Chapter 33: Shadowseeker

Jessica

Reinforcements started running from the wall, but what concerned Jessica most were the sound of screeching metal as the door of the carriage was flung open and the distant clinking of Alretta’s ring as she rifled through keys.

The water demon in the center of the mob screeched, blood pouring from its gills, and struck out with a tail that whipped from underneath the tattered remains of its clothes. The razor sharp edge caught a man in his midsection, and he screamed as his legs collapsed to the ground and his torso was launched backward into the rest of the crowd. There was a surprised shout, and a bottle flew through the air, smashing against the side of the now-empty shack and causing an eruption of flames that consumed the dry wood with hunger.

“Run!” shouted Gorrun from the back, waving a second green bottle over his head as blood poured out of a wound in his left shoulder. The short man started hobbling away, now another tooth short after the encounter, his knuckles white around the other bottle. With a roar the fire reached the remains of the broken green bottle, illuminating the scene of the scattering crowd.

Then there was a howling from the carriage. Jessica turned to see three massive, black dogs bounding toward them, their fangs gleaming white, in stark contrast to the night around them. The light from the fire failed to illuminate their features—instead it only darkened their fur.

“Stop or you will all die!” Rorcul’s icy voice cut through the pandemonium. The two remaining demons at the edge of the crowd hissed, and the men cringed, but Jessica crept away with Cinis, holding him tight by the elbow.

“Come with me,” she whispered, “or you will die as he says.” He looked down at her, knives still in hand, and hesitated. She looked familiar, and he recognized her as the first girl from the tunnels, the one who had disappeared after the collision.

“I need to stay and fight,” he answered. “We’re at the advantage, with only a few of them left. I can’t let the tide turn, or the men will lose heart.”

“Then you’ll be cut down like a twig under an ax,” she said. “Don’t be foolish—you’re not winning this battle. Those demons you killed were only a fraction of them. Right now I can see a score more approaching.” She looked over to the carriage in the distance, where Alretta walked toward Rorcul, the freed hounds circling her in widening loops. “And other beasts, worse than demons. Besides, he’s not after your men. He’s after something else. And if you stay here and try to fight, I promise that you and all your men will die. Slowly.”

Cinis studied her face. “So why should I leave?”

Jessica took a chance then, based upon the reports and gossip she had heard of the burning tavern. “Because Rearden would have wanted it.”

He stiffened, his face froze, and he held his breath. And Dyrius’ voice echoed in his head, along with Rearden’s command to follow his orders. Run to Cardinia.

“To Cardinia? But I don’t want to run,” he whispered as he gripped his knives tighter. “I want to avenge him.”

“To Cardinia. And I know how you can,” she replied, “but now is not the time.”

Then his feet were moving, following Jessica. Spurred by the guilt of disregarding his uncle’s last wish. Spurred by the prospect of finding his murderer.

Then Rorcul’s voice rang out again over the crowd.

“Today all of you have the opportunity to leave with your lives. You’ll be free to go home to your families, and we’ll forget this event ever occurred. All I ask is one small favor in return.

“I came to Querkus to find a man who poses a threat to the peace of Corpia itself. This man is a traitor to the crown, and by turning him over to me, you will walk free. If my suspicions are correct, he may even be the leader of this escapade. You’ll have noticed he’s different than you; he may be strange.”

Jessica’s pace quickened, and she tugged at Cinis’s arm, pulling him behind the burning shack. Together they slinked away, the flames obscuring them from Rorcul’s view.

“The man who gives him to me will receive ten years’ wages for his compliance. Come, let us spill no more blood. Let us walk free of this encounter, knowing that a criminal has been detained. Let us leave with a clear conscience. I have no quarrel with you, nor you with me, and we shall both turn a blind eye to the remainder of the events tonight should you hand him over. Should you hand over Cinis, of Horsekick’s Tavern.”

Me?” choked Cinis from behind Jessica. “I’m what he wants?”

“As I said, stay here and die,” she answered. “Now hurry. I’ll explain once we’re out of here.”

Shadowseeker,” murmured a voice from the front of the crowd. Cinis recognized the man, a large brute with beady eyes and a slow, deep voice. He had been particularly difficult to lead through the tunnels and had balked at each turn, often questioning Cinis’ decisions at forks.

“What’s that?” asked Rorcul, turning to the man, “Come, who is this Shadowseeker? Bring him forward now and collect your reward.”

The giant searched through the crowd. “He’s not here,” he replied. “He’s gone. He came with us, though.”

The voice barely reached Cinis’ ears, as they were almost out of earshot. He hesitated again, speaking to Jessica.

“He’ll kill them if they don’t hand me over.”

“They’ll be fine. He doesn’t want them, only you. He’ll keep them alive so he can question them. Going back now is suicide. Careful, and keep your voice down—we need to stay hidden.”

The words had barely escaped her mouth before a dark object collided with Cinis, a short mass hidden by the night.

Hortia screamed with surprise from where she had been gaping at the fire, her mouth already open from watching the scene. She shrieked again as Jessica clapped a hand over her mouth to silence her, the sound cut off midway through its vocalization.

For an instant, everything was still.

Then, from far across the lawns, Rorcul’s cold gaze met Cinis’, his cold, gray eyes calculating, and his features accented by the red blaze. And he knew that despite the darkness, Rorcul could see him. 

Chapter 34: Cat and Mouse

Cinis

“Run!” shouted Jessica, pushing Cinis forward and snapping him out of his trance.

Libus’ voice shouted behind them, “Men, this is our time! Tonight we fight for freedom! They are outnumbered, this is our chance!”

Cinis mentally thanked Libus as he streaked toward the wall, following on Jessica’s heels. He could hear the fighting behind him as swords clashed against the resistance’s assorted weapons. And he heard another sound, a sound far more concerning. The rapidly approaching panting and barking of dogs.

“This way,” shouted Jessica, taking a sharp right into a maze-like row of hedges. “Follow me! There’s a stream just down here, and they won’t cross water!”

