Book 3: The Golden Key (Excerpt)

Cover by Linda Foegen of American Book Design Copyright 2014

Cover by Linda Foegen of American Book Design Copyright 2014

Description: The Banner of the Wounded Hand is in disarray. Giorge has succumbed to the curse and his body has disappeared. Angus and Typhus were carried away by Sardach and are missing. Hobart and Ortis are running low on supplies. Will they find Angus before they have to return to civilization? Or will they have to leave him behind?

Note:  This book relies heavily upon the reader being familiar with the first two books in the series.

Here is the prologue of the book:

Prologue

1

Iscara was a healer by default. Her mother was a healer. Her grandmother had been a healer. Her sisters were healers. Even her cousin Niddy was a healer, and she was an idiot. She couldn’t even tie the laces of her bodice, but she had a knack for tweaking the magic within people back into alignment when it was needed. Iscara’s father hadn’t been a healer, though; he had married into the family. Before that, he had been a soldier, and she had listened with avid, glowing admiration while he told his blood-soaked stories about the Fishmen Incursions. She loved those stories and longed to be a soldier hacking and slashing the fishmen to pieces. But she wasn’t; she was a healer, and she was good at it—her mother and grandmother had seen to that. But she didn’t like being a healer.

She sighed and walked down the corridor at a brisk pace. It was a gloomy hallway, lit only by the dim glow of small, half-consumed candles spaced too far apart. The air was full of their warm, smoky stench, which had nowhere else to go. Her footfalls echoed softly off the corridor walls, and at the end of it was Argyle’s door. She smiled as she hurried up to it, and her heart tingled with excitement as she approached the quaint little knocker he used. It was the forked tongue of a protruding snake’s head, and she had to slip her hand into its gaping maw to reach it. It was a beautifully crafted mechanism carved from gray granite that melted into the stone of the door to give the impression that it was a snake sidling out of its lair to strike at an unsuspecting prey. There were simpler ways to administer the poison she had sold to him, but Argyle was much too elegant for those. He had style.

She tickled the forked tongue to life until the snake’s mouth snuggled down around her arm. A moment later, a resonant clang reverberated through the corridor like a shield carelessly dropped on a stone floor and allowed to settle on its own. Her smile broadened until her teeth peeked out between her lips, and then Argyle’s sonorous monotone filled the corridor like the ragged remnants of a used cocoon. She mouthed the words as they descended upon her, her lips fitting into each one with mock precision, “Who calls upon me?”

She waited until the snake’s cold, hard fangs tightened against her skin and threatened to draw blood before she responded. The poison the fangs carried didn’t worry her—she had the antidote in her bag—and any injury the fangs did to her arm could easily be repaired. Not for the first time, she wondered what it would be like to be one of the visitors Argyle didn’t want to see, but she didn’t have time to find out now. His summons had been urgent.

“Iscara,” she purred, her voice husky, the sounds dripping from her tongue like sweat pooling together to form the name. A moment later—far more quickly than usual, and without the menacing red glow in its eyes—the snake released its grip on her arm and the door slid aside. Her smile slipped from her lips as they flattened and pressed together, and she almost frowned as she hurried past the door as soon as the opening was wide enough for her to squeeze through. Argyle wouldn’t set aside his dramatic flair unless it was very urgent, and when that urgency concerned Iscara, it meant someone important to him was in dire need of a healer, and not—

She almost fell as she ran into one of Argyle’s lackeys, but he held on to her just long enough for her to maintain her balance. He had been waiting inside the archway that led into Argyle’s meeting room, and once she was steady on her feet again, he said, his tone impatient, “This way. Quickly!” It was the lackey with the crooked knife that looked like a crescent moon had been captured and given a handle, and she thought of him as Crooked Knife because of it. It was simpler than remembering his name, but she never called him that to his face. She never called him by name, either; she couldn’t remember it. Crooked Knife took hold of her elbow and half-tugged, half-guided her along the inner wall and into a shadowy corner.

Where’s Argyle? she thought as the frown finally settled into place. Is he injured? The thought troubled her greatly; with all the precautions Argyle had implement to preserve his life, it would take a very elaborate plan to get close enough—

Crooked Knife pressed against a stone block set in the wall, and it eased back and clicked into place. A moment later, a door-sized portion of the wall sprang outward a few inches. He pulled on its edge to open it and then hurriedly pushed her into the narrow corridor beyond. It was barely wide enough for both of them to scurry through it side by side, and the only light was coming from a torch at the far end of the corridor where it intersected another narrow corridor that ran perpendicular to the first.

Iscara knew about Argyle’s secret passages, but this one was different from the others she had seen. It wasn’t a huge gaping hole like the ones Argyle used, and it was longer. Most of the other corridors went only a short distance before ending in a sealed room where the torture would take place. She thought of them as her playrooms, and she had thought that was why he had sent for her. As they hurried up to the corner, her shoulders sagged a bit more; she had so hoped Argyle hadn’t wanted her to heal someone…

Crooked Knife paused to lift the torch from its sconce, turned to her, and said, “Step where I do. Don’t deviate more than a few inches from the path I take.”

Iscara nodded. It wasn’t the first time one of Argyle’s lackeys had told her something like that, and she knew better than to ignore the advice. She had seen the wounds of those who hadn’t listened to it—or hadn’t received it.

Crooked Knife stepped along the wall for several feet, and then crossed at an angle to the opposite wall. He only took a few steps along that wall before moving to the center of the corridor and running to the end. The tunnel split again, and he turned left and ran down the center until he was nearly to the end before nestling up against the left wall. The corridor ended at a door, but he ignored it. Instead, he put the torch in a sconce on the wall and turned the sconce to the right until the torch was pointed at the end of the corridor. A moment later, a panel slid open beside the sconce, and he ushered her into the small room beyond.

It was a cozy little room with a brazier of coals set on the floor next to a table. There were two chairs beside it, and another lackey—the one with pointed toes who always sneered lasciviously at her—sat in one of them, his thin little knife nudging around half-eaten food on a copper platter. She would have smiled at him but Crooked Knife—perhaps she should try to remember his name sometime, but it seemed so unimportant— firmly gripped her arm and led her through a small, open doorway that led to a brightly lit bedroom.

