Book 1: The Tiger’s Eye (Full Text)

Cover by Linda Foegen of American Book Design Copyright 2014

Description: Angus wakes up one day with a problem, a very BIG problem:  his memory is gone. He doesn’t know who he is or what he does. Voltari tells him he is his apprentice, but Angus knows nothing about magic. Still, Voltari is a Master Wizard, so he would know, wouldn’t he? Voltari knows other things about him, too, but he isn’t talking. Then, just as Angus begins to come to terms with his situation, everything changes….

Here is the full text of the novel:


Copyright 2014 by Linda Foegen of American Book Design

Copyright 2014 by Linda Foegen of American Book Design

Angus

1

“Angus?” The voice was distant, filtered through a dense smothering fog.

“Angus, wake up!” Sharp, cold, impatient. Was the man anxious? Angry? Maybe it was a gruff woman’s voice, a rotund barkeep rousting a wayward drunk. Was he a drunk? That would explain the sluggishness.

The voice struck him a ringing clout across his cheek and ear. His eyes flew open, fluttered, half-closed again.

“What?” he asked, trying to focus on the blurry shape hovering over him, weaving in and out of his spinning vision. It looked only vaguely human at first—an oval patch of paleness that gradually coalesced into a pair of intense, soul-crushing gray eyes full of mock compassion.

“Angus?” The stern voice flowed from the toothless mouth and consumed everything in its path.

“I’m awake,” he said, trying to blink into focus the uncertain image looming over him.

“Good,” the voice said, its tone decisive, confident. “You’re alive.” The voice lingered a bit longer before retreating as if it was no longer interested in him.

“I am?” he answered, rubbing his stinging cheek and squeezing his eyes shut again.

He was lying on a cold, hard, smooth surface. He rolled slowly over onto his left side, took a breath. Rock dust. Burnt rock dust. He braced himself, curled up, and pushed against the stone floor. “What happened?” he asked as he slid his legs under himself, his right side reluctant to comply. He managed to settle into a wobbly, lopsided sitting position and rubbed his eyes. No crusty rheum at the corners; he hadn’t slept long—if he had slept at all.

“Don’t you remember?” The voice was expectant, as if he were asking a pupil to answer a simple question, one that should have been learned long ago.

“No,” he said. “I—”

His brow furrowed as he turned his head and leveled his gaze at the old man’s midriff. “I can’t remember.” There were several dark brown pouches—What could be in them?—firmly attached to a broad leather belt of the same color. Difficult to steal. The old man’s airy robe was spun from fine black silk that concealed his hands in the deep folds of its sleeves and swallowed up his feet in the hem. The dainty fabric was a stark contrast to the ruggedness of the workmanlike leather belt. He looked up into the steely eyes of the bald old man, and his chest tightened, collapsing in on his breath. “I don’t remember anything!” he gasped, his hands fluttering as if he were trying to capture a wayward breeze.

The old man stroked his anvil-shaped chin, half-concealing the slight smile threatening to escape from his lips. “Interesting,” he said. There was no kindness in his dispassionate, inquisitive tone, only curiosity—and something else. Satisfaction? Pleasure? “You remember nothing? Nothing at all?”

An acrid taste blossomed at the back of his throat. His chest vibrated with the trembling of his heart, the hesitant urgency of his lungs. He shook his head. “No,” he gasped, trying to struggle to his feet. But his right leg was reluctant to support his weight, and he plopped back down, his tailbone tingling from the heavy impact on the stone floor.

“What happened to me?” he demanded, his voice harsh, frantic. He squirmed until he had his legs beneath him, and stood up in a swift, effortless, gliding motion. His eyes fixed firmly on the old man’s stoic expression. “Who are you?” he demanded, taking a step toward the robed figure. “Where am I?” he continued, ignoring the erratic fluctuations in his tone, the uncertainty of his gait. “What have you done to me?” he accused, his voice rising sharply, threatening to become an incoherent jumble of half-formed words erupting from his mouth. “Who am I?” He cried, grabbing at the old man’s arm. “What—”

The old man’s eyes tightened, dilating until they became a pair of unforgiving coal-black mirrors. A sudden jolt of energy poured from his arms and propelled his confused inquisitor backward, leaving him lying in a crumpled heap on the floor next to the wall.

The old man’s voice was calm, unyielding, eerily soft. “Under no circumstances,” he warned, “is an apprentice to touch his master without having been given leave to do so.”

He whimpered, thrust his singed fingers into his mouth, and began sucking on them. Tiny blisters were already sprouting. He blinked through a film of tears and drew mild comfort from the suckling sound he was making. Drool dribbled onto his chin, and tears streamed down his cheeks, but they did little to deter the intense pain shooting through his hand.

The old man’s eyes paled and settled on an implacable gray as he brushed away the tiny sparks still popping up along his sleeves. He waved away the smoke and said, his voice almost gracious, “Since your emotional comportment has been compromised by recent events, I will not pursue the matter further.” The old man paused and his gray stare pierced through the watery haze as he added, “This time.”

He huddled up against the wall like a chastised child for a long moment before a defiant streak hidden deep within him forced him to lift his head and drop his singed fingers onto his lap. He stared back, gritted his teeth, and said nothing.

“As for your questions,” the old man continued, smoothing the front of his robe, “I am Voltari, Wizard of Blackhaven Tower. You are Angus, my halfwit apprentice. You have just failed a very simple spell with near-fatal consequences. Tomorrow, after you have recovered, we will begin remedial instruction in the use of the magical safeguards you should have mastered months ago. For now, return to your chambers and recuperate.”

Voltari reached out with a hooked finger, tugged on something that wasn’t there, and vanished.

“But,” Angus wailed into the vacuum left behind, “I don’t know where my chambers are.” He looked around the arched smoke-colored granite walls that tapered to a domed point above him. They were streaked with soot and pockmarked with divots, but there were no doors.

“Or how to get there,” he added.

He spent over an hour looking for an exit before he finally gave up and sat down against the wall, hoping that this Voltari fellow—his master?—would come back, and wondering who he was….

2

Angus stood before the smooth surface of the polished gray-white granite and stared at the distorted image staring back at him. Was he a stranger? A friend? The eyes were narrow—probably because he was squinting—and light-colored. Blue? Hazel? Gray? Brown? He couldn’t tell. It was a strange image, one that was both familiar to him but somehow completely alien. The hair was collar-length and dark. He knew it to be black from when he had trimmed it, but in the image looking back at him, it seemed to be dark brown.

There was a scar near his left ear, a thin crescent hidden beneath his hairline. Had he nicked himself shaving? Had it been a near-miss from a sword or knife? An accident with magic? He ran his finger over the little ridge of flesh, and frowned. Had someone tried to slit his throat? It was the right angle, but too high to slice through the jugular or carotid. A garrote? Would he ever know? He ran his gaze over the rest of his face, looking for other scars, other suggestions that he had had a past before waking up in Voltari’s practice chamber so many months ago.

But there were none. There were never any clues to his past, his identity.

His beard and moustache were new; they were symbols of who he is, not who he was. They were little more than shadows in his reflection, but he had painstakingly nurtured them, cultivated them, trimmed them. Had he ever had a beard before? He didn’t think so—at least, he didn’t have one when he had first awoken. But how would he know? He could remember nothing from before the accident. Voltari didn’t have a beard. Angus thought a wizard ought to have a beard, a long flowing one that tickled his belly. But his barely escaped his chin. Still, it was a fresh start, a new face for a new life. If only he could convince himself of it.

But was it really a new face? If his memory came back, would he recognize it? Was it the past looking back at him, or the future?

The most striking part of his appearance was his age. He had to be in his early thirties, maybe even older, but wasn’t that a bit too old to be an apprentice? He felt much younger than that, though, and here he was in Voltari’s tower trying to relearn the magic Voltari said he had already mastered. Why couldn’t he remember any of it? Even the most basic aspects of magic had eluded him completely until Voltari’s remedial instruction. He hadn’t even been aware of the magical threads permeating everything around him and within him until Voltari had shown them to him. Still, some of what he was learning did seem natural to him, and he was advancing rapidly in his studies. At least, he thought he was; Voltari never seemed to be satisfied with his progress.

And what about his clothes? They were far from the typical garb of a wizard’s apprentice. His under-tunic was simple enough, but not the tunic covering it. It was sewn from supple leather reinforced with a thin layer of chain links and padding. It had nearly a dozen loops for securing who-knows-what (he didn’t know) to it. Hidden pockets…. It had been repaired many times, by the look of it. His trousers were also oddly constructed for a wizard. They looked like normal trousers, but when he put them on, they were skin-tight and the fabric stretched and flexed with every move he made, no matter how slight it was. Though they were light-weight, they provided ample warmth and protection—and more pockets, most of them hidden and empty. The few that weren’t empty held a handful of gold coins and a small collection of garnets, which he knew would come in handy if he left. Still, why did he have only one outfit of this sort? Where had it come from? It didn’t fit in with all the dingy, gray, homespun wool robes of a wizard’s apprentice that he had found waiting for him in his chambers. And why did this peculiar outfit appeal to him so much? Why did it feel so…natural? And why did the black robe Voltari had given him a few days earlier feel so wrong? It was beautifully crafted, woven from black silk just like his master’s, and the threads of the cloth intermingled with the magical threads contained within him when he put it on. While he wore it, it gave him an acute, spider-like awareness of his surroundings and an uneasy sense of invulnerability. It was a perfect wizard’s robe, replete with copious pockets positioned in all the right places for casting spells, but it made him uncomfortable, as if he were wearing someone else’s skin. Voltari will be angry when he sees I’m not wearing it today.

He reached out for the image and let his fingertip slide down the smooth stone reflection. His nose had been broken at some point, perhaps several times. It started out narrow, bulged out where the breaks had occurred, and then narrowed again to a softly rounded point. Someone had set it, though, and it didn’t impede his breathing. “Who are you?” he whispered to the image. “What did you do?”

But the image didn’t answer him. He shook his head and sighed. It did no good to speculate, and Voltari wasn’t going to provide him with any answers. The wizard was completely dismissive, aloof, and uncaring. “How long have I been here?” he muttered, thinking back through the months since his rebirth. “Voltari tells me I’ve been his apprentice for years, but he treats me almost like I’m a complete stranger. Which one am I?” Both, his image seemed to answer. A frown caused his reflection’s moustache to protrude. The one he knows and the one he doesn’t.

Angus sighed. “There’s no point dwelling on it,” he muttered. “I’m his apprentice, and that’s all that matters now.” To Voltari….

3

“You have progressed at an acceptable rate, Angus,” Voltari said one day, his voice crisp, lacking his normal tone of impatient derision. “Soon it will be time for you to leave.” A hopeful upturn of tone? A bit of pride for having turned an empty mind into a finely honed weaver of magic? Or a touch of gladness for finally getting rid of an unworthy burden?

It didn’t matter. Praise of any sort from Voltari was a rarity, and Angus felt a gentle warmth rising up his neck, threatening to become a crimson cascade. But it turned and buried itself in his beard, as if it were uncertain of its presence. He was not ready to leave. Despite the rapid progress he had made over the past year, Voltari and Blackhaven Tower were the only things he knew, the only things he could remember. His memory of everything prior to his training was still a complete blank.

At first, he had often asked Voltari about who he had been, but his master only waved away the questions and said, “The past means nothing; only the present and future matter. Focus on them.” Whenever he pressed the issue, whenever he demanded answers, Voltari would turn his stony gray eyes upon him, an icy fury raging deep within them, and punish him. Or disappear, if he were feeling particularly generous. Angus knew the answers were there, but Voltari simply refused to provide them. And Angus was not nearly powerful enough to risk truly angering his mentor, so he focused his mind and energy on the magic. He delved deeper into it, striving to gain a better understanding of it. But he never stopped wondering about his lost past, and rarely a day went by when he didn’t have the thought: Magic caused my loss of memory, and magic can restore it. He was certain Voltari knew that magic—or at least where to find it—and when Angus left there would be no more chances to get it out of him. If—

“Now,” Voltari said, interrupting his thoughts. “You must perfect this spell.” He held a scroll out to Angus.

“What is it?” Angus asked, reaching for the scroll. Perhaps later…. He cordoned off the thought to focus on the scroll and the magical threads surrounding him. It would be a challenging spell, a powerful spell, one that would require all of his attention. He unrolled the scroll carefully, his excitement tempered by the healthy sense of dread that every new spell brought with it.

Voltari’s gray eyes narrowed as he ordered, “Tell me.”

Angus gulped—another test, another opportunity to disappoint him. He examined the runes and sigils drawn from spider-thin streaks of burnt umber ink streaked with a deep, almost black shade of red. “It’s obviously a complex, powerful spell from the spheres of flame and earth,” he said. Knowing Voltari would demand a more detailed explanation, he looked more closely at the order of the runes, the pattern of the sigils, how each line had been sketched, and the interconnectedness of the threads of ink with the threads of magic. “This is strange,” he muttered. “It seems to be a spell that produces balls of flaming earth rising up to the sky. But,” he paused and shook his head.

“Yes?” Voltari demanded.

Angus did not look up from the scroll as he replied, “I would expect there to be runes and sigils related to the sphere of air, but there aren’t any. It’s as if the flame is bubbling up from the earth like—like geysers of molten rock. I’m not sure, though, since the nuances are beyond me.”

Voltari held his hand out for the scroll and Angus handed it to him. “I disagree,” he said, his voice level, impartial. “You understand the nuances far better than your training would suggest.”

“Thank you, Master,” Angus said, lowering his gaze and fighting back the urge to smile.

Voltari hesitated a long moment, and then said, his voice uncompromising, “Tomorrow, Angus, you will leave. Your apprenticeship is at an end. Come to my chamber at dawn.” Then he tweaked a nearby strand of carefully modulated magic and vanished.

Angus stood still for several minutes, his breathing barely noticeable, his thoughts paralytic. He wasn’t prepared to go outside, into a world he couldn’t remember. What was it like? Where would he go? Who would he talk to? He had read a great deal about it, of course, but reading and being are quite different things. Who am I? he wanted to scream as his fingertip went unconsciously to the scar on his neck and traced its outline, feeling the fluttery pulse raging beneath the surface. And who wants me dead?

4

Darkness.

Silence.

They were his friends.

Light and sound were his enemies. He fought against them, an endless battle that he could never hope to win. But the struggle was important. He didn’t need to be perfect; he only needed to try to be perfect.

He took a slow, deep breath, and held it. He stepped forward, gently lowering the toes of his right foot into place. The heel settled soundlessly behind them, and he exhaled softly over a fifteen count before shifting his weight. He inhaled slowly and picked up his left foot, moving it forward, toward the shapely silhouette of the young woman lying on her side. Another breath, another step.

There was a half moon. Half moons were better than full moons. A little before or a little past the new moon was best. The dim glow provided ample lighting for him to see the shadows within the shadows, to know what they were. A quarter moon would be better than a half moon.

He took a third step—four more to go. The maids-in-waiting sprawled about the floor around the bed, sleeping on pillows and cushions, but there was a path. If he was careful. If he stepped with perfect delicacy.

His foot fit snugly between one maids’ rumpled hair and another’s dainty ankle, her shiny silver anklet glistening where the moonbeams struck it a glancing blow. There wasn’t room to lower his heel, but that didn’t matter; he could balance precariously on the toes of one foot for many minutes if he needed to. But he didn’t need to.

He took a fourth step, placing his left toes in the space between another maid’s forearm and bicep, barely avoiding her nose, her elbow. He was glad he had cleansed himself and his clothing, ridding them of their normal subtle pungency.

Then the path was clear.

He stepped rapidly, silently up to the side of the bed.

She turned toward him in her sleep. Her eyes fluttered, opened. She smiled.

His hand snaked out. The stiletto—

Angus burst upright, a muffled scream clinging to the back of his throat. His breathing was rapid, sharp, almost painful. His heart was pounding like a woodpecker trapped in his chest. He closed his eyes and mouthed the silent mantra that would calm his body, his mind.

Still the mind.

Still the body.

Still the mind.

Still the body.

He couldn’t recall when he had learned the mantra, but it worked; within seconds, his breathing and heartbeat had calmed considerably, almost stopping altogether.

He opened his eyes and looked around the dark room, wondering at the fleeting impressions of the nightmare, wondering why it had been so potent, so real. It was as if he had actually been there….

Then it faded to less than a memory, less than even a forgotten memory….

He frowned. It had been months since his last nightmare, and it troubled him greatly that they had returned on the eve of his departure….

5

Angus woke before dawn. He was far from rested but found it impossible to return to sleep. He got up and dressed in the outfit he felt most comfortable in: the padded leather tunic; the strange, form-fitting trousers; and the high, soft-soled black boots. He filled his pockets with spell-casting paraphernalia—the mnemonic fragrances that enhanced his recall—the gold coins, and the garnets. He slid his dagger into its scabbard on the belt and the stilettos in their boot sheaths. He filled his backpack with the rest of the gear he would take with him: tinder and flint, candles, quill and inkwell, a handful of loose-leafed parchment, the scrolls containing his spells, a few days worth of food, fishhooks and string, and the strange, ill-fitting black robe Voltari had given him. There was still room, so he put two of the apprentice robes on top of what he had already packed. Then he focused and tugged on the strand of magic that would transport him to Voltari’s antechamber.

Voltari rarely allowed him into his antechamber, and never unsupervised. It was a small room with a desk, robes, boots, water basin, and other amenities. Angus had never been in Voltari’s living chamber, and he didn’t expect to be asked in now.

Voltari was waiting for him at the desk, a pile of scrolls carefully stacked before him.

“Master?” Angus said, his voice catching in his throat.

Voltari looked up at him, nodded, and picked up the pile of scrolls—there were about a dozen of them. “These are yours,” he said, holding them out.

Angus hesitated for only a moment—he had long ago learned the painful lesson of obedience—and set his backpack down on the floor. He accepted the scrolls and began unrolling one of them. “Thank you, Master,” he said, a touch of reverence in his voice.

“Not now,” Voltari said, putting his hand on Angus’s to prevent him from opening the scroll. “Stow them in your pack.”

Angus frowned, bent to his pack, opened it, and unceremoniously pulled out the extra robes. When it looked like he might pull out the black robe, Voltari put his foot on his hand to stop him.

“You should wear that robe at all times,” he said. “It is not a gift I gave lightly. Its magic will provide some measure of protection—much more than that getup you’re wearing now.”

“Yes, Master,” Angus said, reaching for the ties of his tunic.

Voltari sighed and shook his head. “The choice is yours, Angus,” he said. “Stow the scrolls for now. You will have time to change later if that is what you wish to do.”

“Yes, Master,” Angus said, carefully securing the scrolls in his backpack. Once he had done so, Voltari uncharacteristically held out his hand and helped him to his feet.

“Here,” Voltari said, pointing at a map spread out on his desk and weighted down with smooth, walnut-sized black stones. “You should travel here,” he pointed to a spot on the map labeled Hellsbreath Pass. “There will be many opportunities for wizards of your ability there.”

“How far is it, Master?” Angus asked, trying to memorize the contours on the map.

Voltari shrugged and slid the stones aside to let the map roll back up into its natural position. He handed it to Angus.

“Thank you, Master,” Angus said, putting the map into his backpack.

“Your gratitude is unnecessary,” Voltari said, his voice surprisingly soft. “It is customary for the Master to bestow a gift of spells upon his apprentice when he completes his training. These scrolls contain those spells, both ones you have mastered and others you have not. The latter spells are selected by the Master with the expectation that the student will be able to learn them without further guidance. This gift is intended to assure the survival of the magic and, indirectly, the apprentice. One day you will continue the line of wizardry I have taught you by passing this knowledge on to your own apprentices. These spells are the foundation of that tradition, one on which you will build your own repertoire of spells.”

“Yes, Master,” Angus said.

Voltari nodded. “From here on, you will be on your own,” he said. He gestured at Angus’s backpack and waited for him to pick it up. His voice was stern and unrelenting as he finished, “My service to you is over. Do not return here.” Then Voltari’s anteroom disappeared and Angus found himself standing outside Blackhaven Tower for the first time.

Blackhaven Tower was a single twisted spire faced with smooth, curved obsidian blocks that captured the dawn and sprinkled it about in all directions. It was fairly narrow—perhaps twenty feet in diameter—and rose only about thirty feet above the ground, tapering as it rose until it curved sharply inward near the top. Angus frowned; the interior was much larger than the exterior. Was Voltari’s complex underground? Was it somewhere else, entirely? With Voltari’s penchant for teleportation, it wouldn’t surprise him. Still, there was a large wooden door in front of him with a towering figure standing in tall, deep recesses at either side of it. Does it open? he wondered, taking a step forward. He stopped abruptly and sighed. Do not return here….

The sentinels guarding the door were draped in shadow, but the morning sun flickering on the dingy yellow-white of old bone. A pair of simmering red orbs near the top of each form shone like eyes held in a silent, deathless vigil. Did they move?

Angus gulped and concentrated until he brought the magic into focus. Blackhaven Tower and the surrounding hillside faded into the background—still visible as a shadow world at the periphery of his attention—and a maelstrom of writhing strands of magic erupted in the foreground. The magic centered on the guardians and the door, which looked like it had been carved from wood but was wrapped with the pulsating strands of sienna and brick red—a powerful, explosive earth- and fire-based magical trap. Anyone attempting to breach it without magic would almost certainly be killed by the blast, while the door would remain completely intact.

Beside the complex braids woven through the door, the sentinels oozed black tendrils of death magic, its power fluctuating as the tendrils came into contact with their surroundings, sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating. The sentinels were dead, the animated dead Angus had read about while he was exploring Voltari’s library for a way to regain his memory. But Voltari hadn’t taught him very much about that aspect of magic; he had merely let him know that it existed and described the basics of how to draw upon the consumptive energy when necessary. He hadn’t taught him anything about death magic, the kind of magic that draws heavily upon the gray and black strands to animate the dead and destroy the living. He hadn’t even taught him how to defend against such magic; Angus had had to find that out for himself, and he wasn’t entirely sure he understood it.

One of the sentinels lowered its flickering red gaze and fixed it upon Angus. A gigantic poleax grated as it dipped downward and pointed at him. “You are unwelcome,” the sentinel said in Voltari’s rough, guttural growl.

“But—” Angus began, taking a step back.

The other sentinel lowered its poleax, and they both stepped forward, their armor clattering noisily against the fleshless bones. They were the skeletons of giants nearly half as high as the tower, armed with poleaxes and wearing mirror images of incomplete plate armor. The one on the left wore the right half of the suit of armor, while the one to the right wore the left half. They moved another step forward.

Angus turned and hurried south, looking backward several times until the two sentinels had finally given up their pursuit and resumed their position by the door. He slowed and looked for a comfortable place to sit down, a place where he could study the map Voltari had given him. The scrolls would have to wait.

What am I to do now? he wondered, looking at the black tower jutting above the small maple trees threatening to reclaim the land. How could you do this to me?

His lips trembled as he fought back the urge to cry. Was he angry? Afraid? Grief-stricken? Or was it just self-pity? Maybe all of them, he decided, as he sat down on the fallen trunk of an old maple and recited the mantra to calm his mind….

6

Angus took Voltari’s advice and headed south. He had quickly dismissed going north or west; Voltari’s tower was near the northwest corner of the old map, and he had simply written DEATH SWAMPS—FISHMEN across the northern border. Along the western edge were mountains, and he had scrawled XENOPHOBIC MOUNTAIN DWARVES—IMPASSIBLE over them. That left east or south. East of the foothills of the western mountain range was a wide open space labeled KINGDOM OF TYR. It was an expansive plain that ranged from the Death Swamps in the north to the mountains hugging the edge of the map’s southern border. An east-west road split the kingdom in two and led to the capital, Tyrag, in the heart of the kingdom on the eastern edge of the map. He briefly considered going to the capital, but when he thought about doing it, he broke out in a sweat and felt a nearly irresistible urge to run in the opposite direction. That left south. The mountains in the southwest corner were topped with smoke plumes, and Angus was leery about going there. But Voltari had said to go to Hellsbreath, and the name was hastily scrawled near an X nestled in among them. Not far from there, to the northwest, there was an ominous symbol he didn’t recognize, a sort of teardrop superimposed onto a flat pyramid. It was vaguely similar to the runes representing flame magic, which were variations of a candle flame, but this one was far too smooth—and the pyramid was meaningless to him. Still, there was a thin line leading to it—a road? trail?—from near Hellsbreath, and it was the only thing on the map that wasn’t a label or didn’t represent some kind of terrain. What is it? he wondered, scratching it lightly with his fingertip. No matter, he decided; I have to go to Hellsbreath, first, anyway.

Hellsbreath looked like a major hub for travel. From there a road went into the mountains to the west and another sloped southeast along the edge of the southern mountains. A third transected the town, heading north and south. Those and the east-west road through Tyr were the only ones on the map, and the only other town Voltari had identified was Wyrmwood, which was located at the spot where the east-west road from Tyrag intersected the north-south road from Hellsbreath. The road continued north a bit further, nestled against a squiggly line that Angus took to be a river, and stopped a considerably distance from Blackhaven Tower. Or it could be nearby; there was no sense of scale or distance on Voltari’s map. The river continued all the way to the Death Swamps, and Angus decided he would meet up with it and follow the road south. If he were lucky, there would be human settlements on its banks that Voltari hadn’t bothered to mark on the map, small villages that were of no importance to him. Once he was underway, he could decide where to go from there. First, though, he had to find civilization.

Voltari had built Blackhaven Tower in a secluded little valley surrounded by steep foothills plagued with nettles and thorn-encrusted bushes. At least the latter had ripe edible berries; tart little black and red ones that had pinprick seeds that stuck between his teeth. There was a small stream running through the valley, its waters flowing east. He followed it, expecting it to eventually meet up with the river or one of its larger tributaries. It was narrow, barely three feet wide, and meandered through thickets, shrubs, and intermittent maple groves. Along its banks grew clumps of tall grass, fully half his height, riddled with snakes, spiders, and a wide variety of small birds and insects. There were no fish larger than his finger—and not enough of them for a meal—but they helped to ease his hunger a bit. At least the stream was shallow enough that it didn’t top his boots, and wading through it was easier than dealing with the thorns or having his legs smothered by the thick growth of tall grass.

Near dusk he belatedly sought shelter, but the hills on either side of the stream were lined with densely-packed impassable thickets. It was well after dark before he finally settled on a small knoll that split the stream apart for a few dozen feet. The ground was damp and mushy, held together by the grass’s thick entanglement of roots, and after he trampled down a swath of it, the grass provided ample cushioning for a bed. He set his backpack down and did a thorough search of the knoll. There were no snakes or spiders to worry about, so he returned to the small clearing he had made and sat down. The soggy ground squished beneath him, and he hurriedly stood up before the water seeping up through the grass could dampen his trouser bottom.

“I should have brought those robes,” he muttered. “I could have put them on the ground to sleep on.” He sighed and shook his head. “The present and future, not the past,” he finished. “Focus on what I can do, not on what I should have done. Don’t forget it, but no sense dwelling on it.”

He thought about cutting the grass and dismissed it. It would take too long, and a few more layers would only deter the water seeping up through them a little longer. Besides, it was a chill night, and a little extra warmth would be welcome. So, he took out the robe Voltari had given him and slipped it on over his clothes, clenching his teeth as he anticipated the inevitable, unrelenting itchiness it always gave him. But, this time, it didn’t aggravate his skin, and the odd intrusion of magic on his body was curiously mild, almost unnoticeable. The chill left him in moments, and not long after that, he lay down for some rest. A thick sliver of moon peeked over the mountains, and he was somehow comforted by its slim presence and the subdued light it cast upon everything. He fell into a light sleep, a part of his mind alert for anything out of the ordinary.

But everything was out of the ordinary. The hard stone shelf he slept on had been replaced by soft, soggy grass. The comforting echoes of his breathing bouncing off his chamber walls were gone. The rhythmic pulsing of blood rushing through his ears and the soft thrumming of his heartbeat were overwhelmed by the trickle of the stream, the whistles of a night bird, the rustle of the wind in the thickets, the distant scurrying of something small making its way through the thickets, the light touch of an insect on his cheek, the faint, rancid stench of a rotting log, the overwhelming twinge of fresh cut grass crying out for mercy….

Sleep would not come. If only he was nestled in the stark, quiet confines of his chamber in Blackhaven Tower! But he wasn’t, and he never would be again. Voltari had ordered him to never return, and he wouldn’t. Tempting his master’s wrath would be far worse than a few sounds and smells. He could tolerate the delicate touch of an insect’s brittle legs, a moth’s fluttery wing. But he still couldn’t sleep.

His muscles bunched up around his sternum and tension radiated outward from their center. Still the body, he thought, closing his eyes and mouthing the mantra. Still the mind. He was the master, now, and he methodically registered each sensation, categorized it, and let it pass through him. One by one they disappeared from his awareness until only two remained: the rhythmic pulsing of blood rushing through his ears and the soft thrumming of his heart. He listened to them, drew comfort from them, and let everything else slide away….

He had slept only a short while when a new sound intruded upon him, gradually tweaking away the sleep until he brought it more fully into his consciousness. His body lay perfectly still, the heartbeat and breathing unchanged, but his mind was utterly focused, listening intently for the disturbance to repeat itself, trying desperately to identify the source of the sound. But there was only the murmur of the stream as it trickled past, the sound of wings flapping, the distant screech of a night bird. He had nearly convinced himself that it had been another nightmare when he heard a splash in the water near him, to the right. It wasn’t the arrhythmic melody of the stream, either; something had dropped softly into its waters.

Another splash, this time closer.

Something was approaching his little knoll, but what? To what end?

His left hand slid down to his belt, reached for the dagger hilt. But he couldn’t catch it in his grip; the robe was in the way. Stupid, he thought. I should have put the belt over the robe, like Voltari does. His self-recrimination was brief; whatever was on the knoll was working its way through the grass, toward the other side of the knoll. He eased up to a sitting position, lifted the hem of his robe, and slipped the stiletto from his right boot. It was a thin, well-balanced blade, and he flipped it over to grip it by the blade tip. The present

There was a soft splash a few feet to his left. It was a small splash, like the first, as if the thing making the noise was trying not to make it. He saw movement in the moonlight reflected off the stream. There was a soft rustle in the grass on the opposite bank….

Angus rolled to his knees and threw the stiletto in one motion.

A high-pitched, angry chitter thundered through his mind as a rodent stood on its hind legs and tried to leap back into the water. But the stiletto had pinned it to the mud. It thrashed against the bank, trying desperately to work the stiletto loose with sharp little jerks.

Angus drew the second stiletto from his left boot and threw it effortlessly, burying it in the mud where the creature had been but a moment before. It had wrenched the stiletto from the mud and was dragging it into the thicket. The densely packed root and stem system—normally a place of safety for such a creature—was an impediment as the stiletto’s hilt became entangled in them. It pulled, and the blade gouged into the muscles of its leg. It squealed furiously, bit at the stiletto, and pulled more fiercely with its leg.

Angus jumped into the water, slogged over to the second stiletto, and pulled it from the mud. He edged toward the wounded animal. It saw him and struggled to get deeper into the undergrowth. The blade in its leg sliced through a tendon, and it finally jerked free—but too late. Angus thrust the second stiletto through its back, pinning it to the ground. It wiggled for a few seconds and then lay still. He waited until he was sure it was dead and then retrieved the stilettos. He rinsed them in the stream, dried them on the long grass, and slipped them back into their sheaths. Then he turned to the animal he had killed.

It was a small thing, no longer than his forearm and only a little wider than his hand. It had short, dark, thick fur and a scaly, hairless tail. Its spade-shaped paws ended with three webbed toes and flat claws suitable for digging. Its head was narrow, with a long, pointed snout, small ears, and large eyes. Its teeth were flat and dull in the front, but near the hinge of the jaws they became a sharp jagged ridge that could easily tear away strips of flesh.

He dipped it in the stream and held it under until the blood had washed away, and then went back to the edge of the knoll to sit down. He laid the animal across his knees, belly up, and took the stiletto from his right boot. Without thinking about it, he inserted the stiletto just beneath the skin of the hind leg and made a slit across to the opposite one. There was surprisingly little blood for a fresh kill, and he poked the stiletto into the stream bank before using his fingers to peel the pelt from around each of the back legs and tail. Then he flipped it over on its belly. He hesitated only a moment before grabbing the thing’s head with his right hand and the loose fur around the tail with his left. He pinched the tail between his knees, and pushed with his right hand. The thin, greasy layer of winter fat between the pelt and the flesh of its back made it easy for the two to separate, and he soon had his forearm inside the inverted pelt, as if it were a fur-lined glove on his hand and wrist. The carcass dangled beneath his forearm as he lifted it and used his left hand to peel the warm, pliable, sticky flesh from the skin of its belly. When there was a gap large enough for him to wedge his fingers between them, he wrapped his left hand around the belly until he had a firm grip on the carcass. Then he removed his right from inside the pelt and tugged on the slippery underside of the skin to enlarge the hole. It felt and sounded almost like unraveling an old vellum scroll that hadn’t been read in decades. He slid his fingers through the hole and slowly pulled the two apart until the pelt caught on its forelegs. He peeled each foreleg free, the tiny paws snapping against his leg as the skin around them ripped. One more tug brought the skin to the ears, and if he were planning to save the pelt, he would have used the stiletto to cut around them. But he was only interested in the meat. He twisted the head until the neck cracked apart and then pulled it off. He tossed it and the pelt attached to it into the stream and rinsed the carcass off. Then he held up the animal with the fingers of his right hand just beneath the forelimbs, with the belly facing him. He picked up the stiletto and made a shallow slit from the ribcage down to the anus, careful not to nick the intestines with the tip of the blade, and pried the flesh apart. He reached in with three fingers and pulled out the lungs, heart, and stomach. He thought about eating the heart, but it was small and uncooked. There was a small pop as the esophagus broke free, and he brought out his fingers, allowing the intestines to cascade out until the abdominal cavity was empty. A quick slit sent them floating downstream. He submerged the carcass and ran his fingers around the inside of the abdominal cavity to make sure there wasn’t anything clinging to the abdominal wall. He held it up by its hind legs and tail, inspected it as best he could in the dim moonlight, and nodded with satisfaction. Finally, he rinsed his stiletto off and put it back in its sheath. He stood up and retrieved his backpack.

He walked downstream in the moonlight until he found a place where he could climb up the steep bank and clear an area for a cooking fire. He gathered some small branches for the fire and used a few of them to construct a make-shift spit. Once the fire was going well, he speared the carcass on the spit and set it over the fire. He banked the fire so it would burn with a low flame for several hours and sat down.

Almost at once, fatigue settled on him, and he lay down. But sleep was reluctant to join him; instead, his mind whirled from one unanswered question to another. When had he learned to throw a stiletto? He had never used one while he was with Voltari—there was no need for it—but it had felt as natural to him as the leather tunic he had on beneath his robe. And what about skinning the animal? He had not been the least bit squeamish about it, and his hands seemed to know exactly what to do even though he had no recollection of ever having skinned anything before. It was so cold, so dispassionate…. And what about the fire? He hadn’t built a fire like this before, either; Voltari’s tower held a constant temperature—except when spells went wrong. Why did he feel so confident and comfortable in the wilderness one moment and completely at odds with it in the next?

The answers didn’t matter for now; he was alive, and he needed to focus on staying that way. There were dangers in the wilderness, and not just bears and wolves. Other things more sinister than them could also be lurking in the darkness, and the sooner he made it to a well-traveled road, the better it would be.

As long as there weren’t any bandits….

It took a long time for him to fall asleep, and when he finally did, he was plagued by dreams of shadowy, smoke-like, vaguely human figures with glowing red eyes emerging from knotty maple trunks. They circled him, probing for weakness, stretching out sooty tongues that tasted of roast furnumbra….

He woke just before dawn, the fire little more than smoldering embers. He stirred it back to life and broke off one of the charred hindquarters. It was overcooked almost to the point of being wasted, but he gnawed at it anyway. It tasted mostly of maple smoke, but he didn’t care. While he chewed, he relieved himself and went back to the stream for a pouch of water to douse the fire. He ate the second hindquarter before turning to the flesh on the back, which had escaped much of the flame. It was tender and gamey, but there wasn’t much of it. By the time he had finished eating, there was only the tough, leathery flesh of the breast and abdomen left, and he cut it into thin strips, wrapped each one in a leaf, and put them in one of the pockets of his robe. Then he resumed his journey downstream.

He had only gone a short distance when the stream merged with another one and the water depth made it impractical for him to continue walking in it. The banks were steep, and he had to backtrack almost all the way to where he had camped before he could climb out of it. The maple trees now outnumbered thickets, and the going was easier. He made better time, but at a cost: by midday there were sharp pains in the soles of his feet, and when he stopped to remove his boots, he immediately realized his mistake. When he had stepped into the deeper water, it had seeped into his boots. He had felt it, of course, but had dismissed it as a minor inconvenience. He was wrong. The water had softened the calluses on the soles of his feet, and they had cracked open. It wasn’t that bad, but he didn’t have anything he could use to tend to them. He also couldn’t wait for them to heal on their own. All he could do was dry his boots and hope for the best.

He built a small fire near a fallen log and draped his boots over the log so the heat from the fire could go into them. He watched it closely for several minutes to make sure the flames didn’t ignite the boots or the log, and munched on the last of the meat.

Later, when he tried to put his boots back on, he found his feet had swollen, making it difficult. The open wounds scraped against the leather as he forced his feet past the ankle joint of each boot, and by the time they were both on, tears were leaking from the edges of his eyes. His feet were throbbing. He had difficulty putting weight on them at first, but he had to keep going. He needed to get to a village. He could rest there. He could heal there.

Still the body, he thought, feeling an immediate sense of comfort from the mantra. Still the mind. Still the body…

Ten minutes later, the pain was still there, but it had settled into the background as a manageable bit of static that he could ignore. It helped, and he made good time for the rest of the afternoon. But when he sat down for the evening and let the mantra slip from his mind, it was all he could do to keep from screaming as the repressed agony flooded through him.

He fainted.

He slept.

He dreamt a dragon had caught him; it was dangling him upside down over a pool of crystal clear water. In the reflection, he saw the dragon—a fierce-looking, scaly blackish-red brute—snorting thin streaks of fire across his feet, its forked tongue flicking out to see if they were done….

7

It took Angus four days to reach the first village.

Still the body.

He was limping severely and leaned heavily against a makeshift staff.

Still the mind.

He was feverish and only vaguely aware of his surroundings.

Still the body.

But he was alive.

Still the mind.

He had made it to the village. Did it have a name?

Still the body.

Fellwood. That’s what he decided to call it.

Still the mind.

Did Fellwood have an inn?

Still the body.

Yes. That was his goal. An inn.

Still the mind.

He needed to find the inn.

Still the body.

He wandered through the village of Fellwood—a small patch of perhaps a dozen thatch-roofed houses—as a scattering of villagers stared at him.

Still the mind.

Why were they staring? They surely must have had visitors before.

Still the body.

Pain shot up through his leg, and he blinked away the questions, the eyes of the villagers.

Still the body.

Still the body.

Still the body.

They were distractions.

Still the mind.

What was he doing?

Still the body.

The inn. He needed to find the inn. How could he do that?

Still the mind.

One of the villagers approached, said something. He ignored it. It wasn’t about the inn.

Still the body.

An inn would have a sign.

Still the mind.

That was what he was looking for: a sign. A sign like an axe cleaving a slab of meat? Yes, that would be the inn. Food for woodsmen. Beds….

Still the body.

He turned toward it, and the villager—a young, stout fellow taller than himself—put his arm around his back, his hand circling under his armpit.

Still the mind.

Angus turned to him. He was supposed to do something, wasn’t he? What was it?

Still the body.

The villager guided him toward the largest building in the village, one that had two stories and a slate roof. It was the one with the sign, so he followed where the boy led.

Still the mind.

He frowned. He wasn’t supposed to let him do that, was he?

Still the body.

The villager opened the door, yelled “Nargeth!”

Still the mind.

A foreign language? It sounded like one. But then he yelled it again, and a doughty old matron waddled quickly to his other side. Together, they led him to a chair at a table near the door and helped him into it.

Still the body.

“Can you help him?”

She touched his forehead. She wasn’t supposed to touch his forehead. He was supposed to do something. What was it?

Still the mind.

“Fever,” she tutted, shaking her head. “Find Ulrich.”

The inn. He needed to find the inn. He tried to stand up— Still the body.— but she gently held him down.

“Quickly!” she said. “He’s addle-minded.”

He smiled.

Still the addled mind.

His mantra slipped, but the pain did not overwhelm him.

Still the broken body.

The pain had become so much a part of him that he simply accepted it as if it were a pair of comfortable boots: always there but seldom noticed.

Still the idle mind.

He blinked and shook his head. Addle-minded? Who’s addle-minded? He could help them.

Find the addled mind.

He looked around the room, trying to find the addle-minded one. He tried to rise again.

Still the body.

“Now you be still,” the old matron said.

Still. Still. Still the mindbody.

She was at least fifty if a day, her face plump with concern.

Still her rattled body?

“I am looking for the inn,” Angus said, his voice calm, clear, and drained of energy. “I need rest.”

Still the tired body. Tired….

Her eyes were brown, the kind of milky brown that you could find in a not-quite-ripe walnut. He smiled at her.

Steal her body?

She studied him for a long moment, then nodded. “This be the inn,” she said.

Steal her mind?

He reached into a pocket and brought out a gold coin. He held it out to her. “How long?” he asked.

She barely hesitated before snatching up the coin.

Will she mind?

She smelled it, licked it, pinched it, and nodded. “Long enough,” she said. “You need mending.”

Mend the body.

He chuckled softly. The sound was hollow and weak at first, but gradually bloomed into a full-blown guffaw that left him so exhausted that he slumped forward.

Mend the mind.

He would have fallen to the floor if Nargeth had not caught him.

Mind the body.

He sagged against her shoulder as the world slipped quietly away….

8

Angus rolled over on the straw mattress, the dry stalks grating noisily against each other. He sighed. It was warm in the comfortable little cocoon he had hollowed out from under the coverlet, and he wallowed in it for several minutes before sitting up.

He frowned. This was not his bed or his room. Everything in Voltari’s Tower were drab shades of black and gray, and the coverlet was a lively array of homespun wool squares dyed indigo, forest green, and red ochre. It was beautiful, and if it hadn’t been made from wool, he would think it ostentatious. Voltari was strictly practical with his adornments; he had no aesthetic sense whatsoever.

Where am I?

He eased his feet out from under the warm cocoon and set them on the cold floor. A slight twinge of pain ran through both soles, and he gasped. He looked down at them and discovered they were covered in bandages.

He lifted his right foot to his lap and gingerly tested its sole. It was tender, but the pain was little more than a reminder of what it had been. The inn, he thought. I must be in the inn. He tested his left foot and frowned. How long have I been here?

He began unwinding the bandage—but stopped almost immediately. He wanted to find out how bad his feet looked, but if the bandages were ready to be removed, whoever had put them on would have already removed them. Besides, what could he do about it? He was no healer. He gingerly let his foot fall back to the floor. Still the body, he thought, slowing his breathing and heartbeat. Still the mind. He wanted to reconstruct his memory of what had happened, and needed a clear mind to do it.

His feet had been injured in the stream. He remembered that much. It was a foolish mistake, one he vowed never to make again. Then he compounded the mistake when he had kept walking. He should have waited for the soles to heal instead of aggravating them. But he hadn’t. He had kept walking, and the wounds had gotten infected.

Then he found the village. Fellwood? Isn’t that what it was? Voltari’s map didn’t show the village, but it was there. He was there. And it had an inn. Nargeth…. He had given her a gold coin! How could he have been so foolish?

He was naked.

Where were his things? His heartbeat quickened, despite his efforts to calm it, and he stood up. He surveyed the room quickly, finding his backpack next to the table—which had a basin, ewer, loaf of bread, and slab of cheese placed on it. He paused only long enough to rip some of the bread free before tossing the empty basin on the mattress and putting his backpack in its place. He opened the backpack and was relieved to see the scrolls Voltari had given him still there, seemingly undisturbed. He took a breath and drank from the pitcher to wash down the dry, crumbly bread crumbs before biting into the cheese. It had a tangy, peppery flavor and bits of it pasted themselves to his teeth as he chewed. He quickly counted the scrolls—they were the correct number—and took the first one out. He unrolled it far enough to recognized it, and then moved on to the next one. He continued checking them until he had confirmed that all of the scrolls were still there. But his map was missing, and so were his clothes.

He looked under the bed and in the bedding, and walked around the small chamber three times before he conceded it was a waste of time. At least there was a chamber pot, and the air was warm enough that he didn’t need any clothes. Still, he felt almost trapped in the room without them, and he needed to leave the room to find out what had happened.

He draped the coverlet over his shoulders and wrapped it around himself. It was still warm from his body heat, and it trailed behind him a few feet as he hobbled up to the door. He tried the latch—It was locked! He tried it again, rattling the door on its hinges. He stood there trying to decide what to do until he heard footfalls on stairs.

He backed away from the door and concentrated, bringing the magical energies around him into focus.

There was a key in the door.

It turned.

He dropped the coverlet and reached for a soft crimson strand and wrapped his right index finger around it. He felt the weak, quivering of its power, and prepared his mind and body to receive it and redirect it into the simple knots of the spell.

The door opened inward, and a frumpy old woman stepped in. In her arms were Angus’s robe, tunic, leggings, undergarments, and boots. She almost dropped them when she saw him standing there naked, his right arm craning outward toward her, his left apparently ready to pounce on something that wasn’t there.

“Goodness,” the old woman gasped, coming to a stop just inside the door. “You are a sight, aren’t you?” She smiled, a jovial smile with an undertone of irascibility. “My yes, a sight indeed!” she chuckled, moving past him to lay the clothing on the mattress. When she turned back, she ordered, “Sit you down, now.”

He let the magic slip away as he reached down for the coverlet and wrapped it around himself again. “Nargeth?” he asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said, giving him a firm but friendly nudge toward the bed. “And you be?”

“Angus,” he replied.

“Sit, Angus,” she said. “Let me tend to those feet.”

He studied her for a long moment. She wore her gray hair in a bun beneath a bright orange scarf that contrasted wildly with her simple gray homespun dress, food-spattered apron, and mud-colored leather boots. He sat down on the mattress next to his clothes and slid his hand into the folds, of the tunic.

She stepped forward, put her hands on his knees and knelt down in front of him. He braced himself to resist her weight, but it was a surprisingly light touch. Once she was on her knees, she slid back and reached out for his calf. She lifted it until it rested on her thigh, and then deftly unraveled the bandage. She let it slip to the floor and did the same with the other foot. When she finished, she levered herself up again.

“You will be as good as new by morning,” she said. She turned, walked out of the open door, and came back a few seconds later with a small clay pot in her hands.

“What’s that?” Angus asked.

“Healing balm,” she replied. “Now, pick up the bandages and move you back. My back is too old and crinkled for bending like that.”

Angus did as instructed, and she set the pot beside his feet and pried open its lid. A pungent, almost floral aroma arose from it, and when it struck him, he wrinkled up his nose.

“That’s a fierce smelling concoction,” he said.

She chuckled as she reached into the pot with two fingers and plucked out a small glob of thick, yellow-brown goo. “Ulrich makes it,” she said, spreading the paste-like goo over his feet. “He has an herb garden outside the village. What he can’t grow himself, he gathers from Maple Wood. If it’s not there, he buys it on his annual trip to Hellsbreath. Sometimes he loses himself in the mountains for a while.” She wiped her fingers around the lip of the pot and replaced the lid, pressing it down until it sealed. Then she began rubbing the ointment into his soles.

“It seems to work well,” Angus said.

Nargeth nodded. “Best healing balm outside Hellsbreath’s temples.”

Angus frowned, “How much do I owe you for it?”

“Already paid for,” she said.

Angus frowned and started checking his pockets; they were empty.

“You need not worry,” she said. “Check the boots.”

Angus frowned, picked up a boot, and heard things rolling around inside it. He upended it, and the garnets fell out in his palm. The other held the coins he had brought with him from Blackhaven, all but the gold coin he had given her. He looked at Nargeth and raised his eyebrows.

She shrugged. “Only fools cross wizards,” she said. “And you paid well enough when you arrived.”

Angus nodded. “How long have I been here?” he asked.

“Two days,” she said.

“Two days?” Angus repeated. “My feet healed that much in two days?”

“Aye,” she said, smiling as she began wrapping up the bandages. “Best healing balm north of Hellsbreath.”

“I’ll say,” he agreed. “How much will it cost me for a pot like that?”

Nargeth shrugged. “Ulrich doesn’t sell it to outsiders.”

Angus frowned. “Perhaps if I talk to him?”

Nargeth shook her head.

“Well,” Angus said, pointing to the pot next to his feet. “What about that one?”

Nargeth frowned, sighed, and said, “You paid for it.”

He smiled. It would no doubt come in handy wherever he ended up.

“You come from the south?” Nargeth asked as she picked up the pot and set it on the small table.

Angus shook his head. “No. Northwest. Blackhaven Tower.”

She turned from the table and and eyed him shrewdly. “You know that foul wizard?” she asked.

“Voltari? He was my mentor.”

“Don’t speak his name!” Nargeth half-shouted, wringing her hands and looking about the room as if she thought Voltari was about to appear.

Angus straightened his posture and waited. When Voltari failed to appear, she took a deep breath, squinted at him, and said, “I don’t allow magic in my inn.”

Angus relaxed and smiled at her. “No worry there, Nargeth,” he said. “Once I’ve recuperated, I’ll be heading south. From the look of it, I’ll be leaving in one, maybe two days.”

“Hellsbreath?”

He nodded. “How long does it take to get there from here?”

“Three, maybe four weeks by foot,” she said.

He frowned. It hadn’t looked that far on the map. In fact—

“My map,” he said suddenly. “It wasn’t in my backpack. Did you take it?”

Nargeth nodded. “Ulrich wanted to see it.”

Angus frowned. “I need that map—”

“He’ll bring it before you leave,” she said. “He said it was an old map and wanted to study it while you slept.”

Angus frowned a little longer, and then shrugged. There was nothing he could do about it now, and if Ulrich brought it back, there was no loss. He sighed and asked, “Can I walk on these bandages?”

“Certainly,” Nargeth replied as she moved toward the open door. “Get you dressed and come down to the common room. There’s a fine stew waiting for you, and I’ll send word to Ulrich that you wish to see him.”

“Thank you,” Angus said. “You have been kind.”

She grinned, looked him over again, and said, “For a gold coin, you can have more, if you like.” She pushed out her ample chest and laughed, noisily closing the door behind her.

9

A large bowl of stew was waiting for him when he limped gingerly into the common room. He had decided to wear the robe without the reinforced tunic and trousers, and was already regretting it. It chafed against his skin. The stew was an odd mixture: potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, corn, onions, meat—Nargeth called it a red quisling, a domesticated bird nearly as large as a chicken—seasoned with salt, sage, basil, garlic. It was edible, but the taste was far from desirable. Still, he was hungry, and he ate as much of it as he could stomach before turning away. The ale helped.

He was still sitting at the table when a woodsman walked in. He wore a light brown tunic, brown trousers, and dark brown leather boots. He held a bow in his left hand, and his right hand rested lightly on the hilt of a sword whose tip dangled below his knee. It wasn’t a threatening gesture, but the woodsman was clearly ill at ease. A quiver of arrows hung easily over his right shoulder, and he carried himself like a mountain cat entering another male’s territory. His hair was a mass of brown with bits of leaves and twigs tangled in it. His face was painted with two green finger-streaks from the left brow to the right ear, and a third ran down the bridge of his nose. He scanned the room quickly, nodding to the other customers, and moved rapidly to Angus’s table. When Nargeth stepped out from behind the counter, he waved her off with a glance.

“You are Angus,” he said, his voice clipped, harsh, accusing. “Friend of Voltari.”

Angus studied the newcomer’s posture—A snake ready to strike? A cat about to pounce?—and nodded slightly. “Ulrich,” he said. “Please sit down.”

“Blackhaven Tower is a blight on the land,” Ulrich barked, his voice sharp, as if he were stating an uneasy fact. “The dead must stay dead.”

Angus did not respond. There was no need to; Ulrich obviously had a firmly set opinion, and anything he said would be pointless.

Ulrich shifted his quiver and sat down across from Angus. “Tell me, Angus,” Ulrich asked, each word sharply accented. “What business have you in Woodwort?” he demanded.

“Woodwort?” Angus asked.

“Here,” Ulrich snapped. “This village.”

“Only rest and recuperation,” Angus answered. “I will be leaving in a few days.”

“For Hellsbreath?”

Angus nodded.

“Business?”

Angus smiled. It wasn’t a friendly smile—at least he hoped it wasn’t—nor an unfriendly one; rather, he was acknowledging the boundary they were forming between them. “Perhaps,” he said. “What is it to you?”

Ulrich returned the smile easily, shrugged, and said, “Idle curiosity.”

“Well then,” Angus said. “If that is all it is, you’ll be disappointed. I have no idea what I’ll be doing there.”

“You should visit Ungred,” Ulrich said. “He will make you a proper pair of boots.”

“My boots are fine,” Angus objected.

Ulrich shrugged. “His shop is on The Rim.”

“Well,” Angus said. “I’ll look in on him if I can find the time.”

Ulrich nodded, rose from his chair.

“Ulrich,” Angus said. “You have something of mine. I would like it back.”

Ulrich nodded again, and before Angus could complain, he turned crisply and walked out of the common room, as if he were a cat that had just made up its mind to leave.

The next morning, Nargeth brought the map up to his room. He thanked her and, after she left, unrolled the scroll to see what damage Ulrich had done to it. But it wasn’t damaged; Ulrich had added a considerable amount of information to it. Woodwort was now marked, as were a dozen other villages on the road between it and Hellsbreath. He had scrawled BLIGHT over Blackhaven Tower. A short distance southwest of Woodwort, he wrote FRIEND, and underneath the mountain dwarves he had crossed off IMPASSABLE and replaced it with TAKE WINE. Finally, some distance northwest of Hellsbreath, a considerable distance from the road and villages, Ulrich had written ELHOUIT ACHNUT. Angus didn’t recognize the language, but it didn’t matter; it was a long way from his destination.

Angus memorized the changes and rolled the map up to put it beside his backpack. Then he took out one of the scrolls. It was a spell he knew well, and it didn’t take him long to prime himself for the sequence of knots and reorient the threads of magic within himself to be receptive to those around him. But the second spell was completely new, and he wasn’t at all sure what it would do. He studied it for nearly an hour before setting it aside as hopeless. He was tired, and his head was beginning to ache from the effort of trying to imagine how the various knots fit together and how the threads of magical energy would interact with one another. In the end, all he knew for sure was that it was a powerful, complex spell involving both earth and flame, and all spells involving the sphere of flame would burn things. The question was always about how it burned them. Since it was mixed with earth magic, it would probably use lava, but it wasn’t at all clear to him.

He turned to the next scroll….

10

Angus stayed at Nargeth’s inn for six days, spending almost all of the time studying his new scrolls and organizing them into three categories: those he understood well, those he thought he understood well enough to risk casting, and those he didn’t understand beyond a superficial level. He put the last ones on the bottom of his pack so he wouldn’t accidentally grab one of them in the heat of battle. When he finally left, he set the map on top of the scrolls with the pot of healing balm pressing down on top of it.

The road to the south started out as two narrow ruts cut between thick groves of maple trees, and by the third day it was a carved path through the forest. Then it turned southeast, gradually leaving the densely forested foothills and entering long, sloping, wooded hills. Most of the trees were still maples, but there were also clumps of pine and oak. Beneath them, in the undergrowth, were a myriad of flowers—pink, blue, yellow, white, large, small—and thousands of tiny white butterflies, blue moths, and honeybees. He thought about tracking down a beehive, but decided against it; there was no sense wasting time only to end up stung to death. Still, his magic….

At the end of the first week, the nauseating stench of stagnant, standing water drowned out the sweetness of the flowers, and mosquitoes replaced the butterflies. Fortunately, the road only skirted the edge of the swamp for two days, and the villages were close enough together for him to find lodging and food at the end of each day’s walk. Then the road forked, with one prong continuing to skirt the southern border of the swamp, and the other heading due south. He took the south road, and by the end of the next day, he had escaped the stench altogether. The villages were further apart, but there were well-established campsites along the way. For four days, the road lay between gradually steepening, rocky foothills heavy with brittle brown grasses, berry bushes, and thorn-encrusted shrubs on one side and rolling, grassy hills on the other. It was easy going; the road was well-traveled, and there were wooden bridges over the rivers and streams that could not be easily forded.

By the end of the second uneventful week, Angus was tired of hills.

Low, rolling hills lined with tall brownish-green grass in need of rain. Flowers reeking of powerful, sickly-sweet odors that overwhelmed his sense of smell. Honeybees, butterflies, and moths fluttering all about like massive tiny armies patrolling their kingdoms.

High hills dappled with a patchwork of trees—maple, pine, oak—and a rich variegated undergrowth of tangled clumps of the same tall grass, more brown than green. Long peals of shrill birdsong grated on his nerves and gave him a steady throbbing at the base of his neck.

Steep foothills riddled with berry-bearing thorny thickets, maple groves, and snakes. Lots of snakes. Thin little brown ones that lay in wait on the thickets’ branches, occasionally striking out at a passing songbird enticed by the berries. Gray-black ones large enough to swallow his hand huddled on the ground. And the bright yellow ones that screamed poison.

Long, arduous climbs up the hill left him breathless, and the quick, easy glide down the other side left his knees quivering. Then up the next hill….

Little village after little village after little village after little village.

There were brief moments between villages when he encountered fellow travelers, but most of them had followed the same dull pattern: greet each other, ask about the road ahead, and continue on. When riders came up behind him, he had to step off the road to allow them to pass. He was always wary during these encounters, but they had all proven to be benign interludes. Occasionally, he shared a meal and pleasant conversation with his fellow travelers, and once he had camped for the night with an eccentric old dwarf who had been driven nearly mad from claustrophobia before he’d finally fled topside and found peace.

He fished in the evenings when the river was near enough to his camp, but mostly all he did was walk. Then, early in the evening of the fifteenth day from Woodwort, the well-traveled ruts turned into mortared cobblestones fitted neatly together. The cobblestones were alternating two-foot square slabs hewn from gray-green and reddish-brown granite. He had been told to expect them, and he knew what they meant: Wyrmwood, a major crossroads where the east-west road from Tyrag intersected the north-south road going through Hellsbreath.

Wyrmwood was a thriving town with hundreds living there, and even though he couldn’t remember having been there before, he navigated through the streets as if he had been. The town was constructed in a pattern of concentric rings. Beyond the outer wall were the farmers and cropland. The outer wall was a low, three-foot high stone barrier constructed of granite blocks held together with mortar. It was fairly new, judging by the rough granite surface and slightly weather-stained mortar. Just inside the wall was a ring of one-floor, thatch-roofed hovels and single-room shanties. Figures moved furtively among the mud streets like small packs of dogs prowling in the shadows, yipping and laughing as they nipped at each other. Ruffians? Workers heading home? He brought his robe a little closer about him and dropped his consciousness to a slightly deeper level, bringing the magical energy into the periphery of his awareness. No. Miners. Coal mines to the west.

A second wall like the first, but five feet high, discolored, and smoothed by weathering, separated the miners’ dwellings from the rest of the town. Unlike the first wall, it had a guard waiting at the gate, and a line of people waiting to enter. The guard barely glanced at most of them before gesturing them inside, but once in a while he would study a face closely and ask questions before finally letting them enter. He refused passage only once, and the man protested—until the guard barked a sharp command and three other guards hurried into the gap in the wall made by the gate. The man gave up and, hurling curses back at the guards, pushed his way through the line behind him. Angus frowned as the man grew nearer; the people were stepping aside to give him plenty of room to pass, but he adjusted his own path and kept bumping into them.

Angus stood his ground, drew his dagger, and let the rest of the gathering step aside. The man followed the throng, made a staggered lunge toward Angus, saw the dagger, and stopped. He stood still for a long moment, perfectly poised with his weight on one foot. “I suggest,” Angus hissed, “you find another mark.” The man pivoted easily away from him and promptly bumped into the next small group, his fingers sifting through folds of their clothes, deftly searching for coin purses and other valuable items. Angus watched him until he was far enough away before returning his dagger to his sheath. He looked back to the gate and took several steps forward, catching up with the rest of the line.

Someone finally shouted, “Thief!” and Angus sighed. Not my business, he thought as others joined the cry of “Thief! Thief!” Those around Angus turned, and some of them reached for their pockets. Two hands fell on nothing, and they took up the shout of “Thief” and ran after him. Angus stepped forward into the vacuum they left behind.

The victims of the thief continued shouting.

The guards pretended not to notice.

Angus stepped forward, a pace at a time.

He was behind only three people when the first victim barged past him, panting heavily and demanding that the guard catch the thief.

The guard shook his head. “Not my job,” he said. “My post is here. You’ll have to take it up with the magistrate.”

“The magistrate!” the man bellowed. “He doesn’t care about what happens out here!”

Four more victims joined him, and the guard looked them over. “Sure he does,” he said. “I’m sure if you take it up with him, he’ll do his best to catch the thief.” He half-turned and called, “Isn’t that right, Norby?”

Three guards came into view, and one of them—the largest one, easily a head taller than the others and nearly neckless, with shoulders twice as wide as a normal man’s—grunted in agreement.

The group of victims fumed, and the first one demanded, “Then take us to him!”

The gate guard smiled and repeated, “Not my job.” He paused to study their faces, shrugged, and gestured them through the gate. “Second street on the left,” he said. “You can’t miss it.”

The victims of the thief mulled around for a few seconds before one of them finally half-screamed and stormed through the gate. He walked rapidly down the street, and the others hurried to catch up with him. The three guards stepped back to their posts around the corner.

“Sorry folks,” the guard said. “It happens sometimes. Nothing to worry about. The magistrate will take care of it.”

When it was Angus’s turn, the guard looked him over, squinted in the twilight, stepped a bit closer, and looked again. “Have you been here before?” he asked.

“Not as I recall,” Angus said.

“Business?”

“None,” Angus said. “I seek only a night’s refuge and a warm meal.”

The guard looked at him a bit longer and muttered, “A bit taller, longer hair….” He shook his head. “All right,” he said, nodding him past and turning to the next in line.

“Thank you,” Angus said. He stepped through the gate, paused, and turned back. “If it is of any help,” he offered, “the man you denied entrance was the thief.”

The gate guard frowned, glanced at him, and waved him away.

Angus turned, took a few steps, and smiled. So, he wondered, What’s your cut?

Inside this ring of the city were inns, taverns, stables, shops—everything a traveler might find useful in his journeys. It was the largest part of the city, with many cobbled streets branching off from the main road. The side streets were well lit by oil lamps spaced strategically along them. At the peak of the caravan season, Wyrmwood could easily provide lodging, food, shelter, and entertainment for nearly two thousand guests, but this wasn’t the caravan season; many of the shops were closed and the few people who were there were nearly dwarfed by the wide streets. Angus ignored most of those and headed south until he came up against the last, oldest, innermost wall and the cobbled road wrapped around it. That was where the north road ended.

The wall was a high barrier that appeared to have been built in layers. The bottom ten feet were ancient, crumbling stone that had been patched many times. Even in the encroaching darkness, there was a small group of workmen scraping out mortar in one section and replacing it with fresh cement. The second layer reached up nearly fifteen feet above the first and was made from newer stone; its weathered surface resembled that of the walls separating the workers and shops. It was probably constructed at the same time, with the last layer—wood capped with a walkway and guard posts spaced within easy earshot of each other—added sometime later, perhaps when they had built the outermost wall?

Angus paused to study the wall for several minutes, wondering what was beyond it and somehow knowing it was the wealthy merchant families who owned most of the town, the mines, the farmers’ lands, and the lumber sent downriver by the woodsmen. There were vast fortunes within that little enclave, and it was sorely tempting to find a way inside, sneak through—but the guards on top of the wall patrolled at irregular intervals, never less than a few minutes apart. Still, with a rope and grapple, muzzled with cloth to avoid the clatter…. It would have to be painted with a pattern that would blend in with the stone, since there wouldn’t be time to haul it up; without the camouflage, the guards would see it dangling there. Then what? Once he was inside the wall, the guards on it would be easy to avoid; they were looking out for trouble, not in. But what if there were more guards inside? He would have to bribe some of them, find out the schedule, learn more—but that would be risky. He didn’t have near enough money to match what the merchants could offer, and he would have to kill the guard after he talked with him. But that would alert the merchants….

He frowned, puzzling over the problem. Maybe

“Move on, wizard,” a guardsman said from beside him, startling Angus from his reverie.

Angus turned and smiled. “Sorry,” he said. “I was lost in thought.”

The guard looked like he wanted to give him a shove to move him along his way but was too hesitant to risk it. “This is no place for gawking.”

“Oh?” Angus asked glancing past the guard to see three more standing nearby. But this one was clearly their superior; he had a long sword in a sharp-looking black leather sheath, his leather armor was reinforced with iron bands, and there was an epaulet—dark blue? gray? It was difficult to tell in the fading light—on his left shoulder. He stood with his hands on his belt, near enough to draw his sword if need be but far enough away so as not to appear threatening, and his back was braced and fluid at the same time. He had the air of a well-seasoned, confident fighter ready to do battle but not seeking it out. His leather-clad companions, on the other hand, milled around uncertainly, shuffling from foot to foot with their hands gripping their short swords a bit too tightly.

“I was admiring the construction of the wall,” Angus offered. “History is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I am curious about its construction. The lower portion,” he pointed at it, “is no doubt from the founding of Wyrmwood, and the higher levels are reminiscent of the town’s expansion. That second layer in particular must have been built before the coal mines, and—”

“Yes, yes,” the guard interrupted, his disinterest readily apparent. “You’ve had your look-see, now move on. It is not wise to hover near the inner wall.”

“Really?” Angus asked. “Then perhaps you can direct me to someone who has knowledge of its construction? I may wish to visit with him about it tomorrow.”

The guardsman shrugged. “The stone mason’s guild might know something,” he said. “They’re in the southern quarter.”

“Surely there is a library?”

“What’s a library?” one of the other guards asked his companion. “Is it dangerous?”

The second guard nodded, “Very,” he said. “I hear it’s a place where dragons sleep.”