“That’s ridiculous, those dogs are huge!”

“Cinis, I saved your life, and I’m certain I’ll do it again before the night ends. Trust me, and just focus on running.”

Cinis heard bubbling up ahead and saw light through a break in the hedges, reflecting off of the sparkling water. They picked up speed, dashing down the path, coming closer and closer to the water. Then, just ten feet away, his foot caught on a stray root at the side of the gravel, and he fell, his forearms absorbing the impact of the fall as the pebbles stripped away the outer layer of skin.

“Watch out!” screamed Jessica, and he rolled over to see the first canine racing toward him. In the distance he had been unable to see the details of the animal, but at this range each of its individual features were sharpened.

Instead of fur, rows of coal lined the canine’s exterior like scales, black on the surface, but revealing a white and red glow through the cracks. Heat poured from its sleek body, heat that already made his face uncomfortably hot and threatened to ignite his eyebrows. As the beast came even closer, he saw that its eyes were burning embers, and its teeth were as white as ivory. Each breath carried a cloud of smoke through the beast’s glowing nostrils.

It leapt, soaring through the air in a burning arc toward Cinis. Instinctively, he reached for his knives, pulling them from his belt and holding them above him, pulling his knees to his chest.

Sparks shrieked as metal met fangs, and the other knife met a set of claws, illuminating the area with a light so bright it burned into Cinis’ retinas. The second paw landed on Cinis’ upper chest, and he gasped as it instantly burned through his shirt, and the sharp claws bit into his skin. As he rolled back, his feet caught the hound in the chest, and he kicked upward with all his strength. The dog’s momentum carried it over Cinis’ head as the soles of his boots smoked and melted.

There was an explosion of steam as the hound collided with the water. Hot, moist air rushed over Cinis and filled the area above his head. High-pitched yelping came from behind as the hound splashed in the stream, trying to escape the coursing water as its legs eroded away, the coals turning to ashes that dissolved and were swept downstream. Within moments the legs were completely gone, and the chest of the hound sank into the water as it thrashed, its panic only bringing it to a quicker death. Then only the neck and head were left, the mouth opening wide to loose one final scream before it, too, sank. The only evidence of the hound remaining were the two red embers from its eyes, still burning and bubbling, boiling water at the bottom of the stream.

Suddenly Jessica pulled Cinis to his feet, not giving him the time to watch in awe as the embers were extinguished by the flowing water. They leapt into the stream, the water hissing at his boots where they had pressed up against the hound. They waded through the water just as the other two hounds appeared on the bank, snarling, but not daring to come within a foot of the water, lest they suffer the same fate as their brother. They paced, barking, showing the whites of their teeth and pawing the ground.

“Which way?” asked Cinis to Jessica, referring to the fork in the hedges ahead.

“Left, I think. We’re safe now, but we have to keep moving. The dogs won’t dare cross.”

“I’ve always enjoyed hunting,” called Rorcul’s amused voice, and the outline of his dark figure strolled toward them from the hedge ahead, pausing to lean on the edge of a fountain that spilled into the stream. Cinis and Jessica froze, and he spoke again, smiling.

“It’s no fun when the prey is easy, or when they are reckless or ignorant. No, it’s much better when you stumble across a more potent foe. And though you are weak, the Vrael limits me as well.”

His left hand swept above the fountain, and a tendril of water flowed from the surface, growing into a bulb on his palm as he spoke.

“A mouse, cornered in a maze, against a declawed cat. But I assure you, my teeth are still present.”

He threw the sphere of water into the air, where it twisted to form the image of a cat and mouse racing around the fountain. The cat closed in on the mouse and began to play, swiping it from side to side with its paws as flecks of liquid sprayed from the rodent’s back. Transfixed, Cinis watched the scene as the mouse desperately squeaked in peculiar wavering notes, and the cat pounced, devouring the mouse in a single gulp.

Beside Cinis, Jessica tensed as she became aware of a strained aura surrounding Rorcul—dark, magical lines that reached out toward the animated cat, which now sat in the center of the fountain, licking clean its paws. The edges of the aura bled outward in irregular pulses, evidence of the Vrael that sapped at his power. But even in the presence of the Vrael, the attention to detail was incredible, down to the whiskers of the cat. Gripping Cinis’ forearm, she considered her options, casting about her for other signs of approaching life.

And she did feel another presence, a being creeping up behind them, silently walking across the stream while the hounds continued to bray on the other side. Beside her, the hair on the back of Cinis’ head pricked, and he cocked an ear in the night, listening to melodic notes that were now thrumming through the darkness. Notes of song. Notes from below.

He blinked as Jessica whispered in his ear, her voice just audible over the melodic singing.

“When the chance to escape comes, take it. Run, for we won’t have much time.”

Then Rorcul was speaking again, his nose high as his gaze fell across Cinis.

“Truly, I had expected a stronger opponent. It saddens me, Cinis, that your gifts are so feeble. To think that you were able to kill my servants is surprising enough to me. Beginner’s luck, I suppose, that your uncle did not seem to share. Or was he the more fortunate of the two of you? At least he died quickly.”

Cinis clenched his fists, about to reach for the throwing knives at his belt, but the singing voice eroded his anger, and Jessica’s grip tightened. Wait, the voice insisted, come to me.

Above Rorcul the water formed a large orb, then was compressed by Rorcul’s dark lines until it was the size of a marble, which fell into his outstretched palm. Behind them, Jessica sensed the presence edge forward near the bank.

“A final gift for you. Cherish it, for it’s your last.” He tossed the marble, and the singing crescendoed as the black pearl landed at Cinis’ feet, half-submerged in the mud.

Behind them the presence pounced, but Jessica was ready.

Her hand left Cinis’ arm and reached back to intercept the attacker’s wrist, stopping the point of her dagger inches from Cinis’ back.

