War of the Burning Sky - The Novel

In War of the Burning Sky, rakish con artist Rantle takes up arms to defend his home city during an invasion by the Ragesian Empire. But when his sorceress sister flees the oncoming armies, Rantle must abandon his homeland to follow her to a distant safe haven for refugee mages, where he finds himself embroiled in the broader conflict between nations. With the scourge of the Ragesian Empire closing in and deceptive allies on all sides, a thief and a liar like Rantle is just the hero this war needs.

In 2007 E.N. Publishing released the War of the Burning Sky campaign saga. I wrote the original concept and directed the entire saga, which combined the talents of a score of authors, illustrators, and cartographers. This serialized novel draws inspiration from the characters, events, and themes of the adventures. Since obviously most gamers will never get a chance to play or run the campaign saga, I hope that you'll enjoy this story.

I'd like to thank Russell Morrissey for giving me a chance to share this story, my players for casting the mold for some of the key characters, and all the existing fans of WotBS who've made this work so much fun.

For more information on War of the Burning Sky and E.N. Publishing's other campaign sagas, please check out the official web page.

Update: I regret to announce that the War of the Burning Sky novel has been canceled. However, with Russ's approval I'm posting the remaining segments - Parts V and VI - that are already complete. Hopefully they provide a little bit of closure for those who have enjoyed the story so far.

(And seriously, anyone who wants to front me $3000 or so, I'll finish the novel for you. *grin*)

Table of Contents

Episode One: The Scouring of Gate Pass
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten

Intermission One
The Rites of Rulership

Episode Two: The Indomitable Fire Forest of Innenotdar
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen

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War of the Burning Sky
Book One: The Scourge
by Ryan Nock

Act One

Chapter One

Torchlight fell upon the inquisitor as he knelt over the corpse of the sorceress. Beneath the carved bear skull he wore as a mask, shadows concealed all but his amused smile. The gleam of fire reflected off a brass clawed gauntlet on his right hand as he flicked idly through the woman’s robes, looking for clues to whom she had been on her way to meet.

The body was still twitching slightly, but corpses always took a while to realize they were dead when their souls were ripped from their flesh.

“Guthwulf,” said the lieutenant behind him.

Guthwulf, inquisitor for the Ragesian Empire, glanced over his shoulder as he lifted the woman’s hand by her bracelet, then dropped it with disinterest.

The lieutenant stood among three soldiers, two of them holding torches to help Guthwulf investigate the dead mage in the gloomy late autumn night. The third – a thick-jawed, tusked herethim with a black muttonchop beard that made him look almost aristocratic – wheezed shallowly, too proud to even grunt his pain.

The sorceress had tried to crush the man’s chest, but Guthwulf had managed to absorb the brunt of the attack’s essence. Not that the soldiers weren’t eminently expendable, but Guthwulf had seen no reason to let the woman’s mana be wasted. Her own power had been the fuel for the spell he had used to snatch her soul.

“Sir,” asked the lieutenant, “must I have my men kill him for being tainted by the sorcery?”

Guthwulf gave him a dubious look, which was no doubt lost through the concealment of the mask.

“No,” he laughed. “She was trying to kill him, not control his mind. You men are brave and not incompetent, and I’m certainly not going to kill you just because Leska can’t word her decrees more precisely. I’m not cruel.”

The soldiers shifted nervously at such casual mention of her name. Ragesians had long feared her mysterious, witch-like powers when she was merely Supreme Inquisitor, but now, just weeks after Leska replaced the nation’s fallen emperor, many feared her as they would a vengeful god.

Guthwulf turned his attention back to the dead sorceress. She had been a smart enough spy not to carry any clues to her destination, and the inquisitor’s mood darkened as he prepared himself. He held up his clawed hand to warn the soldiers to be quiet and keep back, and then he willed the soul he held in his other hand to speak to him. He lifted it up to his face, his fingers loosely viced around the spirit, invisible except as a memory of magic and pain.

In an ancient Otharil tongue he commanded:

“Your existence is defined by the grip of my hand. If I release my grasp, you will be free. If I wish, I can crush you, snuffing you for eternity. But unless you answer me truthfully, I will keep you as long as I live to torment you, and my dying curse will consume you so you never reach the afterlife.”

The soul’s fear gave it shape as its wisps briefly assumed the form it had in life, cowering in his palm. The figure nodded desperately.

Guthwulf spoke now in Seren. “Tell me your mission, where you were headed, and who your contacts were. And be quick about it. Neither one of us really wants you to stick around.”

Memories from the soul tried to flood into Guthwulf’s mind, but his mask kept them from overwhelming him. He took his time to find the answers he sought, a moment passing as he reviewed the knowledge he had stolen. Torches crackled behind him. The frigid night wind blew snow across the body. It had finally stopped twitching.

Guthwulf turned to the soldiers.

“Gate Pass,” he said. “The armies are already preparing to march there, so we can catch up with them later, but she still has accomplices here in Ragos. You men interested in capturing some mages tonight?”

The subordinates looked to each other nervously, but the lieutenant cleared his throat and said, “Yes sir. Whatever you command, but we aren’t well equipped for a raid.”

The soul squirmed in the inquisitor’s left hand. He put his right hand to his chin, chewing errantly on the tip of his brass thumb claw.

“No,” he said. “We could use some help.”

Guthwulf reached within his bearskin cloak, dabbed his fingers in a pouch of black ash, and then traced a pair of concentric circles in the snow around the woman’s body, keeping his grip on the soul casual but tight. The spirit could only be dimly aware of what was going on, but the air was beginning to brim with power, and Guthwulf felt her terror rising.

He invoked the name of an infernal creature and reached his left hand into the summoning ring, then released his grasp. The soul swept free from his palm, but the black ash rings flickered a red darker than the torchlight, and the spirit screamed, realizing it was bound within.

Distorted features, like a second set of eyes and teeth, twisted the corpse’s face, and then the body sat suddenly bolt upright, lashing out with its hands to grasp the invisible soul. The soldiers behind Guthwulf drew sharp breaths in horror as the corpse drew its meal to its mouth and began to chew on something intangible.

Once the demon-possessed corpse had consumed the soul Guthwulf had offered it, it turned its lifeless eyes to him. The woman’s pale face looked almost peaceful as the demon waited, but her posture was twisted, her eyes focused into something beyond the corporeal, and she did not breathe.

Guthwulf turned again to the ancient tongues as he gave his newest servant its orders.
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Chapter Two

Rantle wished he was near a nice warm fire, instead of waiting for a chance to get himself killed. War was coming, Ragesia’s armies were marching for the western wall of Gate Pass, and the whole city might be in flames by morning – which at least would make things warmer – but Rantle wasn’t expecting to fall in some grand battle. More likely, his sister was going to be the death of him.

Huddled for warmth beneath his cloak, Rantle peeked out of the alley and down the darkened street to the Poison Apple Pub. Wintry wind cut its way down the street, fluttering banners hung from second- and third-story windows and stripping petals from the flower wreaths hung along the stone skybridges that led to and from nearly every building in the city, until finally it found Rantle’s hiding place and stung him for being foolish enough to come out at midnight.

There were dozens of other pubs within walking distance, places full of forced cheer where Gatekeepers tried to forget that their city was about to be crushed by the might of the most powerful nation of the world. Rantle could be there, pretending to be oblivious like the rest of them, but family came before, in Rantle’s mind, everything.

The Apple was where he and his younger sister Katrina had met for the past five new year’s eves. He never knew what she did the rest of her year anymore, ever since she had run off at seventeen. Every year she would return from wherever she had been, lie about her travels with a lifetime worth of practice, and be gone in just a few days.

This year, however, the Apple was closed.

All Rantle had heard was that the owner had been arrested for hostile collusion, which likely meant he had been helping mages flee the city before the inquisitors got here.

Rantle almost hoped Katrina wasn’t coming. She deserved better than to be betrayed by the city that had raised them. When they were kids, standing up to Ragesia would have made you a hero. Today, it seemed, people spent more energy wondering what sorts of costumes would be on display for the new year’s festival, and less working for their future.

Still, any hope that he might see his sister and find out she was alright was worth freezing a little, so he waited, keeping an eye on the entrance to the Apple in case she came by.

Rantle was starting to nod off when the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow caught his attention. He peeked out of the alley, hoping to see his sister, safe and sound. Instead a group of three people slinked down the street, hunched in winter coats and scarves. Two were clearly men – one likely a herethim by the slope of his brow, the other a young man – and the woman had too slight a build for Katrina, and black hair.

The group stopped outside the Poison Apple and looked around as if to make sure they were in the right place, muttering too softly for Rantle to hear from his hiding place one building down. Then the herethim knocked on the door, and a moment later it opened and someone leaned out. More words were exchanged, and before Rantle knew it they had gone inside and the pub door was closed again.

For a moment, Rantle indulged his own amusement, chuckling that he had not thought to even try the door. Apparently whatever ‘hostile collusion’ had gone on in the Apple hadn’t stopped with its owner’s arrest.

He was just about to follow the group in when he heard the horse approaching from the back end of the alley.

Rantle had plenty of experience in hiding at a moment’s notice, but he was distracted, and by the time he thought to move, the rider was already turning the corner toward him. Anyway, Rantle told himself, any danger tonight was on the other side of the city walls, probably resting in a nice warm tent. Just in case, though, he tucked his arms into his coat, which would look like he was keeping warm, but which put his hand near his knife.

Brown-haired and barely bundled against the chill, a strong horse walked into Rantle’s alley, coming in from the gutter alley that ran parallel to the main streets, between the lines of three-story houses and shops. Almost immediately Rantle wondered if running would have been a better idea, since the horse was armored, as was its rider.

“New year’s blessings,” Rantle said, putting on his best smile.

The dark-haired rider stopped short, clearly not expecting to run into anyone. The man looked to be in his twenties, about as old as Rantle, but he was built for swinging heavy objects at fleshy targets. Blue-eyed, his complexion was the color of dry soil, and his black hair was cut short. He wore only cavalry plate armor and no winter coat, which likely meant he either was crazy, or was the stubborn type who needed to display how tough he thought he was.

The horse’s saddle held enough weapons for a small military campaign, most prominent being a massive two-hander sheathed along the steed’s flank. Even with his greatsword useless in the tight quarters of the alley, the man had ways enough to make Rantle regret getting on his bad side.

“Get out of here,” the man said.

Rantle raised a hand calmingly, still keeping a smile on his face.

“Peace, friend, I’m going.” He took a step back. “But, before I go, do you mind if I ask what brings you out to this part of town? At midnight, on new year’s eve, when the nearest open pub is four streets that way? Are you lost?”

The man’s blue eyes narrowed in irritation, but he didn’t say anything.

“You look Ragesian,” Rantle continued. “You’re definitely not a Gatekeeper. I admit, I wasn’t burning to get into a fight tonight, but a good citizen would think it’s his duty to fight against some sharpened tilt from the Ragesian army who found a way inside our walls.”

“I’m not with the army.”

Rantle detected something like a sigh in his tone. It threw him off briefly.

“Good,” Rantle said eventually. “Because I’m not a good citizen. Honestly, I think the leadership of this city has gone downhill lately. Do you think they’re actually going to surrender to the rags?”

“No,” the cavalryman said. “Now get out of my way.”

Rantle hesitated. He could hear more snow crunching, this time overhead, crossing a skybridge over the alley. Perhaps this horseman, whoever he was, he had not come alone.

“Look,” Rantle said, “I sense you plan to kill someone tonight, so I’m going to be honest with you, stranger. I’m Rantle. You?”

After a pause, “Kathor.”

“Kathor,” Rantle said, “I’ve got a nice flask of alwyr red. It’s strong and sweet, not the sort of drink a poor soldier gets a chance to enjoy usually. Or a poor bounty hunter, if you grasp my meaning? I was looking to share it with my sister, who I haven’t seen for a year now. We were supposed to meet for drinks just down the way, and I’m worried that you’re here, with all your swords and knives, for her.

“Now if that’s true,” he continued, “then I’m probably going to get myself killed, because she’s my little sister, and she has this nasty habit of getting into trouble that only I can wind her out of. Which means I won’t get to enjoy this one last nice drink before your friends in that army out there come in and burn down my city. So I’m going to offer this: tell me that you’re not here for my sister, and the two of us can toast the end of one year and the start of another.”

A bell tolled mournfully in the distance, from the great Spire Clocktower in the central district of Gate Pass, three miles away. Rantle straightened slightly and waited as other bells joined it, proclaiming midnight and new year, slowly ringing up and down the length of the city – nine miles of mountain pass, snow, and frightened people.

Kathor had turned his attention away briefly. Though his eyes were skyward, the horseman’s question was aimed at Rantle.

“Is your sister a mage?”

Rantle grabbed the knife in his coat, waiting for an attack that didn’t come. A moment passed, and he thought he heard movement, but the bells made it hard to tell from where. He cleared his throat to gather his courage.

“New year,” Rantle observed. “We have a tradition here, that you should make a wish at the turn of the year, and if it’s what you really want, what you truly dream about, it will come to you in the coming year.”

Kathor turned his attention back to Rantle, and to Rantle’s relief it looked as if the man was actually listening to him. Rantle had just wanted to distract him in case he had to fight, but Kathor seemed genuinely interested. Rantle didn’t quite know what he was hoping to accomplish, but he bit his lip and decided it wouldn’t hurt to see where this went.

“Kathor,” he said, “do you really want to be doing this? You say you’re not a soldier, so if you’re hunting mages, that means you’re a bounty hunter. That means you’re probably trapped in this city just like everyone else, and I don’t think a few collared mages are going to earn you mercy.”

“I’m not stuck,” Kathor said. “And you’re just trying to avoid a fight.”

“Of course I am,” Rantle said. “And if you want to be spending your new year, when by rights we should all be drinking and celebrating, instead helping the god damned rags attack a city that never did you anything wrong, I don’t think I can stop you. But ask yourself, is that really what you wish for tonight?”

Kathor seemed to consider, mulling Rantle’s words.

The new year’s bells faltered, their tolling cutting out one by one. Rantle and Kathor both looked around nervously. Beneath the echoes of the bells, faint, deep thumps were audible, sounding like rotten fruit striking a roof.

Kathor gave a single bemused chuckle, straightened in his saddle, then shouted.

“Move! Everyone, move!”

Rantle heard people running in the street, and he saw dark shapes moving for the entrance to the Apple. Distracted, by the time he realized Kathor had drawn his sword and was intending to trample him, Rantle had lost his chance to strike first.

He scrambled backward for the street as Kathor rode toward him. Though the man’s sword was too huge to swing in the alley, it served fine as a makeshift lance, and it was all Rantle could do to dodge to the side at the alley’s mouth and avoid being skewered. Kathor’s horse stopped awkwardly in the icy street as Kathor tried to wheel to face him, and Rantle drew his dueling sword and knife. He stabbed out with the sword, hoping to catch the man when he was unbalanced, but Kathor knocked his bladed aside with his two-hander.

Rantle leapt back and held his sword and knife up defensively, but Kathor did not press the attack. The man’s eyes flicked in the direction of the Apple, and Rantle was faintly aware that Kathor’s allies ten yards down the street were hammering at the pub’s door with a small battering ram. The Spire bells now began to ring again wildly, sounding an alarm.

“I told you to leave,” Kathor shouted. “Your city’s under attack. Find someplace open, away from buildings. Or else go underground.”

Rantle cocked his head disdainfully. “You’re trying to get me to run when my sister might be in the building your thugs are atta-?”

A roar of sound and a slamming force the likes of which Rantle had never felt before struck him from behind, and when he came to his senses he was lying in the street next to Kathor’s horse, which was likewise knocked off its feet.

People were yelling, and there was fire – a great deal of fire.

Rantle cleared his head with a shake, then looked at the flames. A word he remembered from his sister’s early experiments with fire magic came to mind: explosion.

The building next to the Poison Apple had – it really was the only word that did justice – exploded, and now the street was littered with glass, burning wood, shattered stone, and cracked plaster. The second floor of the building was almost completely obliterated, and the ground floor was engulfed in flames. The Apple itself was covered with burning debris, and the men in the street with the battering ram had simply stopped to see what had happened.

Nearby Rantle heard a groan, and he remembered he had been fighting.

Retrieving his knife from the debris in the street – his sword was nowhere to be seen – Rantle staggered around the flailing warhorse to where Kathor lay, a leg pinned under his mount. Kathor saw him coming and reached for his two-hander, but Rantle put his boot on it and pulled it away, then bent down and picked it up for himself.

“You should leave,” Rantle smirked. “City’s under attack. Better get to safety. Maybe run back to whoever holds your leash.”

Rantle backed away in the direction of the pub, tucking his knife back into his coat and holding Kathor’s sword warily. Kathor crawled out from under his horse, his expression hard to read, but a moment later he had gotten his horse to its feet. He swung himself up into the saddle and turned to face Rantle.

Kathor looked him in the eyes and frowned.

“What?” Rantle demanded.

Without a word, Kathor glanced in the direction of the pub, then turned and rode off. People who had come out of their houses to see what was going on stepped out of way of his horse, and in a moment he had vanished beyond the edge of the firelight.

Chapter Three

Rantle shouted for the people in the streets to keep back. Holding the huge sword he had stolen from Kathor, he sprinted down the street to the door of the Apple, where the men with the battering ram had just managed to knock the door open. Over the panic they didn’t hear Rantle coming, and he aimed for the first man’s neck.

Rantle had been in a lot of fights, and he had killed a man once, a guildsman from the Takers gang. The fight had been over turf, and Rantle had meant to leave the Takers guildsman with just a scar, but his blade had gone in farther than he had expected, and – since the man had been trying to kill Rantle anyway – he hadn’t regretted it. Better, his fellow Mauser guildsmen had treated him to a night of drinks to reward his toughness, so in the end Rantle had come away feeling alright with the idea of killing people.

These bounty hunters might have come looking for his sister, so Rantle did not hesitate as he swung.

“Come out quietly, or we’ll lock you in here to burn!” one of the bounty hunters was shouting. “Surren-”

Kathor’s sword was nearly as long as Rantle was tall, heavy enough to crush plate armor and sharp enough to sever a horse’s leg. It cut through the first man’s neck cleanly, and its momentum carried its tip into the side of the second man’s jaw just as he was demanding a surrender. Rantle imagined he could feel bone crunching and teeth snapping free through the blade’s hilt. The man screamed, dropped his metal club, and collapsed. Rantle staggered back, shocked, but then he heard shouts inside the Apple, and saw the man was still moving, red steam filling the air with his every breath. Shuddering, Rantle stepped over the man’s body and in through the pub’s front door.

Overhead, the roof and second story burned like they were coated with pitch, and the explosion of the adjacent building had fractured the walls. Fiery oil had somehow seeped through the cracks, setting one wall on fire. On the far wall behind the bar, dozens of bottles had fallen during the impact, leaving the shelves bare. Still upright, though, a bronze bust of the late Emperor Coaltongue took in the battle without expression.

Throughout the pub’s common room a half dozen men dressed like the thugs outside fought amid clustered tables and chairs against their five potential bounties. Rantle recognized no one in the small melee, and he scanned the wrecked walls for signs that Katrina might be trapped or hiding.

Just inside the doorway lay a dead bounty hunter, and near him the herethim man Rantle had seen outside earlier slumped against a table, blinking dully and hissing in pain. He held a blood-soaked sword, but a dagger had punctured his chest, and blood poured down his forehead from a wretched wound where something had bludgeoned his skull.

To the right of the bar the black-haired woman Rantle had seen enter earlier hid behind an overturned table, shaking and yelling at the other man who had come with her as he bled to death from his throat. Between them and the thugs stood a young white-haired woman in breastplate and greaves. She thrashed a flurry of axe strikes into one bounty hunter and shoved him back into his allies, but another bounty hunter, his clothes and face burnt from dripping oil, flanked wide through the common room tables so he could get her from behind. She yelled to the dark-haired woman for help.

To the left of the bar, a bloodied bounty hunter wrestled with a short jispin man that Rantle had not seen with the group earlier. The jispin man, wearing what looked like an expensive servant’s outfit under a tattered brown cloak, was barely half the size of the bounty hunter, but he was kicking and flailing with the tenacity of a cornered dog, slashing his enemy’s arms with a tiny knife since he could not reach the man’s throat.

The dark-haired woman in the far right corner of the room screamed, and Rantle leapt into the battle.

He switched the oversized sword to his left hand, drew his dagger, and ran up behind the nearest bounty hunters, who were keeping the white-haired woman busy. The thug who was trying to flank her called out a warning to his allies, and one of the two bounty hunters spun and swung at Rantle with a sword. Rantle saw the attack coming, knocked it aside with a clumsy one-handed wipe of the two-hander, and then lunged in with his knife. He almost stopped himself, remembering the dying man he had left in the doorway, but then his blade slipped into the bounty hunter’s belly, and the man doubled over. Rantle ripped his knife out and drove it into the man’s throat.

Rantle cringed, expecting the second bounty hunter to come at him, but the warrior woman had swung at that man, and he was desperately trying to keep her axe at bay with his sword.

The third, flanking bounty hunter had given up on the white-haired warrior woman and was instead trying to grab the cowering woman on the floor. She scrambled under a table, but with all the scattered chairs and tables in the way Rantle knew he wouldn’t be able to get to her before the bounty hunter did.

Hoping to distract the man long enough to close the distance, Rantle drew back the two-handed sword and hurled it lengthwise. It whirled through the air, twisting slightly so that when it struck the bounty hunter it was the flat that hit, but still the force of the impact staggered the man, and he turned to see what had hit him. With that moment’s pause, Rantle had picked up the sword from the last man he had stabbed, and now he shouted and charged in.

The bounty hunter slashed as Rantle reached him. Rantle tried to parry, but the other man locked the crossguard of their swords together, then stepped in and lifted a knee into Rantle’s stomach.

Rantle doubled over, expecting to die any moment, but no one hit him. He forced himself to straighten up and swung at his enemy, only to discover the man had an axe in his collar bone. The white-haired woman had managed to dispatch her enemy, and had come to his aid.

She stepped in, gripped her axe tightly, and shoved the man off the blade with her foot. He slumped to the ground clutching the horrible wound in his chest, and for a moment the woman looked like she was going to finish him, but then she spat and turned away. The bounty hunter feebly clambered away to the door.

Rantle sighed and nodded. “Thanks.”

The woman was not looking at him, though.

“Rivereye,” she shouted.

“Alive,” came the reply from the jispin.

The short man, barely four feet tall, had somehow managed to extricate himself from the bounty hunter who had been grabbing him, and who now lay curled in a pool of blood near the bar.

The jispin man was ugly. Most jispin had that cute appeal all small things have, but warts riddled Rivereye’s face, and his skin had a blue pallor. Gem-studded rings adorned his hands, and he had slung a heavy pack over his shoulder, filled with something large and boxy. His eyes, squinty, nervous slits of dark blue, fixed on Rantle. He produced a knife and held it out warily.

“I’m here to help,” Rantle said. “Is there anyone else with you? A red-headed woman?”

The warrior woman shook her head, glancing around the room quickly as she moved over to the herethim with a knife in his side.

“No,” she said. “We need to get out of here before this place falls on us. Kell, come on. We’ve got to get out of here.”

Rantle had already stepped away, looking down at the black-haired woman who cowered on the floor. She wore the tunic of a craftswoman, dyed light purple, and had no weapons on her. Her hair was tied back in a thin braid, and her brown eyes stared wide and blankly at the floor. Rantle knelt beside her, holding up his less-bloodied hand to try to calm her.

“This place isn’t safe,” he said. “Come with me.”

The woman shook her head, quivering with fear. Her eyes flickered to the body of the man beside her, and then she closed them tight, her face twisting with grief.

Rantle sighed and wished he did not have to, but the fire gave him little choice. He leaned forward, grabbed her by her armpit and waist, and threw her over his shoulder. She didn’t struggle, and a moment later he was outside, laying her down on the opposite side of the icy street, next to a closed shop. The short jispin Rivereye and the warrior woman had dragged their herethim comrade out as well, and were tending to the dagger in his ribs, but it didn’t look good.

Overhead, families peered out of the upper story windows. The streets were swelling with confused people, but most kept their distance from the fire for now. Distant sounds like massive drumbeats called out from all around, but the people spoke only in whispers, unable to comprehend what was happening.

As Rantle laid the shocked woman down, she said, “Torrent.”

The white-haired warrior woman looked over like she had been called by name. “I’m here, Sorra. Don’t worry. We’re safe.”

“Coran’s in-.” Sorra stopped, choking on her tears before she could finish. “Torrent, he’s still inside.”

The warrior woman, Torrent, glanced at Rantle.

“Coran, the other man,” she said. “Get him out.”

Her voice had a sadness that made it clear that she knew the man was already dead, but Rantle just nodded. He needed to get his sword back anyway.

A minute later, Rantle staggered out of the door of the Apple, Coran’s body over his left shoulder, Kathor’s sword in his right hand, and a bundle of loot from the bounty hunters under his arm. The pub was filling with smoke, but it would still be a while before its ceiling would cave, Rantle guessed. Coughing, Rantle came over beside the other survivors and dropped the body and loot with as much finesse as he could, then slumped to the ground himself.

His legs had been shaking, and now he realized his whole body was shivering, but not from the cold. He wanted to get up and do something. The city was in chaos, and Rantle did not know what was going on, but he felt like he should be helping, somehow. He considered running to the west wall, since the rags were probably attacking; or going back into the Apple to drag out some of the bounty hunters who might not yet be dead, but he could not bring himself to move, not yet.

Far overhead, Rantle thought he heard a sound like a massive flag flapping in the wind, and the alarm bells were still ringing.

“Feeling alright?” Torrent asked.

Rantle glanced over to her. She leaned against the stone façade of the shop and rubbed a poultice into a gash on her shoulder. Her white hair – her most obvious feature – was almost short enough to be a military cut, like she had once been a soldier and had never been comfortable with letting it grow out.

The light brown color of her skin marked her as being from the south-eastern Ragesian empire, the land that had been called Chathus before the Ragesians conquered it decades earlier, though Rantle wondered if she might be part jen – not of the han race, like him. She looked normal enough, but had a gentle jawline and piercing eyes that suggested jen, and her white hair was definitely unusual for a han woman her age. Also, the armor she wore was clearly of Shahalesti make, decorated with fine etchings of waves and sea creatures.

Despite Rantle’s prolonged stare, she did not look at him as she tended to her wound, though it was clear she was waiting for his reply.

“I’m not hurt,” he said.

Torrent half-shrugged, half-nodded. “You’ll be alright. Thank you for the help.”

“Yeah,” Rantle said.

They watched the crowds filling the street, confusion on everyone’s faces. No one was trying to put out the fire in the Apple, and there were shouts that there fires all over the city. Torrent took out a flask, sipped a bit, then cleared her throat.

“You were looking for someone when you came cutting your way into that pub,” she said. “A woman, right?”

“My sister, Katrina,” he said. “Red hair. Twenty-two. She’s a mage, like these people with you are, I’m guessing.”

“Yeah,” Torrent shrugged, “they’re mages. I’m trying to get them to safety. But I haven’t met your sister. Maybe she’s already on her way to Seaquen.”

“What’s that?” Rantle said.

“Seaquen,” Torrent said. “That’s why you came tonight, right?”

Rantle said nothing, but he was sure his expression made his confusion clear.

Torrent shrugged. “For whatever mad reason, Leska’s got the rags capturing mages, and we’re all heading to Seaquen, in south Dassen, where it’s safe. Tonight’s our last run, but there were other-”

The force of another explosion a few streets away shook the ground and lit up the night with fire. People who had gathered outside screamed and fled, and Rantle and Torrent both cringed at the building-shattering roar.

“What in hell are those?” Rantle demanded. “We’re a mile inside the walls. That couldn’t have been a catapult.”

Torrent looked to the jispin man, who was trying to hide in the doorway of the shop, his eyes cast skyward.