Their leader half-turned and snapped, “Quiet!”

As one, their hands went to their sword hilts, their feet came together, their backs straightened, and their jaws clenched.

“A library is only dangerous to those who fear it,” Angus said to the guard who had posed the question. “It is a source of knowledge. Books, scrolls, maps—”

“Never mind that,” their leader interrupted. “You won’t be able to gain access to the library. It’s in there,” he nodded through the wall, “and no one is allowed into The Sanctum without invitation.”

“Ah,” Angus said. “That is unfortunate. Perhaps you could arrange such an invitation for me?”

“No,” he said. “We have tarried too long, here. We must continue our patrol, and you—” he paused. “Where is your destination?” he asked.

“Fenbrooke’s Inn,” Angus said without thought.

“Fenbrooke’s?” The guardsman’s eyes narrowed and his hand inched toward his sword hilt. He looked closely at Angus for the first time, and asked, “What business do you have there?”

“Food and lodging,” Angus said without hesitation.

The guardsman continued studying him for a few more seconds, and then relaxed a bit. “Have you been to Wyrmwood before?” he asked. “I feel as though we’ve met.”

“Doubtful,” Angus replied. “This is my first visit to Wyrmwood.”

“Hey Jasper!” a shadowy figure shouted down from the top of the wall. “Is there a problem?”

The guardsman looked up and shouted, “No problems, Landon. He was just leaving.” Then he turned to Angus and said, “Weren’t you?”

“Yes,” Angus said. “I suppose I was. It’s too dark to inspect the wall more carefully, anyway. Perhaps tomorrow it will reveal its secrets to me?”

The guardsman lingered for a long moment, nodded toward the south, and said, “Fenbrooke’s is that way.”

Angus smiled, nodded, and said, “Thank you—Jasper is it?”

Jasper nodded.

“I’ll be on my way, then, Jasper.” Angus turned and made his way around the wall until he was almost to the southern quarter. But instead of entering it, he turned west and worked his way through a tangle of lamplit streets and shadow-encrusted alleys until he was standing across from Fenbrooke’s Inn. It was a three story building built from whitewashed block and mortar. A sign—a beer stein dripping on a pillow—jutted out over the front door. Music—the strident strains of a playful jaunt being strummed on a harp and accompanied by the lilting whistles of a flute and the steady thumping beat of a drum—escaped through the front door and flung itself toward him, as if it were trying to charm him into submission.

Angus frowned. Bards were known to use magic…. He concentrated for a few seconds before dismissing his concern. None of the nearby strands of magic were acting as if they were being manipulated. The music may be entrancing, but it wasn’t the result of magic; it was just a vibrant, lively tune to lure in customers. He half-smiled, left the shadows of the alley—ignoring the other two shadows still lurking there—and made his way across the street and into the front door. He stopped and surveyed the room before him.

Twelve tables. The flautist, harpist, and drummer were on a raised platform in the far corner. Three barmaids bustled among the patrons with platters full of food and drink. Thirty-two patrons, six of whom were clearly disreputable—bandits? ruffians? thieves? Nine more were suspicious; they sat with their backs to the wall and were only pretending to enjoy the music while their eyes roamed the crowd. Three of them studied him closely without appearing to do so, and he smiled, nodded slightly to each one—an almost imperceptible tilt of his head to the right. Then he purposefully moved up to the bar and sat down with his back to them all, knowing there was no more serious insult he could make. He ordered food and wine, and requested a room for the night. When he finished his meal, he got up and made his way to his room.

It was a small room, the standard fare of the inns he had visited on his way to Hellsbreath. Mattress—straw, grass, feathers; they were all the same and much too soft—small table, candle or lamp, water pitcher, basin, chamber pot, coverlet (always warm, sometimes infested with lice or bedbugs), and a lock that could be set from the inside. Some of the rooms, like this one, had a window with shutters; others did not. Some had a chair or two, but others, like this one, did not. Usually the innkeeper brought in a half-loaf of bread, cheese, dried meat, or something else to snack on in the morning, emptied the chamber pot, and made sure he was out of the room early enough to pretend to clean it for the next customer. Sometimes, like this one, the inn had thieves who tried to rob him.

He would be ready for them when they came.

They knew he would be ready, but they would come anyway.

Just before Angus went to bed, he brought the magic around him into focus, aligned it with the magic within him, and selected a light, airy thread with a faint-but-noticeable red tint. It was a weak thread, perhaps near the end of its influence, but it would still serve his purpose. He wove it into a quick series of simple knots, and a small, yellowish, glowing orb appeared in his palm, not quite bright enough to overwhelm the candle. He guided it with his hand until it slipped under the dull, gray, wool coverlet and then intensified it. He left it beside his backpack—no sense making it easy for them to take his spells—and walked to the table to extinguish the candle. The room was dark; not even a wisp of light bled through the coverlet. He made his way back to the mattress and slid under the coverlet. For a brief moment, a dazzling light lit up the room, but it only lasted long enough for him to crawl beneath the coverlet. The orb was warm, which surprised him, even though it shouldn’t have been surprising at all: flame magic always generated heat, even with the simple Lamplight spell. But he had never noticed it before because he was always too focused on reading Voltari’s books or scrolls to pay attention to the little globe of energy floating over his left shoulder, and he had always kept the light diffuse. But this time, he needed it to be as bright as the sun on a clear day, and that meant concentrating the power into a smaller orb—and more heat in a smaller space.

He used his hand to nudge the Lamplight into a more comfortable position and rested.

Still the body.

Still the mind.

Still the body.

Still the mind.

His muscles relaxed and his mind became acutely focused.

Still the body.

His senses screamed at him, detecting every minor disturbance within range.

Still the mind.

His awareness narrowed, cordoning off the faint music, laughter, and merriment rising up from the common room and sending it away.

Still the body.

His breathing subsided to soft, slow, long draughts, and his heartbeat fluttered softly in his chest.

Still the mind.

He sent them out of his awareness, flinging the little scraping sounds of the rodent scurrying in the wall with it.

Still the body.

He tasted the faint, pungency sneaking out through a crack in the chamber pot lid and rid himself of it.

Still the mind.

The coverlet was rough, its tiny, hair-like fuzz crawling along the bare skin of his wrist, his hand, his neck. He shifted his position slightly and sent it away.

Still the body.

He catalogued and dismissed all of the normal sounds and smells, and focused his attention on what remained.

Silence.

Emptiness.

He had no idea how long he waited in the trancelike state before he heard it, the nearly silent scrape of a blade lifting the window shutter’s latch. It was a daring maneuver; Angus’s room was on the second floor, and there weren’t any ledges beneath the window; there was only the thin indentation left behind when the mortar between the stone blocks had shrunk as it dried. He half-smiled—and quickly dismissed the intrusion.

Still the mind.

Prepare the body.

The shutter slid softly outward and settled quietly against the outer wall. A blade slid under the window, pried it from the sill….

Prepare the mind.

A muffled thud as a soft-soled boot lightly touched the floor.

Prepare the body.

A near-silent footfall.

Patience….

Another.

Now!

Angus closed his eyes and threw the coverlet off him.

A gasp, but no scream.

Discipline! Angus felt for the heat of the orb and lifted it from the mattress, guiding it toward the muffled noises as the thief hastily backtracked. He squinted, tried to ignore the glare, and rolled off the mattress into a crouch. The orb followed his hand as if the two had been glued together.

The thief had his left arm over his eyes and thrust a knife out with his right hand, slashing back and forth in wide defensive arcs as he quickly backed up.

Angus slid to his right, watching the rhythmic slashing of the knife. He waited until it was the furthest away from him, and then leapt toward the thief, rising sharply as his momentum propelled him forward. As he passed the thief, he attached the Lamplight to the thief’s left temple, just above the eyes.

The thief turned toward him, the knife jabbing out—

Angus dropped to the floor and rolled beneath the wild flailing.

The thief backed into the wall, grabbing at his eyes and waving his knife.

“I suggest,” Angus said from where he squatted near a corner, “you drop that knife. Unless you want the blindness to become permanent?”

When he heard Angus’s voice, the thief turned and the wild slashes melted into half-offensive, probing ones. He remained that way for several seconds before finally dropping the knife.

“Stand with your legs and arms spread wide against the wall,” Angus said. He brought the magical energy into focus and prepared to grab a deep, brick-red strand—a powerful one with a great deal of flame held within it.

The thief complied slowly, keeping his eyes crammed shut and his fists clenched. He was very young, with only the barest whisper of a black moustache tickling his upper lip and a few hairs dabbled on his chin. His hair was short, little more than half-inch-long black stubble barely visible against the black lining of his light gray cloak and the soft brown of his smooth skin. He was scrawny—a fine quality for a thief—thin and gangly, well-muscled, wiry. Along with the reversible cloak, he had on supple light brown leather garments—tunic, trousers, boots, belt—that no doubt twisted and bent with him when he was contorting his body into different positions. There were several small pouches hanging from the interior of his cloak, probably containing picks, wires, string—anything that might come in handy while he was practicing his trade.

Angus stood up and took a step forward. “If you resist,” he said, approaching the thief with caution, “I will increase the intensity of the spell.” He half-smiled at the half-truth, and then finished, his voice soft, unforgiving. “It will get much warmer, and the blindness will become permanent—If you survive.”

“Please don’t,” the thief said, his voice a low, steady tenor. “I won’t resist.”

“What shall I call you?” Angus asked from a few feet in front of him. “Your real name,” he added, “not an alias.”

The thief frowned for a long moment, and then said, “Giorge.”

“Well, Giorge,” he said. “I am going to search you. Don’t worry,” he added, smiling. “I’m not going to take anything.” He paused and said, meaningfully, “I am not a thief.”

Angus did a thorough job of checking Giorge for hidden weapons, mentally inventorying the thief’s gear without removing any of it. When he was satisfied he didn’t have anything to worry about, he walked over to the window. A rope was dangling from the roof, and he snapped it sharply, sending ripples upward until the grapple broke free. He pulled the rope and grapple into his room, closed the window, and latched the shutters. When he was finished, he returned to the thief, leaned in close to his ear, and purred, “Are you alone?”

The thief gulped and nodded.

“Good,” Angus said, detaching the Lamplight spell from Giorge’s forehead and guiding it to the center of the room. He expanded it, reducing its intensity so that it cast a soft glow around the room, and left it hovering there. “Your eyes,” he told Giorge, “will begin to recover in about an hour, but you will have difficulty seeing for the next few days.”

The thief didn’t respond or move.

“You have friends here,” Angus continued. “I saw them when I arrived.”

Still no response.

“I assume they know you are here,” Angus continued. When Giorge said nothing, he asked, “Do you have a room in this inn?”

The thief hesitated, decided not to respond.

“Now, now, Giorge. I could always reattach the Lamplight spell. It is of little consequence to me one way or the other.”

“Yes,” Giorge said. “I have a room.”

“Good,” Angus said. “Then you can find your way back to it.”

Angus picked up the thief’s knife—a short, thin blade more suitable for puncture wounds than slashing ones—and walked over to the door. He listened carefully for a few moments before lifting the latch and taking a quick look outside. No one was lurking in the hall so he opened the door all the way and moved back to the center of the room.

“Lower your arms and take three steps forward,” he told the thief, “then turn left.” When the thief had done so, Angus moved in behind him and lowered his voice. “Spread the word,” he said. “I am to be left alone. If not,” he moved the Lamplight nearer to the thief’s eyes and squeezed it until it was an intense, red marble that could be felt and seen through his closed eyelids. The thief winced and pressed his head back against Angus’s shoulder and chin. Angus wrapped his hand around the Lamplight, its glow seeping through his flesh to outline the bones of his fingers. He gave the thief a little shove, and Giorge lost his balance, plunging forward until he struck the wall of the hallway across from the door. Angus walked calmly forward, tossed the knife at the thief’s feet, and quietly closed and latched the door.

He expanded the Lamplight spell until it cast a comfortable amount of light and guided it back to the mattress. He lay down, the warm Lamplight near his feet, and went to sleep, leaving only a small part of his mind alert to potential dangers. It was only when he reached that curious state when wakefulness and dreamland merge together that a tiny part of his mind began to wonder. Why did I come to Fenbrooke’s Inn? When did I learn of it? Why was it so easy to identify the thieves? And the guardsmen? They almost seemed to know me? Have I been to Wyrmwood before? When? Why?

Before he could answer any of the questions, the dream began.

He was soaring high above rolling hills, his wings two sails whipping madly about in the wind, his claws cradled around two tasty little morsels.

He looked down at the half-familiar, almost identical slumped forms hanging from his gigantic, falcon-shaped claws.

He licked his lips as he studied them, wondering which one he would devour first….

11

Some time before dawn, Angus left Fenbrooke’s Inn and headed for the south road. At the gate to the second wall, the guard made no effort to prevent him from leaving, and there was no line waiting to come in. Angus stepped through the gate and paused next to the guard. He turned and said, “Good morning.” In the dim light of the lamps, he noted the guard’s droopy eyes, his lethargic posture, and the rumpled hair. Two other guards leaned against the wall not far away.

The guard yawned, nodded, and waved him on.

Angus lingered and asked, “Would you happen to know how far it is to Hellsbreath?”

The guard sighed, stretched, shook himself a bit, and said, “Ten days by foot, if you don’t take any shortcuts.”

“Shortcuts?”

The guard scowled, yawned again, and asked, “First time south?”

Angus nodded.

He sighed. “Well, the road’s built for caravans.”

“Yes?” Angus asked, wondering what he meant.

“It’s nice and wide and hugs the valleys and loops around the hills. It makes it easier for the pack animals than going up over the hills. Carts, too. But it makes for a lot longer trip. If you’re in a hurry, you can climb over the hills, instead of following the road around them.”

“Isn’t that a bit dangerous?”

The guard shrugged. “The patrols don’t go there,” he said. “They keep pretty much to the road. But a lot of people do it. There are tracks.”

“How much time do the shortcuts save?”

The guard sighed, “Maybe a couple of days,” he said. “If you get there.”

“How many don’t get there?”

The guard shrugged. “No way to tell,” he said. “The Tween eats ’em up.”

“The Tween?” Angus asked, a bit alarmed.

“Look,” the guard grumbled. “I’m going off shift in a few minutes. Can’t you wait and pester Dillard?”

Angus half-smiled. “Well,” Angus began. “It’s just that I’ve never heard of The Tween.”

The guard shrugged. “Stick to the road, then. It’s safer. There’s places to camp. There’s patrols. And the things in The Tween stay away from it.”

“The Tween is a place, then? Not a thing?”

The guard sighed and nodded.

“Can you show me where it is on my map?” Angus asked.

“No,” the guard snapped, turning away and hurriedly gesturing to the other two guards. “Snap to it!” he said. “Dillard’s coming.”

The two guards moved quickly, one to either side of the gate, and stood straight, their hands on the hilts of their short swords.

“Shift change,” the guard said to Angus. “On your way now.”

“But—”

“Go!” the guard ordered. “Day shift doesn’t have time to chatter.” He paused a moment, then added, “Dillard is not known for his patience.”

Angus lingered for a long moment before continuing south. As he went through the half-dark streets of the worker’s ring of the town, he wondered why Voltari had left The Tween off his map. It sounded dangerous, and he didn’t think Voltari would have put him in danger without reason. But there was the road, and he could stick to it—at least long enough to find out about The Tween from fellow travelers….

12

Two days later, the road turned sharply southwest and headed straight for the heart of the belching volcanoes. He was still in the dark about The Tween. He had met plenty of travelers on their way to Wyrmwood, but they had simply greeted him and hurried on. The few who came up from behind him were on horses, and they passed him without pausing longer than to acknowledge his presence—if that.

He saw the shortcuts—hard-packed paths that zig-zagged up the hillsides—and thought about taking them, but he wasn’t in a hurry. No sense taking risks. But they were tempting, narrow gaps carved between the thickets, through the grass, and around the occasional rocky outcropping. Most were steep but passable, judging by how much traffic they had had over the years, and he wondered what the danger could be. Whatever it was, a lot of travelers were willing to take it—at least near Wyrmwood. He’d have to wait to see what happened when he got further away from the thriving town.

The road was wide; it could easily allow ten horses to stand abreast in most places. It wound around the hills and kept close to the valley floor, where the slope was slight, making for easy walking. The cobblestones alerted him to travelers on horseback; the clatter of horseshoes hammering against them rang out into the valleys as they passed. At regular intervals, the underbrush and trees next to a stream had been cleared away, and high poles stuck up from the ground like faceless totems. The caravan camp sites the guard had mentioned, by the look of them; there were places to tie up hundreds of horses and ample water. But what were the poles for? Fifty feet high with notches in them for easy climbing. He climbed one, both out of curiosity and to look at the terrain, and there was a large ring and pulley at the top. By the time he was on the ground again, he still didn’t know the answer; it was just one more question to ask, once he found a traveler willing to talk with him.

There were bridges over everything—stream, river, ravine, it didn’t matter; there was a bridge. The base, pillars, and span were carved from polished gray-black granite, but the bed of the bridge continued to alternate between gray-green and reddish-brown cobblestones. All of them were touched by earth magic, the strands knotted gracefully around them, holding the stone of the bridge firmly together. He spent half an afternoon studying one of them, walking over it, going under it, looking at how the knots were connected, how they worked together to reinforce the structure of the bridge, and how the threads were held in place against their will. But all he saw was the surface of the bridge, and it was clear to him that the magic had been knitted together while the bridge had been built, woven in-between and around the slabs of granite, with the threads locked in place inside the bridge. He tried to focus on the individual layers of the ridiculously complex spell, but it was too dizzying and he finally had to give up. He rested for several minutes afterward, and then continued on.

Near the end of the second day, the terrain changed rapidly from low, rolling, thicket-encrusted hills to steep, rocky foothills riddled with outcroppings and jagged, bare rocks jutting out. There were still shortcuts, but they were quite steep and clearly used much less frequently than the ones near Wyrmwood; it would take a sure foot to climb them, and many of the town-dwellers would pass on them. Perhaps that was the risk? Treacherous footing? In places, the road was carved into the rock of the hillside to widen it, and near one of these places, a faint, barely noticeable, rhythmic echo crept around it. It wasn’t the steady, methodical, clattering rhythm of a horse’s hooves; the gap between the sounds was different. A loud clank quickly followed by a muffled clank, and then a noticeable pause before it was repeated. Another pause followed, and it happened again.

What is that? Angus wondered, frowning. It sounds metallic. He slowed his pace and moved as far as he dared to the edge of the road, near the now-steepening drop to the valley floor. The sounds grew louder as he approached—definitely metal striking metal—and he brought the magical energy around him nearer to the surface of his consciousness. It was heavy-laden with earth magic, but there were still plenty of strands of flame available.

He edged around the corner and the sounds grew louder. They were now accompanied by occasional muffled voices, and then he saw why: Rockfall. A massive granite boulder had tumbled down the hill and come to a rest in the middle of the road. A group of workmen were chipping away at it with chisels and mallets. As he neared, he noticed a growing pile of manageable stone slabs stacked next to the dwindling boulder. Each slab looked to be about the same size and color as the cobblestones: two foot gray-green squares one foot deep.

Angus approached the construction crew cautiously but not with fear; they were unlikely to be a threat. Still….

Most of the workmen ignored him and kept chipping away at the stone. They seemed to be grouped in three, one holding the chisel and turning it, and the other two alternating hitting it with a mallet. The granite was hard, resistant, and tiny puffs of rock dust and rock chips fluttered up with each new strike a mallet made. When the man orchestrating the activity saw Angus, he stared for a few seconds and then stepped onto the scaffold that had been assembled next to the stone. He bounced down quickly and jogged up to Angus.

“Greetings, Fair Wizard,” he said, as if it were Angus’s name. “A fine evening will soon be upon us, eh?”

“Indeed,” Angus said, watching the workmen. “A most pleasant one.”

The man fell in at a deferential distance beside Angus and absently brushed stone dust from his clothes. He walked with him for a few paces before asking, “Have you a place to stay the night?”

“I had thought to make the next village,” Angus said, raising his voice a bit to combat the clatter. “Or inn. They seem to be spaced most reasonably on this road.”

“Yes, yes,” the man agreed. “Near Wyrmwood, but not here.” He hesitated, leaned in conspiratorially, glanced around, and said, “We’re too close to The Tween.”

The Tween. What is it? Why does it worry him so? “A caravan stop, then,” Angus said, slowing to a stop near the boulder and watching the men working. There were ten of them, three groups cutting the stone and a boy moving among them with a large jug of water. He occasionally splashed a little water on the groove being chiseled or poured some in a workman’s mouth.

“There’s them,” the man agreed, stopping. “But no tents up yet.” He gestured at a large tent anchored to the cobblestones and said, “That’s the last shelter you’ll find until a day from Hellsbreath.”

“What is this Tween I’ve been hearing about?” Angus asked.

“Ah,” the man said, shaking his head. “It’s a bad place. King Tyr claims it for his kingdom but doesn’t patrol it. The mountain dwarves repel any attempt he makes to settle it. They don’t like encroachment in their territory, and they only barely tolerate the road. They wouldn’t even do that if they didn’t trade with Tyr. That and Hellsbreath is too strongly defended to get rid of Tyr’s influence altogether without open war, and they don’t want that any more than King Tyr does. Still, every now and then they remind us they are there.” He gestured at the rock.

“You think they did that?” Angus asked, looking at him for the first time. The man’s eyes were shrewd little hazel orbs that concealed a keen mind. His skin was tanned and wind-burned; and his hair was a tangled mass of oily, dark brown curls lined with streaks of gray. On top of all of it was a light sprinkling of granite dust.

The man shrugged, “Not this one,” he said, smiling. He only had teeth on the left side, and his smile looked like a mountain dwarf had carved a cave into his mouth. “There’s no sign of it being undercut, and them dwarves tend to keep deeper in The Tween. Wyrmwood sends patrols this far south—and a few hills further— and Hellsbreath patrols the rest of the road.”

“I see,” Angus said, a bit cowed by the man’s size. He was half a foot taller and outweighed him by fifty pounds, all muscle. He turned back to the road and started walking again.

The man fell in stride beside him again, and they walked in silence until they were almost past the tent. “If I might make a request, Fair Wizard?” the man finally said.

Angus nodded curtly without turning or slowing.

“Well,” the man hedged. “I would be most grateful if you joined us for the evening meal and, if it be to your liking, stay the night.”

Angus stopped, turned, and tilted his head. “For what purpose?” he asked. “It will be a clear night with a full moon, and I’m far from tired.”

The workman rubbed his chest, grinding the dusting of rock into his tunic. “Well,” he hedged, “I—that is, we would be glad for your presence, Fair Wizard. The Tween,” he looked back at the boulder, the men, and the tent. When he turned back, he shook his head and shrugged. “There’s things in The Tween,” he finished. “Things that come at night. They don’t come this far often, but it isn’t unheard of.”

Angus half-smiled. “Surely you are prepared for them.”

The workman nodded. “Yes,” he admitted. “But a wizard…” He paused, shrugged again, and added, “It’s the men, see. They would sleep more easily if they knew your magic was with them.”

Angus sighed. Perhaps he would be better off not wearing the robe? But then, he was certain at least one or two of his encounters would have gone badly if he hadn’t been wearing it. There was something mysterious about wizards; they could see things others couldn’t, and draw upon powers that were a complete mystery to the rest of humanity. But for those who could see the magical strands, who could manipulate them, wizards were no different than the workmen chipping away at the rocks: craftsmen plying a skill. It just happened that the skills they plied could be far more powerful than a mallet and chisel.

“A meal would be most welcome,” Angus said, “but I will stay the night only on two conditions.”

The workman grinned and looked as if he wanted to clamp onto Angus’s shoulder with his huge hand. He stopped himself, and asked, “What might they be, Fair Wizard?”

Angus smiled. “First, call me Angus,” he said.

The workman nodded. “Angus it is, then,” he said. “The second?”

“Tell me more about this Tween. It is new to me, and I would be grateful for any information you have on it.”

His grin broadened and the cave in his mouth deepened as he gestured to the tent and said, “Done!” Then he turned to his crew and shouted, “Stow the gear and clean up!”

“What shall I call you?” Angus asked as the workers began to tie down their pulleys and gather up their equipment.

“Billigan,” he said, smiling.

“That’s an unusual name,” Angus asked.

Billigan nodded. “The Tween is an unusual place,” he said.

“Oh?” Angus asked. “Were you born there?”

Billigan nodded again, then hurried away to supervise the other workers as they prepared for the evening.

Angus continued to watch for a minute, and then turned away from the worksite to examine the worker’s camp. It was a fairly basic temporary encampment a short distance south of the boulder, far enough away to avoid the rock dust and chips but close enough to be useful. It consisted mainly of a large tent anchored to the cobblestones of the road on one side and to the hillside on the other. There were no horses in sight, nor could he hear any, but here could be some behind or inside the tent; it was large enough to house a couple dozen men.

The workmen gathered together on the road and made their way noisily toward the tent, laughing and joking with each other. Billigan hurried up, and they quieted somewhat as he pointed at Angus. Then they resumed their good humor with an even more strident tone. What do they expect to happen? Angus wondered, not sure what he could do if something did happen. The best spells take time to weave….

“Angus!” Billigan shouted, gesturing for him to join them on their way to the tent. “These are my men,” he continued, pointed to each one and rattling off a list of names that Angus promptly forgot. He greeted them as a group, and they moved into the tent. He followed after them, Billigan at his side.

“We don’t have much,” Billigan said. “But you’re welcome to share in it.”

“Thank you,” Angus said. “I require very little, other than information.”

“Of course!” Billigan said, holding the tent flap open until Angus moved past him.

The tent was lit by a pair of lanterns hung on the tent poles, and it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. The workers moved quickly to the left, where the boy with the water jug was standing next to a barrel of water. They stripped off their tunics and trousers, throwing them into a pile next to the boy or, laughingly, onto him. He waited until the last one had finished, then picked up the first tunic. He shook it vigorously, sending out a small cloud of sweat-drenched rock chips and dust, and then tossed it in a new pile next to the barrel. He picked up a second one and did the same thing.

The workers left him and the settling cloud behind them and walked across the tent to gather around an overturned barrel with a stack of water basins and a cluster of ewers on it. Next to it was a second barrel of water, and they began washing off the worst of the grit still clinging to their near-naked flesh.

“If you need washing,” Billigan said. “You’ll have to wait for them to finish.”

Angus turned toward Billigan and nodded. “They need bathing more than I do.”

“So do I!” Billigan laughed and gestured toward a wagon in the center of the tent. Its sides had been removed and reassembled as benches, and its bed served as a table on which several loaves of bread and a large, half-eaten wheel of yellow-green cheese were waiting for them. “Help yourself,” Billigan finished, turning to the boy and working the ties of his tunic.

As Angus approached the table, the faint smell of honey mixed with maple smoke greeted him. A smoldering brazier was on the cobblestones on the other side of the wagon-table, and strips of meat were draped on a spit over the coals.

“If you want one,” Billigan called as he went to join his crew at the wash barrel, “now’s the time to get it. There won’t be any left once they get their hands on it.”

Angus shook his head. “I’m not all that hungry,” he said. “A bit of bread and cheese will do for me.”

“And beer to wash it down,” Billigan added, gesturing to another barrel near the wagon.

Angus broke off a bit of bread and cheese, and half-filled one of the mugs. The beer was a dark, heavy brew and had a bit of a tart flavor and smoky aftertaste. But it helped him swallow the not-quite-stale bread and clingy, rough-textured cheese. He was nearly finished by the time Billigan sat down opposite Angus and cut off a piece of meat. He began gnawing on it, his left cheek puffing out as he jostled it around over what few teeth he had left.

“How’d you lose them?” Angus asked. “The teeth?”

Billigan shrugged and waited until he swallowed before he answered. “I had just started out,” he said. “It was a new crew, and most of us were inexperienced. I was holding on to the chisel at the wrong angle. The supervisor didn’t notice, and neither did the mallet man. When the mallet hit the chisel, it shot up off the granite and knocked most of them out. The rest just rotted away.”

“It must have been painful,” Angus said, trying to sound sympathetic but not really caring.

Billigan nodded vigorously. “It still hurts once in a while,” he said. “The teeth broke off and left the roots behind. Sometimes they ache.”

Angus finished the last of his beer, stood up, and removed his backpack. “Would you mind if I bring a lantern over?”

“What for?” Billigan asked around the half-mauled chunk of cheese flopping around in his mouth.

“I have a map,” Angus said. “I’d like to know where The Tween is on it.”

Billigan swallowed, shrugged, and ripped off another mouthful of bread.

Angus went to the water barrel and rinsed the crumbs from his fingers and splashed water on his face. There were towels draped over the lip of the barrel, and he rubbed one over his face. It was too damp to dry his face effectively; it only pushed around the wetness into more convenient places. Then he moved to the nearest lantern, glanced at the simple knots in the leather strap securing it to the pole, and quickly untied them. He adjusted the wick to make a brighter light and moved back to the table. He opened the flap of his backpack and took out his map. As he began to unroll it, Billigan swallowed, licked the grease on his fingers, and reached for it. “No,” Angus said, waving him off. “I’d rather not get it greasy. He set one corner under the lamp and took the dagger from his belt to hold down the opposite corner. Then he peeled it open and pointed to a spot on the road.

“Here is about where we are,” he said. “Based on how long I’ve traveled from Apple Vale.”

Billigan nodded. “Apple Vale is the last town south of Wyrmwood until Hellsbreath.”

“Good,” Angus said. “Where’s The Tween?”

Billigan studied the map without touching it. After a few seconds, he gestured at the mountains north and west of Wyrmwood. “Them’s the mountain dwarves place,” he said. “Stout folk, them dwarves. I got a good crew, but if I had half as many dwarves, they’d have turned that stone to dust by now.” He traced the road heading west of Wyrmwood and added, “That’s the trade route King Tyr uses when he trades with them. It’s a safe enough route for caravans, but I wouldn’t risk going there alone.”

“Why not?”

“There’s things there that eat people, and other things that eat them.”

“Such as?”

Billigan shrugged. “Nobody knows but the ones who got eaten.”

“Go on,” Angus said.

“The Tween runs along this way,” he said, making a sweeping gesture that began south of the east-west road through Wyrmwood and looped around until it passed by where they were and nearly reached Hellsbreath. He hovered close to Hellsbreath for a moment and then made a gesture that started west before curving a short distance north into the mountains. When he finished, he nodded and said, “That’s The Tween, too.”

“All right,” Angus said. It was a large area covering several mountains. “These mountains are The Tween, the disputed lands?”

“I wouldn’t call them mountains. Them dwarves lay claim to all the mountains. Them’s the volcanoes. Neither man nor dwarf can tame them. Excepting Hellsbreath, of course, and this road.”

“Volcanoes,” Angus began. “They’re the reason for the smoke?”

Billigan nodded. “They spew it out all the time. That and fire and ash and rock.”

Angus frowned. Why would Voltari send him into a volcanic region? It could easily kill him with very little warning.

“According to legend, it wasn’t always volcanic,” Billigan continued. “But that was before the Dwarf Wars. King Urm—he founded King Tyr’s line—had built up his kingdom by subduing the plains folk. They weren’t human, by the way, so nobody complained much. Some say there are still a few of them wandering around, but I don’t believe ’em. They say you can see it in their eyes when you look at them. Anyway, King Urm pacified them and secured the plains for his own people.” He picked up a piece of bread. “Those grasslands are worth their weight in gold; we wouldn’t have this bread without them. Their seeds are ground up into flour, and this bread is made from it.” To emphasize his point, he tore off a small bite and began chewing it, a bit of slobber dripping from the gap in his mouth.

“The Dwarf Wars,” Angus muttered. “They were about a thousand years ago, weren’t they?”

Billigan nodded and drank from his flagon. “King Urm’s son started them,” he said after he swallowed. “King Vir, they called him. He was an ambitious, despised king. He wasn’t happy with the riches of the plains; he wanted the riches of the mountains, too. He tried to take them from the dwarves, and they met in battle here,” he said, pointing at the volcanic region, “in The Tween. But it wasn’t The Tween then; it was normal mountains. The dwarves were living there. They fought fiercely until winter, and then the armies retreated from each other. The next spring, King Vir sent his army back, but the dwarves weren’t there anymore. He waited of course, but they never came out of their holes to fight. Nobody knows why.”

“No one?” Angus asked, frowning. “The dwarves do, don’t they?”

Billigan grinned. “Sure they do, but they ain’t talking.” He laughed and drank more beer.

“Maybe the wrong people are asking them,” Angus mused.

“Now who would want to talk to one of them dwarves?” one of the workmen offered. “All they ever do is dig holes and make metal.”

“Yeah,” one of his fellows agreed. “But it’s ten times better than the metal we make.”

“Now that just ain’t true,” the first one said. “Hellsbreath’s forges are almost as good as theirs, aren’t they?”

“Oh, sure,” the second worker said. “But we can’t work the metal the way they do, and everybody knows it.”

The first one glared and half-stood before Billigan intervened.

“Now boys,” he said. “We have a guest. There’ll be no rough-housing tonight. Besides, the dwarves are better at metalwork than we are—and masonry for that matter—and there’s no shame in admittin’ it. After all, they aren’t worth squat as farmers.”

There were a few chuckles, but the tension did seem to ease up a bit.

“What did King Vir do?” Angus asked.

“Oh, he assumed the dwarves had fled from his army and took control of the land. He built strongholds, villages, temples—all the things you would do if you were expanding your kingdom and wanted to fortify its new boundaries. And it worked well until the first volcano destroyed half the settlements. They say you could hear the eruption all the way to Virag—that’s Tyrag, now.”

“Ah,” Angus said, half-smiling. “That’s why the dwarves left, then.”

Billigan’s brow creased into a curious rippling of wave-like wrinkles. “What is?” he asked.

“Mountain dwarves live deep underground in tunnel complexes carved from the mountain’s heart,” Angus said. “They had to have heard the rumblings and felt the rising temperatures long before they reached the surface. They may even have breached a few magma pockets, for all we know. I’m sure they knew what the increased volcanic activity foretold, and they left for more stable mountains.”

Billigan’s wrinkles flattened out somewhat and he nodded. “You may be right,” he admitted. “It was less than ten years after the Dwarf Wars that the first volcano spat out its innards, and not long after that, the other volcanoes were erupting. They’ve been at it ever since.”

“There’s another possibility,” Angus mused. “The dwarves could have caused the eruptions.”

“Them dwarves?” Billigan scoffed. “Ha!”

Angus frowned and met his gaze. “Some dwarves have magic.”

“Well,” Billigan said. “I wouldn’t know about that. All I know is that King Vir had to admit defeat. He wasn’t at all happy about it; he lost a lot of treasure when that mountain blew. His lineage tried again and again to tame the region, but it wasn’t until King Lar, Tyr’s grandfather, that they managed to do it.”

“Oh? How did he do it?” Angus asked.

Billigan shrugged. “Magic.”

Angus tilted his head. “Magic tamed the volcanoes?” he asked. Flame magic, no doubt, and Voltari taught me quite a few spells from that sphere. Almost all of his spells involved flame magic in some way or another. But volcanoes? They have far too much violent energy for my—or anyone else’s—spells to control!

Billigan nodded. “You’ll see it for yourself when you get to Hellsbreath,” he continued. “King Lar is the one who rebuilt this road. It goes through Hellsbreath pass and into the western lands. A great deal of trade passes along it, and that’s why we have to keep it clean. If this were the time for caravans, they would have sent wizards out to move this stone instead of us, but this time of year we get to cut the rockfalls up into cobblestones. That’s how the road has grown so much since Lar’s day.”

“Do a lot of rocks fall?” Angus asked.

Billigan nodded. “Not many this big, of course,” he said. “They’re usually about a third this size, maybe less.”

“Is all of The Tween volcanic?” Angus asked. “Or just the part near Hellsbreath?”

“Just Hellsbreath,” Billigan said, “It comes north to about here, and south and west through the mountains. But most of the activity is around Hellsbreath.”

“What about the rest of The Tween? You indicated it goes almost as far north as the east-west road.”

“It isn’t volcanic now,” Billigan said. “But in Vir’s day, it was. Nobody’s been willing to risk living there since then, what with the dwarves, the things that eat people, the things that eat the things that eat people, and the threat of volcanoes erupting all around them.”

Elhouit Achnut,” Angus muttered, looking at the mysterious phrase Ulrich had written in the middle of the northern portion of The Tween and wondering what the words meant.

“Eh?” Billigan asked.

“Just thinking aloud,” Angus said. “It isn’t important.”

“Well,” Billigan said. “That’s what The Tween is, too. Not important. Almost no one ever goes there, and those that do almost never come back—and you can’t trust what the ones who do come back say about it.”

“All right,” Angus said. “What else do I need to know about it?”

Billigan sighed and said, “It’s late, Angus.”

Angus glanced around and noticed for the first time that almost all of the workers were asleep. Some were snoring softly, and he, Billigan, and the young boy were the only ones still awake. “You’re right,” he said, nodding. “I’ve kept you long enough.”

“You’re more than welcome to stay with us tomorrow,” Billigan offered.

Angus shook his head. “No,” he said. “I need to get to Hellsbreath before the caravans arrive.”

“Of course,” Billigan said, clearly disappointed. “Some rest, then. You can grab a blanket and find an empty spot.”

Angus nodded and watched as Billigan went to a pile of blankets, picked one up, shook it, moved a little away from the cluster of workmen, and lay down. Angus rolled up his map, returned it to his backpack, and hung the lantern back up. He dimmed its light to little more than a weak candle’s brightness, picked up a blanket, and found a shadowy corner. He lay down, his head against his backpack, and draped the blanket over him. He closed his eyes.

The workmen were snoring. One had quiet little snorts. Another had heavy, long-winded wheezing. A third had rhythmic grunts. They were quite distracting; he couldn’t sleep.

After a few minutes, he sighed and sat up.

Still the body.

He closed his eyes and concentrated.

Still the mind.

He ran through the silent mantra until he was relaxed and his attention was sharpened to a fine point, eliminating one sound after another from his conscious awareness. When he finished, he lay back and rested. He wasn’t sleeping, exactly, but he wasn’t actively engaged with the world, either. It was a sort of middle ground between the two, one in which he could remain mentally alert while not thinking of anything in particular, and physically at rest without being completely inactive. Eventually, he would need full sleep and the dreams that would come with it, but the meditative exercise could forestall that need for several days.

He was still in this state when he heard a footfall just outside the tent flap.

It was a familiar footfall.

He opened his eyes and brought the magical threads into focus.

The thief had pursued him.

He was not alone.

13

The footsteps—almost as silent as walking on butterfly wings—made their way slowly around the tent’s exterior, as if the man accompanying them was studying the thick cloth of the tent wall for some sign of weakness.

In the distance, barely audible even in Angus’s highly attuned state, a horse snickered. There were other horses with it, but he couldn’t tell how many. Someone dismounted, metal softly clacking against metal, muffled by a layer of cloth. Armor? They were near the boulder.

Angus slid the blanket from him, the cloth brutally rough against the hypersensitive skin of his hand. As he sat up, he quickly brought the magic closer to him. He reached for a deeply crimson strand of flame—a strong one full of energy—and wrapped it gently around his right forearm. The energy pulsed, its barely constrained incendiary force writhing furiously over his skin and trying to break free. Once it was firmly anchored, he sought the second strand. He avoided the deep navy blue strands—too much moisture in them—in favor of a thin, sky blue one. It would have less sky magic in it, which would help to contain the explosive force while feeding it just the right amount of air. He didn’t want to kill Giorge; he only wanted to warn the thief and his companions away. But if it wasn’t Giorge, if his memory of Giorge’s footfalls was flawed, he wanted to be prepared.

He started intertwining the two strands, alternately knotting the sky around the flame and then the flame around the sky. They were simple knots, ones that would come apart quickly when he released them. He kept making knots until the two strands were fighting against him so strongly that it became difficult to contain them, to keep them from breaking free and releasing their energies. He gripped the last knot in his right hand and held it as tightly as he could as the complex chain wiggled about his arm as if it were an angry.

He eased himself slowly upright, balancing on his left knuckles.

The thief was almost directly across from the tent opening, and Angus walked as softly as he could to the flap. He opened it a crack and peered out. It was dark, but the kind of light darkness that can only happen in the mountains on a cloudless night. The unimpeded starlight was more than enough for him to see the vague shapes of a handful of horses and four men gathered next to them. Three of the men had bows ready at their sides; the fourth was a towering silhouette of armor. Angus let the flap fall back into place and turned toward the sound of Giorge’s quiet breathing, just beyond the tent wall. He walked swiftly through the tent to within a few feet of the sound, not overly concerned about the noise he knew would be heard. When he was in position, he said “Hello, Giorge.” His voice low, steady, calm.

The breathing paused.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?” Angus purred. “Or shall I introduce myself?”

The boy stirred in his sleep, sat up, rubbed his eyes, and asked, “What is it?”

Angus held up his left hand for silence. “Well Giorge? Which will it be?”

Giorge was breathing again, but he wasn’t moving. A few more seconds passed, and then Giorge softly asked, “Angus?”

Angus smiled; he hadn’t told him his name. “Yes,” he said, “and I am prepared.” The spell was fighting against him, and sweat was beading on his forehead from the effort to control it. He would have to release the spell soon or the knots would begin to unravel on their own, releasing an unguided torrent of flame….

Giorge’s footfalls moved quickly away. Angus followed after them until they stopped just outside the tent opening. Giorge slid his fingers through it and lifted it slowly outward. When he saw Angus, he said, “We’ve been looking for you.”

A few of the workers woke up, saw the stranger at their door, and began waking their comrades. They tried to move quietly to their tools, but the sounds they were making shouted out their activity. Angus and Giorge ignored them.

“For what purpose?” Angus asked, letting the spell slip a little closer to release.

Giorge glanced back at his friends and said, “We’d like to make you a proposition,” he said.

Angus felt the sweat trickling from the furrow of his brow as he tilted his head. “What kind of proposition?” he asked. His right hand began to tremble.

Still the body.

“Our banner needs a wizard,” Giorge said. “We’d like to offer you the position.”

Angus frowned in surprise, and the spell almost slipped free before he could pinch the last knot tightly between his fingertips. He winced and thrust his right hand—flickering crimson flames engulfed it—through the tent flap.

Giorge leapt backward and retreated several steps.

Angus ignored him. He had to; the spell sizzled violently along his fingertips as he stepped forward and opened his hand. He had no time to aim, and the first explosive burst struck the edge of the road before he could raise his arm high enough to send the explosions skyward. He half-screamed, half-grunted when the last knot loosened and the strand of flame snapped free from his arm and slashed against his palm like a whip.

The horses reared, turned, and fled.

Giorge had his knife out in front of him.

Angus dropped to his knees and gasped, blinking back the tears as the last of the magical fire sputtered out. He took a slow, deep breath—Still the body.—and pushed away the sharpness of the pain.

Still the mind.

He fell forward, caught himself with his left hand.

“Giorge!” the armor-clad warrior called. “The horses!”

Still the body.

Giorge looked back, hesitated, and then glanced at Angus.

Still the mind.

Angus ignored him.

“Giorge!” the man called from further away, his armor clattering loudly as he ran.

Still the body.

Giorge turned, sheathed his knife, and ran after him.

Angus focused on the pain, captured it—Still the mind.—and cast it away. His breathing was slow, steady, rhythmic.

Still the body.

He sat back on his heels and pressed upward, rising to his feet in a single graceful motion.

Still the mind.

Angus held his hand out in front of him, palm up, and looked at it with a clinical, detached eye. The fingertips had blistered, and a wide welt ran across his palm from the wrist to his pinky. It had burned through the skin and most of the flesh was charred. He flexed his hand, but the fingers weren’t moving properly. If the damage were permanent….

Still the body.

Angus turned, entered the tent, and walked past the throng of workmen. They had their picks and mallets out before them, but when they saw it was Angus, they relaxed a bit and let him past.

“What is it?” Billigan demanded as he approached.

Angus ignored him and walked steadily to the water barrel. Still the mind. He stuck his arm in it up to the elbow. It was the laundry barrel. There was a film of grit floating on it, but he didn’t care; the water was cool on his skin.

Still the body.

The boy whimpered from behind the laundry barrel. Angus ignored him.

Still the mind.

“Fire!” one of the workmen called from the tent flap.

Billigan cursed and hurried up to the tent flap.

Still the body.

“Water line!” Billigan ordered. “We have to put that fire out before it spreads!”

The workmen tossed their tools aside and rapidly formed a line from the wash barrel to the tent flap.

“Yes,” Angus said, his voice calm as he took his arm out of the laundry barrel. “Use the laundry water first,” he suggested, moving along the line until he reached the wash barrel.

Still the mind.

The workmen passed ewers and basins of water along in quick procession until two of the men decided to lift the barrel and carry it out through the tent flap. The line began to reform at the wash barrel as the empties were handed back.

Angus shook the grit off his arm and dipped it into the barrel before they started siphoning off the water. Then he went to the corner and picked up his backpack. He made his way through the men and up to the table. He set the backpack down next to the bread, opened the flap, and began removing the scrolls, stacking them neatly as he went.

By the time he had them all removed, a man near the entrance shouted, “It’s out! Let’s stomp the ashes to make sure it stays that way.” The other workmen dropped the basins and hurried outside.

The boy started picking up the ewers and basins, and as he passed the table, Angus said, “I need your help.”

The boy paused, cradling a couple of ewers and three basins in his arms.

“When you finish, bring a lantern to the table,” Angus added.

Angus slid the sleeve of his robe back to see how far the burn went up his arm, but the damage stopped abruptly at his wrist. The robe will protect you, Voltari had told him when he left. Is that what you meant, Master?

The boy brought the lantern up to the table and set it down next to the scrolls.

“Not there!” Angus cried as the hot glass nestled against his precious magic. The boy pulled it rapidly back, and Angus continued, “Come around over here, and set it on the other side of the backpack.”

The boy complied and turned to leave.

“There’s a pot in my backpack,” Angus said. “I need you to take it out for me.”

As the boy brought the pot out, Angus reached across his belly with his left hand and withdrew the dagger from its sheath. The boy set the pot down and Angus handed him the dagger. “Use this to pry it open. Do it gently,” he warned. “I don’t want the lid broken.”

After a few seconds effort, the lid popped up, followed by the rush of air and a tart, not-quite-completely-unpleasant odor.

“Thank you,” Angus said, lifting the lid and setting it upside down on the table beside the pot. He dipped two of the fingers of his left hand into the pot and brought out a small glob of the ointment. He dabbed his tormented fingertips with it, and the pain from the blisters lessened immediately. Then he spread it liberally over the welt on his right palm. He spread the goo over it, braced himself for the pain, and began rubbing it into the trench cut into his palm. But instead of searing, raging pain, there was only a pleasant tingling sensation. Once the ointment had been absorbed, he spread another layer over it and asked, “Are there any clean bandages?”

The boy nodded, hurried to the back of the wagon, and rummaged for several seconds in a compartment Angus had not seen before. When he came back, he had a six-inch-wide swath of cloth in his hands. “There are accidents, sometimes,” he said. “I can wrap it for you. I’ve done it before.”

Angus nodded and held out his hand.

The boy rapidly secured the bandage over the wound, and when the boy finished, Angus used his left fingertip to wipe a thin layer of the ointment around the lip of the pot before replacing the lid. Then he pressed down firmly on the lid to seal it.

“What is that stuff?” the boy asked.

“A healing salve,” Angus said.

“Is it magical?”

Angus shook his head. “No,” he said. “But it works almost as well.”

“It smells funny,” he said.

Angus chuckled. “Why don’t you put it back in my pack,” he said. “Then you won’t have to smell it any longer.”

The boy did so, and then reached for one of the scrolls. “Are these more maps?” he asked.

Angus’s left hand snapped out and grabbed the boy’s wrist in a tight grip. “Don’t touch those,” he hissed in his most severe tone.

The boy winced and tried to pull his hand back.

“They are my spells,” Angus said, letting go. “They are quite dangerous for anyone not trained in their use.” Then he held up his injured right hand, and smiled. “Even for those who are trained, there is sometimes a hefty price.”

The boy leaned back and said, “I should help them stomp the ashes.”

Angus nodded as he started to return the scrolls and map to the backpack. When he was done, he secured the flap and waited.

Several minutes later, the workmen returned, stomping and grumbling. One of them carried the empty water barrel, and another went to the wash barrel. “We’ll have to fill these tomorrow,” he said. “There isn’t near enough for the day.” He glared accusingly at Angus but didn’t say anything more.

Billigan entered and took a seat opposite Angus.

“All right, Angus,” he demanded. “Why the devil—”

“It was an accident,” Angus sighed. “Giorge startled me.”

“Giorge?” Billigan repeated. “Who’s Giorge?”

“A thief I met in Wyrmwood,” Angus said. “He was outside the tent with his friends.”

“Do you know them?” Billigan asked.

“No,” Angus said. “My encounter with Giorge was brief. I never met any of the others.”

“Will they be back?” Billigan demanded.

“I suspect so,” Angus said.

Billigan turned to two of the workers. “Guard duty,” he said. “Keep an eye out for them.”

Angus stood up and put his backpack on. “They’re here for me,” he said. “You’re in no danger from them.” You have nothing worth taking, anyway, he thought.

“What about you?” Billigan asked.

Angus half-smiled. “I don’t think they’ll risk testing my patience overmuch,” he said. “Not tonight, at least.” Angus walked quickly over to the tent flap and opened it. Giorge and his friends were nowhere to be seen. He turned back to Billigan. “After all,” he finished, “they did invite me out for a chat.”

He stepped outside and let the tent flap fall back into place. He barely looked at the scorched patch of hillside to his left as he walked rapidly up to the boulder blocking the road. He stepped around it and still couldn’t see them. He climbed one-handed up the scaffold and took another look. From his perch, he saw the glint of moonlight reflecting off metal in the valley, well away from the road. It was the armor-clad warrior lumbering along at a sluggish pace. Once he saw him, he was able to pick out the other running shadows. There were five of them, and the metal-clad warrior was lagging considerably behind the others. Then he saw the horses his visitors were chasing after. Even if they caught up with the horses quickly, it would take time for them to return. If they were still interested in returning. He sighed and went back to the tent.

Billigan and two workers were standing beside the tent entrance. The workers had their picks hanging loosely over their shoulders, and their hands tightened on them as Angus approached. He stopped in front of them and said, “No need for guards tonight. Their horses scattered. It will take them at least until dawn to catch them.”

The workers looked relieved and were about to turn back into the tent when Billigan shook his head. “No sense in taking chances,” he said.

“They’re gone for now,” Angus countered as he stepped between them and opened the tent flap. He paused and added, “I don’t know if they’ll be back again or not, but they aren’t looking for a confrontation. If they were, they would have attacked when they had the element of surprise on their side. We may as well get some sleep.”

Angus let the flap fall and walked back to his corner. He set his pack down and lay with his head resting against it. Within a few moments, he felt sleep approaching, and just before he was overtaken by it, he wondered how he had lost control of the spell. What had caused his brief, almost deadly lapse of concentration? It was almost as if his right hand had acted of its own accord….

14

The muffled, rhythmic, distant CHNK-nk of metal on stone.

The sloshing of water being vigorously stirred.

A kink in his neck—noticeable, distracting, but not overly painful.

His hand was throbbing, a dull, soft throb that was neither urgent nor negligible.

The warm, inviting aroma of baking bread.

His stomach grumbled.

There was a thick, nauseating film lining his cheeks, teeth, and tongue.

He had to pee.

Angus opened his eyes to a narrow, patient slit and let the dim light from the lamps filter into his consciousness. It was subdued, casting mottled patches of soft light and long, fluttery shadows on the tent walls.

He took a slow, deep breath, savoring the aroma of the bread as it tickled his salivary glands to life. The spit was a welcome change to the foul-tasting, gunk clinging to his tongue and teeth.

He sighed, stretched—winced as his neck muscles protested—and sat up. The tent was nearly deserted; only the boy was there, scrubbing away at the workers’ tunics and trousers. They must have two sets, Angus thought, not really caring. Maybe I should wash mine?

Angus nodded to himself and carefully removed the black wizard’s robe. He shook it and all of the dust and dirt on it dropped easily to the ground. He examined it closely (it looked as clean as the first day he’d gotten it), folded it, and set it on his backpack. His removed his boots and set them next to his backpack. Then he began removing the items secreted in his reinforced leather tunic, placing the picks, garrotes, tiny vials, and whatnot into his boots. Only as he was putting the last item into his boot—a small key—did he realize he had no idea where any of these items had come from or, for that matter, how he knew they were there. And the key….

It was a complex key, one with a prong curved like a misshapen sickle facing away from the handle, jutting out from just behind the sharp point of the main prong. On the top, there was a series of three notches, each slightly askew from the vertical. What is this key for? What does it open? The right half of his mouth tilted upward as the left dipped down.

He eventually shrugged, dropped the key into his boot with the rest of the things, and removed his tunic and under-tunic. The stench was overwhelming, familiar and not-quite-right. But it only lasted a few seconds before his nose adjusted to it. He finished stripping, finding a few more items hidden in the trousers, and carried his clothes over to the boy.

“What do they call you?” Angus asked.

The boy shrugged. “Whatever they want,” he said. “Sometimes they even use my name. It’s Dirdl.”

“Well, Dirdl,” Angus said. “Would you mind washing these while I bathe?”

The boy used a short oar-shaped piece of wood to fish out the worker’s trousers he was scrubbing, and then used it to skim away the grit floating on the surface. When he finished, he held out his hands and Angus gave them to him.

“What time of day is it?” Angus asked.

“Nearing midday,” he said.

Angus nodded. “Any sign of our visitors from last night?”

“None,” Dirdl said. “Unless they’re out there right now.”

“All right, Dirdl,” Angus said. “Don’t scrub too much on the leather. When you finish with them, put them on the table.”

“We have a line strung up outside,” Dirdl said as he put Angus’s undergarments in the barrel and began twisting them around the oar.

“No need for that,” Angus said, smiling. “I’ll dry them myself.”

Dirdl nodded and went back to work as Angus moved to the tent flap and stepped outside. The workers were clambering over the rock, their mallets and chisels clattering away in a well-conducted ballet. The sun was near its zenith, and it was warm, as warm as it got in late summer, and there was a brisk, moist wind hinting of a storm. There were clouds to the west over the mountains, and Angus wondered if it was going to rain. If so, it might be wise to stay with the workmen another day….

He went to the down-slope side of the road to urinate, shaking his head at the extensive scorch marks from his miscast spell. Wasteful, he thought as his dark yellow stream shot outward with a vigor that nearly surprised him. I’ll have to prime myself before I leave. When he finished, he went back inside the tent and made his way to the wash barrel. Once he began scrubbing, he was surprised by how much dirt had accumulated on his skin, and by the time he had finished washing, Dirdl had already put his wet clothes in a pile on the table. Now he was taking the loaves of bread from the brazier.

Angus went to the table and focused on the magic only long enough to tweak a light red strand and make a single long, looping slipknot with it. He wrapped the knot around the clothes, as if he were tying up a horse to a stable gate, and slowly pulled the loop tight. As it dwindled, its energies escaped in a carefully controlled minor burst of warmth, just hot enough to cause a fog-like mist to sizzle up from the wet clothes. By the time he was finished, they were dry enough to put on, and he dressed quickly. I should have dried my boots this way, he thought, instead of letting my feet get infected. He returned to his boots, robe, and backpack; picked them up; and carried them to the table.

He dumped the items out of his boot and reached for the first one. He picked it up and hesitated. Where do they go? he wondered, holding a small vial of dark green fluid in his left hand. What is this, anyway? Then he shrugged, dropped it in his right hand, and quickly slipped it into a small pouch just below his elbow. He barely paid attention as he efficiently replaced the other items and promptly forgot about them.

He slipped his boots on, stretched—his neck barely twinged—and opened his backpack. He paused to unwind the bandage from his hand and looked at the burns. They were almost fully healed! No sense using the ointment, he thought, setting the bandage aside and flexing his hand. He still had full mobility, though his flexibility was a bit stiff. In time….

He sorted through his scrolls and selected two of them. He set them on the table and collected one of the lamps. As he returned with it, he broke off a sizeable chunk of bread from one of the fresh loaves. By the time he finished the bread and washed it down with a half flagon of beer, he had the lamp’s wick fully extended to provide the most intense flame.

“Dirdl,” he called.

“Yes?” the boy promptly replied.

“I must not be interrupted,” he said. “Is that clear?”

Dirdl nodded.

“Good,” Angus said, turning away and beginning the preparations for priming himself to receive the imprint of the spell from the scroll. It was a familiar spell, one he knew well. Still, he had to reinforce his memory to make sure he had both his body and mind receptive to the magic. He steadied his breathing and heartbeat, slowing them significantly in the process, and then cleared his mind of everything around him. The sights, the sounds, the smells—all of them disappeared from his awareness as he went through the process Voltari had taught him. When he reached the trancelike state, he brought the magic within himself into focus and quickly aligned it for the familiar spell, pleased to note how quickly the strands followed his direction. It wouldn’t be long before he wouldn’t even have to be in a full trance to prime himself. Then he turned to the second scroll.

It was a difficult spell. The strands were interwoven in a complex, ever-changing pattern, and he had to go deep within himself to connect with it, to manipulate it, to pave the way for the magic. The complexity was at the limit of his ability, and it would take all of his mental strength to prime it properly. It was a time-consuming process, but without it, the spell would be ruined—or worse; it would backfire.

When he was satisfied that he was once again in full control of the magic within him, he turned outward, shifting his awareness to the scroll’s pattern of knots and the runes mixed in among them. He followed the runes directions and gradually shifted his internal framework to match the one described in the scroll. Minutes passed before he reached synchronicity and was ready to memorize the knots themselves. It was the most vulnerable, sensitive point of the priming process, and he had only memorized a few knots when the workmen entered. They were laughing, talking, clapping each other, but Angus was completely absorbed in the priming and set the intrusion aside. He had to; if he lost control now….

Dirdl tried to intervene, but they pushed him aside and moved to the table, filling flagons with beer and grabbing loaves of bread.

Angus ignored them, turned to the next knot. It was a simple one, the kind that could easily be taken for granted….

Billigan cried out a greeting and sat down across from Angus.

The next knot was a complex one, and he almost made a mistake….

Billigan was chattering, going on and on about a wounded hand. Was it his? It didn’t matter; he needed to concentrate. Billigan paused, clearly expecting a reply of some sort.

Two more knots left….

Billigan repeated something he had just said, this time more urgently.

The last knot was crucial. It indicated how to conclude the spell, how to restrain the power unleashed in the spell and let its threads return to their natural state….

Billigan reached out, put his hand on the scroll. It crinkled as he gripped it too tightly. He pushed it unceremoniously down, trying to force Angus to look at him. “Angus?”

Angus shuddered, lost contact with the magic within himself….

He blinked rapidly….

The spell….

“Are you all right?” Billigan asked.

Angus took a slow, deep breath. The muscles along his jaw threatened to snap as the narrow slits of his eyes settled on Billigan’s sweaty, dirty hand gripping his scroll. When he lifted his gaze to meet Billigan’s, all he saw was a soft, blurry outline of a face. He blinked once and noted how odd Billigan’s mouth looked when it was open, as if the teeth were trying to swallow the emptiness beside them. He blinked again, lifting his gaze up a few inches, meeting the wide-eyed fear in his companion’s eyes.

The scroll rustled as Billigan’s hand shook. He let go, and his arm snapped backward.

Angus carefully smoothed the intruding wrinkles, tried to erase the stains, and then rolled up the scroll. He turned to Dirdl and said, his voice a sinister whisper, “I told you no intrusions.”

Dirdl wrung his hands together. “I t-t-tried—” he stuttered. “They—”

Billigan closed his mouth, gulped. He took a breath, steadied himself somewhat, and said, “Don’t blame Dirdl. I didn’t listen to him.”

Angus turned his attention back to Billigan and said, “It can be deadly to interrupt a wizard when he is in that state.”

Billigan nodded. “My apologies, Mage,” he said. “I was unaware….”

Angus put the two scrolls in his backpack. “I assume you have a reason for the intrusion.”

Billigan exhaled, half-smiled, and nodded vigorously. “They’re back.”

“Who?” Angus asked.

“Them that was here last night,” Billigan replied. “The Banner of the Wounded Hand.”

Angus frowned. “Oh?”

Billigan nodded again. “They’re outside,” he continued. “They request an audience with you.”

Audience? Angus laughed, feeling the tension lifting from his shoulders as if he were shedding a pair of monstrous, crumpled butterfly wings.

The workmen grew quiet, watched him.

Dirdl looked as if he were about to jump into the laundry barrel.

Billigan chuckled and fidgeted, as if he wasn’t sure which he should do.

When his laughter dwindled to inconsistent chuckling, Angus stood up, draped his backpack over his shoulders, and said, “Well then Billigan, it is time we parted company. Thank you for the hospitality of your tent.”

Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked rapidly toward the tent flap, thinking about that last knot and wondering if it ended in an inward or outward loop. It would do no good to look at the scroll to find out; the whole sequence had to be primed without interruption….

Hellsbreath

1

Angus stepped through the tent flap and was buffeted by a stiff, chill breeze coming from the mountains to the west. He turned that way and studied the clouds scattered across the horizon. Rain? he wondered. Another day in the tent? The sun was just past its zenith, though, and there was plenty of time to find shelter before the storm arrived. If a storm arrived; the heavy rain fell on the west side of the mountains.

Off to the side, patches of scorched ground were ringed by brittle, dry grass. If his aim had been lower or the workmen less efficient, much of the hillside would have been burned.

The boulder was lower than it had been the day before, and the stacks of cobblestones were a bit higher. Several men sat atop horses next to it, and one edged forward. It was Giorge.

“Hail Wizard,” he called. “Is it safe to approach?”

Angus half-smiled and thought about saying no, but waved him forward. As he neared, Angus asked, “What is it, Giorge?”

Giorge trotted to a stop a few yards from him, turned his horse sideways, and leaned toward Angus. “You aren’t going to try to kill me again, are you? That fire last night was a bit too close for my liking. I think it even singed my eyebrows.”

“Perhaps you should reconsider sneaking up on wizards,” Angus said, noting the thin black eyebrows were perfectly fine. His cloak was turned with the light gray inside and the black outside, but neither would provide much concealment in this rocky terrain.

Giorge grinned, the white of his teeth punctuating the brown of his skin. “No sneaking this time!”

“Indeed,” Angus agreed. “What of your friends?”

“Would you like to meet them?” Giorge asked. “They are anxious to meet you.”

“Why?” Angus asked.

Giorge moved his horse to the side and pointed at a slumped form draped over one of the horses. “We need a wizard,” he said. “Ours is dead.”

“Oh?” Angus prompted.

Giorge shook his head. “Poor old Teffles. He ran the wrong way.”

Angus frowned, wondering what he meant and not sure if he cared to know. “Billigan called you the ‘Banner of the Wounded Hand.’”

Giorge grinned and perched like a chicken strutting in his saddle. “That’s us, all right.”

“What is it?”

“What is what?”

“What is the Banner of the Wounded Hand?”

“That’s us,” Giorge said. “Ortis, Hobart, and me.”

Angus looked at the rest of the group—there were four, three of whom looked remarkably similar to each other even at a distance. “Who are the other two?” he asked.

“Other two?” Giorge repeated, looking back.

“There are five of you, but you named only three,” Angus said. “Who are the other two members of your little group?”

“Our Banner,” Giorge corrected. “We are officially sanctioned and registered within the Kingdom of Tyr.”

“Banner, then,” Angus said. “Who are the other two?”

“Why don’t I bring them forward so you can meet them?”

“All right,” Angus said, and Giorge quickly waved the others closer. “We can talk while we walk.”

“It’s better if we ride,” Giorge said. “We have an extra horse you can use.”

Angus frowned, wondering if he knew how to ride a horse. “Tell me more about this banner,” he said, trying to cover up his uncertainty. “What is it, really?”

“Well,” Giorge said. “It would be better to ask Hobart. He’s the one who started it.”

As the riders neared, Angus assessed them. One was a stocky, barrel-chested fellow almost completely concealed beneath the bulk of his dented, grass-stained plate armor. His wooden shield was a stark contrast to the metal plates, and the helm had clearly seen better days. The hilt of a sword stuck up over his left shoulder, the massive grip suggesting a sizeable blade. An axe dangled from a strap wrapped around the saddle horn, resting against the shoulder of his steed—a large black mare with fierce, battle-worn eyes. When he reined in his horse and removed his helmet, a tangled mass of wavy, tallow-textured hair cascaded over his shoulders and the sun glinted off the sweat lining his receding hairline. His moustache was thick and angry, and he had long sideburns, but his chin was free of even the barest hint of stubble. He leveled his walnut-colored eyes at Angus and nodded. “Well met,” he said.

Angus nodded in reply and turned to study the man next to him. He was of average build but looked almost dwarf-like next to the exaggerated bulk of the first man’s armor. He wore a gray-green tunic and breeches, and his brown leather boots were flexible, soft-soled, the kind that would fall quietly on brittle dry leaves. He held a bow loosely in his right hand, and a quiver of arrows was slung over his left shoulder. His left hand rested near—but not on—the hilt of a short, curved knife. He wore a brown leather cloak, and when his horse settled, he lifted the hood and let it fall backward. His skin was pale, like frothy fresh milk, and it contrasted wildly with the short-cropped black hair and the mottled gray of his steed. But what was most striking were his eyes: they had orange-tinted irises and the pupils were narrow, vertical slits—like a cat’s. Those eyes met his with an implacable gaze that suggested controlled violence tempered by deep wisdom, a kind of reserved preparedness for action.

“Well met,” the next man said, his voice a soft tenor that seemed to snap across the gap between them. Angus turned to him, and his mouth slipped open as a soft gasp escaped through his lips. The third man was the spitting image of the second man, even down to the peculiar orange eyes. Identical Twins! The man smiled—a thin, knowing smile with the cream of his teeth peeking through the narrow slit made by his lips—and the last man chuckled.

Angus frowned, turned, and blinked rapidly. Triplets? He had heard of them, of course, but they were rare. With orange eyes?

“I am Ortis,” they said in unison. There was no harmony or discord when they spoke together; their tone, their cadence, their words were perfectly timed, as if a single voice was approaching him from different directions. But it had none of the qualities of an echo.