“No you don’t!” she shouted, pulling the arm and extending her foot such that it caught Alretta in the shin. With a blur of orange hair, she flew past them, carried by the momentum of her charge. She sprawled into Rorcul, his face betraying surprise as together they fell backward into the fountain.

Then Rorcul was cursing, and Cinis was running, and the singing was drawing him forward.

Chapter 35: Lockdown

Jessica, Cinis

“What are you doing? You’re going the wrong way! This is a dead end!” screamed Jessica, darting after Cinis in the darkness. Flowers that she had worked so hard to maintain trampled beneath their feet, petals flying in a wake behind them.

“Trust me!” shouted back Cinis as he remembered the map he had made for Libus a few days before, the purple x’s marking places where the underground tunnels came to the surface.

But Jessica was right—a boulder carved to resemble an enormous double door blocked their path, cutting off their escape from Rorcul and Alretta. Two armored guardians chiseled entirely of white marble protected the doorway, their ivory spear tips crossing the path, body-length shields hanging to protect their torsos. Thick hedges lined the left and right, preventing turns.

The singing and his memory carried him forward as heavy lines of golden light raced across the surface of the stone doorway, shimmering as they took hold of the rock. With a crack like thunder, a fissure raced down the boulder, quickly propagating through the center. Stone grated against stone as the doors opened on their hinges. And through the crack Cinis saw the familiar light of the tunnels, and the singing amplified.

Cinis slid first on the grass, falling under the guards’ crossed spears and into the corridor beyond. Jessica followed, her hair streaming behind her, making it just inside the doorway as Rorcul entered Cinis’ line of sight.

The door shuddered to a stop, the lines of light blazing now, then started to close. Rage flashed over Rorcul’s face, and even from where he stood Cinis felt the cold wash over him as Rorcul raised his right hand. The darkness and light around it twisted, separating out like oil and water, converging toward him.

Die!” Rorcul shouted, a lance of darkness exploding from his palm, warping the light from the stone as it streaked toward Cinis’ chest. The spear reminded him of the hound’s fur—drawing in the light around it, managing to be darker than pitch black, a substance of it’s own rather than a shadow. And just thin enough to pierce through the shrinking gap in the stone doorway.

But just as the spear reached the door, just as Cinis started to react too slowly for escape, one of the shields from the marble guardians fell from its grasp and slid in front of the gap.

The marble exploded into dust, pulverized by the blow, fragments of darkness scattering to intermingle with the white cloud. Jessica raised her hands from where she had slid into the corridor, and the shadows raced toward her, accumulating in a disk that rotated between her palms. Just before the gap closed and resealed, Jessica threw the disk back through, into the night.

There was a scream of rage—a scream cut off by the clapping of stone on stone—then silence as the world above was locked away. Cinis and Jessica turned, backs to the door, staring into the tunnels.

And the tunnels beckoned.

***

Rorcul

The disk of shadow spun toward Rorcul, the dark lines of magic from his hands still connected to it as the edge sought the arteries in his neck. He turned, reacting faster than any human should, the vrael from the ground consuming even more of his energy as he released his grip on the dark lines.

Instead of his throat, the razor sharp edge of the disk ripped through his sleeve, drawing blood as it sliced into his tricep then continued past him, cutting a row of hedges in half with a flurry of twigs and leaves before embedding itself into a tree. Bark split off from the trunk and the branches quivered before the shadow dissipated into the night.

He cursed in rage, falling to his knees from the exertion of the attack, shielding himself once again from the vrael.

Beside him Alretta stepped forward, her two remaining hounds panting, their heat clashing with Rorcul’s cold. In her palm she held two red, glowing stones, still dripping water, that she placed into her pocket.

“Well?” she asked, staring at the stone door as the golden lines retracted from its surface and slid beneath the ground.

“Gone,” said Rorcul through gritted teeth, and he held up his hand again. “Gone, with the help of interference.”

Two more dark lances lashed out, striking the marble guards at the entrance way. They cracked in half, thudding to divot the soft soil, their spears toppling over them.

Rorcul gasped, drawing in air, his left hand pressed against the ground for support as he knelt, blood trickling down to join the grass. Spots clouded his vision, but he held them back as Alretta’s hand clasped over his shoulder.

“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “Save your strength. We’ll need it for the hunt.”

“I could still kill him if I were inches away from my deathbed.”

“Didn’t work this time,” she retorted, and his fingers clenched into a fist.

From behind Rorcul heard another figure approaching, and he turned to see a man from the guard flanked by two concealed demons. He pushed himself to his feet and raised his chin to meet the guard’s’ gaze.

“Close all the gates,” he spat. “Nobody leaves, and nobody enters. I want patrols all night through the city in full saturation. Anyone appearing younger than the age of thirty is to be taken into custody until this is settled. All known entrances and exits to the underground tunnels are to be guarded. Understand? Fail me, and I’m sure the guards on your left and right would be happy to provide the consequences.”

“Yes, sir,” said the guard, swallowing, then trotting away with the demons close on his heels. Alretta snapped her fingers, and the two hounds followed, galloping to the palace gate and to the streets beyond, leaving the grass singed where their paws had pressed into it.

Shadowseeker,” said Rorcul, watching them depart. “Shadowseeker, you will find the shadow.”

Chapter 36: Through Closed Doors

Jessica

“How did you know about this place? That rock has never opened—I’ve been past it over a hundred times, and it has only ever been a monument,” stammered Jessica, staring at the stone slab. Despite the little she knew of Cinis, the power required to split stone like that in the presence of vrael would be astronomical, something she would expect only from a master. Not something a tavern boy could do with a flick of the wrist.

“I mean, it was pretty obvious. The singing was practically screaming out of it.”

“What voice? From outside?”

“No, can’t you hear it? Listen—it’s fading now, but pretty clear still.”

