when he had realized he had missed those three sunrises! Most just produced foul-smelling smoke that burned his eyes. But this—he happily fondled the lid of the jar and ran his fingertips over the snake-like sigil engraved in its clay surface. It was that sigil that had told him what it was, and now, for the first time in his life, he would have proper incense, the kind that would facilitate a vision! He was certain of it. After all, he had had his first vision without the aid of any incense, hadn’t he? What would it be like with the incense?
He took out his knife and frowned. There was crud on it. That wouldn’t do at all! This was a special—a sacred—moment, and a dirty knife was anything but sacred. He folded over a part of his dingy cloak, spat on the knife’s blade a few times, and then rubbed vigorously at it until the worst of the caked on grit was gone. There wasn’t much he could do about the rust at the base of the hilt, so he made a brief, generic prayer to the gods to apologize for it. Then he turned to the incense jar and gently wedged the blade into the seal and wiggled it back and forth until the seal split and the lid popped up.
The stench! It was a potent, heady aroma that made him feel as if he had just drunk half a dozen mugs of ale in quick succession. But it wasn’t dizzying, and it didn’t leave him addle-minded like ale would have done. Instead, he suddenly saw everything around him with more clarity than he’d had in years. The worn threads of his cloak were crisp, the dust in the air sparkled when it caught the light, and the brazier didn’t blend into the floor like he thought it did; it had stumpy little legs. Even the air was crisper as he breathed it in. And the sounds!
He frowned. The shrine had rats? Why hadn’t he noticed them before?
Then, as if someone had reached in and pulled the incense from his lungs, everything settled back into its normal state of fuzziness and soft edges. But the memory of the sensations lingered, and it took him several seconds to regain his balance. When he did, the coals in the brazier were glowing softly, producing heat but little flame or smoke. It was time.
His hands were shaking as he reached into the incense jar. The incense was a fine, light brown powder with a yellowish overtone. I wonder what it’s made from, he thought as it seeped between his fingers. Then he paused. How much do I need? he asked himself. A little or a lot?
He glanced at the alcove. There were a lot of jars in it. Did that mean they used a lot of the incense each time they sought a vision? Or did they make a lot of it at one time and stored it there until it was needed? There were a lot of Seers back then, too, and that could mean there were a lot of Seers using only a little bit of incense at a time. No, that wasn’t it; visions were special, and there had been a lot of ritual around them. Rituals take time—at least, all the rituals he had seen—and that meant the incense had to last awhile when they used it. They probably threw the incense into the brazier a little at a time, letting the effects slowly build up. But he didn’t have any rituals to follow; they had been forgotten along with most of the rest of the Order’s history.
A little? he wondered, or a lot? He made a fist and lifted it. A lot, he decided, smiling to himself. It will work faster. He turned his fist over and brought it to him. He opened his fingers, and a tightly packed clump of incense crumbled and spread out over his palm like damp beach sand. He held it close to his nose and snorted. It was pungent, but there was almost none of disorientation he had felt when he had opened the jar. He lowered it, nodded to himself, and tossed the incense into the brazier.
The incense sizzled, flared to life as it struck the warm coals, and smoke billowed up from the brazier. The smoke didn’t get caught by the draft or spread out into a great cloud like it should have, nor did it dissipate like normal smoke would have done. Instead, it began to whirl, slowly tightening into thick tendrils that transformed into gray snakes with glowing red eyes. The snakes writhed, their bodies weaving around each other in hypnotic patters. Their eyes captured him, held him in place.
Taro’s eyes widened. The old Seer who had brought him into the order had told him about the snakes. It was part of a legend passed down from one Great Elder to the next, but he had never really believed it. Why should he? How could snakes bring him visions?
“You will know when the vision approaches by the redness in the snake’s eye,” his mentor had said. When Taro had asked his mentor what it had meant, the old man had shrugged and said, “No one remembers, but one day we’ll see a snake with red eyes and it will all make sense again.” A snake, he had said. One. Taro stared at the dancing hydra forming in front of him and the first inkling of fear crept over him. There must be a dozen of them! And more were already rising from the brazier’s coals.
I should have used less incense, Taro thought as the first snake reared back. He almost screamed as it struck his forehead and sent his mind reeling. Images were already beginning to form in his mind as the second snake struck.
Then a third….