“And I,” the armor clad one said, “am Hobart.”

“Angus,” Ortis said, ushering a saddled horse around the group. “Would you mind if we finish the introductions while we ride? We’re on our way to the Temple of Muff, and it is a matter of some—” he glanced behind them and one of his brothers continued without interruption “—urgency. We’ve already delayed much longer than we intended.”

“A little problem with my eyes,” Giorge said, smiling wistfully. “Fortunately, they recovered fairly quickly.”

“Glad to hear it,” Angus said without malice or regret.

“As were we,” Hobart agreed. “If he had not, our business with you would be quite different.”

Angus half-smiled and tilted his head. “It was a rather minor spell,” he said. “I could easily have thrown the one I cast last night at him instead.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Giorge said. “I’m not altogether fond of being roasted.” He chuckled, and then added, “But it was a most impressive display of your talents.”

“Yes,” Ortis said. “When we arrived last night, we were hesitant about offering you a place in our banner, and it dispelled our doubts.”

“I believe you are on your way to Hellsbreath, are you not?” Hobart asked.

“Yes,” Angus replied, a bit guarded. It was no surprise that they knew his destination; Billigan had said there were no other places to go to on the south road. Still….

“It’s a six day walk,” Hobart said. “We can make it in two and a half by horse.”

“We’d enjoy your companionship,” Giorge added. “Wizards often have the most curious stories to tell.”

“Lies, more like,” Hobart grumbled, glancing over his shoulder at the man slung across the saddle of the last horse. Even without having a clear view, Angus knew it was a street magician by the colorful patterns of his robe. “Judging by Teffles’ ill-fated performance.”

Ortis nodded. “Come with us, Angus. Allow us the opportunity to persuade you to join our banner.”

“Yes,” Hobart urged. “The journey will be much more interesting if you are with us.” He glanced at Giorge and grinned. “And much safer for Giorge.”

Giorge groaned, rolled his eyes, and shook his head.

Ortis smiled and asked, “What say you, Wizard?”

“I’ll travel to Hellsbreath with you on two conditions,” Angus said.

“Only two?” Hobart asked, raising his eyebrows and brightening a bit. “We shall endeavor to satisfy them, Wizard,” he said with a mock bow. “If they are but reasonable ones.”

Angus looked at the horse they offered—a brown colt that looked a bit skittish—and said. “First, you’ll have to teach me how to ride.”

“Ha!” Hobart cried. “Easy enough to do. Just climb into the saddle, put your feet in the stirrups, and hang on!”

“Now Hobart,” Giorge said. “Don’t make light of it. It may be that simple to you, but you were part of Tyr’s cavalry for how long?”

“Ten years,” Hobart replied, “as well you know.”

“Don’t you remember what it was like when you first rode?”

“Certainly,” Hobart readily agreed. “I climbed into the saddle, put my feet in the stirrups, and hung on.”

Ortis stifled his laughter and said, “Don’t mind them, Angus. We’ll teach you the basics before nightfall. But Hobart is mostly right in what he says.”

“I’ll help you up,” another Ortis said, handing him the reins and leaning down to offer him his arm.

“I think I can manage that much,” Angus said, fixing his left foot into the stirrup and pulling himself up into the saddle. It took more of an effort than he had expected, but once he was atop the horse, he nestled into place as if it were a familiar old chair.

“We’ll take it at a slow walk until you get the hang of it,” Ortis said, taking the lead.

Hobart fell into place beside Angus and said, “I’ll take the outer edge,” he said. “No sense in you getting nervous.”

Giorge edged up on his other side, and they rode around the tent. Once past it, they moved closer to the upslope, and another Ortis fell into place several paces behind them, leading the steed carrying Teffles’ body. The last Ortis followed some distance further behind.

Once they were settled into a slow but steady rhythm, Hobart asked, “What is the second condition?”

“Tell me what a banner is,” he said, “and how Teffles met his end.”

“Why,” Hobart said, his voice mild, full of surprise. “I thought everyone in Tyr’s domain knew what a banner is.”

“I,” Angus said, then stopped. I must not tell them about my amnesia. He shook his head. “I spent my life cooped up in Voltari’s tower,” he said. “I don’t have much experience with the world.”

“You could have fooled me,” Giorge said, looking sidelong at him. “The way you reacted when I came to visit you was far from inexperienced.”

Angus ignored his speculative stare and said, “Voltari trained me well.”

“Not well enough,” Hobart said, “if he didn’t tell you about banners.”

“We were focused on other things,” Angus said, glancing at the still tender welt on his right palm.

“No matter,” Hobart said, smiling. “It is easy enough to explain. Simple, really. It is a long tradition handed down through King Tyr’s line. When a soldier rises through the ranks, he has to make choices. Does he stick with it or leave? If he rises high enough, King Tyr grants him land and a command of his own. When he dies, the land reverts back to the king, and a new commander is assigned to his ranks. It’s a very lucrative arrangement for the officer in question, since he gets the use of the land and whatever profits can be gained from it—after the king takes his cut, of course. Now, you have to be in Tyr’s army for twenty years to become eligible for the land grant—if one is available, that is. There are a limited number of them, and King Tyr is far too generous to confiscate lands for a new commission.”

“He hasn’t been tempted to, yet,” Giorge said. “There has always been a bit of a shortage of lifers to draw upon.”

“True,” Hobart conceded, leaning forward in his saddle to look past Angus. “But his line has a history of just treatment of their subjects, and his army would be hard-pressed to support him if he changed that policy.”

Giorge shrugged. “No sense arguing about it,” he said. “It’s not altogether important at the moment.”

Hobart shifted in his saddle and turned back to Angus. “Giorge is a bit too much of a free spirit,” he said. “He’s not at all fond of authority, even when the authority is his benefactor.”

“Not mine,” Giorge protested. “This is your banner. I’m just tagging along.”

Hobart sighed and shook his head. “You’ve been tagging along for four years,” he countered.

Giorge grinned and shrugged. “There’s always tomorrow,” he said.

Hobart ignored him and continued. “Most soldiers last a few years, maybe a bit longer. Some, like me, make it to ten. That’s when the first major decision needs to be made. If you continue past ten years—assuming there are positions for you in the ranks and the king doesn’t dismiss you—then you have to serve the next five years in The Borderlands.”

“The Borderlands?” Angus asked. “Like The Tween?”

Giorge chuckled. “The Tween is tame compared to The Borderlands. Nobody really worries about the mountain dwarves anymore. But the fishmen, now, they are a plague—and a deadly one at that.”

Hobart nodded. “The Borderlands run along the northern edge of the kingdom,” he said, “where the grasslands meet the swamp. That swamp is an unpleasant place. The stench is horrendous; it creeps into your nostrils and settles there, like the slow, constant torture of a toothache. There’s good reason why people call it the Death Swamps. Every harvest, the fishmen come out to raid the farms, and King Tyr has to send half his army to defend them.” Hobart paused for a moment, shook his head, and clenched his jaw. “It’s a rough assignment,” he continued. “A lot of soldiers die. A lot more fishmen do, but they just spawn replacements the next year and come back just as strong.”

“Is that why you left the army?” Angus asked.

Hobart glared at him. “It is not,” he said, his voice fiercely stoic, defensive. “I spent five years defending those farmers’ crops, and I would have gladly done five more. But that wasn’t what was in store for me. Soldiers who make it through ten years have two choices: leave or join a command that goes into the swamps to hunt out the fishmen. Over half of them die before their five years are up, and the rest have an even worse fate waiting for them. They get to babysit the caravans. They tell me it’s like walking through a river of lava one moment and sliding on ice the next. The Death Swamps is one of the most dangerous places you can go, and there isn’t any duty safer or more boring than guarding a caravan. Most of the survivors of The Borderlands only last one trip.”

“I see,” Angus said. “You didn’t like the odds.”

“No,” Hobart said, shaking his head. “A good soldier doesn’t worry about dying; they focus on staying alive. What’s in the future will wait for them if they live to make it that far. And I was a good soldier—still am, technically. Everyone who forms a banner is subject to emergency muster in times of war. Fortunately, the kingdom hasn’t been at war for a long time. Except with the fishmen, of course, but that’s a predictable arrangement.”

“How do you feel about picking up the pace a little bit?” Giorge asked Angus. “Think you can manage a brisk walk?”

Angus nodded, clicked his tongue, and flicked the reins to urge his horse to speed up a bit. When Hobart and Giorge caught up with him and matched his pace, Giorge said, “You’ve ridden a horse before.”

Have I? Angus wondered, not knowing the answer. He shrugged. “It felt like it was the thing to do,” he hedged. “I have seen people ride before, you know, even if I haven’t done it.”

“Well,” Hobart said, “be careful. Max is a young one; he’s a bit edgy.”

“All right,” Angus said. “Why did you leave the army?”

Hobart shrugged. “The smell,” he said. “It was nauseating. Even at a distance I could barely tolerate it, and the thought of entering that cursed swamp was almost too much for me to deal with. But I tried, just to make sure. I barely got to the edge before I was wheezing and sneezing uncontrollably. The medic told me about one in ten reacted that way, and no one ever got over it. There’s something in the air, there; a taint that enters the lungs and stays there. It took weeks for me to fully recover from it, and by that time, I had already made up my mind. I left the army and formed a banner.”

“I understand everything except what a banner is,” Angus said. “Only those who have ten years of experience in the army can have one, right?”

Hobart nodded. “You have three choices at the ten year mark. Continue on in The Borderlands, form a banner, or cut ties with the army altogether. I formed The Banner of the Wounded Hand. I called it that on account of a friend of mine, Windhal. He and I were going to form a banner together, but in the last raid of the year, one of the fishmen latched onto his hand and mangled it. It was his sword arm, and that was the end of it for him. But when I registered my banner, I named it after him and put him down as an honorary member. That was six years ago, and I haven’t seen him since. No one has, I suppose; he went into The Borderlands with one of the patrols, and they never came back out. He still might be in there, but…” he shrugged. “That’s the life of a soldier in The Borderlands. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I could have gone with them, but there’s no sense in stirring up that pot.” He fell silent, and the rhythmic clatter of the horses’ hooves punctuated his somber posture.

Giorge leaned over conspiratorially and half-whispered, “He does that a lot, you know. Talks and talks and talks, but doesn’t say what you want to hear.”

Hobart glared at him, but said nothing.

Giorge chuckled and said, his voice mildly disinterested, “A banner is a registered adventure group subject to the king’s command in times of peril. The king may, upon such occasions, require the service of those who are members of that banner to help defend the kingdom, and the leader of that banner to raise a militia and take charge of it. In return for the services the founder of the banner has given to the kingdom, the members of the banner shall have free passage anywhere in the kingdom and the lands of King Tyr’s allies. Furthermore, the king shall assign a minimal tax on all goods procured through the activities of the banner, provided such activities fall within the purview of legally sanctioned plundering or salvage. If such gains are not legally sanctioned, the tax will be the confiscation of all goods procured illegally and the banner—with all its privileges—shall be disbanded and its members prosecuted, where appropriate.”

Angus frowned and said, “That sounds like an edict.”

“King Tyr prefers to call them decrees,” Giorge said, off-handedly. “But it doesn’t really matter. It’s a legally binding agreement, and if you choose to join Hobart’s banner with us, you’ll be subject to it just like we are. Isn’t that right, Hobart?”

“Yes,” Hobart agreed, “and more. It is not a decision to be made lightly, Angus. Nor is the decision to offer you membership. If I had not seen the effects of your spell blinding Giorge, and that explosive display last night, I would not be offering it. But you are clearly a far more capable wizard than Teffles even claimed to be, and such skill is always welcome in a banner.”

“I see,” Angus said. “Are you sure I measure up to your standards? After all, you have only seen the effects of two of my spells, and it is entirely possible that they are the only two of any consequence I may possess.”

“Not from what Billigan said,” Giorge grinned, his eyes and lips tinged with greed. “He saw quite a few scrolls in your possession—a rather valuable little treasure, I should think.”

Angus scowled at him and said, “Oh? Do you think they are unguarded?”

“Not at all,” Giorge said, shrugging. “But it is of little consequence if you join us. I never pilfer from a friend.” He grinned. “Well, almost never.”

“Before I make any decision,” Angus said, slowing his horse. “I’d like to know what happened to Teffles.”

“All right,” Hobart said. “But tonight, after we make camp. We need to make better time than this. How about it, Angus? Ready to spur your steed to a trot?”

“No,” he said. “But I’ll do it anyway.”

“Good!” Hobart said, urging his horse forward. “There are only a few hours of light left.”

2

Early in the evening Hobart reined in his horse at the top of a hill and waited for the others to join him. “We’ll stop there for the night,” he said, pointing at a caravan rest stop nestled among a small grove of pine trees east of the road. “There may be rain, and the trees will provide us with some protection.”

One of Ortis shielded his eyes and squinted while another held back and the third rode forward at an easy pace. “There are others there,” he said. “It looks like a family with an oxcart.”

“Not much of a threat,” Giorge said. “Or opportunity,” he muttered.

Angus tilted his head and half-smiled. “Oh?” he said. “I thought families took their treasure with them when they traveled.”

“That’s right!” Giorge brightened.

“Of course,” Angus continued. “They generally have very little of it.”

“Never mind that,” Hobart scowled. “They’re off limits, Giorge. You know the rules.”

Giorge sighed. “No stealing while traveling under the banner’s protection,” he said, his voice heavy. “How about for practice?” he offered. “I won’t keep anything.”

Hobart shook his head. “No,” he said. “They’ll know it was one of us.”

“Fine,” Giorge said, spurring his horse forward at a trot. The other two Ortises followed after him at a slower pace.

Hobart lingered and turned to Angus. “Ortis will set up camp and gather firewood. We’ll have time to talk about him,” Hobart added, gesturing at Teffles’ body as they went by.

“Was he with you long?” Angus asked.

“Less than two days,” Hobart said. “We stopped at Wyrmwood to find a replacement for Ribaldo. Now, he was a wizard. I’ll tell you about him sometime if you stay with us. I knew him when I was still in Tyr’s army, and when I started my banner, he joined me.”

“Why did you have to replace him?” Angus asked as they nudged their horses forward at a slow, steady walk.

“He died in his sleep,” Hobart said. “It was a peaceful sort of death, not at all the kind I want to have. Give me mine with my sword in my hand and blood on my boots! But he was old, so I suppose he didn’t mind much.”

Angus half-smiled.

“Well, we were without a wizard for a few weeks, mainly because we weren’t near enough to a city to find one. We were hunting a pack of wolves tormenting the villagers north of Wyrmwood. When word came to us that wolves were killing a lot of livestock, we felt it was our duty to help them. That duty didn’t change when Ribaldo died, so we did what he would have wanted us to do. We used him as bait.”

“What?” Angus gasped, feeling his eyebrows involuntarily dip under his robe’s hood. “You used your friend’s body as bait?”

Hobart nodded. “Yes. He was a follower of Galmar. They view the body as merely a vessel for the spirit, and when it’s no longer useful, they don’t care what happens to it. They have a pit in their temples where they throw dead bodies to the rats.” Hobart shook his head. “‘Part of the natural cycle,’ Ribaldo always said. So, we left his body for the wolves to find.”

“That must have been difficult,” Angus said.

Hobart laughed, a robust, almost contagious rumble. “I did worse things when I was a soldier,” he said. “Besides, it worked. The wolves were drawn in to him, and we were waiting. Ortis killed most of them with his bows. He rarely misses.”

“What is he?” Angus asked.

Hobart looked askance and said, “You’ll have to ask him about that. He’ll be expecting it, especially if you join our banner.”

“I’ll do that,” Angus said. They were nearing the camp site, and he decided to return to the original topic. “And Teffles?”

“We thought we killed all the wolves,” Hobart said. “But some of them must have been separated from the main pack. They followed us.”

“Into Wyrmwood?” Angus challenged. “I find that hard to believe.”

“Well,” Hobart hedged, “not quite that far. But when we left Wyrmwood, we headed back north and camped at the same place we had the night before arriving at Wyrmwood. The wolves were waiting for us. They attacked while we were sleeping.”

“Didn’t you post a guard?” Angus asked, puzzled.

“Of course,” Hobart said. “But we were near enough to Wyrmwood not to be overly concerned. There aren’t many things that will challenge that town, and with the patrols, there didn’t seem too much to worry about. So we put Teffles on watch.”

“Wasn’t that risky?” Angus asked as they rode up to where the others had tied their horses to a long horizontal pole at the edge of the camp near the trees and grass.

Hobart nodded and said, “It was a test. Ortis was going to startle him later that night to find out how he handled himself. The wolves got there first.”

“I hope you aren’t planning to test me,” Angus demanded. “I tend to be a light sleeper with a quick response.”

Hobart chuckled. “There’s no need to test you, Angus. Giorge already did. It wasn’t intended to be a test, mind you; he was acting on his own in Wyrmwood. As for that work crew’s tent, you caught him reconnoitering. He was not at all pleased about that, by the way. He thinks he moves like a spider on silk.”

Angus smiled. “Not quite,” he said, dismounting. He winced, wobbled, and leaned against the colt’s side to steady himself. His inner thighs were half-numb, and his rear end was painfully stiff. After a few seconds, he hobbled up to the post and wrapped the reins around it. He glanced at Hobart’s knot and mimicked it. It was a loose knot, one that would unravel when pulled fiercely. Max nuzzled up to the pole, nearly knocking him over.

Hobart chuckled. “You’ll get used to riding soon enough,” he said. “You’ll be sore for a few days until then.”

Like my feet? Angus thought, remembering the cracked and bloodied calluses he’d gotten during those first few days of walking. “You said he ran the wrong way,” he said.

“I did?”

“Yes,” Angus said. “When we first met.”

“Oh,” Hobart shrugged, removing a bag from his saddle and bringing it up to his horse’s head. “There you are, Leslie,” he said, opening the bag. As the large mare stuck her muzzle in and began chewing, he turned back to Angus. “That’s mostly true,” he said. “He did run, but that was after he shouted warning. I’ll give him that much credit. His loud, girlish shriek woke all of us up. A good thing, too; the wolves were already at the edge of our camp and might have gotten all of us if it weren’t for him. But he should have seen them long before he did, and if he had, he might not have died.”

“Didn’t he try to cast a spell?”

“Who knows?” Hobart said. “All he did was stand there and wave his arms about as the wolves rushed him. Then he ran….” Hobart lowered the saddlebag, and nodded to Angus. “There’s a feedbag on your saddle. Do you want to give it to him?”

Angus shook his head. “It looks like you know what you’re doing, and I need to take care of something before it gets dark.”

Hobart laughed. “It’s just as easy to relive yourself in the dark as it is in the daylight.”

“It’s not that,” Angus said. “Reconnoitering.”

“Ortis will let us know if there’s anything to worry about,” Hobart said.

“Not that kind of reconnoitering,” Angus said. “I need to find the right place to sleep.”

Hobart eased the half-empty bag from Leslie’s muzzle and patted her neck before he strapped it back to the saddle. “We’ll leave them saddled for now,” he said. “I want to meet that family, first.” He moved to Angus’s saddle and unstrapped one of the bags. “Ortis was the first to act,” he continued. “He shot arrows at the wolves, hitting two of them before I had my sword in hand. He was shooting his next volley when Teffles ran into the arrow’s path. There was nothing Ortis could do about it. The arrow had already been fired. We tried to help him, but the wolves delayed us too long.”

“Why didn’t you leave his body in Wyrmwood?” Angus asked.

“We would have,” Hobart admitted, “but one of his twenty-three conditions he had for joining my banner was that his body would be delivered to the Temple of Muff if he died. The nearest one is in Hellsbreath. We stopped in Wyrmwood three days ago to update the banner’s roster and look for another replacement. That’s when Giorge decided to find out what you could do.”

Angus nodded. “All right,” he said. “I need to take a look around now.”

“No need,” Ortis said as he led a horse to the pole and tied it up. “These caravan stops are always built in the defensible positions.”

Angus sighed. How could they understand that what he wanted to find was the optimal spot for casting his spells? How could he explain that the distribution of the magical threads varied greatly, and that there were dead zones, places where certain types of magic could not be cast? “That’s not what I’m looking for,” he said.

“Well, the stew will be ready in a few minutes,” Ortis said. “I hope you like rabbit.”

Angus shrugged. “I’m rapidly learning to tolerate a wide variety of foods,” he said as he turned away from them and drew the threads of magic into his awareness. He walked around the camp in a looping spiral that eventually brought him to the fireplace near the center of the campsite. No matter where he was within the caravan stop, there was ample access to the magic he needed. He had begun to let the magic slide away when something nearby drew his attention. It was a cluster of threads wrapped tightly together in an unnatural pattern. He walked up to it and let the magic fade to the background enough for him to see its mundane surroundings. He was only mildly surprised to find the source of the magic was Teffles’ corpse.

Perhaps they underestimated him? Angus wondered.

“Don’t worry, Angus,” Giorge said as he came up next to him. “Ortis won’t shoot any arrows through you. You move too quickly.”

“That’s not it,” Angus said. “I was just wondering what happened to his spells.”

“His spells?” Giorge frowned. “They died with him, didn’t they?”

“Doubtful,” Angus said. “Did he have any scrolls with him?”

“No,” Giorge said. “All we found on him was a little book none of us could read. You’re welcome to it, if you decide to join us.”

“And that?” Angus said, pointing at the bulge of Teffles bent elbow.

“You want the corpse?” Giorge asked, his voice lilting. He raised eyebrows raised and his eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Not the corpse,” Angus said. “What’s on it.”

“On it?” Giorge mused. “You like that robe? Really? I think it’s rather gauche, myself. Way too many colors for my tastes.”

“No,” Angus said, bending down. “Not the robe, the magic.” He reached to unwrap the corpse, but Giorge put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t,” he said. “At least not here. He’s been dead a few days, remember? That robe is the only thing keeping the scent of decay from agitating the horses. Besides,” he grinned, “it would be impolite to have a naked corpse lying around. What would our neighbors think?”

“Tomorrow, then,” Angus said. “By the stream.”

“What do you think is there?” Giorge asked. “I did a pretty good job of searching him before we wrapped him up.”

Angus smiled. “Did you check his sleeves?”

“Sure,” Giorge said, folding his arms and scowling. “Why? Do you think I missed something?”

Anger? Pride? Angus tilted his head up to half-smile at Giorge. “There are ways to conceal items from casual observation.”

“Oh, I wasn’t casual,” Giorge protested. “I was quite thorough, I assure you.”

“Can you see magic?” Angus asked.

Giorge frowned for a moment, and then a slow smile eased into place. “You say there’s magic there?”

Angus nodded.

“How could I have missed that?” Giorge said, kneeling beside him and reaching for the robe. This time, Angus held his hand out to stop him.

“Giorge,” he said. “You didn’t find it the first time, what makes you think you will this time?”

Giorge grinned. “I didn’t know it was there until now. It’s always easier to find something when you know what you’re looking for.”

Angus chuckled. “And what is it you’re looking for?”

“Why—” Giorge frowned. “You said—” He shook his head. “Right. I still don’t know what it is. But I do know that it is there.”

“Unless I’m lying,” Angus said.

“You’re not,” Giorge said, his voice confident and dismissive. “You’ve seen something. You can describe it to me.”

“I could,” Angus admitted. “But it wouldn’t do any good.”

“Why not?” Giorge demanded.

Angus sighed. “All right, Giorge. It’s in a magically concealed compartment in his robe’s sleeve. Unless you know the precise place to look for the opening and have the ability to release the knot securing it in place, you will never find it.”

“And you can?”

Angus nodded. “Of course. I am, after all, a competent wizard.”

“Do you want it?” Giorge asked.

“Perhaps,” Angus said. “It may be quite useful to us, or it could be very dangerous. I won’t know which until I open the compartment.”

“Well,” Giorge hedged, “if you join Hobart’s banner, I am sure you can negotiate with him. He’s quite reasonable, you know. But you’re right; it will have to wait until tomorrow.” He stood up and turned. “It’s time for supper and sleep. We have a long ride tomorrow, and Hobart will want to make an early start.”

Angus rose and nodded, letting the magic finally slip away. “Lead on,” he said, falling in stride behind him.

3

Angus stirred his stew around with the spoon Ortis had given him. It was a strange but edible concoction of bits of meat, chunks of a root he didn’t recognize, berries, and plant leaves. It was bland, no hint of seasoning at all—much different from the food served at the inns. Perhaps if he had eaten them separately? Meat first, then the roots and leaves, finishing up with the mild tartness of the berries? But they were mixed together, and—

“I hope it isn’t that bad,” Ortis said.

“No,” Angus said. “Just different.”

“This road is traveled too much for better,” another Ortis noted. “Most of the more appealing plants have been scavenged, and few animals live near enough to the road for hunting. We—” the third Ortis took over as the second one took a bite and the first swallowed “—are fortunate it isn’t caravan season. The road gets stripped bare when they pass through.”

Angus nodded. “I am grateful for the stew,” he said. “I just have a lot to think about right now.”

“Yes,” Hobart agreed. “We all do. We still need to decide where to go after we drop Teffles’ body off at the temple.”

“I thought we were spending a few days in Hellsbreath,” Giorge said.

Hobart nodded and filled his mouth again. “After that,” he said as he chewed.

“We’ll decide that once Angus joins us,” Giorge said.

Angus looked up at Giorge, noted the whiteness of his eyes and teeth as the firelight flickered on them. They were a sharp contrast to the peculiar orange reflection of Ortis’s eyes. “You seem to have decided that for me,” he said. “What makes you think I will join you?”

“What else are you going to do?” Giorge countered.

“There’s work for wizards in Hellsbreath,” he said. “I had thought to stay there.”

“Bah,” Giorge waved his hand dismissively. “You’ll get bored.”

Angus chuckled. “I’ve spent years living alone in a tower with Voltari. Boredom is a way of life for me.”

“All right then,” Hobart asked between bites. “What do you need to know?”

Angus lifted a spoonful of meat to his mouth and considered while he chewed. Everything? he thought, but dismissed it. Too vague. “Let’s start with you,” he said, pointing his spoon at Ortis. “What are you?”

“I’m a triad,” one of the other Ortises said as the first one met his gaze. “There aren’t very many of us left.” Another of him continued. “We are a single entity,” the third offered. “Our thoughts and experiences are shared.” Then, together, they said, “We are three in one, one in three.”

“I’ve never heard of triads,” Angus said, “and Voltari’s library is extensive.”

“I’m not surprised,” Hobart said. “I’ve traveled across Tyr’s Kingdom and into many of those surrounding it and never encountered another like him.”

“My people scattered centuries ago,” Ortis said. “Most of us are north of the Death Swamps.”

“That’s where we met,” Hobart said. “He staggered out of the Death Swamps one day, and into our bivouac. We took him in, and he provided us with a great deal of useful information.”

“There are lands north of the Death Swamps?” Angus asked. “Voltari’s map didn’t indicate any.”

“You have a map?” Ortis asked. “May I see it?”

“He has an affinity for maps,” Hobart said. “We’ve relied upon his extensive knowledge of them on many occasions.”

“It’s in my backpack,” Angus said. “I’ll show it to you in the morning, before we leave.”

“It will still be dark,” Hobart said. “We won’t be staying the whole night.”

“Then we’ll have to do it when we stop,” Angus said. “I doubt there will be anything on it that you haven’t already seen. It’s a rough depiction of the Kingdom of Tyr and surrounding mountains. There really isn’t much on it.”

“I was hoping to reach Hellsbreath tomorrow night,” Hobart said. “It will be a hard ride.”

Angus frowned, “We will need to stop,” he said. “I will need time to retrieve whatever is secreted in Teffles’ robe.”

“There’s nothing there,” Hobart said. “Giorge would have found it. Right Giorge?” Hobart grinned.

“Well,” Giorge hedged. “I was going to tell you about that.”

Hobart set his spoon in his empty bowl, gulped down what was in his mouth, and said, “You were going to tell us about what?”

“Well,” Giorge began, “Angus said he found something. It’s concealed by magic. Isn’t that what you said?”

“Yes,” Angus said. “Giorge couldn’t have found it even if he had ripped the robe to shreds.”

“See?” Giorge said. “It has to be valuable to be hidden that way.”

“The compartment could be empty,” Angus suggested. “All I saw was the compartment, not what is inside of it.”

“Really?” Giorge said. “That would be so disappointing.”

“When were you two going to tell us about this?” Hobart demanded.

Angus shrugged. “After I found out if there was something there.”

“Why didn’t you look?” Ortis asked. “You had time.”

Angus nodded pointedly at Giorge. “The stench,” he said.

“Nonsense,” Ortis said. “The smell will be tolerable for at least another day or two.”

“The horses,” Angus said.

“They’re stout mountain stock,” Hobart said. “What of them?”

“Giorge said the smell would disturb them—and our neighbors.”

Hobart stood up and said, “Why don’t you show me what you’re talking about, Angus.” When Giorge began to rise, Hobart tossed him his bowl and spoon. “You can stay here, Giorge. Someone needs to tend to the dishes.”

Angus stood, handed Giorge his bowl, picked up his backpack, and followed Hobart across the campsite until they stood over Teffles’ corpse. One of Ortis joined them. The robe had been loosened, as if someone had taken it off the corpse and put it back on. “Giorge,” Hobart muttered. “We have to watch him pretty closely; he has twitchy fingers. Are you sure he couldn’t find it?”

Angus sighed, brought the magic into focus, and knelt down. He opened the robe until Teffles’ arm flopped free. He peeled back the sleeve and studied the knot holding the compartment closed. It was a simple enough knot, one that could be opened with a quick little jerk and retied almost as quickly. He reached out for it and tugged sharply. The compartment opened, and magical energy erupted from it. He reached in and touched a small, cylindrical device and pulled it out. The magic within it pulsed, unable to escape the carefully constructed sequence of knots binding it to the magic within the object. He lifted it and let the magic slide away—whatever it did, it would take a considerable amount of time for him to decipher it; for now, it was enough to know that it was there.

“A wand?” Hobart muttered, reaching out with his mailed paw.

Angus jerked it away and said, “Don’t touch it. We don’t know what it does, and if you accidentally trigger it, anything could happen.”

Hobart looked skeptical but retracted his arm. “All right,” he said. “What do we do with it?”

Angus frowned. It looked fragile—a thin piece of ivory carved into a ten-inch column whose girth was little more than the quill he used for writing. Runes and sigils were etched in a spiral down most of its length, the same pattern of three repeated several times. “For now,” he said, “I’ll carry it. When we get to Hellsbreath, I should be able to find out what it does. If not, there will be other wizards there who will be able to do it—for a price.” He slipped it into his sleeve and secured it with a pair of clasps that seemed to have been made for just such a purpose.

Hobart frowned. “Angus,” he warned. “You are not yet a part of this banner. That wand does not belong to you.”

“Nor to you,” Angus countered. “It was Teffles’ wand.”

“Yes,” Hobart said, “and he’s dead. He had no heirs as far as we know, so his equipment became the property of King Tyr upon his death. Of course,” he hedged. “As a banner representing his interests, we have an obligation to tend to it until such time that we can present it to him.”

Angus tilted his head, half-smiled, and said, “Nevertheless, I am the only one present who is qualified to tend to it.”

“Perhaps,” Hobart agreed, “but you are not yet a member of this banner. It is not your concern.”

“Let’s return to discuss this with the others, shall we?” Angus said. “I understand Giorge found a book in Teffles’ possession, and I would like to look through it.” He rose to his feet.

“What kind of book?” Hobart asked.

“Probably a book of spells,” Angus said.

“We will consider it,” Hobart said, rising. “Only so far as to find out what the book is.”

As they walked back to the fire, Angus asked, “What else does your banner do besides hunting wolves?”

“Lots of things,” Hobart said. “We’ve explored ruins, of course; every banner does that. It’s often the best place to find treasure. Unfortunately, every banner knows that too, so most of the ones in Tyr have already been ransacked. Not all of the banners are thorough, though; we’ve found a few things that have been overlooked. That’s why we’re over here.”

Angus frowned. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Are there more ruins over here than elsewhere in the kingdom?”

“Not particularly,” Hobart said. “But there are fewer banners. Those who are over here tend to avoid The Tween, and we thought it would be a good place to find ruins, particularly west of Hellsbreath where the volcanoes are most active. But that was before Ribaldo died. Few enter The Tween without a capable wizard. There are things there that only magic can defeat.”

“I see,” Angus said. “You’re thinking about digging into the remnants of the Dwarf Wars?”

Hobart nodded. “Most of the ruins got buried or were lost,” he said. “We hope to find some of them. That’s why Ortis wants to see your map. He collects them, and he wants to compare it to the others he has. Every mapmaker notes different things, and some of those differences might be important.”

“Well,” Angus said as they rejoined the group around the fire. “I suppose he’d best take a look at it now, then.” He took off his backpack and opened the flap. The map was on top, and he held it out to Ortis. “Here’s the map Voltari gave me when I left. The additions are from Ulrich—except for The Tween. I added that myself.”

Ortis unrolled the map and held it so it caught the firelight. Then he moved closer to the fire and looked more closely at it.

“What else do you do?” Angus said, turning back to Hobart.

“Fight brigands, mostly,” he said. “It’s one of the things banners are expected to do while they’re traveling. The king’s army handles large scale interlopers, but smaller ones are usually left to us. So, if a village is plagued by bandits or wolves or something else that doesn’t warrant the attention of the army, we step in to take care of them. The villagers have to pay, of course, but it’s a reasonable rate, usually not much more than room and board. The wenches tend to be grateful, too.”

“Another reason to be near the border,” Giorge offered as he sat down. “The guardsmen may patrol the area between Hellsbreath and Wyrmwood, but they don’t go much further than that. It isn’t profitable. There isn’t much money in villages.”

“Most of the time,” Hobart continued, “we just travel. There aren’t very many dangers for a group our size, at least within the kingdom, and those there are well known and easily avoided—like the fishmen—if that’s what we want to do.”

“Angus,” Ortis asked from behind him. “You said Voltari made this map, right?”

“Yes,” Angus said. “At least, he had just finished writing on it when he gave it to me. Why?”

“I think it’s an old map,” he said. “A very old one.”

“Oh?” Angus said, moving to stand next to him by the fire. “Why do you think that?”

“Well,” Ortis began, “you said you’ve added to it. Do you remember what was on the map before you made the changes?”

“Certainly,” Angus said. “The terrain, of course, and only a few things were labeled. The Death Swamps, Mountain Dwarves, Tyrag, Wyrmwood, and Hellsbreath were about it.”

“So,” Ortis continued. “All of these villages north of Hellsbreath except Wyrmwood were unmarked.”

Angus nodded.

“And The Tween?”

Angus nodded again.

“What about these plumes? They look like they were added to it by the same hand that labeled the Death Swamps.”

“They were there when Voltari handed it to me,” Angus said. “Of course, he could have added them in himself.”

“Yes, and the roads,” Ortis said. “See? The east-west one to Wyrmwood is much more faded than the others. It was part of the original. The roads through Hellsbreath weren’t, and Hellsbreath wasn’t on it either. It’s a young, thriving city. Wyrmwood, on the other hand, has been around since the initial expansion of the kingdom under the rule of King Urm. It was a garrison at first, and the town grew up around it. That’s what happened in Hellsbreath, too. The people cluster around the military outposts. Also, take a closer look at Tyrag. If you hold the map up close to the flame, you can see that Tyrag is covering up Virag. I think this map is one from the earliest days of the kingdom, possibly even from before the Dwarf Wars.”

“Really?” Angus said. “Maybe I should get a new one, one that’s up to date.”

Ortis shrugged. “Aside from the volcanoes, the terrain hasn’t changed much. There are more villages, towns, and roads, and they can be added in easily enough.”

Angus considered for a moment, and then pointed at ELHOUIT ACHNUT. “What about that?” he asked. “I don’t recognize the language.”

Ortis smiled. “A lot of maps have that notation. It means, ‘Do not go here.’ Usually, it only means that the mapmaker didn’t go there, himself. Sometimes it’s a warning. It’s difficult to tell which. The other classic is ‘Dragons be here.’”

“I wonder why Ulrich wrote that,” Angus muttered. “Why would he not want me to go there? Other than it being in The Tween, of course.”

“The Tween is riddled with stories,” Hobart said over his right shoulder. “It could simply be a friendly warning.”

“Or worse,” Ortis said. “Some of those stories are true.”

“We could find out,” Hobart said. “But I doubt it will be worth it.”

“What about this?” Angus asked, pointing at the faded symbol that reminded him of the runes for flame magic. “It looks old, like the rest of the map.”

“It’s faint enough to be,” Ortis said, squinting. “Maybe tomorrow, when the sun’s out, we’ll be able to see it better. It looks a bit familiar, but I can’t place it right now. I’ll have to compare it to my other maps; it might be on one of them.” He rolled up the map and handed it back to Angus. “Thank you for letting me see this, Angus. It is an interesting map.”

As Angus put the map in his backpack, Hobart said, “Teffles had a wand.”

“Oh?” Giorge said joining them and handing Ortis the clean dishes. “May I see it?”

“Not tonight,” Hobart said. “It’s in Angus’s care for now. We’ll have to discuss it further while we ride.”

“So, are you going to join us, then?” Giorge smiled.

“I haven’t decided,” Angus replied. “But if I do, I will want Teffles’ wand and his book as part of the agreement.”

“That’s a steep price,” Hobart stated.

“Not really,” Angus retorted. “Neither the wand nor the book will be of any use to you; you’re not trained in magic. You can sell them, of course, but at what price? You almost certainly won’t be able to get a fair one without knowing more about them.”

“Be that as it may,” Hobart said. “Do not presume to believe they are yours.”

Angus half-smiled and looked at him, “I am merely the wand’s caretaker for the moment. Besides, I could easily have said nothing about it. You would not have been any the wiser if I had waited to retrieve it until after you dropped off his body at the Temple of Muff.”

Hobart nodded, “True. But you did say something about it, didn’t you?”

“All I am saying now,” Angus said, “is that I have at least a reasonable claim to it.”

Hobart frowned and said nothing.

“What would it take for you to become its owner?” Giorge asked.

“Yes,” Ortis agreed. “Banners always fare better with wizards.”

“I take it,” Angus smiled, “I am a valuable commodity.”

“Yes,” Hobart admitted. “But there is still some question as to how valuable and whether or not we will be willing to pay that price. It already seems to be rather steep.”

“Nevertheless,” Angus said, “if I join your banner it is non-negotiable. The wand and the book must be mine. However,” he hedged, “I would need to see the book first.”

Giorge shifted position and squirmed a bit, producing a small book about three inches square from somewhere on his body.

“I take it you weren’t going to tell us about that, either,” Hobart resignedly accused.

Giorge shrugged. “I wanted to wait until I got it open.”

“Hand it over,” Hobart said, reaching for the book. Giorge gave it to him, and after a brief inspection, Hobart passed it to Angus. “Can you open it?”

Angus accepted the book and examined it. It was bound by hard leather covers reinforced with iron straps. The clasp was locked. “Is there a key?” Angus asked.

“I couldn’t find one,” Giorge admitted. “It doesn’t make any sense, either. He had to be able to open it, didn’t he? Why else would he carry it around with him?”

Angus brought the book closer to the fire and looked up the spine from both ends. Nothing. He brought out the threads of magic, but there weren’t any unnatural twists or turns in it; the book was just that: a book. Wherever the key was, it wasn’t concealed by magic. He tilted his head and looked back toward Teffles’ corpse. “Do you have a lantern? Torches?”

“Why?” Hobart asked. “The fire is bright enough, isn’t it?”

“Not really,” Angus said. “The key may be concealed in the book’s binding or metalwork. If it is, it will be quite difficult to find in these conditions. But that’s not why I want a torch. The key might have been with the wand. I’d like to check it out.”

“I’ll go with you,” Hobart said. He leaned toward the fire and selected one of the larger branches and wrapped his huge hand around it. It was burning well, and when he lifted it up high and held it well out in front of him, the flame shot up about a foot. “Good enough?” he asked.

“It will have to be,” Angus said. “For now.”

Hobart nodded, stood, and started walking toward Teffles’ corpse. Angus and Giorge rose to follow after him.

“You know,” Giorge said. “It might be in there. It would make sense, wouldn’t it? I really looked at that book when I found it, and there isn’t any indication of a secret panel or compartment.”

“Perhaps you missed it,” Angus said, “like you did the one in his sleeve.”

“Doubtful,” Giorge protested. “Unless magic is hiding it.”

“It’s not,” Angus said.

They arrived at Teffles’ corpse and Hobart frowned. “We should have wrapped him up better,” he said, sniffing. “It will attract attention,” he added, spinning slowly around.

“We will,” Angus promised as he knelt down and turned Teffles onto his side and gently shook the arm. Something jangled as it fell from the sleeve, and Angus let Teffles body drop back down. “Bring the flame a bit closer,” Angus requested. When Hobart did so, he reached for the flickering piece of metal on the ground. It was the key. He held it up and looked at Giorge.

“I wonder if there’s anything else in there,” Giorge said, dropping to his knees and violently shaking Teffles arm. But nothing more fell out of the compartment.

Angus put the key into the book’s lock and turned it. The metal snapped apart and the cover popped open.

Hobart moved in beside him and held the makeshift torch close enough for both of them to see what was written there. “What does it say?” he asked. “I can’t read.”

“Property of Teffles, Wizard of the First Order. These are my spells,” Angus said. “It’s written in rather shaky lettering, considering he was a wizard.”

“Why does that matter?” Giorge said. “I thought everyone had shaky handwriting.”

Angus shook his head. “No,” he said. “Wizards have to be precise when they depict the knots they have to make. There are numerous subtle differences based upon a small collection of master runes, and a slight difference can change a spell in unforeseeable ways. Sometimes,” he paused and shook his head. “Sometimes, the changes are disastrous, both for the wizard and those around him. Voltari always told me that an imprecise hand reflects an imprecise mind. It was weeks before Voltari was satisfied enough with my penmanship to let me begin scribing scrolls.”

“What’s this ‘First Order’ business?” Hobart asked. “What order are you?”

“I don’t belong to an order,” Angus said. “They relate to the wizard schools. Voltari was a freelancer; he didn’t run a school. A First Order designation indicates he was a beginner when he wrote that note. The schools go up to the Sixth Order before reaching Master status. The Grand Master is the overseer of the wizard school, and he defines the range of magic being taught within it. A lot of First Orders abandon the art because of the difficulties involved. If his spells were only First Order ones, they won’t be very powerful. Still, I won’t know that until I study them, and this lighting is insufficient for doing so. It will have to wait.”

“At least you got it open,” Giorge said.

“Let’s get back to the fire,” Hobart said. “This stick is getting a bit warm.”

“All right,” Angus said. “Is there anything else a banner does that you haven’t told me about?”

“Exploring ruins, defending villagers, a lot of traveling,” Hobart said. “That pretty much covers it.”

“Don’t forget the odd job here and there,” Giorge offered. “You know how it is, Angus, when our coffers get emptied and need to be refilled.”

“The caravans,” Hobart clarified. “We had to work with one last year. They always need mercenaries. But at least it was only for part of the way.”

“So,” Angus asked. “What are you offering me and what to do you expect in return for it?”

“Equal shares,” Hobart said at once. “After the upkeep.”

“Upkeep?” Angus asked.

“Whatever treasure or payment we receive,” Hobart said, “goes first to taxes, then to tending the needs of our horses, purchasing supplies, and mending what needs mended.”

“Tell him about the armor,” Giorge smirked. “Last time he got it repaired, it cost half the fee we were paid.”

“It needed it,” Ortis said as Hobart tossed the burning piece of firewood into the fire.

“I generally tend to my armor myself,” Hobart said, “but it had a hole in it. I had to have a blacksmith repair it. At least I put off fixing the dent in my helmet, didn’t I?”

Giorge grinned, “I thought it was a fashion statement.”

Hobart groaned and shook his head. “No self-respecting soldier would walk around with their helm dented unless there were no choice.”

“Like I said,” Giorge began, chuckling.

Angus half-smiled and asked, “What else?”

“We split the responsibilities for the group. Ortis is our cook and sets up camp. He also scouts in the wilderness. Giorge is our scout for ruins, villages, and towns. He’s got a kind of charm about him that strangers find infective.”

“So do you,” Giorge countered, grinning, “when it comes to soldiers.”

Hobart’s armor clinked softy as he shrugged. “I know how to speak with them,” he said. “I was one for long enough.”

“Don’t be modest,” Ortis interjected. “Hobart is our spokesman. Whenever we need someone to negotiate, he’s the one who does it.”

“Ortis hunts and scavenges for edible plants,” Hobart continued. “Giorge and I aren’t that good at it, but we can fish with the best of them.”

“We see to the horses while Ortis is making camp,” Giorge added. “We’ll teach you what to do with them when you join us. Other than that, we do whatever needs to be done when it needs to be done. Each of us has our talents, and we use them for the collective good.”

Ortis chuckled. “Really?” he said. “And yet, you didn’t tell us about the book or the wand.”

“I was going to,” Giorge protested. “Don’t I always?”

“So you say,” Ortis said. “But it is of no consequence at the moment.”

“What it boils down to,” Hobart finished, “is that we expect you to pull your weight, and when the time comes to use your special skills that you use them. If you do that, then you’re entitled to an equal share of whatever profits there are from the venture.”

“Reasonable enough on the surface,” Angus said. “What if one of us pulls considerably more than his weight? Are there special considerations?”

“For the most part, it equals out over time. Ortis’s hunting ability and bows were invaluable in our latest escapade with the wolves, but without my idea to use Ribaldo’s body as bait, we wouldn’t have succeeded. In populated areas, Giorge is notoriously crafty, a skill that has served us quite well on many occasions. My contacts in the army have provided us with many opportunities and allies. What you will bring is yet to be determined—except, of course, your magic.”

“Isn’t that enough?” Angus asked. “After all, without it, you would not have found the wand or opened this book.”

“So you’ve told us,” Hobart said. “And we have heard it. Still, you must prove yourself useful in battle before we will be fully convinced of your value. We are, after all, taking a chance in asking you to join us, but I believe it is a chance worth taking.”

“All right,” Angus said. “What else?”

“One last thing,” Hobart said. “If you join our banner, you will have to remain with us for a minimum of two years. That’s non-negotiable. After that, you can leave at any time, provided you give us ample notice.”

Two years? “All right,” Angus said. “Here are my terms. First, I keep the wand and this book even if I decide to leave after two years.”

“That’s reasonable,” Hobart said, “provided you use them to contribute to our success while you are with us. We’ll simply deduct their value from your share of the treasure we acquire until a fair price has been established.”

“Agreed,” Angus nodded. “Second, I’ll need a different horse. Max is too skittish for my tastes.”

“Give him some time,” Hobart said. “You’ll get used to it.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Angus said. “If I need to cast a spell while on horseback, the horse must be stable. Max isn’t.”

“Perhaps we can find you a calm old nag,” Giorge offered, “when we get to Hellsbreath.”

“It would be better if it were one trained for cavalry,” Hobart offered. “They aren’t skittish at all in battle.”

“I could let you use one of mine for the time being,” Ortis offered. “They’re stable enough for shooting arrows, and I can ride Max until we reach Hellsbreath.”

“Third,” Angus said. “We stay in Hellsbreath long enough for me to learn more about the wand and to study Teffles’ spells.”

“How long do you think that will take?” Hobart asked. “Our funds at the moment are somewhat limited.”

“I can’t say,” Angus replied. “A minimum of at least two or three weeks. Probably longer.”

“Well,” Hobart hedged. “We can’t promise that long, but we’ll do our best.”

“I can pay my own way,” Angus said. “But I must insist on this. Magic is a complicated affair, and it takes a great deal of concentration to learn it. I can’t do that effectively while we’re traveling, and firelight like this is inadequate for reading. Once I have an understanding of the wand, I’ll be able to use it more effectively. As for the spells, I will have to learn each one of them separately, and if they are more complicated than those of the typical First Order student, it will take a considerable amount of time. However, once I have learned them, I won’t have to study them so intently when I prime for them.”

“We’ll consider it,” Hobart said. “Go on.”

“Fourth,” Angus said. “I would like us to go into The Tween.”

“We were planning to,” Hobart said. “But why do you want to go there?”

“That symbol on my map,” Angus said. “You saw it, Ortis. The teardrop superimposed on a pyramid. I want to investigate it.”

“What?” Giorge asked, perking up.

“I want to find out what’s there,” Angus said. “It was one of the only things marked on the original map; it had to have been important.

“No, no,” Giorge said. “The symbol. You said it was a teardrop superimposed on a pyramid, right?”

“Yes,” Angus said. “Why?”

“Show it to me,” Giorge said, moving closer to Angus.

“Does it sound familiar?” Ortis asked.

“I need to see it, first,” Giorge said. “But if it’s what I think it is, we’ll agree to everything.”

“What do you think it is?” Angus asked, reluctantly removing his backpack and taking out the map. He unrolled it until the symbol was visible and held it near the fire for Giorge to see.

Giorge studied it for several seconds, his breathing shallow and rapid. Finally, he nodded and said, “It might be.”

“Might be what?” Hobart demanded.

Giorge turned to Angus and watched him replace his map. “Are there any more conditions?”

“Other than you answering Hobart’s question?”

“I can’t answer that yet,” Giorge said. “I need to do some research in Hellsbreath, first.”

“What do you think it is?” Hobart asked.

Giorge shook his head. “I can’t say right now,” he said.

“All right, keep your secret,” Hobart said. “We’ll find out for ourselves.”

“No,” Giorge said. “You can’t look into it. Trust me on this; if you start asking around about it, you’ll get far too much attention. Let me handle it. I know where to look and whom to ask.”

Hobart shook his head and turned back to Angus. “All right, Angus, what else do you want?”

“Fifth,” Angus said, “After I cast spells, I will need a full night’s uninterrupted sleep to rejuvenate my energies. I will also need time the following morning to study my spells. Depending upon which spells were cast, it may range from half an hour to as much as three—possibly longer. Without that time for study, I won’t be able to prepare myself for casting those spells again.”

“Ribaldo did something of that sort,” Hobart said. “We know what to do.”

“If you don’t cast spells,” Ortis asked, “will you stand guard as needed?”

“Of course,” Angus said. “But I prefer the first or last shift.”

“Anything else?” Hobart asked.

“One last thing,” Angus said, turning toward Ortis. “When I run, I always go left.”

Giorge pretended to stifle a chuckle as Ortis nodded and said, “Good to know.”

“All right, Angus, they seem reasonable enough,” Hobart said. “We will consider your terms while we’re in Hellsbreath. A decision can wait until then. In the meantime, let’s get some rest. We’ll be riding hard tomorrow on little enough sleep as it is.”

4

It was dark.

A light drizzle was falling.

Angus huddled inside the folds of his robe, his back against the rough bark of a pine tree.

A thick fog drenched in moisture had gathered around them not long after they had retired, leaving behind a thin film of wetness. Then the drizzle had set in.

The weather fit his mood: dark and foggy, like the dreary tunnel consuming his thoughts.

Something was bothering him. What was it? He couldn’t quite place it, and he knew he wouldn’t fall asleep until he worked through the problem.

At least his robe was dry, and so was he. It shed water like it had been soaked in oil.

His backpack was not. If enough of the drizzle accumulated on its surface and beaded together, it might curl up inside the flap. But the backpack was made from water-resistant leather, and as long as it remained closed its contents should remain dry. There was little he could do about it, anyway.

The only shelter was the oxcart, and the family who owned it was using it. The pine tree offered little protection from the clingy fog; but at least near the bole, most of the moisture that condensed on its needles missed him when the light breeze shook the tiny droplets loose. But the weather wasn’t what was bothering him. It was something else.

His scrolls? There was no point in securing them in the compartments hidden in his robes now; they would just get wet in the transfer. But he would to do it at the next opportunity, at least with the ones he could cast. It would take time to train himself to reach for them if he needed one in a hurry, though; maybe it would be better to leave them in his pack unless it rains? No, the scrolls weren’t it either.

His companions? Hobart was snoring. One of Ortis was on guard, and the other two were nestled in close to the fire. Giorge was wrapped in a wet blanket next to them. Him? On the surface, they seemed friendly enough, but what about Teffles? Had it been an accident? Friendly fire? Was he shot on purpose? Hobart didn’t seem too upset by Teffles’ death, but he was a battle-hardened soldier and hadn’t known him very long. Ortis didn’t appear ruffled by it, either. Was the Banner of the Wounded Hand a disreputable group, one of the bands of brigands Hobart had mentioned? Was it wise to join them without finding out more about their reputation? What would he learn of them in Hellsbreath? The terms were reasonable enough, but was he ready for a two year commitment? Did he want to travel with them for that long without knowing more about them?

Yes, that was part of what troubled him, but it wasn’t the real issue. It was one he could set aside to deal with at an appropriate time, once he had learned more about them. Still, it would be wise to be vigilant, and losing a bit of sleep would not matter much in the long run. But there was something else, something more important that he was overlooking….

Was it Teffles’ wand? Wands were precious, and he was eager to discover what it could do. But it would have to wait, and he was a patient man. If nothing else, Voltari had taught him how to delay gratification until the right moment, and he would do just that. But how was he going to discover its power? Could he discover its power? The magic was a tightly woven pattern; it would be difficult to separate it into the individual threads and knots. All long-lasting spells were that way; they had to be. If they weren’t tightly bound, the natural fluctuations of the strands’ power would let them wriggle free. But the tightness and complexity of the knots made it difficult to identify the individual threads and how they had been knotted together. As for the sequence of the knots….

He needed time and solitude, but he was confident he could do it eventually. The spell contained within the wand was unfamiliar; the majority of the threads on the surface had been a very pale, almost translucent shade of blue—sky magic. That meant the spell was one he was unlikely to know. He had studied the generalities of sky magic—as he had with all of the different types of magical energy—but only superficially; his emphases were on flame and earth. He knew their subtleties quite well. But sky magic? Would he even be able to work through it on his own? Maybe Teffles’ book would help, but he doubted it; Teffles did not seem to be the type of wizard who would have the ability to create a wand. If he had been, a wolf pack never would have challenged him. At least triggering the spell contained within the wand would be easy enough to do. All that was necessary was to release the first three knots in the proper sequence….

No, the wand wasn’t the problem; it was an opportunity, one he was very much looking forward to pursuing.

Hellsbreath? He could find work there instead of joining their banner, but that would mean he would have to return the wand and Teffles’ book. Unless they sold them to him. Did he have enough treasure for that? What would he do in Hellsbreath? Voltari had sent him there for a reason, and he trusted his master’s judgment. Perhaps it would be better to follow Voltari’s guidance than to join a banner? Unless his master had expected him to find a banner to join. What would they pay a wizard to do? Would it be more than he could gain from being a member of Hobart’s banner? Probably; they had to work for a caravan last year….

I should be sleeping, Angus thought letting his mind wander. Why aren’t I?

The symbol on the map? Why had he been so adamant about investigating it? Simple curiosity? Something else? Had he forgotten something Voltari had told him? Something important? It didn’t feel like it, but…. Why had Giorge been so interested in it? Why didn’t he tell them—his companions, not Angus—what he thought the symbol represented? Why was he so secretive, so reluctant? What could he be hiding? Would he reveal his information to them? Would he tell Angus what it was even if he decided not to join their banner? Why was it too dangerous for him to investigate it on his own?

No, that wasn’t it, either. If they went into The Tween to find out what was at that symbol, Giorge would tell them what he knew. Angus would make sure of it. No, his problem didn’t involve Giorge at all. It was Ortis.

Ortis? He claimed to be a triad. Three in one and one in three. Each one connected to the other. He was unusual, certainly, even strange. And those eyes! They were more catlike than—

“They say you can see it in their eyes when you look at them.”

That’s what Billigan had said about the plains folk, the people King Urm had conquered when he expanded his kingdom. That’s it! Is Ortis descended from one of those survivors? What was it Ortis had said?

“My people scattered centuries ago. Most of us are north of the Death Swamps.”

The Death Swamps.

That was where the fishmen live.

How did he get through them? Hobart said the fishmen were vicious, hadn’t he?

Angus smiled. He had finally found what troubled him, and now he could sleep. He could decide what to do about the insight tomorrow. But he wouldn’t confront Ortis—not right away, at least. The connection was still too tenuous. He needed more information. They’d have a library in Hellsbreath, possibly several. There were wizards there….

As his mind settled and he felt sleep approaching, one last thought intruded upon him: If I have time….

5

“I would have liked to have gotten to Hellsbreath last night,” Hobart grumbled as they worked their way around the edge of the last mountain. “The lift is always busier in the evenings.”

“No help for it,” Ortis said. “The rain made the cobblestones too slippery for a hard ride. Besides, it gave us time to take a closer look at that map when the sun came out.”

“I know,” Hobart said. “I just hate waiting in line, that’s all.”

“Is there a wall and gate, like in Wyrmwood?” Angus asked.

“Not exactly,” Hobart said. “But you’ll be able to see it soon enough.”

“How long are we staying?” Angus asked.

Hobart set his jaw and said, “You said you can pay your own fare, right?”

“Yes,” Angus said.

“For how long?”

Angus shrugged, “How much does it cost?”

“Depends on where you stay,” Hobart said. “I’ll be staying at Hedreth’s. He’s an old veteran and gives a discount to Banner Holders. Last time I was here, a week was three silver for the room and another three for food and a reasonable amount of drink. It costs more if you’re thirsty.”

“How much is the exchange rate for gold?” Angus asked.

“Gold?” Giorge repeated, sitting up straighter in his saddle. “Twelve to one for silver, usually. It depends upon the coin. Some are worth more because they have more gold in them; others are worth less. You can tell by the stamp on it, usually. That and the weight.”

Angus reached into his pouch and took out one of the gold coins. He held it up between his fingers; it was about an inch and a half in diameter, thick, and heavy. On one side was a crown, and the other had the crisp profile of a man on it. “What about this one?” he asked, tossing it to Giorge.

Giorge caught it easily, glanced at the images and whistled. “You’ll make more if you sell it to a collector,” he said. “I know a few….”

“Why?” Hobart asked.

“Take a look,” Giorge said, nudging his horse forward until he was next to him. Angus hurried to match their pace so he could listen to Giorge. “The crown on this side is on all of the coins of Tyr; there’s nothing unusual about that. The profile on the other side is what matters. It shows the image of the king at the time of its minting. This is King Urm, and the quality of the coin is amazing. It’s as if it had been stamped yesterday.”

“Counterfeit?” Hobart asked.

“No,” he said. “You can tell by the weight and balance. They don’t make coins like this anymore. The metal in this was mined by the dwarves.”

“Are you saying it’s a thousand years old?” Angus asked.

Giorge nodded. “About that, yes. There must not be very many of these left, either. Especially in this condition. Whenever there is a new king, he tends to collect up his predecessors’ coins, melt them down, and forge coins with his own image. A collector would pay a fortune for this.”

“Interesting,” Angus said. “How much is a fortune?”

Giorge frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, “I’d have to ask my contacts. But I wouldn’t be surprised if someone would pay upwards of a thousand gold coins for this one. Maybe more.”

“Really?” Angus said as he did a quick calculation. “In that case, I have more than enough for a lifetime in Hedreth’s. Even without the garnets.”

“Garnets?” Giorge repeated, leaning closer to him. “You have garnets, too?”

“A few,” Angus said.

“I can get you a fair price if you want to sell them,” Giorge said, “The coins, too.”

Angus held out his hand and waited for Giorge to give him back his coin, then moved his horse a bit further away from him. “I think I’ll hold on to them for now,” he said. “I have enough silver for a few weeks’ stay. You can look into it if you’d like, though.”

“Sure,” Giorge said. “And I’ll charge you a very reasonable brokers’ fee, too.”

“Not if he joins the banner,” Hobart said. “You know the rules.”

“He hasn’t joined us yet,” Giorge reminded him, eyeing Angus more closely, as if he were trying to see the coins and gems through his robe.

“Remember Wyrmwood,” Angus half-whispered.

Giorge blinked and grinned. “I was just thinking,” he protested. “It wasn’t like I was going to do anything.”

“Make sure you don’t,” Hobart said. “It would be impolite, considering the circumstances.”

“Of course, if you have that many of those gold coins, we could just sell you the wand and book. I’m sure we could make an equitable arrangement….”

“Perhaps,” Angus said. Twelve coins. Offer five. Bargain to nine? “I could part with five of them, I suppose.”

“Five?” Giorge sputtered. “The wand alone is worth twice that!”

“Really?” Angus said. “We don’t even know what it does. What if it only produces flowers from empty air? If it does that, it wouldn’t even be worth one of those coins. I’m taking a considerable risk, here.”

“You can make flowers out of air?” Hobart asked, his eyebrows trying to catch his receding hairline. “I’d like to see that.”

“No,” Angus said, shaking his head. “I was just pointing out that the wand might not do much. Most wands are more powerful than that, but every now and then, a wizard will make a wand for practice that is basically worthless.”

“The book—” Giorge began.

“—may be full of First Order spells,” Angus finished. “If it is, it isn’t worth much to me. I mastered those long ago.” At least for flame and earth….

“I think we can get a fair price for it in Hellsbreath,” Hobart countered. “Even if you can’t find a use for it, there are bound to be wizards there who can.”

Angus nodded, “True,” he admitted. “But I’d rather wait until I’ve looked at it before I change my offer.”

“How about this,” Giorge said. “We trade you the wand and book for all the gold coins you have.”

“Really?” Angus chuckled. “And what would I live on if I did that.”

“The garnets, of course,” Giorge said. “You have more than one, don’t you?”

Angus nodded.

“How many gold coins do you have?” Hobart asked.

“More than I’m willing to pay for the wand and book,” Angus answered.

“Twenty?” Giorge asked. “I think that’s a reasonable price for that wand and book. Don’t you Hobart?”

Angus laughed. “You wouldn’t know what a reasonable price for magic is, Giorge. Besides, it’s only worth what a wizard is willing to pay for it, and this wizard is willing to pay seven of those gold coins.”

“Seven?” Hobart mused. “Come now, Angus, it’s surely worth more than that, isn’t it?”

“It may be,” Angus admitted. “Or it may be worth far less. That’s the point, isn’t it? We don’t know its value, and we’re making assumptions based on ignorance. You’re assuming it is a powerful wand with a high value, and I am making a much more conservative estimate. Even so, I am willing to gamble by offering to pay a higher price than that conservative estimate.”

“Seven seems low to me,” Hobart said. “I know enough about things like that—magical things—to know a wizard has to spend a great deal of time and energy making them. Even simple ones have more value than the materials they are made from, and that wand is made from ivory. The value of that ivory, alone, is at least one of those gold coins, if not two.”

“Fifteen,” Giorge offered. “We’re taking a risk, too. What if it’s actually worth a great deal more than that?”

“I think I’m being generous,” Angus countered. “And ivory—even carved ivory like this wand—is not worth even one of those coins, and you know it. Besides, you would not even have known about this wand without me; you would have just given it away to the priests in the Temple of Muff. By rights, I shouldn’t even be making this offer at all; I should just keep the wand and charge you for its return.”

“We had the book,” Giorge corrected. “You didn’t find that.”

“Don’t forget the key,” Angus said. “But I’ll be fair. I’ll give you eight of those gold coins for the pair. That’s far more than you would have gotten without me.”

“Ten,” Giorge said. “That would be a reasonable compromise, would it not?”

“Perhaps,” Angus said, “but it would leave me uncomfortably short on funds.”

“The garnets—”

“I don’t know their value,” Angus said. “Also, I would rather hang onto them for the time being. They travel much easier than bags of coin. Still,” he considered. “If Giorge agrees to liquidate the last two coins for me—free of charge—I think I can spare ten.”

“You have twelve of them?” Giorge asked. “Where did you get them?”

“Does it matter?” Angus asked.

“It might,” Giorge said. “There aren’t very many of them left, and all the ones I know about are in collections. They might have been stolen.”

Angus frowned. Where had he gotten the coins? He couldn’t remember; they were in his clothes when he put them on. “I got them in Voltari’s Tower,” Angus said. At least that was true, but how they had gotten into Blackhaven was still a complete mystery.

“Were there any others?” Giorge asked.

“One,” Angus admitted.

“What happened to it?” Giorge asked.

“I spent it,” Angus said. “After I left Blackhaven, I wandered around a bit. My feet were infected, and I was feverish when I found Woodwort. I gave it to the innkeeper for a room just before I passed out.”

Giorge winced. “Costly room,” he said.

Angus nodded. “We should finalize the exchange now,” he said. “While there are no prying eyes.” He reined in his horse. Giorge and Hobart joined him. He reached into the pocket of his robe and brought out the pouch containing the gold coins and garnets. He took the five garnets out and showed them to Giorge. “What do you think these are worth?”

“Well,” Giorge said, moving them around with his finger. “I can probably get you three hundred gold coins for the largest one; it’s a good color. The other two large ones aren’t as high a quality and a bit off in color. Maybe two hundred or so. The two runts about fifty.”

“You’ve been carrying around a fortune, Angus,” Hobart said. “Why bother with adventuring at all?”

Angus shrugged. There was no reason to tell them that Voltari had kicked him out. “Magic isn’t cheap,” he said. “Just look at what that wand and book cost me….”

Giorge laughed, the pouch of gold coins disappearing somewhere on his person. “I’ll trade the coins for gems,” he said. “It will be easier to carry than several hundred pounds of gold. Also,” he turned to Hobart, “I will have to use part of this to find the information I need on that symbol. I’ll have to be discreet, and such discretion can have a hefty price.”

Hobart glared at him. “You know the rules,” he said. “If I have to hire a Truthseer, it comes out of your cut, regardless of whether or not you tell the truth.”

Giorge pouted and shook his head. “When will you learn to trust me?”

“I do trust you,” Hobart grinned. “I just don’t trust your twitchy fingers.” He winked at Angus. “He gave you back your garnets, didn’t he?”

Angus laughed and nodded. “I was watching.”

The Ortis who had gotten a significant distance ahead of them reined in his horse. As the Ortis a short distance behind them passed, he said, “The volcano is sputtering today. We’ll need to be careful.”

“Ash or lava?” Hobart asked, spurring his horse forward.

“Mostly lava,” Ortis said. “It looks like a mild eruption.”

“Better than a violent one,” Hobart said.

“The volcano’s erupting?” Angus said, spurring his own steed forward. “Aren’t they evacuating?”

“Why?” Hobart asked. “The city’s in no danger.”

