Chapter 17: Into the Storm

Jessica

By the time Jessica returned downstairs, two fresh horses waited outside, their saddlebags stuffed such that the clasps strained to remain shut. Cesaro was already mounted on one, his hands gripping the reins and his mouth in a frown. With a sigh she mounted the second horse, a mare named Isabelle, one that Cesaro only let her use for missions requiring the greatest haste. She thought of her hot bath that still waited for her upstairs. It was a shame to leave it behind, but there was no time to enjoy it. Another day. Always on another day, she thought as the corner of her mouth twitched.

Once she mounted, the window of Cesaro’s office was only a few feet away, and she saw the light of a single candle burning within. Since she had first been to Cesaro’s estate, that candle had always been there, flickering in a position that could be seen from down the street. And for the first time, she did more than notice it, leaning in to inspect it through the glass.

Like the other candles Cesaro had shown her, cords of each type of magic entwined themselves about it, twisting around a core of Life Magic. They culminated at the wick, or where the wick should be, but rather where flame floated above the wax. But when she squinted, Jessica could see that there was a wick, an impossibly thin one: a human hair.

“Should I run back inside and put this out before we leave?” Jessica asked.

Cesaro shook his head slowly, his eyes glazing over as he followed her gaze.

“No, my dear,” he said. “I should like to see that one lit when I return.” Then he pressed his heels against the sides of his horse, setting off down the street at a trot, the horseshoes clicking on the stone. Jessica studied the candle for a moment more, its flame the sole light in Cesaro’s study, then urged Isabelle forward, the mare’s gray coat blending into the night. Mercifully, the rain had let up since she had arrived at the estate, and a thick fog had settled in its place, masking the streets ahead.

“I will accompany you to the gate,” said Cesaro when she pulled up to him, “and before I leave, I’ll be informing you of the details of your mission.”

“You’re not coming with me then?” she asked.

“That question brings us to the first detail. Querkus is a neutral city. If intervention from outside is discovered, or merely suspected, the backlash will be devastating. It would be grounds enough for Cryson itself, along with every creature hiding deep in its shadows that can be gathered, to launch a full scale invasion of the city. It could mean war for all of Corpia. So the first detail in this delicate situation, the primary detail, is that you cannot be caught. And I have a presence that others may recognize in Querkus, something that we can by no means risk.”

“Isn’t there a chance that I may be recognized as well?”

“A minor one, I suppose, but I’ve already taken precautions against it. Here, take these,” he said, reaching into a pocket of his overcoat, removing a small pouch and handing it to her. “These should mitigate the risk. By no means should you remove them, day or night, private or public. Wait until you’re a day’s ride outside of Querkus before you use them.”

Jessica opened the pouch, inspecting the two small earings within, their emeralds glinting at her from within.

“And what exactly will these do?”

“Just use them, my dear. It will be obvious after their application. Now, onto the second detail,” he said, taking a left at an intersection. “You’ll have to find the last survivor within Querkus, with nothing to guide you but his name. A name, mind you, that very well could have been changed or forgotten, or may even belong to someone not yet born.”

“In a city the size of Querkus? Cesaro, I don’t know if that’s even possible.”

“It has to be possible, considering the forces you are fighting against have already rooted out fifteen of them. We do have some more clues, based on the others on the list. So far, all have been of noble birth or at least were well known. A duke’s son, whose bloodline goes back longer than written history. The daughter of a merchant whose caravans stretch from coast to coast. An actress who could stir cities to tears. Each one seemed to have somepotential. Some power. Some sway over people. This leads to the assumption that he should stick out from the regular people of the city. He should have made a name for himself, or should possess a talent of some sort. And once you find him, your objective is to return him here unharmed.”

Jessica frowned, clutching her reigns, looking through the fog to the outline of the gate.

“So I comb the noble families, I inquire at the guilds, and I check among their military?”

“Conspicuously, but precisely. Now, on to the third detail. The most important of them all. The identity of those who will oppose you.”

The gate loomed above them now, and they fell into its shadow, a slightly darker patch of night. Jessica held her breath, and the raindrops started again, although the archway above them kept them dry for now.

“Yes?” she said. “The Shadows? The wielders of Darkness and Death?”

“Precisely,” said Cesaro, his voice low. “While I am sure you already know, I am obligated to remind you of the danger and to stress that you should use all caution. So far, ten of the fifteen deaths have been attributed to a single person, a single Shadow known as Rorcul. Of these ten, most of them were under heavy guard when they died, yet he still managed to surpass the defences, murder them and escape. Not much is known of him—we’ve only become aware of him within the past two years, and we have reason to believe he serves a greater lord in Cryson. Under no circumstances should you initiate contact with him, should you find him in Querkus.”

“What if Rorcul has the survivor, and I have to intervene to save him?”

“If he has the survivor, then the survivor is no longer a survivor. Jessica, let me stress this to you. Rorcul is a power that I do not know much about, but what I do know is disturbing. By no means do I intend for you to find out, because doing so would likely result in your death. Avoid him at all costs. Flee from him, Jessica. Flee from him as fast as you can.”

Jessica laughed, but at his cold stare it turned hollow.

“You’re serious, Cesaro? Even after my record, you still think he’s a threat?”

“I’m damn serious Jessica, and I don’t give a damn about your record. Do you understand me?”

Jessica paused, and the look on his face sent shivers down her spine that had nothing to do with the rain.

“Yes. And where are you going, Cesaro? Your saddlebags are packed as well.”

“There is other business to attend to. Do not mind me, Jessica. Keep your focus on your own mission. You’ll need it. Now, as to the name of the survivor.” He leaned toward Jessica, whispered a name into her ear, then slapped the back of her horse, causing Isabelle to start forward.

“Now go,” he shouted, as she entered the wall of rain, “and make all haste!”

Jessica pushed Isabelle forward, riding at full speed away from the gate, water seeping under her coat and chilling her bones. Isabelle kept her footing despite the rain, bits of rock and dirt flying behind them from her hooves. Ahead thunder growled, and lightning flashed. They rode deeper into it.

“Cinis,” whispered Jessica as they streaked along the road, committing the name to memory. “Cinis.”

Then she looked behind her to where Cesaro still stood under the gate. She could just barely make out him nodding to her, and a hand raised in farewell.

And even more blurred, fighting to be visible through the fog and the rain, she could see a pinprick of light from Cesaro’s estate. A pinprick of light flickering in his study window.