Rascal was ugly. He never bathed. He smelled of sewage and vomit. His hair had never seen a comb. His clothes had been nibbled on by rats. He had an ungainly scar on his cheek. His left eye never quite closed and dripped goo. He was so asymmetrical. Even behind the screen Phillip had erected to block the unseemly view, King Tyr felt the grime clinging to him and craved to take a bath. But he couldn’t, not yet. He had to talk to Rascal, and Rascal had to smell and look the way he did to get the information King Tyr needed. Even a superficial cleansing would ruin him as an agent, so King Tyr tolerated it as best he could—and took a long bath after each meeting. The screen helped, but it couldn’t quiet his imagination—or the smell.
“Rascal,” he began, facing away from the screen and pinching his nose to stifle the foul stench. “There was an incident.”
“Oh, aye, Milord,” Rascal agreed. “A most unfortunate one at that!”
“Well, now, it’s difficult to say for certain on account I wasn’t there, you understand. But a whisper or two has fallen on these old ears. One of the gatekeepers, you know, has a loose tongue when he drinks a bit too much.”
“Never mind that,” King Tyr said. “What happened?”
“Well, there’s a hole down there where there weren’t one before.”
King Tyr frowned and waited for Rascal to continue, but when he didn’t, he snapped, “Spit it out, Rascal, or I’ll scrub you until you bleed.”
Rascal laughed, “Now, Sire, no need to make threats. That’s all I know. There’s a hole down there that weren’t there before. A big hole. One of the gatekeepers said he heard a roaring and the walls shook. His ears are still ringing, the way he tells it. By the time he got in there to see what’s what, there was a big hole and nobody around but Pug, and she was dead.”
Pug! King Tyr glared at the screen. If Pug is dead, then….
“Gruesome thing, that,” Rascal continued in a light-hearted tone. “It was as if she swallowed a caltrop and it exploded inside her. No sign of her master, though. He hasn’t been seen since before the hole that shouldn’t be there appeared.”
King Tyr began pacing in a tight, well-ordered square of six paces. His fingernail picked at a nonexistent piece of gristle stuck between his teeth. If Argyle was missing….
“It might have something to do with the wizard,” Rascal mused.
King Tyr stopped pacing and scowled at the screen. “What wizard?”
“Now there’s the funny thing,” Rascal said. “He’s part of one of your Banners.”
A Banner wizard? King Tyr asked. What could a Banner man have to do with Argyle? They’re men of honor! And Argyle—
“Which Banner?” the king demanded. “What business had he down there?”
“Now that I can’t say for sure,” Rascal replied. “It’s all conjecture, really. This wizard made a big fuss when he arrived the other night. He was more than half dead by the sound of it and demanded to be healed by Iscara. Called her by name, no less.”
“Iscara!” King Tyr hissed. She was a passable healer, but her real talents lay in more mischievous directions. What would a Banner wizard want with her?
“Thought that might interest you, Sire,” Rascal said. “They healed him up, and he spent some time at Willowby’s Inn. That’s the strange part. Willowby swears he never left, but he wasn’t there when he took him breakfast this morning. It was as if he had just disappeared. Probably did, being a wizard and all.”
“Why are you telling me this, Rascal?”
“Well, Sire, I’ve been thinking,” Rascal said. “No one saw this wizard leave, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t. A lot of people can sneak out of an inn like Willowby’s without being seen if they put their minds to it. But not many can sneak into the warrens beneath us without being seen. Maybe a wizard like him could do that. There’s the other thing, too.” Rascal fell silent, as if he were toying with the king’s patience.
“What other thing?” King Tyr demanded in his most imperious tone. Rascal always had useful insights, but the way he went about explaining them frustrated King Tyr. He much preferred his subjects to get to the point quickly, but Rascal always took the side streets and cautiously circled around the building before opening the door.
“Well, Sire,” Rascal said, lowering his voice. “It’s Typhus, you see. I heard that he’s left Tyrag and he let him go. It’s a curious thing, really. You know, how Typhus and Iscara—well, that’s just a rumor, really. What I do know is that when he escaped this time, she was the only one he spared, and when she went back to explain herself to him, she said something about this fellow named Angus having a key he wanted.”
Angus? He had the key? But—
“That’s the part that worries me, Sire,” Rascal continued. “This wizard I told you about? His name was Angus, too. It’s a funny name, and there can’t be many of them around. Don’t you think it a bit odd that he disappeared only a few hours before that hole sprouted up down there? It’s the kind of coincidence Onus Himself would find troubling.”