“Rivereye,” she said. Then again, “Rivereye!”

The short man ducked, then looked over at the two of them. He carried himself like a dog often beaten, afraid of being struck again.

Torrent tilted her head at the pub. “What caused that?”

A smile flitted across Rivereye’s lips, then vanished. “Dractyls.”

Rantle said, “What?”

Rivereye scoffed darkly. “You’ve got great birds here in Gate Pass, right? Avilons?”

Rantle nodded. Avilons were like eagles the size of a horse, just large enough for small women and young men to ride them. Though officially they constituted an aerial cavalry, most Gatekeepers just thought of them as unique entertainers who soared through the city during festivals, performing elaborate dances in the sky.

“The Ragesians have avilon cavalry?” Rantle said, bewildered.

“Better,” Rivereye said. “Or worse, I suppose, for us. Dractyls. They’re like stupid dragons, twice as big as an avilon, big enough to carry a knight in armor. I once saw a group of dractyl riders training. They could get a dractyl to pick up a clay urn the size of a keg and drop it on a target ten feet across from a hundred feet up. Of course, the ones they were using were for practice. The ones they’re carrying now use some sort of fire magic, and are filled lots of oil.”

“Dragons?” Rantle said. “The Ragesians have dragon cavalry? That’s impossible.”

“Don’t believe me then,” Rivereye sneered. He turned away and began muttering.

Torrent said, “They’re not true dragons. More like cats, bred down from mountain lions. You notice they’re not breathing fire. You’d be surprised what magic you can buy with an empire’s fortune.”

“Still,” Rantle said. “We’re helpless, and more important, worthless. My city is being destroyed by ‘cats.’ How do we fight something that flies?”

Torrent had a small, tight smile on her lips. “You’re too eager to fight. Your city has its own defenders who will do the fighting. What we need to do is find some shelter tonight.”

People were surging past them in the street – not enough to risk trampling them so close to the building, but enough to make it clear that most of them were just panicking, scared people, each trying to go wherever he or she thought was safest.

“It looks like the Ragesians are just scattering the strikes randomly,” Rivereye said. “The army is probably attacking the wall right now, and the more people who are in the streets, the harder it is for reinforcements to get there. I think we should actually stay here, since they won’t drop another bomb so close to this one.”

“No,” Torrent said. “I told you, we’re getting out of this city. I’m not letting you hole yourself up and wait to get killed.”

Sorra, the dark-haired woman Rantle had carried out earlier, shivered as she said, “Inquisitors.”

Torrent leaned over and put a calming hand on her shoulder. Then she looked back to Rantle.

“I need to keep these people safe,” she said, “which means we’re leaving. We were lucky you came and helped us. We’re leaving the city, if you’d be interested in coming with us? Your sister might already be on the way to Seaquen.”

Rantle shook his head and stood, holding the two-handed sword and wondering what to do with it.

“She might be here too,” he said, “or she might never even have gotten here. I’m not going to run. Look, once you find some place safe, lay easy. I imagine it’s good to stay out in the open, or to be underground, away from the ‘bombs.’”

Torrent stood and raised a hand in a mock toast. “I hope you have that luxury, because we don’t.”

“Yeah, well,” Rantle said, “it’s a new year, so I wish you – and me – the luck to make it through tonight alive.”

Torrent said, “Don’t run into any more burning buildings.”

Rantle smirked and then, before his nerve and legs grew weak again, he headed down the alley beside the nearest three-story building, jumped onto the ladder built into the bricks, and started climbing. Halfway up, he glanced down and saw Torrent, Rivereye, and Sorra heading off. They had left behind Coran and the herethim man whose name Rantle had not caught. Only then did Rantle realize the herethim must have died from his wound.

Rantle kept climbing.

When he reached the roof he threw the sword he had taken from Kathor up first, then clambered onto the flat, icy rooftop, careful not to lose his balance. More than anything else, he had chosen to take the skybridge route because he wanted to see what was happening from a high vantage point, and when he stood up he cursed.

Scattered fires lit up his city, stretching away a mile to the west gate and miles more eastward. The sky was dark with clouds, but their undersides reflected the dim orange of the burning flames. As he watched, another explosion blossomed in the central district, and it took a long breath for the muted thump to reach his ears. When the bomb flared, its light glinted off bronze high overhead, hinting at the shape of a mighty statue, a colossus that had been left forty years ago, the last time Ragesia had attacked Gate Pass.

Ninety feet tall, it had been erected to mark the victory of the glorious emperor, Drakus Coaltongue, called the Old Dragon, who had conquered Gate Pass near the end of his ascension to power. Even after the resistance had driven out the rags, the city had kept the statue as a reminder to all Gatekeepers that they had the strength to defeat the greatest power in the world.

Now, the rumors said Coaltongue was dead, and Ragesia had gone to war to avenge him, and to locate and recover that most precious artifact, wielded for the hundred years of the emperor’s reign, which had made the Ragesian Empire invincible.

Coaltongue’s colossus towered over the city, its right arm raised to the heavens, holding horizontally over its head the bronze-cast image of that artifact, a jagged femur crowned with flame – the Torch of the Burning Sky.

Chapter Four

The bombs had stopped falling, and the bell ringers had found better things to do, since by now the entire city had awoken, but the air still brimmed with cacophony as Rantle ran along the skybridges toward the guildhouse.

Above the voices of the surging crowds murmured the faint sounds of battle in the skies, as avilon riders tried to cut down the Ragesian dractyls before they could return to their army and get more bombs. Rantle could not see the battles, just occasional holes in the starry sky sweeping past.

Mostly, Rantle tried not to look up, though he would duck every time he heard the heavy flapping of leathern wings coming too close. Once he came across a man dead from a crossbow bolt that could only have been fired from overhead.

The rooftops were almost as crowded as the streets, but few who had the sense to get to high ground were as panicked as those below. Rantle occasionally had to use normal roads whenever he came upon a building demolished by bombing, cutting off his path, but the only truly dangerous part of his journey was passing through the gate between the fourth and fifth districts, where a crush of panicked men and women trying to get farther from the Ragesians had nearly suffocated him.

Rantle had no home to check on, and the only places he could think to go to ride out the night in safety were themselves dangerous for him to return to, but anything was better than staying out in the chaos of the streets. Finally, after nearly ten minutes of hard running Rantle reached the Mauser guildhouse

The house thankfully had been spared the Ragesian fire. Mausers with meaty cudgels stood in front of the entrance, shouting at the crowds to keep their distance. The fifth district was home to more beggars, criminals, and poor families than any other, and Rantle had passed several scenes of looting as the pathetically impoverished tried to find anything valuable in the homes of their equally penniless neighbors.

“Sandir,” Rantle shouted to one of the guards, a heavy-set blond second story man.

With an irritated snap of his fingers, Sandir waved Rantle in from the crowded street. The other guildsmen guarding the door scowled.

“Don’t trust him,” warned Rugan, a dark-haired enforcer with a scar on his left ear. “He’s in with the bellmen.”

“Peace,” Rantle said, “seriously. We’re all friends here.”

“Why in hell are you here, Rantle?” Sandir asked, snapping his fingers repeatedly to hasten Rantle’s reply. “We know you went cliff diving for that two-dip councilwoman. What happened? Thrown out on your arse by another woman scorned?”

“I finished that job weeks ago,” Rantle said. “She knows she got deuced, and I don’t think she’d be letting me share her bedroom tonight, but she isn’t ‘scorned’ by any damned measure.”

This was not quite true. Councilwoman Pravati Bhari was the most gullible woman Rantle had ever stolen from, and as soon as Sandir mentioned it, Rantle wished he had decided to go to her manor instead of here. But the guildhouse was closer, and if Katrina were in the city, it was the only place she would know to look for him now.

Rugan sneered. “So you get tossed a few damned bridges to betray Dirus, and now you’re coming back here for what? Tomas kept the irons hot for you.”

Rantle took a wary step back. “Is this necessary right now?”

“Why in hell should we waste our time helping a traitor?” Sandir said.

“Wait,” Rantle said. “Just because I didn’t take another man’s beating doesn’t mean I’m a traitor. If Dirus had been thinking with his tongue instead of his knife, well, he’d still be able to clap.”

“That’s not the way I heard it,” Sandir said. “Whispers say you turned him in. If you weren’t at all to blame, why’d you run off like a scared mouse?”

“I was still running the deuce,” Rantle said, exasperated. “What, do you think I’m here to turn in the gang? I mean, look around. The bellmen have better tin to do now than raiding our house. Listen, I’ll explain this all to Tomas. Just let me in. I came to see if I could help.”

Sandir and Rugan exchanged dubious glances.

“Alright, that’s hensblood,” Rantle confessed. “I came to see if Katrina came by.”

“She’s back?” Rugan asked.

Rugan possessed an oft-proclaimed feral desire for Rantle’s sister, which was one reason Katrina had avoided the guildhouse for the past five years, but Rantle hoped he could rely on the man’s lust to get him to bend the rules and let Rantle in.

Sandir said, “We haven’t seen that whore in years. You know that.”

“Well she’s here now,” Rantle said, refusing to respond to Sandir’s insult. “She came into town a few days ago. You know the Poison Apple, in the fourth? It’s burning down right now. I was supposed to meet her there, but now, I have no damned idea where she might be.”

“You think,” Rugan said hopefully, “she might come here?”

“Maybe,” Rantle said. “Listen, I know you all hate me, but I also know you all like my sister, and with all the fire falling from the sky I know Tomas would like to have her around too. This is the only place she knows to find me, and she won’t stay unless I’m here.”

Rugan grumbled the way he did when he knew he was making a bad decision.

Rantle looked upward in frustration. “Can you just let me the hell in?”

“Dammit, fine,” Rugan said. “But I’m taking you to see Tomas.”

Really?” Rantle drew out his reply to make sure dim Rugan caught the sarcasm. “No, I need to talk to Tomas anyway, to clear up this ‘traitor’ tin you’re canting about.”

Sandir snapped his finger and pointed at Rantle in one motion. “Leave the sword. What the hell are you doing with something like that anyway?”

Rantle looked at Kathor’s sword slowly, looked back to Sandir, and smiled.

“I took it off a Ragesian tilt I killed.”

Unimpressed, Sandir grabbed the sword from Rantle, and waved for him and Rugan to head inside.

The ground floor of the Mauser guildhouse served as a restaurant, one of the few respectable places in the district, but even that was a disorienting maze, decorated with numerous copies of a small numbers of paintings and sculptures to throw off attempts to navigate the halls. Unlike most structures in the city, no skybridges connected it to other buildings.

Rugan took Rantle through the quiet restaurant, which was empty save for a pair of gossiping women collecting food from the kitchen cupboards. Rantle smiled to them and they stopped their conversation long enough to start flirting back.

“Not now,” Rugan said.

The women shrugged and let them pass.

“Some people in the guild seem to still like me,” Rantle said.

Rugan scoffed. They headed up to the second floor, where the guildsmen had their own rooms. A few other Mausers chatting in the hallway saw him and sneered, but Rugan and Rantle pressed past them to Rantle’s old room. Rugan opened the door and shoved Rantle through.

“Stay put ‘til I come get you,” Rugan said.

“What?” Rantle said. “Is Tomas too busy to see me now? Is he playing cards while the city burns?”

“You better hope your sister comes.”

Rugan started to head off, but Rantle leaned out of his door and called, “Hey, Rugan.”


“Katrina once told me she thought you looked dashing in that red vest you have.”

“Hen’s blood,” Rugan scoffed.

“I swear,” Rantle said. “You might want to find it before she shows up.”

Rugan grumbled in embarrassment, then came back and shut Rantle’s door. Rantle sighed in relief, then chuckled and walked over to the window. Through the snow-glazed glass he could see people scrambling through the alley below, and he heard a man shouting for his children to keep up.

Rantle turned away, then went over to his bed and sat down. Something rolled against his thigh, and when he looked down he saw a clay urn, brown, about the size of an apple, with a red wax seal over the mouth. Curious, he picked it up and shook it, hearing the light rattle of rolled up paper inside.

These sorts of urns were ubiquitous in Gate Pass around new year’s. On new year’s day every year, the city celebrated the Festival of Dreams with a parade consisting of throngs of revelers and dancers wearing exotic costumes far too titilating and skimpy for the middle of winter. The parade wound its way through the city, finally coming to a stop in the central district, in the park at the foot of the colossus of Emperor Coaltongue, where people of the city traditionally deposited urns like this. Each urn’s owner placed a strip of paper inside, on which was written that person’s dream or desire.

When the parade reached its end, each of the shakurs in charge of the eight major temples in Gate Pass chose one urn from the thousands piled together, cracked it open, and read its contents aloud. According to legend, every dream so revealed would come true before the year’s end, though whether that was due to divine blessing or simple hard work on the part of the temples was up for debate. Of course, particularly cruel, selfish, or impossible wishes had a way of coming about in unintended ways.

Rantle had not been in his room at the guildhouse for months, so with a shrug he rapped the urn against the squat metal chest at the side of his bed where he kept his clothes. The urn cracked open, and Rantle leaned over to collect the paper.

When he realized it was in Katrina’s hand-writing, he groaned.

“I wish I could be with you for the festival,” it read. “I hope this finds you, and that you find me. I’ve headed south, to a little town called Seaquen in south Dassen. I’ll be fine on the trip, but I want you to meet me there. I could use your help, Rantle. I know there’s a war going on, but I have a way that we can come out safe in the end. You need to meet up with a woman named Torrent. She’s with the Resistance, and is headed in the same direction. I made sure she will be waiting at our usual New Year’s spot. Don’t mention me, though. I’ll explain all of this when I see you.

“I won’t say more, in case someone finds this. Be on the look out for a trap, and don’t be surprised if the Ragesians have spies watching the meeting.

“You’ve never let me down, brother. Thank you, and happy new year. Be sure to make a nice wish before you go.”
It was signed, and dated two weeks past. Rantle reread the note, grimacing with an intense feeling of frustration. A knock at the door stopped him just as he was about to smack his forehead at his bad luck. Grumbling, Rantle folded the note and tucked it into his vest, then stood up and opened the door.

Rugan stood there in his dashing red vest, along with another two guildsmen and Tomas, wearing a fine gray suit as if he had just come from a party. Apparently he was not willing to stop his celebrations just because of a little war, as he was holding a glass of golden liquor. A disbelieving rat-like grin appeared on Tomas’s mustached lips, and Rantle realized the three Mauser enforcers with him were all eagerly holding knives.

Rugan lunged forward to stab him, and Rantle shoved the door closed, slamming it on Rugan’s wrist and knocking the knife out of his grasp. Rugan pulled his hand back with a yelp, and Rantle pushed the door shut, then threw his weight against it. A second knife dug through the door near his belly, the tip poking him in his belt. Rantle quickly readjusted himself so he didn’t have anything more vital than his hands touching the door.

“We’re not going to talk about this?” Rantle yelled.

Another knife stabbed where Rantle’s head had been a moment earlier. He looked around for something to help him keep the door shut, but there wasn’t much in the tiny room. With one foot he reached out and awkwardly dragged the bed closer. The stabbings continued, followed by a few slams against the door that Rantle managed to hold back, before finally the assault stopped.

“You sold out one of your brothers,” Tomas said. “Was it worth it for a few more nights in the embrace of that filthy Chathan cap? I thought you were smart enough to know what the consequences would be for that, but I never imagined you’d be stupid enough to come back here.”

Rantle nodded silently in agreement, rolling his eyes at his own short-sightedness.

“I was stupid, yes,” he said. “Honestly, Tomas, I thought you would not be this upset. Tonight’s obviously already stressful. Maybe I should come back some other day?”

“No,” Tomas said, dragging out the word with amusement. “My men are nervous, and you picked an excellent time to help me remind them of the importance of discipline.”

“Tomas,” Rantle said to stall for time. “Did Rugan tell you Katrina is coming? I mean, you- you know the temper she has. If you kill me, I’m warning you she might not like it, is all I’m saying.”

“Keep squealing,” Tomas chuckled. “You’re like a mouse trapped in a hole.”

Rantle shifted his weight so he could lean down and pick up the edge of the bed. It was not very heavy, but it would help. He propped the bed against the door and leaned against that, looking around for a weapon better than the dagger Rugan had dropped. He saw none.

He cursed, and the men outside guffawed.

Suddenly he wished he had decorated his room better. All he had to show for a dozen years of thieving and conning was a chest of nice clothes he used to impress women, a few books of stories and history he kept as guilty pleasures, and a map of the first manor house he had ever robbed hanging on his wall.

“Tomas,” Rantle said, “I explained this to Rugan, but I guess he wasn’t the best choice for someone to speak on my behalf. I didn’t take a swim on Dirus. He fouled up the job, and it was either one of us getting caught or both.

“Be honest,” Rantle shouted through the door. “Honor or not, you would have done the same thing. Be reasonable, Tomas.”

“No,” Tomas raged. “We are a brotherhood, and I would bite a serpent’s tail if it would protect one of my men. You don’t care for anyone but yourself, and, as evidenced by your coming back here tonight, you’re too stupid for me to want to keep in the guild anyway.”

“Yeah,” Rantle said. “Dirus is much more useful now than I am. He gets caught, loses the loot he was supposed to get, whereas I don’t trip up, and you reward me with death. You’re a brilliant leader, Tomas. I’m sure this will inspire loyalty.”

A moment passed before Tomas replied.

“We don’t want to kill you,” he said, “just give you the ringing you thought you’d dodged. Be reasonable, Rantle. It’s only a hand. If I weren’t so busy, I might take the time to come up with something more creative.”

“Alright,” Rantle said through the door. “Let’s talk about something other than snipping off my hand, please? Tomas, I came here for a reason. You think I would be foolish enough to come here and just expect you to forgive me because you like me? I have good news, good enough that I swear you won’t want to punish me.”

“You’re probably spewing hen’s blood,” Tomas replied, “but I’ll listen. I have a party to attend to, though, so speak quickly.”

Rantle risked stepping away from the barricade, then bent over and picked up the chest of clothes by the handle on one end.

“Alright,” he said, “this is going to make us all rich.”

Instead of continuing with his lie, though, he just hurled the chest through his window, shattering the frame and smashing open an escape route. The chest flew out trailing shards of glass, and thumped heavily in the alley below. Rantle knew that Rugan and the others would come bursting through the door in a moment, so he didn’t take the time to worry about cutting himself on loose glass, and just jumped feet first through the window. He released a yell as he fell, which thankfully turned into a groan and not a scream as he managed to land on his feet and roll to reduce some of the pain of impact. Overhead he heard Tomas shouting, ordering his thieves to run Rantle down.

Rantle’s fall startled the family who had been fleeing through the alley, and they ran out into the main street in a hurry. After what he felt was a reasonable amount of time grimacing in pain, Rantle pushed himself wearily to his feet and grabbed his chest of clothes, but before he could run away he heard a loud snap of fingers from the mouth of the alley.

“You?” was all Sandir said, as he glanced back and forth between Rantle and the window on the second floor.

The panicked family had apparently drawn Sandir’s attention away from the front door of the guildhouse, and now he stood a dozen feet away from Rantle, still holding the sword Rantle had taken off of Kathor, looking dumb-founded at Rantle’s presence.

Shouts were already coming from the front of the guildhouse as word spread of Rantle’s escape. Sandir looked back briefly, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do, and during his moment’s distraction, Rantle grabbed the chest handle, then hurled it overhanded at his old thieves’ guild friend.

The twenty-pound chest struck Sandir in the stomach and crumpled him almost silently. Rantle staggered over to him and grabbed the two-handed sword, leaving the chest behind.

“Bye,” Rantle said. “And sorry.”

Despite the pain in his feet and knees, Rantle forced himself to jog away, straight into the main street and the masses of terrified people, where he hoped the guildsmen wouldn’t follow. He desperately wished that his sister knew what he was going through in order to help her.

Chapter Five

Tired, cold, sore, and directionless, Rantle spent nearly an hour drifting in the crowds of Gate Pass, a press of bodies wilder and more packed than even the greatest turn-outs during the new year’s festival. He saw city soldiers trampling people under wagons as they tried to go the wall to fight back the Ragesians. More than once he passed a family carrying a burnt loved one, dying or dead, the healing houses already too full to admit any more. Some frightened soldiers were trying to press through the crowds to retrieve what healers they could and get them to the walls, while distraught fathers and husbands brawled with them when they tried to leave without healing their children and wives.

He stepped over several corpses in the street, and even if the crowd behind him had let him take the time to move them, he wasn’t sure he would have cared enough. He had just left the closest thing he had known to a family, and it seemed like fortune was mocking him by having brought him so close to the ones he needed to go with – Torrent, the jispin man, and the frightened woman – who by now could be anywhere. Rantle had no idea how to find a group of three people out of the thousands in Gate Pass, and if he did not find them before tomorrow he suspected they would already be outside the city.

There was no route Rantle knew of southward that would not take him through enemy territory, either west through the lines of the Ragesian armies, or east into Shahalesti, which would likely get him captured as a spy, since he looked Ragesian. He could only guess Torrent knew a route through the mountains, but if Rantle had to follow on his own he imagined he would end up freezing to death at the side of some snow-filled mountain road.

As it was, after an hour of aimless wandering, the flights of dractyls stopped, the crowds began to disperse, and Rantle found a dark, looted tailor shop to rest in. A dozen other people, either displaced or too cold and tired to go back to their own homes, huddled inside with him, sharing the warmth of a small hearth which barely managed to win against the chill draft coming through the door looters had smashed open.

For the first half hour people sat together silently, until one man began plucking away a five-beat couster song on a broken guitar. Rantle and a few others recognized the song and began humming or tapping beats along with it. It felt good to help, even for something as sad as this old war song.

Oh hear me brave boy, girding at the gate.
The irons have tolled, and dawn shall be late.

Against you now stands a torch-tongue of fire
And Conquest, oh child, is the Dragon’s sole desire.

Our home soon in ruins,
Our spirits may be thralled.
Look brave on one last dream,
Before your shield falls.

In the night’s final hours, you drift into sleep,
And soar with the Eagle to where pains all cease.

Beneath that shining gate, where the titan Worm dwells
Gleaming shadows cry up, child, from the darkness of hell.

The doors of light break at the howl of hounds.
And from Kraken’s waves, mad tempests confound.

Our home now in ruins,
Our spirits all are thralled.
Be brave for one last dream, boy,
Now, as your shield falls.

You dream of fearful storms, of ghosts and of flood,
Of flames and of scourge, and bones, damnation, and blood.

A nightmare of ruins,
Our dreams forever thralled.
Wake quick from this dream, child,
Here, before we fall.

Like a child’s first breath, the army’s horn cries.
You awaken to war, and nightmares brought to life.

So lift up your arms, and hold fast, be brave.
You’ll fight and might die, but never will you be a slave.

Our home soon in ruins,
Our spirits might yet be thralled.
But fight against that dream,
Oh, stand fast at the walls.

When the song ended, the silence was too heavy to last. Slowly, the people huddled in the wreck of a building began sharing the events of what had brought them there.

At first Rantle took dark pleasure in privately comparing what he had gone through with the plight of those whose stories he heard, feeling a strange pride that he had been through more than them. Then the stories grew bleaker.

“I was returning from my brother Thuro’s,” a woman said, cradling a cookpot in her arms like a child. “His wife, she’d cooked a sweet potato porridge, and I was to use it in my children’s breakfast. I was carrying it home, hurrying so I could be in before the new year bells. My boys, they always. . . .”

She stopped to get control of herself.

“We live in a third-story home. I heard the first crashes . . . you called them ‘bombs’?”

Rantle and a handful of other men nodded silently.

“I heard them when I was coming in the building’s door. And I was just about to go up the stairs when the walls shook. It felt like the sound just pushed me down. I bled out of my ears and couldn’t hear. I finally . . . I looked up and saw fire, all the way up the stairwell. There just . . . there wasn’t a third floor anymore. I could look up and see the clouds.”

A long moment later, a young man spattered with blood added his story.

“My brothers and I were trying to get inside the walls of the Castle, but the mages wouldn’t let us in.”

Several in the room snorted derisively. The wizard Gabal trained a few dozen students in the ways of magic at his school of war. Supported by tuition of fabulously wealthy families who wanted their children to be as famous and powerful as Gabal himself, the school compound stood near the heart of Gate Pass, but a moat separated it from the rest of the city, and high walls hid the interior buildings, except for a six-story red tower.

When word spread that the city was preparing to capitulate to the Ragesians and let in the inquisitors, Gabal had publicly decried the move and warned that if Ragesia attacked, he and his students would not come to Gate Pass’s aid.

“The cowards didn’t even come to the gate,” the man continued. “There were dozens of us, and I know we could have fit inside, but we were stuck out in the open.

“One of the Ragesian dragons fell out of the night, and it crushed ten or more people under its claws when it landed. There was a man on its back. He rode it in a saddle like it was a giant horse with wings. I saw him fire a crossbow at someone in the crowd. We started to run, all of us.

“My youngest brother, Perant, he was at the back of the crowd, and the dragon chased after us. I looked back when I heard him screaming, and . . . the dragon had him in his teeth. It shook him like a damn cat eating a mouse. The bastard rag would have gotten more of us, but the gods chose then to show mercy. A pair of avilons swept in and scared the dragon and its rider, and they flew off. They took Perant with them.”

“Aye,” said a bearded elder whose burned hands were bandaged over. “The gods always seem to ‘show mercy’ a little too late.”

Others spoke, telling similar stories. Few cried. Eventually the stories stopped, and Rantle still had not spoken. The silence of the room, disturbed only by the crackle of the hearth, weighed upon him.

“We’re still alive,” he said finally. His mouth was dry. “We’re still alive, and we’re going to stay that way, for those who are gone, and for those who are missing who we might be reunited with. Our city survived worse than this forty years ago, and . . . and we’re the children of their bravery.”

The rest of the room was listening, but Rantle felt too embarrassed to continue. The bearded man from before leaned close.

“Did you lose someone, son?”

“No.” Rantle shook his head and stood. “And I don’t intend to, either.”

He started to leave, but the bearded man held up a hand for him to stop.

“Son,” the man said, “what can you do at this time of night? Leave the fighting to the soldiers.”

Rantle shook his head. “There’s someone I have to find. Trust me, if I could stay here, I would, but I don’t have long to find her, and she could be anywhere.”

People around the room muttered. Rantle wanted to say something else encouraging, or explain himself, but after a moment he just shook his head and left.

The stories had given him an idea, and now there was one place that might hold a chance of finding Torrent. He climbed to the nearest stable roof, used the shadow of the Coaltongue colossus to get his bearings, and then set out for the Castle.

* * *​

A man stood just inside the iron portcullis gate of the entrance to the Castle, the red ember tip of a cigarette making him visible from far away as Rantle approached. The city was much quieter now, and colder, the streets deserted and the skies empty of warriors battling in flight like demi-gods, beyond the power of normal men. The streets bordering the Castle always were less occupied, normal folk being nervous of getting too close to a den of mages, but on the icy cobblestones scattered dead bodies lay, most of them half-naked now that the looters had had their way with them.

Rantle walked softly, and the man at the gate did not notice him until he was nearly at the moat. Unlike most of Gabal’s students, who when they were seen in public wore thick red robes with golden sleeves, this man’s robes were dark blue, and were cut differently, perhaps to accommodate his shoulders, which were broader than Rantle would expect for a man his size. Though he wasn’t much older than Rantle, his short brown hair was receding at his temples, and a day of stubble was smeared across his jaw, not messy, but rather like he carefully maintained an appearance of mild laziness.

Aside from his left hand which he was smoking with, he was tightly bundled against the cold, but didn’t look like he minded it, but rather as if he felt he deserved to be stuck out in the frigid night.

The drawbridge lay down – the moat was frozen anyway – so Rantle simply walked up to the portcullis and nodded to the mage.