Chapter 18: Pruning the Garden

Jessica

Jessica hated the city. Not all cities- in fact, she had been born and raised in Lorai, one of the larger western cities. No, she hated Querkus, and she hated it deeply.

Around her, in the palace gardens, the air felt stale and still. Distant voices floated towards her from a young couple strolling along a freshly raked pebbled path, voices that seemed muted and flat by the time they reached her ears. Even the colors seemed drained, where the blues and reds of the royal flowers were a suppressed pale. If she were to shout, she feared that her voice would die away, quashed by the landscape as soon as it left her mouth.

She turned to the bush that she was pruning, verdant clippings twirling softly to the ground as she worked her shears, cutting it into the shape of a square. One by one, she worked through the overgrown branches, narrowing and narrowing the bush until there was nothing left to remove. But no matter how short she trimmed twigs, it seemed as if she were missing something, as if there was a branch that had eluded her searching shears. She sighed, exasperated, and set down the shears.

Her frustration was natural, she knew. A reaction to the Vrael that lay thick around her, sapping at her magic and energy alike, plus the confinement had drawn her spirits thin. Her orders held her here while her pride nipped any thought of turning back to Cesaro early empty handed. She recalled his instructions, and frowned as she remembered opening the letter he had tucked into her saddlebag.

“Upon arrival to Querkus,” He had commanded, his arched writing streaked across the page from moisture from the rain “You are to pose as an Andrean gardener. Already you are expected at the palace, the queen herself anticipating the arrival of one of the most sans-magic gifted individuals with plants in all of Corpus. From this position within the palace, you will have access to the royal family and the nobles- access that should provide information leading to our survivor. Find him before the Shadow has a chance and return with him here. Use all caution, but make haste.”

Then, below the writing was the capital “C” that Cesaro used instead of a full signature, followed by an additional note.

“It is imperative that you fit the part of an Andrean gardener. I’ve left you two gifts- study up.”

Jessica had fished two parcels from her bags, both books. There was “Plants, If You Please!”, an enormous volume filled with miniscule text and botanical specimens folded between its pages. Then there was a shorter book, one with pictures detailing clothing, customs, and basic history. She sighed, opening “An Lady’s Guide to Andrean Virtue” that night at the edge of her small fire.

The next few days she had ridden Eastward as swiftly Isabelle could carry her. She had stopped for rest when she reached Allesail, a small town supported by grain farmers that exported their harvests to Liseria, where she had called upon her sister’s estate. Alina had immediately tuttered when she was fetched to welcome her rain soaked sister inside, dragging Jessica before a roaring fire and forcing a reluctant comb through her spider webbed hair.

“I’ll not let society see me related to a commoner,” Alina scolded, “A muddied, tattered one at that too. To Corsus, Jessica, a lady has standards. Especially one with a name like ours.”

Raising two fingers, Alina directed a jet of warm air towards Jessica, in a fruitless effort to dry off her sister. She too knew it to be ineffective, but even after all this time Alina still flashed bits of Air Magic whenever she encountered Jessica. And she still smiled when her sister did not replicate the gesture.

But now Alina glared disdainfully at Jessica’s worn riding clothes between strokes of the comb, as if her stare could morph them into a gown.

A servant pushed a cup of warm chicken soup into Jessica’s hands and she inhaled, grateful for the fulfilling odor of the welcoming broth. Even the servant, who himself wore silk blue robe much nicer than Jessica’s attire, managed to cast her a disapproving look before throwing another log on the fire, causing sparks to brush under the wings of the mighty bird who guarded the mantle.

It was an Eagle, the crest of the house of Illemere, of which Alina’s husband of two years lorded over, and whose marriage had torn their father’s last daughter from home. The Eagle’s wings were spread wide, gilded with bits of gold and silver that reflected the firelight, the treasures reminding Jessica of Alina’s decision to marry into money. To marry into a proper family, to bring honor upon their own through strategic alliances. And it reminded Jessica of the disapproval Alina had harbored from her own refusal to make that same decision. But even if Jessica were to explain the rationale behind her choices Alina would never understand- she lived in a world where the greatest crisis was a shortage of pastries at her husband’s feasts. Jessica’s duty was to keep it that way.

Again, she caught Alina scowling at her clothes, and met her eye.

“I’m traveling, sister. This is what people wear when they travel. If I should wish to ride adorned, the thieves would have at me faster than a loose coin purse. Besides, I shall be passing through Cratus soon, and their fashion is quite different from your own. I would look ridiculous.”

Alina scoffed, “Cratus? What do you care about them? Jessica, they aren’t proper there. Their king is of common blood, and I hear his courts are mixed.”

Jessica similed. Yurt, a Boulder king, did indeed lead the council of Cratus, but his wisdom towered high above the reaches of his inauthentic bloodline. Oh sister, she thought, you have been so sheltered. And now you still are.

Alina had been betrothed nearly since Jessica had left their family in Lorai. Like many of the small towns that littered the countryside, Allesail remained largely intolerant of those beyond its boundaries and ignorant of the happenings of the world. Her sister only lived in splendor because the Liseria allowed it, since much of the grain in the neighboring cities was provided by the Illemere family.

“Do you always have to be traveling Jessica?” Persisted Alina, taking her hand, “It’s time for you to settle down. Come, there are plenty of suitors here, each handsomer than the last, even for a Summer! Why, my own husband’s brother is married the full moon after next, and to a the youngest daughter of a noble family at that. Should he fare that poorly, I assure you that a Summer could fare well here among the men. And their ceremony is to be on an airship. Please, stay and celebrate, the event is to be like something Allesail has never seen in quite some time.”

“I can’t, Alina, but your invitation does not go unappreciated. As well as you hospitality,” Jessica said, gesturing to the fire, “But by daybreak my stay here is gone, as soon as Isabelle is rested and fed.”

“But it’s an airship. They say you ride among the clouds, and the birds swim like fish below you. It’s even traveling to the Andrean Palace! The event’s the buzz of the city, and many are dying for the invitation I have given you. Sister, that is how a lady travels!”

Jessica laughed, “I wish! I truly do, but I have business. Please, do not ask me of more, it is time that I rest.”

