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Curse Breaker: Enchanted [The More Epic Version]

CURSE BREAKER:

ENCHANTED

[ THE MORE EPIC VERSION ]

MELINDA KUCSERA

Copyright

[_Curse Breaker: Enchanted [The More Epic Version] _]© 2017 Melinda Kucsera

Cover design © 2017 Melinda Kucsera featuring artwork by Kolbakova Olga used under license from Shutterstock.com

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

ISBN-10: 0997214163

ISBN-13: 9780997214161

Table of Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Want Free Books?

Would You Leave A Review?

Why Do A More Epic Version?

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Curse Breaker: Darkens

Into Darkness

Want More?

Would You Give Us A Star?

Characters Speaks

In Memoriam

We’d Love To Hear From You!

[]

Dedication

For my sister Carolyn, your last request is fulfilled.

Rest in peace.

“O[_ Guardian most dear,_]

Hold those loved and lost near,

Shield those who live from fear,

Always be with us here,

O Guardian most dear.”

—Traditional Shayarin Prayer

Want Free Books?

So do we! Who are we? We’re the stars of The Curse Breaker Saga, and we’re giving away FREE copies of Curse Breaker: Darkens. (Yes, we can do that. We’re the stars remember?) Just go HERE to tell us where to send your copy. Please don’t tell our author.

Would You Leave A Review?

As fictional characters, we appreciate the feedback we receive. Reviews also help readers decide to buy our book. (Since we exist only when someone’s reading our stories, reviews are very important to us.) So, if you’re enjoying the magical mayhem in this book, please consider letting everyone know by leaving a review. And of course, tell everyone you meet about us.

Thank you for reading Curse Breaker: Enchanted [The More Epic Version]!

Why Do A More Epic Version?

Hello Readers!

We, the characters who starred in the original book, wanted more magic, action, drama and mayhem. Hey, we’re readers too, and we wanted our story to be as epic as possible.

So, without further ado, we bring you—drumroll please—The More Epic Version of Curse Breaker: Enchanted!

We hope you enjoy it! Read to the end for a look at Curse Breaker: Darkens.

—the cast of Curse Breaker: Enchanted

Chapter 1

Dodging people, statuary, and foliage, Sarn threaded through a crowded tunnel. He had to reach his master before the next bell rang despite the lollygaggers blocking his way.

[Delve down deep, _]urged the magic sharing his skin[. Delve into the roots of the mountain._]

Why? Sarn asked his magic without breaking stride. He checked the map scrolling across the backs of his eyelids seeking a convenient gap, but saw only a thousand—

Nine hundred and nine—corrected the magic after performing a quick count of the people icons on his map.

Whatever, Sarn shot back. [_Why do you want me to go downstairs? Is there a problem? _]Down there was where his loved ones lived. Were they in trouble? Fear niggled at Sarn as he patted the bodies ahead of him searching for a way through.

The Litherians—replied the magic in a reverent tone.

[_Not that again, _]Sarn shook his head. They were a race of stone mages who had carved a city inside the cone of a mountain. And their statuary fixation complicated his commute. Sarn cursed at a wall of bodies halting his progress. 

[_What about the Litherians? _]Why was his magic so interested in them? They’d been dead for centuries.

[_You could find out what happened to them, _]his magic taunted but failed to offer a reason why he should care.

[_They likely lost their way and starved to death in this place. And it would serve them right. _]Sarn felt a break in the crowd and squeezed into it. Damn capricious magic, he needed to go earn his daily bread, not search the bowels of this mountain for clues about a legendary race. Of course, it would help if the crowd started moving. What was the holdup?

Unnatural, screamed his magic, but Sarn ignored it.

Nausea tightened his gut. He slipped through a narrowing gap in the crowd and gained a couple of feet toward his goal. More grumbling accompanied him, likely the same warning again.

What did the magic expect him to do? Drop everything to find the unnatural thing upsetting it? Then what? He had no training just an overactive magical gift pressing against his closed eyes, begging for release. Showing it who was the boss, Sarn pushed back on the magic and felt for a way through. But his hands encountered more bodies, and none of them were moving—damn it.

[_Unnatural, _]shouted his magic as it threw itself backward and knocked Sarn off balance.

The ground trembled, and nine hundred people panicked. Shouts of “earthquake” motivated the crowd to move. They shoved past jostling Sarn in their haste to exit this tunnel into the falling night.

If it was an earthquake, then he had to go back. He had to save—Sarn slammed into one of those damned statues. They were everywhere. One of its marble hands brushed cold fingers over his burning eyes and the magic fighting to escape.

Let us out! Magic pushed flaming green hands against his closed eyes.

A slice of white marble slashed across the emerald glow wreathing a sea of heads. [_No! _]Sarn squeezed his eyes closed again and tried to slip out of the statue’s grip. He had to save—but his awareness shrank to the stone hand gripping his. Where were his damned gloves? Why wasn’t he wearing them?

[_Let us out, _]begged the magic as Sarn slid away.

His awareness seeped out of his ungloved hand into the statue. No, into Mount Eredren itself, then beyond it—Sarn was the tip of an arrow speeding toward a wrongness out in the gloaming.

A dozen voices merged into one voice repeating five unintelligible syllables. They hammered at Sarn, driving him to his knees. His head throbbed with each repetition until the voice faded.

[_Wrong, wrong, wrong, _]shouted the magic as Sarn’s world blackened.

The ground stilled, calming the crowd. No one saw a statue pivot on its plinth and deposit a thrashing youth behind its base. Nor did anyone see a green glow snake down his scarred cheek when his seizure ebbed.

Sarn came to slumped in a corner. Magic blanketed him. Maybe it had protected him from discovery, but he doubted it. How long had he been out? Long enough for the earth to calm and the crowd too, by the sound of it. Just in case, he kept his eyes closed to conceal their emerald glow, and his magic didn’t fight him.

Maybe his loved ones were okay. Fate protect them until he could. Pressing a hand to his aching brow, Sarn winced when his head map expanded from a two-dimensional icon-rich line drawing to a three-dimensional wire frame. Like he needed those extra details pointing out how much of the mountain stood between him and his waiting master.

What had just happened? Sarn felt along a high relief setting of a historical event for a handhold then hauled his six-and-a-half-foot tall body off the floor. Information slammed into him, providing the tonnage, context, and type of stone he touched. Damn magic—couldn’t it wait until he was a bit steadier before deluging him with unnecessary details?

Gritting his teeth, Sarn sifted through the information seeking what had disturbed his magic until pain forced him to stop. He stuffed his hands into his pockets despite protests from his magic and information quit pummeling him.

Relieved, Sarn pushed into the throng, letting it sweep him into its flow. He had no idea what had happened before, but he knew someone who might. His master’s icon blinked green on his head map inviting him for a chat.

Finally, Sarn left the crowd behind and slipped into a side passage hooking off the north-south transept. The sudden turn screwed with his balance, and he wavered until the visuals projected onto the backs of his eyelids stabilized. In his haste, he struck something hard, a sculpture perhaps, judging by the shape of the wire-framed heap.

The Litherians had folded rock imitating paper’s crisp folds and silk’s graceful drape while sculpting their vertical city. Then they’d wrapped five balconies around said mountain fortress adding extra space for their statuary obsession, and more obstacles to dodge.

An arrow flashed on his map, directing Sarn to a balustrade and beyond it to the meadow spreading from the mountain’s feet. His master was down there and hopefully, so too were answers.

Sarn bypassed a column supporting the veranda above and stepped over a raised vegetable patch with care. Its young shoots might become part of his dinner one day. Footsteps, out of sync with his quiet tread accompanied a new icon flaring on his map. Someone headed this way. Had this person followed him?

Sarn cursed his ill-luck. Since down was where he needed to go, he climbed onto the coping and jumped before anything else went wrong. Thank the Litherians their balconies overlapped each other, widening as they descended.

Magic sheathed him in cold purpose as it reached for the balcony below turning it malleable. After falling several stories, Sarn landed in a crouch. His magic forced the bench under his boots to flex, absorbing the energy from his fall.

Sensing no one around, he opened his eyes, and their glow dyed the balcony and its statuary green. Sarn blinked until the flagstones lost their polygonal afterimage and his minimized map parked itself in his peripheral vision.

The wind whispered five syllables and repeated them until its voice faded out. Sarn struggled to parse the sounds as he hopped off the bench. Beyond the balustrade, a red orb bled onto the serrated horizon, and the metallic stench of blood wrenched his guts. Darkness rippled through the enchanted forest, where a silent army of trees waited for something or someone. Their eyeless stare focused on Sarn, making his skin prickle and his magic circle him, alert for trouble. Were thousands of branches beckoning him onward? Or was it a trick of the wind?

A warning sounded in his head, startling Sarn right before an arm collided with his throat. Its mate secured itself around his waist then the two limbs yanked backward crashing Sarn into a barrel chest. Where had his attacker come from?

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Gregori enunciated each word as if he spoke to an idiot.

Sarn’s knees jellied as he struggled to regain his footing, and his sight dimmed. Before everything went black, Gregori let go.

“Stop it. I didn’t squeeze you that hard, and besides, you aren’t fragile.”

[_Yeah right, _]but Sarn bit his lip to keep his acerbic comments to himself. He staggered until a ham-sized fist forced him to sit on a nearby bench. Gregori’s dark eyes zeroed in on a purpling bruise.

“Who did that to you?”

Rising, Sarn righted his hood to cover said bruise. Indentured men had no rights. So what if a bunch of fools had jumped him? Complications made it better for all if he kept his mouth shut. The incident had happened fifteen hours ago and had no bearing on the Ranger glaring holes in his back. Not that Gregori cared.

“Who hit you?” Gregori demanded with more menace. Can’t have the Lord of the Mountain’s property damaged, oh no.

Sarn swallowed the truth before it could break free. His situation was better than most, and he was managing just fine without interference. Still, he had to say something.

Gregori snapped his sausage fingers in front of Sarn’s face. “Pay attention boy. I asked you a question. You’re supposed to answer it.”

Sarn studied the carvings under his boots. Incised mid-writhe, insects patterned the ground, offering neither answers nor solace. The wind tugged on his ankle-length cloak, pulling him toward the balustrade and the distant forest. Its eyeless stare bored into his back. A voice whispered the same five syllables as before. His magic urged him to jump, and he could think of no reason not to.

Gregori seized his arm and shook Sarn free of the magic and its mad mutterings. The wind died, releasing his cloak.

“You can tell me, or you can tell Jerlo, but you’re telling someone. Do you hear me, boy?”

The fortyish bruiser looked ready to plant himself in front of something in need of guarding. Nothing on the balcony required such protection.

“I turned twenty last November. I’m not a child.”

“Then don’t act like one.”

Sarn rolled his eyes. A unicorn statue with a broken horn gave him the stink eye. Even the statuary had an opinion tonight.

“Bind your eyes, so you don’t cause a panic and let’s go. They’re looking for you.” Gregori fished a blindfold out of his pocket and handed it to Sarn.

“Who’s looking for me?”

“Don’t be an idiot. You know who.”

Gregori took back the blindfold and secured it then caught Sarn by his arm. The burly Ranger’s heavy boots beat a metronome of doom as he towed Sarn toward the trouble his magic had sensed.

A sullen green star poked at the blindfold. Sarn ignored it and kept hiking. His magic hated confinement, but he couldn’t liberate it. Heat bloomed in his hands and radiated into his fingers, extending them towards a wall. Damn the magic and its meddling. Sarn stuffed his hands into his pockets again. Where were his damned gloves?

A bell tolled twenty times. Uh-oh, Lateness was a whipping offense. Did being in Gregori’s custody count as ‘on time?’ Would the muscle-bound Ranger vouch for him—doubtful.

After he yanked his head map into view to steer him around statuary and jabbering people icons, Sarn picked up the pace.

“—Moving around.”

“—Letting no one through—”

“It ain’t natural—”

The last assertion caught Sarn’s attention. His magic had made a similar claim right before Gregori showed up. What he’d sensed earlier was no fluke. Something was going on, and the Rangers were hip-deep in it. No wonder Gregori was short with him.

“What are they talking about?”

“Never you mind,” Gregori said as the ground vanished under Sarn’s foot.

Thank Fate for his head map. Without it, he’d have tumbled down into the roots of the mountain. Sarn touched the enclosing wall. Information poured into his skull and boiled over onto his map, threatening to overwhelm him. He didn’t care if his magic had found an interesting frieze to investigate. [_Show me the damned steps so I don’t fall. _]But alas, his magic ignored his command until his master’s icon appeared below, promising answers. Only then did his map focus on the spiral stairs.

One hundred steps down, Gregori bumped a section of the curved wall with his heel, and it slid aside, sending a breath of fresh air into the dank stairwell.

“I found him. The damned fool was trying to fly.” Gregori punctuated his announcement by shoving Sarn forward.

“You were trying to fly?” Nolo asked, taking hold of Sarn’s arm.

Sarn yanked his arm free. He sensed no one else on this precipice—time for the blindfold to come off. “I wasn’t trying to fly.”

“Leave it.” Nolo squeezed his captured arm hard enough to make his point.

“You were trying to defy something,” Gregori said, ignoring the byplay.

“We’ll talk about it later. Right now, I need you to come with me.”

“What’s going on?”

“What makes you think anything is going on?” Gregori poked Sarn in the ribs.

Sarn slapped the muscular Ranger’s hand away before it could deliver another poke. “Snatches of conversations,” he said distracted by his magic unspooling inside him. Had it sensed something?

“Let’s go. The—disturbance—is some way ahead.” Nolo pronounced ‘disturbance’ like a curse. His master’s grip firmed forcing Sarn to follow. As if he could do anything else—he was bound by the promises he’d made.

Beads clicked together on the bracelet Nolo always wore, as they descended the mountain trail. Ten agates, three Jaspers—supplied the magic before Sarn cut it off. His magic liked rocks, even if they were part of someone else’s jewelry.

I don’t care. But it was too late. The largest bead—a cylinder of green lumir—called to Sarn. Or maybe it was the wind soughing that eerie polysyllabic summons. He clenched his fists until his nails bit into his palms. He’d heard that phrase thrice now, and each time it had danced on the edge of understanding. What the hell was it saying?

“What is this ‘disturbance?’”

Nolo maintained his silence because he equated freakishness with stupidity.

Damn him. “You don’t think I can understand.” Sarn wanted to pummel something. He had a mind, and it worked just fine. Or did it? Sarn went cold, his hands uncurling. The phrase ceased its looping litany, leaving behind an afterimage of a circle enclosing a thirteen-pointed star. Cold dread knifed through Sarn, speeding his longer strides. Why thirteen? What did it mean? Likely nothing good.

Gravel crunched as they proceeded single-file into the falling night. Northeast of their current position, a cluster of Rangers appeared on Sarn’s map. Were they standing by the problem?

Sarn halted when he heard something other than the rattling of loose stones bouncing down the trail. Wood scraped over wood. Something thudded and had he heard a whip crack? What the hell was this disturbance?

“Did you hear that?”

“I don’t have time to explain. Come on.” Nolo’s tone gave away his worry. Something serious had happened.

Long grasses brushed their booted calves as they left the mountain behind and crossed a flat swath of greenery, heading ever nearer the enchanted forest. Malevolence slammed into Sarn, driving him back a step. Somewhere in that trackless wilderness, something had gone terribly wrong. And they wanted him to do something about it? Were they insane?

We fix, said the magic.

Fix what? What happened?

But his magic remained silent. Did it know what mess he was walking into? Sarn gnashed his teeth in frustration and kept moving.

Sarn halted on the gravel path. In front of him, standing stones encircled the meadow in two concentric rings. They maintained a cordon the enchanted forest could not cross. Since Litherian hands hadn’t raised those giant stones, his magic had no interest in them until tonight. Something was different about those menhirs. Damn Gregori and his blindfolds. Sarn felt for the knot again then stopped.

Silence fell, cutting the remaining cord between Sarn and the world beyond the blindfold. The air between the menhirs coalesced into an invisible hand shoving Sarn backward. Nolo’s grip broke as he stumbled out of the ring of stones.

Something warm brushed against his hands as Sarn raised them to examine the barrier blocking him. Particles flowed clockwise, sparking against his skin. He bet they glowed the same hue and intensity as his eyes. Likely, the same magic comprised them both.

Nolo shook Sarn. “What happened? Why did you retreat?”

“I didn’t. It expelled me.”

“It’s never rejected you before. I don’t like it.”

Neither did Sarn. He shook off Nolo’s grip and paced. Before tonight, he’d crossed these circles of stones many times with no hindrance at all. Why was tonight different? What the hell was going on? Sarn quit pacing and explored the blindfold. It was time the damned thing came off.

“No, don’t touch it. You must leave it in place. There are too many folks abroad. We can’t let anyone see—”

His freaky eyes because the sight might drive someone to put them out. That reality bitch slapped Sarn every time he opened his eyes. The damned knot defeated his extra-large fingers putting paid to the argument.

Nolo pried his hand away from the blindfold. “Leave it. I’ll remove it when it’s safe to do so, not before.”

“Tell me what’s going on.”

“I can’t tell you what I don’t know.” Nolo tugged him southwards.

“Where’re we going now?”

“To find a spot where you can cross. We’ll walk the whole damn circumference if we have to.”

So, the problem lay outside the ring of menhirs in the enchanted forest. Foreboding dragged an icy claw up Sarn’s spine. The forest functioned on magic akin to his, and it tended to wreak havoc on his control. Just what he needed on a night when his magic was already unruly.

Grass ceded to rock again, but this time, they were water-smoothed stones. Sarn grimaced at the fishy stink of the River Nirthal. It flowed east to west in a broad, lazy ribbon along the southern edge of the meadow.

Nolo crossed first. This time, when Sarn stepped across the divide, the barrier slid through his body, allowing him to pass. Shuddering at its alien feel, he trudged the ten feet between one circle of menhirs and the other onto a rocky beach.

“Are you alright?”

Sarn nodded. Something large tore free from something else and approached. It flashed red on his head map. “What the hell is that?”

“Look out!”

“Get down Kid!”

“Someone grab the Kid and get him down!”

A body slammed into Sarn and bore him to the ground. Something hard wrapped around his forearm and yanked on it, dragging him toward the enchanted forest. Another unidentifiable object wrapped around his upper arm adding its argument to the fray.

Arms closed around Sarn’s middle and pulled him in the opposite direction, but it was futile, the force pulling his upper body had more leverage. And the Rangers trying to prevent his kidnapping were ceding ground. Before they were pulled into the forest, they realized who they were attempting to save and let go. After all, he was replaceable.

Sarn slid into the enchanted forest, still blind to what was going on. Thanks a lot, Gregori.

Nolo flinched as a giant tree ripped free from the ground and slithered toward them. Trees were supposed to stay put, even enchanted ones. But a three-hundred-foot-plus monster crawled on its roots, heading straight for Sarn. And the blindfold made it impossible for the Kid to see the danger. A branch whipped out as Nolo dove. He knocked the boy down. But the lad was closer to seven feet than six, so a branch seized the brat’s arm. It dragged Sarn, but Nolo held fast. Another tree grabbed hold and yanked even harder. The Kid slid a few feet closer to the forest and a host of uprooted trees. If Nolo could pull the Kid back across the gravel into the ring of standing stones, the Kid would be safe. None of the enchanted trees dared to touch the menhirs or their cordon.

Nolo dug his toes into the earth and struggled to reel Sarn back in. Thank God youth kept the Kid lanky and lean enough, he could secure his arm around the Kid’s waist and lock it in place. Every muscle strained as the tug of war continued, but he had to hold on. Sarn was his charge, his responsibility.

A clout to the head stunned Nolo. Screams battered him while his senses reeled. His grip loosened despite frantic mental shouts at them to hold, hold, hold damn it.

Nolo blinked away pain edged in darkness as the forest swallowed Sarn. He would find that boy. Rolling onto his stomach, he gathered himself to rise. His head rang warning bells, but he ignored them. The world teetered. Everything grayed as Nolo sat. Whatever had hit him had been hard indeed.

“Stay down damn it. That thing might return.”

Nolo gained his knees determined to make it all the way to a stand this time. He glared at Gregori, who crouched nearby wringing his smarting hand.

“You hit me? Why?” Nolo stared. His long-time friend’s sheepish look confirmed his guilt. How had he remained conscious? Gregori was a bear of a man who hit harder than a boulder and whose stature was only exceeded by the missing Sarn.

“What? Should I have let it drag you off too? Bad enough it got the Kid. Lord Joranth will be pissed his pet mage was eaten by whatever that thing was.” Gregori shuddered.

“It was a tree—an oak I think.” Nolo probed the sore spot on the back of his head and winced.

“We don’t know if the Kid is a mage,” Jerlo corrected as he appeared between his two officers.

At five foot nothing, the force of Jerlo’s personality took up more space than he did. And it pushed his subordinates apart. Right now, his ire focused on a man sixteen inches taller than himself who could bench press one Jerlo in each hand. A dozen Rangers turned up to watch the commander scold Gregori.

No doubt the betting would be fiercer than usual tonight. Every Ranger had a theory about how Jerlo would best Gregori, some of the proposed methods stretched the limits of credulity.

“Oh yeah, then why do his eyes glow all the damned time? It’s a sign of active magic. Hell, it’s even mentioned in the Litany.”

A mention in the Litany made it God’s truth, and it sent a chill down Nolo’s back every time the subject came up.

“Stow it. We’re not having this argument here and now. Whether the Kid ever does one damned magical thing is not my concern.”

“Why? All we do is babysit him.”

“Exactly, now get over there and take charge of your squad. I want this whole area sealed off until the forest calms down. No one’s allowed to pass out of the stone circle.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nolo had pushed to his feet while Gregori argued it out with their commander. His head still rang from Gregori’s fist, but Sarn’s kidnapper had dragged a two-foot-wide trench pointing the way. And Nolo trotted after it, focusing on his goal. Spotting a Kid with radiant eyes would be easy in the dark.

“Where’re you going?” Gregori called after him.

“Where do you think—to find Sarn.”

“Good hunting,” Jerlo offered. “Though I doubt the Kid is in any real danger. He’ll likely turn up with some wild tale ‘ere morning.”

“Maybe but I’m still going after him.”

“Never doubted it,” Jerlo waved his second off. His gaze landed on the Rangers playing spectator. “You there—yes you—take five men and secure the west side of the circle. You and you, go east and you, south. Everyone get moving. Secure the perimeter, now damn it. Or you’ll be cleaning latrines in the dungeon before the night’s over.” Jerlo clapped and the sound cut across the forest’s sudden silence.

Nolo squeezed between two giant trees and shuddered at their sudden stillness. Their attention focused elsewhere, perhaps on the missing Sarn. A pale green nimbus spread out from a bead of lumir on Nolo’s wrist. Mount Eredren’s mines churned out the luminous stone by the megaton by necessity. This enchanted wonderland carried an extreme prejudice against fire.

Aside from being affordable, the green stone reminded him of a promise he’d made five years ago. Nolo broke into a trot. He would find Sarn even if it took the whole bloody night to search.

“Sarn? Call out if you can hear me.”

A branch cracked somewhere ahead, and many large things thumped out a rhythm of movement, maybe even of doom. Nolo followed the sound. Lord, let us both live through this.

Sarn ran his fingers along the grooves of the thing manacling his arm and encountered tree bark. Why would a tree abduct him?

“Let go of me!”

Sarn hammered the heel of his hand against the branch clamped around his middle. Magic hit his veins in a flood of crackling power, scorching a path down his arm to the hand beating against his captor. The tree let go.

Early flowers perfumed the air, but their scent was undercut by something rank as Sarn felt along the blindfold for a weakness to exploit. Screw untying the damned thing. Sarn tore the blindfold off releasing his sight. Green light bathed the trunks of his captors and the furrows attesting to their recent movement. Picking himself up, he checked he was still in one extra-tall piece. Nothing broken or even bruised—thank Fate for small mercies.

Thousands of branches waved, and one enterprising oak spidered toward Sarn on its roots. Two others lifted themselves up on their root balls and dropped, shaking the ground. Did individual trees have any sense or was it a kind of hive mind? Sarn backed away though he had nowhere to go. He was surrounded.

The spokes—man—tree—halted a few feet away and its eyeless stare bored into Sarn. The forest had never chosen to communicate with any of the folk inhabiting its lands. Please let them keep their secrets tonight. He had enough of his own.

The oak disagreed. It seized his wrist and towed Sarn in its wake. Magic lit up his skin and zapped the branch as Sarn pulled his wrist free.

“I can make my own way,” he said allowing the chill of his anger to creep into his voice. Damn it; he was a man of twenty. “I’m not a witless child. Show me where you want me to go, and I’ll follow on my own.”

The forest stilled. Massive trees stood hundreds of feet tall, and their leafy crowns blocked all sight of the sky as they loomed over him. Sarn massaged his wrist. The skin smarted from where the branch had grabbed him. Had they heard him? More importantly, had he angered them? Would they strike him down?

No, they wouldn’t. The forest had three rules, and he’d broken none.

The enchanted forest agreed. A moment later, branches waved millions of beckoning leaves. When more and more branches pointed northeast, he set off curious about the why of all this. Though he had a feeling, he already knew part of the answer.

Four miles he trekked with a wall of trees to his right and left. Were they guarding him? What from? What was going on? The temperature dropped and night deepened as Sarn climbed a slope. Darkness webbed the path, and his magic retreated. The green nimbus he depended on to pick his way through the tangled underbrush shrank down to a pinpoint when he reached the top. 

Sarn froze between two trees whose boles each had to be over a hundred feet in diameter. His breath misted in the air. Winter embraced him, sliding icy lips over the exposed skin of his hands and face. Behind him, the May evening rolled on despite the piece of winter parked in its midst. The glow of his eyes winked out blinding Sarn.

[_Unnatural, _]whispered his magic, winding tighter about his organs.

Sarn didn’t bother to reply. Conversations with his magic offered a one-way trip to insanity, not the answers he craved. His head map unfurled as he blinked. But it had been too long since his eyes had to work without magical augmentation, so he saw nothing but the map filling up with strange icons.

Sarn touched a red symbol flashing before his eyes. An image of a circle and a star exploded raining thirteen curved lines. As the lines squirmed into the ground, he heard that phrase again. It repeated until he finally caught it—eam’meye erator.

Without context or a definition, it meant nothing to him but a headache. Darkness coalesced into a fist and squeezed Sarn. Blood dripped from his nose and ran down his lips. The foul litany continued as inky malevolence washed over him and solidified, imprisoning him like a fly in amber. An inarticulate cry interrupted the chorus of fell whispers right before a branch snagged hold of his boot and yanked. Sarn rolled clear and rose, facing the thing trying to trap him. This was the wrongness he’d sensed earlier.

“What is this? What caused it?” he asked, but the forest maintained its watchful silence. He felt like a pack of children stared at his back. Were the trees willing him to do something about this? If so, they had the wrong mage. He had no training and not a single idea what to do about the cold, black blob in front of him. Was it dangerous?

Sarn touched the semi-permeable black membrane. It froze his skin on contact. Stuffing his numb hand under his arm, he tried to warm it. “Why did you want me to see this?”

The wind shifted, pelting Sarn with the metallic scent of blood and rotting meat. He doubled over and retched. Sudden, violent death had created the cold, dark spot in front of him. That didn’t explain how this had come to be. Plenty of folks had died in the forest over the years, and none of their deaths had created anything like this. What made these people’s deaths different?

Sarn’s stomach heaved, winnowing his world down to throwing up without spattering his already stained clothes. He jerked when a hand landed on his shoulder.

“You okay, Kid?”

“I’m not a kid.” Sarn shot back as he wiped the blood dripping from his nose on his sleeve. “I’m twenty.”

“I know,” Nolo gave Sarn’s shoulder a squeeze, and let go, “but you’re also almost half my age.”

“You’re not forty.”

“No, but I’m not far from it. What have we here?”

The Black Ranger pushed through the equally black membrane as if it wasn’t there. Maybe it only reacted to magic. Or maybe Nolo’s status as the Death’s Marksman protected him.

Nolo never talked about what it meant to be the mythic Black Ranger, or how he’d acquired that title. Nolo wasn’t a mage, yet he carried Death’s arrows. They were part of him and so was the burden of choosing how people died.

“Aren’t you freezing?”

“Not any more than usual for a May night. Winter’s gone, and I’m glad of it.” Nolo turned, and his concern slammed into Sarn. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

Sarn nodded and cringed as Hadrovel spoke from the depths of memory.

[“No one cares for you,” _]said the Orphan Master, then he’d punched Sarn.[ “You’re nothing and no one. That’s why he turns away. He can’t bear to look at you.”_]

Sarn’s head still rang from that blow in years past. Maybe he was still that boy waiting for someone to see the bruises, the pain. But Nolo had strode away leaving him with a monster.

“Well, are you okay? Answer me.”

Sarn blinked at the question, but the memory refused to recede. Where was that care when he’d needed it?

“Sarn?”

“I’m not hurt.” Not this time, but one day they wound hand him over to another monster. It was inevitable.

Feeling pinned and needled his numb hand as Sarn circled the barrier. But he couldn’t escape the question—why did you hand me over to a monster? It gnawed at him as he rubbed his arms to warm them. Every circuit around the barrier stole a little more of his heat.

“Don’t you feel it?”

“Feel what? What are you talking about?”

“The place where you’re standing—it feels wrong to me.”

After a moment more, Nolo nodded then turned his attention to the ground where humped shadows lay. “Wrong how?”

Sarn shrugged, “just cold and dark. Can you see anything?”

Nolo’s lumir stone lit the edges of a hole punched through something, but its nimbus contracted the longer the Black Ranger crouched there. Was the lumir stone’s eternal glow flickering?

“It’s best you don’t look. It’s a grisly sight.”

“Tell me what you see.”

“Why do you want to know?” Nolo’s eyes searched him. What did those dark eyes seek?

“I need to know.” Sarn met his master’s assessing stare. Let the man see he could handle this.

“Alright I see body parts scattered over—I’d say a ten-foot radius. And blood, lots of it coating leaf, branch, and ground.”

“Body parts—you mean something ripped people apart?” Sarn’s luminous gaze bounced to the trees surrounding them. Were their branches angled to attack?

“Yeah, but something impaled this man right through the chest. And the hole it gouged is too broad for a spearhead.” Nolo measured the hole with his black hand and struggled to cover the entire wound.

“You can’t bring steel in here. The forest doesn’t allow it.” Sarn moved upwind, staying clear of the black barrier, so the stench stopped causing his stomach to rebel. Its vile presence became opaque until he could not see his master anymore. What was this thing and what had created it?

Suppositions pummeled Sarn, but only one made sense. His gaze played green light over an oak whose crown brushed the hidden sky. Was he staring at one of the culprits?

Remembering the tensile strength of his leafy kidnapper, Sarn shuddered. Its smallest branch could have torn his limbs off. What had incited the trees to murder? Would they kill again? Had they brought him here to take back a warning?

What was the warning? Step out of line and die? Such a threat had always existed. The forest had three rules—respect them and live; ignore them and die. Which of the three rules had those people broken?

A branch tapped Sarn on the shoulder and pointed left. Was he about to receive an answer? He left Nolo squatting in death’s shadow.

Viscous darkness drilled through the forest, extending out from the murder site. Sarn paralleled it until an obstacle blocked his path. Ice skinned the tree and broke off when his shoulder brushed it leaving a weeping wound to drink the light his eyes produced.

[_Unnatural, _]whispered his magic before ducking out of the darkness’ reach.

Sarn nodded and kept going, following the stygian tendril deeper into the forest. Branches indicated another clearing where the cold darkness belled out into another dome. Horror constricted his throat, knotted his chest and cut his legs out from under him. How could this be? Sarn stretched out a shaking hand toward the body of a child dashed on the rocks.

His fingers punched through the barrier. Ice burrowed under his skin sucking out his heat. Magic sparked white, knocking his hand away.

Malevolence gathered around Sarn, imprisoning him in thickening shadows. They liquefied and clutched his hand freezing it as his index finger touched the boy’s ice-rimmed cheek. The veil became opaque, and the star in a circle icon blinked a red warning on his map. Why did it have thirteen vertices instead of the usual five or six? 

Finding those sightless green eyes with his questing fingers, Sarn closed them. Something pricked the skin between his second and third knuckles. Ice slid into the wound as Sarn retreated from the dead and the black wall hiding them while cradling his injured hand. The tiny bite wept a single bloody tear, and in its wake, gray lines cross-hatched the back of his hand until a tongue of emerald flame burned them away.

A choked sob escaped his grief-tightened throat. The dead boy might have grown up to be just like him. Had someone killed the boy because his eyes promised magic? Deadly what ifs chased themselves around his mind while fear feasted on his heart.

Sarn didn’t see a roach crawl out of the darkness. He didn’t feel its malevolent interest bearing down on him as he folded, cut to the quick by what he’d seen and the questions tearing at his heart. Was his son next? The possibility terrified him.

Chapter 2

“It’s possible,” Nolo replied. “If you cover the weapon in a natural fiber, how would a bunch of trees know it’s there? If you don’t use the weapon, it’s not against the rules to carry it in here.”

Silence met Nolo’s words. The cloak-draped wraith had disappeared again. Nolo cursed. “Sarn? Where are you? You’re not supposed to wander off.”

Nolo punched the blood-spattered ground and rose from his crouch. What he’d found here asked more questions than it answered. All the victims wore sturdy clothing now torn and bloodied and cheap jewelry. In their pockets, he found a handful of small coins, but nothing of any real value. He estimated there had been four men and one woman, all torn apart.

The one thing he’d expected to find was absent. Either someone had escaped the carnage with it, or someone else had shown up afterward and stolen it. Either was possible. Last years’ leaves, now blood coated, carpeted the clearing but had taken no prints.

A keening sound sent Nolo hurtling toward its source. Less than a mile later, he crouched in front of Sarn. The Kid’s hands shook, suspended halfway between himself and a dead boy. Horror had shut off his reasoning.

Beyond the child lay two women and three men—all dead. Nothing had despoiled their bodies. They were whole, unlike the other site. The dead could wait, but Sarn could not.

Sarn had arrived six winters ago half dead from exposure with his brother in tow. Never had the Kid spoken about how he’d earned some of the scars marring his skin or his psyche. No, the stupid Kid bottled everything up until he imploded.

Worse still, the Kid refused to let him help. He waved a hand in front of the Kid’s radiant eyes. No response. He shook Sarn.

“What the hell is going on in your head right now?”

Sarn made no reply. His eyes put out enough light to reveal his face, making him look young and lost. The sight punctured Nolo’s heart, and it bled pity. Something the Kid would have scorned had he noticed.

Silver light bloomed around Nolo, and he turned to see what new trouble had come their way. Trees shifted aside, their crowns lowering in respect. Nolo stared as one of the most massive trees he’d ever seen propelled herself toward him. Beads of light danced up and down her pearlized trunk and her roots undulated in a silken train.

A tower of bark and patterns of light, she stood over one thousand feet tall. Her trunk exceeded one hundred feet in diameter. Logic claimed she should remain stationary, but logic held little sway over Shayari. Star-shaped leaves adorned her crown and dripped from every branch. From root to tip, she emitted a soothing white light.

Nolo stared at the Queen of All Trees. Her sightless gaze penetrated all the way to his core, leaving no part of him unexamined. He shuddered under the weight of her scrutiny.

The so-called Queen of All Trees regarded the Child of Magic. He was one of a precious few to survive to adulthood. She’d allowed these humans six of his years to do one thing, and they’d failed. Anger welled up directed at the Painted Man, but a glance quelled it. Written in his blood and bone was one purpose: to protect people, objects and places of power. He’d lived up to his ancestors’ promise, but the Child of Magic was still broken. In less than seven months, his magic would expand and kill him. She must save this walking loophole, this bringer of change.

She extended a radiant branch toward him and her power collected in a cloud of sparkling motes. She should take him away and find someone else to fix him, but something tied the Child of Magic to Mount Eredren.

The Queen of All Trees tested its tensile strength and found the bond to be stronger than her. Surprise made her roots lash out and claw the earth. Who had bound so powerful a mage?

A preternatural chill hung in the air. The souls of the slain floated, trapped between worlds, but she could do nothing for them. They too were tied to this place by treachery, violence, and death. Their entrapment had torn the world’s fabric allowing the Adversary to peer through. And the Enemy was watching. Its evil eye fixed on her and her bark crawled in revulsion.

Shafts of black ice speared toward her and shattered when they met the half-dome of white light around her. [_Fool, you cannot harm me here. This is my forest. _]Silver roots lashed out batting aside the next volley. Extending her aura, she hid the Child of Magic. As her power built, the ground rumbled. She did not see the cockroach scuttling through the leaf mold toward the Black Ranger’s pocket intent on hitching a ride.

The earth under the Queen of All Trees’ roots shifted, translocating them away from the lingering stain of murder. When ensconced again in the power of growing things, she resumed her search. So secure a binding had to have a compelling source. Untrained though he might be, the Child of Magic had wits and power enough to avoid bindings if he chose. Why had he accepted this yoke? Stretching out her magic again, she reached into the Child of Magic, to the heart where the tie originated.

Each link was a promise forged by magic and blood. Again, not a surprise since the magic took in everything and reacted to it. But the source, bless her bark—the Child of Magic had a son. What was the child of a living loophole—a larger loophole?

If the Child of Magic died before his son turned seven, the boy would die with him. She must prevent that, but how? The Queen of All Trees processed away. Through the magic, she had seen all she needed to see, but not the roach crawling out of Nolo’s pocket. Through its eyes, something else looked and laughed at how so small a thing could go unnoticed by the Witch Queen of Shayari.

Nolo sagged, relieved the Queen of All Trees had left. He swatted the bug scaling his thigh in disgust, sending it flying

Sarn blinked eyes filled with green fire at him. “What happened?”

