Summoned in Darkness

This story is my unofficial sequel to Cyndera’s Conjured in Gold, which you can find in the Stories section of this blog, or on her personal blog (see the Links section for more information).  We began this project some years ago as a potential collaboration, but ultimately did not go that direction.  Still, during the collaboration phase, I agreed to write a potential follow-up to her original material.  The end result is Summoned in Darkness.  You will need to have read the original in order to follow this story.  Because Cyndera may choose to continue the original work–she has done some work toward that goal–she has expressed mixed feelings about releasing this story.  I respect her feelings on the matter, and therefore I won’t be promoting this story with a regular blog post–it will simply be a page in the Stories section here.  However, I liked the way it turned out, and I want to have it available somewhere; fantasy is not my strong suit as a writer, so I was particularly proud to have this story work out well.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Though it says “to be continued” at the end, I have no current plans to continue.  But time will tell. ~Timewalkerauthor

 

Summoned in Darkness

By Timewalkerauthor

Arlia woke with a start, sitting bolt upright and staring into the darkness. Na’Ral, attuned as always to her actions, was up just as fast, rising up on his powerful forelegs and sniffing the wind. Arlia could smell ash and old burning—she knew Na’Ral’s sensitive nose would practically be assaulted with it—but there was nothing else, to any of her senses.

She sat back, resting against the tiger’s flank. This had happened nearly every night she had spent on the Northern Plateaus…after a week, she thought she should be used to it, but she never was. Maybe it was the sound, or something on the wind, but either way, there was never anything there. If the Dark Ones had control of this lonely place, they weren’t patrolling it.

A glimmer of gold was visible on the eastern horizon. There would be no point in going back to sleep now—she liked to be moving by the time the sun was up—so she reached for her pack. She conjured with her free hand as she did so, calling up a double incantation that created a globe of light, but screened it from the outside world, so as not to give away her position. She scavenged in the pack and came up with a half-eaten brick of battle rations and a knife, and trimmed off a section for herself and one for Na’Ral. The bricks were special; besides being both nutritious and filling enough to substitute for regular food, they were balanced in such a way as to serve well for Arlia’s people and their companions—well, when the companions were tigers. Horses could graze.

Arlia ate slowly, chewing each bite as long as she could. A little piece would substitute for an entire meal, but it didn’t take long to eat, either. Na’Ral finished his in a single swallow, making her laugh. “My friend, you’re going to upset your stomach, doing that.” He snorted; the vague psychic impression she got was one of dismissal. She couldn’t read his thoughts, but his feelings were usually clear. “Well, do not say that I didn’t warn you!”

Finishing the food, she put the knife away, then killed the globe of light. The rim of the sun was just visible at the horizon now, shedding a dim glow over the blasted and ravaged plateau. She sighed, staring northward. “Perhaps today we’ll get somewhere.” Since reaching the plateau, she had been working northward, aiming for the heart of the war between Light and Dark. Mila, the old family friend who homesteaded at the edge of the plateau, had told her about the city held by the Dark Ones, at the bottleneck where the plateau squeezed between two mountain ranges. That was only an obstacle on her path; but it was no small thing, and it had to be passed before she could reach her true goal.

“Why can’t I just avoid the city?” she had asked Mila. “We could fly around it.”

Mila had just shaken her head. “Do you think that only we of the Light have winged companions? You cannot fly past. You are one, and they are many, and they will bring you down. No, you must travel overland, and there is only one path from here.” She had pointed north. “It lies that way.”

Now, the mountains were beginning to draw together on each side. If it remained this way, she estimated another two days, three at the most. It made her uneasy, but it didn’t lessen her determination. The only thing strange was the desolation of the plateaus; she had expected patrols, troops, anything—but she had not even seen an animal. Only leagues and leagues of grim, dead, shattered earth. Whatever battles, whatever troops, had haunted the plateaus, they were long gone now.

***

The sun was falling low in the grey sky. Arlia was gazing off at the leftward mountains as she trudged ever northward; Na’Ral watched the right. The mountains were close now, no more than two or three leagues away on each side; with so little of the plateau left ahead, they were scanning the horizon almost continually.

The threat, when it came, was from above.

Na’Ral gave a growl of alarm, and lunged at Arlia, knocking her aside with his body. As she tumbled, she caught a glimpse of a massive reptile of some sort, black and gray, and all legs and neck and tail, dropping from the sky. It had wings like dark steel, spread wide to brake its descent. It came in silently, but when it saw that it had been seen, it let out a roar.

Arlia climbed to her feet. Na’Ral had lunged at the beast, straining to reach the soft underside of its neck, snarling and biting. Her pack was still strapped to the tiger’s back, with most of her weapons in it, but she dug in her boot for a knife and ran to help. She conjured as she did, beginning an incantation that could be modified in mid-chant for a number of attacks; in her free hand, light began to glow and pulse. She didn’t dare launch, though, without a clear shot; and Na’Ral was everywhere, dancing around the beast, darting in to slash with claws or bite, then dancing out of reach.

Without warning, the beast landed a lucky blow, slashing offhandedly at Na’Ral and catching his left flank, hurling him away. The tiger lay still, wings loose about him, and Arlia yelled in horror and anger. She unleashed the ball of light in her hand, and it unfolded into jagged spears of lightning that struck the beast; it roared and turned its attention on her. She was chanting again; magic was her only true weapon now—the knife was a brave tactic, but useless here. She lost the incantation as the beast tried to step on her, digging its claws into the ground as she rolled aside; she hurled herself forward between its claws, slashing its underbelly, and came up near its tail. She started the incantation again as it wheeled around to find her.

There was a loud thump, and the beast screamed in what had to be pain. An arrow, heavy and black, jutted from its foreleg. As it hunkered down to shield the wound, three more large arrows struck in amazingly quick succession down the length of its neck. It screamed again, and then launched itself skyward on its massive wings. As soon as it gained enough altitude to be out of arrow range, it struck off for the north.
Arlia spun around. A man was behind her, some thirty paces away, sitting astride an enormous grey-and-black horse, and holding a heavy black bow. Another arrow was already nocked, but he lowered the bow and returned the arrow to the leather quiver that hung from the saddle. He watched the sky a moment, tracking the beast, then dropped his gaze to Arlia. “Princess, you are easy to track, but hard to follow,” the man said. “You forge ahead without a care or a precaution, and I have to cover our tracks. Otherwise I would not have been so slow.”

“I am no princess,” Arlia snapped. “Who are you?”

“Are you not Magra’s daughter?”

She was startled at his knowledge. “How do you—“

“Never mind that for now,” he said, and swung down from the saddle. He was shorter than Arlia—she was exceptionally tall for a woman—and muscular, if trim. A black beard met wild black hair, wreathing his face. “Let’s see to your friend.”

Na’Ral! Arlia whirled, looking for him. The white tiger was still lying on his side some twenty feet away, not moving. She ran to him and dropped to her knees beside him; she could hear the stranger’s boots thumping along behind her. She muttered a quick incantation, preparing magic that would tell her the extent of Na’Ral’s wounds. As she was about to act, she felt stronger hands close over her own. “Let me help you,” the stranger said. She glared into his eyes for a moment; then an unspoken agreement passed between them. He turned to Na’Ral and closed his eyes; and to Arlia’s shock, the glow around her hands grew brighter.

A heartbeat later, she knew the damage. Mostly there were bruises and strains from being flung away by the beast, but one wound was grievous: a bloody, foot-long gash under his wing. Worse, the muscles and tendons were cut. Na’Ral would hardly be walking, let alone flying, anytime soon. She glanced at the stranger again; of course he had gained the same insight through the joint incantation.

Wordlessly she dug in her pack for healing items. Alone, they were useless; but when added to the right magic, they would close the wound and start the tiger on the path to healing. She paused only when the stranger held out his hands, filled with more of the same things. She plastered the wound with a layer of thin vines, then overlaid it with threadlike sinew. Two small seeds—reminiscent of growth—completed the poultice; and she started the incantation. Again, the stranger’s hands closed over hers, and again the glow grew brighter—but she faltered as something caught her attention. The stranger wasn’t chanting. How—

There was no time for that now. Fumbling for the words, she finished the incantation, and the glow became brighter still.

At last it was done. Arlia slumped back, breathing hard, as the stranger did likewise. Na’Ral gave a great, rumbling sigh, and slumped lower on the ground; but his breathing was no longer ragged, and where the gash had been there was only new, pink flesh. Muttering the first incantation again, Arlia checked what they had accomplished. Na’Ral still retained the deeper wounds to his muscles and tendons, but the wound was closed, and there was no chance of infection; further, the tiger’s pain was gone. It would return, but only as a dull ache. Arlia reached out to stroke the tiger’s flank in quiet commiseration; then she turned on the stranger.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “And how do you know me?” And what just happened?

He regarded her impassively. “My name is Joveth,” he said at last. “And if you’ll help me, we can get your companion to a safer place before that thing comes back. Then I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

***

They had traveled a mile or two toward the westward arm of the mountains, with Joveth leading the way, when they came to the scar in the earth. In all that time, he spoke not a word, save the few scant instructions needed to get Na’Ral up and onto the horse’s back. Na’Ral, for his part, was content to be lifted, content to ride; his pain had come back, dull but deep. The ride wasn’t comfortable, but walking was not possible.

The scar was a long, ragged cleft, some twenty rods long, and perhaps as deep as the horse was tall. Grass, such as it was, grew for the first four rods at each end—as soon as Na’Ral was on the ground, the horse ambled off to graze—but the center was sandy, with a few boulders of moderate size scattered here and there. It was clearly not natural, but Arlia couldn’t fathom the scale of the power that had made it; it gave off an air of…offhandedness, she thought. As though it was only the leavings of whatever magic had passed this way. Not for the first time, she found herself thinking What have I gotten into? Still, it was clear why Joveth had come here: the cleft provided natural shelter from any eyes on the ground, and it would only take a little magic to hide the occupants from the view of any above. Even now, he was conjuring the same screening magic she had used this morning, but over their heads; such magic, where nothing physical took place, did not require any materials, only the motions and the incantation. Which he was not speaking. How?!

Arlia performed her own incantation over one of the boulders—speaking the words properly—and the boulder grew hot. When she finished, it was glowing yellow with heat; it would last all night, and would serve in place of a fire in this treeless land. For the first time since she had come to the plains, the air was cool. How cool, she hadn’t realized until now, when the heat from the rock began to soak into her aching bones. She found another conveniently-sized rock and rolled it close to the boulder, then leaned back against it.

Darkness had overtaken their narrow view of the sky when Joveth came to sit by the boulder. He sat just a quarter turn around it from her, and she turned to be able to see him. “I suppose I should be thanking you,” she said. “You saved Na’Ral’s life. And mine too.”

“You’re welcome,” he said. “And I suppose I owe you some explanation.”

“It would be well appreciated,” she said with the beginning of a smile.

“Well.” He turned to look at the glowing boulder. “Where to begin. I suppose, first, I should tell you that I am not one of the Dark Ones. Although, if I were, I would say the same thing, wouldn’t I?” He laughed then, ruefully; Arlia began to wonder if maybe his time on the plains hadn’t done something to his mind. “Well, not much I can do to persuade you of that. The problem, Princess, is that I don’t know how much you already know, so I don’t know where to begin.”

“You could begin with why you keep calling me Princess,” she suggested.

He stared at her. “You’re serious?” he said, disbelief in his eyes. “I knew things were different in Keridin, but…” He shook his head. “That I cannot explain. Perhaps later. But if it bothers you, I’ll stop. I have to ask, though…what has possessed you to travel these plains alone?”

This conversation was not what she had expected. “I am headed north to join our armies there. I am a battle mage.” She paused, then added,

“You are also traveling alone.”

“That is because I am a scout. I’ve been training my entire life to do this. But you, Pri…Arlia, you aren’t even prepared to be here in company. I can’t believe Magra would allow such a thing. Does he want you dead?” He saw a flush of anger on her face, and raised his hands. “I’m sorry. I misspoke. But…well, it makes no sense to me.”

That, at least, was something they could agree on. “Perhaps you could just assume I don’t know what you mean, and start from the beginning.”

He nodded. “I suppose so. Very well.” He pulled his cloak tight around him before continuing. “I am a scout, as I said. I am one of half a dozen who are stationed here on the plains most of the time.” He gestured at the horse. “Veridan is my companion. Although he is not winged like your tiger friend, he serves me well out here.” His face was growing shadowed in the light from the boulder. “We have been out here for five years. The bulk of the army is to the north, as you know, having traveled there by sea rather than through this accursed place. So my job, and that of my fellows out here, is to guard and secure this plateau, and to get word to the army should there be any push toward the Silver Mountains. So far there never has been, but who knows?”

Arlia gestured out, toward the plains above the scar. “But…this land, these plains, they bear the marks of terrible war. This hole in which we shelter, for one.”

“All in the past,” Joveth said. “In the early days of the schism in our people, when the Dark Ones first became a power unto themselves, there was war on the plains. I’ve been told that the sea routes to the north hadn’t been discovered then, so the armies had no choice but to come this way. This plain—well. You see the shape of the land. It is a natural battlefield. But…that was long ago, and now the Dark Ones control the northern exit. Our armies are behind enemy lines, as it were, and we guard the back door to our own territory.”

“And there are only six of you?” She pursed her lips, thinking. “It is either very brave, or very foolhardy.”

Joveth grinned. “I suppose it is. But I will take this over a common soldier’s life, and gladly.”

She nodded. “You said that I was easy to track. How did you know I was here in the first place?”

He gestured southward. “Your friend, Mila. It may be a happy coincidence that you knew her in your youth, but it is no coincidence that she is here. She watches the southern end of the plain, and gives my fellow scouts and I a place to meet and speak. She holds messages for us as we pass by, and she stocks supplies for us.” He turned his gaze on her, intense, but harmless. “When you met with her, I was not far away. The others are elsewhere in the field…I was the closest, and on my way in to check in with Mila. When you had passed on your way, she told me you were here, and that you may need another pair of hands and eyes. So, Veridan and I followed you.”

“You could have shown yourself sooner,” she remarked.

“Well…as I said, I had to cover your tracks and my own. The plains may look empty, but they are not. After all, that beast found you.”

Arlia shuddered, remembering. “That thing…what was it? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Oh, I am certain you have,” he said. “More so than I have, in fact.” He glanced across the boulder, to where Na’Ral slept.

She followed his gaze, frowning, then drew in a sharp breath. “Na’Ral? Are…are you saying that that thing…that thing is a Companion?”

A grim expression settled on his face. “The Dark Ones,” he said at length, “have long had their own variations on the magic of our people. Surely you know this already.” He didn’t wait for a reply. “It is true of the conjuring of Companions, as well. There is much we don’t know about them…their magic, their incantations, it is all very different. One thing is sure: that creature, and others like it, are to the Dark Ones as your Na’Ral is to you. And it is deadly.” He paused a moment, then added, “We call them draga.”

Serpents, in an obscure dialect. Arlia’s studies had included the ancient variations on their language; the incantations were most often spun in those tongues. This was an especially appropriate word, she thought.

An inhuman shriek split the night then, and Arlia jumped. “It is back, and much sooner than I expected,” Joveth said; his voice was steady despite the cry. “It may not be the same one. Over the years, we have found that the Dark Ones have learned to heal their companions very quickly, though they conceal the method from us. Still, it is far too soon, even so; the dragan we fought should not be fit to search for us so quickly.” He saw Arlia’s fear, and raised a reassuring hand. “It won’t be able to see or hear us, and they do not hunt by smell. We’ll be safe here.”

She relaxed a little, and sank back against her rock. “That’s good.” She glanced at Na’Ral, who lay watching and listening across from Joveth. “This would be a good time to know that fast-healing technique.”

“Indeed. But we will do the best we can for him.” Na’Ral let out a soft growl, giving the psychic impression of reassurance; he, at least, seemed to trust Joveth.

“I’m grateful for your help with his healing.” But that brought her to another topic, and it was one that had stumped her since their meeting. “You don’t speak when you conjure.”

For the second time, his eyebrows rose in surprise. “No, of course not. Do you always?” She only looked at him. “That is…unexpected. And it is a mystery to me. This is the way you were taught in Keridin? That you must always speak aloud?”

“Until I saw you,” she said, “I was not aware that anything else was possible.”

Joveth looked away, his brow drawing down. “This is troubling to me. I am assuming that all in your courses of training were taught the same. Princess—“ she let it slip, this time; he didn’t seem to notice he had said it—“something is amiss here. You are here, sent to war as a battle mage, but you have not been taught the most basic things of all. I cannot tell you how strange this is.” He shook his head, then turned his gaze back to her. “The incantations can be made without speaking. It is a bit more complex than simply thinking them, but it is not difficult. If you like, I will teach you. They can be made much faster this way; it may save your life.”

For the first time, she smiled. “Anything that will help us on our way, I will appreciate. And…thank you.”

“You’re welcome. It’s no trouble for me; after all, we have nothing but time, until your friend is healed.” He smiled back at her. “And in return, you can tell me of affairs in the Silver Mountains.”

***

“Please! I have done everything you commanded!” Mila howled. She writhed on the ground, blood streaming from shallow cuts all over her body, as the magic held her down.

“Indeed. And a very faithful servant you have been,” the man in silver said. He stood over her, tall and arrogant, his long back hair swept back to a crest at the crown of his head before falling in a wave down his back. “Now, how to reward you?”