She squinted against the sudden brilliance of a dozen candles, but Crooked Knife gave her no time to adjust to them as he urged her toward a large bed nestled in the far corner. Someone lay cuddled in among the vibrant green coverlets as if they were wearing a shroud, and she half-expected it to be Argyle, but the man on the bed was much too small to be him. Who could it be, then?

They came to a stop at the edge of the bed, and Crooked Knife finally let go of her arm. He had squeezed it too tightly, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her react to the pain he had caused. Instead, she turned to the man drenched in the contours of the coverlet. His shape seemed familiar to her.

“Heal him,” Crooked Knife demanded, pointing at the man. “Quickly!”

Iscara leaned forward and gently pulled away the coverlet. Her eyes widened, and she gasped. “Typhus?” she muttered. But it couldn’t be Typhus; Fanzool had said he was dead. But it looked—

She shook her head. It didn’t matter if it was Typhus or not; Argyle wanted him healed—and quickly. After that….

She scowled and put her hand on the man’s forehead and brusquely nudged the dark brown hair away from the eyes. They were closed, but she knew if she opened them, they would be two pale gray icebergs whose depths were filled with such coldness that they would never thaw—not even for her. Her fingertips slid down his cheek to the long scar that traced a path from his ear to his collarbone and idly wondered why Typhus had never let her heal that scar.

What would Argyle do to me if I refused to heal him? she wondered. She shook her head and thrust the thought away. She knew what Argyle was capable of—what she had done for him—and it would not be wise to find out. Perhaps after Argyle was done with him, he would give Typhus to her as payment? She almost smiled at the thought, but then she remembered what Argyle would do if she failed in her healing?

She lifted the coverlet from the rest of Typhus’s body and set her bag on the bed beside his head. It looked like a small bag, not much larger than a coin purse, but it was wrought from magic and its interior was a conduit to the storage room containing her healing supplies. Herbs, bandages, needle and thread, splints, and anything else she might need was within easy reach when she put her hand into it. But what would she need?

She concentrated on the magic within her patient, and her eyes were drawn to his chest. A nearly solid patch of dark red, almost black energy throbbed around his heart. Her brow furrowed as she studied it. It didn’t belong there, and it wasn’t connected to the rest of the magic in Typhus. It was as if something else was inside him, keeping the heart beating a slow, steady rhythm. But what—

Sardach? she thought suddenly. Yes. Sardach is with him. Argyle had sent Sardach with Fanzool to find him. She frowned and turned her attention away from the thing encasing Typhus’s heart. If Sardach were inside him, his injuries had to be severe. Sardach would never enter someone without it being a life-threatening situation, and then only if Argyle had commanded it. She had only seen it once before, and that—

She shook her head to clear it, and then took a deep, calming breath. She needed to focus, and she needed to do it now. Sardach had already been inside Typhus for too long, and the foul creature couldn’t sustain Typhus forever. It was time for her to get to work. She concentrated on the magic within her and held her hand out over his chest. She frowned; there was something wrong with the magic in Typhus, something besides the presence of Sardach, something besides the injuries he had sustained. She couldn’t tell what that thing was, and that confused her. She was a healer, and healers had a knack for recognizing the discord in the magic of others and then identifying the cause of that discord. It was how healers knew what treatment was needed. But here, the magic of Typhus was in a state of torment she had never experienced before, and she couldn’t find the cause.

“What is this?” she muttered, absorbed in the confusing array of threads and wondering what it meant. She shook her head again and thought, I can’t treat what I don’t understand. There’s no point dwelling on it when there are other injuries I can treat. She turned to those injuries and made a quick assessment of them. The ribs were crushed and one of them had punctured through the wall of the heart. The lungs…

She pursed her lips and shook her head. If it weren’t for Sardach, Typhus would be dead.

It would be a delicate, difficult healing, even without the confusion in Typhus’s magic, and with it?

“Get out,” Iscara said without turning.

Crooked Knife didn’t move. “Argyle—”

Iscara turned and glared at him. “Get out,” she repeated, her voice resolute, “and stay out. Stand guard to make sure there are no disruptions. None. Not even Argyle.” Without waiting for a response, Iscara turned back to her patient and opened her bag.

2

A chill, damp darkness enveloped him. A dull, musty odor swarmed around in the dust like spider legs dancing on his skin. Giorge lifted his left hand, and it banged against a wall. He tried the right arm, but it was squeezed up against the wall and the sling made it difficult to move in the confined space. He leaned backward, then forward, but no matter how he shifted his position, the walls remained but an inch or two away, as if they had been drawn in from the darkness and solidified into a harsh, unrepentant cocoon.

Where am I?

He blinked, and his eyelids brushed lightly across the surface of his eyes. Eyes? He frowned; these were his eyes, not the cold stone of the Viper’s Eyes, but he still couldn’t see. Was he blind again? More blind? Without the Viper’s Eyes, he couldn’t even see the magic around him anymore.

He tilted his leg to press his knee against the wall in front of him. It was hard, smooth, and curved slightly outward. As it rose from the floor, it tapered around his leg as if it had been molded to fit his leg perfectly, with barely enough room for him to wiggle around a little bit. He tried the other leg and found the same thing. It even had nodule-like indentations for his kneecaps.

He exhaled as much air from his lungs as he could and wondered how long he could survive on what little air there was in the small, enclosed space. Minutes? Perhaps a half hour? Longer? He would need to escape from it quickly. He squeezed his left arm in front of his abdomen and brought it upward until it pressed painfully between his ribcage and the sling. Then he gritted his teeth and shifted his right arm upward until it nestled uncomfortably beneath his chin, almost crushing his windpipe. He had expected a jolt of pain, but there was nothing. His right arm didn’t hurt at all.