Jessica shot him a confused expression and frowned. “No, there’s nothing. Dead silent. Are you sure you’re not hearing things?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I think it wants us to follow it, deeper down beneath the city.” Every time he had heard the voice, Cinis had been alone in the tunnels. But if he was the only one who could hear it—well, that would make the singing even stranger. But stranger events had already happened that night, and he started walking down the tunnel before Jessica called after him.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Have you always heard voices? That’s not normal, you know.”

When he didn’t turn around, she grabbed his shoulder to stop him and, in the motion, pulled his shirt. An extra button on its corner caught on his pants pocket, and with a clink, something fell onto the ground, coming toward Jessica with a wobbling roll.

Stooping over, she picked up the ring. She stopped as soon as her fingers made contact with the metal.

Jessica had heard singing before—great singing, possibly the best in Lorai. Air Magic users are often known for their singing, for the way they can coax streams of wind through their vocal cords, producing notes purer than natural talent can provide alone. Some were so skilled they could sing with two voices at once, a duet by one person with several octave gaps between the notes. Her parents had taken her to a performance house the second week of every month, when their favorite acapella group held shows.

But Jessica had never heard singing like this.

Her expression turned to awe and she stood stock still, her head tilted to enhance her hearing. The voice was pure, strong—it followed a beat that she did not recognize, but rather a different timing that sounded alien. Not wrong, just different. The notes followed no pattern she could identify, cycling through highs and lows that she was not entirely sure even existed on a musical scale.

And Cinis was right—the voice came from down the corridor, reverberating off the walls in its quest to reach them.

“I, I don’t know what to say,” she breathed, looking at the ring in her fingers whose gemstone reflected the light from the walls. And on closer inspection, she wasn’t quite sure if the ring reflected the light or, rather, participated in generating it.

“I have,” Cinis answered, in reply to her earlier question. “It’s always from deep below, but I’ve never found the source. And now you hear it too. Maybe this time it will be waiting for me. It’s all I have left.”

The words had hardly escaped his mouth when the music began to fade, the last notes tinkling upward, and the singer singing what Cinis now understood to be a farewell.

“Or not,” he said, his face in a frown as the voice dwindled to nothing and the spell was broken.

With some effort, Jessica handed the ring back to Cinis, releasing a gentle sigh at the music’s departure.

“It’s not all you have left, Cinis,” she said. “Rorcul wasn’t the only one sent here to find you. I was too. I know it’s difficult to understand, but I’m here to protect you and take you somewhere safe.”

“I don’t want safe,” Cinis answered, turning back toward the stone door. “If Rorcul is in league with the demon guards, that means that he’s close to the person responsible for Rearden’s death.”

“I wouldn’t say he’s close to the person who killed Rearden,” Jessica answered, her voice low.

“Obviously he is. Demons killed Rearden, he works with demons, he—” The realization flowed across Cinis’ face as his eyes widened. “No, wait. You’re saying that he isn’t close to the person who killed Rearden because he is the person who killed Rearden!”

He ran back to the stone door, pressing his shoulder against it, but the golden light failed to illuminate it. He kicked it, achieving nothing more than a dull thud, the door stubborn in its refusal. Whipping around, he pointed a finger at Jessica and hissed.

“You knew this! You knew this, and you made me run instead of fight! I could have killed him there, at the fountain!”

“He would have scattered your insides like fertilizer in the garden,” she replied as he continued kicking the door. “It would have been suicide, Cinis. Besides, as I said, Rearden would have wanted it this way.”

“Oh, so you knew him then?”

“No, but if he had a lick of common sense, then—”

“Then you have no clue what he would have wanted!”

Cinis took his knife from his belt, and wedged it into the crack, trying to pound it in with the flat of his hand. Again, the stone refused to budge.

“Are you crazy? You’ll get yourself killed at the least if you pry that open. Outside that rock is Rorcul, one of the greatest assassins in all the realm! You wouldn’t have a chance!”

“Then what do you expect me to do? Run away until he kills me, too? No, I’m settling the score.”

“I can’t let you do that. Did you see his magic? Cinis, I know you may not be acquainted with magic, being from Querkus, but that was no small trick back there. Only a man of great power could perform such a feat with the amount of vrael present. The fact that he was able to carry on a conversation at the same time is incredible enough with the level of detail he maintained.”

“I’m not scared.”

Jessica paused as he continued to pound. The strategy of logic and rationale to convince him was not working. It was time to change tactics.

“Cinis, the only way to avenge his death is to come with me,” she said, and he turned to look at her, eyes ablaze.

“How? Don’t think that you can trick me.”

“As I said, Rorcul is strong. But you are weak. Sure, you may know a few tricks about how to fend off the average street urchin, but you don’t have a chance against Rorcul. Next time he’ll be more careful, and I can guarantee you that he won’t make the same mistake twice. On top of that, there’s Alretta, and I know very little about her prowess. She could be just as deadly, if not more so. An inexperienced tavern boy cannot hope to contend against those odds.

“But I can change that. Where I’m taking you, you can learn to defend yourself against him. We can teach you how to survive. Cinis, I can’t promise that you’ll have a chance against him, but this is the best shot that you have. There are powerful friends where I come from, friends that can take Rorcul down, even if you can’t.”

“What do you mean, if I can’t? This is my battle.”

“Magic is deadly, Cinis. We can teach you how to protect yourself against it, but we cannot teach you how to beat it. I’m sorry, but that’s all I can offer. And when the time comes to confront Rorcul, there will be others to help.”

Cinis closed his eyes, standing still for a full minute. Then he asked a single question.

“You swear?”

“I swear.”

“To Cardinia, then,” he answered after a moment of consideration, pulling the knife from the stone. To find the Craftsman.

And as the knife slid out of its place, echoes of the sound ran down the tunnel, reminding Jessica of the singing.

And there was one thing that Jessica was absolutely sure of, something her instincts of Life Magic and training by Cesaro made her realize.

The singer, whatever it was, was not alive.