Beside him, his Companion snorted as if in derisive laughter. Its head and powerful chest were reminiscent of a horse; its lithe, muscular limbs spoke of a cat; but its skin was all reptilian, scaled at the vulnerable points, smooth and leathery elsewhere. Its lips pulled back in a snarl, exposing long, hooked teeth. This one was wingless; the appearance of a winged garrock was rare, far more so than a winged dragan. The man raised a hand to absently stroke its head. “I should kill you, you know,” he said to Mila. “I don’t like to leave such…loose ends.”

“But I did what you asked!” she moaned. “I sent them north. The scout should have overtaken her by now. They should be within your grasp!”

“Perhaps. That is no concern of yours. But—“ He broke off at the sound of footsteps behind him, the heavy-but-muffled paws of another garrock—his sister’s mount.

“Mardan!” Morrigan wore her impatience like a crown, as she always did. “The scrying is done. No one has passed this way in a week. The plateau remains secure.”

“Excellent.” Mardan turned back to the woman on the ground. “Fortunately, I have further use for you. You will live a little longer. You will continue to watch this border, and if the forces of Keridin come to the plateau, you will warn me.” He pulled a callstone, fully empowered, from his belt, and tossed it on the ground near Mila’s head. “And if the last scout returns…you will see that he goes no further. Use any means at your disposal—poison him, knife him in his sleep, I do not care. Just see that he does not leave the plateau. And then, perhaps, I will free you from your service.” He knew it was a lie—she no doubt knew it herself—but there was a certain thrill in raising a hope, only to dash it.

“Mardan,” Morrigan said, urging haste. Always in a hurry, she was.

“Patience, sister. Some things must be done properly.” He raised a hand, and a cold glow formed around it. “I do not like the prospect of a knife in my back as I ride away.” The glow coalesced into a bright point, and a bolt of lightning erupted from it to strike Mila, who screamed in agony. The lightning didn’t fade, but surrounded her in a hissing, crackling shell of power, and she twisted inside it. “The pain will continue until we are away,” he murmured.

He wheeled his garrock. “Let’s go!” he shouted. “The princess and the scout will not be moving quickly, but we’ll not waste any time returning.” He dug his heels into the garrock’s flanks, and it sprang forward to take a place beside Morrigan’s. The line of former scouts—five of them, all mounted on their own equine Companions—parted for him, and side-by-side, he and his sister led the way. Ahead, the city waited; behind, there were only the pained shrieks of one old woman.

***

By the end of the first full day in the scar, Arlia was restless. True to his word, Joveth had begun to teach her to conjure without speaking, but she had found it difficult to master; it was just a matter of internalizing the words of the incantation, but it required a focus that was not instinctive—spoken words, after all, came out one at a time, not interrupted by errant thoughts. She practiced on the incantations needed to light the boulder for heat, and other menial tasks, but when it came time to change the dressings on Na’Ral, she didn’t want to risk it; she spoke the words aloud. She was sure that Joveth didn’t approve, but every time she turned around, he only watched.

Na’Ral was recovering well, but his wound was deep. Every time he raised his wing—with pain, she knew—for her to check it, she got a sense of apology and rue from him. He was deeply angry at himself for failing to protect her, and chagrined at his own weakness, and most of all determined that it shouldn’t happen again. She did her best to reassure him, to convey that she wasn’t angry at him, but it was hard; she knew all too well what he felt—she felt it herself. After all, she had failed to protect him, too.

Late in the second night, after Na’Ral’s basso snores filled the ravine, Joveth came to sit beside her against the ravine wall—they had moved the boulder closer, to retain the heat. “We will need to resupply soon,” he said, quietly, so as not to wake the tiger. “I am almost out of healing materials, and unless I miss my guess, you are as well.”

She said nothing; it was true. There was enough left in her bag for perhaps one more poultice, and Na’Ral would need at least three more days, perhaps more. Did this mean going back to Mila’s farm? Inwardly, she glowered at the thought of retracing all that ground.

“We scouts have prepared for emergencies,” he went on, unknowingly answering her question. “We have hidden caches of food and supplies and weapons around the plateau. There is one not far from here, but it will be dangerous enough getting to it.”

“Because of the draga?”

“No,” he said. “We can handle the dragan if it comes, as long as we do not let down our guard. It is the mountains we must fear.”

Arlia frowned. She had not given much thought to the mountains; her plan had been to avoid them. “What is to fear in the mountains?”

He gave a short sigh, one she was coming to recognize; he made it anytime the apparent deficiencies in her preparation came up. Well, it was true that no one had told her much about the mountains—did they even have names? She gave voice to that question. “They do,” he said. He gestured west toward the nearer mountains—they would be to the left if she faced along her recent course. “These are the Knife-Edge Mountains. The others are called the Iron Range. They are nearly impassible. No one controls the ranges, but the Dark Ones patrol them, if not in force.” His voice dropped lower, and became grim. “They would be deadly anyway. The wildlife there…the magic used in the battles that broke the plateau, it lingered. The creatures in the vicinity, those that did not die, became faster, stronger, larger. They became more vicious than before. They have mostly been driven from the plateau, but the mountains…that is another story. We would do well to avoid entering the mountains if we can help it, even if we found a path.”

“It sounds terrible.” She gazed into the boulder’s light; tonight, with more time and a need to practice her conjuring, she had caused it to have the illusion of a real fire, with flickering flames. “And that is where we have to go?”

“Not into the mountains,” he said. “But we will be close. Perhaps dangerously so.” He glanced off to the end of the ravine, where his Companion grazed. “Veridan will carry us safely. He knows the area, and he will be alert to the dangers.”

Arlia nodded. “You know,” she said after a long minute, “that is one of the reasons why I joined the war.”

“Hmm?”

“The animals,” she said. “The earth, and the damage being done to it. I thought, if I could accomplish something here, perhaps help end the war, I could bring some relief. It is what I have wanted for years.” She laughed, and it came out laced with bitterness. “Now, it seems I have been out of my depth all along.”

Joveth turned to look at her, and his eyes were surprisingly gentle. “Don’t mistake naïveté for incompetence, Prin…Arlia,” he said. “You were unprepared for this. I am the one who said it, so I can hardly back out of it now. But…you’re determined, as well, and resourceful. You’ll overcome that obstacle.”

“That is easy for you to say.”

He didn’t answer. There was no good answer to be had. Eventually, though, he spoke again. “We have been fighting this war for generations,” he said. “Out here alone on the plateau, there is little else except time to think, and I have thought often about this. I wonder why it is, in all these years, we remain at what is, for the most part, a standstill. By now, I think, we should have conquered them…or been overrun.” His tone spoke of darker possibilities, and Arlia thought suddenly of his words from the day before. Princess, something is amiss here. “I think perhaps we have lost our reason to win. Oh, certainly we fight…but perhaps it is too comfortable this way. Perhaps that is why no one wins.”

That was a troubling thought. “Too comfortable? What do you mean?”

He waved it away. “I don’t know. I am not sure what I mean, exactly. But I think that perhaps, if we are to win, or ever put an end to this war at all, we need someone like you. Someone who cares about something greater than the war itself.” He fixed her with his gaze. “As you so clearly do.”

She found herself blushing, then, self-consciously. No one had ever spoken of her passion that way. Certainly her father was proud of her, as he had said, but even he, she suspected, saw her interests as only that—passing interests. Joveth, it seemed, saw more; she wasn’t certain how she felt about that.

“Well,” he said, “I think I will get some sleep. You might do the same…Veridan will keep watch first. We will want to travel early, so we can be away from the mountains well before sunset.” He didn’t appear to have noticed her red face. Nodding to her, he pulled one of his saddlebags nearer—it made a convenient pillow—wrapped himself in his cloak, and lay down. In just a minute, his breathing lengthened and grew quiet.
Arlia sat for a long time, gazing into the fire, thinking. Finally, she pulled her own cloak about her, and lay down with her back to the stone wall, and slept.

***

The sun hid behind a heavy overcast, and yet the day was sweltering. Arlia knew a bit of magic that would deflect the heat from her, to keep her from sweating, but Joveth had cautioned her not to conjure this close to the mountains. “Some things”, he said as they mounted Veridan that morning, “can sense the magic.” She doubted that he meant the draga—and if anything could be worse than the draga, she didn’t want to meet it. So, all morning and into the early afternoon, she rode behind him, sweating in her battle gear, and desperately wishing to be elsewhere.

The cache wasn’t far—the mountains themselves were only a league or two away—but the route Veridan took across the wounded ground was circuitous. Joveth spoke reassuringly to the horse, then explained. “There are streams in the area. The water is not safe to drink, unless we purify it, but it is not the danger in and of itself. Rather, the streams are too deep to ford, and too wide to jump, so we must go around.” Arlia had encountered a few such streams herself, on her crossing of the plateau, but Na’Ral’s wings had made short work of the problem. It occurred to her now that that was likely another reason why Joveth had lagged behind in his pursuit of her—Veridan would have had to find a shallow ford each time. Well, he should have declared himself at the first opportunity.

As they rode, he told her more about the Companions of the Dark Ones. Like the Light, the Dark Ones could summon two kinds of soul companion. There were the draga, the large serpent-like reptiles; most of them were wingless, but all were dangerous. The others, he explained, were called garrocks. “It is not our word,” he said. “We named the draga as such. The Dark Ones call them Kerila—“ a pretentious word if ever there was one, Arlia thought; it meant “graceful ones”—“but I have heard that some of them have started to use the name we gave them. They find it more fitting, I think. No, garrock is the name the Dark Ones use for those creatures.” It meant “clever beast” in the old tongue.

“What are they like?” she said.

He thought for a moment. “They are like horses. But that does not do them justice. Their legs are like those of a tiger, with claws instead of hooves. Their skin is like the draga, and they are armored in places.” He paused. “And they bite. I suppose you should know that.”

Against her will, she laughed. It sounded foreign in this dead place, but it was a relief. “They sound unpleasant.”

“They are. But never forget that they are Companion Souls, as much as Na’Ral or Veridan. They may be tainted by the twisted magic of the Dark Ones, but they are as aware, and as intelligent, as any other Companion. Underestimating them would be a mistake.” Veridan pulled up short, and Joveth rose in the saddle, scanning the area; then he settled back. “We are unseen as yet,” he said as Veridan resumed his cautious pace. “That is good.”

“How many will we face at the city?” she said. “Mila warned me not to fly around it.”

“She was right,” he said. “The proportions in their numbers are much the same as in ours. In all the population, only a handful can become sorcerers or mages, like us. We stay to our own, so I think that sometimes we forget that, but it remains true. Then, among those of us with that talent, only some can summon a Companion. And among those companions, only a few may have wings. And yet, when the population is very large, those numbers will increase as well.” He thought a moment longer. “In that city, there will be perhaps twenty winged souls, and at least ten times that many wingless. We will be greatly outnumbered.”

“Wait—what do you mean, we?” she objected. “Your duty is here, on the plateau. I have to go on.”

She expected him to laugh, or sigh again, but he did neither. When he spoke, his voice was earnest. “I may have shown you a few things that will help you, but you are not ready to face the Dark Ones alone. My duty is to protect our people and their lands. For now, helping you through the city is part of that duty.”

“And afterward?”

He glanced over his shoulder at her. “I think we will first worry about whether there is an afterward,” he said grimly.

An hour later, the mountains were before them. From a distance, Arlia had expected to come into them gradually, riding up through foothills like those around the Silver Mountains; but now, she saw, there were no foothills. Two hundred feet away, a sheer ridge of stone jutted into the sky, bleak and imposing, capped with jagged teeth of granite that rose in waves to the higher peaks in the distance. Half a league in each direction along that wall, a waterfall poured down, forming one of the streams they had encountered. The plateau grasses, meager as they were, disappeared entirely a hundred feet from the foot of the ridge, replaced by a spreading apron of talus. “And now you see why they are called the Knife-Edge Mountains,” Joveth said.

They dismounted, and stood beside Veridan, surveying the area. Arlia noticed that the heat had faded along the way, and now a brisk wind began to pick up. Joveth leaned close to her and spoke quietly. “We must be both quick and careful here,” he said. “Many of the creatures in the mountains hunt by sound. Some will be aware of us already, but they will not attack unless they think we are not guarding ourselves. Others will not be so cautious, so we must be quiet, as well. The cache is buried in the scree at the base, but it is not deep, and we can be away quickly if we work together.”

She nodded. “I don’t like the feel of this place, either. What do you need?”

“Cover me,” he said. “Have your fastest battle incantations ready. Nothing elaborate, just fast and simple, but do not complete the conjuration unless you have no choice. I’ll get the cache.”

Joveth strode out onto the scattered stone, moving with purpose, but silently. Arlia followed; this was one skill she knew she didn’t lack, the ability to move quietly. Veridan waited at the edge; with his hooves, there was no way he could be silent on the rock. The rock sloped up as it approached the cliff face, rising to perhaps the height of a man; Joveth picked his way to within ten feet of the wall, then knelt down. True to his earlier words, he did not use magic to dig; he dug at the rock with his hands, working quickly, pulling the stones aside. Somehow he managed to do it without making a sound.

Arlia scanned the ridgeline, standing a few feet behind Joveth. Something in the wind felt…wrong. She tried to think it through, but there was no one thing about it—no smell, no taste, not even a noise. It was unseasonably cold, but that was likely just because of the mountains; it was blowing from that direction. Still, something…

She spun around, staring to the right along the wall, searching. Nothing moved, but she was sure there had been something…the wall was bare. Only the waterfall, and it was distant. Shaking her head, she went back to her vigil. Behind her, Veridan whickered. “I know,” she whispered over her shoulder at him, “I feel it too.”

Joveth cast an urgent look at her. Quiet, his eyes said. He resumed digging. Arlia turned her attention back to the rock face. The jagged spires that toppd it drew her eyes, a veritable forest of stone, stretching out of sight. How could anything live there? Perhaps it thinned out as it spread into the mountain range beyond. Or perhaps the creatures that lived there had adapted to the cramped quarters, though she couldn’t imagine it. Birds, perhaps? But no, he had implied that there were more dangerous things than birds. And what would they eat? She decided she didn’t want to know the answer to that question.

A sound caught her ear. Joveth didn’t seem to notice, but Arlia turned, this time to her left…it was light, the sound of a rock skittering over the edge of the cliff, she thought. She saw nothing, though; the cliff on that side was just as bare as the other side.

Joveth looked to have dug a foot down into the slope. The wind was growing stronger, now, and with it that feeling of wrongness, like a dimming of the sky on a cloudless day. This day was not cloudless, but the sky had not changed. She raised her head, feeling the wind on her face as it swept down from the ridge, trying to isolate what she felt, but it was no use. She felt alarm rising in the back of her mind; felt her heart beating faster. Something was there, though she still saw nothing.

“Joveth,” she whispered. He didn’t seem to hear her; he kept digging. That feeling of alarm was growing stronger by the second, now clamoring at her consciousness. “Joveth,” she whispered again. He turned again, irritation on his face, and raised a warning finger to his lips. Shrieking, now, that terrible sensation…shadows gathering among the spires. They grew dark before her eyes, the grey stone turning to black in patches that shifted and swirled, a dark mist moving among the spikes. Gathering, coalescing…

A shadow detached itself from the rest, and poured over the edge, flowing like water, but fast, oh, so fast…and as it touched the slope, it changed. “Joveth!” she screamed, and threw herself toward him, raising a hand that was already alight with magic. Before she could even see the shape the thing was taking, she released. Joveth looked up as Arlia cast the magic, his face painted with shock. A roar of concussive energy tore past him, invisible but powerful, and crashed into the thing as it took form—a wolf of some kind, but not a wolf, something big and multilegged, bristling with dark fur, its face set with eyes that burned a deep red. The blast slammed it back against the wall, and it shrieked as its bones—did it have bones? A shell?—snapped, then powdered. But now, more shadows were detaching themselves, pouring over the wall, crashing to the ground as they coalesced, grew distinct and sharp. Too sharp, in too many ways. What were they?

Joveth scrambled to his feet, hauling a large pack from the stone by a strap. He loosed a burst of magic of his own, a lance of brilliant light that hurled the wolf-things aside in either direction; then he turned to run. Arlia heard hooves thundering on the scree, then Veridan’s great form hurtled past her. She released another blast of her own, smashing another wolf against the cliff; then another, taking another creature as it leaped for Joveth’s back. Still they came down, ten, fifteen, twenty; there seemed to be no end of them. Veridan twisted to the side as he passed Joveth, smashing his enormous flank against two of the creatures as they leapt, sending them reeling. On the other side, nearer to Arlia, Joveth got a foot into the stirrup and hauled himself up, slinging the pack over his right shoulder and grabbing the pommel of the saddle with that hand; there would be no holding the reins—Veridan knew his part better than Joveth did. Joveth shouted and let out another explosion of light, dispelling shadows that hadn’t yet formed into the beasts, and hurling the nearest creatures away. Then Veridan wheeled and shot away, racing straight for Arlia. She released the magic and raised a hand…met Joveth’s outstretched hand…and was yanked off her feet, twisting in midair to land behind him on the horse’s back. She twisted around to look back, and wished she hadn’t—the beasts were pounding after them, snarling and howling.

“They won’t go far from the mountains!” he shouted. “But they’re fast! We’ll have to hold them off until they fall away! Veridan knows the way, but I need your help!” Arlia called up her power, and lashed out, feeling Joveth do the same.

