Chapter 25: Cryson

Rorcul

Few olden castles remained in Cryson from the time of the great wars. Some of the structures still stood, towers grasping up toward the sky, walls guarding overgrown courtyards, and ramparts where tattered banners had once proclaimed forgotten names to the surrounding lands. Even for Cryson these were dark places that few dared inhabit. The Shadows that had once ruled their kingdoms with absolute power had long perished, but they left behind curses for intruders, causing new fortresses to be built in their place. So the olden castles stood, defiant to time and untouched. All except one.

Near the edge of Cryson closest to the mountains and Corpia, Vary sat on his cold, granite throne, hands tightly gripping the armrests, his knuckles white as bone. Streaks of gray saturated his black hair, which was hampered by an obsidian crown that far outmatched his natural color. His gaunt face stretched as he stared down at the two servants who knelt before him, his body rigid and jawline clenched.

One of the servants on the stone floor was a woman, her dark, brunette hair infused with red to match her one burnt orange eye and contrast her deep blue eye. She peered calmly up at her master. She wore a dark robe—one meant to blend into the night with a hood to conceal her hair. At her hip was a ring of keys, and a handle for a whip, though the cord of the whip was nonexistent.

A yellowed paper rested on Vary’s lap, marked with red ink that had bled through the page. He crumpled the sheet, then rose to his feet shouting, the veins on his neck bulging.

“Four names left! Four names! I want them dead.” He threw the paper at the second kneeling figure, a Shadow by the name of Rorcul, who slowly raised his steely eyes to look Vary in the face before bending to pick up the crumpled sheet. Unfolding it, he glanced at the names. Originally there had been sixteen, but the ink had slashed through twelve of them, leaving only a few remaining, scattered about the page. Taking a dagger from his belt, he cut out the three uppermost names so that only one remained unblemished.

“One name remains,” he said, his voice low. “Angelina died a few months ago. A most unfortunate accident with the soap in her bath. And the other two were just as unfortunate.” He tossed the paper to Vary and stood up, dusting the chalky stone from his garments, and from knees not meant to kneel.

Vary shifted on the throne and his shoulders slightly relaxed. He released a sigh that sounded more like a hiss.

“Good, but what of the others? When the time comes, you will be duly rewarded, Rorcul. Rewarded beyond your imagination.”

“I’m sure I will, master,” Rorcul answered, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I’ve had it in mind for some time now. We were in Rymenia watching Amelia closely. At our first chance we took the opportunity to strike, drugging the horse of her carriage before crossing a narrow bridge. A simple illusion of mine was all it took to drive it off the edge. A fragile girl, Amelia, and so young. I would say too young to die, but the evidence points to the contrary.”

Rorcul paused, taking a glass from a side table and filling it with dark wine, the liquid a deep black with a slight hint of red. He sipped from it and smiled, the wine staining his teeth and lips red, then continued.

“Of Alexander in Cratus, he had recently taken up an interest in hunting. A dangerous game, where it is so easy to become the hunted. He was strong, and gifted with Earth Magic as well. A true prodigy, with quite the following from the other nobles. Judging by the numbers at his funeral, they held him in high esteem.”

Rorcul took another sip and waited, his arms relaxed at his side, his stance confident. Though Vary sat upon the throne, from where he stood, Rorcul’s eyes were level with his, and he met his master’s gaze until Vary turned away.

“Very well done, Rorcul. Most excellent news,” praised Vary, as a shadow passed in front of his face, “but what of the last one?”

“All we know is what the messenger told you. We believe him to be in Querkus, one of the few places where he could be shielded from us. He’ll be nearly impossible to find. You know my powers are useless there.”

Vary reddened and stood up, spittle flying from his mouth as he shouted.

“None can live, Rorcul! None! I want you searching the entire city until you find him. I want the city burned if you can’t find him; kill every last soul!. And Alretta, I want you with him, hunting. Make it short work. Take whatever resources you need, but I want him dead.

“As you wish,” Rorcul said through gritted teeth, refusing to bend to Vary’s rage. There was still much to do in Cryson, and he did not have time to be searching for children.

A knock came from behind them, and a messenger entered the room breathing heavily, his face flushed with exertion.

“My Lord, a message has just arrived. It’s urgent.” He handed Vary an envelope sealed with yellow wax, then bowed and exited, leaving the same way he came.

Vary opened the letter, quickly scanning the written words. When he finished, he looked up, and the shadows that stretched across his already weary face appeared sharper and more pronounced.

“It seems the boy may have been found,” he snarled, and he threw the message to the floor. “Six of your demons are dead, Rorcul. Six! Burnt to a crisp, along with the property they were invading. This one must be strong, to have caused so much damage. To have done it in the presence of the vrael as well.” He turned to Alretta. “I want both of you in Querkus immediately. One this strong cannot stay quiet for long. Take all the reinforcements you need, and don’t return to me until he is dead.”

“How do you know it was him?” asked Rorcul.

“This was found with the scorched remnants.” He tossed a silver box to Rorcul who caught it, wiping off the ashes to see the crest beneath, picturing a circlet of six hands surrounding a sun. “In addition, those questioned nearby knew his name. Is that proof enough for you?”

Rorcul stood silent, erect, and Alretta stirred, jingling her key ring. “Do not worry, master. I’ll show the boy the true meaning of fire,” she assured him.

Rorcul cursed under his breath. Six of his demons turned to ash. They were no small task to summon, although not quite as difficult as he had led Vary to believe.

“We will leave at dawn,” he said.

“No, you will leave now,” Vary commanded.

“At your word.” He replied.

The words passed through his lips so low and cold that they frosted the air, and Rorcul’s cloak snapped as he turned and exited the room. He barked at the stable boy in the corridor to ready his horse, and the boy ran off, nearly wetting himself in the process. Vary may be the master of the castle, but even the servants knew Rorcul was the one to be feared.

