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Bryn Calazar, Caladorn
He didn’t look up at the sound of his own name being spoken from the doorway. Instead, he swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut as he ran his tongue across his parched lips. The sound of his own breath was a turbulent noise in his ears. He forced himself to concentrate on that sound, focusing his mind on every sharp hiss of air he sucked into his chest.
The sound of approaching footsteps made him flinch. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop his hands from trembling.
“On your feet.”
Braden ignored the command, knowing there would be a penalty for his defiance. He squeezed his hands into fists in anticipation of the pain. For heartbeats, he waited. When nothing happened, he allowed himself to relax a bit.
The pain hit with force.
Molten-silver lightning raged like a firestorm through his mind. He threw his head back, clenching his teeth. Slumping to the floor, Braden convulsed as liquid energies seared through his body. Bile rose in his throat, choking him as he writhed on the floor.
The pain lessened only gradually, taking a long time to completely go away. He lay on his back on the cold stone floor, staring upward, spent and gasping.
A different voice, soft and repulsively familiar, addressed him from the doorway. “Think very carefully, Ambassador Reis. There are many kinds of deaths, some much worse than others.”
He shuddered at the sound of that voice. It was despicably seductive, stroking like soft velvet down the length of his nerves. Braden kept his eyes squeezed closed, so loath was he to gaze upon that face.
He could feel her moving toward him across the cell. Her hands brushed his skin, a silken caress as she slid her arms around his torso. With gentle pressure she compelled him to his feet. He stood, swaying, naked from the waist up, arms chained behind his back. His breath still came in gasps.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she whispered gently in his ear as her soft fingertips stroked the skin of his back. “You can still choose to make a difference. Think of the lives you could save. It’s the right thing to do.”
His eyes shot open, glaring his contempt at her.
“Don’t lecture me on morals, woman,” he grated. “You have no idea what they are.”
The smile that bloomed on her lovely face was only a dim reflection of the delight that filled her eyes. His response had pleased her. It sickened him, knowing that he had given her exactly what she’d wanted.
“I want you to die knowing that they chose me to inherit your legacy,” she informed him with a grin. “One way or another, your gift will be put to the service of Xerys. With your power inside me, I will be the one destined for greatness. And you?” She looked at him sadly and scoffed with a shrug. “You’ll just be dead.”
Hearing her words, Braden Reis closed his eyes and bowed his head in acceptance of defeat. Never before in his life had he felt so utterly powerless.
The sound of her slippered footsteps moved away from him across the floor. Then hands were upon him, wrenching him forward. Braden allowed his guards to escort him out of the cell.
The despair that gripped him dulled his senses. It was as though he moved through a dim and murky haze, the world around him distant and strangely muted. They ushered him up many flights of stairs toward the floor of the Lyceum. The dance of magelight that churned at their feet only served to confound his senses all the more.
Braden gazed ahead with bleary eyes at the woman who strode before him. She glided in a sway of blue silks, platinum curls spiraling to her waist. She moved with an easy grace, every motion poised, every step a deliberate, calculated seduction. Arden Hannah was just as alluring as she was vile. It was a powerful and frightening dichotomy. She gazed back at him and smiled, her wide eyes glistening in the magelight.
He dropped his stare back to the floor.
They reached the level of the Assembly. There, his guards wrenched back on Braden’s arms, forcing him to a halt. The sound of a staff rapping thrice upon wood resounded throughout the hall. There was a pause. Then the knocks were answered in kind, echoing from the other side of the barred doorway.
The bars were thrown from the inside, the enormous double doors cast open, shuddering on their hinges with a throaty groan. Braden avoided Arden’s eyes as his guards forced him forward. He could see very little, only shadowy silhouettes of people gathered above in the galleries. Within, the room was completely dark save for a single sphere of brilliant light in the center of the hall. It was toward that orb of light that he was made to walk.