Her sister led her to a room upstairs, with a window to view the stable and thick quilted blankets to keep her warm. She indulged in a bath, the water warm but with none of the enchanted soaps and fragerances she had become accustomed to in Cesaro’s estate. Alina brought her a cup of wine, bubbling it with Air Magic so that it fizzed, and set the air in Jessica’s room to circulate so that she wouldn’t get too hot. And after she left, and after Jessica quietly repaired the flaw’s in Alina’s circulation spell, Jessica slept soundly, knowing the next day would be just as grueling as the last.

At dawn she left Alina to her knitting, gripping the leather reins as Isabelle expertly wove among the sea of travelers clotting the roadways. It had taken a few days worth of travel to reach Alina, but and only a few more days remained until she would reach Querkus. And that night, she pulled out the earrings that Cesaro had given her, inspecting them with her palm.

The enchantment was subtle, and even after staring at them for several minutes she could just barely guess the mechanism of their inner workings. Knotted magical chords surrounded the earrings, bits of each element of magic, but primarily of Light magic- a form she was relatively inexperienced with due to its scarcity. The chords were tied off well, with no open ends, meaning that as long as their enchantment was static Vrael would do little to erode the energy thrumming within them.

Retrieving a small mirror she had taken from Alina’s, Jessica removed the clasps on the back of the earrings, and fitted them through her earlobes.

The change was instant as well disguised magical cords spread over her face and hair, twisting and integrating themselves among her features. Her blonde hair, which Alina had fluffed with Air Magic that morning, morphed, the colors darkening to brunette and blonde only remaining as streaked highlights. Her facial structure became more blocky, and in her opinion less attractive as her cheeks and nose broadened. And as she blinked her eyes flickered, the irises changing from deep blue to a dull brown.

She slept with the earrings in, and wore them for the remainder of her journey to Querkus. Little else happened to her until she reached the gate, and was greeted with by the guards.

After presenting one with her papers, she had been escorted to the palace at once, as the queen was eager to have Maria, one of the famed Adrean gardeners, in her midst.

That had been a month ago and, as far as she was concerned, a month too long. Cesaro’s words echoed in her head- make haste. Try as she might, nothing had been revealed to her. She had searched each of the noble families to no avail, even checking the royal prince himself when presenting him the a bouquet of the garden’s flowers for his bride to be. Still, she had found nothing. Then she had combed through the many wealthy families, the great artists, and the tradesmen, but had found nothing.

Whenever Rorcul, had struck before, that was where his victims had been found. There was dead body of the heavily guarded princess poisoned through the soap of her bath. Then the merchant’s son whose entire caravan had perished overnight when passing between towns, his valuables untouched. Every time the attacks had been swift and sudden, aiming to end the life of yet another target, the victims always cold and still when they had been found.

Time was running short, but she had exhausted all her leads. For all she had found, she may as well be Maria the gardener, quietly pruning and clipping as another life prepared to breath its last. Tomorrow she would walk the city, she decided, determined that this time she would see some clue as to Rorcul’s next move. But maybe Cesaro was wrong, and the survivor was not here, and maybe Rorcul had already located him elsewhere.

She sighed and placed her shears within the folds of her coat. The sinking sun signaled the end of her shift and she made her way among the ornate gardens to the modest cabin that she called home. Behind her, a lone, forgotten branch had disentangled itself from the inner network of the bush and defiantly stood uncut, starkly contrasting its neatly clipped cousins.

Chapter 19: Bloom

Jessica

The head gardener eyed Jessica as she approached, the squat woman folding her arms and sticking out her chin, amplifying her already present resemblance to a toad. Jessica held a list in her hand of all the plant clippings she would require to add variety to the gardens of the palace.

“Yes?” huffed Hortia, standing from her position on the bench. She had been eying two of the apprentice gardeners, young girls who were weeding a flower patch and dared not pause while she was watching. Under specific instruction of the queen, Hortia was forbidden to interfere with the work of their newest addition, as the Andrean gardener would know how to best tend the plants, though Jessica knew that Hortia watched her too, making a mental list of every mistake.

“Darling,” Hortia had exclaimed a few weeks prior when Jessica was fertilizing the soil around the donoti stalk. One of the main pieces of the garden, the donoti was a plant that yielded a magnificent flower, golden with streaks of blue, and the size of a small child. It produced but one flower per year, which lasted from spring to fall. “Darling, you’ve killed it! That’s more fertilizer than is proper to be used in a season. What are they teaching in Andrean schools now, how to bring death upon a garden’s most prized plants?”

“Hortia, did the queen not instruct you not to interfere with my affairs?”

“Why yes, darling, but—”

“This is how we do it in Andrea, Hortia. Now please, leave me to work in peace.”

Jessica glared at Hortia, the heat from the sun causing sweat to trickle into her eyes and fueling her temper. The lead gardener had been right—after consulting her gardening book that night, Jessica saw that she had confused measuring cups, and the flower would be destined to die overnight. With Hortia tracking her gardening, intruding upon her and following her movements, Jessica’s credibility and ability to complete her mission would be stifled.

So Jessica had returned in secret to the donoti every night since she had overfertilized it, pouring all the Life Magic she could muster into the plant as the vast majority of energy was wicked away by vrael, coaxing the plant away from its path toward certain death.

Hortia had woken early the next morning to check on the plant and confirm it had died, and after finding it still green, had continued to return each morning until one day it did something unheard of for a donoti stalk—a second flower, even larger and more beautiful than the first, had bloomed. The queen herself had commended Jessica on her work.

When the plant failed to die, Hortia’s face hardened whenever she saw Jessica. Jessica was now left alone to her business—but she had also earned Hortia’s spite.

And now, with her list in hand, Jessica spoke directly to Hortia for the first time since the donoti had its second bloom.

“I need clippings from each of the following plants to introduce into the gardens. I’ll make my clippings myself, using Andrean technique to ensure the accelerated growth. They’re each rare, and I would be surprised if they all exist within the city confines. Can you help me find them?”

“Of course, darling,” said Hortia, her voice a tad too sweet through gritted teeth, “though surely one as skilled as yourself would already have mapped out the city’s rarities.”

“Gnarled root flowers?” asked Jessica, ignoring the quip, while Hortia consulted her memory.

The Myosi Estate, thought Jessica, just before the woman spoke.

“The Myosi Estate. There should be some around the eastern side of the house, such that the sun strikes it each morning. If you’ll be leaving the palace, however, you’ll need a guard and escort.”