Patience, he thought. Let Vary move forward with his plans. The true hunter waits for the perfect time to strike.

Alretta met him at the stables, flicking through her key ring, each key inscribed with a name and crafted from different hues of a red metal. She picked three of the brightest and removed them, placing the rest of the keys into her pocket.

“I’m bringing three of my dogs. We’ll be ready for riding within the hour. Are you taking anything?”

“No, I’m traveling light. We are assassinating a boy, Alretta, not fighting an army.”

“You saw the list, Rorcul. There’s only one left, and despite what you said about Alexander, he was only a foolish prince. While there’s a chance that the one of the sixteen that matters is already dead, I fear we would have seen greater resistance. The others were too easy to find. Too easy to kill. I fear this one will be different.”

Rorcul replied, his voice mocking, “Vary hides behind curtains and fears children; his power is growing stale. It is time to march. To attack.”

“As he said, all the names must be dead first. You would do well to respect our master more.” Her eyes flashed and Rorcul laughed at her sarcasm, then leaned in and kissed her waiting lips.

He whispered, “Perhaps it’s time that Cryson has a new master.”

“Perhaps,” she intoned, twirling a strand of his dark hair around her long fingers.

Chapter 26: Fork

Cinis

The fading howls of demons chased Cinis down the glowing corridors as he rushed deeper under the city. His head moved faster than his feet, a stream of questions without answers flickering through his consciousness, and he ran forward without guiding his direction. He sought only escape—but whether from his thoughts or from the demons above, he did not know.

He found himself traveling deeper than ever before, running until he no longer recognized the corridors, and the glowing about him began to grow brighter. His chest heaved from a combination of exertion and the tears that threatened to spill from his eyes, and he continued to descend. Part of him wanted the singing to begin, to hear the voice that would guide him, to find comfort in the familiar. But he heard nothing besides the echoes of his footsteps and his heavy, arrhythmic breathing, that grew in volume as the walls widened. He passed through an archway of glass, the surface fogged, reaching up three times his height, the texture like that of waves in the ocean.

He gasped and slid to a stop, then fell to his knees, looking about the enormous hall he had just entered. At the far end there was a throne, made of the same glass as the arch—a towering white-capped wave rushing over where a man’s head should be, and rivers of water traveling down the arm rests. It trickled below, creating ripples in the lake that formed the floor of the hall, stretching from wall to wall, the surrounding glow sparkling off its surface.

Dozens of dragons stretched out from the walls, water spewing from their open mouths to meet the lake below, their faces forever locked in stone snarls, and their roars condemned to eternal silence. Mirrors formed the ceiling, reflecting the pool below, and the pool reflected back toward them in an endless exchange. The water sloped away the farther it traveled from Cinis, until it disappeared into darkness just below the throne. Above the throne golden words were written—words repeated by the water and the mirrors around the room.

Ambassador to Rymenia

But Cinis knelt at the water’s edge, and his own tears meshed with the water below, creating their own ripples in the pool, dancing across the surface before the water accepted them as its own. Dyrius’ words echoed in his head—words that made him punch the ground, blood from his knuckles joining his tears in the pool.

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.

“Damn it!” he shouted, and the hall shouted back at him. “Damn it!”

As the echoes died away, he felt the weight of two objects in his pockets. He knew of one, the one freshly acquired, but he refused to touch it—refused to pull the ring from his pocket. He knew that if he did, he would cast it into the water before him. And he might cast himself in to follow it, because the seer had traveled to find him at the tavern. And if the seer had never found him, Rearden would still be alive.

So instead he reached into his other pocket and pulled out what was there. It was a coin—a coin he had forgotten—with the picture of a beetle-like bug on its surface. And as he stared at it, Dyrius’ voice filled his head again.

Run to Cardinia.

But he pushed that voice out and listened to another, which spoke more loudly to his emotions. One that caused his tears to dry, and his fists to curl.

Should you ever wish to have another chance at those guards, then follow this.

And as Cinis remembered Libus’ words, his knuckles turned white over the coin. He stood and wiped the remaining tears from his face, then threw his shoulders back. Cardinia could wait. Querkus could not.

Then he turned and started walking back to the surface, but as he passed through the arch, he heard a flurry of notes behind him: seven notes that reached out to him, notes played by harp strings. He whipped around, studying the room with the pool, trying to find a source for the noise. Aside from the ripples, nothing moved, and as the echoes of the notes died down, so did his belief in their reality.

He walked for two hours before he reached tunnels he recognized, the paths seeming to twist him in circles against his will. As time passed, his feet fell more firmly on the stone, becoming more and more resolute in his decision. When he breached the surface, he did so with care, streaking into the shadows and keeping out of lantern light and the centers of streets. He watched for purple cloaks in the night or dark forms lurking in corners. Twice he changed direction to avoid patrols, and once he nearly collided with a dark figure lurking in a doorway, only to find it was a drunkard fumbling with the key to his own home.

Coming to a well-lit intersection that he needed to cross, Cinis held his breath and listened for a full minute for footsteps. He looked left down the street, seeing the wall in the distance, and several figures walking across its top holding lanterns of their own. To the right he saw two purple cloaks walking toward him.

He waited, falling into the darkness of a doorway, and watched them pass. They paused at the intersection, and Cinis tensed, his hand gravitating toward the knives in his belt. One of them looked toward him, eyes narrowing and nose wrinkling. Cinis stood still, the seconds dragging on as chills ran down his spine. Eventually the guard turned away, and the pair continued walking.

After another two minutes of waiting, he darted across the street. He ran the last bit of his journey, scanning the shop signs for one he had visited on a delivery from Rearden a week before. In moments it appeared—a small book shop tucked between a bakery and a hatter.