Chapter 37: Rendezvous

Cinis, Jessica

Cinis had just stepped away from the stone door when Jessica noticed footsteps reverberating around the corner, hastening toward their position. She shoved Cinis behind one of the statues that littered the room and crouched behind a second, peeking through the crux of the elbow to catch a glance of the incoming figure and motioning for Cinis to stay still. A dark, cloaked head poked through the doorway, urgently searching the room.

“Libus!” shouted a surprised Cinis as the hood receded, and the tall figure stumbled into the room, blood pouring from a gash just below his left ear. A broad grin lit up his face.

“Finally, I’ve found you, boy. Any longer and these tunnels would have swallowed me whole. Great news! The attack was a success! All because of you.”

He shook Cinis’ hand, the strong grip overcoming Cinis’ own as his entire hand was encompassed.

“The revolution owes you, Cinis. Or should I say, Shadowseeker. And I see you’ve made a new acquaintance.”

Jessica had cautiously emerged from her niche and was sizing up Libus.

“Jessica,” she said, using her real name to avoid confusing Cinis.  At this point, her identity was already exposed. “What do you mean by success? You were all nearly killed.”

“It was a raid. Casualties are to be expected. Originally it was to be done under the stealth of night, but conditions weren’t exactly optimal with the fire. But when you ran off, everyone followed. The guards, the dogs, the lunatic and the girl. Gone, plain out left us unguarded. We captured a few of the remaining guards—the ones who followed you were the beastly creatures. But as we speak, the guard’s shack burns. We suffered hardly any casualties, considering the circumstances, and the taverns will sing of this victory against the palace guard’s oppression for years to come.”

“A victory for one, but a near loss for another,” sighed Jessica. “The palace guard is only a front, a puppet played by Rorcul’s hand. Do you want the true reason for the guard’s oppression? He stands before you. They were searching for Cinis, and nearly caught him, but for a pure stroke of fortune. And they will pursue him until death’s cold grip has chilled the blood in his veins. Soon even these tunnels will not be safe. Already the city gates will be closed, every exit closely watched by the beastly guards that you mentioned. The longer we wait, the worse it will become—he has to leave the city immediately.”

“But the rebellion,” protested Libus. “Cinis, you are our greatest asset. With you, we can access any place in the city at a moment’s notice and disappear in a blink. We can crush them.”

“Libus, I have to leave,” spoke up Cinis. “It was Rearden’s last words, and to dishonor them would be spitting upon his grave. Do not attempt to convince me otherwise, as I am just barely sure of it myself.”

“A terrible loss. But we are thankful for the little you have given us, Cinis. The revolution is in your debt.”

“Tonight we will call upon this debt,” said Jessica. “Surely you know of another way to leave the city? We must be gone faster and more invisible than the wind, and we have far to travel.”

Libus thought for a moment, leaning his square shoulders up against the wall.

“All the ways will be guarded. Rarely do we have reason to inspect the Outer Wall, so many of its secrets are unknown to us.” He hesitated. “But there may be a way. It’s risky, and we’ll need some more of your luck.”

“Careful, I don’t think there’s much left,” remarked Cinis. “So what’s the plan?”

Libus explained, and a frown gradually crept over Jessica’s face.

“I don’t like it. There’s too much that could go wrong.”

“It’s the only way.”

“He’s right,” concluded Cinis. “These tunnels do not breach the Wall, which is solid even beneath the earth. It’s our best bet.”

“Alright. But if anything goes wrong, we run for it, understand?” She poked a finger at Cinis, “Absolutely no heroism.”

A howl echoed from behind them, a howl that became more distant the longer it was held.

“That’s our cue,” said Jessica. “Cinis, lead the way. Libus, if you wish to inflict a true wound to the palace guard, this is the greatest opportunity you will likely ever be presented. Make the preparations.”

As they whisked out of the room, Jessica turned for a final glance at the frozen statues beside the door, near identical to the ones outside the stone.

“Thanks, friends,” she whispered, and a twinkle of light flashed across their eyes. Then she scurried away—after Cinis, after safety, and after freedom.

Chapter 38: Inside the Wall

Jessica, Cinis

Jessica’s frown grew deeper with each hour as the start of the plan approached. One of Cesaro’s sayings circulated around her head, and she focused upon it, listening to his voice in her mind.

A sailor can glide straight even upon the most complex currents and waves of the ocean. Ride atop the chaos, and never lose sight of the wind.

Had she lost sight of the wind? Their fate was placed in the hands of a man she hardly knew, a man who had nearly killed Cinis by introducing him to a skirmish with demons. He was honest in his confidence for the plan, she could feel that through his disposition, but even the most honest of warriors can and do soundly lose battles.

Right now he would have to be the wind to guide her out of the city, and should he falter, she would have significantly fewer options, assuming she still had any at all.

“We still have some time,” Cinis said, jarring her from her thoughts, and suddenly she was back in the grey, stone passageway. Ahead of her were three of Libus’ men, sharply dressed in the palace guard’s uniform, watching the movement outside though an archer’s slitted window. Together, they were inside the Outer Wall itself, and the northern gate of the city loomed not ten feet ahead of them. The passageway butted up against the archway of the gate, where genuine palace guards stood at attention below.

Since dawn, passage had only been granted to the highest noblemen and the most influential of merchants, and even they could not exit the city without a thorough inspection. By Rorcul’s orders, and thus the king’s orders, no one else would be allowed in or out of the gates until the traitor who had set fire to the palace grounds had been arrested. He had wanted the nobles and merchants restricted as well, but the outcry would likely have raised suspicions.

“It’s at least ten minutes until we leave, and I want to know more of where we’re going,” demanded Cinis, his eyes wide in the darkness.

“Can’t this wait? We’re in a delicate situation here,” she responded.

“No, it can’t. Once I leave, there’s no coming back. I’ll balk here, Jessica, if you don’t give me answers. I’ve been thinking about what Libus said, and I might just stay in Querkus to help fight.” His voice was hard, and Jessica doubted it was a bluff.