Another slow blink returned the Kid’s whites and pupils to their correct locations. Only his irises glowed green now.

Nolo shook his head “I’m not sure.” No doubt the commander would have some ideas. The entire incident unnerved Nolo. Or it did until the ground under his knees quaked.

“What now?” Nolo asked the general air around him. He caught a startled look from Sarn, and he moved a fraction of a second too slow. The Kid sprang to his feet and loped off without interference. Damn the Kid could move. Sarn ran as if the shaking ground provided no hindrance.

“Sarn—wait—stop!”

The stupid Kid followed neither order. Nolo hauled himself up and hurried to catch up.

Sarn ran back toward the bodies and the epicenter of the earthquake. On his head map, both were marked in red by a star with too many vertices. Dread dogged him. A branch shot out at chest level, and he struck it hard enough to bruise. Before he could move, more branches thrust themselves into his path weaving a cordon.

Beyond those branches, a veil of unnatural darkness rippled. Sarn’s nose froze on contact with the alien substance. Stepping back, he rubbed his numb face. Light from his eyes stabbed at the barrier, but it failed to penetrate the stygian heat-sink. His head map unfurled and flashed a warning—an icon bearing a star inside a circle. It was the third time he’d seen it tonight. What did it mean?

Another branch thrust out, and it screamed as it touched the black dome in front of Sarn. Its bark grayed, and ice rimmed the pieces flaking off it. The limb bent and collided with his chest driving the breath from Sarn as it shoved him back. Magic shot out of his hands, and emerald light seeped into the injured branch. The tree stopped screaming as his magic pushed out the life-draining cold.

Beyond the dark barrier, the ground ripped open a chasm, toppling bodies into its heart—too many to count in the obscuring gloom. Something crawled up Sarn’s pant leg, but he ignored it as the dead child vanished under an expanding pile of dirt. Over it all, a red circle wrapped around a bleeding star. The image hammered at the box containing his most painful memories, then faded as the ground cracked spewing inky tendrils. They shot skyward, pushing against the trees rushing back in to cover the site where Fate knew how many people had died.

Where was that foul blackness going? Sarn lost sight of it when branches twisted into a net to capture the spewing horror. But somehow, it slipped through.

[_Eam’meye erator, _]chanted a fell chorus raising the hairs on the back of his neck.

His magic screamed, repeating the same word—unnatural—as if he needed the reminder. No doubt his magic wanted him to do something but what could he do? Was this unfolding horror heading toward his loved ones? What would happen when it reached them?

Skipping light as a windblown leaf over the still churning ground, Sarn ran, and the forest giants flashed past. Fear clenched his heart and fueled his run. 

A rock wall loomed in front of Sarn, and he rushed headlong toward a vertical bar of black. Hold on, son. I’m coming.

Nolo ran after Sarn, but his charge outpaced him. He cursed as something blew past him, numbing the muscles it touched. Massaging his shoulder, Nolo worked some feeling back into it. He blinked to clear his eyes of the gray blob. For a second, the flying thing took on the rough outline of a child before it vanished behind a tree. He must have hallucinated it. There were no such things as ghosts.

Nolo picked up the pace to narrow the increasing lead the Kid had on him. What a marvel the troubled young man was. With his long, lean build, Sarn could outrun the wind. Magic lent the Kid a spider’s sure-footedness, allowing him to ignore the ground’s shaking.

Meanwhile, Nolo bounced off every damned tree he passed. Common sense urged him to stop until the ground stilled. Finding one extra tall kid with glowing green eyes in a dark forest should be easy unless something happened between then and now. And it would because the Kid had as much sense as a rock pile. Nolo cursed as he banged his shoulder into another tree.

The ground split ahead forcing him into a skid. He hit the edge and wavered there until a branch looped around his waist and yanked him backward. The earth in front of Nolo collapsed until a ravine opened. It spanned more than a hundred feet separating him from a frozen Sarn. Bodies and body parts tumbled into the hole. Victims mingled with their murderers as both fell into the same chasm.

Roots scooped dirt back into place. Within minutes the ravine had buttoned itself up. Trees crawled back into place and all evidence of what had happened vanished. The branch released Nolo, and he fell to his knees. His palms struck the turned earth, but there was no sign of anything. The enchanted forest had wiped it all away.

“Why did you do this?” he asked the trees overshadowing him. They gave no response. He dug his fingers into the earth and rose, letting the dirt slide through his fingers. All chance of answers fell with it. “Why did you bring us here?”

The forest held its peace, but he’d expected silence. Trees might get up and walk around Shayari, but by the grace of God, they were still mute. Nolo scanned the shadows for the ever-present emerald glow of Sarn’s eyes and saw only shadows. “Sarn? Where are you?”

No answer. Nolo made a slow circuit of the area where he’d last seen the Kid and found no sign of him. Damn the canny boy. “Sarn this isn’t funny. Come out now. We need to leave the area. Sarn? Damn it Sarn!”

Nolo fell silent. Sarn was gone. Where the hell had the Kid ran off to now? He spent some time looking before giving up and heading back to rendezvous with Jerlo to make a report. The stupid Kid had better be back there cooling his heels.

Chapter 3

Sarn gave the tangled branches overhead one more glance, but his sight failed to pierce them to see what was happening above. Trees stood by watching him, no doubt waiting for him to make a move. Was this all a cruel game to them? Was the alien darkness their doing?

Could it cross the twin circles of menhirs? He couldn’t see them from here only sense their protective presence a half mile off. Before Sarn yawned a shaft leading into darkness so thick, it reminded him of the strange thing cupping the murder sites. Had it beaten him below?

Turning his back on the forest, Sarn vaulted onto a boulder. He dove through a cleft chiseled into the earth’s bones. The fire inside his eyes threw a nimbus around him, and it brightened as he tucked and tumbled. His sixth sense ballooned and bounced off seven people indicating a crowd below.

Sarn ground his teeth in annoyance. He’d escaped one set of witnesses and traded them for another. Who were these clowns and what were they doing?

The granite under their feet sensed him coming and turned malleable to absorb the kinetic energy of his fall. Sarn rolled toward his goal, scattering the witnesses in his path until his end-over-end run dumped him into an underground river. Cold water snuffed out his eyes glow and sapped his energy.

Surfacing, he grabbed a quick breath and a glance at seven thunderstruck people. Shadows veiled them, hiding any identifying marks or insignia. Likely those fools belonged to a gang but which one? He tucked that mystery away for another time and submerged.

Rocks pounded the surface, and he wove around them as they sank. Damn it; he’d drawn too much attention with his stupid stunt. Sarn swam as the map sharing space in his head unfurled, painting luminous green ribbons in the riverbed. Magic pulsed in those lines, starting a sympathetic beat in his skull. As his heart picked up the tempo, the magic called to him deepening the trance until it had winnowed away all his concerns. His strokes slowed, his limbs grew heavy, and he plummeted toward the magic.

Free me. I am prisoned in the watery bed of mine enemy. Free me, sang the magic.

Sarn jabbed his fingers into the riverbed questing after the magic enthralling him. He must do as it commands.

A mouthful of water broke the spell. Lungs screaming for air, Sarn clawed at the water until he breached the surface. Coughing, he grabbed hold of a passing stalagmite. Its cold, magic-less stone was the balm he needed as he vomited water mixed with stomach acid.

The Rangers were right about him after all. He’d proven he was every bit the idiot they thought he was. What did the magic care if it destroyed its host? It could get another one, but he had only the one body. Pay attention. Another such distraction could be fatal.

The dead boy ghosted up in front of Sarn breaking the tight ring of his thoughts. He felt the pull of those glassy eyes—they wanted something. Casting his eyes elsewhere, he prevented the gaze-lock from taking hold.

“Leave me alone. I don’t believe in ghosts.”

The specter ignored Sarn. Its dead eyes stared at him with a desperation that tore his heart.

Sarn pushed off the stalagmite and swam onward. His eyes burned as the magic tried to reignite their inner fires and failed. Something dark hurtled through the water startling him. Another followed it. The third one struck his back, but his magic deformed its point before it penetrated. Still, its impact jarred him and sent pain radiating across his shoulder.

He broke the surface and stared at a quaking stalactite. Its tip cracked off and fell, helped by the flickering ghost boy whose translucent hands pried at another stalactite. Sarn dove aside as a third projectile splashed down too close for comfort.

“Are you trying to kill me?”

Sarn met the startled eyes of the ghost, and it shook his head. Pointing, the boy indicated something in the water. For one heart-stopping moment, a face had appeared on the water, then a rock disrupted it. Sarn rubbed his eyes. That face—oh Fate—he couldn’t have seen. No, Hadrovel was gone. That psycho’s shade was not haunting him. [_But you didn’t see his dead body. _]

Sarn let his hands drop so he could tread water. The river was quite deep here and swift, but other than shadows, nothing shared it with him, now. He had hallucinated the hated visage of the Orphan Master. Still, the ghost boy gestured with increasing agitation at the spot and dropped more rocks on it.

Sarn dodged the projectiles, taking one more hit to his shoulder before he gave up. He’d get no answers from a mute ghost. Diving under, he swam as fast as he could. Sanity called, and he was keen to answer it.

Water washed over his face and drowned the magic every time he submerged. And if his magic hated the water, so much the better. He smiled as he felt it retreat deep into his body again.

Twenty minutes later Sarn surfaced and hauled himself onto the shore. No ghost children occupied it. Flinging himself against a boulder, he relished being alone at last. Darkness pressed in on him. Without the glow of his eyes, there was only the feeble light of tiny lumir stones studding a dripping ceiling thirty feet overhead. But this darkness was natural unlike the one he’d found at the murder sites.

Footsteps echoed, jolting Sarn from his respite. He scanned the shore, but the too loud beating of his heart dominated his diminished hearing. Were they coming from over there? Did those shadows hide a tunnel?

Triggering his head map, he waited, but it fizzled out in a shower of emerald sparks instead of spawning. Something interfered with it. His gaze fell on the underground river. Could it deprive him of his head map?

The river’s chatter threw more echoes around the cavern further confusing his ears. Sarn gripped the rock ready to throw himself back into the river. His eyes burned, and their glow burst forth in an explosion of pain and double vision. Clamping down on the urge to howl in agony, Sarn reeled for a moment, glad of his rock perch. It provided support and rough patches to grip, as his sight blurred, then steadied out. The double vision and the pain faded as he blinked. His eyes washed everything in green light including a gnarled toe protruding from a hole in a boot.

“Easy,” said the newcomer, “It’s just Green Eyes.”

Sarn risked a glance at the man standing at his elbow. Grime combined with the emerald glow of his eyes made it impossible to tell what color the man’s garments were. As far as he knew, the gangs left this area alone since there was nothing of value here. Considering the number of people he’d run into so far, the situation might have changed.

The gap-toothed fellow waited for a response of some kind.

“How do you know me?”

“Zaduke.”

Oh right, he owed Zaduke a favor. Anger flared up, but Sarn squelched it, and the memory of why he owed a jumped-up thug a favor. He had a friend with a drug problem, and Zaduke was a dealer.

“What are you doing down this way? Rade and his men have claimed these tunnels.”

Sarn frowned at the unfamiliar name. Usually, he avoided gangs. If only they would offer him the same courtesy. A sense of urgency pushed Sarn to his feet, and in the river’s black surface, he met the ghost’s dead stare. Before the thing could throw any more rocks at his head, he ran. Maybe he could outrun the ghost. 

One of Zaduke’s men yelled something, and its echoes chased Sarn. But they were unintelligible when they caught up with him. So Sarn ignored them as he rushed down a staircase cut into a two-hundred-foot vertical drop. The river rushed by in a thunderous curtain on the opposite side of the ladder pretending to be a stair. Into the bowels of the mountain, Sarn plunged with his eyes lighting the way. He slipped a few times on wets stone until caution slowed his progress.

At the stair’s bottom, he froze and closed his eyes to conceal their glow. Using the mist thrown off by the falls as cover, he let his senses stretch out in search of danger. Symbols immediately populated his field of view. They had marked every person within a mile radius before he shut it off. No one was nearby or lying in wait, but of course, he’d ended up on the wrong side of the river. Thank Fate his sixth sense operated again because avoiding witnesses was impossible without it. And enough people had already seen him tonight.

Vaulting from boulder to boulder, he crossed the white-capped river. On the far shore, he checked his head map before selecting one of the three tunnels confronting him. He broke into a run as he took the left turning and hit the maze comprising the Lower Quarters. Squalor, even one with such a genteel moniker, was still rankest poverty.

The stink of urine, rotting food, and unwashed bodies intensified as he fled the river. Toward the caves where the indentured dwelt, he headed half choking on its damp, fetid air. What a change from the clean woodsy scent of the forest and his lungs protested every breath. His footfalls echoed despite his attempts to muffle them.

His son had to be okay. As the thought drummed in his head, it grew louder every time he caught sight of the ghost child dogging his heels.

Ahead the way forked again, and he skidded to a halt as a voice whispered, eam’meye erator. He still had no idea what it meant or why he heard a replay now. Sarn shook his head as the voice faded. What the hell was going on?

A coughing fit doubled him up as smoke belched from a grate two feet from where he stood. Each cough drove the unfamiliar phrase from his thoughts as he staggered away. He had to leave this tunnel and find another way. Pulling energy from somewhere, he flushed out the fatigue burning his legs. He needed a breath of fresh air but the Lower Quarters had none to offer him.

Rounding a bend, he skidded to a halt by a shield-shaped rock formation. The ghost boy floated, arms outstretched, head shaking in denial. Behind the ghost lay the entrance to a gallery. Sarn checked his head map and frowned at a sea of skulls and crossbones littering its contours. After sifting through the addicts’ symbology, he relaxed when his friend’s icon was absent. Maybe Shade had embraced sobriety as promised.

For a moment, the old curiosity seized Sarn. The ghost’s eyes implored him to select another route. And the sight of those pale green eyes reminded Sarn why he’d come down here—to check on his son. He turned aside.

Every sound echoed despite the moldering fabric strung up by generations of women. Instead of sound proofing, they had established hanging mold colonies festering with disease. He dodged their fringes, sacrificing speed for assurance none of the filth touched him.

Veins of a luminous stone, lumir, found only in Shayari, tried to light his way. They ran in parallel lines close to the thirty-foot ceiling. But they threw hardly any light into the eternal gloom choking this subterranean level. His eyes made up for the weak light nature had provided as he pushed on.

Entering a gallery full of collapsed columns, smashed stalagmites, and broken stalactites, he relaxed. Their sharp protuberances gave the cavern teeth and served as a barrier to curiosity. Picking his way took time since the piles of debris stood taller than him. Sweat had drenched him by the time he reached the other end of the five-hundred-foot gauntlet.

Wiping the sweat from his brow before it could burn his eyes, he got his bearings. Three tunnels confronted him. Checking both on his head map, he searched for people icons. The first two had pedestrians, so he set off down the third tunnel.

Moving as soundless as possible, he listened for signs of pursuit. But the echoes reaching his ears held jocularity, instead of threats. Someone had found a flask of wine. Judging from the laughter, that someone was having a good time getting drunk.

Abandoned because it was a pain in the ass to find, this area of the Lower Quarters made a perfect hideout. The caves were difficult to reach, but the set-up offered more security than any other cave down here. So what if they provided cramped accommodations? Debris from the earthquake these caves had survived, restricted their access. Picking up the pace, he loped around bends, keeping his steps as light and quick as a feather.

After about a half hour of winding his way around, he arrived at his goal. Rough planks lashed together to form a door. And it had never looked so damned good. Sarn halted before it, checking for signs of forced entry as he sucked in deep breaths. His heart beat in his ears again limiting what he could hear from the outside world.

Pushing his sixth sense out beyond his skin, it dove into the room, and two stars bloomed on his head map. One marked his brother, and the brighter one pointed to his young son. His hand fell to the handle, and he fought the urge to turn it. His brother had locked it when he’d left for work. And it would stay locked until sunup, but his heart demanded that he check.

His sixth sense swept the tunnel where he stood. Dim lights flared one hundred paces down around a bend in the tunnel where the Foundlings lived. He counted two dozen tonight. Yesterday there had been nineteen. Who had come home—not his son’s mother. He swatted curiosity away as he leaned against his door and it yielded. Fear pushed him into the cave.

Chapter 4

The door swung in on quiet hinges. Orange light suffused the cave, originating from palm-sized wands of orange lumir. Sarn rushed to two sleeping forms and dropped to his knees by the straw-affair serving as a bed. Heart in his mouth, he scooped up a small form huddled under a blanket.

“Papa?” The boy struggled to return the hug despite the blanket cocoon pinioning his arms. “You’re back.”

Sarn nodded, and relief washed over him. His green-eyed little boy was alive. Relief swept him off an emotional cliff as he held his son against his racing heart. Sitting back on his haunches, he shoved down all the fear and worry. The boy who gave his life meaning was alive and well. Thank—but there was no one to thank for the miracle. Instead, he held his son in a tight embrace as he scanned the room seeking threats or signs of a break-in.

Something had triggered a need to rush back here and check on his son. Was it something his magic had sensed or the shock of finding a child murdered in the woods? Had he imagined an alien blackness swallowing the night sky?

Nearby a chest held some of their spare clothes while the rest lay discarded on the floor and the sight grounded him. Something darted under a table laden with stacks of books and papers thanks to his brother’s schooling. Was it an insect? It was small enough to be one and the Lower Quarters was a haven for vermin of all kinds.

Miren waved recalling Sarn to the conversation he’d been ignoring.

“Hey pay attention. I’m asking you questions, and you’re zoning out.”

“Sorry, what did you want to know?”

“Did they let you off early?” Miren rubbed his eyes. His brother was fourteen and difficult.

Sarn shook his head as the realization hit him and almost bowled him over. What the hell had he done? He cursed himself, mentally of course.

“Why are you back so soon? They’ve never let you off so early. Are you okay?” Miren sat up and eyed his elder brother. “You’re all wet. What the hell happened out there?”

“Wet,” Ran complained, and his little face screwed up with distaste. The boy picked at his father’s saturated tunic.

“Sorry—I had to make sure you were okay.”

“We’re okay. I wouldn’t let anything happen. I thought you trusted me.”

“I do. I—” Sarn broke off before he could get himself into more trouble. They were his anchor. Without their trust, he’d lose what sanity he had left.

“You stay.” Ran shook his head, fingers convulsing on the handful of tunic he held. “You don’t go.”

Uh-oh, Ran’s chin had a stubborn set to it—not a good sign. His son had turned four in mid-March.

“I have to go back,” Sarn said, hating his predicament. If he stayed, he’d be in serious trouble.

“No. You left. You came back. Now you have to stay.”

“I wish I could.” It pained Sarn to shake his head at his son’s request, but he was Indentured. His time belonged to the Ranger he’d ditched in the forest. Sarn felt the urge to bang his head into a wall at his stupidity. But he refrained for the sake of his son who was shooting him determined looks.

“He has to go back. He’ll be in trouble if he doesn’t go.” Worry creased Miren’s face which bore only a faint resemblance to Sarn’s. After all, they were only half-brothers and so far, they had only the non-magical half in common. The lucky teen glared at Sarn with brown eyes, and their dullness reassured Sarn. He could live with his freakishness if his brother stayed uncorrupted by magic.

“If you go back will you be in trouble?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never gone AWOL before.” No one had, but Sarn kept that tidbit to himself. He ran a hand over his face, and his fingers brushed the scar running down the left side of it. A parting gift from Hadrovel, the scar reminded him trouble stalked his every step. And when it left him alone, he went looking for it. The Rangers were right about him; he was an idiot.

“You have to go back right now before you’re missed. If you aren’t gone too long, maybe you won’t be in trouble.” Miren’s dull eyes urged Sarn to get up and go.

“No,” Ran interjected, clinging to him, wanting nothing more than his company.

Even his magic lay quiescent in his veins neither arguing for or against staying. Maybe it too was of two minds about both options. But his heart pounded out its own demand, and his thoughts drifted back to the cold darkness obscuring the murdered child haunting him. It was like the dark damp of the Lower Quarters, and the similarity bothered him. Was that wrongness already here?

“No,” Ran shook his head and his son’s vivid green eyes reminded Sarn of the dead boy’s faded ones.

For the ghost boy, he had to go back. There might be a clue to unravel this—and what would he do then? Movement caught his eye and Sarn scanned the room for its source. The hindquarters of a cockroach vanished into a pile of dirty clothes. He felt its compound stare, and its malevolence prickled his skin. His cave no longer felt like a refuge but a crypt.

Ran shivered in his arms. Whether he stayed or returned to work, he first had to safeguard his son, but how?

Miren saw his brother wavering and his scowl deepened. He had to make Sarn see sense, and he knew what to say. Ran opened his mouth to add more incentive to stay, but he never got a word out. Miren reached out to remove his nephew from the equation. But the canny boy dodged him while still holding tight to his father.

Ran shot his uncle a determined look. The boy recognized the game, and his keen eyes accepted the challenge. Those piercing emerald orbs let Miren know his nephew intended to win. They both played for keeps.

As if he wanted his brother to go back out there, but the green-eyed fool had indentured himself. Miren glared at the mark of the Indentured. The hated patch glared back from under Sarn’s cloak. An “I” slashed through a howling wolf in a gold circle and below it, squatted the name of his brother’s master—the goddamned lord of the mountain himself.

Where had all this anger come from? Sarn indentured himself for you so you could attend school. And what was this buzzing? Miren swiped at his ear dislodging an insect. He swatted it, but the damned thing darted into a pile of clothes.

Sarn had to go back. There were consequences to going AWOL, and they threatened Miren’s plans. Shortening Sarn’s term of indenture was his goal. So his brother had to go back right now. Miren opened his mouth to renew the argument but closed it when he caught sight of his frowning nephew.

Ran gave his uncle a look declaring a state of war existed between them. When had it not? Miren quashed the bitter laughter bubbling up but not the jealousy gnawing at his heart.

True the tyke had an unfair advantage, but the kid would lose this battle. Miren smiled at his nephew. It was time to knock some much-needed sense into his magic-addled brother. Since Sarn wasn’t the brightest lumir crystal in the box, he didn’t notice the rivalry between his son and brother. And Miren was glad he didn’t.

“You have to go back,” Miren said, readying his winning argument.

Sarn gave his brother a slow nod. Miren had the right of things as usual. His indentured status conferred no rights. He had to follow orders until they dismissed him for the night. He refused to risk his son’s life. What could he do to protect the boy when he returned to work? Sarn cast about for an answer. He met the button eyes of his son’s stuffed bear, and some of his distress ebbed away. There was something about Ran’s toy, but his mind failed to dredge it up.

“No. Papa stays here, and we have ad-ven-tures.” Ran glared at his uncle making it clear by ‘we’ he’d meant himself and his father. No uncles allowed.

“I’ll take you on an outing later when I come back,” Sarn assured him.

“No. Now.”

Sarn sighed. Having grown up orphaned, he understood better than anyone how much a child needed a father. Hell, he still was a son who needed a father. When he was younger, a few men had made half-assed attempts at the whole role model thing. But none of them had stuck around long enough to do the job.

Sarn looked at his son who met his glowing eyes with nothing but determination. What the hell was he doing raising a child when he had no idea what he was doing? Ran deserved better than him, better than this grubby cave.

He scooped Ran up before his son could forbid him again. His heart ached at the thought of disappointing the boy, but he had responsibilities. Setting a good example had to be his top priority, so he had to go face the consequences.

Surprise registered on the boy’s face. Ran opened his mouth to ask if they could go on an adventure now. Understanding dawned when he set the boy down next to the chest storing their clothes. His son nodded his approval of the clothing swap and squirmed out of his wet things.

Ran shivered in the damp, chill air of the cave until he bundled his son into dry clothes. But the boy still looked cold, so he wrapped his son in a blanket. Ran popped his thumb into his mouth and blinked sleepy eyes. Sarn took a seat on the ground.

Miren opened his mouth, but his dislike of the Rangers gave the teen pause. Sarn shook his head. He’d woken his son up, and it was his responsibility to put the boy back down for the night. Then he could slip away without feeling too guilty. Assuming he found some way to protect his son in his absence.

“You want to hear a story?”

Ran nodded, surprised at the offer. Usually, Miren read his son stories since the teen could read. Sarn watched the diversion take hold and bear fruit. Good because he needed more time to think. There had to be something he could use to protect his son.

Ran accepted his stuffed bear from his father and snuggled in close, believing he’d gotten his way. Sarn fought a smile as he kneaded his tingling fingers. There was something off about his son’s favorite toy. Before he could brood about it, the thought slipped his mind and another one replaced it supplying the perfect story.

“You tell the story now?” Ran hugged his bear and a twinkle faded from its button eyes.

“Yes, it’s about Shayari’s Queen.”

Even in memory, her alien splendor took his breath away. The January night had slid an icy knife through every seam numbing the healing welts on his back. He’d been seventeen for a little over two months then. Only a week had passed since he’d ended up in the dungeon, sick and bleeding from thirty lashes across his back. Worst of all, he still had no memory of what had led up to the whipping. So he’d stood there, teeth chattering as he berated himself for losing the respect of the Rangers.

“Papa?” Ran asked.

Sarn blinked, and memories sharp enough to draw blood three years later receded allowing speech.

“Yes—it was freezing. The forest had melted into the night. It was indistinguishable, I mean.” Sarn rubbed the back of his neck. Heat rushed to his face distracting him from the story but not the memories. The oppressive darkness of that night struck him. Something about it reminded him of tonight, but Beku’s voice cut off any further speculation.

You’re reckless, Ran’s mother accused. She’d subtracted herself from their lives two weeks before Ran’s fourth birthday, leaving their son half-orphaned. You’re irresponsible, irrational and plain selfish. It’s your fault I’m gone. Everything’s your fault.

“Papa?” Ran’s green eyes narrowed with worry as he cut across the accusations. The boy unearthed a hand from his blanket cocoon and laid it on Sarn’s arm. The touch broke the spell the past had woven.

Beku’s poisonous presence was still gone from their lives. Relieved, Sarn held his son a little tighter. “Sorry, I was just thinking.”

Miren leveled a look packed with worry. The weight of his concern slapped Sarn upside the head.

“You promised a story.” Ran hugged his stuffed bear, and its button eyes gave Sarn a reproachful look.

“Yes, I did.” Sarn paused to gather his thoughts. “I saw a silver glow, but the moon had already set. Her star-strewn crown cut through the rippling dark of the enchanted forest, and I asked Gregori what made the silver light—”

She’d come, carrying hope’s brand as she processed through a sea of trees. Great age had wafted off her bark and power had limned her in its pure light.

“Who is Gregori?” Ran asked.

“He’s one of the Rangers I sometimes work with while you’re asleep.”

“What did he say?”

“He told me she was Shayari—The Queen of All Trees. Said she was how our country got its name.”

“What happened next?”

“She stopped at the edge of the forest a stone’s throw from the twin circles of standing stones. They’re taller than I am—” and nothing magical could pass their cordon except him. Though tonight, even he’d had trouble. Would a day come when they’d bar him? Sarn shook such thoughts away.

“What did she look like?”

“She towered over all the trees around her, and they bent their crowns in deference. White light cascaded off her in intricate patterns. I wanted to trace them. Bubbles of brilliance ran up and down her trunk and along her luminous branches firing the clusters of stars twinkling in place of leaves. I wanted to go to her.”

‘Want’ wasn’t the right word. He’d had to go to her.

“Did you?” Ran squeezed Sarn’s arm.

Sarn shook his head, wishing he had. “No, he—Gregori—stopped me.”

The Queen of All Trees’ eyeless gaze had caressed him despite the distance. Maybe she’d known he wouldn’t be allowed to go to her. Sarn looked at his son, who waited for the story to continue.

“What happened next?”

“Twinkling lights launched from the tips of her branches. They whirled on the wind forming rival constellations—” And Sarn knew how to protect his son. He fumbled through the pockets lining his tunic and trousers searching for her gift.

“Can I see it?” Ran extended a hand palm up toward him.

“Yeah, it’s here—” Sarn dug out a waterproof pouch and removed an object radiating a silver glow. It was the size of a peach pit and soft due to the filaments covering it. She was all that was good and noble in the world, and her power lingered in the object he held out to his son. The smallest part of her would protect the boy.

Ran turned the Queen of All Trees’ gift over in his hands delighting in it. Too late Sarn noted his brother’s sour expression. When Miren moved in to check out the thing, Sarn fished out another one and handed it over.

“You have two?” Miren looked at his brother in surprise.

“Half a dozen actually, the air was thick with them.” Sarn shrugged and pulled out four more. He tended to pocket anything odd he came across since it made great fodder for conversations.

Ran accepted another one with a grateful smile. Sarn returned the remaining three to its waterproof pouch and laid it by his son in case two weren’t enough.

“Sarn—”

“I know—”

“Yeah, but will you—?”

Sarn nodded. His plan of telling his son a story to put the child to sleep had failed. Ran was more awake now than before and curious to boot. But he’d found a way to safeguard his son, so his mission had been a success.

“What do you think it is?” Miren handed the item back to Sarn.

“A seed maybe, I’m not sure.” Sarn shrugged. He’d never given them much thought until now. She must have known he’d need the gift someday. What a wonder she was.

“You don’t want to hang on to one?” Sarn held out a seed to his brother. On his hand, it pulsed with the Queen of All Trees’ power.

Miren shook his head. “No, we’ll be fine here. You hang on to them for luck.”

“Thank you.” Sarn slid the seed into a waterproof pouch.

Miren held his hand out to his nephew, but Ran hugged his treasure to his chest and shook his head.

“It’s okay,” Sarn said to his brother, then to his son, “You keep those. It’s a gift twice given, once to me and now to you.” Their light would shield his son from whatever he’d sensed and his brother too.

Miren glanced at the door. Sarn got off his ass to take his punishment like the man he kept claiming he was.

“No,” Ran said without taking his eyes off the seeds. They looked enormous compared to his little fingers.

“I’ll be back. Keep those with you until I return.” Damn the Rangers and their need to control his every waking moment. At least it gave him an excuse to march back outside and separate fact from fancy. If there was some dark force at work, he wanted to know even if there was nothing he could do about it.

Ran nodded and readied another argument, but Miren cut him off.

“You don’t need his permission to go.”

Miren was right, but Ran owned part of his free time. If his son gave permission, it would make the leaving less painful since he already had Miren’s blessing.

“I’ll take you somewhere nice I promise—as soon as I return. And you too, Miren, when you get a break from school. I know it’s hard having me gone so much.” Sarn regarded his hands wishing he could do more, but there wasn’t time enough to be both father and brother. He was always letting one of them down. _I have to try harder. _

Ran considered his offer and ignored the pointed glares his uncle sent. “You promise?”

Sarn glanced at Miren to include him. “I promise.”

Some of Miren’s anger drained away revealing the child he’d raised, and the sight hurt so much, tears pricked Sarn’s eyes. He hadn’t done enough for Miren when his brother was young.

“Hey, you did the best you could. Stop feeling sorry for things you can’t change.” Miren squeezed Sarn’s shoulder, and he nodded. Sending Miren to school might make amends for all he’d gotten wrong.

Ran echoed his nod, though the child was unhappy about this arrangement. “You finish the story first.”

Sarn searched about for inspiration. “Legend says one day the Queen of All Trees will crown a woman with a crown of many lights. Or something—” He trailed off.

Ran looked from the seeds to his father until it dawned on him the story had ended. “No more?” he asked his disappointment plain.

“Sorry, I haven’t seen the Queen of All Trees since then.” He wished he’d seen her tonight. Sarn ignored his brother’s glare. If Miren stared any harder, he risked straining something important.

Ran put the seeds on his stuffed bear’s belly and held his arms out for a hug. Sarn embraced his son taking care not to wet the boy’s clothes then tucked Ran back under the covers. While Ran resumed his study of the seeds, Sarn caught the button eyes of his son’s stuffed bear—and they read his worry. He reached out and patted Bear’s fuzzy head, receiving a smile from Ran in return. With one last regret-filled glance at his son, Sarn heaved himself to his feet.

“We’ll be fine. Go on before you’re missed.” Miren made shooing gestures.

“Thank you. I’ll see you both later.” Sarn opened the door and stepped out.

A shadow flitted across the threshold, and he turned, feeling eyes upon him. It was just a scrawny rat peeking out from a narrow cleft in the wall opposite him. No one waited to ambush him. Miren and his son both called out goodbyes as Sarn pulled the door shut behind him. Hearing the telltale click of the lock, Sarn tensed. They were on their own until he returned. No one down here would help if trouble knocked.

Trepidation rode him as he walked away. He’d been gone for an hour already, and it would take another hour to reach the Rangers. What would he find when he rejoined them?

Chapter 5

Jagged stone comprised the tunnel Sarn followed. A strip of piss colored lumir attempted to light it. His eyes made up for the lack as he considered his options. Go back the way he’d come, or find a new route. It took his internal map only a moment to return with an answer. If he cut through the heart of gangland, he could shave off twenty minutes. But he needed the Rangers to stay clustered by those rocks.

For the next forty-five minutes, Sarn worked his way north-eastwards. When people icons flared up on his head map, he darted into one of the many staircases. Anyone out this late had nothing good on his mind.

Ahead, the tunnel belled out into a mile-long cavern, and its width was half its length. Best of all, no people icons littered the enclosed space. Lumir dotted the ceiling in constellations of stars leaving the ground in shadow.

Sarn viewed the long slope leading up to the underground castle from behind a boulder. The fortification squatted more than two miles from the main areas of habitation. His goal lay in the north tower where the Litherians had hidden a staircase leading up to a rock pile on the surface. Why they had needed a giant castle down here in the bowels of the earth, no one knew, but the Litherians had built it for a purpose.

Sarn checked his head map again. Yes, a cluster of symbols he recognized as belonging to the Rangers hung out about a hundred feet from the exit on the surface. He waited a few more minutes, but neither saw nor sensed anyone in or near the castle. Stonework broke up the expanse providing plenty of cover for him to slink between.

A light bloomed behind Sarn at the same time a translucent hand landed on his shoulder, scything through it in a burst of intense cold and pain immobilizing his arm. Breaking from cover, he tripped as magic exploded out of him in a wave of green radiance. And it passed right through the ghost whose hands tried to catch the magic streaming past. Its dead eyes fixed on Sarn.

“What do you want?”

But the apparition stared at him and turned its hand, so the light it had gathered poured out. Magic crashed down on Sarn, driving him to his knees. Something inside him reached out and gathered it up, sliding a warm membrane over his skin to thaw out his shoulder. Still tingling, his now unfrozen arm reported in for duty.

Sarn pushed to his feet. Maybe he’d exhausted it, or maybe it had no more tricks to pull. The ghost child just floated between him and the castle.

“Why are you following me? I don’t know how to help you, but I intend to try.” Sarn scrubbed a hand over his face, but when he lowered it, the ghost had gone. A rat scampered atop a nearby rock pile, its whiskered nose twitching as it tested the air. It was scrawny, like the one he’d seen outside his cave but Sarn dismissed it as one more strange coincidence in a night full of them.

Closing his traitorous eyes, Sarn stuck out a hand and laid it on a section of crumbling wall. He faced the castle and yanked his head map into view. Had his spectacular loss of control had an audience? No people icons popped up in the tunnel leading to this cavern, so maybe no one had seen him.

The Rangers’ symbols remained scattered across the meadow, and their number included the commander. Damn, he had to get moving. Walking blind, Sarn followed the vague markings on his head map. If he’d come here more often, there would have been more detail.

Finding the remains of a footbridge spanning the dry moat gave Sarn a reference. And his magic had no interest in the rotting wood, so the flow of useless information cut off. Sarn crossed expecting at any moment to feel a tingle between his shoulder blades. But no warning materialized. He entered through the raised portcullis and risked a glance at his surroundings. Thank Fate only dust stirred in his passage. Nothing else moved, and no ghosts showed up.

Still seeing and sensing no one, he sprinted. Cutting across a courtyard, he dodged broken masonry and things discarded by previous tenants. He headed for a wood door on the side of the tower. Its hinges had swelled up from the damp, but a good tug wrenched it open. His eyes blazed, and their brilliance devoured the darkness, revealing steps.

Sarn hurried up the stairs as the temperature plummeted. Cold gripped him, slowing his progress. Against the sliver of unrelieved black at the stair’s top, a pale shape materialized. It was the ghost child again in all its transparent creepiness, and it pointed at something behind Sarn.

“What do you want?” And why was a mindless ghost stalking him? He got no answer, as usual.

Twice Sarn checked over his shoulder and saw nothing except shadows. The third time, he started as Hadrovel reared out of the shadows, hand extended. Sarn scrambled out of reach, and the Orphan Master collapsed into the bad memories that had spawned him. Resting his cowled head against the stonework, Sarn closed his eyes. Hadrovel was dead; Jerlo had told him so, and he had no reason to doubt the man. Was he going mad?

Sarn opened his eyes. The ghost boy was still there, its pallid face anxious. “Why did they kill you? Was it because your eyes are like mine only paler?” Silence grated on Sarn’s nerves. “Fine don’t answer. Let me pass. I’m in enough trouble as it is.”

The ghost cocked its head to one side, thinking. Without warning, it slammed into Sarn’s chest. He struggled to draw in a breath. Darkness wavered at the edges of his vision, winnowing away the staircase. Slumping onto a step, Sarn shivered as the ghost tore out of his back. Transparent feet touched down on a step level with his eyes, and a child’s hand seized his hood throwing it back.

The ghost’s icy fingers had lost their transparency. Finding the scar on his cheek, the ghost traced it. As it faded away, the specter’s mouth shaped frantic words silenced by the grave. It made one last effort at speech then disappeared, releasing Sarn. The arctic cold gripping the stairwell dissipated as he rose and hauled ass out of there.