Loose Pages, read the sign, but the words were not what interested Cinis. Rather it was the symbol beneath the name, in the right corner—a bug that matched the one on his coin.

He knocked softly on the door. After a moment it creaked open, and a tall, cloaked figure looked out. Taking Cinis by his collar, he pulled him inside the shop, where it was darker than the night outside, and shut the door with a soft click.

“The news has preceded you,” said Libus, his voice a whisper. “We offer our condolences.”

“And I offer my aid,” said Cinis through gritted teeth.

At that Libus smiled—a smile not of happiness, but of understanding—and led him deeper into the shop’s darkness.

Chapter 27: Written in Blood

Cinis

The musty smell of leather bindings and written pages met Cinis’ nose as he followed Libus. Behind him, heavy curtains were pulled across the windows and rows of bookshelves passed by on his right and left. The floorboards creaked as they bent under their weight, their sound the only noise in the shop.

In the center of the shop, there was a cart piled high with volumes more tattered than the others, with rips and tears marring their covers. Swaying from the ceiling was a bright red sign with white paint marking the word “Clearance.” Libus approached the cart and reached along the side of it, his fingers feeling for a switch made invisible by the dark. With a click he found it, and the top of the table creaked upward like a door. The books fell open, but the glue on the back covers kept them solidly in place.

Candlelight flickered from within the hole, and Cinis could just make out the shape of a ladder as Libus stepped over the table rim and descended. After a few seconds, Cinis followed. The tabletop shut automatically above him, sealing off the bookstore.

The walls around Cinis were stone, the ladder in his hands hard wood, worn smooth by years of use. After twenty feet of rungs, the walls fell away, and he entered a room lit by candles. Its walls and ceiling were also made of stone—neat arrays of stone blocks that formed the underground pocket. At the center of the room was a table, so large that the backs of the chairs grated against stone.

Four heads nodded as Cinis entered, and Libus ushered him into one of the two open chairs before taking the last seat, directly under the ladder, such that anyone trying to leave would have to clamber past him. Libus solemnly placed both his hands on the table.

“Tonight,” began Libus, his voice somber, “tonight we lost a great man. A man who sheltered the weak, who helped us in our darkest times, and who fought not with his fists, but with his heart.”

“A toast,” said the bearded man next to Cinis, procuring a bottle of whiskey from underneath the table, “to a man who will not be forgotten.”

Then he passed the bottle left, and each of the others took a draft. When it came before Cinis, he took took a sip, perhaps larger than was strictly necessary, before handing the bottle back to the bearded man. The liquid burned his throat and stung his eyes, threatening to bring tears back where they had been hours before. But he blinked them away and stared at the table as Libus began to speak again.

“Clarence, if you please.”

There was a rustling as a man across from Cinis reached behind him, removing two objects from a shelf above him. One was a long, feathered quill, the end sharpened and the feather bright white. The other was a small book, the leather tattered and several pages ripped out. Stains blotched the sides of the binding, and as Libus opened the book on the table, Cinis saw that each page held a single name, written in red.

“Each of these names represents a single innocent person killed. And each of these names we have sworn to avenge. Tonight we add another name to the list—a name that only makes our circumstances more dire. This name I will personally avenge.”

Then Libus pushed the tip of the quill into his palm until it broke the skin, and blood welled around the tip. In deep strokes, he wrote a name upon the page that bled permanently into the parchment.

Rearden.

“Cinis,” Libus began, “though you may not have been aware of it, Rearden’s tavern served as an information hub for us. He offered his protection, but more importantly, he offered information. For Rearden knew what we knew all too well—that the time of Querkus being a free city has nearly ended. That shadows have begun to step out from the dark. Seated at this table are those that offer resistance. Those that know the danger but are willing to brave it. Those who have been touched by loss similar to your own. Introductions, please.”

“Clarence of the blacksmiths, rememberer of my old master, Leon, who died by the guards’ hands.”

“Amelia of the seamstresses, rememberer of my sister, Francine, who died by the guards’ hands.”

“Donald of the merchants, rememberer of my son, Louie, who died by the guards’ hands.”

“Samson of the fishermen, rememberer of my friend, Jared, who died by the guards’ hands.”

They looked toward Cinis expectantly, and he realized who had last been in this seat. He spoke his tribute to that name.

“Cinis of Horsekick’s Tavern, rememberer of my uncle, Rearden, who died by the guards’ hands.”

Libus nodded, then he too spoke, his voice hard, and eyes cold.

“Libus of the Outside, rememberer of Angeline, who died by the guards’ hands.” After a moment of silence, he continued, “Cinis, would you begin by describing exactly what occurred at the tavern?”

“We were attacked,” Cinis said. “An old friend had come to visit Rearden and myself, someone who called himself a seer. But he was followed—he was injured, so he must have quarrelled with the guards prior. They came without warning, and we barely escaped. But Rearden, Rearden—”

“Relax, boy, there’s nothing you could have done for him.”

“Rearden didn’t,” Cinis whispered. “We couldn’t take him with us, and it wouldn’t have mattered if we could.”

“And it was the guards who attacked you?”

“Yes and no. They weren’t human. Dyrius, Rearden’s friend, called them demons.”

“Which could mean a host of things,” said Samson, the bearded man, striking his fist against the table. “Without seeing them, there’s no way to know what order they are. We could be dealing with pups or something far nastier, a much bigger fish than we could catch.”

“Exactly the problem,” said Clarence. “Without that information, it would be foolish to fight head on. No matter how many men we have.”

“And where,” asked Libus, interrupting, “did the fire come from, Cinis? From the demons?”

“No,” Cinis answered. “It came from Dyrius, and it consumed him. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I think he did it on purpose. Not that I’d believe in that, of course.”