It was a tight fit, but he had both arms pressed against the wall in front of him. He pushed outward as hard as he could, using the weight of his body to provide leverage against the wall behind him. It gave a little, as if the seal was not quite true, as if it were a door whose bolt had a little play in it. Was it a door? One conforming to his body’s shape? He had seen doors like that before, but only in mausoleums when he chanced to visit them looking for bits of buried treasure. On those, the image of the dead was raised outward to give the impression of life suspended instead of life done and gone. What if he were inside one of those things? Would there be a reverse impression on the lid? He frowned; all the ones he had seen had been smooth on the inside when he had opened them. Maybe it was something like a suit of armor? But that didn’t make sense; armor had arms and legs that moved, and this thing didn’t. It was just a hollowed-out shape that followed the rough contours of his body. Besides, why would he be wearing armor? It was far too cumbersome for his purposes. Whatever it was, it gave a little bit when he pressed on it, and if he pressed harder, it might give even more.

He slowly repositioned himself and used the back wall to brace his elbows. Then he leaned back as far as he could and lurched forward with all the weight and power he could muster. There was a sharp little twang, as if a spring had snapped apart, and then the wall in front of him swiveled away. He heard a tiny metallic clink at his feet as he staggered forward, sagged to his knees, and reached out with his hands to stop from tumbling forward. The floor was damp, and he slid forward until he lay sprawled atop its matted, slimy surface. When he rose to his hands and knees, fetid, spongy strands clung to him in droopy little clumps. It was like the pond scum he used to conceal himself from the monks who had chased him out of that little village with the quirky temple. They were a determined bunch, those monks, and he had had to stay under that scum a long time, his nose jutting up into it just far enough to snatch a breath or two. That scum had smelled bad enough, but this stuff reeked much worse: it had the stench of decay clinging to it.

He rose to his knees and shook his arms several times before the last of the muck sloughed away from him. Then he peeled it away from the hilts of his sword and throwing knives. Then he realized he could see the dingy gray crud spreading out across the floor around him. I’m not blind, he thought, relieved despite his confusion. The Viper’s Eyes had replaced his own, but now? He reached up to touch one of them—and jerked his head back, cursing and blinking rapidly. The slime on his finger burned, and when he tried to rub it out of his eye it only made things worse. It was only after he had scraped away the crud and used the underside of his tunic to wipe at his eyes and face that the burning eased.

He sighed and blinked back the tears to clear away the haziness. The room was almost completely black but for a strange, dull, orange glow emanating from a corner far ahead of him. It wasn’t much light, but he had long ago learned to navigate in this kind of near darkness, and it gave a strange cast to everything. The room was expansive, at least forty feet square with an eight-foot high ceiling. To his immediate left, some twenty feet away, the room was in shadow that gradually lessened as it approached the well-lit corner. The lighting continued along the far wall in front of him, and then dwindled to the right until it was lost in a darkness his eyes couldn’t penetrate. If there was a wall to his right, it was too deep in the darkness to be seen. Four large columns, evenly spaced, held up the ceiling, blocking his view of parts of the room, and he would have to move to see around them. But the floor was too slick to risk it at the moment.

He couldn’t see what was causing the strange orange glow, but it was much too diffuse and dim to be a torch or candle. It was steady and soft like Angus’s Lamplight spell, but it wasn’t shaped like a ball. It wasn’t shaped like anything, really; it looked as if someone had painted it onto the wall and had done a horrid job of it. It was thick and wide and brightest in the far corner but tapered to a narrow slit halfway down the wall to his left. It was a long wall, and there were several sarcophagi evenly spaced along its length. He couldn’t see the details of the sarcophagi; the light smothering them was too dim to note any details at this distance. They lined the wall to the left, curled around the well-lit corner, and continued all along the far wall until they disappeared into the darkness.

Giorge gulped and twisted around on his knees, turning right until he was facing the direction from which he had emerged. There were more sarcophagi along that wall, emerging from the darkness concealing the wall to his right, but they were open and empty, as if they were patiently waiting for occupants. The last empty one was directly behind him, about eight feet away, with its lid dangling from a broken hinge. Was that where I was? Giorge wondered as he tried to stand up and his foot slid out from under him. He moved to catch himself, but the floor was too slick and he barely managed to keep from banging his head as he fell flat again. He stayed there for a long moment, and then gradually worked his way to his feet. He looked down at the floor and tested his footing as he took each step in the goo, and even with those precautions, he had to adjust his center of gravity several times to keep from falling. It was like walking on ice covered in thick layer of lamp oil.

When he was close to the sarcophagus, he took hold of the lid and swung it closed. He shuddered as he stared at the image on the lid: it was his image. Even in the shadows, it was like looking in a tarnished mirror, so amazing were the details of the workmanship. He ran his fingers over the face of the image, wondering how the craftsman had managed to mimic so perfectly the shape of his eyebrows, the curve of his nose, the glint in his eyes…. The carving was ancient and looked as if it had been chiseled from the wood in an age that had long since passed. How had that long-dead craftsman known his image so well that he could duplicate it?

Symptata’s son, Giorge thought. The line….

Giorge frowned. He was not surprised that he looked like Symptata’s son—it was part of the curse—but this image was identical to his own. Only the heir can break the curse, he thought. What were the lines of the poem? He reached into the sling for the scroll tube, but it wasn’t there. Had he dropped it? He looked around in the muck but couldn’t see it. There were clumps that might be large enough to conceal it, but he didn’t need the scroll to remember the poem. It was the last stanza, wasn’t it? “He cursed her line of thieving whores,” he muttered, “and lies in death, awaiting yours.”

Giorge glanced at the sarcophagi waiting to be filled. “There’s a lot of death here,” he whispered, “but I’m not dead.” He frowned and looked down at the sling. The dull ache in his arm wasn’t plaguing him any longer. He flexed his fingers and rotated his wrist, but it didn’t hurt like it had been since he had injured it in the fall from his horse. He lifted it easily in the sling, and finally pulled it out of the sling altogether. Ortis said it was sprained and needed weeks to heal, he thought as he checked his full range of motion without any hint of pain or injury. He rolled up the sleeve of his tunic and his eyes widened: the fletching scars were gone! And what about when he fell—

“The frost elemental,” he almost shouted, the sound falling as silent as the dead around him. “It killed me, didn’t it?” he muttered, remembering the blistering cold that had smothered him, pulled him from the lift, harassed him as he fell. Yes, he had died, he must have died—and yet, he felt as healthy as he ever had.