Braden forced himself to hold his head up despite the chill fingers of dread that caressed his bare skin. Nervous sweat trickled down his brow. He couldn’t help trembling as he stepped within that sphere of light. There he paused, hands bound behind him, completely blinded by the dazzling brilliance. That was the purpose of the light: to protect the anonymity of those gathered above in the galleries.
The doors slammed closed, sealing the chamber with a resounding thud. An awful, gaping silence struck the room. The silence lingered, long moments stretching on and on. Braden continued to stand, blinking against the glare, eyes groping desperately for the sight of just one face he could recognize. But he could make out nothing; the thick wall of light was dense and unyielding.
A deep and resonant voice addressed him:
“Braden Reis, you have been convicted, attainted, and condemned of high treason committed against the state of Caladorn and the Lyceum of Bryn Calazar. A sentence of death has been pronounced against you. May the gods have mercy on your soul.”
Braden bowed his head under the sheer weight of the words. A paralyzing numbness overcame him. He stood there shaking, withered by the miserable knowledge that he had failed so utterly in his purpose.
Slithering ropes of energy twined around him, restraining him completely as they forced him roughly to his knees in the circle of light. He fought to draw breath, but succeeded only in producing a strangled wheeze.
The prime warden himself stepped forward into the wash of light to carry out his sentence. Panic seized Braden at the sight of the object displayed in Zavier Renquist’s hands: a stone of many facets, lifeless, dull and black. It hung from the bands of a silver collar that shone like satin in the light.
The sight of the Soulstone was ghastly, terrifying.
Braden’s eyes shot up, groping at Renquist’s face. But in the gaze of his executioner, he found no trace of mercy.
Jumping at Shadows
Aerysius, The Rhen
Three Weeks Prior...
RAIN PELTED THE DARK STREETS of Aerysius as thunder rolled expansively across the cloud-choked night. Merris Bryar shivered as her feet splashed through growing rivulets in the street, hugging her black cloak tightly against her body. She was drenched, her toes almost numb in her wet slippers. It was a terrible storm, the worst yet of the season. There was really no good reason for anyone to be moving about the city streets on such a night.
Which was exactly why Merris stalked the man who walked ahead of her through the storm.
Of all the people in Aerysius, the person Merris followed had the least excuse to be skulking through the shadows of the city. Merris hung well back from him, relying on the cloak she wore to obscure her features in the darkness. Her quest was dangerous, but that did little to daunt her. Rather, the thrill of the risk she was taking urged her forward.
Merris was no stranger to the night. She knew perfectly well how to navigate the city streets unseen. Her father had been a cutpurse, her mother a sot and a swindler. Their combined examples had served Merris well in her youth. This was not the first time she had tracked a mark through the city streets under the cover of darkness.
It was just the first time she had done so since becoming an acolyte mage.
And back when Merris had forged a living on the streets, she would never, ever, have considered selecting Cyrus Krane himself, the Prime Warden of Aerysius, as her quarry.
Merris moved as silently as she could, keeping at least a block’s distance between herself and Cyrus Krane. She kept to the shadows, moving low, using the pillars of balconies and the arches of doorways as concealment. The rattle of the downpour covered any noise her slippered feet might have possibly made. Merris smiled slightly. She knew exactly what she was doing; she was in her element.
She watched as Krane turned and crossed the cobbled street toward the opening of an alleyway. Tonight, the prime warden wore just the thick, black cloak of a common mage rather than the white cloak with the Silver Star that was the emblem of his office.
As Krane disappeared around the corner, Merris dashed forward. She didn’t dare take the chance of losing him in the darkness. Ducking down behind a large bin, she wedged her body behind it and peered around the edge of a building. By the light of a street lamp, she could barely make out Krane’s shadowy figure. The prime warden had stopped, glancing around as he reached for the handle of a door. He cracked the door open. Into that opening Cyrus Krane quietly slipped, pulling the door closed after him.