“No danger? From a volcano?”

Hobart chuckled. “You’ll see for yourself in a minute.”

When they joined Ortis, it became clear to Angus why the city was in no danger—and why Voltari had sent him to Hellsbreath.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Hobart said.

Angus stared. The road continued across a narrow valley and up the steep slope of another low mountain. The mountain had two summits, each of which ended in a volcanic crater. Nestled in between them was the city of Hellsbreath, but all Angus could see were its walls. They were high walls, nearly topping the volcanic ridge on either side, and spanning half the distance between them. The volcano to the west was erupting, lava bubbling out in several places near the top. A large pool of reddish orange rock, accented by a charcoal-black crust, flowed in toward the city, but it parted not far from the wall and tumbled down the slope, adding to the summit. The other summit was silent, save for wisps of smoke. Even at a distance, the crackling and popping of the eruption was easy to hear, and an ash cloud funneled eastward, over the city, where it hovered and accumulated on a large bowl-shaped structure. But there was no structure apparent; whatever it was, it was invisible.

“Why isn’t the ash falling on the city?” Angus asked.

“Wizards,” Hobart said. “They constructed a barrier over the city. You can’t see it, but it’s always there. When the volcano stops spewing that ash, they’ll tip the dome and collect it. It’s excellent fertilizer, and there’s a thriving industry around it.”

“They also have wizards tending to the volcanoes,” Ortis added. “They keep the eruptions under control. Instead of a sudden, explosive eruption, they have little ones like that one spaced over time. It keeps the volcanoes manageable.”

Angus nodded, drawing his attention to the magical energy around him. Normally, he wouldn’t be able to see the strands from such a distance, but the concentration of magical energy enveloping the city was like a distant beacon fire. He didn’t know the particulars of the spells involved—and there were no doubt dozens, if not hundreds—but he was sure he could learn them quickly enough. No doubt they would welcome a wizard with his particular talents, and pay handsomely. If there wasn’t already a surplus of them.

“We’ll need to cover our mouths,” Hobart continued. “And the horses’ noses. That ash is hot, and if too much gets in your lungs…” he shook his head. “There are better ways to die.”

“What do you have in mind?” Angus asked.

“See that river?” Hobart said, pointing at the valley floor.

“It’s hard to miss,” Angus said.

Hobart scowled, shook his head, and continued. “There’s a little fellow down there who rents sheets. Jagra, I think his name is. When he sees someone coming—like us—he takes his bucket down to the river and brings enough water back to fill a trough he has set up by the road. He’s got a pile of thin white sheets that he dips in the trough and drapes over you and your horse. You can see through them and breathe through them, but the fabric is so finely woven that the ash can’t get through it. We’ll rent them, and when we get inside the dome’s cover, his wife Agata will be waiting. She has a similar setup—trough, clean sheets, a line for drying—but their sons have to haul water up from the bridge. At night, his brother does the same thing.”

“Won’t the horses protest?” Angus asked.

“Not at all,” Hobart said, patting his mare’s neck and smiling fondly. “They’re fine mounts, and it’s not their first time here. They’ll adjust quickly enough, and so will we.”

“All right,” Angus said.

“The sheets will also protect our gear,” Hobart continued. “The ash isn’t heavy enough to maintain its heat for long, but it isn’t unusual to have bits of lava mixed in with it. Keep your eyes open. It generally only smolders, but once in a while it will burn through one of the sheets. It looks like we’ll have to hurry, too. It’s falling pretty heavily.”

“Enough sightseeing,” Ortis said. “We should start down.”

They urged their horses into a steady walk as Angus said, “Those walls are pretty high.”

“Sixty feet high and forty feet thick,” Hobart said. “They protect the city and are the last defense against the lava. It sometimes reaches the walls despite the wizards, but it hasn’t posed any serious concerns in recent years.”

Angus shielded his eyes with his hand and squinted. “I don’t see a gate.”

“There isn’t one,” Hobart said. “It wouldn’t do to have any holes in the wall for lava to flow through.”

“How do we get in?”

“You can’t see it yet,” Hobart said, “but there’s a lift. It moves up and down at regular intervals, and can carry an entire mounted patrol—that’s a dozen men and horses—with plenty of room to spare. There’s another one on the other side. When the caravans come, they raise and lower all their goods in a matter of hours. Most of the time, they have to sell some of it in Hellsbreath on the way through. There’s a fee for each trip the lift makes,” he continued. “It’s a standard fee spread out among all of the passengers on the lift. If it’s a full load, it’s not at all expensive—half a silver for a man and horse—but if you want a special trip, it’s far more costly. On a day like this, we may have to wait a while before there are enough passengers to make a full load.”

“Tell him about The Rim,” Giorge said. “He’ll need to know about that.”

Hobart nodded, “The Rim encircles the city; it’s on top of the wall and runs along its entire length. The top of the wall is forty feet wide, and there’s a narrow street in the middle of it. There’s a bridge straight across the town for the caravans—don’t ask me what holds it up—but no one else can use it. The rest of us go around the rim if we want to go south. On either side of the street are inns, taverns, the marketplace—whatever a traveler might need. The garrison—four hundred men are on duty at all times—are bunkered in the short towers on the corners. They serve as lookouts and man the patrols, both on The Rim and the area around the city. Most of the patrols will have a wizard with them, in case they run into volcanism while outside the protection of the city’s dome and walls. As for the city proper, don’t worry about it. Most people never make it down inside the city unless they live there.”

“What about libraries?” Angus asked. “Are there any on The Rim?”

Hobart shrugged. “I’ve never heard of one,” he admitted, “but I never looked for one, either.”

“There aren’t,” Giorge said. “The wizards live inside the city, and that’s where the libraries are. There’s a Wizards’ School, too, if you’re interested.”

“I am,” Angus said. “It will be a good place to ask about work. I’ll have to talk with them before I decide to join your banner or not.”

“There,” Hobart said. “Do you see it? The lift is rising.”

Angus pointlessly leaned forward in his saddle and studied the wall as best he could. “The thing that looks like a spider crawling up the side of the wall?”

Hobart chuckled. “That’s our way up,” he said. “It’s a pulley and winch system that lifts visitors up and down. You stand on a platform and they winch you up. You can’t get into Hellsbreath any other way.”

If it weren’t for that dome, Angus thought, I could fly in. If I could fly, that is.

“Let’s ride a bit faster,” Giorge said. “I’d like to get there before the next lift goes back up. You know how it is during the day, especially when the volcano is belching out that crap.”

“Yes,” Hobart said, spurring his horse to a light trot. “And there aren’t very many travelers between us and the city.”

“Not many around it, either,” Giorge said. “It might be a long time before that lift drops back down.”

“All right, Angus,” he said, turning to Angus. “When we get there, keep your fingers clean.”

Angus tilted his head and half-smiled. “What do you mean by that?”

Hobart frowned. “I shouldn’t tell you this,” he said, “but Giorge got in a bit of trouble last time we were here. He climbed down to the city proper without permission. When they caught him, they put him in the dungeon and left him there until we were ready to leave. They don’t take kindly to trespassers, and even less so to thieves. Hellsbreath is mainly a military outpost, and they take their rules seriously.”

Angus nodded. “What rules should I know about?”

Hobart shrugged. “No killing, stealing, trespassing, vandalism, spitting from The Rim, littering….”

6

Just before reaching the lift area, Hobart pointed at a long, narrow, wooden wall with several rings evenly spaced along its length. Each ring had a red, blue, or black scarf tied to it. Hobart rode past several dozen red and blue scarves before coming to a stop before one with a black scarf. He dismounted, handed Angus the reins of his horse, and said, “Stay back.” Then he stepped up to the ring and reached for the scarf.

Giorge brought his horse up next to Angus and stopped, but Ortis rode past him to the next ring marked with a black scarf—about ten feet further—and dismounted.

Hobart’s clumsy oversized gauntleted fingers finally unraveled the knot in the scarf and he gripped the ring with his free hand and tugged. A ten-foot section of the wall slid easily outward, separating itself from the rest of the wooden wall. He took a few steps back, pulling the partition with him until a soft chime sounded. Then he let go of the ring and turned to Angus.

“It’s a stable,” he said. “You can tell which ones are empty by the scarf. A black one like this,” he shook it, “is open for use. The red ones stable the garrison’s horses, and the blue ones are for visitors. There are stables on The Rim if you want your horse with you, or if you’re traveling through the city and continuing south. But if we’re going into The Tween to check out that symbol, we may as well house them down here. It will reduce the price of the lift and make our wait a little longer, but it will be worth it.” He took the reins of his horse and led it around the opening. “Each one can hold four horses,” he said. “It’s a bit of a tight squeeze, but the horses don’t seem to mind being confined like that.”

Giorge hopped off his horse and followed Hobart around the partition. A moment later, Angus shrugged and did the same, wincing from the short burst of pain in his legs as he landed. Behind the partition was a shallow enclave embedded in the city’s wall, just deep enough for a horse to be stabled. “They’ll feed them, brush them down, take them out for exercise—everything they do in other stables. We’ll put a deposit down now and pay the balance when we leave. If we stay much longer than two weeks, we’ll have to send down additional payment to make sure they’re here when we need them.”

“Don’t worry,” Giorge said. “It’s a reasonable rate. But we do need to have a sense of how long we’ll be here.”

“Back to that,” Angus sighed. “I still don’t know the answer. Let’s say three weeks for now, and if I need longer, I’ll send word.”

“Two weeks longer than I’d like,” Hobart grumbled, removing his saddlebags from his horse. “We don’t know how long it will take to find whatever is waiting for us at that symbol, if we can find it at all. It probably got buried in lava centuries ago. But if there is something there, we need to find it before winter sets in.”

“Isn’t winter still a few months away?” Angus asked.

Hobart shook his head and set the last saddlebag on the ground beside his horse. “Not in those mountains,” he said. “It can come early there.”

“It’s the altitude,” Giorge added, removing his own saddlebags. “The mountains west of here are the highest peaks in the region. There’s snow on top of most of them all year round. Hellsbreath Pass goes through them otherwise they would be almost completely impassible all year round.”

“I’ve seen the snowcaps,” Angus admitted as he reached for his backpack and strapped it over his shoulders. Then he turned to the saddlebags. “Do I need to remove all of these?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hobart said, moving toward him. “They’re our horses, and we’ll take care of them. If you decide to join us, we’ll walk you through what to do and fill you in on what is banner gear and what is not. For now, you’ll be our guest.”

“All right,” Angus said, moving back to give Hobart room to maneuver. “I can at least carry some of them over to the lift for you.”

Hobart nodded, adding the saddlebags to his pile. “When we’re ready, he said. He led Angus’s horse into one of the narrow stalls. The stable was surprisingly well-lit, considering that it was embedded in such an enclosed space, and there was a long corridor running along the back of the stalls. A cord hung down in the middle of their section of the stable, and Hobart pulled it. The soft chime sounded again.

“I’m coming,” a man shouted from down the corridor. “Hold your horses ’til I get there.”

Giorge led his horse into its stall and turned to help Ortis with the young colt, Max, who was balking at the confined space. “There, there, boy,” he soothed, patting it on its shoulder. “I don’t like being cooped up either, but it’s only for a few weeks. You can manage that, can’t you?”

Ortis removed Teffles’ body from the last horse before leading the horse into its stall. It was a calm, placid beast, easily managed and content with the directions Ortis gave him.

“Was that Teffles horse before he joined you?” Angus asked.

“Yes,” Ortis said. “Why?”

Angus nodded. “I’d like that one if I join your banner. Would that be all right?”

Ortis shrugged. “Not our decision,” he said. “Teffles bequeathed it to the Wizards’ School.”

It must be trained for wizards, Angus thought. “I see,” he said. “Perhaps they will part with it?”

“I’ll take you with me when I let them know it’s here,” Hobart said. “I believe you wanted to visit there, anyway. It’s in the city proper—you can’t miss seeing it when we get to The Rim—and we’ll have to get special permission from the guards to visit it. I don’t think it will be a problem. You are a wizard, after all.”

From Blackhaven Tower, Angus thought. “Yes,” he said. Will they receive me in the same way Ulrich did? Will I be looked on as a blight?

A man limped half-free of the shadows and came to an abrupt stop. He stared at Hobart for a long moment, and then began shaking his head. “So it’s you, is it? I thought I recognized that infernal voice. I would have thought the Death Swamps had swallowed you up by now.”

“Not yet, you scoundrel,” Hobart glared. “Why isn’t your corpse feeding the rats?”

“Bah,” the man spat, limping forward and dipping beneath the inner rail of the empty stall. “They’re too smart. They know they’d die of indigestion.”

Hobart glared a bit longer, and then they grinned at each other and deep, rich, belly-laughs rumbled from them both. They clasped hands to forearms and pretended to wrestle for a few moments. Then Hobart wrapped his arms around the man’s shoulder and led him out of the stable.

“It’s been a long time, Hobart,” the man said, nudging him with his elbow. He was a grizzled, dirty, sweat-soaked old man dressed in a worn-out wool tunic whose sleeves had been torn off, and breeches secured to his waist with a frayed red scarf. “You’ll have to let me buy you a beer at Hedreth’s.”

“Now Bandor,” Hobart said, shaking his head. “You know I can’t drink just one.”

“Two, then,” Bandor replied. “How long are you here for?”

“A week or two. Three at the outside,” Hobart said. “Plenty of time to catch up.”

“I’m sure you have stories,” he said. “You always do.”

“Bandor,” Giorge said, politely nodding as he returned from helping Ortis.

“You’re still riding under his banner?” Bandor said, his eyes wide. “I would have thought Hobart would have thrown you out of it after last time.”

Giorge grinned. “They can’t live without me, Bandor. You know that.”

“But how do they live with you?” Bandor retorted, shaking his head and leaning back to look around Giorge. “And that triad’s here, too. That leaves,” he turned to Angus and stared. After a moment he said, as if it were an accusation, “You’re not Ribaldo.”

“No,” Angus said. “My name is Angus.”

“Where’s Ribaldo?” Bandor asked, looking up at Hobart.

“With his gods,” Hobart said. “Or someone else’s.”

“No,” Bandor said. “He was such a fine old man.”

Hobart nodded and let his arm slide from Bandor’s shoulders. “Too old,” he said. “He died in his sleep just over a week ago.”

Bandor shook his head. “That will be my fate, I’m sure. With this bum leg, I’ll never get out of this hole in the wall. They may as well bury me in it now.”

“You’ll never die, Bandor,” Hobart said as he moved to his saddlebags. “You’re too stubborn.”

“Ah, well, if only death were so easily swayed,” Bandor said. “But we’ll all end up like Ribaldo one day,” he added, nodding toward Teffles’ body. “He will be missed.”

“He already has been,” Hobart said. “That’s his replacement. He only lasted almost two days before the wolves got to him.”

Bandor shook his head and looked at Angus. “You’re that one’s replacement, then? You might want to reconsider it if you want to live a while longer.”

“I’m—”

“Let’s just say he’s with us for now,” Hobart said. “Nothing permanent has been established yet.”

“Ah,” Bandor said, nodding. “Testing him, are you?”

Hobart shook his head. “The offer has been made, Bandor, but he has yet to accept it.”

“I may have a more lucrative opportunity here in Hellsbreath,” Angus said. “I understand they have need of wizards, here.”

Bandor nodded, “There’s always room for more skilled wizards in Hellsbreath.”

“We should be getting our things over to the lift area,” Ortis said. “We don’t want to have to wait for another one.”

“Right you are,” Bandor said. “We’ll talk later at Hedreth’s, Hobart. Let’s see, seven horses for how long?”

“Let’s say two weeks,” Hobart said. “If we stay longer than that, we’ll settle up when we leave.”

“Two gold, four silver,” Bandor said as he stepped back into the stall to retrieve the blue scarves. “I’ll even make sure they get the same treatment as the soldiers’ horses. Only the best for you, Hobart.”

“Thank you Bandor,” Hobart said, counting out the coins in his palm. “Until this evening, then?”

Bandor nodded, exchanging the blue scarves for the coin and the black scarves. Before limping away, he turned to Angus and said, “There’s no better banner than Hobart’s. He’s a fair and honorable leader, and he’ll do right by you if you do right by him.” He paused, glanced sidelong for a moment, winked, and added, “I don’t know how many others would have put up with Giorge for as long as he has.”

Hobart chuckled as the scruffy man left, ignoring the feigned, exaggerated pain on Giorge’s face. Then he turned abruptly and said, “Let’s get our gear.” He hurried to the pile of saddlebags and began draping them over his shoulders. Angus joined him, accepted two of the lighter ones, and followed him out from behind the partition. Hobart pushed it closed and fumbled with the blue scarf, eventually tying a shabby but effective knot. When he finished, he turned and said, “Let’s report in.”

“Report in?” Angus asked as they walked toward the lift area.

“Whenever banners arrive at a major outpost, we have to report in to the guard,” Hobart said. “They like to keep track of us in case they need to recall us to duty. We’ll also be reporting on the changes to our membership,” Hobart said. “I’ll put you down as a provisional member; that way, you’ll get the benefits of membership while we’re in Hellsbreath, and if you decide not to join, I can strike your name from the roster when we leave.”

As they approached, Angus studied the people near the lift platform. There were apparently two groups of them: the passengers and the guardsmen. The guardsmen were armed, and several were positioned around the platform in a protective fashion, preventing people from stepping onto it. Perhaps they were concerned that someone would walk off the edge of the platform while the lift was gone or might disturb the complex pulley system? The three remaining guards were stationed near a little alcove where an old scribe sat with a thick tome and small chest. As they approached, the scribe opened the book, picked up his quill, and uncorked his inkwell. Between him and the lift platform, half a dozen passengers waited for the lift to return from The Rim.

“Those are all locals,” Giorge said from beside him. “By the look of the one, he’s a fisherman. He probably has a few fish in that basket of his. He uses that bow to shoot them. The arrows are short and too brittle for anything else. It’s not as easy as you might think. Try it sometime. The water distorts your perception, and it takes a long time to learn how to judge where the fish really is. Until then, you kill a lot of water.”

Angus nodded and asked, “You can tell that by the arrows?”

Giorge nodded. “They are heavier than the normal ones, and they don’t have any fletching. It’s almost like a crossbow bolt. They don’t have to fly far, but do need to penetrate deep enough into the water to kill the fish. He probably has string tied to them so he doesn’t lose them in the river when he misses.”

“Isn’t the river moving too fast for that kind of fishing?” Angus asked.

Giorge nodded. “He must be a bit desperate,” he said. “Most locals wouldn’t risk fishing when there’s this much ash in the air.”

“He could have been caught by surprise,” Ortis said. “Some of these fishermen go out at night.”

“More likely he didn’t have a choice,” Hobart offered. “We don’t know how long that eruption has been going on. They can last weeks, you know.”

“Maybe you should ask him,” Angus suggested. “I’m sure he would welcome the conversation. After all, it may be a while before they send the lift back down.”

When they were within a few feet of the scribe, Hobart said, “Stay here,” and walked up to him.

“The two with axes were probably gathering wood or clearing away debris from the bridge,” Giorge continued, stopping next to Angus. “When it rains, the river rises quickly and catches up all kinds of stuff—trees, branches, boulders, dead animals, whatever. Sometimes a tree will get caught on the bridge supports.”

“It’s too early to clear the debris,” Ortis offered. “The river’s too deep and moving too fast.”

“What about the others,” Angus asked. “They look like the villagers I met on my way to Wyrmwood.”

“We are the Banner of the Wounded Hand,” Hobart told the scribe.

The rickety old man leafed through the tome propped up on his desk. When he found the appropriate entry, he skimmed through it quickly and looked at the group. “You are Hobart?” he asked. “The holder of the banner?”

“Yes,” Hobart said. “And these are—”

“Ortis, Giorge, and Ribaldo?” He frowned and scanned the page again. He looked back at Angus and shook his head. “No, not Ribaldo.” He pointed at the corpse two of Ortis were carrying between them. “Is that Ribaldo?”

“No,” Hobart said. “It’s Teffles, Ribaldo’s replacement. He won’t be on your list, yet. He was added to our roster in Wyrmwood less than a week ago.”

The scribe frowned and drew the quill across a portion of the page in his book. When he finished, he jotted something down and asked, “How do you spell Teffles?”

Hobart frowned. “I don’t remember,” he admitted. “Maybe you can wait until the update comes in from Wyrmwood and make the change then?”

“He was added to your roster in Wyrmwood?”

Hobart nodded. “When Ribaldo’s death was reported.”

“Has Teffle’s death been recorded?”

“Yes,” Hobart said. “We reported it in Wyrmwood on our way here.”

“What is your new member’s name?” the scribe asked, dipping his quill in the inkwell. It was a large glass inkwell that had seen much use.

“Angus,” Hobart told him. “He is a provisional member under the protection of our banner.”

“Provisional member?” the old man repeated, reaching up to scratch his wrinkled brow and darkening the ink-black streak in the tangled mop of gray hair cascading over his shoulders and down his back. He sighed. “That is a complication.”

Hobart nodded. “Nevertheless, I do want it in the records. We have offered Angus a position in our banner, and he is considering it. While he does so, I wish to have him treated as a member of my banner. His decision will be made prior to our leaving Hellsbreath, and we will update the roster accordingly before that time.”

“Very well,” he said. “I will add Angus to your roster and make a note of his provisional status.”

“Thank you,” Hobart said.

“I will need to know how to spell it,” the old man said, and Hobart looked at Angus.

Angus stepped forward and stated each letter clearly as the old scribe’s quill scratched them out. He continued writing for several seconds, and then motioned Angus closer.

“You are a wizard, are you not?” he asked without looking up from his tome.

“Yes,” Angus confirmed. “I was trained by Voltari in Blackhaven Tower.”

One of the guards looked sharply at him, and seemed to want to say something. But he didn’t, and the scribe ignored him as he wrote down the information. “Tradecraft: Wizard. Hair: black, short. Eyes: light blue.” He looked up and squinted at Angus. “They’re almost silver, aren’t they? No matter; light blue will suffice. Beard—” he paused again and asked, “Do you intend to maintain that beard?”

“For now, yes,” Angus replied. “Why do you ask?”

The old man shrugged, his wicker-like spine creaking a bit as he did so. “Just wanting to maintain accurate records,” he said. “Why don’t you turn around for me?”

Angus frowned and turned slowly around. “Height: five feet six inches. Weight: one hundred fifty five pounds. I better make that one sixty,” he muttered.

“Anything else?” Angus asked.

The scribe reviewed his notes. “Yes,” he said. “Your age.”

“I—” Angus frowned and thought for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I haven’t paid much attention to it.”

“What do you think, Hobart?” he asked.

Hobart shrugged, his armor jingling as it settled. “I don’t know. Maybe thirty?”

The old scribe’s deep brown eyes seemed to pierce Angus’s as he said, “No. Older. I’ll put down thirty-five.”

He turned the tome so it faced Hobart and handed him the quill. “Sign here,” he said, pointing.

Hobart very carefully drew out his name and handed back the quill.

“I will send an update on your roster with tomorrow’s dispatch to Tyrag. For the time being, I will withhold Angus’s name from the roster, but I expect you to clarify the situation before you leave Hellsbreath. If not, I will assume you are in breach of your Banner Contract.”

“Of course,” Hobart said. “I will update the information when I am able to do so.”

“How long will you be staying?” the scribe asked.

“We don’t know yet. No less than a week and possibly as many as four.”

“Seven for the lift, counting the corpse.” He glanced at the others. “It will likely be a few hours before it returns. There hasn’t been much interest in leaving the city today. If you’re in a hurry, I can have them send it down, but it will cost more.”

“We’ll wait,” Hobart said. “I’m sure it will be down by nightfall. If it isn’t, we’ll catch the lift up when they change guards.”

“The fee—” the scribe began.

Hobart handed him a few silver coins and said, “I believe this will be sufficient?”

The scribe accepted the coins, counted them, turned to a different page in his book, wrote down a figure, opened the chest, and dropped the coins in among those that were already there. Then he closed the chest’s lid, looked up, and gave them a toothless smile as he said, “I hope you have a pleasant and uneventful stay in The Rim.”

“As do we,” Hobart said, nodding.

The scribe waved them on and his smile quickly dissolved as they passed. One of the guardsmen opened up the gate to the platform loading area and ushered them through. There was enough room in the lift area to accommodate far more than those already inside, and it was not at all difficult for them to find a place to sit. “Make yourselves comfortable,” Hobart said. “It may be a while.”

They dropped their gear down and sat on it or beside it. Angus took Teffles’ book from his backpack and began reading it. The first few pages were an explanation for the marks he would be using in it, each one a representation of a specific series of knots. The symbols were unfamiliar to him, but once he began to understand their purpose, he realized how effective it must be. If he applied a similar process to his own spells, he could save a considerable amount of time while priming for them. But it would take a great deal of patience to learn the system of shorthand symbols and implement it….

7

Angus was beginning to understand Teffles’ shorthand well enough to interpret the first cryptic description of a spell. It was a simple spell, one that reminded him of the Lamplight spell: a single, carefully controlled knot. Instead of relating to the sphere of flame, it was related to the sphere of sky, but the result of casting it—if he understood it correctly—would have a similar effect: the slow release of the magical energy. But he wasn’t sure how it would release it. He thought it would create a steady, slight breeze, but he wasn’t sure. He would have to wait until he cast it to find out, and the magic within him was already aligned for his own spells. If he were to draw upon more energy now it would disrupt the spells he was already prepared to cast, and that was always risky. How it disrupted them was always uncertain, and one of the very real possibilities was a sudden, explosive release of energy. He had already experienced something like that once—or so Voltari claimed—when his memory had been obliterated, and from what Voltari had said about the incident, it was a rather mild result of overextending the magic within oneself. The spell would have to wait.

He flipped through several pages without reading them, noting that with each new spell Teffles’ shorthand script became more precise and smaller. By the time he reached the last spell, he had to strain his eyes to see it clearly, but when he tried to read the instructions, the complexity of Teffles’ shorthand was far beyond him. In fact, he wasn’t at all sure if he would ever understand it. Maybe if he unraveled each symbol and wrote it out long-hand as a sequence of knots and then—

“Angus?” Ortis interrupted. “Do you often talk to yourself in strange languages?”

“Was I mumbling again?” Angus asked. “I have that tendency when I study new and unfamiliar spells. Voltari tried to break me of the habit, but he wasn’t successful. He only stopped me from doing it in front of him.”

Ortis looked up. “The lift is coming. It’s time to gather your things together.”

And my thoughts. Angus nodded and put Teffles’ book—his book now—in his backpack. As he did so, he gradually became aware of a soft, metallic squawk of protest descending from above them. He looked up and saw the source of the noise: a pulley on the lift needed oiling. Then he realized the size of the lift and wondered how they were able to raise and lower it at all.

“We have to wait over there,” Ortis said. “The passengers coming down will be let off first, and then we can board her. Do you mind heights?”

“Heights? No,” Angus said. “Why?”

“They have two sections on the lift. One is completely enclosed, but the other is a kind of balcony where you can look out over the valley as it goes up. It is a wonderful view, and it will give you a better sense of what the terrain around here is like. The enclosed part is mainly for horses; the height makes them uncomfortable and nervous.”

“I think,” Angus said, “I’ll stay in the enclosed area. I don’t mind the openness of the wilderness or walking along the edge of a mountain, but I’m much more comfortable in enclosed spaces. Until I left Blackhaven, I never ventured outside its walls. In fact,” he added, half-smiling, “I was tempted to stay in the stables. They were more like my room at Voltari’s than the inns I’ve stayed in since I left.”

“You still can,” Hobart offered as he joined them. “We paid for both sections and one of the stalls is free.”

Angus shook his head. “It would make visiting the city too complicated.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Ortis said. “You didn’t seem to mind the wait for the lift.”

“You’re right,” Angus said. “It gave me a chance to look at Teffles’ book.”

“Was it interesting reading?” Giorge asked as he settled in a bit too close beside him.

Angus nodded. “What I was able to follow,” he said. “Teffles had his own style of writing, and it will take time for me to interpret it. I’m confident I will be able to do it eventually.”

“How much time do you want?” Hobart asked.

“I’m not sure,” Angus admitted. “Ask me that after three or four days of study. I’ll be able to give you an accurate estimate at that time.”

“We’ll hold you to that,” Hobart said.

The lift was near the platform now, dropping at a slow, steady pace of about fifteen feet per minute. “Why doesn’t it come down faster?” Angus asked.

“Safety,” Hobart said. “Horses don’t like it much when it goes faster than that.”

The lift—little more than a giant wooden box on strings—fell into place next to the platform and settled with a muffled clang. Once it finished shuddering, the guards on the platform hurried up to the sliding doors and unlocked them.

“They lock it from the outside to prevent people from opening it while in transit,” Hobart said. “Before they added that safety feature, there were a few people who panicked and flung themselves out the doors. They probably wouldn’t have done anything about it, but one of the people who plunged to their deaths was a wealthy merchant’s son. They almost got rid of the balcony, too, but too many people complained about it.”

The guards pulled the sliding doors open, their metal rollers grating against the grooves. When they stepped aside, the guards on the inside ushered the passengers off the lift. Those with horses were first, their masters leading them by the reins onto the platform and down a short ramp. Once they were outside the lift area, they mounted their horses and rode off.

“They look like an advance scout party,” Hobart said. “There must be an early caravan coming.”

“You may be right,” Giorge said. “That light blue jerkin is typical of the Western Kingdoms. They’ve got a plant there that creates dyes of that color. I wonder why they’re coming early.”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Ortis said. “Or are you planning to guard another one this year?”

“No need,” Giorge laughed, patting the pouch inside his tunic. “We have plenty.”

The passengers who were afoot scampered onto the platform and kept going. When it appeared the last one had gotten off, the guards looked in, nodded, and gestured for those waiting to board the lift to enter. When it was their turn, Giorge and one of Ortis headed to the open-air balcony while Hobart and the other two Ortis joined Angus in the enclosed section. It was a large area, much larger than he had expected, since there were two tiers. The bottom was for the riders, and the top barely had enough room for Hobart to keep from bumping his head. The top tier was well-lit by large openings in the ceiling that let in ample sunlight, and a bench ringed the thirty foot square walls, providing plenty of sitting room. Even after the last passenger had boarded, there was still plenty of room left, but they closed the doors and, less than a minute later, began moving up at the same plodding pace.

“They must have passengers waiting up top,” Hobart said. “Maybe that caravan is already here. Normally they wouldn’t raise the lift until the whole thing was full.”

There was a clicking sound coming from the corners, as if someone was clacking together two metal bars.

“What’s that sound?” Angus asked, tensing despite the fact that the lift had no doubt been used daily for years.

“That is another safety feature,” Ortis said. “It’s a brake system in case the ropes break. There’s a gear system involved, and that clicking happens with it moves from one notch to the next. The notches are arced like a cat’s claw, and they only go in one direction. If they try to go in the opposite direction, the gears catch and hold each other in place. As long as the pulley gears don’t break, it will hold us in place if the ropes give out.”

“I’ve never heard of that happening,” Hobart added. “There really is nothing to worry about.”

“I know,” Angus said, not quite convinced.

“Angus,” Hobart interrupted. “We’ll stop at Hedreth’s long enough to stow our gear and get rooms. After that, we’re going to drop off Teffles’ body and go to the Wizards’ School. The Temple of Muff isn’t on The Rim. We’ll have to get directions to it.”

“And a hand cart,” Ortis said. “I am not carrying this body into the city.”

Hobart nodded. “Easy enough to accomplish,” he said. “There are always carts for rent near the lift area.”

“Do we have to ride a lift down on the other side?” Angus asked, feeling a slight turning in his stomach. It wasn’t quite nauseating, but it was the queasy beginnings of it.

“No,” Hobart said. “There is a ramp and a stair on each wall. They go in opposite directions. We won’t know which one we’ll need to use until we know where the Temple of Muff is.”

“The cart….”

“If the temple is close to the stairwell, I’ll carry Teffles. He isn’t that heavy,” Hobart said.

“No,” Ortis agreed. “But the herbs are wearing off.”

Hobart shrugged. “I’ve smelled worse.”

“I know,” Ortis said, his orange eyes twinkling. “I was there when you did.”

Angus rolled his eyes and snickered.

“Oof,” Hobart said. “It wasn’t my fault, now was it?”

Ortis shrugged. “Nevertheless, I would prefer not to have to deal with this stench.”

“All right,” Hobart said. “Hand cart, Hedreth’s, the Temple of Muff, and the Wizards’ School. Is there anywhere else we need to stop tonight?”

“Giorge says he isn’t staying at Hedreth’s,” Ortis said. “His contacts prefer lodgings that are not so close to the army.”

Hobart nodded. “I thought as much. Tell him he has to pay for it himself.”

“He knows.”

“How quiet is Hedreth’s?” Angus asked, a sudden vision of drunken soldiers badly singing bawdy songs came to mind. “I might want to join him.”

“It’s not too bad,” Ortis said. “You should be able to sleep well enough.”

“It’s not sleep I’m concerned about,” Angus said. “I will be spending much of the next few weeks in deep concentration. Unwanted disruptions could be dangerous.”

“Well,” Hobart said. “The common room will be louder than Fenbrooke’s Inn, but your room should be quiet enough. Just ask for one in the basement far from the common room.”

“Yes,” Ortis agreed. “If you found the stables appealing, you’ll be quite comfortable in one of those rooms. They are notched into the wall in the same way as the stables are. Hedreth uses them for storage, but he’s bound to have a few empty ones this time of year. He replenishes his supplies as the caravans pass through.”

“It won’t be furnished, though,” Hobart mused. “Knowing Hedreth, he’ll charge you for moving the furnishings from one of the other rooms into it.”

“I don’t mind,” Angus said. “If it gives me solitude and silence, I will be happy to pay for it.”

“I’ll talk to him about it,” Hobart said. “Since you’re under the protection of my banner, I’m sure he will make allowances. But you may not be able to stay in there for long if the caravans are coming early.”

“Perhaps he can store the goods in the room I would have taken?” Angus suggested.

“Ha!” Hobart said. “Knowing him, he’ll rent that one out too! And with the caravans, there is always someone in need of a room.”

“No point worrying about it,” Ortis said. “We’ll find out when we get there.”

“Right,” Hobart said. “First things first, and the first thing we need to do is get a cart. We’ll worry about Hedreth after that.”

“How far is it to Hedreth’s Inn?” Angus asked as the lift came to a stop.

“About half a mile,” Hobart said. “The area immediately around the lift’s entry point is like the waiting area down below. The marketplace for travelers is next, and the inns are just beyond it. If you want other services, they’re arranged around The Rim in strategic places. If it isn’t there—like those libraries you want to visit—you have to get permission to go into the city proper.”

“They’re ready to open the doors,” Giorge said. “The guard said there’s a caravan waiting, and they want us to hurry. It’s a small one; they’re trying to capitalize on the market before it’s saturated.”

Hobart nodded, watching the passengers line up at the stairs to the first tier. When it began to move, he reached down for the saddlebags he was carrying. Angus followed suit, stepping in line behind him. Ortis picked up Teffles’ body and joined them a few paces behind.

Hobart led them out of the lift and past the waiting throng of the caravan—mostly pack animals and riders—until they reached the edge of the crowd. He led them to the railing on top of the inner wall and said, “Well Angus, there it is: Hellsbreath.”

Angus stepped up to the wall and looked out over the city. In the center was a smoke-colored granite spire that rose almost as high as the walls. At the top of the spire was a circular walkway with three blue-robed wizards on it, one facing him, and the other two facing east and west. He assumed there was a fourth opposite him, facing south, but the spire tip was blocking his view. As his gaze went down, the spire broadened and became a complex cluster of buildings that spread out to form a tight circle at its base. The Wizards’ School, Angus noted. Hobart said it would be easy to find.

The Wizards’ School was ringed by gardens, and fanning out beyond them was a grid of streets arranged in perfect squares. Within each square there were small buildings with wooden roofs and a few stone ones of larger size that seemed to blend into the granite background of the cobblestones. The largest buildings were near the city walls, many of them using that barrier for stability. Some of the large buildings were clearly temples, judging by the ostentatious display of icons in front of them or on their roofs, and he wondered if one of them was the Temple of Muff.

The walls were far from the smooth, mortared barrier he had seen in Wyrmwood; these had stairs and ramps leading up from the city or down from The Rim, most of them only went part of the way, and all of them were lined with cave-like openings. Some of these caves were covered with a drape or wood partition, and he pointed at one and asked, “What’s that?”

Hobart looked and shrugged. “It could be a shop of some sort,” he said. “Or someone’s home. The walls are riddled with them.”

“Doesn’t that weaken their integrity?” Angus asked.

“Not enough to worry about,” Hobart said. “The walls aren’t really here for protection against an army of invaders; they’re here in case the magic keeping the volcanoes at bay fails. When they built them, they expected the population to grow and planned for the expansion. The Wizards’ School draws a lot of people to the city, both the ones who study there and the ones seeking the protection it offers. Most of those openings only go back about ten feet or so; the rest is a façade. A lot of the people who live in them are newcomers trying to survive.”

“All right,” Angus said. “That’s the Wizards’ School, and those buildings near it are houses and the shops that cater to wizards, right? What do the rest of the people do who live here?”

“Different things,” Hobart said. “Some are prospectors. Others provide services to the caravans or soldiers. There are a lot of metalworkers here, too; the volcanoes are excellent heat sources for forges, and they channel the hot air under the city in tubes. A lot of ore comes through here to get smelted. There are farmers, but they stick to the south, just outside the wall. The mountain slopes far more gently in that direction, and it’s quite fertile. The growing season is limited, though. Those are the major enterprises; the minor ones are too numerous to list.”

“The large buildings near the walls are mainly storage,” Giorge added. “They have to stock up on supplies when the caravans come through, and they store the surplus in them. There’s a lot of trade here even outside of the caravan season.”

“Wyrmwood has coal mines,” Angus said. “What do they mine here?”

“Gems, mainly,” Giorge said. “The volcanoes are too unstable for mining gold and silver unless it’s near the surface. There’s some iron, too. Not much; the dwarves are pretty thorough.”

“Don’t forget the fertilizer,” Ortis said. “See that smoke over there?” he pointed to where threads of smoke rose above the southeast corner of the town. “They have a crusher by the river where it bends south. After it rains, they go out and gather up the hardened layer of ash and bring it back. The crusher—it’s like the millstone they use to grind grain seeds into flour—grinds the ash into a fine powder, and then the wizards use their magic to separate out the bad stuff. They fill wagons and oxcarts with what’s left over and take it into the Western Kingdoms, where it’s most needed. The winds generally blow east, like they are today, and it takes the ash with it, spreading it as it goes. The plains of Tyr are quite fertile because of it, so Tyr doesn’t need the fertilizer.”

“If you go south,” Ortis added, “don’t drink the water in the river until you pass the rapids. They’re about six miles from the city. You’ll know why when you see the river.”

“Let’s get that cart,” Hobart said. “We can talk while we walk if you want.”

“One last thing,” Angus said. “I’ve noticed a few temples down there; do you know which one is devoted to Muff?”

“No,” Hobart said. “We didn’t know Teffles long enough to find out anything about his beliefs.”

“All right,” Angus said. “Where’s the cart?”

“This way,” Hobart said, leading them along. “It’s too bad the caravan wasn’t larger. It’s an amazing site to see them crossing over the town.”

“Where’s the bridge?” Angus asked. “I thought you said it spanned the city from one lift to the other.”

“It does,” Ortis said. “But you can’t see it unless it’s in use.”

“The wizards built it,” Hobart added, as if that was explanation enough.

And it was; Angus nodded knowingly and decided he would have to take a long look at it when it was more convenient to do so. For now, there was too much to do, and he couldn’t even give it even a casual glance….

8

“Do you know of a cobbler named Ungred?” Angus asked the man pulling the cart carrying Teffles’ body. He was a stout, barrel-chested man a few inches shorter than himself, and he seemed to guide the cart with little effort. His clothes were the standard fare—wool tunic and breeches, leather boots, belt—but he kept them cleaner than most of the people he had so far seen in Hellsbreath. If it weren’t for the sweat stains under the armpits of his tunic, Angus would be tempted to think he lived a life of leisure with servants to do his bidding.

“Aye,” he drawled. “He’s a fine one, that Ungred. His shop is not far from the ramp entrance. Wall side, whitewashed, no sign. He doesn’t have to advertize; everybody knows he makes a fine pair of boots. Costly though.”

“How costly?” Angus asked.

Ungred shrugged. “Enough he doesn’t haggle. He usually has back orders lined up for weeks. Caravans come through, make an order, and when they return, he has them waiting. Even that little one that went through today will probably keep him busy for a week or two.”

Angus frowned. “If I order a pair, I’ll have to wait until he has time to make them, then?”

The man shrugged. “Have to ask him,” he said. “He’s been known to make exceptions. For a price.”

They walked in silence for a little while, Hobart behind the cart and Angus walking beside the cart man. The slope of the ramp was significant but not overwhelming, and he fought against it to keep his cart from propelling him forward at a reckless speed. When they reached the bottom of the slope, he moved the cart to the side of the road and set it down so he could flex his fingers and shake his arms for several seconds. “It won’t be long now,” he said, gripping the handles and lifting the cart up again. “Three streets over.”

“And the Wizards’ School is another five streets, right?”

“Aye,” the man said, plodding along at a comfortable, steady pace that was neither fast nor slow. The streets were busy but not crowded. He breathed slow, measured breaths and focused on the road in front of him, paying little heed to his clients as he plodded along with him.

Angus sighed and let the man pull the cart ahead of him so he could join Hobart in the rear.

“It was nice of Hedreth to make that room available,” he said. “You must be good friends.”

“I’ve known him for a few years,” he said. “He’s an affable man, quick with a joke and a beer. You should hear his story about the skirmish with Brin. That was a sticky situation—at least the way he tells it.” Hobart grinned. “I’ve known a few soldiers who were there, and they tell it a bit differently. But it doesn’t matter; it’s a good story.”

“Is it too late to visit the Wizards’ School today?” Angus asked, looking at the long shadow creeping up the east wall. “It will be near dark by the time we get there.”

“There is always a wizard at each gate,” Hobart said. “Just like the four men on the spire. Others are stationed on the roofs of the garrison towers keeping watch on the volcanoes. At least, that’s what they say they’re doing, but it looks to me like they are staring at nothing all day long.”

Angus smiled. It wasn’t the volcanoes they were watching; it was the magic keeping the volcanoes under control, a steady vigil to ensure the city was protected. The ones on the spires no doubt watched the dome and reinforced its magic whenever it was necessary. He looked up and reached out for the magical strands and was almost immediately overwhelmed by them. He reflexively lifted his arm in front of his eyes, but it was pointless; he could see the intense, complexly interwoven strands even through the bone and muscle. He gasped, blinked, and set his jaws, trying to bring the fluctuating image into tighter focus so he could see the details of the weave pattern.

“Whoa,” Hobart said, reaching out to steady him. “Are you all right?”

Angus reluctantly let go of the magic and shook his head. “I’m fine,” he gasped. “I was just taken by surprise.”

“By what?” Hobart said, his eyes alert, checking the people around him. “Did you see something?”

Angus half-smiled and tilted his head. “Yes,” he said. “The magic covering the city. I—” he paused and frowned “—I wasn’t prepared for it. Next time I will be.” He glanced upward, sighed, and lowered his gaze. “We should catch up with him,” he said, pointing at the cart man plodding steadily forward, unaware that his clients had stopped.

Hobart relaxed a bit and hurried forward. “You have to be careful here,” he said. “There is a lucrative underground—thieves, assassins, black market—and most of them start coming out at dusk.”

Angus nodded. “All cities are like that, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” Hobart said. “But Hellsbreath is on the frontier. If the garrison wasn’t here, it would be a lot worse. Still, there’s always some tolerance of that kind of activity if the right pockets benefit from it, especially when most of the victims are visitors.”

“I see,” Angus said. “Perhaps we should hurry then?”

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Hobart said, “but we should be fine. Giorge knows the right people, but it sometimes takes a day or two to spread the word.”

The man with the cart stopped at a small building and gently lowered his cart. “Here’s the Temple of Muff,” he said. When Angus and Hobart didn’t move to empty the cart, he said, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to make it home by dusk.”

“Of course,” Hobart said, hurrying forward and lifting Teffles’ wrapped corpse from the bed of the cart. He draped it over his shoulder as the man lifted the cart handles, pivoted on one wheel, and headed back toward the ramp. “Thank you,” Hobart said to the man’s back.

The man kept going.

“Well, what do we do now?” Angus asked. “It looks like it’s deserted.”

“It’s not,” Hobart said. “There aren’t a lot of followers of Muff the Rodent, but they are as devout as any.”

“Muff the Rodent?” Angus repeated.

“Yes,” Hobart said. “Most of their temple is below ground and connects to the sewers. I don’t know the particulars of their beliefs, though. I was looking forward to learning more about them from Teffles.” He shrugged with his free shoulder and walked forward. “There should be someone waiting inside.”

As they neared the open archway, a gray-robed figure stepped out from the shadows and intercepted them. He was a young man, almost a boy, with a gaunt figure; he was almost emaciated, as if he hadn’t eaten in some time. His eyes were narrow, and his nose long, ending with a bulbous inward curl toward the thin upper lip. His ears fanned out as if he were trying to hear something from both directions at the same time. His black hair began as a point on his forehead, avoided the sides of his head, and ran down his back in a long braid that resembled a rat’s tail.

“May I be of assistance?” he asked.

“Yes,” Hobart said. “This is Teffles, a follower of Muff. He wanted his body to be brought here when he died. He died. We’re here.”

“And the payment?” the young man asked.

Hobart frowned. “He said nothing about a payment.”

The young man shrugged. “Perhaps it was an oversight,” he said.

“What is the payment?”

The young man smiled. “A gold coin will be sufficient.”

Hobart shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t have that much,” he said. “Perhaps—”

“Surely,” Angus interrupted, “his robe alone will be worth at least that.

“His robe?” the young man repeated, laughing. “It is much too gaudy for even a silver or two.”

“It may be gaudy,” Angus said, “but a wizard would pay handsomely for it.”

“Why?” the young man asked.

“Tell them to check the sleeve,” Angus said.

“Indeed?” the young man said. “What is up his sleeve?”

Angus smiled. “Ask the wizard who buys it.”

The young man frowned in thought for several seconds. “You are suggesting I take your assessment on trust,” he said. “I would prefer not to do so. After all, if the robe was as valuable as you suggest, why are you not wearing it?”

Angus half-smiled. “It is quite simple, really. I have my own robe; what use would I have for a second one? Also, I am here as a courtesy to Hobart as we go to the Wizards’ School. I have no claim to it.”

Hobart looked sharply at him, his eyebrows frowning, and shook his head. “It is true,” Hobart said. “Teffles was part of my banner, and Angus is merely traveling under our protection. However, if he says the robe is more valuable than a gold coin, I would trust his judgment.” He turned to Angus and asked, “Perhaps we should take it with us?”

The young man considered for a long moment before shrugging. “Then take him with you as you go.”

“Angus?” Hobart asked. “We are on the way to the Wizards’ School anyway. Why not go there, first, and then return with the body after we sell the robe. I’m sure it will be no trouble for me to carry him. What do you think we can get for it?”

“Well,” Angus considered. “We would need to take it off the body and wash it, I suppose.”

“Yes,” the young man said. “The aromatic decomposition is quite distinctive. It is unlikely that you will find a buyer without cleaning it first.”

“However, they are wizards,” Angus mused, “and a little odor would be of little consequence to them. It would take but a minor spell to cleanse it thoroughly, and a member of the First Order would likely pay at least three gold coins for it, possibly more if they could spare it. If they dislike the color, that can also be easily changed.”

“Well then,” Hobart said. “Let us be on our way.”

As he turned, the young man said, “A moment, please. What is it about the robe that makes it so valuable?”

“Ask the wizard who buys it,” Angus repeated. “Tell him to look closely at the sleeves. Very closely.”

The young man frowned, chewed his lip for a few seconds, and, just as Hobart turned to leave again, said, “Fine. I will waive the fee for this one. But I keep the robe.”

“Of course,” Hobart said. “Where would you like me to put him?”

“Follow me,” he said, leading Hobart into the small building.

While Angus waited for Hobart to return, he looked up and brought the magic slowly into focus, keeping it at a greater distance than he normally did. The entire sky lit up with complex energy rigidly held in place, fluctuating madly as if it were trying to break free. The strands were from the sphere of sky: light blue, shades of white, and a nearly fluorescent aquamarine that he had never seen before. They were long integrated chains of complex knots, with each chain connected to the two adjacent ones as if they had been stacked in rotating layers. Underneath the dome, there was a long platform that spanned from one lift to the other, but before he could begin assessing it, Hobart came up beside him.

“That’s the way the wizards look on the tower roofs when they say they’re watching the volcanoes,” he said. “If you want to see the volcanoes, Angus, you’ll have to lower your gaze a bit.”

“I’m not looking at the volcanoes,” Angus said. “I’m looking at the dome and bridge.”

Hobart tilted his head upward, stared hard for a long moment, and then shrugged. “I don’t see anything,” he said. “Are you sure you aren’t imagining things?”

Angus laughed, letting the magic slip away, and turned to Hobart. “Think about it for a moment, Hobart,” Angus said when his laughter dwindled enough for him to speak. “You know there is a dome there because you’ve seen the ash gather on top of it. You also know it was built by wizards. I’m a wizard. It stands to reason that I can see the dome when there is no ash. It is, after all, wrought from magic.”

Hobart frowned, looked upward for a few more seconds, and then asked, “Why can’t I see it, then?”

“Simple,” Angus said. “Only a small percentage of humanity is capable of seeing magic, and then only vaguely. It takes considerable training to see it clearly and even more training to manipulate it. You lack that training; I do not. Neither do those wizards up there on the spire or tower tops.”

Hobart looked skeptical but decided it wasn’t worth pursuing any further. “We should get going.”

They walked at a fast but not taxing pace, and after they had gone half a block, Hobart asked, “Is what you said about that robe true? Is it really worth that much?”

Angus shrugged. “To the right wizard it will be. The magical pouch kept Giorge from knowing there was a wand and key concealed in the robe, didn’t it? Well, I’m sure there are wizards at the school who would like to hide things from Giorge’s kind of casual observation. Of course, it won’t keep wizards from finding it, so the value will be limited for those staying in the school. But for someone who is leaving…” he shrugged.

“Perhaps we should have kept it, then.”

“Not with that smell,” Angus said. “I don’t know the spell to cleanse it. Also, would you wear clothes that had been wrapped around a corpse for that long?”

“No,” Hobart conceded, “but if it were armor, that would be a different story.”

They walked in silence until they were about a block from the Wizards’ School’s gate, and then Hobart said, “Let’s not to tarry long here, shall we? It will be dark by the time we get back to Hedreth’s, and Bandor will be waiting for me.”

“My questions will be simple to answer,” he said. “If the answers are favorable, I will return tomorrow for a more involved discussion.”

Hobart nodded. “The horse will cost a considerable amount,” he said, “and I was not lying to that priest. I did not bring much coin with me.”

“Not your concern,” Angus said. “I have the garnets.”

Hobart nodded. “Don’t offer more than the two small ones. If they want more, offer one of the larger ones and ask for something more in return. That horse is only worth about a hundred and twenty gold coins, if that.”

“A bit more to a wizard, I should think,” Angus said. “But I will keep what you have said in mind.”

“There’s the safe zone,” Hobart said as they came to the end of the houses. “They keep an area around the tower clear of houses in case one of the students makes a particularly destructive mistake. It happened a few times early on, and that’s when they made the safe zone. It’s probably not big enough.”

They walked in silence down a narrow walkway bordered by bushes and flower gardens. Most of the flowers had already closed in upon themselves for the night, but here and there a bush was flush with clusters of tiny red flowers, tiny pink flowers, or tiny white ones. At the end of the safe zone was the gate to the Wizards’ School complex, and a wizard was stationed in a small alcove just inside it. He had a Lamplight spell over his right shoulder and was reading from a heavy tome. When he noticed them standing there, he looked up and said, “Welcome to the Wizards’ School. I am Vindray, Wizard of the Fifth Order. How may we be of service to you this evening?”

“I am Hobart of the Banner of the Wounded Hand, and I believe it is I who can be of service to you. We have a horse bequeathed to the school, and it is waiting in the stables.”

“A horse?” Vindray said. “Who bequeathed it to us?”

“Teffles,” Hobart said. “I believe he studied here some time ago.”

“Teffles?” Vindray muttered. “I am not familiar with the name. Perhaps if we looked at the registry in the archives…. Was there anything else for the school? Most graduates bequeath the spells they develop to the school or to a favored mentor or friend.”

Angus bristled, but Hobart smoothly said, “Nothing of that sort was mentioned when he joined my banner. Only the horse.”

“A pity,” Vindray said. “But no matter. If you could provide me with the particulars, I will notify the stableman that the horse is there.”

“It is a docile steed—”

“No, no, not the horse,” Vindray interrupted. “Where you are staying, where the horse is stabled, and how we may contact you.”

“It is one of seven horses,” Hobart objected. “It would not be wise to take the wrong one.”

“Nevertheless,” Vindray said. “I would like to begin with your information before turning to the horse.”

“Perhaps I can resolve this situation,” Angus said. “My name is Angus, and I have an interest in purchasing the steed. If you would like to call upon your stableman to visit me at Hedreth’s we may be able to find an equitable arrangement for both the school and myself.”

“Angus,” Vindray said. “What is your order?”

“I have none,” Angus said. “I was not trained in a Wizards’ School. If I were,” he continued, “I believe I would have graduated by now.”

“A Master? From outside the schools?” Vindray scoffed. “Who trained you?”

Angus half-smiled and tilted his head. “I was apprenticed to Voltari of Blackhaven Tower,” he said, his voice curiously soft even in his own ears.

Vindray paled a bit, and then hurriedly said, “I meant no disrespect, Master Angus. It is rare that one trained outside the schools achieves any ability beyond the first or second order. If I had known you had studied with Voltari, I would not have questioned it.”

Angus smiled and nodded. “No offense taken,” he said. “I have found that mentioning Voltari tends to elicit discomfort in some of the people I meet, so I tend not to mention him.”

Vindray nodded. “His skills are well known here,” he said. “Although his talents lean in darker directions, his abilities are most highly respected.”

“Good,” Angus said. “Now, as for my companion, he is also staying at Hedreth’s. I am sure your stableman would be more than welcome to speak with him tomorrow if need be.”

Vindray nodded. “Of course. Is there any other service I may provide to you?”

“Yes,” Angus said. “Would it be possible for me to visit your library? I have some historical research to do, and I assume there will be such tomes within your collection.”

“Our library is quite extensive,” Vindray said. “However, it is not open to visitors at night. You will need to return during the day and seek permission from the librarian to review what materials are available.”

“I will do that,” Angus said. “Perhaps if I come tomorrow morning, I will be able to see the stableman while I am here?”

“I am sure we can arrange that,” Vindray agreed.

“I have but one other question,” Angus continued. “Voltari suggested I might find employment in Hellsbreath, and I would like to know what prospects are available here. Perhaps you can direct me to those who have an interest in hiring a wizard of my abilities?”

Vindray frowned. “The Wizards’ School is always looking for master wizards,” he said. “Both for teaching and for maintaining the spells that keep the city safe. However, you will have to prove you have the abilities you claim, and that is a rigorous process. If you had been trained here, it would be much simpler.”

Angus shrugged. “I seek only information for now,” he said. “Once I have that information, I will choose my course of action.”

“What kind of information?” Vindray asked.

“Expectations, payment—the normal sort of thing, I suppose you could say.”

“Ah,” Vindray began, “the answers will depend upon your ability. They won’t be able to answer those questions until you have been tested.”

“I see,” Angus frowned. “Well, I can pursue the matter further tomorrow. Night is approaching, and the day has been long. Until then?”

Vindray nodded. “If I am not on duty, feel free to send for me when you arrive. I would be pleased to show you around the school.”

Angus nodded. “Good night, Vindray,” he said.

“Good night, Master Angus.”

Hobart barely hesitated before turning and joining Angus as he walked briskly away from the gate.

“Well,” Angus muttered. “They know I’m here, now. I wonder what they’ll do about it.”

“Probably sell you the horse,” Hobart said.

Angus chuckled. “If my discussions go well tomorrow,” he said, “I will likely be able to tell you if I will be joining your banner or not.”

“Good,” Hobart said, taking long, swift strides.

Angus hurried to keep pace with him, thinking, I wonder what I will find in the history books….

9

Angus set yet another book aside and turned to the next one Embril had brought to him. She was a delightfully helpful librarian, one with a great deal of knowledge, energy, and optimism. Her eyes were a bit odd, though; one was brown and the other blue, and it gave her face an almost sinister appearance. But the sinister quality disappeared entirely when she smiled and little flecks of happiness danced across their surface and they almost merged to form a single blue-tinted brown shade he couldn’t identify. At least, that’s what he told himself was happening, even though he knew it was only his imagination playing with his sentiments. Then again, her long, straight, red hair, shapely figure beneath the dark green robe, and lilting little laugh made him feel much younger than he was—or was he really that young? Perhaps if he stayed in Hellsbreath….

The next tome was an old one, like all the others, and he opened it carefully. He set it upright on its spine and peeled it apart in the middle, easing the front and back covers to the table. It crackled as if the glue in the spine was struggling against a great force, and then it gave way and settled into a strained silence. The pages were discolored, as if it had been dropped in water at some point, but the ink remained legible, though faded. He leafed to the front of the book and began reading.

I am Fyngar, chronicler of the Kingdom of Urm. I have been Urm’s chronicler since before the Great Expansion, the records of which may be found in the official chronicle, The Glory of Urm. That text is a lie. It depicts those tragic events in the manner most favorable to King Urm and omits that which would tarnish his name. Much was left out. This tome, which will remain concealed among the wizards until such time as its contents may be received without malice, tells the truth of that dreadful time and records the depths of Urm’s avarice and maleficence.

Angus read quickly through the disparaging remarks about King Urm and his sadistic pleasures until Fyngar’s disgust dwindled and the facts began to appear.

It was late summer, not long before the harvest would begin, that King Urm gathered together his army. It was a small army, scarcely more than one thousand men, and he led them into the lands of the plains folk. The plains folk were a kind and generous people who had offered much guidance to the peoples of Urm when they arrived. Land, food, knowledge—all were freely given by the plains folk, and Urm greedily accepted them. But it was not enough. Urm wanted more.

The army left the walls of Urmag and entered the vast expanse of grain, seeking out the plains folk wherever they might be. It was days before the harvest, and the plains folk were living quietly in their villages, each one but a handful of families knitted together by kinship. They were a peaceful, generous people who knew nothing about war. When Urm ordered his men to kill them, there was nothing they could do but die. He gave that order again and again and again, killing all the plains folk within fifty miles of Urmag. Beyond that limit, he set fire to the grain.

The fire was a hideous conflagration expanding outward from the grain he had captured and secured. It spread through the plains folk, leaving behind decimated village after decimated village, charred body after charred body. They tried to flee, but the fire was too fast. Only a handful survived by the largest rivers. But not for long. Most starved within days. The ones who didn’t die learned how to catch and eat fish, a stark contrast to their strictly vegetarian diet. The fires did not stop until they reached the swamps to the north, the mountains to the west and south.

In a single, vicious stroke, the empire of plains folk was destroyed, and Urm moved into the vacancy, setting up garrisons at strategic points and populating the land between with farming villages. There was nothing the plains folk could do to prevent it. The few survivors had fled and were not heard from again.

Angus skimmed through several paragraphs before backtracking to reread a section more closely.

The remnants of the plains folk have been encountered only rarely since the destruction of their empire. Many have already forgotten them. But I have not. They were a beautiful people, a kind people. In times of harvest, they were plentiful; in times of deep winter, their numbers dwindled. I studied them before their demise, and was one of the few who were given the privilege of observing their rituals. One in particular was of great interest and beauty: The Replication Ceremony.

Two years prior to the Great Expansion, King Urm gave me leave to investigate their cultural practices. I lived with them from one harvest to the next. The Replication Ceremony happened shortly after the beginning of the second harvest, and my friend Utin invited me to observe it. The plains folk gathered around a pile of grain that was taller than they were and began eating. I have never seen anyone eat as much as they did over the next few hours, and when they finished, they joined hands and sat down. As the minutes went by, a thin cocoon-like mesh formed around them, connecting them together. In time, the silk-like threads of the mesh began to pulse and throb, and small buds began to grow from them. As these buds grew, they began to take on the size and shape of the adult plains folk. Their general form was humanlike, but with a short, curled tail and catlike paws. Once the buds were fully grown, the cocoon receded and was absorbed back into the bodies of the originators. It took hours for the ceremony to be completed, and at the end, the new members of the village opened their eyes and began moving around as if they had lived their entire lives in the village. Utin smiled at me, his rudimentary fangs and owl-like eyes full of joy, and introduced me to his son—born but a few moments before. He knew my face and my name….

Angus frowned. Ortis didn’t have fangs. Did he have a tail? The eyes were cat-like, not owl-like. Still…. He kept reading until he was satisfied there was little else Fyngar had to offer in the short treatise—other than pointing out the hideous shortcomings of King Urm’s reaction upon hearing about the ritual. Urm’s fear drove him down that path to genocide, and once it was begun, there was little Fyngar could do to stop him. But Fyngar didn’t forget, nor did he deny his role in the whole affair. The book was a confessional, and he seemed to leave nothing of relevance out of it, whether it was about himself or King Urm. He did not provide nearly enough information on the plains folk for Angus to draw upon, but it was more than the other texts had had.

He spent two days searching through maps and texts on semiotics, religion, arcane magic, history—anything that might give him information about the symbol on his map. But he found nothing and finally returned to Hedreth’s to study Teffles’ spells and wand. If he had had more time, he would have spent weeks researching the map and the plains folk, but he didn’t.

He decided not to pursue employment in Hellsbreath, at least for the time being. Instead, he would travel with the Banner of the Wounded Hand for two years, and when those two years were over, he would reevaluate his options. When he told them of his decision, they were quite pleased, and then the conversation turned to preparations for their expedition. What would they need? When would they leave? What would they do if they found something? If they didn’t? Then Angus turned to Teffles’ spells.

After two more days, he was beginning to think in the shorthand Teffles had used, but only in bits and pieces here and there. After the first few spells, the sky magic grew more complicated, and there were far too many gaps in them for him to understand them as well as he wanted. Teffles had only scribed the high points, those that he needed to have in order to refresh his memory and prime himself, not the detailed instructions a novice of sky magic would need to have in order to understand them. Reading through them was like reading through a new scroll from Voltari; some parts he grasped quite well, but others were a mystery to him until he finally risked casting the spell. If only Voltari had taught him more than just the rudiments of sky magic….

The wand was another matter entirely. Thanks to Teffles’ early explanations in his book, Angus had learned what the sigils on the wand meant. But he wasn’t sure what they would do when combined. The first sigil was for the portion of sky magic related to wind. It was a basic sigil, one that could be modified in several ways, depending upon the kind of wind that was desired. The basic knot elicited a slight, straight, steady breeze, but if it was squeezed together it became more potent. A twist of the knot made the wind rotate. The sigil on the wand was pinched tightly together and twisted. Would it create a powerful rotating wind? Perhaps even a cyclonic one? If it were the only sigil on the wand, then maybe, but there were two others. The three sigils appeared as a recurring pattern, and all three had to be manipulated in order for the wand to be activated. Each one would release its individual part of the spell, but the wand’s power would only be released after all three had been triggered. So, only part of the spell was a cyclonic disruption of some sort, but the other two parts would complement, constrain, and alter that disruption.

The second sigil was related to temperature. It was another simple, basic knot, and if it was expanded it indicated high temperatures and when it was scrunched up it was low ones. The higher temperatures also relied upon elements of flame magic—an intermingling of the threads—while the low temperatures drew upon ice magic. It was the most ambiguous portion of the spell, since it did little to explain how the temperature would affect it. Temperature was a significant part of the spell, but he had no idea what that part was. When he first looked at the third sigil, he didn’t recognize it, even after studying the introductory sections of Teffles’ book. It was only later, when he was studying Teffles’ more complex spells that it had become apparent: thunder. Although he understood that much, he couldn’t determine what role it would play in the spell itself. Thunder, lightning, storms—these were not simplistic spells, and it was unclear whether Teffles had mastered them or not. Regardless, Angus hadn’t mastered them, and he was at a complete loss as to how the three parts of the spell would be combined together or how their individual properties would manifest.

“So,” Angus muttered. “A spell that involves high cyclonic winds whose temperature may vary considerably, and it involves thunder. But what is thunder? A loud sound created by the lightning when it strikes. Does that mean you throw lightning bolts?” Angus shook his head. “No. That doesn’t make sense. Lightning has its own symbol and the crafter of the wand would have known that. A thunderstorm? Unlikely. What good would a thunderstorm do in the midst of battle when a wand was needed? Wands were almost always made for quick access to complex, powerful spells, ones the wizard wouldn’t have time to prime himself for on short notice. A thunderstorm would be too disruptive, not only to the enemy but also to the wizard and his allies. A tornado, though, if controlled….”

There was a quiet knock on his door, but he ignored it.

“No, not a tornado,” he thought. “It wouldn’t need the other two components. Tornadoes are simply strong winds rotating in a tight circle. The temperature could relate to the tornado, but what role would the thunder have?”

The knock was a bit louder, a bit more insistent, but he continued to ignore it. He wasn’t expecting any visitors and had given Hedreth and his new colleagues explicit instructions not to intrude upon his time.

Angus focused once more on the magic of the wand, studying its intricate framework. The surface was the wind; that much was clear enough. Almost all of the strands were very pale, almost translucent shades of blue, and the few that weren’t only showed flickering shades of white and slightly darker blue. But he still couldn’t penetrate through the crust to see what was beneath them; it was too tightly woven. He suspected it would only be more sky magic, but of what sort?

The temperature was almost certainly low rather than high. He was particularly attuned to the sphere of flame, and if it were being used, he was confident he would be able to sense it. But he couldn’t be certain, and if it did lower the temperature, he didn’t know how much. Thunder would also draw upon sky magic….

His visitor tried the door handle, shaking it softly.

“Perhaps if I release this first knot?” he muttered. “It should not activate the spell; the wand will only activate when all three knots have been released. Wouldn’t it loosen the outer layer of magic enough for me to see through it? That would make it possible to unravel its complexity.” He frowned, toying with the wand, flicking it around….