He took off the sling and let it fall to the floor. He put his hand to his chest and felt around for familiar lump of the Viper’s Breath—but it was gone! He gulped and asked the chill air around him, “Am I dead?” He paused for an answer, but when none came, he asked, his voice sharp and much too loud, “By Onus’s Blood, what is going on here?”

He didn’t wait for an answer; instead, he decided to take action. The floor was slick, but he had leverage; he could use the sarcophagi to propel him around the edge of the room, and with luck, he’d find a dry spot to stand on. At the very least, he needed to know more about where he was, and that meant exploring the room. He looked at the empty sarcophagi and tried to peer through the shadows to the wall at the end. But it was too dark. He should go there first, if only because he couldn’t see what was there, and he already knew there were sarcophagi along all the other walls. Full sarcophagi? But he wasn’t ready to search that gloomy bit of the room; he wanted to find out more about what he could see first. He wanted to know what was causing the wall to glow; if it could be moved, it would make it a lot easier to search the darkness to his right. And what about the sarcophagi? One seemed to have been made for him, but what about the others? Were the empty ones for his children and grandchildren? If so, the others—

He turned sharply toward the sarcophagus next to his, the first one whose lid was closed. The image on the lid, though half-hidden in shadow, was of a young woman with long, wavy black hair draped over her shoulders; sweet brown eyes filled with love and kindness; a narrow, sharp smile that was quick with a laugh or a harsh word when needed; a rounded little nose; and soft, smooth, caramel-colored skin. The image on the lid had none of these colors—it was just the drab gray-brown of aged wood—but what he saw in the image was so lifelike, so realistic, that he sagged to his knees. “Mother,” he gasped as he clung tightly to the lid of his sarcophagus with his left hand. His right hand, quivering, stretched out for his mother’s sarcophagus. He slid closer to it, and his fingertips brushed across the cold wood of his mother’s hand. A moment later, he lunged forward, grappling the wooden sarcophagus as if he were a small boy clinging to his mother’s legs to prevent her from leaving. “Momma,” he whimpered as the tears cascaded down his cheeks and the sobs burbled in his chest.

3

Angus half-opened his eyes and looked around without moving. He saw nothing except the peculiar bluish glow of sunlight passing through a thick layer of ice. It was an attractive color, one that reminded him of the watery depths of Embril’s eye. Only her eye was a bit darker, a bit deeper, and far less deadly than the blueness pressing down upon him.

There was something in his left hand. It was thin and round and cold, and he grasped it as tightly as he would his last breath. It was the right size for a quill, but it wasn’t like any quill he had ever used. Quills were nearly smooth, and the imperfections on their surfaces were infrequent and random. This thin, cylindrical object’s surface was etched with complex patterns, and some of them felt familiar to him. They were similar to the knots he used to cast the flying spell.

Magic! He thought suddenly, fiercely, and his eyes snapped fully open. I lost my magic! That’s why I fell—I couldn’t fly! Sardach dropped me and I couldn’t see the magic!

A sharp pain riddled through his chest as he gasped, and he forced himself to calm down, to take slow, shallow breaths. Broken ribs? Yes, they were broken. His chest felt like it had been crushed by the unrelenting coils of a giant snake. He lifted his left hand—it moved easily, painlessly—and a sharp pain radiated out from his lower back as he shifted against something hard and jagged beneath him. It had the shape and texture of a knothole and bit painfully into his lower back. There was something else beneath him, and it felt like a thick, leafless branch. He tried to shift his weight from the knothole onto the branch, but an intense pain erupted in his right shoulder as soon as he began to move. He winced and settled back down on the knothole; it was an inconvenient pain, not a mind-wrenching, debilitating one like his shoulder.

He closed his eyes and focused on the pain, trying to force it away. It wasn’t a branch he was lying on; it was his right arm. It was pinned beneath him, twisted into an unnatural position. He couldn’t feel it, but his right shoulder felt like the arm had been pulled from its socket, and bones had grated against each other when he had shifted position. He lay still until the pain eased, and then tried to wiggle his toes. His right thigh answered with a dull throbbing sensation, but he couldn’t feel his left foot. Was it gone? Or was it numb, like his right arm? It didn’t matter; he was alive. He should be dead.

Angus held what was in his hand up in front of his eyes and tried to focus on it. It was an ivory wand, the one that—

Yes, that was what had happened. He had fallen a long way and used the wand to deflect himself away from the mountainside. It was a desperate gamble, but what choice had he had? He couldn’t fly, and hitting the mountainside at that speed would have killed him. Even so, it shouldn’t have worked—but it must have done enough for him to survive. He frowned. How had he gotten buried in the ice?

He looked up through the vertical shaft. It was ovular, as if someone had bored through the ice with a large drill, but the sides were too smooth and irregular for a drill. It was almost as if something warm had gradually melted through the ice and left the shaft behind. Could he have done it? His robe kept his body temperature constant, and if he was pressed against the ice for long enough… It was a long tunnel, and he would have dropped even further if he hadn’t landed on something that hadn’t melted. A rock shelf? A ledge? The thing pressing into his lower back was rough like a rock, but it could be the sharp end of a broken bone.

He set the wand down beside him and began the slow process of checking his wounds. He started by tentatively probing his chest, fully expecting to find tiny barbs of bone sticking out at odd angles. But there were none. He frowned; it felt like he had broken ribs, but his fingers were telling him differently. He ran them over his chest, pressing down more firmly on his ribcage, but there were no breaks, no cracks, no pain. He took a deep, welcome breath, one that felt normal, healthy, except for the throbbing in his back and the resurgent, sharp pain in his right shoulder as he shifted slightly on the rock shelf.