Merris pulled back behind the bin, pressing up against the cold stone wall. She sat hugging her knees against her chest, shivering, wondering what she should do. She bit her lip, considering. She knew better than to follow her quarry inside the building. The right thing would be to turn back and return to the Hall of the Watchers. But she had no proof to validate her suspicions. Without proof, she would be sorely punished, most likely expelled from Aerysius for sure.
There really was no decision to be made. She rose from her hiding place behind the bin and slipped quietly into the alley. Here, the cobblestones ran with icy rainwater that flowed over the tops of her slippers. She splashed across the street through fast-moving rivulets, pausing beside the building Krane had disappeared into.
She stood there considering the door as the rain came down steadily, plastering her hair against her face. The wood was made of age-grayed pine, reinforced with iron bands. It looked like any other back-alley door in the heart of Aerysius.
Merris gripped the rusted metal handle. She started to pull it open but stopped herself, taking a deep breath and holding it in. Then, with gentle pressure, she pulled the door open just a fraction. Leaning forward, she glanced within then stole quietly inside.
She found herself in some type of storage cellar or undercroft. The room was very dim, lit only by two tapers that glowed from sconces on opposing walls. All around the room were stacked row upon row of wooden crates, the floor littered with straw. The only exit was another door at the far end.
The cellar appeared empty, but anyone could be hiding within those rows of crates. Merris strained to listen. All she could hear was the sound of pattering rain. She considered the door on the opposite wall. Krane must have gone through there ahead of her. Merris did not want to follow him into the guts of the building; she had pushed her luck already.
But she had come this far. Gathering her courage, she took a step forward into the cellar. Then another.
Merris reached the door and pressed an ear up against the wood, straining to listen. There were no sounds coming from the other side. Her hand trembled as she reached for the handle, depressing the latch. The door swung inward, revealing dark depths beyond.
The corridor ahead was lightless, narrow, and empty.
Merris moved forward into the shadows, pulling the door closed behind her. She lingered there for a moment, uncertain, trailing her hand along the cold wall. The stone was rough and uneven, carved by the harsh strokes of tools. This building was old, she surmised, possibly as old as Aerysius itself. So unlike the rest of the structures in the city, which had been seamlessly wrought by magecraft.
Merris stepped into the darkness, using her hands to grope along the walls to either side. She strained to hear the sound of footsteps that might be following. Her fingers traced the stone, searching for a doorway. Ten paces. Fifteen. Twenty. Still no sign of either door or passage leading off. The narrow corridor led straight ahead into the dark bowels of the ancient structure.
When her next footstep felt only air, Merris drew up short. She reached down ahead with her foot, finally encountering stone.
Stairs. Leading downward into blackness.
She shivered, knowing in her heart that she should turn around and go back. Merris forced herself to press forward anyway. It was imperative that she follow through with this plan, despite the risk.
She had discovered a letter in Cyrus Krane’s office which professed his disappointment with her character and noted his intent to have Merris removed. Her entire existence in Aerysius depended on finding something she could use against him: some secret, some evidence of treachery. If she didn’t, then the prime warden would proceed with her expulsion.
Merris was not about to let that happen; she couldn’t go back to life on the streets. She had to find something, anything she could use as leverage. Some token, some bargaining chip that would persuade the prime warden to let her remain and pursue her studies.
He’d had no business testing her character in the first place. Krane had meddled where he didn’t belong…
Merris followed the stairs cautiously as they curved around and down into darkness, arguing with herself at every step. She shouldn’t be here—this was becoming too dangerous. She greatly feared what she would find at the bottom of those stairs. Or, worse, what would find her. In the darkness, Merris’s imagination ran rampant. She wished for magelight or even a taper to light her path.
A loud, metallic clank resounded from far below.
Merris startled, flinching to a crouch. Another noise echoed up the stairwell. Trembling, she regained her feet and turned, ready to flee. From the depths below came the sound of voices.
Merris stopped in her tracks, straining to listen. The voices were distant, too indistinct to make out words. They did not seem to be coming any closer.