“I trust you’ll make the arrangements,” said Jessica, and continued down the list, reading off each of the names. It had taken her hours to compile the list—though the odds looked bleak, there were a few members of nobility that could potentially be the survivor. At the Myosi estate, the eldest daughter was skilled in music, rumored to be able to play the harp better than most anyone in the city. That talent could potentially be an indicator, but Jessica needed a reason to leave the palace to investigate. So she had researched what plants were not present in the palace, but were available at each of the locations she needed to travel to. And knowing Hortia would have that knowledge, she compiled a list, and brought it to the head gardener as an excuse to leave.

The next morning she left with two of the palace guards—one a slender man, with a constant smile and a tendency to strike up conversation with Jessica at every turn, and another who frowned the entire trip, barely uttering grunts of approval when asked questions. Ever since entering the city and becoming weakened by the vrael, it had become harder for Jessica to sense magic, but she could still thin red wisps of Fire Magic surrounding the man, as if emanating from his coat, so faint that Jessica hadn’t noticed them at first.

Most likely a heating enchantment in the fabric, meant to keep him warm. I doubt he even knows, and I doubt it does much good here with the vrael, she thought, as they arrived at the Myosi Estate.

As Hortia had said, the gnarled root flowers were on the eastern side of the house, just under the windowsill. As she collected the flowers, Jessica peeked in through the windows, listening to the dampened sounds of a harp float out from within.

“All this walking has me famished and dreadfully tired,” said Jessica as they were preparing to leave, and the head servant of the Myosi Estate escorted them to the gate. “Could I possibly implore you for some tea? I fear I might faint.”

“It would be our pleasure, Lady Maria,” answered the servant with a low bow and a smile. “It would be an honor to have an Andrean gardener in our midst. Come, come, there is plenty for the three of you, and I shall fetch Lucy for entertainment. She’s quite skilled with the harp, and perhaps you could pass a recommendation for her to play at the palace.”

“I would be delighted to,” answered Jessica, taking the servant’s hand with her own, keeping hers slightly too limp and putting her weight on his.

They were rushed onto the patio, where fresh tea with lemon awaited, and Lucy appeared with her harp. Jessica sipped on her tea as the girl played, her fingers slipping across the harp strings and her long, blonde hair spilling over her white dress, melodic notes filling the patio and entering the garden beyond. The guards watched Lucy as well, the slender talkative one clapping to the rhythm, and the quiet one staring intensely, the muscles on his jaw strained. After a moment, his stomach growled audibly, and the head servant rushed to bring them light snacks as well, though they remained untouched.

After ten minutes of evaluation, however, Jessica frowned. The girl could play, it was true, but there was no talent or vigor that Jessica had seen in true artists. The pieces were memorized, lacking creativity, lacking vivacity. Smiling, Jessica offered the head servant her compliments, assured him that she would most definitely pass word of Lucy on to the palace for their next great feast, and was escorted by the guards to the next three estates from her list. At each, the results were similar—the talents were mediocre at best, sometimes completely falsified for political attention, and none of them had any connection to the name Cinis.

As the sun set, Jessica trudged up the path toward the palace, sidling closer to the slender guard, though his chat irked her. The other guard had taken on an unpleasant smell, most likely gained throughout the heat of the day, and she found it difficult to remain within a few paces of him.

They entered the gate, and she walked back to her quarters alone, frowning. Now her list of potential candidates was even shorter, and she had still grown no closer to finding Cinis. It was time, she decided, to start branching out from the noble families. Perhaps to comb the street artists for unusual talents, or to visit the local drinking establishments and inquire about recent urban legends.

But for that, she’d need an escort, and neither Hortia nor the queen would approve. She’d have to leave alone then, which meant she would not be able to use the gates.

And there was only one other way out of the palace.

Chapter 20: Collide

Cinis

It had been his uncle Rearden who had first shown Cinis the labyrinths beneath Querkus. Like many of the city’s popular taverns and alehouses, Horsekick’s Tavern kept barrels and casks underneath its foundation where one of the abandoned tunnels grazed the surface. Below the surface, the temperature was lower, keeping the beer refreshingly cold. Beverages aged in the ancient subterranean halls filled a man with warmth on even the coldest nights, and the connoisseurs claimed the air itself imbued a finer quality to the spirits. So many establishments followed the practice that it was said a man could travel underground from the East to West gates without developing a thirst, provided he survived.

Unlike many of its competitors, Horsekick’s kept its merchandise deeper, where the threat of thievery lessoned and the barrels could fully absorb the forgotten tunnel’s memories. Years before, Rearden had dismissed the rumors of the haunted nature of the corridors and taught Cinis the way to their storehouse.

“Fear,” he had said, “is what keeps man from the sweetest of life’s nectars. And rightfully so, for those who cannot appreciate them will taste only poison.”

As he grew older, Cinis had traveled further and further into the underground. He had learned its secrets, touched its treasures, and beheld its art. If Rearden had minded his venturing, he had never acknowledged it, being content so long as Cinis was on time to his classes and completed his duties in the tavern. Rarely was he ever late—the light in the walls always led him back safely where so many other travelers had lost their way.

But tonight, as Cinis walked back from the cellars carrying a prized bottle of wine Rearden had sold to a passing merchant, the walls tugged with an unnatural strength at his fingertips. He had been slow to notice, but as time passed the urgency grew stronger until he realized that his walk had turned to a jog, the wine sloshing unnoticed by his side. The singing began.

It started low, the notes almost too low to be picked up by his ears, minor notes rumbling through the tunnels and reverberating through the bottle in his hands. As his feet quickened, the song did too. An urgency entered the voice, drawing him forward. Pulling at his spirit, his soul.

As he ran a sense of foreboding swept over him. Something was different, both with the voice and with the direction. He was nearing the surface instead of descending and the corridors grew familiar, ones that he had traversed many times before. There was the broken statue of a long forgotten queen, holding blooming roses as snow fell about her, now rapidly departing behind him. Another left and he passed through what he liked to call the diamond gate, a doorway carved entirely from hardened glass, two entwining dragons carved along the arch to meet in a snarling embrace at the uppermost point, from which water slowly dripped to the ground.

With legs racing to meet the drumbeat of both his clamoring heart and the hypnotizing song, and increasingly labored breathing, he realized he was being taken back to the tavern. He took another turn at full speed as a flash of brown hair appeared, and he nearly collided against a woman leaning with her hand against the pole, jumping aside at the last instant so that he just brushed against her shoulder.