Angus? King Tyr wondered. One of my Banners? He had the key? What would he have done—
“What else?” the king demanded as he began pacing again. He took three steps to the left of the screen, each one placed with precision, pivoted until he was facing the opposite direction, and strode six equally-distant steps the other way.
“Nothing, Sire,” Rascal said. “At least, nothing that can explain the hole that shouldn’t be there but is.”
“All right,” King Tyr said, striding up to the screen. He took out a small pouch and tossed it over the screen. There was a quick movement, a soft jingle of coin, a rustle of cloth, and then silence. He reached out to move the screen aside, and Rascal was gone—but the smell remained.
King Tyr wrinkled up his nose and strode across the small room to open the door. Phillip was standing quietly outside, waiting for him. “Sire?”
“Walk with me,” King Tyr said, keeping his voice low as he moved quickly down the corridor. “My bath is ready?”
Phillip nodded at his side, “Of course, Sire. Shall I send for the cleaning wench?”
“Soon,” King Tyr said, striding briskly around a corner. “There are other tasks that need tending. I want you to send for Captain Blanchard. Tell him to bring the Banner Registry with him. Also, have him send his most trusted man to fetch the healer named Iscara. Tell him to be discreet; I wish to see her in my private chambers this evening. No one is to know of her presence.”
“Yes, Sire,” Phillip said, turning to leave.
“First,” King Tyr said, effectively stopping him in his tracks. “I want to show you something.”
“Of course, Sire,” Phillip said as he rejoined him.
They walked briskly and in silence through several corridors until the king’s pace slowed and he stopped in front of a painting of a young woman with strawberry blonde curls draped over her shapely shoulders. Her blossoming womanhood whispered out from the girlish figure, and a playful, sinister smile toyed at the edge of her lips. Her gown was a rich purple with powder blue frills, and her hands were held behind her as if she were hiding something from the artist. It was a lovely rendition of Grayle, a memorial to her after she had died—or so everyone believed. He had encouraged that belief, even though he knew she was very much alive, trapped in Argyle’s form. But if she had the key….
“This painting,” King Tyr began, “conceals a door. Beyond that door is a room. It was Grayle’s.” He paused and reached out to touch the ruddy cheek of the painting. “What did your father tell you about her?”
Phillip looked up and down the corridor and then leaned in to whisper, “I know who she is—and where she is.”
King Tyr nodded. “Good,” he said as he traced the fine line of her jaw and whispered, “Grayle, your king seeks entry.”
The painting shimmered and dissolved under his fingertips, revealing a heavy wooden door. King Tyr lifted the door latch, and the door opened inward. A musty burst of stale air puffed out, and King Tyr lifted his sleeve to cover his nose before gesturing Phillip inside. “The mirror,” he said through the cloth. “Press the third stud from the top right, then the seventh stud down on the left. Then press both of the middle studs at the same time.”
Phillip made his way across the dusty, cobwebbed room and did as instructed. A moment later, the mirror pivoted toward him, revealing a dark, narrow stairwell leading down. He took a step inside, but King Tyr called, “Not now,” and gestured for him to return. Once he was back in the hallway, King Tyr pulled the door closed and said, “Farewell, Grayle.” The painting coalesced to stand guard once more. “It’s a simple illusion,” he muttered. “Aside from the wizard who spun it and myself, you are the only one who knows the words of entry.”
“I shall guard them with my life,” Phillip said.
King Tyr shrugged. “It is of no import at the moment,” he said, reaching up to caress her cheek again. “Grayle, your king seeks entry,” he said, and the painting disappeared again. “While I bathe, I want you to supervise the cleansing of this room. Be thorough.”
“Of course, Sire,” Phillip said. “I will send for the servants at once.” He turned to comply, but King Tyr put his hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“Phillip,” he said. “No one is to know of the words of entry or the mirror’s secret. After the others have finished cleansing this room, send them away and clean the passage beyond the mirror yourself. You will need six torches to light the way.” He paused and lowered his hand. “When you finish—or if you find Grayle—attend me at once.”
“Yes, Sire,” Phillip said. “Will there be anything else?”
King Tyr lowered his hand and said, “Close the mirror before you go. It will click when it locks into place.” He turned away and offhandedly added, “It wouldn’t do to have to replace the cleaning wenches.
King Tyr sighed as he walked quickly to his bathing chamber. He had half-hoped to see Grayle prancing around in her chambers like she had done so often when she was still living in them, but she hadn’t come up through the secret tunnel. But then, he wouldn’t have either, with all the dust and cobwebs in it. He hurried more quickly down the corridor and brushed imaginary cobwebs from his sleeve. At least his bath was ready.