She bit her lip, trembling, glancing behind and ahead in desperate indecision. Her foot kept wanting to slide back up the stair behind her. She willed it forward instead. Courage nearly spent, Merris continued down the stairs in the direction of the voices.
She moved slowly, cautiously, creeping forward as silently as she could. There was another sharp, metallic groan. The sound of the voices ceased.
Then came another noise: that of approaching footsteps.
Merris turned and ran. Dizzy with fear, she was not at all careful about her retreat. She took the stairs two at a time, curving back upward in the direction she had come. She staggered and almost fell as she gained the top of the steps, catching herself on the rough stone of the passage. Then she was sprinting forward again on unstable legs down the corridor in the direction of the cellar.
She spilled through the cellar door, throwing it closed behind her and pulling it firmly shut. Wondrous light confronted her vision. She started toward the outer door, but brute stubbornness made her turn back.
Determined to glean some answers from this harrowing night, Merris dropped to her knees and squirmed herself into a corner between two stacks of wooden crates. She wriggled her body between them as far as she could, pressing herself tightly against them and pulling the cowl of her black cloak down to conceal her face. She fought for control over her panting breath, willing the speed of her heart to slow its frenzied pace.
Confident as she could be in her hiding spot, Merris waited as long moments dragged by. She strained to listen. Outside, there was the constant sound of the rain hitting the cobbled street. Inside the cellar, she could hear the faintest noise of soft, scurrying feet. Mice, or even rats, were about their business among the crates.
Abruptly, the cellar door creaked open.
Merris could see nothing; her eyes were veiled behind her cowl. The sound of voices only paces away made her flinch.
“All seems to be progressing well,” echoed the familiar voice of Cyrus Krane. “Have Master Remzi keep working on the cipher. There’s not much time; we have little more than a fortnight.”
“All shall be made ready,” responded the voice of another man. That voice Merris did not know. It was calmly authoritative, resonant and deep. Softly, Merris tried pulling back the lip of her cowl just enough to try to get a glimpse of the speaker. It was useless; the stack of crates in front of her blocked her view completely.
Merris realized that the air around her was starting to feel atrociously cold. The fear in her gut was like a tight knot that slowly writhed, working its way upward to choke her throat. She shivered, hugging her arms tightly about herself. The dread within her grew along with the cold, condensing into icy panic. The panic swelled, evolving gradually into terror.
Merris’s eyes widened with realization: there was…something else…in the cellar. Something in there with them. Something wrong.
“I’m still working on the required payment,” Krane’s voice continued evenly, as if the prime warden himself sensed nothing at all out of sorts. “I have someone in mind, but nothing definitive as yet.”
“Be certain there is no deviation from the covenant,” the deep voice responded. “Failure is greatly misliked by our Master.”
Merris chewed her lip on the edge of panic, the terrible feeling of dread becoming almost unbearable.
Movement stirred in front of her. Something streaked across her vision, coming to a rest on top of the stack of crates. A hand. A man’s hand with thick fingers relaxed against the edge of the crate in front of her. A wide, silver band encircled the third finger. Merris shirked back away from the sight of that hand, her eyes welling with tears as she struggled to keep from crying out.
“There will be no failure,” Krane’s voice echoed, his tone full of dire promise.
Merris heard the sound of the outer door creaking open and then closing once again as the prime warden took his leave. The other man yet remained behind, his hand still resting on top of the crate.
The loss of Krane’s familiar presence came almost as a blow to Merris. She resisted a powerful urge to bolt out of her hiding place and run for the door.
There was a rustle of fabric as the hand withdrew.
The sound of footsteps, walking away.
Then came the noise of the inner door shivering open and then closed.
Merris lingered, trembling violently, not daring yet to move. The awful fear within her refused to subside. Moments crept by, painfully slow. She strained to listen, hearing nothing. Even the scurrying of the rats had ceased.
Just then, a blur of dark motion streaked across the edge of her vision. The form of a man, all in black, faceless and in shadow.