Why did his chest feel like it had been crushed when it hadn’t been? It didn’t matter; it wasn’t crushed, and he needed to focus on the injuries that were real. He reached across his chest and gently touched his right shoulder. Pain shot down his arm and up his neck. He winced and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. At the very least, his shoulder was dislocated, but what about the arm? After a moment, he gritted his teeth and continued his gentle exploration. It didn’t last long; his arm was bent backward and lay at an odd angle beneath him.

Still the mind, he thought, wondering if he would ever be able to use his arm again. Still the body. If he couldn’t, how would he cast spells? Almost all of them required two hands to manipulate the magic into their knotted patterns. Still the mind. Still the body. He focused on the mantra for over a minute before he was able to continue his diagnosis.

His right arm was a mess, but he didn’t know any more than that. His ribcage felt like it was in tatters, but it wasn’t. He reached inward with his mind, looking for the magic that he had lost and found a faint wisp of a response. It wasn’t the magic he was familiar with; rather, it was like the afterimage of a candle’s flame plastered on the eyelid after turning away from it. It was as if he were seeing the magic from a great distance, and it had an unfamiliar quality to it. He tried to bring it into focus, but it stayed at the fringe of his awareness like a hazy, smoky memory that he couldn’t quite dispel or bring to the forefront of his mind.

He shifted his legs slowly, one at a time, beginning with his right leg. The throbbing in his thigh was mild compared to the wretched pain that gouged into his lower back as his weight shifted. He would have to move soon, before the sharp edges of the rock bit more deeply into his flesh.

He still couldn’t feel his left foot, but there was no pain in it when he straightened his leg as best he could. What could be wrong with it? It felt like it had fallen asleep. Could it be as simple as that? Would it tingle to life when he started moving? Or was it something worse, much worse? He flexed his left leg for several seconds as he tried to will sensation back into his foot, but it did no good.

The rock bit a little deeper into his back. He would have to move, but there was little room to maneuver. The tunnel above him was scarcely large enough for him to squeeze through, and the little spot that had melted around him was as closed in as a coffin. Still, he was in a more comfortable position than he had been, and if he could roll over on his belly, it might free up his right arm for a close examination of the damage. But which way to roll?

He turned his head slightly to the left. There was a 20 degree upslope, perhaps more—and then to the right. His weight shifted as he turned his head, and the rock digging into his back suddenly gave way. He slid sideways, tilted, and most of his weight pressed down on his right shoulder as he tipped over into a shallow pool of water. His right arm dropped limply down beside him as if it were no longer attached to his body, and a horrid wave of pain drove through the shield he was building with the mantra. The agony in his shoulder drenched his mind just as the ice-cold water drenched his face. He gasped and sputtered as he tried to lever himself back up onto the shelf, but all he managed to do was get his left arm beneath his head. It was barely enough to keep his nose above the shallow waterline.

He tried to reassert control over his body with the mantra, tried to push aside the pain, but it took a long time for it to have any effect. A part of him was clinically pleased by the pain; it meant the arm was still there, could still feel pain, and that meant he would be able to cast spells again after it healed. If it healed. If he got out of the ice before he starved to death.

He focused on the mantra and on his breathing, and as the pain gradually ebbed to a tolerable level, he thought about his situation. Despite his injuries, he would have to find a way out of the ice if he hoped to survive. His right arm was useless. His left arm was fine. His left foot was numb and his right leg was sore. His chest was not crushed, even though it still felt like it was. He had no food. He had no magic—yet. That brief glimpse of the magic in the distance had been promising, and if he could bring it closer, he might have a chance. But his backpack was strapped to Gretchen, and the spells he had primed for were missing. Or were they? Would he find the priming intact if—when—he regained his sense of magic? Or would he have to prime for them all over again—if he could still prime them at all?

No sense dwelling on what he didn’t have; he needed to focus on what he did have. The wand. It only had four or five spells left in it, but he could use them to make a tunnel through the ice if he needed to. He had dropped it on the shelf when he fell off of it, and he would have to remember to retrieve it before he climbed out of the ice. If he could climb out of the ice. What good was his left foot? It was completely numb, and without sensation, he wouldn’t be able to feel for gaps in the ice. And his hands would warm the ice to a slick sheet in moments.

First things first, he thought as he opened his eyes and looked at the murky pool of water beneath him. He needed water to survive. He bent forward and drink deeply from the fresh, ice-cold water. At least he had that much. But what to do about his right arm? He couldn’t have it flopping around uselessly; it would get in the way and bump into things. Even when he shifted it only slightly, the sudden jolt of pain was almost unbearable, and the mantra was struggling to compensate for that pain.

He rested for a long time, but when the water began to trickle into his nostril, he lifted his head and opened his eyes again. The pool was deeper than it had been. Before, it had not covered his arm, and his head was at least an inch and a half above its surface. Now, his arm was completely covered, and water was seeping into his nose and ear. He shifted his left arm and found a neat little indentation had formed beneath it. The water hadn’t risen that much; the ice beneath him had melted while he had lain there—and it was still melting. How long had he rested? A few minutes? An hour? There was no way for him to tell, but he did know one thing: he couldn’t stay there much longer.

He turned to his right. The rock shelf was only about six inches above him, but in his present condition, it was more than a minor obstacle. His right hand was still on the shelf, twisted around the wrong way, and there was no way he could use it to help him get up to the shelf. But his legs worked, and he slowly brought his knees up under him. He winced as his back muscles stretched painfully across the wound the jagged rock had left behind. It started to bleed, and the warm liquid trickled down his tilted spine to the base of his neck. He gritted his teeth and used his left arm to lift his head and chest until they were almost even with the rock shelf. It was difficult to maintain his position on the slick, wet ice as he nudged himself to the right, toward the shelf.