“Oh, boy, you’d better believe it. A seer’s Deathwish,” breathed Libus. “We are in dark times indeed.”

The table was quiet then, until Amelia the seamstress broke the silence.

“So if we cannot attack them head on, are we to cower beneath them? Libus, you wrote the names in the book. You promised to avenge them. But so far we have done little but meet in the night.”

“True,” said Libus, “but you are correct that an outright attack is out of the question. Instead we could perform a raid. We could steal their uniforms and walk among them. Destroy them from the inside out.”

“Ridiculous,” said Clarence. “If we could access their store rooms, we would have done it months ago. It’s no trivial matter—we’d have to pass through the palace gate, which grows more heavily guarded each day. Nothing has changed those facts.”

“Oh, but something has,” said Libus, and looked at Cinis. And Cinis realized his plan.

“I can find a way.”

***

“I need a moment,” Cinis said as Libus waited for him to depart. After completing their plans, the rest of the company had. It had taken two hours to come to an agreement—a plan that Clarence guardedly accepted.

“As you wish, boy,” Libus replied.

After Libus’ form disappeared above him, Cinis took the quill from the table. He pressed the tip into his palm until it drew blood and traced Rearden’s name in the book, before climbing back up to the drafty bookstore. Libus led him into the attic, where he would get what rest he could before dawn arrived.

Cinis rolled in the bed, the soft straw mattress conforming to the curves of his body, and felt a sharp object in his pocket press against his leg. He fished out the ring Dyrius had given him and examined the gem that had been jabbing his thigh. Even in the total darkness of the dusty attic, it sparkled as if it were bathed in sunlight. He turned it over in his hands, examining the patterns grooved into its surface with the touch of his fingertips. He ran his finger over the cold, smooth band. And for the first time, he slipped it onto his finger.

So imperceivable that he might have imagined it, a flash of light emanated from the ring as it came to rest above his knuckle. A shiver ran up his spine as he flexed his fingers, waiting for another response from the stone, but any additional shimmers might as well have been tricks of the night.

Chapter 28: Written in Blood

Jessica

“Maria!” Hortia called. “The queen wishes for a new floral arrangement in the banquet hall. We’re to have visitors, and we can’t have yesterday’s roses wilting.”

Jessica groaned inwardly. The queen had admired the decoration she volunteered to make during her first week so much that the duty had always fallen to her since. Initially, the task had proved beneficial, allowing Jessica a chance to search the insides of the palace for Cinis as she claimed to have lost her way when departing. But now that she had found the boy, the chore was useless, along with the rest of the gardening guise she had acquired to snoop around the nobles. And Hortia, in her jealousy of Jessica being delegated the duty, made it her personal duty to spot every flaw in the arrangement, and ensure the queen’s requests were followed to the letter.

Soon she would leave, Jessica decided, but at the moment the guards’ obsession with the burnt tavern had kept her rooted firmly within the grounds. Should they find Cinis before she did, he would likely be brought to the palace. There, if he was still alive, she would have the chance to free him.

A week ago, when the tavern burned to the ground, Jessica had watched from across the street as the palace guards picked through the embers for any valuables that may have survived the burn. She had expected the boy to escape from the fire, but he certainly had not left the building through the front door. And no matter how gifted he may be, he could not have survived the crushing weight as the house imploded, its wooden beams snapping like twigs while fiery sparks ascended into the sky. She tapped her feet nervously. If he had died, her whole mission would be rendered fruitless. The Shadows would have won.

Then one of the guards disappeared in a cloud of ash and smoke as he stepped over the remnants of what had once been a dividing inner wall. Jessica stepped closer for a look as two others hoisted his squirming body out of the newly formed hole, quickly brushing the red hot embers off of his cloak.

“What is it?” called the captain from the street.

“No reward is what it is!” shouted the guard who had fallen. “There’s a tunnel out of here!”

They gathered around the gaping hole, peering into the newly revealed tunnel and struggling to keep their balance as an avalanche of debris slid downward beneath their feet. One reached down and dusted off a small object from the crater’s edge.

“Catch,” he called, throwing it to the captain. It soared over his head, bouncing along the gravel road until it came to rest at Jessica’s feet. Picking it up, she wiped it off with the edge of her robes before, squinting at the box’s surface. One look at the charred insignia was all she needed to confirm her suspicions.

“Give it here, girl, that’s tampering with evidence,” said the captain, gruffly swiping the box from her outstretched arm. “Boys, we’re in luck. Anyone who finds something worthwhile in this pile is to be rewarded. Ten silver coins to each of us if it’s useful.”

She had watched all sorts of objects become unearthed and piled into a wagon by the scavenging guards, which had then been transported to a small warehouse on inner-palace grounds. They had locked the door, leaving the wagon unwatched while rousing the head of the guard.

Since then, she had found no trace of the boy, though she had tried sneaking into the warehouse. She had tried breaking through the door, but it was constructed of a heavy, solid oak that refused to budge. All of the windows were locked, and shattering the telltale panes would be impossible without being heard. She considered using her gifts, but doubted they would prove useful in the vrael—at least not without arousing suspicion. In an act of desperation, she jammed in the key she had received on her first day as gardener, and the lock immediately clicked in response.

She had rushed into the large dark room, finding it to be an armory. Bronze breastplates occupied the walls, spears clustered in the corners, and a small assortment of helmets circled the perimeter. In the center was the wagon, and she dug into the contents, tossing aside a few scorched books and a statue of a man so broken it could not be identified. At the bottom an envelope marked with golden ink caught her eye, as well as a large folded map that had been with the books. She slipped them into an inner pocket and checked the rest for anything valuable, but found nothing.