♦ ♦ ♦
Sephana Clemley rolled over in bed, groaning in her sleep. She had been tossing fitfully most of the night. The sound of the rain needling the panes of her leaded-glass window had been keeping her awake. Normally, she would have found the sound of the raindrops soothing. But there was something different about this night. Even the cadence of the rain seemed charged with tension.
Sephana’s hand groped blindly across the mattress, exploring, but finding only empty space at her side. Her groggy mind fumbled toward the vague rudiments of a question. But before the thought could even halfway form, an urgent clatter jolted her sharply out of sleep.
Sephana jerked upright, throwing off her covers. Her eyes quickly scanned the dark interior of her bedchamber as another round of boisterous knocking echoed from the hallway.
Her eyes darted to the empty mattress beside her as she reached for the cloak she always kept hanging from the poster of her bed. She pulled the black wool cloak on over her shoulders, holding it closed as she fumbled her way out into the dark hallway of her suite.
“I’m coming,” she growled at the door, which was fairly shuddering from the abuse it was taking. Sephana paused, warily contemplating the door. Then she threw back the bolt and swept it open, glaring her ire at the person on the other side.
Sephana blinked in shock at the wet, bedraggled woman who stood shivering on her threshold.
“Merris?” she gasped, peering intently into the girl’s face.
Her young acolyte’s skin was pale as chalk, her brown hair falling in wet disarray about her face. Her cloak dripped rainwater all over the freshly polished floor tiles. Merris’s usual composure was thoroughly shattered. She stood trembling, furiously wringing her hands, her blue eyes haunted by fear.
“The prime warden is a traitor!” Merris exclaimed, sweeping past her into the room.
Sephana closed the door to her chambers firmly, considering her acolyte with a vexed expression. Merris was dripping rainwater onto her costly Tiborian rug, she noted with a flare of annoyance. Sephana reached a hand out and guided the girl back onto the tile, pulling her in almost conversationally.
“Be still,” she commanded, placing a steadying hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “Come, now. First things first. Let’s get you out of these wet clothes.”
She led Merris to her bedchamber and threw open the door of her wardrobe. Then she left the girl alone to dress. Sephana wandered out into the sitting room and made her way toward the hearth, her eyes narrowing slightly. The gray andirons that held the logs began to darken, taking on a deep-red glow. Within seconds, the hearth was ablaze with a lively dance of flame.
Sephana busied herself by pouring a cup of wine from a wineskin that hung from a peg on the wall. Upon second thought, she poured another. Then she took a seat in one of the high-backed chairs before the fire, sipping her wine and observing the flames grow and spread throughout the kindling.
Reaching out with her mind, Sephana tasted the flow of the magic field that moved like a swift current through the heart of Aerysius. It felt like a soothing cadence in the back of her head, like the soft tempo of a waltz. She grasped ahold of it, taking in just a small fraction and savoring its comforting presence.
When Merris returned, Sephana noted with a flare of irritation that her acolyte had managed to select one of her own favorite gowns from the wardrobe, a yellow dress with a flowing skirt. It looked better on Merris, she noted.
“Wine?” Sephana offered, extending her hand toward the second cup she’d poured while forcing a smile to her face.
Merris approached slowly, timidly, at last dropping into the chair across from Sephana. Her hand trembled slightly as she raised the wine to her lips. Sephana studied her acolyte’s face as Merris closed her eyes and drank deeply from the cup. She looked back up with obvious reluctance.
Brushing back a lock of burnished-gold hair, Sephana invited her, “Now, why don’t you tell me what’s troubling you, dear.”
Merris squeezed her eyes shut, her hand coming up to rub her temple. “I followed the prime warden tonight,” she admitted in a tremulous voice that was little more than a whisper.