“I need to come inside,” Rantle said.

The mage chuckled. “You’re not the first one to say that this evening.”

“I heard,” Rantle said. “You and your fellows hid in your castle while people died out here.”

The mage shrugged. He drew a long breath of smoke.

“So,” the mage said, “what makes you think we’re going to let a thief like you in?”

Rantle considered the mage as some distant rumble rolled across the city like thunder, no doubt the sound of magic being used at the west wall. The smoking mage turned an ear in the direction of the sound and shook his head.

“I’m no thief,” Rantle said. “I’m not here to steal. I need to find someone.”

“Your boots,” said the man.

He and Rantle both looked down and squinted at Rantle’s boots.

The mage chuckled, “You’re a Mauser. Or else you took a Mauser’s boots. Either way, you’re a thief.”

“My uncle made these boots,” Rantle said. “What do my boots have to do with being a thief?”

“Normal people don’t need boots that soft. I bet you could sneak up on a man and he’d never hear it. I barely heard you crossing the street, and it’s the middle of the night. What’s his name?”

Rantle was confused.

“Whose?” he said.

“Your uncle, the cobbler.”

“Ulwyn,” Rantle lied.

The mage smiled. “Where’s his shop?”

“What?” Rantle sighed. “He used to have a shop on Turliss Street in the ninth district, but I don’t talk to my uncle much anymore, so he might have moved.”

“And uncle Ulwelf-”

“Ulwyn,” Rantle corrected.

“Whatever.” The mage took a drag on his cigarette, then spoke a cloud of smoke. “You’re a wretched liar. You’re too eager. That’s bad form. If you are a thief, I feel sorry for your guild. Anyway, thanks for keeping me company.”

The mage started to turn away and walk off, dropping a spent cigarette on the ground.

“Hey,” Rantle said. “Even liars and thieves can have legitimate business. I have need of a mage.”

The man hesitated, then shrugged and turned to look at Rantle. He rummaged around inside his robe with his left hand, eventually pulling out another cigarette, then planted it in his lips, reached in again and produced a small wooden wand, and put the wand to the cigarette’s tip, lighting it with a sudden spark of flame. Then he tucked the wand away, the whole process remarkably smooth considering he was only using one hand.

“Alright,” the mage said, “as foolish as you sound, you came here thinking you have a good chance of getting me or one of the other students to care. So let me hear it.”

Rantle grinned. “You’re the first smart person I’ve met all night.”

The mage nodded in bemused agreement.

“So here’s the situation,” Rantle said. “The city is locked down, the rags are beating down the walls, and once they get in, any mages who are here will be carted away by the inquisitors. You had to have heard the same rumors I have.”

The mage’s expression briefly turned very grim, but then he quickly again looked indifferent and nodded.

“I know someone who knows a way out of the city and through the mountains,” Rantle said. “She’s taking a group of mages south to Dassen. I was supposed to go with them, but I got to the meet-up location too late, after the attack had started.”

“You’re trying to flee to the Lyceum?” the mage said.

“No,” Rantle said. “I’m trying to get to some town called Seaquen.”

“The Lyceum is the wizard’s school in Seaquen,” the man laughed. “And you don’t look like much of a wizard.”

“I’m not,” Rantle said. “But my sister is. Well, she’s self-trained. Anyway, she’s already gone.”

“Good for her. What’s the problem?”

“The problem,” Rantle said, coming up with a lie, “is that she left me a note. She said she didn’t want me to follow her and risk getting hurt. But I mean, she had to know I’d go after her.”

The mage scoffed. “That was sweet of her. Does she run off and need rescuing a lot?”

Rantle grinned. “Oh yeah. You have no idea.”

“Yeah,” the wizard said with a shrug. “I don’t think the inquisitors will waste their time with an amateur. But fine, you want to track down your sister so she’s not alone, and because you want out of the city before someone tries to get you to fight the Ragesians, if I’m guessing correctly.”

“Hey, I don’t see you on the wall,” Rantle said. “Honestly, I don’t even know if you can find her, but I assume magic can do anything.”

The mage chuckled as if he had seen a toddler trying to dress in adult clothes. The man clearly had pride about his powers, which Rantle could exploit.

“You can’t want to stay here,” Rantle said. “You could come along, and come to safety. I know they would never refuse the assistance of a Gabalese war mage. Unless you’re planning to side with the rags.”

“No,” the mage said, his tone disturbingly amused. “The inquisitors are indeed capturing or killing every mage they find. I couldn’t betray you if I wanted to. No, I’m staying here so we can wait for the inquisitors to come and deal with them, instead of getting shot or stabbed fighting an army. That’s what normal people are for. Like you.”

“Fine,” Rantle said. “You want to stay here and be safe while the rest of the city burns?”

“Yes,” the mage laughed mockingly. “That was basically the idea. Not that it’s going to work.”

Rantle blinked in surprise. “What?”

“I’m not a war mage,” the man said. “We don’t all hurl balls of fire and searing bolts and all manner of magical missiles. My parents sent me here so I could learn magic that’s useful in business. Now they’re probably being carried off to some gulag themselves, and, as much as I respect my parents, I don’t miss them enough to want to join them. I somehow doubt the great old spirits of eldritch accounting will protect me when the inquisitors are torturing me.”

“Right,” Rantle said slowly, confused. “So you do want to run?”

“There was a meeting earlier this evening,” the mage said. “At some pub called the Poison Apple, and you were supposed to meet at midnight? Their plan was to go to Seaquen and, under the enlightened guidance of the Lyceum, join forces with other panicked, feeble refugee magic-users in order to defeat the Ragesians. Which, as history has shown, is exactly what happens when you have hundreds of people who desire each other’s secrets living in the same place: they band together out of communal good will, and certainly don’t try to kill each other for access to their power.

“Yes,” the mage concluded, “all of us knew about it. Mages have been smuggling themselves out of here for weeks. It had been talked about too much, and in addition to being a stupid idea, it was probably just a trap.”

“Well,” Rantle said, “it was a legitimate meeting, but there were dead bounty hunters there when I showed up.”

The mage chuckled and took another draw on his cigarette.

“And you want me to travel with you, as if it would be safer than staying here?”

Rantle shrugged. “Honestly, my night has been full of so much trouble, I can’t imagine it could get any worse, so you might as well come with me.”

The mage considered for a moment, then reached out through the bars with his left hand, turning it upside down to shake Rantle’s hand. Rantle obliged, wondering if something was wrong with the man’s right arm.

“My name’s Diogenes,” the mage said.

“I’m Rantle. Can you actually find the woman I’m looking for?”

“Not yet,” Diogenes said. “You’re going to have to earn my help.”

Diogenes moved to open a small door built into the wall beside the portcullis so Rantle could come inside.

“What do I have to do?” Rantle asked.

Diogenes swung open the door and gestured him in.

“Just be a good thief, and a decent liar.”

Chapter Six

“So, how does your sister use magic?” Diogenes asked.

“She points at things and they catch on fire.”

Diogenes took a deep breath. “Alright, obviously this is going to take more explaining than I thought.”

Inside the walls of the Castle, Gabal’s school of war wizardry consisted of an array of eight stone buildings surrounding the central tower, a very classical design that suggested Gabal, or at least his architect, was a pantheist. There were so many religions competing in Gate Pass, it was almost comforting to Rantle to see something so old-fashioned.

Right now they were headed for what Diogenes had called the dormitory, three-stories tall, its entrance decorated with symbols of the goddess Meliska. Columns resembled clusters of juniper trees, gutter spouts were shaped like coronal eclipses, and the dormitory’s many circular windows were framed with sleeping angelic ophanim, slender women behind whom circled wings like overlapping wheels. There were no lights in the windows.

“Is everyone asleep?” Rantle asked.

Diogenes shrugged. They reached the building, and Diogenes whispered something as he turned the handle to the front door.

“Most of the other students are actually hiding somewhere in the city,” Diogenes said, “or they’ve already run. So don’t touch anything, or go knocking on doors uninvited. They probably have left wards to deter burgulars.”

“Where are the guards? There are normally men on the walls.”

Diogenes chuckled. “I’m not about to reveal our tricks to an outsider, but we don’t need flesh and blood men to protect our walls.”

Once they were inside, Diogenes pulled aside his cloak to reveal a diversity of wands and short coils of multi-colored rope tucked into his belt by his left hip.

“Now,” he said, “what I just showed you is my array, the items I use to focus my magic. Without the items in my array, I may as well lie down and let you slit my throat, because I’m just a balding man with a knack for bookkeeping. I was trained in traditional auramancy, so if I’m near some place with a lot of fire energy, I can control the fire, and if it were the first day of spring and we were some place lush and healthy, I might be able to heal wounds, but I need the array to do anything on my own. Follow?”

“I suppose,” Rantle said. “I never really paid much attention. Katrina never used things like that.”

“Yeah,” Diogenes chuckled. “She sounds like a classicalist. Elemental magic. Not hard to learn, but very easy to predict.”

Though annoyed at the implication that his sister was some kind of rank amateur, Rantle followed Diogenes down the hallways, whose gold-painted walls glowed faintly though there were no torches or lamps visible. The hallway was too narrow, the doors of the rooms too tall, setting Rantle ill at ease. Diogenes stopped in front of one door, opened it with a key, and waved for Rantle to head in. Inside, the room was larger than any place Rantle had ever lived. A main suite with book shelves, a desk, and cushioned chairs had two doors leading off from it. The floor was gray-pink marble, and every handle, from drawers to doorknobs, was cast in gold. When Rantle had conned his way into the bed of Councilwoman Bhari, her home had not been as lavishly decorated as this one.

Rantle felt Diogenes watching him, and realized he must have looked jealous. Diogenes just chuckled.

“I try to keep to a frugal lifestyle.”

“Who’s the terrible liar?” Rantle said. “My apologies, ‘lord wizard.’ You were trying to explain something.”

“My point,” Diogenes said, “is that there are a number of different ways people study magic, and with the way I know, unless I have the right focus I can’t scry. That’s what we call ‘magic that lets you find people.’ I understand the theory behind magic like that, and if I had the proper item from another mage’s array, I could do it myself. Unfortunately, most wizards rudely keep such things closely guarded.”

Rantle threw himself into a chair and stretched, smiling at the brief respite from the soreness of a night of being crushed by panicked people.

“So,” he said, “who do we have to steal from?”

* * *​

Rantle had relocated to the red tower in the center of Gabal’s school, on the third floor, which consisted of a single massive room, eighty feet in diameter with a twenty foot high ceiling, all cooly lit by unseen torches. Rantle was fairly certain this room could not possibly have been built without magic, since there were still another thirty feet of tower above it, and no columns to support the weight.

Broad windows, some of them cracked for reasons Rantle could only guess, encircled the room, except for a small stretch of wall where a silver staircase climbed up to the third floor. Between the windows hung tapestries depicting mythic scenes of sorcerers and saints – Tochipel the Pyre-Builder, Mazokan Dreamcrafter, Esha of Two Wills, The Trial of Toteth Topec, Merkal beside the Shining Wall, and a dozen Rantle only vaguely recognized – apparently to motivate Gabal’s students to become so legendary themselves. The meager glow of false dawn in the mountains cast the sky outside in bleak grays, reminding Rantle of the color of a funeral shroud.

He tried not to look out the window.

A ten-foot wide path around the edge of the room surrounded a vast floor mosaic, circumscribed by a ring of solid gold a half inch thick, sixty feet in diameter. Within the mosaic spun more iconic images, these of the elemental spirits, and Rantle was idly walking the wingspan of the Stormchaser Eagle, trying to keep himself awake, when he heard voices approaching up the staircase from the ground floor.

“That’s the spirit,” Diogenes was saying. “Just because we’re in a war doesn’t mean we have to abandon proper etiquette.”

A woman’s voice with a nearly-hidden Shahalesti accent, replied, “Gabal will be glad to be rid of you, either way.”

Rantle’s partner in this deception appeared first, followed a few steps behind by the woman whom Diogenes had called Shealis, a jen student from Shahalesti. Rantle’s charming smile faltered, but he forced it back on quickly. Jen women were supposed to be perfect images of beauty and grace, and compared to the ideal in Rantle’s mind – slender, voluptuous, faces smooth but strong like ivory sculptures brought to life, with eyes like a spring sky and golden hair that shone like the sun – Shealis was disappointingly normal looking.

Her face was not beautiful and flawless, and her eyes looked somewhat gummy, though Rantle could forgive some of that since Diogenes had just woken her up. Her face had all the soft and dynamic features of jen, but somehow managed to look mundane. Aside from two bangs on either side of her face, her blonde hair was tied back in a tight bun, and she walked with the posture of someone constantly bent over books, rather than the elegant, foreign dancer’s grace Rantle had hoped for.

She wore the traditional red and gold robes of a Gabelese student, with a thick gold sash encircling her waist as a belt. A large, many-pocketed pouch hung at her right hip. That was Rantle’s target.

“Diogenes,” Rantle said, “don’t you think we’ve waited long enough? What have you brought this girl here for?”

Shealis sneered, while Diogenes laughed and cocked his head at his fellow student.

“I told you I had some business to attend to before we left. This is a matter of honor. It should just take a minute.”

Diogenes gestured with his left arm for the woman to enter the ring first, his right hand still tucked into the pocket of his robes. Shealis strode into the golden ring, rolling up her sleeves. Rantle realized he had yet to see Diogenes actually move his right arm.

“Diogenes,” Shealis said, “who is this peasant you’ve let into our school?”

Rantle put on his most charming smile as he walked toward her.

“And who,” he said, “is this pleasant beauty? I have to take back my earlier comment. We could use a lady with her kind of spirit on our trip.”

Shealis had turned to complain at Diogenes again, and while she was distracted Rantle stepped in and wrapped an arm around her back in a half-embrace. She grimaced and tried to push him away, but he held on, leaning over so their faces were close.

“Jen women are so stunning,” he breathed in his best impression of a lovesick poet. “Don’t you think so, Diogenes? And her accent-”

Shealis shoved him, and he let go, spinning to put his back to her and hide the fact that he had managed to cut loose the pouch on her hip. He sighed and shook his head, tucking the pouch into his armpit under his coat.

“Out of the ring, Rantle,” Diogenes said. “She’s not coming with us, and I don’t want her wasting any of her magic to keep a lech like you away. This will be easy enough already without you wearing her out in advance.”

Rantle backed out of the ring, shrugging. Shealis watched him leave, then laughed once at Diogenes.

“What are you hoping to prove?” she asked. “Even if you do beat me for once, you’re running away. You’ll be lucky if I even mention this to Gabal.”

Diogenes stepped inside the golden ring, and spoke as he moved to the far side.

“I don’t have to prove anything to Gabal,” he said. “If he manages to burn and explode his way out of this war, then well, I suppose I’m just a coward. I know he’s got some trick planned, though, so I can hope the old man isn’t just planning to die in a blaze of glory.”

Diogenes stopped fifty feet from Shealis, standing atop mosaic stones depicting the Tidereaver Kraken, and she over the Flamebringer Dragon. He rolled his shoulders to get comfortable. Shealis only rolled her eyes. Rantle, standing outside the ring, took a step back, not certain where he would be safe when the two wizards started dueling.

“What I do want to prove,” Diogenes continued, “is that even if I think the old man wouldn’t know subtlety if it snuck up behind him and picked his pocket, he at least understands the value of out-thinking an enemy, not just trying to consume him with arcane fire and brute force. That’s a lesson you’ve never learned.”

“You’ve never defeated me before,” she said.

“Well,” Diogenes chuckled, “brute force isn’t exactly a useless tactic. I never said you’re a weak mage, just dim.”

Earlier, when they had designed this plan, Diogenes had explained the simple rules of a spell duel. The enchanted gold ring made all attacks within nonlethal, completely preventing anyone inside from dying of injuries, but not preventing pain or unconsciousness. You lost when you were unable to perform any magic spells or incantations for half a minute, whether by being incapacitated, or by having your opponent disrupt your spell with a counterspell. And the duel began as soon as either mage began casting a spell.

According to Diogenes, insults and banter were encouraged. After all, there was usually an audience of other students watching.

“You’ve always been a bufoon,” Shealis said. “And now you’re a coward. I hope the inquisitors find you two on the road and take their time torturing you.”

Diogenes yawned theatrically, nodding and making a rolling gesture for her to continue, which she did.

“Do you honestly think you’ll be safer running to Seaquen than here, with the greatest collection of warmages for a thousand miles? What, is your new friend some mountain man who claims he can get you safely past the Ragesians?”

“Nope,” Diogenes said. “He’s a thief.”

Diogenes spoke a word that slid out of Rantle’s consciousness the moment he heard it, and then something shifted underneath Diogenes’s coat. The golden ring surrounding the mosaic flashed with light to mark the duel’s start, but before the light could fade on its own, it rolled like water toward Diogenes, as if he were pulling it in, and then he cast his left arm out in a broad sweep. A crescent wave of light swept outward across the ring, leaving in its wake a half dozen images of Diogenes, all of which began to gesture with spells of their own.

While Diogenes was sending out the blast of light, Shealis reacted, reaching down to pull some item of power from the pouch at her hip. When she found nothing she flailed her hand wildly, then looked down in confusion to see her pouch missing.

The half-dozen Diogeneses were all waving their hands around and chanting spells, and Shealis looked up with dismay, realizing she had lost track of which was the real one. The nearest one was only ten feet away, with others scattered around the ring in no pattern. Black bolts like from a crossbow flew from the nearest illusion’s hands, and Shealis dodged, then spat some slithering arcane word as another illusion began shouting, “Submit!”

“Clever trick,” she said, “but I’m hardly helpless.”

Shealis stepped counterclockwise around the ring and knelt between the tiles that represented the Stormchaser Eagle and the Flamebringer Dragon. Sweeping her sleeves in half-circles, she touched a hand to each of the two creatures, and fire and wind rose from the tiles, tracing a path up her arms like serpents. She stood, swaying in an odd motion like she was trying to dodge a punch, and then thrust out her right arm at the nearest Diogenes. White lines of energy skittered through the air and obliterated the illusion with a buzzing crackle, then split and leapt to the next nearest two Diogeneses, destroying them as well. By then Shealis had turned her attention to the floor again, and flames were rising up toward her hands.

Rantle was already edging to the exit, and he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“No time to enjoy the show,” Diogenes whispered. “Get going.”

Though he couldn’t see Diogenes anywhere near him, Rantle forced himself not to look around and give away the trick. Quietly, and out of Shealis’s field of vision, he slipped down the stairs and ran. Behind him he heard Diogenes’s mocking voice.

“Talking when you should be defending yourself? Very bad form.”

There were no other students around this early in the morning, and it took Rantle less than a minute to sprint down the stairs, out the front of the tower, and get inside the dormitory. Outside the walls of the Castle he could hear the quiet sounds of Gate Pass waking up, and he was sure behind him he could hear thunder and explosions from the third floor of Gabal’s tower.

Once inside the dormitory he ran to the second floor and counted the third room on the left, then pulled out Shealis’s pouch and tipped it upside down, shaking its contents onto the carpeted floor – coins, folded letters, vials of perfume, strangely carved blocks of glass, and the occasional wand – all while looking for a key, which according to Diogenes would bypass any deadly magic the jen mage had placed on her door.

When he finally spotted it, he picked it up, slid it into the door’s lock, and prayed that Diogenes knew what he was doing.

With a twist of the key, the door unlocked, and Rantle pushed it open. He scanned the room quickly and spotted the bookshelf, then began tearing through it, flipping open book after book, looking for the ones he couldn’t read because they were written either in Shahalesti, or in yet older tongues. According to Diogenes, in Seaquen these would be worth more than any gold they could carry, but just in case, Rantle snatched a few precious looking objects around the room.

Ultimately he came away with an armful of five books and full pockets that jingled satisfyingly. When he left her room he grabbed the pouch, scooped everything on the floor back into it, and held all of the loot to his chest as he ran, awkwardly carrying Kathor’s two-handed sword tucked under his arm.

He kicked open the door leading out of the dormitory, and saw Diogenes already trundling his legs on his way toward the main gate. Rantle hurried over to him, glancing up at the tower, from which he could still hear strange thunderclaps and see flashes of light.

“Are you another illusion?” Rantle yelled.

Diogenes looked up, then grimaced like he wanted to curse.

“You ruined my concentration, you ass.”

“Take some of this stuff,” Rantle said. “She’s going to kill us now!”

Diogenes sighed. “Pay attention! You took her array. The only reason she could use magic up there was because the dueling ring is set up that way. If she came out after us, the worst she could do to us is yell trite curses.”

Rantle could no longer hear the sounds of magic from the tower, but then behind them Shealis began shouting.

“Dog! Cur! Thief!”

Diogenes laughed and began sauntering to the gate. Rantle followed, looking back as Shealis went running to the dormitory, shouting for help.

“Diogenes,” Rantle said, “how will the other students feel when they find out we did this?”

Diogenes stopped laughing suddenly. He pulled the lever to open up the side door, and Rantle led the way out, now laughing himself. Diogenes came after, pulling the door shut behind them. The two of them jogged past confused townsfolk picking up bodies in the streets, and soon were out of sight of the Castle.

Chapter Seven

“I can’t believe you were fool enough to come back here,” said the guard.

Rantle hid his amusement at the similarity to the previous night. This time, however, he was trying to weasel his way into the home of Councilwoman Bhari, and the guard trying to stop him likely did not want to maim him. Unfortunately, Rantle was exhausted from a night without sleep filled with a great deal of running and hiding, and so he knew he was being less persuasive than usual.

“Just,” he started, “just get Pravati out here. If she sees me in the state I’m in, and doesn’t want to let me in, I’ll go. Are you going to turn me out at a time like this?”

Of the three guards at the gate, only one spoke, and if Rantle were better-rested he would have been able to remember his name. However, they looked like they had not gotten much sleep either, and Rantle guessed their ceremonial breastplates and greaves had been put to use the night before keeping people from looting the manor. Conspicuously, one of the guards was missing his pike.

Like most of the council members, Pravati Bhari had a manor house near Summer’s Bluff, the plateau above which the colossus of Coaltongue towered. The rich manors of the central district consisted of fenced-off compounds of beautiful multi-story buildings connected by glass-windowed skybridges so their owners never had to go outside. The merchants who actually owned Pravati’s manor only used two of the six buildings in the compound, and Pravati’s only family were her parents who had their own home, so when Rantle had stayed here he had practically had three entire four-story homes to himself.

The guard frowned at Diogenes. “Who’s he?”

“This man saved my life,” Rantle said. “And he can help the councilwoman. Please, let us in.”

“She’s at a meeting now,” the guard said. “Go inside and wait in the den. We’ll let you know when she gets back. Don’t roam.”

The smell of ash hung thick in the early morning air. The Ragesian dractyl riders had focused their attacks here in the central district, and a few nearby buildings had burned down to husks of scorched stone and wood. The roads were wide enough here that few fires had spread, however, and Councilwoman Bhari’s manor was untouched.

As they headed toward the first building, Diogenes whispered to Rantle, “You lead an interesting life.”

Rantle casually led the wizard inside and to the foyer. The spacious home felt hollow, its few meagerly decorations being those adornments left by the previous councilman’s family whom Pravati had forced out two years earlier.

They deposited all they had stolen from Shealis on the foyer’s plain table. Rantle lay the two-handed sword against the wall, frowning briefly, wondering whether it was worth the effort he was putting into carrying it along.

With a shrug, Rantle threw himself into a leather chair, then groaned. Diogenes sat on a couch across from him and pulled out a cigarette.

“Explain,” he said with a yawn, “and make it the quick version. I hope this woman of yours takes her good time getting back.”

“We can’t take too long,” Rantle said. “Who knows if Torrent has already left the city?”

Diogenes slumped back wearily. “We’ll get up in a few hours, and I can try to figure out the spell with a clear head. Just tell me my bedtime story. What’s your history with this councilwoman?”

“Fine,” Rantle said.

After a moment to gather his thoughts, he explained.

“Three months back, this guy Dirus and I were trying to sneak in here and make off with some jingle in the buildings Pravati never uses. I didn’t know her back then. She stumbled upon me during the job, and I made up a lie that she fell for.”

“Must be gullible,” Diogenes chuckled. “‘Pravati.’ She’s Chathan?”

Rantle shrugged. “Her family came from Chathus after it was conquered. Her grandfather was apparently in the Resistance forty years ago.”

“What did you tell her?” Diogenes said. “The lie.”

“I said I was a poet who had been performing for the Weyne family, who actually own these buildings. I said I was walking through the emptiness, looking for my muse.”

Diogenes lit his cigarette with his wand.

“After that,” Rantle said, “Dirus and I figured we could take our time. I kept slinging bad poems at Prati, and she kept inviting me over, which kept her busy whenever Dirus was in the other buildings carrying stuff away. But Dirus got gold stuck under his nails, and took enough that Prati’s guards started to notice. The guy at the gate, . . . is his name Linard? Anyway, he suspected me and laid a trap. The next time I was over, I went to check on Dirus while Prati was sleeping, and the guard found us both.”

“Let’s see,” Diogenes said. “Guard’s still alive. You’ve still got all your parts. Did you tell him Dirus was the muse you’d been looking for?”

Rantle sighed. “Nah. I saved my skin. Ended up that Prati believed I had fought the ‘scoundrel’ in order to protect her.”

Diogenes shifted on the couch, trying to get comfortable. He put out the cigarette on the floor, finding it difficult to smoke while lying on his back.

“Why’d you leave?” he asked.

Rantle leaned back and took a moment to answer.

“I kept coming for two months, and eventually I was staying here full-time. There was all this news about the Ragesians coming, and I was worried about my sister. So I took all I thought I’d be able to fence, and decided I’d get Katrina to leave with me when I saw her next.”

“Katrina is the sister you have this unhealthy obsession with?”

Rantle snorted in frustration, but nodded.

Diogenes shifted again, then sat up and took off his coat for the first time since Rantle had met him. To take off his coat he had to slip his right arm out of a harness, revealing that what Rantle had thought was his right arm tucked into a pocket was just a carved piece of wood. The shoulders of the coat were broader than his actual shoulders, supported by a frame, so that there was plenty of room for both his real arm and fake arm. Without the coat, Diogenes was fairly slender, with a bit of pudge at his waist. Whatever hair he was losing from the top of his head had apparently migrated to his chest and arms.

Rantle gestured at the coat.

“Is that some sort of magic?”

Diogenes lay the strange coat on the ground, folding it so the fake arm would be less apparent.

“We’re both liars. But I plan mine, which is why I’m better. Another wizard sees this, he thinks my hand’s in my pocket, so I can’t grab a wand or cord to cast a spell. How clever I am.”

With a contented sigh, Diogenes lay back on the couch and closed his eyes. Rantle shrugged and did the same in his chair.

“Oh, Diogenes,” Rantle said. “When we see Prati, call me Roscoe. You know?”

“Sure,” Diogenes said, “but only if you call me ‘The Great Diogenes.’”

* * *​

A tender, desperate pout crossed Pravati’s lips, and she embraced Rantle.

“Must you go, Roscoe? I can find a dozen other soldiers who could-”

“No,” Rantle said. “You need soldiers here. I am but a poet, yet this is a chance I can be of help to our city. I will do whatever it takes to keep you safe, even if it means going away again.”

Pravati pressed her face against his chest, her perfumed hair brushing across his mouth and nose.

“My new year’s dream was to see you again. I was so frightened when you vanished.”

“The city needed me,” Rantle said. “Don’t worry. I handled myself fine against Ragesian spies, and this is just the road.”

Pravati nodded bravely. She looked over her shoulder to the study, from which chanting and strange incenses were emanating.

“The Great Diogenes will protect you?” she asked.

“Yes my love, just as he’s protecting this house.” Rantle grinned daringly. “The Ragesians would be fools to try to stop us. Now, Prati, we’re going to need to leave soon.”