Blast after blast fell among the creatures. Lightning struck from the clouds at her command, picking off the beasts in the center of the pack. Joveth’s bursts of light struck at the edges, killing clusters of them at each strike. The pack had to be more than a hundred by now…and still, even as they died, they came on, gaining on them. Arlia’s concussive blasts were less useful here, with no wall to hurl them against, but she used that spell to pick off any beast that pulled ahead of the pack, tossing it back into the crowd. She struck, and struck, and struck again, but it seemed as though the beasts would never stop…

She felt her strength ebbing. She knew her incantations, had practiced them over and over, but there were limits to what anyone could do. The unspoken form of conjuring that Joveth had taught her was fast, but it was not easy. The beasts were gaining ground; now the nearest was only a few feet back. Veridan put on a new burst of speed, trying to pull ahead, and Arlia readied herself for another blow—and the magic slipped away. She couldn’t summon it back; she was too exhausted. Joveth was breathing hard as well, and he could barely raise his hand. She saw the light in his palm flicker and die. The beast in the lead pulled closer, reaching out with jaws full of jagged teeth, teeth that looked like the stone spires atop the wall. Deadly.

Joveth’s hand closed over hers. “Together,” he muttered, and she felt the magic flare up in him. It was weak, but it was there…she met it with her own, and then suddenly it was enough, it was enough—so close, but it was enough—and lightning exploded from their joined fists, catching the lead beast in a blaze of light. It burst into flames, its snarl turning to a scream of pain as it tumbled to the ground, rolling to a stop. It thrashed in the dirt, yowling in fury and misery, and died.

For a long minute, there was silence, broken only by the drumming of hooves. Then, Arlia raised her eyes, and saw that the rest of the pack was gone, gone, gloriously gone. In the distance, she saw shadows flowing like water back to the mountains. Then, and only then, did she let herself slump against Joveth’s back, even as he slumped over against Veridan’s neck. They had made it—she wasn’t sure how—but they had made it. They had the pack, and they were alive. Alive!

***

Na’Ral gave a rumble of greeting when Veridan descended the slope of the scar. The sun hung low in the sky, and the shadows in the scar had lengthened; Arlia shuddered before she could stop herself. These shadows were only that, but she didn’t think she would ever look at a shadow the same.

She slid from the horse’s back onto legs that were still shaky. She gave the tiger an embrace and a few quick words of reassurance—words that reassured her more than him, perhaps—before moving to help Joveth with the preparations for the night. It was all she could do to summon the magic, but she lit the boulder—no image of fire tonight—and helped him reinforce the illusion that shielded them from above. Then, together, they changed the poultice on Na’Ral’s wound, using supplies from the new pack. At last, they sank down against the wall, side-by-side, and let the heat of the fire drive the ache from their bones.

“That was very well done today,” Joveth said after a while, turning his head to look at her. “I should have felt them coming, but I was in a hurry to get the pack. I should know better.” He shook his head ruefully. “When we hid that cache, that area was clear. The beasts are territorial, as are all the creatures of the mountains, but their territory seems to shift.”

“It was a close call,” Arlia said. “Especially there at the end.”

“Indeed it was. But thanks to you, we survived.” He turned and reached for the pack, then, and dug into it. “To celebrate this conquest, perhaps we can do better for our supper tonight.”

That piqued her interest, and she peered over his shoulder. “What did you have in mind? I only have rations with me.”

Joveth pulled a smaller bundle from the pack, and set it down between them. “This is sealed against decay,” he said, and it was true; she could see the traces of magic that were woven into the wrappings. “It will only be enough for one meal, but it will serve all of us. Would you…?” He shrugged apologetically. “My powers are more exhausted than I thought.”

She pressed a fingertip to the center of the package, and tendrils of light ran down her finger, sparkling like gold. The wrapping split under her touch, and peeled back; and Arlia gasped. The bundle was filled with fruit, bread, cheeses, and dried meats, with a cluster of deep-purple stormberries—one of her favorite delicacies—in the center. Thanks to the magic in the wrapping, they were as fresh as the day they were packed. After days of battle rations, they looked like a long-lost treasure.

Joveth parceled out the food, and gave half to her. He waved to Veridan, who ambled over and accepted an apple from him, then a second, before Joveth started on his own meal. Arlia climbed to her feet—no easy task, after today—and went to kneel beside Na’Ral, holding out her portion of the meat. He rumbled at her, and she felt a mix of bemusement, reticence, and concern from him. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t care for the meat anyway, you know that. And besides, today was a victory for all of us. So, take it.” Humor replaced the rest—was he laughing at her?—but he took the meat and dropped it between his paws, then bit off a piece. For once, he seemed inclined to savor it.
“Enjoy it,” she murmured. “If you only knew what we went through to get it!” He raised an eye at her and paused in his eating, and she felt sympathy and guilt roll off him. “Oh, no, I don’t mean it like that! You stubborn monstrosity. You were right where you should have been.” He wasn’t convinced. “I mean it! You’ll save my life a hundred times over before we’re through. You can let me worry about yours for now.” That seemed to content him, and he went back to his food.

Arlia settled back against the wall and picked up her own portion. She tucked cheese into the half-loaf of bread and bit into it, sighing contentedly with her eyes closed. “This is good! Where did it come from?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” Joveth said. “The supplies come by way of Mila, but I’m not certain where they originate. I know there are farms in the river country, between here and the Silver Mountains.” She heard a note of wistfulness in his voice, and she opened one eye to stare at him.

“Is that where you’re from?” It made sense. I knew things were different in Keridin, he had said…it was hardly the only village in the mountains, but they were all much the same, she thought. Keridin was the nominal capital of their people, but it had little to distinguish it.

“I grew up there,” he said. “My father was a miller, a man of quiet strength and quieter tastes. He was a soldier once, and I think he would rather I have never known it, because he believes it put the idea in my head. And I suppose he may be right.” He smiled, remembering. “It was a good life. I am the third child of five—an older brother and sister, and a younger of each. I suppose that they are still living that life…my brothers will be running the mill by now, and my sisters are no doubt happily married and dandling babies on their knees, when they can persuade my mother to hand them back. All since I left to give my service to the armies.” He glanced at her. “What was it like, growing up the daughter of Magra?”

“It was quiet in its way, as well,” she said. “I don’t know that you would think so, but then, I doubt I would find a miller’s life to be quiet. I have two sisters, both older, but I can’t see either of them married off so soon, or perhaps ever. We all have the magic,” she added. It was rare for everyone in a family to have it; often it was an isolated case.

“From an Elder’s family, I would have expected as much,” he said.

“It doesn’t always happen that way,” she said. “The Elders tend to come from strong bloodlines, but it isn’t entirely so. Some of the Magisters—“ the clerics who kept the Scriptures and led the Training Centers—“say that the magic is dying out in our race, becoming more and more rare. Even the strongest families are not what they once were.” She paused, and looked at him. “Where did you train? I would remember if you had trained at Keridin.”

“I trained at Riftwall,” he said. “Very far from home, for me.”

She said nothing. Riftwall was indeed a long way from the river country. It was not so far from the mountains—in fact, it sat at the foot of the range’s southeastern edge—but it still was a famously exotic city. And city it was; it was the second largest city in their lands, exceeded only by Atraxia, the seaport on the Starfall Sea to the west. She wanted to see it sometime—had wanted it since hearing stories as a little girl—but she supposed now that that might never happen.

“My training was very good,” Joveth continued after a moment. “And if I may say it without seeming proud, I showed skill, so much so that the Magisters allowed me to take a feather for my Summoning. As you can see,” he said, glancing at Veridan, “it didn’t work.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“I am not. Veridan has proven to be the Companion I needed. Had he had wings, I would have been overjoyed…but I was overjoyed anyway. He and I are right for each other.” He turned that intense gaze on her again. “Just as you and Na’Ral are right for each other. I knew that from the first moment I saw you together, and I still believe it to be true.”

She met his eyes, unblinking, and felt a flush over her skin. “I believe it, as well.”

“Then it’s good to know that we are agreed,” he said—and was his face also growing red?

“Why do you call me princess?” she said abruptly—then kicked herself inwardly. The question was out before she could stop it, but it was not what she had meant to say. And what had she meant to say? If anything?

The feeling was gone, but the intensity wasn’t. Joveth’s eyes still held hers. “When the time is right, I’ll tell you,” he said. Then, abruptly, he turned away; she swore she could almost feel his gaze break off. “Tomorrow we’ll have your friend get up and walk a while, test his healing. Rest well, Princess.”

She was surprised to find disappointment rising inside…but there it was. And for what? Because he hadn’t answered her question, or…something else? “That…that will be good,” she said, stumbling over the words. She tugged her cloak around her.

In the dim, yellow light of the boulder, he studied her for a moment. “I’ll take the first watch,” he said at length. “Veridan also needs his rest. Until tomorrow, then.” He stood and strode into the darkness, toward the end of the ravine, and was gone.

***

Mila coughed and pulled herself to her feet, shrugging off the last of Mardan’s power. Power of the magical kind, at any rate; there was no question that he still held power over her. Well, that was going to come to an end, here and now. He had threatened her life to compel her obedience, but he had assured her that her death, when he dealt it out, would be slow and wracked with pain if she disobeyed him—and then he had shown her the pain of which he spoke. This wasn’t the first time, nor even the worst; Mardan had no reason to think she would disobey now. He had already broken her.

Well, let the fool man think that if he wanted. Mila did fear him; he was powerful and evil at the same time, and his twin sister was worse yet. But something had awakened in her when she saw the girl pass by a week earlier, something she knew Mardan would think he had beaten out of her, and would never tolerate: Loyalty. Loyalty to Keridin, to her people. To Magra, her old friend-turned-elder, and—more strongly than she ever thought possible—to his daughter. It was a shame the girl knew nothing of her true heritage, although Mila knew it was for good reason; a shame, because she already bore the signs of the woman, the leader, she would become. If the Dark Ones did not kill her first.
She hoped more than anything, now, that the scout would protect her, and yet, that he wouldn’t tell Arlia the truth. The girl was not ready for that.

Mila hobbled into the house, dropping the accursed callstone on the table as she passed it. She wanted to smash it, burn it, anything, but that wouldn’t do; Mardan would know, and he would return. She left it lying and made her way into the cramped bedroom at the back of the house, where her keepsake chest sat on a high shelf. Groaning with the ache in her joints, an ache made as much by age as by the power that had struck her, she pulled it down and opened it. Tucked away in the bottom, she found the second callstone. Magra’s stone.

She sat on the bed to use it, not daring to go out in the kitchen. Too close to Mardan’s stone, and the two would resonate, and Mardan would hear what she said. She rubbed the stone between her hands to warm it, feeling the magic in it come alive.

Mila had no magic of her own. It was not strange to her. Most people didn’t have it; it was a rare gift. That was why the stones had to be infused with magic by their owners; the recipients, if they lacked magic of their own, could not power up the stones. Nevertheless, Mila could sense the magic in it, and when she felt that it was fully awake, she stroked her finger across its flat surface in a cross pattern, activating it.

It was a few minutes before Magra’s voice came to her. “Mila,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“Magra,” she replied. “I have news for you, urgent news. I have seen your youngest daughter and her companion.”

“Indeed?” he said. “That is good, then. Strange, though—they should have passed that way days ago. Were they well?”

Not for the first time, Mila wished that the callstones allowed you to see the face of the person with whom you spoke. Was he oblivious? “It was seven days past when I saw her, and she was well. But that is not why I have called you.” She paused a beat, then went on. “Magra, she is in great danger.”

“You speak of the Outpost City,” he said.

“Yes. But there is—“

“Then I do not see the trouble,” Magra interrupted. “I knew when I sent her that way that she would have to pass the city. She is a capable sorceress.”

“That is—“ but then she caught herself. Why had he sent Arlia this way? The sea route to the west and north was much safer, if longer. It wasn’t unheard of for individuals to come this way, but in Arlia’s case, it seemed foolhardy, now that she thought about it. “Magra, I am trying to tell you that the Dark Ones have set a trap for her! They desire to capture her.”

Magra’s voice was dismissive. “They will not succeed. She is very resourceful.”

Was he out of his mind? “Magra,” she said, “old friend, hear what I am saying. They have set a trap for her. That means that they knew she was coming this way. Does this not concern you? Not only is your daughter in danger, but it seems you have a spy in your midst!”

Finally, his voice grew grave. “I do hear you, my friend. And Arlia’s welfare concerns me very much. But there is little I can do for her now. If you saw her a week ago, she surely must be near the city by now, if not in it. I will contact the armies at Landfall and ask them to send a party to search for her, but no one I can send from Keridin will reach her in time. She must navigate this trap alone.”

That was not good. Landfall was the fortress to the north, where the armies landed as they arrived by sea. It was well-defended—it was the heart of their offensives against the Dark Ones—but it was north of the city, and Arlia would be approaching from the south. As well, it was many, many leagues distant, much further even than the distance back to Keridin. Still, as much as she hated to admit it, Magra was probably right. It would be two days of flight for a winged companion to reach her, and there were precious few of those. A fortnight, by foot. “Then…what of the knowledge that was leaked?” she said. “I can think of no other explanation but a spy.”

“That is concerning to me. I will look into it, as quickly as I can.” He didn’t sound concerned, though.

“There is more.” Mila took a deep breath. “The scouts of the plateau are compromised, Magra. I have seen them riding with the Dark Ones.”

Silence. Mila felt a growing unease as she waited for Magra’s answer. “All of them?” he said at length.

“No. One remains loyal, and I have sent him to help Arlia. He should have overtaken her by now.”

“That is good, then. See? He will help her pass through the city.”

“He is one man! Against a garrisoned city!”

“One very capable man, if he was chosen to be a scout.” Magra sounded much more patient now, speaking as if to a child. “Mila, there is nothing more I can do for her. I will appoint new scouts and send them to the plateau, but I have no force I can detach to pursue her, or to attack the city. You know this to be true. Our armies wait to the north, and if Arlia passes the city, they will find her and take her in. And as for the other scouts…this is disturbing, but we have had men turn to the enemy before. They are lost to us now.”

“But what if they—“

Again, he cut her off. “I must go, Mila, if I am to attend to these matters as I have said. I will speak with you again when it is resolved.” The stone grew cold in her hand, and she knew he had severed the connection.

She put the stone away, thinking. This call had used up almost half of its power; they did not last long. She hardly noticed; her mind was on other things. Something was very wrong here. Why was Magra—wise, responsible Magra the elder—acting so blind? It made no sense. Either he was very confident in his daughter, or he greatly underestimated the threat. Or…

No. That couldn’t be. It simply couldn’t.

Then again, she was under the thumb of a Dark One. And the scouts had gone over willingly, or so it seemed. Or had they? All five of them, with only Joveth spared? That was no coincidence, but she couldn’t piece it together. There was no magic that she had seen that could change a man’s allegiance—and they had clearly not been forced in the same manner as she.

One thing was certain: One way or another, Arlia and Joveth were on their own. She dropped, achingly, to her knees, and clasped her hands, and said a prayer for them. If Magra would not help them, perhaps the gods would.

***

Na’Ral padded around the sandy bottom of the ravine, flaring his wings and high-stepping with the legs on his wounded side, testing the strength of his healed muscles. He gave a loud purr of approval, and looked at Arlia, who shrugged. “I wouldn’t know,” she said. The check-spell had indicated that he was fully healed, but only the tiger would know how well he could trust his strength. “We won’t need you to fly right away, anyway.”

Na’Ral snorted at that, and then flapped his wings, sending up a great gust of wind and sand. Clumsily at first, he lifted off the ground and hovered in place for a moment, then beat his wings and rose into the air above the ravine. Staying low to the ground—he was above the screen of illusion—he circled twice, then came in for a landing in front of Arlia and Joveth. He landed in a crouch and bared his teeth; Arlia felt powerful satisfaction from him, and she laughed for the joy of it. “That’s wonderful! I’m so glad to see you back to normal, my friend.”

Joveth nodded, and reached down to ruffle the fur on the tiger’s head. “It is wonderful. We’ve stayed here too long already…every day we stay, we risk the draga finding us before we are ready.” He turned his gaze to the north. “It will be challenge enough getting to the city without them finding us.”

“Well then,” she said, “Let’s be off. I am tired of this hole in the ground, as well.” That was a bit of a lie, though…she found she had grown fond of her nights here, with the two companions. And Joveth. She still wasn’t sure how she meant that, but it was true all the same. Near the top of the ravine, Veridan snorted as if to say that he knew a lie when he heard one; she shot a glare at him, and she could swear that the horse rolled his eyes at her. Was everyone sarcastic?

By agreement, they held a walking pace, even as they rode. Arlia was not ready to put Na’Ral’s healing to the fullest test yet, so she rode behind Joveth again on Veridan’s back. Curiously, the man didn’t seem to mind. As compensation to the horse, they transferred their baggage to Na’Ral, who rumbled his approval; he resented the notion that he couldn’t pull his weight, literally or figuratively. Arlia took one last look back at the scar—the most unexpected haven she had ever encountered—and then they set their faces toward the north, and rode on. Toward the city.

Toward the Dark Ones.

***

“It should have been finished by now,” Magra said. “Our business should be complete!”

“Magra, Magra,” the image said. Translucent and pale, it nevertheless strode in a circle around him as if it were both real, and in control here. And perhaps it was in control. Magra turned in place, keeping an eye on the other. “How was I to know she would take so long to arrive? One thing at which she seems to excel is hiding. You should be proud!”

“I am very proud of her.” His gaze was guarded, but he met the other’s eyes. “Our deal was that she would not be harmed. Only the Companion.”

“And what makes you think that she has been harmed?” The image smiled. “She simply has not reached the city. It will be soon. Then we will see her safely back to you. As promised.”

“And what of my scouts? Have they come to harm?”

The image’s face remained placid, but its eyes grew hard. “I have nothing to do with your scouts of the plateau. As long as they maintain their duties, they are no concern of mine. I find it odd that you should ask such a thing.”

He was lying. Magra knew it as surely as he knew his own name. It wouldn’t do to reveal what he knew, though; so he recovered smoothly. “Things are at a juncture. I am the First among the Elders of my people. Every one of them is my concern, and the world grows more chaotic each day.”