Then she piled the evidence back onto the wagon, forming a pyramid as the pile took shape. Taking a lantern from the wall, she poured the oil over it, drenching the book pages and wagon wood with the fluid. Then she lit the lantern and smashed it over the top, the remaining oil spilling over the sides of the wagon, and the blaze igniting, nearly singing the tips of her hair as she backed away. It crackled as the evidence was consumed, nothing surviving the intense heat as she darted from the warehouse and to the other end of the palace lawns. Within minutes she could see the pillar of smoke that signaled the effectiveness of her handiwork and heard the horns summoning the water crews.

She could hear the head guard shouting from a hundred yards away when he found the evidence destroyed, enough spit flying out of his mouth to extinguish the fire as he ordered the pleading captain to the dungeons for leaving the warehouse unsupervised. Ever since that incident, the palace grounds had been patrolled regularly, and five hundred silver coins had been offered for the name of the arsonist. Three servants had been reported since, and the palace fool had turned himself in for a mocking chance at the silver.

Jessica had read the letter in the confinement of her own quarters—a small cabin near the palace’s boundary wall, amongst a small apple orchard. She was able to glean little from what remained of the tattered paper, which was dated over fifteen years ago and charred thoroughly by the flames.

“Maria, the queen wants nightshade in the collection, and that only grows on the far side of the grounds. You’ll have to rush to make it, if you still can.” Hortia’s voice had grown agitated as her feet traced nervous circles in the dust outside Jessica’s cabin. She peeked in the window, much to Jessica’s annoyance, and Jessica put the letter she had been studying back into her desk drawer. As important as it was, if she were to keep up appearances, it would have to wait. Already she had studied it for days and found nothing.

“Hortia, I am perfectly capable of reading the queen’s instructions and following them without your intervention,” Jessica fumed, throwing open the door of her cabin.

“Of course you are,” scowled Hortia, “which must be why the queen has requested a new arrangement so soon, hm?”

Jessica frowned. It had been just two days ago that she had brought in the last arrangement, and the queen usually had them done weekly. Skirting around Hortia, she walked away from the cabin, a list in hand of what she would need.

An hour and a half later, Jessica arrived in the banquet hall, arms full of the sweet-smelling nightshade. Queen Egola received her, a tall woman with well-placed jewels ornamenting her slender body, watching as Jessica took down the recent decorations and replaced them. Soon after, King Idus entered the room, an enormous man with an even larger stomach that stretched the lining of his clothes. Two figures, with whom he was conversing, trailed in his footsteps, easily keeping up with the king’s lazy pace.

“As I was saying, it’s such a shame that you came at such an hour, and with nearly no announcement. There could have been a feast for you, and a large one at that! I never turn down a good opportunity for a feast,” chortled the king, patting at his belt.

“It is we who bring the gifts, Your Majesty,” replied the first and taller of the two, his boots clicking away as he walked. He wore a dark cloak with a silver clasp, fashioned after a closed claw, digging into the fabric at his neck. His jet black hair swept above his eyebrows, and below them his irises shone a cold gray that dominated his other facial features.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have, Rorcul,” squealed King Idus with evident pleasure.

Chapter 29: Welcome Guests

Jessica

A rose snapped as Jessica’s hand jerked, petals falling to the floor as she recovered from hearing the Shadow’s name. Her neck stiffened as she pretended to focus on the arrangements, angling herself such that she could watch the visitors out of the corner of her eye. A thorn pricked her thumb as her attention lapsed, a bead of blood smearing over the fresh nightshade flowers.

Rorcul and the king stood about the table in the center of the room. Rorcul was tall and thin, three or four inches taller than the king and at least two dozen fewer about the waistline. And he stood like a king should—his chin high, shoulders back, and stance square. Little emotion showed on his face, and his features appeared calm, though Jessica sensed something underneath. It felt similar to tension, but not quite—more like that of a feral animal walking through the woods. Able to pounce, able to strike, but walking because it’s the time to walk.

The second figure, a wiry girl with a bright, red streak running through her otherwise brunette hair, stepped forward, emptying the contents of a silk sack onto the table before them. A dozen shadowy stones tumbled out, and Jessica’s heart pounded with each clink they made on the wood.

“Black pearls from the swift waters of the Dangst Bay,” the girl breathed, spinning one on the tabletop. “You’ll find none like them in all of Corpia. Their beauty is unmatched. Many have met their deaths while stealing them from the clutches of the salty depths.”

“A beauty paralleled only by your own, Alretta.” The king’s eyes had grown wide as he played with the pearls, letting them slip through his fingers.

“Yes, but these are only the beginning of the many treasures Corsus contains. They are mere pebbles in comparison, and the vast treasure troves can be open to your coffers if we cast aside the outdated superstitions that have closed our borders for so long,” said Rorcul, casually tossing one of the pearls into the fire in the hearth.

“Tell me more of the riches,” pleaded the king. “What has Corsus hidden for so long that we could gain by trade?”

“Another day, another day. I promise that not only will you hear of them, but you shall hold them as well,” said Rorcul as he brushed aside the king’s request. Even from across the hall, Jessica could see the contempt that flashed across his expression.

Then the queen strode over to the table, casting a disdainful look down at the priceless pearls.

“And what is the meaning of your visit?“ she asked.

“We are only ambassadors, Your Highness, here to embolden the friendship between your most beautiful city of Querkus and Vary, the beacon of light in Corsus,” replied Rorcul with flowing words and a smiling bow.

The queen squinted at Rorcul, then spoke.

“You know full well that members of court from Corsus are not accepted here by the treaties of old.”

“Egola, treat our visitors with respect, they have only shown us kindness,” chided the king, tucking the pearls into a pocket at his breast, above his heart.