Pravati squeezed him tightly, hints of tears in her eyes. She looked up longingly and whispered, “Fate is so cruel. I see you again, and there is not even time for us to go to bed one final time.”

Rantle bit his lip and looked away.

From the other room, the chanting stopped and Diogenes called out.

“Oh, woe! This spell does vex my powers mightily. It will be long before I can bend the arcane forces to my sorcerous whim. An hour, probably, in case anyone cares.”

Rantle looked down at Pravati’s dark, hopeful eyes.

“Fate is never cruel to true love,” he said.

* * *​

Rantle, cleanly dressed, looked down over Diogenes’s shoulder at the mirror he had laid upon the dining room table. Beside it lay a frayed rope and a small cup filled with smoldering incense, and one of the books they had stolen from Shealis sat open nearby. Other random ornaments for the new year’s wishing festival cluttered the edges of the table.

“So that’s where the mirror went off to,” Rantle said. “I was going to shave. You need this for the magic?”

Diogenes looked at him like he was a child stating the obvious, and he nodded slowly.

“Did she complain about you being so scruffy?” he asked. “I can wait if you need to look handsome before we go fleeing for our lives. Or shall we get on with this?”

“Nah,” Rantle smiled. “I’m satisfied for now.”

“I’m so proud of you,” Diogenes said. “Alright, so here’s how this works. While our benefactor is busy getting us what we need for the journey, I concentrate on the person we want, and if I can keep a clear enough image in my mind, eventually her current location will appear in the mirror. Then if I want I can deliver a message of up to twenty-five words to her, and she can reply in kind.”

“Twenty-five words?” Rantle asked.

Diogenes shrugged. “The scrying spell Shealis had a focus from was of alchemical origin. Alchemy is old formulaic magic, with countless arbitrary rules, and why am I bothering explaining this to you? Do you care?”

“Not really,” Rantle chuckled.

“Twenty-five words then.”

Diogenes turned his attention back to the mirror. Rantle watched for a moment, then threw himself into another chair at the table. He idly picked up a wishing urn from the table and shook it to make sure it was empty.

“Did you make a wish yet?” he asked.

“No.” Diogenes didn’t look up. “As much as it shocked me to learn that our little festival actually does possess some magical heft, I know better than to wish for something. You never quite get what you want.”

“I need something new to wish for. I usually wished, ‘If I get arrested, let it be for something worthwhile.’ It always worked so far.”

“So what worthwhile things did you get arrested for?”

“Never got arrested.” Rantle grinned.

Diogenes huffed a short laugh, then went back to focusing on Shealis’s book. Rantle sat silently across from him, pondering what to wish for, but then after a few moments, Diogenes grumbled and frowned.

“I knew there would be a problem,” Rantle said.

“No, just a possible one. It’s technical, but this is something you should care about. Many types of magic, like this scrying spell, can be thwarted if the target’s mind resists.”

Rantle waited, hoping Diogenes would get the cue that he had no idea what that meant.

Diogenes sighed. “Alright. If I were to try to make you confess to that woman about how much you’ve stolen from her, I would have to connect to your mind and force you to do what I want. You wouldn’t want me to do that, and the psyche shield of every conscious mind resists hostile compulsions.”

“‘My mind won’t do what you want it to’?” Rantle said, guessing the meaning of the wizard’s explanation. “That’s comforting.”

“Effectively. There are ways around it. I can direct more energy into the spell, though that’s harder with an alchemical ritual like this. I’m using someone else’s array, so everything is predetermined, and I can’t easily alter it. A personal item of the target makes a link easier. Or if I suggest something you secretly want, even if you don’t want to admit it, you’re more willing to accept it. All those let the spell do it’s job.

“But,” Diogenes continued, “if we’re keeping the same sort of good luck that let us get this far, this ‘Torrent’ will recognize you as not an enemy, and will want to be found by you. So stick around, and try not to fall asleep.”

Rantle settled into a chair beside Diogenes and busied himself writing a letter while the wizard chanted under his breath. It was nearly noon, though the sky was still dark from smoke. Rantle was anxious to leave, but all he could do was sit quietly, ponder the news Pravati had shared about the fighting, and scratch out a farewell to hopefully apologize to her for his deception.

Pravati had gained her position because of popular support for her pledges to work against corruption, but Rantle knew that the guilds each had a hand in convincing the merchants to endorse her. Pravati meant well, but she could not see her own puppet strings. Rantle wanted to think his parting note to her might prompt her to actually become the decent leader she wanted to be.

Finally, after ten minutes of writing and listening to Diogenes drone, the room began to brighten like the clouds were parting, but Rantle realized the glow was coming from the surface of the mirror.

“That’s her!” Rantle said.

Rantle’s initial enthusiasm faded quickly. In the shining image, he could see Torrent, as well as the woman with her whose name Rantle had forgotten, and what might have been the top of the ugly jispin man’s head. Their surroundings looked like roughly-carved stone, fairly dark, but with an angled square of light, slashed into sections by strips of shadow, like sunshine coming through a window. Or, as Rantle soon realized, the bars of a prison cell.

The three of them were sitting on the ground, hunched low and huddled in traveling cloaks, and each was manacled, hands to feet.
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Chapter Eight

Rantle cursed. He looked to Diogenes, expecting some sort of snide comment, but the wizard was just looking at him expectantly.

“What?” Rantle said. “We’re ruined. Sorry for putting you through the trouble.”

Diogenes just frowned dubiously, then raised his right hand, in a fist.

“Torrent,” he said.

He extended his thumb, and in the mirror, Torrent looked up in confusion, revealing bruises on her face. Her eyes cast about like she was trying to see who was talking to her.

“Rantle sends a message,” Diogenes continued, extending the remaining fingers of his hand, one by one.

“Oh,” Rantle said. “Alright, um, ask her to let us know where she is. Wait, how many words have I said? Hell. Did I-?”

Diogenes shook his head mutely, gesturing that everything was alright. Then he said, “Briefly detail your location, status.”

Rantle said, “Tell her we’ll rescue her.”

Diogenes gave him a look like he was crazy, but shrugged.

“Rantle will rescue you.”

They were up to fourteen words now, and Rantle thought for a moment, then said, “Tell her, ‘We’re headed to Seaquen on behalf of Gate Pass.’”

“We’re headed to Seaquen on behalf of Gate Pass.”

Diogenes waggled two fingers to prompt him. Rantle shrugged.

“Is good-bye one word or two? Nevermind, tell her ‘Lay easy.’”

“Good luck,” Diogenes said. Then he relaxed his posture and glared at Rantle. “‘Lay easy’? You are such a dirty thug. Learn to speak properly.”

Rantle shrugged, then pointed at the mirror, where Torrent looked like she was concentrating intently. Finally she began to whisper, counting out her words on her fingers as Diogenes had, as if she was familiar with such magic.

“Head south from eleventh district, to Innenotdar. Twelve ‘Black Horse’ bounty hunters. Camp’s half mile off road. Inquisitor arriving tonight. Seaquen will help Gate Pass.”

The image dimmed, Torrent and her fellow prisoners dissolving to reveal the reflection of Rantle and Diogenes looking into the mirror. They looked at each other and were quiet for a moment.

“So you’re going to ‘rescue her,’” Diogenes said. “At least she’ll be hopeful for her last few hours before the Ragesians take her.”

“I was serious,” Rantle said. “We know where they are, vaguely. I’m sure we can come up with a way to get them away from these bounty hunters.”

Diogenes laughed.

“Fine,” Rantle said. “Do you want to stay here now? All we need is to come up with a good trick to make them hand the prisoners over to us. We could pretend to be Ragesians.”

The wizard’s laughter spiked for a moment, but he brought himself under control.

“I know it’s difficult,” Diogenes said, “but try thinking here. They were headed to Innenotdar, which aside from being on fire is thirty miles away. We don’t know where in those thirty miles they were attacked. They could have had horses and been riding, and thus be nearly all the way to the fire forest, or they could have been on foot and just be a half mile south of the city walls. So we have to scour thirty miles, looking for a camp half a mile off the road – and our brilliant ally didn’t mention west or east – and do this all before nightfall.”

“Alright,” Rantle said. “She was headed to the fire forest, she said? I don’t want to leave them, but we could just go the same way ourselves, couldn’t we? And we would know to look out for an ambush.”

Diogenes leaned back and shrugged. “This woman, Torrent, apparently had some sort of way to protect herself and the others from the fire. Honestly, that much is a good plan. If we could get to the fire forest, I don’t think anyone would follow us in there. But I can’t protect myself from fire, not for that long, at least.”

“My sister could,” Rantle said. “She said she was going ahead to Seaquen, and that she had arranged for Torrent to be at a place she knew I would be. Why didn’t she just wait for me, though? We could have met up with this Torrent and her group, and all gone together.”

Diogenes chuckled. “If she had, you’d all be captured now. For all you know, your sister was captured by these same bounty hunters. How long ago did she leave?”

Rantle shook his head. “No idea. The way she wrote her letter, it was like she wanted to keep this secret, and was worried the message would be found by someone else. I don’t think she was even in the city, or she would have found me, instead of having someone leave me a letter.”

“Excellent,” Diogenes said. “Your sister is safe, and we’re still stuck without a plan. Nevertheless, and I hate to come to this realization but, even with this setback I still want to get out of this city. So let us not declare defeat. Think of something useful. First, what are the problems we have to deal with?”

“Um, we have to deal with a dozen bounty hunters?” Rantle said.

“Hm. Can you get your dear lover to loan you her guards?”

Rantle shrugged. “Maybe, but that raises a lot of questions. As is, she can’t even get us permission to leave the city when the gates are locked. We’re going to have to sneak out over the walls. That’s hard enough with two people.”

Neither of them spoke for a while, both thinking. Finally Diogenes sighed and rubbed his right temple.

“This is pointless,” he said. “Even if we had Gabal himself coming along to kill the bounty hunters, we still don’t know where they are.”

“Can’t you use the same spell again to ask her to be more specific?”

Diogenes shrugged. “I know you’re not interested in the laws of magic, but bear in mind it is slightly difficult to warp the aether to see dozens of miles away. One should never just idly use magic, especially since, what, she’s going to say, ‘When you come to the big rock covered in snow, turn left?’ The more I do now, the less useful I’ll be when there are people with swords around.”

“God,” Rantle said, “magic is so useless. Alright, can you just find one of the bounty hunters directly?”

“For one, no,” Diogenes said, “because I would just see him, not know where he is relative to us, unless he was very close. For two, he would just resist the spell because I have no connection to him.”

“Wait, connection?” Rantle asked. He smiled. “You said you could use an item that belonged to a person to make a spell affect them?”

Diogenes nodded slowly. Rantle’s smile widened as he realized he had a solution.

* * *​

A handful of silver bridges dropped in the young ferrier’s hand set the plan in motion, and Rantle quietly glided to the back of the crowded inn common room. He took a seat next to Diogenes and listened to the rumors.

No one really knew what was going on. The assault had ended some time in the middle of the night, with the first wall’s defenses cracked but not breached. Word from soldiers taken away to healing houses was that the Ragesians had only used a pittance from their huge army, as if they had not really wanted to take the wall. Everyone believed that they could have if they had tried, and whispers hinted that the city council, in an early morning meeting, had decided to surrender to the Ragesians.

Rantle knew it wasn’t that simple. Gate Pass’s leaders did not think Ragesia’s new empress, Leska, would be as merciful and calm as Coaltongue had been decades earlier. Coaltongue had wanted wealth and security, but Leska it seemed was leading her people for revenge, scouring the lands of those who might have killed the late emperor. The city would not surrender, but they were willing to try to appease Ragesia.

According to the official Ragesian claims, Coaltongue’s assassins had been mages, so, as Pravati told it, the city intended to open its gates to the inquisitors. They would come in, take away any mages they desired, and leave Gate Pass its independence.

Rantle had just finished deciding on his wish and placing strip of paper with it written down into his urn, when he spotted the ferrier coming down the stairs. He tapped Diogenes to get his attention, but the wizard didn’t move.

“He’s coming,” Rantle said.

“I know,” Diogenes said. “I thought staring at him might be just a little suspicious, no?”

The ferrier was hunched nervously, followed closely behind by the horseman from the night before, Kathor, who managed to still look fairly daunting in everyday clothes. The knight had a tight expression of impatient displeasure, and he followed the ferrier out the front door and to the stables, where supposedly Kathor’s horse was starting to look sick. Like any good cavalryman, Kathor would want to make sure his horse was alright, which gave Rantle and Diogenes the opening they needed.

“Let’s go.”

Together they hurried upstairs, and a few moments work with lockpicks got them into Kathor’s room. A pair of windows looked out on the street, their curtains open, and a single bed sat flush with the same wall. A small table stood in the near right corner, a chair beside it. Kathor had brought his horse’s saddle into the room, along with all the weapons that had adorned it, and they lay on the floor next to the bed. A small pack lay beside them, and when Rantle tapped it with his foot, it clinked like coins.

Diogenes sifted through the saddlebag and quickly pulled out a handkerchief, which he tucked into one of his coat’s pockets with an innocent whistle. Meanwhile, Rantle set down his own weapons and gear in the far left corner of the room, leaning Kathor’s sword against the wall but keeping a crossbow he had acquired at Pravati’s. Then both he and Diogenes moved to the closed door. The wizard set to work scraping runes into the frame of the door with a small knife – held in his right hand, even while his fake right arm still had its hand tucked into a pocket. Rantle listened at the door itself in case Kathor was coming back too quickly. He had told the ferrier to keep the bounty hunter busy, but the man would be returning soon.

Hearing nothing, he stepped back and loaded the crossbow, checking it to make sure it was in good order. A moment later, Diogenes finished his carving.

“Alright,” Diogenes said, “that’s done. Get close. Where are we standing?”

Rantle waved him over to the far left corner of the room, beside one of the windows. Diogenes squeezed close to him, then tapped the window repeatedly with his fingertips as he chanted a spell. The light from the window grew slowly brighter, and Rantle watched as his and Diogenes’s bodies grew darker, the light fading from them until they were the same color as the room, all but invisible. Diogenes stopped chanting, and the room was suddenly very quiet.

A few minutes passed, Rantle afraid to speak in case it might ruin the spell. Through the window came the sounds of people complaining as they cleared debris out of the streets, and the faint chiming of distant noon bells.

Finally he heard footsteps approaching. He raised the crossbow and took aim.

A key clicked in the door’s lock, and then the door opened. The symbols Diogenes had traced on the door briefly flickered with gold light, and then Kathor stepped into the room, looking irritated. He started to close the door and head to his bed, but stopped and cocked his head slightly, as if he had noticed something amiss. Slowly backing away, he put one hand to the dagger at his hip and drew the small weapon. He took a step back, trying to head out the doorway to the hall, but came up short as if he had hit a solid wall.

Confusion crossed the man’s face, and Rantle cleared his throat.

“I’ve got a crossbow pointed at your chest, Kathor,” he said. “You might remember me from last night, at midnight? You’re stuck in this room until my wizard friend decides to let you out, so you’d better cooperate.”

Kathor squinted into the darkness where Rantle and Diogenes stood, holding the dagger low by his side.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“First,” Rantle said, “we don’t want to kill you, or even get you arrested or punished. So let’s all stay calm and talk.”

Kathor glanced around the room, like he was trying to guess if other invisible people might be about. Finally he looked back in Rantle’s direction and waited. He had an expression as if he were in control of the situation.

“I suppose that’s a yes,” Rantle said. “You weren’t working alone, were you? There were others in your group, waiting outside the city?”

Kathor nodded. He said nothing.

“Who are they?” Rantle asked.

“The Black Horse,” Kathor said. “They’re mercenaries. The leader’s name is Renard.”

“Could you take us to them?”

Kathor squeezed his eyes shut and gave a quick shake of his head, like he didn’t believe what he had just heard. “Why?”

“Well, the mages you were trying to capture last night got away, but they managed to get themselves caught anyway. That doesn’t really give me confidence in them, but my associate and I think they know a way to get out of here without crossing paths with the rags.”

“I could take you to them,” Kathor said. “We were granted permission by the Gate Pass council to take mages from the city, so the guards at the gate won’t stop us. But then what? Where will you go to avoid the Ragesians?”

Rantle said, “Why does that matter?”

“Because if I’m going with you, I want to know what your plan is.”

“Pardon?” Rantle said. “You tried to spit me on your sword last night. Why in hell would we bring you with us?”

Kathor’s expression turned cold, and Rantle actually shifted in discomfort.

“I didn’t try to kill you,” he said. “I told you to move, because I spotted a dractyl circling over our location. If you and I had stayed in the alley, we would have been crushed by burning rocks when it dropped the bomb. If I had wanted to kill you, I could have.”

Diogenes yawned. Both Rantle and Kathor looked at him – Kathor only in his vague direction – and Diogenes shrugged.

“Eventually the machismo becomes boring,” the wizard said. “You, knight. You have the good sense not to try to kill us, but unless you have a reason why you would want to come with a group of,” he chuckled, “somewhat incompetent refugee mages, we’re going to have to assume your motives are suspect.”

Kathor stood still for a moment, looking down quietly. Then he nodded once.

“I was in the army,” he said, “and my parents were opposed to Leska. I was punished for their choice. If the Ragesians find me, they’ll kill me.”

Rantle said, “Last night you’re trying to capture people to sell to the Ragesians, and now you want to go swimming against your fellows. And what precisely changed your mind?”

Kathor sheathed his dagger.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “I listened to you.”

Diogenes laughed. “You listened to him, and decided to give up your cruel path in life?”

“I’m a soldier,” Kathor said, “not a manhunter. Until now, working with the Black Horse seemed like a good idea. But if you know a way to safety, I prefer distance to hiding under the inquisitors’ noses.”

Rantle said, “You’re not going to turn us over to the rest of the bounty hunters?”

“If you’d rather shoot me,” Kathor said, “fine. But I won’t betray you.”

Rantle lowered the crossbow. “Drop the spell, Diogenes.”

The invisibility faded, and Kathor looked at the two of them calmly. Rantle stepped forward, feigning more confidence than he really had, and slapped one hand on Kathor’s shoulder.

“I’ll trust you for now. Keep up your end of the bargain, and I’ll let you come along. We’ll just keep it a secret that you’re a rag.”

“I’m not going to hide my allegiance,” Kathor said. “Ragesia has abandoned me, but I took an oath to my emperor.”

Diogenes said, “Emperor’s dead. And the new one is a megalomaniacal witch.”

“The Old Dragon is immortal,” Kathor said, “and Leska is not my emperor. How do you intend to get away from here?”

Rantle looked to Diogenes, who shrugged.

“The road they took leads south to the fire forest,” Rantle said. “The wizards will use their magic to protect us, and Diogenes thinks we’ll be through in a day or two.”

Kathor frowned. “I’ve only heard the name before, this fire forest. It’s dangerous?”

Diogenes laughed. “No. I’m sure they just called it the ‘fire forest’ because they liked the name.”

“It used to be the Innenotdar forest,” Rantle offered. “Jen lands. Forty years ago, around the same time Coaltongue captured Gate Pass, the forest caught on fire, and the flames never died. A lot of jen from Innenotdar fled and moved here to Gate Pass. No one know what caused it.”

“And no one can follow us through it,” Diogenes said. “Or at least that’s the risk we’re taking.”

“Would we pass through this fire forest to Dassen?” Kathor said.

“Yeah,” Rantle nodded. “Satisfied? We know the route, but Torrent, one of the prisoners, has the magic to protect us. We need to get to your friends’ camp before sunset. Is that possible?”

Kathor was silent for a moment. “Yes. The men who didn’t come back last night left behind their horses. You have my sword.”

Rantle glanced back at Kathor’s sword, propped up in the corner of the room.

“Of course,” Rantle said. “You can have that one back, but remind me to get one of my own.”

Diogenes groaned. “You’re fond of his sword, are you? Are you going to try to sleep with everyone we meet?”

“What’s he talking about?” Kathor said. “Is he implying-?”

Rantle shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. We need to get moving.”

* * *​

The three men rode to the eleventh district, Kathor guiding an extra pair of horses, all of them bearing swords and bows on their saddles. At one point they passed a caravan of Ragesian prisoners, all han or herethim, clad in black scale armor with red fire standards, freckled with blood and bruises, escorted by Gate Pass soldiers who managed to look afraid even though they were the ones holding the chains. One herethim, missing his right eye and bleeding from the base of the large tooth that jutted tusk-like from the right side of lower jaw, watched Rantle tightly as he was marched past.

The city was torn to pieces, burned divots scattered every few hundred feet, the husks of burnt buildings marked by a now iconic scent of scorched Ragesian sorcery. Rantle kept his eyes from straying, not wanting to be reminded of all that he would be leaving behind. He only made it to the south gate by reminding himself regularly of how he had no home here, and that his only family was waiting for him, far away.

At the gate that would lead them south along an old Otdar Mountain road to the fire forest of Innenotdar, Kathor brusquely presented his papers that gave them permission to leave, claiming Rantle as a fellow bounty hunter and Diogenes as a prisoner. The guards at the gate complied mutely, and it was barely an hour after noon when they rode out of Gate Pass and onto the barely-trodden, snow-clogged trail.

A few hundred feet out, Rantle looked back, not really able to see the city beyond its walls, stretching far away along the ridges of the mountains. His horse slowed, and he closed his eyes, straining to hear the chimes of bells, anywhere, even faintly.

Hoofbeats, crunching along the snow, came up and stopped.

“Don’t look back,” Kathor said. “It’s easier.”

Rantle nodded and turned back to the road. He sighed, then straightened up in his saddle and kept his eyes ahead.

Chapter Nine

An hour of quick trotting – the fastest Kathor trusted the horses in the snowy terrain – got them to the cross trail which supposedly led to the bounty hunter camp. They had spotted sporadic tracks of Torrent and the others along the way, but here the snow was churned from many feet.

“There’s only twelve of them, right?” Rantle said.

Kathor nodded. “We stick to the mage’s plan.”

“Keep this quick,” Diogenes said. “It’s another twenty miles or more to the fire forest, and we’re not safe until we’re inside.”

Rantle grinned. “You’re right. A forest of endless fire? Only madmen would go in there.”

“I said it was a good plan,” Diogenes said. “I never denied it was mad. Let’s go. At least the fire forest won’t be so damned cold.”

“Follow close,” Kathor said to Diogenes.

Then Kathor spurred his horse, and Rantle stayed alongside, leaving Diogenes behind with the spare horses.

The mountain road had once been broad and well-tended, but dead brush narrowed the uneven trail. It rose and dipped every few hundred feet, and scattered pine trees made for too many ambush points, but after five minutes Rantle spotted smoke ahead, and a short ride later the trail opened up into a small box canyon, fifty feet across surrounded by carved walls twenty feet high.

Two men who had been tending the campfire in the center of the camp’s half-dozen tents stood and aimed crossbows at them as they rode into view. Kathor reined his horse to a stop and raised a hand to calm the men.

“Get Renard,” Kathor said.

Sounds of stirring came from the tents, and Rantle quickly scanned the area. Not a canyon, he realized, but a quarry, barely dug out. Various tools for capture sat scattered around the camp, ranging from nets and manacles to small kegs of oily pitch and bear traps. In the quarry’s far corner a rough-cut set of stairs rose up as the only other exit. Four black horses stood near it, huddled under heavy winter blankets.

Along the quarry’s right wall he spotted the cages. Normally, as a quarry was dug out, the miners would carve cubbies into the walls, which the city would use to store unopened urns after each year’s festival, protecting the citizen’s wishes with iron bars and chained locks.

They had apparently made convenient cells.

Rantle raised a hand to shade his eyes, and could make out the forms of three prisoners sitting in one of the caves. Torrent, her white hair standing out easily, shifted at the sound of their arrival, but just then a man stepped out from a tent on the left side of the quarry. Rantle looked away from the caves, hoping the prisoners wouldn’t spoil their ruse.

“Kathor,” the man said, “you just ruined our little nap.”

A few heads poked out of the other tents, curious but groggy-eyed.

“Renard,” Kathor said. “Bad news.”

Renard carried himself with a cocky swagger that reminded Rantle too much of his own guildmaster. Slender in a black leather rider’s outfit, the man’s too-large eyes and nose almost made Rantle snicker, but he restrained himself when he saw he held a shoulder quiver and a recurved horsebow. Better not to upset the man, he decided.

With criminal suspicion, the rest of the bounty hunters lurked at their tent flaps, some wearing sword belts, most grimacing at the cold air. In the whole quarry, Kathor was the only one wearing actual armor, and aside from Renard appeared to be the only trained soldier.

“Who’s that?” Renard said. He raised his head slightly, pointing with his chin to Rantle.

Rantle leaned forward with a cocky smile. “I’m not the bad news.”

Kathor spared him a short warning glare, then looked back to the rest of the bounty hunters. No one spoke, waiting for Kathor.

“You know the Ragesians attacked Gate Pass last night,” Kathor said. “When we were supposed to be capturing a den of mages, they were dropping sorcery on us. The mages got away, and most of my men were burned to death. This one here is Rantle. He was with me, and we were the only survivors.”

“I don’t recognize him,” Renard said. “Recruited him in Gate Pass, did you?”

Kathor nodded idly. “I couldn’t do much in the city with just one man and no leads, so here we are. I think one of your prisoners over there was actually my target last night.”

Renard grinned and swaggered halfway to the cells.

“You don’t know how much these three put up a fight,” Renard laughed. “Like they thought we were going to kill them, or as much. Real tragedy about your men, Kathor, but I suppose now we don’t have to split the bounty quite so much. Don’t worry. Even if you didn’t bring me any mages, I’m not angry against you.

“Actually,” he continued, “it’s good to have you back. Torchies sent word they’d be sending one of their skull-divers tonight, so every sword who can make sure they don’t get any ideas is a good thing.”

Kathor nodded.

Renard tapped on the bars of the cell Torrent and the others sat crammed inside, and the three prisoners tensed warily. Torrent was the only one watching the conversation, though.

“Too meager,” Renard said. “I think after this group, we head some place warmer, a real city, and enjoy the silver we earned.”

The other bounty hunters chuckled. Renard backed away from the cells and waved a broad backhand at them.

“Get back in your tents and get to sleeping. We don’t know how late the torchies will be coming, and anybody who sleeps on watch tonight gets handed over along with the mages.”

With a few quiet mutterings and jokes, the other bounty hunters slipped back into their tents. Renard watched them for a moment, then kicked through the bars of the cell, striking the hunched jispin man in the back and sending him sprawling. Renard grinned and swaggered back to his tent, but stopped at its entrance.

He frowned at Kathor. “Why are you two still sitting on your horses? Is there some problem?”

“No tent,” Kathor said.

Renard pointed at an unoccupied tent near the latrine. “That one’s free. Get your arses asleep.”

Rantle looked around, waiting for Diogenes to make his move, but nothing happened. Nervously he dismounted, not wanting to raise suspicion, and he kept watching Kathor, wondering if he had betrayed them. Kathor dismounted too.

“I’ll handle the horses,” Kathor said. “Wait for me in the tent. I need to talk to Renard.”

On edge, Rantle did as Kathor said, only taking his knife and sword as he headed to tent. He circled along the right side of the camp, intending to pass the caves to see how Torrent and the others were, but along the way he heard quiet snores coming from each tent, even though the bounty hunters had only gone to their tents a few moments earlier.

The two crossbowmen sitting near the campfire ignored him, but he made sure not to get too close to the cells, just in case. When he glanced in the prisoners’ direction, though, the young black-haired woman clambered to the bars of the cell, and reached out as best she could with her hands manacled on a short chain to her feet.

“Help us, please,” she said. “I know you from last night. You helped-”

“No, Sorra,” Torrent hissed. “Get back.”

Sorra shook her head. “But last night he was at the tavern! He saved us from the other bounty hunters. Why would he be working with them now?”

The crossbowmen looked his way, and Renard had turned away from Kathor to come see what was going on. Rantle spun and glared at Sorra.