She spun with force, her brown hair whipping in a graceful arc before resting at her shoulders, half obscuring two chestnut eyes that peered at him from underneath. Tripping over the folds of her silver cloak, he lost his balance and tumbled into a nearby pillar.

“Are you alright? You’re bleeding!” A hand gripped Cinis’ shoulder, preventing him from falling to the ground, and he looked up into her face. For an instant the song screaming in his ears was silenced as a set of wide, sapphire blue eyes blinked at him from underneath a veil of golden locks. Her features were slim and fair, topped with a smooth face, unnaturally creased by a frown. The glowing walls cast a halo glow about her, and the cloak about her shoulders created a shadow that stretched out like wings. The sight rendered him speechless.

Cinis flushed, his face reddening as he looked down at his bloodied knuckles.

“I… I, uh…” but then the tugging of the song resumed, and he forgot both his embarrassment and confusion in the encounter.

“I have to go.” He jumped to his feet and took off again, as she called behind him.

“Wait!”

“Can’t! Sorry!” he shouted over his shoulder, watching the last of her silver robe disappear behind a corner as the walls spurred him forward.

***

Jessica stooped, picking up the earring that had fallen out in the collision and now lay among shards of glass from the bottle of wine the boy had been carrying. When it smashed, the red liquid had sloshed onto her cloak, ruining it from the knees down. She turned over the glass to see the label. Horsekick’s Tavern’s finest, a blend of seagrapes and time. At least her stains were high quality.

Sighing, she started walking in the direction the boy had taken. Already she had been lost for over two grueling hours, where the corridors seemed to warp her paths into circles. I should have just left the palace by gate, she thought. But that would have attracted attention, and attention was one thing she could not afford to spare. But now she could find her way out—his foot steps were easy enough to follow, the boy was tracking wine wherever he ran. Hopefully they led to an exit.

With a cupped hand she tried wiggling her earring back into the lobe, but it stubbornly evaded the hole, refusing to slide back into the piercing. Curse this vrael, she thought. The city was thick with it, but in the tunnels its presence was lighter, and despite being lost, she found herself enjoying the brief reprieve from its oppression.

Stopping at a cracked glass frame that had once held a painting long stolen, she ran her hands through her hair and inspected herself. Everything seemed to be in order, and thankfully only one earring had fallen out, since trying to fit both back in would have been near impossible. She squinted into her reflection, grimacing as she forced the disobedient point back into her earlobe, drawing blood twice before succeeding. With a click, it snapped back into place. Her reflection smiled and blinked, as its eyes flickered from azure to chestnut.

As she walked, she studied the wine wrapper again, reflecting on how she should pour herself a glass when she returned to the palace, maybe even using Air Magic to make it fizz. There was a list of spices running down the paper that had been added to the wine, though she only knew about half of them, and there was the name of the winery that had delivered the grapes, and under that, the signatures of those that had turned them into wine, then fermented and aged it.

Rearden, she read, then flipped the wrapper around as her heart stopped, and Cinis.

Chapter 21: Blood

Dyrius

By the time the seer reached the tavern, it was already well into the night. Stars had risen, hidden from his eyes, and this deep in the city their song was unnaturally quiet to him. Every so often a whisper from above would reach him as it slipped through the vrael’s grip, and he smiled, comforted by their words.

His legs trembled with blood loss as he consulted his memory, ensuring that he had reached the right place, going over his mental map of the city, which he had memorized weeks before. Concentration came harder than it should have—the wound inflicted by the demon was deeper than he had initially thought, and with the vrael, there was little he could do to fix it. It was fortunate enough that he had found the tavern at all among the countless shops and establishments lining the streets. Surely this was it, just as he had seen in his dream, with a sign laced with atriel so faint he could barely make out the word: Horsekick’s.

Feeling for the door latch, he turned the knob, and with a soft click, the door creaked open. Low voices from the few patrons who had not yet succumbed to the night emanated from within as he stepped inside, tapping ahead with the borrowed broom handle. Moving to the fire he cast off his hood, gazing around the room with unseeing eyes.

“Dyrius!” came a shout that caused the seer’s face to erupt into a smile. A familiar hand closed on his shoulder.

“Rearden, my old friend! How is it that I find you holed away in a common tavern in Querkus?”

“Common tavern?” Rearden roared. “You’ll find we have the finest ale east of the Aries River!”

“Because all that’s left before Cryson otherwise is Cratus, and its drinks might just as well poison you.”

Then Rearden grimaced, seeing the blood that had begun to pool at Dyrius’ feet, at first unnoticed in the dim light of the tavern.

“Dyrius, what’s happened to you? Quick, come into my study. I’ll have that cut wrapped up proper.”

Once the door was closed, Rearden’s voice dropped to a whisper.

“Are you mad? What brings you here? A seer coming here is a death wish. Have you gone completely blind? I don’t know how you made it.”

“I am here on most urgent business that cannot wait. Rearden, it’s time. It’s time the boy knows, you can’t keep him holed up forever. Though finding you was near impossible. And stop waving your hand in front of my face. I may not be able to see it but I can feel it.”

“He’s not old enough yet. This is the only place where he’s safe. The vrael keeps him hidden and any mischief—or worse—out.”

“Rearden, now is the time. We have seen the visions. We have read the stars. He is needed. The Shadows are hunting, and he will not stay safe forever. If a blind man can find you, rest assured they can. Even with this mess of vrael, so thick that it makes my skin crawl. You would think after hundreds of years the dust would have washed away, but it’s here sure as I am blind. Cursed stuff. The sooner I am rid of this city, and with the boy, the better. Where is he?”

“Not here. Running errands.”

“Come now, Rearden, when dawn is only a few hours away? Are you trying to make sure he’ll never reach adulthood?” Then Dyrius gasped as Rearden unfastened his makeshift bandage, letting it fall to the floor, where blood splattered out of the fabric.

“Dyrius, how did you get this? And where did you find a guard’s cloak to bandage it with?”

“Demons,” Dyrius answered through gritted teeth. “They’ve infiltrated the wall guard. Had to kill two just to get in.”

“In the city? Impossible!” said Rearden, his hand reaching up to stroke the scar on his face. Regardless, where there are two, there must be more. Have you considered that you may have stirred the hornet’s nest? You could have been followed! Has your mind gone blind as well?” Rearden’s voice amplified, thick with anger.