The image nodded. “Not for long. We will make it secure. But first, your child. When she comes this way, I will complete our agreement, and then she will return to you.” The image sparkled, then faded away.

Suddenly weary, Magra slumped to the floor, in the center of the stone chamber’s great circle. From the dark of one of the arches at the room’s edge, Taravin—one of the other Elders—stepped out and came to stand beside him, arms folded, her face locked in its usual pursed expression of disapproval. “I do not trust that one, Magra. He will undo us if he can.”

“I know.” Magra faced the floor, unwilling to meet Taravin’s eyes. “And yet, what choice is there? We have begun this course, and now we must see it through.”

“This, we all know,” Taravin said. “I also could not see any other way. The schism will be healed, and of course there are prices to be paid.”

“Indeed, there are.” He looked up, then, and held out a hand. Taravin took it and helped him to his feet. “But we should pay them. I have a feeling, though, that the heaviest price—“ he glanced at the spot where the image had vanished—“will fall on Arlia.”

***

Under cover of darkness, Arlia, Joveth, and their Companions crept closer to the city. Outpost City, Joveth had called it—not its real name, which was unknown to any who were not of the Dark Ones, but a nickname given by the soldiers who had once fought over it. It bulked in the dark, torches flickering on its walls, the largest city Arlia had ever seen. When she said as much, Joveth whispered to her that Riftwall was larger, but that Outpost was the nearest city—and by default, the largest—in this part of the world. The mountains dove down on either side to meet it; she could see the ends of the ridgelines in the scattered light of the torches. Its towers and walls rose into the night, pitch-black against a sky that was darker yet; and yet, Arlia saw, the sky offered no safety. Globes of light burned atop many of the towers, fed by magic, and from them, powerful beams probed the clouds, sweeping around. She caught the occasional flash near the tower tops, and she realized that there were mirrors there, moving in some way—perhaps on wheels, perhaps some other means—casting the light upward. It seemed Mila’s warning had been right.
By prior agreement, they didn’t speak. Sentries, Joveth had warned her, and she believed it. Occasionally in the darkness she heard footsteps on the plateau. Some were marching, the sound of armed patrols; some were stealthier, and she knew then that they would be the Dark Ones’ version of the scouts. Every time the stealthier steps were head, Joveth came to a halt, and they waited until the sounds receded.

He etched a winding path across the landscape—here taking a well-beaten roadway, there a faded path, and later fording a runnel of water. Often, they passed through high stands of grain or low rows of vegetables, and Arlia realized that the city must do its farming here; the Dark Ones must have found a way to heal some portion of the plateau’s blighted earth. Always, they drew closer and closer, until at last, they hunkered down in a clump of high grass two hundred paces from the wall.

The city had no moat, but a high gateway was barred by a mountainous inner gate, its wood so heavy and blackened that it could have withstood a battalion. A thick portcullis filled the space in front of it; murder holes and arrow loops filled out the space inside the gateway. The wall itself, Arlia estimated, was something on the order of sixty feet high.

This city wasn’t built for a siege; it was built to break one.

Joveth motioned her closer, and spoke in a whisper. “There are three gates in the wall on this side, just as there are three in the northern wall. Two will be closed at night, like this.” Arlia glanced at the wall, and decided that this must be the easternmost of the three gates. “The central gate will be open. But we cannot enter at any open gate, because the gate sentries will be checking everyone who enters. No one enters or leaves at night, anyway, except for the patrols and the scouts. All farming is done during the day.”

“Then, how do we get in?”

“It will not be easy,” he said. “First, we will disguise ourselves. I am familiar with the appearance of the guards on the wall; we will take that as our cover. Then, we will go in through one of the holes in the gateway. They are not routinely guarded, because it is so unlikely that anyone would be able to come in that way. But we have an advantage.” He glanced at Na’Ral. “He can get us up to the entrance, one at a time, and then join us.”

“That is an audacious plan,” she said. “Do they not patrol inside the wall?”

“They do. So we will need to be quick. Once inside, we will not be noticed if we can maintain our distance from the patrols, but if we get too close, they will see that they do not know us. But, if we can pass the walls and make it into the streets, it will be better. We can drop the disguise then.”

“They won’t be able to tell us apart?”

“Not on sight,” he said. “I suppose you have never seen a Dark One?” She shook her head. “There is no visible difference. We all look much the same. But their speech is with an accent, so I would caution you not to speak if you can avoid it.” He turned, then, and looked at Veridan. “Old friend, I am afraid I can’t get you into the city. Find a place of concealment, as close as you can manage, and wait for me. I’ll find you as soon as I can.” The horse nickered softly, and for just a moment, even Arlia felt that she could sense his feelings on the matter; he wasn’t happy at the thought of abandoning Joveth, but he trusted him enough to agree. Wondering at that glimmer of sensation, Arlia reached up to stroke Veridan’s neck.

Joveth dug into his saddlebags and pulled out a thin but dense cloth; it was a groundcloth, made with magic to be waterproof and softer than its thickness should imply, made to give its user a dry and comfortable place to sleep should he need it. Unfolded, it was large; these cloths were made to form the bottom of a tent if necessary. He cast the cloth out over the three of them—all but Veridan—then he called up a small globe of light. The tight weave of the cloth would keep the light from showing through. “Lend me your power, if you would,” he said to Arlia. “I suppose you may know how to create an illusion, but as you don’t know what we are trying to create, I must shape the magic. But it will help if you add your own.” She nodded, and put a hand on his shoulder; then a glow formed where it rested.

Joveth chanted aloud, if under his breath; this conjuring required much concentration. She watched as the color and form of his clothes appeared to change under his hands, becoming a stiff, blood-red uniform with black accents. The uniform bulged in vital areas, where it would be reinforced with armor plates beneath, if it were real. He moved his hands to her, then, and though she couldn’t see her own clothing change—you never saw an illusion that was cast on you—she felt the warm hum of the magic as it rose up her legs, then over her body. Then he turned to Na’Ral, and his face took on grim focus; he began to sweat as he chanted, and the light grew brighter. Arlia watched in repulsed fascination.

Na’Ral ducked his head, and his lips pulled back in a snarl. His wings—now furled against his sides—vanished from view, and his white fur seemed to ripple. From his back down to his feet, it flowed like water, and faded, then grew rough and dry and dark, finally turning to leathery skin of a deep green. Scales erupted at his joints, his soft underbelly, his ears and eyes. His profile, already slender, narrowed, and his head lengthened, becoming horselike. His teeth grew long, protruding from his jaws, and his eyes became a baleful red. His long tail shortened, and his claws lengthened. When the magic faded, he was no longer the tiger she knew; he was something else. A garrock, she assumed.
Joveth sat back, panting from exertion. “When you fly,” he said to Na’Ral, “do it quickly, and then pull in your wings. I have never seen a winged garrock, and I do not know what the wings of one would look like. I have darkened your wings to make them less obvious, but if anyone sees them, they will know the truth at once.” Na’Ral rumbled his assent.
Packing away the cloth, Joveth murmured to Veridan, who snorted. He pulled some last items out of the saddlebags, and then patted the horse on the shoulder; Veridan turned and trotted off into the dark. Joveth to Arlia, and took a deep breath. “Are you ready? After this, there is no turning back.”

“Let’s go,” she said. Na’Ral purred his agreement…but she felt a hint of wariness from him.

***

“The scouts searched the plateau as we returned,” Mardan said. He strode beside the taller man, down a corridor of stone that glowed a pale green-white. “The girl and the remaining scout were nowhere to be found.”

“Interesting,” the other man said. “It seems she is more formidable than you believed. We must be prepared. Where is your sister, I should ask?”

“Preparing.” Mardan bit off the word as if sour. His views of the rituals they were planning to perform were no secret. A necessary evil, he considered it. “She is creating the circle.”

“Then we will leave her to it. This conjuration will be difficult, and I would not have it fail…we may never have this opportunity again.”

“I will see to it that she is not disturbed.” He scowled. “I have concern about this scout. Our sweep was quite thorough…if we did not find and convert him with the others, then he must be skilled indeed. He may pose a danger to us, even here.”

“Then what would you suggest?”

“Let me double the guards,” he said. “And the patrols. Perhaps we may even triple them. Tighten the net so much that he cannot slip through it!”

“It does seem to be the obvious solution,” the other man agreed. “And yet…I have another idea. More subtle perhaps, and I am aware that subtlety is not your great strength. Yet, if you will be patient, Mardan—“ he clearly wasn’t—“you may see something more interesting yet.”

Mardan’s scowl deepened. “Word games? At a time like this?”

“Not at all.” He stopped, and Mardan stopped with him; he stared into his subordinate’s eyes as an amused smile played around his lips. “Just a suggestion. Force may take them against their will, but diplomacy…now, with diplomacy, we may take them of their own will.”

***

Arlia and Joveth pressed themselves against the city wall beside the gateway, listening to the sound of steel-clad boots on flagstones inside the wall. When the patrol passed, Joveth turned and darted around the corner. Arlia followed, and pressed herself against the wall beside him; Na’Ral bounded to a stop at her side. The spot was exposed to the arrow loops on the opposite side of the gate, but they were empty right now; they wouldn’t stay that way for long. The had chosen this side because the gate house—inside the portcullis—was built into this side of the wall; otherwise they would have been seen at once.

Joveth pulled a pair of knives from his belt, one in each hand, and held them with the blades up against his wrists, the handles protruding from between his fingers. He gestured to Na’Ral, who moved over to him; then he climbed into the tiger’s saddle. His reversed grip on the knives allowed him to grab the saddle horn—and Na’Ral unfurled his wings and launched himself toward the top of the gateway. He rose through the nearest of the murder holes, hovered for only a second, and then dropped to the ground, the saddle empty. Arlia leapt on, and Na’Ral took off again.

The tiger scrabbled for a hold on the stone, then pulled himself inside as Arlia tumbled free, pulling her own knife. Joveth was already at the end of the dark corridor, some ten paces away, peering around the corner; he glanced back and waved them on. Na’Ral gathered in his wings; they seemed to melt into his skin and vanish—the illusion was a good one. They ran to catch up.

The wall was thick, at least twenty feet, but that still made for a short cross-corridor. It was empty, but lights glowed at the stairwells on either end. One, to the right, led down into the gatehouse; Joveth led the way to the other, and down. The lower corridor ran inside the front of the wall, toward the central gate, with a line of arrow loops on the left. Ahead, it made a right turn in toward the middle of the wall; receding shadows there, wavering in the torchlight, showed the patrol that they had heard.

At that end, they paused and looked down the next cross-corridor. Halfway down, it made a T with another corridor, on the left, that led further toward the central gate. Straight ahead, toward the back of the wall, a narrow staircase led up. Beside it, a second staircase led down into darkness. The patrol had taken the left toward the gate; Joveth took the downward path.

This stairway led down, down, perhaps three stories, and ended in a damp, mildewed tunnel that was black as pitch. Joveth risked a small bit of magic, igniting a globe of light no larger than his palm, that showed the extent of the tunnel. It ran on for perhaps two hundred feet, then vanished into a stone staircase that spiraled up into more darkness. Na’Ral took the lead, bounding ahead, and Joveth slipped to the rear, putting Arlia between them. The tiger sniffed the air; Arlia caught a wave of confidence from him—an all-clear, of sorts—and then he plunged up the staircase.

At the top, it opened into a round, empty room, five paces wide, with wide, open windows around it. Arlia saw that they were in a high tower, well within the wall, but connected to it by an inward-pointing extension. She knew this type of structure from her studies; it was a battle mage’s tower, used to give the mages a wide view of the battlefield in the case of a siege or invasion, so they could use their magic to the fullest. Na’Ral, for his part, was already leading the way to a man-sized gap in the room’s wall; a small landing outside opened the way to a staircase that spiraled around the outside of the tower.

Arlia caught Joveth’s sleeve before they stepped out. “It’s too easy,” she said. “Don’t you think? Shouldn’t we have seen more sentries, or something? And…and the route we took to get here! It was very direct, much more than I would have expected.”

“I know,” he said. “I wonder about the sentries, myself. It worries me. But the route…this wall is built in such a way that a mage can collapse any tunnel without damaging the strength of the wall itself. Not only can they block an invasion, but they may kill many of the invaders. It is a good system.”

Arlia nodded, but was only partly reassured. There should have been more sentries. Still, there was nothing for it now. Joveth nodded back at her, and led the way out the door and down the stairs. Down, down—but not into the tunnels again; the stairs ended behind a low wall, with an arched doorway leading out into the street.

He stopped her with a raised hand. “Beyond the walls, we cannot use the same illusion. The street patrols do not wear the same uniforms. But we cannot use theirs, either…should they see us, they would know we are impostors, so we will simply be ourselves.” He patted Na’Ral on the head. “Except for you. You must be a garrock a little longer.” The tiger exuded dissatisfaction and impatience; he wanted to be out of the city. Arlia understood completely. She called up the magic as Joveth did the same, disrupting the illusion on herself; anything that could hurry them along, she intended to do. With the buzz of the magic gone, she felt a chill in the air, and she pulled up the hood of her cloak, hiding her blonde hair even as it warmed her.

Joveth checked the street, then stepped through the doorway. She noticed his knives had vanished, presumably into his sleeves…well, she had hidden her own. His demeanor changed the second he was on the street, becoming casual and only mildly cautious; he looked as though he belonged there, just a citizen heading home from a late engagement. Arlia tried to copy his nonchalance. Na’Ral heeled along behind her, crouching low and padding along, watching the shadows, of which there were plenty; torches—magically sustained, most likely; light was a weak spell and easily placed to maintain itself—hung inside glass globes on the walls of the buildings, but they were few and far between. Joveth led a path deeper into the city, passing taverns, homes, shops, even an open-air market full of shuttered stalls. Once, a dog barked in the distance, and a second answered it, but otherwise the streets were quiet…only a few other people crossed their path, barely sparing them a glanced as they hurried about their own errands, hooded and cloaked.

Over it all, a massive keep, stark in its grey barrenness, stood lit against the black sky. Torches burned in many of its windows, and guards moved along its walls. Arlia shivered when she saw it. She swore she felt a pulse from it, a subtle but present drumming against her mind, oppressive and grim. She wanted to ask Joveth what he knew of it, but she didn’t think it wise to speak hear; and there was no time to pull him aside to whisper.

She began to get a better grasp of the city’s true size as they made their way across. It seemed that they were covering ground quickly, but always, the keep loomed to their left and ahead, growing slowly larger as they neared it, but not quite arriving. They had walked for perhaps an hour…she began to wonder if they would escape the city before the sun rose.

The oppressive sensation was rising, becoming more pronounced. Na’Ral could sense it, she realized; he kept glancing at the keep, and letting out the softest of growls, and she could feel apprehension from him. Joveth must have felt it too, for he quickened his pace, making her hurry to keep up. He slowed whenever another person came into sight, then resumed the faster pace as soon as the other moved on.

“Joveth,” she murmured as they rounded a corner into a wide thoroughfare. Joveth checked both ways, then hurried across at an angle to take a narrower cross-street; she ran to follow, and Na’Ral loped behind her.

“I know,” he said without looking back. “I feel it—“ He cut off with a sharp gasp as he turned into the cross-street; then everything happened at once.

Joveth’s knives appeared in his hands, and he threw the first one, then raised the second, all before Arlia saw what he was facing. Metal clashed on metal, and a man grunted in pain; the knife rang on the cobblestones. Arlia caught a glimpse of a semicircle of mounted men, all riding garrocks, one of them taller than the others. One man clutched his side, over a broken plate in his armor; Joveth had thrown the knife with force that was buttressed by magic, and it was only because the hilt had struck instead of the blade that the man lived. His garrock reared, threatening to throw him. Na’Ral crouched and growled, his eyes glowing. Arlia scrambled for her magic and gathered it to hand, ready to lash out and kill if needed. The other men—four of them, excluding the one on the taller garrock—lowered lances that were hooked into loops hanging behind their stirrups.

“Stop!” the man in the center, on the tall garrock, shouted, and his men froze. “Lower your weapons! No one need die here tonight!” He raised an empty hand, and his men raised their lances, curling metal-shod arms around them. Joveth stared at each in turn, still holding his second knife ready, the faint glow of magic at the ready around his free hand. “Good scout, put away your magic, if you would. I mean you no harm. Nor you, my dear. My men have only reacted because you came upon them suddenly, but they will not touch you, you have my word.”

“Who are you?” Joveth demanded, his voice guarded. In his tone, Arlia heard determination and resignation. He would kill them if he had to, even if it killed him in the process—which it would. She held onto her own magic, but stepped forward.

“My name is Mardan,” the man declared, “and I am here on the orders of my master. I will say, you are difficult to track when you do not wish to be found…but at last, here you are.” He smiled then. “We have been expecting you.”

***

The woman strode around the circle…no, that was the wrong word. She stalked around it, like a cat after a mouse, chanting as she went, spitting the words of the incantation as if they offended her, or excited her. Occasionally, she paused to cast an item onto the circle, at its compass points, where they floated on the black dust.

The circle was of metal, but it was not the gold favored by the Light Ones. A garrock was a hard creature, violence barely contained; so much more with the draga. Only iron conveyed the necessary strength, the power that the Companions needed. The items she placed on it bespoke strength, speed, endurance, and cunning—all fitting traits for a Companion. This circle was not ready to be used, but that didn’t matter; she knew how to preserve the incantation until the final steps could be taken.

He watched her as she rounded the circle—once, twice, then she turned and strode the other way, her movements becoming more frenetic as she did so. She could be dangerous, this one…well, that went without saying; she, like her brother, were weapons to be wielded. But this weapon could turn in the hand that wielded it, and cut the other way.