From the doorway a third voice spoke, one younger than the others in attendance, “Mother is right. The treaties hold that no members of Corsus may hold council with the royal family. But perhaps our guests have disavowed their allegiances to Corsus and would pledge to us?” Jessica recognized the prince, a young man who possessed both the caution of his mother and his father’s taste for gold. He was dressed in all purple and walked into the room with purpose, heading directly toward the table.

“Of course, Your Highness,” replied Rorcul, his back bending in a shallow bow. “We are not of the common filth that inhabit the lands far east of the mountains, those that have plagued the borderlands in the past through raiding. Rather, we are sophisticated like yourselves. And as your father has seen, we hold your friendship to be quite valuable.”

“But for gifts there is always a price. Rorcul, do not take me as a fool. Nevertheless, I will consider your offer.”

“Yes, but let us speak terms in the morning. Both Alretta and I are weary from our travels and need rest before we show you how Querkus can profit through allegiance. And besides allegiance, we come here looking for an outlaw—an outcast, if you will. A very dangerous individual, one who must be contained for the safety of Querkus and continued peace between our lands. But again, this can wait for the morning.”

“As you wish,” said the prince. “We’ll see to it that your rooms are well furnished and attended by servants.”

“But first let us stable our horses. Mine will not rest unless I comfort her,” claimed Alretta. “And I have my carriage to unpack.”

“I’m sure our servants will be glad to assist you in that endeavor,” said the prince, “especially after such a long journey.”

“I appreciate your offer, Your Highness,” countered Alretta, “and am thankful for your kindness, but there are several items of a more, well, personal nature that I wish to attend to myself. And we would not wish to disclose the remainder of our gifts to your royal family and spoil the surprise.”

The prince nodded, his eyebrows raising at the mention of additional gifts, and Rorcul spoke again.

“And before rest I should like to walk the palace grounds, I have heard tales from afar of their magnificence.”

“As our guests you are free to do both,” said the prince as he searched the room, his gaze falling upon Jessica. “And who better to show you the grounds than our own gardener? Fresh from Andrea, and a master at her craft.”

The prince beckoned to Jessica and a lump formed in her throat as she moved toward them. She smiled, curtsying to Rorcul and meeting the depths of his steel eyes with her faux brown ones.

Chapter 30: Setting the Trap

Cinis

“Follow me!”

Cinis led the group through the tunnels, occasionally glancing at the shimmering wall for guidance as they traveled deeper under the city. Behind him fifty men trudged forward, each clad in dark garments that stood out against the glowing surroundings. After surfacing they would mesh with the night, becoming only shadows in the darkness.

Libus’ men walked in single file, keeping their distance from the sides of the aged corridor. A lifetime of hearing the haunting stories of men who never returned from the mystical tunnels kept the group packed tight, the first in line nearly stepping on Cinis’ heels. They fidgeted as he paused at a fork, his hand listening against the wall while he puzzled over the most direct route. Rarely had he been this deep before, and he now relied entirely on the coursing energy flow in the walls to lead him to his destination.

He often caught a glimpse of the men’s wide eyes when he reached out to the light, faces that now associated him with the underground world itself. They fear me, he realized. He had heard hushed whispers of Shadowseeker, the name that they had christened for him when Libus revealed his plan. Many of the men had balked at the mere mention of traveling through the depths, swearing in agitated voices that they would sooner chance the palace gates. Libus had reasoned with them, explaining that the archers stationed on the palace gates would strike them down before they could scratch the mighty doors. Eventually the assembly succumbed to Libus’ words, and each man warily climbed down into the depths, taking a full breath of the aboveground air before sinking below.

Their descent had begun over an hour ago, and now the tunnels steadily leveled off and continued to tilt until they formed a sloping ascent. Cinis had deliberately avoided the deeper tunnels where the underworld grew more strange as the walls’ dancing light became more invigorated and more of the ancient corridors were preserved. Already he had to coax the reluctant group through a room of monstrous marble statues. Winged men soared across the cracked, arched ceiling while an assortment of creatures covered in scales, fins, and spines traversed the floor. At the center were two thrones, whose previous inhabitants had fallen to the ground below. Only marble and obsidian shards remained of the once whole pair.

Soon the air quality changed, with gusts breaking the stale atmosphere with breaths of cool breeze.

“We’re close to the top,” Cinis said to Libus, who held up his hand to halt the group. Several audible groans of relief arose from the crowd. He withdrew a folded paper from his pocket, placing it on the ground as a packed circle formed around his kneeled figure. Libus had given Cinis the map previously with orders to mark all the other tunnel entrances he could find within the palace grounds. The task had taken Cinis all day as he traversed the labyrinth, searching for new avenues to the surface and marking each with a distinct, purple cross. He had been able to discover four entrances spread out across the grounds, but there could be countless more sprinkled throughout the palace and gardens.

“Here is where we will exit onto the grounds,” Libus said, tapping the map, where a small building lay just outside the palace. “The tunnel’s exit is just inside the door, and we can assemble inside. If anything goes amiss, it is where we will regroup.”

He swept his index finger across to point at a larger square connected to the wall. “Now over here is the guards’ supply shack. We need everything you can find, especially uniforms. Once we have them, they won’t be able to tell us apart until it is too late. Inside the grounds, we must go silently. If we are seen, the whole plan could fail, and we’ll be slaughtered like pigs, our bodies left to rot. Where the wall connects to the shack, there’s a small door that leads through the inside of the wall to the main gate, about a hundred feet away. Once the last of us has picked the storehouse clean, we’ll torch it, and the blaze will create the diversion we need. The guards at the main gate will be distracted and leave their post, which is when we make our escape. Provided our arsonist finishes the job correctly, they’ll never know we stole anything from the premises.”