After ascending four stories, Sarn entered a low ceiling room in the turret. He depressed a gray stone at the edge of a decorative mural. A section of wall slid aside revealing another unlit staircase twisting into unrelieved darkness. The glow of his eyes increased until every step lay highlighted before him. Still, Sarn hesitated, his gaze combing the space for any hint of the supernatural. He’d had enough ghosts for one night.

After a few more minutes of nothing happening, he stepped onto the first step. His weight activated a mechanism, and it retracted the door. Sarn rushed toward a rectangular section of lightening shadow.

Through a narrow gap between two boulders, he slid sideways and dropped into a crouch. He needed to settle things with Nolo and question the only other witness to the night’s doings. Relieved by the absence of spirits and other weirdness, Sarn listened for his masters’ voices. Were they looking for him yet?

Every tree Nolo had passed with caution. He’d expected them to get up and move at any moment, but none of them had. They’d stood sentinel as usual. Still, he’d kept his eyes on them. Without the Kid and his magical ability to reckon in a dense tangle, he’d twice lost his way.

Nolo stumbled out of the forest. Tension drained from his body as he stepped onto the gravel path winding around the menhirs. The peaceful moment shattered when Gregori rounded a standing stone and almost collided with him.

“Where’s the Kid?” Gregori skidded to a halt, and his friend’s worried eyes raked the undergrowth, searching for Sarn.

“He needed space. Where’s Jerlo? I need to talk to him.” Nolo scanned the meadow, but the commander must have retired from the field because he failed to spot him anywhere.

“What did he need ‘space’ from? What did you find out there?” His friend and fellow Ranger regarded him as if he’d grown a second head or a serrated tail.

Nolo performed a quick body check. One never knew what weirdness the forest might conjure up moment by moment. “What I said, it was bad in there.” The sort of bad he needed to discuss with the commander before it became public knowledge.

“What exactly does ‘bad’ mean when applied to a quasi-intelligent bunch of weeds? Are we about to see another example of their—mobility? Because the first time was jarring enough, no one needs a repeat.” Gregori crossed powerful arms over his barrel chest. The man was all muscle but sharp too.

“I don’t think so. Their mobility had a legitimate cause.”

“Which was?”

“For my ears only until I say otherwise,” Jerlo snapped as he appeared to Gregori’s left.

Their boss’ sudden appearance startled them even though their compact commander tended to pop up when and where least expected. It was his modus operandi and according to rumor, his raison d’être.

Jerlo stood five foot nothing in boots and weighed one hundred twenty pounds soaking wet. But his small frame housed a tactical genius. Jerlo gave Gregori a look. And the bodybuilder reacted as if he’d recalled an assignment and hurried to carry it out. Once he was out of earshot, Jerlo nodded to his second.

Nolo launched into his tale keeping to the facts ending with, “one group robbed the other. They angered the forest, and it retaliated. Someone must have found the bodies and taken their valuables. When I arrived, there was nothing left worth stealing.”

“So, you think the first group you found robbed and killed the second group. And then the forest killed the first group?”

Nolo nodded.

Jerlo inclined his head. “Well, it’s in keeping with what we know of the forest. It follows a strict ‘live and let live’ policy unless blood’s shed within its confines. Break the rules, and you get what we saw. I’d still like to know why it snatched Sarn.”

“So would I.” The abduction troubled Nolo but not the deaths. They had an explanation. Shayari was ninety percent enchanted forestry, and those trees killed fools with extreme prejudice. But the kidnapping of Sarn had no rationale. It violated the forest’s three rules. Solving it had to take priority.

“Do you have a theory?”

“The way the forest zeroed in on him—it had to have sensed him. And there’s more. I haven’t told you the most disturbing part of this.” Nolo grimaced not wanting to recall, the Queen of All Trees. The memory of her probing, eyeless stare made him shudder.

Some creatures should stay mythic, not trot themselves out to interfere in young lives. And why pick Sarn? Too much about the Kid lay shrouded in questions thanks to the close-mouthed wraith.

“Oh no?” Jerlo raised a brow, and it merged with the halo of frizz covering his head.

“The Queen of All Trees—she showed up and—” Nolo opened and closed his hands unable to find words to explain the bizarre episode. “She almost snatched the Kid. I couldn’t have stopped her if she had.”

The report jolted Jerlo into action. His dark eyes took on a strange shine. “Where is Sarn now?”

Nolo shook his head ignoring the commander’s question. Shivering, he still felt her eyeless gaze boring into him. But he saw no sign of her. Shaking his head, he resumed his report. “She looked through me. It was the strangest experience of my life.”

“Where is he? Where is Sarn?”

“The deaths affected him. He ran off likely to be sick. He looked pretty green, but I expect him back any moment.”

In fact, Nolo had expected to find the Kid propped against a boulder radiating bad attitude. His absence alarmed Nolo. The night’s doings must have disturbed the laconic brat more than he’d realized.

“You don’t know where he is?”

“He’s not here?”

“No. I haven’t seen the Kid since you tore off after him. By the way, whatever you did to pacify the forest, you have my thanks.”

Nolo shook his head. “I didn’t do anything.”

Jerlo’s eyes sharpened on his second. “You think the Kid did.”

Nolo nodded and tried to articulate the theory he’d constructed while trekking back here. He pointed to the oak trees looming over them. “They wanted him to see it. I don’t know why. The instant he did, the earth split open, and all the bodies tumbled down into a grave the forest had made for them. Afterward, the trees closed the hole and stood still as if nothing had happened. They had wiped out all the evidence.”

So even if the deaths had rated an investigation, Nolo could do nothing about them. No one was alive to be prosecuted, making an inquiry unnecessary. The motive was clear. And the forest had destroyed the trail of the hypothetical thief, so the case was closed. Nolo disliked the situation, but he could see no way to change it.

Jerlo’s eyes jerked to the left. Nolo followed his boss’ gaze and relaxed. Sarn stood there, silent as usual. Wherever he’d gone, he’d gotten filthy in the process. The light from his eyes picked up the reflective dust coating his person.

Sarn looked like what he was—a walking, talking contradiction. The right side of his face was too perfect. It was the face sculptors reserved for angels or dead heroes. A scar ran in a jagged line from hairline to jaw marring the left side of the Kid’s face. It was a gift from a psychopath.

Right now, no attitude, bad or otherwise, manifested. The Kid stood there cloaked and cowled with nothing but his radiant eyes visible. Their glow dyed a strip of his pale face as green as his eyes. The brat was six and a half feet of shadows, secrets, and silence. It made the Kid one tough nut to crack and four years of whacking away at his reserve had failed to yield a single chink.

“Where have you been?” Jerlo followed up his question with a good glare.

Sarn said nothing. His luminous gaze remained fixed on a point a foot and a half above the commander’s head. Nolo watched the Kid tense up, and lock in his silence. The idiot intended to ignore the question, damn him.

Sarn had an iron will, and so did their commander. If not prevented, they would lock horns in a contest of wills. The brat never gave ground, not even when he skirted too close to insubordination. And the threat of a whipping rolled right off the stupid Kid. But give him a direct order, and his magic forced him to comply.

But direct orders robbed the Kid of his free will thus turning him into an automaton. It was an unfortunate consequence of promising to obey Lord Joranth Nalshira. His Lordship had then handed Sarn, and his promise of obedience, off to Jerlo. The brat fought it but his magic, or the accidental compulsion, always won, and the Kid hated it.

Above all, Nolo had to avoid invoking that compulsion. And right now, Jerlo was as determined to get an answer as Sarn was to avoid giving one. In about thirty seconds, the commander would demand a reply and Sarn would have to cough one up.

But the brat was rangy and light enough to manhandle when his stubbornness got the better of him. Nolo seized Sarn by his upper arm. “Give me a minute to sort this out,” Nolo said to Jerlo as he towed the brat out of earshot. The Kid had better have a good reason for vanishing.

“Let go of me.” Sarn wrenched his arm free and glowered down at Nolo. He was a half foot taller than Death’s Marksman, and he put those precious inches to good use.

“You have to give me something. You can’t disappear and say nothing about it. I need a reason.”

“Why didn’t they know the three rules?”

“What?” The segue threw Nolo for a loop. 

“Why didn’t they know the rules? Everyone knows them. You can’t live in Shayari and be ignorant of them. Not if you intend to survive long.”

The question had gnawed at Sarn on his trip to the surface. Why had the boy died? And why had his ghost chased him through the Lower Quarters? There was something more to this than a simple case of hikers breaking the rules.

Sarn paced as he waited for Nolo to answer his original question, but the Black Ranger just folded his arms and waited. Sarn gnashed his teeth in frustration as he resumed working the problem through.

What had the child done to incite the first group to murder? Why had the forest failed to protect the boy? The forest’s three rules safeguarded children under its boughs, but not this child.

Why had the forest allowed the boy’s death? Was there something wrong with the boy? How could there be? The boy couldn’t have been more than eight years old. Since when had life become grounds for murder? What had motivated the murderers? They must have known their lives would be forfeit. Why had the forest bothered to exact revenge for the boy’s death? It had allowed the killing to happen.

The forest was enchanted and required to follow its edicts. What was the penalty for breaking such an edict? Sarn put that line of questioning aside for now. He needed to understand the cause before he untangled the effect. “Well? Why? You must have a theory.”

“I’m not sure they were ignorant of the rules.”

Sarn propped himself against a boulder and waited for his master to elaborate.

“They may have thought the rules were rubbish.” Nolo shrugged. “The forest is strange, yes, but it’s not usually so mobile. I haven’t seen anything like what we witnessed in all the time I’ve lived here. Maybe they thought the rules were an old wives’ tale and took their chances.” Nolo chopped a hand through the air closing the issue. “This is off topic. You still haven’t told me where you went and what you’ve been doing.”

Flabbergasted, Sarn stood there and blinked for a full minute. Was he the only one who saw the magic in the trees? It ran in rivers of emerald light up and down their trunks and snaked across the ground connecting them in a spider’s web of power and awareness. His master must have seen branches shift into steps, nuts or fruit falling to take the edge off hunger, roots flattening out of the way—all proving the forest was awake and aware.

Other people must have experienced it too. The forest covered most of Shayari. It was impossible to travel anywhere without encountering the forest’s peculiar brand of intelligence. A memory ghosted by of a flat plain crowded with spires on a strip of treeless land bordering a river.

“A place of towers—” he said without meaning too as he slid down a menhir and pressed his fingers into his eyes. Memories were seeds on the wind, and they swirled out of reach. Each one flashed with images of a life, unlike the one he lived now.

In them, a child around his son’s age clung to him. It was Miren, of course. Sarn recognized his half-brother’s features in the boy’s face. In one scene, he carried his brother on his back as he ran through twisting alleys pursued by someone. Pain had stabbed his ear, cutting his hearing in half. Pushing the memories away, he regarded Nolo.

“What is it?” Nolo crouched down in front of Sarn as his brain re-engaged.

“Shayari has cities. I mean other than Jacora, the capital.” And home of his heroes, the Guardians—if only they were here. They’d know how to help a ghost and whether his death would spawn any further unpleasantness.

“Yes, they’re located in craters where the enchanted forest refuses to grow. There are two large ones, Jacora you know, and Renthalia, and a bunch of smaller ones.”

Sarn let his hands fall from his face to his lap. He’d once lived in one of those cities. “We’re not near any cities. Are we?” Sarn wanted the answer to be no.

Nolo shook his head. “No, not near in any sense of the word. It’s a month’s journey to Jacora by foot if they cooperate.” Nolo nodded to the trees surrounding them. “Shorter by river, though. Fifteen days I think by boat if it makes no stops along the way and the weather’s favorable. The other cities are much further away. You don’t realize how vast Shayari is until you try to go somewhere.”

“You don’t think they came from a city.” Well now, neither did Sarn. A bunch of fools could never reach here if they disregarded such life-saving rules.

“I don’t know. But you’re avoiding the question, and I still need an answer.” Nolo fixed him with the look.

Sarn shook it off. “If they aren’t from the city, and they didn’t grow up in a mountain stronghold, what else is there? Just the Branchers right and they know the rules. They live in the forest.”

Something Sarn found unfathomable. Why would anyone want to make his home in an enchanted tree’s branches? What if the tree took to wandering? There goes the village. He shuddered. But the Branchers existed, and they had many treetop communities scattered all over Shayari.

Sarn pushed to his feet, and Nolo copied him. Once he was vertical, he recalled another group making Shayari its home—the Wanderers. They lived out of wagons and traveled about the country exchanging news and goods. The tight-knit group never settled for more than a fortnight in any one place, and they had to be well-versed in the rules.

Nolo compressed his lips together but remained quiet and troubled.

“Is there something else?”

His master’s silence answered the question. There was something, but the Black Ranger refused to discuss it.

“Who else is there?” Sarn paced. City folk, Branchers, mountain folk, the Wanderers—he faced his master. “They came from outside—from beyond Shayari’s borders. But how—Kaydran Ironwood shut the border centuries ago. There’s a magic wall or something keeping everyone out and us in.”

“It keeps most people out, yes, but it does allow some people to cross—those who mean Shayari, and her people no harm.”

“How do you know?” The answer was obvious, and it slapped Sarn upside the head making his eyes bulge. He approached his master, agog at, and yet drawn to the idea of immigrants in his land.

“You came from out there? How? Where?” Sarn gestured west toward the distant border.

“You answer my question, and I’ll answer yours. Where did you go when you ran off?”

Sarn turned his back on Nolo and let his silence speak for him.

“A confidence for a confidence—you have to give me something. I don’t think you realize how serious this is. Jerlo could have you flogged for dereliction of duty until your back is a bloody ruin. Give me something—anything—to explain your sudden departure.”

Stuck in a no-win situation, Sarn shook his head and remained silent. The thing lighting his eyes also prevented him from lying, but if he mentioned his son’s existence, he risked losing the boy. A flogging was a small price to pay for custody of the child who brightened his days. He bit his lip to keep the truth prisoned behind his teeth and tasted blood.

Nolo refused to give up on him. “Were you sick?”

Sarn shook his head refusing to speak. One word could undo everything his silence safeguarded.

Nolo searched for another reason. “Did you check on your brother?”

Sarn nodded. Since his primary reason for his visit below ground had nothing to do with Miren, he bit down hard on the urge to speak. But the truth struggled to break free, slicing the inside of his mouth as he fought to let the partial lie stand. Sarn mashed his lips into a thin line to keep from screaming.

“Alright, why didn’t you say so? It’s a reason I can understand, and one Jerlo can work with. How is your brother?”

“Fine,” Sarn said, his voice issuing in a hoarse whisper as he struggled to find words. “I surprised him. He hadn’t expected to see me before dawn.” Which was true, so the magic retracted its blades. He swallowed the metallic taste of blood wishing for a sip of water.

“You came back, though I’m curious about why.”

Sarn shrugged. “I gave my word. I had to come back.”

No one, including his own brother, had thought he’d keep said promise. He’d indentured himself at sixteen to free Miren from the cycle of poverty and had lived up to its terms no matter what. Why was everyone waiting for him to shirk it?

“What about the border?” Sarn asked, unwilling to let the subject drop.

“What about it?”

“Why would anyone want to come here?” What could make a magical wonderland sound like a nice place to live? Sarn studied the Black Ranger’s face seeking signs of foreignness but found none. Shayarins came in all colors from coal back to subterranean pasty. And Shayari was so damned big every corner of it had a different accent. But outside—Fates above, did the outside world still exist?

“A confidence for a confidence—you know where I went. Tell me what you know about the border. When did you cross it? How did you cross it? What’s out there—”

Nolo chopped his hand through the air cutting off the questions. Turning, he cast blank eyes away from Sarn. As the past weighed on Nolo, an ebony quiver flickered down his back then faded.

“Tell me what you know.”

Nolo shook his head.

Had talk of the border reminded his master of something he’d spent years forgetting? What had he seen right before Nolo turned his back? Was it pain? Was it a desperate man who wanted someone to see his pain?

The truth ripped the gag held in place by secrecy and fear. The need for one person to know about the son he’d give his life to protect mastered Sarn. He opened his mouth, but Nolo turned and the moment died in silence.

The Black Ranger showed no sign of ever having known suffering. Sarn shut his mouth before the truth could escape. The Nolo who stood before him now would never understand.

“Another time perhaps. If you don’t want a whipping, then I need to speak to Jerlo. And you—you need to—” Nolo flailed around for a task.

But his master found nothing because the Rangers never let him do anything. Besides, he had a task, just not one they’d assigned him. Sarn felt the hollow stare of the ghost boy and a lingering unease. There was another group unaccounted for. Who had he left out? The question faded as Sarn caught the glare of a skunk too interested in the conversation.

[* “Y*]ou need to go with Spar and Grellin,” Jerlo put in startling Nolo and the skunk. The creature retreated into the shadows but stayed within earshot.

Sarn dismissed it as another coincidence. Magic tended to make everyone, even the local fauna, edgy. Of course, it had come to check him out.

The commander jerked a thumb at the semi-retired Rangers lumbering up behind him. Given the hour, neither Grellin nor Spar would be working at their trade. What would the pair do with him? Sarn ground his teeth. There were questions in need of answers.

Grizzled and wiry, Spar, the fiftyish bowyer, armed the Rangers. Age bent his back, giving it the curve of his beloved longbow. He gave Grellin a look.

Grellin, the fletcher, held both his calloused palms up in surrender. He had a longbow man’s top-heavy physique and looked like he might tip over on his chicken legs.

Jerlo ignored their exchange. Those under him, retirees included, followed his orders no matter how strange they might be.

“Well, come on boy. We haven’t got all night.” Spar gestured toward Mount Eredren.

Neither of his minders spoke until they’d walked out of Jerlo’s ever-expanding earshot.

Grellin elbowed Sarn, catching him in the stomach since he towered over both artisans.

“What’d you do now?”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Grellin and Spar shared a look of disbelief.

“You must’ve done something. Think hard boy.”

“I’m not a child,” Sarn muttered. No one believed it. Though at least the men bracketing him had three decades and change on him. Still, it was the principle of the thing.

“So you say.” Grellin spread his hands wide and shrugged.

Sarn folded his arms over his chest to hide his clenched fists. He wanted to pummel something. Anything would do.

They hit the trail leading up the mountain but followed one of its side branches. The trail rose as it curved around the mountain’s east face, and bent toward its northern one. Another hundred feet on, it straightened out as much as the topography allowed. The terrain turned rocky, and they peeled off along a dirt path which swung into a patch of spindly trees.

The pines gazed at their enchanted brethren from the mountainside, and their branches reached toward the light and life flowing through them. But they remained non-magical. No enchantments could cross the twin circles of menhirs glowering at the forest. Tonight, he’d had difficulty passing their cordon as well—might there be a connection?

Sarn probed the question as Spar called a halt. An outcropping of rock made a perfect vantage point, one Sarn commandeered so he could view the sites he’d visited earlier. Uncounted miles of enchanted forestry melted into the dark horizon. From this angle, it looked sinister. Even with his map superimposed over it, he could spot no sign of either murder site from this distance. Damn, there went that avenue of investigation.

Sarn followed the horizon noting the inky gloom settling over the forest. Above his perch, the sky was a star-less indigo. Where were the stars?

Further down the slope, sheep and other herd beasts grazed while shepherds kept watch. Dogs barked and circled a stray sheep. Sarn couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t over, not by a longshot, but he had no idea what it was or what might come of it.

“I heard some funny rumors.” The bowyer tossed something, and its point stuck fast in a pine tree.

“Good toss,” Grellin grunted. “Watch this.”

The fletcher produced a dirk, took aim and threw. His dagger knocked Spar’s out of the tree, and both fell into a bush.

Spar whistled at his luck and took a sip from his hip flask. “Up with your young bones, go fetch them, and maybe we’ll let you take a turn.”

Sarn just nodded. Errand boy was one of his many assignments. Both dirks had a gemstone set in their hilts—garnet for Grellin and quartz for Spar. The stupid things called to him, whispering their whereabouts. A shiver passed down his spine as he set his mind to ignore the stones’ voices. Now was not the time to let his wayward gift get out of control.

He bent to retrieve the blades, and as he straightened, he met the eyes of the ghost boy. Its translucent hand turned the knife and pricked his finger. Blood welled up flecked with shining green and dripped onto a small, limpid hand. The specter’s fingers closed around it, and his blood passed into the creature. But it had no visible effect.

“Will you hurry up and fetch those?”

Sarn blinked at the question and backed away. Reaching behind him, he handed the dirks back to their owners and returned to his rock. Clinging to its reassuring solidity, he stared at the apparition following him.

The air chilled and his eyes lost some of their luminescence as darkness bore down on him. Frantic gestures drew his attention back to the ghost, who waved at him to move. But there was no reason to, not one he could see or sense. Neither of his minders had tossed their knives again. They had fallen into a conversation about a friendly wager. No danger was forthcoming from those two.

Where was the trouble rattling the ghost? And what was this infernal cold? Had January dropped in for a visit eight months early? He touched the boulder and sent his magic out in concentric rings, finding nothing of note. More of the sky had turned to pitch, and the moon seemed to cower on the far side of Mount Eredren’s peak.

“What is it?” he asked the ghost in a whisper.

In answer, the ghost pointed from a patch of shadow to its eyes. But its message made no sense.

“Are you saying the shadows have eyes?” Sarn crossed to the bush and pushed its branches aside seeking whatever had upset the ghost. Nothing lurked in the shadows except an ant colony. Compound eyes watched Sarn from a nearby branch. On the ground, ants paced the roach’s shadow, and their paths bent to form a chain of interconnected circles.

“What is this?” Sarn pointed at the antics of the ants.

The ghost made no reply, but its eyes widened, and it dove, missing Sarn by a hair’s breadth. What was wrong with the ghost? Something bit Sarn’s hand, and he let go of the branch. One of them was tipped with his blood. Sarn backed away.

Foliage within the stone circles held no intelligence or enchantments. Neither did shadows have eyes. There was no evil overlord, no archmages either. No one was watching his comings and goings except his masters and the ghost child haunting him. This was yet another sign of his deteriorating sanity.

“Go away and leave me alone.”

The ghost shook its head making its short illusory hair fly.

Sarn dropped his head into his hands. His babysitters had forgotten about him, but not the ghost. Its glassy green eyes threw accusations at him: why am I dead and you’re alive?

Sarn squeezed his eyes closed, but the dead child stared at him from inside his mind, and the thing had company. They were all orphans same as him—all dead before any of them had begun to live. Their vacant stares pierced him. Their white lips mouthed the one question which never had an answer: why you and not us?

“I don’t know. Leave me alone.”

“You don’t know what?” Gregori asked startling Sarn.

The dead didn’t flee back to their hole in his head. They lingered at the edge of his vision.

“Who were you talking to?” Gregori made a show of looking around.

Sarn realized his minders had stopped minding him. Shaking his head, he remained silent. Gregori already thought him retarded. The first gray light of the coming dawn brushed blue streaks into the sky to his left. Maybe daylight would banish the night’s weird happenings and restore all to order. Sarn rubbed his tired eyes.

“Get off your ass and follow me. I’ve got work for you to do before you go.”

“But—” Sarn pointed to the lightening east.

“But nothing, the sooner you move, the sooner you can go. Your brother can get along without you for one more hour. He’s not an invalid.”

True, Miren was able-bodied, but Ran was four, and his son would not understand if he was late. Besides, if he stayed any longer, he’d have trouble procuring food for his small family, and the two dozen orphans who depended on him. But Gregori knew nothing about any of them, so Sarn rose and followed Gregori.

“Where am I going?”

“Down to the river, there’s some sensitive cargo Jerlo needs unloaded ASAP.”

What goods were too important for the dockhands to manage?

Chapter 6

Will cut across the meadow searching for a lean figure in a dark cloak. As he rehearsed the speech he’d spent part of the night perfecting, tears pricked his eyes. 

Beku, the mother of Sarn’s adorable little boy, had vanished nearly three months ago, prompting Sarn to take his son and brother and move out. At last, Will had found the right argument to bring Sarn back into the fold so everything could go back to normal.

Will scanned the meadow anxious to get this over with. Four mornings out of seven, he ran into Sarn. Had the Rangers let Sarn off early? Turning, Will gave the meadow one more glance. His gaze swept the long grasses from one side of the encircling menhirs to the other before he gave up and headed for the trim house serving as office and abode for the harbormaster. It was one of four freestanding structures on the meadow itself. At this early hour, two triremes and one square-rigged vessel lay at anchor, and the low-riding profile of the latter vessel indicated a full hold. He’d have his hands full today.

A flash of green caught Will’s eye. Sarn leaned against a wall looking tired and tense—not a good sign. Both those radiant eyes opened and regarded Will as he halted.

There was tall, and there was Sarn, who towered over everyone. He was big all over except in the girth department. Technically, he was also two years older than Will but didn’t look it.

Sarn nodded to Will, his gaze sharpening as he threw off the light doze he’d fallen into. “Morning Will, is something wrong?”

Will blinked a few times wondering why Sarn stood there. His lanky friend served the Rangers, and they had nothing to do with the docks or their doings.

“Is there?” Will asked. 

Sarn was an introvert. Talking to him meant dealing with his silences and reading micro expressions.

“You don’t usually come down this way. Do you need something—a boat maybe? Miren wants to go fishing, right? I can arrange something for this afternoon.” Will hoped for a ‘no.’ Sarn needed a wash, sleep, and a generous breakfast.

Sarn shook his head.

Will nodded and waited for an explanation. Sarn tended to parcel out words as if he had a limited supply in constant danger of depletion.

“Ranger business?” Will suggested even though he doubted it. Jerlo concerned himself with all things sylvan leaving the nautical issues to the harbormaster.

Sarn nodded. His strange eyes cast out over the river, and their glow attracted Will. He tried to break off his stare, but that emerald light drew him.

Rays of sunlight angled toward Sarn, and their golden beams arrowed into those incredible eyes. There they gathered before fanning out toward twin wheels of spinning green flame making them burn brighter. Will fell into those eyes and tumbled through a ring of emerald fire. Down he spiraled into the dark center of a blaze stretching out to infinity and beyond.

Sarn stalked a few paces away breaking the partial gaze lock. “I guess. He told me to wait here.”

Will took a second to re-engage his mind, and put the statement into its proper context. “Oh right, I guess it’s important.” Will kicked a stone. It skipped over other stones on its way down the beach toward the river. He’d alienated his friend—great. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

But he had intended to do it. He had no idea how Miren could be around Sarn all the time, and not gaze into those incredible eyes. Maybe the one parent they had in common offered Miren some immunity.

Sarn ignored Will’s feeble attempt at an apology. His friend armored himself in a silence free of any cracks. Even if Will got his laconic friend talking, how could he steer the conversation in the right direction? He had no idea, so he abandoned the attempt. There was always tomorrow or the next day. It had been months since Sarn had moved out. What was another couple of days of fetching and carrying for everyone?

A door opened, and a Ranger whose muscles stretched the seams of his green uniform exited. Will backpedaled, alarmed by the huge man approaching them. Sarn straightened up, but he was a sapling next to the hulking Ranger.

“Sarn—ah there you are. Let’s go.”

His friend followed the Ranger down the beach without saying a word to Will. Had Sarn forgiven him?

Will watched his friend walk up the gangplank onto one of the triremes. Unable to admit defeat, he tried out different openers in his mind until the buzzing in his ears grew too loud to ignore. It sounded like a cross between a crowd whispering and a swarm of bees. The noise crescendoed as the muscular Ranger stabbed his best friend in the back.

Sarn collapsed into a pool of dark cloth. A moment later, the Ranger threw Sarn’s limp body over his shoulder and continued across the deck, and the buzzing died away. The gangplank withdrew, and the drumming began as the trireme pulled out into the current heading east toward Racine.

One thought beat in Will’s brain. He had to tell Miren what had just happened. But he remained motionless and staring instead of trekking up the mountain. His boss, the harbormaster, exited his office, and the sight of a man who’d been a surrogate father to him startled Will into speech.

“Did you see—?”

The harbormaster nodded. “I saw.”

“Oh God—is he—no Sarn can’t be dead. He can’t be.”

Will’s mind rejected the very idea. No, Sarn was too ornery to die.

“What did you say?” The harbormaster gripped Will’s upper arm and shook him.

“I said his name, Sarn.”

“The tall boy with the cloak—the one I’ve seen you talk to?”

Will nodded.

The harbormaster’s face drained of color. He shouted for runners and a pair of teenage brothers, who hung out around the dock, rushed over from a nearby wharf. “Paper—I need paper—”

Will strode to Paytor’s office but halted when something blew past him, numbing his arm. Spinning to face the river, he rubbed feeling back into his arm and nodded to a gray shape flying toward the eastbound trireme. “Something’s chasing the ship.”

“Where?” Paytor glanced in the direction Will had indicated and shook his head. “What am I supposed to look for? I see the damned boat and all the trouble it’s caused.”

“Something is chasing it.”

“It’s probably a bird.”

One of the boys returned, a teen with a thatch of unruly hair. The fresh-faced lad handed Paytor ink, quill, and paper. Then the teen turned so the harbormaster could use his back as a writing surface.

While Paytor’s quill scratched out a message, Will squinted at the flying shape. Drums throbbed as three tiers of rowers dug their oars into the river, propelling the craft. Shading his eyes, he recoiled when the trailing shape resolved into a child, lit by the rising dawn. Will tried to swallow, but his throat had gone dry. He turned his back on the river and the boat fast receding into a wash of gold. Rubbing his eyes, Will tried to wipe away the afterimage, but it remained. Did ghosts exist?

The ghost had reminded him of Ran. If Sarn failed to return, his son would be an orphan. God, how could he tell such an adorable child his father was gone?

The harbormaster finished scribbling his note and thrust it at the boys. “Quick as you can, get this message to Jerlo. Come right back when you have, and there’ll be a copper for every minute under an hour.”

The boys grinned and raced off toward the mountain confident in their success. After all, their aunt was the sole female Ranger on the roster at present. All they had to do was hand her the message. She’d know where to find her commander.

Will watched them go. He should follow them and break the news to Miren. But instead, he trudged into the office. Miren would be in class until late afternoon, so there was no need to hurry. His gaze strayed toward Mount Eredren’s bent cone. Beyond its shadow-laden shoulder, a beacon shined in the retreating night. His mouth fell open as he recognized her starry crown even at a distance—the Queen of All Trees. Numinous and shining, she stood on a distant peak and her sightless gaze fixed on the fading silhouette of a trireme. Her trunk vibrated, blurring her brilliant outline. As her anger rolled across the forest, her subjects quivered.

“Are you coming in or just letting the flies in?” Paytor called out, dragging Will back to mundane matters.

Will opened his mouth, but no words rose to his flapping tongue, so he shut his mouth. Will glanced once more at the dawn-gilded river replaying his best friend’s abduction. Had the Rangers kidnapped Sarn?

Nolo sank into a chair facing Jerlo’s desk grateful to end the night there. In less than an hour, he’d have jam on scones and maybe a steak. Yes, a steak, and something drowning in honey butter—his mouth watered. Thoughts of food distracted Nolo from the dragons staring him down from every available surface. The commander had a thing for dragons, but no one else shared his fascination.

Jerlo took his seat on the other side of the desk and pushed at the papers littering its pitted surface. “Sarn?”

“Sarn,” Nolo confirmed, keeping his hand over his eyes. The Litherians had an obsession for lumir-eyed statues, and their emotionless glowing eyes reminded him of Sarn. He shuddered.

“What’s he done now? Can’t he stay out of trouble for a couple of hours?” Jerlo tried to run a hand through his afro then gave it up as a lost cause.

“Will you punish him for running off? You never said, and I want to close the issue.”

Jerlo waved a hand in dismissal.

“No punishment?”

“No, he came back. I don’t care about the rest.” Jerlo leaned back in his chair and blew out a breath. “What will you do with him later tonight?”

It took Nolo a moment to recall a new day had dawned, and he’d end it with another walk about the enchanted forest. But the Kid should stay away from there for a while. “Drills maybe—or I might take him on patrol but—”

Yeah, but a massive enchanted tree had contemplated kidnapping the Kid. Why had the forest taken an interest in him?

Jerlo shook his head. “Too much risk, no patrols, not after what happened today. I don’t want to give the forest access to him. I can’t have him disappearing for good because a tree decided to walk off with him. No, the Kid stays here.” Jerlo tented his fingers and considered. “I like the drills idea but no archery. Anything else is fine.”

“You’re right. But his ability to dead reckon is useful, especially in an enchanted wonderland.” Nolo had come to rely on said ability, but he shifted in his chair, avoiding the commander’s keen eyes instead of admitting it.

A knock sounded before Jerlo could comment, rescuing Nolo from an uncomfortable situation. Ranispara poked her head in. For a moment, the years fell away, and there stood the nineteen-year-old girl in braids Gregori had wed. Nolo blinked and eleven years fell back into place recasting the awkward girl into a woman of thirty.

“We’ve got a problem—a big one,” she said looking pissed enough to bite someone.

They both launched themselves out of their chairs as she outlined their worst nightmare. Human agency, not an enchanted forest, had kidnapped Sarn.

“What do you know about this?” Jerlo snapped at her.

While not tall for a woman, Ranispara still had a hand span on their boss.

“A certain husband of mine has conveniently vanished, and this showed up.” She held out a slip of paper.

Jerlo scanned its contents before crumpling it up and tossing it over his shoulder. It ricocheted off two towers of paperwork before rolling to a stop by a dragon-shaped inkwell. Both towers shuddered on impact, but neither one toppled. Jerlo neither noticed nor cared.

But Ranispara did and a decision crystalized in her dark eyes to involve a third party with neat handwriting and no talent for skulking about an enchanted forest. Nolo approved of the decision; it would keep the Rangers’ other problem member, a merchant’s son named Jallister, occupied.

“You think your husband took him?” Jerlo eyed the lone female ranger in the ranks and accepted her nod as gospel.

“Yes, I do. He’s done this before.”

They all acknowledged that grim truth with a nod. How far would Gregori take the Kid this time? There was no knowing until the fool turned up.

“Why now? Why this morning?”

No one had an answer for Jerlo’s question.

“The real question is, what can we do about it?” Nolo clenched his fists. He wanted to commandeer the next ship and spearhead a search, but a yawn reminded him he’d been awake since yesterday afternoon and so had Jerlo judging by the dark circles ringing the commander’s eyes. They made his vulpine face look more raccoon in the lumir light.

“What can we do other than wait? We don’t know where Gregori’s taking him, and there’s no boat out there capable of following.” Ranispara shook her head and bit her lip to keep from screaming in frustration. Judging by the way she gripped her upper arms, she wanted to strangle her husband too.

Right now, Nolo empathized. He would love to choke some sense into his best friend as well. “We have to do something. We have to make some attempt to get the Kid back.”

“My husband planned this well. There’s no other ship ready to weigh anchor.”

“Do we at least know where he’s headed?”

“Next stop is Racine, twenty miles downriver.” Ranispara gestured eastwards at the dragon statue glaring at them.

“You don’t expect it to stop there.” Nolo gripped the back of a chair, wishing it were Gregori’s neck.

“Oh, I’m certain it will, but I doubt my husband will disembark.”

“Why not?”

Ranispara shook her head, and a set of gold tubes dangling from her earlobes chimed. Gregori had given them to her on their last anniversary on the advice of his wife. “Too easy, Sarn could follow the river back. He can run those twenty miles in four or five hours if he’s motivated. And he will be motivated. He won’t leave his brother behind.”

Jerlo patted Nolo’s arm, dragging his attention down to his diminutive boss. But the tactician had nothing constructive to add. “You get some sleep. I need you sharp for tonight. There’s no knowing what nonsense the forest will throw at us.”

“You didn’t sanction this—” Nolo gestured to the crumpled message. Anger at Gregori scorched his eyes. Or maybe it was exhaustion burning them.

“What the hell do you think?”

“I don’t know sir, hence my question.” Nolo’s statement caught Ranispara off guard, and she turned her glare on their boss.

“Oh hell, not you too, if I had something to do with this, I wouldn’t have entrusted it to Gregori.”

The man had a point. Had Jerlo staged this, he would be on the boat with Sarn not standing around his office.

Nolo accepted the rationale with a nod. “Maybe they’ll leave us alone for a while—the forest I mean.” Doubtful since the enchanted forest had entered one of its active periods. Who knew how long it would last or what trouble it would cause. Nolo opened his mouth to remind Jerlo about the incident with the Queen of All Trees.

Jerlo shook his head, and regret bowed his shoulders. “I know what you’re thinking, and if your fears come to pass, there’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is pray and wait for his return.”

“And punish the perpetrator,” Ranispara put in, and there was murder in her eyes.

Nolo wished his friend much luck in surviving his next encounter with his wife.

One corner of Jerlo’s mouth quirked up, and an evil light glittered in his black eyes. “Oh, don’t you worry about that. I have something to discourage such nonsense in the future.”

Ranispara reflected Nolo’s skepticism at their boss. “What thing?”

“Nothing you need to worry about. Gregori will be too busy to pull another stunt ever again. Go on. I need you at your sharpest.” Jerlo gestured for Nolo to return to safety and plenty to wait on tenterhooks for Sarn to return.

“Shall I set a watch for him?”

Jerlo nodded and gestured for Ranispara to go.

She saluted, then set off at a dead run to carry out her orders.

Nolo wanted to follow her. Instead, he nodded to his boss and allowed his feet to take him the twenty turnings to his door. But once he reached it, he stood there glaring at the polished wood. Inside waited a family he had no desire to see.

Oh, there was nothing wrong with his family. He had a lovely wife and son, but the Rangers were his life, and they left little time for anything. Or energy since the night’s doings had wrung him dry. Then there was Sarn. Worry bubbled up burning worse than heartburn. What if the Kid was hurt or in danger? Had his friend gone too far this time?