At last, she spun to a halt and turned, her breast heaving, her face gleaming with sweat. Her gaze stabbed through the dark to pierce him. “Morrigan,” he said, his voice booming in the stone chamber. “How goes the circle?” He stepped forward, but kept a prudent distance from her, wary of the wild light in her eyes.

“It is established,” she growled. “All that remains are the wing-scales…and the blood. Have you gathered it?”

“In good time.” Giving her a wide berth, he strolled around her to walk around the circle, looking into its center. “You will be pleased to know that they have arrived in the city. Mardan is tracking them now, and they should be at the keep within the hour. Of course, persuading her to cooperate will take a little longer. A day, perhaps two.”

“A day?” She scowled at his back, her eyes flashing. “We should be done with this tonight! Why should we play this game with her?”

“You know why.” He smiled as he rounded the far side of the circle, and returned his gaze to her. “The summoning stands a better chance of succeeding if she cooperates freely. I am not of a mind to see this opportunity lost.”

“She will never give us what we need,” Morrigan spat. “No one would. You are a fool if you think otherwise.”

He froze in his pacing, and his face darkened. “Remember your place, Morrigan. Disagree if you like, but do not take that tone with me.” Her mouth narrowed to a thin line, but she said nothing. He resumed his walk. “We do not need her cooperation in everything. If she agrees to help us, that will be sufficient. She need not know the extent of the things that will be required of her, or her companion.”

“I hope you do not expect me to persuade her.”

“No. I am aware that diplomacy is not among your talents.” He stopped in front of her. “What I expect from you is to stay out of sight until I bring them to you. I do not need you to expose our true intentions…or to frighten her away. Is this clear, Morrigan?”

She met his eyes. “Of course. I have no desire to drink wine and discuss the weather with this child, anyway.” She pushed past him and went to look over the circle. “Don’t keep me waiting long.”

“We will see.”

***

The front gate of the keep was even more massive than that of the city wall; and it was lined with guards, peering out from arrow loops and guardhouse windows. It was all Arlia could do to retain the dread that had settled over her as they approached; the feeling of oppression was at a fever pitch here, inside the keep’s wall. She strode through the outer courtyard beside Joveth, Na’Ral at her other side, and tried to watch every direction at once; the men who had captured them—she couldn’t think of it as anything but a capture, no matter what they said—surrounded them in a loose but orderly formation. Mardan walked at their head, and throughout the courtyard, men in armor saluted as he passed. Arlia felt a sense of power radiating from him, but it was not the same as the oppressive feeling; if anything, it beat a counterpoint to that overwhelming sensation. She shivered, wondering what lay ahead to cause such a feeling.

Joveth kept his silence, and like her, he didn’t let his feelings show. She sensed caution from him, and a strangely calm alertness. It was the same with Na’Ral, though the tiger’s emotions were tinged with urgency; if he could have his way, he would be flying her out of here now—it would be suicide, but sensing the desire in him gave her comfort; and she felt her own anxiety fade a little. Besides, she was no child, to be frightened off; she was a battle mage, and this was nothing but another form of battle.

The keep’s doors opened onto a high front hall, majestic and clean; but her tactical training told her that it was a defensive feature as much as the wall, a chokepoint, a killing field should the keep be breached. Mardan led them across the hall and into a corridor that wove through the body of the keep in defensible curves; its walls were spaced with alcoves where defenders with crossbows would lie in wait. Arlia had never seen a castle like this–or any castle at all, for that matter–but she found that she understood it; its lines, its arrangement, its defensive features,  they all spoke to her in a way she had never experienced. She found the phenomenon both mystifying and exciting. She realized she knew what structures they would find ahead; and further, she knew how she would use this place, if she were in the position of defending it.

There was a checkpoint at the end of the corridor; at a signal from Mardan, the guardsmen let them through. Beyond, the corridor split into a three-way course; it was laid out in such a way that the direct path, ahead, would seem to lead to the keep’s vital core, but that was a deception. Instead, Mardan took the left path, and led them through what quickly became a maze of turns and intersections and stairways. Finally, he stopped outside a tall, oak double-door. For the first time since their march had begun, he spoke. “My master waits here for you. He has advised me that you are his guests, though I am sure it must not appear so to you at this time. I would ask you, if you please, to be respectful, as no one here wishes you harm.” Then, he signaled to two of his men, who opened the doors.

An audience chamber waited beyond the doors, modest by the standards of this place, but warm and inviting. The room was decorated in gold and red, and brilliantly lit, with a large fireplace burning to each side. She found herself welcoming the sudden warmth; she hadn’t realized just how cold it had become, but it had—this entire keep, no, the entire city, felt icy against her skin. Against the muggy heat of the plateau, that was beyond passing strange.

At the head of the room, there was no throne. Rather, a wide table sat on a dais, and behind it sat a group of men in simple but elegant robes. Most appeared to be clerks of some sort, but the man in the center…he stood, and Arlia knew at once that this was the master of this city.

“Ah!” he called out, booming in the high-ceilinged room. “Come in, come in! I have been waiting for you!” He was tall, very tall, a full hand taller than Mardan, who topped Arlia by two hands himself. His clerks wore gold and red—they seemed to be livery colors—but he wore unadorned white. A silver circlet, thin and unassuming, but clearly a badge of rank, sat on his head, over a cascade of jet-black hair that fell past his shoulders. His face was smooth and unlined, but Arlia felt a power from him that she had long associated with great age.

He was the source of the drumbeat of oppression she felt.

As they approached the table, the man stepped around it and came to stand in front of them, spreading his arms in a welcoming gesture. “Greetings to all of you, and welcome to my home. My name—“ and did he pause for just an instant, for effect? He was very smooth, she realized—“is Jherid. I have been charged with the rule of this city, which you—“ his eyes fell on Joveth for a moment, but seemed to indicate all of their people—“know as Outpost. Its true name is rather archaic and difficult to pronounce, I fear; its founder had a stubborn flair for the dramatic, as I have been told. Outpost will suffice for now.” He laughed, then. “But, listen to me! I didn’t invite you here to suffocate you with trivia. Come, sit, you must be weary!” He turned and strode around the table, making a gesture to one of the clerks as he did so; immediately, they stood and gathered their documents and pens, and filed out of the room through a side door. Servants bustled in at once from the opposite side, and began rearranging chairs and deploying platters and utensils and goblets. “Sit, please!” Jherid repeated, and sat down at the center of the table.

Cautiously, uneasily, Joveth and Arlia glanced at each other, then did the same, sitting across from Jherid. Mardan took the seat to his master’s right, and his garrock crouched beside him. Not to be outdone, Na’Ral moved to sit beside Arlia. After a moment, as the servants began to bring in food, Joveth spoke. “We thank you for your hospitality,” he began, “but you must understand that this is most unusual to us. If you know who we are, then I am not certain how you would welcome us.”

Jherid nodded. “Of course. It is the proverbial mountain we must scale to reach the sea…the matter of the war between your people and mine. Well, let me try to set your mind at ease.” He reached for his newly-filled goblet and sipped the dark wine, then continued. “I am aware that everything that is happening to you now must come as a surprise, and indeed an unpleasant one. I assure you, you will come to no harm in my city. But, as our peoples have been at war for an unconscionably long time, I fear you have little cause to believe what I say. I think, perhaps, I should start with what I know of you.”

He looked at Joveth first. “You are a scout of the plateau, and unless my memory is failing, your name is Joveth. A reputable and honorable man, I have been told, and accomplished at your task. Surely it must be true, as you gained entry to the city undetected, making Mardan’s task much more difficult.” His smile seemed to make it a joke at Mardan’s expense, but the other man said nothing, only giving a chagrined smile of his own in reply.

Jherid turned to Arlia. “And you, my dear…you are Arlia, youngest daughter of Magra of Keridin. You are quite the person of interest in your homeland—quite the accomplished sorceress. And of course, known for your winged Companion.” He looked down at Na’Ral. “Young one, you may feel free to lower the illusion,” he said. “No one wishes you ill here.”
Arlia considered for a moment; then she rested a hand on Na’Ral’s head. The disguise had lost its usefulness now, anyway; and no matter what this Dark One said, she wasn’t convinced they were safe. It would be prudent to cooperate until they knew for sure. She focused the magic, and Na’Ral’s garrock appearance rippled; a wave of white spread from her hand down his body, unveiling his tiger form. He flexed his wings, and rumbled a low purr; his emotions were guarded.

“Beautiful,” Jherid said. “He is magnificent. As you perhaps have seen, our Companions are not built for beauty, so to see such a sight here is a rare privilege indeed.”

Arlia couldn’t refrain any longer. “If I may ask,” she said, “Why have you allowed us here?”

The servants began filling platters with food then. Jherid waited while they went about their task, and it was just as well; Arlia was suddenly overwhelmed with hunger at the sight and scents of the dishes. They had eaten well on their journey, but with the exception of the meal from the storage cache, it had been nothing but battle rations. Now, her mouth watered at the meats and hot vegetables, the bread and the soups, the cheeses and salads. The servants set heaping platters in front of each of them, then bowed and stepped back to stand against the walls. “Please, eat,” Jherid said. “There is no deception about this meal; if I wished to harm you, I could have done so. I need not stoop to poison after so much effort to bring you here.” He bit into his bread, demonstrating his point. After a moment—and a glance exchanged with Joveth—Arlia did the same. Na’Ral bent to his own food, a heaping tray of hot meats, even as he kept an eye on the others.

Jherid paused to continue his answer. “I will say, first, that I know it is the war that has brought you here. You seek to go north to the armies of your people, as so many have done. By the same token, it is the war that leads me to bring you here. We both wish for the same thing…an end to the hostilities. Consider: No one living has ever known a time before the war! It is all our people have ever known…but once, it was not so. Once, even in the early days of that event we have come to call the Schism, we still lived in peace with each other, even as we pursued our separate paths. If it could be done then, why not now? That is what I wish for, and I suspect that you feel the same.”

“It was those early days that led to the war,” Joveth said.

“Very true,” he said. “And unfortunately so. But I think that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our fathers, or at least, I choose to believe that.” He paused. “Magra believes that as well.”

“What do you know of my father?” Arlia said.

“Magra is of some acquaintance to me,” Jherid said. “Oh, I have not met him in person. It is understandably rare that anyone from Keridin should travel here, and equally so in the other direction. But we have spoken through messengers. After all, among my people, I am the closest authority to him, so it is not so unusual that we should seek to be aware of each other’s activities, is it? And in the course of our talks, we have found that we share a desire to see this war come to an end. Without any further bloodshed, if we can.”

“But if that were true,” Joveth said, “Magra could simply order a withdrawal.”

“Indeed. But that would not end the war. He is the First among the Elders, but even a First’s will may be overruled. And I…well. Among the leaders of my people, I am not as highly-ranked as I may appear. This city is far from the heart of our lands. I could not simply order a cessation of hostilities.”

Mardan laughed then, for the first time since sitting down. “Our goals are noble, but our reach is small.”

“Then,” Arlia said, “I suppose you must have another plan in mind.”

“Oh, yes,” Jherid said. “Let me ask you, my dear: Did it not occur to you that your father could have sent you north by the seaward route? After all, your people hold the sea channel all the way from the Starfall Sea to the northern ocean. It is as safe a journey as can be had. But he sent you through the plateau…why is that?” Arlia said nothing. Joveth had asked her much the same question on their first night together. “I know the answer. It was at my request. I wished for you to come here, and Magra agreed.”

“That makes no sense,” she objected. “My father keeps no secrets from me. I have had his trust since my childhood. If he had had such a plan in mind, he would have told me.”

“But, would you have believed him?” That brought her up short. “Like all children on both sides, you were brought up on stories of the war. You have been told all your life of the terrible atrocities committed by the horrid Dark Ones, and the valiant struggle to resist us. Of course, you are older now, old enough to understand that in a war, both sides do terrible things…we all suffer. But at any rate, with a lifetime of such stories behind you, how would you have reacted if your father, the First among Elders, told you he was sending you to meet with a leader among the Dark Ones? Put yourself in his place, and you will see.” He chuckled then. “You may find it interesting…our biases run deep. I call us Dark Ones out of deference to your experiences, but it may interest you to know that among my people, most look at you as the Dark Ones, and ourselves as the Light. And this is the root of our problem, and the reason why your father sent you here, in secret—a secret he kept even from you.” He paused, then added, “Though I would not disparage Magra, he is a father, and I daresay that one day you will find it is not his only secret.”

Why do you call me Princess? Arlia heard herself saying in memory. Secrets…she had never considered the possibility. Now it rooted itself in her mind, an unpleasant tree in what had been an open field.

“So, then,” Joveth said, “if what you say is true, then what is this plan you have created with Magra? You spoke of ending the war.”

“Yes, of course,” Jherid said. “It has grown late, so I will spare you the details until you have had opportunity to rest…but this much I will say: I mean to get at the thing that caused the Schism in the beginning.”

“Our magic,” Arlia said.

Jherid nodded. “More specifically, the differences in that which we employ and that which you practice. It is a complex subject, and the history of our differences is elaborate, but I mean to bypass all that…I mean to demonstrate that our power is truly the same at its heart. And if our magic is the same, then there is no true difference between our peoples, is there? And then…perhaps then, with our reasons for fighting removed, we may live in peace.”

***

The minute the door to the guest chambers closed, Joveth turned and bit off a quick incantation. Light spread from his palms to form a hazy cloud around him, and he began pacing through the rooms, back and forth, extending the light into every nook and cranny. Arlia knew what he was doing, and she went to the opposite corner of the suite and began to do the same. There were any number of ways to eavesdrop on a closed room, but this would detect them all.

Jherid had offered them separate rooms, but they had both leaped to object. He had played the consummate host, exuding concern for their comfort and well-being, but they had insisted; it wasn’t as though they expected to sleep very much in this place, anyway. It was partially a desire for the protection of the group, but for Arlia, it was as much a desire to help as to be helped; she had a terrible feeling that despite his skill, Joveth would not last long in this castle, alone and without his Companion. Or without her. That thought was welcome, but awkward, and she pushed it away.

Finally, they met in the center of the room, and let the light fade, certain that they could speak freely. If Jherid was being dishonest with them, he was doing a convincing job of it; he must know that they would check the rooms immediately. They took seats at a table in the sitting room, and Na’Ral curled at their feet. “What do you think?” Joveth said.

“I think we must leave nothing to chance here,” she said grimly. “As much as our host has tried to reassure us, I trust nothing in this city. As for whether I believe him…” she sighed. “I do not know.”

“He has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that we are in no danger,” Joveth said, in a tone that said he didn’t believe a word of it.

“Yes. And…he tells a plausible story. Perhaps this is what he wishes to accomplish, but he gives me doubts. It is true that my father, like all our people, desires an end to the war…and what he says about secrecy, it makes sense to me. But it is so unlike the father I know. I truly have never known him to keep secrets.”

“And yet, would you know if he did?” Joveth shook his head. “I am sorry, Princess. I do not mean to argue both sides. I am in territory as unfamiliar as yours here. But one thing does occur to me.”

“What is that?”

He grimaced. “Many people do not wish for an end to the war. Rather, they profit from it. If that were not so, I think it would have ended long ago.”

That was a disturbing thought, but a logical one. The war had gone on so long, it had become an institution. There would be many who wouldn’t know how to live without it. “So, then, the question is, is this Jherid one of those people?”

“Exactly. And, though it may hurt to ask the question, I must: Is Magra one of them?”

It did hurt, but she accepted it. “Well, then. If that is the case, then there is more going on here than Jherid has said, especially as he hasn’t yet told us his plan. So, what do we do?”

“I think for the moment, we have little choice but to wait,” he said. “There will be no escaping the keep by stealth, and besides, I am a scout. If something is stirring here, I must know, and try to report it.”

“Then we will stay with you,” she said. Na’Ral harrumphed his agreement. “This plan of his concerns me, anyway. And I think we will be safer in numbers, small as they are.”

***

Arlia woke from a deep sleep, one filled with troubled dreams. She had taken the first watch of their belated night, giving Joveth time to rest while she thought through the night’s events. Now, she wondered if she had thought too much.

Na’Ral sat up and looked inquisitively at her. She patted him on the head. “No, my friend, I don’t feel any better this morning. We will have to see what the day holds for us.” She yawned. “Where is Joveth?”

The tiger stood and padded to the door of the bedchamber. There was only one here; it appeared Jherid’s chamberlain had misunderstood their request for shared rooms. Well, that was just as well. If Jherid thought that they were romantically involved, it might turn his attention from the truth: Their shared suspicion had driven them together. Anything that set Jherid at ease would be to their advantage.

Joveth looked up from the table as she entered. She saw that he had spread his weapons out on the table—an array of knives, mostly; his bow remained with Veridan—on a strip of leather, and was cleaning and oiling them. Two smooth, flat stones, no larger than her palm, lay beside the strip of weapons. “Good morning,” he said.

She took the seat across from him. “I do not know how good it may prove to be, but morning for certain.”

“Indeed,” he said with a wry grin. “We certainly are in a difficult spot. I hope you slept well, at any rate.”

“Well enough.” She drew her own knives from her boots and sleeves and laid them on the table. He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a second polishing cloth, then offered it to her, and gestured at the bottle of metal oil on the table. As she began cleaning her knives, she thought about what to say. “Joveth, there is something about this place. Can you feel it?”

“I feel a sense of menace,” he said. “Oppression, perhaps. It is very pervasive, and it seems to be strongest around our new friend.”

She nodded. “I felt much the same. It’s good to know I haven’t imagined it.”