A small man with wispy, graying hair and a collection of four and a half teeth jumped up, waving two large green bottles. “Oh, I’ll get the job done correctly,” he giggled. “One of these is enough to do the trick, but two will make the blaze visible to the entire city. Don’t even need matches!” He clacked the bottles together and the men around him edged away, eyeing the drops of liquid that had fallen to the floor.

“Alright Gorrun, you have me convinced. Just be careful not to set anything alight until we’ve finished. Our position would be given away faster than if you were to start singing.” The men around him laughed, a momentary improvement of their mood, as the cats were known to join their yowling with Gorrun’s nightly singing, their voices far fairer than his own. He had claimed to have been talented in his youth before age claimed the majority of his teeth, but the tale seemed tall. Cinis spoke up, and the men instantly quieted.

“As Libus said, do not confront the guards. Trust me in this as I have led you this far and seen within the palace. We are vastly outnumbered, and their swords will slice through your skin like butter. If you are not careful, you may find yourself attending the next feast; on the table, not a chair.” He neglected to mention the monstrous nature of the guards, knowing the men were already anxious with the nature of the mission.

“To Shadowseeker!” called a member in the back.

“To Shadowseeker!” echoed the other men, bowing their heads. Libus may have been their leader, and they held their eyes suspiciously to Cinis, but they still followed him.

After another fifty feet of walking, they came upon a petrified, wooden trap door guarded by the statues of two torch bearers. Cinis held a finger to his lips at the entrance and climbed up before ushering the men one by one into the deserted room above.

Chapter 31: Breach

Jessica

The shadow of the hulking carriage loomed before Jessica, stretching out across the lawns to smother the verdant grass under thick steel wheels. Rorcul slid open the lock fastened to the iron door, and the hair on her neck prickled as the sound of agitated scratching came from within, accompanied by low growls. Reaching just inside the door, Rorcul retrieved a pair of gloves—the night itself had grown cool, but Jessica found that Rorcul himself exuded a chill about him with an icy grip far more tangible than that of the surrounding air. Just before he returned the door to its original position, she glimpsed three pairs of glowing, red dots staring at her from the back of the carriage, surrounded by dark black forms. And where Rorcul was cold, the air within the carriage was warm and carried a scent like that of rotten eggs that tickled the back of her nose.

She tensed, her memory flickering back, remembering those eyes from long ago. From private lessons with Cesaro as he cracked open books caked with dust, books that few living eyes could see. Books filled with more legend than fact. Or, at least, that she hoped were filled with more legend than fact.”

“I hear that you’re new to the palace,” said Rorcul, breaking her train of thought as he slipped on the satin gloves. “So strange that you would leave the beautiful city of Andrea for this dreadful place, isn’t it?”

“As an Andrean gardener, I make the ugly beautiful. Even what appears to be the most barren of soils can still hold a seed,” said Jessica as she held her hands behind her, such that he could not see them shaking, but her voice was bold and unwavering.

“I see. And even in the most barren soils, weeds still find a way to sprout, no matter how often they are uprooted,” he replied, and he crushed a small budding dandelion that had infiltrated its way onto the lawn, twisting his heel into the ground until the stem snapped and the yellow bled into the surrounding grass. Then he continued speaking, not looking at her, but rather staring ahead toward the gardens.

“I understand that you see much of what occurs on these grounds. You are close to the royal family, you hear the servants’ gossip. You watch visitors come and go. By the queen’s most interesting floral arrangement of nightshade, I’m certain you knew of my coming. It seems little would go unnoticed by you, gardener. So tell me, has there been anything strange lately?”

“By your own words, I am freshly acquainted with the palace. Everything is strange when you have not yet realized what is normal.”

“But even you must have noticed some things. I heard there was a fire in one of the guards’ sheds recently—do you know who would have wanted to cause such a commotion, and disturb the peace?”

The peace, thought Jessica, and shivered. Was he referring to the king’s peace? Or the treaty that claimed that ambassadors would not try to turn Querkus from its neutral position?

“Unattended lanterns are fickle things,” she replied, her voice casual, “especially with the guards at this palace, who seem to have less common sense than children. I suspect the shed burned down from their negligence. In Andrea, they would be an embarrassment. Truly, I don’t know where they found this recent bunch, who seem to be a new low.”

“Ah, I see. But the guards are not the only ones strange and foreign around here, are they?”

“What do you mean?”

“I think you know exactly what I mean. Come now, surely you would like to meet some of the guards you have just insulted? I think they would appreciate some constructive criticism.”

He whistled softly, three low lingering notes that stretched across the yard. In the distance, Jessica saw three guards look up from their post on the wall toward Rorcul and start walking his way. Almost immediately, four others joined them, and the seven figures marched in a line across the grounds. One of them she recognized—the quiet guard with strange mannerisms that had accompanied her outside the palace on her visits to the estates. Red cords still surrounded his chest, but ever since the burning of the tavern, she knew that those cords were not from an enchanted coat. And the others bore similar cords, cords of Fire Magic, Water Magic, Earth Magic, and Air Magic. Of the demons, beneath the human guise, that could wield it.

Without the Vrael, she’d have a fighting chance. Depending upon Rorcul’s abilities, she’d at least be able to dispatch the guards. And should that fail, she could most certainly escape. But with the Vrael—well, with the Vrael it was another matter entirely. And it was eight to one.

She could try attacking now, but assuming that Rorcul thought her to be just a gardener withholding information, she would give herself away. And if she fled, and managed to escape, he would reach the same conclusion. But if she stayed, she might be able to keep up her act, and maybe misdirect them with a few well-placed words.

Halfway between the guards and Jessica was an old shack, dilapidated and shedding shingles. As she watched the guards, thinking of her next move, its double doors silently opened, and a lone head peeked out, peering to the left and right but failing to see the line of guards in the blind spot behind the door. The face turned toward Jessica, and her stomach flipped as she met Cinis’ eyes. Her mouth opened in shock as she prepared to shout a warning, but Rorcul cut her off.