“What do you want to know? All will be made clear when we arrive, I promise, by someone who can explain it much better than I.”

“And that will be in a few weeks, at best, which I’m not willing to wait out in ignorance. I’ve hardly ever left this city, and I don’t know the outside world. There’s no reason it should know me, so my first question is why you intervened in my life.”

“To protect you of course. We knew Rorcul was on the move, and where he goes, death follows.”

“So this has happened before?”

“Several times now. Unfortunately we haven’t always been as lucky as you were earlier. Usually there’s a starkly different ending, but by Corsus, this story isn’t over yet either. So stay alert.”

“He killed them, then? Everyone before me?”

“Well, all that we know of so far, scattered all across Corpia. We are somewhat uncertain of their connection to him, as well. All we know is that whatever Rorcul wants, it would be wise to prevent it.”

“A few days ago, I had never heard of him, and suddenly my whole life is torn apart by his hand. What have I done to deserve this?”

“As far as I know, nothing.”

“Then why did Rearden die?” Cinis’ voice rose, and his fist clenched.

“Hush and get ready!” shouted the mock guard from ahead, his voice muffled through a hand. “Get in, get in, time is short. I can see the carriage already.”

Jessica touched Cinis’ arm, looking dead into his eyes.

“If we’re caught out there in the open, you’re dead, understand? I can’t fight off a crowd. They won’t hesitate to cut your throat, and there will be nothing you or I can do to stop them. I’ve already noticed that your sense of self-preservation appears to be nonexistent, so if nothing else, do it for Rearden, and do it so you can fight back in the future when it will matter.”

With that they moved forward, stepping into two wooden crates on the floor of the passageway. They crouched down, then knelt, curling within as Libus’ men hammered lids over them, concealing the noise by putting cloth over the nails. A musty darkness descended over them, adulterated only by slivers of grey light that had penetrated through the few cracks. Cinis shifted in his crate, his elbow jostling against the paneling, until his vision was level with a pea-sized hole in the boards.

Then there were the sounds of another crate behind them being moved into place and more muffled nails being hammered to seal it shut.

“What are you doing?” hissed Jessica from within her crate, her voice barely audible to Cinis.

“I’ve decided to come with you,” came the answer in Libus’ voice.

“What? No, you can’t do that,” Jessica answered. “You were supposed to stay here.”

“I thought you’d say that,” answered Libus, “which was why I waited until you were nailed inside a box to make the announcement.”

“This is ridiculous, I won’t—” she started, but her voice was cut off.

“Hold tight,” whispered the guard who had sealed them inside, and they were moving, Cinis’ crate grating along until it rested at the passageway’s open end where the archway of the gate met the wall. To his left was the countryside, a morning sun rising to peak through the corner of the doorway, and most importantly, the twisting cobblestone road that stretched out of sight of his peephole. To his right was the city, where he could see the purple palace guards rifling through packages of flour, stabbing through bales of hay, and prying open crates and containers similar to the one he was crouched inside. Jessica shifted in her crate beside him, as she, too, had a glimpse of their efficiency, and he gripped the knife at his belt, though Jessica’s words echoed in his mind as he counted the number of guards to exceed forty.

If we’re caught out there in the open, you’re dead, understand?

Libus had explained the plan before dawn, when they had entered the deserted passageway. “The guards only check goods before they leave the city, not after. Several months ago we discovered a supply of valuables running right under the city guard’s nose through one of the merchants. I considered him to be a lower breed of human, often whipping his horses, and it was one of his half-starved servant boys who clued us in to the operation. The valuables, mainly gems, were smuggled inside loaves of bread illegally, so no one could see them. When we caught wind of the operation, we decided to interfere with the injustice against our beloved city guard. We relieved the merchant of his biscuits during the night and replaced them with our own, a much tastier and softer variety. Anyway, the gems were original and traceable by their cut, so we had to sell them outside the city. This is how we got them out, and it’s worked every time.”

“Jewels are one thing, people are another. How big were those boxes?” Jessica had asked.

“Considerably smaller, but it’s the principle that works,” he had responded, and he had refused to elaborate.

“Hold tight,” came the warning from outside the crate, and Cinis braced himself. Ahead a carriage materialized through the peephole, laden high with tottering crates that shivered with every bump in the road. In the driver’s seat sat a man Cinis remembered from the night below the bookstore, Loose Pages, Donald of the Merchants, whose son had been killed by the guard. He held his reins in hand and sat rigidly upright as he neared the gate, his long grey beard drifting with the gentle breeze while his firm eyes stared ahead. A guard called for him to halt and Donald handed over several sets of papers, the muscle on his jaw clenching as the guard scanned the documents.

Six guards surrounded his carriage, prying open crates identical to the ones that Cinis, Jessica, and Libus were now held within. One guard crawled underneath, tapping the wood, seeking anywhere hollow that a stowaway might hide while the horse ahead of him stamped at the ground, tossing its head. When they were finished, each reached their hand into a crate of expensive spice packets, removing several for their own pockets while a vein on Donald’s forehead throbbed. The guard with the papers handed them back to Donald and spoke with a smile, “A gift, for our troubles.”

Then he raised his voice, and shouted toward the gate.

“Clear!”

Donald cautiously edged the horse forward. The beast’s eyes lolled as it was goaded over gravel, yanking against Donald as he fought for control. The animal itself had first been subjected to the harness a week before and was eager to mend its broken spirit. And the harness that clamped down upon its sweaty, sinewy hide had been tightened in all the wrong places, and loosened in the others, making the horse as uncomfortable as possible without raising suspicion, some of the buckles digging into its skin.

Then Donald drew level with the door, and suddenly the plan was in motion.

With an expert strike he cracked his whip directly beside the horse’s ear. Nostrils flaring, it screamed, rearing onto its hind legs and shaking the cart with a violent lurch. Dust flew into the air as inadequately tied cords snapped, releasing an avalanche of crates just below the passage doorway.