There was a slight scraping in the lock, but it wasn’t from a key. Someone was trying to pick it, to get into his room.

Angus didn’t look up. “Should I test this,” he wondered, a half-smile easing into place as he held the wand up in front of his eyes, “on the intruder?” He tilted his head, listening to the subtle movements of the man picking the lock. He turned slightly, placing the door in the middle of his line of sight. He held the wand out before him and prepared to implement the quick series of movements that would untie the knots and release the spell.

The pins in the lock turned….

“Should I give a warning?” Angus muttered. “Or just trigger the wand when the door opens?”

The handle turned….

“Would the intruder give warning?” Angus purred, gesturing for the release of the first knot. The first layer expanded, and he noted there was no flame, only ice and something else he didn’t immediately recognize.

The door began to open….

The second knot was a slow, looping one, and by the time he finished with it, the wand was pulsing, and the strands within it were vibrating madly, their brightness almost overwhelming him. He had already begun the third knot—a swift, sharp, snapping motion that ended with him pointing at the target—when Giorge stuck his head around the edge of the door and said, “Angus?”

Angus held his arm high for a long moment—there was no way to abort the spell! He had to choose a target!

“I need to talk—”

Angus brought the wand down sharply, twisting uncomfortably in his seat as he did so. The tip of the wand passed over Giorge’s head and shoulder and continued….

“Wait!” Giorge cried.

Angus maintained the motion until his arm could go no further, and the tip of the wand settled on the adjacent wall. A surge of power raged free from the wand, shot outward….

Giorge dropped to the floor and rolled backward.

Angus’s eyes widened as he was lifted from his chair and flung backward, his screech barely beginning as he crashed violently into the wall….

The Banner of the Wounded Hand

1

Breathe.

It was important.

Why was it important?

It doesn’t matter.

Just breathe.

Think later.

2

Pain.

A lot of pain.

The back of his head consumed his attention. Something was eating it.

No, it was under siege from the relentless pelting of tiny catapults lofting barrels full of flaming oil.

An army of ants crawled along his back, their feet fitted with tiny iron spikes, driving them into his spine.

Why were the ants attacking him?

Breathe. Don’t think.

Where were his shoulders?

Had the ants eaten them?

Was the war over?

Did he win?

Breathe.

3

Voltari must be angry.

4

He was breathing.

It was difficult; his chest was impaled on the sentinel’s poleax.

It was a big poleax.

The hole hurt.

But he could breathe.

Barely.

Why did he go outside?

He never went outside.

Voltari wouldn’t let him go outside alone.

Breathe.

Sharp, stabbing pain.

He should be crying, why wasn’t he?

He shrugged, but nothing happened. His shoulders….

Ants.

No, that couldn’t be it. It had to be something else.

Hungry ants?

Breathe.

Why am I thinking about breathing? It’s boring.

It is important. Stop breathing, and—

Death.

Voltari knows death magic.

Is he angry at me?

He wanted desperately to shrug, but he couldn’t. Voltari had taken his shoulders and given them away.

Again.

Long, slow, exhale.

It was easier to breathe lightly. The poleax didn’t move. Much.

No, not the poleax. Too small.

He frowned.

It turned into a wince as the skin of his cheeks tightened and pulled against the back of his head.

Fire ants with catapults. What did he do to them? Why were they so angry? He was always kind to ants; he never, ever, held the glass over them to burn them. Why had they burned him?

No, not ants. Something else. Something—

BREATHE.

It was important….

5

Fingertips.

They were gentle, probing.

He was lying on his stomach.

He didn’t like lying on his stomach; he always slept on his back.

The poleax was sharp and angry. It didn’t like him being on his stomach, either.

Don’t think.

Breathe.

It is important.

More fingertips kneading the soreness from his tired shoulders.

He had shoulders? Voltari—

He tried to scream, but there was no sound.

The fingertips probed his skull, the bones shifting….

Damned those ants! What did he ever do to them?

Breathe.

6

Soft breathing, short, shallow gasps. Panting? A dog?

No. His chest shuddered with each little hiccup.

“Angus?” A kind voice. Feminine. Gentle, probing, like the fingers. “Try not to move.”

He frowned. Voltari didn’t have gentle fingers. Delicate ones, certainly; all wizards have delicate fingers. But not gentle. When he probed….

He shifted his weight, but only enough to learn he was on his back. It hurt, but not the sharp, agonizing torture of the fire-breathing ants. It had the dull ache of a heavy burden recently lifted but not entirely gone.

“It will be over soon.” Whose voice was that? To the left, five feet away, not far from his head. I know that voice!

The gentle fingers touched the poleax, sending sharp, unremitting pain through his chest.

His mouth opened. A scream—soft, distant, little more than a plaintive whimper.

“Stop moving!”

Her command must be obeyed. There was power behind that voice….

The poleax shifted. Bones crunched, snapping against each other like dry bread crumbling to powder.

Breathe.

The pain subsided, and his breathing eased.

He frowned. What?

“Lay still, Angus,” the familiar voice again. Who was he? The compassionate, remorseful tone was all wrong. That voice should be laughing, dancing.

“Giorge,” he muttered, and his body settled into place on the soft platform on which he had been laid.

“Lay still, Angus,” Giorge said, a spark of energy igniting his tone. “The healer will finish soon.”

“If you know the mantra,” the woman said as she leaned over him. “Use it now.”

Mantra? Angus wondered. Mantra. Mantra. Mantra. Oh, yes—

Still the body.

She rested her palms on his chest as if they had just enjoyed each other’s company. “It will facilitate the repairs.”

Repairs? What repairs? Why—

Still the mind.

There will be time for thinking later.

Still the body.

Breathe.

Breathe.

Breathe.

He was more acutely aware of his body now, the minor pain of his broken arm, the stiffness of his neck, the strange newness of the bones of his skull….

Still the mind.

She had eaten recently, something sweet—or was it perfume? Giorge was not the only one there; there were others. They breathed heavily, like Hobart, but they weren’t Hobart. Or Ortis. Or Voltari. They were different.

Still the body.

Why was his body broken? What had happened to him? He had been in his room, studying….

Still the mind.

He didn’t know the strangers. Were they important?

No.

Breathing was important.

Still the body.

He let himself drift into the trancelike state, and hovered there for a long time before finally falling asleep….

7

Breathe.

No, don’t.

The stench is horrendous.

Feces, mold, decay, urine—a range of noxious fumes assaulted him, driving him from his slumber more swiftly than would a cold bucket of water or a ringing slap to his cheek.

His bed was harsh stone that someone had tried to cushion with the long, round stalks of grass, their brittleness jabbing uncomfortably into his sensitive back.

He sat up and opened his eyes.

It was dark. But it was not the darkness of a moonless night in the wilderness; it was the darkness of a cave lit by a dim candle too far away to provide much light.

There were lots of shadows, and one of them moved.

“Alive, then?” the shadow said, huddling up against the metal grate keeping them apart.

I’m in a dungeon! Angus thought, his heart simmering in his chest, his breath tangled up in his throat. Why?!

“I’m Bug-Eyed Jake,” the shadow said.

“Where am I?” Angus asked.

“Hellsbreath’s hellhole,” he easily replied.

Hellsbreath’s hellhole? No wonder it’s so stifling. We must be under the city, near the forge tubes. “Why am I here?”

“No idea,” Bug-Eyed Jake said. “But it must have been pretty bad, judging by how they’ve treated you so far.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well,” Bug-Eyed Jake said, “they just dumped you in here two days ago and haven’t come back to check on you once.” He paused and said, “Or me, for that matter.”

“How do you know it’s been two days?” Angus asked, looking around the gloom.

“Oh, they change the candle once a day,” he said. “If they have that swill they call food, they bring it then. Otherwise, they just leave us here to rot a bit longer. They don’t go so far as to let us die, mind you, but they aren’t exactly kind to criminals like us. It’s better not to get caught.”

“I’m not a criminal,” Angus denied—and then wondered whether or not it was true. Had he done something that violated the rules Hobart had told him about? Was he a criminal?

“Ha!” Bug-Eyed Jake said. “I know you, Typhus.”

“My name is Angus,” Angus absently corrected as he ran through the list of prohibited activities Hobart had recited as they crossed the valley to Hellsbreath. “What did I do?” he muttered, dismissing one after another of the things Hobart had said not to do.

“Now Typhus,” Bug-Eyed Jake pouted, his voice mild and friendly, “there’s no need to pretend with me. We’ve known each other too long for that.”

Angus glanced at the shadow, met the huge, pale-white orbs reflecting the distant flickering of the candle. It was difficult to see details of his face; he was covered in so much grime that it concealed most of his appearance, and the shadows distorted the rest. But those bulbous, bug-like eyes….

“How long have you been down here?” Angus asked, standing up and brushing the grass stalks from his robe. His left hand slowed, and he pinched the fine cloth between his finger and thumb. Why didn’t they take this from me? He began checking the pockets, quickly finding them all to be empty—including the concealed ones. They were thorough, he thought. The garnets are gone.

“Too long,” Bug-Eyed Jake said. “But I don’t mind. The longer I am down here, the longer I keep my other hand.” He held up his right arm and wiggled his fingers in the dim light, as if he were making shadow puppets.

“Your other hand?” Angus asked.

Bug-Eyed Jake grinned, a toothy grin that broadcasted his lack of dental hygiene, and lifted his left arm. It ended in a fist-like stub. “They took that last year,” he said. “I think that’s why they’ve been waiting. It’s one thing to take the hand of a thief who has two of them; it’s another to take the second one. But they’ll get around to it eventually, unless….” He shifted his position and peered more closely at Angus but didn’t finish the sentence.

“Sorry to hear about your troubles,” Angus said, surprised to hear there was genuine concern in his voice. “But you know what they say: A thief who gets caught should find another profession.”

“Yes,” Bug-Eyed Jake said. “You’ve told me that before, Typhus. That day you dragged me out of Tyrag’s tomb.”

Angus shook his head. “I told you, my name is Angus, not Typhus,” he protested. “And I’ve never been to Tyrag.” Not that I can recall, he amended to himself. “We’ve never met.”

“Now Typhus, don’t be like that,” he retorted. “We’ve known each other far too long for that, and you owe me.”

Angus bristled, reached out for the magic and drew it closer to him. He reached inside himself, sought out the strands that were primed for the spell, merged them with those around himself, and made the simple little knot of the Lamplight spell. It burst into brilliance on his palm, and he lifted it high above his head.

Bug-Eyed Jake cowered, covering his head in his arms and hurrying to the corner furthest away from Angus. “Put it out! Put it out!” he cried, but Angus ignored the little man. He looked almost like a rat curled in upon itself, but much dirtier.

Angus rose to his full height—a mere five foot six inches—and stepped up to the metal bars separating the two cells from each other. “I am the wizard Angus,” he said, his voice controlled, tinged with a sinister undertone, “and I will not tolerate your insouciant blathering any longer. Is that understood?”

Bug-Eyed Jake cringed, peeked over the top of his arm and blinked rapidly. “No,” he admitted. “I don’t know what insouciant means.”

Angus frowned and hissed, “You are much too free with your tongue. Silence it.”

“Yes, yes,” Bug-Eyed Jake said. “Just put that light out.”

“I do not know you,” Angus continued. “We have never met, and you will not speak to me again. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” Bug-Eyed Jake whimpered. “No more talking. Just put that out.”

“No,” Angus said. “But if you let me be, I will reduce the intensity. I need time to think, and I do not wish to be disturbed by the likes of you.” He turned and moved quickly to recapture the Lamplight spell and reduce its intensity—it was hurting his eyes, as well, but he had prepared himself for it—and then parked it behind his right shoulder. Then he moved back to the wall to sit and think.

What happened? I was studying Teffles’ book and— No, I was taking a break from it. The shorthand was giving me a headache. I was going to write it out by longhand until—

The wand. That’s what it was. I was trying to determine what the wand did. I had found the third sigil in Teffles’ spellbook, and I—

Yes, that was it. The wand’s sigils. Wind. Temperature. Thunder. But they were vague references. Lots of different winds. Which one was it? And the temperature? High or low? Low, wasn’t it? High temperatures had the sphere of flame combined—

But I couldn’t see the inner workings of the spell. The magic of the outer shell obscured it. I—

No, I couldn’t have—

Angus dropped his head in his hands and muttered, “How could I have been so stupid? Whatever possessed me to test the wand in there? It wasn’t a practice room; it didn’t have a protective barrier. There were no safeguards against—”

Against what?

What did the wand do? He had only intended to release the first knot so he could see the interior, but—

“Giorge,” Angus said, rubbing his temples. “That fool—”

Stop! Don’t dwell on the past, learn from it. Look to the present, the future. The present is bleak; there is nothing I can do about it. But the future….

Giorge had knocked on his door, but I ignored him. I was too busy to be interrupted. I needed to focus on the wand.

He knocked a second time, didn’t he? It doesn’t matter. I ignored that, too; only the wand mattered. I was too close to finding out what it did. I had to know.

The idiot picked the lock. He was going to rob me, even after I had joined Hobart’s banner! I—

But I didn’t know it was Giorge. I thought it was someone else coming to steal from me. Yes, that was it. Someone was breaking into my room and I—

I defended myself with the wand. It was stupid. I didn’t even know what the wand did. I still don’t know what it does.

The door opened. I was already breaking the last knot, the one holding the magic back, the point-and-release knot every wand has.

Giorge stuck his head around the door and—

“I almost killed him,” Angus said, shaking his head. “I should have killed him! But I redirected the wand’s spell to the outer wall. Then—”

He frowned; his memory was fuzzy here. “What did the wand do?” he muttered. “There was the recoil from the spell’s release, and I was thrust back into the wall.” He shuddered, overwhelmed by the intense image of giant fire ants swarming over his body.

Bones broke, he thought. A lot of them. I lost consciousness, but just before then, what did I see? What did the wand do?

He thought for a long time, but it was of no use. He couldn’t remember what happened because there was nothing to remember. He had lost consciousness when he struck the wall. Then—

Did I almost die?

8

Two days passed. He was fed a disturbing swill twice, its foul taste lingering for hours afterward. But it was edible if he pinched his nose, and at least he didn’t get sick from it. Bug-Eyed Jake made no attempt to talk to him, and no matter how hard he tried to remember what the wand had done, the knowledge just wasn’t there. It was like he had amnesia all over again, but this time it was only for that moment, and of all the moments he needed to remember, that was the one that mattered most.

The guards only laughed when he asked what the charges were. Then they tormented Bug-Eyed Jake by telling him how they looked forward to cutting off his other hand. “Maybe we’ll take a foot, instead?” one of them said. “He might have prehensile toes.”

That led to an extensive explanation of what prehensile meant before Bug-Eyed Jake adamantly denied having the ability to wrap his toes around coin purses or to pick locks. Then he amended his statement by adding, “At least, not good enough to avoid getting caught.”

Then, just when he was expecting another bowl of the nearly inedible swill, Ortis came to visit.

“Ortis!” Angus cried, jumping up and hurrying to the bars when he saw his companion. Then he noted the guard beside him and tried to corral his excitement.

Ortis turned and slipped the guard a coin and asked, “A bit of privacy, please?”

The guard nodded. “When you are ready, pound on the door.”

“What am I charged with, Ortis?” Angus demanded as the guard walked away. “Why am I being held here?”

“You’re lucky they didn’t let you die,” Ortis said. “If they had known who did it sooner, they would have.”

“But,” Angus said. “What did I do? What am I charged with?”

Ortis frowned and scratched his pale white cheek as the orange irises of his eyes narrowed. “Nothing, yet,” he said. “They haven’t decided which laws you actually broke.”

“Then why am I here?”

“Angus,” Ortis said, his tone puzzled, wavering. “Whatever possessed you to use that wand in Hedreth’s? Hobart told you that magic was strictly regulated here.”

Angus nodded. Hobart had said it was regulated, but, “Hobart didn’t say it was prohibited,” he said.

Ortis shook his head. “The prohibition was implied,” he said. “Hobart said not to use destructive magic in Hellsbreath, and that is exactly what you did.” He sniffed and scrunched up his nose. “And now you’re here, in this pungent little cell, paying the price.”

“For how long?” Angus asked.

“The damage was considerable, Angus. We’re trying to negotiate a fine instead of a long-term stay in one of these cozy little compartments.”

“No,” Angus said, shaking his head. “How long was I unconscious?”

“Three days,” Ortis said. “If it weren’t for Giorge’s quick actions, you would be dead now. He staunched the bleeding long enough for the healer to get there.”

Angus frowned. “I suppose he thinks I owe him my thanks,” he grumbled. “Well, I don’t,” he said, his voice harsh and unforgiving. “If he hadn’t tried to break into my room, I would not be here at all. He’s the reason I’m in here.”

“He did considerably more for you than you realize, Angus,” Ortis objected. “But we will discuss that later, after we leave Hellsbreath.”

“You sound confident that you’ll be able to get me out of here,” Angus said. “Why?”

Ortis shrugged. “Hobart and Hedreth are still on friendly terms, despite what you did. Once you explain the situation to him and to the magistrate, we believe we can find a reasonable resolution. It will also be a costly one. You did a lot of damage.”

“What kind?” Angus asked, his voice excited. “How much? What did the wand do? Can you describe it to me? I—”

“Later,” Ortis cut him off. “I can’t stay much longer; I only gave the guard a silver. He’ll remember his duty soon. Besides, they confiscated the wand. We’re negotiating with them to have it returned to you when we leave, but don’t expect it.”

“More negotiation,” Angus grumbled. “More cost. At this rate, I’ll be indebted to you for a very long time.”

Ortis leaned in and lowered his voice. “No you won’t,” he whispered. “For good or ill, you are now part of our banner, and we take care of our own. Besides,” he glanced at the adjacent cell and lowered his voice even further. “Giorge was able to negotiate a very lucrative deal for those coins of yours, so much so that he is trying to convince us to go north to get the one you spent. But that’s not our concern at the moment. Hedreth will be pacified, I assure you, but the magistrate is another matter. You will have to pay for the repairs to the city wall.”

“The city wall?” Angus repeated. “How much damage did I do?”

“You can see for yourself when we leave,” Ortis said. “For now, let’s just say that Hellsbreath will remember you. The magistrate, too; he is inclined to ban you from Hellsbreath for life, even if you have a tolerable explanation. Of course, since you’re part of our banner, we may have to join you in that exile. Hobart says it is part of the magistrate’s negotiation strategy.”

“What else did they confiscate?” Angus asked, his voice sharply tinged by a sudden, deep, upwelling of fear.

“Very little, actually,” Ortis said. “The garnet and coins from your robe. Don’t expect to get them back. The fine will easily surpass their value.”

“What about my scrolls?” Angus demanded. “Teffles’ book?”

Ortis smiled softly and lowered his voice again. “Softly, Angus. We don’t need to be overheard.”

“Fine,” Angus barked. “What of them?” he continued in a harsh, barely restrained whisper.

“They are secure,” Ortis said. “Giorge….”

“Giorge?” Angus half-shouted as the furrow of his brow attacked the bridge of his nose and his teeth gnashed together. “What did he do?”

“Let’s just say he acted quickly, before the guardsmen arrived. Your backpack, scrolls, and map. You needn’t worry about them.”

Angus shook his head and almost turned away from Ortis. Giorge is the reason I’m in here. Remember that.

“Now,” Ortis said. “It will help us in the negotiations if we knew what happened. Why don’t you tell me? I will report it to the magistrate, and if he is satisfied with your explanation, it will greatly reduce the amount of time you spend here. Speak the truth to me, Angus; the magistrate will almost certainly send a Truthseer to verify what you tell me.”

“A Truthseer?” Angus asked.

Ortis nodded. “They use magic to divine the veracity of the claims being made. As I understand it, there are subtle but clear distinctions between how a person’s body reacts when they tell the truth and how it reacts when they lie. A Truthseer is trained to recognize these changes, even when there is an attempt to distort them with magic.”

“Very well, then,” Angus said. “As you know, I told all of you not to disturb me while I was in that room….”

9

Several days later, four armed guardsmen and a wizard escorted Angus from the dungeons to the lift area, where his friends were standing beside a large pile of gear, including several coils of ropes. As he neared, Giorge unslung Angus’s backpack from his shoulders.

“Here,” Giorge said, holding out Angus’s backpack.

As Angus reached for it, the wizard escorting him put up a restraining hand and said, “He is still in our custody.”

The four guards took up a position around Angus and the wizard removed a small, tightly wound scroll from his sleeve. He unrolled it to its foot-long length, cleared his voice, and read through its contents in a clear, loud voice:

By order of Theodorus, Magistrate of Hellsbreath, Angus, wizard and member of The Banner of the Wounded Hand, is hereby banned from this city for a period of five years. At the end of this period, if Angus wishes to regain admittance to Hellsbreath, he must provide payment adequate to cover any and all expenses related to the repairs of the city wall for which he has been responsible. Such payment will be reduced by the 5,000 gold coins that have already been surrendered by The Banner of the Wounded Hand in his name. If an additional 2,500 gold coins are provided at any time during the five year ban, said ban will be rescinded and Angus will be allowed admittance into the city without further penalty. However, during any and all future visits to Hellsbreath, be they before or after the ban has been lifted, Angus will be required to surrender all magical devices, books of spells, scrolls, or other paraphernalia pertaining to wizardry into the care of the Wizards’ School for the duration of his stay in Hellsbreath. Such items shall be returned to him unaltered only after he has left the confines of the city wall of Hellsbreath.

This injunction has been duly recorded, and a report of this incident has been properly transmitted to the records officers in Tyrag and Wyrmwood. This copy of the injunction is provided to Angus for presentation to all records officers upon entrance to and exit from any and all regulated regions of the Kingdom of Tyr.

The wizard paused, scrunched up his eyes a bit, and muttered to himself for a few seconds before finishing, “The injunction is signed by the Magistrate of Hellsbreath, Theodorus the Third; by Hogbart, holder of The Banner of the Wounded Hand; and by the wizard Angus, apprentice of Voltari, Blackhaven Tower.” He rolled up the scroll and handed it to Angus. “Present this to the scribe below as you leave. He will note your departure and update the banner’s records accordingly.”

His escort continued to stand around him, with the wizard—a fat oaf in need of a shave—directly in front of them. He sighed, nodded to his companions, and asked, “May I join them?”

“You are still within the city walls,” the wizard said, his voice bland.

“Very well,” Angus said, crossing his arms and gritting his teeth. After two weeks in the dungeons, he had had more than enough dealings with hostile guards, the magistrate’s bureaucratic attitude, and of Hellsbreath itself. If he had had more time to visit the city proper, he might feel differently. But…. “How long before the lift comes back up?”

“It will be a while,” Hobart said. “If you would have been here ten minutes ago, we could have gone down then.”

“No,” the wizard said. “It will return quickly. Your group will be the only ones going down.”

“Why?” Hobart asked.

The wizard shrugged. “Orders,” he said. “I believe the magistrate wants to be rid of you as quickly as possible, now that he’s made his decision.”

“More cost,” Hobart grumbled. “Now we have to pay for the whole lift.”

The wizard shook his head. “The magistrate said it would be worth losing the fee for the lift just to get Angus out of the city before he could cause more damage.”

“I don’t blame him,” Hobart muttered, glaring at Angus.

The escorts remained stationed around Angus until the lift returned, and then they ushered him into it before the rest of the banner was allowed to join them. Nothing was said as they descended at a rapid, disorienting pace, one that was much faster than their trip up. When they reached the bottom, Angus was quickly ejected from the lift, and the rest of the banner was barely given enough time to remove their gear before the lift began to rise.

Giorge finally gave Angus his backpack, but he didn’t bother opening it; there was no time, and it didn’t matter anyway. Besides, if Giorge had taken anything….

Bandor was standing solemnly next to their horses, not far beyond the scribe’s station. He had them all saddled and ready to go. There was a new one, but Angus didn’t have time to worry about that; he needed to present the injunction to the scribe. As he moved to do so, his companions gathered up their gear and walked silently past him, toward the horses.

Angus stepped in behind them, following only far enough to reach the scribe’s station, where he stopped and turned. The others continued on to the horses, and Hobart greeted Bandor with a grateful nod, clasping his arm and handing him a coin for his troubles. Then Bandor turned and limped toward the stables.

“Well?” the scribe asked. “Are you just going to stand there?”

“Sorry,” Angus said, his heart heavy in his hand as he slowly held out the scroll.

The scribe accepted it, read through the injunction carefully, opened his book to a page labeled “THE BANNER OF THE WOUNDED HAND,” and made several quick notations. When he finished, he let the scroll roll up into its natural form and set it along the top of the book. Angus thought about reaching out for it, but he didn’t; the scribe would give it back to him when he was ready to do so.

The scribe looked up at him, glanced high up over his shoulder, and shook his head before reaching for the thin slip of parchment that had marked the page for the—his—banner. He squinted at it, shook his head again, and muttered, “It’s a mistake.” Then he looked at Angus, shook his head once more, and said, “You are far too fortunate.”

He opened the chest next to his podium and read through the message on the piece of parchment once more. “Far too fortunate,” he said again as he lifted a wand case from the chest and laid it across the pages of his book. He held it there with one hand to keep it from sliding, and then brought out Teffles’ book with the other.

The scribe looked at Angus once more, sighed, and handed him back the injunction.

Angus put it in a pocket of his robe and waited, trying to ignore the pounding in his chest.

The scribe opened the wand case and took out Teffles’ ivory wand. He studied it for a few seconds and muttered, “Admirable craftsmanship.” Before he handed the wand to Angus, he glanced back over his shoulder and shook his head again. “Far too fortunate.”

Angus gratefully accepted the wand and secured it in the straps in his robe’s left sleeve. When the scribe handed him Teffles’ book, he put it in the large pocket near his belt. He intended to read more from it as he rode, and it would be easier to access from there. Since there was little to do while he had been in the dungeon, he had spent his time trying to memorize Teffles’ shorthand and learning how think with it, and he was anxious to find out if his efforts had paid off.

“I trust you will use those more wisely from here on out?” the scribe said.

“Yes,” Angus said. Even though he hadn’t needed the lesson; he had learned it well enough. “It was an accident.”

The scribe studied him for a long moment before chuckling and shaking his head. “Well,” he said, his smile mechanical, “I hope you enjoyed your stay in Hellsbreath. Do come back again…in five years.”

“May I go now?” Angus asked. “My companions are waiting.”

The scribe waved him away, not bothering to watch him as he left.

“Angus,” Hobart said, holding out the reins of Teffles’ horse. “Meet Gretchen. She’s all yours, so you’ll have to tend for her yourself. We’ll teach you how. I hope you learn quickly.”

“I do,” Angus said as he mounted his new horse and patted her neck. She was a docile, short steed, and the saddle was almost comfortable. They rode in silence until they were past the cloud of ash and across the river. They returned the sheets to Jagra, and Hobart looked back at the city and whistled. “No wonder they were angry,” he said. “I thought it looked bad enough from inside.”

“Wow,” Giorge said. “I am so glad you didn’t hit me with that thing.”

Angus turned and gulped. A work crew was assembling a scaffold up against the wall, and they had already reached two thirds of the way up. Above them was a gaping hole, nearly as wide as the scaffolding—one in which ten men could easily stand abreast. He couldn’t see any cracks radiating out from the hole, but they were nearly a mile away. Still, its edge appeared to be quite smooth, as if someone had carefully tunneled their way out of it.

“You did that?” Jagra asked, fear and admiration raging over his face as he looked from one to another of them.

“Yes,” Angus said. “It was an accident.”

Jagra looked at the wall and shook his head. “I would hate to see what you could do on purpose,” he said. “I was here when it happened. When I looked over, I swear I saw snow falling from that hole.”

“Oh?” Angus said, his interest keenly piqued. “Can you describe it to me?”

Jagra shrugged. “What’s to describe? There was a big clap of thunder, and then there was a hole in the wall and it was snowing. It didn’t snow very long, though.”

Disappointed that he couldn’t offer any more details, Angus thanked him and they moved on.

“Angus,” Giorge said a few minutes later. “It was a lot like what Jagra said. But it wasn’t snow. It was the stone. It fragmented into little bits and blew out of the room.”

“I see,” Angus said through clenched teeth. Giorge’s voice grated against his nerves like—like army ants driving spikes into his back. “Did you see how it happened?”

“Not really,” Giorge admitted.

“Why not?” Angus asked, his anger threatening to break free. “You were there,” he said, his voice low, desperately even.

Giorge shrugged. “I was hiding,” he said. “When I looked in and saw you with that wand pointed at me….” He shook his head. “I don’t want to see you look at me like that again.”

“Then don’t try to steal from me anymore,” Angus bellowed, his fury barely restrained. “I told you not to intrude when I was in that room. I told all of you not to do it.”

“But—”

“Now you know why!” Angus shouted, feeling his shoulders tense. “When a wizard studies magic, when he is testing things like—” he slipped the wand easily into his hand with a slight flexing of his left forearm and a tweak of the wrist and pointed it at Giorge. “It is dangerous. A mistake, no matter how slight it may be, can have deadly consequences. If I hadn’t redirected the energy of this wand away from you, you would have been disintegrated, not the wall!” That’s what it does! Angus thought, excitedly. It disintegrates things!

Giorge scrunched up in his saddle, trying to avoid Angus’s eyes, Angus’s fury, Angus’s wand. He looked at his horse’s head, and said nothing.

“Angus,” Hobart said. “He didn’t realize—”

“No!” Angus shouted as he turned on him, the wand waving about recklessly. “He didn’t think. All he wanted was an opportunity to steal from me. He’s been trying to do that ever since I met him, and he hasn’t learned his lesson yet, has he? If I turn my back on him, he’ll put those twitchy little fingers of his into my pouch and take everything that he could get. He probably already has,” Angus said, taking his backpack off and ripping open the flap. “I haven’t even had a chance to find out what’s missing,” he fumed, rummaging through the scrolls and counting them.

“They’re all there,” Giorge mumbled. “I wasn’t there to steal from you.”

“Really?” Angus scowled, relishing how it felt to finally release the pent-up anger flowing through him. “Why did you pick the lock on my door, then?” he demanded.

Giorge continued to stare at his horse’s head as he repeated, his voice low, tight. “I wasn’t there to steal from you. I needed to talk to you. I had found a buyer for those coins, and I wanted to give you your share. When you didn’t answer, I assumed you were gone.”

“And my presumed absence gave you the right to enter my room?” Angus demanded. “It didn’t occur to you that I might not want to be interrupted?”

Giorge toyed with Millie’s mane, gently wrapping it around his finger over and over again. “No,” he said. “I didn’t think that. I was too excited.”

“Excited?” Angus glowered. “Why? Because you thought you could finally rummage through my things? So you could pick and choose what to take later?”

“Angus,” Hobart said, his voice almost as tight as the grip on his saddle horn. “He is part of this banner and so are you. We do not steal from each other. We help each other when needed, and that is what Giorge did.”

“Help?” Angus scoffed, laughing bitterly. “By getting me thrown into the dungeon? How is that helpful?”

“Not that,” Hobart admitted. “But he did save your life.”

“What?”

“And most of your treasure,” Hobart continued.

“Oh really,” Angus retorted. “And just how did he do that?”

“Angus,” Giorge said, his voice soft, urgent. “I know I made a mistake, but I assure you I meant you no ill will.”

Angus was breathing heavily—It is important.—and gripping the reins so tight in his right hand that he couldn’t have cast a spell if he wanted to—and he desperately wanted to. But the wand…. “All right then,” he said, his tone sharp, barely restrained as he lowered the wand and rested it against his thigh. His jaw muscles ached as he asked, “Fine! Why don’t you explain it to me?”

“Will you listen?” Hobart asked.

Angus nodded, rapidly tapping the wand against his thigh to keep from lashing out with it. He was still furious, but a part of him knew a lot of the anger wasn’t really directed at Giorge; it had been building within him ever since Voltari had thrown him out of Blackhaven, and Giorge was just a convenient, easily justifiable target for his rage. Still….

The tapping was quite rapid, quite firm—and the wand was a delicate piece of ivory. He looked at it, grimaced, and slid it expertly back into its straps. Then he pried open his right hand and let the reins drop. Gretchen didn’t move; nor would she unless he directed her to do so with his legs. How do I know that? Angus ranted in his mind. How can I not know who I am but can remember things like that?

“Like I said,” Giorge began, gently patting Millie’s neck. “I had sold your coins. The buyer paid more than what I had expected—a lot more—and I was excited about it. When you didn’t answer, I thought I would surprise you with the news. I had exchanged the two you had left for a pouch of gemstones, and I was going to leave those gems on your table.”

“Where are they now?” Angus demanded.

“We had to use most of them to get you out of the dungeon,” Giorge said. “There were a lot of bribes involved, and that was before the fine. After the upkeep and taxes, we distributed what was left. Your share is in your backpack with your garnets.”

“My garnets?” Angus asked. “They confiscated them.”

Giorge smiled at Millie’s neck and said, “They only took the ones they found,” he said. “I made sure they didn’t find very much.”

“You took my garnets?”

“Yes,” Giorge said. “And all the other things I could find. You know,” he added, looking sidelong at Angus without turning his head. “If I didn’t know you were a wizard, I’d think you were a thief by all the things you had hidden under that robe of yours.”

“You searched my tunic?” Angus accused, his eyes narrowing as he pressed his lips tightly together.

Giorge nodded and turned to tell his horse the rest of the story. “Yes,” he said. “When I saw the wall, I knew you were going to be taken to the dungeons, and I didn’t want them to take everything you had. I couldn’t take the wand; they were bound to find out about that. So I grabbed your backpack and made a thorough search of your clothes. I left Teffles’ book on your desk, too. It would be less suspicious than finding a wizard without one, and I thought you’d want your scrolls more.”

“All right,” Angus said. “You pocketed my things and then what?”

“I did what I could to help you,” he said. “You hit that wall pretty hard. When I saw you crumpled up like that, I thought you were dead. But you weren’t. It was pretty bad, though. Your skull was tender and scrunched when I touched it. Half your ribs were cracked or broken. There was something wrong with your back. But you were still breathing.”

Angus frowned, ran his hands over his chest and shook his head. “That can’t be true,” he said. “There’s no hint of broken bones; I feel fine.”

Giorge smiled and nodded. “Now,” he said. “But then, you were a mess. It took a lot of convincing for them to call in a healer to mend you. But they did, and she was exceptional. It was only after you were recovering that they threw you in the dungeons.”

“It was costly, too,” Hobart added. “We spent a lot more of the gems Giorge had gotten for those coins. The Banner’s gems.”

“There was still plenty left over, Hobart,” Giorge said. “And if Angus proves to be as useful to us as we suspect he will be, it is a small price to pay. After all, he did have that map.”

“Who cares about that damned map?” Hobart grumbled. “I can buy a map for a few silvers. His healing cost thousands of gold.”

“Not his map,” Giorge said. “Ask Ortis. It’s as old as the coins, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Ortis said. “But what does that matter.”

“Well,” Giorge finally turned away from Millie to face them, a hint of his typical grin threatening to etch onto his lips. “If my information is correct,” he continued, “it may lead us to The Tiger’s Eye.”

“The what?” Hobart asked. “I don’t really like the idea of fighting mountain cats.”

“I didn’t say it was a tiger,” Giorge clarified. “I said The Tiger’s Eye.”

“So?” Hobart said. “What’s the difference?”

Giorge sighed. “There’s a legend,” he said. “It goes way back to a time before Urm. It’s about a ruby the size of a large man’s hand. They called it The Tiger’s Eye, and it was reputed to have had strange and wondrous powers. It was part of what drove Urm to expand the kingdom. He thought the plains folk had it, but they didn’t. Then his son went after the dwarves for the same reason, and with the same results.”

“That doesn’t seem likely,” Angus said, feeling his anger subtly shifting to curiosity. “According to Fyngar, Urm simply wanted the grain for himself. There was no mention of this Tiger’s Eye, and I am quite confident Fyngar would have mentioned it if he had known of its existence. He was quite thorough in his critique of Urm’s motives.”

“That’s only one story,” Giorge countered, brightening a bit more as he spoke. “There are others. One involves the Angst. They were a strange group of religious fanatics from the time before the Dwarf Wars. They worshipped fire and prayed to a god of destruction and chaos. Some say they accepted the plains folk into their ranks—and the dwarves. Others say they fled from Urm as his armies moved west into the mountains, but they eluded him. Others say they were always in the mountains, but Urm didn’t know about them; it was only after Vyr’s extension of the kingdom that they were discovered. Whatever the truth is, they all say the Angst disappeared into the mountains or were there all along. But after the volcanoes started erupting, no one ever heard from them again. And all the legends say the same thing about The Tiger’s Eye: It was so powerful that it could burn a man to cinders in an instant.”

“What does that have to do with Angus’s map?” Hobart asked.

“Simple,” he said. “The symbol that looks like a flame burning on top of a pyramid resembles the ones mentioned in the rumors. I think it is one of their temples. If it hasn’t been completely destroyed, we might find The Tiger’s Eye.”

“There has been a lot of volcanism over here,” Ortis hedged. “It is almost certainly destroyed.”

Giorge shrugged. “Probably,” he agreed, then grinned for the first time since leaving Hellsbreath. “But what if it isn’t?”

“Other banners have probably found it,” Hobart said. “Or other things.”

“What if they haven’t?” Giorge asked, his newly rediscovered enthusiasm difficult to squash.

“All right,” Hobart said. “You think that ruby is in this temple, and the temple has protected it from being destroyed, don’t you?”

Giorge nodded, “It would make sense, wouldn’t it? Why have that one temple indicated on Angus’s map?” he asked. “I’m sure they had many other temples that weren’t noted, so it has to have been the most important one, perhaps even their central temple. Think about it; how many small shrines are on the maps we have today? None, that’s how many. But most of them have at least some of the major temples noted. They may vary on which ones, but that’s more the personal preference of the mapmaker, isn’t it?”

“That does make a sort of optimistic sense,” Hobart said. “But I won’t believe it until I see it.”

“Speaking of which,” Ortis said. “We should get going. I’m sure the guardsmen on Hellsbreath’s wall are wondering what we’re doing.”

Hobart glanced back at Hellsbreath again and nodded. “I would be watching us if I were them. I might even send riders out later to make sure we left the area.”

“I’ll get my map out,” Angus said, reaching for his pack. “I think we need to follow along that river, don’t we?”

“No,” Ortis said. “We don’t want them to know where we’re going, do we? If we go along the river, they will want to know what we are doing. They’ll be sure to follow us, even if they weren’t planning to do so already. It would be better to go north at least to the second caravan stop before we break off into The Tween.”

“That’s a good idea,” Giorge said. “We can always backtrack later. I, for one, do not wish to be followed if we can avoid it.”

“There’s a road on my map,” Angus said. “Didn’t we pass one on our way here?”

“That road was abandoned long ago,” Hobart said. “They started building it at the same time as Hellsbreath but gave up on it. The mountains are taking it back.”

“I wonder if they were using the old roadbed,” Angus mused. “If I were building a road through here, I would. It would save time, wouldn’t it? They wouldn’t have to carve the roadbed out of the mountainside.”

“We can take a look at the map when we’re on the other side of this hill,” Ortis said. “It may be in the right place.”

“All right, then,” Hobart said, looking from Giorge to Angus. “Is it settled?”

“For now,” Angus said, sensing the coals of anger still burning within him—but at a controllable level. “But if he disturbs me again….”

“I won’t,” Giorge said. “Not even if an assassin like Typhus is on your trail.”

Angus frowned, looked at Giorge—who smiled slyly as he spurred his horse forward—and fell into place between the first and second Ortis. Hobart and the last Ortis trailed some distance behind them, talking quietly with each other….

10

“There’s the road,” Hobart said as they reached the valley floor. “Even here you can see there’s no upkeep.” He nudged his horse forward onto the old road heading west along the valley floor. “The cobblestones are weathered, the mortar between them is crumbling, and there has been no effort to replace the broken ones. Up ahead, they’ve reclaimed some of the cobblestones to repair the newer roads and grass is sprouting up between most of the ones that are left. Don’t be surprised if some of them are loose. When we reach that mountain, we’ll have to keep near the upslope in case our horses stumble.”

“There are tracks,” Ortis said. “Someone still uses this road.”

Hobart nodded. “Trappers, hunters, the Hellsbreath’s patrols go past the mountain to make sure the dwarves keep to themselves. They don’t stay on the road, though; they keep to the valleys and come back around south of Hellsbreath.”

“That must be it,” Ortis said. “It looks like a group of horses went through here about a week ago. But I don’t see them coming back.”

“It’s an infrequent, long patrol,” Hobart said. “Maybe once a month or so.”

“Let’s go then,” Giorge said, nudging his horse onto the old road, Millie’s hooves clattering noisily with each step. “We have a few hours before it will be dark.”

“We should stay at the caravan stop,” Hobart suggested. “We can come back here tomorrow. That way, if they’re following us, we can confront them.”

Giorge stopped, turned Millie to face them, and said, “Let them follow us this way,” he said. “They’ll give up sooner.”

“That may be,” Hobart said, not moving.

“Look,” Giorge added. “We only have two or three weeks before winter sets in up there, right? And it will hit Hellsbreath not long after that. We can’t winter in Hellsbreath this year, so the sooner we check this place out, the more time we’ll have to find somewhere else to stay.”

“True,” Hobart said, but he made no move to follow Giorge. “Of course, Wyrmwood is nearby.”

“Well?” Giorge said. “Do we go or not?”

Hobart shrugged. “I’d feel more comfortable if I knew why this road was abandoned.”

Giorge grinned and said, “We’ll know that sooner if we go now than if we wait for tomorrow.”

“All right, Giorge,” Hobart conceded. “Lead the way, then.”

They were still in the valley when they set up camp for the night. Hobart explained what Angus’s responsibilities were and showed him how to tend to his horse for the evening. Once Gretchen and Leslie were hobbled, they gathered around the fire and waited for Ortis to finish with a simple vegetable soup.

“This will be better than the last one,” he said as he handed a bowlful to Angus. “We’re far enough away from the main road that I’ve been finding some very pleasant roots, leaves, and berries. I even have a melon for dessert.”

“Thank you, Ortis,” Angus said, his hunger not caring about the taste as he took his first bite. “After what they fed me in the dungeons, this will taste wonderful, I’m sure.” It was a palatable stew, almost tasty, and he nodded to Ortis before taking a second bite.

After they finished eating, Giorge set to work on the dishes and Hobart said. “Listen, Angus, I know you’re still angry with Giorge.”

“I’ll set it aside soon enough,” Angus said.

Hobart nodded, but continued. “You haven’t been in The Tween before, have you?”

“Aside from the main road?” Angus replied. “No.”

“Well, there are stories about it. It’s important that you hear a few of them.”

“Such as?” he asked.

“They’re mainly rumors,” Hobart hedged. “We aren’t sure if we should believe them or not.”

“Rumors generally have a grain of truth in them. Some have more.”

Hobart nodded. “The people telling them are suspect,” he said. “Most of them claimed to have gone into The Tween and came back out again.”

“So?”

“Most of them are lying,” Ortis said. “If not all of them. The Tween generally doesn’t let people leave.”

“You make it sound like it’s alive,” Angus said.

Hobart considered for a long moment before nodding in agreement. “I suppose,” he said, “it is, in a way. It’s a feeling, a presence. I’ve felt it before.”

“You’ve been in The Tween?” Angus asked.

Hobart nodded. “All of us have,” he said. “Except you. It was a different part of it, further north, but….”

“It was the caravan,” Ortis said. “We went with it west out of Wyrmwood. As we crossed through The Tween, something watched us. But we couldn’t see it; all we could do was feel it there, watching us like a giant, invisible, unblinking eye.”

“It was a large caravan,” Hobart added. “There were a lot of guards for it. We were all on edge, and that sharpens the senses. It was unnerving. It’s like being chased by a shadow at the edge of your eye, but every time you turn, it disappears.”

Angus nodded. “I think I know what you mean,” he said. “A sense of danger that never manifests,” like when Voltari wasn’t there but I knew he was watching me.

Hobart nodded, “It’s a real danger. There is something in The Tween that isn’t strong enough to attack caravans, but it doesn’t have any qualms about attacking smaller parties, like our own.”

“So,” Angus asked, “what do these rumormongers have to say about it?”

“That’s just it,” Hobart said. “They never have anything to say. It’s all vague notions about this or a sense of that, but never any specifics. That’s what’s so unnerving about it. It would be easier to deal with The Tween if we knew it was a dragon or dwarves, or something else equally tangible. But it’s never more than that sense of something dreadful watching you, waiting for an opportunity to strike.”

Angus frowned; he was feeling an irrational sense of foreboding that he hadn’t had before Hobart started talking. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked.

“We’re heading into The Tween now,” Hobart said. “If you feel anything like that, let us know at once. We must be vigilant, and a false alarm is far better than an absent one when there is a real danger.”

Angus nodded. “I think I understand.”

“Good,” Ortis said. “You and I can take first watch—unless you need the rest?” he asked.

“First watch will be fine,” Angus said. “But I will need time to prepare myself tomorrow. I cast a spell in the dungeon that I haven’t yet replaced. That is,” he added turning a half-hearted glare at Giorge, “if Giorge lets me do it.”

Giorge shrugged. “I won’t bother you.”

“Good,” Angus said. “It is one of Teffles’ spells, and I am unfamiliar with it. It will need my full attention.”

“No more need be said,” Hobart declared. “We will respect your privacy, won’t we Giorge.”

“Absolutely!” Giorge said. “It will give me time to practice throwing my new net.”

Angus nodded. He was anxious to find out what that first simple spell would do….

11

The next morning, Angus sat hunched over Teffles’ spell book and brought the magic within him into focus. It was the first step for priming a spell, and he had done it so many times that the patterns within him were a familiar echo imprinted on his mind and the realignment of them was routine. But this time was different. The threads of magic within him were vaguely distorted, as if they had been disrupted and shifted aside a fraction of an inch. It wasn’t that they were misplaced, exactly—he tested the patterns for the spells he had already primed, and they reacted normally—just…different. It was almost as if they had been tweaked out of place and put back again, but the one who did it was just a little bit off. It was like searching a person’s room and putting everything back again; no matter how close the objects were to their original position, they were always just a little bit off.

Was it the healer? Had she cause the disruption when she mended his bones? He didn’t know; he only knew that something wasn’t quite the same. He continued to study the arrangement of the strands for a few more minutes, but he couldn’t find any answers in them. Finally, he turned away from the magic within him and reached out for the magic around him.

It was a lively location—he had checked it the night before—and he drew upon it as needed to facilitate the priming of the new spell, the one that would let him fly. Even though it was a complex spell, he risked using Teffles’ shorthand to make it simpler to prime. But he wasn’t comfortable with it; the spell was dominated by sky magic and he was trained in and attuned to flame magic. It wasn’t that he couldn’t prime for sky magic spells or cast them—all magic worked the same basic way—but it felt unnatural to him, sort of like wearing someone else’s boots. It took time to find the right threads within him and tweak them into the proper position to be receptive to the spell, and when he was done, he was surprised to find that there were enough threads remaining for him to prime another simpler, weaker spell. He chose the first spell in Teffles’ book, the one that had the single knot. He was curious about what it would do….

By the time Angus finished, the others were ready to leave. Ortis was lounging near the subdued fire. Hobart was tending to the horses and redistributing the gear. Giorge was casually throwing a net across their campsite, trying to capture a reluctant bush. The net, a web of tightly braided strands with the outer edge lined with small weights, was large enough to entrap a man. He gripped the middle of the strands, twirled the weights around his head, and let it go. As it shot forward the weights spread outward in clumps and the net unwound only partway, the rest remained uselessly tangled together. When it landed near the bush, the weights bounced and rolled, tangling the net even further. He reeled it in by the rope attaching the net to his wrist, and began untangling it. When he saw Angus walking toward them, he grinned, thought about it for a moment, and lowered its intensity to a friendly, guarded smile.

“I’ll get it figured out eventually,” he said. “It’s the weights. I don’t know how to release the net so they spread out in a uniform fashion.”

“You should have seen him when he started,” Hobart said as he guided Leslie toward them. “I thought he was skipping stones the way they bounced along the ground. At least now the net isn’t getting as tangled up as when he started. Some of it is even spreading out.”

“Give me time,” Giorge said, “and I’ll be catching deer with Ortis.”

“He may be right,” Ortis suggested. “Deer don’t stand still, like bushes. One might run into the net by accident.”

Giorge grinned and said, “I wouldn’t mind.”

Hobart chuckled and asked Angus, “Are you ready to go?”

Angus nodded.

“Good,” Ortis said as one of him dowsed the fire with water and the other two scooped dirt onto it.

“Your horse is saddled,” Hobart said. “We should be able to make it around this mountain today if the road holds.”

“If it doesn’t?” Angus asked.

Hobart shrugged. “We’ll consider out options. It will depend a great deal on how steep the mountain is. We might have to backtrack and take a different route.”

“If there is one,” Ortis said. “There are places in these mountains that are impassible.

“We could go down into the valley and work our way around,” Hobart suggested.

“Let’s find out if we need to, first,” Giorge said. “There’s no sense in taking an unnecessary detour.”

12

The old road continued along the valley floor until midmorning, and then it sloped up toward the mountain. By midday, the gradual slope had changed to a sharp but manageable incline as it followed along a ledge. The ledge, though apparently natural, had been widened considerably, and the rough-hewn rock face was pitted with erosion. It settled into a fairly level path not long afterward, and then wound its way around the southwest edge of the mountain. Then the cobblestones abruptly ended, as if the builders had simply decided they couldn’t be bothered with continuing to build the road. They had even left behind cobblestones stacked like cordwood against the mountainside.

“I wonder why they didn’t take those,” Angus asked. “Wouldn’t they have been able to use them on the other roads?”

“Who knows?” Hobart said. “They’ve been here a long time,” he added. “Something must have kept them from doing it.”

“There’s plenty of granite around here,” Giorge suggested. “It may have been simpler to abandon them here and cut new pieces where they were needed. They are pretty heavy.”

“I don’t know,” Angus said. “You saw that work crew south of Wyrmwood, didn’t you? It had taken them days to carve up just half of that rock. I think it would be cheaper and less time-consuming to transport already fashioned ones to where they were needed than it would be to carve new ones.”

“That may be,” Hobart agreed. “Does it matter?”

“It might,” Angus suggested. “It could indicate what it was that led them to abandon the construction project.”

“Whatever it was,” Hobart said. “We must be close to it.”

“Not yet,” Giorge corrected him. “If they had given up here, they wouldn’t have kept cutting away at the mountain. It’s carved at least as far as that outcropping up ahead, and probably quite a bit further.”

“That may be,” Hobart said. “But it still won’t be much further. As I recall, the cobblestones always trailed behind the men building the roadbed, and the men building the roadbed were behind the ones carving into the mountain. I wouldn’t be surprised if they got all the way around the mountain before they stopped carving into it, but the roadbed won’t go that far. Something stopped them.”

“Whatever it was,” Ortis said from near the neatly stacked pile of cobblestones, “it was significant enough to compel them to abandon their materials instead of working around it. There are a few rusted tools over here. Mallets, picks, chisels—the wood has rotted away, but the metal is still here.”

“They must have left in a hurry then,” Angus agreed. “But that doesn’t explain why they didn’t come back later to reclaim those stones. Something has kept them away.”

“I’ve heard tales of dragons,” Giorge offered.

“Bah,” Hobart snorted. “Not this close to Hellsbreath. They prefer the wilder lands.”

“These are the wilder lands,” Angus muttered, glancing at the cloudless sky, looking for any small—or large—speck that didn’t belong there.

“At least we don’t have to worry about loose cobbles anymore,” Giorge said, grinning and spurring his horse to a light trot on the level roadbed about a foot below the edge of the last cobblestone. Plants were growing in small clumps here and there, where dirt had accumulated on top of the stone.

“We’d better keep pace,” Ortis said. “There’s no telling what he’ll run into up there.”

“Not much, surely,” Angus said. “There can’t be too many dangers on the side of a volcano, can there?”

Hobart looked at him, shook his head, and spurred Leslie after Giorge.

“Falling rock, lava flows,” Ortis began, as he followed after them. “Mountain giants, spiders, snakes, wyverns—” The second Ortis continued as he passed. As his voice trailed off, the third one continued the list as he approached Angus “—dragons, nymphs, ogres, mountain cats. Those are only a few of them.” He paused only long enough to add, “We better catch up with them.”

Angus nodded, clicked his tongue, flicked the reins, and urged Gretchen into a light trot. Ortis fell in line with him at his side, but they didn’t have to go very far past the sharp outcropping. It hovered above them, a high overhang that made Angus feel as if a giant bird’s beak was about to snap down on him. He hurried through it but slowed his horse when he saw Giorge and the others stopped in front of a tall black wall. It was about twenty feet high and propelled out beyond the road dozens of feet, eventually curving back into itself and dangling over the mountainside.

“We know what stopped them,” Giorge said as Angus and Ortis joined them.

“It has stopped us, too,” Hobart said, dismounting and walked up to the bulbous black wall blocking their path. He lightly rapped it with a mailed fist, sending a shattering of glass-like black shards to the ground. “It’s recently formed.” he said. “There’s no way we can take our horses over it. Even if we could somehow climb up to the top, they couldn’t walk on it without falling through this fragile stuff. There will be too many air pockets in it.”

“We’ll have to turn back and try the valley,” Giorge said, nudging his horse to the edge of the mountain. “It does not look promising. If it would have been easy to go through the valley, they wouldn’t have bothered cutting up the mountain. See that?” he gestured, bringing the others closer to the edge. “There’s a bottleneck. The valley ends at that cliff face, and there’s no way out of it.”

“Let’s look at that map, Angus,” Hobart said. “Before we head back, we need to know what direction to take, and we’ve got a pretty fair view of things up here. If there are any other major obstacles, we should be able to see them.”

“I’m not convinced we need to go back,” Angus said, dismounting and walking up to the smooth black wall. “I wonder how wide this flow is?”

Hobart nodded. “It’s one of the volcanic rocks that can form when the lava cools. It’s brittle, and when it breaks, it forms sharp edges. I’ve seen people use it for knife blades; that’s how sharp it is. But you can’t fight with them very well; a blow from the side can snap the blade in two.”

“Well,” Angus said. “Giorge can tell us how thick it is, can’t he?”

“Me?” Giorge replied. “I’m seeing the same thing you are.”

“You can climb it, can’t you?” he asked.

“Not that stuff,” Giorge said, pointing at the black wall in front of them. “It will crumble in my hands.”

“The mountain isn’t. You should find much better handholds and footholds up there,” he pointed at the steep slope of the mountain heading up toward its summit, “than you had at Fenbrooke’s Inn. Surely you can climb up there and take a look for us?”

Giorge studied the mountainside for a few seconds before nodding. “I can climb up there,” he said, “but the horses can’t.”

“They don’t need to,” Angus said. “I need a sense of how thick this fragile wall is and what’s behind it.”

“A lava flow like this,” Hobart said, “is generally not the only one. They seep out periodically, and then go dormant again. There will probably be several layers, with this being the most recent one. They started rebuilding this road about two hundred years ago, and if they stopped because of the volcano back then, and if it recently vented again, there’s almost certainly quite a few eruptions in between.”

“Giorge?” Angus repeated.

Giorge hesitated only long enough to glance at Hobart, who nodded slightly, and then dismounted and began free-climbing up the slope. It wasn’t quite vertical, and when he began to slide, he was able to stop himself by flattening his body against the slope and pawing for handholds.

“All right, Angus,” Hobart began. “You obviously have something in mind. Care to share it with us?”

“How do you feel about flying?” Angus asked, his eyes still on Giorge.

“Flying?” Hobart repeated, his voice almost a squawk. “I—” He looked keenly at Angus, his light brown eyes half closed. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” Angus said. “It isn’t the way the spell is normally done,” he admitted. “But I think I can manipulate it safely enough to fly all of us and the horses over this if it isn’t very far. I’ll need some time to think through the alterations, though, and even then, I wouldn’t risk going very far.”

“It’s dangerous,” Hobart said, reaching up to push his long blond hair back. “More dangerous than you’re telling us.”

Angus shrugged. “All spells are dangerous,” he said. “It’s always a question of mitigating those dangers. But, yes, this is more dangerous than the typical spell.”

“Why not use the wand?” Ortis suggested. “It poked a hole through Hellsbreath’s wall easily enough, and that was made from granite.”

“It will depend upon what Giorge sees,” Angus hedged. “But I don’t think the wand has enough range to make it through it.”

“You can find out,” Ortis almost demanded.

The muscles in Angus’s jaws tightened as he remembered the recoil, being flung backward, hitting the wall…. If he braced himself, could he handle that recoil here? He should be able to; wands were not supposed to kill the one employing them. It would be useful to know the precise range….

Giorge reached a point well above the lava flow, steadied himself on a narrow ledge, shielded his eyes, and studied the landscape. Then he started back down, feeling for footholds and handholds as he went. He slid down the last few feet and turned around, brushing the dirt from his tunic.

“Well?” Angus asked.

“It’s too wide,” Giorge said. “There are several older flows on the other side of this one, but the roadbed continues beyond them.”

Angus frowned and asked, “How far is this flow,” he said, gesturing at the glass-like black surface.

“This new one goes back maybe ten feet, but it rises sharply from the edge. There’s another, higher one just beyond it, but it must be several years old; it’s overgrown with wildflowers. There aren’t any trees or shrubs, though, so it can’t be that old. There are other, older flows beyond it. It must have been erupting for a long time.”

“That rules out the wand,” Angus said.

“Why?” Ortis asked.

Angus shrugged. “The wand’s range is limited.”

“To how far?” Ortis asked.

“I’m not certain,” Angus admitted. “But it certainly won’t go through that many layers.”

“Why not test it and find out?” Hobart suggested. “If it can get us to the older lava flows, we should be able to climb them. Once they settle and get rained on, they become much more solid, and the roots of the plants add stability. We can walk our horses single file across them, if we can get up that high.”

“You know,” Giorge added. “This new one has to be covering up an older one. They layer that way. The brittle stuff might only be a few feet thick.”

“Or it could go much further,” Angus said. “There’s no way to know.”

“Yes there is, Angus,” Ortis said. “We paid a considerable amount to get you out of Hellsbreath, and we’d like to see what we paid for. Use the wand.”

Angus frowned. How could he explain how precious the wand was? How rare? Wasting its power like this…. “Let’s take a look at my map, first,” he said. “If there’s an alternate route, I’d rather take that.”

Ortis shrugged, waited for him to remove and unroll the map, and then pointed. “The quickest and easiest route lies beyond this lava flow. They may not have rebuilt this road the whole way, but it was there, and they were using it. Even after a thousand years, the remnants of it should be easy enough to follow, as long as the volcanoes haven’t buried other parts of it like they have here. Now, as you can see, it goes around this mountain and turns west, straddling the top of that cliff, and then turns southwest. At that point, we’ll follow along the valley floor for a considerable distance, and then come to a mountain with three summits. The temple will be nestled in among those summits, and the road—if it’s still there—will lead us there.”

“Which mountain is it?” Hobart asked, shielding his eyes and looking west.

“We can’t see it from here,” Ortis said without looking up. “The other mountains are in the way.”

“I understand that,” Angus said. “What are the alternatives?”

“We can’t get there by going through the valley down there,” Ortis said. “It’s a bottleneck. Even if we could climb out of it, we wouldn’t be able to take our horses with us.”

“I am not abandoning Leslie,” Hobart said, in a deadpan tone that suggested an unflinching position. “She has been with me since I started soldiering.”

“Millie’s too good a steed to leave behind,” Giorge added.

“Now,” Ortis said. “The river near Hellsbreath. You wanted to go that way, didn’t you? Well, if we had, we would have had to go over those two mountains.” Ortis pointed at a pair of tall peaks looming above them to the southwest. “They are too high. There are no known trails or passes through them, and a lot of dangers.”

“I’ve seen them up close,” Giorge said. “I’m an excellent climber, and I’d be hard-pressed to get past them. A lot of people have died trying.”

“We can’t come around from the Western Kingdoms, either,” Ortis continued. The mountains are even higher on that side of the range. Hellsbreath Pass is the only route west that we—or anyone else, for that matter—would risk taking, and it runs farther south before it turns west. That leaves only one other option. We can try to go around the other side of this mountain.”

“Let’s do that, then,” Angus suggested, eager to hold onto his wand’s power. “Surely it can be done.”

Ortis shook his head. “Don’t you think they would have done it if it were possible? They built the road on this side of the mountain for a reason. Twice. Besides, even if we can make it through the wilderness on that side of the mountain, our time is too short. The detour will add several days to our journey there, and several more on the way back. The winter will hit us before we’re out of these mountains, and I do not relish the idea of getting caught in an early blizzard. The Tween would claim us as its next victims.”

“So,” Hobart finished for him. “We seem to have two choices. First, we go somewhere for the winter, maybe Wyrmwood or joining a caravan, and come back to try again in the spring. Second, you use the wand to see if we can cut a path through this lava that our horses can follow.”

“The wand is yours, Angus, and so is the choice,” Ortis said. “But I believe the rest of us are in agreement; we would like you to use it.”

Angus frowned. The decision was, as Hobart put it, simple. Use the wand and try to go further, or go back and wait until spring. And it was up to him to decide. What should they do? He could try Teffles’ flying spell, but it was risky; it wasn’t designed for more than one person, and trying to incorporate the horses and his companions into its effect was not nearly as easy as he had made it sound. He flexed his wrist and forearm, felt the wand slide into his palm. He lifted it up to his face, turned it around so he could see the number of sigils remaining, and counted off each group of three as if it were one. Eight spells remained, and each one was precious. How many would it take to clear a path through the lava flow? One? Two? All of them? And what about the recoil? If it sent him flying off the mountain….

A slow smile fell into place. He wouldn’t fall; he would fly. He wouldn’t have a lapse of concentration on the flying spell while he used the wand; activating the wand only involved a simple series of gestures, and they wouldn’t interfere with his grip on the spell’s thread. Surely he could manage both at the same time….

“I need to see this for myself,” he said.

“You can climb?” Giorge asked, studying him for a reaction.

“I can fly,” Angus said, drawing the magic into focus. It was not at all difficult to find the pale blue strands of magic he needed; there were strong clusters of them around mountains. “I suggest you take the horses back around that outcropping and stay with them,” he said as he dismounted and began tying the knots together. “I’ll let you know when to return.” If I am able to.

13

There was something liberating about flying—and something nauseating. But most of all, he wasn’t very good at it. Teffles’ instructions for the spell had given only rudimentary directions for how to go up, down, left, right, forward, and backward, but it didn’t have any indications for controlling speed. At first, he did everything too quickly, rising above the lava flow several hundred feet before redirecting his momentum sideways. Then he sped out over the valley at a dizzying speed. Fortunately, he was able to turn his face away from the wind he was creating before he vomited, and it scattered behind him instead of onto his robe.

Mostly.

Then he figured out how to orient his position and began moving in a wide circle over the lava field. His speed was now constant, but still remarkably fast, and it took time for him to figure out how to slow down. When he finally did, his speed dropped rapidly to a near crawl until he floated high above the edge of the mountain. Fortunately, despite his discomfort, he had not lost control of the spell, and he began experimenting with it, gradually shifting his position and altering his speed until he was able to wobble over the lava field and estimate the extent of the blockage. It was a sobering calculation, particularly if he was right about the wand’s limitations.

The city wall had been forty feet thick, and Hedreth’s was near the outer edge. The wand had penetrated through the ten feet or so of the wall, but it couldn’t have gone much further. If it had, it would have disrupted the dome protecting the city, and that was not one of the charges against him. If it had been, he would not have gotten out of Hellsbreath alive. As Hobart had put it, “Interference with the functioning of the dome or the efforts to control the lava flow is punishable by death, swift and without mercy.” He had listened very carefully to that one, and even an accidental disruption would have cost him his life. In fact, they likely would have let him die from the injuries caused by his mistake; it would have been quicker. Still, the dome was no more than fifty feet from Hellsbreath’s wall, and the range of the wand had to be between ten and sixty feet.

He dipped down lower, until he was a dozen feet or so above the newest lava flow. It was a relatively thin layer draped over the older flows. It had flattened out and dripped over the sides of those old flows just before it reached the roadbed. The next older flow was probably about the same thickness, stacked on top of an even earlier one, which was stacked on another one….

There was no way to tell how many times the volcano had erupted, but the mountain had clearly been bleeding from an open wound for some time. The wound would scab over until the pressure popped it loose and another bubbly flood of lava sputtered out. But it all started from the same general location a few dozen feet above the roadbed. He landed roughly on the older flows, and the grassy ground easily held his weight.

“So,” he muttered, testing his footing. “The horses should be able to walk on this. All the lava seems to have built up from the north, where it tapers easily down to the roadbed, to here, where it is like a cliff. All I need to do is make it possible for them to get past that new deposit and onto the firmer footing of the older ones. Can I do it with two blasts? One from the front to get rid of the fragile stuff, and the other slanting up from there to here?”

He took a short leap and glided past the surface of the recent flow and dropped down in front of it. He took three paces back—no sense in getting hit by the debris—and took out the wand. He braced himself, held on tightly to the light blue strand of the flying spell, and made the quick series of gestures to activate the wand. The last gesture ended with the wand directed straight ahead at the lava flow. There was a deafening clap of thunder, and the fragile black wall in front of him exploded into a cloud of tiny black beads that settled softly to the ground in front of him and rolled slowly to a stop.

Where’s the recoil?

A moment later, a soft puff of air bounced past him, barely ruffling his robe and dusting him with the fine black particles.

Is that it? In Hedreth’s, the wave of force had propelled him backward as if he were a tiny leaf. But here? A tiny puff of air? He waited, watching the little black beads flutter softly to the ground, much like snowflakes falling on a calm day.

Nothing.

He lowered the wand and surveyed the damage. There was a tunnel. It started out fairly narrow—scarcely wider than five feet—and fanned outward in a growing cone that bit into the new deposit of lava, the older rock beneath it, the roadbed, and upward through the older flow.

How far?

He took a step forward, the glass-like fragments grinding together between his boot and the roadbed. He stepped back from his footprint and frowned. If he hadn’t been holding the light blue strand, he would have slipped….