Taro lifted his cheek off the cold stone floor and winced as a sharp pain shot out from his neck, stabbed into his right shoulder, and made it all the way to the elbow before stopping. He eased onto his back and repositioned his head until the pain eased to a dull throb, and then lay still and stared at what was left of the ceiling. But he didn’t see the ceiling; he saw a young man in black robes. They were nice robes—silk?—and he wore them like a second skin. No, that didn’t make any sense; wizard’s robes didn’t fit that snugly. They billowed out in winds and hung loose about them when it was calm. And yet, there was something about the way the robes flowed around him as he walked into the fire that made it look like they were clinging to him. Why was he walking into the fire, anyway? That was a stupid thing to do. Taro would have hobbled away from it as fast as he could. But this wizard—
Who is he? Taro wondered, studying the man’s profile. It was a remarkably clear profile, considering how bad his eyes were getting. The wizard—there was no doubt of that now—lifted his thin arms and fiddled with things Taro couldn’t see. He was a bit on the tall side and quite thin, almost gaunt, as if he hadn’t eaten in some time. His shaggy black hair fluttered behind him as if it had been caught in a gust of heat, but he ignored it. Why didn’t it catch on fire? His scruffy black beard was desperate for attention, and beneath it, his jawline was tight and his lips were pressed together. There was a distant, intense cast to his dark blue eyes, as if he were squinting at something obscured by the flames. His hands whirled around each other at a remarkable speed, the fingers entwining and parting with knuckles bent and twisted, his fingertips flicking as if he were playing a tricky tune on a lute. No, two lutes at once. Magic, Taro thought, scowling at the remnants of the ceiling as the vision began to fade.
Don’t go! Taro pleaded, trying to memorize the rest of the scene—too late. He had spent so long focusing on the wizard that he had neglected the mountains. How was he supposed to know where the wizard was without that clue? He tried to force the image back into his awareness, but it refused to comply. He sighed. At least he would recognize the wizard when he saw him—if he saw him. It had taken thirty years for his first vision to be fulfilled, and he didn’t have another thirty years left in him. Even five was stretching it quite a bit. So where—
Taro cringed as another image flashed to life as if it was being painted on the ceiling. He was high above a city and looking down into its bowels. It was a compact city, with the houses tightly packed and the streets forming a perfect grid pattern. At its center was a tall tower—
A Wizards’ School! Taro thought, sucking in a sharp breath. The wizard has to be there! But which school is it? He blinked and took a deep breath. All the Wizards’ Schools were in cities, and there weren’t very many of them. The walls! he thought, excitedly. They were high walls with ramps and stairs leading down into the city. They were much higher than any he had ever seen, so that ruled out all of the cities in the Western Kingdoms. And beyond the wall in front of him was the silhouette of a mountain, and that ruled out most of the others. The grid pattern was meticulous, and that meant it was in Tyr.
“Hellsbreath!” he chortled. “That has to be Hellsbreath!” He blinked, trying to get a sense of the layout of the city, but the vision drew his attention back to the Wizards’ School’s spire as if he were running up to it. The top of the spire was encircled by a walkway, and the vision zoomed in on it at a dizzying speed. A wizard—not the one he sought—was staring up at the sky as if it were the most beautiful woman in all the Western Kingdoms. Taro watched him watching the sky for a long time, growing more and more bored as the seconds of stillness turned into minutes of stillness. By the time the wizard moved—a sudden, sharp jerk of his head—Taro was feeling drowsy. Then the wizard pointed and shouted something the vision didn’t capture. Even if it had, it would have been drowned out by the deafening squeal of a dying pig. At least, that’s the closest sound he could think of to match the infernal noise that erupted in his head and pushed away his drowsiness.
His vision expanded, and he saw doors opening on the spire. Other wizards flowed out of the doors like soldier ants defending an anthill under attack. In less than a minute, the walkway was crowded with wizards staring and pointing into the distance. A few of them were flying. They must have been talking excitedly, based on how they were waving their arms about, but Taro couldn’t hear what they were saying because it was taking too long for the pig to die. He wasn’t sure it would matter, anyway. Then a wizard in black robes stepped out of the spire, and Taro focused his attention on him. It’s him! he thought, dismissing the other wizards from his awareness. He wasn’t gaunt in this vision—Before? he wondered. After?—and his beard and hair were immaculately trimmed. It was a stark contrast to the afterimage of the other vision, and that troubled him. So did the ashen expression that settled onto his face as he stared at what the other wizards were staring at but Taro couldn’t see.