With a grunt, the three of Libus’ mock guards in the passageway heaved the crates up and out of the door, sending them tumbling down toward the street below, the door slamming shut as they braced for impact with the hardened ground.

Chapter 39: Whisterwood

Cinis

Cinis bounced in the crate’s interior as the wood siding met gravel, his head slamming into the lid and causing him to see stars as the boards threatened to break. From above, wild horse hooves slammed about him, knocking the crate once and causing it to tumble over again, this time bruising his elbow as he was inverted. Commotion erupted around him, the shouting of guards mingling with the cracking of Donald’s whip and loose gravel showering down on top of the crate.

Gradually the horse calmed, the dust Cinis could see outside of his peephole settled, and all grew quiet, except for Donald’s apologetic voice.

“I’m sorry, sir, terribly sorry. Truly, he must have been spooked by something. Been in the family for years and never had a breakdown like that before.”

“Keep a tighter hold on him next time. Clear your goods out of the lane, I’ll send two of my men to help, and be quick about it. Next time, whatever you drop belongs to me.”

“Yes sir, right away!”

Cinis felt himself being hefted up and thrown onto the cart, landing sideways so that his face mashed into one of the crate’s corners. Seconds later Donald’s whip cracked again and they were free, bumping along the rough road, away from the city and everything Cinis had ever known.

“We’re clear,” came Donald’s voice from above after several minutes of riding. “Came real close there. Libus, the lid of your crate almost came clean off, and by the look of the guards, they did not appreciate lifting it, either.”

“A little lifting is the least they can do,” responded Libus’ voice. “We’re not in the clear yet, though, Donald. The road will surely be under surveillance for miles around. We won’t be safe until we are well down the river.”

“Might as well pry the lid off, then,” Cinis said from within his box, “so we can fight if necessary.”

From beside him, Jessica laughed. “Not so fast. You’re staying packed up until we’re downriver, like Libus said. They’re looking for you, so unboxing you would be a dead giveaway.”

“You’re staying boxed up too,” said Libus, “for the same reasons.”

“But—”

“You agreed to the plan earlier, miss, and it has not changed. We stay in our crates, and we’re loaded onto the rafts. You can’t get on the raft unless you’re in the crate, the dock workers simply would not allow it. Then, Donald’s horse will have another fit, we’ll cut the lines, and start moving downriver. The workers likely won’t mind when they see the raft floating away alone, as it will get caught up on the bank after a mile or two and they can retrieve it. But it won’t get caught on the bank, since we’ll be steering, and we can leave it behind at the next convenient town.”

“He’s right,” said Donald. “The only way you’re getting on that raft is by crate.”

Jessica did not reply, though Cinis could hear her huff. They continued to bounce along the path, the occasional horse passing them to head toward Querkus, Donald shouting out greetings to those passing them that he recognized. After some time, Donald pulled the horse right, and they left the main road, the sharp, rocky bumps changing to more subtle, muddy ones. The crate cooled as tree branches extended overhead, blocking the sun, and birdsong filled the humid air.

And far ahead, Cinis could just hear the shouting of dock workers.

“Bring it here, bring it right here, Donald!” came a gruff voice, and the sound of a heavy hand slapped the side of Cinis’ crate. “Terrible business today, absolutely terrible. Almost no shipments from Querkus, and we’re backlogged on the ones trying to get in. Any idea what’s happening over there?”

“Oh, nothing good, Petey,” responded Donald with a sigh. “Took me nearly an hour to get this shipment out. Hopefully after I send this on its way everything will clear up.”

“Hopefully indeed,” answered Petey. “Hopefully. I don’t know, Donald. They say that when something’s going wrong, it’s the traders who know first. We see what goes into the city, and we see what goes out. And I haven’t liked the looks of those who have been trading the past few weeks. Traders from Corsus. They wouldn’t admit it of course, but I know. From deep Corsus.”

Donald laughed, keeping his voice steady, “You’re getting suspicious in your age, Petey.”

“I ain’t! I ain’t, and today’s lack of shipments shows it! Load up here, on this raft. We’re near finished unloading it, and may as well start filling it. See those boxes there? See the wood that was used to make them? I’ll be damned if that ain’t Whisterwood. You know where Whisterwood trees grow, Donald?”

“Course I do,” Donald responded, as Cinis’ crate rose and was dropped on the raft, the river’s current causing it to bob.

“Course you do is right. Corsus. And I’d just as well bet that those that brought it were from where that wood came from. Probably chopped the trees down themselves. They’re up there on the bank now, see em? Letting my men do all the difficult work of unloading while they start negotiations for new rates.”

“That seems like the true infraction here, Petey. Any chance you have another raft we can load onto? I’m not a superstitious man, but I’m not one to spit in the face of luck either.”

“This is all that’s available right now, since we’re so backlogged. Fortune be damned, Donald, I won’t let them impact my business. We’ll have your shipment out in record time.”

“I’m sure it will be gone in record time. Perhaps I can help you unload those boxes from Corsus beforehand? So that they don’t get mixed in?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I won’t let you do their work for them.”

“Alright,” said Donald, his voice slightly strained. “They’ll stay then. Thanks Petey, and take this. For your trouble. You’ve been good to me throughout the years, and I owe it to you. Especially since your fortune seems to be turning.”

There was a rattling of coins exchanging hands, and Petey spoke.

“You are most generous, Donald. That’s nearly enough for me to buy a new raft, including cargo.”

“Oh, really? I wouldn’t know. Can you lead my horse up the bank, while I check inventory?” Donald asked as the last of the crates were loaded onto the raft. Cinis heard the knots holding the raft in place slither as Donald pulled the wet ropes, removing any ties to shore.

“Best of fortune, Libus, before it turns,” Donald said. “Don’t be gone for too long, for Querkus needs you.”

“I’ll bring aid when I return,” came Libus’ answer, and then they were floating downstream, Donald hurrying his way to his horse, which had begun to buck in his absence, spilling over several other carts of merchandise and causing a heavy influx of swear words.