“Shut up!” he whispered as loudly as he dared. Then louder, “What the hell are you talking about? I ought to kill you for what you did to my friends last night.”

Renard shouted, “What’s this? Tell the little trollop to shut her spare hole. They need to save their breaths for screamin’ when the torchies get their hands on him.”

He slung his quiver over his shoulder and drew a long knife, advancing on the cells. In the center of the camp, the guards held their crossbows laxly, their eyes on Rantle.

At the entrance to the camp and out of the bounty hunters’ sight, Kathor quietly remounted his horse, and he had hefted his greatsword in one hand. Rantle met Kathor’s eyes, and the knight cocked his head in the direction of Renard.

Bow in one hand, knife in the other, Renard walked up to Rantle and slightly past him. He kicked at Sorra’s fingers where she held the bar.

“My men are trying to sleep!” he yelled.

Sorra was whimpering in pain, and Rantle wasn’t willing to wait any longer. Renard’s back was to him, so he snapped his own knife out of its sheath, reached in with his left hand, grabbed the bounty hunter by his forehead, and drove the dagger down into the man’s throat.

“Holy hell!” shouted a guard.

The two guards swung their crossbows up and aimed at Rantle, and he spun, still holding Renard’s flailing form as a shield. Kathor spurred his horse into a charge just as the guards fired. One bolt flew wide, and the other struck Renard in his chest. Then, well before the guards would have been able to draw weapons, Kathor’s horse rammed one, trampling him down into the fire, and Kathor brought his two-hander down into the other guard’s head, slicing through and sending a spurt of blood into the air as the man collapsed.

“Get his keys!” Kathor shouted.

Expecting the rest of the camp to leap from the tents at any moment to attack, Rantle threw Renard to the ground face-down, planted a knee in his back, and began tearing through his belt pouches and pockets looking for the key to the cells. The crossbow bolt in Renard’s chest snapped when he landed, and the bug-eyed man shook but put up no real fight.

In the background, Rantle was faintly aware of the sound of hooves trampling a man to death, and of Torrent trying to explain to Sorra that Rantle was on their side. But there was no sound of other warriors coming, and a moment later Diogenes’s voice echoed through the quarry in a pervasive whisper.

“You’ll wake them up. Be quiet.”

Rantle looked around curiously, and Kathor calmed his horse so it would stop stamping the guards. Torrent and Sorra were still jabbering, but Rantle hushed them, and soon the quarry fell silent, except for the faint snoring of those bounty hunters still in their tents.

“Diogenes?” Rantle asked.

“I’m here,” he said from nearby. “I’m staying invisible for now in case your yelling managed to wake any of them up. I gave them each a fairly strong suggestion to stay asleep, though, so as long as they don’t think they’re in danger, we should be safe.”

“Huh,” Rantle said. “Good job. Torrent, are you all alright?”

“We’ll live,” she said. “They beat Rivereye, but if you can get us our packs, Sorra can tend to him. They’re in their leader’s tent.”

Rantle, busy searching the still twitching body of Renard, looked to Kathor and nodded in the direction of the tent. As Kathor dismounted, footsteps appeared in the snow nearby, and Rantle smelled cigarette smoke.

“That’s a little strange,” Rantle said.

“So says the thief looting a still-living man,” Diogenes said. “Could you just kill him and get this over with?”

Rantle grimaced, closed his eyes, and jammed his knife into the side of Renard’s skull. Sorra gasped and looked away.

Rantle said, “The plan was for you to nick the keys and open the cell, so we’d fight them together.”

“They had already been ordered to sleep,” Diogenes said. “It’s bad form to pass up an opportunity like this. Now, I am a little weary from affecting so many at once. Can we speed this up?”

“Sure,” Rantle said roughly. “He’s much easier to search when he’s dead.”

Finally he found a pair of keys, and he was able to open the lock on the cell, then unlock the manacles on Torrent, Sorra, and Rivereye. Etched writing circumscribed the cuffs in a pair of concentric circles. Rantle glanced to Torrent, curious.

“The inquisitors make these,” she said. “If you use magic while wearing them, it burns you with your own mana.”

Diogenes’s voice said, “Infernal bonds? We’re bringing those with us.”

Sorra shuddered and glared in the direction of Diogenes.

“They’re used for torture,” she said.

Diogenes chuckled and turned visible, light seeping back into his form as he exhaled smoke.

“I’ve always wondered what it’s like to torture an inquisitor,” he said. “Don’t get qualms now. We need every resource we can get.”

Kathor came over with a bundle of bags, packs, and weapons, which he handed to Sorra. She hesitated slightly when she took it from him, then turned her attention to tending the wounds of Rivereye.

The four-foot tall jispin man, in addition to being covered with bruises, looked to have a sprained ankle, and there were rings around his wrists and legs where the metal cuffs of the manacles had lain frozen upon his skin. He was conscious, but looked too weak to speak. Occasionally his squinty blue eyes met Rantle’s, but he quickly looked away each time. Now that Rantle had time to actually look at him in daylight, he recognized Ragesian imperial seals sewn into the man’s clothes.

Torrent stood nearby, watching as Sorra wrapped Rivereye’s wounds in blue silk stitched with gold, and rubbed a white poultice into his split lip and across the ridge of his broken nose.

“Bastards,” Sorra said.

She kept glancing in the direction of the tents, looking impatient as she treated Rivereye.

Diogenes said, “I swear, you should not be thinking of killing those men.”

“I’ll do what I want,” Sorra scowled. She asked Rivereye, “Do you need anything else?”

Rivereye shook his head, and Sorra stood. Rantle grabbed her by her arm as she started toward the tent. She screamed and tried to struggle out of his grip.

“Let me go!”

Rantle tried to sound calm. “Diogenes is right. They hurt you, but they didn’t kill you.”

Diogenes said, “I just meant stabbing one would ruin the spell, and they’d all wake up and kill us. If we could, we probably would want to kill them so they can’t come after us.”

Kathor said, “Not these men. Don’t kill anyone who isn’t a threat. They won’t follow us without Renard.”

Sorra struggled in Rantle’s grip. “They would have let the Ragesians kill us.”

“Torture you first, actually,” Diogenes said. “Inquisitors keep prisoners for mass sacrifices. They have to keep you terrified, so when you die your soul lingers long enough for them to catch it. That’s how they make their masks.”

Diogenes made a snatching motion in the air with his left hand, grinning.

“Don’t scare the girl,” Torrent said.

“Let me go,” Sorra demanded. “You’re working with one of them, don’t you realize?”

Rantle shook his head. “Kathor here changed his mind. We aren’t killing anyone who can’t fight back, and we’re leaving as soon as you’re all safe to ride a horse.”

“Tie her up if you have to,” Diogenes said. “We need to search this place for anything we can use, and go soon. You’re Torrent, right?”

Torrent nodded. “Diogenes? And you’re a student of Gabal’s?”

“Is it that obvious?” Diogenes said, feigning being flattered. “You were planning to go through the fire forest apparently. How were you going to manage that?”

Rantled added, “And can we come along?”

Torrent pulled her axe out of the bundle of gear Kathor had brought from the tent.

“If you let go of Sorra,” she said, “yes, you can come along. Sorra, I don’t feel comfortable killing anyone in their sleep, and we need to leave anyway.”

Rantle released the young woman, and she stepped away angrily, walking to the horses. He kept an eye on her just in case, but he was fairly confident the fight was out of her.

“The case,” said a feeble voice.

Rantle looked down and saw Rivereye reaching out to Torrent. She bent over and nodded to him, patting his hand to calm him.

“What case?” Diogenes said.

Torrent hesitated a moment, then shrugged cooly.

“You saved my life,” she said, “I should trust you. There’s a metal chest, about a foot and a half long, that we were carrying down to Seaquen. It should be in their leader’s tent.”

Rantle glanced to Kathor, who nodded and went to get it.

“What’s in it?” Diogenes asked.

“We would have left weeks ago,” Torrent said. “I was just told by the Lyceum to get as many mages out as I could, and I sent many ahead of me. They took more traditional roads, and knew which homes along the way were safe to stop at, and most hopefully were able to get out before the Ragesian army reached them. But I had to wait until last night for Rivereye. He was working as a house servant in the imperial palace, and we discovered through an informant that he had stolen some important documents that he wanted to hand over.

“The informant arranged for us to meet at the tavern last night, and provided the balm that will protect us from the fire forest. Normally we-”

“Wait,” Rantle interrupted. “What? Your informant told you to meet at the Apple, and gave you magic to protect you from fire? Was it a woman?”

Torrent shrugged. “I never met him, or her. This was set up by sympathizers in Gate Pass.”

Rantle leaned back, a nervous feeling in his gut.

Diogenes said, “What’s in the case? What documents?”

Torrent said, “Maps, drawings of tunnels, and notes written in some sort of code, or a language I’ve never seen.”

Diogenes was now getting impatient. “And why were these important?”

On the ground, Rivereye smiled a beaten grin and said, “I was supposed to deliver them to Leska. Kreven was rude to me for the last time, so I left.”

“Leska?” Diogenes’s voice dropped out to a hollow gasp. “Great.”

Rantle shivered despite himself. After a long moment, Diogenes cleared his throat.

“Alright,” Diogenes said. “We just stole something from the most powerful woman in the world. Once we’re safe, I want to look at these, and hope she doesn’t see me do it. Let’s get going. We’ve waited long enough. Kathor, get everyone up on horses. Rantle.”

Rantle blinked and looked at Diogenes, having lost track of the conversation slightly. “What?”

“Take one last look around for things we can carry, then cut the saddle straps and stirrups of the horses we’re leaving behind. When they wake up, they’ll be much better rested than us, so we don’t want them thinking of running us down.”

Rantle nodded and went to work, but he kept an eye on Rivereye. A few minutes later, after he had collected a few weapons and some money and distributed them among the horses’ saddlebags, he headed over to Rivereye.

The bruised jispin man stood away from the group, leaning on a crutch Sorra had made him.

“Thirsty?” Rantle said.

He held out his flask of alwyr red, and shook it slightly to suggest he should take a drink. Warily Rivereye accepted, lifting the flask and guzzling a large mouthful. He swallowed and winced at the burn, but forced out a smile. Then he meekly looked away and held the flask for Rantle to take back.

“You’re welcome,” Rantle said.

He bent slightly and put his hands on his knees so he’d be below eye level of the short man.

“Torrent said there was an informant who arranged all this. Did you meet her?”

Rivereye squinted cautiously, then nodded once. He hunched slightly, like he was ready to be hit.

“What did she look like?” Rantle said. “Do you know who she was? Peace, I’m not going to hurt you. Just answer some of my questions, and you can have the rest of that flask.”

Rivereye looked up from under his brow, like he wasn’t quite ready to trust Rantle, but he wasn’t still scared.

“She was a han,” Rivereye said, “with red hair. It came down to her shoulders. And she always wore red. She had a Gatekeeper accent, but said she was from Seren. Actually, she looked sort of like one of the emperor’s courtesans; you know, pretty, skinny, with, um, pretty lumps? Really easy to remember, and really rude.”

“That sounds like Katrina,” Rantle chuckled. “But. . . .”

“Katrina!” Rivereye said. “That was her name.”

“She was at the imperial palace?” Rantle gasped. “How- . . . how did you know her? What was she doing there?”

Rivereye cringed again. “I didn’t know her, and I’m thankful for it. She was the sort of person you want to enjoy from a distance. But I used to see her with Leska at banquets and parties. I think she was a mage. She did tricks with fire.”

Rantle struggled to say anything. Dozens of thoughts rolled through his mind, and he tried to make sense of this. He remembered what Katrina’s letter had said. She wanted him to meet her in Seaquen, where she had a way for them to come out of the war safely.

Seaquen, where hundreds if not thousands of enemies of Ragesia were fleeing. And Katrina had known the new empress, Leska, who wanted to capture or kill all mages who were not loyal to her.

“The one time she talked to me,” Rivereye chuckled, “she called me a filthy monkey. All of the servants like me called her ‘the flaming bitch.’”

Rantle grabbed Rivereye by the shoulders. The jispin cringed and cowered, but Rantle shook his head and tried to put on a happy expression. He let go of Rivereye and smiled.

“Hey, Rivereye, can I ask you a favor? Don’t tell anyone else what you just told me, alright? You keep that a secret, and I’ll watch out for you.”

“Sure,” Rivereye said slowly. “I . . . I can do that. It’ll be our secret.”

“Good,” Rantle said. “Good. Thanks, friend. Alright, get on a horse you filthy little monkey. We need to leave.”

Rivereye flashed a self-defensive smile and backed away, then limped for the horses. Rantle stood and looked up at the sky, which was turning red from the early hints of sunset. Diogenes softly shouted for him to hurry up, and the rest of the group had already mounted.

He started to head for his own horse, but swung past the campfire. As he passed it, he pulled out the letter Katrina had left for him, and he dropped it into the flames.

Chapter Ten

Soon, the frightened energy from fleeing the bounty hunters and possible Ragesian pursuers fled before the tedium and discomfort of the ride along the wintry mountain road. Diogenes ordered they stop for the night.

With the aid of Kathor, Rantle set to putting up the two tents they had stolen from the bounty hunters, those unneeded by the dead guards and their leader. Meanwhile the three mages – Diogenes, Torrent, and Sorra – gathered wood and set up a cookfire, discussing their respective experiences with sorcery and formulating tactics in case the group fell under attack. Diogenes used his cigarette-lighting wand to trace a ring in the snow around the camp, and the air within warmed enough to almost be comfortable.

Rivereye, half-hobbled and smaller and weaker than even the twenty year-old Sorra, could only contribute by lending his eye to the gear and coinage they had procured from the Black Horse, letting them know how poor they ultimately were. He mostly kept to himself.

As they settled down to a fortunate but unappetizing dinner of a domestic goat they had found, they considered the faint glow on the southern horizon, where flames reflected across low clouds, marking their destination: the fire forest.

“I’m a little unclear on what comes next,” Rantle said.

Torrent said, “I have several vials of an elixir that will alter the elements of your body and protect against the heat of the fire forest, enough for all of us and maybe a few of the horses. It will work as long as it stays in your body, so you won’t want to urinate unless you have to. It will keep your skin from blistering, but it isn’t enough to stop prolonged exposure to actual fire, though, so don’t go sticking your hands into any bushes.”

“You might want to repeat that one for Rantle,” Diogenes said. “Remember Rantle, that’s ‘don’t touch the fire,’ alright?”

A snarky laugh came from Rivereye.

Kathor said, “How long will we be in the forest?”

“A day,” Torrent said. “Two at most.”

“What if we get lost?” Sorra asked nervously.

“We’ll be fine,” Rantle said with a smile. “There’s supposed to be an old highway that runs straight through Innenotdar to Dassen. It used to be a minor trade route, so it should be impossible to miss.”

Diogenes said, “And I’ll start gathering sticks in case we have to draw lots on who gets the last of the elixir.”

“I have a compass,” Torrent said condescendingly. “If one of you manages to lead us off the road, it’s just twenty miles due south. Even if we miss the exit to Dassen, we’ll just come out in the mountains.”

“Safely between burning to death and freezing,” Diogenes chuckled. “Then let us not get lost.”

“We’re still assuming no one here betrays us,” Sorra said.

Rantle looked to Kathor and shrugged, but the man said nothing.

“I told you,” Rantle said, “Kathor’s trustworthy.”

Sorra looked away in disdain and muttered, “And why should we trust you?”

Rantle cleared his throat uncomfortably, and again the group was quiet. It was Rivereye who broke the silence.

“What’s your family?” Rivereye asked.

Kathor glanced at him. “Why?”

Rivereye nodded in the direction of his horse. “Your saddle, and your armor: I recognize the family markings.”

“Then you know my family,” Kathor said.

Sorra looked at Rivereye. “What do you know?”

Rivereye squirmed slightly under the sudden attention. “He’s from the Danava family.”

“Is that a problem?” Rantle said. “Are they a family of notorious liars?”

Diogenes chuckled, “No, that’s my family. To which I am a notable exception.”

Rivereye looked again at Kathor, but the man was focused on cutting more meat from the roast.

“His family is fine,” Rivereye said. “They’re very honorable.”

“Loyal to Ragesia you mean,” Sorra said.

“Leska is not the emperor of Ragesia,” Kathor said.

Rantle leaned back and patted his stomach, yawning.

“Family doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve been an orphan since I was seven. You can’t decide whether to trust me based on my family, so don’t judge the knight based on his. Anyway, if he wanted to harm you, he would have to go through me first. I won’t let a woman come to harm.”

Beyond Sorra, Torrent smirked. “So nice of you to offer.”

Sorra sighed, pulled her knees to her chest, and lay her head down. Tears welled in her eyes. Rantle remembered the man whose body he had pulled from the burning remains of the Apple less than a day ago. Humbled, he held his tongue.

Diogenes stood up and groaned, stretching his left arm but keeping his right hidden in his coat.

“We should have people on guard tonight,” he said, “just in case. We need to leave before sunrise. Anyone who sleeps too deeply or snores too loudly will be left behind.”

* * *​

Kathor had provided him with a full supply of firewood before he had gone to bed, so as Rantle kept watch in the midnight hours he had nothing to do but feed the fire and listen to songs from home jostling in his head.

A rustling in the women’s tent got his attention, but when he saw it was just Sorra getting up he relaxed. She cast him only a casual glance as she slipped into her boots and walked out of the perimeter of the camp, to relieve herself, Rantle supposed. When she returned she stopped beside her tent for a moment, then slowly came over to Rantle and sat down on a small boulder near the one he had chosen as his post.

“Everything alright?” Rantle asked.

“No,” she said. “Not much is right at all. I can’t sleep.”

“We could get Diogenes to put you to sleep.”

Sorra scowled. “He’s too amused with himself. You’re nearly as bad.”

“I-,” Rantle started, but then he strugged. “Look, I know you lost someone close to you. I haven’t. I left before I had a chance to lose anything. It helps me be optimistic.”

“What about your home?”

Rantle chuckled. “I have a couple, but the only real one threw me out. I mean, I’m not a coward. I want to drive back the rags, but back in Gate Pass? That isn’t the place to do it. This Seaquen sounds like a smarter idea. Get away, get safe, and then be the one attacking, instead of the one waiting to die. I’m sure someone’s planning how to do it as we speak.”

Sorra sighed, then looked up, though the sky was choked with clouds.

“Why are you leaving?” Rantle asked. “You sound like you’re having second thoughts.”

“My father ordered me to leave,” she said. “He knew it wasn’t safe, but it’s not fair. He’s Councilman Menash?”

Rantle nodded and smiled. The man was notorious.

Sorra continued, “He was making plans to restart the resistance, like he was some old war hero, but when Ragesia invaded last time he was six years old.”

“Stop thinking about it,” Rantle said. “It’s too late to go back now, and hey, it’s good to have the company.”

Sorra huffed in amusement. “I heard Diogenes telling us about your daring escape from Gate Pass. He gave particular emphasis to an encounter with a lovesick councilwoman, so please don’t try to pretend your intentions are innocent.”

Rantle shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to be charming. For all I know, you might have left a husband behind.”

“No,” she said.

The sadness in her voice hit Rantle almost physically. He cleared his throat and sat up straight.

“Let’s talk about the future,” he said. “Torrent said it will take a month or so to reach Seaquen. Do you think there’ll be an army forming up?”

Sorra shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t want to . . . to talk now. I just don’t want to sleep.”

Rantle nodded. Wind’s murmur filled the silence as the two of them watched the road.

Softly, Rantle said, “I’m not so good with being quiet, but I’ll do my best. Stay as long as you want, and if you want to talk. . . .”

Sorra said nothing, and Rantle let his words hang.

* * *​

Having gotten almost no sleep for two days, the few hours of rest Rantle managed to grab in the evening was not enough to refresh him. The next morning, while Kathor and Torrent led the group, Rantle leaned low in his saddle, still mostly asleep. He was certain occasionally he drifted off to dreams, and so when the sun seemed to rise before him at the end of the road, he was convinced it was just an imagining of his sleep-entangled mind.

The fire forest breathed like a living thing, inhaling long low gusts that pulled at Rantle’s clothes and hair, drawing him toward the flames, exhaling cinders into the sky with a throaty growl, like all the war furnaces of every army in the world working as one. Inaudible words crept into Rantle’s thoughts through his dreams, and when he shook his head to wake himself he could no longer understand what they were saying, if they had existed at all.

“My god,” he said, seeing the forest in the distance.

The Innenotdar fire forest lay in a valley, and though it was still a mile away, as they approached down the slope of the mountain road, he could see it stretching out to the horizon before him: endless trees, mostly pine, some towering a hundred feet high or more, flames clinging to them from the base of their trunks to the crowns of their branches, burning as they had for decades, as if the trees themselves refused to die.

Rocky hills still framed the road on either side here, but there was no snow, and the ground was carpeted with wilted yellow grass and vibrant red flowers. The soil was an almost black grey from falling ash, and already Rantle’s clothes and horse were turning ashen.

The road continued ahead for a few hundred more feet before it reached a broad field on a promontory just outside the fire forest. A gorge marked the clear border of Innenotdar, and an ancient, blackened stone bridge spanned it, steam hissing up from the water beneath it. The sun was nearing noon overhead, but was visible as little more than a platinum smear in the smoky sky.

“This is an interesting development,” Diogenes said.

Rantle followed his gaze to the field on the left side of the road, about a thousand feet away. A pair of squat stone buildings lay inside a low wall made of roughly-mortared rocks. One building looked like a stable large enough to have once belonged to a sizable ranch, and the other was clearly a house, just one story tall but big enough for a small family.

Just outside the house’s front door stood a slender woman holding a wiry black staff. Though Rantle could barely even see her at this distance, he knew for certain she was looking straight at him, and he felt the unblinking stare of the woman’s crystal blue eyes.

Rantle shivered and blinked. When he looked around, he saw the others were shifting uncomfortably as well.

“Enemies?” Torrent asked.

“Let’s find out,” Diogenes said. “Rantle, Kathor, go in front, in case it’s a trap. We’ll be right behind you.”

Rantle nodded, glancing back at Sorra to give her a reassuring smile. Then he and Kathor kicked their horses into a trot and headed down to the field.

When they were still a few hundred feet out, Kathor rode close to Rantle.

“Why do we do what the wizard says?” Kathor asked.

“Because he’s giving orders,” Rantle said. “He sounds like he knows what he’s doing, at least.”

The woman came forward to meet them at the edge of the low wall as they rode up. She looked no older than twenty, wavy dark hair to her shoulders, looking almost frail beneath her thin beige dress. Her arms were bare, with small brass ring bracelets around her wrists, and she held her staff – a starkly black shaft of wood capped with silver, with a smooth red stone set into the wood in its center – out wide, almost as if she was blocking their way. The firelight from the forest glinted violet off her blue eyes, and her gaze slid emptily across Rantle and Kathor.

“Justice flees the Scourge,” she said. “The skulls of the dragon pursue you, and you will ride yourself to your death.”

Rantle glanced at Kathor, who looked just as confused as he was. When he looked back, the young woman had lost her strange intensity, and now she cradled her staff close to her chest. She was as meek as a mouse.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I don’t know what-. . . . Come see my father, please.”

“Wait,” Rantle said. “Hold on. What was that?”

The woman shook her head slightly. “I’m . . . I’m sorry. I sometimes see things that. . . . Please come inside. I need you to help my father.”

“What’s wrong with your father?” Kathor asked.

“The Ragesians are coming,” the woman said. “My father is a mage, and he won’t leave.”

“I must be running into every mage in the damn world,” Rantle groaned.

“You’re going into the fire forest,” the woman said. “Please, let us come with you.”

Rantle put a hand to the sword at his hip and looked to Kathor warily.

“Fire forest?” Rantle said. “What gave you that idea?”

Kathor heaved a single gruff laugh.

Crystin looked back to the house like she was torn. A faint voice called out, barely audible through the open door over the pervasive growl of flames.

“Please just come,” she said quickly.

She looked like she was struggling to say more, but then she bowed her head and turned to head inside.

“I must go to my father,” she said stiffly. “You should leave.”

“Like hell,” Rantle muttered. “This is too damned strange.”

Curiosity getting the better of him, Rantle dismounted and followed after the young woman warily, Kathor a few steps behind him. She went into the house, seemingly oblivious that they were following her. Inside it was dark, the walls shaped of strangely smooth stone with no mortar or bricks. Many paintings hung around the tiny living room, portraits barely distinguishable in the dim light coming through the curtained window. Low embers flickered in a hearth, and in a high-backed chair in the corner sat a man who looked to be in his fifties, with stringy brown hair and cracked, dry wrinkles criss-crossing his face. As Rantle came inside he nearly tripped over a pair of small empty traveling packs lying on the floor near the front door.

The man glared at Rantle with scorn and looked ready to yell at him, but he bent over coughing hideously, the sound like bloody flesh being dragged across a bed of splinters. His wrinkled jowls tensed as he continued to cough for a few seconds, and his daughter – no longer moving so stiffly – set her staff against the wall, bent to the hearth, and lifted a kettle from which she poured tea into a cup on the chair’s arm rest. The man struggled to lift the tea to his mouth and swallow a mouthful, after which his coughing fit subsided.

“Don’t argue, father,” the young woman said. “I know these men will take us to safety.”

The man, still slightly hunched, glowered at her. She lowered her head and stopped talking immediately. Then the old man turned his attention to Rantle and Kathor. His voice was a bitter, dark grumble.

“What in all the hells I’ve ever cursed about are you two doing in my house?”

Rantle smirked. “She asked us to come in. We were just passing through, and your daughter decided to lure us inside by saying things that didn’t make any damned sense. Please explain to me what’s going on.”

“It’s none,” he started, then coughed, but he managed to keep speaking, continuing to cough every few words, “of your business. Forgive my d-daughter’s oddities.”

Kathor said, “She’s a seer. She knew we were coming.”

The man shrugged, sipping and clearing his throat with a hideous hacking scar of a cough. “She wants me to go with you, but I’m not leaving.”

The old man scowled. Rantle rolled his eyes and scowled back.

“Listen old man,” he said, “you might not know this living out next to a cursed forest, but the rags are looking for hat tricks like you, and they’re probably coming this way. And not just imperial soldiers; the inquisitors are on the prowl. I hear they kill mages. The whole Ragesian military is marching to war, and we probably have a whole company following us right now.

“Now, I don’t know that I’m comfortable with having more helpless people in tow, but your daughter has a good idea. We are leaving, and you can come along too.”

“I’m staying here,” the man coughed out roughly. “When the Ragesians arrive, I’ll show them that we will still resist them!”

He grimaced and drank the last of his tea, then shook his cup at his daughter to demand a refill as he coughed more. The daughter obediently poured more tea.

“Fine,” Rantle said. “We don’t have time for this. You can stay here and die, but you,” he pointed at the daughter, “if you want to come, we’re ready to go into the fire forest now. We can get you safely to the other side, out of the torchies’ reach. But we’re not waiting.”

The daughter shook her head and calmly said, “No. I am staying with my father.”

Rantle shrugged and turned to leave, too irritated to ask any more questions. Through the door he could see the rest of the group riding up to just beyond the wall surrounding the house.

“Let’s go,” he said to Kathor.

He was just taking his first step when the old man laughed.

“Go, get out of my home!” he shouted. Then he began to cough uncontrollably.

As soon as the father began to cough, the daughter stood and leapt for Rantle, grabbing him by his arm. Her expression was imploring.

“He needs to leave,” she said. “We both do! My father’s just . . . just stubborn.”

The woman’s father looked like he was struggling to control his coughing, and he tried to stand. The daughter began to sway and stiffen, and Rantle pulled away, but Kathor stepped past him back into the house. In the span of two strides he had crossed the room and slammed his fist into the old man’s cheek, knocking him out of his chair and to the floor, where he lay unconscious.