Nolo rubbed his throbbing temples. He needed to distract his wife with something. Anything, so long as it took her mind off the list of chores waiting for him. But his thoughts kept circling back to the missing Sarn.

Then he blinked at the door in surprise. Could Sarn’s kidnapping be the answer? He pushed open the door and found Inari on the other side.

“Something’s happened,” she stated. Her dark eyes probed his for answers.

Nolo nodded and told her everything while she plied him with food. By meal’s end, he found himself tucked into bed as Inari hurried around the room. Determination had her throwing off flowing garments and trading them for more practical garb. Despite giving birth to a son eight years ago, she had retained an almost hourglass figure because going anywhere involved a lot of walking. She twisted her long her into a braid, kissed his brow, and left the suite to join her best friend, Ranispara, out on the green.

After she had left, Nolo threw off the covers and padded to the window. He sat down on a plush chair intending to pray. But a gleam independent of the rising sun drew his eye to a lambent profile fading into the dawn. Opening the window, Nolo grimaced at the creak it made. Since he’d never replaced the rusted hinges, he had trouble budging it. But it gave finally, and he leaned out into the crisp morning.

“You leave him alone. Sarn belongs to us.”

If she heard, she gave no sign. Nor did she reappear though he doubted the Queen of All Trees had gone far. Still, Nolo repeated his injunction until it turned into a desperate plea. He prayed until thirst stole his voice. Would she leave Sarn alone or would she kidnap him too?

Chapter 7

I had to do it. But the truth failed to stop Gregori’s conscience from stabbing him right where it hurt the most.

Sarn’s scarred cheek rested against the weathered deck, leaving his perfect right side visible. The Kid looked so young and vulnerable sprawled there.

Maybe he should have come up with a different plan—No, he’d had to do this. The Kid had potent stuff racing around his body, and nobody wanted to deal with it. Nolo coddled him, and Jerlo pretended the eye-glow-thing was just for decoration. How did the commander know that radiance was benign?

The Kid had something in him—something ready to break loose. And it must have gotten free. The Kid had never shaken hands with self-control. Impulse would drive him straight into trouble, hence this intervention.

Damn it. The kid looked as innocent as a child, and the sight pricked Gregori with guilt. Judging by the looks he received, the sight had the same effect on the deckhands. Perhaps he’d best stop looming over the unconscious Kid and stow him below.

Gregori slung Sarn over his shoulder, and one of the Kid’s floating ribs poked him. Gregori shook his head. The Kid weighed less than someone who stood closer to seven feet than six should.

“My young friend isn’t a fan of boats as you can see.”

After throwing out that non-sequitur, Gregori headed below decks. Glances both hostile and curious sped his steps.

It took a bit of maneuvering to fit himself, and his burden, through a hole meant for sleek youths. Both he and the Kid had shoulders as broad as the River Nirthal Valley. With a little finagling, Gregori managed it and the narrow passageway beyond. He chose the first unoccupied chamber he passed and unslung his burden.

Sarn’s long limbs spilled off the cot. Gregori bent to loosen the Kid’s cloak but jerked back when it shocked his hand. He stared at Sarn’s cloak, but the dark green cloth lay there doing nothing exciting. Perhaps he’d imagined the zap.

For the moment, the Kid appeared to be fine. Let the situation continue for the foreseeable future, please. Sarn tended to have an adverse reaction to anything chemical, making this abduction risky. Still, he should check. Looks when applied to the Kid were deceiving.

Heartbeat? Found it. Still breathing? Check. Usual pallor? A glance confirmed it. Eyes doing their creepy glow thing?

Gregori paused his mental checklist and dithered for a moment then opened one of the Kid’s eyes. Green light spilled forth lighting the cabin. The iris glowed yet the sclera and pupils looked normal. How could they be when saturated by the dreaded M-word?

How much of the Kid’s physique appeared normal but was altered? The Kid had power, but nobody wanted to find out what effect it had, least of all its unconscious owner. By all accounts, the Kid’s eyes had already been luminescent at fourteen. If the report gathering dust in a locked drawer of Jerlo’s office was correct. Six years was a long time for something to be working on a growing boy. What alterations had it made? Did Sarn even know?

No, which made today’s test even more important. Finding one’s limits was part of growing up. At the rate Jerlo and Nolo were going, the Kid would die before they allowed him to seek those limits.

“Time to see what you can do, lad.” Gregori patted Sarn’s cheek then subsided to a chest bolted to the wall. He shivered when a gust of wind ruffled his hair and kicked up the corner of Sarn’s cloak. It felt as if a large bird had swooped in, but Gregori ignored the sensation. All this thinking was making him crazy. It was time to stop.

A ghostly child settled at Sarn’s bedside, but Gregori looked right through it and yawned. A tear rolled down the ghost’s translucent face as it turned longing eyes on Sarn. He was so full of life and magic. He must know a spell to save them both from the Dark Thing and its vile plans. The specter laid its head against Sarn’s chest, and curled up in a ball of misery, seeking comfort from an unconscious source.

Gregori stretched tired muscles and shivered as his breath misted in the air. Why was it so cold in here?

Gregori checked the porthole, but the aperture was closed. Rising, he searched for a blanket, and the exercise warmed him as he exited the cold pocket stalled by Sarn.

Flummoxed, Gregori sat on the floor. It had been a long and strange night with few answers. Perhaps this stationary cold spot was all part of the night’s weirdness. And he still had no idea what had gone on in the forest. Another yawn snuck up on Gregori. Whatever had happened, it had unsettled Nolo and Jerlo both. So the trouble involved yonder unconscious Kid making this test even more necessary.

Gregori smiled as he pondered how to tell Nolo his precious charge was alone in the enchanted forest. His friend’s reaction would be priceless. “You’d better learn something from all this. If I went to all this trouble for nothing, I’ll take it out of your hide.”

It was an empty threat. After what that psychopath Hadrovel had done, no Ranger would dare harm Sarn. Gregori passed a hand over his eyes, but the disturbing memory refused to recede.

Like a broken doll, Sarn had lain on cold stone, his arms and legs bent at odd angles. The white of his bones had peeked out of a jagged gash bathing the left side of his face in blood. Gregori could still smell the sweet metallic tang of the cooling mage blood he’d knelt in. A sightless green eye had stared past him from a disfigured child’s face, and he’d stretched a hand out to close it. Feeling warm flesh under his fingers, he’d shouted.

He’s not dead.’

And the Rangers had done everything they could over the last five years to keep the Kid alive.

“You’re still a pain in the ass.” Gregori patted Sarn’s knee. “But I prefer you that way. You keep life interesting, Kid.”

Not even flippancy could lighten the shadow that incident had cast. The Rangers had failed, and a fifteen-year-old boy had paid the price in blood and pain. By the grace of Jerlo and Nolo’s God, the incident hadn’t crippled Sarn. But guilt and regret had become a lens coloring every decision the Rangers made about Sarn. Could one test change that?

Hours later, Gregori unslung his burden. His thick fingers poked right through the cringing ghost child as he felt for a pulse. Without magic, Gregori could not see the ghost, but he could feel its cold unnaturalness as his index finger located an artery.

A strong pulse beat in Sarn’s throat. Relieved, Gregori backed off and bumped his elbow into a tree. He ignored the thing since this was Shayari and there were billions of those gigantic weeds around. So far, the Kid had experienced no adverse reactions to the drug nor had the Kid awoken yet. But Sarn would, thanks to the stimulant he’d poured down the Kid’s throat. It could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour—if he’d dosed the Kid right.

Since conceiving this plan, Gregori had confided it in no one. So, asking for dosage advice had been out of the question. And the Kid’s body had a nasty habit of rejecting everything except food and water. Well, it was in Fates’ hands now.

Worry gnawed on Gregori’s guts again as he sought a good spot to wait. He had to make certain the Kid did wake up. Branches allowed a few shafts of sunlight to spear through the perpetual gloom as trees gathered around his charge.

Yes, the trees were enchanted. But they only reacted to stimulus because some ancient lunatic had programmed them to. So what if they watched him and the still unconscious Kid? They were supposed to watch everything coming and going under their boughs.

But every minute Gregori hovered over the Kid’s prone form, the forest loomed a little more over him. Maybe he should put some distance between them. Eyes bored into him from all sides as if a pack of children stood behind him, staring.

Gregori’s skin crawled, and a spot between his shoulder blades itched. Where was the danger targeting him? Nothing but still trees surrounded him. Silence reigned, and nothing dared to interrupt it. Turning, he checked his surroundings for the danger thrilling along his nerves and missed seeing the startled ghost child rushing into the forest.

Gregori waited for the trees to do something. But they continued to stand sentinel unconcerned with him and his insignificant doings. After dragging in a deep breath, he fought to get a grip. Six hours on a boat after witnessing the forest’s behavior last night had unhinged him. The sooner he got out of here, the better.

Movement startled Gregori until he zeroed in on its cause. Sarn had stirred. Gregori let out a relieved breath. The Kid would be okay. He’d picked the right dosage. It was time to watch his handiwork. Besides, it would spoil the test if the Kid spotted him.

Spinning on his heel, Gregori searched for a good hiding place. A cave would be great, but he saw none. No good-sized boulders met his searching gaze either. There was nothing to hide behind or inside unless he wanted to climb a tree.

Gregori gazed up at one of those bark-covered monsters. Shaking his head, he seized a branch before he could regret his decision. He’d made it into the lowest story before Sarn sat up and vomited. Guilt stabbed Gregori the longer the Kid remained doubled over. Maybe he’d overdone it a tad.

After a long while, the fit subsided into dry heaves, and the Kid collapsed on his side. Sarn lay there unmoving. Fear feasted on Gregori until the Kid sat up and made some effort to hide the signs of his recent sickness. Rising, Sarn staggered toward the river without doing any reckoning at all.

Gregori marveled. How had the Kid known? No sign of the River Nirthal lingered here. If his perfect hearing failed to pick up the river’s chatter, then Sarn could hear nothing but the wind as well. No opportunistic moss covered the boles of the enchanted trees as it did within a half mile of the river. What had clued him in?

Gregori watched until the Kid had melted into the tree line, then contemplated his next move. Part of him wanted to follow and discover firsthand what the Kid would do next. But if he did, he risked discovery. With a shrug, he left Sarn to his own devices and the test to run its course. Besides, it was time he returned to Mount Eredren to await the results.

Good luck Kid, he thought in the direction Sarn had headed. You’ll need it.

Sarn rinsed his mouth out for the fifth time, but the damned acidic taste refused to wash away. He scooped up more water, splashing it over his face. At his knee, a brook babbled as it flowed over roots drinking their fill.

He’d kill Gregori for this. This was all the jerk’s doing. He pictured his long fingers wrapped around the asshole’s throat, but the image disintegrated. Gregori had taught him so much. The teacher and the kidnapper, how could the man fit both under the same skin and not go mad from the duality?

Gregori—the asshole—where was he? The jerk had to be around here somewhere to gloat.

Let him watch. Let him think he’d won this round. Sarn pictured his fist introducing itself to Gregori’s face. In his fantasy, it made a satisfying thunk as the man fell unconscious at his feet. Given what had happened today, he might even get away with it.

Damn Gregori and his meddling, Sarn punched a patch of moss then met the eyes of a startled rat. Part of its brown ear was missing, he noted as those beady eyes glared at him and the rat bared its teeth.

“Scat,” he shook his fist at the creature, and it darted into the underbrush. What was with the rats today? He’d seen more than the usual compliment. Hunger cramped his stomach, and he scanned the trees around him for anything edible. Even in spring, there would be something.

Before he’d spent a year with the Rangers, he knew every plant and its use, and every animal and its sign. All those lessons had led up to the first of Gregori’s little tests. The last one had left him with a concussion and a promise from Jerlo there would be no more. What the hell had changed Gregori’s mind—temporary insanity, an edict from Jerlo—what? At least, this time, he had no injuries to deal with. Sarn rubbed his brow. His head felt light from either hunger or the lingering effects of the drug. He could still taste its bitter promise of unconsciousness, so he spat out another mouthful of water.

Done grumbling, for now, he worked on figuring out where in Shayari he was. Enchanted trees surrounded him, but they stood there mimicking their non-magical brethren. How long would their good behavior last? And what of the strange things he’d encountered last night? The glow of his eyes played across their trunks, merging with the magic rushing inside them, lending them a sinister air.

Bubbles of brilliance passed up and down their bark in a never-ending stream. From branches to leaves, the lights moved in a constant dance of color at the limit of sight. If Sarn squinted, patterns came into focus, but they made his head throb.

The trees regarded him, and he felt the weight of their stares. They knew he was there. Maybe their awareness stretched to what had happened.

“Why did you kill those people? Why did you let that boy die?”

The forest maintained its silence and its stillness made his skin crawl.

Sarn closed his eyes. Would the forest kill him too? Probably not since he respected its rules. The map in his head unspooled and included a lot more of Shayari’s landmass than the last time he’d checked it. While he’d been unconscious, the map had updated itself.

A white star pulsed. “Ran,” Sarn whispered, reaching toward his son, then checked the impulse. He needed a direction. Ran would be okay until he returned. Levering himself up in stages, Sarn made it to a sit without blacking out. The map icon flashed in his peripheral vision, but he ignored it. It had selected the fastest route back, but it could wait.

Sarn tipped forward onto hands and knees and crawled to the nearest tree. Digging his fingers into those rough, vertical grooves, he inched himself skyward. A projectile hurtled toward him, but he dove sideways. Magic got between him and the ground and turned the earth elastic. After bouncing twice, Sarn landed on his side with the breath knocked out of him. A rat bared its teeth not more than a foot away, and the cold breath of something unnatural raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

Before he could react, an insect leaped off of the rat’s back and burrowed into the leaves. Roots tore a hole in the earth, and the lifeless rat toppled into it and disappeared under a pile of dirt. Like last night, a viscous black substance spurted out of the earth. Sarn backed away and so did the trees surrounding him, but not enough to reveal the sky. Neither did the foul geyser reach that high before it petered out leaving a black puddle.

His gut had been right. Whatever had happened last night was just the tip of something far worse. And now he was stuck out here with whatever was happening with no provisions or clues. Damn you, Gregori! Sarn punched the ground.

Two more projectiles dropped, and Sarn rolled aside ready to curse the forest too, but a root smacked the object, rolling it into his waiting palm. Turning his head, he regarded an apple the size of a melon.

Its swollen outward appearance aside, the All-fruit tasted of honey, cinnamon, and crisp apple. Why was the forest being so generous? While he snacked, he looked for the All-fruit vine and found it draped over a tree’s lower branches. Plenty of super-sized apple lookalikes hung from the vine absorbing magic to infuse into its fruit.

One All-fruit filled the void in his belly leeching some of the pain drilling his skull. By the time he hit the core, he could pass for human again. A hole opened in the ground by his boot for the refuse. Too full to consume the edible core, Sarn dropped it into the hole, and it sealed up. What lay under the forest? Why enchant the forest in the first place?

“What are you guarding?” Sarn pivoted, playing the green glow of his eyes over each tree in turn. They stood straighter in answer like the sentinels he’d always assumed they were.

Sarn gathered up the two remaining All-fruits. When the forest gave something to a traveler, it expected some form of gratitude in return. Sarn fumbled in one of his pockets for a burlap sack. After dropping the All-fruits inside, he tied it closed.

Out of time, he sought the words the forest waited to hear. Looming over him, those giants grew larger every minute he remained mute. Branches ended in knife-edged tips, and their leaves were flesh-tearing stars.

When Sarn opened his mouth, the words changed on his tongue as the geas binding him to the truth pulled tight. “I can’t.” Sarn dropped the sack, and the All-fruits rolled in the dirt. “I can’t thank you. Why did you let them kill the boy? Why kill the killers afterward? Why didn’t you save him? Your rules don’t permit anyone to harm a child in here, so why didn’t you stop them?”

The wind kicked up, blowing with a fury matching his. It tugged on his cloak, but not a single leaf stirred. All was still except a solitary cockroach scuttling past Sarn’s boot. Had he gone too far? Would they destroy him for speaking up when no one else would? They had allowed a child to die, so why should they care if he survived? Sarn waited with every muscle tense and prepared for flight.

A root swatted the All-fruit, sending it rolling. The fruit stopped at his boot. After knocking the second one in his direction, two forest giants slid aside, and behind them, other enchanted monoliths broke ranks. They created a zigzagging path where none had existed before. What was this a peace offering?

When he made no move to pick up the fruit, several roots breached the surface. They coiled around the All-fruits and the sack and handed the results to him. A branch touched his back and pushed him toward the trail the forest had created.

A chill invaded his body and soul as the dead boy coalesced next to him. Flat, emerald eyes fixed on Sarn, urging him to run. Cold seeped into his skin raising goosebumps as the specter raised a finger and pointed.

[_Eam’meye erator, _]said a voice on the wind.

A cockroach swarmed up one of those enchanted monoliths leaving a trail of black slime in its wake from the foul puddle it had bathed in. Ice slid down the darkening tree’s bark, cracking it so a putrid black liquid could ooze inside. A frost-rimmed branch swung toward Sarn, dripping ichor, but he dodged it as the infected roach leaped onto another tree to kick off its transformation. A glowing root wrapped around his arm jerking Sarn to the side. He slipped on a puddle of ichor and crashed into another tree as it rushed forward to grapple with the overshadowed ones.

The ghost’s hand solidified around Sarn’s wrist, dragging him between clashing trees as the specter darted between them.

“What’s happening?” This was something out of an old tale from the time of wild magic.

The ghost shook its head and kept flying, charting a course through the monoliths. But no matter how fast they fled, the corruption outpaced them.

[_Unnatural, _]shrieked his magic right before it slammed into his stomach, knocking Sarn backward and breaking the ghost’s grip. [_Let us out! _]

Sarn landed on his rump wrestling for control of the fire racing under his skin. Around him, enchanted trees winked out releasing clouds of shining motes. They rained down on Sarn, coating his cloak, cowl, and trousers in the clean magic of life until every part of him glowed a pale green verging on white.

The ghost stared part in wonder and part in fear, and so did Sarn.

“I have only one type of magic, and it’s green, not white.” Sarn stared at the silver flames dancing on his palms. Something was wrong with his magic or his eyes.

The ghost boy extended hesitant fingers, twined them in the strange magic and tore free a fistful of shimmering white filaments. They winked out a moment later.

Rubbing his numb hands, Sarn checked for signs of injury, but only a tingling sensation remained where his magic had torn.

The specter drifted closer but halted when Sarn held up a hand.

“Don’t touch me. I said I’d help you and I will.”

The ghost’s shoulders slumped, and its gray face fell into distressed lines.

“Look, I didn’t mean—” but Sarn got no further before a branch dripping black ichor pinned him to a boulder.

Everything stopped. Affected and unaffected trees alike stood, rooted to the spot. The infected tree strained. The tip of its branch rested against the hollow of Sarn’s throat, but it could not pierce his skin. The rules governing its existence allowed harm only to those who broke its three rules, and he hadn’t.

Relieved, Sarn brushed the branch away. On contact, white light leaped from his hand cleansing the infection and chased out the darkness.

“What’s happening to them, has something to do with what happened to you, doesn’t it?”

The ghost nodded and tugged Sarn to his feet.

At least the basic rules were still in play, but it was a small comfort. There was no rule protecting travelers from accidents. Those infected trees could still hurt him just not directly.

A glowing branch pulled Sarn behind several Shayarin oaks intent on battling the dark trees.

“I can drive out the darkness.”

More enchanted trees formed up ignoring his offer. Their branches pointed, urging Sarn to run. When his magic stayed quiet, he understood.

“Curing them won’t solve the problem.”

The ghost boy shook its head and tugged, determined to tow Sarn away from there.

Spinning on his heel, Sarn ran with the frightened ghost clinging to his arm. He required no more prodding. He had to reach his son before the corruption did.

Chapter 8

“I’ll kill him.” Ranispara punched her fist into her open palm.

“You’re sure?” Inari shaded her eyes and scanned the horizon. “Or is it all talk?”

“I’ll kill him. I swear it. The son of a bitch deserves it for what he did to Sarn.” Ranispara shifted her weight causing the water-smoothed stones to slide around under her boots.

No moon rose as evening fell, leaving the tide to ebb and flow in a peaceful rhythm veiled by shadows. Refusing to be soothed, Ranispara kicked the wave curling ashore, interrupting it. She hugged her anger to her, coiling it around herself so she could sic it on Gregori the instant the big lug set foot ashore.

“I can’t believe he’d do something like this. I thought the last time was it, and there wouldn’t be any more of this insanity.” Ranispara kicked a stone sending it clattering down the gentle slope into the river. Bending, she seized several more intent on throwing them too.

“We all thought so.”

Inari’s comment dragged Ranispara around to face her friend. She dropped her ammunition, and they thudded onto the rocky beach.

Before marrying Nolo, Inari had hunted the enchanted forest to feed her family. She’d traveled most of Shayari with tinkers and tradesmen. Meanwhile, Ranispara had never left Mount Eredren’s environs. Hell, she’d never even visited Racine twenty miles downriver. So Inari might be only a year older than her, but the woman had far more life experience.

“How could he do such a thing? Doesn’t it bother him? It must bother him even if it’s only a little. I mean, after all, Sarn’s been through—” Ranispara pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. But the image had burned itself into her retinas.

A man with a bloody knife and the saddest eyes she had ever seen had crouched over an unconscious boy. Blood had wept from a gash running the length of Sarn’s face. And his dark hair had haloed his head pillowed on the pitted stone. One arm and one leg had lain twisted at unusual angles to his body.

Ranispara rubbed her eyes and let her hands drop. Darkness spread its hands in the east readying itself to grab the river valley and plunge it into night. Not a single bird took wing. No one loitered about either save her, Inari and a few others who had business with the harbormaster. The flat ribbon of the River Nirthal reflected the empty sky oppressing her, and she shivered despite the May afternoon’s warmth.

Inari squeezed her friend’s shoulder. Her dark eyes gave no hint of whether the image tormented her too. It must; the saint had nursed Sarn back to health. Seeing him day in and day out struggling with the most menial tasks must have broken her heart. Thinking about the incident rung tears from Ranispara’s eyes.

“He’ll be alright. He can fend for himself.”

“Did you tell Nolo that?”

“Of course.”

“How did he take it?”

“Not well as you can imagine.”

Silence fell, and not even the river dared to break it. Ranispara kept her thoughts to herself and her eyes on the river.

“Something’s coming—something big,” shouted Nerule, Inari and Nolo’s eight-year-old son. He lay on his belly on the roof of the harbormaster’s abode with a spyglass pressed to one eye.

“Let me see!”

“No, me! I want to see too.”

Before the squabbling intensified and someone fell off the roof, Ranispara whistled. Her nephews let go of the spyglass and covered their ears.

“Enough, everyone will get a turn.”

Inari glanced at her son. But before she could utter a word, Nerule handed the spyglass to Jorey, who sat to his right. Inari nodded, a half-smile quirking her lips in approval.

“It’s a ship,” Jorey announced then handed the spyglass to his brother.

Ranispara regarded her nephews. Both boys knew better than to indulge in any more roughhousing. She turned on her heel and stalked toward the dock to confront the inbound vessel. Gregori would be aboard. It was time the culprit returned.

“You think he’s on that ship?” Inari stirred but checked the impulse. Someone had to stay put and keep an eye on the boys.

“Oh, I know he is. He’ll get back here quick as he can to see our reaction. You can bet on it.”

“Where are you going?”

Ranispara didn’t answer.

Gregori stepped off the gangplank, and Ranispara slammed her shoulder into his side, knocking him off balance. Locking her arms around his waist, she threw all her weight against him, and he toppled into the river.

Ranispara sent the absent Sarn a thank you for teaching her stealth. The Kid’s sixth sense compensated for partial deafness in one ear, making it tough to sneak up on him. But it was still possible with a little practice, and the ‘practice’ had turned into a game. One the Kid had enjoyed because it gave him something to do and a challenge to overcome. Having his mobility impaired by casts and crutches had added an extra layer of fun to the game.

Everything had gone fine until they had taken the game outside. Ranispara shook those memories away and concentrated on her interrogation. Gregori hit the water struggling against gravity.

His limbs struck out in all directions in an uncoordinated jumble as he sank. Spluttering, Gregori shouted some nonsense about drowning. His protests gave her plenty of time to gain her feet.

“Why did you do it?” Ranispara applied her boot to Gregori’s chest and pressed down with all her weight.

Gregori spat out water after a wavelet rolled over his head. “I can’t swim!”

She rolled her eyes. “Tell me something I don’t know like why you kidnapped Sarn. What has the Kid ever done to deserve it?”

Gregori grasped her ankle to shove her off him, but she had the advantage.

“Let him up, please. You’ve made your point,” Inari pleaded.

Ranispara glanced at her friend over her shoulder. During all the drama, the boys had vacated their rooftop perch, and Inari had corralled them. Both of Ranispara’s nephews stood slack-jawed and agog.

Nerule tried to pry his mother’s hand away from his eyes. While not pitch-black like his father, Nerule’s skin was the color of a good varnish. From his light-skinned saint of a mother, he’d inherited large, curious mahogany eyes. And one of those eyes stared at her from between his mother’s long fingers.

Ranispara had planned to interrogate her husband alone, but now she had an audience to consider. Perhaps it was time to revise her plan.

“I had to do it. Don’t you see?” Gregori said between coughs. He spat more water out, but his struggles had all but ceased. Maybe he’d noticed the water came only to her knee.

“No I don’t see, and you’d better make me, or I’ll let you drown. I swear it.” Ranispara glared at her husband, letting her anger show. Under it lay other things, strong currents of conflicting emotions but they had no place here. She laid a hand over the tangled mess throbbing where her heart should be and grimaced.

“No, you won’t.”

Jerlo had an uncanny way of knowing what went on in and around Mount Eredren. Or he had a network of skilled spies.

She had expected him to drop in at some point. Later would have suited her better, but Jerlo operated on his own timetable. One he never deviated from no matter how much it vexed his subordinates.

“I did say I would handle this. I said so this morning. But with all the stress and worry clouding your mind, accidents happen. This is an accident—one you’ll rectify, correct?”

Ranispara threw an angry glance at her boss. Jerlo caught and held her gaze then dipped his chin once. His features had more fox in them now, and the fox stood ready to pounce. Perhaps he’d slept a bit since this morning.

She’d lost this round. Time to hand her husband over to a higher authority, one who’d promised to make him pay for this outrage. Ranispara removed her boot from her husband’s chest, slapped both hands on his head and pushed. He’d better expect a fight when Jerlo finished with him.

Ranispara splashed her way out of the river slapping the posts anchoring the dock on her way. Inari met her on shore with Nerule in tow. Since no one had paid them any mind, her nephews had stayed to witness the end of the show.

Nolo pelted across the beach. “Where is he?” Nolo demanded as he hauled Gregori up.

“Not here.” Gregori coughed, spat more water, then coughed some more.

“We know.” Jerlo clasped both hands behind his back and regarded the sky.

Incensed, Ranispara jabbed her thumb into her chest. “You’ll let him rough my husband up? I’ve earned the right to do it myself.”

Beside her, Inari covered her son’s eyes and retreated. Her face betrayed her dilemma. Should she let Nerule watch an interrogation his father conducted? Or should she take her son back to the mountain and miss hearing the reason behind all this drama. She too had a soft spot for Sarn. They all did except for Gregori. Over the years, Sarn had invaded their hearts becoming more than an indentured servant.

“Who said anything about roughing him up?” Jerlo’s brow quirked up.

Nolo glanced at the commander, and his face reflected the same surprise poleaxing Ranispara. Her lips flapped for a moment then angry words poured out of her.

“But we have to. We need to know where Sarn is. And he’s the only one who knows.”

“Is he?” Jerlo turned on his heel gesturing for Gregori to follow.

“You know?” Ranispara shouted right over Nolo’s protestations.

Jerlo halted, shaking his head while she and Nolo pelted him with questions and accusations. The commander’s shoulders bowed under the weight until he cut them off.

“Of course, I didn’t know. I found out when you did about this mess.”

Jerlo’s remark caught them both off guard. The lapping of the river sounded too loud in the sudden silence.

“We need to know where he is.” Nolo spread his hands wide in entreaty.

“Yes, we need to go get him,” Ranispara seconded. She moved to stand closer to Nolo but stalled out halfway there. Her trajectory would have taken her too close to the dripping source of her ire.

“Why? The Kid’s fine. He’s making his way back here while we stand around jawing.” Gregori rubbed water from his face with his hands. Every drop he removed dribbled back into place thanks to his wet hair. Turning, he made eye contact with each of them. “The Kid is a bit of a retard, yes, but his eyes aren’t decorative. There’s potent stuff in him. And we won’t find out what’s behind the glow if we don’t throw him to the wolves and see what happens.”

“You didn’t—” Ranispara stopped, appalled at the implications.

Gregori tossed his wife an evil grin. “Maybe I did.”

Gregori’s head snapped back as Nolo hit him with a right cross. Her husband wobbled but stayed on his feet without any aid from Nolo.

“You better not have.”

Gregori rubbed his chin and gave his friend a look of respect. “Relax, I didn’t involve any wolves. I swear it.”

“Tell us what you did with him,” Ranispara said as she uncurled her fists. They needed answers, not more fisticuffs.

“I gave him a nice long walk to think about things. Maybe it’ll improve his attitude.”

“What did you say to him?” Nolo enunciated each word and hurled them at Gregori.

“Nothing, he had a good nap and woke to find himself alone in the enchanted forest. If his sixth sense is as good as you think, he’ll arrive soon. If he headed in the right direction,” Gregori shrugged.

“Enough.” Jerlo chopped a hand through the air. “There’s nothing we can do but wait.”

“But a search party—” Nolo said at the same time as Ranispara made a similar suggestion.

Jerlo shook his head, and regret creased his face. “We still don’t know where to look.” He raised his voice to talk over his lieutenants. “And I’ll bet he doesn’t know either.” Jerlo nodded to Gregori.

“But he must.” Flabbergasted at the direction the conversation had taken, Ranispara took a step toward Jerlo. Gregori had to know.

“Do you? Tell me true. Did you pay any attention at all to where you left the Kid?”

Gregori stood there for a moment, mouth agape. As realization sank in, he blinked a few times and shook his head.

“Exactly, he stopped the boat somewhere, got out, deposited the Kid, then set sail back here.”

“How did you know?” Gregori asked.

Jerlo ran a hand over the frizz ball standing in for hair. “Because I know you. I’ll bet you boarded the first outbound vessel you found without checking the manifest. Paytor is a good man and an even better harbormaster. He was in his office the entire time with you. You had no opportunity to glance at his logs.” Jerlo’s lips quirked then flattened back out to their customary line. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

Face flushed from embarrassment, Gregori nodded. “How did you know?”

“As I said before, I know you, and I know how you act. Your impulsivity is your downfall. Now, come along. I have a punishment to mete out.” Jerlo glanced at his second in command, then at Ranispara reading their intent.

Ranispara stood rigid as a pole. She refused to leave this beach until Sarn returned safe and sound. Nolo folded his arms over his chest and looked about as ready to budge as Mount Eredren itself. No doubt, Jerlo read their determination.

“Good, you two organize watchers. I want eyes round the clock on the forest. Keep watch on the southeast. The Kid will come from there.” Jerlo’s lips twitched again, but no smile appeared. “I did check the manifest after you reported to me. Rumor claims Captain Argin’s a smuggler. I read an illuminating report about a suspected landing thirty or so miles southeast of here. I’m betting Gregori offloaded there.”

“We should fetch Sarn,” Nolo said.

“You think the Kid is waiting around for rescue? The brat learned early to fend for himself. No, he got moving the instant he realized what’d happened.” Jerlo shook his head. “If it’ll make you feel better, send out patrols. But they won’t find him unless he wants to be found. No, the next move is his. All we can do is wait and see how he plays it. We’ve got no other choice right now.”

Ranispara knew the commander was right, but it galled her to admit it. One glance at Nolo’s tense body and his clenched teeth proved he felt likewise. As much as she wanted to argue the point, she had nothing to gain by it. So she let it go and turned her gaze southeast to the forest, banishing her husband and her boss from her sight. Doubt niggled at her. Would Sarn return or had Gregori’s betrayal destroyed his trust?

“I don’t like it.” Nolo unfolded his arms. Turning, he faced southeast and let his troubled gaze roam over the enchanted forest. He started as the Queen of All Trees showed herself. White light flowed from her making the concentric circles of menhirs gleam before she vanished into the distant tree line.

“Neither do I,” Jerlo said, jolting Nolo back to the conversation at hand. The commander gave no hint of whether he’d seen the Queen of All Trees. “But it’s what we’re stuck with.”

“You’re using this to test him. You won’t authorize a search because you don’t think he’ll come back.” The words flew out of Nolo’s mouth before he could stop them.

A flash of silver moved amid forestry too dense for the dying sun’s rays to pierce and his heart caught. Was the Queen of All Trees also searching for Sarn? Oh God no. Leave the Kid alone. He belongs here. If she heard his silent injunctions, she gave no sign.

“I don’t know what goes on in that boy’s head.” Jerlo turned away from the forest and the conversation.

“Nothing good I’d wager,” Gregori grunted.

“Not true.” Ranispara turned, shaking her head.

“I agree with Ranispara,” Inari said, speaking for the first time. “He’s got a good heart, and he made a promise. He’ll be back. You haven’t seen the last of him.”

“We’ll see. For now, you and I need to have a chat.” Jerlo gave Gregori a look, which had caused sterner men to quake. He gestured for the larger man to follow, and took his leave.

Nolo regarded the forest. Had he imagined seeing the Queen of All Trees? The forest tangling on both sides of the river seemed darker without her and hostile. He recoiled from it. Somewhere out there, Sarn worked his way back here, slogging one mile at a time. Did Sarn think himself abandoned? All the trust Nolo had built now threatened to collapse, and he could do nothing to stop it.

“What now?” Ranispara moved to stand beside him.

Nolo glanced at her. Had she seen the Queen of All Trees? If she had, she hid it well.

“Is there any leeway in his High-and-Mighty’s orders?”

“There’s always leeway.”

“You want to point it out for me? My head’s still spinning.”

Before Nolo could answer, Ranispara caught her fleeing nephews by their ears.

“Hold that thought. I’ll be right back. There’s something I need to deal with.” She escorted her nephews behind the Harbormaster’s office for an overdue chat.

“He’s coming back,” Nerule said.

The boy had met Sarn on many occasions. An illiterate, unskilled youth recovering from ten broken bones had limited uses. Babysitting a small child had been just the thing to keep Sarn occupied.

“It might not be up to him,” Nolo heaved a sigh then turned to face his son. “What are you doing down here?”

“What do you mean by that?” Inari rested her hands on their son’s shoulders.

Nolo shook his head. They hadn’t seen the Queen of All Trees. They didn’t know about her interest in Sarn. A shudder tore through Nolo in memory, and he mashed his lips into a thin line walling himself off from his wife and child. In response, Inari’s whole manner hardened, but she remained silent.

Ignoring the cold war between his parents, Nerule held up a spyglass. “Keeping watch for Sarn. He’ll come back.”

Would he? Nolo wasn’t certain.

Chapter 9

Sarn raced west by northwest, guided by his head map and a strong tug on his heart toward his son. As he ran, the sack of All-fruit beat a muffled tattoo on his back narrowing his world to the ground in front of him and the battle behind him. Nothing else mattered.

Threading his way through a vanishing gap, Sarn sped up, breaking into an all-out run. What the hell was the forest doing now? Were there more of those corrupted trees ahead? Two trees sidled toward each other, but he slid between them, turning sideways to fit. Why would they hamper his progress now? He had miles to run before he’d reach Mount Eredren and there was no one else out here except him, the ghost and the damned mystery which kept growing in scope.

“Get out of my way!” Sarn shouted as he veered to miss another tree scuttling on its roots right into his path.

The ground angled upward, and loose rocks cropped up with enough frequency to trip him. Forced to slow, he cursed the delay. Another tree snaked its trunk between two of its neighbors, weaving a wall. Skidding to a halt, Sarn glared at the trees blocking his path.

“Let me pass!” he shouted at them, but there was no reaction, not even a twitch of a leaf. “I have to reach my son.”

Sarn pounded his fists into their trunks, but they refused to budge. Creaking behind him signaled they’d cut off his escape. Roots scraped the leaf mold aside revealing a dirt surface. They beckoned, inviting him to come closer. When Sarn hesitated, a root scratched a symbol in the earth.

Sarn stared at proof of the forest’s intelligence. A mind drove this display but was it a hive mind or did each tree have a mind of its own? Was he about to receive answers to the questions he’d posed earlier?

The ghost pointed at the symbols, agitated by their presence. Sarn sighed. He might as well play along until he could escape. Maybe he’d learn something useful.

“What is this?” Sarn pointed to the first symbol.

In answer to his question, the roots wiped out their earlier drawing and redrew it. Sarn regarded the broken circles but failed to make anything of them.

“What does this mean?”

In answer, the roots traced something on the periphery. But without more precise tools, the addition made no sense. Sarn gave up asking when every question ended in the same result, the roots stabbing at a bunch of incomplete circles.

Annoyed at the delay, Sarn stood. He had to stay ahead of whatever had corrupted those trees, or he’d never reach his son. “I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me and I don’t have time to find out. Let me pass.”

Whirling, the ghost boy lobbed a rock between their sylvan jailors. Sarn scanned the shadows, but this time, no rats, roaches or other vermin populated them. Maybe the ghost was just frustrated with his lack of progress.

The north facing trees winched themselves closer together. Sarn checked his head map. The River Nirthal lay to the north, and so did Mount Eredren. Four red icons blossomed on his map. Sarn dove to the side as a branch stabbed the spot where he’d just stood. A tar-like substance oozed out of the cracks in its bark as the corrupted tree wiggled its trapped bough, but the earth held fast to it.