“Somehow, I doubt that your imagination would be stronger than your good sense.”

Against her will, she felt a blush at the compliment, but she tried to let it pass. “There is more. When I passed through the corridors last night, I felt…something. I don’t know how to describe it. It was as though I understood things about this castle, things I couldn’t know. At first I thought it was just my training, but now, it seems like something more.”

He paused in his polishing, and met her gaze. “What do you mean?”

She bit her lip, thinking. “Do you suppose that this place was built with magic?”

“I don’t know.” He thought for a moment. “I can only compare it to Riftwall. It is the only other city I have known. That city sits on the edge of the Great Rift, to the south of our lands…in fact, it projects over the edge of the Rift. It was surely built with magic, or it would have crumbled into the Rift long ago. Magic is infused into the stone of the city. Perhaps Outpost was built in the same way.”

“That is what I wondered,” she said. “Joveth, I can…I think I can feel the magic in it. It isn’t just a construction tool, that magic—it’s part of the very design of the city, and especially the keep. It’s like the whole city is one massive incantation, brought to life in the stone.” She tilted her head and frowned at him. “And you don’t feel it?”

He shook his head. “I can see that it is a well-built place. It was made to break an invasion. But I feel nothing like what you are describing.” His tone was reassuring, though; he believed her, even though he didn’t feel it himself.

“Well, I find that disturbing,” she said, “for two reasons. First, there is the possibility that what I feel isn’t real…and yet, I feel as though I could touch it, like any magic. But the second reason is far more disturbing.” She paused, fumbling for the right words.

“Go on,” he urged.

“We are certain that the city was built by the Dark Ones, all those years ago?” He nodded, his gaze growing more intent. “Then it was built with their magic. Joveth, as much as Jherid says that the magic is the same, it doesn’t manifest itself that way. We never sense the Dark Ones’ magic, and they do not sense ours. So—“

“—You want to know why you can feel it,” he said. The words hung between them.

When Arlia spoke, her words came out in a terrified whisper. “What am I?” she said. “No one can sense the magic of the Dark Ones except a Dark One. What does that make me?”

Joveth reached across the table and gripped her upper arm. “Arlia. Listen to me. No matter what you are thinking, and no matter what you felt—you are not one of them. Do you understand? You are who and what you have always been. You are not one of the Dark Ones!” His eyes bored into hers. “If what you are saying is correct, then I cannot explain how you feel their magic. But do not forget, you also know the magic of the Light. You are of the Light yourself. Nothing changes that.”

After a long moment, her panic subsided. She slumped in her seat, and looked down at the table. “I will believe that, even if I don’t know the answer here. Thank you.” She looked up again. “But it leaves questions that I must answer, when I can.”

“Yes, it does. But for now, until you can get those answers, perhaps we can use this to our advantage. If you can sense the magic, you may sense any traps that lie ahead of us.”

“I will certainly try.” She picked up a knife and resumed polishing it. “Has there been any word from our hosts?”

Joveth opened his mouth to speak, but a knock at the door prevented him. “What amazing timing,” he commented, and stood to walk to the door.

In the corridor stood one of the assistant chamberlains, clad in red-and-gold livery, standing with his palms pressed together in front of him. His bald head marked him as high-ranked among the servants, from what Arlia had gathered the night before. “Greetings,” he said, and bowed to each of them. “I trust that your night was restful? Excellent,” he said without waiting for a reply. “The master has requested that you join him for the noon meal, if you please. When you are ready, I will direct you there.”

Noon? Arlia glanced at the window for the first time, and saw that the sun was indeed high in the sky. “A moment, and we will be ready,” she said. The chamberlain nodded and stepped back, and Joveth closed the door, then moved to gather up his knives.

“Perhaps we will obtain some answers today,” he said as Arlia began stowing her own weapons. “I find myself torn…I want to put this place behind us, and yet, I must understand what is happening here if I am to fulfill my duties. And as well, I suppose there is the possibility, thin though it may be, that Jherid is telling the truth.”

Stepping behind him, she rested a hand on his shoulder. “It is just as well with me, now, that we stay. I also have answers to seek, if I can.”

He turned to look at her. “I know. Princess…whatever we find here, please be careful. And if it comes to a struggle, let me do my task, and protect you. I promised you I would see you safely through the city, and I still intend to do so.”

Any other time, she would have bristled at the suggestion that she needed protection. From him, she felt a wave of concern, mixed with determination and a loyalty that was far deeper than she would have believed…and to her own surprise, she smiled at him and nodded. “Let’s be on our way, then.”

***

The meal was normal enough. Again, Jherid sat at the central seat, with Mardan at his right, though the shorter man’s garrock was nowhere to be seen. Arlia sat across the table from Jherid, with Joveth to her right and Na’Ral to her left. The food, again, was excellent; and for the most part, the conversation was inconsequential. Arlia was not in the mood for small talk, however; so, in the middle of the meal—it was all in one course; they seemed not to press for formality, here—she broached the subject of Jherid’s plans again. “You were telling us about your wish to end the war.”

“A wish we all share, I believe,” Jherid said, taking up the subject smoothly. “I am aware that I left you with more questions than answer. Perhaps I may remedy that error today.”

“You made reference to the schism in our ancestors,” Joveth said.

“Indeed. It has been a subject of great study to me, as there are of course none living today who remember those days.” Of course not; it was many centuries since the Great Schism. “The histories are much scantier than one would expect. After all, it is not as though our peoples have experienced great disasters that would rob us of our records. Nevertheless, the accounts of those days are few and far between, and in fact I have found nothing that dates to any time more than fifty years prior to the Schism. I find that to be very odd.” He had the distant look now of a man about to expound on a pet project; but he shook himself and pulled his gaze back to them. “But, the magic. It is at the root of our differences, as I said. I have found nothing at all to say how the division between your magic and ours came to be, or why, and yet it clearly exists…it is well-known that we cannot even sense each other’s power.” Arlia shivered involuntarily at that, but Jherid didn’t seem to notice. “But I believe it is possible to bridge that gap. I believe that we are only using separate aspects of the same power.”

“It’s an interesting theory,” Arlia ventured, “but I can’t see how anyone would even begin to test it.” She thought she managed to keep the anxiety out of her voice.

Jherid smiled then, the avid smile of excitement. He leaned forward on the table. “That is the most intriguing thing of all. I believe…well. First, I should explain.” He paused a moment. “One of the several reasons for which I believe our magics to be similar, is that we summon our Companion Souls in much the same way. There are differences, which is why you summon horses and tigers, and we summon garrocks and kerila; nevertheless, it is very similar.”

For the first time since arriving in the keep, Arlia found herself genuinely interested. “You also use circles of conjuration?”

“We do. Our circles differ a bit, but the principle is the same. This is what I gather from descriptions, at any rate—descriptions kindly given by your father, I should add. Of course I have not seen one of your circles for myself; I suppose that not many of us have ever viewed a circle created by the other side. But, back to our topic: there is another way in which our summoning is very similar. We both,” he said with an air of flourish, “have the capacity to create Companions with wings.”

Arlia glanced at Joveth. His face was stony; no doubt he was remembering a great serpent plunging from the sky toward the plateau. As was she. She wondered, then, who had sent the dragan? Mardan certainly looked as though he could have—the man wore severity like armor, even when he smiled—but he had clearly shown that his Companion was a garrock, not a dragan. Perhaps Jherid—but then, why had it attacked, if he wanted to speak with them? And if it was neither Jherid nor his lieutenant, then who? Was there another power at work here? She held those thoughts aside as she spoke. “It would be interesting to see…I don’t understand, though. Your Companions have no feathers.”

Jherid nodded. “Yes. I have heard that the feathers of your winged souls are required for the generation of another winged Companion. It is much the same for us, but instead of feathers, we require the wing scale of one of our Companions. They are shed much as the feathers of your Na’Ral, and the same rules apply; they cannot be harvested in any way, but must fall of their own timing, and must be collected within the day, or else they lose their potency.” He smiled again. “Another similarity. You begin to see it?”

She did, in fact—but it didn’t come as a surprise, or at least, not as much as she would have expected. Her own perceptions bore out what he was saying, though she dared not say so.

“I suppose, then, that you will mention another similarity,” Joveth said. “The process is unpredictable.”

“Exactly!” Jherid exclaimed. His eyes shone with almost childish delight. “The scout sees it. Excellent, excellent! And therein lies the reason I have brought you here.” He rubbed his hands together, as if anticipating something pleasurable. “I believe that we have found a way to make the process not only predictable, but deliberate.”

Arlia felt stunned, suddenly, as though someone had driven the wind from her lungs. Did he mean—? Jherid watched her reaction in obvious glee. “Yes, my friends. You understand. We believe we have found a way to create winged Companion Souls at will.”

***

They stood in a balcony of grey stone, all but Mardan—dispatched on some errand by Jherid—overlooking a room cut in the shape of a cross, with its four arms of equal length. The broad center of the room was lit with torches, but the light didn’t penetrate to the extremities; they lay cloaked in deep shadows. A wide pedestal of white stone stood in the center, roughly square, and glimmering with a faint greenish light. A circle of black dust shimmered in the air above the pedestal, and objects floated on it, too small to be distinguished from here. The circle wafted in a lazy rotation, carrying its load of items.
Arlia didn’t bother to ask how the circle was maintaining itself when it so clearly wasn’t being conjured at the moment. She could see the threads of Dark One magic that held it together.

“How do you plan to do it?” Joveth asked from his place by her shoulder. “No one has ever been able to control the conjuration before. We summon the Soul, and we receive what comes to us, however it is.” Curiosity drifted to her from him, but it was tempered with caution, and something she had never felt from him before. It took a moment for her to identify it: it was fear.

He seemed to feel her surprise, though she refused to let it show on her face. Joveth never seemed to fear anything, and she had no intention of revealing such a thing now and giving any advantage to these Dark Ones. They were still enemies, after all. Although…for a moment, she entertained the thought that maybe, just maybe, Jherid was telling the truth; after all, her own perceptions of the power in this place lent credence to the things he had said.

Jherid dropped his gaze for a moment, and when he looked up again, his face was solemn. “This is the part that may make you doubt my motives, and so I beg you to hear me out before you judge my words. It is somewhat unpleasant, what I will propose.” He took a deep breath. “The summoning as I propose it, requires something from both sides of the magic. It does indeed require a feather, or a scale, as always. But the secret…the secret is in the blood of a Companion Soul. That is where the true potency of the summoning is found, and that is what is required to give control over the process.” He grimaced. “It is unpleasant, I know. But there is precedent for this thought…you see, there is one thing I neglected to mention at the table. I said that I have found no records of the time before the Schism, but that is not entirely correct.”

“What do you mean?” Joveth said, his voice filled with suspicion.

“A single manuscript was found by my own father, many years ago. It purports to come from your city of Riftwall, but I believe it to be older than that city’s founding. It speaks of various magical things, many of them mundane, but nowhere does it speak of separate magics, which lends proof to the notion that it predates the Schism. It does, however, speak of Companion Souls, at a time when they were a new phenomenon. It is quite clear: the Companion’s wings were a choice made by the summoner.”

“And this manuscript,” Arlia said, “it is where you learned how to create winged Souls at will?”

“No. That is knowledge that I and my scholars have worked out on our own. But the manuscript is the thing which made me believe it is possible.” He turned and looked out over the balcony. “I believe that when the magics are united, it will be as it was before the Schism, and the Soul will come as we wish it. Of course, as no one can sense both magics, or work with them, we must use another way. That is where the blood comes in. The blood of a Companion is infused with the magic that gave it life…a sample of that blood, combined with the other elements of the circle, will bring the magics together. That is where you can help me, if you are willing.”

Arlia thought for a moment before answering. “If what you say is correct, then you would require blood from one Companion, and a feather or scale from a Companion of the opposite magic. And as Na’Ral is the only Companion of the Light here, and there is no way to compel a feather to fall…”

Jherid spread his hands, almost apologetically. “You see, now, why I say it is a delicate thing of which to speak.”

Arlia fell silent. From Joveth, she felt that curiosity, stronger than before, and a tense feeling, as though he held his breath. Waiting on her. From Na’Ral, she felt intrigue, but also trepidation; it was no wonder—he was the one who would have to bleed if they attempted this. The thing that she felt from neither of them was refusal; after all, all of them wanted the war to end, and this, if it worked, would go a long way toward defusing it. Just as Jherid said.

She made her decision.

“With my Companion’s consent, we will attempt the summoning,” she said. “I cannot decide for him, but he is in agreement with me.”

Jherid’s smile returned, broader than ever, exposing a mouthful of perfect teeth. “Most excellent! I am pleased that you agree. We will begin at any time that you wish—“

Behind them, at the rear of the balcony, a heavy door slammed open, rebounding off the stone. Jherid’s face turned to anger, until he saw who it was—a man in the armor and insignia of a guard captain. “My lord!” the man shouted, breathing heavily. “This interruption be upon my own head, but we have a problem in the courtyard!”

“What is it, then?” Jherid demanded. “Speak!”

He raised a hand toward Joveth. “This scout…we have discovered his Companion in the fields. We sought to bring it here, but it was unconvinced of our intentions.” Arlia’s heart leapt, and she felt alarm from Joveth. Veridan? He had been taken? “We were able by weight of numbers to bring the Companion to the Keep, but he runs amok in the courtyard now. Several of my men lie injured.”

Jherid looked at Joveth. “I see your concern, Joveth. Would you see to your Companion? I do not wish any harm to befall him, nor any more of my servants.”

For the briefest of moments, Arlia felt uncertainty from him; then he gave a curt nod. “I will return,” he said, and strode for the door. Arlia received one last, powerful flash of emotion from him—a warning to caution—and then he was gone.

Jherid stood a moment, watching the doorway; then he turned back to Arlia and Na’Ral. “I know you must have become familiar with his Companion on your journey. Do you think he will be well?”

She found her voice. “Joveth’s bond with Veridan is strong. He will do what he must.”

That seemed to satisfy him. “That is well, then. In the meantime…the ceremony can be lengthy, as you no doubt know. If you are willing, we may begin, and he may join us.”

***

A thought came to her as they entered the lower level of the room. “Who will be doing the summoning?” she said. “I already have a Companion, as do Mardan and Joveth. Do you have no Companion of your own?”

He waved that away. “It is not something that is often discussed, because it has the weight of great tradition; but it is possible for one individual to have more than one Companion. Many are unaware of this, for as I said, it is not often done. But in this case, I think we may make an exception, even as we make history. I will summon.”

“I heard rumors, in my training,” she said, “but they were always dismissed as myth.”

“It is a good convention,” he said, “for we share a bond with our Companions, and we do not want to spread ourselves too thin.” He led the way to the edge of the room’s square center, and stopped. “Morrigan!”

Startled, Arlia jumped as a shadow detached itself from the deeper shadows on their left. A woman, clad in a black dress and dull silver jewelry, stepped into the torchlight. Her hair was like midnight, falling to her waist and hanging unbound; it swayed as she walked, distracting the eye from her face. Her face was thin and severe, but beautiful in its way; her eyes in the torchlight flashed a deep violet. “So, this is the sorceress of the light,” she said, her voice full of smoke. “Magra’s daughter. I have heard much about you.” Her eyes fell on Na’Ral, and she smiled, but it was a smile of arrogance. “And the winged tiger. What a rare privilege, to see one with my own eyes.”

Jherid was frowning. “May I introduce Morrigan, my assistant in these matters. She is the sister to Mardan, but…” he glared at her. “She possesses none of his, let us say, social graces.” The woman glared back at him, looking like nothing more than a viper about to strike. “But she is the finest sorceress in my city. She it is who has prepared this circle, and who will assist with the summoning.” He caught Arlia’s inquisitive frown. “Another trick I discovered in my research. As long as the power that triggers the summoning comes from me, any sorcerer or sorceress may do the labor involved. Something long lost…as it seems that so many things have been.” He looked at each of them in turn. “Shall we begin?”

***

Joveth followed the captain to the courtyard at a run, and stepped out on a scene of utter mayhem. Guards lay in disarray across the flagstones, groaning or shrieking in pain. Weapons and equipment were strewn everywhere, bent or shattered. A huddle of guards, mounted on their own horses, chased Veridan in an erratic circle, trying to get a rope around his neck; but their horses, though battle-trained, were no Companions, and he evaded them. Joveth started out into the courtyard. The captain grabbed his shoulder, shouting a warning, but Joveth shrugged him off and ran after Veridan.

The horse wheeled and ran at his would-be captors, scattering them; then he charged through a heap of broken crates that had held live chickens before the rampage began, sending squawking in every direction. Feathers flew, obscuring him in a momentary cloud of white. Joveth changed direction and plunged after him, shouting his name. He pulled to a halt as the guards thundered past him, narrowly missing the flashing hooves; then at the last second, he leapt and caught the saddle-strap of the last guard in the line. Not recognizing him, the guard tried to kick him off, landing a blow on his forehead that made him see stars; but he held on, dragging behind the man and kicking his own feet to avoid being trampled.

Veridan turned again, leading the guards through a tight spin of their own. Joveth took the moment to grab the guard’s foot and yank, unsettling him. He shifted his grip to the man’s calf and pulled again, and the guard tumbled from the saddle, screaming as his own horse kicked him in the chest. Joveth didn’t have time to check on him, but he was armored; he should live. Joveth hauled himself up hand over hand, and got a boot in the stirrup, then threw a leg over the horse’s back. In the saddle, he grabbed the reins and hauled on them, pulling the horse to a shrieking halt.