“No one saw. As I said, the sooner we move the better. Tonight. Demon wounds fester horribly, and I’d like to have a healer look at it soon.”

“The city is full of healers. Take your pick.”

“You know full well healers here have little to no power over this. And that’s beside the point.”

“Either way, he won’t be back for another half hour. You may as well rest. Here, take a drink, and I’ll see what can be done about your wound. It’s bad, but I’ve seen worse. And the drink will take it off your mind.”

Dyrius took the cup from Rearden, and as he took a sip, the liquid warmed him, replenishing some of his depleted strength and calming the shiver that coursed through his body.

***

Outside in the dark, a lone city guard prowled the streets. He stopped, sniffing the air, then bent and reached down to touch the worn walkway. Two of his fingers came back glistening in the moonlight and he brought them to his mouth, tasting it.

Blood. The same blood that littered the corpses of his two brothers when he had found them an hour before. Blood that was foreign. Blood that he would soon taste again.

He flashed a row of inhumanly sharp teeth, forming a snarl. A growl escaped his bared lips, and immediately two dark shapes garbed in the city guard’s cloaks appeared at his side, summoned by the sound. They bent, dipped their fingers in the puddle, and tasted the blood, conversing with him through their putrid breath. Then they ran.

Deep underground, Cinis also ran. The corridors began to thin, and he knew he was nearing the tavern. The air began to assume the smells of the city, with rotten fruit, urine, and musk becoming prevalent. In this part of the city, many of the homeowners had taken to using the upper tunnels to dispose of trash. The practice disgusted him.

Ahead he could see the fork that would lead him either to the street entrance or to the tavern’s trap door. He turned left and ascended the short spiral staircase that corkscrewed to the surface, one he had helped Rearden build years before. The wooden trap door appeared, boards freshly replaced and smelling of pine, and he pushed it open to enter through the closet behind Rearden’s study. Two heads swiveled toward him, one Rearden’s and the other an old man with searching eyes and a gray beard.

“He’s here,” said the old man, casting a triumphant look at Rearden.

***

Following the boy’s footsteps had grown more difficult as Jessica neared the surface. He had obviously frequented the tunnels and his tracks crisscrossed with older sets of footprints, all the same size, all his, making it difficult to follow the most recent pair. She came to a fork and stopped, studying the criss-crossing paths in confusion. After a moment of deliberation, she turned right, following the slight draft she could feel coming from that direction.

Soon she came to a makeshift door in the ceiling. Pushing it aside, she realized it was only a crate. A blast of warm air brushed her face as she climbed out, its fingers playfully tugging at her hair. She tried to get a sense of her bearings, looking around for any landmarks that she might recognize. She was far from the palace for sure, in an unfamiliar section of the city. She started moving eastward, but sank into an alleyway as three large shadows danced in front of her, speaking in low grunting speech. The city at night was no place to walk alone in the open.

Shrinking behind the crate, she peered out into the street, and her chestnut eyes blended into the dark.

Chapter 22: Hunted

Dyrius

Most demons are by no means endowed with intelligence. Few can speak and of those that do, most are capable only of the guttural grunts and cries that constitute their language. Even then they prefer use of their varied assortment of claws, talons, and other devices of persuasion for communication purposes. Leaving a group of lower demons unattended will often result in brutal destruction from the combination of their diminished brain power and their enlarged physical and magical power. However, what they lack in intelligence, demons make up for in cleverness, craftiness, and an inherited predatory instinct distinguishing them as extremely effective killers.

These qualities are what allowed the demons to enter Horsekick’s Tavern unopposed. Under their human guise, the demons would be easily confused at a quick glance with regular members of the palace guard. A more experienced eye could have caught the sharpened teeth lying just behind their crimson lips, the way they relied on their acute sense of smell to determine their next course of action, and the pale flecks of red streaking through their enlarged irises when they almost lost control. But the most reliable way to identify them was the animalistic way they moved, with their silent, slinking stalk that was more catlike in nature than human.

Though they were hungry, the demons dared not touch the easy prey of the few remaining drunkards who littered the main room. The charred remains of the last of their brothers to harm a human had served its purpose in discouraging any questionable behavior. Their master had made his intentions well known: unprovoked conflict with humans was strictly forbidden. It was unfortunate, as the plump specimen snoring by the fire would have made a fine appetizer for the three of them, and might have even given them a slight buzz from the alcohol in his blood.

The lead demon paused in the center of the room, casting his head left and right before inhaling a swift, deep breath. He could taste the blood in the air, the same blood from the streets, blood that had led them to the tavern itself. Immediately he spotted the dried, crimson drops that led across the room to a small door in the back of the tavern. As they approached, the smell grew stronger, until he was certain that his prey lay just behind.

Earlier that night, when they found their brothers lying still outside the wall, they had made quick work finishing off their corpses. Those gifted with fire had a smoky taste to them which still lingered on their breaths. Typically they would not have been concerned with their deaths, but again the master had again made himself clear on this point. “If anyone harms you, or stands in your way, they die. They die quietly, secretly, and immediately, and then you may feast upon the marrow in their bones.”

And behind the three demons, three more similar, dark shapes materialized in the tavern’s doorway.

***

“Ah,” said Dyrius, “I see we can now begin.” His face was solemn and his eyes gleamed in the candlelight. Rearden had already informed Cinis of Dyrius’ blindness, but Cinis found it strange that the eyes did not share the same milky quality he had seen on other blind men. Rather they seemed alive and knowing, not dead and unseeing.

Rearden stood up to speak. “Cinis, Dyrius is an old friend of mine. Very old, from before you were born and I came to this city. He brings news to you from outside the wall.”

“But I’ve never really been outside,” objected Cinis. The farthest away he had been from Querkus was to the loading docks by the river Tryst, which carried goods to the sea and to the harbor city Crinum, but those were only a few miles away from the Wall.

“What I’m about to tell you concerns events from beyond your knowledge and before your time. I must warn you that what I have to say will cause great change. You will not be able to go back to your ordinary life. So it is only proper that you hear it under your consent. Hear me, and your life will change forever. What is heard cannot be unheard and what is seen cannot be unseen. May I go forward?”