[_Sick, _]commented his magic.

Tell me something I don’t know like why this is happening.

As usual, his magic clammed up. Sarn put the question aside for now.

A gut-churning wrongness was leaking out of his attacker and seeping into the ground—not a good sign. Behind it, three more infected trees lumbered up. The enchanted trees barring his path sparred with them without shifting locations. Damn them.

Sarn tried to squeeze past his captors, but it was too late. The infection had spread to the ground under him, and it spawned grabby hands. Dodging them, he searched for a way out.

He had to get out of there before that infection infected him too. And it would. That crap was gunning for him. Turning, Sarn spotted a narrow gap on the west side. He slid through it and took off in a dead run up an incline. But the corruption shot through the earth liquefying it under his feet. Sarn leaped.

A wet tentacle seized his ankle, but he leaned into the fall, throwing his weight forward. His hands struck a boulder and catapulted him up and over. Momentum snapped his attacker’s grip. His hands found another stone, and he pushed off it, exploding into a series of round-offs. Midway across the brook, he twisted mid-air and caught a glimpse of a faceless giant made of mud right before he tucked and tumbled. His head map plugged into his hands guiding them to the next stone jutting out of the swift-moving water.

Sarn landed on the far side and vomited as the wrongness behind him spiked. The mud creature dove, angling under the brook’s bed. But Sarn was already running for the River Nirthal.

Enchanted trees shuffled past him heading towards the infected ones, and he veered around them. They swung at the mud creature slicing it in half. And then there were two chasing him. Sarn cursed and traded hiking for climbing when a rock wall interrupted his route.

The ghost boy popped up, shaking its head and chopping its hands through the air. Skidding on loose stones, Sarn just barely avoided another collision with the specter.

“Why don’t you want me to go this way? It’s not like I have a choice.” And at least a dozen mud creatures staggered toward him.

The ghost opened its mouth, but no sound emerged since a veil of silence divided the dead from the living.

Sarn rubbed his burning eyes. What could have spooked a ghost? His map rushed to the fore, and a new icon blinked red up ahead. It couldn’t be worse than what chased him.

Digging his fingers into the cracks in the stone, Sarn scaled a vertical cliff. His fingers tingled as green sparks shot across them, racing over his hands and up his arms. Every muscle the spark touched, it energized. Skin contact caused the map to update, adding information about the rock. Facts and figures he had become adept at ignoring scrolled past, exacerbating the ache throbbing behind his left eye. Something touched his mind then flitted away.

Sarn shook his head to clear it of the double vision, then the rock under his hands reshaped. Granite hands gripped him, and an image shot through his head. [_Yes, _]he understood. The rock hands extruded arms swinging him. On the third swing, it let go, and Sarn somersaulted onto a narrow precipice.

Below, stone fists punched out knocking the mud creatures down, buying him time. How long before those vile things found a way to make the climb? There was no way to tell.

Sarn swung his legs over the side and dropped onto another ledge his map pointed out. It knifed away from the rock formation and extended about a dozen feet out. Alarms rang in his head. What now? Hadn’t he dealt with enough weird things today? He obeyed the warnings and crawled out to the edge.

The ground dropped away in a steep valley. Five hundred feet down a group of orange-robed people boarded a small craft. He lost sight of it when the boat sailed behind a cluster of trees. A few minutes later, the boat reappeared, arrowing toward a longboat anchored off shore.

Nolo had said something about orange robes and danger. What order wore orange robes? Not a good one if Nolo had warned about them. A burning desire to know what he’d stumbled onto overrode caution. Sarn dropped onto a smaller ledge to access a rough trail snaking down to the river.

Halfway to the ground, he tripped when the ghost reappeared. More agitated than before, the specter waved translucent arms in a frantic negation. Sarn scrabbled for a handhold as he slid toward a two hundred and fifty-foot drop. His sleeve caught on a spur of rock, and he wrapped his fingers around it. Familiar green magic leaked out of his hands turning them sticky.

Sarn reeled himself in until he had a stable perch on an outcropping the size of his rump. He checked his backtrail, but it remained clear of monsters for now. [_Thank you, _]he patted the rock supporting his weight, grateful it was keeping his foes occupied.

The boat had returned, and more acolytes had boarded it. No flashes of orange on shore meant the larger vessel would cast off as soon as the last bunch boarded it. He needed to reach the shore, where he’d have an unobstructed view.

Turning, he placed one hand flat against the vertical rock wall. Like attracted like and his hand warmed as an emerald glow edged it. A second later, his hand stuck to the wall. Since the fall had ripped his trousers, he applied his bare knee to the rock adding a third point of stability. His right boot hit a stone protrusion, and it bore his weight.

Sarn descended until he could jump the remaining distance. Once on the beach, he rushed to the water’s edge, but the longboat had cast off already. Its profile faded into the setting sun. The gorge framed a slice of sapphire sky.

It was late afternoon of what day? Sarn dropped his head into his hands. A weekday, he cursed. Miren had school from ninth until sixteenth bell.

In exchange for food, the Foundlings babysat his son, but this morning, a jerk with a grudge had kidnapped him before he’d fetched breakfast. Gregori, you asshole. Sarn punched the rock wall. Magic sheathed his fist mid-air causing the wall to vibrate from the blow. Rocks broke loose and tumbled down forcing him to stumble backward into the river to avoid a concussion. Sarn flexed tingling fingers before lowering his hand to his side.

A small hand tugged at his heart, and the wind whispered his son’s name. Ran was a white star shining in the darkness of his head map. Was his son in trouble? Had the corruption reached Mount Eredren?

Papa come back!

I’m trying to.

Sarn reached into his map and didn’t stop until his fingers skimmed his son’s white star. Pain hammered a nail between his eyes. His map flickered, then exploded in a shower of sparks. Something dripped down his lips. Sarn tasted blood as the ground trembled, and the world grayed out.

“Where are you, Papa?” Ran asked, but his voice came from far, far away.

“Ran—?” The name ripped out of Sarn’s heart and left a ragged wound behind.

“Papa!”

At his son’s call, Sarn shifted from here to there and landed in a heap of elbows and knees. A shape leaned over his head, silhouetted against the white light blinding him. Pain exploded inside his head. Sarn screamed, and emerald tinged darkness dragged him down into its hungry maw.

“What’re you writing?” Ran fingered the rocks scattered around him. Thoughts of the little stories attached to each one reminded him of Papa. Papa had been gone for a long time.

Uncle Miren’s pen scratched at the paper in front of him ignoring Ran and his question.

Ran crawled to the straw tick. Sniffing, he found Papa’s scent—old wood, stale sweat and crushed pine needles. The spicy undercurrent of magic tied it all into an aromatic package he found comforting.

Papa had never stayed away so long. Bear looked at him with concerned button eyes and extended his fuzzy arms. Ran fell into them and remembered the seeds. Spinning them, he let their soft filaments tickle his fingers.

“Why aren’t you here Papa?” Ran sat up. The air felt lighter, warmer even—something had changed. Was Papa coming? Ran listened hard for the quiet tread of Papa’s boots and stared at the door willing him to come back.

A hazy outline of a man fell through the closed door. White and emerald fire edged his being, and he was long-limbed like Papa. His cloak pooled around him, infused with magic, making it shine.

“Papa!” Ran crashed into the translucent heap by the door and Papa’s magic enfolded him in warmth, brilliance, and love. Joy exploded in his chest as they were swept backwards. Pine needles brushed Ran’s face.

Their cave vanished leaving a purple afterimage staining the forest, but the trees too were fading into a gray place. Shadows sketched gnarled branches overhead then they too streaked past. Everything was rushing away. But it didn’t matter because Papa was back! Smiling, Ran hugged Papa. Far away, he heard the rustling of papers and the scratching of his uncle’s quill.

In time with Papa’s heartbeat, the magic’s light strobed around them. But it was the wrong color. White and green light poured out of Papa’s eyes as two kinds of magic clashed. Their struggle for dominance charged the air, heating it and making Ran’s hair stand on end. Without warning, two luminous bubbles pounced on Ran—one white and one emerald—they fought to cup him in their radiant protection. Ran smiled at their attention.

“Ran—?” Papa said, his voice sounding squeezed. His grip loosened and his arms fell back to his sides releasing Ran.

Were the dueling powers hurting Papa? Worry pushed Ran back a step to check and the cold damp of home stirred the hair on the back of his neck. In Papa’s eyes, two conflagrations battled it out—one white and one green. But Papa’s eyes only ever glowed green. And they usually had non-glowing white parts and a dark spot in the center, but both were missing.

“Papa? You look funny. Your eyes are all wrong.” Ran’s shoulder passed through Papa’s chest.

Papa screamed and collapsed clutching his head. When Papa hit the ground, he vanished. Their cave materialized around Ran, darker than before. The two orange lumir sticks lay on the table by Uncle Miren, but their glow seemed paltry in comparison.

“Who’re you talking to? Your father isn’t here,” Uncle Miren said without looking up from his homework.

“But Papa was here.”

“No, he wasn’t. You were talking to shadows.”

Ran shook his head. Where had Papa gone? “Papa come back!”

Threads of magic drifted in the musty air, and Ran twined his little fingers in the glowing gossamer. He walked backward, wrapping them around his body. Ran ignored his uncle’s continued demands since his uncle had ignored him for the last two bells.

Giving the remnants of Papa’s magic a good tug, Ran smiled. He had a line on his missing Papa. Clutching those shimmering cords, Ran curled up with Bear. He pulled on the promise binding them, reminding Papa he was waiting. Bear’s button eyes approved.

After a few minutes of asking questions Ran ignored, his uncle threw his hands up in disgust. Muttering something about ungrateful brats, Uncle Miren slammed his book on the table.

Score one for Team Bear. Ran hid a grin in Bear’s furry belly and maybe a giggle or two at getting a rise out of his uncle. A stray tear or two might have snuck down his cheek and dripped onto Bear’s soft nap. But Bear would never tell a soul about them, especially not Uncle Miren.

A roach scuttled across the mattress radiating malevolence. Ran stared at the concentric rings of red winking in and out of sight around the bug until Bear swatted it away.

“It was something bad,” Ran said.

Bear nodded.

Antennas poked over a pile of clothes tangling in the remnants of Papa’s magic. “Come back, Papa,” Ran begged, as he felt a tug on the tie binding him to Papa. Something bad gnawed at it.

“Wake up boy.”

A hand slapped his cheeks jarring Sarn out of sleep. He stared straight into the eyes of hell.

“You’re dead …”

Hadrovel smirked and faded out. A branch sliced through the spot the Orphan Master had occupied then withdrew as the enchanted oaks bending over him lashed out, blocking another attack.

Shaken, Sarn lay there wincing at the pain throbbing in his brow. Tentative probing revealed no external cause for the pressure squeezing his head. Had he hallucinated Hadrovel? Or was his ghost haunting him too?

When Sarn tried to sit up, his map tackled him, knocking him flat. He gritted his teeth as the map zoomed out to display a twenty-mile swath of the River Nirthal Valley. A fixed star pointed out his son, and it flickered demanding his attention. So did a half dozen unrecognizable icons converging on his position. Likely they were the possessed trees who’d tried to skewer him earlier.

Damn Gregori and his tests, how could the man do this to him and get away with it? And why’d he picked today of all days? Gregori, you selfish prick—Sarn punched the ground and last year’s leaves muffled the thud it made.

He shoved the map aside so he could rise without banging into any of the branches slashing at things outside their cordon. His map refused to minimize or become translucent. Instead, it obscured one eye forcing Sarn into a half-blinded stumble along the River Nirthal while he fumbled for an All-Fruit. Of course, Mount Eredren would lie on its opposing shore.

Pain still tapped hot spikes into his head, but its vise loosened a little more with every bite of the All-Fruit. Sarn stopped when the tide rolled over his boots soaking them.

[No, _]screamed[ _]his magic, recoiling.

[_Yes, _]said a new voice in his head—perhaps the other magic? Sarn shuddered. On his map, his son’s star icon brightened, calling to him. [_I’m coming, son. _]

[_Eam’meye erator. _]

That fell voice cut across the conflict raging behind a line of trees, silencing it. Sarn pivoted, dropping the All-Fruit core. The sun dropped behind a cliff plunging the shore into shadow. Black mud oozed between the enchanted trees in quivering, man-shaped lumps. The ghost boy shot past the creatures, dodging their still-forming arms and slammed into Sarn, knocking him backward into the river.

Water closed over Sarn’s head. Its frigid touch quenched the fire burning behind his eyes, snuffing out their glow. Green magic retreated deep into his body away from its enemy. In its wake, another power roused sensing a vacuum. But Sarn shoved it down and kicked toward the surface.

Clawing at the water, he fought the tide and surfaced. What had he felt stirring inside him? He had only one type of magic. Blinking to clear his eyes, Sarn caught glimpses of the world without the magic’s green filter. The forest on the north bank beckoned to him as he spat out a mouthful of water.

A black pyramid squatted a half mile down on the mud creature infested shore he’d just left. They ignored the obsidian monstrosity fashioned long ago by Litherian hands, but for how long? What were these things after?

A mountain overshadowed the ziggurat, and its lopsided cone was familiar. What was twenty miles east of Mount Eredren? Was it Racine? Sarn cursed. Of course, it was. What test would be complete without the risk of discovery? Damn Gregori to the coldest pit of hell for this.

A white shape swam up startling Sarn. The ghost boy tried to catch his eyes and gaze-lock him.

“No!” Sarn closed his eyes, and the tide pushed him toward Racine and discovery. Cold hands plucked at his clothes, catching his cloak as he swam on fighting the river. Sarn checked the mud creatures’ progress. Thank Fate they hadn’t found a way to cross the River Nirthal’s three-mile girth yet.

The last few hours’ insanity had to be related to the events of last night. There was no other explanation for them. Ergo, he should look forward to dodging more berserker trees and mud creatures—fan-fricking-tastic.

Switching tactics, the ghost boy pushed on his shoulders trying to sink him. And the sudden change reminded Sarn of one of his son’s favorite games. Did the ghost want to play with him? His mind rejected such reasoning, but his heart accepted it. A couple of days ago, the ghost had been a living child.

“Leave me alone! I have to reach the other shore.”

Ignoring his plea, the ghost knocked Sarn aside. Something grazed his ankle.

“Is there a monster in the river?”

The ghost boy nodded and urged Sarn to hurry. They’d almost reached the shore.

Dripping and cold, Sarn clambered onto the riverbank, and his magic swept the rocky beach. No corrupted trees or mud men waited for him. But for a moment, a face grinned at him from the depths before the waves washed it away. Sarn hurled a rock at Hadrovel’s hated visage then shook his head. Lack of sleep was making him hallucinate. Hadrovel was dead. He couldn’t be part of this.

Standing around losing his mind was not an option. Sarn had four hours until his shift began and Nolo noticed his absence. The wind cut through his wet garments making him shiver. Gregori would pay for this.

Magic pulsed under the earth, clean and welcoming. [_Come run with me, _]it whispered, vibrating his feet.

And why shouldn’t he? Shucking his boots, Sarn knotted the laces together and draped them over his shoulder. He dug his toes into the earth—much better. Magic seeped into his soles warming his feet as his connection to the earth sent energy tingling up his calves.

More magic in the earth meant more enchanted trees and other flora weaving an impassable mess and likely, more corrupted things to dodge. He had no time to deal with any of that right now.

“Papa?” Ran’s voice faded as it reverberated.

Small hands tugged on Sarn’s heart, jerking him toward his son. The world faded to gray. Purpose crystallized into a lens focusing his magic as emerald fire arced out connecting his goal to his destination. Magic spilled out hot and electric sweeping away his sanity.

“Papa come back—” Ran’s fearful voice trailed off.

“I’m coming. Hold on son.” Sarn gave the enchanted tangle before him a baleful glare.

The trees refused to budge. Green lightning crackled along his arms as Sarn threw them wide. Magic cascaded out of his hands forming a sparkling green wedge that slammed into the trees blocking him.

“Get out of my way.”

The ground quaked as the forest parted creating a straight path to Mount Eredren, twenty miles distant. Magic pushed up through the soles of his feet catapulting Sarn ten times further than his usual stride through a tunnel of trees. Hold on, son. I’m coming.

Chapter 10

Gregori followed Jerlo with a straight back and squared shoulders. If the commander wanted an admission of guilt or regret, he had a long wait. Once the Kid showed up, they’d know he was right.

“You’re awfully smug,” Jerlo said as he passed his office without sparing it a glance.

“Self-satisfied at a job well done yes, but not smug.” Gregori smiled. The commander had earned at least one ‘I told you so,’ and he looked forward to delivering it.

“What do you hope to gain by this?”

“What I said on the beach. The Kid’s got problems, but he’s not fragile. He won’t break if you push him, and we must push him. He’s got something inside him none of us understands. And we won’t if we don’t test him and discover his limits.” Gregori tapped his pocket where a list of further tests rested.

Jerlo refused to comment, giving no sign of whether he agreed or not. The commander hid his thoughts behind an expressionless façade as they turned down a corridor with little to recommend it.

The air grew musty, and the click of the two Rangers’ soles sounded ominous in the quiet. A helmed statue glared a challenge at them as they passed it.

“Where’re we going, sir?”

Jerlo answered by knocking on a door. Captain of the Guard was stenciled about midway on the iron-banded affair. From within, someone shouted, and Jerlo pushed the door open revealing two desks covered in papers. Nice to know the commander had company in his endless war against paperwork.

Unlike Jerlo’s office, this one had almost no décor at all, but it made up for the lack with weaponry. Racked against each wall were all kinds of edged playthings. Spears, staves, axes, pikes—they all had a place here. Since plate armor belonged to the Knights, the Guards had to use boiled leather and mail tunics. Piles of both occupied opposite corners of the room ready to square off at a moment’s notice. And a depiction of the Queen of All Trees hung amid all the trappings of war. Gregori shook off her eyeless stare. She was not here.

“What can I do for you?” asked a Guardsman in his late twenties rising from behind one of the desks. He adjusted his rumpled uniform of dark blue tunic and trousers drawing Gregori’s eyes to the insignia stitched on the fellow’s right pec. Two black spears crossed over a white barbute marking the man as part of the Guards.

A barbute rested on each of the desks with its Y-shaped slit for vision and breathing facing Gregori. How could anyone wear such a close-fitting metal helmet? One good bop on its metal dome would give the unfortunate wearer a headache.

Glad the Rangers employed lighter armor, Gregori dismissed the helm. A Ranger wearing yonder steel helmet would incite the metal-hating enchanted forest to murder.

“Actually, I came to offer you some help.” Jerlo leaned over the other desk and picked up a file. He flashed it to the Guard. “May I?”

“You came to look at the cold case file?”

Jerlo nodded as he flipped through the pages. “One, in particular, vexes me.”

“Only one?” The Guard’s brows rose in surprise. If you stuck him in a crowd, he’d blend right into it. This guard must be a secretary.

Jerlo shrugged. “If I had a heart, they’d all tug on it, but since rumor claims, I lack that organ, I’m spared such pain.” Jerlo gestured to the file and waved it at the nameless Guardsman perched on the edge of the opposite desk. “Nulthir and I meet weekly to discuss things. We keep each other appraised of developing situations and odd cases.” The commander gave Gregori a hard stare inviting him to make the obvious leap in logic.

Gregori nodded, catching onto what Jerlo left unsaid. The two men met to talk so the commander could control what the Guards knew about Sarn. Since the Guards policed the Indentured, they likely glimpsed the Kid coming and going. Sarn was a secret all the Rangers kept from the populace at large. Or they tried to when the stupid Kid cooperated.

Jerlo pulled a quarter-inch stack of pages from the file with a flourish. “Here they are. You recall these?” He passed the pages in question to Nulthir who scanned them then handed them back with a sad nod. Jerlo shoved them at Gregori. “Look at these and tell me what you think.”

Each of the twenty-seven pages in his hand represented a kid who had vanished in the last five years. All the missing were males between the ages of sixteen and twenty.

The snatched teens were from the working class, judging by the addresses. The average height of male Shayarins topped out at five foot ten, but all the missing boys were over six feet tall. It was a curious detail.

Shayari had a long history of immigration before Kaydran Ironwood closed the border and programmed it to keep everyone out. Thanks to immigration, Shayarins came in a variety of skin tones from corpse pale to jet black and every shade in between. The kidnapper had plenty of potential victims to choose from since Mount Eredren had a lot of young people, yet he or she had snatched light skinned boys.

Flipping back to the beginning, Gregori cursed as a profile built in his head, and it matched Sarn’s vital stats in every way save one. He had radiant green eyes, and no one knew he existed except the Rangers and the noble fool who owned him. Was the Kid in danger?

Five years ago, Vic Number One went missing three days after Sarn turned sixteen. Then five unlucky boys of the same age and description had vanished in the following eleven months. The pattern repeated each year but the victims’ ages increased. What did the perpetrator do with these boys? And why the eight-week gap between disappearances?

Gregori shook his head. So far this year, only three boys had gone missing, and they were all twenty. Paging back, he tallied up the months and nodded. If the pattern held true, the fourth boy would disappear sometime in July, the fifth in September and the sixth in November.

Did the perpetrator know about Sarn? The pattern indicated he did but what about the Guards?

Gregori met Jerlo’s gaze, but again, it gave nothing away. Perhaps guilt colored his perceptions. Gregori dropped his gaze to the page in front of him and started at a sketch of a boy with a similar facial scar. His gut clenched. Someone was definitely searching for Sarn and leaving missing boys in his wake.

“It’s a chilling pattern, isn’t it?” Jerlo said, taking the prize for understatement of the century.

“Hell yeah, I’ve got nephews in this age range—” Thanks to Ranispara’s sisters and their fecundity.

“I know. For their sake, I brought this to your attention.” Jerlo’s hard stare approved the subterfuge. Perhaps the Guards were not aware of the connection between the missing boys and the Rangers’ indentured servant.

“Is there more?” Gregori looked to Nulthir who nodded and got up from his perch. Flipping open a chest, he riffled through it and pulled out a thicker file.

Handing it across to Gregori, he grimaced. “If you know anything about what the hell is going on, I urge you to tell me at once.”

Gregori nodded. “Twenty-seven is a lot. A couple boys going missing is one thing. But this—” Gregori brandished the file, “—is a definite pattern pointing to something nefarious. You’ve got whatever help I can give.”

“We Rangers can’t operate inside the mountain,” Jerlo warned. “But a little information gathering never hurt anyone, now did it?” The commander had addressed his closing remarks to Nulthir, who nodded.

“I don’t see how it could as long as we’re copied on everything. This is our investigation.” Nulthir sighed, “and I have to deal with the grieving relatives.”

“Done and done, and if you’ve nothing to add, we’ll take our leave.”

Nulthir said nothing as he collapsed into the padded chair behind his desk. He looked worn around the edges. For a long moment, the captain of the Guards blinked at his interrupted correspondence before pawing around for his quill.

Jerlo swung the door open and ushered Gregori out before either said what they were thinking. How could this fiend know about Sarn?

The file in Gregori’s sweating hand was a millstone, crushing him with worry. Five years ago, the Kid had healed up enough to need occupation, so Ranispara had taken him on patrol. Could the kidnapper have seen the Kid then?

As they entered Jerlo’s office, Reptilian eyes glared at Gregori demanding an answer. He sat surrounded by Jerlo’s newest acquisition—a quartet of man-sized dragons. The commander’s obsession had gone way beyond good taste. But it was his office, and Jerlo could surround himself with depictions of giant, bat-winged serpents if he chose. It would be nice if he left a dragon-free zone for visitors.

But the answer was yes. Someone could have seen Sarn then. Gregori cursed, and for once, Jerlo let him.

The commander’s steady gaze confirmed his thoughts ran on a parallel track. “You agree these disappearances are too regular to be a coincidence?”

Gregori bounced the file on his knee. “No argument here. Boys go missing every January, March, May, July, September and November as regular as Mount Eredren’s bells. Worse still, the six boys who disappear each year are always the same age as Sarn. That’s not a coincidence. It’s a message.”

“Agreed. Reports of the boys who vanished in November all arrived within three days of the Kid’s birthday. Once is a coincidence, five is a warning.” Jerlo squared a stack of papers, so it lay even with the two piles flanking him.

“What’s this person or persons doing with them? Is he kidnapping young men for kicks?”

“We need to find out.”

“Do you have a theory?”

Silence rolled a tense blanket over them. There were only two ways kidnapping could end—death or slavery. Shayari had a profitable skin trade flourishing despite the illegality of it.

“Will we find a pile of bodies somewhere? I’m not sure I can handle such a gruesome sight.” Gregori shifted the file, but it still weighed him down.

“I don’t know.”

“We have to do something. If there is someone out there making these boys disappear, we must stop him. We can’t let him get his hands on Sarn.” Gregori squeezed the file until his knuckles ached.

They had to prevent the Kid from falling into the hands of another psychopath. Bad enough it had happened once. Gregori rubbed his eyes to wipe away the images, and his fingers came away wet. One glance could have saved everyone a lot of grief. And he’d regret that for the rest of his life.

“How long have you known about this?”

Jerlo collapsed into a chair behind his desk. He picked up a dragon-shaped inkwell then set it down. “Not long, Nulthir only took over as captain in late January. And those meetings I mentioned were his idea. Oh, I had meetings with his predecessor, but they were more of a quarterly thing, and we didn’t say much at them. He brought this to my attention maybe a month ago when it became apparent there was a pattern. I asked him to do some digging to see if there were others and you’re looking at the results.”

Gregori drummed his fingers on the file. Another three victims would vanish before year’s end unless someone stopped this. “You want me to find this creep before he finds Sarn.”

Jerlo wagged a finger. “I want us, the Rangers, to put a stop to this. Whatever this thing is, it has to end.”

“Can we put the Kid under armed guard day and night in the meantime?”

Jerlo covered his face with his hands. “We could, but I don’t want the Kid to know about this. He has enough problems.”

“But how can we keep him safe when we don’t know where he goes by day?”

Jerlo turned his dragon-shaped inkwell, and its eyes bored into Gregori. “We don’t have to. The Kid’s difficult to find because of where he goes.”

“And where does he go?”

“Reread the file, and you’ll understand.”

Leafing through the case summaries a second time, Gregori looked up startled by a sudden realization. Lord Joranth had indentured Sarn six years ago. His Indentured status restricted the Kid’s movements in and around the mountain stronghold. But none of the twenty-seven missing boys were indentured.

“The Kid lives with the rest of the Indentured in the ‘Lower Quarters.’ Either the kidnapper doesn’t know or can’t go down there himself.”

Jerlo nodded. “You hit on my working theory. If he were operating in the Lower Quarters, we might not have found out about the disappearances at all.”

“How do you know he goes down there?”

Jerlo showed his teeth in a predator’s imitation of a smile then let the strange expression go. “I’ve had him tailed often enough to be certain. There are reports of him using the most trafficked entrances to the place over the years. And no, I don’t know exactly where in that rat’s nest he lives.”

Gregori drummed his fingers on the file. Catching this creep would be tough. They had no proof of anything. All they had were a whole lot of suppositions.

Jerlo looked Gregori square in the eye. “No more tests, do you hear me?

Gregori looked away and nodded. “I’ll keep both eyes on the Kid as often as I can, and I’ll get on this right now unless you have something else?”

“There’s one more thing.”

Silence followed Jerlo’s ominous announcement. Shadows stretched long fingers from the edges of the cluttered office drawing Gregori’s eyes to the floor-to-ceiling dragon statues. He shuddered as their glowing crystal eyes fixed on him.

Jerlo leaned back in his bureaucratic throne, and his hands caressed its dragon-head arm rests. “Do you know what an ‘irreplaceable asset,’ is?”

Gregori could have taken a stab at defining the term, but this was Jerlo’s show, and the commander was building up to something big. Better if he let the man get to it in his own time and manner. So he shook his head.

“The Kid—Sarn—is an irreplaceable asset. You’d better pray he returns in good health. If he doesn’t, you’ll inherit his debt, and you can bet your ass Lord Joranth Nalshira will prosecute you.”

Jerlo’s hooded eyes tracked every twitch of his quarry. “Under title 42, chapter 21, section 1982, you’re facing at least sixty years of hard labor to work off the useful lifespan of the irreplaceable asset you lost.”

Gregori goggled at his boss—sixty years of hard labor because of one stupid test?

Jerlo swiveled his chair to the left, lifted a dusty tome off a nearby stack and shoved it at Gregori. Its leather cover strained to hold onto the three-inch stack of papers it housed.

“You’re looking at the entire Shayarin legal code. The loose pages are recent amendments. You’ll find the relevant laws highlighted on pages 1299-1303. Read the marked passages subtitled ‘Indentured’ and ‘Irreplaceable Assets’ if you don’t believe me. Or I could quote them to you, your choice.”

Gregori pawed at the cracking cover with nerveless fingers. No way would they send him to prison.

“This is a grave matter. One you obviously aren’t taking seriously enough. I thought our chat three years ago had put an end to this issue, but I was wrong.”

“The Kid’s not irreplaceable. They must have a dozen boys like him at the Flesh Market.” As soon as the words left Gregori’s mouth, he wanted to retract them. They were the exact wrong thing to say. And the Flesh Market itself was a horrible thing.

“No, there’s no one else like the Kid, not at the Flesh Market, maybe not even in this country. If you don’t believe me, swing by their stalls. All you’ll find are pale imitations.”

“How do you know?” Gregori shoved the legal code away from him.

Jerlo raised a mocking brow. “How do you think?”

No, it was too horrible to contemplate. How could Jerlo visit those slave pens?

“When did you go there?”

“After what I thought was the last test. Three years ago, the Kid crawled back, so dizzy from a concussion he couldn’t stand up. I needed to know how much trouble you were in if he didn’t recover.”

“But he did recover. There’s not a mark on him from the previous test.”

“Yes, and I thought I’d put the fear of God in you then. But you spirited him off again, and this time, the stakes are higher.” Jerlo stabbed the title stamped on the book’s cover with his index finger. “Mark my words, the Kid is irreplaceable for more reasons than you realize. I can’t protect you from Lord Joranth’s wrath. I warned you three years ago. You should have heeded my warning.”

Well, Gregori was heeding it now. The stupid Kid had better return in one piece. Gregori picked up the file and rose from his chair feeling flayed by their conversation.

“Is there anything else?” he asked, managing to keep his voice firm even though inside he was quaking.

Jerlo waved at his office door, in a clear dismissal. “Keep this all quiet for now but see what you can find out. I want to break the disappearances to the others in stages. I don’t want anyone jumping to any conclusions until we know more about what’s going on.”

Gregori nodded, he could picture Ranispara and Nolo’s reactions to the kidnappings. They’d both stroke over it. But there was no need to worry them yet.

“What about the Kid? He should know to watch his back.”

Jerlo shook his head. “Don’t tell Sarn about any of this.”

“Why? The Kid has a right to know.”

“The Kid has enough problems. I’m ordering you to say nothing to him about any of what we discussed.”

Gregori met his boss’ steely stare but dropped his gaze when the commander’s eyes bored too deep for comfort. “Yes, sir.”

“Good.”

Gregori left, closing the inner door to Jerlo’s office with more force than necessary. A sick feeling erupted in the pit of his stomach pushing him into a lumbering run. What if the kidnapper had been on the boat? It was more than possible given the two-month span between reported disappearances.

Gregori poured on more speed, taking the twists and turns shouting for folks to make a hole. What if instead of a test, he’d handed the Kid a one-way ticket to death or slavery?

Chapter 11

“What the hell does he want?” Ranispara pointed eastwards.

Nolo looked where she’d indicated but stopped when he caught sight of Gregori heading their way.

“What are you doing here?” Nolo asked the man who’d just walked within earshot.

“What do you think? I came to see if my little experiment worked. By the looks of things, it did.” Gregori turned smug eyes eastwards and crossed his arms over his chest.

The man looked unrepentant and unpunished. What penalty had the commander imposed?

“What experiment? What did you do to him?” Nolo grasped his friend by his tunic and shook him. Tired from all his scheming, Gregori swayed.

“You look awful.” Nolo steadied his friend and let go of him. Later he could square things between them. Right now, nothing else mattered except getting Sarn back safe and sound.

“Good, he deserves it,” Ranispara muttered.

“It’s been a busy day.” Gregori shrugged and put some distance between himself and everyone else.

Maybe he thought his fellow Rangers intended to engage in more fisticuffs. The thought had crossed Nolo’s mind, but he put it away. Another fracas would do no one any good, least of all Sarn.

They all turned their attention back to the line of trees beyond the twin stone circles. A tense silence enfolded them as the forest divided. Trees stood like two armies facing each other across a narrow battlefield.

Nolo jogged toward it, followed by Ranispara and Gregori. Enchanted monoliths framed an honest to God pathway, creating a straight shot through the forest for an uncountable number of miles.

Gregori laughed so hard he had to lean against a menhir to stay on his feet. “Oh, you brilliant boy—I knew you had it in you.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Speak sense man,” Nolo demanded, rounding on his friend.

Gregori shook his head unable or unwilling to get a grip on his mirth.

A rhythmic pounding interrupted further attempts to get the man talking. All eyes returned to the forest as it erupted into a sea of grappling branches.

“What’s happening?” Gregori retreated, his eyes wide and horror-filled.

“Stay back!” Nolo threw out an arm and shoved Ranispara behind him.

Two refulgent green ribbons shot out of the sylvan chaos cleaving a path through the violence. But as Nolo watched, the ribbons sparked and frayed as they broke apart. The pathway narrowed as the fighting trees gave ground. Before it disappeared completely, Sarn slid through the gap.

Nolo caught the Kid before he collapsed and dragged him across the circle of menhirs. A black branch coated in tar slammed into the cordon the stones maintained. For a moment, the air between the menhirs fluoresced a soft white then faded as the branch shattered in a shower of black sparks. Not one passed within the circle. They were saved by the Queen of All Trees’ blessing.

Remembering his charge, Nolo shook the Kid. “Sarn? Talk to me.”

While Sarn stared off, his emerald eyes bled the fire filling them, sending radiant rivers coursing down his pale face.

“Let go of me.” Sarn struggled against the arms holding him up.

“Can you stand on your own?”

Sarn nodded, and the arms fell away, freeing him. The magic cast everything into shades of green, but a few slow blinks banked the fire in his eyes allowing other colors to filter back in.

Gregori opened his mouth to say something asinine, but Sarn coldcocked the Ranger before he had a chance. Gregori dropped to the ground, but the thud of his body hitting the earth left Sarn empty, spent and now sporting sore knuckles. For some reason, the magic had elected not to soften the blow. He shook his smarting left fist and stepped over Gregori’s prone form. Nolo stepped in front of Sarn forcing him to halt.

“Let me go. You owe me.”

Nolo looked him over, but before the Black Ranger could speak, Sarn shook his head. He chopped both hands through the air in negation.

“I won’t go to the fu—” Sarn broke off. Cursing would piss off his master, and he still needed an official dismissal. Damn his indenture and its stipulations. Sarn took a breath and tried again. “I don’t need to go to the infirmary. I just need to rest.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands to stop their burning. “Let me go. Please?”

Sarn let his hands fall back to his sides and checked to see if his plea had any effect. He started when he noticed the struggle beyond the menhirs. Had the corruption reached Mount Eredren? Was it in his cave? He poked his sixth sense, but it ignored his question. Maybe his magic was tired.

“It can’t pass. We’re safe from whatever is happening out there. And here, I brought you something to eat.” Inari gestured to a basket slung over one arm. She stood inside the second ring of standing stones, on the meadow side.

“You’d better do as she says and eat something. You don’t look so good,” Ranispara said as she stepped over her husband’s prone form. She gave Sarn a dip of the chin acknowledging something.

Hunger assailed Sarn. He wanted Inari to be right, but his gut disagreed. His boots slid off his shoulder and thudded on the ground. Sarn ignored them and staggered toward Inari and her basket of goodies. What culinary masterpiece lay under the checked fabric? Lead filled his legs, but when he crossed the threshold, he met no resistance. Nothing hindered him except his exhausted muscles and this curious lightness.

Was he floating? Could he fly back to his son? A quick downward glance confirmed both his numb feet touched the ground. Sarn swayed. Had Inari retreated or had the world receded? The ground rose to meet Sarn cushioning his fall. He lay there unable to move as three voices blurred together. They tossed around the dreaded I-word—infirmary.

“I’m not hurt,” he said or tried to as everything blurred then faded to black. I’m sorry son. I tried.

Nolo rushed forward too late to catch the toppling youth. Sarn lay flat on his belly and mumbled something about killer trees and mud men. His body tensed and shook as a seizure claimed him.

Everything stopped, and the sudden silence drew all their gazes to the forest. Not a single branch moved. All the trees’ attention focused on the Kid thrashing at Nolo’s feet.

“Stay back.” He threw out his arms to hold back Ranispara and his wife. “Give him room. It won’t last long.”

“How long?” Inari asked. “How long has he suffered like this?”

Nolo met her concerned eyes but said nothing. He had to concentrate to gauge the length and severity of the seizure. Come on Kid, snap out of it. You’ve survived worse.

“How long has this been going on?” Inari’s question cut across the pep talk looping in Nolo’s head.

“Since Hadrovel,” Ranispara answered, taking the burden of explanation on her slender shoulders. “We don’t know if it happened before that monster got ahold of him.”

“I thought there wasn’t any brain damage?” Inari’s dark eyes shot back and forth between her husband and her friend seeking confirmation.

Ranispara shook her head, and looked away but not before Nolo saw the same regret feasting on her.