I wonder what’s troubling him? Taro thought as the vision dissolved into the stones of the ceiling. Then the ceiling began to glow orange-red, slowly melting into rivulets of molten rock tracing the cracks along its length. Bits of ash and stone began to shoot out from those, and Taro desperately rolled onto his side and lifted his arm to cover his head. Even the sharp, unrelenting pain in his neck and arm didn’t stop him as he scrambled to his hands and knees and crawled away from the melting ceiling. The molten rock followed him, and he winced as it spattered on the ground next to him. Then he was huddled up against the wall with his arms protecting his face. His eyes were closed, and still he saw the lava burbling out of the ground around him. The mountains were exploding!
Mountains? Taro thought through his terror. There aren’t any mountains along this coast. He opened his eyes a slit. The rivers of lava were still there, but there wasn’t any heat emanating from them. He lowered his arms, but he couldn’t see the room he was in; all around him was an immense field of lava bubbling up from the ground. Another vision! he realized, drawing up his good left knee and hugging it. But what does it mean?
Then he saw it. Someone was flying over the lava as if he were a bird skimming across the ocean looking for fish. His back was to him, but there was no mistaking that black robe and tall, thin figure. What is he doing there? Taro wondered, glancing around. Where is it, anyway? He shook his head. There was no way for him to know. Yet. Damned visions! he thought in frustration. Why couldn’t they make sense before what they depict has happened?
Taro huddled against the wall, shuddering as image after image passed through his mind, each one was more perplexing than the last. He didn’t understand any of them, but he did his best to memorize what details he could of them while the images were still clear. By the time the last image faded away, he was certain of only two things: He needed to find that wizard before it was too late, and the place to look for him was Hellsbreath. But how would he get there?
“Captain Blanchard has arrived, Sire,” Phillip said as he entered the king’s bathing chamber.
“Good,” King Tyr said as he picked up the third towel. The first towel had been for his hair, and the second for his left arm. This one was for his right arm, and when he finished rubbing it five times, he refolded the towel and stacked it neatly on the growing pile to his left. As he reached to the right for the fourth towel, he said, “Fetch my dinner robe.”
While Phillip hurried to comply, the king used the last five towels to dry off each leg, his back, his front, and his hair for a second time. By the time he had finished, Phillip had the gown ready and the king backed into its arms and let Phillip drape it over his shoulders. As he tied the sash with an exacting, firm knot, he said, “Bring Captain Blanchard into my study. Have him check the registry for a Banner wizard named Angus. I will join him shortly.” He needed to put his hair in order before he could focus on the business at hand.
Twenty minutes later he strode into his study and frowned at Captain Blanchard. The chair he was sitting on was slightly askew, and he had moved the lamp. He was hunched over a book and, judging by his scrunched up eyes and the movements of his lips, was reading it. By the time he realized the king had arrived, King Tyr was already starting to sit down.
“Sire!” Captain Blanchard said as he leapt to his feet, knocking over his chair. In his hurry to pick it up, he bumped up against the table and dislodged it from its proper place. The lamp shook and tilted, but it had a wide, weighted base that kept it from falling over. King Tyr reached out to steady it anyway, and then slowly rose to his feet.
“Captain,” King Tyr said as he adjusted the position of the table. “Do be careful.” By the time he was satisfied with the table, Captain Blanchard had the chair held out in front of him, as if it were an offering of some sort. King Tyr closed his eyes and frowned. “Set it down, Captain.”
“Sire,” Captain Blanchard said, gently replacing the chair on his side of the table. It was a bit off in its position, but that always happened when he had guests. He had even grown somewhat accustomed to waiting until his guests had left before he corrected it. It was difficult, but normally his guests had something important to tell him, and he would focus on that as best he could. But it was easier when someone was sitting in the chair, so he gestured for Captain Blanchard to sit. “Thank you, Sire,” Captain Blanchard said as he pulled the chair out and maneuvered himself into position.