Crushing pain erupted from his shoulder as his limp arm pressed against it, and he sagged against the shelf’s edge. He needed to stabilize his arm if he hoped to make it back onto the shelf, and there was only one way he could do it. He had to tuck it inside his robe and use his belt to hold it in place. To do that, he needed to be on his back. He lifted himself with his left arm until his chin was on the edge of the shelf, and then used his chin to brace himself as he brought his left arm and leg under him. When they were in place, he pushed away from the shelf with his left hand and rolled onto his back, his right arm dragging along behind as it flopped lifelessly across his chest.

The pain was too much for the mantra to deflect, and he passed out. When he woke again, he found himself a few more inches below the rock shelf. But he was on his back, and his right arm was draped across his chest. His left arm was free, and he used it as carefully as he could to loosen the belt holding his robe in place and gingerly shift the position of his right arm until he could tuck his hand and wrist into his belt. Once it was in place, he tightened the belt as much as he dared and reached up for the shelf. It was nearly at arm’s length, now, but it was much easier to pull himself up into an awkward sitting position than it had been to push himself up onto the shelf. His right arm bent awkwardly, but the strain on his shoulder was not as fierce at it had been before—or he was becoming more accustomed to it. His lower back protested and began to bleed again, but there was nothing he could do about that yet. At least there wasn’t much blood, so the wound couldn’t be severe.

His head and left arm were above the shelf, and he looked over at it. The wand was still lying there, and he reached over for it. He secured it in its holders in the sleeve of his robe and then reached for the rock that had jabbed into his back. It was much smaller than he had expected, barely as large as a small nut, but its edges were sharp, like a rough-hewn stone axe. Had it managed to cut through the cloth of his robe? If it had, he would have to repair the damage, and that would take a lot of time. For now, though; he needed to get onto the shelf before the ice beneath him melted any more.

He repositioned his right leg and pushed upward at the same time that he lifted with his left hand. He bent his head to avoid the ice, and eased back onto the edge of the shelf. After a brief rest, he squeezed between the ice until his head leaned against the inner edge of the ice shaft leading up to the surface. He recited the mantra for several minutes before he was able to breathe normally, and then he looked down at his feet dangling over the edge of the shelf. They were both there, and they both looked normal, but he still couldn’t feel his left foot. He could move it and tap it on the surface of the little pool of water until it splashed about, but he couldn’t feel anything below his shin.

He edged back onto the shelf until he could bring up his left knee. He had to watch his left foot as he brought it up to the shelf under him, and then leaned back against the shaft. He pushed up briefly, lifting most of his weight from the shelf, and then sat back down again. At least his foot hadn’t slipped out from under him, and he seemed to be able to use it despite not being able to feel it. There hadn’t been any pain either, so he did it again. This time, he didn’t stop until he was standing upright in the narrow shaft. His right thigh was stiff, but the soreness was negligible compared to the sharp ache in his back and intense, acute pain in his shoulder when he brushed it against the wall of the shaft.

Dislocated? he thought to himself. Pulled from the socket like a cork from a bottle? The elbow is hyper-extended, but it will heal in time if I can get proper treatment. But I need a healer. Soon. What chance do I have of finding one in time?

He looked up the shaft and wondered how far down he had come while his body had melted through the ice, how far up he would have to climb. It was his next obstacle, and it would be so much easier if he could fly. He sighed and tried again to bring the magic within him into focus, concentrating as fiercely as he had done during the first year of his training when it had been so difficult to grasp what Voltari was teaching him. He still couldn’t see the magic, but he did see something.

He was in a small room lying on a bed, smothered in blankets. All about him was an image wrought from shades of black, white, and gray. It was as if a painter had leeched all the color from his canvas before dipping his brush in the paint. A woman with long, wavy, dark-gray hair looked down upon him with charcoal eyes. A frown creased her pale gray lips and punctuated the crow’s feet scratching at her eyes, the dimple in the cleft of her chin. Her skin looked as if it was smeared with ash, and she wore an almost-white healer’s gown. She reached out to touch his chest. The pain of crushed ribs filtered slowly into his awareness as her hand passed over them, but that pain was somewhat softened by her touch. Then the steady, well-defined, rhythmic heartbeat brought on by his mantra was interrupted by the sudden lurching of an inconsistent patter. He frowned; it wasn’t an interruption in his heartbeat—that was as steady as it always was when he used the mantra—the erratic heartbeat was overlain on his steady one. There was something else there, too, something warm and familiar that he couldn’t quite place.

He watched the painting transforming before him for a long time, letting the woman’s gentle touch flood through him as she righted the wrongness of the ribs, feeling each one snapping softly back into its proper position before she welded them back together. It was like watching the minstrel at Dagremon’s as she plucked the chords of her lute to build the song that had reached into his heart and found what had been missing in it for far too long. Then the healer turned to the lungs, and he felt a fluttering in his chest, as if her fingers had reached inside him to tickle his breath to life.

She paused, mouthed something he couldn’t quite hear, and the rhythmic, steady beating of the mantra in his heart stopped completely. It was so sudden that he tottered where he stood and would have fallen if he hadn’t struck the ice shaft’s inner wall. The sudden, sharp pain in his shoulder saved him, drawing his attention away from the magic—if that was what it was he had seen—and back to his immediate surroundings. His heart stammered for a moment and then resumed the normal, steady beat brought on by the mantra. But just before the image had disappeared, she had whispered something into his ear, something he barely heard, something that sounded a lot like his name. But it wasn’t Angus that she had said. It was Typhus.

4

Embril paused to take a breath outside Commander Garret’s door and then smoothed the front of her powder blue robe. Her status had gotten her this far, and her persuasive skills would have to take her the rest of the way. She clenched her teeth: Angus was depending upon her. She had to convince the Commander to let her go with the patrol. If she couldn’t convince him, she would have to get to the temple on her own and she didn’t want to do that. She had never left Hellsbreath and the idea of going into the wilderness by herself was disconcerting. She wouldn’t even be considering doing it if she hadn’t promised Angus she would go with them.