He watched Veridan for a moment, gauging the Companion’s next turn. When Veridan began to turn, he kicked his horse into motion, cutting across the path Veridan would take. He wasn’t going to be in time…he angled to the right, changing his target, as the lead guard spun a noose of rope over his head.

Joveth’s horse slammed into the lead guard just as he threw the rope. The other horse squealed and pitched to the side, spilling its rider on the flagstones and breaking the formation of the other riders. They split left and right around Joveth and the fallen guard, raising more ropes; he wheeled the horse around and charged after them.

This time, he saw, they were finally going to rope Veridan’s neck…but they had no idea of the danger that would create. Cornered, the Companion would lash out in every way he could, most likely killing the guards. AS the first rope flew, Joveth raised his hand.
The rope settled around Veridan’s neck…then vanished in flame before it could pull tight.

As the ashes fell, Joveth released a blast of magic that hurled the remaining guards from their horses. He hoped they would survive, but at the moment, he didn’t care; all that mattered was getting to Veridan. He bolted through the huddle of riderless horses.

Beside Veridan, he called Veridan’s name, but it was no use; his Companion was in a frenzy. There was only one way…bracing himself, he stood in the stirrups, gripping the saddle horn on his own racing horse; then he carefully pulled his boots from the stirrups, and got a footing on the saddle. He rose to a crouch—the wall was coming up ahead of him, they would be on it in a moment—and then he leaped into Veridan’s saddle.
Free, the other horse veered away. Veridan continued his mad plunge toward the oncoming wall as Joveth yanked on the reins and shouted his name. Almost there…at last, the horse seemed to hear his voice. Joveth felt panic give way to desperation. Horseshoes rang on the flagstones, then struck sparks as Veridan struggled to halt his flight. Closer…closer…the horse turned his flank to the wall, and Joveth’s shoulder bounced off it, sending a shock of pain through his back, but it was over. They hadn’t crashed. Veridan stood, chest heaving, his flanks covered in foam…but he stood still.

Rubbing his shoulder, Joveth stared at the carnage around him. It was time to get back to Arlia.

***

Mardan stood in the shadows of a high window overlooking the courtyard, watching the scene below. Footsteps sounded behind him; he looked back to see the stablemaster approaching. “My lord, it is done,” the man remarked, bowing.

“So I can see,” Mardan said, returning his gaze to the chaos on the ground. “Well done.”

The stablemaster glanced down at the courtyard, his face impassive. “My lord,” he said. “If I may ask, are we certain that he will not know we have done this? I have done what I can to ensure he will not know his Companion has been in the stables, but—“

“Did you doubt my word?” Mardan’s tone was pure arrogance; but he was feeling magnanimous. All was going well. “Companions do not speak. We sense their feelings, but they cannot tell us where they have been.”

The man nodded. “Very well, then. I must say, I am sorry for the toll on your men, my lord. But I am glad to be of service.” He bowed again, and backed out of the room.

Mardan barely heard him leave. The timing had been perfect…the scout and the girl were separated. He turned and made his own way down, down to the sublevels. The ritual would be underway any moment.

***

Morrigan stalked around the circle—Arlia could find no better word for it—until she reached the opposite side. She stood facing the circle, head down, hair hanging over her face, waiting. Arlia glanced at Jherid, and he gestured in each direction. “If you would stand there,” he said, pointing to the right, “and your Companion, there—“ to the left—“it will aid in the performance of the ritual.” Arlia moved to the place he had indicated, as Na’Ral did the same; the arrangement placed them at four points around the circle, Na’Ral across from Arlia, Jherid across from Morrigan. Jherid nodded in satisfaction, then lifted a hand toward Morrigan. “You may begin.”

Morrigan lifted her head, and her hands began to glow in a dark, shimmering purple. Arlia felt a wind sweep past her…and every torch in the room went out.

She didn’t scream, but she spun around, eyes searching the darkness. “Stay where you are!” Jherid’s voice commanded. “I should have warned you! It is nothing to fear. The light interferes with the ritual. Look! You may still see.” It was true; she saw that the green glow from the stone of the pedestal was stronger now, just enough to illuminate the space around them. An answering glow rose around Jherid, pale—the magic rising in him. Violet light from Morrigan’s hands made a harsh counterpoint to Jherid’s power.

Morrigan began to circle the pedestal. Slowly, she made her way around, passing behind Na’Ral, then in front of Jherid, then behind Arlia. She switched directions and circled back, weaving in and out, picking up speed. In the darkness, Arlia couldn’t make out the woman’s features; but the light from her hands began to wink in and out of view, and Arlia realized she was dancing, turning and dipping and twisting as she circled.

As Morrigan passed in front of Na’Ral, Arlia heard a whisper; she couldn’t grasp the words, but Na’Ral must have understood, for he raised a paw in front of him, toward the pedestal. Faster, the woman spun as she made her way around again; as she passed Jherid, the black dust of the circle picked up speed in its turning, carrying its load of tokens. Morrigan spun past Arlia, her hair flying out to brush Arlia’s face. The circle wove and turned with her, spinning faster, becoming a dark column as it rose to chest level. Arlia felt power gathering in the room—no, she could see it, pale lines of green light flowing in from the darkness at the four ends of the chamber, throbbing in time with Morrigan’s dance. Jherid seemed to gather the light in, focusing it, pushing it toward the dark cloud of the circle.

Morrigan reversed again, spinning back past Arlia, in front of her this time, and then past Jherid, the green strands pulling toward the violet light in her palms before settling again in Jherid’s hands. She wove past Na’Ral, between him and the circle…Arlia felt a sudden sting of pain from the tiger, and blood—black in the pale light—spurted from his paw, falling on the circle; he growled, and then everything happened at once.

***

Joveth slid from the saddle and walked Veridan back to the door leading into the keep. “Captain, I am sorry for any injury done to your men,” he said. “But I must return to the circle chamber at once.”

“My guards will be healed,” he replied. “They know well the risks of their service, and truly, this is more excitement that we often see. Allow me to call the stablehands for your Companion, and I will escort you back your friend.”

“My Companion will stay with me,” Joveth said. “I know the keep is constructed to accommodate Companions.”

“But, my lord, I am certain he will be well—“

“I have only just calmed him,” Joveth interrupted. “Do you wish him to do more damage to your courtyard and your people? He will remain with me, where I may ensure the safety of all.”

The man’s lips tightened. “As you wish,” he murmured. “Come. The summoning chamber is this way.” He led the way inside.

This entrance was not the large entrance they had used in their first approach to the keep, opening into the grand hall; rather, it was a secondary entrance made for more mundane traffic, but still large enough for even a dragan; Veridan didn’t have to lower his head as he followed Joveth inside. It led into a long, straight corridor with a second heavy, wooden door at the end. The captain strode ahead, opened the door, and stepped through. Joveth made to follow—and the door slammed. From the other side, there was a thump as a heavy bolt fell into place.

Alarmed, Joveth threw himself against the door, but to no avail. “Veridan! We have been betrayed. We must get to Arlia!” Veridan nickered as Joveth moved to his side. “I know. This is what happens when we begin to hope, my friend. I should have cut her free of this place when I had the chance.” He dug in the larger saddlebag and pulled out a thick, bound bundle. Opening it, he withdrew five short, round rods of ebony wood, each a little more than a foot long, with silver fittings. He snapped the rods together, end to end, twisting them to lock them in place. “I will not repeat that mistake.” A wide, hooked blade of steel, flashing in the light, locked into the last rod’s fittings. The finished product was a short-hafted, wide-bladed halberd; he swung it experimentally, then set it against the wall of the corridor.

“Let’s let ourselves in.” He raised his hands toward the door, and light gathered between them. Joveth called up the magic, more and more, chanting aloud. He pulled power together, feeling it rise to a crescendo, fueling it with his anger at the betrayal, at the Dark Ones, even at himself—and then he hurled it against the door.

The door blew outward, into the next corridor, in a hail of oaken chunks and splinters that hammered into the opposite wall. Joveth leaped through, halberd in hand, with Veridan on his heels. The corridor was clear, and he turned left. Veridan followed at once, and they raced for the next intersection.

Joveth rounded the corner, to the right—and stumbled to a halt, cloak flapping around him. Five men stood in a half-circle in front of him, each wearing cloaks and carrying polearms that were the image of his own. Five very familiar men. “Welcome, Joveth,” the lead scout said, and bared his teeth in a feral grin. “We were beginning to wonder when you would join us.”

***

Arlia knew something was wrong, terribly wrong—but before she could move, the light flickered. Between one flash of pale-green glow and the next, Jherid moved. She felt something behind her, to the left, then to the right—too fast to see.

Across the circle, Morrigan kept up her dance, weaving around Na’Ral. He growled and snapped at her, but his jaws clashed on nothing.

“Foolish child,” Jherid’s voice whispered in her ear—one side, then the other. “The magic of a Companion is not only in the beast itself.”

Morrigan flashed to a halt in front of Na’Ral, and for one crystalline instant, Arlia could see her clearly—and the knife in her hand.

“It is in the summoner, as well,” Jherid said. He drifted in front of her, and a lance of pain burned across her throat. She clapped a hand to her neck, feeling blood spurt between her fingers.

In the same instant, Morrigan plunged her blade into Na’Ral’s chest, then yanked it out. Blood poured out, and was drawn into the circle, spiraling up into its depths.

***

Joveth lifted his halberd to a guard position. “Stand down, my brothers,” he said. “Our princess is in danger. If you will not help me as I aid her, then let me pass.”

“Is that any way to greet your brothers in arms?” the lead scout—Ellin, it was Ellin, an older man, an excellent scout, but he was not himself now—said. “We have so much to talk about, old friend.”

“The talks will have to wait,” he said, standing his ground. The other scouts begin to circle, slowly, spacing themselves out. “This is not a time for debate.”

“You always were one for duty,” Ellin said. “I know what that is like. It’s the burden of the young, you know…always looking for a purpose, always racing to the next mission. I suppose that if you feel that way, that girl is as good a mission as any.” He stood straighter then, and raised his own halberd. “But we already have a mission. We don’t need another.”

“And what mission is that?”

Ellin smiled. “Isn’t it obvious? We’re here to keep you away from her.” Then he attacked.

***

Arlia coughed, and more blood spattered on the stone. Her knees were weak; she stumbled and caught herself on the edge of the pedestal with one hand. She kept the other pressed to her neck; if she moved it, she would die.

Across the way, Na’Ral yowled in pain as his own lifeblood fell like rain, only to be taken up in the circle. Morrigan had resumed her dance, chanting aloud, harsh words falling like stones from her lips. Jherid had joined in the chant and the dance, his hands raised high, dripping with blood, her blood, as he sought to bring the summoning to life. And in the dust, something moved.

Her strength had begun to ebb. Only magic would save them now…she called it up, felt it flicker, then grow. But their wounds were grievous…there was nothing in her arsenal, nothing anywhere in her training, that would stop this terrible flow of blood, or knit them back together. They would die here, both of them, long before she could save them.
Jherid’s chant had turned to a howl of triumph, Morrigan’s to a cackle of glee. The conjuring was almost complete. The shape that even now was forming in the dust of the circle, would take full life the moment she and Na’Ral lost their own, she knew it somehow. That moment was fast approaching.

She stumbled again, catching herself. Lines of light, green and pulsing, still ran past her feet to join the circle. Now she would never know how it was that she was able to see it, to sense it…to touch it…

Touch it…

The thinnest glimmer of hope reached through to her. Once, Jherid believed, wonders had been done with the combined power of her people, before it had been split—if that wasn’t another of his lies. She didn’t think it was; she had seen the fervency in his eyes, heard it in his voice. She had no other chance, at any rate. But to do it, she would have to let go of her wound…there would only be one chance.

She ripped her hand away, and blood flew in a spray of dark drops. She thrust her fingers into the nearest line of light, and at the same time, she unleashed her own magic. Power slammed into her, like lightning into a tree, the green light of the Dark Ones’ magic colliding with the yellow of the light in an eruption of strength that she had never felt before. The magics repelled and attracted each other at the same time, twisting around each other, filling her with fire. And for one glorious moment, she understood both.

The fast-healing technique Joveth had mentioned in the ravine…it was a parlor trick compared to what she could do now. Heat flared at her neck, and she could feel her wound closing. The fire coalesced in her body, replacing the lost blood. Without looking, homing in on her link to Na’Ral’s emotions, she launched a flare of power across the room at him, knitting his wounds shut and restoring his strength.

Time seemed to stretch out. She turned and saw Morrigan moving toward her, knife raised to stab, but the woman seemed to be moving at a tenth her normal speed. Arlia raised a hand and released a blast of power that sent Morrigan flying backward into the darkness. She raised that hand and touched the power that was woven into the blocks of the ceiling, the power that had been used to build this place, and drew it out—and the ceiling over that end of the room collapsed with a roar.

A different roar sounded to her left, and she spun to see Na’Ral colliding with Jherid, fangs bared and claws out. The Dark One fell beneath the tiger, but he was fighting back, slashing at Na’Ral’s back with a knife even as he readied his own magic. Arlia thrust a hand toward him, and the knife flew away into the darkness. Jherid slammed a palm into Na’Ral’s chest, and green light flared, hurling the tiger away. He began to rise.

He made it to one knee, glaring at Arlia. “I will have your blood, child, if it—“ his words turned to a scream as the ceiling collapsed on him, tons of stone falling in a rain of death.

Na’Ral bounded to her side. His emotions were a cascade of awe, approval—and urgency. “I know,” she said. “I don’t understand it all either, but there’s no time for that. We have to find Joveth, and get away from here.”

***

Joveth landed the first kick to Ellin’s chest before the first blow struck him. It came from his blind side—there was always a blind side, it was the first thing they taught in combat training—and he tried to intercept it on his halberd’s shaft, but he was not quick enough. It sent him stumbling right, where he narrowly blocked a kick from a third scout. He spun with his blade out, sending them all stepping back.

This was a losing battle. There were five of them—no, four; one was holding Veridan at bay. They were all excellent fighters, trained in the same arts as him, and who knew what they may have learned from the Dark Ones? He was still trying to grasp the fact that they had turned—or been turned, somehow.

He wouldn’t win this fight on skill alone. They would be using magic. He called up his own again, sending its power into his muscles, and into his weapon. His motions became more balanced, more precise; his strikes took on a greater speed, greater accuracy. The battle became a dance.

He gave himself to it. As his emotions fell away—fear for Arlia, worry for Veridan, even his anger at so much betrayal—the room snapped into focus. His eyes never lingered on any one enemy, but took in all of them, noting their positions, their motions, even before conscious thought. Where they struck, he blocked; when he couldn’t block, he moved. Metal rang on metal, wood clashed on wood.

They couldn’t do it, he realized, though the realization brought no feelings with it—there was no room for feeling, now. Whatever the Dark Ones had done to them, they could no longer push their thoughts and feelings away. Anger consumed them, or hate, or arrogance—any of it, it didn’t matter. They couldn’t empty themselves, couldn’t open themselves to the battle. There lay his advantage.

The first scout fell to a thrust of the butt of his halberd; buttressed with magic, the stroke shattered the mail under the other scout’s tunic. Carrigan, that was his name. Carrigan flew backward and struck the wall, then slumped in a heap. Joveth didn’t see him fall—didn’t need to—as he spun to meet a swing from the next. Darvid, this one. The hook at the bottom of Joveth’s blade caught the shaft of Darvid’s, then ripped the weapon away. Joveth spun and swept the man’s feet from under him; he whirled his halberd around and put the blade through Darvid’s chest. There would be time to mourn later.

A crash behind him told him that Veridan had finally got the best of the scout that was blocking him. Joveth’s next turn gave him a glimpse of a still form, a horseshoe-shaped print stamped into the forehead. Lomarin was the man’s name, though he wouldn’t be using it anymore. Veridan was already moving, putting himself between Joveth and one of the remaining scouts—Azrid, the youngest and newest, but by no means the weakest. A flare of magic from Azrid made Veridan stumble, and joveth felt a flash of pain from the horse as a rib gave way; but Veridan reared and struck, battering the young man down with metal-shod hooves. Joveth couldn’t tell if he was unconscious or dead, but either way, he was out of the fight. Only Ellin remained.

Ellin spat a curse as Joveth rounded on him. “I had such hopes for you,” he growled. “You were one of the best. It’s a shame we didn’t get to you before the girl.”

Without a word, Joveth struck. Blade flashing, Ellin met him strike for strike, their polearms spinning and clashing.

***

Morrigan struggled to her knees, looking over the pile of rubble as best she could. It had missed her—the girl had not pulled down the entire ceiling, and Morrigan had fallen beyond the length of the collapse. She stared down the ruin of the hallway, just in time to see the other ceiling collapse, burying Jherid. She felt his touch on the circle flicker, then die.

There was only a moment, but the circle could still be saved…she threw her power into it and seized control. Before the shape in it could dissipate, she poured power into it, urging it to life. Come, she thought. Carry out my will. Destroy this upstart!

A growl from Na’Ral was all the warning Arlia had—but it was all she needed. She spun away from the second pile of stone, turning to the circle. The shape within it grew long and monstrous, spreading shadowy wings that had not yet grown solid…Arlia drew power, green in her left hand, yellow in her right, and brought them together, then released it into the circle. The black circle erupted in a soundless explosion of white light. From its heart, something hideous let out a haunting screech, then trailed off into silence, as the cloud itself dissipated, black dust blowing into the corners of the room.

When the light faded, Morrigan saw that the girl and the tiger were gone. She pulled herself to her feet, then gasped in pain—it felt as though her leg was broken, and maybe it was—but she forced herself toward the other pile.