“Kathor!” Rantle yelled in disbelief.

Kathor shrugged. “You said we don’t have time for this. I’ll put him on my horse, and if he still complains when he wakes up, we’ll leave him.”

The daughter was shaking slightly, and she leaned against the wall in shock. Her eyes were locked on her unconscious father with a mix of fear and relief, and Rantle stepped in front of her so she would have to see him.

“Fine,” he said. “I’m Rantle. You’re going to be alright. What’s your name?”

“Crystin,” she said. “Crystin Ja-nafeel. My father is Haddin Ja-laffa. He’ll be furious.”

“Don’t worry about your father,” Rantle said. “You want to come, right?”

Crystin nodded. “But we need to hurry.”

Supporting the unconscious Haddin with one arm, Kathor staggered out and threw the man across his horse. Rantle considered his own horse, too small to support two. Torrent and Sorra were already sharing the other horse, leaving only one option for Haddin’s daughter.

“Crystin,” Rantle said, “outside, you’ll see the ugly little jispin in the back of the group. That’s Rivereye. The two of you should be able to share his horse. Is there anything you need before we leave?”

Crystin stepped over to where she had left her staff. Once she had it, she looked much less nervous.

“My father,” she said, “he wouldn’t let me pack. I need to bring along his tea and medicine, and clothes. Should I bring a weapon?”

Rantle nodded impatiently. “Sure, girl. Anything you think you can swing without hurting one of us. Let’s get this stuff of yours and go.”

Crystin hesitated and turned to one of the smaller paintings on the wall, its frame only a few inches across. She pulled it off and tucked it into a pocket of her dress, then started pointing out things she needed to bring along. Rantle followed behind her, bags in hand, tossing into the first bag tea kettles, packages of leaves, small pouches of supposed magical herbs, and all the survival gear he could find. When it was full, he set it down and followed Crystin to the bedrooms of her and her father, gathering traveling clothes for both of them, since once they got past the fire forest the cold of winter would still be waiting on the other side.

A minute later, Diogenes found him in the house’s pantry as he was struggling to fit a few last bits of food into the second bag. The wizard stopped a few feet behind Rantle and gaped in disbelief.

“Did we not have enough useless people?” he said.

“Complain later,” Rantle said. “The old man’s a wizard too. Aren’t we trying to rescue mages?”

“No,” Diogenes said, “we’re trying to rescue Me, and every minute we waste is another the Ragesians could be catching up to Me. We’re not stopping so you can lay with a woman this time.”

“Yehrun!” Rantle cursed. “We’re coming.”

Slinging the bags over his shoulder, he pointed for Crystin to follow Diogenes outside. When they left the small house, the heat of the fire forest hit him hard.

“Torrent,” Diogenes said, “get those elixirs ready. We’re leaving.”

Sorra called out, “Are you planning to go into the fire forest without eating? We don’t have nearly enough food, so we should stop here.”

Diogenes groaned, but Rantle put a hand on the man’s fake arm.

“She’s right,” he said. “It won’t take long. Crystin, you don’t care if we take anything, do you?”

“I’m trying to hurry,” Diogenes said, “and you’re worried about lunch. We are less than a mile from the damned forest. To stop here would be,” he half-stammered, overcome with frustration, “moronic.”

“What’s that?” Crystin said.

She pointed toward a craggy hill on the opposite side of road to the west, maybe two hundred feet away. Rantle squinted and saw something skulking just at the rise of the hill. The figure, the size of a young boy or a jispin man, was only visible for a moment before ducking away.

“What was that?” Rantle said.

“Khabese scout,” Kathor said urgently. “The army employs them. We need to ride.”

“Just one guy?” Rantle said. “Why don’t we just kill him?”

From the scout’s direction, an arrow cut through the air and struck the wall of the house with a loud thump. A chorus of quiet curses went up around the group, and then another arrow flew in from the south and struck Diogenes in his fake arm. He cried out and ran for the wall at the edge of the yard, diving for cover as the crossfire continued.

Everyone else ducked and moved, or spurred their horses so they wouldn’t be sitting targets. Rantle shoved Crystin toward Rivereye’s horse, then ran for his own.

“How the hell-!” he shouted.

Kathor rode close, holding the unconscious Haddin upright as a human shield.

“Khabese can see in the dark,” Kathor said. “They must’ve cut ahead of us in the night.”

Another two arrows flew in, but people were on the look-out now and they managed to dodge out of the way. The second archer was crouched atop the roof of the stable, less than a hundred feet away, his sulfur yellow coat hiding him against the backdrop of the fire forest. Rantle tried to stoop as he ran for his horse, hoping to get to the crossbow on the saddle, but an arrow flew at him and he had to drop to the ground to dodge it. He began crawling the rest of the way.

The horses were panicking, all but Kathor’s, but Rivereye had managed to pull Crystin onto the saddle behind him. Torrent, meanwhile, was holding out her left hand toward the archers, and as an arrow aimed for her and Sorra whistled in she leaned sideways and the arrow narrowly missed them.

“Torrent,” Diogenes shouted, “where’s the elixir?”

Sorra had pulled open Torrent’s backpack, and she tossed a metal cask the size of man’s head to Diogenes, who tried and failed to catch it one-handed. She took out another, snapped open the mouth, and took a swig herself, then handed it to Torrent, who was mounted in front of her. Torrent, hand still raised to ward off arrows, drank quickly, struggling to keep her horse calm as she shouted directions.

“Just one swallow each,” Torrent said. “And one for your horse, or it will balk at the flames.”

“How do I make my horse drink?” Rivereye yelled in a panic.

Torrent poured a handful of the viscous elixir into her palm and slathered it across her own horse’s lips and nostrils. The horse tried to bite her hand, but then it seemed more interested in licking the slime off its face. She kicked the horse into a trot over to Rivereye, and handed him the flask, giving another handful to the horse he and Crystin were seated upon.

There seemed to just be two Khabese, but they were firing wildly now, an arrow every few seconds, barely aimed. Kathor was the largest target, and Rantle heard at least two arrows click off the man’s armor.

Diogenes had taken a gulp from his cask, and he ran for his horse, dashing the elixir across its face, then dropping the cask on the ground as he leapt into his saddle. He shouted at his horse and spurred it into a gallop toward the fire forest. Almost immediately, a horn sounded from the hill to the west.

Rantle cursed and ran for the cask Diogenes had dropped, picking it up quickly before too much elixir spilled out. Cask in hand, he ducked into the cover of the wall again, gulping down a mouthful as an arrow barely missed him. Almost instantly his throat began to burn and he felt like his skin was shaking, but the feeling passed, and he no longer noticed the heat from the fire forest.

“Kathor,” he shouted.

Kathor rode close and caught the cask as Rantle tossed it up to him. Meanwhile, the other two horses – with Crystin, Rivereye, Torrent, and Sorra – had ridden off after Diogenes, kicking up clouds of ash behind them.

Rantle had kept a large glob of the elixir on his hand, and he waited for the next pair of shots to fly before he made a break for his horse. He smeared the elixir on its lips, and was just stepping into the stirrup when an arrow imbedded into the horse’s foreleg. It reared and tried to bolt, and Rantle was thrown away. As he fell, however, he managed to grab the crossbow. Only when he landed did he realize he didn’t have any bolts for it.

He heard Kathor shouting, and for a moment he hoped the knight was coming to help him, but he saw instead that Kathor was trying to warn the rest of the group that a pair of Ragesian horsemen were riding fast out from behind a hill to the west. Kathor pulled out his huge sword and spurred his mount into a charge, leaving Rantle pinned down and alone.

Rantle lay on his side, outside the protection of the stone wall, and an arrow flew right over his head. It dug into the ground a few feet away, and Rantle scrambled over to it. He yanked it out of the ground, then awkwardly held it as he cranked the crossbow and tried to load it with an arrow. It wasn’t perfect, but it fit, and he rose to one knee, aiming for the nearer archer on the stable roof.

He prayed, then pulled the trigger and fired.

Living in a city, it had been years since Rantle had fired a crossbow, so he was not particularly surprised that his shot went completely astray, but he was nevertheless disappointed with himself. The Khabese archer’s crossfire counterattack was much more precise, and one arrow struck him in the front of his thigh. Growling, he grabbed the arrow, pulled it out, and staggered back toward the cover of the wall, trying to cock the crossbow and load it with an arrow covered with his own blood as he ran.

Once he reached cover, the shots stopped, the archers waiting for him to show himself. Rantle couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the fire forest and the rush of his blood pumping fear, but he knew if he waited the Ragesians would eventually regroup and come back to cut him down. Almost a minute passed as he tried to get his fear under control, preparing to make his move.

He raised his head, ducked, waited for the expected arrows to fly past him, then rose again, aimed for a breath longer than he thought was safe, and fired. The Khabese archer atop the stable was aiming as well, almost perfectly still. Rantle’s arrow struck the man’s chest just as he fired. The scout’s arrow went off course, but Rantle had already leaped back into cover, knowing there was still another archer. He fell to the ground and cowered, but laughed in satisfied disbelief.

He was looking around for other arrows to scavenge when he heard horse hooves approaching. The gait was awkward, like the animal was running with a limp.

“Rantle!” shouted Sorra.

Rantle looked up in shock. Sorra was riding his horse, and he guessed she had removed the arrow that had struck it, since the wound was magically healed. She reined the horse to a stop beside him and reached out to pull him up.

“You’re insane!” he shouted, but he took her hand.

He leapt weakly into the saddle behind her, nearly pulling her off as he struggled to get seated. She kicked to get the horse to turn and run, but it struggled against her for a second. In the distance, the Khabese archer on the hill across the road fired, and Rantle pushed Sorra’s head down. The arrow scraped across his arm and back, and he cursed, then kicked the horse’s sides as hard as he could.

The horse reared up for a moment, then landed and started to run. Rantle grinned, grabbed an arrow out of the quiver on the saddle, and tried to load as the horse sprinted. The Khabese archer waited, taking a long moment to aim ahead of the galloping horse. Rantle saw the next arrow flying in, and he shoved Sorra down, but it was too late.

Sorra screamed as the arrowhead drove into her neck. She reached up to the wound, losing her grip on the reins. Rantle grabbed her, but she fell away, and Rantle fell with her, striking the ground at the speed of a gallop. They rolled together and came to a stop, ash rising in a thick cloud around them.

Rantle crawled coughing to Sorra’s side, and she reached out to him, her face tense with agony. Wet coughs of blood spattered her cheeks, and the flow from the wound itself had soaked her shirt. She was trying to grab the arrow’s shaft, but her hands were too slick.

“No,” Rantle said. “What do I do? You’re- dammit, you’re a healer. What do I do!”

She reached for his hands, and he let her guide him. Her touch was so weak, and her whole body was convulsing, but she pulled his hands to the arrow. Closing his eyes, Rantle grabbed the arrow and pulled. It slid out, and the blood just poured out more quickly.

He kept yelling at her, asking her to tell him what to do, cursing, begging, but her body went limp, and her head lolled to the side. Her final, pained glance was cast northward, back to Gate Pass, and then she closed her eyes and stopped breathing.

Rantle’s voice caught in his throat, and he sat still beside her. Ash kicked up from their fall settled upon them, turning her skin and blood gray.

From behind him came the shuffling sound of someone stepping through the ash-coated road. Rantle felt his shock begin to burn hotter, and he shook with rage as he stood. He drew his sword and stalked out of the haze of ash, coming upon the Khabese archer as the man was trying to grab the reins of Rantle’s horse.

The scout, short like a jispin, covered in weapons and trophies, turned and gaped at Rantle. He knelt to grab his bow, but Rantle was already to him, and he kicked the man in the chest to drive him down, then fell upon him and stabbed him in the stomach. He was only dimly aware of the man’s cries of pain and of the blood slicking his hand as he pushed the blade, continuing until with a snagging sensation he felt its tip poke out the man’s back.

He stepped away, too weak to pull the sword back out. He left the man to whimper. He spared one glance at Sorra, then limped to his horse and grabbed its reins.

The ash had settled, and now Rantle could see the others in the distance, riding for the fire forest, their mounted ambushers dead or scattered. To the north, beyond the mouth of the valley, he heard horns of more approaching Ragesians.

“God damn it,” Rantle spat, feeling cold.

He climbed his horse and kicked it into a gallop toward the fire forest, the scourge following at his heels.


First Post
Well, if no one else is commenting on the quality and enjoyability, I will. I'm loving your novelized version of the modules.

Of course, I really enjoyed the War of the Burning Sky anyway, so that helps.

LOVED the inquisitor in the first section and the chaos of the fight just outside the fire forest.


First Post
This was a very great read and made my day. I truly hope more is done, however I can only guess at how much work would go(and went) into that, so thank you for doing it.


Intermission One

The Rites of Rulership

Among the Shahalesti, everything was done for aesthetics.

Shalosha knew that her father’s aides arranged for cheering, adoring crowds to always line the roads whenever she traveled about Calanis, and she suspected that they made sure all the faces she looked upon were pale, blonde, and beautiful – which in the eyes of her people meant jen only. Han, herethim, and jispin were apparently too unpleasant for one of royal blood to see without warning.

And she only slightly resented how much effort they spent in ensuring she herself was even more beautiful than any in the crowd, so that when her people looked upon her their cheers would be of sincere joy. For it was paramount that they adore her. Their devotion was her power, the will of a million followers at her fingertips, a nation’s pride manifested as nearly divine power, as granted by the rites of rulership.

She was the princess of Shahalesti, daughter of the Shining Lord Shaaladel – he who had driven out the seditious Taranesti, led the proud Shahalesti to conquest against their enemies, and halted the fury of the Old Dragon, Emperor Coaltongue. Her father deserved a dynasty, and the Shahalesti had demanded it, and so twenty-seven years earlier, for the sake of aesthetics, Shalosha had been born.

Though still young, she had the benefit of her late mother’s wisdom. Before her mother had died she had made sure Shalosha understood her place; as much as Shaaladel might love her as his daughter, he had sired her to cement his rule. He had crafted a historic image of himself, had convinced his people that he was leading them toward greatness, and had needed a child as a symbol of all the Shahalesti aspired to be.

Looking out across the jubilant crowds, Shalosha wondered, if her father could craft her as an image for their people to believe in, how he might have crafted the world she saw, and for what purpose. She wondered how what she saw of her father might differ from his true self.

But she had long held her tongue on this matter around her father, else he might not have entrusted her in this mission.

Pressed on by the cheers of the masses, Shalosha and her retinue of attendants and bodyguards ascended the road to the royal palace, its towers gleaming in the noonday sun, caught in the cold mist billowing up from the Reshial Falls. Despite her awareness of the stagecraft, she did love waving to her people, and before entering the palace grounds she turned and blew kisses to the throng. Their loyalty to her surged with their loving cheers, and she felt a brief flutter of power that forced a joyous smile onto her face as she gave one final wave and entered the palace.

Up she climbed through the many tiers of the palace, her enthusiasm lasting as she passed through gardens, beautiful halls, and chambers of politics, slowly fading from beaming to giddy to contented, until she saw her father. She put on her best loving smile as she entered the throne room, nodding to the various counselors and high guards of the Solei Palancis who bowed to her.

“Father, is everything alright?”

Her father Shaaladel looked up from his maps and gestured her over. He was not the handsomest of their people, but had a sharp aquiline nose, fair blond hair cut for battle, and eyes of sapphire blue. He always wore his sword at his hip, but she had never seen it unsheathed.

“The fleet is ready,” her father said, “but we’ve received unpleasant news. Yesterday, just after the turn of the new year, the Ragesians attacked Gate Pass. There’s still quite a battle going on, and we’ve actually received a request for aid, but Aurana has divined that they won’t last more than a few weeks.”

Shalosha frowned. This might be all the excuse her father needed to call off her mission.

They had known this would come, but for the past two months the royal court had felt like it was blind to the outside world, ever since Coaltongue had been slain. The teleporting couriers who regularly delivered news of other nations had nearly all died the same night, for when Coaltongue fell, something deadly had occurred in the spaces between worlds.

The Torch of the Burning Sky had given Coaltongue the power to instantly carry entire armies across the world in a pillar of fire, and now all those who used similar magic arrived at their destinations incinerated. Forced to rely on mundane messengers and the occasional magical missive, the royal court knew the Ragesians were marching on their nation, but could only guess where.

“This makes the mission all the more urgent, father.”

“Really?” He shook his head. “We’re about to go to war, and our fleet has a vital mission, but you want to take it on a detour to this school of witch doctors?”

Shalosha stood still but she glanced at the people eavesdropping from around the room. Disapproval had already crept into some of their expressions, for none were supposed to doubt the Shining Lord, not even his daughter. Her father must assume she would never be so rude to argue with him before so many. But he was as bound by the demands of appearance as she.

Shalosha relaxed and chuckled.

“You’re right, Father. The people want to see me safe on my journey, and you were gracious to offer half the fleet to protect me, but I only need one ship to go to Seaquen. The people clearly do not know how mighty even a single ship of our navy can be.”

In truth, the bulk of the mighty Shahalesti fleet was prepared to cut around the southern nations in order to reach Sindaire, where Coaltongue had fallen on his final campaign. Retrieving the Torch was paramount, and every ruler was rightfully terrified of what would happen if someone else claimed it first. In the two short months since the emperor’s death many had tried, but it was obvious that all had failed, because there was not yet a new warlord trying to conquer the world.

The fleet that was about to set out represented a daring investment of resources in order to claim a prize that would let Shahalesti rule over all other nations. Seaquen just happened to be on the way, and her father had always been reticent to allow for even a few day’s delay.

Shalosha smiled to those watching as she casually walked up to her father, who had that look of stoic disinterest he adopted when he was angry. His voice was low enough that the conversation was nearly private.

“Why risk your safety for this pointless gesture?” he asked.

“My safety?” Shalosha suppressed a quiet laugh. “Father, your tutors have trained me to defend myself against the greatest dangers the Ragesians can offer. Unless Leska herself is with them, we should pity anyone who dares attack the fleet.”

“The witch.” He sneered. “We should be thankful the Ragesians are coming to us. Without the Torch, they know we can defeat them. The smart generals will side with me, and then we’ll march on Leska. By next year Ragesia will have its rightful ruler.”

He looked down at the map on his desk and shook his head.

“No, we don’t need the aid of those foreign mages. They’re all children of Dasseni anyway. We don’t want them.”

Shalosha sighed. “What would you have me do, then? What should your noble daughter do in a time of war?”

“She shouldn’t question me!” he hissed, not quite quietly enough.

The rest of the royal court quickly found something else to pay attention to, and soon all but the guards were had left the chamber. Her father watched them go with unconcealed disdain. Shalosha shivered at the coldness in his eyes.

“The Ragesians,” he said, “will send forces around the northern Tunda Mountains, past Ycengled, though the main threat will be through Gate Pass. I will need someone to represent me among the generals at Nacaan and Piryas.”

“What of the Torch?” she asked.

“Telshanth is leading the expedition. You know that.”

“And you trust him, Father, to bring the Torch back to you when he finds it?”

Her father hesitated before responding. Through their connection by the rites of rulership she felt his confidence falter, and it made her weak in a way she could barely express. Her bloodline was tied to the fate of her nation, and she did not know what it would mean for their people if her father became paranoid of his subordinates. But it was a play she had to make.

Shalosha continued, “The Torch is too powerful, Father. The others are loyal, they love you, but they are not your blood. They have served you well for longer than I’ve been alive; don’t be cruel and put them against such temptation.”

Her father drew a heavy breath and narrowed his eyes.

“You’re right. This is too important to risk any chance, and I know you can never betray me, Shalosha. If only I could go, but I would rather like to go to battle with Ragesians again. It’s been too long.”

Shalosha forced herself not to sigh in relief yet, and she smiled.

“So will you give me leave to seek the aid of the mages of Seaquen?”

Her father nodded with restraint, going to the other side of his desk, where he pulled out an elegant scroll and then sat in a gold and ivory chair.

“You will leave as we originally planned,” he said. “I still wish I could have you aiding me in the north, but if you are going to speak to these mages, we should be clear under what conditions they will serve us. I’ll have to write this fast. Fetch me pen and ink?”

Shalosha kept her mask of elegance, nodded obediently, and got her father his quill and inkwell. As she waited for him to finish his decree, she looked out the window, down at the crowds clustered along the road below. Royal aides moved among them, no doubt weeding and selecting who would watch her journey to the harbor.
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Act Two

Chapter Eleven

Uselessly Rivereye clung to the horse’s neck and bridle, his short arms barely strong enough to keep him from being flung off into the flames that leapt from the forest brush and the trunks of trees. Smoke and cinders set his eyes to tears, and though the fire did not sear his skin, it smothered him and stole his breath. He had fled Ragesia to get away from horrors like this, and now he was riding, almost intentionally, straight into a living hell.

The young han woman behind him, Crystin, pulled at the horse’s reins, crying out for it to calm down and stop. Only moments earlier an ambush by the Ragesians had spooked the mount, and now in its panic it had turned off the main road onto a trail filled with flames.

“Stop!” Crystin screamed. “Help me!”

Through the haze of heat and concealment of trees, Rivereye saw glimpses of the main road fading away to the left. He dared to sit up and look ahead, to the game trail the horse was following in its panic, but the ground rose and fell and vanished beyond curtains of fire, and he couldn’t see more than twenty feet.

Then the horse crested the rise of its hill and started down a slope, toward a ravine filled with burning brambles.

Rivereye cried out and Crystin yanked at the reins, but the horse started to buck them. Thankfully, Rivereye realized, he didn’t actually want to stay on the damned horse, so he grabbed Crystin’s wrist and threw his weight sideways. The two of them fell away from the horse and into a patch of flaming brush, while the horse plunged screaming into the brambles.

Crystin coughed and flailed as the fire tried to cling to her cloak, but Rivereye rolled to his feet and, without stopping to bat out the flames on his own clothes, he dragged her onto the game trail, which was clear of burning brush. The magic of the elixirs they had drunk earlier kept them from being hurt by the fire, but by the time they managed to smother each other’s clothing they were rather singed.

Rivereye helped Crystin to her feet as best he could; though short by han standards, she was still a foot taller than him. He caught his breath, then took a slow, awed look at the forest, which thrummed like a vast, breathing furnace around them.

Thin trees stretched upward into a roaring canopy inferno, and bursts of ash and cinders swept through the forest beyond them like frenetic, incendiary cloud banks. To his shock, he saw what looked like a bird flying between branches, burning as fatally as everything else. Grass smouldered, and brush crackled as veins of fire burst through the skin of leaves. Everything here should have turned to dust decades ago, but still it burned, refusing to die.

“We’re lost,” Crystin whispered.

She looked so frightened, Rivereye thought. Nervously, he reached up and took her hand, trying to pull her after him.

“Let’s hurry back. We need to get to Torrent and the others before the Ragesians reach us.”

“Wait!” Crystin said. “The eyes of the fire beast. If we flee he will destroy us.”

Crystin’s posture had shifted, from one of fear to that of a woman walking in a dream, but her eyes were horror-stricken. Rivereye followed her gaze to the end of the trail, where the horse had fallen to its death, and beyond. There was nothing there but an endless stretch of rough hills and searing foliage. No animals moved in the brush, and there certainly were no eyes.

“It wants to speak with us,” Crystin said.

“He’ll have to wait for somebody else, then,” Rivereye said. “You’re seeing things. It must be the-”

Thirty feet away down the trail, suddenly their horse, which had vanished into the ravine, snorted and leapt into view, its body on fire and its cries of pain screeching through the air. It whirled, panicking as it tried to put out the flames on its skin, and finally it bolted away, running to its death in the distant brush.

Rivereye shivered, then quickly yanked on Crystin’s hand to get them both out of there. She resisted for a moment, looking back at the burning horse, but followed.

He scurried back along the trail toward the road was, shouting out for Rantle, Torrent, Sorra, and the others, while he told himself to ignore what he’d just seen. He had to tug the young woman with him to get her to move at all. Ash and clouds of cinders in the air made it hard to see beyond a few dozen feet, but he heard people calling for him and he yelled back to them.

At the sound of others’ voices, Crystin seemed to snap out of her trance, and she hurried alongside him of her own volition. When they reached the top of the hill, Rivereye spotted almost the entire group standing at the edge of the old Innenotdar highway, where no flaming brush grew. What he had heard had not been them calling out back to him, but rather a vicious argument.

Diogenes, the mage who had come with Rantle, shouted at Torrent, the two of them gesturing in the direction they had come from. Neither of them had a horse any more. The Ragesian knight sat on the one remaining horse, and he checked his armor and gear while casually holding the older mage, Crystin’s father, so the unconscious man wouldn’t fall off the saddle. He glanced up the road, as if waiting for the others, Rantle and Sorra, to arrive.

“Father,” Crystin called out.

The group looked up as Crystin pushed her way through flaming branches to reach her father. Rivereye cast a look backward, then followed.

“You,” Torrent said, seeing him. “Oh thank you, gods. Do you still have the case?”

Rivereye, reminded why he was on this trip, nodded and turned his back to reveal the sealed Ragesian documents in his pack.

“Are we staying here?” Rivereye said.

“No,” said Diogenes. He pointed southward. “It would be naïve to think the Ragesians can’t figure out how to follow us. If we stay on the road they’ll run us down. We’re going to have to head into the forest.”

“To a watery hell with the rags,” Torrent said. “We’re not leaving them yet.”

Diogenes spun away in a huff. He started picking through various tokens and amulets at his belt with one hand, while he kept the other tucked into his pocket. He still had an arrow stuck in that arm.

“Is he alright?” Rivereye asked quietly.

“Hm?” Torrent seemed lost in thought.

Rivereye looked down. He should have stayed in the palace, he thought. It was frightening there these days, but he doubted there was on fire. The resistance in Ragos had tried to recruit him to assassinate one of the inquisitors; he would have definitely been killed in retaliation, but being a famous dead hero was better than being a charcoal biscuit.

The forest blasted them with its dry breath for a moment, and then the Ragesian knight who Rantle had brought along – his last name was Danava, was all Rivereye could recall – spoke up.

“Come hear this. The girl says there’s something in the woods.”

Torrent and Diogenes went to hear Crystin’s tale of seeing eyes in the forest, leaving Rivereye alone. He stood at the edge of the group, tapping his foot and looking up the road for Ragesian forces, and down as well, for whatever demons might be living here.

“Rivereye?” Torrent said.

He blinked. “What?”

“Did you see this too?”

“No,” he shrugged. “Or maybe? This place is horrifying. I didn’t see anything, but where better for monsters to live than in a cursed forest?”

Diogenes said, “The girl is probably just spooked, but it’s better not to assume we’re safe. Another reason why I’m not all that eager to linger.”

“I believe her,” said the Ragesian knight. “When we first saw her, it was like she knew we were coming. Her expression . . . she’s like a seer.”

“Her name is Crystin,” Rivereye said. “Even if there is something out there, it didn’t come close. It said it just wanted to talk to someone, so I thought maybe it could talk to one of you.”

“Brilliant teamwork,” Diogenes said. “Lure the monster to us.”

The sound of horse hooves reached them then, and Rivereye looked up the road where they had come from. Rantle appeared a hundred feet away, riding in through a bank of ashes, alone atop his horse, his hands, shirt, and one leg covered in blood, with a bandage around his thigh. He rode up and reined his horse to a stop beside them. Briefly he seemed like he was about to look back over his shoulder, but instead sneered and sighed. Rivereye knew what had happened before Rantle said anything.

“Sorra’s dead.” There was none of his normal cockiness in his voice.

“Poor girl,” Torrent said. “Are you-?”

“I’m fine,” Rantle said. “We need to go.”

Everyone looked around in uncertainty.

Rivereye said, “Our horse ran off into the woods, on fire.”

“The rags shot ours out from under us,” Torrent said, “and we don’t have enough elixir to spare even if we had grabbed theirs.”