She took another deep breath, lifted her head, and rapped the iron knocker firmly against the reinforced pine door. It was a new door, still reeking of fresh-cut pine, and the sap was a bit sticky as her knuckles brushed against it. She had already gone through six other new doors as her escort led her through the maze of the barracks, and the iron bars bracing each one had been newly forged and completely free of rust. She had even taken a peek at one and was surprised to see the simple pattern of a Binding spell reinforcing it. Why had the old doors been replaced? She had seen a few of them stacked outside, and they looked like they were still quite functional. Perhaps she was overlooking something? She wasn’t a woodsman, after all, or a smithy for that matter, and she hadn’t read enough about either of them to identify potentially hazardous imperfections in wood or iron. Perhaps she should look into it when she returned to the library?

“Enter.” It was a man’s voice, robust even through the stifling thickness of the door. There was power behind that voice, power and authority.

She took another breath, nodded to herself, lifted the latch, and pushed the door inward. The sound of shuffling parchment, softly spoken words—not whispers, exactly, but not intended to carry, either—and the muffled clink of metal on glass. Then the door was wide enough for her to see the men gathered around a large rectangular table. The man at the head of the table was standing, and he pointed at a piece of parchment in front of him. It was held flat on the table by a dagger on one corner, a flagon on the other, and a sheathed sword across the bottom edge. “Here is where you are to go, Lieutenant,” he said.

The man had spoken with the same voice that had told her to enter, and she studied him as she stepped across the threshold and up to the table. He was surprisingly small, barely an inch or so taller than she was, but he had knotted muscles bulging beneath the sleeves of a simple brown uniform with little adornment to indicate his rank. The tunic was a light shade of umber, the trousers a medium shade, and the boots almost black. The silver studs of the narrow black belt accentuated the color scheme, and the empty sheath at his right side almost blended into the umber background of his trousers. He was older than she had expected, and his face was weather worn and pock-marked with worry lines. When he glanced up, his hazel eyes made a quick assessment of her and then returned to the map laid out before him. “Take this route.”

She looked down and watched him trace a slow pattern over the map, his fingertip hugging the edge of the mountains to the north. She recognized the map instantly—it was a copy of the one Angus had given her—and the route he was outlining was the same one Angus had told her to take. But instead of heading directly for the Angst temple, the man’s finger turned away from the mountains and into the plateau. It stopped at the river and said, “Send a few men her for reconnaissance. They are not to be discovered. I want to know what’s tending to those fires.”

Reconnaissance? That would require stealth and secrecy. She smiled to herself and said, “Perhaps I can help with that?” A quick argument formed, one she had not prepared before coming here.

The man lifted his gaze far enough to reassess her through his bushy eyebrows and then straightened up. “Gentlemen,” he said without looking at the other two men. “This is Embril, the librarian at the Wizard’s School. She is also friend of Angus, the mage associated with The Banner of the Wounded Hand. She has asked to meet with me on a matter of considerable importance to her that also relates to your mission. What that matter is I do not yet know. Perhaps she will enlighten us all?”

Embril stared for a long moment, a bit surprised that he had known of her friendship with Angus and not entirely sure she should speak in front of the other two men. Her request was for the Commander alone, but it was clear that he did not believe secrecy was necessary. She almost frowned, but looked at the map instead. She nodded and pointed at it. “Of course, Commander,” she said, “I would like to join the patrol you are sending to investigate the presence of the fishmen on that plateau. I believe the patrol is to leave tomorrow at dawn?”

The Commander’s eyes narrowed slightly as he said, “Indeed it does.” He nodded to the man on his left, a large man with blonde hair and a moustache whose ends dangled down below his clean-shaven chin. “Lieutenant Jarhad will be in charge of it.” Then he nodded to the man on the left, a portly fellow whose uniform was much too snug on him. He had thin eyebrows, rich brown eyes, dark brown hair, neatly trimmed beard, and a silver loop hanging from his earlobe. “Darby, here, will be with him.” His eyes were steady as he asked, “Why do you want to go with them?”

Embril had prepared for this inevitable question, and her answer—even to her ears—was insufficiently persuasive. But it was the only answer she had. “Is it not enough that I desire it? After all, I am an accomplished wizard with considerable skills that will no doubt be of value to your patrol. Surely you would be remiss to pass on the opportunity to have them at your disposal?”

Commander Garret stared at her for a long moment before responding. “Perhaps,” he said. “But it is a delicate mission, one with considerable risk, and I would be—” he paused meaningfully and smiled “—remiss if I were to send an unproven wizard with them without having a very strong justification for doing so.”

She frowned; she had expected something like this but had not come up with a proper rejoinder. “You mentioned a reconnaissance mission,” she said, grasping at the opening. “I can assist with that in many ways.” She focused on the magic around her and sought out the strands she would need. As she did so, Darby frowned and his eyes dilated. “For instance,” she said, reaching for the magic and beginning the spell, “it would be difficult to discover the patrol if they cannot be seen.” She sensed she was beginning to glow a light blue shade, one that was almost an ephemeral, translucent duplication of the color of her robe.

As she finished the spell and disappeared from sight, Darby lifted his arms and made a series of rapid, familiar gestures and took up a defensive position.

Lieutenant Jarhad reached for his sword and had it half drawn before Commander Garret put out a restraining hand.

“Relax,” the Commander said. “She is no threat. Are you, Embril?” he asked, his tone was even, calm, but his eyes betrayed apprehension and irritation.

“Not to you or your men,” Embril replied, letting the spell go. She had not intended to cast it, but it had made her point better than her words could have done. “I am sure our enemies would think otherwise.” She had almost said your enemies before she remembered they were also her enemies.

Commander Garret put his left hand to his chin and rubbed it for a few seconds. When he spoke again, his tone reluctant and accusing, “I suppose your true reasons for wanting to accompany the patrol are such that you will refuse to tell us.” He glanced to his right and said, “Unless, of course, we compel you to do so.”