As she passed the pedestal, a shudder ran through the pile of stone, and then it slid apart, spilling blocks everywhere. Dusty, bloodied and bruised, Jherid climbed to his feet. Relief welled up in Morrigan at the sight of him—she had been sure he was dead. “Master! How—“

“It took every bit of power in me to hold back that stone,” he said. “And I see we have lost the Soul.” She nodded. “Then come. That girl must not leave this city.”

***

Arlia mounted the stairs from the sublevel, and found herself in a cross-corridor. She could feel Joveth’s presence ahead, although his emotions were strangely muted. Well, it was beyond strange that she could feel his emotions at all—that only happened with…no. No time for that. She plunged down the corridor to her right, seeking him out.

She turned left into a wide but short connecting passage—and saw Joveth take a blow to the back of his knees from another man with a polearm. Joveth fell to his knees, and the man raised the weapon over his head for a killing strike. His back was to Arlia; without thinking, she unleashed her power. The concussive blast was weak—she didn’t want to hit Joveth—but it struck with surgical precision in the man’s back, bending him double in the wrong direction. She heard his spine snap.

Joveth moved instantly, like a striking serpent; with the butt of his weapon raised, he erupted to his feet. Magic filled every fiber of his body, and every bit of his weapon, and he drove it through the man’s abdomen, impaling him with supernatural force. The light went out of his eyes, and he slumped to one side.

“Joveth!” Arlia shouted as he freed his weapon, then wiped it on the fallen man’s cloak. She ran to embrace him; shocked, he returned the embrace. “Joveth. The ritual…they tried to kill us…” She fumbled for words.

“Not now,” he said. “Tell me soon. For now, let’s get out of here.”

She nodded, and pulled back. “Which way?”

Only then, he noticed heavy footsteps from the corridor behind him. Then, with dismay, he realized they were coming from several of the surrounding corridors. “Ah…there are stairs down there,” he said, indicating the corridor she had come from. “This floor is about to be overrun…so we go up.” They set off at a run, Veridan bringing up the rear.

***

“What happens if we can’t go any higher?” she said as they ran, panting, up the second flight of stairs. Beyond lay another connecting corridor.

“Then…we find…a defensible…position!” he gasped.

“Easier said than…” the words died on her tongue, and they stumbled to a halt. Ahead, clad in full armor and carrying a sword, Mardan stood in the center of the corridor. Beyond him waited another staircase.

“There’s no need to keep running,” he said, and took a step forward. “I’ve already sounded the alarm.” A second step. “The whole city will be up in arms, searching for you.” A third. “You have nowhere to go.”

“Were you that confident that your master would fail?” Joveth said. “Had he succeeded, we would all be dead.”

A fourth step. “Let us say that I am a cautious man. I, for one, wanted to bring you in by force. It seemed so much less risky. And perhaps I would have been right.” A fifth step. He raised the sword. “Perhaps then, I wouldn’t have to do this myself.”

“You don’t have to do this at all,” Arlia said. She drew the magic up again.

Mardan turned his gaze on her. “Oh, but I…” his words died, and his face grew pale. “What? What is this? You cannot—“

“Apparently I can,” she said, and flared the magic. Mardan stopped in his tracks—and slumped to his knees, a strangled gurgle coming from his lips. Eyes wide, he fell over, and was still.

Joveth stared at her, his eyes wide. From him, she felt shock, wonder, and—though it cut her to feel it—horror. “How did you do that?”

“I—I stopped his heart. Joveth, I need to tell you—“

More footsteps behind them interrupted her. “Tell me as we run,” he said. “Let’s go!”

***

They were clearing the floors of the keep ahead of the soldiers, now. It was good; but Arlia didn’t care. She couldn’t get that flash of horror out of her mind.

Joveth was afraid of her.

No one had ever had cause to fear her before. Perhaps even now, fear wasn’t the right word. Maybe it was disgust. Whatever it was, it hadn’t grown worse as she hurriedly told her story, as she had feared it might; but neither had it gone away. He was trying to fight it down, but he wasn’t succeeding.

What was she?

What kind of abomination could do what she now could?

And, the biggest question of all: If even Joveth feared her, how could she live with herself?

She ran on blindly, following his back, up stairs and through corridors, ever rising, rising—until a hand snatched her collar, yanking her back. Coming to, she saw a dizzying vista spreading out in front of her, and beneath her: the entire keep, and the city. She had almost run off a ledge, but Joveth had stopped her.

They stood on an unwalled landing at the bottom of a high tower—she glanced up and saw that it was the highest tower of the keep, in its center. To her left, stairs wound up the outside, much as the tower inside the city wall had done. “Up,” Joveth said, and nudged her. “You first, then the Companions. They can’t defend us here, so I’ll bring up the rear.”

Spiraling ever higher, she saw that the city was ablaze with torches in the afternoon light. Smoke rose around her, driven on a brisk wind. Soldiers streamed from every quarter toward the keep, moving in wedges and columns and individual squads. Leaping and slithering among them, she saw the distant forms of dark Companions—Garrocks bounding from place to place, draga winding among the soldiers. Their cries tore the air.
Worst, some of those cries were from above. She looked up and saw draga and garrocks on the wing—not more than ten or fifteen, it seemed that Joveth had overestimated—but none of them as large as the monstrosity that had attacked them on the plateau. Where was it?

They reached the top of the tower, an open platform shielded with a dome-shaped roof…another battle mage’s tower. This one was wider than the ones along the wall, but the principle was the same. “This is it, then,” she said. “We are surrounded. Soon they will come to take us.”

“Don’t give up, Princess,” he said. “I do not intend to die easily.”

She smiled. “I know.” She gazed around, then turned back to him. “You never told me why you call me that.”

“Well.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose if our lives are about to end, then, I could…” he trailed off, noticing the look in her eyes. “What is it?”

“It’s…it’s the city,” she murmured. “The whole city. It’s practically woven with magic. I can see it! Joveth, it’s beautiful, in its way.”

He moved to stand beside her. “I can’t see it, Arlia.” Then, “I wish I could.”

She looked at him, and knew then that he meant it. “If only I can find a way to use it to get us out of here…” Something tugged at her mind then, and she felt an answering feeling from Joveth—he was feeling it too. A familiar, yet nearly forgotten sense of oppression. “Oh, no. He couldn’t have!” She turned and ran to the parapet around the platform, and looked down.

Jherid stood on a nearby spire, just distant enough to put him out of arrow range, just near enough to be heard. Morrigan stood beside him, bruised and leaning against the spire’s own parapet. “Arlia!” he shouted. “Daughter of Magra! You cost me the opportunity of a lifetime! I could have turned this war into the final victory for my people! But you destroyed that chance. You destroyed it all! And now, I will destroy you!” He raised a hand, and a beam of light erupted from it and shot upward, passing the lip of the roof above Arlia’s head.

“What was that?” Joveth said, looking around. “He didn’t strike us…” Without warning, the roof shuddered—once, then again. The concussions seemed to move, from the apex of the dome, down toward its edge. “Oh. Oh, no…” A heavy shape launched itself from the roof, falling, then spread sinuous, leathery wings, and banked in a tight curve.

The dragan had returned.

***

Joveth tackled Arlia and knocked her aside as the dragan crashed through the gap between the parapet and the roof. One of the support columns shattered, and a chunk of the roof fell away, crashing through the roof of the keep below.

Joveth came to his feet, readying magic to attack. A scrabbling sound behind him caught his ears, and he turned just as a garrock—Mardan’s, there was no mistaking its colors—pounced on him from the entrance ledge, driving him back to the floor, snapping and snarling. He grappled with the beast, straining to hold its deadly jaws away from his face. His halberd clattered aside, out of reach. Veridan moved to help him, but couldn’t get a clear strike at the creature.

Something white blurred past her, snarling. Na’Ral struck the dragan hard, claws splayed, and bit into its neck, grinding through the thick scales. The serpent roared and thrashed, trying to shake him off, but he clung to it. She snatched up Joveth’s halberd and danced past the creature, slicing at its legs; she caught one of its hamstrings, and it stumbled. It struck at her, but she ducked and drove the halberd up into its soft underside. The dragan jerked, yanking the halberd out of her hands, and she released a blast of magic to sear its belly. It shook its neck wildly, dislodging Na’Ral, and reared back. Na’Ral hit the stone, then leaped back into the fray, seizing the dragan at one of its wing joints.

Joveth managed to roll the garrock beneath him, and began pummeling its muzzle with one leather-gauntleted fist. “Veridan!” he shouted. The horse reared back, and Joveth rolled aside at the last second; Veridan’s hoof slammed down on the garrock’s head, stilling it. For good measure, Joveth slammed two knives into it, then clambered to his feet to help Arlia.

She tumbled from beneath the beast, and rolled free; it swatted at her as she got up, and she sprawled on the floor, unhurt but winded. A burst of magic struck it, making it shy away and screech in pain. Joveth stood, breathing hard, and offered her a hand. “I’ll handle this!” he said. Veridan dashed past, and with Na’Ral, drew the dragan aside, giving Joveth and Arlia a moment to regroup.

“But I—“

“Listen,” he insisted. “There are more of them coming, from above and below. We only have one chance to get out alive, and it is up to you! I cannot see the magic in the city, but you can. You said it—the city is laced with it. Arlia, this is a battle mage’s tower. Don’t you see? The city itself is a weapon, made to crush an invasion. And we are about to be invaded! So use it. Use the city!” He clasped her hands in his, his eyes drilling into hers. “Bring it down!”

Joveth turned and ran at the dragan, unleashing fire and lightning. The dragan roared in pain and fury, and struck back. He dodged, then came up fighting, striking it again. From the other side, Veridan struck at its legs with his hooves, and Na’Ral climbed the creature’s back, ripping and tearing.

Arlia shut it all out. In that moment, she felt the full force of his emotions, and there was no fear, no horror—only trust. It was all she needed.

The platform was wide, but not too wide; so she strode to the opposite edge, and put her hands on the parapet. Then, she looked out over the city, taking its measure, seeing the lines of magic. She saw the other winged beasts coming in to take the parapet. Then, she drew deeply of the magic, deeper than she had ever gone before, calling on both forms of it…and released it all.

Yellow magic, the magic of the Light, blazed up into the sky. Lightning crashed down from the clouds in jagged lances of furious power, blasting the winged beasts from the air. Fireballs erupted from the very air itself to burn those that escaped the lightning. She pulled on the lines of green power, the power of the Dark Ones, in the structure of the city, and it responded to her call; walls exploded in showers of stone that tore squadrons of soldiers apart. Buildings collapsed, burying columns of troops. Other sorcerers and sorceresses around the city tried to counter her, but the city was made for this; vortexes of power formed around those who struck back, pulling in the very stone around them to grind them to dust.

She could hear nothing over the maelstrom of power she had created. The streets of the city split, swallowing up Companions and ordinary beasts alike. The walls of the keep itself began to collapse, pulling the massive building down on itself, burying everything inside. The spire on which Jherid stood—alone; some distant part of her mind noted that Morrigan had disappeared—vanished in a cloud of dust; when it cleared, the tower was gone. At last, the city wall itself crumbled and fell inward, taking the last stragglers with it. Only the tower on which she stood remained intact, as she had known it would; it was built for that purpose, a final redoubt in the final extremity of the city.

As the wind pulled the dust away from the tower, she turned to see the dragan, lying still on the tower floor. Blood pooled beneath it from dozens of wounds; it gave a final twitch, and died.

The others were bruised and bloodied, but unharmed.

Weary, shaking, but unbroken, Arlia stepped to them and threw her arms around them, one around Joveth’s neck, one around Veridan’s. Joveth returned the embrace with arms that were just as weary; but then, they had earned their weariness. She fell to her knees, then, and embraced Na’Ral as well; the tiger gave a joyful purr. “I told you you would save my life before it was over,” she murmured into his fur.

“Well done, Princess,” Joveth said, sinking to the floor beside her. “Very well done. You saved all our lives.”

Later, she would think about the lives lost here. Later she would think about the common folk of the city—the servants, the ordinary citizens—and agonize over this day. Did they deserve to die because they were the enemy? Or had she committed a terrible crime today? One day, she would think of that.

Not today. Today, it was good to be alive.

***

The afternoon sun was still high in the sky as they left the smoldering ruin of Outpost and started north. The plateau beyond the city would not be a plateau for long; it sloped downward, tumbling in rolling hills to a wide plain. That was no surprise; what surprised her was the clear, brilliant blue of the sky. It had been many days since she had seen the unclouded horizon.

“You did that, you know,” Joveth said. “The clouds usually extend some distance beyond the plateau. It must have been all that power you unleashed that burned them away.”

Walking beside him, she blushed at the suggestion. “No matter what happened back there, I do not think I have the power to affect the very sky.”

“As you say. But you did a miracle today, and don’t let anyone convince you that you did not.”

She thought about that for a moment, then nodded. Sometimes a miracle was just what was needed. “Well, it was not the only great deed today. If you had not killed the dragan—“

“Actually,” he said, “it was Na’Ral who struck the killing blow.” He laughed. “Can you not feel the pride coming from him? He has become insufferable, I fear.”

She did feel it…the wonder was that Joveth did. Perhaps now there would be time to think about that—think about why they seemed to have forged a bond. What did it mean for their futures? Or would it be only one future? Time—

“Arlia,” he said; and just like that, she knew what was coming.

“Arlia,” he repeated, “I have to—“

“No!” she exclaimed, and stopped walking. He halted, and turned to face her. “No, don’t go. That is what you are going to say, isn’t it?” Slowly, he nodded. “Why? We’ve come this far!”

“Arlia,” he said again, gently this time, “please. I must return. The plateau is unguarded—“

“—And the city is destroyed!” she interrupted. “There is nothing to guard against!”

“That will not last for long,” he said. “The Dark Ones cannot leave this place unguarded. They will come soon, and if they do not rebuild the city, they will at least reoccupy its ruins. We must be prepared. Indeed, we must take it ourselves, if we can assemble a holding force in time. And even if that is not the case, I must go to Keridin at once. We know that some conspiracy has happened…we cannot know if Jherid spoke the truth at all, or how much. I must report to the Elders if I can, and at the very least, I must try to determine for myself if any of them have truly been complicit with the Dark Ones. No one else knows of this, Arlia…it must be me.”

“Then I will return with you,” she said.

He smiled then, sadly. “I thought you would say that. But there is a much greater need, and I think that only you can meet it. Look.” He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a folded square of heavy cloth. Unfolding it, he revealed a map. “This is a map of all the lands of the Dark Ones as we know them.” He pointed to a small square in the far north, on the border of the northern ocean, the Icerim. “This is Landfall, the great fortress of our armies. Surely you know of it.”

“Of course.” Her own map was tucked into Na’Ral’s saddlebag. “It was my original destination.”

“And so it must continue to be,” he said. “Arlia, if there is a conspiracy that extends to Keridin, do you not think it may extend north to Landfall, as well? I have been thinking on this.” He frowned. “My fellow scouts, I believe were coerced into changing their loyalties. Somehow, it was done with magic. It seems to me that that must be how this conspiracy came about. If that is the case, then you, with your ability to see the magic of the Dark Ones, are the only one suited to know.”

She nodded. It felt as though her heart turned to lead as she did it, but she nodded. “I see. Then you are right…and north I must go.” She drew in a deep breath, then let it out, and met his eyes. “Will I see you again?”

“If the gods are willing,” he said. “I certainly intend to find you again, Arlia, daughter of Magra. Trouble seems to follow you…you need someone to keep you out of it.” He said it with a smile, and a wink.

“I will hold you to that!”

A scant minute later, he sat astride Veridan, facing south. “I will travel as quickly as I can,” he said. “As for you: stay on the ground until the city has been out of sight for five leagues, and then you should be safe in the air. I do not believe any survived, but we cannot be sure. And with luck, I will overtake you before you reach Landfall.” He reached down and gripped her hand. “Take care of yourself, Arlia.”

“And you as well, Joveth,” she said. “We were well met.”

“Well met indeed,” he said. Then he nudged Veridan, who broke into a canter, and started up the slope.

She watched him go; then something occurred to her. “Joveth!” she shouted. “Why do you call me Princess?”

Two hundred feet away, he stopped and looked back. “When I see you again,” he shouted, “Then I’ll tell you!” He turned and spurred Veridan into a gallop, and was gone.

Shaking her head, a bemused smile on her face, she watched until he was out of sight, then turned to Na’Ral. “That man…” She tousled the fur on Na’Ral’s head. “You would have told me, wouldn’t you, my friend? If you knew.” Na’Ral snorted, and she widened her eyes, peering down her nose at him. “Wait…he explained it to you, didn’t he? Na’Ral, if I find that he did, I swear I will sell you both.” His purr sounded suspiciously like laughter. “I should have known…you’re a man, as well. You’re all insufferable! Let’s go, before I change my mind about taking you with me.” Together, they started down the hill, toward the north. Toward Landfall, and the future.

***

Somewhere in the ruin of Outpost Keep, a pile of stone shifted. Slowly, as if the one doing the moving was in pain, the rock moved aside, creating a gap. The gap grew as more stones shifted, until at last a clearing was formed.

Morrigan got to her feet, and surveyed the ruin of the city. Beside her, her garrock stood to join her. No survivors, it seemed…none of the soldiers, none of the servants. Not Jherid himself, nor his kerilan. Not even Mardan. Her chest ached at the thought of her brother’s death.

It was a bitter defeat. She could scarcely believe that one upstart girl had done it all. Oh, she had had help, there was no doubt…but the girl was to blame. Well, Morrigan knew what to do with blame. It made excellent fuel for vengeance.

First, she had to survive the night. Then, she would see.

“Come on,” she said to her garrock. “We have a journey to begin.” Limping, too proud to ride, she started north.

TO BE CONTINUED

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