He bent down and examined the blanket of shards. The road was covered with a half inch of not-quite-powdery residue. He picked up a few of the smooth, rounded granules and pinched them between his finger and thumb. They slid easily from his grip and shot outward. “The horses will fall,” he muttered. “So will we.”

He tweaked the strand of sky magic and rose unsteadily upward until he was about a foot above the roadbed. Then he eased himself slowly forward, studying the smooth sides of the cone, counting the various layers of each eruption, and rapidly calculating the approximate distance of the wand’s effect.

Twenty-five feet, he decided. Possibly a bit more. The effect tapers significantly toward the end.

He reached out for the rough edges of the exposed rock at the end of the tunnel and decided a second blast would be enough. But he wouldn’t be able to do it from within the tunnel, not if he wanted the bottom to be level. He would have to do it from above. If he did it right, the two cones would intersect at their wider termini, thereby making a gradual slope for the horses to travel between them. If he started at the bottom, there was no guarantee that a single blast would reach the surface, and there would be a ridge the horses would have to jump up to—and that only if he could maneuver his body at the right angle.

Where should he start the tunnel? He needed to measure it; he didn’t want to waste a third blast just because he came up a few feet short. But how?

He turned and flew rapidly out of the tunnel he had created and continued on down the road until he nearly crashed into his companions. “I need ropes,” he said.

“How long?” Hobart asked as he moved to the new horse, the one heavy-laden with ropes. “We have several.”

“One that’s about—” How long would it need to be? He closed his eyes. “The slant side of the triangle would be twenty-five feet. The vertical side would be about twenty. That would make the horizontal side….” He mumbled through a series of numbers and finally said, “Fifteen feet. I need a rope that is about fifteen feet long.”

“All ours are longer than that,” Hobart said, pausing in his efforts to free one of the long coils of rope.

“My net is about the right length,” Giorge offered.

“Let me have it,” Angus said. “Quickly, before the spell escapes me.” The pressure from the thread was already causing his shoulder to ache and his fingers to cramp; it wouldn’t be long before it escaped him altogether.

Giorge detached the net from his belt and handed it to him.

“When you hear thunder,” Angus said as he turned, “it will be safe to come forward. But don’t go into the tunnel until we clear out the debris.”

“Debris?” Hobart asked. “Will it be difficult to move?”

Angus half-smiled, tilted his head toward Hobart, and said, “No more than sand would be.” He leapt into the air and flew low and fast; the spell was nearly free of his control, and if he fell, he didn’t want to fall far. But it held until he topped the lava flow and deposited him in a tumble atop the second newest layer, the part that had the least amount of support left beneath it. He rolled forward several feet and came up in a crouch. Part of the ground had given way where he had landed, and there was a rough-edged gap in the smooth arc carved out by the wand. He frowned. He needed the rope to stretch almost to the edge so he could count off the fifteen feet he needed to cut through. How—

He looked down at the weighted rope in his hand and half-smiled. Giorge had been twirling it around and tossing it at a bush several feet from him. If he did that….

But Giorge kept missing. He never once got close enough to graze the bush’s leaves with a soft breeze, and the weights kept getting tangled up. What hope did he have to do it? How many times would it take him?

It didn’t matter. He couldn’t fly until he primed himself for the spell again, and if it took him ten times—a hundred times, even—he would eventually succeed. First, though, he needed to find out how long the rope was. He set it down and walked its length, estimating each pace as a yard. If he was correct, the rope and the net together were seventeen feet long. Now, he needed to start about eight feet from the lip—the tunnel he’d made went deeper than the lip itself. That meant he needed to be twenty-three feet from the lip. The length of the net’s rope plus two yards — about two paces. He moved close enough to the rim to toss the rope without risking falling through, and gripped the weighted end of the net in his right hand, the way Giorge had done. But Giorge had twirled it around, and that didn’t feel right to him. Instead, he held the weights in his hand, let the rope dangle loosely on the ground, and threw it overhand, as if it were a spear. It flung outward until it reached the end of the rope and snapped back. The net spread out suddenly, landing just short of the rim.

“Well,” he half-smiled. “Not bad, eh? A near-perfect toss on the first try! And I’ve never even held one of these things before.” He set the rope on the ground, stretching it out the way he had when he had measured it, and stepped two more paces, turned, and made a mark with his heel. Then he retrieved the net, winding it up the way Giorge had done it when he retrieved the net. He set it on the ground behind him, and flexed his forearm and turned his wrist. The etched surface of the ivory felt rough against his fingers as he stepped up to his mark. Then, like he had done below, he backed up three places. He adjusted the angle of his arm to make sure the three parts of the triangle he saw in his mind would meet, practiced positioning the wand a few times, and then went through the sequence to release the wand’s spell.

The thunder was softer this time, and the recoil was almost completely absent. But a gaping hole formed in front of him, and a cloud sprayed outward along the cone’s length. As the particles of dirt and rock settled, he stepped forward to get a better look at what he had done. If it didn’t meet up with the first tunnel….

Light shone through from the other end of the tunnel he had created, and when he knelt before it, he could see the two cones had intersected as he had expected. But there was a bit of a problem. This one was too deep, cutting into the rock further than he had expected—but not so far that it would create a problem for the horses, if they went slowly.

Why is it deeper? he wondered, stepping into the tunnel and counting the paces. What’s the difference that would make this one five feet longer than the other? There has to be one, doesn’t there? Voltari always said magic followed strict laws, and if something went wrong, it had an explanation. Usually, he said it was my incompetence. But the wand? Could it vary like that? And what about the recoil? Why was it so fierce in Hedreth’s but negligible here?

He didn’t have time to work through the puzzle; his companions were coming….

14

It took nearly an hour to clear a path for the horses to go single file through the tunnel, and then another half hour to regain their footing on the roadbed. They rode at an easy pace, and the roadbed continued to hug the mountain’s slope, gradually rising and falling with the contours of the mountain. In the late afternoon, they came upon a clearing carved into the mountain’s face where it was somewhat leveler than the surrounding areas. It was mostly bare rock, but near the mountain’s upslope where the wind swirled there was a thin layer of dirt with small plants clinging to it.

“They must have used this for their campsite while they were building the road,” Hobart said. “They would have turned it into a caravan stop after they finished.”

“Why bother?” Angus asked. “What was the point of building this road in the first place? There’s not much here but mountains, and they keep getting higher.”

Hobart shrugged. “More trade with the dwarves, probably. The road out of Wyrmwood is difficult to travel, and the window for caravan travel is fairly small if they want to avoid the snows. Another road down here would provide an alternate route.

“They were also looking for another pass into the Western Kingdoms,” he continued. “Hellsbreath Pass is the only way through, and there are always threats about closing it down. So far, there hasn’t been enough animosity between the Western Kingdoms and the Kingdom of Tyr to lead either to close their border, but the threat is always there. And if the bandits ever get unified, they might be able to block it. It’s a fairly narrow, easily defensible pass.”

“Well,” Giorge asked. “Do we stay here for the night or keep going?”

“Why don’t you scout ahead a little ways,” Ortis suggested. “We’ll wait for you here.”

“All right,” Giorge said, spurring his steed to a light trot.

“Maybe you should go with him,” Hobart suggested. “In case he finds something he can’t deal with.”

Ortis nodded as one of him started out after Giorge.

“If we stay here,” Hobart said. “We’ll need to find shelter. It feels like a frost in the air tonight.”

“I’ll get some firewood,” Ortis said. “The roadbed ends about a mile ahead of us. The old road is still evident, but mainly because it is still relatively flat. Most of the stones are covered, and it’s rising sharply.”

“Maybe we should keep going,” Hobart suggested as he pointed at the cliff. “If we’re going to cross that ridge tomorrow, I’d rather it was in the daylight.”

“We won’t reach it tonight,” Ortis said. “We may not get there tomorrow, either. The road is rising and curving with the mountain. The summit of this mountain connects up with that one,” he pointed at the cliff. “The road follows it. We’ll be going north on this mountain until we reach the south face of that one, and then turn west for quite a while before reaching the cliff.”

Hobart frowned. “Are there any caves?” he asked. “I’d rather spend the night in a cave than out in the open here. That west wind is already picking up, and it’s going to get cold.”

Ortis shook his head. “We haven’t found any yet,” he said. “And the mountainside is too steep for the horses to climb. The old road narrows in places; it wasn’t built for a caravan. If they had kept building this road, they would have had to cut deep into the mountainside to make room for one. It’s still wide enough that we don’t have to worry about it, but don’t be surprised if we can’t turn the horses around at some point. This clearing is our best option for tonight.”

Hobart sighed. “We’ll be taking it slow, then?”

“Yes,” Ortis said. “There isn’t any point in hurrying on a trail like this.”

“What if we get attacked?” Angus asked.

“By what?” Ortis countered. “There hasn’t been any sign of animals much larger than a rabbit since we got out of that valley. I don’t think the larger animals come up here; the mountain is too steep, and there isn’t much food. Now, when we get to that cliff, it could be different. There’s bound to be caves, and most caves are occupied by something.”

“We won’t have to worry much about bears,” Hobart added. “They’ll be foraging in the valley for the late season berries and fish. They’re going to be hibernating soon, and some of those caves will be ideal places for them to sleep through the winter. We’ll have to watch for them when we come back.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of things other than animals,” Angus said.

“Dwarves?” Hobart chuckled. “We’re in The Tween, remember? They don’t come this far out from their holes, and even if they did, they’d likely be underground. Of course, we’ll have to watch for them in the caves, too. We don’t have to worry much about Hellsbreath’s patrols, either; there’s been no sign of them coming this far, their tracks stop at the lava flows. I think they camp there and turn back around to haunt the valley.”

“Hunt, more like,” Ortis said. “They aren’t just patrolling for hazards, you know. There are plenty of deer in the valleys, and the patrol serves as a hunting party, too.”

Angus frowned. Something was bothering him. “If there aren’t any tangible dangers,” he asked, “why do people avoid The Tween?”

“Most people don’t want to come in here to begin with,” Ortis said. “Those who do often find it too challenging for travel. The valleys are okay—except when it rains; then the rivers and streams bloat up and the flooding can wash away anyone careless enough to be too close to them. Mudslides and rockslides generally happen then. But the easily accessible valleys are few, and the mountains around them are difficult to climb.”

“Don’t forget the volcanoes,” Hobart added. “The lava flow Angus blasted through isn’t the only one out here, I assure you.”

“And the winter,” Ortis added. “The further you get into The Tween, the longer the winter is. Unless you have a very good reason for coming here, it isn’t worth the risk. A half day from the roads, and it’s about as unfriendly a country as any you’ll encounter.”

“Those are the things we all know about,” Hobart said. “They keep most people out. But others, like us, who are foolhardy enough to enter The Tween generally don’t come back. If they do, it was because they were frightened out of it before they got much further. Haven’t you felt it yet? A sense of foreboding clinging to the air and eating away at you?”

Angus shook his head. “I’ve felt nothing of the sort,” he said. “Have you?”

“Not yet,” Hobart chuckled. “But we’re still on the fringe of The Tween. It might not hit us until tomorrow or the next day.”

“By the way, Angus,” Ortis said, turning to him. “If we had gone around the other side of this mountain, we never would have gotten to that cliff. These two mountains are connected; there isn’t a pass between them. You should be grateful you had the wand. We are.”

“Or will be,” Hobart corrected, “once we get there and find treasure. If we don’t, we’ll probably regret the use of that wand.”

“You know, Angus,” Ortis said. “You can use that wand to make a cave for us, can’t you? It would make the journey faster. We wouldn’t have to stay here tonight, and wouldn’t have to waste time finding shelter as we go.”

Angus shook his head. “I’d rather be subject to the elements.”

“Why?” Hobart asked. “We know the wand can do it.”

“It’s not that I can’t do it; it’s that I don’t want to,” Angus said. “It isn’t wise to waste magic in that way.”

“It wouldn’t be a waste if it kept us warm,” Hobart grumbled.

“I’d agree with you, Hobart, but it doesn’t work that way. I can only use the wand six more times before the magic is gone.”

“Really?” Ortis said. “I thought those things lasted forever.”

Angus half-smiled. “No magic is ever permanent. Not even the magic around us. It changes over time. A wand like this only contains the spells that are captured by it when it was made. When I found this one, it contained nine spells. I’ve used three of them.”

“Is it the same with the scrolls?”

Angus shook his head. “The scrolls aren’t magical. They contain the instructions for casting spells. That’s why I have to prime myself with them; the magic is both within me and around me, and I draw upon both of them according to the instructions given in the scrolls. But I have to memorize those instructions; if I cast them from the scroll, I risk losing it.” Careful, Angus, don’t say too much. The explanations only get more and more complicated, and they wouldn’t understand them anyway.

“The same with Teffles’ book?”

Angus nodded. “Books and scrolls are pretty much the same. They’re both mnemonic devices to assist wizards in remembering the precise methods for producing the knots necessary for casting particular spells. We can manipulate the strands without such guidance, but it rarely does what we hope it will do. Magic is more like an unruly master than an unruly servant.”

“Well,” Ortis said. “I’m glad you used the wand. It may yet save our lives if the winter snows come earlier than normal.”

Angus nodded. At least I know how the wand works, and if I ever master the spells involved, I might even be able to capture them in the wand myself.

“If we’re going to stay here, then,” Hobart said. “We may as well get started.”

“Giorge and I will bring back firewood,” Ortis said. “There are a few bushes with large enough branches to burn for the night. No trees, though; the slope is too rocky and steep.”

“Angus and I will care for the horses,” Hobart said. “He needs practice.”

15

“Angus?” Ortis hissed, his voice soft, urgent. “Wake up. Someone is approaching.”

Angus blinked, rolled over. It was cool, almost cold. The fire was out. There were few stars, and the moon was half-hidden behind clouds. He yawned, smacked his lips, and reached for his water flask. “So?” he said, blinking groggily.

Ortis turned and watched him for several seconds before saying, “It’s a rider.”

“Just one?” Angus grumbled as he sat up. “Why wake me for that?”

Again a pause, then Ortis said. “He’s seen me.”

“Good,” Angus said.

Ortis shook his head. “He’s stopped. No, he only slowed down. He’s approaching me.”

“Well,” Angus muttered. “Why don’t you shoot him already?”

Ortis turned to him. “He’s from a patrol, Angus. And even if he wasn’t, he hasn’t made any threatening gestures.”

Angus shrugged and stretched. “If he’s so friendly, why did you wake me up?”

Ortis sighed. “Just because he isn’t acting aggressively, it doesn’t mean he won’t.” He paused and added, more softly, “Even friends can turn on you, Angus.”

Angus rinsed his mouth again and spat. Then he reached into a pocket and brought out a leaf to chew on. It had almost no flavor, but it was juicy and did wonders for his tongue and teeth. Unfortunately, he only had a few of them left.

“He’s hailing me,” Ortis said. “He’s keeping his voice low; he doesn’t want it to carry.”

“What does he want?” Angus asked, looking around the campsite. “Where are Giorge and Hobart?”

“With me,” Ortis said. “We waited to wake you until it was clear that he wasn’t going back.”

“How far away are you?” Angus asked.

“Half a mile,” Ortis said.

“I have time to relieve myself, then,” Angus said, moving to the edge of the clearing. When he returned, he asked, “Has he told you why he’s here?”

“Yes,” Ortis said. “He’s a scout. The rest of the patrol is behind him. They’ve camped in your tunnel. They sent him ahead because they didn’t want to startle us with a larger party.”

Angus half-smiled. A lot of good that did. “The tunnel made an impression, did it?”

Ortis nodded. “Yes,” he said. “It told them they were following the right group.”

“Why would they be following us?”

“Not us,” Ortis said. “Giorge.”

“Giorge?” Angus said, peering up the road but seeing nothing. “What do they want with him?”

“They have a Truthseer with them,” he said. “They want to ask him some questions. He doesn’t want to answer them.”

Angus shrugged. “Then he doesn’t have to, does he?”

“It’s not that simple,” Ortis said. “The scout said they would continue to pursue us until this Truthseer talks to Giorge.”

“Did he do something to annoy them?” Angus asked. “Like the last time he was in Hellsbreath?”

“No,” Ortis said. “He has no idea what it could be about. But it doesn’t have to do with the patrol. They are only the Truthseer’s escort. The Truthseer was sent by—” Ortis frowned and his muscles tensed.

“Who sent him?” Angus asked, his tone and posture suddenly more alert, concerned.

“They said to tell him it was Dirk,” Ortis said.

“Dirk?” Angus asked, a sudden, intense uneasiness inexplicably swarmed through him. “That sounds like a nasty name,” he half-whispered.

Ortis nodded. “When Giorge heard it, he stopped smirking and agreed to speak with the Truthseer. Apparently, we’ll be staying here longer than we expected. The rest of his party won’t arrive until tomorrow.” He turned and shrugged. “I guess you can go back to sleep, now.”

Angus frowned as Ortis went to the fire and began stoking the embers back to life. After awhile, he lay down again but, when he closed his eyes, sleep was reluctant to join him. When it finally did, it was troubled and angry….

16

The Truthseer’s party arrived at the campsite near midmorning and claimed the half of it nearest them. They set up a small tent and the Truthseer—a mysterious, gray-robed figure with its face hidden—stepped inside. A few minutes later, Giorge was called over and went inside the tent. He stayed there for nearly half an hour, at the end of which he came back to the group.

“Well?” Hobart asked. “Why did they want to talk to you?”

Giorge shook his head, and turned to Angus. “She wants to see you now.”

“Me?” Angus asked. “Why?”

“It’s best if you don’t know until she asks you about it,” Giorge said. “Just tell the truth. Dirk is not one to trifle with, and the patrol is under her command. If she doesn’t like your answers,” he shrugged.

Angus frowned. “And if I don’t go?” he asked. “They have no jurisdiction out here, do they?”

“Other than their swords?” Hobart asked. “There’s a wizard with them, too, remember? You can never tell which one it is by looking because they all dress alike.”

“Angus,” Giorge said. “Trust me. It’s better to get this over with. If you don’t talk to her now, they will assume what they think is true is true, and that will go very badly for you—and us.”

“What do they think is true?” Ortis asked. “Has Angus done something—”

Giorge shook his head and met Angus’s gaze with two somber, dark brown orbs. “Go,” he said softly. “Tell her the truth.”

“All right,” Angus said. “I’ll go. But I don’t promise to answer any questions.”

Giorge’s lips curled slightly upward as he said, “You may not have a choice.”

The tent was empty except for the Truthseer and two stools set opposite each other across a brazier of hot coals. A thin cloud of gray smoke hovered near the top of the tent, shifting its shape as if it were almost alive. The Truthseer’s hood was down, and Angus saw that she was quite old, perhaps the oldest woman he had ever seen. Her face was a mixture of wrinkles, pockmarks, and age spots; her hair was a thin shield of gray wisps bound together with a golden clasp inlaid with polished topaz. A pair of matching earrings dangled from her tired lobes, and her wrinkled, age-spotted hand beckoned for him to sit across from her. As he moved to sit down, her deep-set blue eyes studied him intently, with such shrewdness and clarity that it almost undermined his resistance.

“I understand you have questions,” Angus said, sitting down and crossing his arms. “Ask them.”

Her eyes both danced and were vacant at the same time, as if she were simultaneously looking both at him and through him. “You are Angus?” she asked, her voice reedy, as if it had to struggle to escape from her throat.

“I am,” Angus said.

The wrinkles in her brow tightened, their contours becoming more crisply defined. “Apprentice to Voltari, Wizard of Blackhaven Tower?”

“Yes,” Angus said.

A gnarled hand snaked out of her robe and sprinkled incense onto the brazier. The smoke wavered for a long moment before it stretched outward toward both of them. It had a heady, deeply floral scent that tingled as it touched his nose, enticing him to take a deep breath that left him lightheaded.

Her questions came quickly as he swooned under the drug’s soporific influence.

“Did you give Giorge the gold coins to sell in Hellsbreath?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you get them?”

“Blackhaven Tower.”

“Who gave them to you?”

He wanted to answer. He tried to answer. But he couldn’t. He didn’t know the answer.

She was beginning to unravel, her left and right halves whirling apart as if she were trying to smother him in love, in death.

“Who gave you the gold coins bearing King Urm’s image?”

Sweat beaded on his forehead. It felt like a leech was sucking on his face, but he still could not answer. He wanted desperately to answer her, to tell her the truth no matter how it might sound—but he couldn’t. He didn’t know the truth.

She swirled around him, her warm, ghostly embrace stabbing into him, working through him, searching….

“How did you acquire the gold coins bearing King Urm’s image?” she asked.

He smiled. He could answer this question. “They were in my tunic when I put it on. I don’t know how they got there.”

The specter quickly retreated, as if it had been bitten by the sharp point of a poisoned dart. It hovered there, above the brazier for several seconds, and then she asked a new question.

“Do you know Bug-Eyed Jake?”

“Yes,” Angus said, glad to be able to answer another question. “He was in Hellsbreath’s Hellhole with me.”

“He claims you are Typhus, an assassin. Are you?”

Angus frowned and opened his mouth and worked his tongue as if he wanted to say something but nothing came out. The leeches were growing in number, blood dripping from their sated tongues….

“Are you Typhus?” she purred, her vague, smoke-like form spreading out before him, hovering above the brazier, spreading its arms out wide.

He opened his mouth, but the sound that came forth was strangled, unintelligible. He shut it again.

“Answer truthfully,” the Truthseer demanded, fluttering forward to envelop him in her crushingly insubstantial grip.

The smoke was dense, smothering, making him dizzy, nauseous. Angus shook his head, trying to free it from the smoke, trying to breathe. “No,” he finally rasped. “I am Angus.”

Her smoke-like form retreated, allowing him to breathe. It studied him until he stopped panting, and then asked, “How many coins did you find in your tunic? What did you do with them?”

“Thirteen,” Angus said at once. “I spent one at Nargeth’s inn in Woodwort. Giorge sold the rest in Hellsbreath.”

“Are you an assassin?”

Angus opened his mouth and closed it again. He frowned and shook his head. “No. I—” he paused, and when he finished, his voice sounded uncertain. “I am a wizard.”

“Why did you hesitate in your response?”

“I can’t remember,” Angus said, a wave of relief flooding through him. It was so delightful to be able to tell her the truth, to be able to answer her questions.

“You don’t remember why you hesitated?” she asked, her voice confused.

He didn’t understand the question, so he answered as best he could. “I can’t remember anything before the spell went wrong,” he said.

“The wand? In Hellsbreath?” she prompted. “When you struck your head against the wall?”

He shook his head. “No,” he corrected. “The spell in Blackhaven Tower.”

“Explain,” she demanded.

“Voltari said I cast the spell wrong,” Angus chirped. “I don’t remember doing it. I only remember waking up not knowing who I was. Voltari told me my name was Angus and I was his apprentice. That is who I have been ever since. I don’t know who I was before that.”

The smoke fluttered, hovered. “How long ago did this occur?”

Angus frowned, shrugged. “It is difficult to say,” he said. “There were no calendars in Voltari’s tower; he kept his own schedule. I can only estimate that it was over a year ago but less than two.”

“Interesting,” the Truthseer said. “Perhaps if we dig deeper we shall find more truths?”

She tossed more incense on the brazier and the haziness of her form solidified into a thick, amorphous, almost viscous form. As it approached, something deep inside of him braced itself, saying over and over again, My name is Angus. I am Voltari’s apprentice….

17

His back ached the way it did when he hunched too long over one of Voltari’s tomes. He tried to move into a more comfortable position, but his hands were tied. So were his feet. But he wasn’t gagged.

He was moving—a steady swaying jostled his body around and aggravated the soreness of his back. The ropes chafed his wrists and ankles, but he could flex his hands and fingers without any difficulty. Whoever had tied him up had done a poor job of it; the ropes were tied so loosely that he could easily slip them off if he wanted to, but he needed to know who had him first.

His nose was clogged with dried mucus. Or was it blood? Whichever it was, it was hard and scratchy, like sand, and clung to the inside of his nostrils. Thin wisps of wheezy breath whistled through them, but it wasn’t enough; he needed more air. He opened his mouth—

And tasted sweat-drenched horsehair. It was slightly better than the sickly-sweet ooze sliding down the back of his throat, but he needed a drink.

So, he was tied to a horse. By whom? Why?

He gasped for air—he couldn’t help it. He tried to stifle the sound, to mimic the wheezing, but he couldn’t.

“He’s coming around,” someone said. “We better stop.”

The horse came to a stop and, after a brief adjustment, settled into a perfectly still posture. It helped. If he slid his hands free—

No. He didn’t know how many there were. He didn’t know where he was. If he broke loose now, it would only get worse.

“We’ll get you down in a moment,” a man said from beside him as firm, gentle hands working on the ropes.

He didn’t protest—or help—as he was eased to the ground. He was too weak, and a blacksmith was banging on his head as if it were an anvil.

“Drink this,” the man said, holding a small glass phial up to his lips. It smelled strongly of mustard, of sage, and of a few other things he couldn’t identify. He thought about protesting, but he was too thirsty.

He opened his eyes. Subdued sunlight, shadows. The face was familiar. The eyes—orange eyes, catlike…. He knew someone with eyes like that, didn’t he? A survivor of something? He was in cahoots with a thief, a thief who tried to take his gold—who did take his gold!

“The Truthseer said it will help clear your head.”

The liquid was warm, spicy, but had almost no taste, despite the smell. The warmth flowed down his throat, into his stomach, and began radiating outward through his body. When it reached his head, the pounding of the hammer stilled, and he said, “Ortis. That’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Ortis said, holding out a water flask. “It will help wash it down. When you’re up to it, we’ve got some cold stew you can eat.”

Angus drank most of the water and nodded. “After I wake up,” he rasped, finding it difficult to breathe through the scabrous mucus clogging his nostrils. He reached into his nose with a finger, felt the sand-like surface and began prying at it. Only bits of it crumbled free at first, but he kept at it, gradually working it free—despite the pain of pulling out the nose hairs and skin encrusted in it. At least the nosebleed didn’t last too long, and it woke him up the rest of the way.

“What happened?” he asked, looking around at the narrow ledge on which they were standing. It was just wide enough for the horses to ride two abreast without risking a fall. The cliff face was a rough, nearly vertical, surface, as if someone had taken a dull knife and sliced through a slab of cheese. Small nodules of rock bit into his back as he leaned against it, but they weren’t sharp. He did his best to ignore them as Ortis handed him a bowl of cold, congealed stew.

“You spent a long time with the Truthseer,” Giorge said as he sat down beside him. “Do you remember that?”

“I remember going in to see her,” Angus said between bites. “She wanted to know more about the gold coins you sold for me.”

Giorge nodded. “What did you tell her?”

Angus thought for several bites before shrugging. “The truth, I suppose,” he finally said. “The coins came from Blackhaven Tower, and that was about it.”

Giorge studied him for a long moment. “That can’t be all,” he said. “You were with her for over two hours. What else did she ask you about?” His voice was steady, serious, and his posture expectant.

“Like what?” Angus asked, trying to remember the conversation. Had he really talked to her for two hours? It didn’t feel like it; she only asked him a few questions, hadn’t she? Maybe she had asked more, but he couldn’t remember them. The whole encounter with the Truthseer was a blur, as if he was remembering it through a thick gray fog. No, not fog, incense. Yes, that was it; she had drugged him with some kind of incense, hadn’t she? Then—

Giorge cupped his hand over his mouth, leaned in close to Angus’s ear, and asked, “Did she ask you about Typhus?”

“Why would she do that?” Angus asked. Who was this Typhus? A thief like Giorge? No, that wasn’t what the Truthseer had said. She said Typhus was an assassin. Yes, that was it, and she asked him if he knew who he was? No. That wasn’t it. She thought he was Typhus because Bug-Eyed-Jake—

“Because of the coins,” Giorge whispered.

Angus frowned. “What does Typhus have to do with the coins?”

What had the Truthseer told him about them? Nothing. She only wanted to know who had given them to him, but he couldn’t—

Bug-Eyed Jake had called him Typhus. Didn’t she mention him? Yes, she asked if he knew Bug-Eyed Jake. What did he tell her? Yes, that was it. He’d met Bug-Eyed Jake in Hellsbreath’s Hellhole. No, he hadn’t known him before. No, he didn’t know Typhus. No, he wasn’t Typhus. No—

“They think the coins you had were part of what he stole from—” Giorge paused, looked around at the isolated ridge, and then finished, “From someone you don’t steal from. He wants them back. And he wants Typhus.”

My name is Angus. I am Voltari’s apprentice. I have been his apprentice for ten years. My home is Blackhaven Tower. I do not know Typhus. I have never met Typhus. The gold coins were in my pockets. I didn’t put them there. I don’t know who did. Voltari must have done it.

“No,” Angus said. “She only wanted to know where I got them. I told her.”

Angus shrugged and continued eating. “Apparently my answers satisfied her,” he said. “I’m here, aren’t I?” He looked out at the mountains and valley in front of him and asked, “Where are we, anyway?”

I was apprentice to Voltari for ten years? Is that true? It has to be true, doesn’t it? He couldn’t have lied to the Truthseer, could he?

“We’re almost across the ridge,” Giorge said. “You’ve been in a swoon for over two days. We thought you were going to die when they carried you out of that tent, but the Truthseer said you were only sleeping and you would wake up eventually. When we asked how long, she said she didn’t know; she had never used so much incense before, and it was even making her groggy. When you didn’t wake up the next morning, we decided to tie you to your horse and move on for as long as it was safe enough to do so.”

Angus finished his stew and held out the bowl to Giorge. “I don’t suppose there’s any more?”

“Sorry, Angus,” Giorge said. Then he grinned and added, “There wasn’t that much to begin with, and it was all Ortis could do to keep us from eating what was left.”

“Hardtack, then,” Angus said, reaching into a pocket.

Giorge stood up and moved to the ledge. “If that mountain were a bit lower, you could see Hellsbreath from here,” he said. “And that,” he pointed southwest at a high mountain with three summits, two of which were already covered with snow, “is our destination.”

“The ledge won’t take us there,” he continued. “But it will get us to that plateau leading up to it.”

“I thought we were going into a valley,” Angus said.

“We thought so too,” Giorge said. “But we were wrong. Why don’t you come see for yourself?”

Angus pushed himself unsteadily to his feet and shook his head. “No,” he said. “I can barely stand right now. I’ll fall off the ledge.”

“I’ll help you,” Giorge said, moving in to support him with his shoulder before leading him closer to the edge. “See?” he said, pointing down at the bottlenecked valley below them. “We saw that valley from the mountain where you made the tunnel. This cliff is the north edge of that valley, and there’s another cliff on its west edge. That cliff is about half as high as this one. All of those mountains funnel down into it. You can tell because of the waterfall; it’s the source of the river that flows by Hellsbreath.”

“Another reason for the road to cross here,” Angus said. “If we had followed the river, it would have led us to that lake.”

Giorge nodded. “When Ortis looked at the map, he thought this road went through a valley. He still thought that after we saw this ridge. But now, it’s pretty clear it drops down into that plateau and crosses it. When it gets to the other side, it climbs up around that east summit—the low one without any snow—and if he’s reading you’re map right, we’ll find the temple nestled in among those three peaks.”

“How long will it take us to get there?”

“We don’t know for sure,” he said. “We may not get there at all. We’ve seen fires on the plateau at night. Distance wise, it should be about a week. The mountains look a lot closer than they are because of their size. But if the road is still passable, it will help cut down on the time. If not,” he shrugged. “One thing is certain; if the temple’s still there, there’s a good chance it hasn’t been explored.”

“Good,” Angus said. “We may as well get going then. I’ve had enough rest for now.”

“Are you sure you can ride?” Giorge asked. “You feel weak to me.”

“I can,” Angus said. “Gretchen is a gentle ride.”

“Good,” Giorge said, grinning and ushering him to his horse. “We’ve been lucky up here so far, and I’d rather get off this cliff face before anything decides we’re food. It isn’t as defensible as the plateau will be. Not much room to maneuver.”

Angus half-smiled. “It may be more defensible down there,” he agreed, “but there are fewer things that can attack us up here.”

Giorge helped Angus into his saddle and then mounted his own horse. They rode side by side for nearly an hour before Angus began to sag in his saddle. After a lengthy rest, they continued, and by late afternoon, they neared the end of the ridge and the road began to slope downward at a noticeable rate. A few minutes later, Ortis called a stop, and when they gathered in a small, vulnerable clump of horses and men, he said, “There’s a cave. It’s occupied.”

18

“How quiet can you ride?” Hobart asked, his voice soft, intense, his armor clanking lightly as he walked.

“Quieter than you in your armor,” Angus replied. “Why?”

“We don’t know what is in the cave,” Hobart said. “It’s big and it’s loud. Giorge is going to see if he can get a peek at it.”

“So?”

“If it’s a bear,” Hobart said. “We can probably outrun it with the horses if we get a bit of a head start. It might follow us for a little while, but I doubt it. If it’s already in its lair for winter, it probably doesn’t need any more food. That doesn’t mean it won’t eat it, if it’s easy enough to catch; only that it would be more likely to attack a single rider than a group. Except, of course, if it’s in its lair, which is likely. It will defend itself, but how far it will go, I don’t know. We should be close enough to the plateau to elude it.”

“And if it isn’t a bear?” Angus asked, reviewing the short list of spells he currently had at his disposal.

“It’s too big to be easily managed,” Hobart said. “But the cave is too narrow for it to be a dragon, and too short for it to be a giant.”

“What’s the plan, then?” Angus asked.

“We’ll decide that after Giorge gets back—unless the thing catches him. Then we fight. We won’t have any other choice, despite the hazards of fighting in such confining, precarious conditions.”

“Let’s say it isn’t a bear,” Angus said. “What else could it be?”

“That’s just it,” Hobart said. “There are things in The Tween that we don’t know about. It would have to be one of them. We’re hoping to sneak past it without it catching us.”

Angus frowned. What kind of creature could it be? Perhaps if he were to look? But how? His spells were geared toward defense and offense, not subterfuge. Most of them were blatantly obvious; it was difficult to conceal an open flame. In fact—

“Hobart,” he asked. “How large is the cave entrance?”

Hobart shrugged. “About eight feet wide and maybe ten high.”

“Is it a deep cave, or a shallow one?”

“I couldn’t tell,” Hobart answered. “It can’t be too shallow, though; the rumblings were too muted, and if it’s a bear, they like deep holes. You would too if you were going to sleep for four or five months.”

Angus nodded. “I have an idea,” he said. “If all we have to do is make it past the cave, that is.”

“We’re near where the road curves onto the plateau,” he said. “If we make it to there, we should be all right for now.”

“How near?” Angus asked.

“Maybe a mile,” Hobart answered.

“When Giorge comes back, I need to talk to him,” Angus said. “He’s not going to like it very well, though.”

“Why?” Hobart asked. “What do you want him to do?”

Angus shrugged. “Let me use his net.”

“If it will get us past the cave,” Hobart said, “he won’t mind.”

“He won’t get it back,” Angus said.

Hobart shrugged. “He’s not any good with it anyway.”

Angus smiled, “Do you think that will matter to him?”

“No,” Hobart admitted. “But if it gets us past that cave without anyone getting mauled, I’ll buy him a new one first chance we get.”

“Good,” Angus said, dismounting and handing Hobart his horse’s reigns. “Catch me up when you go by,” he said. “You’ll know when.”

Angus hurried past Hobart, Ortis, Ortis, and the other Ortis and paused next to Millie only long enough to get Giorge’s net and to grip and test the weights in his right hand. Then he hurried along the cliff face until he was near the cave opening. While he waited for Giorge to emerge, he drew the magic to the edge of his awareness and sought out the strands he would need for the two spells he wanted to combine together. The selection of red-tinted and blue-tinted threads was ample, and he brought two of them into sharper focus than the others so he could manipulate them more quickly.

Giorge eased around the cave opening and sidled along the edge, making almost no sound. If it weren’t for the blackness of the hooded cloak standing out against the gray-brown cliff face, Angus wouldn’t have even noticed him. When Giorge saw Angus with his net, he paused only slightly before hurrying up to him.

“What’s in there?” Angus whispered when Giorge was next to him.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I went back as far as I dared. Its rumbling got louder, but I couldn’t see anything.”

“Too dark?” Angus asked.

Giorge shook his head. “No,” he said. “It was almost like the mountain was breathing. The sound seemed to be coming right out of the stone.”

Angus frowned. “How deep is the cave? How far back did you go?”

“I went in about twenty feet,” Giorge said. “I couldn’t see the end of the cave, so it has to be a lot deeper than that.”

“How close were you to the sound?” Angus asked.

Giorge shrugged. “Who could tell? It might have been an echo.” Then he reached out and poked his net. “Why’d you bring that?”

Angus half-smiled. “I’ll tell you later,” he said. “For now, I’m going to use it to block the cave entrance while the rest of you ride quietly past.”

“How—” Giorge began, then shook his head. “I don’t need to know. How much time do you need?”

“By the time you get back to them,” Angus said. “I should be ready.”

Giorge nodded and hurried quietly toward the others. Angus watched for a few seconds, took a deep breath, and walked slowly, casually up to the cave entrance, the net jangling quietly. He slowed, and then stopped altogether when he was next to the cave mouth. It was, as Hobart had noted: about eight feet wide and ten feet high. When he leaned forward and looked inside, all he saw were rocks and shadows. But the sound was something entirely different. If the rumbling hadn’t been so loud, uniform, and rhythmic, he would have thought it was Hobart snoring. But there was no exhalation of air accompanying it, no shuddering or rattling of a giant ribcage, no wheezing inhalation—just the rhythmic, steady rumble gradually growing louder then softer but never disappearing altogether.

He reached out for the strong blue thread he had selected, wrapped it around his left forefinger and linked it to Giorge’s net with a tight little knot. He continued tying the sky magic around each weighted segment of the net, and when he finished, he reached for the weakest flame strand he had chosen. He pinched it between two of his fingers and touched it lightly to each of the small, round metal weights. Then he stepped away from the mountainside and moved close to the edge of the cliff. He was in a vulnerable position, now; whatever was in the cave could see him but he still could not see it.

He sidestepped softly to the center of the cave entrance, his eyes alert to any movement just beyond the threads of magic he held in his mind, in his hand.

Nothing. No movement at all; just the incessant rumble….

Angus lifted the net’s weights over his shoulder and threw them, spear like, at the center of the cave, letting its guide rope follow limply after it. As it flew, Angus manipulated the threads of magic with a short series of gestures, and the net spread outward, each weight attaching itself to a different part of the cave entrance, and sticking as if it had been welded to it. When the net settled, it looked to him exactly like a spider’s web, and he hurried to the other edge of the entrance, watching the cave’s interior—

The rumbling stopped.

Something moved.

It was large, almost too large to pass through the cave entrance. He couldn’t see it clearly—it was little more than a bulbous collection of rubble shambling toward him—but he knew what it was, and he knew it was not something he wanted to fight alone. But the others—

“Ride!” he yelled, not bothering to look to see if they were obeying him. He was too busy tweaking the knots, easing them apart until the flame suddenly burst free and traveled along the tightly-woven threads of the net until they met in its center.

“Ride!” he yelled again, letting go of the strand of flame and clinging to the sky magic with a greater sense of urgency.

The thing waddled crab-like toward the entrance, slowed, but continued forward. The flame won’t stop it! Angus thought fiercely, studying the creature—a collection of boulders arranged over its shell. It had pincer-like brownish-red claws and short legs. Eye clusters.

He nudged the burning net forward, toward the creature, and it backed away a bit.

Ortis hurried past, Giorge close behind.

Angus urged the net further inside, pushing the creature back—

Ortis passed again, with the pack horse.

The creature edged forward, tested the air with its claw, the clacking echoed from the cave walls like a rock skipping down a road.

Angus gripped the blue-tinted thread firmly and tied off a knot. It would wriggle free fairly quickly, but it should hold the net in place long enough for him to mount his horse.

Ortis passed a third time, and then Hobart, leading Gretchen, slowed long enough to release Angus’s steed and look inside the cave.

“What is that thing?” he asked as he drew his broadsword and took up a rear guard position to allow Angus time to mount his horse.

Angus didn’t answer; he was struggling to get his foot in the stirrup, and once he did, he had trouble getting into the saddle. Gretchen, despite her training, was having difficulty resisting her instinct to flee from the fire and kept backing away from it—and him. By the time he was in the saddle, Hobart had turned and was urging them forward.

“It’s about to break free,” he said. “I don’t think those flames are going to keep it in there.”

“Ride!” Angus said, finally in his saddle. “We need to get away from it. It won’t pursue us far.”

Hobart nodded, and they hurried after their companions. They didn’t stop until they reached the relatively level, much wider expanse of the plateau. They watched for the creature behind them, but Angus was right; it didn’t follow them.

“Will it come after us later?” Hobart asked.

“Doubtful,” Angus said. “It’s an ambush predator; it digs a hole, conceals itself inside it, and when fish come by, it lashes out to get them.”

“Fish?” Ortis said. “There aren’t any fish up here.”

“No,” Angus agreed. “And that thing shouldn’t be here, either. It lives on the bottom of large lakes, seas, oceans. It shouldn’t have been able to survive outside water, but somehow it is.”

“That thing lives in water?” Hobart asked. “It looked like it was made of stone.”

Angus nodded. “It’s carrying the stone on its shell,” he said. “You heard that rumbling? That was its labored attempt to breathe making those stones grind together.”

“How did it get up here?” Giorge asked.

“That,” Angus said, “is a good question. But here’s a better one: Who put it there and why?”

Ortis frowned. “Someone doesn’t want us over here,” he suggested.

“Or,” Angus said, turning toward the interior of the plateau. “Someone doesn’t want something up here to go across that ledge.”

“Are there any tracks, Ortis?” Hobart asked.

While Ortis inspected the ground of the nearby area, Angus frowned. “You know,” he said. “That thing should have gotten you, Giorge. It’s fast when it wants to be, at least in water.”

“I was quiet.”

Angus half-smiled. “You’ve heard of trapdoor spiders, haven’t you?”

“Sure,” Giorge said. “They dig little holes in the ground, and when a bug or mouse goes by, they snap out of it and—” Giorge frowned.

“Now you understand,” Angus said. “It’s like that trapdoor spider. It doesn’t hear anything; it feels it. No matter how quiet you were—or how loud—it had to have known you were there. So, why didn’t it attack?”

“Maybe it wasn’t hungry?” Hobart suggested.

Angus shook his head. “It would have stored us for later consumption, just like a spider keeps flies wrapped up in silk until it’s ready to drain their blood.”

“Rabbit sign,” Ortis said. “If there’s anything larger, it will be deeper in the plateau. Probably near the river that feeds the waterfall.”

“All right, Angus, what are you thinking?”

Angus shrugged. “It may have been sleeping,” he said. “We probably could have just passed the cave without waking it up. If it was sleeping….”

“No sense worrying about it now,” Hobart said. “We’re past it, and we might as well find a campsite. We can figure out what to do about it on our way back.”

“If we get that far,” Angus muttered, reluctantly turning away from the ledge.

“Angus,” Giorge said, as they continued along the remnants of the road. “When I get another net, you’re going to have to show me how to throw it so that it stays upright like that.”

Angus half-smiled. “I would have to teach you magic, first,” he said. “How many years do you have?”

Angst

1

“We need a strategy,” Hobart said after they had made camp near a small, frigid stream. “You saw those fires. That means there’s something up here that is smart enough to make them. It won’t be human.”

“It could be,” Ortis suggested. “There are quite a few people who have gone missing. They may have decided to live up here.”

“Why?” Giorge asked. “It can’t be easy to survive in these mountains without trade.”

“This plateau has a lot of plants and animals,” Ortis said. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it could support a fairly large population.”

“Population of what, though?” Hobart countered. “We know of several races who have fire, and I’m sure there are others we don’t know about. It won’t be dwarves; they keep below ground. Elves? They’re in the forests of the Western Kingdoms and far south of these mountains. I can’t see it being them either; they’re too fond of trees.”

“No need to go through the list,” Giorge said. “We know that, whoever they are, they aren’t going to be friendly. If they were, there wouldn’t be so many people disappearing.”

“That may be,” Hobart said. “But what about the dwarves? What would they tolerate in their part of The Tween? After all, they think this whole mountain range is theirs, don’t they. If they catch us over here, they’re not likely to let us go.”

“Dwarves tend to ignore the surface,” Ortis said. “Unless there are large enough numbers, they won’t interfere.”

“Not quite true,” Hobart said. “There are some things they hate enough to leave their holes to kill them.”

“Right,” Giorge agreed. “We can rule all those out. The fires weren’t small; if they were, we wouldn’t have seen them.”

“Those were the ones by the river,” Hobart said. “As long as we avoid them, we shouldn’t have to deal with large numbers. I’m more concerned with smaller groups further from the river. If they see us, what are they going to do? Will they engage us in combat, or will they tell the larger groups about us? Either way, it will be a problem.”

“Perhaps we’ll see signs of them before we get too close,” Angus said. “That will help.”

“There’s only one question we really need to answer right now,” Giorge said. “Are we willing to fight and kill to reach our goal, or do we flee?”

“We can’t answer that until we know what we’re facing,” Hobart said. “We might be able to negotiate.”

“This is pointless,” Angus said. “You’re not strategizing; you’re talking about potentialities. We need realities before we can strategize. Until we actually know what we’re up against, all this talk is meaningless.”

“Not meaningless, Angus,” Hobart corrected. “If we can narrow down the possibilities, we might know whether or not an attack will come during the day or at night, what kind of weapons they might have, how they would respond to a group of our size—a lot of things. But you are right about one thing; we can’t answer most of these questions until we know what they are. But at least we can begin excluding some of the less likely possibilities, and we’ve started doing that. It will help. We can rule out what the dwarves despise, and that means the likelihood of a night attack also goes down considerably. Most of their enemies are nocturnal. It doesn’t disappear altogether, but it does drop. If we can narrow down the kind of weapons they might have, we can prepare our defenses better. The tactics for defending ourselves against a group of bowmen are considerably different from those against swordsmen, for example, and if we can figure out what they are, we can plan accordingly.”

“Isn’t the best strategy,” Angus said, “to avoid them altogether?”

“Not always,” Hobart said. “They may be potential allies—even out here—and we may need their help before our quest is over.”

“Fine,” Angus said. “You can keep strategizing. I’m going to sleep. I’m exhausted. Don’t wake me unless you have to,” he added.

“Ortis,” Giorge said. “How do you feel about a little night reconnaissance?”

“Don’t go very far,” Hobart suggested. “It would not be good to infringe upon their territory until we’re ready for them.”

“If we see sign,” Ortis said, “I’ll let you know.”

“Dwarves despise….”

Their conversation gradually eased from his awareness as Angus lay down and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long for sleep to come, and when it did, it wrapped gently around him like a fog-enshrouded, loving embrace that left him utterly terrified….

2

It was already well past dawn by the time Angus sat down to prime himself for the spells he might need, but something didn’t feel right. When he brought the magic within him into focus, it seemed to be all wrong. This wasn’t the vague sense of the magic within him not being lined up properly; it was as if they were a completely unfamiliar, rudimentary network. And yet, it was the same pattern of energy he had grown accustomed to since waking up with amnesia.

“How long were you Voltari’s apprentice?” the Truthseer had asked.

“Ten years.”

Ten years. But he only remembered one year, the last one. He had learned a lot in that year, and if he had been with Voltari for ten years, he should have learned even more. A lot more. What was keeping him from that knowledge? Why could he remember things when the Truthseer interrogated him that he couldn’t before? The only reason he knew them now was because she had asked him about it. He still didn’t remember those ten years; he only remembered one. But now, the familiar felt so utterly false….

He frowned as he flipped through the pages of Teffles’ book until he reached the flying spell and propped the book open. It had already proven itself to be useful, and he would never master flying without practice. He might even be able to use it to find out what made the fires—if he wanted to. What else might he need? What else could he prime?

The Firewhip spell would be useful in close combat, the whip-like flames only stretched out about fifteen feet. It would complement the Firecluster spell he had primed when he was with Billigan—but had he done the priming correctly? Would it work properly? Would it do something different? Would it kill him?

Hobart was right, knowing what they would be facing did make a difference, even to him. But they still didn’t know what it would be. And what if they weren’t attacked while they were on the plateau? There may not be anything until they got to the temple, and then he would need the kind of spells that would have limited range and effect. And the Lamplight spell; he would need it in the temple. He added that scroll to the Firewhip and looked at the other scrolls. How many more could he prime? Were his limits self-imposed? Or could he draw upon what he had forgotten even though he couldn’t remember it? If he could only prime a few spells at a time after ten years, he didn’t want to remember the other nine….

Most of his scrolls were variations on a theme. Geyser of molten rock. Bubbling pool of molten rock. Molten rock shooting up from the ground. Firewhip. Firecluster. Flame Bubble—Fire and lava—the perfect preparation for working in Hellsbreath. At least Voltari had done that much. What else had he done?

Maybe he should prime the Flame Bubble? It created a sphere of flame around him that he could propel outward at will, but it would weaken in intensity as it got further away from him. But it would put his friends at risk if they were outside the bubble, and the horses….

He didn’t need to prime for the friction spell; it wasn’t really even a spell. All he had to do was rub a strand of flame magic between his finger and thumb to generate heat, and then touch something flammable. That was what he had done with Giorge’s net. That and the spell from Teffles’ book. He’d have to name it something appropriate. It was like a puff of air, so why not Puffer? But that wasn’t all it could do; simple spells like that always had a multiplicity of uses. He could use it to deflect an arrow, fan flames, and a myriad of other uses. But the more complex a spell became, the more its usefulness dwindled.

Two scrolls and two spells from Teffles book. Firecluster. Lavageyser. Arclight—that had been the spell Voltari had used on him when he touched him without being given permission to do so. A respectable number for an apprentice with but a year of study, but woefully inadequate for one with ten years of rigorous instruction. How many more could he prime?

Angus shook his head to clear it. He needed to get started. They were waiting for him. What should he do? Maybe one of the scrolls Voltari had given him that he wasn’t sure about? One that he didn’t understand? Maybe he had cast them before? If he had, it should be easier to prime than he might think, and the priming, itself, might help him to understand the spell. Or it could destroy him. Magic was always dangerous….

Angus decided to try the most complex spell Voltari had given him. If he could cast it, then he was confident he would be able to cast the others. He could prime it easily enough—the directions were clear—but he didn’t know if he could weave the complex knots involved in the spell. Nor did he know what it would do. He would have to wait to find out when he cast it. But was it worth the risk? Would the priming help him remember being Voltari’s apprentice before the accident? Would the casting? Did he want to remember that time? He nodded to himself. It was worth the risk to find out.

He organized the scrolls for the sequence of his priming, saving the most complex one for last, in case it threatened to overwhelm him. If it did….

It was midday when he finally finished. His companions were restless, impatient, but he didn’t care. He had done it. More to the point, he knew—or thought he knew—what the complex spell would do when it was cast, and he was confident he could cast it.

When he joined the others, he mounted Gretchen without apology, as if they were there for him, and he didn’t have to answer to them. He ignored Hobart’s impatient frown and moved in behind Ortis as they left.

The second Ortis came up beside Angus and looked at him for a long moment before urging his horse a few paces in front of him.

Giorge made a point to fall behind him, joining the third Ortis at the rear.

Late in the late afternoon, a light drizzle began to fall….

3

The drizzle continued for two days, and they rode at a guarded pace.

On the first day, it was fairly easy to follow the road; it hugged the edge of the mountain to the north and skirted the boundary of a sparse pine forest to the south. The pine trees near the road were mostly young ones scarcely taller than a mounted man, and there was plenty of room between most of them. But deeper into the plateau the trees were densely packed old growth, towering trees that had been living on the plateau for hundreds of years.

They made good time despite the weather, and at the end of the day, they camped under an overhang. It wasn’t quite a cave, but it was large enough for both men and horses to keep dry. The dismal weather dampened their spirits, and there was little conversation around the sputtering smoke of the fire they had coaxed to life.

Early on the second day, the road turned southwest, deeper into the forest, and became more difficult to follow. By midday, a thick undergrowth of bushes and vines swarmed over the road, and they lost track of it several times as they rode around them. Each time they left the road behind, they traveled southwest until they found it again; each time it became more difficult to find it.

Late in the afternoon they moved south around yet another sprawling, thorn-encrusted berry patch, and Ortis reined in his steed to wait for them. He had found a trail.

“What do you think made it?” Hobart asked, dismounting to join Ortis as he knelt before the trail.

“Deer, mostly,” he said. “A small herd uses this trail often. Eight, maybe ten individuals. They went that way—” he pointed to the south “—this morning.”

“Deer?” Hobart repeated. “Perhaps we should camp nearby? Fresh meat would be most welcome, don’t you think?”

Ortis didn’t respond; he was studying the tracks. “There are other tracks,” he said. “But they haven’t been through here in some time. The deer tracks have covered them up too much to identify them. There are claw prints, like a large cat, but it isn’t a mountain lion—or any other cat I’ve seen. It looks like it walks on two legs, and the rest of the foot is elongated, like our own.”

“Cat people?” Giorge asked.

Ortis shrugged. “No way to tell,” he said. “The sign is too faint.”

“What do you think they were doing?” Hobart asked.

“Stalking deer,” Ortis said. “Their impressions are shallower going that way—” he pointed north “—than when they came back. They were probably carrying one or more deer with them when they returned.”

“How long since they went through?”

“About a week, maybe a little more. It’s difficult to tell.”

“Then we don’t need to worry about them,” Angus said.

Ortis shook his head. “I wouldn’t say that. Winter is getting close, and they may be filling their larder. If they are, they’ll be back for more deer.”

“Do any of you feel like we’re being watched?” Hobart asked. “Like when we did when we were on that ridge?”

“No,” Ortis conceded. “Once we got deeper into the plateau, it went away. I don’t feel it at all right now.”

“Nor I,” Giorge said. “Angus?”

Angus looked from one to another and shook his head. “I haven’t felt anything at all. Here or on the ridge. It doesn’t mean there’s nothing watching us, though; only that we don’t feel like they are.”

“It doesn’t matter at the moment,” Ortis said. “Whatever hunts these deer hasn’t been here for at least a week, and the deer use this trail daily. If we want fresh meat, we need to conceal ourselves soon. If the deer see us, they will run.”

“It’s late enough in the day that we could make an early camp,” Hobart suggested. “While we look for a good spot, you can stick around here to see if you can get a deer. But if you see those other things—whatever they may be—you better let them be. The longer it is before they know we’re here, the better it will be for us.”

“I’ll go up the trail,” Ortis said. “If these things were hunting the deer, they had to have killed them not far from here. Deer wouldn’t be able to climb that mountain; it’s too steep. They also might have a place set up to get the deer, and if they do, I’ll find undisturbed tracks.”

“Just like the ones we’re making,” Angus said, looking at the deep impressions of the horses’ hooves on the soft, muddy ground.

Ortis frowned. “Yes,” he said. “The deer will notice them, too.”

“So will the other thing,” Hobart added. “Perhaps we shouldn’t take the time to hunt? It will slow us down.”

“Not much,” Ortis said. “You said yourself that it’s late enough to make an early camp, and if we set one up near this trail, we won’t have to hunt. We can just wait for the deer to come to us. If they show, we should be able to get one without too much trouble, and the time it takes for butchering it will be well worth it. If they don’t show up, we’re only out another hour or so of riding in this dreary weather.”

“Fair enough,” Hobart said. “We’ll see if we can find the road and make camp next to it. You can stay here and see if you can get a deer.”

“I’ll travel up the trail,” Ortis said. “I’d like to see if I can find clearer prints.”

“Keep us updated,” Hobart said. “If you get too wet and cold, come join us.”

Two of Ortis handed their reins to the third, who fell in behind Hobart while his other selves hurried north along the trail.

Angus clicked his tongue, and Gretchen fell in line behind Ortis’s steeds.

Giorge took up the rear guard, his eyes alert.

Half an hour later, they still had not rediscovered the road. Instead, they had come to a narrow, raging stream that had already topped its banks.

“There’s no sense trying to cross it tonight,” Hobart said. “It’s too high and muddy. If this drizzle stops, it should be possible to ford it tomorrow.”

“Do you think we’re north or south of the road?” Angus asked.

“South,” Hobart said at once. “If we had crossed over it again, I would have noticed.”

“Let’s go upstream, then,” Angus said. “The road probably had a bridge over it, and if it didn’t, there may be a shallower place to cross.”

Hobart nodded and guided Leslie around some bushes, keeping the sound of the rushing stream to his left as they went.

“Do we really need the deer?” Angus asked. “We still have plenty of hardtack.”

“We can always use fresh meat,” Giorge said from just behind him. “Hardtack lasts a long time, and supplementing it with fresh meat will make it last even longer.”

“How will we carry around the carcass?” Angus asked.

“After it’s dressed,” Giorge said, “it won’t take up that much room. We’ll drape it over the pack horse.”

Ortis turned in his saddle and added, “Once you’ve spent a few months in a wilderness like this, you’ll realize how important it is to keep food in reserve. That hardtack won’t taint for months, and the longer we have it the better off we’ll be. A stag will feed us for a few days, maybe even a week, before it begins to go bad in this weather, and whatever we don’t eat will be scavenged pretty quickly.”

“Are you having any luck?” Giorge asked.

“The deer trail continues north,” Ortis said. “But the other tracks are heading west. There’s no hint of a blind to ambush the deer.”

“What do their tracks look like?”

“Pretty much what I said before,” Ortis said. “They—”

Hobart had reined in Leslie at the top of a small rise and held up his arm for silence. When they got closer, they found out why: He had found the road. There was a bridge crossing over the glutted stream, and next to it was a small cluster of crudely constructed huts.

4

Just north of the bridge was a bloated pond, beside which six huts had been constructed from pine branches mixed with mud. Around them were loose clods with pine needles embedded in them. To Angus, they looked like giant, overturned bird nests. There was no indication of tools being used to build them, and parts of the outer layer were still green.

“I wonder what made those,” Angus said, making no effort to keep his voice low.

“Quiet!” Hobart hissed. “We don’t want to fight them if we don’t have to.”

Angus shrugged and lowered his voice a bit. “I don’t think there’s anything there,” he said. “There’s no smoke.”

“That means nothing,” Hobart said. “A lot of creatures can withstand the cold better than we can.”

“Do you see anything moving around down there?” Angus asked.

“They could be nocturnal,” Hobart said. “They could be sleeping.”

“I don’t think so,” Angus said. “I think Ortis was wrong.”

“Wrong about what?” Ortis asked.

“Your inference,” Angus began. “Are you still following the tracks?”

“Yes,” Ortis said.

“Which ones?” Angus asked.

“Both,” Ortis said. “The deer trail is still heading north, but I’ve found a spot where I can wait for them. The others are still heading west.”

“East, I should think,” Angus said.

“East?”

“Don’t talk so loud,” Hobart hissed. “Or move back.”

Angus chuckled, tried to lower his voice. “The most recent tracks are heading east, aren’t they? Then they turn south?”

After a pause, Ortis nodded.

“And they are heavier than the ones that came north?”

Ortis nodded again.

“Good,” Angus said. “Keep following that trail. I think it will end up there,” he pointed at the huts.

“How could you possibly know that?” Hobart asked.

Angus shrugged. “Unless those huts have doors on the north side, they’re being used for storage,” he said. “The pine needles are mostly old and brown, and those clumps on the ground look like something clawed them from the huts. The ones with green pine needles have been added to patch up a recent hole.”

“He may be right,” Ortis said. “I can see the huts now; this trail does lead to them.”

“I wonder what they’re keeping in them,” Giorge muttered. “It has to be valuable for them to go to this much trouble to hide them.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Hobart said. “We’re not going to disturb them.”

“Why not?” Giorge asked. “Aren’t you curious?”

“We’re going to take our horses over the bridge, ride a safe distance, and make camp.”

“Giorge is right,” Angus said. “We should find out what is inside those things. It will help us to narrow down who made them, won’t it? We’ll be able to prepare more effectively for whatever might attack us, right?”

Hobart stared for a few seconds before reluctantly nodding. “I suppose so,” he said. “But when they find out we’ve disturbed these things, they’ll probably come after us.”

“They’ll probably do that anyway,” Giorge said. “We knew the chance of that when we started across this plateau. The next time they come up here, they’ll know we’ve passed by. If they’re hostile, they’ll chase after us; if they’re not, they still might want to find out who we are and what we’re doing up here. Opening one of those things won’t change that, will it?”

“All right,” Hobart said. “We’ll investigate them after Ortis determines if there is anything lurking around over there.”

5

Ortis took his time approaching the strange-looking huts, but nothing seemed disturbed enough by his presence to attack. When the others joined him a short while later, it was clear that Angus was right about one thing: the huts didn’t have doors.

“I’ve looked around,” Ortis said. “They made a lot of a tracks heading north, but they stop not far from the pond. It’s a field of some sort. I don’t recognize the plants, but they’re growing in rows as if farmers have been caring for them.”

“Oh?” Angus asked. “Can you describe the plants?”

“I’ll bring one back with me.”

“These are grain bins?” Hobart asked. “I thought they hunted deer.”

“There was no sign they killed any deer,” Ortis said. “They may have only been using the same trail.”

“I wonder what they could be,” Giorge muttered. “There aren’t very many fire-builders who don’t eat meat.”

“Just because they didn’t kill a deer here, it doesn’t mean they haven’t killed them somewhere else,” Ortis said.

“Or have cat-like features,” Angus said, frowning. He turned to Ortis and asked, “Is there anything else about the tracks that you can tell us?”

“Only a puzzle,” he said. “There seemed to be more of them going south than had come north. There may have been some waiting for them here who went back with them, but the tracks are too numerous and muddled to be sure. But there doesn’t seem to be any tracks much older than a week or two, and I can’t find any others leading to this spot from a different direction.”

“They may not be the ones who build the fires,” Hobart suggested. “We’re still a fair distance from that river.”

“It isn’t the plants,” Ortis said. “It’s the mushrooms growing in their shadow. There are a lot of new shoots and shriveled stems. They may be harvesting the mushrooms on a regular basis, but it can’t be a very large crop. Certainly not enough for them to need bins.”

“Maybe they use them to dry the mushrooms?” Angus suggested. “They appear airtight, don’t they?”

“Could they be fishing?” Hobart suggested. “The mushrooms might be useful for bait, if they have a strong stench.”

“We should look in one of them,” Giorge said. “If we’re careful, we can cut out a section and replace it without too much trouble. There’s plenty of mud to use to seal up the seam.”

“Why didn’t they cut out their own lids?” Hobart asked. “If they don’t have blades, it would eliminate almost all of the possibilities we know about.”

“Don’t open the bin yet,” Ortis said. “I recognize these mushrooms. If they’ve been dried, we don’t want to breathe them in.”

“These clods were pulled loose,” Hobart said, stooping to pick a few of them up. “These marks are from four claws spaced closely together.” He handed it to Ortis.

Ortis studied it for a brief moment and nodded. “Four claws, each about the size of your little finger.”

“What’s wrong with the mushrooms?” Angus asked. “Are they poisonous?”

“In a way, yes,” Ortis said. “If you eat them, they will confuse the mind.”

“How so?” Angus asked.

“You see things that aren’t there,” Ortis said. “Sometimes you don’t see what is there.”

“Disorienting hallucinations?” Angus muttered. “What happens when you cook them?”

Ortis shrugged. “Same thing, I suppose,” he answered. “I’ve never tried it. The raw ones were bad enough.”

“Does it matter?” Hobart asked. “We’re not going to eat them.”

“It might,” Angus said.

“Why?” Ortis asked. “We need to keep our wits about us, don’t we? What if whatever is up here attacks while we’re under the influence of those—what did you call them? Disorienting hallucinations?”

“It wouldn’t take all of us to find out what they do,” Angus said. “Only one of us would need to be subjected to them.”

“Hey!” Giorge almost shouted from the northernmost hut. “This one doesn’t have any patches. It’s still sealed up.”

“I’m not eating any of those mushrooms,” Hobart said, his tone adamant.

“If I do it,” Ortis said. “It will affect all of my constituents. We would be too vulnerable.”

“I don’t like the idea of you seeing things that aren’t there, Angus,” Giorge agreed. His knife was in his hand, and he was probing the mound with it. The mound was almost as tall as he was—perhaps four feet—and nearly as wide. “I’ve seen what you can do when there are things there,” he finished.

“I don’t understand why you would want to do this, Angus,” Hobart said. “There’s no point to it, as far as I can see. If you want to addle your wits, we can break out the wine.”

“We have wine?” Giorge asked. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“It’s to bribe the dwarves,” Ortis said. “In case we encounter them.”

“The Tween,” Angus began. “You said you felt like something was watching you, but whenever you look for it, there is never anything there, right? If this mushroom causes hallucinations in a high dose, what would a low dose do? If someone burned it, would the smoke carry its effects in diluted form? Or will it be more potent, like the Truthseer’s incense? The effects of this mushroom might go a long way toward explaining away the paranoia people feel in The Tween. Wouldn’t it be worth it to find out?”

Hobart looked at Angus, shook his head, and said, “No.”

“He’s right, Angus,” Giorge added. He had selected a spot and slipped his knife in, pressing on the hilt until the blade disappeared. “We’re not here to find out why The Tween affects people the way it does; we’re here to find The Tiger’s Eye.”

“Oh?” Angus countered. “How will your cutting into that thing help us achieve that goal?”

Giorge shrugged and grinned, sawing away with his knife. “It might,” he said. “I don’t know yet. But it is here, and so are we. It’s a shame not to take a little peek at what’s inside.” He completed sawing his circle and used his knife to pry out the plug he had just cut.

“Well?” Hobart asked. “What’s in it?”

“I can’t tell,” Giorge said. “There isn’t enough light. I’m going to have to make it bigger.” He began sawing again.

“Here,” Ortis said, holding out one of the mushrooms to Angus. “You can dry this one and try it yourself after we’re out of The Tween.”

“That will work,” Angus said, “but I’ll need more than just one specimen.”

Ortis shrugged. “I’ll take you to them after Giorge is finished.”

“We need to leave,” Hobart said. “We have less than an hour to find a campsite before it gets too dark.”

“Why not stay here?” Angus suggested. “These bins will provide some protection, and it should be easy enough to defend ourselves here.”

“Quiet!” Giorge suddenly half-shouted and waved for them to come nearer. When they were close enough, he said, in a very soft tone, “It’s not a bin. It’s a weapons cache.”