“Please, shouting for help will do you no good,” said Rorcul, still peering off toward the general grounds. “All I’m looking for is simple answers to simple questions. A rumor would suffice, or even hearsay. Come, there must be something you know. Some gossip that you heard whispered in the night.” And with a jolt, Jessica realized that Rorcul had not seen Cinis, but rather stood transfixed on the coming guards, a slight smile on his face as he sensed her internal struggle. Go back! Hide! she thought, and she breathed a sigh of relief as Cinis retreated back into building like a snail into its shell.

She breathed a sigh, but halfway through, it caught in her throat as a gasp.

For just as the line of guards reached the shack’s entrance, the double doors burst open, and a dark mass of men poured from within to clash with the advancing line.

Chapter 32: Pebble Upholding the Boulder

Jessica

For such a small shack, their numbers were impossible, but more and more men rushed onward in an arrowhead that flooded over and split the oncoming seven guards, . The lead guard fell first, five daggers piercing through his cloak from the startled hands of the men, their nerves high enough to drive them into a frenzy. Two more fell after him before the remaining four could recover, drawing swords to fight their way from the crowd, snarling as flesh masks fell from their faces to reveal the atrocities underneath.

As the nose was ripped off one, rough scales appeared, blues and greens that worked in irregular patterns before disappearing under his scalp. Gills flashed from his neck, gills that gasped for water and found none, but instead settled for air. And next to that demon was another, his complexion like pebbles, his eyes coal, and gravel trickling from the edge of his mouth. Beside him was a pile of rags, seeming to hold itself up on its own tattered ends, the sword at the end of its grasp hovering in translucent purple fingers. And last stood one with burnt, red skin, the eyelids gone, the lips burned away, and smoke curling from its nostrils.

The frontmost men balked, forming a blob as those behind pressed forward, unaware of the threat, throwing themselves against the shrieking figures before them, landing blows and stabs where they could. And as she heard Rorcul curse beside her, Jessica broke away from him, sprinting toward the fray just as the demons were engulfed by the mob again.

“Alretta!” he shouted as she departed. “Alretta, fetch the dogs!”

Demons are nasty things. Monstrous things. But crippled under the drain of vrael, and surrounded by a mob of adrenaline-, anger-, and confusion-filled men, they’d quickly be reminded of their own fallibility. As Jessica dashed into the center of the men, she sensed the fire demon on her right falling, its hot blood spattering on the grass. She searched, turning her head left and right, refusing to look at the growing number of bodies on the ground for Cinis just yet. Then she saw him, and she cursed.

“Damn idiot.”

Cinis faced the Earth demon, a knife in each hand, the brute towering several feet above him. He darted in, his knife sparking against the stone hidden underneath what remained of the demon’s cloak. Confusion crossed his face as the demon howled, gnashing its jagged, stone teeth, and lifting its sword high above its head as Cinis looked upward, still recovering from his own leap.

And then the sword came down, a mighty cleave intending to split Cinis’ skull in half, and Jessica screamed in frustration at having come so close to the target just to see him die.

But at the last second, Cinis crouched, straightened his back, and raised both his knives upward, the blades crossed at the hilt. They caught the demon’s sword at the last instant, stopping it inches above his forehead, absorbing the shock with all the static strength he could muster.

Jessica gasped as she recognized the form, something that she had not seen since Laddergate, and certainly something she would not expect to see outside of Cratus.

Pebble upholding the boulder.

Even as the realization hit her, she was running, casting her senses before her toward the Earth demon, Cesaro’s voice echoing in her head from a lesson he had given her after Laddergate.

“Within all things living, there is Life Magic. My dear, it is the nature of life to couple the weak and the strong. Consider the turtle: His hard shell protects his back, while his underbelly is exposed. So you must search for where the threads of life come together or fall apart, for imperfections and imbalances. In humans, these could be found at the heart, where just the right blow could cause it stop. Or the brain, where the smallest imperfection could wreak havok.”

So she felt the twisted perversion of Life within the demon and searched through it, probing, feeling. Ten feet away, as Cinis crouched under the sword, the tip descending closer and closer toward the beads of sweat on his forehead, she found the demon’s underbelly.

Her hair streamed behind her as she picked up speed, her feet running in rhythm, toes fluttering across the ground as if in a dance. She pushed the vrael away for that moment, focusing, willing her body forward in the motion of perfect grace necessary for the task.

She jumped, her left foot landing atop Cinis’ shoulder blade as she used it as a springboard, and jumped far higher, arcing toward the demon. His black, coal eyes met hers as time slowed, her right hand extending outward as her body turned horizontal, seeming to be suspended by air alone. The her fingers made contact with the demon’s lower throat, the skin there like soft dirt instead of rock, breaking under force it had never been made to withstand. Her arm plunged in up to the elbow and she felt a granite vertebra deep within, cold stone that she grabbed with a fist, and yanked to rip it clear.

There was a grudging pop, like that of pulling boots out from deep mud after a rainy day, and she continued to soar past the demon, her momentum carrying her through a front flip to land in the grass beyond, the stone vertebra still clutched in her hand. She turned back just as the Earth demon’s head rolled backward, nothing left to support it as it fell off the shoulders, its eyes dead before it hit the ground.

Cinis was still crouched, the knives held high as the sword slid off them, and the Earth demon fell, the rocks no longer held together but rather spilling over themselves in a mound. The knives dropped to his side as he gaped, still in the crouching position that had saved his life, still in pebble upholding the boulder.

“Cinis,” she shouted as her hair settled over half her face, and she dropped the vertebra to the ground, “Cinis, you’re coming with me. Now.”