Captain Blanchard had been fully trained, of course, but even so, he was a quarter inch off-center, but the king nudged him over with a finger until he was almost in the precise spot for a proper dialogue. Then the king looked down at the Banner Registry and recoiled back into his seat, almost knocking it over in his effort to put distance between himself and the filthy, disordered tome. Splotches of ink had been dribbled on the page. The handwriting was horrendously inconsistent. The ink had faded with age near the top of the page and was strikingly bold and fresh at the bottom. It had no uniformity at all! “What is this?” he demanded, fighting to keep from standing. “I asked for the Banner Registry.”
“Yes, Sire,” Captain Blanchard said. “This is it. I collected it from the gate, myself, not more than an hour ago.”
King Tyr’s lips pressed together and he felt his eyebrows lower like they always did when he was peeved. “I had intended for you to bring my copy,” he said through thinly parted lips. His copy was a much more precise version of the daily entries, which were collected at the end of the week and transcribed by a meticulous hand whose exacting penmanship was almost a form of art in its own right.
“Yes, Sire,” Captain Blanchard said. “I had intended to do so but remembered hearing about a Banner wizard named Angus only yesterday. One of my men had reported that such a wizard had arrived at the city’s western gates but two nights ago. He was near death, and demanded that they take him to a healer named Iscara. Since you wished for me to have this same healer brought to you, I thought it best to bring the Banner registry from the gate. Your copy will not be updated for three more days and did not include the relevant entry.”
“I see,” King Tyr said, trying to force the tenseness from his shoulders. “And what are they using in its stead?” he asked.
Captain Blanchard’s mouth opened and closed, once, before he replied, “I had not thought to ask, Sire. Surely they have something for when this is taken to be copied by your scribe?”
King Tyr frowned and tried to set it aside, but the glaring scrawl screamed at him. It must be cleaned up, but if he acted on that impulse, the entry could be lost entirely! Instead, he lowered his hands to his lap and clenched them tightly together. “What does it say?” he asked, fixing his eyes on Captain Blanchard’s neatly trimmed hair. The symmetry and precision was comforting, but it did little to ease the clenching of his hands.
Captain Blanchard pointed at the page and said, “This fellow Angus is the wizard for The Banner of the Wounded Hand. That’s Hobart’s Banner. I served with him in The Borderlands for a time. He’s a giant of a man, and as capable with a sword as any I’ve ever seen. But he sneezes a lot. Having him at your side is worth a dozen other soldiers at your back. He—”
“Yes, yes. He’s a marvelous fighter. What of the wizard?”
Captain Blanchard gulped and nodded. “Of course, Sire,” he apologized. “The wizard Angus joined his Banner last autumn after Teffles had been killed by wolves. Teffles was only with the Banner for a short time, as a replacement for old Ribaldo when he died. Ribaldo was a fine old wizard who could drink with the best of them. You know, it’s a bit funny that Hobart didn’t kick Angus out of his Banner after he put that hole in Hellsbreath’s wall. I would have. It must have cost the Banner dearly to get him out of the dungeon, and the injunction was pretty severe. He must be a very powerful wizard, indeed, but you’d expect that from someone trained by Voltari.”
King Tyr’s eyes widened and his nostrils flared as he heard this, but he didn’t interrupt Captain Blanchard. The man didn’t know about the mysterious hole suddenly appearing in Argyle’s warren, and he wasn’t about to tell him. And Voltari! He almost shook his head as he recalled his grandfather’s stories about that foul wizard, stories Captain Blanchard did not need to know.
“Now,” Captain Blanchard continued, “the description of Angus recorded at the time he joined the Banner is somewhat different from the description recorded here two nights ago, but his injuries could account for some of the discrepancies and the bad lighting for the rest. It is difficult to determine a man’s height in torchlight when he’s lying on a stretcher—that sort of thing. The eye color, though, is another matter. How a man can go from having light blue, almost silver-gray eyes to dark blue eyes is beyond me, but it could just be how the scribes saw the same thing differently. I have a man in my unit who can’t see the difference between red and green, and—”
“The wizard?” King Tyr interrupted.
Captain Blanchard nodded again. “Yes, Sire, but this is important. The men at the gate weren’t sure about him being the wizard described in the Registry. He was a little different in size and shape, his hair and eye color seemed a bit off—that kind of thing. Since there weren’t any others from his Banner with him, they weren’t sure what to do. But then Angus collapsed and the Lieutenant in charge decided it was better to risk being wrong about who he was than to treat him as if he wasn’t who he was. So he brought this Angus into the city and took him to Iscara for healing, even though it was a strange request. We have plenty of our own healers, and Banner men are entitled to their assistance, as you well know, but he insisted on being taken to her. It was only after my man had agreed to it that this Angus fellow used an old pass phrase about the fishmen being nearby. Hobart’s Banner had encountered a small group of them in the mountains west of Hellsbreath just before winter, and Angus thinks they were headed to the Lake of Scales. I’ve already sent word to Commander Garrett in Hellsbreath to check that out.”