Sephana’s mouth dropped open, her stomach twisting into knots. Merris was the prime warden’s own personal secretary, a highly coveted position. It was an honor reserved only for acolytes of the most unblemished reputation. That Merris might have abused her position troubled Sephana deeply; she was the girl’s own sworn mentor. Ultimately, Sephana herself was responsible for Merris’s actions. Or crimes.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Deceptively calm, Sephana’s words were carefully phrased to hide her ire. “Could you please explain to me what, exactly, made you think that it would be wise to shadow the Prime Warden of Aerysius?”
“Please, hear me out,” the young woman begged, a note of panic cracking her voice. “He’s been meeting with strange people lately and receiving messages that are written in some sort of code. It’s all very irregular! And every time I turn around he’s—”
Sephana threw her hands up in exasperation. “We are on the brink of war with Caladorn, Merris! Surely a few encrypted communiqués are not too far out of the realm of possibility?”
“Not like this,” Merris insisted, leaning forward in her chair. “Please, just listen! I’ve never seen runes like these before. And every time he receives one of these notes, the prime warden tells me he’s feeling ill and has me cancel all of his appointments for the remainder of the day. Then he just leaves. Every time! I always thought he was just retiring to his chambers. But then this evening I actually caught him slipping out.”
The sound of her door creaking open made Sephana startle. She sprang to her feet, nearly losing her grip on her cup of wine. Whirling, she brought her hand up to her chest in relief as she recognized the face of the man who entered. Closing her eyes, Sephana heaved a long sigh. Then she rounded on Merris, blaming the fool girl for inspiring such fear in the first place.
“Now you have me jumping at shadows,” Sephana snapped as she rushed forward to greet their guest.
Braden Reis paused in the act of closing the door as his eyes slid slowly from Sephana to Merris.
“I wasn’t aware that you were expecting company,” he said in a questioning voice, eyebrows raised. He pushed the door the rest of the way closed behind him, latching it quietly. His eyes never left Merris.
“Ambassador Reis,” Merris exclaimed, hastening to her feet with a look of dismay. “What are you doing here?”
Sephana paused in mid-stride, turning back to her wayward acolyte with a seething expression on her face. “I’m afraid I am going to have to trust you with one of my own secrets for a change.”
A frown of consternation nettled Merris’s brow before her eyes widened in sudden insight. “You’re lovers,” she gasped in realization. Her tone betrayed more than a trace of disapproval. “Master Sephana, I don’t understand… How can you be sure he’s not a spy for the Lyceum? I mean…how could you? He’s the enemy!”
“I am not the enemy,” Braden assured her quickly, taking a step forward and drawing himself up. “At least, not yet, anyway. And not if I can help it.”
“He’s been working night and day to forestall a war,” Sephana argued defensively.
Without taking his eyes off Merris, Braden slipped an arm around Sephana. He was a tall man, muscular enough to fill out the indigo robes of the Lyceum better than most mages of his stature. He was the Ambassador of Bryn Calazar, and the blood of Caladorn was very obvious in his appearance. His skin was tanned olive, his hair thick and black. He had the characteristic full lips and almond eyes of a Northerner. A closely trimmed beard lent a chiseled look to his features.
Sephana could tell by the wary expression on his face that Braden was anything but comfortable with the situation. They had worked hard to keep their relationship a secret, especially from other members of the Assembly.
“Braden, you’ve met my acolyte, Merris Bryar,” Sephana offered curtly.
Braden nodded stiffly. “Of course.” His dark eyes were clouded with concern.
Sephana nodded. Braden met often with Prime Warden Krane in his capacity as the Lyceum’s ambassador. More than once he had been forestalled by Merris while seeking an audience unannounced. He could be rather brazen when he wanted to be, one of the myriad qualities that Sephana found so compelling about him.
“Why don’t you have a seat, Braden,” Sephana sighed, stepping away from him. “Grab some wine for yourself. Merris has quite a story to share with us.”
Braden’s confusion was obvious as he complied, helping himself to the wineskin. When they were all gathered in the chairs before the hearth, Sephana leaned forward in her seat and directed Merris firmly:
“Now, start over from the beginning. This time, take your time and try to elaborate as much as you possibly can. Details, my dear. As many details as you can remember.”