“The Kid’s been knocked around a lot. The incident—” Nolo had to stop. Talking about that incident raised memories in all their gory detail. He swallowed regret, and it burned all the way down. Why had he ignored the Kid? Sarn had run away four times before he’d thought to investigate. Hadrovel had played the part of a shocked guardian well. No suspicion had fallen on the beast until it was too late.

“Repeated head trauma,” Ranispara volunteered, answering Inari’s question.

Perhaps she still saw a bandage-swathed Sarn clinging to life on a spare cot. No matter how many times he’d apologized, the Kid still waited to be handed over to his abuser, a man long since executed for his crimes. Movement drew Nolo’s eye to his wife, and he blinked at her as he returned to the conversation at hand.

“The incident was five years ago. Are you telling me you’ve done nothing to help?” Inari’s spine firmed, and her dark eyes hardened—a sure sign of trouble. There stood the huntress who’d captured his heart more than a decade past—a heart now divided by conflicting loyalties. Every day drove a wedge deeper into the gap, widening it.

Ranispara nudged Nolo with her hip. “You better answer her.”

The seizure ebbed, and Sarn stilled. Nolo knelt and rolled the Kid onto his back, so he could check for signs of life.

Inari sank down on Sarn’s other side. “Answer me. Isn’t there something you can do to prevent this?”

“Yes, there is, and we’re doing it,” Jerlo said. No one had heard his approach. The instant he’d spoken, they’d all flinched. “How’s the Kid? Is he still breathing?” Jerlo nodded to Sarn. The commander stood behind Inari with his ink-stained hands clasped in front of him.

“Yes, and I can guess who caused the seizure.” Nolo transferred his gaze to Gregori, who showed signs of returning consciousness. He glared murder at his semi-conscious friend.

“Stress definitely,” Ranispara said holding up one finger. She nudged her husband’s side with her boot. “Did you leave him with any food or water?”

“What, No, I taught the Kid how to forage for himself. So I left him to it. There’s plenty to eat in there if you know where to look, and he does.” Gregori rubbed his head and sounded less groggy than expected. “The Kid’s got a mean left.”

“You deserved it.”

Nolo nodded to Ranispara in complete agreement with her. Magic might have also caused the seizure, and it would explain the light he’d seen corralling those trees, but not their striving. What the hell had gone on out there?

“So, let’s review. We have stress, no food or water except what the Kid can rustle up if he bothered. We have an untold number of miles he ran on no sleep through a bunch of warring trees. Did I miss anything?” Ranispara shot her husband a glare, and it dented his ego.

“You’re making it sound worse than it was.” Gregori picked at a grass stem.

“Am I? I’m laying out the facts as I see them. You should have thought this through.” Ranispara shrugged.

“Enough. This isn’t helping. And someone had better explain that warring trees comment.”

Jerlo shot Nolo a look ordering an explanation, but all he could do was shrug. Sarn would have to explain when he woke up.

“Shouldn’t he have come around?” Inari’s hands hovered over Sarn. She hesitated for a moment more then let them drop into her lap.

“No, he usually stays out cold for a while following one of these episodes.” Nolo rose and swung the Kid over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “We’re drawing too much attention.”

His wife’s gaze questioned his actions. “Can you move him without harming him?”

“It never has before.” Ranispara left off interrogating her husband and moved to stand by Inari. She placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder and squeezed.

“Where are you taking him?” Jerlo fell into step with Nolo.

“Where do you think—the infirmary.”

“He forbade that or did you forget?” Ranispara said.

Before Nolo could reply, the weight left his shoulders as Gregori took his burden from him.

“Least I can do,” the man muttered. He carried Sarn, like a lost and broken child, draped across both arms.

“He won’t stay in the infirmary.” Jerlo shook his head. “He’ll bolt the second he wakes.”

“Where else can we stash him, so he’s out of sight?”

Who could they trust with the secret of his existence? Nolo waited for an answer. When it came, it surprised him, but he could find no fault with it.

Sarn woke to dragons. They stretched their wings on one panel and torched a turret on a wall hanging. In still another, a dragon rose out of a lake trailing watery wings. On a nearby bookcase, dragon sculptures pranced, lazed and stood claws ready to rend. Paintings, murals, and tapestries competed for space on the walls. Statues fought with furniture for floor space. Every single one of them captured dragons in full color and splendor.

Sarn levered himself up from the divan. Dragons cavorted on the carpeting and upholstered the chairs as well. Only one person was obsessed with dragons—Jerlo. Great, he sat now in the commander’s lair at the man’s mercy. Sarn buried his face in his hands as he propped his elbows on his knees to wait.

A door opened, and Jerlo made deliberate noises as he approached. Some Rangers claimed thoughts of the commander summoned him. Other rumors claimed the commander employed a legion of spies who had secret methods of signaling him. However, neither was the case here. The commander must have heard the divan creek when he’d shifted his weight on it. Likely the lacquered door Jerlo had entered by led to his office.

The clink of glassware tempted Sarn to lower his hands. Thirst burned in his throat. A glass of water ringed the head of a dragon battling a tentacular creature on a nearby table. To avoid talking, Sarn guzzled the water, soothing his throat.

“Now tell me everything you’ve done since the last time I saw you.”

Jerlo took the wingback chair across from Sarn. It too bore dragons picked out in gold and orange. Jerlo’s collection of dragon-themed stuff managed not to clash with itself. Arranging items with complementary colors near each other had helped.

Where should he start? Would the commander believe any of it? Sarn put the glass down. He wanted more water, but he refused to ask for it. How could he possibly explain what had happened out there when so much of it was inexplicable?

“Tell everything. Leave out nothing.” Jerlo leaned back, and the chair swallowed him. But the commander’s personality loomed large, overshadowing Sarn.

Sarn pushed to his feet needing the height advantage nature had given him. But Jerlo’s presence expanded until it filled the room, dwarfing him even more than before. Sarn sat. After all the running, he had no energy to pace.

“Talk,” shadows veiled Jerlo’s face. The man had chosen a chair outside the glow of Sarn’s eyes on purpose. The commander gave nothing away.

“You know what happened.”

“Talk, and you can go. Refuse, and we can spend all night here.” Jerlo’s words struck Sarn hard.

“It’s night already? How long was I out?”

“Not long enough, but by the looks of you, you’ll remedy that soon if you talk.”

“Didn’t Gregori tell you?”

“We had a chat, yes. He won’t do it anymore. It’s over.”

“You made the same claim three years ago.” Sarn shoved a hand through his hair. His head still felt light, but not as if it might float off his shoulders. Maybe he needed to eat something. He pressed his bony elbows into his thighs again and leaned his forehead against his wrists.

Somewhere deep inside him, a child raged against the bars of his silence. [_Why did you hand me over to that monster? _]

Sarn fought the question as memory and reality mixed. Hadrovel’s hand gripped his bruised shoulder hard, and Sarn winced. But Jerlo never looked up.

[_“Take him and go,” _]the commander had said. “[_Next time keep a closer eye on your ward.” _]He kept flipping through the papers on his desk as blood ran down Sarn’s arm and dripped onto his boot.

“Off topic, but you’re right. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” Jerlo tapped the table recalling Sarn to the here and now.

The memory receded leaving Sarn stunned. He couldn’t have heard that right. “What did you say?”

“I said I thought I’d put the fear of God in him. Now I have—”

“Him who?”

Jerlo slapped the table and made the glassware jump. “Pay attention. You know damned well who I’m talking about—Gregori and his ill-timed ‘test.’ Which won’t happen again. I’m not asking you to trust me. You don’t do trust. Fine, I get it. Let’s move on to what I want to know.” Jerlo speared him with those impenetrable black eyes.

Sarn sat up straight. “Is this an apology?”

“What did you think it was? Never mind, I don’t want to know.” Jerlo rubbed the bridge of his nose.

But it couldn’t be an apology. The commander never apologized to anyone for anything. No, the man wanted something. Well, so did Sarn.

“If I tell you what you want to know, I can go? No healers? No stops at the infirmary?”

Jerlo almost smiled, but his facial muscles found the expression too alien to carry off. So they fell back into their customary line. “Got it in one, talk and you’re out of here free and clear until tomorrow night.”

The bells of Mount Eredren rang twenty times announcing the hour.

“When tomorrow night?” Sarn pushed.

“Twentieth bell, are you satisfied?”

Sarn sat on the edge of his seat ready to seize the promise dangling in front of him. A full twenty-four hours he could spend catching up on sleep, safeguarding his son, and doing some much-needed brotherly bonding. Magic infused his voice when he spoke. “You promise? If I tell you what you want to know, I’m free for twenty-four bells? Yes? No healers, no minders of any kind?”

Jerlo nodded.

“Swear it. Swear to what I said. Swear to it all, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.” Magic rang in his voice, twisting his words into one-half of a chain, and he let it. He’d do anything to secure such a promise.

Jerlo looked discomfited, but he nodded. “Have it your way. Tell me what I want to know, and you can go. No one will hinder you, but you must return in twenty-four bells to my office. To this, I swear.”

The magic freed itself from the bonds of flesh and bone. Rising, it captured the commander’s words and bound them by their terms. Sarn sagged in relief. He was almost out of there.

“Dawn came, and so did Gregori. He told me he had something for me to do. We went down to the docks, and I woke up in the middle of nowhere. I ran and ran and ran until I got back here. I struck Gregori, and I woke up here.”

Sarn pushed to his bare feet and stopped. His boots rested against a statue of a dragon whose wings curled over a basket. A familiar checked handkerchief covered baked goodies, and their fruity scent made his mouth water. He stumbled over to them, catching himself on bookshelves and dragon statues.

“And the warring trees? What about them?”

Sarn froze. So they weren’t a hallucination. “I don’t know what that’s about.” But he had a few guesses he wasn’t ready to share yet. The hollow feeling in his belly demanded food, so he grabbed his boots and the basket and fled before Jerlo withdrew his promise. As he ran, he wondered how long he had to solve the riddle of the ghost, and the murders, before whatever happened to them targeted someone else.

Sarn stuffed an oversized muffin oozing sweet cherry jam into his mouth. He leaned against a wall in an alcove formed by a dip in the tunnel’s wall. Rock protrusions on either side hid him from sight, but not the glow of his eyes. Jerlo’s office crouched in its corner a half mile away in a more trafficked tunnel.

Crumbs tickled his throat making him cough. Uncapping a flask provided with the meal, he took a swig and almost spat it out. He took a cautious sip of the tea but detected no astringent aftertaste this time. Inari would never drug him but Jerlo might. The tea did its job, and he quit coughing. Capping the flask, he placed it and the basket on the ground. He’d just finished tying his boots when he heard footsteps.

Nolo raised both hands making it clear he’d come in peace. His dark eyes performed a head to toe scan.

What did the man see—a deer in lumir light? Why now did he look? Why not then when he’d needed to be seen and rescued? Sarn shook off his surprise. Death’s Marksman had a unique aura—one Nolo donned at will. Which explained why Sarn’s sixth sense had issued no warning.

“Are you alright?” Nolo asked. His glance must not have reassured him. Damn.

Sarn held up a hand palm out. “I won’t go to the infirmary.”

“I figured. You never want to go there.” Nolo crossed his arms over his chest and concern painted his black face.

Sarn gave his laces one last jerk. “Thank your wife for the muffins.” He handed the basket to Nolo on his way past the man.

Ignoring the basket, Nolo stepped into his path and blocked the way.

Sarn looked down at Nolo from his superior height. “Let me pass. Jerlo let me go for the night.”

“Not until we talk.”

Sarn spun on his heel and walked away. It was the wrong direction. A fact his head map pointed out, but he ignored the arrow pointing toward his master. The map would reroute him in a moment.

Nolo followed. The Ranger had a point to make, and the man would remain until he’d said his piece. “What Gregori did was wrong. Ranispara and I had no part in it. Neither did Jerlo.”

“I know.” Sarn punched the wall. Magic sheathed his fist causing it to bounce off unharmed, so he kicked the wall instead. Magic raced over his toes encasing them in a bubble of protection. But the wall stayed solid this time, and his boot struck it hard enough to produce the desired bang.

Nolo leaned a shoulder against the wall mere inches from where Sarn had struck it. “Better?”

Sarn shook his head. “Why did he do it? Did he say what fucked up logic drove him to it?”

“Language.”

“I’m not on duty. I can curse if I want to.” Sarn folded his arms under his cloak. But he let them drop when he realized he’d adopted the same pose as Nolo. “Did you come here to apologize for him?”

Nolo shook his head. “I wanted to make sure you’re all right.”

Sarn spread his arms wide. “You’ve seen what you needed to see. Now let me go.”

Nolo nodded and gestured back the way they’d come.

Sarn left still holding the basket.

“Did he hurt you?”

The question stopped Sarn in his tracks. “No, he drugged me and left me.”

“And the fighting trees? What about them?”

“They chased me, but I got away. Can I go now?”

Silence dropped between them pregnant with the m-word. Sarn waited, but Nolo didn’t ask if he’d used magic. Maybe the answer was obvious. What would Nolo do if he admitted it?

“Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow. Say hello to your brother for me.”

“I will.”

Knowing a dismissal when he heard one, Sarn fled with his eyes lighting the way, but not the mysteries of the past twenty-four hours. Those were his to resolve when he figured out how.

Each step sent pain jolting through tired muscles. Running through tunnels abandoned by decent folk, Sarn sneezed as his steps raised clouds of dust. Covering his nose and mouth with a fold of his cloak helped. But his eyes burned until another twist sent him shooting down a staircase, leaving the dust cloud behind. Maybe it would settle out in the right places to obscure some of his prints.

Sarn let his senses stretch out as his map rushed to the fore, and he almost tripped. Slamming his shoulder into the wall enclosing the stairwell helped him stay upright, so did the map fading to an overlay. Symbols popped up, but they remained clustered in several galleries far from his position. Good, Nolo had stayed behind.

Taking the stairs three at a time, Sarn sped down the two hundred plus steps to the third level below ground. He exited through a rough hole to a tunnel dog-legging into the Lower Quarters. Slowing, Sarn searched for anyone on an intercept course.

People symbols occupied the nearby tunnels, but no one appeared to be on a parallel path. Ditto for perpendicular tunnels but the situation would change. Down here dwelt an awful lot of people.

Thoughts of this place’s population switched on the part of his magic obsessed with numbers. An ache blossomed behind his left eye as a counter appeared in the bottom right corner of the map. Before Sarn cut it off, its tally had jumped to a thousand.

Ahead, a gauntlet of broken stone waited. His cave waited near the other end. Relief energized Sarn as he cleared the last obstacle between him and his son.

Chapter 12

Sarn scanned the door for signs of forced entry. Finding no new dents, he crossed one worry off his list. No one had bothered his family during his absence, but something still felt off. He pushed the door, and it opened, catching him off guard. It should be locked.

Ran popped through the gap. Lit by joy, he smiled and bounced up and down chanting, “You’re back!”

Sarn throttled back his paranoia. Miren must have unlocked the door at some point and forgotten to relock it. Worry slid off his shoulders staggering him. Sarn leaned against the lintel to collect himself.

Ran stopped bouncing around, his face darkening with worry.

“Yes, I’m back.” Sarn ruffled his son’s hair before the boy could say a word returning the smile to his lips.

A storm cloud rolled in wearing Miren’s face. Sarn bit back a curse at the hurricane brewing in his brother’s eyes, but it was too late. The words were already out of his mouth. “Why was the door unlocked?”

Miren ignored his question. “Where have you been?”

“Running,” Sarn said, and his magic allowed it because it was the truth. “Lots of running and I’m tired. Can we talk about this later?” Never would be preferable but Miren would only give him so much leeway.

Ad-ven-ture—you promised.” Ran crossed his arms over his chest and regarded Sarn with expectant eyes.

“Tomorrow before I go back to work.”

“You promise?”

Sarn nodded, wondering how he would find the answers he needed and take his son on an outing. Tomorrow he could figure that out. Ran glared until he received a verbal acknowledgment. “I promise.”

“You’ve been running for twenty-four hours?” Miren clenched his fists.

“For a good part of it, yes.”

“And the rest?”

The rest he refused to discuss. Sarn’s stomach growled. Ran tipped the basket searching it for crumbs.

“No food?” Ran’s face fell when Sarn shook his head.

Sarn’s gaze swung to his brother. “Have you eaten?” He needed the answer to be yes. Climbing all those stairs was unappealing right now.

Ran shook his head. “I’m hungry.”

“No, we haven’t eaten. We were waiting for you.” Miren brushed past Sarn and slumped onto a three-legged stool. The disgruntled teen slammed around the books littering the table.

Why had his brother returned from class without grabbing something to eat? Even juggling his crutch and schoolbooks, he could have grabbed something for Ran. Every day, the brat passed the middle kitchen on his way to and from school.

[_Aren’t you overreacting a tad, _]asked his conscience. Maybe he was. It was so hard not to since he’d raised Miren.

Sarn set the basket inside their cave before his son could climb into it. “Then I’d better get us something to eat.” And calm down. Sarn stalked away, Ran at his heels.

“Wait—shouldn’t he stay here?” Miren asked from inside the cave.

Ran’s chin firmed, and he shook his head. Standing on tiptoe, he grasped Sarn’s hand. No more separation, the boy’s eyes begged. But aloud Ran said, “I go with you.”

Sarn nodded.

Ran’s shoulders sagged in relief, and a tentative smile played at the corners of his lips.

“Sarn?”

“It’s okay. He can come with me.” Sarn squeezed his son’s hand. Thank Fate he had planned for such eventualities. Paranoia had its benefits.

The instant they turned a bend, Ran launched into a full report of all his doings. Sarn half-listened until a comment caught him flatfooted.

“You spent the whole day with my brother?”

Ran nodded. “He wouldn’t play with me.”

Hearing the tap-scrape-tap of his brother’s crutch-assisted gait, Sarn turned. His glare fell full force on Miren. “Why didn’t you go to school?”

He’d traded his freedom for his brother’s education, and Miren had blown it off as if it meant nothing. Sarn’s blood boiled. Everything he’d been through in the last twenty-four bells had been to pay for Miren’s schooling. This wasn’t even the first time this month Miren had skipped school.

_Maybe I should have sent myself to school. _

No, Sarn told the regret pricking his heart. Miren is the smart one, the normal one, the one with a shot at future. Miren deserves the finest education I can provide.

“And who’d have watched him if I had?” Anger sparked in Miren’s eyes as the teen gestured to Ran.

Ran pointed to his chest, his little face clouding with confusion.

“The Foundlings—I have a deal with them. Did they refuse?” Oh, if they had, they could kiss regular meals goodbye.

“Ow,” Ran said reminding Sarn to loosen his grip. None of this was his son’s fault.

“Sorry,” he said, but he held onto his son’s hand.

“No, I didn’t ask them.” Miren sagged and leaned on his one crutch. “You were gone, and I thought you’d be back soon. So, I put off going. When you didn’t return, I was so worried.” Miren’s mud-colored eyes begged Sarn to understand.

“You should have gone. School is important. It’ll lift you out of here.” Sarn gestured to the dank tunnel around them. [_So you don’t end up broken and Indentured like me. _]

Miren fixed his gaze on his boots and his opinion broadcast itself through his defeated posture. The teenager had screwed up, and he knew it.

Sarn looked away. If only Miren would take this whole school thing seriously. Maybe he was too hard on his brother. The line between parent and sibling was blurred by time and care. Sarn scrubbed a hand over his face to wipe away the frustration eating him. When had their relationship become so emotionally charged? [_Was that my doing? _]

“I appreciate you watching my son, but next time, please go to school instead.”

Miren nodded.

“I’m hungry,” Ran announced.

Right, he’d been in the middle of fetching food before the revelation and the soul searching. “I’m working on it,” Sarn said as he continued, his pensive son at his side.

Miren limped along bringing up the rear. “Where are we going?”

Ran looked up at Sarn with curious green eyes, not impatience. Good, neither the walk nor the delay had done his son any harm.

“Does this walk have a destination?”

“Yes, food,” Ran replied. The imp cast a glance over his shoulder at his uncle to catch his reaction then faced forward again, smiling.

“I’m sorry.”

Sarn nodded. “Yeah, me too. I’m sorry I’m not here much and that I’m a terrible brother, but I need you to trust me. I only want what’s best for you.”

Miren fell silent.

Around the next bend, Sarn halted at a rock pile and started hauling stones out of the way. The instant he’d cleared a child-sized cleft, Ran shot through it.

“Make light Papa, so I can see.”

“Ran, come out. There are heavy things in there that could hurt you if they fall.” Sarn reached through the gap, and his fingertips brushed his son’s shoulder.

Ran dodged and kept poking about the dark cave. After making one more grab for his son, Sarn gave up and resumed hauling pumpkin-sized rocks out of the way.

“What is this place?” Miren asked.

“Storage,” Sarn grunted as he lifted a boulder half his size.

“Papa make light. I can’t see.”

“Come out, and you’ll have plenty of light.”

“No, I want to help.”

Sarn reached for another boulder but stopped when Ran poked his head out.

“What’s in here?”

This time, Sarn grabbed his son before the boy could dodge and removed him from the cave.

“Give me a minute, and I’ll show you.”

Judging the hole was wide enough, Sarn reached in and withdrew a jar. He kept his body between the hole and his son as he handed the jar to his brother.

“What does it say?”

A flabbergasted Miren read the label. “It just says peaches.”

“I like peaches.” Smiling, Ran jumped up and down reaching for the jar.

“Then we’ll have peaches. You like peaches, right?” Sarn shot his brother a look and froze when he saw a new storm brewing in Miren’s eyes. This one looked to be even more severe than the last one he’d weathered. Even Ran stepped away from his uncle.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this place?”

“It’s not a secret. I thought you knew.”

Where did this anger originate? So what if he stockpiled a few necessities. Sarn was a paranoid bastard, and everyone knew it. Everyone also depended on him for every damned thing, making this cache a necessity.

“How long?” Miren glared so hard fire should have shot out of his eyes.

Not something Sarn wanted to discuss in front of his son. He blinked at the spot a too-quiet Ran had occupied a moment before. Turning, he poked his head into the cave and spotted the boy rounding a ceiling-high stack of jars.

Sarn followed his son but stopped when Miren caught hold of his sleeve.

“Damn it, how long has this existed? Answer me.”

“Since that time I screwed up.”

The night he’d ended up in the dungeon. Sarn pried his brother’s hand off him. Catching a flash of recognition in Miren’s eyes, he turned his back on his brother. At least the experience had taught him a valuable lesson. He had to look out for his son and his brother because nobody else would.

“It was after the—incident. Maybe a month before Ran’s first birthday, I don’t know. I did it for him because I couldn’t stand the idea of him starving.”

So Sarn had made sure his son would always have enough. Growing up as an orphan had turned his life into a constant struggle for survival—a battle his son would never face.

“I’m not an idiot,” Sarn added. “I’m not irresponsible. I’m not reckless damn it! I’m not—”

Her accusations looped through his head on a constant spin cycle. Ran’s mother had called him all those things and more. Worse still, the Rangers believed he was all those things because of one night’s stupidity over three years ago. Well, he’d prove them all wrong.

Sarn took a swing at the stonewall but froze when emerald lightning streaked across his knuckles. Staring at evidence of his freakishness did nothing to soothe his anger or silence her voice in his head. Sarn spotted his son exiting the cave and lowered his fist.

“I know. Okay?” Miren jabbed his thumb into his chest as he pontificated. “This is me, your brother. I’m alive right now because of you.”

Sarn nodded. “You’re the sum of all the good decisions I’ve made over the last eleven years.”

Miren’s mouth opened and closed a few times as he accepted that stunner.

“I’m sorry if I haven’t said so more often. I am so proud of you and what you’ve accomplished.”

“You are?”

“Me too!” Ran raised his hand.

Miren blinked away tears and patted Ran on the head. “Thanks, but getting back to my point because it needs to be said—irresponsible people don’t indenture themselves on another’s behalf. Hell, no one except you would even think of doing that. And while we’re on this subject, Beku said those horrible things. I didn’t. And where is she now? She’s gone, and I’m not.”

“Mama’s gone,” Ran repeated in a forlorn voice.

“You’ve still got my brother and me.” Sarn ruffled his son’s hair and earned a nod and a twitch of his son’s lips but no smile. He’d get one when they ate those peaches.

“Don’t you trust me?”

Miren’s question walloped Sarn, and he reeled for a second uncertain he’d heard right.

“Of course, I trust you. You’re my brother. I raised you.”

“Then why do all this?” Miren gestured to the black slash of the cave behind Sarn. “Why not hide the food in our cave? We’ve lived there on and off for three years. You had plenty of time to move it. Why didn’t you?”

Sarn opened his mouth to reply, but no answer came other than the absolute truth. Their cave was vulnerable. But he closed his mouth instead of admitting it and scaring them. “Because it’s my responsibility and I’d be shirking it if I didn’t have a backup plan.”

Sarn met Miren’s gaze, but his brother looked away. After a tense moment, Miren nodded. Maybe the troubled teen understood. Sarn seized another jar and handed it to Miren for identification.

“Stew,” Miren shrugged. “It doesn’t say what kind.”

Snagging a bag of hard biscuits known as waybread, Sarn surveyed the stacked jars. In the end, he settled on the mysterious stew, the promised peaches, and five jars with smeared labels. They looked old, and he needed to check their edibility. Ran insisted on lugging the peaches back to their cave, and he let the boy carry it, snug in his little arms.

Guilt sent Sarn back to pick up more jars. Over Miren’s objections, he left those extra jars outside the Foundlings’ door. After knocking, he bolted a hundred feet and one bend to his door. He’d suffered through enough drama for one night. He refused to deal with anymore, but life wasn’t through screwing with him yet. A pair of beady eyes watched him from a shadowed alcove.

“Oh, it’s red. I like red.”

“Don’t touch it. It’s hot.”

“Why’s it hot?” Ran asked.

Sarn picked his son up and set him down away from the makeshift fire pit. “Red lumir makes more heat than light.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s red?” Sarn suggested, and laughed at the disbelief on his son’s face. “I mean it. I think it has to do with the red color.”

“Are you sure you can put the jar in there with the red lumir? What if the glass melts?” Miren turned one of the sealed jars over in his hands with a skeptical look on his face.

“I’ve done this before, and it was ok. It’s tempered glass.” Sarn threw an arm out to thwart his son’s latest attempt to get by him. Catching the boy’s waist, he deposited Ran a safe distance away. “Don’t go near it. It’s hot.”

Ran gave an obligatory nod, but his eyes stayed fixed on the red stones. Their glow pulsed, entrancing the boy. Unless redirected, Ran would singe his fingers. And he’d have to spend the next half hour while the food warmed guarding the fire pit. Sarn cast about for something to entertain his son. But he found nothing near at hand save piles of clothes and other flammable items.

Great, he had all the ingredients for an inferno within reach. Sarn bent and picked up discarded items. Maybe he should make time for a little housekeeping once a week.

“Hold this and this for me.” Sarn handed his son some of the items he picked up off the floor. If it could burn, Sarn relocated it to a pile away from the fire pit. Something about the red lumir niggled at him as he passed it, something important.

Sarn sat his son down on the straw tick occupying the back of the hemispherical cave. After he handed the child his stuffed bear, Sarn checked on the first jar. Ran landed next to him.

“Ow,” Ran complained stuffing his injured digit into his mouth. “It’s hot.”

“Yes, it has to be to loosen the lid. I don’t want us eating wax with our stew. Let me see your hand.”

Ran produced his injured digit.

Was wax even edible? Sarn scraped at a thin layer of it covering his son’s index finger and relaxed. The flesh was a little pinker than Ran’s other fingers, but he was otherwise unharmed. Maybe Ran had learned his lesson.

“Why?” Ran tugged his hand free and sucked on his sore finger.

“It tastes bad.” Sarn shuddered at the memory and resumed prying the softened wax seal up with his fingers. “The wax liquefies when heated allowing it to drip down into the jar and mix with the stew. The one time it happened, it was gross, and your mother had a fit.”

As the seal separated, some wax crumbs fell into the stew, but the jar’s mouth was too narrow to do anything about them. Sarn nestled the jar between red lumir stones to finish heating. While he repeated the process on the other jars, he considered the lumir stones. Something about them still bugged him.

Since starting a fire was punishable by death in the enchanted forest, smart travelers carried lumir crystals—red for heat, blue for cold and other colors for light. But he’d sensed none at either murder site. The absence bothered him. What had they used for light? Hunger made Sarn set the question aside for now.

“Come on.”

Sarn tapped his son’s shoulder and gestured for the boy to rise. Curiosity propelled Ran to his feet.

Miren sat his stool mute as a gathering storm. Any moment now, the troubled teen would explode. Maybe an offering of peaches could delay it.

Sarn rummaged about the various crenulations water had carved into the cave’s walls. He unearthed two grimy bowls but no spoons or other implements to dole out the food.

“You didn’t spend twenty-four hours running,” Miren spoke in a calm voice at odds with the anger radiating off him.

Ran looked up at Sarn, interested in the answer.

Now they were ganging up on him, damn. He had to keep Miren ignorant about the whole kidnapping thing. Tension tightened every muscle in Sarn’s body as he stood there holding the dirty bowls.

“I know how fast you can run. If you spent twenty-four hours running, you wouldn’t be able to move right now. And I don’t see you having any difficulty. I’ll ask you one more time. Where were you this morning? Why didn’t you come home?”

Magic forced Sarn to speak the truth, but not the whole truth. He could leave out the problematic parts if he was careful with his wording. “I spent most of the day on my feet.” A flash of orange drew Sarn to the orange lumir sticks lighting the cave. “What religious order wears orange robes?”

“I don’t know. Give me a minute.” Miren rifled through the books littering the table.

“Thanks, I appreciate you looking it up,” and taking one mystery off his hands. Sarn pointed to the soap resting next to the pail catching water weeping off a stalactite. “Wash your hands.”

Ran shrugged and set to cleaning himself with extra care.

“Where did you see them?” Miren asked.

“They were on a boat sailing down the Nirthal, heading east on a fast tack. I didn’t like the looks of them.”

“And the Rangers didn’t know who they were?”

“I didn’t get a chance to ask them.” The interview in Jerlo’s office flashed past with no mention of orange-robed sailors. Maybe hunger had made him forget.

Ran held his hands up for inspection reminding Sarn to clean the bowls in his hands. He gave them one last rinse and detoured to check on the stew. It needed a few more minutes, but the peaches had warmed enough to satisfy him. After pouring them into bowls, he handed one to Miren then sat on the floor by the fire pit. Ran picked peaches out of their bowl and smiled between bites.

“Got it. They’re from—” Miren’s voice trailed off then continued in a shaky voice. “They’re Seekers of Truth. They’re—oh God—they’re—you saw—”

Seekers—damn—the one religious order with a hard on for destruction of all things magical. It figured.

“Did they see you?”

Sarn shook his head. The forest green of his clothes and the scrub dotting that cliff had camouflaged his descent. “They didn’t see me.” Sarn relaxed as his magic confirmed it.

Still, both the forest and the ghost had tried to stop him. Hell, even his magic had tried to warn him about the Seekers. Why had he ignored them? Sarn fished out a peach section and ate it. Honey gagged him. He moved the bowl out of Ran’s reach, and the boy followed the peaches.

Thoughts of what could have happened pursued Sarn across the cave. Gregori—the asshole—he must have known. The mountain of muscle had set the whole thing up. Had the jerk hoped he’d blunder into the Seekers? They’d have killed him on sight and ended twenty years of hiding. Every shadow took on a sinister air, but his eyes brightened, throwing radiant spears at their retreating backs.

Sarn squeezed the peaches in his hands. The Seekers were an ugly rumor no one wanted to evoke, and he now had proof they existed. Should he tell Nolo? He had until tomorrow night to decide.

“Sarn?”

“What?” Sarn realized he’d pulped the peaches. One taste proved they were still good though less sweet. He handed the bowl to Ran, who’d been hopping up and down trying to reach them while he’d indulged in a mental rant.

“I think the stew’s done.” Miren gestured with his quill to the fire pit where indeed, the contents of the jars bubbled.

They ate in silence. Miren hunched over his bowl at the table, while Sarn sat on the floor with his son, who picked out the carrots. Miren had more questions, and the longer they went unasked, the more tension mounted.

When he could eat no more, Sarn rose but cleaning up after dinner took only a few minutes. He put the red lumir stones in a lead-lined box out of Ran’s reach, got his son washed up for bed, then ran out of things to do.

Disrobing in front of an audience made his skin crawl, so he stayed in his now dry clothes. The twenty years he’d lived had been hard ones, and they’d left a lot of scars. No one had ever seen the extent of them because no one had ever seen him unclothed, not even Ran’s mother.

After pulling a clean shirt over the soiled one, Sarn cast himself onto the thing pretending to be a mattress. It pancaked under him. Ran crawled next to him, stuffed bear in hand, and he pulled the boy in close for a hug.

Peace eluded Sarn and so did sleep even though he had a firm grip on his dozing son. Ran was safe in his keeping, relieving one worry. But too many questions remained unanswered.

Was there a connection between the two murder sites and the Seekers? Twenty miles was a long way to hike, but they had a boat at their disposal. And what of the other mud creatures and the trees that had attacked him? What had created the former and infected the latter? Had it found a way past the circle of menhirs into the mountain?

Sarn yawned. He should check but Ran was a warm weight on his chest, and his magic was busy cocooning his son. Ran shined to his other senses, and the reflected glow was making Sarn sleepy. At least he had made one person happy. Miren was still upset at him, but he could mollify his brother tomorrow, when both their tempers had cooled.

And he would have to tell someone about the Seekers and the box they’d loaded onto their boat. He’d only caught a glimpse of it. What could interest an order of magic-haters? Would they come here to Mount Eredren?

Sarn closed his eyes and circles both whole and broken superimposed themselves over the ever-present green glow of his magic. He’d almost forgotten about them. They were one more mystery lumped in with the rest. How did they relate? Or like the Seekers, were they just another strange coincidence?

Ran lay in his Papa’s arms smiling with his head pillowed on Papa’s chest, feeling safe, warm and loved. If he squinted, he could see the edge of Papa’s magic. It sparked an emerald dome around them gaining in intensity as Papa fell deeper into sleep.

He listened to Papa’s heartbeat, and the magic chattering in no language he could understand. Still, he listened, since it was part of the lullaby calling sleep to him.

A pulse lit up the dome Papa’s magic had cast around them, expanding its walls. Its edges blurred as the magic tasted the rock floor and the cave’s back wall. Green lightning snaked across the magic dome as it extended emerald tentacles to explore the table where Uncle Miren sat.

A roach skittered away from the magic ignoring his uncle. A chittering shadow rode it. Squirming, Ran tried to escape the arm clamping him to a hard wall of muscle. Papa tended to get overprotective sometimes—as if the magic would ever let anything hurt him.

After a little prying and wriggling, Ran managed to gain some freedom. Another flash lit the room painting everything in green hues. It zapped the roach, disintegrating it into a pile of screaming ash. Continuing its explorations, the sparkly dome phased through the cave’s walls. Ran redoubled his efforts. What was the magic doing? A little more and—there—his legs pulled free.

Ran snatched up Bear and scampered to the door. Jumping brought the handle within reach. He got a finger on it—then two—and pulled. The door opened revealing A curtain of emerald sparks woven together by green flashes. Ran flinched as a big hand seized his shoulder and turned him around. He faced an angry Uncle Miren, who shook Ran as he spoke.

“I asked you a question. What are you doing? You know you’re not allowed out alone.”

Ran opened his mouth to say something, but the magic receded, blanketing him in soothing light. He gave ground, his sock covered feet sliding on the rough floor until the magic lifted Ran up. His shoulder pulled free of his uncle’s hand.

For a moment, Uncle Miren stood there frozen, then he blinked, but his gaze passed through Ran as if he was invisible. Uncle Miren shut the door, shook his head and stormed back to his studies. He walked through the radiant tide carrying Ran without reacting to it and returned to his schoolwork muttering about little boys.

Since only Papa spoke the truth all the time, Ran ignored his uncle’s unkind comments. Magic welled up, cradling Ran as it tucked him back into his sleeping Papa’s arms. But the light show wasn’t over yet and Ran struggled to lift the arm confining him.

Flaring, the radiant bubble extruded luminous feelers in all directions. Excitement gripped Ran when fuzzy lines formed on the transparent green dome surrounding them. Ran cast a covert glance at his uncle, who never looked away from the page in front of him. No doubt his uncle worked on the same assignment he’d been working on all day.

Ran smiled. He had Papa, and Papa’s magic, all to himself still—no sharing. He hugged Bear and tried to interpret the images the magic created.

Tall things with long ropy limbs shifted about and melted into a boy’s face. Blobby things fell into a hole the big things covered up. They flashed past in a dizzy dance—as if Papa was running now. Ran closed his eyes as the frenetic pace of the imagery made his tummy flip over. He willed the peaches to stay down. Sweet and spiced with cinnamon, they formed a delicious, warm weight in his belly.

Papa shifted in his sleep. When he stilled again, Ran risked a glance. A new image projected itself on the emerald dome arching over them—a boat. The scenery careened by at a nauseating speed again as Papa resume running.

“Let me go—” Papa said, but Uncle Miren’s loud page flipping drowned out his words. Unlike Uncle Miren, Papa was soft-spoken and never raised his voice.

“No,” Ran gripped the arm holding him, “You’re my Papa.”

Papa rolled onto his side, still mumbling. But the rolled-up blanket serving as pillow muffled his speech. Since Ran had been using Papa’s chest as a mattress, it took a few minutes’ squirming to get turned around.

A face coalesced in the shadowed corner on the opposite side of Papa’s magic barrier. Ran shivered at the sight of the boy-thing; there was something wrong with him. He was older than Ran by a couple of years, and the rocky floor passed right through the crouching boy’s feet. His eyes were two empty bowls, but Ran felt the weight of the strange boy’s stare.