King Tyr felt his face begin to flush at the mention of fishmen, but he clamped down his teeth to keep from interrupting again. Captain Blanchard was right: this was becoming a very interesting distraction.
“Now,” Captain Blanchard continued. “My man took him to Iscara’s and stayed there while she and a few other healers worked on him. He’s a good soldier, and he kept an eye on everything they were doing. He didn’t know at the time what Angus meant about the fishmen, and he thought it might be a more immediate threat. You know how those rumors about The Borderlands are circulating. Men going missing and all. Well, he stuck around to find out what he knew—which wasn’t much, by the way. He hadn’t seen the fishmen; he had only overheard something that led him to think they were at the Lake of Scales. But it does make sense—if you don’t think overmuch about how they might have gotten there without being seen by our patrols.” He paused for a moment and then shook his head.
“Well, this Angus should have had his leg cut off—that’s what our healers would have done—but Iscara and the other healers grew him a new one. That’s what my man said they did, and I believe him. He’s not the sort of man who would make something like that up. He hasn’t the imagination for it. Now, Angus was unconscious for a long time while they healed him, and afterward, but something odd happened. Iscara had another patient—at least, she said he was a patient—who was skulking about her shop that made my man uneasy. He was all wrapped up with bandages that covered his face and hands, and he walked as softly as a ghost and moved like a cat. That bothered my man, but as long as this other fellow didn’t do more than raise his hackles, he had more important things to do. It’s too bad that he didn’t know about the patrol that had fought with a man wrapped in bandages like that, or he would have dealt with him differently. But that particular incident hadn’t been circulated through the ranks, yet. I only just put the two together myself, and if it is your desire, I can ask Iscara about it.”
A man wrapped in bandages hiding at Iscara’s? One that walks as softly as a ghost? There’s only one man it could be: Typhus. “No, Captain,” the king said. “You need not trouble yourself with the matter. I will discuss it with her myself this evening.”
Captain Blanchard nodded. “Of course, Sire,” he said. “The man in bandages seemed to know Angus—at least, something happened between them that made the man in bandages scream in horror and collapse into unconsciousness. Iscara said the disease that afflicted the man gave him fainting spells, but my man didn’t believe her. He didn’t pursue it, though; he hadn’t talked to Angus yet.”
King Tyr waited for Captain Blanchard to continue, but when it was clear he wasn’t going to, he asked, “And when your man talked to Angus, what did he find out?”
“Oh,” Captain Blanchard replied. “Aside from his suspicions about where the fishmen are, not much. It was enough at the time for him to know that it was just another rumor, and Angus agreed to talk to him at length once he had had a chance to recover. Based on the injuries they saw, he thought it would take a few days, even with the healing.”
“Very well,” King Tyr said, keeping his eyes fixed on the symmetry of Captain Blanchard’s brow. “Return the Banner Registry to the gate and track down this Angus. He may have spent last night in Willowby’s Inn. Start there. I would like very much to talk with him about these fishmen. We have made little headway on locating them, and if he knows something more about where they may be, I want to hear it from him.” He stood up, and Captain Blanchard gathered up the Banner Registry, bowed, and turned away.
King Tyr moved to reposition the chairs, and just before Captain Blanchard reached the study door, he stopped him. “Oh, and Captain,” he said, “send word throughout the kingdom. If Angus, wizard of the Banner of the Wounded Hand, arrives in any outpost or city, he is to be restricted to that location and I am to be told at once of his arrival. Since he is a wizard of some note, his spells are to be temporarily confiscated, and if it becomes necessary to arrest him, they have leave to do so. Also, call up the Banner of the Wounded Hand for special duty. I may have use of them in the near future.”
“Yes, Sire,” Captain Blanchard replied. “What orders shall I give them?”
King Tyr frowned. He didn’t know what he was going to do with them yet. But if Angus was responsible for what happened beneath the castle, if he had done something to Grayle…. “Have them wait for further instruction,” he said. “That is all.” Pug is dead, he thought. Is Grayle? I may not be able to act openly to avenge what has happened to her, but surely there is some task I could assign to them that would lead to Angus’s death? A jaunt into The Borderlands, perhaps? The missing soldiers aren’t just a rumor; something is happening there, and I want to know what it is. If only it was just the fishmen!