Merris swallowed. Then she obeyed. Sephana sat back and listened carefully as Merris unfolded her story for them, relaying all of the events she had experienced earlier that night. Sephana often found herself trading startled glances with Braden, who was listening attentively, broad shoulders tight with concern. By the end of Merris’s account, Braden’s look of concern had become eclipsed by an expression of incredulity. Sephana herself felt slightly nauseous. She regretted ever drinking the wine.
“And then I fled,” Merris finished with a shrug. “I ran all the way back to the Hall. I didn’t dare return to my cell; the man in black saw me. He might know who I am.”
Sephana turned to Braden. He was no longer looking at Merris, just staring down into the embers of the hearth. His hand scratched absently at the dark whiskers on his chin.
“What do you make of all this?” she asked him.
Braden threw back his head and swallowed the remainder of the wine in his cup. He looked almost dumbfounded as he shrugged, shaking his head. In a voice colored by a slight Northern accent, he responded, “I’m not sure what I can make of it. It could be anything…or nothing.” Narrowing his eyes, he turned to Merris. “This ring you saw. Can you describe it?”
Merris nodded eagerly. “It was a silver ring. It had a blue stone. I think it might have been lapis. There was a rune overlaid in gold, but I didn’t recognize it.”
“Do you think you could draw it?”
Merris nodded. “I think so.”
Sephana stood and went to her writing desk, retrieving parchment, ink, and quill. She handed them over to Merris and then sat back down again. As her acolyte sketched, Sephana felt Braden’s hand on hers, massaging her fingers with his thumb. The sensation was comforting, easing the tension within her. When Merris finished, she handed her sketch over to Braden.
He squinted down at the parchment, studying it for seconds. Sephana peered at it over his shoulder, her eyes narrowing.
Frowning in consternation, she wondered, “Do you recognize it?”
“No,” he responded, still staring at the marks Merris had made. Slowly, he rotated the drawing first one direction then the other. He ran a hand through his tousled hair. Then he reached out, plucking the quill from Merris’s hand. He added two strokes to what was already there, tracing the ink boldly down at a curving angle.
“Are you sure it didn’t look more like this?” he prodded her, handing it back.
Merris stared for a moment at her altered sketch with a frown. At last, she nodded and looked back up at him with excitement in her eyes. “Yes—that’s it!”
Braden’s somber gaze latched on to Merris’s, capturing her stare with rigid intensity. “I cannot emphasize enough how important this is, Merris. Don’t just guess. I need you to be certain.”
Merris paled, her eyes ticking upward to Sephana and then back again to Braden. She licked her lips. “I’m certain,” she whispered. “That’s what I saw.”
Sephana looked back and forth between her acolyte and her lover. Braden was a mage of the Order of Chancellors, well schooled in the history and lore of his culture. He did not look pleased with Merris’s confirmation.
“What is it?” Sephana pressed, gazing down at the completed rune.
“It’s Venthic,” Braden explained, handing the parchment over to her as he rose to his feet. He paced away toward the hearth. “An ancient dialect of my people. It’s almost a dead language now, used only by a few of the original clans. This particular rune is dacros. It’s used as a symbol for the cult of Xerys.”
Sephana found herself scowling. Turning to the young woman beside her, she tried to form her words as carefully as she could. “Merris, I’m not trying to scare you, but I do have to ask you one question. This man in black you spoke of—are you certain that it was a man? Or is it possible that it was not a man at all?”
From his position by the hearth, Braden stiffened at the import of her words.
Merris bit her lip. “He…looked like a man made of shadow. He terrified me.”
“A necrator!” Sephana gasped.
“What’s a necrator?” Merris wondered, looking suddenly very frail.
Braden spun around, eyes wide with stark realization. He turned to Sephana. “We have to get her out of Aerysius. Tonight.”
End of Free Sample.