Under Rearden’s stern gaze, Cinis hesitated. Quiet though it was, he had a good life in the tavern. What type of changes, he wondered. Would he have to leave the city? He doubted life would change much, and the events outside the Wall did not concern him. Perhaps Dyrius was trying to recruit him for some kingdom’s army.

He knew though, that he would never forgive himself if he did not hear those words. There was something strange in the old man’s voice, something that drew out his curiosity in a way similar to the singing voice in the underground city. Without further pause, he gave a curt nod.

“He consents,” said Rearden with a sigh, and Dyrius pressed his hands together before speaking.

“I still owe you a proper introduction. I am Dyrius of the Myrian Seers, a guild from the water city Rymenia.

Cinis, we seers do not see with our eyes, but that does not make us blind. We perceive in ways that others can only dream, sensing the forces around us, seeing the actions and reactions of the energies that drive our world. It is a gift that grants us knowledge otherwise beyond the grasp of common men, and even some of the most extraordinary men, for that matter.”

Then Dyrius paused and cleared his throat, his blind eyes managing to stare directly into Cinis’ despite his condition.

“And it is most fortunate, young man, that you have decided to hear me out. For I have stared into the waters, and have come to know what lies ahead. I have seen your death three weeks from this very day.”

Chapter 23: Interruption

Cinis

“What do you mean? I’m supposed to die?” asked Cinis, eyes widening.

“I mean exactly that,” Dyrius said, voice hushed, “I’ve seen your death. Many in the guild have, in fact. But it is the guild’s rule not to interfere without great consideration of the consequences. So they shall debate and debate until the time to act has already passed.”

“What do you mean you’ve seen it, though?” he asked, looking toward Rearden for reassurance. “How do you know it is certain? How can you be certain of seeing anything if you are blind?”

“It is my second sight that has caused me to go blind,” said Dyrius, as sweat crawled down Cinis’ back. “We seers rely so heavily upon our second sight that we lose functionality in our physical one. Outside the wall, you would find no greater guide than I. But here, in the city, I am reduced to using a cane to find my way, because of the thickness of the vrael in the air.”

Cinis had heard of seers before at the tavern. Men spoke of them in hushed, revered voices. One had even claimed that a seer had predicted his future, and that he would one day become a lord. The same man had been caught stealing horses a year later, and was still imprisoned in the dungeons for the crime.

“What’s vrael?” Cinis asked.

Dyrius turned to Rearden, eyes ablaze. “Even this you kept from the boy? Have you kept him ignorant in even the most basic ways of magic?”

“For his own safety,” replied Rearden. “He has been in my care for years, and it is my right to raise him as I see fit. He knows the ways of inside the Wall and little more.”

Dyrius sighed, raising his hand to his forehead.

“This is going to be more difficult than I had imagined. Cinis, my sight is a magical gift. In this city, which lies on one of the few passes between Corpia and Cryson, magic is banned. Not by law alone, but by vrael, a silvery substance which dulls all magical powers. At the end of the great wars, vrael was plowed into the land itself. And after the blood dried, the vrael remained. It exists to preserve the boundary between Corpia and Cryson by acting as a deterrent for the magically inclined. Even the strongest of beings are reduced here to near the power of a common man, sometimes, as in the case of myself, to even less. It protects the city from invasion, and allows neither side the advantage of a stronghold in the pass.

“When I entered the city, my strengths weakened. My vision has deserted me because of vrael, except for a few glances at atriel, vrael’s golden cousin, which sharpens magic and shines to my eyes like stars in the night do to yours.

“Regardless, when I found out about your fate, I knew I had to find you. The seers of my guild have peered into the waters and seen into their depths. Dark times for all of Corpia lay ahead. Long forgotten secrets are stirring and emerging into the light of day. Sleeping beings are awakening, shaking off dust after centuries of sleep. The time has come for you, Cinis, to awaken. In spite of the wishes of the guild, and without their knowledge, I am here to show you the way.”

From within a coat pocket, Dyrius withdrew a small, felt-lined, wooden box and placed it on the table. A design was engraved in its surface, depicting a swirling sun surrounded by a circlet of seven intertwined hands. With a click, Dyrius opened the box to reveal a ring studded with a single yellow gemstone, glowing softly against the box’s white, velvet interior. He removed it from the box, placed it in Cinis’ hand, and set the box on the table.

“This belonged to your mother, Cinis, and now it belongs to you. Because of my friendship with your mother, and my respect for your father, I cannot allow your predicted future to happen.” Cinis’ eyes widened as he inspected the ring. He knew little about jewelry, but it looked expensive, and the light from the stone reminded him of the light from the tunnels.

“My mother and father?” mumbled Cinis. “So they left this for me?”

Rearden had never spoken much to him of his parents except to mention that they had been killed by rogue Cryson raiders who had once inhabited the nearby mountains. According to Rearden, Cinis was the son of a lowly lord, who had owned a small estate that had been destroyed, and the lands there had since grown wild. He had promised to take Cinis to his inheritance one day, though he warned that there was little to see, and anything of value had been looted long ago. Even the shell of his burned house had been swept away by the same storms that had flushed the raiders from the mountains a year later.

“For years I have kept it safe,” continued Dyrius, ”waiting for the day I would be called to meet you. Now it is yours. Bear it safely, for it bears the sign of your house. Now—“

Dyrius stopped speaking abruptly, his ear twitching as he turned to face the door.

“Who’s there?” he called. Only the silent night answered, interrupted only by the intermittent chirping of crickets outside the window.

Rearden stood, standing in front of the table. “If it’s a matter of payment, I’ll be out in a moment. Fetch yourself another beer, it’s on the house. I am entertaining guests now.”

He turned to sit back down, but behind him the brass doorknob began to slowly turn.

“Hey!” shouted out Rearden, just as the door exploded open and a snarling city guard stepped in with an arrow nocked into a bow, ready to shoot. The guard fired immediately—the arrow streaked toward Rearden’s exposed chest and its barbed, crimson tip ripped through the back of his tunic. Rearden’s eyes widened as blood began to exit the wound, then he slumped against his chair, his face surprised as the chair tipped him onto the floor. The guard sneered, exposing a row of teeth that looked like they belonged more to a cat than to a man, and quickly nocked another arrow.

Chapter 24: Flight

Cinis

Cinis sat stunned as Dyrius jabbed backward from his seat with his makeshift walking broom. The blow caught the guard in the gut, and he hissed, doubling over and spitting. The movement jarred Cinis, and his right hand gripped the polished handle of the knife at his belt, one of the two that Libus had given to him long ago. Sweeping it from its sheath, he flung it backhand at the guard, his proximity making it impossible to miss.