It was a real boy once, but not anymore. Whatever had happened to it had robbed it of more than substance. The thing touched the sparkly barrier with a translucent finger and recoiled.

Ran smiled. His fear of the thing in the corner evaporated. Papa protected him even when asleep.

“What do you want?”

Ran checked to see if Uncle Miren had unearthed himself from his school work—nope. No doubt his uncle was trying to make up for staying home.

Glaring at the thing, Ran repeated his question, but he received only silence. A bell tolled distracting him, and he counted twenty-two peals. Ran frowned, and his brow puckered. He’d counted twenty before Papa had arrived. Where had twenty-one gone? Had he miscounted?

Ran looked away from his fingers, expecting to see the strange boy. But only rock remained where the boy-thing had crouched. The tolling bells had scared him off. Now Ran would never get an answer. The images had ceased their projection also. He’d have to ask a lot of questions tomorrow. Maybe he’d find Papa in a talkative mood. It happened sometimes.

“You saw it,” Ran whispered to Bear.

In the reflected glow of Papa’s magic, Bear’s button eyes offered understanding.

Good, he’d talk this whole strange affair over with Bear and Papa in the morning. Ran yawned and shifted until he’d found a comfy niche for himself. The dome shattered into gleaming shards, and they vanished when they hit the floor. Shadows drew close since Papa’s magic no longer lit the cave. A moment later, green light scythed through them signaling Papa had awoken.

Ran escaped the arm holding him and inched himself up until he was nose to nose. Papa had a faraway look. Did he see bad things happening somewhere?

“Papa?”

Papa rubbed his glowing eyes, and his hand cast shadow shapes on the cave wall.

“Why’re you sad?”

“I’m not sad.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I can’t be sad because I have you, and you make me happy.”

Ran smiled as Papa pulled him into a hug. He ended up in his usual spot with his ear pressed against a heart whose tempo lulled him.

Yawning, Ran hugged Bear and smiled his thanks for the little adventure he’d had. Papa was always so good to him. Thoughts of tomorrow and a bigger adventure to come chased him down into sleep. He couldn’t wait to find out what Papa had planned.

Chapter 13

Unable to get past the introduction to his essay about Shayari’s political system, Miren gave up. Sarn had been gone for twenty-four hours. True Miren had slept for nine of those hours but the others—he’d been awake and worried. Whatever had happened out there, he could handle it. He’d be fifteen in four months.

Miren glared at the crossed-out lines on the page before him. He’d rewritten the same sentence three times before tossing his quill down in disgust. Sarn did way too much, and there was no way to make him cut back either. The stupid fool thought no one would pick up the slack.

Miren’s conscience pricked him, but he ignored it. He had gone without supper when he was Ran’s age. Missing one meal would make the boy appreciate his next one even more.

Yawning, Miren shoved the books he needed for the next day’s classes into a worn rucksack. Why had Sarn refused to tell him what had happened?

With Sarn, there was no knowing because his magic-addled brother functioned on a logic unique to him. The older Miren got, the wider the gap between him and his brother became.

Another yawn convinced him to retire. Rising unaided, he left his crutch leaning against the wall and hobbled over to the mattress. He didn’t see the ghost staring at his sleeping nephew. But he felt its intense cold when he walked through the ghost and left a bit of himself behind.

Why is it so cold in here? Rubbing his arms, Miren searched for a blanket as a green flash streaked across his dull eyes and died out. The sight emboldened the shadows crouched in the cave’s corners. As they crept from their hiding spots, Miren shivered harder.

He wrapped a blanket around himself and cursed his brother. Damn Sarn. How could someone so thin take up so much space?

Curled up on his side, Sarn lay with his back to Miren and his son in his arms. The little rascal looked comfy as he drooled on Sarn’s tunic.

Jealousy knifed through Miren’s heart. He shoved at a shield he could neither see nor sense until there was enough room to lie down.

Just four hundred and ninety-nine more days until his sixteenth birthday and the end of his formal education. Then he would be with Sarn every waking moment, and it would annoy the hell out of his nephew. Miren smiled, picturing the imp’s reaction.

A knock at the door roused him. If he ignored it, maybe the knocker would go away. But no, the knocker bore down on the door with determined fists. Then a female voice cut through the knocking and Miren groaned. It was those gods damned foundlings.

Morraina called Sarn’s name again. But Sarn had fallen into a sleep so deep nothing external registered. Why did the Foundlings send her as their emissary?

Peeling himself off the mattress, Miren stumbled to the door. He slipped out into the tunnel as the patter of little feet warned of his nephew’s approach. Damn it. Now he’d have to bribe the boy to gain his silence.

Closing the door, Miren glared at her—the woman who wanted to replace Ran’s missing mom. As if he would allow this harpy to sink her claws into his brother. She’d rend him into bloody pieces. At nineteen, she was a year younger than Sarn and obsessed with him.

“What do you want? My brother left you plenty of food.” The decision still smarted, and his tone made it clear he’d objected.

The Foundlings were a bunch of leeches. He fixed his eyes on the uneven floor to avoid looking at her. Toes blackened by dirt protruded from under a grubby hem snagged in places. The Foundlings’ cave had a freaking spring cascading into a small pool. A bucket and a rag would go far in reducing her body odor.

“If you need more food, you know where to get it. My brother can’t do everything nor should he.” Miren clenched his hands into fists. Leaving these needy bitches and bastards had been the best decision Sarn had ever made. A decision he’d engineered, of course. “He’s got a demanding job and a son to raise. He doesn’t have time to play servant for you lot.”

The door handle turned, but Miren held the door closed, leaving Ran out of the conversation.

“I didn’t come about food,” she said through clenched teeth. “And I didn’t come to talk to you.”

“Too bad because I’m all you’re getting. You can tell me your latest demand, and I’ll think about passing it on, or you can go to hell.” The latter option was the preferred choice, and the sour look she threw at Miren made it clear she understood. Good, at least she was clear on the situation.

Ran patted the door. “Who’s out there?”

“No one important, go back to bed,” he told the boy but Ran never listened to him.

Ran’s head bumped the door, and a muffled “ow” resounded as his nephew put his ear to the crack. Damn the little tyke and his never-ending curiosity.

“Uncle Miren?”

Miren sighed. He should go back inside before Ran made a ruckus. The slightest note of alarm in the boy’s voice would wake Sarn from even the deepest slumber. A spark of jealousy ignited in the pit of his belly.

“Look I came to talk to your brother. Where is he?” Morraina’s strident tone dragged Miren’s gaze down to hers.

He was around six feet tall by now and fast catching up to his giant of a brother. “Sleeping and I should be too. Tell me what you want so I can get back to it.”

Morraina crossed her arms over her chest, covering up the ample cleavage on display. “Wake him up. I need to talk to him.”

“No, you don’t. You need to talk to me, and I’ll pass your message onto my brother when he wakes up.” Or not at all, it depended on the request. If she’d come to convince Sarn to move back in, she could shove the request where no soap ever went.

“Uncle Miren?” Ran’s voice rose to a whine, and he punctuated his question with another open-handed slap to the door.

“Ran, sweetheart, go wake your Papa.” Morraina flashed a predator’s smile at Miren half hid by her stringy hair.

“Don’t do it Ran. You let your father sleep, do you hear me?” Miren turned, so he spoke into the door. A small “yes” greeted his ears, and Miren’s shoulders sagged in relief.

“You can’t divide a little boy’s loyalties. Family always comes first.” Miren tightened his grip on the door handle and narrowed his eyes at Morraina. “You’re not here on anyone’s behalf but your own. You want to wreck our home. I won’t let you. Neither will my brother. You’re transparent, and we see your rotten core.”

“She’s not rotten,” Will said rounding the bend. He took in the scene with a glance. “Take it back. We’re all friends here.”

“Are we?” Standing with his back against the door, Miren glared at Morraina. “Even her?”

“You’re cruel. I don’t know why Sarn puts up with you. All you do is nag, nag, nag!” Morraina spun on her heel, and her stained skirts flared as she walked off in a huff.

“Yeah well, at least I bathe. When was the last time you and soap met?”

Morraina glared at him, and Miren turned smug eyes on his friend who’d gone apoplectic.

“Miren!” Will spluttered, his face flushing as he loosened the laces of his tunic. “Why can’t you two get along? You never used to pick on her.”

“Yeah well, she never used to drive me crazy. Why is she so obsessed with my brother? He can’t stand her.”

Will nodded and turned bruised eyes on Miren.

“Look, I’m tired. Morraina woke me up out of a sound sleep, and she gave me demands and attitude when I opened the door.” Miren lied.

“Sorry.” Will kicked a pebble, and it skittered down the tunnel. Piss colored lumir threw washed out yellow light on his friend making his skin appear sallow. What had his friend gotten mixed up in now?

“What is it?” Miren stood straighter. Had he misjudged Morraina? Had some serious matter brought her to their door? “What’s happened?”

Will scrubbed both hands through his lank hair. “It’s nothing serious yet but—” Will lost the thread of his thoughts and stared at the floor in search of words. “Time,” Will looked at Miren and met his gaze.

“Time?” Miren laughed but inside he seethed—not this again. “You and everyone else.” He shook his head.

“It’s just an hour,” Will said. “Did you say he’s back?”

“Yeah, he walked in a couple of hours ago and said nothing about what happened.” Miren ground his molars.

“He’s okay, right? I saw him fall—I thought I’d never see him again—” Will’s voice trailed off as he relived Sarn’s kidnapping.

“Thanks for telling me.”

Will nodded, not hearing or choosing to ignore the acid burning Miren’s voice. “I’m glad he’s back. He’s okay, right?”

‘Okay’ was a sliding scale for Sarn so, Miren nodded.

“Uncle Miren?” Ran slammed his palm against the door. Even muffled, it sounded too loud. “Who’re you talking to?”

Miren sighed and opened the door. “Come see for yourself.”

Will crouched down and regarded a miniature version of Sarn as he advanced his case. “I came to ask for time. Not for the older Foundlings or me but the young ones. They miss your father. They look up to him.”

“Papa is big,” Ran nodded in turn, not understanding what Will had meant.

“Just one hour, it would mean so much to them.”

“Get in line.” Miren eased his nephew away from the door so he could enter. Will tried to see in but Miren’s shoulder blocked the gap.

“You want them looking up to Metran? Because they will if your brother doesn’t appear soon.”

Metran—the name jolted Miren. He glared at his friend. Ran squirmed and tried to see around his leg.

“Who’s Metran?”

“A bad person,” Miren told his nephew. He narrowed his eyes at Will. “He’s been hanging around the Foundlings, hasn’t he?”

Will nodded. “Not every day but often enough to make an impression.”

“Why? He left five years ago and made his own life.”

Miren’s gaze fell to his nephew, whose head sprouted between his legs. The boy looked up at him, grinned at his ingenuity, and straightened up from his crouch.

“He doesn’t know about Ran,” Will said, reading Miren’s half-formed worries. “How can he? When he left the Foundlings, Beku didn’t know she was with child.”

“When did he start coming around?”

“About a month ago, I think. I’m not here when he comes.”

Of course, Metran would visit when no one who disliked him was present. Miren ground his molars again. Should he involve his brother in this? Sarn had a right to know. But did it matter if Metran was sniffing around the Foundlings?

“Who’s Metran? Why’s he a bad man?” Ran looked to Miren and Will for an answer. Neither gave one.

Of course, it mattered. Miren almost slapped himself. The Foundlings babysat Ran every day for a few hours so Sarn could get some sleep. Every day except today because Miren had cut all his classes. Fear iced the jealous flame burning in his gut. Bending, he picked up his nephew and hugged him hard. Ran returned the embrace and laid his head on his uncle’s shoulder.

Metran hated Sarn. Damn, damn and double damn—one look would tell Metran who’d sired Ran. The scoundrel had to remain ignorant of the precious child resting in his arms.

Will had followed the exchange, shoulders tensing as he came to the same conclusion. He extended a hand and patted Ran’s back.

“How often does he come?”

“Once a week.”

“How long does he stay?”

“Not long, a quarter of an hour I think. He plays the visiting prince, collects his accolades then departs.” Will crossed his arms over his chest but not before Miren saw his friend’s hands curl into fists. “You’ll tell—” Will’s voice trailed off, and his eyes widened.

“Tell me what?” Sarn asked around a yawn.

Ran reached for his father and missed because Miren moved so his brother could lean against the doorpost.

“Why didn’t you tell me someone kidnapped you?” Miren’s question stopped his nephew’s fretting but had no effect on his half-awake brother.

Sarn glanced at Will halting their friend’s retreat. “You saw it happen?”

Will raised both hands in surrender. Caught in the crossfire, Will opened his mouth, but no words emerged, so he nodded, and Sarn echoed his nod. Miren fumed and shot angry glares at his friend and his brother.

“Thanks, I guess.”

“No problem. You’d have done the same for me.” Will edged toward the bend in the tunnel representing safety.

When Sarn made no move to explain what he and Will were avoiding talking about, Miren rounded on his brother. “So spill. What happened? What are you thanking Will for? You aren’t thanking him for telling me. And while we’re on the subject, why did I have to find out from my friend instead of my brother?”

Sarn ignored the invitation to explain himself. Those glorious green eyes unfocused and the arms crossed over his chest fell to his sides. Emotion fled his face. All kinds of things—none of them verbal—passed behind those twin rings of emerald flame as they drew everything and everyone into them.

Miren snapped his fingers in front of his brother’s face. “Hey, come back to me.”

Sarn blinked and rubbed his eyes breaking the spell.

“Where did you go?”

“I don’t know—” Sarn shook his head; his voice was a thread, and it snapped. “I think I need to lie down.” Pushing off the doorframe, he staggered toward the sheet-wrapped straw affair they pretended was a mattress. Miren put his nephew down. Worry pinched Ran’s face as he crawled into the arms waiting to gather him in.

“Papa’s hurt?”

“No, just—tired.” Sarn had almost said something else, but his magic had forced him to change it.

What had his brother almost said? Miren pursued the question after he threw the deadbolt. Landing on the mattress beside Sarn, he prepared to do verbal battle. “Tell me what happened. I’m fourteen, not four. I can handle it and, it couldn’t have been so bad if you’re here to talk about it.”

Ran shot his uncle a glare at the mention of his age and the implied insult. Miren ignored it but patted his nephew on the head to mollify him.

Silence reigned, and Miren bit the inside of his cheek to keep from making any more demands. He’d have to piece the story together from whatever tidbits his brother gave him. Damn Sarn and his secrecy to the coldest pit of hell.

“At dawn, I went aboard a ship to unload something. I felt a sharp jab, and everything went black. I woke up in the middle of the forest, and I spent the whole day trying to get back.”

“You didn’t tell me because you thought I couldn’t handle it.” Miren shook his head. Anger boiled his blood and perhaps his bones too.

Sarn had handed him the edited version again. More had happened, but he’d get nothing more out of his brother tonight. Miren bit his lip to keep from spewing the hateful words burning his tongue.

“No, I didn’t want to worry you. It’s done and over.”

Sarn caught his brother’s eyes, and his irises ignited. Green fire spun creating its own vortex, and it drew Miren into those emerald depths. He fell toward old secrets Sarn kept from him because he was a bloody damned fortress.

“I won’t let it happen again.” Sarn slammed his fist down on the mattress then glanced away, breaking the partial gaze lock. “What did Will want?”

“It’ll keep until tomorrow,” Miren lied. “I need to do a bit of research. You know how they are—” Miren waved in the general direction of the Foundlings. “—always jumping at shadows. You’d think their numbers would prevent it, but they don’t.”

Will had handed Miren the perfect opportunity to prove he was worthy of trust. Tomorrow he’d have to thank Will and ensure Ran’s silence on the matter. At least tomorrow, the boy would stay with Sarn all day, giving him time to come up with a plan to safeguard his nephew.

A patch of shadow cartwheeled across the room the instant Miren’s breathing slowed. The sudden movement broke Sarn out of the light doze he’d fallen into while waiting. Ending the acrobatic run with a flourish, Shade wobbled a bit before dropping into a crouch.

Why did the entire world have to drop in for a visit tonight? Sarn rubbed his tired eyes.

“Boo,” Shade said. His friend’s smoke-ravaged voice gave the word a spine-tingling edge. Mottled gray fabric hid Shade’s face, but two almond-shaped holes allowed his friend to see out.

“I saw you sneak in behind my brother.” The magic had also pointed Shade out the instant Sarn had awoken.

Shade pounded a fist into an open palm and indulged in some head shaking. “One day soon I’ll sneak up on you, you’ll see. Oh yes, you’ll see how sneaky Shade can be.”

After delivering the rhyme, Shade pushed to a stand. His friend swept a cloak draped arm out in a dramatic gesture and sat down hard. More head shaking followed, the kind signaling a dizzy spell.

“Are you on something?”

“You know my drug of choice is life itself; from its marrow, I suck all for myself.”

“Are you drunk? Because you’re making less sense than you usually do.”

“Only on the wine of life my friend, join me in the dance of ages where the—ah—” His androgynous friend muttered while seeking a word to rhyme other than ‘coin.’

Shade had survived a fire many years ago, and the experience had warped body, voice, and psyche. By the time Sarn had met Shade, the whole head-to-toe gray cloth ensemble had become a habit, leaving no hint of gender.

Sarn shook his head and got up. Nobody took care of anyone without him around. Shade rose, but he set a hand on his odd friend’s shoulder. “No, you sit here and watch my son.”

Shade made another attempt at rising until Sarn handed his son to Shade who accepted the boy with stiff arms. Ran opened an eye. Recognizing Shade, he wriggled into a comfy position so he could track his father’s every move.

“I’m not going anywhere. I’ll fix something to eat so—” Sarn trailed off. In his head, he referred to Shade without specifying a gender. Applying the pronoun ‘it’ to a person felt wrong. “Shade doesn’t pass out.”

Sarn patted his son’s shoulder and Ran nodded. When he turned to make good on his plan, Shade’s teeth caught his sleeve.

“You trust me to—?” Shade’s dark eyes widened in surprise.

“You’re the one who told me he existed.” Sarn let the sentence hang as he wrenched his sleeve free.

Four years later, the truth still stung. Ran’s mother had planned to raise their child on her own without ever telling him he had a son. Sarn pulled a box from a crenellation high on the cave wall and fought the urge to smash it. Instead, he withdrew the lumir crystals. Magic coated his skin protecting Sarn from their fiery touch as he heated some of the leftover stew.

Beku was gone—either dead or fled. Ran was his son, and he was raising the boy as best he could.

“You don’t have to starve. I’ve always got something. Usually, it’s edible.”

Shade made no reply, and the silence suited Sarn. He could dig out a reason for Shade’s visit later when memory’s hands stopped gripping his shoulder and dragging him back to that night.

*F*our years ago…

Awakening from a nightmare, Sarn looked straight into Shade’s eyes. A gaze lock seized him, dropping Sarn down a fiery well of pain. His flesh melted as the fire roasted him—no—Shade alive. This was Shade’s memory and it was shattering.

Something had interrupted the gaze lock. Sarn struggled to focus on the gray form leaning over him.

“What’s happened?”

Words tumbled out of Shade’s mouth—baby—and Beku’s name and, “you must come now.”

Sheets scratched as they fell away. Cold metal met his bare soles when he descended the ladder from the triple stack of bunk beds in the Rangers’ Barracks.

Hurrying through empty corridors, the word ‘baby’ beat a metronome of doom in Sarn’s brain. Whose baby? What trouble was it in? Why fetch him?

Shade’s smaller hand grasped his, tugging Sarn into the dreaded infirmary to a cradle. The glow of his eyes had lit a tiny thing with stubby arms. Turning its lemon-shaped head, the baby looked right at him.

Those milky green eyes said in the language of blood and magic—I’m yours, and you’re mine—then the baby howled. Tiny fingers reached for Sarn, then he was sliding down a wall clutching the baby in his shaking arms. One thought beat in his brain—hold onto the baby. And he had.

Nearby someone was talking, the healer maybe. He was saying crazy things. How could his son have been dying before he’d come to the infirmary? It didn’t make sense and he couldn’t focus on it because the baby’s pale green eyes were locked onto his and nothing else mattered.

Sarn blinked away the memory. Somehow, his presence had saved his son’s life. He still didn’t understand why. Maybe it no longer mattered. Still, he owed Shade an unpayable debt.

Once he had the red lumir stones stowed out of his son’s reach, Sarn brought the stew to his friend. He traded food for his son and collapsed onto the mattress.

“I haven’t seen you in three months.” His head felt stuffed with metal. There was something off about Shade, but he was too exhausted to figure out what. “Fine keep your damned secrets.”

“You didn’t ask my name.”

Something in Shade’s quiet reply made Sarn bite back the scathing retort he’d had ready. Playing the usual game might net him the answers he sought. If he could stay awake long enough to play it to its conclusion.

“Fine. How are you called tonight?”

“I’m the whispered word the wind sends forward. I’m the rumor scored by a dive downward.” Shade paused and mimed someone falling from a great height.

It took a moment for Shade’s words to click. Sarn had almost forgotten about going AWOL last night and the seven witnesses to his swan dive. “Who saw?”

Shade waved a hand. “Seen by those who’re bored, reported and stored, word of angel soared—”

“What? No, I fell. I can’t fly. What are you talking about—” but Shade had run away with the rhyming and ignored him.

“Eye of green not sky, you fell from on high; gravity denied, you swim but stay dry—”

“No, water soaks me while it tries to drown me like everyone else.” Sarn glanced at his son, the calm center in all this. The boy listened with half-closed eyes as Shade continued to wax poetic.

“Angel they all sigh, man’s only ally, he who cannot die. Though many do try, no one can say why—the Green Eyed can’t die.” Shade regarded Sarn, and a strange emotion crossed his friend’s eyes. Was it fervor?

Sarn looked away. Weights pushed on his eyelids trying to close them. “They’re wrong. I’m not any of those things.”

“A fall doesn’t break you.”

“Who saw me jump? Did they belong to a gang? Which one? And what were they doing there? There’s nothing over there.”

“I told you—the bored and rumor has soared. Soon it will be lore. All know you are poor—”

“Speak sense damn it.”

Sarn fought the urge to kick his best friend. He missed the old Shade, the one he could talk to about anything and nothing. But that Shade was gone thanks to Aliel or Angel’s Dust or whatever they were calling the powerful hallucinogen now.

“I can’t fix you.”

Fates knew he had tried. Sarn looked away not caring if his friend heard. Likely not, since Shade was prattling on about angels. But Ran heard, and he curled into Sarn, reminding him not everyone needed fixing, just care.

“Wake me when you’re ready to make sense.”

Lying flat felt good, too good. Muscles tense from running ached for relaxation and release. But Shade’s rhyme rattled around in Sarn’s skull, making his jaw clench and his teeth grind. The Lower Quarters had too many eyes to see stupid stunts. And too many tongues ready to blab to too many warlord wannabes who listened for such tall tales. Maybe nothing would come of this. A yawn broke the vulturous thoughts picking Sarn apart and sleep snatched him away before anger could congeal into harsh words.

“They’ll come to your door, seeking for a sword. They search for one to lead the horde out of chains debt scored to their reward,” Shade warned. But only the gathering shadows and a dozing child heard the warning.

When Shade’s story ended without a proper ending, Ran frowned at Shade. He opened his mouth to ask what happens next but stopped when Shade touched Papa’s boot.

Magic sang its sleep song. A deep thrum vibrated Papa’s bones, and emerald light pushed past his skin, wrapping Ran in bright wings of power and protection. It excluded Uncle Miren as usual. No playing with the magic now, Papa slept too deeply to allow it.

Where Papa’s fingertips brushed the ground, emerald light welled. Sparks leaped up his fingers and streaked across his arm, jumping from him to Ran. It worked its way into muscles, bones, and organs, making Ran’s skin tingle as magic dripped into a reservoir carved at birth to store it. Papa’s magic filled him up, but he still didn’t glow. Maybe tomorrow he would.

Yawning, Ran listened to Papa’s heart beat a tattoo to accompany the magic’s song. Rhythmic beating changed to voices swelling as they chanted the same word. Ran tried to parse the word syllable by syllable, but each repetition dragged sleep a little nearer.

Movement in the corner of his eye startled Ran. Someone else was awake. Turning his head, he blinked tired eyes at Shade, who held one of Papa’s boots. Shade should stop. The magic preferred people to keep their hands off Papa. While Shade removed a sock spotted with red, the magic readied itself to strike.

“What’re you doing?”

“Sleep little one loved. Fly to dreamland dove. There to soar above, little one so loved.”

Ran yawned. “You didn’t answer me.” Though the rhyme did tell a lovely story, especially the ‘little one loved’ part. It made the corners of Ran’s lips turn up.

“Making amends, friends to the end, I do defend.” Shade gave a mock bow then

dipped a corner of his—her—its cloak into the pail collecting their water.

“Papa said not to touch.”

Ran tried on one of Uncle Miren’s glares, but his eyelids sagged sleep-ward ruining the effect. Papa made a comfy pillow and the magic, a warm blanket. But his tummy twisted, and he opened his eyes as cold air buffeted him.

Behind Shade, the strange boy coalesced. A pile of clothes Papa had forgotten to tidy up poked through the boy’s transparent feet. The specter pointed at Ran, who struggled to sit up. But Papa’s arm snugged him in close, and the magic wove a cocoon of protective light around him.

“What is he?” Ran asked around a yawn. He pointed at the boy-thing, and it mimicked him.

Shade ignored his question and touched Papa’s foot. But the magic had tolerated Shade’s presence for long enough. It extruded a green tendril and slapped the interloper’s hands away. Shade yelped and withdrew to a safe distance.

“I told you not to touch Papa.” Ran shook his head. Adults should listen to him. He always spoke the truth.

Ran rested his head against Papa’s chest and listened to the magic rushing around inside Papa. He wondered what it was doing until the luminous bubble lengthened to include all of Papa. Craning his neck Ran looked to see where it ended and nodded when he saw Uncle Miren, the not-boy-thing and Shade remained outside the magic.

“What are you doing?”

Shade rooted around in a pocket and withdrew a box. Ran rubbed his eyes. Had he just seen a claw where a five-fingered hand belonged? Ran looked again, squinting through the magic’s barrier and Shade’s fingers fused into three digits ending in talons. They scratched something onto the floor then blurred as a gray five-fingered glove replaced the claw. A small box rested in Shade’s hand.

Before Shade could open it, the not-boy-thing batted it away, and the box flew from Shade’s hand. White powder puffed out as the lid opened spilling the box’s contents.

“You dropped bad stuff.” Ran pointed to the eddies of white powder kicked up by the not-boy-thing blowing to disperse it. “You told Papa you don’t eat bad things anymore.” This had spiraled into the adult realm, and either Papa or Uncle Miren should wake up and deal with it. Ran shook Papa’s arm, but he didn’t wake.

Shade yelped and tried to scoop the powder back into the box but gave up when the task proved impossible. The not-boy-thing made certain of it, and Ran gave the translucent thing a nod of approval.

“What are you?”

The creature ignored Ran’s question. Behind it, a shadow rose and dove at the not-boy-thing.

“Look out!” Ran hid his face in Papa’s chest and bit his lip as his stomach roiled in sudden nausea. Something bad had come into his home. He strained to reach Bear, who had fallen between Papa and the wall.

Bear’s button eyes reflected the glow of Papa’s magic, calming Ran. But he still wanted Bear. Staring at his stuffed companion, Ran wriggled, but Papa held him too tight to permit escape.

“Bear!” Ran willed Bear to come to him. Bear extended a fuzzy arm and Ran pulled him into a hug.

Papa jerked in a sudden spasm. His magic flared, and green light obliterated the shadows.

“Damn it, I’m trying to sleep.” Uncle Miren threw out an arm and shook Papa’s shoulder. “Enough with the light show already. Knock it off.”

When Uncle Miren quit muttering about inconsiderate brothers, Ran dared to look. Scanning the cave, he saw no trace of the shadow or the not-boy-thing. How rude, it was the second time the thing had disappeared without answering his questions.

“We’ll ask Papa tomorrow.”

Bear’s head tilted in a slight nod. Ran closed his eyes as a gray silhouette slunk into the tunnel, and the door clicked as it settled against an uneven jamb.

Chapter 14

Orange-robed men stalked through the enchanted forest, and it ignored them. They prowled, eyes darting here and there seeking out magic to destroy. Sarn fled, but they followed. He had to reach—somewhere to do something.

Inside him, a restless white fire rattled its cage in quiet rage. What did it want him to do? He had to get away from those Seekers. They’d kill him if they caught him.

Rooted to the spot, he watched those orange-robed fanatics melt into a river of ichor. Black waves surged toward Sarn as he turned and fled. Through the trees flashing by, he caught glimpses of hikers. A boy turned, and his pale green eyes met Sarn’s, freezing him in place. The viscous black fluid flowed around his ankles, screaming for his blood as it sunk claws into his flesh. But he could not move. The boy held him hostage with a glance.

I can’t fix you—his words from last night replayed and their horrible truth slammed into Sarn, knocking him down into the receding ichor. The earth groaned and heaved, raining dirt and corpses on him. Sarn rolled and scrabbled for a handhold as the ground sloped into a ravine and the dead boy tumbled into it. His pale eyes begged for help.

Darkness fountained out of the ground in a frigid torrent. It clawed at the sky, scratching until it tore a hole in the shimmering fabric underlying all unleashing a swarm of cockroaches. Every tree they bit darkened and turned on Sarn as he climbed out of a ravine. Branches sliced through the air missing him by a hair’s breadth as he twisted and tumbled.

Overriding every other sound, a million bees droned—eam’meye erator—until he stuffed his fingers into his ears to block it out.

Broken circles gleamed and hovered in the air, sketched by a different type of magic. They sought to trap him, but he evaded them and ran on trailing glowing gossamer. More circles appeared. Some floated, and others extruded from the ground. Sarn veered around one set arcing up in his path and skidded to a halt as the enchanted forest divided.

She waited at the other end of a sylvan gauntlet—the Queen of All Trees. Her light extended silver hands to him in welcome. Come deeper into the magic’s thrall.

No—Sarn woke with a start and scanned his immediate surroundings for threats. Two icons glowed—his son asleep in his arms and his brother moving about the cave. A third icon stained his map. It was so dark, he almost missed it.

Ran stirred, but Sarn held the scamp still. What had he sensed? Ran poked him, but Sarn didn’t react. The third icon was small and moving. He almost had a lock on it. Ran giggled and poked a sore spot this time, making Sarn wince. Ran froze, but his apology was muffled by Sarn’s chest.

“I know you’re awake.” Miren threw something—a book maybe—onto the floor.

Sarn glared at his brother. “What’s with the tantrum? Are you four or fourteen today?”

Ran opened his mouth to add his observation, but Sarn covered it.

“I got this. You go wash up for breakfast, okay?” His assurance earned him a nod and a much too compliant child gained his feet. Sarn accompanied his son, still searching for the source of the third entity in their room. Was it the ghost boy? His head map had not included the specter before. Why would it start now?

“I’m still waiting for an answer.” Sarn scanned his cave. Nothing looked out of place. But something was watching them, and it raised his hackles. “Are you mad at your school work or at me?”

Miren glared at Sarn as he and Ran passed within range of a fist. None swung at them. White knuckling the book in his hands, Miren stoked his anger, building up to an explosion, but why?

“Do you want to go fishing? I’ll get a Sunday off, and we’ll go—just the three of us. After yesterday they owe me, and I owe you. You do so much for me.” _And I do so little to repay you, damn the Rangers. _

Miren stood there with his mouth hanging open for a moment longer before his whole manner changed. “You mean it? But you hate fishing—”

Sarn suppressed a shudder at the thought of gutting and eating fish. “But you enjoy it, so we’ll go as soon as I can wrangle a day off.”

“And swimming?” Ran bounced up and down, smiling when Sarn nodded.

“Yes, we’ll go swimming, and maybe my brother will teach you a new stroke.”

Miren nodded, pleased with the plan. “Sure, I can show him the backstroke or the breast stroke.” Miren’s eyes narrowed as he ran through the list of swim strokes he knew.

“Anything, to make him a strong swimmer—you decide.” Sarn glanced around for the remains of last night’s dinner and found only empty jars—no watchers damn. “Did you already breakfast?”

“Yeah, I ate the last of the stew and peaches. They weren’t bad cold. Sorry, but there wasn’t enough left to share.” Miren shrugged. “There might be a piece of flatbread left, but it tastes like sawdust.”

Miren had left Sarn with a dilemma: go back to his not-so-secret stash or trek upstairs for breakfast. Ran gave the white crumbs dotting the table a longing glance. Upstairs won since stolen food required no preparation and the walk might shake loose an overlooked fact or reveal a spy.

“Sorry,” Miren offered as he limped to the door, rucksack and crutch in hand.

Sarn waved off the apology. “Not your fault there wasn’t enough for us all. We’ll get something upstairs.”

Miren nodded and headed out for class. Since his brother refrained from slamming the door, his mood must have improved. Now Sarn had to wrangle a Sunday off to keep his brother happy. Sarn rubbed the bridge of his nose where the beginnings of a headache prodded him.

“We get breakfast and go on an ad-ven-ture now?” Excitement caused Ran to bob up and down because the boy already knew the answer was ‘yes.’

Sarn regarded his son. Had he changed the boy’s clothes last night? The tunic and trousers adorning the child looked clean enough. His clothes needed a change, but later out of sight of his son. Bad enough Ran could see the scar marring the left side of his face.

“Breakfast first, then we’ll see.”

Sarn swirled his cloak around his shoulders. Maybe the watcher would follow them and give him a good look at it. It would be easier to protect his son if they were on the move. “Put your cloak and boots on. I’ll tie them for you.”

Ran scampered off to find both articles while Sarn pulled his boots on and tied them. After picking up the books and papers discarded during Miren’s tantrum, he stepped through a floating cold spot. His skin prickled, and he shivered. Sarn set the pile on the table and scanned the cave for the source of the cold. Was it connected to the watcher? A finger of foreboding dragged its icy claw up his spine. In response, his magic flared, and his eyes blazed, eradicating the shadows. What the hell was watching them?

Ran paused, caught in the act of stuffing his sock covered foot into a boot. The boy threw a curious glance at Sarn who shook his head. In the last thirty-six hours, he’d stumbled across multiple homicides, been kidnapped, stalked by a ghost, chased by trees and mud creatures and party to all manner of odd happenings. And he still had no idea why. It was time that changed.

Sarn consulted his mental map seeking the route freest of pedestrians since his son’s safety hinged on secrecy. If he kept a firm mental grip on his goal, the magic would bend his path to reach it leaving him free to watch for spies.

His son’s hand was so small, yet it extended a trust bigger than them both. Did the ghost trust him to investigate its death? Like he had a choice since he’d gotten tangled up in the fallout. Sarn set the mystery aside for now and concentrated on his backtrail. There—a hazy icon almost indistinguishable from the map’s darkness followed them.

Turning a corner, Sarn held a finger to his lips signaling for silence. Ran’s eyes widened, but he nodded. Sarn scooped up his son, rushed up the wall and crouched on a shield-shaped formation. With his eyes squeezed closed and his cloak wrapped tight around them, they should be invisible. Below, the spy paused.

“Lift up the hem of my cloak slowly and look down, but don’t make a sound,” Sarn whispered into his son’s ear.

Mystified, Ran nodded, dropped to his belly and crawled until he could peer over the edge. Sarn gripped the back of his son’s tunic but stayed focused on their watcher. When it continued down the tunnel, he reeled his son back in.

“What did you see?”

“A rat I think. But I’m not sure. It’s dark down there.” Ran’s face screwed up in a grimace.

Sarn nodded and cursed the weak light cast by the strip of lumir twenty feet overhead. He rolled off the shield and landed in a crouch. Rising, he caught his son and set him down. Best he kept his hands free should grappling become necessary and it might. At least a mile ahead, a man-shaped icon flared up on his map, but it wasn’t the usual amber of the nonmagical. This man was a middling gray and the rat headed straight for him.

“Walk as quietly as you can.” Sarn held out his hand for his son. Ran took it, eager for that adventure.

“Are we sneaking up on someone?”

Sarn nodded and motioned for silence. Maybe skulking around counted as a father-son outing. Sarn hoped it did as he followed the rat away from the warren comprising the heart of the Lower Quarters.

Other rats scattered as they passed piles of refuse but none of them rated a mention on Sarn’s map. There was something off about the one he followed something—unnatural. The word bounced around Sarn’s skull, as he ducked behind a stalagmite.

“What do you see?” he asked his son, wishing his damned eyes didn’t glow.

“A gray cloak and rats all around it. They’re sitting on here too.” Ran tapped Sarn’s shoulders. “It’s floating.”

“What’s floating?”

“The cloak.”

It took a moment to work out what his son meant. This Rat Person stood with his back to Ran, leaving nothing but a cloak-draped back visible.

“What is he doing with the rats?”

“Talking to them.”

“Can you hear what he’s saying?”

Ran shook his head then cowered against Sarn’s chest. “They’re coming.”

Sarn hugged his son tight, shielding him as a horde of rats climbed his body and scampered up the stalagmite. From there, they leaped, catching hold of a stalactite before racing out of sight. Sarn pushed to his feet still holding his son and swept the tunnel with both his magic and his eyes. There was no trace of the Rat Man or his spies.

Moldering banners billowed like giant wings in the slow, rhythmic breathing of the mountain. And it carried on its breath a phrase Sarn had heard far too many times in the last twenty-four hours: [_eam’meye erator. _]

Turning in a slow circle, Sarn scanned the tunnel seeking the source of the voice, but the sudden ring of a hammer on metal drowned out every other sound. Why did he keep hearing that phrase? What did it mean? Shaking his head, Sarn steered his son around a grate.

“Did you hear anything just now?” he asked when the hammer paused.