Chapter 40: Granttan

Cinis, Jessica

Cinis could feel himself bobbing downriver for several minutes before a crowbar jammed itself under his crate’s lid, the nails screeching as they were pried from their holes, and sunlight pouring through the widening seams. Fingers appeared next, and Cinis helped push upward as the top gave way with a final groan, and Libus’ face appeared.

“Looks like our cargo made it,” he said. “Is everything still intact, boy?”

“Doesn’t feel like it,” grumbled Cinis, untangling himself and standing up. A purpling bruise had formed on his elbow, and his right foot was asleep, almost causing him to fall out of the crate instead of stepping over the lip.

Across from him, Jessica’s crate remained closed. Libus gazed over at it, crowbar in hand.

“A little help?” called Jessica from within, rapping her knuckles against the inside of the lid. “You know I can see you through the cracks in the wood.”

“I’m fully aware,” said Libus, tapping his crowbar against his palm. “But do you really need help?”

“That’s no way to treat a lady, Libus,” Jessica chided, her voice flustered. “Quite ungentlemanly.”

“Shall we forget the past few hours and all of the unladylike actions that have occurred as well?”

“Considering neither of you had the means to alleviate my distress then, I’d say that I was justified in performing those actions.”

“Maybe I don’t have means to alleviate your distress now either.”

“You have a crowbar—” started Jessica, but then there was a splash beside the raft, and Libus raised his now-empty hands.

Jessica cursed as Cinis’ eyebrows raised. He stared at the spot where the crowbar had landed in the river, wondering if he would have to retrieve it.

“Now that,” said Libus, “was certainly unladylike. Go on, show us what you can do. I’m most curious, especially after you managed to escape the ordeal in the palace gardens. I promise I won’t tell. Plus this is likely your first hour without vrael in the past few weeks. I bet you’re just itching for exercise.”

There was a huff, and then silence. Libus was intently watching the box, and Cinis followed his gaze. The wood began to twitch.

The top of the crate began to swell, planks cracking as shoots poured out of knots in the wood, forming roots that writhed and curled under the crack in the lid. Around them the wood turned brown as the roots thickened and strained, lifting the top away and dropping it with a thud onto the raft.

The crate had still smelled fresh when Cinis had entered his, the wood nearly green and just recently pieced together. But not so fresh that it might spontaneously sprout fresh life, and he stood, mouth wide open, as Jessica rose, dusted herself off, and unfolded a map she had carried with her.

“After all that’s happened over the last few days, that’s what surprises you?” she scoffed, and she took a deep breath, expanding her lungs to their full capacity as her pupils shrank. Libus had been right—stepping away from the vrael was like stepping out of the crate itself. The air was fresh.

“Thought so,” said Libus. “Not a chance that you could have escaped without some form of intervention. I may be from Querkus, but I’m not dimwitted. I know someone is gifted when I see them.”

Jessica scowled, the raft rocked, and she steadied herself against a heap of crates as the breeze caught her chestnut hair, streaming it out behind her in long, waving arcs while she took in her surroundings, nudging the newly alive crate overboard.

They were floating downriver, toward the sea, their pace slightly above walking speed. Their raft was small, in length the size of three grown men, but every exposed bit of flooring was crammed with baskets, crates, and barrels filled to the brim with goods waiting to be sold. Underneath, the water lazily guided them forward, occasionally bumping the lashed logs against heavily forested riverbanks and rocky outcroppings that defiantly rose out of the water’s reach.

Jessica called Libus and Cinis over, pointing at a dot on her map. “We’ll want to stop in Anarchen, that’s the next town along the river. At the rate we’re going, it should take three, four hours?” She shot a questioning look at Libus.

“Five. The river slows down here.” He traced out a small stretch with his finger. “But we won’t be stopping in Anarchen anyway. Rafts keep moving down to Granttan, about three times that distance, where they unload. We need to keep moving south. Anyone stopping in Anarchen for too long would look suspicious: It’s too small for any merchant to justify stopping there.”

“We can’t do that. We’re trying to move north. Any further south could set us back days.”

“News would have reached Anarchen by now. Stopping there is the predictable move, and again, it’s suspicious. Either keep moving south or risk getting caught,” said Libus.

Jessica frowned, a large crease crossing her face. “Fine. Granttan it is. But then we’ll have to move around Anarchen on our path back north. We can’t risk going through, and that’s going to add a few days on the road at best.”

“All the main roads lead through Anarchen. Moving around it will take longer than a week, and we’ll have to use caution, as leaving the roads can be treacherous,” interjected Cinis.

“I thought you said you’d never left Querkus,” said Jessica, raising an eyebrow.

“I haven’t, not for long at least. But much of the tavern’s spirit selection travels through Anarchen, and several of the merchants have tried skirting around it, through the surrounding forests, to avoid paying the toll. And most of those that try either don’t make it or lose their property in the process. It’s why, for such a small town, Anarchen can charge such high taxes.”

Jessica sighed. Moving down to Granttan then finding a path around Anarchen would be a setback, though she felt little doubt in her ability to outmaneuver merchant carts in the forests. Every day that Cinis was missing would be another day that Rorcul would suspect that Cinis had escaped the city. Making all haste was crucial, and she had left her money in Corpia, along with her credentials, which might have helped to accelerate them should they come across a friend of Cesaro. Without his support or funding, reaching Cardinia quickly was nearly impossible.

She frowned and continued to study the map. Allesail, where Alina lived, was not that far from Granttan—only a few days walk off the main roads. Maybe there she could get horses, even a loan if her sister was willing. But she knew Alina likely would not approve, let alone aid in her adventure. Worse, she’d pester Jessica about going to the extravagant wedding and finding her a suitor.

Then Jessica smiled, her eyes tracing a path on the parchment.

“Granttan it is!” she announced, poking the map.

Of course, she thought, the wedding.