The knife streaked through the air with a silver flash, completing one full rotation before sinking deep into the guard’s chest. Dark blood sprayed from the wound—blood that was viscous and reeked of sulphur—and the guard released a feral scream as his back arched upward. Behind him, two other guards looked in and tried to push their way past his rigidly upright body, but were blocked by the door frame.

Dyrius reacted before they had the chance to enter. The door slammed shut as the dead guard toppled in, his body now limp, and Dyrius locked the door while shoving his chair under the knob. Cinis knelt by Rearden, his hands shaking as he stared at the motionless body, touching the fletching of the arrow that extending from his uncle’s tunic.

He stared in shock. The only man who had ever cared for him remained still, his face blankly facing the bookshelf he had loved so much.

“How? What were they?” Cinis shouted at Dyrius with a cracking voice, tears beginning to form in his eyes.

“Demons,” cried the Seer, his face white. “Spawn of Cryson and eaters of men. We must go; where there is one, there are many. Even the locks will not hold the two outside much longer, no matter how much the vrael weakens them.”

Even as he spoke, the door bulged inward, boards creaking, and a whoosh of air that threatened to put out the dwindling candle filled the small room. A grunting snarl sounded outside and Cinis heard a table splinter against the door. Muffled screams of men came from the main room, and then something sharp raked across the wood of the door, causing it to shudder as one board splintered.

“We can’t leave him!” yelled Cinis, still kneeling at Rearden’s side, looking into eyes that were glassing over too quickly to be changed “Why would they kill him? He has done nothing!” A single tear fell from his face, mingling with the blood that had already begun to seep into the floorboards from the dead man’s chest.

With a start, Rearden coughed and stirred, his head turning.

“Uncle!” Cinis cried with a start, but Rearden held a trembling hand to quiet him.

“Listen, Cinis. Dyrius is right, you must go with him. I was wrong to keep you ignorant so long.” He coughed again, his body racking as hard as the door beside him.

“But Uncle,” stammered Cinis, “I can’t leave you here. We can get you to a doctor, someone that can fix this. Someone who can do something, someone who—”

“Stop. It is my dying wish that you go with him, and I do not have much more time. Go beyond the Wall. It is where you belong. Forgive me, Cinis, for I have hidden much for your safety. Take Dyrius back to the tunnels. Do not be caught, do not hesitate. Go, Cinis. Don’t put all these years to waste. Don’t put the promise I made your father to waste.”

Then Rearden’s eyes finished glassing over, and his arm fell backward to thud against the floor. Cinis grasped it, willing his uncle back to life, but the old man did not stir, and the flow of blood from his body slowed to a trickle.

“Honor his last wish, Cinis,” said Dyrius, gravely taking his shoulder in a firm hand. ”We must leave now with all haste.”

Cinis touched his uncle’s face one last time before rising and removing the knife from the guard’s body. A panel in the door gave way and a forearm reached through, but instead of a hand at its end, there were brown claws, swiping the air fruitlessly.

Pushing Dyrius’ body in front of him, Cinis rushed back into the tunnel entranceway hidden behind them. The trap door slammed, but not before he glimpsed two guards jostling into the study just as the final panels of the door gave way. Skin ripped away from their faces as they screeched, their mouths widening too far to be human, flecks of red scattering around their irises.

“Hurry! They’re coming!” yelled Cinis, and he prodded Dyrius, moving the man forward.

“The vrael is not so bad down here,” panted the seer, “so I can see dimly, and they will be stronger. Already they have broken their human form. These tunnels may be the death of us, should they come in pursuit.” He stopped, leaving Cinis tugging at his arm.

“By the screams there are at least five of them,” observed Cinis, looking through the trap door above, “and they’re big, they have claws, and they’re coming as we speak. If we stick around, we will die, but I can lead you through the tunnels. We can outrun them.”

“Not in my condition,” muttered Dyrius, so quietly that Cinis could barely hear him, then he continued.

“Take the ring, Cinis,” the old seer said, face solemn, “and always remember what your uncle has done for you. Remember me—remember that I came for you in the darkness. And remember, most of all, that your time has come. You can change the terrible things we have seen in the water.”

“Dyrius, we need to leave! You can tell me of what you have seen later.”

“Run Cinis. Take the ring and go to Cardinia. There you will find the craftsman, for he is the next step in your journey.”

“What are you talking about? Why are you leaving me? I am lost outside the city!” Cinis shouted, pulling at the old man’s arm. “Rearden’s last words were that you would lead me!”

“I fear I will be staying here tonight. Just now, I have seen it. There is no other way, and what is seen cannot be unseen.” Dyrius raised his hands.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving your uncle a funeral pyre to remember.”

The trap door opened, and Dyrius stiffened, shouting words Cinis did not understand. Blue flames burst from his palms, rocketing through the passageway and through the pine trap door, incinerating everything in its path. Cinis leapt back from the heat, the tips of his hair singed, cursing as he was forced to retreat further or else be burned. Above them, the fire engulfed the entire tavern, scorching the edges of the trap door and setting the wooden walls ablaze. Howls broke out as the demons struggled to retreat, but behind them bottles of spirits had shattered, increasing the spread of fire. Still the intensity of the blue fire did not falter from Dyrius, but rather grew stronger and brighter, the heat intensifying. He shouted a final word, and the blue fire remnants raced up his arms, consuming his entire body until there was only fire. And then there was only smoke.

“Run Cinis,” came his voice as the fire flickered out. “Run to Cardinia.”

Then his spirit was gone, and Cinis ran. Alone.

***

Jessica watched the blaze from the street. A crowd had gathered around the tavern, with one drunkard stumbling about the street, shouted about horned and clawed monsters who wore masks of human flesh. Some people in the crowd laughed at him as he stumbled away from the blaze, thinking too much of the alcohol had gone to his head.

Jessica knew better. She had heard those types of screams before. And she had hoped she never would again.

She turned the broken glass from the wine bottle in her hand, inspecting it once more—the last bottle of wine to ever be served at Horsekick’s. The boy’s smeared fingerprints still twisted around the broken edges, and though she had heard the screams of demons from within the building, she had not heard the screams of a boy. And buildings did not burn blue.

She had found what she was looking for.