He sighed and moved to the ewer he kept next to the door for visitors to use to wash their hands. There were towels next to it, and he dipped the corner of one into the ewer. Then he turned to his table. It needed a good scrubbing….
Visions need riddles, Taro thought as he hobbled down the road. No, visions are riddles. How can I explain them to others? He sighed. He had tried to explain the visions to the villagers who knew him, but they had looked at him as if he had finally lost his wits, even though he had just found them again. He couldn’t blame them, though, could he? “I have to find a wizard,” he told them, his voice excited and his eyes wide. “He has a black robe and walks through fire. He plays two invisible lutes at the same time, and they make an awful screech, like pigs being butchered. No, that was what happened at the Wizards’ School. His lutes were silent, and….”
He would have thought himself crazy if he hadn’t had the visions. In a way, it was good that they thought him crazy, since they had given him some coins and food to help him along when he finally told them he was leaving for Hellsbreath. He accepted their gifts graciously, as if they were donations to the Order instead of alms to a raggedy, crazy old man. And those were the villagers who knew him. The next village over was less kind, even though they had heard of the strange old man at the shrine. It was worse at the next one, and he had finally given up on trying to explain his mission to them—and it was a mission! He had been granted these visions by the gods, and he was going to see them through! But he needed a better way to relay the content of the visions; one that wouldn’t leave him sounding like his mind had fled from him.
What did the Seers of old do? he wondered. Nothing, he answered. The people trusted the Order back then—and there were Elders to guide initiates through their visions to help them understand what they meant. Maybe I ought to find my mentor? He shook his head. No time. I have to reach Hellsbreath. He hobbled forward, his walking stick tapping out a rhythm on the cobblestones. They were interesting cobblestones, large, alternating slabs of colored rock that formed a grid pattern, like the streets of Hellsbreath. Most of them were gray and white, but every now and then there was a stretch of green and white or black and white or green and gray or black and gray. No doubt each little king had their own color preference. He smiled and rattled off a playful verse:
There once was a king with a sword
who ruled over all with his word
and by writ and decree
he demanded there’d be
no gray cobblestones on his road!
He chuckled and shook his head. It was a pointless verse, but it helped him to pass the time as he plodded forward. He probably had heard it somewhere on his travels before reaching the shrine. Some bard or other must have sung it as a quip between songs? Yes, it had to be something like that.
He frowned and listened to the tapping of his walking stick. It had a simple melody, one that was slow and ponderous. It was almost ominous, like the kind of omens he had heard diviners give. But the diviners’ omens were always vague, pompous warnings—or vague, hopeful tidings. It always sounded to him like the diviners were making things up to suit their audience, but what did he know? Maybe their magic only gave hints of the future? Maybe all they got were vague impressions? But when they spoke of those impressions, they sounded so important. Taro knew it was only the ritual and their voice that made them seem that way, since what the diviners said always seemed like empty words to him. Peasants ate it up like it was their daily gruel. “The gods will look upon you with favor this spring!” Really? What kind of favor? Which gods? He really didn’t care, of course, but if that was all they could see, their divination spells weren’t worth much. Now, he had seen visions! And—
And they were vague. Oh, they had details, all right—mountains, fires, wizards, volcanoes—but what did they mean? What connected them together? He was no better than the diviners. Why couldn’t he provide them with more than that? Something concrete and specific? But did he need to do that? All he really wanted from them was a bit of food and a room for the night, just enough to get to the next village, to get a little closer to Hellsbreath. What if he told them vague stories that reeked of doom and destruction, like the diviners did? What if he told them of a savior who struggled mightily against it and—
And what? It looked like the wizard was doing something, but there was no way for him to know what it was. Maybe he was making the fire instead of trying to put it out? Damned vision! Why did it have to be so disconnected? If only—
Disconnected? What if that was a good thing? After all, Taro could turn him into a monster destroying thousands of lives with his lava-spewing magic or turn him into a savior fighting against that monster. Which story would be better? Which one would lead to a comfortable room and a good meal? Which one would get him a wagon ride to the next village?
A stoic rhythm, a somber rhythm….
“A DAY will COME with—” With what? A wizard playing tricks? He began to hum along with the tapping of his walking stick, trying to work the rhythm into his mind. There was a song there, waiting for him to find it….
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