She hesitated long enough to look more closely at Darby, trying to assess his confidence, his abilities, but there was little she could discern. When she replied, she tried to sound apologetic. “It is not a question of refusal,” she said. “It is a question of knowledge. I am not entirely sure why I must go with you, only that I must.” It was a half-truth. She knew why Angus wanted her to go, and in a general sense, she even understood the importance of going, but a large part of her didn’t care about the Tiger’s Eye. Let the nexus remain hidden, lost, and it would be no temptation. If it were found, what harm could it really do? Wasn’t Angus overreacting? But what if he wasn’t?

She looked down at the map, at the symbol of the Angst temple, and shrugged. “Angus believes it is important that I be with the patrol,” she said. “I trust his judgment. So should you.”

Commander Garret glanced at Darby, who nodded slightly and wiggled his right forefinger. When the Commander settled his steady stare back on Embril, it was unreadable. Then he said, “Lieutenant?”

“No,” Lieutenant Jarhad said at once. “We have one wizard; we don’t need two. She will be a burden, and whatever benefit we gain from her presence will be offset by that burden. We must ride quickly, and our task is too important.”

“Darby?”

The other man frowned and shook his head. “I only know that she believes what she said. Other than that, I can say little. It may be wise to agree with her request.”

“There is no place for a woman in a patrol,” Lieutenant Jarhad said, “even if she is a wizard. If the fishmen are there, they will see her at once, and they will assume she is either important or powerful or both.”

Commander Garret nodded, considered the advice for several seconds, and then said, “Tell me, Embril, will you cut off that beautiful red hair of yours?”

Embril almost jumped. Cut my hair! Whatever for? “Why?” she demanded.

“Soldiers are men,” Commander Garret said. “They don’t have long luxurious hair; they have sweaty tangles or short-cropped hair. If you want to go with them, you have to look like them. A soldier’s uniform and short hair at the very least. It won’t do for a close inspection, of course, but at a distance, you’ll look like one of the men. You will also have to perform the tasks expected of a soldier, but I’m sure Lieutenant Jarhad will make sure they are not excessive. Won’t you Lieutenant?”

Lieutenant Jarhad frowned, but there was no doubting that it had been an order. He stiffened and said, “Of course, Commander.”

“Well?” Commander Garret demanded.

Cut off my hair? she moaned in her mind, and then a fleeting image of Angus smothered the thought and she said, her voice soft, firm, resigned, “If I must.”

Commander Garret raised his eyebrows. “It must be important, indeed,” he said, his voice softly amused. He set his right hand on the table and tapped his fingers a few times, the last of which was decisive. He snapped off a nod and said, “A cap might work, but we would have to see what it looks like first. Lieutenant?”

Lieutenant Jarhad nodded and left the room at a dignified pace, each step a rigid unforgiving one. As he passed Embril, his deep-set brown eyes snarled at her.

“She will need a horse, Darby,” he continued. “Make sure it is a docile one.”

Darby nodded and hurried from the room. He didn’t look at Embril as he stepped past.

When they were both gone, Commander Garret went to the doorway and checked the hallway. He closed the door and locked it, and then returned to his position at the head of the table. He gestured for her to sit and when she had, he sat down as well.

Embril wriggled in the uncomfortable chair. It was nothing like the one she used in the library, which had a cushion and a back that seemed to have been shaped to suit the curve of her spine perfectly. This chair had a hard wood base, and the back was arched in a way that forced her to sit with her neck bent slightly forward. Once she settled into a somewhat tolerable position, she turned to meet Commander Garret’s exasperated gaze.

He shook his head and said, “Now that we’re alone, why don’t you tell me the real reason why you want to go with the patrol.”

Embril frowned. Since she had read the scroll Angus had given her, she had wanted desperately to tell someone about what was in it, but she couldn’t risk it. Angus was right; if a wizard knew what he had found, he would be tempted to go there, to use it, maybe even take it away from its proper position in the nexus. Even she was tempted by it, and she had no desire for power. Most wizards had a strong desire for power, and the Tiger’s Eye would go a long way to fulfilling that desire. Even the Grand Master would be sorely tempted by it, perhaps even more so, since his desire for power only seemed to get stronger as his power accumulated. She had even seen the greed in the Grand Master’s eyes whenever she rediscovered a forgotten spell and told him about it. But what about Commander Garret? He wasn’t a wizard; he wouldn’t be tempted by a nexus point; he wouldn’t even understand what it was. But he could tell someone who would be tempted.

When she looked back at the Commander, he was watching her closely, waiting patiently for her to say something. “Angus found something,” she said at last. “I cannot tell you what it is—I will not tell you what it is. But I can tell you this much: it is potentially far more dangerous than the fishmen.”

Commander Garret’s eyes widened at her proclamation, but he said nothing for several seconds. When he spoke, his voice was strained and did not carry far beyond her ears. “I know of your reputation, Embril,” he said. “I know you would not say such a thing lightly. I also know what the fishmen are capable of doing. It is difficult for me to reconcile the two. Help me to do so.”

She frowned again. What could she tell him that wouldn’t tell him too much? She nodded slowly and asked, “Do you know much of the history of this region, about the Dwarf Wars?”

“More than most,” Commander Garret said. “I believe it is important for the Commander of a garrison to know as much as possible about those things that may impact his decisions. The history of the conflicts in an area is one of those things. The dwarves have very long lives and even longer memories.”

“Good,” she said. “Then you know how they ended, how the volcanism drove the Dwarves away.”

“Some say they caused it,” Commander Garret said.

A sad smile fell upon her face as she shook her head and said, her voice almost a whisper, “They didn’t.”

He waited for her to say more, but before she could—if she was going to at all—there was a tap on the door and Lieutenant Jarhad called out, “Commander?”

Commander Garret stared at Embril for a long moment before he set his palms on the table and pushed himself upward. He lingered for a few more seconds, and then shook his head and moved quickly to the door. He unlocked and opened it.

Lieutenant Jarhad had a variety of caps, hats, and other headgear in his arms, and Commander Garret stepped aside to let him enter.

Commander Garret smiled as he joined them at the table and said, “Let’s see which one looks best, shall we? Then we’ll see about a uniform.”

© 2014, all rights reserved.

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