“What!?” Hobart said, moving to bump Giorge out of the way so he could see for himself. His face paled, and his receding hairline drew a bit closer to his forehead as he frowned. “Dwarves,” he muttered. “I’d recognize their make anywhere.”

“Why would dwarves leave weapons here?” Ortis asked.

“For the things that were here a week ago,” Hobart said. “They must be trading with them.”

“What could they give the dwarves?” Angus asked.

“I don’t know,” Hobart said. “Tyr trades them grain, wine, cloth—whatever they can’t find or make underground.”

“Why would they want weapons?” Angus asked.

“For the same reason we have them,” Ortis said. “Protection, war, food, power.”

“I need a torch,” Hobart said.

“Why?” Angus asked.

“I think I see a stairwell,” he said.

“A stairwell?” Giorge repeated, moving forward to try to look through Hobart. “I wonder where it goes.”

“Down to the dwarves,” Hobart said. “The steps are shorter than my foot and drop quickly.”

“We need to check the others,” Giorge said, turning.

“No need,” Hobart said. “They already got what was in them. We need to seal this one back up and try to make it look like it hasn’t been disturbed.”

“That will be difficult,” Giorge said, pointing at the crumbled chunks next to Hobart’s feet.

Hobart frowned. “All right, then,” he said. “We’ll need mud and pine needles. We’re going to patch this up as tightly as it was when we got here, and then we’re going to leave. Whatever was here last week will come back for these axes sometime, and I don’t want to be here when they do.”

Giorge thought for a moment, shrugged, and moved toward the pond. “I’ll get some mud.”

“I’ll get the pine needles,” Hobart said, moving toward one of the nearby pine trees. When he got there, he grabbed a branch, thought better of it, and then scooped up handfuls of dried pine needles from the ground.

“We’d better help them,” Ortis said.

“After you show me where the mushrooms are,” Angus said. “I may as well get them before it’s too dark to see.”

“All right,” Ortis said. “We can bring mud back when we return.”

6

The drizzle dried up near midnight, and the next day dawned bright and full of the sounds of birds and insects. The road continued to pose a problem; in places it was so overgrown that they had to travel a considerable distance to go around the blockage. In other places, it looked like it had been swept clean. But they made progress, and even though they didn’t encounter any of the creatures, they saw more signs of them. Then, on the morning of their fifth day on the plateau, the road they were traveling on intersected another one.

“Well,” Angus said. “This road isn’t on my map. Where do you suppose it leads?”

“Let’s check your map to make sure,” Hobart said. “You might have overlooked it.”

“No,” Angus said, removing his backpack and taking out his map. “See? No suggestion of another road going across this plateau.”

“Why would it be here?” Giorge asked. “There are impassible mountains to the north and south. It has to be to something on the plateau, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t like this,” Ortis said, kneeling to study the road. “There are fresh tracks. No more than two days old. A lot of them.”

“More of the same?” Hobart asked.

“Most of them, yes. About twenty, by the look of it,” Ortis answered. “There are a few boot prints. Wide soles, stubby feet, but definitely boots. The impressions of the toes are deeper than the heel. It might be one of them wearing boots, but I don’t think so. They are too large.”

“Which way do they go?” Angus asked, staring at the mountain looming in front of him.

“They seem to be traveling back and forth from the north to the west,” Ortis said. “The latest group went west. We’ll need to watch for them.”

“We’re only a few days from the temple. Do you think they live there?”

Hobart frowned. “We’ll find out. We’ve come too far not to.”

“It could only be a small portion of their number,” Ortis said. “There is considerable traffic, here.”

“If we ride hard, we can catch up to them before they get to the temple,” Hobart suggested. “It would be easier to fight them out in the open.”

“Assuming we have to fight,” Ortis said. “They may not be hostile.”

“How many people come out of The Tween?” Hobart countered. “We need to be prepared. Keep an eye open for a defensible position, in case we need to retreat.”

“Explain something to me,” Angus said. “We’ve crossed over other trails like this in the past few days. Some of them have been even more recent with the creatures heading north at a rapid rate. Others were older trails, heading south at a much slower pace. They were all small groups, perhaps four or five, right? Now, here we have a larger group who are ahead of us. Does anyone else feel like we’re getting squeezed into a trap?”

“Now you’re starting to think like a soldier,” Hobart said. “It could be a trap, but I don’t think so. There hasn’t been enough time for them to spread word about us. Still, they should know we are traveling down this road, and that would tell them where we are likely going. But Ortis said these tracks are a couple of days old, and we didn’t see the first signs until about three days ago. They would have to have seen us before that to plan an ambush.”

“It could be the way they hunt,” Angus suggested.

“Then why not kill the deer?” Ortis countered. “I’ve scouted every deer trail we’ve seen, and there’s no indication of them killing any. There are other places they could easily kill them, but they haven’t. Instead, they grow mushrooms.”

Angus nodded. “I just can’t shake the feeling that they’re organizing an attack, and we’re about to ride into it.”

“Not if we don’t get going,” Hobart said. “The sooner we catch up with them, the sooner we find out what we’re up against. We shouldn’t have too much trouble with twenty of them, especially if you have that spell you threw at Giorge back at the construction site.”

“And the wand,” Ortis added. “It would wreak havoc on an army.”

Angus sighed. They still didn’t understand the difficulties involved in casting spells, or how vulnerable he was when he did it. But they were right; the Firecluster spell would wreak havoc on them if they were close to each other—if he could finish casting it in time. It was a complex series of knots, and weaving them together took concentration and time. Then there was the last knot, the one he wasn’t sure he had primed correctly. If he hadn’t, what would it do? More damage? Less?

“Try to keep up,” Hobart said, spurring his horse to a light run on the nearly clear, well-traveled road. The others fell in behind him, with Angus near the rear taking a long look behind them before he urged Gretchen forward.

7

They rode fairly hard for a day and a half before Ortis said the creatures were only an hour ahead of them.

“They aren’t acting like an ambush party,” Ortis said. “Their pace is even, and there’s very little evidence of urgency. I don’t think they know we’re here. If they were concerned, we wouldn’t have found their campsite last night.”

“At least we know they eat meat,” Hobart said. “Those bones were snapped in half and the marrow was sucked out of them.”

“Some of them do, anyway,” Ortis said. “There weren’t enough bones for a party that size.”

“And they’re small,” Giorge said. “I’m easily a foot taller than they are, and I don’t have a tail.”

“The more I see of their signs,” Ortis said. “The more cat-like they become. If I didn’t know they were walking on their hind feet, I’d think that’s all they were. Mountain cats.”

“Cat’s are fast,” Angus said. “We should be careful.”

“It’s the other thing that concerns me,” Hobart said. “It’s twice their height and is about as far from being a cat as something can get.”

“They had a tail,” Giorge said, grinning.

Hobart frowned and shook his head. “You know what I mean,” he said. “They wear armor and have weapons. The cat-things didn’t.”

“Cats fight with their claws and teeth,” Ortis reminded him.

“Watch out for that,” Hobart said. “They’ll be sharp.”

“Should we wait until nightfall and try to sneak by them?” Angus asked.

“No,” Ortis said. “They will have the advantage at night. We should go now.”

“Slowly,” Hobart said. “They’re on foot, and we’re riding. If those tracks are an hour or so old, then we’ll catch up with them in about two hours at a light trot.”

“What do we do then?” Angus asked.

“Ortis will shoot arrows,” Hobart answered. “He’ll target the larger ones; if they’re the leaders, it may demoralize the others when they fall. I’ll charge; their claws will be almost useless against my armor, and Leslie is a formidable opponent in her own right. Giorge will hang back with you to give you time to cast your spells. If it looks like it’s going badly, we’ll retreat to a defensible position and hold our ground.”

“We may not need to fight,” Angus said. “What then?”

Hobart shrugged. “I’ll negotiate. I’ve done it quite a few times already. But we’re not likely to have any languages in common, so don’t expect it.”

“I speak dwarf,” Angus said. “Some of them must, also, if they’re trading with dwarves for weapons.”

Ortis looked closely at Angus and asked, “You speak dwarf? Are there any other languages you know?”

Angus shrugged. “Eight or nine,” he said. “Voltari was thorough.”

“Which ones?” Ortis asked.

“That changes things, then,” Hobart said. “If we can talk, we may not have to fight.”

“Let’s talk while we ride?” Giorge said. “They’re getting further ahead of us while we dally here.”

“I don’t mind,” Hobart said. “If we give them a little longer, they’ll have their campsite set up by the time we get there. It will be easier to deal with them while they’re occupied in a concentrated location. Even better if most of them are sleeping.”

“In addition to dwarf,” Angus began, “I speak….”

8

“What did you find out?” Hobart whispered as Giorge returned from scouting ahead and removed the hood of his cloak.

“There are eighteen of the smaller ones,” Giorge said. “They’re about this tall—” he held his hand up to the middle of his chest “—and look sort of like mountain cats, only their fur is dark orange and they walk on their hind legs. They talk to each other, too, but I couldn’t understand their language—if all that snarling, hissing, and spitting is a language at all.”

“Does that sound like any language you know?” Ortis asked Angus.

“No,” he said. “But I’d have to hear it to make sure.”

“The larger ones are about your height, Hobart, but thinner,” Giorge continued. “There are three of them, and they’re clearly in control of the smaller ones. I’ve never seen anything like them before. They have long bodies and short legs, their arms are thin and end in three fingered hands, and their heads are flat with one eye on each side. They have huge mouths with lots of teeth. Their skin—”

“—is dark green, bumpy, and moist. They have a ridge of scales down their backs, and their feet are wide and flat,” Hobart finished. “I suppose they’re carrying axes.”

“Yes,” Giorge said. “Like the ones we found in that weapons cache. How did you know?”

“What kind of armor?” he asked, his voice fierce, low, and determined.

“I’m not sure what it’s made of,” Giorge said, “but it covers them from the knees—if that’s what you want to call them—to their armpits. It looks a lot like that washboard Agata uses to clean the sheets, but the ridges are smaller.”

“It’s made from layers of dried reeds,” Hobart said. “It’s tough, and if you stab through it, your blades will catch. Slash at their arms, legs, and heads; they’re vulnerable there. Ortis, arrows don’t penetrate their armor very well; aim for their heads.”

“I know,” Ortis said. “I’ve fought fishmen before.”

“Fishmen?” Angus asked. “I thought they were only in the Death Swamps.”

“So did I,” Hobart grimly said. “But we’re wrong. They must be the ones responsible for the fires by the river. They seldom stray far from water, even when they attack.”

“I should have recognized the prints,” Ortis said. “I didn’t even consider it might be them.”

“What about the other things?” Angus asked. “Do you know what they are?”

“No,” Hobart said. “The Fishmen in the north have no allies that we know about.”

“I have never run across any such creatures,” Ortis added. “They may be native to The Tween. Giorge?”

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “I’m a city boy.”

“What did their eyes look like?” Angus asked.

“I don’t know,” Giorge said. “I didn’t get that close. Cats have good ears and a strong sense of smell, so I thought these would too. I kept my distance.”

“What do we do, then?” Angus asked.

“Fishmen are the sworn enemy of Tyr,” Hobart said. “We have a standing order to kill them on sight and report the incursion to the nearest outpost.”

“That would mean Hellsbreath,” Giorge said. “We can’t go back there when we’re this close to the temple ruins, can we?”

Hobart frowned. “We’ll decide that after we kill them.”

“Wait,” Ortis said. “They don’t know we’re here. Why don’t we follow them to see if they go to the temple ruins? If they do, then we can attack them there, instead.”

“No,” Hobart said. “They will be ready with defenses.”

“They’ll be more alert if their expected party doesn’t arrive,” Giorge said. “Maybe we can sneak in?”

“No,” Hobart said. “We have our orders.”

“Hobart,” Giorge said. “We are not going back until we find out if The Tiger’s Eye is in that temple.”

“You can go on if you want,” Hobart said. “The rest of us are going back.”

“I’m not,” Ortis said. “I think we should let them go where they’re going and then decide if we should kill them or not. We will be able to report more accurate information if we know more about them.”

Hobart frowned, shook his head.

“How about this,” Angus said. “We follow them until we find out if they are going to the temple ruins, but attack them before they get there. Then we can investigate whether or not they have a stronghold there.”

“We have orders,” Hobart said.

“I’m not a soldier,” Angus said, “and neither are you.”

“Banners are subject to this order, Angus,” Hobart said. “It is part of the agreement that all of us made with the king in order to have our special status.”

“Do the orders say when we have to kill them?” Angus asked. “Is there a timeframe for how long we have to report their presence?”

Hobart frowned. “No,” he admitted. “The orders just say to kill fishmen on sight and report the incursion to the nearest garrison or outpost. We’ve seen them.”

“I haven’t,” Ortis said. “Neither have you or Angus. Giorge has seen something, but he doesn’t know what fishmen look like.”

“I could be wrong about how I described them,” Giorge offered. “It is dark among those trees.”

“You’re not wrong,” Hobart said, his jaw set firm, resolute. “They’re fishmen.”

“If we follow them,” Ortis said, “we will be able to find a better place to fight. Out here in these trees, it will be difficult to maneuver, and some of them may get away. If we can get them into a more open area, I can use my arrows to pick them off.”

“Perhaps some reconnaissance would be in order,” Hobart reluctantly admitted. “The more information we can provide Hellsbreath, the better it will be for them.”

“They’ll want to know where their lair is,” Angus suggested. “If we follow them, we might find that out.”

“What I don’t understand,” Ortis said, “is why they seem to be avoiding the river. I would think they would thrive there.”

“What do you mean?” Hobart asked. “We saw those fires, didn’t we?”

“We don’t know who sets those fires,” Ortis said. “But it isn’t this group; they travel back and forth from the north road to this west one. They don’t go anywhere near the river or the interior of the plateau.”

“What’s north of here?” Angus mused.

“Besides the mountain?” Giorge said. “Nothing, as far as we know.”

“Dwarves,” Angus corrected. “They are inside the mountain, and they are the ones arming the cat-things.”

“The fishmen, you mean,” Hobart said. “The cat-things are not armed.”

These cat-things are not armed,” Angus corrected. “The others by the river may be.”

“What are you two getting at?” Hobart demanded.

“Only this,” Ortis said. “You have assumed the fires by the river were made by fishmen. We have not. There could be another reason for those fires that has nothing to do with the fishmen. We’d like to know what it could be. To find that out, we’ll need to talk with the fishmen. You and I both speak their language well enough to interrogate them, and we might find out what they’re doing here, where their lair is, how many there are—the normal range of information we might want to find out about an enemy.”

“The dwarves are involved, somehow,” Angus added. “How they are involved, we can’t say, but these mountains stretch north all the way to the Death Swamps. The fishmen could be getting safe passage from there to here through their tunnel system.”

“Why would the dwarves consort with them?” Hobart scoffed. “They’re honorable enough creatures.”

“Who were attacked by King Tyr’s ancestors,” Angus said. “They have long lives and even longer memories, and if it weren’t for the volcanoes, the Dwarf Wars would not have ended. Maybe they aren’t fond of having Hellsbreath nearby.”

“That would make sense,” Hobart said, “if we were still enemies. The dwarves have traded with us since King Duk’s reign, and we’ve been restrained allies ever since.”

“Restrained allies?” Angus chuckled. “A bit removed from being friends, then.”

Hobart frowned. “All right,” he said. “You’ve convinced me. We’ll follow them for now, but if they don’t lead us to the temple ruins, we attack.”

“Double watch tonight,” Ortis said. “We’re camping fairly close to them, and it might be a good idea to keep watch on them, as well as ourselves.”

9

It was a strange pursuit. The fishmen and cat-things were afoot; their pursuers were on horseback and could easily have overtaken them dozens of times. Instead, they slept in, Ortis hunted, and in the afternoon they rode at a light trot until they caught up with them again. On the third day, their pursuit changed: they ran out of trees.

The road rose rapidly out of the plateau, and the foliage dwindled and was replaced with bare rock and lichen-encrusted gray-green stone. They stayed near the last few trees for hours, watching their prey clamber up the slope, waiting for them to disappear into the valley beyond. It was late afternoon when they finally decided it was safe to follow after them, despite the lack of cover.

“I don’t like this,” Hobart said as the road worked its way toward a narrow cleft in the mountain that rose upward hundreds of feet above them. “If they want to ambush us, this would be an ideal spot for it.”

“There has been no indication they know we’re here,” Ortis said.

“That doesn’t matter,” Hobart grumbled. “If I had a stronghold up there, I would put guards at the top of this crack and have others waiting with drums of oil. When the enemy was within striking distance, I would spill the oil down this slope and light it on fire. It would be a deathtrap; there is nowhere to run.”

“Wouldn’t that make a mess?” Angus asked.

Hobart shrugged. “Killing is always messy,” he said. “It’s not for the squeamish.”

“It’s not artificial,” Giorge said.

“What?” Hobart asked.

“The crack,” he answered. “They didn’t carve it out; it’s a natural formation. They just took advantage of it. If there weren’t a road here, I doubt anyone would find it.”

“There is a road,” Hobart said. “And before that, someone did find it.”

“We’re nearing the top,” Ortis said. “Let’s cut down on the chatter, shall we?”

“What does it look like from up there?” Hobart asked, his voice subdued.

“Same as here,” Ortis quietly replied. “The road goes through this crack and then drops down. I don’t see any guards, though; they must not be expecting visitors.”

“If the other side is bare rock like this,” Angus said, “I’m not surprised. They will see us coming.”

“Who in their right mind would come up here, anyway?” Giorge added, grinning.

“They probably made camp,” Hobart suggested. “It’s dark enough for it, even with the half moon.”

“You’re right,” Ortis said. “I’m at the top, and I hear them moving around. They’re just over the lip of this ridge. I’ll try to move in closer.”

“Be careful,” Hobart said. “We’re still a quarter mile behind you.”

“And still talking,” Ortis added. “I can hear you, you know. And the horses; there’s an echo.”

Hobart looked like he was about to speak, but decided to nod instead. Then he held up his hand for them to stop. When they had, he dismounted and gestured for the others to do the same. Once they were all down, he whispered, “Let’s leave the horses here with Ortis; if we need them, he can bring them in a hurry.”

When they neared the top, they fell flat on their bellies and crawled up to where Ortis lay like a shadow. From their perch, they could see the road sloped sharply down into a cloistered valley, the floor of which was blanketed by an expanse of ripe grain. Nearly two miles away in the center of the valley, barely visible in the moonlight, was the rough, battered silhouette of a large, once-thriving complex. Although they couldn’t see any details, there was a fire blazing inside the ruins and occasional glimpses of movement.

The group they were pursuing, though, had decided not to continue to their stronghold, despite its proximity. Instead, the three fishmen had herded the cat-things into a tight circle about fifty yards ahead of them, still some distance from the edge of the grain. Once the cat-things were corralled, one of the fishmen isolated an individual and cut off its head with a swift strike of his axe. The rest of the cat-things howled, mewled, and tumbled over each other as they tried to get away from the fishmen, but none of them made an effort to avenge their fellow or to flee.

“Disgusting,” Hobart whispered from where he crouched. “They’re eating one of those cat-things, and the others are just letting them do it.”

“Cows do the same thing when we slaughter them,” Giorge muttered.

“Maybe if we kill the fishmen,” Ortis suggested, “the other things will leave us alone. Cows would, wouldn’t they? If we killed the herdsman?”

Hobart frowned and nodded. “Can you hit them from here?” he asked, his voice barely loud enough for them to hear.

“I think so,” Ortis said. “But it may not be a kill shot from this range, especially in this light.”

“They don’t have any long-range weapons, right?” Angus asked.

“It doesn’t look that way,” Hobart said. “Why?”

“We can get closer, then,” Angus whispered.

“Not without alerting them to our presence,” Ortis said. “I’d rather have a stationary target. The more they move, the less likely the arrows will hit them.”

Hobart nodded. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go back to our horses. We’ll give you two volleys, and then charge. If you don’t hit them, we should be able to reach them before they get into the grain. We’ll never be able to find them once they’re in that stuff.”

They returned to their horses and Ortis joined his other constituent at the lip. As the three archers readied their arrows and took aim, the others mounted their horses. When Ortis let fly the first volley and readied the second, they kneed their horses forward at a brisk walk. As they neared the top of the road, Ortis hurried to the sides and let them pass at a gallop.

When they topped the rise, the cat-things hissed at them for only a few moments before turning to flee toward the grain. They let them go; their attention was focused on the fishmen. One was dead, a pair of arrows through its neck and head. A second had an arrow in one shoulder and held an axe at the ready. The third was stumbling around, an arrow in his foot and another embedded in his armor.

Hobart charged forward and drew his broadsword. Leslie executed a complex maneuver by deftly sidestepping the swinging axe and then lunging in close to the fishman before it could make a return swing. The maneuver gave Hobart a clear opening, and he swung the broadsword down at the exposed neck of the fishman, made contact, righted himself in his saddle, and corrected his balance as Leslie charged the other fishman. The second fishman had only enough time to throw up his arms when the horse reared and slashed out with her hooves….

“That’s that,” Hobart said a half minute later. He dismounted and checked to make sure the fishmen were all dead, and when he got to the one that was nearly decapitated, he finished the job and carried the head back to his horse.

“Did you need to do that?” Angus asked.

Hobart opened a saddlebag and took out a heavy, cloth sack. He opened it and dropped the head inside. After he tied it shut, he turned to Angus and said, “Commander Garret will need proof.”

“You’re going to take that all the way back to Hellsbreath?” Angus asked. “Won’t it rot?”

Hobart nodded. “Yes,” he said. “But it is important.”

“It’s going to attract scavengers,” Angus protested. “Can’t you take something else instead?”

Hobart shrugged. “We should take all of their heads,” he said. “There’s a bounty on them.”

“Look,” Giorge said, pointing toward the grain. The cat-things were disappearing into it as if it were their native habitat, and once they were inside, there was almost no sign of their presence. “Do we pursue them?” he asked. “Or do we investigate the ruins?”

“See the fires?” Hobart said. “There are too many of them.”

“Not necessarily,” Ortis said. “The cat-things fled when we killed the fishmen. They may not fight us.”

Hobart shook his head. “What would they have done if the fishmen hadn’t been killed?”

“Do cows fight when the herder tells them to?” Giorge quipped.

“They aren’t cows,” Hobart reminded him. “Their claws are formidable weapons.”

“More to the point,” Angus said. “What are they doing now?”

“They’re probably on their way to alert the others,” Hobart said, as if he were simply stating an obvious truth. “So, do you want to go into a well-defended, well-prepared stronghold to fight against an enemy of unknown size and strength? Or do you want to go back to Hellsbreath to report in? We can always come back here with the garrison to deal with what’s in the temple.”

“That grain,” Angus suddenly asked. “Is it the same kind of grain that’s grown in Tyr?”

“It looks like it from here,” Ortis said. “Why?”

“Did any of you get a look at their eyes? The cat-things’ eyes?”

“No,” Hobart said. “I was busy with the fishmen.”

“I was focused on shooting arrows at the fishmen,” Ortis said.

“What does it matter?” Giorge asked. “Eyes are eyes, aren’t they?”

Angus frowned, shook his head. “I need to get a closer look at them,” he said. “It they’re what I think they are, it will change everything.”

“Why?” Hobart asked. “What do you think they are?”

Angus shook his head and removed his backpack from his shoulders. “You’re sure fishmen don’t have arrows? Spears? Weapons like that?” he asked as he strapped his backpack to his saddle horn and focused on the magic around him. There were far more strands of flame than he expected for such a high place, but he went past them, reaching for the darkest blue strand of sky magic he could find. Even though it would be difficult to control, he needed a powerful one if he were to fly such a long distance, and the darker the strand the more potent—and dangerous—its magic.

“These three didn’t,” Hobart said. “But the ones to the north often carry spears made from the same kind of reeds as their armor.”

Angus nodded and began tying the knots for the flying spell. When he finished, he leapt upward—shot upward, really; he still didn’t have very good control over velocity, and this was a powerful strand. He shifted position until he was moving toward the temple, and struggled to control his pace. It was a long flight, and when he neared the walls, he realized his mistake: The spell would break free before he could get back; it was too powerful for him to contain for much longer. Should he return as far as he could? Or should he find out what was in the ruins?

They were ruins; only two of the original walls were still standing, and the temple grounds were mostly covered in rubble. Some of that rubble had been cleared away for a large fire, around which slept about three dozen of the cat-things. He saw no sign of fishmen. Would the cat-things attack him if he landed? They hadn’t noticed him yet, but there was no question that they would if he landed inside the ruins. If they didn’t attack, he could cast a spell or two….

He looked for a place to land away from the fires and the cat things. If he landed quietly, perhaps they wouldn’t notice. But he needed them to notice him; he wanted to see their eyes. He needed to see their eyes….

No, the spell first. He would see their eyes then. Wide eyes full of terror….

He rounded the temple one more time to slow down. How far have I come? How many miles? Two? Three? Would they follow him? He’d have to make sure they did, wouldn’t he? It was foolish to come alone; he could get captured, eaten….

There, he thought. The rubble will block their view of me. If they don’t see me, I’ll have time….

He wrapped his black robe tightly around him and did his best to land—fall, really—as quietly as he could. As he descended, he caught a glimpse of the temple interior. The outer wall had collapsed, but the inner chamber was still standing, and inside it was a smaller fire with at least a dozen fishmen gathered around it. There were no cat-things, only the fishmen. And they had axes, no spears or bows. Was that all of them? Or were there other fishmen deeper in the temple ruins?

When he struck the ground, he didn’t bother to wait to see if he had been heard. The spell was too complex; he needed as much time to cast it as he could get. He released the sky strand and reached for several strands of flame and earth. He began weaving them together as if he were making a blanket, and as he worked, he reached for the strands within himself and integrated them into the complex pattern of the spell. He began to sweat as the threads writhed around him, within him, their potent energy blending with his own, intensifying it.

Minutes passed as he struggled to force the unruly threads into the unnatural design. An eerie silence fell in around him, enveloped him. No hiss or howl from the cat-things. No fishmen charging in to kill him. Just himself and the overwhelming power radiating through him, from him. Then he reached the last knot, the one from which he could not return.

He tied it, and the threads ignited, their flames violently cascading through him, almost wrenching him apart—but the knots held! He had cast it properly! In his exultation, he lifted his hands above him—

They were on fire! They were fire! They burned with white-hot intensity, and he relished the energy surging through him. He let it go, and a ball of flame shot upward and exploded outward, sending out a shower of sparks over the temple grounds. He laughed—a hideous, monstrous laugh—and turned to the rubble in front of him. He held out his hands, stepped forward….

Flames shot from his hands and the stones began to glow red, then white, then melted. He stepped into the pool of lava, relishing the fierce intensity of the heat, adding it to his own. He stepped forward, through the gap he had made….

He turned to the temple grounds and reached out for the fires, drew them to him, fed off their energy. The power!

Howling, screeching, the cat-things fled from him. As well they should! He laughed as they scampered over themselves in their hurry to escape into the grain fields, their cat-like eyes glistening with an eerie orange glow. Cat-like eyes? He was wrong! There was no need to follow after them; they weren’t the plains folk….

He turned to the temple, to the fishmen….

Energy surged through him, as he strode forward, into the room, rock melting beneath each footstep, lava dripping from his fingertips.

They had their weapons drawn. Some of them charged, but as they advanced, Angus reached out for the threads wrapped around him and fed the energy through them. Whip-like, writhing pulses of flame cascaded outward from him to strike the axes, the fishmen. He sent more and more energy into the maelstrom of tendrils snaking out from him….

The other fishmen tried to run, but he was blocking the entrance, the exit. He stepped forward, bringing the inferno with him….

They scratched at the walls, trying to pull them down, but it was no use. He stepped forward….

They tried climbing the walls. A few tried to run past him, their charred bodies crumbling to ash. He stepped forward….

The power surged through him, struggling to be set free, and he let it go!

Shrieks, smoke, singed flesh….

The intensity of the heat raged through him, from him, but there were no more targets. The fishmen who weren’t dead—if there were any—had fled. The cat-things were long gone. All that was left was him, and—

How do I stop it? he thought suddenly. And then he knew; one knot held the whole spell together, and all he had to do was let it go….

Too much power! he realized as the knot unwound. I can’t control it!

The flames were trying to devour him, and they would, unless—

He drew the energy into him, channeled it to his hands, lifted them above his head, and released it in one massive burst. It roared upward, struck the ceiling and spread outward, melting the rock. Then it erupted skyward, sending up a huge geyser of flame….

As the last of the energy fled from him, he sagged to his knees and gasped. It was over; he had survived the spell. He would live—

Pain.

Sudden, intense pain swarmed around him, flames flickering out from his sleeves, from the hem of his robe. He was on fire!

Flames, Voltari had told him over and over again, are a fickle ally. They will resent your control, and if they ever have a chance to consume you, they will. You have only one defense against such an attack: smother them.

Angus dropped to his knees, gathered his robe close about him, and fought the urge to run.

The robe will protect you, Voltari had said. If you let it.

He screamed….

10

An eternity seemed to pass while Angus counted to twenty. A fierce cocoon of heat enveloped him, and the air around him was crisp with flames. When he finally reached twenty, he lifted the robe from his chest to look down—smoke but no flames.

He took a shallow, scalding breath and ran from the desolation around him and into to the temple grounds. The fires were contained, sputtering; there was no more fuel to feed them. He ran a bit further, his fingers working to untie the sash. By the time he stopped, his robe hung loose about him. By the time he tossed it to the ground, flames were once again beginning to flicker on his smoldering tunic.

He didn’t bother trying to untie the tunic; instead, he reached for his dagger—and quickly let it go, his right hand stinging from the fresh burn. He gripped the ties and wrenched at them until they broke. He pulled off the tunic and threw it away from him.

The belt burned his fingers before he was able to unclasp it, and then his breeches slid down and he stepped out of them. He left the boots on—his feet were the only part of his body that weren’t hot—and quickly surveyed the damage.

Burns on his wrist—bad ones; the skin was charred away.

His neck was ringed with blisters, and they dipped down his chest and back.

There were minor burns spotting his torso where the tunic had burned through.

His legs were bright red, but the burns were superficial.

His palms and fingers had welts on them.

But he was alive.

He stripped down the rest of the way, and then looked around for the first time.

The temple grounds were empty.

No fishmen.

No cat-things.

Small fires flickered wherever there was fuel to feed them.

The rubble where he had landed radiated heat and glowed red where the man-sized wedge had melted through it. Footprints of hardening lava ran from it to the room where the fishmen had been—where he had been. It was bright orange with heat, and there was a huge hole where the ceiling had been.

He stood there, near-naked, alone, amid the carnage of the ruins for what seemed like hours before he heard horses approaching. He didn’t bother turning when they reined in behind him. He simply said through clinched teeth, “Bring my pack.”

Several seconds passed, and then Ortis stood silently beside him, Angus’s pack in his hands.

“Healing salve. On top the scrolls,” he said. “Don’t lose the scrolls. They burn.”

Ortis knelt, set the backpack down, and opened it.

“Where are the fishmen?” Hobart asked from behind him. “We saw the cat-things fleeing as we approached.”

Angus shrugged and immediately regretted it as the skin on his back and shoulders stretched, intensifying the pain.

“Is this it?” Ortis asked, lifting out the clay pot.

“We’ll find out,” Hobart said. “Giorge, Ortis, standard deployment. Secure the area and report in.”

“Yes,” Angus hissed.

Ortis took out a dagger and pried open the lid of the pot, set it aside, and stood up. “How much?” he asked.

Angus held out his fingertips, and when Ortis tipped the pot toward him, he reached in to scoop up a small amount of the ointment. He spread it over his fingers, palms, and wrist before rubbing it lightly into the burn. Where it touched his skin, the pain subsided but didn’t disappear completely.”

“How did you get burned?” Ortis asked.

Angus didn’t answer. He needed his concentration and energy to keep from crying out in pain, to keep from flinching away from Ortis’s rough hands as they pushed the healing salve over the blistered skin, the missing skin…. Still, despite using too much pressure, the pain subsided, and by the time Ortis had finished, it was manageable.

“That should do it,” Ortis said. “But I can’t be sure in this light. Maybe we should move closer to the fire.”

“No,” Angus said, shuddering. “I’ve had enough of fire for the time being.”

“What happened?” Ortis asked.

Angus sighed. “I made a mistake,” he said. “I’ve been wearing those—” he pointed at the smoldering tunic and breeches “—under my robes. When my spell ended, the tunic caught on fire.”

“It must have been some spell,” Ortis said. “If there are any dwarves about topside, they know we’re here. So does everything in this valley.”

Angus half-smiled, reached down to pick up his robes. “They weren’t flares,” he said, then realized he couldn’t explain what they were. He had been intoxicated; there had been far more energy in the strands he had used than there should have been, and it had nearly overwhelmed him.

“We weren’t sure about that,” Ortis said. “Hobart said the first one was a call for help, but Giorge didn’t think so. He had seen your magic up close and thought that was all it was. We were still discussing it when we saw the second one.” He shook his head. “If we weren’t surrounded by mountain peaks, it would have been visible for hundreds of miles. That convinced us, and we rode at a gallop to get here.”

Angus shook his head. Although he hadn’t intended it to be a cry for help, it couldn’t have worked out any better for him. He slipped into the robe and tied the sash. It began to itch, but he didn’t care; itching was much better than burning. “What have they found?” he asked.

“Not much,” Ortis said. “That room is too hot to enter, so they haven’t been able to get very far. They haven’t found any other entry points into the temple, either.”

“Any more fishmen?”

“We can’t tell,” Ortis said. “If there are any they’ll be deeper in the ruins, and we can’t get to them right now. It will take quite a while for it to cool down enough to risk investigating it.”

Angus nodded. “You and Hobart speak their language, don’t you?”

“Hobart understands it better than I do. All of Tyr’s soldiers learn enough words to deal with them, but commanders have to learn the language. He was slated to be a commander until his affliction.”

Angus nodded and said, “If there are more of them, tell them to surrender or the lava man will come back.”

Ortis frowned and asked, “What’s the lava man?”

Angus half-smiled. “I am. At least, that’s what I call the spell I cast. It merges the magic within me with the strands of flame around me to encase me in flame. But it isn’t supposed to reach high enough temperatures to melt stone.” He shrugged. “The strands here are incredibly powerful.”

Ortis’s orange eyes grew somewhat distant for a moment, and then he said, “I’ve told Hobart and Giorge. If they see any fishmen, we’ll give them a chance to surrender. But don’t count on it. If what Hobart believes is true, they’ll die before being taken prisoner. Especially if they are an advance party for a larger force.”

Angus frowned. “How long will we have before the room cools down so we can find out?” he asked.

“It could take hours, possibly days,” Ortis said.

“Good,” Angus said. “I need some rest.”

11

“It’s about time you woke up,” Ortis said. “We were beginning to wonder if you would.”

Angus stretched, feeling the stiffness in his limbs and the tightness of his new skin. But there was little pain, and it was quite manageable. “How long did I sleep?” he asked, looking at the temple grounds. The fire was out, the rubble was mostly undisturbed, and the stone wasn’t glowing red any longer.

“About fifteen hours,” Ortis said. “We left you alone.”

“I appreciate that,” Angus said. “Where are the horses?”

“They’re hobbled near the grain,” Ortis said.

“Isn’t that risky? Those cat-things aren’t large, but there were quite a few of them.”

“It doesn’t seem to be,” Ortis said. “They seem to be keeping their distance for now.”

“You know, I’ve seen healing salves before, but yours is amazing,” Ortis said. “You won’t even have scars. Can you get any more of it? You’re almost out.”

“I got it from Nargeth,” Angus said. “She runs an inn in Woodwort. Ulrich, a woodsman she knows near there, makes it.”

“A long trip,” Ortis said. “But it might be worth it.”

“I doubt it,” Angus said. “He probably won’t let us have any.”

“He let you.”

Angus shook his head. “Not me,” he said. “Nargeth. It was hers. She sold it to me.” He frowned. “That’s where the other gold coin went,” he said.

“Money well spent, I should think,” Ortis said. “That kind of healing rarely comes cheaply.”

“Indeed,” he agreed. “This is the third time I’ve needed it.”

“Third?” Ortis repeated, frowning.

“Yes,” Angus said. “Nargeth used it on my feet when I arrived at her inn. They were blistered, cracked, and infected, and the salve healed them in about two days. Then, at the construction site, I burned my fingers. Compared to what happened here, it was little more than a painful inconvenience.”

“Maybe we should try to get more of it after all,” Ortis said.

“Why?”

“Did you forget the wand incident?” Ortis said. “You may not have been aware of it at the time, but that healer saved your life.”

“So?”

Ortis sighed. “Well, Angus, you seem to be accident prone. It might be a good idea for you to carry around a healing salve like this all the time.”

Angus chuckled and half-smiled—but it quickly drooped to a half-frown when he remembered Billigan’s interruption of the Firecluster spell. If it misfired…. He shook his head and said, “You may be right, Ortis. There are always risks involved in using flame magic.” But I should be controlling them. Why have I made so many mistakes? Voltari taught me better than that.

“What have you been up to while I slept?” Angus asked.

“Exploring,” Ortis said. “There doesn’t seem to be any more fishmen—or anything else for that matter. Everywhere we’ve gone is covered in dust.”

“Is there anything to eat?” Angus asked.

“Yes,” Ortis said. “I’ll get you some bread and stew.”

“Bread?” Angus asked.

Ortis nodded. “That grain is ripe,” he said. “It’s ready for harvest.”

After eating, Angus took out Teffle’s book and turned to the page with the flying spell. Ortis took his cue and left him to prime the spell. When he finished, he stretched, put on his backpack, and went to find the others.

It was late afternoon, and there was a trail passing through the room he had torched. He tried not to gag on the stench as he hurried through it to an open hallway he hadn’t noticed before. There were wooden doors on either side of the corridor, and all of them were open or dangled from their hinges. He found Ortis waiting for him near the end of the corridor, a lit torch in his hand.

Angus walked quickly up to join him. “Where are the others?”

“There are three other corridors,” he said. “They connect up to form a square. We’ve been searching them for an access point to a hidden chamber. Giorge thinks there is one, but we haven’t found it yet.”

“Why does he think there is a hidden chamber?”

“We know there was a way up to the second floor, but it was probably in the part of the temple that collapsed. But when you burned through the ceiling, you opened it up. We’ve already searched through what was up there, but there was nothing but rats and owls. The floor up there was level, and we didn’t find any trapdoors. But there has to be one somewhere; the ceilings of the rooms along the corridor on the other side of the temple are shorter than the rooms in the other three corridors.”

“By how much?” Angus asked.

“Take a look at this room,” Ortis said, ushering him through one of the doors. “It’s about a ten foot cube, right? All of the other rooms are the same size, except for the ones on the corridor opposite this one. The ceiling there is only about eight feet high. Giorge thinks there must be a hidden chamber on top of it, one that’s only about a few feet high.”

“That makes sense, I suppose,” Angus said. “Of course, the temple builders probably would know that, too. If I were them, I would make it look that way even if there wasn’t one. Or it could have been a building error; they do happen, you know.”

Ortis nodded. “Giorge thinks the same thing, but he’s checking for a trapdoor anyway, in case it isn’t a deception.”

“What about the rest of you?” Angus asked. “What are you doing?”

“We’re looking for it, too, but we’re not as good at finding them as Giorge is. He has a knack for it.”

“You know, if I had built this temple,” Angus said, “I would have the secret entrance over here, near the ceiling in an adjacent room.”

“How would you get to it?”

“A ladder,” Angus said. “Maybe stand on a box or table. It wouldn’t be too difficult. Are there any rooms that are not like the others?”

“Besides the shorter ones on that corridor?”

Angus nodded. “Larger, smaller, more furnishings, things like that.”

“They all look the same to me,” Ortis said. “Why?”

“The secret entrance probably would be in the high priest’s chamber—unless it was accessible to all of them, in which case it likely wouldn’t have been hidden.”

“Well, whatever it is, we haven’t found it.”

“I’ll help look,” Angus said, moving close to the wall and running his eyes and fingers over it. There were no obvious seams or indentations, so he moved to the next one. After getting the same results, he moved on to one room after another with Ortis tagging along holding the torch near the wall. By the time they had finished surveying the second corridor, he was almost convinced there was nothing to be seen, but as he turned to leave the last room, the one at the end of the corridor that connected with the rooms that had the shorter ceilings, he paused.

“What is it?” Ortis asked.

“The bed,” Angus said. “It’s in a different corner.”

“So?”

“Why?” Angus asked. “All of the rooms I’ve seen so far have had the bed along the wall opposite the door hinge. This one has it on the same side as the hinge.” He acted as if he were pushing the door open and added, “See? Would you want a bed that gets banged by the door every time the door opens? It won’t even open all the way with the bed sitting here.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Ortis said.

“I think the bed was here so they could climb up into the space above the other rooms, and they left it there when they closed the door. See? It isn’t even flush with the wall, like the beds are in all of the other rooms. It’s at an angle.”

“Wouldn’t they have moved it back when they came out again?” Ortis asked.

Angus frowned. “Unless they didn’t come back out.”

“We’ve already searched this room,” Ortis said. “We couldn’t find anything.”

Angus shrugged. “Maybe it’s the lighting,” he said. “A torch is good enough for most things, but not for seeing fine details.”

“What choice do we have?” Ortis asked. “Giorge has the lamp, and it doesn’t do much more.”

Angus half-smiled, reached for the magic around him, tied the quick knot of the Lamplight spell and the orb of light flared to life in his palm. He manipulated it for a brighter intensity and moved his hand close to the wall. “Better?” he asked, as the spell illuminated the entire room with a steady yellow glow.

“You had one of those in Hellsbreath’s dungeon, didn’t you?”

Angus nodded. “It is a very useful spell,” he said.

“I’ll find a sconce for this torch,” Ortis said. “They have them on the corridor walls.”

“Unless you need it,” Angus said. “You may as well extinguish it. The spell will last for some time.”

Ortis left the room as Angus bent to the floor and began examining it. When he returned, Ortis asked, “Why are you looking there? The secret chamber would be in the ceiling, wouldn’t it?”

“Help me move this out of the way,” Angus said as he tried to lift the bed and it crumbled in his fingers.

Ortis shrugged and they spent several minutes scooping up bits of the bed and making a pile in the center of the room.

When they finished, Angus retrieved the Lamplight and knelt on the floor, his face mere inches from the powdery fragments that had fallen as the bed crumbled. He scanned the floor from one end to the next and sat back.

“Did you find anything?” Ortis asked.

Angus shook his head. “No,” he admitted. “I thought there would be something, too. Why put the bed here?”

Ortis grew distant for a few seconds and then said, “Giorge has an idea; he’s coming to take a look.”

“What’s his idea?” Angus asked.

“I don’t know,” Ortis said. “He didn’t tell me.”

Angus picked up the Lamplight, stood up, and held it above him, checking the wall and ceiling for a trapdoor. By the time Giorge arrived, he had finished looking at the ceiling along the wall where the bed had been. Giorge blinked when he walked in, turned his eyes away from the Lamplight, and handed his torch to Ortis.

“Well, Giorge, what’s your idea?” Angus asked.

Giorge grinned and said, “I think they moved the bed over there to delay pursuit.” He moved to the opposite wall and asked, “Can you bring that thing over here?”

Angus followed with him as he scanned the ceiling and upper portion of the wall. Then he turned to the floor. After only a few seconds, he dropped down to his knees and tilted his head sideways, almost level with the floor. He grinned, and snapped up, clapping his hand. “There it is!” he cried. “Can you see it?”

Angus and Ortis both shook their heads.

“It’s a very thin seam,” Giorge said, tracing it with his fingertip. “You can barely see it. It’s as if dwarves had carved the cap. Their stonework is so precise that they can make it fit perfectly.”

“Can you open it?” Ortis asked.

Giorge shook his head. “There aren’t any handholds,” he said. “There has to be some kind of release mechanism. A panel, lever, lock—it could be a lot of things.”

“How thick do you think the stone is?” Ortis asked. “Could Hobart break through it?”

“No way to tell,” Giorge said. “But I’d rather find the release mechanism. If there’s a lot of treasure down there, we may have to leave some of it behind and make a return trip. Breaking through the door will leave it exposed.”

“So,” Ortis asked, “where’s the release mechanism?”

“It has to be nearby,” Giorge said. “Boltholes like this need to be accessible. If it isn’t in this room, it will be in the one adjacent to that wall or in the corridor opposite this one. Either of those would be close to this corner. Further away than that, and the mechanics become far more complicated. There’s also a chance that it won’t work after all this time.”

“Tell us what to look for,” Ortis said. “I’m with Hobart in the other room and out in the corridor.”

“All right,” Giorge said. “It could be a panel in the wall; if it is, all you’ll have to do is push on it. It could be a keyhole; if it is, it will probably be in this room or the corridor, and it’s likely to be small. Don’t be surprised if there’s a panel covering it.”

“How small?” Ortis asked.

“As small as an inch,” Giorge said. “Maybe even less. Don’t leave any part of the wall untouched.”

“We may have trouble reaching up to the ceiling in here,” Angus said.

“It won’t be up that high,” Giorge said. “It needs to be reached in a hurry. Check from a foot above eye level to a foot below it, first. It’s the easiest place to reach when you’re in a hurry. I’ll check this spot and—”

“You said it could be a lever, right?” Ortis interrupted. “There’s a sconce in the corridor along this wall, but it isn’t large enough to hold a torch. I tried to put mine in it, and it wouldn’t fit.”

“Outside this wall?” Giorge asked, pointing to the wall in front of him. When Ortis nodded, he sprang to his feet and hurried out of the room. As he went, he called, “Kneel by the trapdoor and tell me if you hear anything. Not too close, though; it may spring upward.”

Angus moved close to the trapdoor and turned his head to listen. About ten minutes later, there was a soft click, and the trapdoor rose about three inches, just enough for a handhold to appear. “That’s it!” Angus cried, reaching for the handhold—and stopping himself from opening it.

What if it’s trapped?

He shook his head. Why would they trap their escape route?

He reached for the handhold again—but stopped again. To keep out their pursuers.

By the time he stood and stepped back, Giorge was in the room. “What?” he said, grinning. “You didn’t take a peek?” He knelt before the trapdoor and flung it open.

“What is it?” Angus asked.

“A tunnel,” Giorge said. “It runs under the floor along this wall.” He stuck his head through the trapdoor for a moment, and then brought it back up. “It’s a crawlspace. I couldn’t see very far. Give me a torch—” he paused and gestured at the Lamplight glowing in Angus’s hand. “Can I use that thing?”

Angus nodded and attached the Lamplight to Giorge’s shoulder.

Giorge laughed as the Lamplight followed him through the trapdoor. The tunnel was short, and the top of his head was still above the floor. Then he paused and turned back to Angus. “This is the spell you cast on me in Wyrmwood, isn’t it?”

Angus nodded. “Yes,” he admitted. “But I attached it to your forehead that time.”

Giorge poked it with his finger—which passed through the glowing orb—and shook his head. “It’s not as hot.”

Angus half-smiled and asked, “Would you like it to be?”

Giorge shook his head and dipped down below the lip of the trapdoor, and the room suddenly grew much darker.

“I’ll get the torch,” Ortis said as he stepped out of the room.

Angus moved to the trapdoor and dropped down into it. The crawlspace was barely four feet high and less than that wide. It seemed to run straight for quite some distance, but he couldn’t tell how far; Giorge was in his way. There were no side tunnels that he could see, and he stayed crouched at the entrance until Giorge stopped.

“What is it?” Angus called when Giorge hadn’t moved for nearly a minute.

Giorge looked back and waved him forward. When Angus was almost up to him, Giorge turned sideways and said, “There’s another trapdoor. It’s stuck.”

“Are you sure?” Angus asked.

Giorge took hold of the handle and pulled. It didn’t budge. “I think it’s barred from the other side.”

“Let me try,” Angus said, squeezing past him. He pulled on the handle but the trap door didn’t budge.

“See?” Giorge said. “We need Hobart down here. He might be able to do it. But I wouldn’t count on it.”

“It must not be a wooden bar,” Angus said. “If it was, it would have crumbled when we pulled at it.”

Giorge nodded. “Iron, most likely. If it’s rusted, Hobart might be able to snap it.”

“Let’s find out,” Angus said, turning down the tunnel.

“I’ll check the rest of the tunnel,” Giorge said from behind him, moving down the corridor.

“Don’t go too far,” Angus called.

12

With a mighty heave, Hobart wrenched the trapdoor open.

Then he banged his head on the ceiling and cursed for five minutes.

13

“What did you find at the other end of the corridor?” Angus asked.

“Another trapdoor,” Giorge said. “It opened in the room at the end of the other corridor. They must have had two bolthole entrances, and they both led to here.”

“We’re going to need our gear,” Hobart said. “The floor is too far down for jumping.”

“Let me take a look,” Giorge said.

After Hobart moved back a bit—a difficult thing to do for him; the tunnel was scarcely wide enough for his broad, armored shoulders—Giorge put his hands to either side of the trapdoor opening and shoved his head into it. After a few seconds, he lifted it again and said, “You can lower me down. It’s only about twenty feet.”

“It’s too far—”

“No,” Giorge said. “I’ve fallen further before.”

“Let’s just wait for the rope,” Hobart said, crossing his arms.

Giorge sighed, sat back on his heels, and waited.

“What did you see?” Angus asked from behind Hobart.

“It’s a big room supported by pillars,” Giorge said. “There are about a dozen or so skeletons scattered on the floor and some kind of pit in the center. It looks like there’s a stairwell leading down, but I can’t be sure.”

When Ortis brought the rope, Hobart held onto it while Giorge slid down into the chamber they had discovered. When he let go of the rope, Hobart handed the rope to Angus and crawled to the other side of the trapdoor. He repositioned himself to face Angus by lying down, rolling over, and then sitting back up.

“Toss me the rope,” he said. “I’ll hold it while you and Ortis climb down. See if there is anything down there that we can use to prop the trapdoor open. If you find something, we can anchor the rope to the handle on the trapdoor. If there isn’t anything, I’ll find something up here after the rest of you get down there.”

It was, as Giorge said, about a twenty foot drop. There had been a ladder, but it had long since disintegrated, leaving behind a pile of sawdust at the bottom of the drop.

“Well?” Hobart called from above him. “Is there anything we can use? Or do we have to get something from up here?”

“Give me a minute to look around,” Angus said. “It’s a large chamber.”

When he saw the skeletons, Angus brought the magic energy into focus, but the skeletons did not radiate the tell-tale black tendrils of the dead-but-not. The only thing magical in the area was the Lamplight spell, so he let the magical threads fade into the background again.

“It’s a large octagonal room,” Angus shouted up to Hobart. “Do you think a bone from one of the skeletons will work?”

“No,” Hobart said. “The trapdoor will shear it off, especially with my weight added to it.”

“Look at this,” Giorge said, holding up a skeletal arm. There was a twisted, tarnished copper bracelet on it. He slid it off the bones and shook the dust off. He looked closely at it before tossing it to Angus. “Recognize the insignia?”

Angus studied it for several seconds. It had three teardrop shapes radiating out from a circular center. “Part of it resembles the mark on my map,” he said. “But only superficially. I’ll toss it up to Hobart and see if he or Ortis recognize it.”

“They all have one,” Giorge noted, gathering them up. “They must have been priests or monks.”

It took three tosses before Hobart finally caught the bracelet. He barely glanced at it before passing it back to Ortis. Not long after that, he said, “We don’t recognize it, but if you throw a few more of them up here, we should be able to wedge them under the trapdoor to keep it partly open.”

“Why not go back and get one of the dwarf axes?” Angus asked. “Wouldn’t they be better?”

“Ortis tried to get one off the floor of that room you burned,” Hobart said. “It’s fused into the stone and won’t budge. The others are with the horses, and Ortis is already on his way back.”

Angus threw a few more bracelets up to Hobart, and then he and Giorge surveyed the area. Two of Ortis joined them, and Hobart lowered ropes, torches, lantern, and sacks—empty and full ones. By the time Hobart, the last to climb down the rope, had arrived, they had a fairly good idea of where they were. It was a thirty foot octagonal chamber, and the trapdoor deposited them on one side of it. In the center of the chamber was an open, circular stairwell leading down.

“Those bracelets aren’t worth much,” Giorge said, “but it is something. Hopefully we’ll find something more valuable down there, like The Tiger’s Eye.”

“One thing is certain,” Hobart said. “No one has been here before us. But that doesn’t mean the priests left much behind when they fled.”

“Why die here if they weren’t protecting something?” Giorge asked. “They could have left after their attackers were gone, but they stayed down here until they died.”

“Perhaps,” Hobart said. “These could have been the ones who were too injured to go with them when they left.”

“They may have died of old age,” Ortis suggested. “There’s no sign of wound marks on the bones.”

“Even better,” Giorge said. “If they died of old age, then their treasure would still be here.”

“Yes,” Ortis agreed. “But where?”

“How long will this thing last?” Giorge asked, pointing at the Lamplight still attached to his shoulder.

Angus shrugged. “Up to a day. It depends on the strength of the thread; the more powerful it is, the shorter it lasts. This one was an extremely strong strand, so I wouldn’t expect more than ten to twelve hours before it escapes.”

“We have a dozen torches,” Ortis said. “And a cask of oil for the lantern.”

“Let me have that torch,” Giorge said, taking the lit torch from Hobart and tossing it down the stairwell. Several seconds later, he whistled and said, “It’s deep, but it has a bottom.”

“All right,” Hobart said. “If this is an Angst temple, what do we know about them?”

Giorge shrugged. “They were fanatics who disappeared about a thousand years ago. They worshipped a fire god of some sort. The Tiger’s Eye was a gift from that god, and some say they used it to focus that god’s energy into a weapon. Considering they’re dead, that part probably isn’t true. I couldn’t find out anything else about them while I was in Hellsbreath; it’s one of those legends people talk about but don’t really believe.”

“You should have told me about The Tiger’s Eye,” Angus said. “I would have looked for information on it in the Wizards’ School’s library. It is quite extensive.”

Giorge shook his head. “I couldn’t risk others finding out what I was looking into. They might have followed us. Or worse. The Tiger’s Eye is one of those treasures that a lot of people dream about and would kill for—and not just the ones who kill for fun or money. If anyone knew we had a map that might lead to it, it would not have gone well. Of course,” Giorge grinned, “if we find it, we’ll become legends—and targets, just like all the rest of the extremely wealthy.”

“If we survive,” Angus mused, looking down at the distant flicker of flame at the bottom of the stairwell.

“Well,” Hobart said, “We won’t find it here.” He turned to the stairwell and started down.

14

“I don’t like this,” Ortis said as they stopped to rest. “We’ve been going down these steps for almost an hour without finding any openings.”

“I know what you mean,” Giorge added. “I’m bored. I thought something would have happened by now.”

“It is a bit odd,” Hobart conceded. “But, if you have a great treasure, wouldn’t you protect it with something like this? By the time we get down to the bottom, we’ll be too tired to fight effectively.”

“I’d protect it with traps,” Giorge said, grinning mischievously. “Lots of them.”

“They only took advantage of a natural formation and added the stairs to it,” Angus said. “There are probably more natural tunnels at the bottom.”

“Giorge is right, Angus,” Ortis agreed. “There could be traps. Maybe he should take point and the rest of us follow in a staggered formation.”

“Fine with me,” Giorge said, moving to the front. “I’m bored anyway.” One at a time the others followed, each about twenty steps behind the man in front of him. Twenty minutes later, Giorge was at the bottom of the stairwell waiting for the others to join him.

“Nothing,” Giorge grunted, sneering and slapping the rough wall of the stairwell.

“Not quite,” Angus said. “Don’t you see it?” He pointed at a reddish shadow on the wall. “Right there?”

“See what?” Hobart puffed as he joined them. He slid the ropes from his shoulders and dropped them to the floor, and then he sagged heavily against the stairwell wall.

“Did either of you bring a bracelet?”

Giorge grinned at Hobart. “I thought they might come in handy as a doorstop,” he said, taking a bracelet out and handing it to Angus. “What are you looking at?”

“The wall,” Angus said. “There’s a dull red shadow. Are you sure you can’t see it?”

“I don’t see anything but the wall,” Giorge said.

“That’s all I see,” Hobart added. “What does it look like?”

Angus pointed to the bracelet. “It’s like this insignia,” he said. “The curves of the shadow follow the same pattern, but this section is missing.” He traced the shadow for them. “I think it’s a seal of some kind.”

The others stared at the wall until Ortis said, “Are you sure? I don’t see anything either.”

“Yes, it’s right—”

A series of snapping sounds echoed down from high above them, steadily growing louder as their echoes approached.

“What’s that?” Ortis asked as he turned around and ran up the stairs.

“A trap!” Hobart cried. “And we’re caught in it!”

“How?” Angus asked, turning to follow Ortis.

“No!” Giorge warned. “The steps are collapsing! We can’t get out that way.”

Angus paused, but Ortis kept running.

“We can only wait to see what happens when they reach us. It might not do anything other than collapsing the stairs and leaving us here. Or—”

There was a horrid grating, and the floor began sliding into the wall, moving slowly toward the symbol Angus had seen.

Giorge frowned and moved to the edge of the floor where it was already opening up. He sighed. “Or it could drop us into something pretty nasty.”

“What is it?” Hobart asked.

“A pit,” Giorge said as he knelt down and leaned over the edge. “It’s about thirty feet deep. There are iron stakes—a lot of them. There are some skeletons, too; they look like adventurers by their armor and weapons.”

Angus studied the shadowy insignia. It had to be a key, didn’t it? A way to open a door that only the followers of Angst could see? There had to be a way to open it, didn’t there? No one would make such an elaborate trap that ended nowhere, would they? They could, but…. He pushed against the different parts of the shadowy insignia, but nothing happened. Then, on impulse, he pushed the section of the wall where the missing part of the insignia should have been. It gave, sliding inward about two inches, and the rest of the insignia evaporated. A moment later, a section of the wall slid apart to reveal a narrow opening. Beyond it was a long tunnel, just wide enough for a large man to pass.

“Quick!” Angus cried, as he stepped through the opening. A moment later, Giorge followed after him. But Hobart lingered on the retracting floor near the opening.

“There has to be a way to reset the trap or make it stop,” Giorge said, pushing past Angus. “We have to find it!”

About five feet inside the tunnel, there were two small side passages. Giorge took the left and Angus the right.

“It’s in here,” Giorge called.

“How does it work?” Angus asked as he joined him. It was a small chamber, and along the left wall were a series of metal gears and levers. The gears were turning steadily, clicking noisily as the teeth meshed and rust flaked free.

“Give me a minute,” Giorge said, tracing the connections of the gears and levers.

“Ortis doesn’t have a minute,” Angus said.

“I know,” Giorge said. “Can you do anything?”

Angus nodded, went back into the main tunnel, and sought out a blue strand of sky magic. It was difficult to find one; they were deep enough underground that almost all of the magical strands were the red shades of flame magic—many of them quite dark and radiating tremendous power—or brown ones of earth magic.

Hobart tossed the ropes he had carried down into the tunnel and stepped into the narrow opening. He turned and stared up the stairwell.

Angus finally found a faint blue strand and reached for it, weaving it into the knotted sequence for the flying spell. It was a weak strand, easy to manage but not very potent. His spell would not last as long, but it would be easier to manipulate it.

“Gods,” Hobart muttered as the floor clanked to a stop in the wall beneath them.

“Let me by,” Angus said.

Hobart barely looked up as he reached for the rope and said, “I have to catch him if I can.” He made a large loop in the rope and squatted down, bracing his calves and shins against the tunnel walls. The rope dangled below him as he extended his arms and made a practice toss with the noose.

“I will catch him if you let me by,” Angus said from behind and above him.

Hobart turned and looked as if he were about to protest, but when he saw Angus hovering behind him, he hunched down as far as he could.

Angus guided himself out by pulling with his hands instead of working the spell; the area was narrow, and his ability to aim was still uncertain.

“Here,” Hobart said, holding out the rope. “Take this.”

Angus nodded, took hold of the rope and tweaked the thread. He shot forward more quickly than he expected and barely managed to redirect himself upward before banging into the wall. The rope dangled beneath him like a long tail as he rose rapidly upward for about fifty feet. Ortis was tumbling down the slope of the stairwell, each of his constituents about ten feet apart.

Angus positioned himself, took hold of the rope, and whipped it around until most of it was lying on the stairwell. If Ortis was lucky, if he was quick enough, he might be able to catch onto it. But Angus didn’t want to rely upon luck; he brought his skills into play. He estimated the distance between himself and the first Ortis; he anticipated the trajectory for where he would be in three seconds, and he tweaked the thread, directing himself to that location.

He overshot it, but it didn’t matter. His timing was right, and Ortis collided with him, grappled with him, clung to his arm. Then Angus banged into the wall and almost lost him—but Ortis was clinging too tightly to him for that—and for controlling the spell!

“Get on my back!” Angus shouted. “I need my hands!”

Ortis hesitated only briefly before he maneuvered himself into position, his arms and legs wrapped around Angus’s torso and hips. Then the second Ortis was upon him, lunged for his legs. The impact and additional weight almost caused Angus to lose control of the thread—and would have if it had been a stronger one—and made maneuvering too difficult for his novice ability at flight. He floated outward, away from the slope, and fluttered downward. He had to drop the rope to regain control, and by the time he had, the third Ortis was past him.

Angus frantically redirected himself downward, and they dropped quickly—too quickly; the pit was rapidly approached, and in desperation, Angus redirected them sideways and used the wall to brake to a stop, almost losing both Ortises in the process.

The third Ortis tried to leap for Hobart, tried to catch the rope Hobart threw near him—but missed them both. When he struck the stakes, both of the Ortises with Angus tensed, the one clinging to his chest nearly cracking ribs as he squeezed the air from Angus’s lungs.

“Grab him!” Angus gasped, as he guided them to the wall near Hobart.

The tenseness in the Ortises suddenly eased, and the one dangling from his feet relaxed his grip, began to slide limply down the wall. The one wrapped around him began to tilt away, to slide, but Angus spread his legs as wide as he could and used his right arm to grip Ortis’s wrist. With his left, he lowered them down until they were level with the opening, and then used it to push himself along the wall until he could step inside. Once there, he turned around and let Ortis slump to the ground. Then he turned to the third Ortis, the one he had not been able to catch.

“Found it!” Giorge cried into the sudden silence. A moment later, the stairwell floor began to slide slowly out of the wall.

Angus flew cautiously to the third Ortis. He was impaled on metallic, spear-like stakes in the middle of the pit. One of them jutted up through his back, another pinioned his left leg, and a third had torn through the soft flesh of his right arm.

The floor was already a foot away from the wall, but it would take time to reach the other end. If he hurried….

Angus let himself fall until he was almost on top of the spear-like stakes, and then arrested his descent by transferring the momentum horizontally. When he was near Ortis, he stopped and, rather than flying closer to Ortis, used the spikes as if they were stepping stones, lightly pushing off from one to the next until he was hovering next to Ortis.

He paused, turned back toward the opening, and shouted, “He’s dead.”

The floor now extended about five feet—a third of the way—and would soon be over his head. He prepared to fly upward, but Hobart stopped him.

“Not yet,” Hobart shouted. “You need to bring his body back.”

Angus frowned. What’s the point? Does it really matter where he’s buried? Then he shrugged. It did to Teffles. Maybe it does to Ortis, too.

Angus gripped Ortis’s belt firmly in his right hand, and tugged on the thread, urging it to lift them up. He had braced himself for the jarring resistance of Ortis’s body, but was pleasantly surprised by how easily his corpse slid free from the stakes. He rose upward several feet, his right arm and shoulder straining against the additional weight of Ortis’s body. He redirected them sideways until they were over the floor—it had passed the halfway point—and dropped him. He fell only a few feet, and when he landed, he quivered a bit and didn’t move any more.

Hobart hurried out to him, lifted him easily over his shoulder, and carried him into the tunnel.

Angus settled down onto the floor, quickly adjusted to its motion, and was about to release the thread when Hobart returned to the entry.

“We’ll need all the food we can spare and more,” Hobart said. “We don’t have nearly enough down here. Can you get more?”

“Why?” Angus asked. The thread was weak, and even though he could control it for a while longer, he wasn’t sure how long.

“Ortis can sometimes heal himself,” Hobart said. “But he needs to eat a lot to do it.”

“All right,” Angus said, “I’ll need a torch.”

“Giorge! Light a torch!”

While he waited, Angus reasserted his control over the thread by reinforcing the fraying knot. It was the only thing he could think of doing to extend the spell’s life, and he wasn’t sure it would work. But if he lost control while he was flying up or down the stairwell….

When he had the torch in hand, he lifting himself rapidly up through the stairwell. When he reached the octagonal room, he slowed his ascent and redirected himself to the rope dangling from the trapdoor. He used it to guide himself upward, and then half-crawled, half-fluttered down the tunnel, the smoke of the torch stinging his eyes. Once in the room, he half-ran, half-floated until he was outside, and then flew to the horses. He quickly gathered up the hardtack and was about to go back when he remembered something Fyngar had written:

The plains folk gathered around a pile of grain that was taller than they were and began eating.

If Ortis was one of them, couldn’t he eat grain? He decided to find out. He gathered the full feedbags from some of the horses and tossed them over his shoulder before flying back into the ruins. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairwell, he was out of breath. He dropped the sacks and feedbags, and slumped to the floor. The stairs still clattering into place, and they were getting closer. He let the spell go and waited for his breathing to ease before carrying the supplies into the tunnel.

“How is he?” Angus asked when he found them in the antechamber opposite the trap’s control room. It was a small chamber—not quite a ten foot cube—and Ortis was lying on the floor in its center. The two healthy constituents were on either side of the dead one, and each one was holding onto a hand.

“Not good,” Hobart said, rising to help him. When Angus handed him a feedbag, Hobart raised his eyes and said, “Grain?”

Angus shrugged. “It’s food, isn’t it?”

Hobart shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll eat it if there isn’t anything else left.” He positioned the food around Ortis, within easy reach of the healthy one’s hands, and then knelt to whisper something in his ear. When he was finished, he rose and walked over to Angus and Giorge.

“He needs privacy,” Hobart said, ushering them out of the room. “It will take time for him to recover—if he can.”

“Recover?” Angus repeated. “But that one is dead.”