Diogenes said, “We will if we sit around and wait for them to come and kill more of us. Rantle, let the jispin and the girl use your horse.”

Rantle dismounted and met Rivereye’s gaze. The man cocked his head in the direction of the horse, then limped over to talk with the others. Rivereye considered the horse warily, wondering if this one would turn suicidal too, and decided to wait.

Crystin helped her father, who was now coming awake, from one horse to the other. A discussion began between the rest of the group, but Rivereye was too overwhelmed by his surroundings to pay attention.

“The ash is making his cough worse,” Crystin said.

The old man was hacking violently. The sound was terrible, and Rivereye cringed.

“Is he-? What’s his name? Is he alright?”

“His name is Haddin,” she said. “I need to tell you-”

Haddin managed to get his coughing under control and shook his daughter’s hand away. He looked around, spat, and glared at his daughter, who suddenly cast her eyes downward and shut her mouth.

“You brought me into the forest? How could you disobey me?”

“There are Ragesians following us,” Rivereye said, gawking. “You’re lucky we got here when we did.”

“Better to die fighting in my home than burn to de-”

Haddin covered his mouth as he coughed. He glared at Rivereye, then looked up the road to the entrance of the fire forest. Intermittently visible through ash and waves of heat, a small cluster of Ragesian cavalry had gathered hundreds of feet away. There were at least a half dozen of them, but they looked like they were waiting now. Rivereye wondered how hard it was to create the magic necessary to enter the fire forest.

* * *​

Guthwulf came upon the scene a carefully-planned few minutes after the fighting was over.

His subordinate, the herethim Inquisitor Boreus, had just claimed the soul of the Khabese archer with the sword stuck through him – one of the drawbacks of discretion was missing out on the first pickings – and now the hulking man stood and faced him.

“He saw them each drink some elixir before they fled for the forest,” Boreus said. “My target and his daughter went with them.”

Guthwulf scrunched his mouth to one side as he considered the situation. He had a good dozen men on horses left, plus the demon he had brought with him from Ragos, and though the fugitives had killed – he counted the corpses now strewn in the distance – five warriors, plus the two Khabese trackers, the quarry were low on horses. He just had to make sure they couldn’t get in too far and manage to hide.

“I’m entrusting you with recovering the case,” Guthwulf said. “Haddin is a distant second goal. They didn’t take all his research, did they?”

Boreus shook his head.

“Good,” Guthwulf said. “Here, take my demon, and go track them down. I’ll go see what the old man left behind.”

Boreus gulped and looked down at the twisted woman prowling servilely at Guthwulf’s side, sniffing in the ash.

“You look pale,” Guthwulf said. He patted Boreus on the back and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Trust me, she’s harmless if you keep her fed.”

“How are we to follow into the fire forest?” Boreus asked.

Guthwulf pondered a moment, then pointed at the dead han woman who lay in an ashy pool of blood, an arrow wound in her neck.

“She was with them. She drank this elixir?”

“I believe so,” Boreus said.

Guthwulf looked at her closely and willed his mask to reveal the strands of magic still in her corpse. He could tell she had drawn mana recently before her death, but nothing worth taking. Her blood, however, was still warm with the elixir. Guthwulf knelt beside her and felt for the artery in her neck.

“Have six of your men get out drinking cups,” he said.
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Chapter Twelve

The discussion between the others spiked in volume, and Rivereye turned at the sound of Diogenes’ exclamation.

“No,” the mage said, “it’s a fine idea. I just don’t appreciate the situation you’ve gotten me into.”

“Go peck about it later,” Rantle snapped. “Just find us a place we can kill them, Kathor.”

Haddin began to cough, and Crystin started to shake her head, her eyes struggling to focus. Rivereye recognized it as the expression of someone coming out of mind control; the inquisitors at the imperial palace used such magic almost as entertainment.

Crystin said, “What’s going on?”

“Quiet,” coughed Haddin casually.

And Crystin became quiet.

Rivereye squinted at Haddin, but then looked to Crystin with concern.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “They’ll get us to safety. Rantle’s saved our lives twice already.”

“Is he the one who punched me?” Haddin said.

Rivereye shrugged. “Don’t know, but it was Kathor who dragged your unconscious wart of a body out of the house.”

Haddin glared at him, and Rivereye grinned back with a smile that said, ‘I’m not important enough to deserve the time you would spend killing me.’ Everyone who worked in the palace had perfected that smile, or else they led a very boring life without ever having a chance to insult their taskmasters.

Kathor whistled and waved to get their attention.

“The ash is too thick,” he said, pointing at the ground. “There’s no way they’ll miss our trail even through the woods, so that is our best bet.”

He pointed to a rocky spur just down the road. It rose a jagged twenty feet above the right side of the highway. Burning brush and trees atop the spur provided cover but it was rocky and broad enough that in a few places a man could stand without being in fire. The larger trees of the forest provided enough concealment that the rags wouldn’t see them until they were less than twenty feet away. And something seemed to be moving in the flames beyond the trees. . . .

It was only a moment, but Rivereye felt certain the fire was watching him. He blinked and the impression faded.

Torrent said, “You’re one of them. How do we fight them?”

Kathor did not reply for a moment, though Rivereye couldn’t tell if he was brooding over an answer, or was offended to be asked. Everyone waited, until finally he nodded.

“We cut around the spur to the right,” Kathor said. “Make them think we’re going into the forest. The terrain’s too rough for horses or bows, so you can draw them into close quarters. Their horses won’t go into the flaming brush-”

Rivereye snorted.

“-so they’ll have to dismount. I’ll circle around and stay out of sight on the other side of the road, and catch them in a pincer. The inquisitor will likely hang back, so you just have to worry about the soldiers.

“You, your name’s Rivereye?”

Surprised to be addressed directly, Rivereye nodded. “Yes. I can fight.”

“Good, but I need you as look-out on top of the rock to let me know when it is clear to flank them. Mage.”

Diogenes was tapping his foot anxiously. “Eh?”

“An inquisitor means your magic’s more of a liability than an aid. You any good with a sword?”

“I didn’t go to eight years of overpriced arcane education to learn swordplay. I can handle the inquisitor. Or actually, I can handle whoever’s with him. I need you to put your swords in the inquisitor before his men put their swords through me. That’s how these things work.”

Rantle said, “Oh, so you’re not just going to run away this time?”

“Better than playing ‘archery target’ for the Ragesians,” Diogenes said.

Kathor interrupted. “Check your arm, mage. You’re giving away your trick.”

Diogenes looked at his fake arm with surprise, then awkwardly wiggled the arrow out.

Next Kathor pointed at Torrent and Rantle. “You two stay close to the mage.”

“I lost my sword,” Rantle said.

Kathor frowned, then drew a hand-and-a-half sword from a sheath on his saddle and passed it to Rantle.

“What if there are too many?” Rantle asked.

Kathor actually smiled, for the first time since Rivereye had seen him. “If there are too many, they kill us. Get moving.”

As the others started to head off the road on foot, Kathor looked to Haddin.

“You, old man,” he said. “Your daughter said you’re a mage too.”

The wind picked up, and a blinding cloud of ash blew across them.

“I did not want-,” Haddin started, then had to cough. “Did not want to come with you, so it’s fortunate I am no good-,” he spat dryly and cleared his throat, “no good in a battle, so now I don’t have to help you. My daughter and I will-,” he coughed, “stay in cover.”

During the man’s coughing Rivereye had noticed him glancing back up the road, clearly nervous despite his bluster.

“Fine,” Kathor said. “You and your daughter just stay out of the way behind the spur. Rivereye, up on the spur, and hide. When at least some of them have left the road to go after the others, shout to me. Be loud.”

Haddin and Crystin mounted the horse Rantle had ridden in on, and then followed Kathor as he rode off the side of the road and then around to the rock spur’s backside. The father and daughter stopped and hid, while Kathor continued on, eventually reaching a nice ambush spot on one side of the road. By circling around the rock spur he had not left any tracks that could be seen from the road itself.

Rantle, Diogenes, and Torrent stopped at a spot just around the curve of the outcropping, out of sight of the road.

They were all so well-hidden, and as Rivereye climbed up the many ledges of the rock spur he felt horrifyingly vulnerable. He settled in on a patch of ground with no flame that was hidden behind a large rock.

Looking down, to his right was a nearly twenty foot drop to the ash-covered highway, though if he needed to he could probably slide down the rock face without hurting himself. To his left, Rantle, Diogenes, and Torrent waited behind cover of trees and scorched boulders. Slightly ahead and on the right side of the road, Kathor sat checking his armor and patting his horse’s mane reassuringly, while behind him, about forty feet away, Haddin and Crystin sat on the other horse. The father held a rag over his mouth, coughing. The daughter simply sat still, even as a spray of cinders nearly seared her face.

Rivereye peeked over the top of his rock, and saw the Ragesians approaching.

Seven riders churned up ash as their horses galloped in, and what appeared to be a man-sized hound in a white cloak led them ten feet ahead. Four of the riders wore light Ragesian cavalry armor – crimson leather trimmed with bear fur for the winter – and each held an axe and shield at ready, with short compound bows on their saddles. Behind them rode a pair of scale-armored soldiers bearing the fireball standard upon their tabards and wielding long, spear-tipped poleaxes, marking them as middle-ranked armsmen.

Like bodyguards, these two rode flanking the final rider, the inquisitor. He wore no armor except the bear skull mask that shielded his soul from sorcery, wielded no weapon except an articulated bronze claw on his right hand. Clattering charms covered his hirsute body, some primitive tribal medallions, others religious icons cast in iron, and many of more obscure eldritch nature. His skin was the sickly brown color of rotting bark, and though the mask hid most of his face, by his size and by the short tusks jutting from his lower jaw, he was clearly a herethim. Within the empty sockets of the bear skull forest flame reflected dull red off his eyes.

As they closed, Rivereye realized the creature guiding them was no hound. It loped on all fours, but its gait was uneven, and its head was shaggy with plaited blond hair. They were only forty feet away when the air grew strangely heavy and the hound scrambled to a stop, and Rivereye could finally see the strange creature clearly.

It was a han woman, her limbs bent in an unnatural position to let her stride like a wolf, her flesh pale like a corpse. She wore a common winter cloak and coat, as well as a bracelet on one wrist, and her fingers dug into the ash like talons. Her neck twisted in ways that would have killed a normal person, letting her look forward while her body was bent over. She peered around with a serene, and almost sleepy expression, but her cheeks sat hollow and gaunt, and her stringy hair hung unevenly, falling out in clumps.

The riders reined their horses to a stop around the twisted woman-like creature. It sniffed the air, and its head lolled from side to side with jerks and twitches as it scanned its surroundings. It looked up at Rivereye and he nearly cried out.

He had heard the tales in the court, tales of monsters from the realms where evil souls were sent for punishment, beyond the gates of ruin. Whatever old gods watched over the world kept the monsters from actually traveling across the black gulf of death, but they could inhabit the bodies of the living and recently slain.

The inquisitors trafficked in death, and one of the older court staff – a jen named Bahurel, who seldom talked – would, in those rare instances he did speak, mutter stories of captives tortured to the brink of death. The inquisitors would tear out a dying man’s soul and offer it to one of those horrors beyond the mortal ring, beckoning it to our world.

Rivereye saw this thing’s eyes for just a moment, but he knew what it was: a demon.

Despite his fear, Rivereye forced himself to watch, if for nothing else than to make sure the creature did not come for him. The forest growled, and a thick gust of cinders sprayed down the roadway. The Ragesians covered their faces, but the twisted creature did not look away. Undisturbed by the fire, it kept its gaze locked at the rock Rivereye hid behind, then finally looked away when the inquisitor called out to it.

The inquisitor and his creature spoke too quietly for Rivereye to hear, and after a moment the woman snarled and stood up on her hind legs. No longer held by the creature’s gaze, Rivereye ducked behind the rock and began to breathe again.

It would not be that bad if he just hid and fled after the battle was over, he told himself. He was still hurt from the day before, and would be useless in a fight anyway, and someone would need to live to tell the tale of their deaths.

But a pang of guilt reminded him that Rantle and Diogenes had come to rescue him, and now they were in this together. He gulped to focus himself, and knowing he couldn’t risk any more hiding, he slowly raised his head to peer over the rock.

The inquisitor, the monstrous woman, and indeed the whole entourage of soldiers were looking straight at him. The inquisitor casually clawed at the air with a gesture Rivereye recognized from the many times he had spied on other inquisitors practicing. It was a spell, or rather a counterspell, intended to strip magic away and pull it into the inquisitor’s grasp.

Invisible claws tore across Rivereye’s face, and he ducked and screamed as blood sprayed into the air before his eyes. It was the worst pain he had ever known, but as he fell to the ground he knew something else far worse had happened. He felt a horrifying heat in his lungs as the magic that had protected him from the fire forest was torn from him. The air burned his chest, the stone seared his flesh, and as the roaring inferno battered him with its fury, he cried out and fell helpless to the ground.

* * *​

Rantle told himself he didn’t have time to mourn or regret what he had done. What had happened with Sorra was owed a great deal of regret, and if he didn’t live through this fight now he wouldn’t have nearly enough time for it all.

He was hiding behind a boulder of jagged black rock that had fallen free from the rock spur. Torrent crouched behind another boulder a man’s length away, her axe drawn back to hack off the feet of the first rag who came through the gap between them. She whispered a prayer or a chant for a spell, and looked far calmer than Rantle felt.

Ten feet further away, the coward Diogenes stood confidently behind a tree thicker than Rantle’s boulder. The mage, who Rantle was certain could have prevented Sorra’s death if he hadn’t fled, lit a cigarette with a grin by holding it to the tree’s burning bark, then took a drag. The man’s eyes closed for a moment as he savored the tobacco, and then he threw the cigarette away.

Rantle couldn’t afford to hate the man now. He just tightened his grip on his sword and peeked around the boulder.

Forty feet away, through rough terrain filled with burning brambles and thorned trees, Rantle spied the Ragesians. A woman in white had just stood up from the ash, speaking with a huge herethim wearing an animal skull as a mask, while six mounted Ragesian soldiers – some han, some herethim – looked around warily. Something was wrong with the woman, and Rantle felt the muscles in his neck seize up as he saw her head jerk in an impossible movement, angling upward. She pointed an emaciated hand toward the top of the rock spur, and all the Ragesians looked where she pointed.

Rantle turned and looked up as well, barely making out Rivereye in his hiding place. The jispin had ducked and hidden, and looked like he was about to pass out from panic.

“They saw him,” Rantle said, just loud enough for Torrent to hear. “The rags know where Rivereye’s hiding.”

Torrent said, “He’s safe if he stays down. Don’t ruin the-”

Just then Rivereye stood, but he ducked again almost immediately, crying out with pain and falling where the rock obscured him from Rantle. The inquisitor must have done some magic against him, but there was no way Rantle could get to the jispin without revealing himself to the Ragesians. He kicked the boulder in frustration at being helpless again, but just when he was about to step out and rush the Ragesians, Diogenes preempted him.

The mage kept his right foot planted and spun out to the left, emerging from the cover of his tree. He shouted and cast one hand out toward the Ragesians, and flames crackled across his palm. Then the fire from all the scattered brush seemed to coalesce into a pair of burning wolves which leapt forward, snarling and roaring toward the inquisitor and his guards. Less than a heartbeat after emerging, Diogenes pivoted back into cover.

“Kill them, my hounds!” he shouted.

Rantle looked out from cover for a moment, unsure of what to do, but Diogenes held out a warning hand.

“Don’t move,” Diogenes called to him. “I’ve got their attention. And look out for illusions; the inquisitor might recast my spell.”

“What?” Rantle called back.

He was not sure what the mage meant, but already the Ragesians were looking in their direction, and the soldiers struggled to keep their horses calm as two ululating hellhounds charged them. Two Ragesians with polearms swung out of their saddles and interposed themselves between the hounds and their inquisitor commander, while the inquisitor stood high in his saddle, holding his open hand outward at where Diogenes was hiding. From all the stories Rantle had heard, the inquisitor should have been using his power to destroy Diogenes’s conjured beasts, but the man simply ignored them.

The hounds leapt in, and most of the horses broke in fear, their riders struggling to disentangle themselves from stirrups before they were carried away. The two guards swung at the hounds, but when their weapons swept through the creatures without wounding them, the men fell back screaming.

Glancing over, Rantle spotted Diogenes stepping out from behind the tree again, only somehow there were two of him, one still in cover. The one who was hiding looked like he was concentrating intensely, while the one who had stepped out gestured as if to cast another spell. At the road, the inquisitor, still seemingly unconcerned with the fiery hounds, finally moved. He grasped at the air and shouted something just as the one Diogenes cast a spell. As soon as the inquisitor shouted, the Diogenes out in the open vanished, his body disappearing like a painting being clawed apart, and the other Diogenes who had been hiding pivoted out into the open, aiming with splayed fingers at the soldiers struggling to dismount.

The inquisitor spun his head to watch his soldiers begin to struggle to get back into their saddles, looks of unfounded horror on their faces. The inquisitor threw up his hands, a gesture not of magic but of frustration, and Rantle realized Diogenes had done something to infuriate him.

Rantle looked back up at where Rivereye had fallen, then to Torrent.

“I’ll get the jispin,” he said, “then shout for Kathor to attack.”

“Stay put,” Diogenes hissed. “Follow the damned plan!”

Rantle wavered, then heard brush and twigs snapping as some of the Ragesians charged in. Diogenes stepped out from cover again, normally a foolish move, but when the mage turned and ran, Rantle realized his path would draw the Ragesians straight between him and Torrent. Rantle drew back his sword and nodded to Torrent.

The first of the Ragesians, a well-armored herethim with a poleaxe, rushed through the gap between them, raising his weapon to cut down Diogenes. Instead, Torrent chopped into the warrior’s ankle, cleaving off his foot. The man screamed and fell, and when the second warrior followed through the gap a moment later he was already in mid-swing to strike Torrent, but Rantle spun out from behind his boulder and slashed upward.

He was aiming for the man’s wrist, but caught the haft of the poleaxe instead. His blade stopped the warrior’s blow but got lodged deep into the wood, and the Ragesian yanked his weapon away, wrenching Rantle’s sword out of his hand. Before the man could draw back his long polearm for another attack, Rantle stepped inside his reach, snapping a dagger out of his armpit sheath. He tried to stab up into the Ragesian’s throat, but the man deflected the attack with the haft of his weapon, then quickly spun the haft back around, pressing it into the side of Rantle’s neck and torquing sideways.

Before he knew what was happening, Rantle was knocked off his feet and shoved down into fiery grass. The Ragesian landed heavily on Rantle’s back, using his poleaxe to pin Rantle’s head and one of his arms to the ground. For an instant Rantle tried to push or roll free, but then the Ragesian stopped struggling. He felt blood splatter across him, and he managed to turn and look up to see Torrent pulling her axe out of the warrior’s head with a wet suction.

The sound of the inquisitor’s voice pulled Rantle’s attention to the road, where the skull-masked mage was rallying his four remaining warriors. Diogenes’s hellhounds had vanished somewhere. The eerie woman was bending over onto all fours, and when her milky-eyed gaze met Rantle’s, she snarled like a beast. The inquisitor spun to look in their direction and began to reach out with his clawed hand.

“Move!” Torrent shouted.

She grabbed Rantle by his armpit to try to pull him back behind cover. The air rushed like wind, and Torrent cried out. Rantle shoved the dead Ragesian off his back, then scrambled through the burning brush back to the cover of his boulder. Torrent also leapt away, and when they were both out of sight, Rantle saw Torrent holding her belly. Blood was gushing out in four parallel lines as if she had been slashed, but her clothes were untouched.

“Can you move?” Rantle asked.

The Ragesian who was missing his foot was still howling in pain. Rantle reached over and plunged his dagger into the man’s neck, and the man stopped moving.

“Not well,” Torrent said. “Huh. I think this might be mortal.”

Rantle reached out with his left hand to grab Torrent and help her move, but the air rushed like it had just before. He pulled his arm back into cover but too slowly, and wide gashes tore open the back of his hand and his arm.

He bit his lip and growled in pain, then realized he could hear the other Ragesians pressing through the forest toward him. At that instant the first of the remaining Ragesians soldiers appeared in the corner of Rantle’s eye. Expecting an attack, Rantle ducked and stabbed upward at the soldier’s belly, but his knife went through the man completely, and his momentum carried him through the warrior’s body, which tore apart like he was jumping through a sheet of paper.

More soldiers swarmed him, and Rantle slashed furiously to try to keep them at bay, but none of his blows met any resistance when he hit, and when the Ragesians attacked back, their blades were harmless. Then he heard Torrent shout a warning to Diogenes, and he realized he’d been tricked by the inquisitor’s magic.

Looking back, he saw that the actual soldiers had gotten off their horses, cut through the woods to their side, and had flanked them. Diogenes had leapt out from behind his cover and was now running back in Rantle’s direction, away from the soldiers and toward the inquisitor. Torrent had staggered to her feet, and she held up her shield as best she could to block any more magic from the inquisitor.

As Rantle came out of cover, however, rescue seemed at hand, for the inquisitor was looking away at Kathor, who was riding hard out of the woods, his massive sword was drawn back for a blow that would cut a man in half.

The inquisitor swept his claw at Kathor, and Kathor grunted with pain as streaks of blood sprayed out of his armor along his right arm, but he kept riding. Then, just as he was about to strike, the pale monstrous woman sprung into the air at him. Kathor’s blade struck her full in her chest, but the thing did not blink at the impact. It dug one clawed hand into Kathor’s horse’s neck, the other into Kathor’s shoulder, and then tore Kathor from his saddle.

Diogenes did some sort of magic, but the inquisitor clenched his fist as if catching it, and then shoved both hands at Diogenes, knocking him to the ground from thirty feet away.

“Kill that son of a-” Diogenes was yelling, when a Ragesian caught up to him from behind and planted an axe in his wooden arm, turning the mage’s shouts to panicked shrieks.

The inquisitor raised his hand to aim some magic to finish off Diogenes, but Kathor’s horse, still intent on its original target, reared and kicked at the Ragesian. The inquisitor wheeled his horse so that it would take the blow instead, and two hooves slammed into the confused mount’s head. Blood burst from its nose and its crushed eye, and then the inquisitor’s horse reeled and threw its rider, who fell into the ash.

Rantle pushed himself into a sprint, and he charged at the inquisitor, knowing he had to kill the rag before he got back up. To his left, four soldiers had surrounded Torrent and Diogenes. To his right, Kathor grappled the unnatural pale creature on the ground, punching it with gauntleted fists. And behind him, just as Rantle was about to lunge at the inquisitor with nothing more than a dagger, he heard another horse charging in, and he realized Crystin and her wretched old father were riding to join the battle. The inquisitor’s skeletal gaze turned to face them, and Rantle thought he might have a chance.

But then Haddin coughed out the words to a spell of some sort, and the inquisitor caught it in his clawed hand. Rantle swung his knife up at the inquisitor’s belly, but the huge herethim deflected the attack with his metal claw. Rantle struggled to make another stab, but the inquisitor clamped his other hand onto Rantle’s shoulder and punched him in the face with the palm of his claw.

The magic the inquisitor had caught from Haddin seared his skin and forced its way into him. Rantle felt like fish hooks digging through the inside of his skin, and the strings were pulling inward, coiling into knots, keeping him from moving.

The Ragesian inquisitor’s magic held his body like a puppeteer preparing for a show. Icy breath blew across Rantle’s ear as the inquisitor spoke.

“Kill those you came with.”

The strings pulled, the knots shifted, and Rantle found himself turning to Diogenes.

Chapter Thirteen

Heat crushed Rivereye and stole his breath, but though he clenched his eyes to keep them from burning away, he saw the firelight intensifying. It was when the lake materialized before him that he realized something strange was happening.

He sat on a broad, parched shore of desiccated fish bones surrounded by blackened rocks, and a perfectly still lake stretched a mile away in front of him, reflecting a smoky sky and endless fire. Pillars of fire surrounded the lake on all sides, and a song pressed through writhing branches in thin slivers, its rhythm full of longing. Hearing it, Rivereye felt heavier, real, even though he knew this had to be a dream.

The surface of the lake parted, and a broad rack of antlers rose up, dripping water for an instant before bursting into flame. An emaciated stag, its shoulders higher than a whole man, emerged from the lake. Two huge wounds pierced its body, at its left front shoulder and its right abdomen, and globules of flaming blood fell and sizzled on the lake’s surface. It stood atop the water, slowly swinging its head from side to side in order to watch him. Wisps of fire burned across its body.

The thing bellowed, but had no voice. Rivereye felt the words in his essence and knew that they were true.

“I am Indomitability. Eternal shall your torment be until you release me.”

Rivereye wondered if this thing was a god, and what he had done to call down its wrath.

“Of-, of course we’ll free you,” Rivereye stammered. “Am I dead?”

“None can die who have my power,” Indomitability said into his soul. “But if you do not end the song, you will forever burn in living torment. Free me from this enforced flesh!”

Rivereye stammered, and he looked around for help, but the absence of anyone who could aid him was so absolute that he felt it tangibly. He was trapped, impossibly so, abandoned by his kin in this strange, corporeal world, far beyond the Mother’s sight. So long he had been gone, and she would be weak without him. But he could imagine her pain, for oh, the wound in his side ever hurt, the hole through which the fires flowed, fires which would sear his captors until they could no longer bind him.

“Dah,” Rivereye cried. “No.”

For a moment he had been someone else, but he shook his head, and once again he remembered who he was supposed to be. Still, some part of this fire beast Indomitability floated around in his soul, like saliva lingering from an unwanted kiss.

“What are you?” Rivereye asked. “I mean, we will free you, of course-”

“You will not deceive me!” it roared inaudibly. “Come to the lake. Release me, or join my suffering.”

The embers in its eyes flared, and the surface of the lake burst with steam as the stag began to charge him. It swung its head furiously, leaving red and gold trails in the air behind it, and as it bore down upon him, Rivereye shouted.

“I’ll do whatever you want! Don’t hurt-!”

The stag trampled toward him, collapsing at the last moment into a gout of fire that rolled across him like a burning fog. And when it cleared, Rivereye awoke, the sounds of battle fierce and desperate in his ears.

Confused, he opened his eyes and looked around. He still lay atop the rock spur, and the fight was going on below, but the fire forest’s fury seemed to have relented against him. He could breathe again, and though he felt a heat still clinging heavily to his entire body, something new protected him from the power of the blaze. He stood and laughed with relief at the third time he had been saved in as many days.

Shouts from the ground snapped his attention back to the immediate danger. To his left, Diogenes and Torrent scrambled as four Ragesian soldiers tried to encircle them. Out in the road Kathor wrestled with his literal demon, which would be fruitless, since from what Rivereye had heard, only magic could harm creatures from beyond the world. And right in front of the spur, Rantle rushed toward the inquisitor.

The whinny and clomping of a galloping horse drew Rivereye’s attention down to his right as Haddin and Crystin rode in from the back of the spur, joining the battle. Haddin put one hand to his forehead and threw out another in the direction of the inquisitor. From vague rememberings of spell duels he had seen, Rivereye knew it was some sort of mind-affecting spell, and he also knew it was the worst possible thing to use against an inquisitor.

Rivereye pulled out his knife, crinkled his lips in dismay, then shrugged and started down the side of the spur, watching when, as he expected, the inquisitor turned Haddin’s spell and placed it upon Rantle.

Rantle was already turning to look at Diogenes, who was too busy cooly fending off the soldiers to see Rantle coming. The inquisitor laughed at Haddin, and the two were engaged in a contest of magic that Rivereye didn’t care to pay attention to. Haddin was a useless ass, and he only hoped that the old bastard would last long enough to make a good distraction.

Rivereye kept his head down and tried to stay hidden by flaming brush, keeping his gaze fixed on the inquisitor. Invisible forces of magic flew back and forth between the inquisitor and Haddin, and the Ragesian never noticed Rivereye’s presence, not until Rivereye broke from cover, ran up to the man’s side, and stuck a knife in his testicles.