“Not while the other two are alive,” Hobart said. “Triads are a strange breed. I’ve seen Ortis heal wounds before, but nothing like this. I don’t know if he can do it or not, but at least he’s going to try. We need to let him do it. It takes an incredible amount of concentration and energy, even for a minor wound, and this….” He shook his head. “It might not work.”

“What is he doing?” Angus asked as he allowed himself to be led away.

“He doesn’t talk about it,” Hobart said. “Neither should we. All I know for sure is that if you want to kill a Triad, you have to kill at least two of the three constituents to make sure it stays dead. If you don’t, the other two can transfer their energy—their health—to the dead one. It has to be done quickly, and it doesn’t always work. He’ll be famished afterward.”

“How much do you know about this?” Angus asked.

“Not much,” Hobart admitted. “It’s just one of the conditions he had when he joined my Banner. He didn’t go into details.”

“Do you know how he does it?”

“I have no idea,” Hobart said. “The few times I’ve seen him heal himself, he just held hands, closed his eyes, and a little bit later the wound was gone. Those have all been minor wounds, though; nothing like this. You noticed there wasn’t much blood, didn’t you? Well, it’s always like that. The three constituents each have their own body, but they’re all connected together as a single thing. If one of them is severely injured, it will shut itself down until the other two can help it. It looks like they have died, but they haven’t. When the healing is done—if they can do it—he’ll wake up as if nothing has happened. At least, that’s how it’s gone with the minor wounds I’ve seen him heal. I don’t know about this, though.”

Hobart frowned, and looked into the control room. “We better see what Giorge is up to,” he said. “He always gets twitchy fingers in places like this. We have to watch him pretty closely; he has pockets that I don’t think even he knows about.”

I can relate to that, Angus thought as he glanced over his shoulder and imagined the healthy Ortises sending out silky filaments, slowly building up a cocoon. But Fyngar said the plains folk ate first….

15

A half hour later, when they were back in the control room, Angus asked, “What do we do now?”

“I’m going to rest,” Hobart said, “and keep watch over Ortis.”

“I’m going to scout some more,” Giorge said. “I didn’t get very far before you caught up with me, and we need to know what else is down here. I won’t go much further, though; I could use some rest, too.”

“I’ll keep watch if you think we need it,” Angus said. “I haven’t been up for that long.”

“There can’t be much down here but traps,” Giorge said. “At least, not the kind of things we’d expect to find in a dungeon. We’re too far below ground for rats and things like that. The ones who built this place are long dead—unless they’re not, and if they aren’t, we need to know about that sooner rather than later so we can get out of here before they eat us. Of course, there could be things down here that we’ve never seen before, but we won’t know that until we find them, and we won’t find them unless we start looking. Of course, they might find us….” Giorge continued muttering to himself as he walked out into the tunnel.

Not long after Giorge left, Hobart sat down against the wall and closed his eyes, and in less than a minute, he was beginning to snore. Angus waited another half hour before picking up the torch and walking softly out of the room and across the corridor to where Ortis was recuperating. He paused only a moment to make sure Hobart was still snoring before he thrust the torch through the opening and looked inside.

He didn’t know what he had expected to see, but whatever it was, he wasn’t right. Inside the room, the three Ortises looked almost exactly like they had when he had seen them last. There were no cocoons, no tendrils snaking out from their hands, no buds sprouting up among them, no half-devoured corpse—the only thing that was different was the wound. Instead of a gaping hole in Ortis’s chest, there was new flesh forming. He could almost see the bones merging together, the new skin forming….

Quite a bit of the food had been eaten, but he hadn’t touched the grain—yet.

Angus shook his head and turned around. There was no point in watching; whatever was going to happen was going to happen. He’d have to ask about it later; it would be a good opportunity to find out more about what Ortis was….

Instead of returning to the room with Hobart, Angus decided to check on Giorge. He walked softly down the corridor and looked at the dust to see which way Giorge had gone. He followed the trail until he rounded a corner and saw him. Giorge had his back to him and was looking through an open doorway. Angus smiled, backed around the corner, and propped the torch up against the wall. Then he quietly walked down the corridor until he was standing behind Giorge.

Giorge was muttering to himself. “It’s a trap. It has to be. Who would leave gems all by themselves in a bowl like that? It only invites curiosity.”

Angus stepped up and looked over his shoulder. There was a large room, and in the middle, about fifteen feet away, was a short table with a bowl of gems sitting on it.

“No panels on the floor. No arrow slits in the walls. No ceiling stones ready to fall.”

Angus imagined Giorge frowning as he went through his checklist.

“I should go back and tell the others,” he muttered. “But they’re busy. Besides, they won’t mind, will they? What are a few gems among friends?”

Angus smiled. Giorge has twitchy fingers….

“I should share them, though,” he continued. “Hobart will hire a Truthseer.” Then he laughed and added, “I’m talking to myself, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” Angus answered from behind him.

Giorge squawked and leapt into the room. He twisted in midair and landed with a dagger in his hand.

The floor clicked.

Angus laughed and said, “A bit jumpy, aren’t you?” He started forward. “What did you find?”

“Stop!” Giorge cried as his knife slashed out in front of him.

Angus stepped back to avoid the wild slash and looked at Giorge. “Come now, Giorge. I didn’t kill you when you snuck up on me, did I?”

Giorge glared at him, and his nearly hairless upper lip quivered as he said, “It’s trapped.”

“What’s trapped?” Angus asked.

“The floor,” Giorge growled. “It’s pressure-sensitive. When I jumped in here, it initiated something, and I don’t know what it is.”

“What can I do?” Angus asked, his momentary playfulness gone.

Giorge shrugged and took a step closer to the door. When nothing happened, he stepped out of the room. “The trap has been down here a long time,” he said, looking back into the room. “Maybe it doesn’t work any longer.”

“Possibly,” Angus agreed. “But I wouldn’t count on it.”

“I wonder what it will do if I go back in there?” Giorge asked. “If I can get to that bowl, it’s full of gems.”

“How do you know they’re gems?” Angus said. “They could be rocks painted to look like gems, a lure to draw would-be thieves into the trap.”

Giorge shrugged. “They look like it from here,” he said. “The only way to know for sure is to get closer. Here,” he held out the end of a rope. “I’ll tie this around me. If anything happens, you can pull me back out.”

Angus frowned. “We should get Hobart,” he said. “He is a better anchor than I am.”

Giorge chuckled. “Don’t tell him that,” he said. Then he grinned and added, “You only live once!” He turned and stepped gingerly back into the room. It clicked again, and he half-turned. “Usually,” he said and sidled forward, his eyes darting around the room, alert for any movement.

“They are gems!” he called, his voice radiant. “Rubies, diamonds, emeralds—they’re worth a fortune!” He opened a pouch and reached for a handful of them. He seemed poised to run, but nothing happened. He grabbed another handful—and another. Still nothing. It wasn’t until he had emptied the bowl and took his first step back toward Angus that something finally happened: There was a sharp clang, as if a piece of metal had suddenly snapped, and the floor tilted sharply, like a pulley with its weight released. Giorge took one step toward the high end—then abandoned the idea; the floor had split in half and each part was rapidly tilting upward and away from the bowl. He jumped backward, grabbed the podium on which the bowl rested, and quickly scampered up on top of it.

Angus pulled on the rope—but the doorway was disappearing. The floor was folding upward, the edge—over a foot thick—slid up past the doorway and took the end of the rope with it. When it reached the top of the doorway, it sheared off the rope, leaving the short end dangling in his hands.

“Giorge!” Angus cried as the floor rotated until it squeezed itself up against the wall and completely sealing the doorway. As it did so, he caught a brief glimpse of what was beneath the floor—more rusted, iron stakes. A lot of them. And then he found himself in near-darkness, the only light coming from the far end of the tunnel, where he had left the torch.

Angus dropped the rope and ran down the corridor. He paused to retrieve the torch as he rounded the corner, and then kept going. When he thought he was within range of being heard, he started yelling “Hobart!” as loud as he could. He kept yelling until Hobart shambled out into the hallway, his broadsword in hand. “It’s Giorge!” he yelled as he skidded to a halt. “He’s trapped!”

When he saw Hobart trundling after him, he turned and ran back down the corridor, pausing at each corner only long enough for Hobart to catch sight of where he was going.

16

“He’s in there?” Hobart gasped, looking at the dingy stone underside of the floor.

“Yes,” Angus said. “The floor—” How could he explain it? He held out his hands perpendicular to each other, the left vertical and the right horizontal. “It did this,” he said, turning his flat right hand so that it became vertical and flush with the left.

Hobart scowled, pointed at the blockage, and said, “That’s the floor?”

“Yes,” Angus said. “We need to find the trap’s mechanism. There has to be one somewhere around here.”

Hobart put his shoulder to the floor-turned-wall and grunted a few times. A few crusty flakes broke off, but the floor didn’t move. When he finally stopped, he asked, “Where could it be?”

“I have no idea,” Angus admitted. “As far as I can tell, there aren’t any other doors or rooms around here.”

“Can you melt it?” Hobart asked. “Like you did to the fishmen?”

Angus shook his head. “No,” he said. “That spell almost killed me when I cast it, so I didn’t prime for it again. Even if I had, I still wouldn’t try it; it would roast him—and us—alive in these cramped quarters.”

“How thick is this?” Hobart asked, trying his shoulder again.

“At least a foot,” Angus said. “You’ll never put a dent in it doing that.”

“The wand!” Hobart almost shouted. “You blew a hole in Hedreth’s, and you can do it here, too.”

Angus shook his head. “That’s not a good idea,” he said. “The range of the wand is too far. It would go through this easily enough, but it wouldn’t stop there. Giorge is only about fifteen feet inside there, and he’ll get hit by it too. If that happens,” Angus shrugged. “We won’t have to worry about whether or not he’ll fall.”

“Fall?” Hobart asked. “From what?”

“I saw him jump into a bowl on top of a column in the center of the room. If he stays there, he should be all right for a little while, as long as there are no more parts to the trap.”

“I saw the tunnels you made,” Hobart said. “You can aim that wand, can’t you?”

“To a certain degree,” Angus admitted.

“Where is Giorge in that room?”

“The center.”

“Fine,” Hobart said. “You can aim to avoid the center, can’t you?”

“It isn’t just that,” Angus said, shaking his head. “Using the wand in Hedreth’s nearly killed me—would have killed me if Giorge hadn’t gotten a healer.”

“It didn’t do anything to you when you made that tunnel through the lava flows,” Hobart countered.

Angus nodded. “I know,” he admitted. “And I don’t know why. I think it was because of the density of the materials I was using it on, but I can’t be sure. It could easily be something else.”

“It’s Giorge,” Hobart wailed. “You have to try!”

Angus set the torch against the wall and began pacing. He didn’t like the idea of using the wand, but Hobart had a point. There weren’t very many options. If they couldn’t find the reset mechanism—and he had no clue where it might be—then Giorge was stuck in there until he either fell out of the bowl or the trap reset itself. It would reset itself, too; he was sure of it. Unlike Hobart, who thought no one had visited the temple before them, the skeletons in the pit—and under the floor of the room Giorge was in—indicated otherwise.

“What are our options?” he muttered, then began counting them off. “We can wait and see if the trap resets itself,” he said. “If Giorge can hang on that long, he’ll be fine.”

“I’m not waiting,” Hobart said.

“We can find the trap’s reset mechanism,” he said. “But we have no idea where to even begin looking.”

“It will take too long,” Hobart said. “Even if we find it, we wouldn’t know how to work it.”

“I could use my wand,” Angus continued, “despite the risks involved.”

“What are you waiting for, Angus?” Hobart demanded. “Use it!”

“What else? A spell? Firecluster is no good; it won’t be hot enough to do more than warm the stone. Arclight? Pointless. Firewhip? Ineffective; it’s not hot enough to melt through stone, either. Lavageyser? It might be worth a try, but what would it do in such close quarters? It’s designed for soft ground, not stone, and the heat it generates probably would kill Giorge if it got close to him—not to mention what it would do to me. But it would melt rock, and if I cast it on a vertical plane instead of horizontal….

“No. When it hits the ground, it bubbles upward and sends out globs of lava in random directions. If I cast it on a vertical surface, it will shoot out horizontally, and I would be right in its path. Could I run fast enough?” He shook his head. “If there were a side tunnel, I’d try it, but not this. It would be almost certain death.”

Angus continued pacing and muttering to himself until Hobart shouted, “Enough!” He stepped up to Angus and grabbed him by the shoulders, forcing him to stop and look at him. “You will use that wand of yours, and you will save Giorge. If you don’t, I will see to it that you will suffer the same fate he does.”

Angus focused on the magic around him, grabbed the nearest strand of flame, and made the quick little knot for the Arclight spell. A moment later, Hobart yelped and jumped back. Angus slowly lifted his gaze and tried to pierce through Hobart’s pain-wracked light brown eyes to reach the deep-seated fear that dwells in all of us, and said, his voice calm, soft, “You will not threaten me Hobart. You will not touch me unless I give leave for you to do so. That little shock is but a small reminder of what I am capable of doing.”

Hobart shook his hands as if they were wet and he was desperately trying to dry them, but he didn’t say anything.

“I know you are anxious about Giorge,” Angus said. “So am I. But when it comes to magic, I will decide what will be done, not you. If I think it is too dangerous, it is too dangerous. You don’t know enough about magic to be terrified by it, and I know far too much about it not to be. Or have you already forgotten what happened to the fishmen upstairs?”

Hobart clenched his jaw to keep it shut and turned away.

“Now,” Angus said, taking out the wand. “I suggest you go back around the last corner. There will be a lot of noise.” And recoil, he added to himself. This wand is not intended to be used indoors. “Take the torch with you.” If there was something else I could do….

Hobart nodded, picked up the torch and trotted down the corridor and around the corner.

“Perhaps if I sit down?” Angus muttered, turning to the doorway and taking several paces back. “An upward arc should be enough to miss Giorge. Maybe I’ll slide backward down the corridor instead of being flung against the wall.” He positioned himself as best he could and began the movements to release the wand’s spell….

17

Angus rolled to a stop near the end of the corridor.

His ears were ringing.

His right shoulder was bruised.

He had scraped his left elbow.

The side of his head throbbed, and there was blood trickling down his cheek.

He was covered in dust and rock fragments.

When he opened his eyes, there were flickering spots dancing all around him. At first, he thought it was his imagination, but then he realized there were flickering spots where the rock particles had briefly ignited.

He opened his mouth to take a breath—and sputtered as the grit in the air clung to his throat, his tongue. He coughed and spat, then used his robe to cover his mouth and nose.

He sat up slowly—he was sore, but not in serious pain—and opened his eyes a sliver. A strange, gray-black haziness permeated the corridor, and ended with a dingy yellow glow.

Much of the end of the corridor was gone. The wand’s conical ray had disintegrated the upper half of the doorway and the stone above it. It had continued past it, through the floor that had blocked the doorway, and into the ceiling of the room where Giorge had been trapped.

Hobart hurried around the corner and the rock flakes fluttering to the ground lit up like sparks as the torchlight struck them. “Giorge!” Hobart called out, pausing only briefly as he passed Angus and made his way to the end of the corridor.

Angus continued sitting for almost a minute before he struggled unsteadily to his feet, his lower back protesting against it.

His ears were still ringing.

His nose was getting clogged, despite breathing through the fine fabric of his robe.

He reached up and gingerly felt his temple where a shard of rock had grazed him in passing. The wound wasn’t deep, and the blood was already drying.

As he tucked the wand back into his sleeve, he thought, Five more spells. Maybe I can find someone to cast the spells into it? It is a delicate process….

“Do you see him?” Angus called, his throat scratchy.

“It’s too dusty,” Hobart said waving his hand before putting it back over his nose.

“Where’s the Lamplight?” Angus asked, squinting.

“The what?” Hobart asked, still waving his hand in front of him.

“The light,” Angus said. He leaned against the wall and shuffled unsteadily toward Hobart. “Where’s the light?”

“Right there,” Hobart pointed. “In the middle of the room.”

“That’s where Giorge is,” Angus said. “The Lamplight is connected to him. Even if he were dead, it would stay next to his shoulder.”

“Giorge!” Hobart called several times as Angus made his way gingerly to his side.

“It’s no use,” Angus said through his robe. “He must have been deafened by the noise. It was pretty bad out here, and must have been much worse in there.”

“You’ll have to fly over—”

“Can’t,” Angus said, shaking his head. “I have to prime for it before I can cast it again, and that would take too long.”

“I’ll get a rope,” Hobart said, turning. “You can climb down—”

“Won’t work,” Angus said. “There were stakes beneath the floor, just like in the pit under the stairwell.”

“What can we do, then?” Hobart asked, flexing his hand like he wanted to hit something.

The haze had settled enough for them to see Giorge’s outline. He was clinging to the bowl with his head down and his chest on top of it.

“I don’t know,” Angus said. “At least we know he’s alive.”

“Maybe I can throw him a rope,” Hobart suggested. “If he catches it—”

“He’ll have to let go of that podium to catch it,” Angus interrupted. “He’ll fall.” Then he frowned. “Why would you throw him a rope?”

“If he ties it to the podium,” Hobart said through his hand, “and I hold it over here, he can crawl across. I’ve even seen him walk along a rope before.”

“It might work,” Angus said. “He already has a rope tied around him. If we bring the other end over here, do you think he will understand what we’re doing?”

Hobart frowned and dropped his hand from his mouth and nose long enough to call out, “Giorge! Can you hear me?”

No answer.

“He has to be deaf,” Angus said. “It should wear off in time, but he can’t hear us now.”

“I think he’ll figure it out,” Hobart said. “But it might take him a little while.”

“Let’s hope he does,” Angus said, drawing the magic around him into focus. He winced and his arm reflexively went up to shield his eyes. It did no good; there was a huge swath of flame magic dancing around in front of him, and the strands almost blinded him; they were even brighter than the complex network of spells protecting Hellsbreath. He gasped and dropped to his knees, letting the magic fade back into the background. After it was gone, the after-image lingered for several seconds.

Hobart half-reached for him, paused, and asked, “Are you all right?”

Angus blinked several times, the rock particles scraping uncomfortably against his eyes. “I will be,” he said after a moment. “It caught me by surprise.”

“What did?” Hobart asked.

Angus shook his head and held his breath until he could bring the robe back over his nose. “It might have been the tumble I took catching up to me,” he lied. How could he explain what he had seen? Hobart wouldn’t even begin to understand it, and this was not the time for a lengthy explanation. Even if it were, he wouldn’t be inclined to tell him.

He pushed himself into a seated position and leaned against the corridor wall. This time, he turned away from the room and brought the energy into focus. It was more tolerable with the energy behind him, but there was still a tremendous array of flame magic to draw upon. Fiercely brilliant, deep-red threads of great power. But he needed sky magic, not flame, and it took a long time to single out a thin blue strand from all the red chaos surrounding him. When he found it, he held his breath and tied the quick knot for Puffer. Then he braced himself, sending the magic as far to the periphery as he dared before turning around. The magic was so strong that it looked as if he still had it fully in focus, but it was manageable.

He sent the light breeze toward the rope dangling from Giorge, and it fluttered. He squeezed the knot a little tighter to make the breeze stronger, reducing his control over it. Nearly a minute passed before he was able to bring the rope into reach with a series of rapid bursts of wind. Hobart leaned forward to grab it.

The rope was barely long enough to reach through the hole in the floor-now-wall, and when he had a firm grip, Hobart gave it a brisk tug.

“Stop!” Giorge yelled. “You’ll pull me off!”

“Giorge!” Hobart called as he let up on the rope. “Can you hear me?”

No response.

“Let me try,” Angus said, reaching out with his right hand. He took the rope and flicked it back and forth, sending a series of waves down the rope toward Giorge. He kept flicking it for several seconds, and then stopped abruptly.

“What good will all that wiggling do?” Hobart asked.

Angus shrugged. “I’m hoping he will realize we’re holding onto the rope and want him to tie it off.”

Another minute went by, and then Giorge stirred, tentatively shifting his position until his knees were in the bowl. He balanced precariously and loosened the rope loop around his chest. He slid it down to his knees and worked it over his feet. He held onto the rope at the loop’s knot, and then maneuvered very slowly until he was scrunched up enough to pull the loop tight around the podium.

Angus handed the rope back to Hobart, who pulled the rope taut and braced himself.

Giorge continued his slow, methodical ballet of slothful movements until he was dangling upside down from the rope. He slowly slid away from the podium, his hands pulling him along with his legs trailing behind, wrapped around the rope.

Hobart coughed and leaned back, but shook his head when Angus moved to help him with the rope.

Once Giorge had moved a few feet, he began pulling with greater urgency and quickly crossed over the pit. When he was within reach, Angus tapped him on his shoulder and guided him through the opening and into the tunnel.

“My eyes,” Giorge sputtered. “I can’t see.” He coughed.

“Can you hear us?” Angus asked.

No answer.

“Let’s get him out of this corridor,” Hobart said. “There’s too much dust in the air.”

Angus nodded and led Giorge down the corridors, not entirely sure who was leaning against whom. When they reached the control room, they set him down and washed the dust off Giorge’s face. His eyes were bright red, and they poured water over them for several seconds, despite his attempts to avoid it.

“Can you hear anything?” Angus asked, his voice loud. “Can you see?”

Giorge closed his eyes and didn’t respond.

Angus took went to his backpack, opened it, and scrounged around until he found the pot of healing balm. He pried open the lid and looked inside. It was nearly empty, barely half an inch of the goop clung to the bottom. He reached inside with two fingers and brought out a big glob. He looked at Giorge and said, “I hope this works on eyes as well as it does on skin.”

Hobart frowned but said nothing.

Angus spread the salve around Giorge’s eyes first, then on the lids. He was sure the pain was already subsiding, as it had done with his own burns, and he hoped that Giorge would trust him to spread the goo onto the eyes, themselves. Surprisingly, Giorge opened them on his own and didn’t even flinch as Angus’s fingers moved gently over the spongy surface. When he finished, Hobart took a clean piece of cloth out of a sack and wrapped it around Giorge’s eyes.

“Do you think it will help?” Hobart asked.

“I have no idea,” Angus said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“I’ll keep watch on him,” Ortis said as he leaned heavily against the doorway. “What happened?”

While Hobart gave him a brief recap of what he knew, Angus recaptured the Lamplight and stood up. He lifted the empty water flask and said, “We need more water. I’ll try to find some down here.” He squeezed through the doorway, past Ortis—who had something sticky on his arms and hands—and went down the corridor, back to the chamber Giorge had found. He doubted he would find water in it, but he needed to get another look at the magic, first.

The dust was still settling, still obscuring his vision, but that didn’t matter; the magic would still be clear, and he needed to find out where it was coming from. He knew what it was, and it frightened him, intrigued him. It was a nexus.

18

Voltari turned to Angus and said, “It is time for you to learn where the magic comes from.”

Angus frowned. “I thought it came from the strands of energy surrounding us.”

“That is what we draw upon,” Voltari said. “It is not the source from which the strands sprout.”

Voltari put his hand on Angus’s shoulder and tweaked the strands of his teleportation spell. It was not the usual quick flick of his fingers that would take him from one room to another; rather, it was a complex series of gestures that danced along the knots he had already set in place. Then the practice chamber disappeared, and he was surrounded by the black strands of death. There were many of them, very dark and waving about as if they sought to devour something, anything, everything.

“We must not stay long,” Voltari said. “Do you see the strands?”

Angus nodded. “Yes, Master.”

“Do you see where they come from?”

Angus studied their pattern and realized they all originated in the deep crack below them. He pointed. “They seem to be coming from down there,” he said.

Voltari nodded. “Yes,” he said. “It is a nexus.”

Angus frowned. Nexus? It was a new concept, and he wondered what it was. He was about to ask Voltari when his master continued.

“A nexus,” Voltari said, “is a fixed point of magic. It may be a place where the threads come together, merge, and separate again, or it is the place from which a particular form of magic originates. The latter are extremely dangerous; the power is raw and untamed. The spells that draw upon the power of an origination point will be magnified disproportionately and difficult to control. It is best not to use them.”

“My tower is built on this minor nexus where threads from decay and death merge together. You cannot see it from here; it is too deep within that crack. I know of other minor nexuses that have been claimed by wizards who specialize in other forms of magic. The Wizards’ Schools are all built upon nexus points where many different threads merge together. The Wizards’ School in Wayfair is built upon a particularly powerful one, a major nexus, that is both a concentration of energies and an origination point of two distinct forms of magic. I know of only one other major nexus, and that is deep within the mountains; it fuels the magic of the dwarves and keeps their forges burning. But they are incompetent fools who barely know how to tap into its energy.”

Voltari fell into an angry silence for several seconds, and then returned them to the practice room. When it appeared he was about to leave, Angus asked, “What should I do if I ever find a nexus?”

“You?” Voltari laughed. “Run. You don’t have the ability to tame it, to make it do your bidding.”

“What if I did have that power?” Angus asked.

Voltari cuffed him, laughed, and teleported away.

19

“We can’t stay down here,” Hobart said. “We’ve already left the horses alone for too long.”

“Something might have seen Angus’s flare, too,” Ortis added.

“At least we shouldn’t have to worry about the cat-things,” Angus said. “They appear to be more-or-less domesticated.”

“Giorge needs more time to recover,” Ortis said. “It’s been less than a day.”

“It’s too bad all those other rooms were empty,” Hobart said.

“As far as we could tell,” Angus said. “We didn’t search them close enough to find trapdoors, secret tunnels—”

“Traps,” Hobart interjected.

“While we wait for Giorge to recover,” Angus said. “I’d like to take another look at that pit.”

“Why?” Hobart asked. “You’ve already spent a lot of time there.”

“I know,” Angus said. “Call it a feeling if you want to, but there’s something down there.”

“What if there is?” Hobart said. “How would we get down to it?”

Angus shrugged. “Give me a few hours rest to rejuvenate my energy matrix, and I’ll prime my flying spell.”

“The way you fly,” Hobart muttered, “You’ll run into the wall again.”

Angus chuckled. “Probably,” he agreed. “But if I don’t practice, I’ll never get better. It is a new spell for me, after all.”

“All right,” Ortis said. “I’ll go up to check on the horses and bring back some food and water.”

“Do you think you can make it up the staircase in your condition?”

Ortis nodded. “It might take me a while, but I can do it.”

“I’m going to take a nap,” Angus said. “I’m getting a bit tired, anyway. You can check up on Giorge, can’t you Hobart?”

Hobart nodded and turned away.

Two Ortises went down the corridor and out into the stairwell; the other one followed Hobart.

Angus went into the antechamber where Ortis had healed himself and looked around for a few minutes before sitting down in a corner to sleep. The same sticky substance was on the floor that he had felt on Ortis’s arm when he had passed him, and he wondered if there had been a cocoon after all. If only he had had time to look in on him again….

20

By the time Angus had finished priming his spells—Lamplight, Flying, Puffer, Arclight—Ortis had returned and Giorge had woken up. Giorge could hear again, but his vision was still blurry.

Ortis told them the cat-things were still in the grain near the temple, but they were keeping their distance. The horses were fine.

“Well?” Angus asked as he joined them. “Are we going to look in that room again, or not?”

“You know there’s nothing there but the pit,” Hobart said.

“Yes there is,” Giorge said. He reached into his tunic and brought out a small pouch. He opened the ties and tipped some of the gems into his hand. “I dropped the other bag,” he said.

Hobart reached over and picked up a pea-sized emerald. “These will fetch a handsome price,” he said. “How many are there?”

“Enough to lift Angus’s injunction, winter in Hellsbreath, and buy Hedreth’s inn a half-dozen times. If we get the other bag.”

“Don’t forget the taxes,” Hobart said. “The king will want his share.”

“That’s what the other bag is for,” Giorge said. “We can leave it here and let the king’s men come back and get it for the king, can’t we?”

Hobart glared at him and shook his head. “The king is generous enough to us as it is. He deserves his due.”

“Oh?” Giorge countered. “And what, exactly, did he do to help us find this place? Did he come down here with us? Did he almost die? Did he go blind? No. We’re not even in his land anymore.”

“That isn’t quite true,” Hobart said, frowning. “He claims The Tween as his own.”

“So do the Dwarves,” Giorge said. “Maybe we should pay them taxes.”

“Never mind that,” Ortis said. “There will be plenty of time to argue the point on our way back to Hellsbreath.”

“Right,” Angus said. “You said you dropped another pouch in that room. How do we get down to it?”

“What about that spell you used to lift the rope?” Hobart asked. “That pouch has to weigh a lot less than the rope.”

Angus tilted his head and half-smiled. “If I can see it, I’ll try,” he said. “But I will have to go into the room to see it.”

“So,” Hobart said. “You’re going to fly, then?”

Angus nodded. “Unless you have another idea for avoiding the stakes.”

No one had any suggestions, and into the silence Giorge said, “At least I can see a little better today.”

“Sorry about that,” Angus said. “I tried to minimize the risk from the wand.”

Giorge nodded. “Hobart told me. I should thank you for getting me out of there, but,” he shrugged and pointed at his eyes. “I might have found a way out myself, if you’d given me more time.”

“We didn’t think we could wait,” Hobart said. “Besides, if we get those other gems, it will surely be enough to hire a healer when we get back to Hellsbreath.”

Giorge shrugged. “At least I didn’t fall and die,” he said, grinning. “All my plans seemed to end that way.”

“Look,” Angus said. “I’m going to see if I can find the pouch. Are you coming or not?” He turned and walked down the corridor, casting the Lamplight spell as he went and placing it over his left shoulder. When he reached the end of the corridor and turned, he sought out the faint strand of blue and tied the knots for the flying spell. By the time he reached the room, he had the third spell—Puffer—ready in his mind. He pushed all of the other strands away from him, and kept them at the periphery of his visual field.

He leapt through the hole he had made with the wand and fell, stopping himself in a hover a few feet above the stakes. He maneuvered to the column with the bowl on it, and looked at the floor below him. He frowned. It was covered with a thick layer of rock dust, and he couldn’t see the pouch. He sighed, cast Puffer, and began blowing the dust outward in a spiral away from the column. When he found the pouch, he intensified the breeze and tried to lift it from the floor. It fluttered, and the pouch became upright with the drawstring sticking up straight, but that was all he could manage. He frowned; it was as he had feared: the gems held the pouch down. He sighed and carefully maneuvered among three stakes, but he didn’t fit well and came up about a foot short.

He rose sharply and stopped when he was next to the bowl. He hovered there and pulled off his boot. He set it in the bowl and carefully lowered himself with delicate little vibrations on the thread of the flying spell. He continued to nudge the spell until his leg was positioned above the opening among the stakes, and then lowered himself at a very slow rate, sweat beading on his brow from the effort to control his descent. When he felt the ties of the pouch with his big toe, he wiggled it around until the drawstring looped around it, then lifted himself gently into the air. When he was free of the stakes, he rose more rapidly, rising above the bowl and dropping the pouch into it.

There was a click.

The floor began to slide back down the wall.

The others watched as it descended into its natural place.

Hobart frowned from the doorway, with Ortis looking over his shoulder. “Now what do we do?” he asked, staring at the gaping hole in front of him where the wand had destroyed the floor.

“What happened?” Giorge asked from behind them.

“The floor slid back into place,” Ortis said.

“Why did it do that?” Giorge asked, pushing past Ortis. “What did you do?” he asked Angus.

Angus reached for his boot and slid it onto his feet. Then he removed the pouch from the bowl and flew up to them. “The bowl must be weight-sensitive,” he said. “When I put these back in the bowl, there was a click, and the floor went back into place.”

“What can we put in it?” Giorge asked.

“We haven’t found anything down here that’s heavy enough,” Hobart said. “It’s all empty corridors and rooms.”

“The feedbags,” Ortis said. “We can put one of them on it.”

“It needs to be about the same weight,” Giorge muttered. “The feedbag will be too heavy.”

“But the grain won’t,” Hobart said, turning. “And we can fill it again when we go.” He walked past them, carrying the torch.

“I’ll look around while we wait,” Angus said, executing a slow pirouette and stopping when he faced the far wall. The strands of flame were potent, encroaching upon his awareness even though he fought against them and pushed them even further away. He focused more acutely on the strands of sky magic that he needed to keep floating. Then he dipped down into the hole and flew up to the column. The rope was still dangling, and he picked it up. Before heading back up through the hole with it, he looked around at the pit, at the walls, at the column. There were three or four skeletons that he thought about investigating, but the stakes were in the way, and he didn’t have the time.

When he floated back up through the hole and handed the rope to Giorge, he said, “We can use this to reach the floor if we need to.”

Giorge accepted it, shrugged, and said, “It’s only about eight feet,” he said. “We should be able to jump across it.”

Angus ignored him and fluttered around the room, looking for doors, seams, panels—anything that might lead to an opening. He was at the far wall when Hobart returned with the feedbag. He went to get it and then began pouring the grain into the bowl. When he thought he had enough, he stopped, and Giorge said, “More.”

Angus looked at him and shook his head. “This should be enough for two pouches of gems,” he said.

Giorge shrugged and said, “More.”

“Why?” Angus asked.

Giorge sighed and reached into his tunic. He brought out another, smaller pouch.

Angus shook his head and put more grain into the bowl.

“All right Giorge,” Hobart said. “You’re paying for a Truthseer when we get back.”

“Now Hobart,” Giorge said. “You know me. Don’t I always share what I find?”

Hobart frowned at him.

“Eventually?” Giorge added.

“As far as we know,” Hobart said. “You could have held out on us lots of times.”

Giorge shook his head. “Never,” he said. “It’s always for the sake of the Banner.”

“Really?” Hobart said, his voice dry.

Giorge nodded enthusiastically, held out the little pouch, and shook it. “You don’t think protection from theft is free, do you? These gems will keep the thieves of Hellsbreath away from us all winter and then some.”

“Unless they want more of them,” Hobart grumbled.

Giorge shook his head. “Never,” he said. “Dirk wouldn’t let them.”

“Dirk?” Ortis repeated. “Isn’t he the one who sent the Truthseer after you and Angus?”

Giorge nodded. “Nobody in Hellsbreath crosses him more than once, and few do it the first time. These stones will guarantee his protection.”

Angus settled down onto the floor with his full weight. It clicked, but nothing more happened. “It seems to be all right,” he said. “But keep hold of the rope, just in case.” He also kept the spell active as he walked to the back wall, the one behind which the nexus had to lie. Where would they hide a door? A loose panel? Something to grant him access to it? Or was there another room that led to it?

He was so intent in looking for it that he let the strand slip free of his grip and let the magic dip from his awareness. But there was nothing. He finally turned away from it and shook his head. “I can’t find anything,” he said. As he said it, he glanced at the bowl and frowned. There was another red shadow, a small one on the back of the column on which the bowl rested. As he hurried up to it, he noticed that a different part was missing on this one. Like he had done with the first one, he pressed the missing section and waited.

There was a click.

The floor began to move downward at a slow, steady rate.

“Angus!” Giorge shouted as the rope slipped from his hands.

But Angus wasn’t worried; he was confident it wasn’t a trap. He smiled and turned around.

The floor continued to drop for about six feet, and on the far wall, there was a slot just wide enough for an average man to squeeze through. He walked up to it, guided the Lamplight inside, and it flared brilliantly, writhed uncontrollably, and escaped his control.

“Duck!” he yelled as he twisted away from the opening and covered his eyes. A moment later, the Lamplight exploded in a violent burst of light.

“Are you all right?” he yelled to the others, blinded by the near-darkness he found himself in.

“No,” Giorge said. “I still can’t see well.”

“I’m weak,” Ortis said, “but recovering.”

“We ducked,” Hobart said. “What was that?”

Angus frowned. “Light another torch and throw it over here,” he said. “The Lamplight burned out.”

By the time Hobart had another torch lit, Angus was growing accustomed to the darkness. Hobart tossed the torch into the corner away from Angus, and he went quickly over to retrieve it. Then he went back to the opening and held the torch inside.

It flared, burning more brightly than normal, its flickering flames dancing on the smooth, reflective surface of a small circular, domed room. Hovering in the center of it was a huge ruby, at least as large as Hobart’s fist. It floated there, slowly rotating, its facets flickering as the torchlight struck them.

Angus stepped through the opening and slowly, gently, brought the magic around him into focus. Beneath the ruby, a huge strand of deep crimson raged, an inferno held barely in check. It struck the bottom of the ruby and fractured, breaking into powerful, fluctuating strands that shot outward from the ruby’s facets. They writhed furiously as if they were trying to come back together, and then shot upward and outward, away from the ruby, away from each other. It was entrancing, enthralling. It called to him.

Join us. A chorus of voices sang out. Be one with the magic.

It was a delightful, radiant offer. Join us.

He stepped forward—

Be one with the magic.

There was nothing under his foot!

He toppled forward, lost his balance.

He dropped the torch.

For a long moment, he hung there, suspended above a vast chasm.

Join us! Join us!

A hand grabbed his robe from behind and pulled him back.

He watched the torch tumbling further and further into nothingness—a nothingness that would have consumed him if—

He shuddered and turned around. His breathing was labored, his heart pounded in his chest.

“What are you doing?” Ortis asked, once Angus had regained his footing. “What’s in there?”

Angus shook his head. “Nothing,” Angus said, pushing his way out of the entrance. “It’s a trap!”

“Let me see,” Ortis said, trying to step past him.

Angus barred him with his arm. “It’s too dangerous,” Angus gasped. “You’ll fall.”

“We’ll get a rope—”

Angus shook his head. “It’s a hole that goes down for hundreds of feet. Thousands. The torch I dropped is still falling.”

Ortis stepped forward and felt his way around in the darkness until he reached the edge of the pit. He looked around, looked down, and said, “It’s too dark in here. I can’t see anything.”

“Exactly,” Angus said. “That’s all there is. Nothing.”

“But the Lamplight—”

Angus struggled to get his breathing under control, to calm his heart. “There is a nexus—a confluence of magical energy—down there. A major one,” he said.

Join us—a soft whisper, almost distant now, almost more compelling than the jubilant cry.

“It’s the source of the fire magic in this area,” Angus rushed on, as much to hear himself as to tell Ortis. “The flame magic surges up from that abyss and fragments into dozens of tendrils, each one intensely powerful. The tendrils shoot outward in all directions, weakening as they get further away from here.”

His hands were shaking, and he turned suddenly and looked at Ortis, his eyes wide, the magic dancing in them. “Remember the Lamplight? The power of the strand that is used to create it affects how long it will last. You saw what happened when it came in contact with the nexus; the surge of power burned through the spell in moments.”

What he had said so far was true, as far as it went, but he had left out The Tiger’s Eye’s role in the fracturing of the nexus stream.

“We need to get out of here,” he gasped. Then his voice softened as he corrected himself, “I need to. The closer I am to the nexus, the stronger its influence is on me.”

Join us! a resurgence of vigor, a gentle, soothing appeal.

“You saw what happened to the fishmen,” Angus continued, his voice rushed, harsh, rasping. He was beginning to sweat. His left hand was shaking. “You said that flare could be seen for a hundred miles. That was only a fraction of the power that’s down here.” Tears were forming at the edge of his eyes. His ears were ringing again. His voice rose almost to a shout. “One strand,” he lied, holding up his finger for emphasis. “One. If I cast any flame-based spell down here, there is no telling how destructive it will be.”

Ortis continued to stand there, looking back over his shoulder. “I don’t see anything,” he said.

“You wouldn’t,” Angus said, giggling frantically as he staggered away from the opening. “Unless you can see the strands of magic,” he accused.

Join us! Join us!

His heart was pounding.

He struggled for breath.

He longed to lunge past Ortis, to dive down into that unfathomable depth of magic and wonder, to lose himself there….

He turned back, took a step.

Slap. Angus’s hand went to his cheek where his master had struck him.

Run.

He blinked and shook his head. He was panting heavily now.

“Come with me,” Angus said as he stumbled up to the column.

There was another red shadow, this time missing the third teardrop. He pressed the missing section, his thumb slipping as he did so.

Run.

His breath came in strained, painful gasps. Sweat poured down his forehead.

There was a click.

The floor began to rise. It was too slow….

“This nexus,” Ortis said as he stepped out of the entryway before it crushed him. “What—”

“It’s why they built the temple here,” Angus said, shuffling impatiently from foot to foot. “The Tiger’s Eye is a myth,” he lied.

“How do you know that?” Ortis said.

Angus turned and grabbed him by the shoulders. His tone was intense, almost manic. His grip painfully tight. “How did Giorge describe it?” he demanded. “A gift from their god they used to focus energy and turn it into a weapon, right?”

“Something like that,” Ortis agreed, trying to free himself from Angus’s grasp.

Angus let him go as the floor settled back into its original position. He was talking rapidly, his tongue tangling up with itself as he said the words in a mad rush. “That’s what a nexus does. It focuses energy, makes it more powerful.” He was almost shrieking, his head bobbing up and down. Suddenly, he turned and ran toward the opening and leapt across the gaping hole in the floor. Hobart reached out to catch him, but he barely paused as he nearly ran down the corridor.

“We’re leaving,” Angus shouted as he briskly walked through them, pausing only long enough to pick up a torch. He cast the friction spell, and a flame a foot high erupted from between his fingers as he lit the torch. “See?” he said, turning. “That spell should barely produce a spark. We have enough treasure!” He turned abruptly and half-ran down the passage.

“Leaving?” Giorge said, falling in behind him. “But there are so many places to explore!”

Angus stopped at the corner and turned toward Giorge, forcing him to sidestep in order to avoid running into him. “The Tiger’s Eye is a myth!” he gurgled. “It doesn’t exist!”

“But—”

Slap.

He blinked.

Run.

“Leave, stay, I don’t care. I’m going.” He turned and ran down the tunnel. He ran….

21

Still the mind.

Still the body.

Still the mind.

Still the body.

Still the mind.

Still the body.

22

By the time the others reached the top of the stairwell, Angus had composed himself. His panic was gone, except for its fierce memory.

He had walked around the octagonal chamber again and again and again.

His heartbeat had steadied.

His breathing was slow.

His legs were sore.

His back ached.

And he had found something interesting.

Giorge was the first to arrive, quickly followed by the three Ortises. Hobart slogged up last. They threw down the gear they were carrying and sat on it or by it. All of them were breathing heavily.

“Why did we have to leave?” Giorge asked.

How could he explain it to them? He still felt the nexus drawing him to it, but it was more like a dull ache, a craving. How could he explain intoxication? The surge of power, the desire for more, the enticing loss of control? He shook his head. He didn’t have to. A half-truth would do. “I have a spell,” he said. “I call it Firewhip.” He held up his hand in the shape of a claw. “When I cast it, whip-like flames snake out from each of my fingertips. Normally, those flames will only go out ten to twelve feet. If I had cast it down there, those whips would have stretched all the way down the corridor. Even up here,” he made as if he were about to cast the spell. “It would be more powerful than usual. I don’t dare cast it, though,” he continued. “It would probably burn my fingers off.”

“So,” Giorge said. “Don’t cast any spells.”

Angus half-smiled and tilted his head. “I wouldn’t,” he said, “but a nexus is like—” He paused, reached into a pocket, and brought out one of the dried mushrooms he had collected on the plateau. “It’s like this mushroom. It distorts the mind. It makes a wizard see things, feel things, hear things. If I had stayed down there, I would have happily jumped into that abyss.”

“Ortis said something about the nexus,” Giorge said. “You think it’s The Tiger’s Eye. But how can it be that? The Tiger’s Eye is a ruby.”

Angus sighed. “There is no Tiger’s Eye,” he said. “It’s just a story, a distortion of the truth that comes from the passage of centuries. Be satisfied with the rubies we did find,” he added.

Giorge frowned and shook his head. “There has to be more here,” he said. “The Tiger’s Eye—”

“It’s a dream, Giorge,” Angus said. “But you are right. There is something else here.”

“What?”

“Look over here,” he said, walking briskly up to where two of the walls met. “See that?” he said, pointing at a pair of indentations. “What are they?”

Giorge frowned as he studied them, and then said, “Something was stuck in them, I suppose. They kept it in place.”

Angus nodded and held up the torch. “Now, look up. What do you see?”

Giorge looked up and said, “Nothing.”

Angus nodded again. “Exactly,” he said. “But I see a red shadow in the shape of the insignia. It has to be a trapdoor, and it can only lead to one place.”

“One of the rooms up there,” Giorge said.

Angus shook his head. “No,” he said. “The secret compartment you found.”

“Why?” Giorge said. “It might just lead to another tunnel like that one.” He pointed at the rope dangling from the trapdoor they had found.

Angus shook his head again. “No,” he said. “Think about it, Giorge. Why would they mark it like that? They had to keep something very valuable up there, something that needed an extra layer of protection.”

“Like what?” Giorge asked, feeling the wall and testing the corner for leverage.

Angus shrugged. “It could be nothing,” he said. “They may have taken it with them.”

“What are those red shadows, Angus?” Ortis asked as he joined them. “Why is it that you’re the only one who sees them?”

“I don’t know what they are, exactly,” Angus said, “but they are touched by magic. It’s not the same kind of magic I use, but it must be close enough for me to see its mark.”

“All right,” Giorge said. “I can’t climb up this wall and it’s too high for a pyramid, so how do we get up there?”

“Not we,” Angus said. “Me. I’m the only one who sees the insignia.”

“You can tell us where it is,” Ortis suggested.

“It will still have to be me,” Angus said. “I’m the only one who can fly.”

“Then do it,” Giorge said, grinning.

Angus shook his head. “I need to prime for it first.”

“Why?” Giorge asked.

Angus sighed. “I’m tired, Giorge. I don’t feel like explaining it again. But tomorrow, after I sleep and prime the spell, we’ll take a look at what’s up there. Then we’ll leave. Agreed?”

Giorge’s grin diminished. “This is a pretty big temple,” he said. “There has to be other places to look.”

“Angus is right,” Ortis said. “We’ve already been here too long. We still need to get back to Hellsbreath before winter, and each day will make it more and more difficult. We may have had an easy time going across that plateau on the way here, but that doesn’t mean the way back will be easy.”

“He’s right,” Hobart said. “We need to report the fishmen to Hellsbreath.”

“But—”

“Giorge,” Hobart said. “Those gems are enough to finance the Banner for years. Isn’t that enough?”

Giorge grinned. “There’s never enough,” he said, laughing. “But I’m outvoted, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” Hobart said, quickly echoed by Angus and Ortis.

“Fine,” Giorge said. “After we find out what’s up there, we leave.”

23

The next day, they returned to the octagonal chamber and Angus flew up to the insignia. He pressed it—there were no missing parts—and the trapdoor slid easily upward. He kept pushing until it flopped open. Then pushed the Lamplight spell through the opening and lifted himself up.

It was a narrow vertical shaft that went up for several feet. There were iron rungs embedded in the stone to form a ladder, and he gripped one of them and gently pulled. When it held, he lowered himself and said, “Throw up a rope. There’s a ladder, and it seems to be sturdy enough to hold us.”

When he had the rope, he carefully tied it off before using the rungs to propel himself quickly upward, the Lamplight in tow. At the top, the shaft opened up into a wide, long chamber with a short ceiling. There were rows and rows of cubicles, each one covered with dust and cobwebs. He went to the first one and sat down on the low bench lining the wall. His knees pressed against the underside the table. Within easy reach was a dried up silver inkwell, a quill, and the fragile remains of a scroll. He didn’t bother to lift the scroll—it was too fragile, and he didn’t recognize the language.

Giorge stuck his head up through the shaft, and Angus turned to him. “Stay there for now,” he said. “These scrolls will crumble easily, even in a slight breeze.”

“Scrolls?” Giorge said, pausing with his torso half into the chamber. “Magic?”

“I don’t think so,” Angus said. “At least not this one. I don’t recognize the language, and there are no sigils or runes with which I am familiar.” He reached for the inkwell and tossed it to him. “This should be worth something to a collector,” he said. “It’s probably a thousand years old.” He glanced down the line of cubicles. “There are probably a dozen more inkwells, but they may not be silver.”

“Well,” Giorge smiled. “It’s something. I might be able to get a few gold coins for it. But that ink is a problem. How am I supposed to get it out?”

“Fill it with water,” Angus said. “If it doesn’t soften, go to an alchemist and get some help. There should be one near the Wizards’ School in Hellsbreath.”

“What else is up here?” Giorge asked.

Angus slouched as he went down the aisle picking up silver inkwells. He glanced at each scroll as he passed, but he didn’t touch any of them. After the fourth one, he realized they all held the same patterns—the same words. When he reached the end of the corridor, there was a podium but no inkwell. On the podium was a thick tome, opened to a page that had the same incomprehensible series of symbols. The book was thick, old, and heavy. The pages were dry, but they weren’t as fragile as the scrolls he had seen. He reached out, gently picked up a page and turned it. It came loose from the binding, but the leaf didn’t tear. Several more broke free of the binding as he gently closed the book. The cover was of old, cracked leather, but it held when he lifted the tome an inch above the podium and gently set it back down. The teardrop insignia was on the cover, but he didn’t recognize the runes beneath. He left it on the podium and made his way back to Giorge.

“I need a sack and a blanket,” he said.

“I have a sack with me,” Giorge said. “But we didn’t bring any blankets. They’re still with the horses.”

“Would you mind getting one for me? I want to wrap up that book before we move it. I’ll need some rope, too. Two sections, each about three feet long.”

Giorge frowned. “For a book? Why?”

“It’s valuable,” Angus said. “The historians at the Wizards’ School will pay well for it.”

“How well?” Giorge asked.

“I don’t know,” Angus admitted. “It’s bound to be a very rare text. I’m going to study it first, if I can decipher the language.”

“All right,” Giorge said, reluctantly climbing down the ladder. Once he was out of sight, Angus returned to the podium and began a careful search of the area. There had to be more to it than a scribe’s chamber. No, not a scribe’s chamber, a classroom. The Master would read from the text and the apprentices would copy whatever he said. Voltari had done that to him many times, and if he made an error….

There had to be something else. The text—a sacred text?—might be enough to make the room secret, but why make the classroom secret? It should have been out in the open. What were they learning? Something heretical enough to warrant secrecy? Something powerful? Whatever the text was, it had to be important. But was it important enough by itself?

Possibly. Probably. But….

Where could they hide something? What would it be? Where would they put it? He sat down as if he was a master looking out at his apprentices, diligently bent over their little tables in the cramped quarters. I would read from the book. He looked down, gently opened the cover, and pretended to read from it. The students would write. He imagined them sitting there, quills dipping into their inkwells, the only sound the scratching of their quill tips on their scrolls. I would stand up to evaluate their progress. He stood up—slouched; the ceiling was too low for him to stand fully erect. No, I wouldn’t need to do that. They weren’t novices; novices would be taught elsewhere. These were the priests, the ones who would be sent out to spread the word, to build the temples. They would need the sacred text, the text they were copying. I am their high priest, the holder of the Sacred Truths. They reside in my book, in my—

My what? He reached up to his chest as if he was groping for something. An amulet? A necklace? Where would I put it? He looked around the room. This is my room. I own it. I would have my symbol of authority, here. Or would I always carry it?

He ran his hands over the podium. It was a short stone structure, much thicker than the ones the students had. Why? He didn’t need quill or ink. He had the text.

Angus studied the edge of the podium, the underside. He even lifted the book to look under it—and that was when he saw the familiar red shadow in the center of the podium. He smiled and set the book down.

“Here’s the blanket,” Giorge said from the opening. “And the rope.”

Angus looked up. “How long have you been there?” Angus asked.

“Long enough to know you found something,” Giorge said. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” Angus said. “Why don’t you bring them here and we’ll find out together?”

Giorge grinned, scurried out of the shaft, and walked quickly over to join him. Even he had to slouch. “Whoever used this room had to have been short like me,” he said.

“It may have been dwarves,” Angus suggested. Then he frowned. Was this a remnant of the Dwarf Wars? Had the other volcanoes held similar temples? Were they also nexus points? He shook his head; such speculation could be endless, and he didn’t have time for it at the moment. He held out his hand and said, “Let me have the rope.” Giorge handed it to him, and his fingers rapidly unraveled the individual strands that had been braided together to form the rope. There were three such threads, and when he finished, he handed the strands to Giorge and said, “When I lift the book, put three of the threads lengthwise and the other three along its width. Then slide the blanket over the top of them. Then I’ll set the book down and wrap it up. When it’s secured, we’ll find out what’s in the podium.”

They set to work and about fifteen minutes later, Angus was satisfied they had secured the book so that the pages would not come free. It was a large book, and there was little excess string. He tied the knots so they wouldn’t come loose; when he was ready to study it, he would have to cut them and find a better binding for the book.

He handed the book to Giorge and said, “Put it in the sack gently. I’ll carry it when we leave.”

While Giorge did as he had been asked, Angus pressed the insignia on the podium and the top sprang upward a few inches. It was hinged, and Angus lifted it the rest of the way. Inside the small chamber was a place for the heavy tome to rest, another book—a smaller one with leather covers reinforced with metal binding—four small bottles, a gem-studded ceremonial dagger, and a pendant. It was a heavy gold pendant, and in its center was a gaudy red stone in the size and shape of an eye. He held it up for Giorge to see, and said, “Maybe this is The Tiger’s Eye? It won’t buy a kingdom, but it is awfully large, isn’t it? What do you think it’s worth?”

Giorge took it from him, cradled it in his palm, weighed it, looked closely at the gem, and sighed. “Not much,” he said. “It’s not a ruby. It’s just a red crystal. There’s about a pound of gold, though. What else is in there?” He leaned past Angus and took out the dagger. “Now, this is worth more than the pendant. Maybe a few hundred gold. Are those potions?”

“I don’t know. They could be holy oil or something like that. We can take them with us and find out later. Here,” Angus said, handing them to Giorge. “You should pack them so they won’t break.”

Giorge nodded and set them on a nearby scribe’s bench.

Angus picked up the book. It was about six inches square but only one inch thick. He unclasped the metal and opened it. It was written in the same language as the larger one, but it was in much better shape. It didn’t matter, though; he still couldn’t read it. “Here,” he said, handing it to Giorge. “Pack that with the other things. I’ll take the larger book and go tell them what we found.”

“I’ll take a look around before I join you,” he said, putting the book in the bag with the inkwells. He had cut another sack into strips and begun wrapping the bottles up with them when Angus disappeared down the shaft….

24

The next day, when they prepared to leave, the cat-things returned. There were dozens of them, and they sat at the edge of the grain field as if they expected something from them. When the Banner of the Wounded Hand urged their horses into the grain, the cat-things parted to let them through. Once they had passed, the cat-things closed in again behind them. When Angus turned to look back, they were already moving into the temple grounds.

A chill breeze rustled through the grain, and a sputtering of rain began to fall.

Epilogue

1

As they neared the lift area, Hobart spurred his horse ahead of his companions and brought it to an abrupt stop directly in front of the scribe’s station. “We are the Banner of the Wounded Hand,” he announced. Then, without waiting for the scribe to respond, he turned to the nearest guardsman.

“Which one of you is in charge down here?”

The scribe frowned and opened his book, turning swiftly through the pages.

“I am,” one of the soldiers said. “Call me Alfred.”

As the others approached, the scribe looked up and saw Angus. He pointed at him and said, “You are banned from Hellsbreath. Unless you have 2,500 in gold?”

Hobart untied the straps securing a bag to his saddle. He tossed it to Alfred and said, “The king’s shield is dented.”

The soldier almost dropped the bag as he said, “What?”

“If you don’t have the gold,” the scribe said, “I will have them arrest you. Alfred?”

“You heard me,” Hobart said. “I must see Commander Garret at once.”

Alfred hesitated, opened the bag, and paled. Without looking up, he said, “Bring down the lift.” He looked up from the bag and asked Hobart, “How urgent is it?”

The scribe pointed at Angus and said, “There is an injunction forbidding him entry.”

“The danger is not immediate,” Hobart said, “but it is of grave importance.”

The solder nodded curtly and turned to the scribe. “His injunction is temporarily lifted,” he said. “By the order of the king.” He turned to his men and barked, “Why haven’t you signaled for the lift!”

One of them turned, hurried in behind the scribe and grabbed a red flag. Then he ran out far enough away from the wall to be seen by those on top of it. He began waving the flag, and within a minute, the lift was rapidly descending.

“You will not need your horses,” Alfred said. “Would you like to have them stabled for you?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Hobart said. “We plan to go south after we make our report. We’ll take them with us.”

“How long will you be staying?” the scribe asked. “I must make note of it.”

“Two days,” he said. “Unless Commander Garret requires more of us.”

The soldier looked at the bag in his hands and said, “He will.” He turned to the scribe and said, “Plan for an indefinite stay.”

“Indefinite?” Hobart repeated, frowning.

The soldier nodded and said, “Commander Garret will not be satisfied with this,” he held up the bag. “He will want you to show him where it came from.”

“We have a map,” Hobart said. “There is a road.”

The soldier shrugged and turned to the lift platform. “The lift will be here momentarily,” he said. “You are familiar with the loading procedures?”

Hobart nodded and kneed his horse forward. The rest of his group followed.

“The fee!” The scribe called.

“Is waived,” the soldier said without turning. “Official business of the king.”

The scribe began writing in his book as they rode passed. Fierce, angry, precise strokes.

The lift settled into place, and the doors were opened. Several people were inside, and they were ushered quickly off. Then the members of the Banner of the Wounded Hand entered and the lift doors were locked.

Alfred took a deep breath as they began rising at a steady pace, exhaled it, and asked, “How many are there?”

“We killed about two dozen,” Hobart asked. “There may have been more.”

The soldier exhaled loudly, chuckled, and shook his head. “Two dozen?” he repeated. “That’s all? Not thousands?”

Hobart frowned. “Why would you think that?”

The soldier shrugged. “The last southbound caravan that went through told us the crops were all harvested, and there had been no sign of the fishmen. None. They didn’t even come out of the Death Swamps this year.”

Hobart frowned. “They didn’t attack?”

“That’s what the caravan said.”

Hobart’s frown deepened, but he didn’t say anything.

When they reached the top, he asked, “Commander Garret is in the southwest tower, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” the soldier said.

“Good,” Hobart said. “We’ll be heading south after we give him our report.” He didn’t seem to be very confident of it, though….

2

Fanzool shuddered as he reached for the knocker and drew his hand back again. It was a dreadful thing, a serpent’s head poised to strike. The forked tongue was the lever, and he had to reach inside the serpent’s mouth to make it clang. His hesitancy was understandable; he had seen others use it many times with the same reluctance. Three times he had seen the snake’s jaws clamp down on the hand within its mouth, and then the fangs extended deep into the forearm, releasing their poison….

I was summoned, he thought, surely he does not wish me dead? He gritted his teeth and, his fingers shaking, reached into the gaping maw, twisting his forearm away from the fangs as best he could. He touched the tongue, and the eyes—beady little rubies worth a fortune—pierced through him, their sinister glow a casual warning of the power held by its owner. No one would dare steal them, not from Argyle.

The tongue was rough, like a dog’s, and dry as the stone it was carved from. He gripped it tightly—too tightly—closed his eyes and pressed down. The mouth slowly closed in upon his arm, tickled his skin, and clamped down. The lips were a smooth ridge biting into his skin without breaking through. The grip was firm and unyielding, but the fangs held their place.

“Who calls upon me?”

Fanzool opened his eyes and let out his breath. Sweat began to swell up at the roots of the hairs on his temples, and he tried to speak. “F-F-F—” He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. He tried to clear his throat, but there was nothing blocking it but his tongue.

“Who calls upon me?”

The voice was more insistent, and the lips tightened slightly. Blood trickled from a tiny pinprick as the fangs lowered. It was a strange voice, dark and hollow like the corridor, a sepulchral echo of life filtered through stagnant air. It didn’t come from the snake; it was just there, all around him, pressing in….

“Fanzool!” he gasped, staring wide-eyed at the fangs. If they lowered much more….

The blade was cold and sharp at his elbow. It felt heavy in his white-knuckled grip, and he gritted his teeth from the effort to keep it in place. He wanted desperately to pull it back, but if the snake bit down….

The eyes flashed, and a pair of brilliant red lights bore into him for a brief moment. Then the snake’s mouth opened. It was a full second before he jerked his arm out and a few more before he put his dagger back into the sheath tied to the sash of his robe.

“Enter.”

Had the voice changed? Was it…friendly?

Fanzool shook his head. He was imagining things. The voice was never friendly. Argyle was never friendly. Except when he planned to do something particularly nasty….

The catch on the door released, and it slid silently aside.

Light burst into the corridor, and Fanzool shielded his eyes until they adjusted to it. When they had, he stepped forward and the door slid shut behind him.

“Fanzool,” Argyle purred. “I have been waiting for you.”

Fanzool gulped, lowered his eyes, and let his arm fall to his side. He said nothing; there was no need. Argyle would make it clear when he was to speak and what he was to say.

“Come,” Argyle said.

Fanzool took several steps forward, stopping only when he saw Argyle’s feet. They were huge feet, each one at least as long as Fanzool’s forearm, and the boots were deadly. They were braced with iron straps, and short, flat, jagged barbs jutted out all around their edges. One kick to the neck….

He had seen that once…. But he wasn’t worried about the feet; Argyle preferred to use his hands—or his dog. The paws—black ones as large as Fanzool’s head, tipped with four long, curved claws that resembled a cat’s more than a dog’s—were at the edge of his vision, quivering in anticipation.

Fanzool waited. He still did not look up; Argyle hadn’t given him permission to do so. His fate—like so many others—was held in Argyle’s vice-like grip, and there was nothing he could do about it. He was but a small cog in the giant’s carefully constructed machine. He did his job, and was generally rewarded with a few coins and Argyle’s quick dismissal….

“You said he was dead,” Argyle accused, his voice careless, dispassionate.

Fanzool flinched. He didn’t need to be reminded of whom Argyle spoke; there could be only one such person: Typhus. “Yes, Argyle,” he said, his mind racing. “All indications were—and still are—that he is.” If only the augury had been clearer….

Argyle flipped a coin several times, and then said, “Take a look at this.”

Fanzool lifted his gaze up past the sitting giant’s knees, and craned his neck until he saw the huge hand. Argyle was wearing a vibrant blue pantaloon and a frilly green silk blouse. It was his favorite outfit! He isn’t going to kill me! The blood…. Argyle tossed a coin toward him, and Fanzool hastily reached out to catch it. Once he had it in his hand, he looked at it. It was a simple gold coin. He frowned.

“Tell me,” Argyle said. “What do you see?”

Fanzool frowned. “A gold coin,” he suggested.

“No,” Argyle said. “That is one of the coins he took from me.”

“Are you sure?” Fanzool said before realizing what he was saying. “There are other coins like this one.”

Argyle dismissed his question with a casual wave, the breeze from which caused Fanzool’s hair to flutter. “Perhaps,” he said. “I want you to tell me where this coin has been and who has had possession of it.”

Fanzool nodded. “I shall do so at once,” he said. “The augury—”

Argyle put his hand on the armrest of his makeshift throne. It was built from bones, and the armrest ended with a cluster of skulls mortared together, each seeming to be eating the one in front of it. He began thrumming his fingers on the skulls, the sound of the hollow tapping echoing through the chamber. He leaned forward, sneered, and repeated. “You said he was dead.”

Fanzool gulped, feeling sweat funneling down his backbone. “Yes,” he agreed. “He is.”

“Perhaps,” Argyle said, letting his other hand come to rest on his dog’s head. He patted it gently, stroked it behind the ears, and his other hand mimicked the motion on the skulls. “You must find out.”

“Of course,” Fanzool said, excited by the implication that he would still be alive when he left. “I shall consult the spirits—”

“No,” Argyle said.

Fanzool’s tongue tried to swallow his teeth, and he gurgled with the abruptness of his silence.

“That coin,” Argyle continued, “was brought to my attention by an associate in Hellsbreath. It is but one of several that were sold there by an enterprising young upstart named Giorge. My associate knew of my interest in such coins, and pursued the matter to his satisfaction. He sent a Truthseer—” Argyle looked meaningfully at Fanzool “—to discuss the matter with this Giorge fellow, and she was satisfied with the truthfulness of his answers. The coins came from a wizard named Angus. That wizard was also questioned, and the trail ended at Blackhaven Tower. I want to know where the coins were prior to that time.”

Fanzool’s heart slowed, and he felt the blood fleeing from his skin to hide deep within his chest, where it burbled furiously. Voltari….

“The Truthseer did not return,” Argyle said. “And my associate was reluctant to send another.” Argyle paused to study Fanzool for a long moment before continuing. “I understand you know the mage who dwells there?”

Fanzool licked his lips and nodded. He couldn’t speak the name….

“Good,” Argyle said, smiling happily. “I want you to pay him a visit.”

“Me?” Fanzool gulped.

“Yes,” Argyle said, leaning forward and clasping his hands together before him. “Speak with this mage. Find out what he knows about him. If this is one of the coins he took from me, I want to know where he was when he had it last. Then I want you to go there and find his body.” He leaned back, shook his clenched hands and let them fall easily to his lap.

“I,” Fanzool began, paused, licked his lips with a dry tongue. “My lord Argyle,” he said, hoping the formality would ease what he had to say. “He will not see me.”

“Who will not see you?” Argyle said, separating his hands and putting them on the skulls of his throne.

“The mage,” Fanzool said, his fear torn between the one before him and the one from his past. “He does not receive visitors.”

“Ha!” Argyle laughed. “You must convince him to see you.”

“I—” how could he explain it? What part of the truth could he offer that Argyle would accept? “He will kill me on sight.”

Argyle smiled, the wicked, indifferent smile of a man who knows the power he has and how to wield it to achieve his goals. “And I will kill you if you fail.”

Fanzool shuddered, blinking back the tears threatening to overwhelm his composure. Voltari….

“You will speak to this mage, and you will find out what he knows of the coins. And you will bring Typhus or his body back to me.” The smile broadened, and he leaned forward until his gigantic head hovered only a foot from Fanzool’s. “Take Sardach with you. Surely this mage won’t refuse a visit from him.”

Not Sardach! Fanzool’s knees buckled and the tears began to fall.

Argyle leaned back and began to laugh. They were deep, resounding laughs that bounced around the room and joined together to form a chaotic melody of sadistic glee.

Fanzool dropped his head in his hands, the gold coin pressing against his cheek. He sobbed uncontrollably, the fear pounding through him.

A nearby shadow separated itself from the wall and floated quietly toward him….

###

© 2014, all rights reserved.

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