* * *​

Rantle wanted to resist, though he had no idea how to combat magic. He stabbed at Diogenes, trying to get a grip on the frantic man while in the corner of his eye he watched Torrent go down with a sword in her chest. Diogenes punched him in the face and weakly tried to hold his dagger hand at bay. Again Rantle was powerless, and he wanted to scream, but the inquisitor would not let him.

Then, as his fist smashed into Diogenes’s nose, Rantle remembered Diogenes trying to explain how his magic worked, telling him that his mind wouldn’t do what it didn’t want to do. He tried to tell himself he did not want to kill Diogenes, and for an instant he actually believed he had a chance of freedom. But he did want the man to suffer for leaving and letting Sorra die, and that was enough to keep him trapped.

Finally he managed to punch Diogenes in the kidney and cut him across the temple with his knife, when suddenly the knots forcing his mind’s motions loosened, and his vision went blurry. Behind him he heard the inquisitor screaming in horrible pain, and a moment later the screams stopped.

Rantle fell back as Diogenes shoved him away, and as he regained control of his body he saw Rivereye finish sawing a small knife across the throat of the weakly struggling inquisitor, who lay in a pool of ashy blood emanating from his groin.

At the same time, Kathor was standing up from the dead body of the horrific pale woman. One of the three remaining Ragesian soldiers ran toward him, and Rantle thought he saw Kathor sigh in frustration as he dropped into a crouch, picked his sword up off the ground, and swung it through both the man’s knees.

Wary of the two remaining soldiers, Rantle rolled and pushed himself to his feet, nearly into the face of one of them. The warrior shoved Rantle back with his shield, and was into a backswing with his axe when Diogenes interrupted.

“Ignore him!” Diogenes shouted. “Kill me! I’m a mage!”

The soldier reacted instantly, unnaturally so, and turned to look at Diogenes, completely ignoring Rantle. The Ragesian started to rush Diogenes, whose eyes widened meaningfully as he glared at Rantle. Realizing the soldier was ensorcelled, Rantle shrugged and stabbed the man up under the back of his helmet. Then he shoved him down and stabbed him enough times to make sure he did not come back up.

Rantle kept his head up, though, since there was one Ragesian left. The herethim man had been chasing after Rivereye, but now he looked uncertain, and backed away as Diogenes advanced on him.

“Don’t worry,” Diogenes said, waving his wand slightly. “Surrender, and we’ll just leave and let you go.”

The soldier already bore a grievous wound in his shoulder, probably from Torrent, and he nodded weakly. He threw down his axe.

“Now,” Diogenes said to the soldier, “go to sleep.”

The Ragesian swayed for a moment, then closed his eyes and fell to the ground. Diogenes turned and grinned smugly at Rantle.

“Tie him up.”

Rantle looked around and saw that no one else threatened them. Still jittery from nearly dying, he moved quickly to tie up their prisoner.

“Sorry for trying to kill you,” he said.

Diogenes’s eyes narrowed, but then he shrugged. “You were under a charm. The fault is mine for not being more careful. Bad form. Though you did seem to enjoy it a little too much.”

“I’m just-,” Rantle started. “I’m sorry.”

Diogenes laughed in a way that managed to be both chiding and comforting. “Don’t take it so seriously. We won, at least. Now make sure the ropes are tight.”

Diogenes moved away to talk with Haddin. As Rantle stripped off the Ragesian’s cloak in order to tie him up, he looked around at all the bodies of the fallen: five Ragesian soldiers, the inquisitor, the strange monster woman, and Torrent. He did not feel much relief that they had ‘won.’

* * *​

The battle had ended, and they hadn’t all died, but as his fellow refugees regrouped and made plans, Rivereye fidgeted with the inquisitor’s mask, telling himself that he had just dreamed the vision of the stag, and that the voice he could hear in the roar of the forest’s flames was just his imagination.

The mask felt dry, drier than bone should be, Rivereye thought. It wasn’t the first time he had seen an inquisitor without his mask, but it was the first time he’d been able to spit in one’s eyes. He had already spat on the inquisitor, kicked out his teeth, and stolen his mask – in addition to gelding him and slitting his throat – but he was still nervous around the corpse.

He carried the mask with him as he headed over to Kathor, who was watching from afar, tending to the slashes on his horse’s neck.

“How did you kill the demon?” Rivereye asked.

Kathor looked down at him for a long moment before replying, giving Rivereye time to notice the rents in his armor from where the demon had wrenched it out of place, and the claw marks from the demon’s nearly-human talons that scraped nearly every bit of his skin that had been exposed. The knight no longer bled, but even though none of his injuries were individually mortal, Rivereye was sure any reasonable person would have let himself pass out by now.

“That was a demon?” Kathor said.

“Yes. Demons can’t be hurt except by magic. At least that’s what we always heard back at the palace.”

For a long moment, Kathor’s only reaction was a slight furrowing of his brows.

Then he said, “Odd. I had heard that too.”

Then he shrugged and went back to tending his horse.

Rivereye glanced back at the demon’s corpse, which now just resembled a woman who had been bludgeoned to death. He almost felt sick at the sight of it.

“Why am I doing this?” he moaned.

“Ragesia’s become a bad place,” Kathor said after a moment. “You kill the right people, and things will get better.”

Kathor paused, bent slightly, and pulled the inquisitor’s mask out of Rivereye’s hands.

“Good thing you came along,” Kathor said.

He put the mask down over Rivereye’s face. It was the sort of condescending gesture jispin had to get used to – being treated like a child, just because he was short – but somehow when Kathor did it, it gave Rivereye a sense of camaraderie.

The mask was huge on his head. It was, after all, carved from a bear skull, designed to fit a herethim nearly seven feet tall. But there was something odd about it, the way that everything he saw seemed to extend a few inches in another dimension other than length, width, and height, though that distance was twisted into knots in some way that was impossible.

Looking over at Diogenes, he saw a texture of elegant entwining magic in the air between him and the one prisoner they had taken. Haddin’s cracked, wrinkled face looked even more revolting with the array of jagged, tightly-wound threads that stretched out from it toward his daughter, weaving through the air and reaching her in three spots along her back and one on her head. Crystin coughed weakly, but didn’t wipe the blood from around her mouth.

In the air over the bodies of the fallen, threads seemed to hang loose, dangling out above an infinite darkness.

Rivereye took off the mask and shook his head. First a monster talking to his mind, then Kathor apparently being able to kill the demon with his bare hands, and now seeing the fabric of the world coming undone: he was through with magic for today, he told himself. He would just keep his mouth shut and his head down, and within a day or two they would be safely out of this terrible forest.

“Hey, filthy monkey!”

Rivereye looked up, seeing Rantle waving him over. He kept his head down and his eyes low as he walked over, but he already knew things were just going to get worse.

Rantle smiled wearily as Rivereye came up. When he spoke, there was pain in his voice, but also sincere relief.

“So, you changed your mind about letting the inquisitor kill you, huh? Nice job on that bastard. Are you alright?”

Rivereye shrugged. “I’m fine. Did you-”

Haddin interrupted, “The rat was just hiding until I saved the lot of you.”

“No,” Diogenes said, “the rat was attacked by an inquisitor and still managed to contribute to the battle despite his rather horrible wounds. You, meanwhile decided to ride to our rescue just in time to let the inquisitor defeat every single spell you used. And your daughter was doing her best impression of a slightly crazy woman who stands around staring off into the forest while the people trying to protect her are dying. It was very convincing.”

Haddin started to bristle with anger, but coughed before he could say anything. Rantle stepped into the space between the two mages and spoke over them to head off a fight.

“Are you sure you’re fine?” he asked. “That looks painful.”

When Rivereye realized everyone was looking at him, he said, “What?”

Rantle grimaced. “Alright, you should rest your heels. I think you may be feeble from all the blood you lost.”

Rivereye looked around in confusion, then said, “I . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not hurt.”

Haddin growled a laugh and walked away, while Rantle and Diogenes exchanged worried glances.

“If he can walk,” Diogenes said, “it must not be as bad as it looks.”

“I’m no doctor,” Rantle said, “but that looks serious.”

Diogenes shrugged. “He’ll live. Come on, help me with the woman’s body. We owe her at least to bury her out of this damn place.”

While the two men walked over to where Torrent lay, Rivereye carefully reached up to his face. He did remember being clawed by the inquisitor up on top of the rock, but his face didn’t hurt, and he wondered if maybe he had just dreamed that.

He touched his face, feeling sticky blood clotting in four long lines stretching from his left eyebrow to his right cheek.

Just then, Rantle yelped, and Rivereye turned at the sound of a body being dropped to the ground.

“Holy hell!” Diogenes shouted. “She’s alive?”

Rivereye backed away, seeing Torrent stirring slightly, despite several obviously mortal wounds. Her breastplate had been hacked through, a huge gash dug into the back of her skull, and she was covered with more blood than any person could lose without dying. But still she moved, albeit feebly.

Kathor came over, and looked to Diogenes.

“Did you do this?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t know how to do this,” Diogenes said. “It’s not healing magic. And she isn’t a ghoul. She’s just not dying.”

Rantle stood up and looked from Torrent to Rivereye. Rivereye cringed and backed away more.

“What’s wrong with him?” Haddin said.

Everyone looked at Rivereye then.

“You know something?” Rantle asked.

Rivereye hesitated, and Diogenes looked up in frustration.

“Just tell us whatever it is you’re hiding.”

“Well,” Rivereye started. “I didn’t think it was important. But now it looks like we’re going to have to do a favor for a monster.”

“What?” Rantle said.

“I’m sorry,” Rivereye said. “I don’t really know what happened. I saw the inquisitor, and he hurt me, and then it was hot and I passed out. I thought I was going to die, but then I woke up on the shore of a lake, and saw a huge deer standing in the lake, on fire. It told me we had to help it, and I said we would, and then I woke up and wasn’t dying anymore. Oh, and there was a weird song.”

“Alright,” Rantle said. “I’m going to try to accept that you’re not hensblooding me, because that,” he pointed to Torrent, “is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. But could someone explain what’s going on?”

“There’s no such thing as monsters,” Diogenes said.

Kathor said, “I don’t think he’s lying. This forest does feel alive.”

Haddin took a break from coughing to scoff.

“Old man,” Diogenes said, “bring your daughter over here. She said she saw something in the forest before.”

Rivereye started, “I don’t think it’s an actual monster in the woods. I only saw it in-”

But Haddin interrupted. “How dare you order me around? You brought me here against my will, and I’m going back before I have to listen to any more of this nonsense.”

Red and orange flames at the edge of the road turned white hot, and a roaring wind burst across them. In the center of the road, Crystin began to flail, and her eyes rolled back in her head, while from Torrent’s body and those of the Ragesians, fire shot out of their wounds, and they all screamed.

A sound like thunder rumbled through the forest, and everyone cowered as words broke through the thunder and the screams.

“None shall leave. Release me, or burn.”
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Chapter Fourteen

“None shall leave. Release me, or burn.”

The voice came from all directions, but within it Rivereye heard a woman’s voice – Crystin’s – and he saw her speaking the words as the fire forest spoke to them.

Diogenes glared at Rivereye and yelled, “What the hell have you done?”

“We’ve got to run,” Rantle shouted.

“No,” Kathor said. “She’s possessed.”

The knight started to move toward Crystin, drawing a sword. Rivereye moved in his way and waved his hands to stop him. The knight hesitated, and Rivereye ran over to Crystin and shook her. She looked down at him, her eyes unfocused.

“Indomitability, right?” Rivereye said. “Crystin, talk to him for me. Tell him we’re going to free him. We just need time. If he harms us we won’t be able to help.”

“Crystin,” Haddin shouted, “say nothing!”

Crystin’s eyes focused on Rivereye, and she spoke quietly in time with the deep roar of the inferno.

“I can harm you as I like. You have my boon, and will not die until I let you. Do not try to trick me. Come to the lake, silence the song, and I shall release you. Attempt to leave, and I shall destroy you.”

The heat faded, the fires dimmed back to a cool red, and the screams of Torrent and the Ragesians ended abruptly. Suddenly the forest was quiet save for the regular crackle of embers, and Haddin’s gasping cough. Crystin sagged, and Kathor came forward to catch her.

Everyone looked around for a moment, uncertain what to do.

Diogenes cleared his throat. “Who wants to bet he was bluffing?”

Rantle laughed once.

“You idiot children!” Haddin said.

He advanced toward Rivereye and his fingers began to twitch the way a spellcaster’s does as he uses magic, but Rantle ran over and shoved the man to the ground.

“I don’t know what the hell you were planning,” Rantle said, “but no one is doing anything until we figure out what’s going on.”

Nearby, off the left side of the road, flames clinging to the trees faded out and nearly died. A dim trail appeared, extending out as far as Rivereye could see, twenty feet wide and free of fire. Meanwhile, gusts of flame burst out from other trees further up and down the main highway, intense enough to burn them even with their protection.

“I, um, think,” Rivereye whimpered, “that we don’t really have a choice.”

“Great,” Diogenes said. “I now feel so validated about fleeing the city. This is much better.”

“Stop it,” Rantle said. “We are going to get out of here, no matter what mad things come at us. I am going that way, and hopefully I’ll figure out what to do before I get to this lake it wants us to find.”

He looked at Rivereye. “Get up on the horse. We’re taking Crystin with us.”

“Leave her alone,” Haddin said.

“Oh go dive off a cliff,” Rantle said. “I didn’t see you trying to protect her when Kathor was going to try to cut out the evil spirits. Anyone else coming?”

Haddin fumed, but Diogenes nodded.

“I’m a little afraid you’re right,” Diogenes said. “But before we go rushing to talk to the monster, maybe we can try something else?”

“What?” Rantle snapped.

“I’m just going to check to see if the ‘monster’ can follow up on his threats.”

Diogenes knelt beside the tied up prisoner and whispered something. The man sat up slowly, blinking his eyes as if he were just waking up.

“Spirits protect me,” the man gasped. “I’m still here.”

“Yes you are,” Diogenes said. “Now pay attention to me.”

The man looked intently at Diogenes, his mind clearly addled.

“If you just answer a few questions for me, I’ll let you go back the way you came, and we’ll go where we’re headed. Alright?”

The soldier nodded happily.

“Alright, first question: why were you after us?”

The soldier looked over at Haddin for a moment, then back to Diogenes.

“Boreus, our commander, was dispatched to bring in the old one. There was another inquisitor sent after the jispin, I think. I’m sorry, sir. I only overheard that the jispin had stolen something they wanted back.”

“Oh yeah,” Diogenes said. Over his shoulder to Rivereye he added, “Remind me to take a look at those when we’re not in mortal peril.

“Anything else?” he asked the prisoner.

The man shook his head. “Not much, sir. I didn’t know there’d be this many of you, though I think you’re a mage since you put a spell on me, and we’re supposed to take mage’s prisoner. Oh spirits, please, don’t send me back. The inquisitors will execute me if they discover I’ve been tainted by your sorcery!”

“Calm down,” Diogenes said. “I’m a very skilled mage, and they’ll never realize I did anything to you. Next question: do you know about any monsters or strange creatures in this forest?”

The man shook his head, his expression still fearful. “I’m sorry sir. I haven’t heard anything.”

Diogenes looked back at the rest of them.

“Any other questions?”

Rivereye shook his head. Rantle sneered and looked away. Diogenes fumbled for a few seconds, but managed to untie the prisoner. Then he picked up some ash and sprinkled it over the man’s head.

“There you are,” Diogenes said. “I’ve cast a spell on you to protect you from even the hottest flames. Now quickly, before the spell wears off, run. Run back to your glorious conquering army, and don’t tell anyone you saw us, or they’ll kill you.”

The man stood up warily, and backed his way through the group to the road. Once he was clear, he turned and ran up the road toward Gate Pass. He had only managed to get about twenty feet away when he reached the bursting sprays of flame crossing the road. He cried out, but kept running for a few more strides before he began to scream, his clothing, then hair, then even skin catching on fire. Less than fifty feet away, he collapsed to the ground, smoldering.

Rivereye cringed, but Rantle said quietly, “Don’t look away. These murderers had it coming.”

Diogenes stood, took out a cigarette, and lit it with a wand.

“Alright,” he said. “I don’t think he’s bluffing. Let’s get moving before the bastard gets impatient with us.”

* * *​

Rivereye rode in the middle of the group. Crystin sat mutely behind him. The rest of the group had not yet noticed her odd behavior now that her father was conscious, but Rivereye wasn’t sure the old man wouldn’t kill him if he spoke up, so he said nothing.

Kathor led the group on foot, Torrent’s eerily alive body lain across his warhorse’s saddle. Haddin hobbled along next, saying nothing and coughing often. Rivereye and Crystin rode behind him, while Diogenes and Rantle brought up the rear, quietly discussing what to do. Rivereye just listened.

Rantle said, “We’ve got a few dozen refugee Innies in Gate Pass – Innenotdarasne people who fled when this place caught fire. I heard rumors the Ragesians were responsible, but I never heard anything about a fire monster.”

“It’s been forty years,” Diogenes said. “This ‘Indomitability’ entity could have come since then, though my suspicion is that it is what has been keeping the forest burning.”

“So if we let it go like it wants,” Rantle said, “what happens to the forest?”

“Take a guess.”

Rantle frowned. “So what does that mean for Torrent?”

“She’s as good as dead right now anyway. I don’t suppose you brought along the other woman’s pack – Sorra, wasn’t it?”

Rantle stiffly said, “No.”

“Then we may as well write off our guide from Seaquen. I don’t think she’s going to get better on her own. Let’s focus on those of us who might still have a chance to live and complain about this later.”

“Alright.” Rantle sighed. “Well, first thing, the ‘monster’ apparently got into Rivereye’s head.”

“That’s the jispin?” Diogenes said.

Rivereye looked back and glared at them.

“Rivereye Badgerface,” he said. “I killed an inquisitor. I think I deserve to be called by my real name.”

“Sure,” Diogenes chuckled. “Diogenes Filosi, while we’re at it.”

Rantle said, “So we know what to put on your tombstone?”

“Pardon me for being polite for once. Did you have a point, Rantle. . . ?”

“Just Rantle,” he said. “My parents died before I was old enough to remember. Anyway, my point was that this creature got into his head, and the inquisitor was controlling me, which I didn’t particularly like. So you need to tell us how to make that not happen again.”

Diogenes smiled. “Heh. This lake had better be far away, because this could take a while.”

For the next half hour Diogenes explained techniques for recognizing and combating magic of mental influence, and Rivereye wondered if Crystin was listening, or if she could even hear it.

They established a warning word – “roadway” – so that if one of them thought another was being compelled, he could say the word, and hopefully give the ensorcelled one enough of a jolt to shake free. Once, when they were resting after making it over a rough rocky hill, Diogenes practiced by charming both of them, and eventually each of them figured out how to wriggle free of his control. Kathor declined to participate, and when Diogenes surreptitiously cast at him, the knight proved his familiarity with resisting such magic when he walked over and put Diogenes in a head-lock for using sorcery against him without his permission.

The fire and smoke made the sky an impenetrable haze of orange-brown ash, and hours might have passed for as much as they could tell. They ate what little food they had, drank swigs of elixir when their first dose from the morning began to wear off, and occasionally checked on Torrent, though they could do nothing for her. Mostly only Rantle and Diogenes talked, though Rivereye was beginning to feel more comfortable around them, and he occasionally joined in. He and Rantle shared funny stories from their lives, while Diogenes mocked them in harmless humor, each of them trying to keep their spirits up as they traveled down the seemingly endless corridor Indomitability had created for them through the flames.

From time to time they spotted burning animals sprinting through the woods, panicked and squealing, as they must have been for the forty years since the forest had caught flame.

Soon thereafter, Kathor spotted stone buildings just off the side of the path, a common Innenotdarasne stonewood style house, where rocks were carved so they seemed to grow out of the ground like a living thing. Stone beams like tree trunks supported an upper level wider than the ground floor. Though the stone was burnt and cracked from heat, it looked sturdy enough to work as shelter, and the brush leading to it from the road was light enough that they would be able to reach the place without being burnt.

Kathor and Rantle went off to make sure it was safe, and were gone for a long time. When they returned, Rantle’s face was pale from whatever he had seen.

“There’s a village,” Rantle said. “It looks like the wooden buildings all burned away, but there are a few stone ones which should be safe enough.”

“Everything alright?” Diogenes asked.

Rantle struggled to speak for a moment, and it was Kathor who answered.

“It is now.”

When they reached the stone building, Rivereye made himself ignore the bare human footprints in the ashes, and the drag marks that led out to a nearby dry riverbed.

There was not much that could be done to make themselves more comfortable, and though Rivereye suspected some valuables might have survived the flames and be hidden in the village, he had no interest in going to look. They set up watches, and soon Diogenes, Haddin, Crystin, and Kathor were sleeping, while Torrent lay, still unconscious but her lips moving in the occasional inaudible murmur.

Rivereye and Rantle stayed up for the first watch, and they did not talk for a long time. Rantle hummed tunes, just loud enough for Rivereye to hear them and relax slightly. Most were the classic sort of sad but hopeful tunes Gate Pass was known for, though Rivereye had not heard many before. Songs of the imperial court were cheerier, but he did not really want to ever hear them again.

Eventually, Rantle began to yawn, and soon he said, “I need to wake Kathor. You should get some sleep too.”

Rivereye nodded, then said, “Rantle, what happened to Sorra this morning?”

Rantle looked at Rivereye, making him feel guilty for asking. A moment passed.

“She came back for me,” Rantle said. “One of the archers shot her. When she died, she was looking back at Gate Pass. Do you want to know anything else?”

“No,” Rivereye said. “Her last name was Menash, you know. She told me after the bounty hunters got us. I guess I felt like I owed it to her to know how she died.”

“I owe her a lot,” Rantle said. “And I’m going to make sure I repay that debt. We’re going to make it to Seaquen, Rivereye, all of us.”

Rantle went, and got Kathor, and then went to sleep, but Rivereye stayed up for a bit longer, looking out into the forest and trying to guess which way was home. When he went to sleep, he dreamed of Crystin trapped beneath the ice of a frozen lake, trying to call out to him.

* * *​

Rantle awoke. He did not feel refreshed from rest, or any stronger after the weariness of yesterday’s travel, but he no longer felt sleepy, and that was all he figured he would get in this forest.

Each of them drank another dose of the elixir, and then they returned to the trail Indomitability had left, and after a few hours of travel the path faded away as the forest thinned. The ground sloped downward sharply, the dull glow of an ashen lake peeked through the trees from the distance, and faintly the sounds of a choir singing floated above the weight of the inferno’s roar, drawing them to their destination.

At Diogenes’s urging, Rantle crept ahead with Kathor, heading for a hill that would shield them from view, while letting them spy on whatever awaited them.

The song floated eerily above the roar of the forest fire, and though he could not understand the words, he grasped its meaning clearly. Its strangely familiar rhythm brimmed with loss and longing and a memory of beauty which its singers would not abandon, no matter how thickly death surrounded them.

Though he was sure it was just the shimmer of the fire’s heat, the trees appeared to dance with the song's rhythm. When the music swelled, the flames dimmed, but always an oppressive weariness would creep into the singer's voices, and again ash and cinders would howl on the wind.

He kept low as he crawled to a hill which overlooked the lake, and he struggled to discern the different singers by their voices and their roles in the song. A core group of at least four, three men and a woman, held the song steady, though other singers occasionally joined from scattered directions around the shore. Two of the men would sing a repeating chorus, while the third man’s deeper voice rose above them in counterpoint, wavering between pride and fear, before finally dropping to a sorrowful drone.

But then, through the despair would rise the woman’s voice, haunting and inspiring, calling out and uplifting the other singers.

The song went through two verses as Rantle snuck forward, and would continue through several more as he and Kathor observed, but as far as he could tell it never repeated fully. Every time he heard the woman’s piercing voice, he could not help but feel weak at the beauty of it.

They reached a safe hiding spot, and Kathor whispered to him.

“If they spot us, you run back to warn the others. I’ll try to keep their attention so they don’t follow you.”

“Let’s not assume they’re hostile,” Rantle whispered back.

“Let’s not be naïve,” Kathor said. “Come on, and keep your head down.”

They crawled on all fours through elbow-deep ash to the lip of the hill. Beyond and below, the shore was cracked from heat, with hundreds of feet of dry, empty ground that had once been lakebed stretching out to the still, ash-coated waters of the lake. Far in the distance to the right, a river fed into the lake. Beside it, the people of the lake had erected a barricade of felled trees, still burning, ten feet high and hundreds of feet long. Another barricade blocked the coast to the left, and in the crescent-shaped area between them a scattered gathering of people walked and sang, oblivious to Rantle and Kathor’s presence.

The people were clearly alive and had not been caught in the flames of the forest, but they looked like no men Rantle had ever seen. Each stood around five feet tall, dressed only in tatters of rags to protect their hands, feet, knees, and groin, the rest of their emaciated bodies exposed to the heat of the fires. Wings hung from their backs, but these were withered, like those of a dragonfly held too close to an open flame. The color of their skin and hair was just slightly darker than the pale ash that coated the rest of the forest, though here on the shore the ground was bare, and Rantle could see these fairy-like beings brushing the dry lakebed with old brooms, keeping it free of ash.

In the center of the shore they had erected a platform that rose ten feet off the ground, creating a stage from which the four main singers carried on with their vigil choir.

Caves dotted the steep hills that surrounded the lake, and a pile of debris that looked like it might have been dredged from the lake decorated each cave’s entrance. Most of the people of this small village huddled in the caves, and only a dozen roamed outside, singing and tending to a small, desperate garden of plants that had escaped the forest fire. There couldn’t have been more than forty people in total.

Those still working and singing on the platform kept their eyes cast to the ground. Those in the caves sat with eyes closed, as if they were preparing for death.

Rantle saw only one person looking out at the world, a woman who watched the rest of her village with an excited expression as she gathered supplies in a cave and tucked them into a shoulder bag.

Rantle cocked his head toward Kathor and whispered, “We’re supposed to ‘silence the song?’ I don’t really know what that’s supposed to do, but it looks like the people down there, all they have is that song.”

“There are no children,” Kathor replied. “And that garden would never support so many. There’s magic here. We should go back and talk to Diogenes.”

“We should talk to them. They need our help more than this monster that’s trying to make us his puppets.”

Kathor continued to watch the village for nearly a minute without saying anything.

Then he said, “I know how you almost ran off to help the jispin when the inquisitor attacked him. It would have ruined our plans and probably gotten you killed. This time, we don’t rush into things.”

The woman with the shoulder bag left her cave, and Rantle thought he saw a hint of a smile on her mouth as she joined the song. She was looking up, and she was only a few words into the song when she stopped and stared straight up at Rantle.

Kathor ducked to hide, but Rantle met her eyes. He shook off Kathor’s grip when the man tried to pull him down, and instead he stood up and let the woman see him plainly. Neither of them moved for a moment, until finally Rantle found his voice and began to sing.

He did his best to match the tune of their song without using any words, and his voice was much stronger than any of the villagers. There was some gasping, and for a second everyone but the four singers atop the stage faltered. Rantle held out his arms to show he wasn’t holding any weapons, and slowly he began to walk down the rough slope to the village. Behind him, he heard Kathor crawl for a moment, then start running back in the direction of the others.

By the time Rantle reached where the burning brush turned to severed tree stumps and finally the cracked lakebed, it seemed like the entire village had come out of their caves to see him. The woman who had first spotted him was speaking to the others in her language, waving gently for them to keep their distance. The singers on the stage continued their song, but the rest of the three dozen nearly skeletal fairies all murmured fearfully.

When Rantle finished a chorus of the song, he lowered his arms and stopped singing.

“Um,” he started, “I don’t suppose anyone here speaks Seren?”

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