Ran shook his head. “I’m hungry. You promised breakfast then an ad-ven-ture.

“Yeah, I did, let’s find some stairs and get you fed.” Except when Sarn pivoted, he stared at a dead-end and had no idea how many turns they’d made. Finding the Rat Man had distracted him.

“Where are we?” Hot air puffed up from a nearby grate and Ran backed away to avoid being cooked. He turned curious eyes on Sarn.

Beyond the steam, a pile of rubble blocked part of an unfamiliar intersection. Sarn shook his head and called his map, but it resisted his summons. What the hell was wrong with his head map? And where the hell were they? Its betrayal rocked Sarn, and he fetched up against a wall, startling his son whose hand he still held.

“Are you okay?”

Sarn blinked at the question. Was he? “I don’t know.”

On his third try, his map finally spawned, but it displayed only featureless darkness ahead. They’d followed the rat right off his mental map without any warning. A shudder cut through Sarn. How was that possible? He’d wandered all over the Lower Quarters over the six years he’d lived there.

A green arrow blinked, superimposed over his featureless map, demanding he head deeper into unknown territory. Where the hell was his map leading him? Curiosity warred with unease. Down here the unfamiliar could prove deadly. So could retreating. Sarn chewed the inside of his cheek.

Ran tugged on his hand and pointed, declaring, “It’s a bad thing.”

Sarn slashed a hand through the indicated spot. Cold bit his skin, numbing his fingers on contact. Was it unexpected yes, but dangerous—no. “It’s cold air. It won’t harm you. Come on.” Sarn pulled on his son’s hand, but Ran refused to budge.

Unnatural, whispered the magic as Sarn’s stomach heaved. He swallowed bile as the cold spot dissipated.

Ran looked around, brow creasing in confusion as the boy chopped his hands through the air. “It’s gone. Where did it go?”

“I don’t know, and right now, I don’t care. I just want to find a staircase and get off this level.” The upper levels were more gridded and less twisty than this warren.

Ran nodded, but he checked again before taking a single step. And Sarn did the same; his son was too precious to risk. Unexplored tunnels invited trouble, and he needed to avoid dangerous situations right now.

“Where’re we going?” Ran formed a bright pinpoint in the darkness covering this section of the map. And his tiny flame wanted breakfast.

Thoughts of his son made Sarn’s magic flare around him in a blinding sphere. He struggled to suppress it but too much magic surrounded him, and he had too small a place to hide it away. So he was stuck with emerald ribbons circling them and nuzzling his son.

Ran giggled at the magic’s attention. What would he do without the sunny child?

With such ominous thoughts in mind, Sarn grasped his map desperate to make it respond to his commands. Pulling back on the distance, he relaxed as it zoomed out and confirmed he and his son were still inside the mountain.

Something tugged his map, centering it at a Y-intersection a mile back where he should have turned right instead of left. A quarter mile beyond it, a staircase corkscrewed through the mountain, and an almost imperceptible long-tailed icon scampered up it.

Sarn smiled. At last, something had gone right. His magic still had a tenuous fix on the spy. Maybe it was rendezvousing with the Rat Man again. If they were quick, maybe he could get a fix on the spymaster himself. A tug on his pants directed his attention to his son, whom he still owed breakfast.

“Is the Middle Kitchen okay with you?” Sarn said preempting his son’s question.

Ran nodded as he caught the boy’s hand and hurried toward answers and food.

Having a destination relieved Sarn, though the holes in his map still bothered him. They existed too close to his cave. They’d have to be explored, especially if the Rat Man and his spies called them home but not now. He added them to the growing list of questions he needed to answer before time ran out. Fate only knew how long he had and which pieces were relevant.

Ran looked from the ladder masquerading as a staircase to Sarn. “Does this go to food?” His eyes pleaded for the answer to be no.

“Yeah, they all do,” Sarn said. Of course, there would be a brief stop on the next level for a chat with the flickering gray man-shaped icon. With luck, it was the Rat Man with some much-needed answers. On his map, the stairwells all looked corkscrewed into place by giant hands, maybe they were. No stories he’d ever heard mentioned the average height of a Litherian.

“You can reach every level I know of from any stair including this one.”

“Oh, okay,” Ran shrugged and climbed toward the promise of breakfast. “Will they have saw-sages? I like the red ones.”

“You mean the ones with dried tomatoes in them?”

“Yes, I like them.”

“They might. If I see them, I’ll grab some.”

“Get two for me,” Ran licked his lips in anticipation.

“I don’t know. Two might be too much for you.”

Ran nodded and continued climbing, his enthusiasm for sausages propelling him until his foot broke through the rotting wood.

“No more.”

Ran clung to Sarn’s legs. His son had been brave to make it this far.

“Here, climb on my back. I’ll find us a better staircase.” Sarn crouched down, and his son climbed on without a word. “Hold tight, okay?”

As Sarn finished speaking, his foot broke through the step, but it struck stone underneath. Magic shot up his calf anchoring him in place. Sarn cursed and willed the magic to release. His boot pulled free, but he slammed his shoulder into the wall, thanks to the narrow confines of the stair. Thank Fate the pain faded as he climbed. He’d take every small mercy life offered.

Racing light and quick up the remaining steps, Sarn stepped onto a reassuring stone platform and set his grateful son down. Five feet onward a portal led to a tunnel and the level above the Lower Quarters.

Sarn pulled his hood down to cover his face before peering out of the stairway into the narrow corridor beyond. He spotted the rat zipping over piles of crates. Ran copied him and his hooded head poked out around Sarn’s leg to do his own people check. Sarn looked down at his son, who, as if cued, glanced up at him with a look of such concentration, it made Sarn laugh. He patted his son on the head and Ran grinned, pleased with his performance.

Before venturing into the realm of the non-indentured, Sarn bent to deliver his usual warning. “If anyone comes—”

Ran rolled his eyes and nodded. “I know. I hide until he goes away or you tell me to come out. I’m not a baby.”

“No, you’re not. Alright, let’s go.”

On alert for trouble, they stepped out into a lumir-lit tunnel and stayed low as they wended through stacks of crates. Since Sarn had never had a reason to visit this level in any depth until now, his magic sketched in details as they skulked, making his head itch.

Sarn tried all the doors they passed, but they were all locked. Any goods kept under lock and key had to be valuable, and he could always use something to trade in the Lower Quarters’ thriving black market. Patting down his pockets, Sarn found nothing to pick or force the hasps. He cursed his ill luck and starred this place on his map for later.

Too bad Miren was absent; his brother could have read the words stenciled on the boxes. Sarn pressed on scanning the numeric sequences stamped on every parcel committing them to memory for later perusal. There was a logic to them and a hint of a pattern. The mystery teased his imagination, but he had more pressing mysteries in need of solving. If only he had a crowbar.

Sensing a man-shape dead ahead, Sarn crouched behind a short wall of rolled up rugs. Ran tapped his shoulder.

“Papa—what’re you doing?”

“Checking something out.”

“But I’m hungry.” Rubbing his belly, Ran looked up at Sarn, reminding him of the purpose of their outing.

“I know. I’ll make it quick. Stay here and be quiet.”

Ran’s eyes widened, but he nodded and stayed put. Sarn crept around the pile, hand, and magic extended toward a cloaked figure. His fingers closed on gray fabric and he flung it aside. “Who are you and why are you spying on me?”

She had no face, just a blank spot where her nose and mouth should be. But her eyes—oh Fate, they were flat discs reflecting his glowing eyes and the slice of his scarred face visible beneath his cowl.

“What the hell are you?”

She dissolved into a sea of scurrying rats. But her eyes remained. They lingered, laughing at him then vanished. Sarn dropped her cloak and backpedaled, tripping over the hundreds of rats racing toward the muffled shrieks of his terrified son. Dropping to his knees, he pulled Ran into a tight hug, then rubbed the boy’s back as he apologized to the top of his son’s head.

“I’m sorry, so sorry about all of this. I got carried away, and I’m sorry. We’ll get breakfast now.”

“No more rats.” Ran clung to him, his fists balled in Sarn’s tunic.

Sarn shook his head, his magic circled them, alert for long-tailed spies. Green tendrils curled around his son hugging him too and Ran finally relaxed. “I’ll keep them away from you.” So would his magic.

Ran nodded and rubbed tears from his eyes.

Giving the crates to his left one last glance, Sarn poked his gift. But his magical senses declined to penetrate the wood. They were preoccupied with protecting his son. Stymied, Sarn let the mystery go for now until the number thirteen caught his eye and drew him to a box one foot on a side.

Ran followed. His little face was puffy from crying, but his eyes brightened with curiosity. “What is it?”

‘It’ was half-hidden behind two stacks of odd-shaped bundles with a pair of wings inked on its side. Tracing the image, Sarn cursed as a skull and crossbones symbol interrupted his vision. His magic recoiled, staggering Sarn.

“Drugs,” he said at last—aliel or Angel’s Dust unless the design stenciled on its side lied. It was Shade’s hallucinogen of choice. Sarn pounded the offending box with his fist.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ran dart behind a pile of crates. Sarn turned too late to see what had spooked his son. A man rammed Sarn up against a wall, and an elbow the size of his knee jammed into his throat. Why hadn’t his magic warned him?

His attacker was in his mid-thirties with bad teeth, and a waistline rivaling the columns supporting the thirty-foot ceiling. He squashed Sarn, pinning one arm behind his back and the other against the crate tower hiding Ran. But the stupid fool had left his lower half free.

Catching his son’s eye, Sarn shook his head. He could take care of this oaf without help. But the magic disagreed. It strained to touch the wall, making his hand spasm. He clenched his fist, glad his cloak was trapped between his hand and the naked stone calling to him.

“What the hell happened to Beku? I heard she’s dead,” the big man asked.

“Who are you?” Sarn kneed the jerk in the groin. The big man crumpled, and Sarn stepped over the groaning heap. “Be glad I didn’t head butt you. At least you’re still conscious.”

“You’re a rank bastard Sarn,” the big man bit out.

How the hell did this creep know his name? Who was this guy and what was his grudge? “And the son of a whore, I know.” Sarn turned in time to avoid a flying fist aimed at his head.

Seizing the newcomer’s wrist, he twisted it behind the man’s back and caught the wiry fellow in a joint lock. The same one Gregori had immobilized him in time and again.

His prisoner cursed at him. “You’ll dislocate my arm if you keep pulling on it.”

“Thanks for the suggestion.” Sarn increased the pressure on the captured arm, eliciting a high-pitched scream from his prisoner. “What the hell do you want?”

Hearing footsteps behind him, Sarn kicked out, and his foot collided with something fleshy. A pained groan followed the thud of a body hitting the floor. Pivoting, Sarn kept the cowed man between him and the two approaching men. This new group looked to be in their forties and late thirties.

Their fists and jaws clenched as they glared at him. Hate darkened their eyes. Sarn towered eight inches over his attackers, giving him reach. Add in a one to two-decade age difference, and he had speed on his side too, but not mass.

“What the hell do you want?”

The five men exchanged glances and after a few nods chose a spokesman. Gray streaked the man’s beard and hair highlighting it. His dark brows knitted over brooding eyes as he answered. “We heard about Beku’s death.”

Sarn stared at Gray. Why did she matter to them? And why now when she’d vanished back in early March? “Who are you?”

“We know you had something to do with it.” Gray’s companion, a hook-nosed lout with a cowlick, snapped ignoring Sarn’s question.

“And we’re here to make sure you pay for it.”

Muscled arms wrapped around one of Sarn’s ankles and tried to trip him. Sarn shoved his prisoner at the hook-nosed pugilist telegraphing his next move. His captive stumbled over the crawler’s body and crashed down freeing his ankle. Seizing the first crate to hand, Sarn bashed it over the first head he saw. Nails rained down as the man he’d hit folded.

Dodging a vicious kick aimed at his kidneys, he collided with sacks of potato flour and sat down hard kicking up a white cloud. Sarn sneezed as he threw himself out of the way of a fist. He hit the ground rolling then sprang to his feet and seized a crate. A large man buried a fist in his makeshift shield, and the crunch of wood drowned out the breaking of bones. The man screamed and writhed as he tried to free his hand. Small metal balls rained from a fist-sized hole in the crate and rolled around on the floor.

Sarn backed away from the trip hazard they represented and pushed a heavy barrel between himself and a man missing both of his front teeth. The fool kicked the barrel and screamed as it belched black powder in his face.

A metal ball whizzed over Sarn’s shoulder and ricocheted off Gray’s collarbone. Sarn looked around for his son and saw the boy scrounging more balls from the floor. Diving behind a tower of boxes, Sarn caught his thieving son’s hand.

“I need you to run right now and stay out of sight.”

“But I’m helping.” Ran held up the slingshot, “and we’re winning.”

“Where are you, boy?” The voice came from the opposite side of the crate tower to Sarn’s right.

He jumped in front of his son and Ran ducked behind a wine cask. The metal ball in his son’s hand glinted in the lumir light as Ran vanished into the shadows. Pushing on the tower of crates nearest the voice, Sarn toppled it. A muffled groan signaled he’d hit his target.

Maybe his son was right. Maybe they were winning. More projectiles sailed past as Sarn knocked over several barrels.

A shape shimmered into existence, and Sarn stared at the ghost boy. What was it doing here? It lobbed handfuls of metal balls and kicked, sending plumes of flour to drift in the air.

Sarn rubbed his eyes, but the specter remained. No one reacted to it. Was he hallucinating its help? The ghost tossed a door handle at a skinny man, and it struck the man’s knee, stopping his charge. The man went down clutching his injured leg, and the sight proved the ghost was real and helping.

A leather strap wrapped around Sarn’s throat choking him. He cursed his inattention as he struggled to free himself.

“I got him.”

The speaker dragged Sarn into a cleared space. As the noose tightened, Sarn scrambled for a hold on the leather. A hand fisted the strap right behind the buckle, digging it into the nape of his neck. Sarn tried to work his fingers under the belt, but they slipped off its smooth curve. He kicked out, and his foot hit something solid. A grunt and a curse indicated his blow had landed on target, but the belt kept constricting. A board slammed into the backs of his knees, and they buckled.

For a moment, Sarn remained suspended by the strap alone until the arm holding it lowered. His knees hit the cold stone followed by his belly and chin. Magic shot out cushioning his fall, but it slid off the belt. Something about it defeated even the magic’s nimble fingers.

A weight settled on top of Sarn, thighs splitting so dinner plate-sized knees could land on either side of his lean hips. Sarn’s arms were jerked behind his back and lashed together. He struggled, but hands seized his ankles and bound them too.

“Death’s too good for you.”

Hot breath stirred the hair on the back of his neck. Sarn went white with horror and thrashed uncaring if he choked now. The noose contracted to cut off his airflow.

“Ease off, we don’t want to kill him, just incapacitate him. Do you know how much they’ll pay for someone like him?”

A hand flipped Sarn’s cowl back and fisted in his hair jerking his head up.

“Look at those eyes—like a pair of emeralds in the sun.” Gray shook his head. “They’re more vivid than any on sale in the flesh market.”

“Is that where we’re taking him?” asked one of Gray’s cohorts.

Gray shook his head again and let go of Sarn. “Oh no, he’s worth his weight in gold to the right buyer.”

“Cause of his funny eyes?”

“No, because of his age. Most boys like him never reach adulthood. You’re going to make us a fortune. It won’t bring Beku back, but your suffering will ease her raging spirit.” Gray’s hand patted the back of Sarn’s head and his magic locked on.

[_Fix acquired, _]his magic chirped as Gray’s icon changed to one Sarn could follow anywhere. The stupid fool had signed his own death warrant. Now to get out of the whole being sold into slavery thing—again. Last time, he was twelve and unprepared. This time, he had magic and a son with nimble fingers. The belt contracted again.

“I asked you a question. Answer it, and you might earn some leniency. Who knows how long you’ll be our prisoner before we find a buyer for you.”

“What question?” Sarn choked out. The belt loosened.

“How did she die?”

“I don’t know.”

It was the truth but not the answer they wanted to hear. Leather creaked as the belt tightened again.

Sarn’s lungs sobbed for air. Black spots danced before his eyes swelling with each passing second. Just a little more and there—his pants tore and both his bare knees pressed into the ground. A connection sparked, but Sarn ignored it as he sent his magic searching for his son. He had to keep the boy from discovery. Eventually, these fools would lock him up somewhere, and he’d escape. But Ran had to stay safe and out of sight until then.

Magic spread out in concentric rings, plunging his awareness deep into the mountain’s roots instead of fanning out across the ground. [_No! _]Sarn fought it, but his magic refused to obey him. Cancer gnawed at Mount Eredren somewhere nearby, and his magic sped toward it. His map unfurled and tried to get a fix, but Sarn was fading fast into a gray haze.

Eam’meye erator, whispered a voice in his head.

[_Unclean, _]shrieked his magic as it recoiled from the cancer and bounced off a ponderous consciousness, waking it. Mount Eredren stirred, then it roared.

Sarn clung to consciousness by a suffocating thread, and it frayed as the mountain juddered and the noose tightened. Gray’s questions had become an insistent buzz in his ears interrupted by the cracking of stone.

The ghost boy’s startled eyes met Sarn’s until an invisible force tore at its garments. Ran shouted. The ghost flickered and unraveled. The ground heaved, and Sarn’s world faded to black as an image of a thirteen-pointed star pushed into his mind. Time had finally run out for everyone.

“Stop it!” Ran shouted. The boy rushed out of his hiding place and moved with a spider’s grace over the quaking ground. Darting in front of Sarn, Ran fired his slingshot, striking the man holding the belt right between his eyes. “Let go of my Papa!”

As the big man toppled, the belt loosened. Magic flooded Sarn, pulling him back to consciousness. His map tried again to form, but something blocked it. Mount Eredren calmed and stopped its quaking.

After he wedged his slingshot into the waistband of his trousers, Ran glared at the men staring at him. Metal balls clinked in his pockets as his nimble fingers slid the slack through the buckle.

Sarn dragged in a grateful lungful of air as the magic receded from his chest and he flirted with unconsciousness for a moment.

“Breathe, Papa.” Ran patted the back of his head.

Sarn attempted a nod then gave up when white fire shook its cage, fighting to break out. Not again, he had neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to deal with two magics. One was already plugged into the mountain causing problems. If he lost control of the other, he had no idea what it would do.

“Ran?”

“I’m here.” Ran patted Sarn’s shoulder and walked around until he came into view. “I’m okay. Are you okay?”

Sarn nodded. He rolled onto his side breaking his connection to the mountain and stopped the flow of information to his inner cartographer. He also shoved the map out of sight, so a detailed rendering of his immediate surroundings stopped competing for his attention. Annoyed at the interruption to its map editing session, his magic poked brilliant green fingers at the bindings at his wrists and ankles. Both were fashioned from natural fibers, so the knots fell apart with a little help from his son.

Free but too damned tired to move, Sarn pillowed his head on his arm and just lay there catching his breath. Beneath him, he sensed Mount Eredren settling back into its interrupted slumber. Sarn made sure no bare skin touched the stonework. One glimpse into the mind of the mountain was enough.

Ran leaned into Sarn and his magic spun a protective emerald bubble around them.

“Who is this boy and why’s he calling you ‘Papa’?” asked one of his attackers.

“’Cause he’s my Papa.” Shoulders squared, Ran turned to face the men.

“I’ll admit you’re the spitting image of him but how could you be his son? You’re too old.” Gray bent as he considered the boy.

Ran returned the scrutiny with interest. “Am not.” Ran folded his arms over his chest and glared at Gray. “He’s my father.”

“All right little mouse, how old are you?”

“Four,” Ran held up four fingers and wiggled them. “And I’m not a mouse.”

All the men heaved belly laughs at this.

“You look too old to be four,” the large man Sarn had kneed in a sensitive spot commented. The guy still had one hand cupped around his groin.

“’Cause I’ll be five soon. I’ll be five on March—March—” Ran trailed off unable to recall his own birthday. He glanced at his father for the answer.

“Fifteenth,” Sarn supplied, remembering the day his world had changed forever.

“Look, kid, I don’t know what he’s told you, but you can’t be his get. He’s not old enough to be your father.”

“He is my son.” Sarn managed to sit up, but dizziness forced him to plant his rear and wait. Perhaps his son was right. Adventures should take place after breakfast and fights too. Since all the men’s attention had riveted on his pint-sized savior, and his magic had the boy well protected, he could rest for a minute.

“Yes, he is. Papa’s twenty.” Ran held up ten fingers and then ten again before continuing. “Uncle Miren’s fourteen.” The boy flashed ten fingers then folded six of them out of sight. “And I’m four.” Ran ended his demonstration by waggling his four remaining digits.

“You can’t be four. My son was your height when he was twice your age.” Gray shook his head at Ran. “Kid, it ain’t bloody likely you’re his son.”

“No papa was sixteen when I was born,” Ran corrected. To further clarify his point, he held up ten, then six fingers.

“How did you know that?” Sarn stared at his son in shock. Miren had promised to teach Ran to add and subtract, but those lessons had stalled at 1 + 1 = 2.

“People talk,” Ran shrugged as if to say, and I listen.

Embarrassed, Sarn shook his head. Ran was a sponge soaking in everything around him. He had to watch what he said from now on.

However, the exchange set the men off again, and their laughter echoed off the walls. Wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, Gray directed his next question to Sarn.

“Is the boy Beku’s son?”

“Yes, she’s my mama.” Ran’s face crumpled, and he turned it into Sarn’s shoulder. “But she went away and didn’t come back,” Ran said to his boots. “Do you know where she went?” Ran looked up at the men with hope shining in his eyes. His grief pinned the five men in place rendering them speechless.

The sight broke Sarn’s heart. He hugged his son. “You still have your uncle and me. We’ll always be there for you.”

Ran nodded and sniffed. “I know.” The boy transferred his hopeful gaze to his father. “Can we go see mama someday?”

Sarn kept the ‘no’ building in his soul caged behind his teeth. Ran was his son now, his alone. Beku had given up all rights to the boy when she’d disappeared. Anger tightened a noose around Sarn’s neck choking off any further words. Death would be too pat an end to the whole tawdry affair. No, Beku was out there somewhere, and he refused to search for her. He held his son close to his heart and let the question hang between them, unanswered.

Gray extended a hand to Sarn, but not a truce since the men had yet to claim their pound of flesh.

Sarn ignored the hand and stood up on his own. Once he was vertical, his son looked up at him with a plea in his green eyes and his thin arms rose for a pick-up. Sarn scooped his son up and Ran settled against his chest. Murders, kidnappings, death threats, hauntings, spies—what would life throw at him next?

“How did you know my name? I’ve never seen any of you before,” Sarn asked cutting right to the heart of his confusion. He backed up until a five-foot tall wall of undamaged boxes separated him from the fivesome. His heel struck two metal balls sending them rolling.

“How did Beku die?” Gray’s eyes narrowed on Sarn.

“I told you already. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.” Sarn rubbed slow circles on his son’s back. Ran deserved a little coddling after the morning they’d had.

“Liar!” Tree Stumps for Limbs pointed an accusing finger at Sarn.

“I can’t lie. The thing lighting up my eyes won’t let me.” Sarn gestured with his free hand and all eyes riveted on his Fates-damned face.

Gray and his friends’ stares bounced between Sarn and his son taking in their uncanny resemblance. Ran smiled, radiating approval at the men’s response.

Tension thrummed through Sarn stretching his spine rigid as a pole. More than anything, he hated to be stared at. His second attempt to replace the cowl succeeded since his son’s attention had drifted to the destruction they’d caused. No little hands interfered this time, and he relaxed when shadows veiled most of his scarred face.

Tree Stumps for Limbs drew himself up to his full height—an impressive five foot eleven to Sarn’s six and a half feet. “Liar! She wouldn’t leave the Lower Quarters without you.”

“Yeah well on that day she did.” Sarn struggled to cover his son’s ears perking up at the mention of his mother. Ironically, he’d been planning to leave her and take Ran with him again. But she’d disappeared before he could say anything.

Jealousy reared its ugly head. Sarn shoved it down. Beku’s whereabouts were no longer his concern. Neither was the identity of the person she had stepped out with on that fateful morning. Sarn shook his head. “It wasn’t me.”

“I know,” Ran said, speaking for the first time since the subject of his mother had come up. “You were sleeping. I was too.”

“Yeah, I was your mattress.” Sarn poked his son’s belly causing the boy to squirm. Then he refocused on Gray and company. “Why did you think I had something to do with this?”

Gray folded his arms over his chest. “Four years ago, I stopped by to say hello and to check on the current crop of Foundlings. I found the place all but abandoned. A couple stragglers told me a shocking story about a picnic.”

Sarn recalled the June Sunday in question. Butterflies had flitted between flowers, and a three-month-old Ran had batted tiny fists at them. He glanced at Ran and marveled at how much the boy had grown.

“What does an outing four years ago have to do with this?”

Of course, Gray ignored his question. “Imagine my surprise to find out Beku had gone to this picnic on the arm of her newest boy toy. Beku—the woman hadn’t gone outside in two decades. But she went outside with you.”

“Two decades?” Sarn repeated, staggered by the implications. He’d known Beku was a shut-in, but how could she stay below ground for so long without going crazy? A whole bunch of odd things tumbled together to form an ugly whole.

“Do you know what agoraphobia means?”

Sarn shook his head.

“Fear of wide open spaces.” Gray paused and debated something.

“Ag-or-a-pho-bi-a,” Ran repeated breaking the word up into its composite syllables. “Fear of wide open spaces—what are wide open spaces?”

“The meadow is one.”

Ran repeated the word again. “Mama had this ag-or-a-pho-bi-a?”

“Yes.”

Ran’s face clouded again portending more questions. “Am I sick with ag-or-a-pho-bi-a?”

“No, you don’t have any phobias.”

“It’s a sickness,” Gray interrupted.

“It is?” Sarn and his son asked in unison.

Gray’s comment wrapped cold dread around Sarn. And its grip tightened with every word the man said. “It’s a disease of the mind—where the fear lives. It makes its den in bad memories, and it feeds off them until there’s nothing left.”

Ran shivered at the vivid description and his anxious eyes fixed on Sarn again. “Did the phobia kill mama?” Ran uttered the word ‘kill’ as if he knew what it meant.

“Oh, I think it did,” Gray said before Sarn could answer. His gaze skimmed over Sarn’s body, scanning him from head to toe.

Sarn returned the glare with interest. His cloak drew its two halves together blocking Gray’s assessing stare. Ran wriggled until his head parted it and he could see out.

Sarn’s heel encountered a solid object. Glancing over his shoulder, he glared at an inconvenient wall. The fight had moved into a storeroom, and Gray and company blocked the only exit. Panic surged, but Sarn hammered it down with logic. Escape was always possible with a little ingenuity.

Ran patted his pockets causing metal balls to clink and a slingshot to protrude. At least they had one weapon to hand.

“No wonder she liked you, she’d found someone as screwed up in here as she was.” Gray pointed to his head and relaxed. He’d cracked a difficult nut and exposed its meat, leaving Sarn vulnerable and hating it.

“What do you want?”

“I want to know what happened. She was close to you; closer than she’d been with her previous lovers. You knew her better than anyone else even though you were half her age.”

“And I keep telling you—I don’t know what happened to her.” Sarn heard the chiming of bells, but he ignored them since he had until twentieth bell to meet the Rangers—somewhere. Right now, they were the least of his concerns. “Who are you people and why do you care?”

“You have no idea who we are?” Gray exchanged startled looks with his compatriots.

“No.”

“Well since we know your name and your boy’s, I suppose introductions are in order.”

Dirk was the one Sarn had tagged as Gray. His companions included Ragnes, Villar, Crisso, and Gorfen. None of their names registered.

“How do you know Beku?”

“She didn’t mention us?” Villar looked put out as he threaded his belt through the loops on his pants.

“I’d remember if she had.” Would he? Sarn suppressed his doubts. Now wasn’t the time to entertain them.

“Interesting, well if you’re the jealous type, I doubt she would have.” Ragnes took pleasure in delivering such a low blow.

Great, they were old lovers. Sarn ground his teeth. Should he expect more of Beku’s old flames to show up and threaten him? His life offered enough complications.

“We grew up with her. We were all foundlings at one time,” Dirk said taking pity on Sarn. “We’re not old lovers. Though some of us might have wanted to be, you know why it wouldn’t have been possible.”

The man’s phrasing threw Sarn for a loop, and he rubbed his temples with his free hand. What the hell was Dirk getting at?

Dirk blew out an impatient breath. “You’re not real bright, are you?”

“I don’t know much about Beku’s life before I met her,” Sarn snapped. Of course, he’d never asked because he hadn’t wanted to field the reverse questions.

“Oh,” Dirk’s face softened in understanding. “So, you didn’t know some jerk raped her when she was young? Afterward, she couldn’t stand to be around grown men, so she went after teenage boys.”

“She did tell me that.”

Ran shifted, so his head fit the hollow between neck and shoulder. His breath warmed the fabric bumping over Sarn’s collarbone. “What’s rape mean?”

“I’ll explain later.” Sarn would too even if the explanation dredged up memories of an incident he’d failed to prevent. The Lower Quarters teemed with users, abusers and the indifferent. His son needed to know what to do and when to get help.

“I’m hungry,” Ran whispered.

“I know, and I’ll get something for you as soon as we get out of here.” And he still had to deal with all the strangeness of yesterday and this morning, but later after food cleared away the mental cobwebs.

“I know. I didn’t want you to forget.”

As if Ran would let him forget, Sarn shook his head at his son’s lack of faith in him then stilled. Echoes bounced off the naked stone in the corridor fronting the storeroom. Two sets of footsteps approached, and so did the complaints of men who never ventured below ground. Voices he knew well indeed. Their symbols ignited on the map his magic had constructed during the fight and Sarn bit off a curse. Why did it have to be them?

Chapter 15

“Why the hell can’t the fletchers fetch their own arrowheads?” Jallister protested. He’d worked up to a good passion for his subject by now.

“Where are these bloody arrows? We’ve been all over this level looking, and they still haven’t appeared. Are you certain this fool even knows where to look? And why send us? Aren’t there dozens of lads with nothing else to do who could trek around for hours down here? We’ve got important things to do—”

“Where the hell is Sarn when I need him? He’s at least quiet,” Gregori said aggrieved by his loquacious companion. Nothing could have induced Gregori to take Jallister on an errand except direct orders from Jerlo.

“Where is he? This is his kind of work—I mean he’s indentured. Fetching and carrying are all well and good for [_him. _]He’s got nothing better to do. Besides, he’s much stronger than I am—”

“Will you shut up? I can’t hear the man, and he might have found them. Say again Linnear, have you a lead?” Frustration kicked Gregori’s voice up a notch sending echoes of his question to bounce around the storeroom.

“Not a lead but well—” Linnear broke off, and footsteps resounded. “Dirk? Dirk, where are you?” Linnear raised his voice and repeated his call over Jallister’s continued grumbling.

Part of Sarn wanted to break out in hysterical laughter. Could rescue show up in a useable form next time? If either Gregori or Jallister saw Ran, they would take his son away. Sweat beaded on Sarn’s brow as fear looped molten bands around his chest and squeezed. Wizards, blizzards, and bloody damned gizzards—how could he prevent such a disaster?

Ducking behind a bunch of crates, Sarn draped his cloak over himself and his son and hunkered down. Magic uncoiled inside him and stretched its wings over them, though who knew if it helped.

“Papa?” Ran shifted in his grip, and his son’s concerned eyes caught his. “Are you okay?” Ran touched his skin, calming and reassuring the magic.

The fire constricting Sarn’s chest eased. A door creaked, and muffled voices sounded in the tunnel outside the storeroom. Shutting his eyes, Sarn trapped their emerald inferno, making them tear until Ran’s cool fingers muted the searing heat.

“What’s happening?” Ran whispered, half strangling Sarn in the process.

Sarn shushed the boy since he had no answer and loosened Ran’s grip on his neck.

“Sorry I hurt you. I’m scared.”

“Don’t be. Just be quiet and still. I’ll get us out of here.”

“Then we have breakfast?”

“Yes, now hush.”

Ran nodded, and his forehead smacked into Sarn’s jaw. His son had a hard head just like his father.

“Sorry.” Ran’s fingers probed the new bruise. “Did they hurt you?”

“I’ll be okay.”

Sarn felt a padlock click closed from across the room. His sixth sense walked its pitted surface seeking weaknesses but found none before he redirected it. No way would he exit that way, too many witnesses.

“Excuse the mess, an accident happened in there, but we’ll get it cleaned up.” Dirk’s muffled voice assured someone.

Sarn’s head snapped up as claws clicked on the stone floor and a rat icon appeared on his map. What an interesting complication. Would Rat Woman show up next?

Rising from his crouch, Sarn peered over the boxes hiding them. Where was the rat? He pulled up his map just as the rat icon shattered sending a wave of tiny, writhing icons scurrying away. One threat was down, five were still to go. Keep talking Jallister.

The hairs on the back of Sarn’s neck stirred. He pivoted. Air currents and escape routes went hand in hand under the mountain.

“What’re we looking for?”

“A way out.”

Ran nodded and narrowed his eyes in concentration as his head swiveled.

A gray shape coalesced dropping the temperature in its wake. Sarn’s breath misted the air, and in his arms, his son shivered. He rubbed Ran’s back to warm him as a wrongness wrenched his stomach doubling Sarn up.

A spectral hand floated past, and he retreated from its grasping fingers. Next, the ghost boy’s head popped into view, and it drifted toward its disembodied arm. Its leg followed with part of a torso close behind.

“What happened?” Sarn stared as the ghost boy gathered its scattered parts and reconnected them. “Why didn’t they save you? Was there something wrong with you?”

Dull green eyes fixed on Sarn begging for help, and he nodded. Of course he’d help, but first, he had to untangle the events of the last day and a half—if he could.

“What is it?” Ran extended a curious finger toward the ghost boy. It shuddered and fell apart, scattering its limbs to the four corners of the storeroom before they winked out.

Twice the specter had gone to pieces when his son was present. Ran was too young to use magic, wasn’t he? The realization chilled Sarn as he searched his son’s eyes for the trademark glow of active magic, and found none. Relieved, he held tight to his son. Let the magic leave the tyke alone for a while longer.

“Papa? What is it?”

“It’s something I need to deal with.

Ran’s face scrunched up portending more questions, none of which he had the answers for right now.

“We’ll talk about it later. Right now, I need to find a way out of here.” When the walls all proved to be solid, Sarn scanned the ceiling out of sheer desperation. Air was entering from somewhere.

“What does a way out look like?”

Sarn pointed at what he’d seen as a voice intoned, eam’meye erator. A warning flashed on his map.

“How will we reach it?” Ran asked, pointing to the trapdoor forty feet overhead.

Nausea punched Sarn in the stomach as he studied his options. The one wall with brackets sticking out of it was too far from the trapdoor to be of use, and the granite was too smooth to free climb without magical assistance. Why was escape never easy?

“Stay close to me.” Sarn set his son down.

Ignoring the sealed crates, he rifled through the contents of the open ones searching for anything he could fashion into a weapon. A grappling hook would be awesome, but all he found was a box of belts. Connecting two together, he tugged on them. Would it hold his weight and his son’s? He doubted it. On to plan B then—Sarn shucked off his boots and tied the laces together.

“What’s that?” Ran pointed at something in between two rolled carpets.

A gray shape boiled up from the floor. Flies covered its back. Ants made up its limbs and cockroaches formed its thorax and head. More insects piled on fusing into a chitinous exoskeleton complete with mandibles. Sarn swallowed bile at the sight. What vile magic was holding this abomination together? There were no mages anymore, not like in the old tales.

“That’s trouble.”

Sarn ripped strips from his cloak and tied them together into a crude harness. While he attached his boots to it, threads extruded from both sides of the tear reweaving a garment which had become more magic than cloth over the years. Moments later, his cloak was whole and just in time too.

The creature turned compound obsidian eyes full of intelligence on Sarn. Green lightning snaked over his knuckles. But the elemental magic in his veins felt paltry in comparison to the black waves of power mashing an uncountable number of insects into the man-shaped piece of filth staggering toward him. Sarn doubled over and vomited stomach acid.

A metallic ball whizzed past Sarn’s head and bounced off the creature’s forehead. Ran shot the creature in the left eye then took out the right one before cowering against Sarn’s leg as he searched for more ammunition.

“Good shot,” Sarn smiled despite their situation, proud of his son’s ingenuity and aim.

Enraged, Insect Man hissed and charged. Sarn yanked his son out of the way. It crashed into a heap of debris, sending a bolt of shimmering green fabric flying. As the Insect Man thrashed, it unspooled. His claws scratched at the tough, entangling fabric, but they failed to cut it.

“Climb on my back and get your arms and legs under these.” Sarn pointed to the makeshift harness across his chest, “and hold on tight. We’re getting out of here.”

“How?”

“Magic.”

Not his preferred option, but Sarn crouched by his son and ignored that fact. He’d used more magic in the last two days than in the last three years combined, and that couldn’t be a good thing.

Once Ran was in place, Sarn pushed up into a dead run and zigzagged around the struggling creature. It had almost freed itself by the time he hit the wall and rushed up it. His bare feet slapped the stone, sticking to it, and so did his hands, allowing him to defy gravity.

The magic decided to toss some support his way. It surged through Sarn, dumping fire into his veins. The green glow of his eyes intensified, but Sarn ignored it and concentrated on his goal—the trapdoor. Nothing else mattered except reaching it before the Insect Man transformed into something nastier or Jallister ran out of words. Sarn cursed. He couldn’t concentrate on climbing and consult his map, not while his magic was fixated on the abomination crashing into things below.

The wall undulated, extruding blobby arms to embrace him. Sarn slapped the granite hands gripping his shirt, but they kept flowing down the wall toward the ascending rat. “Stop it! I don’t need your help. I have a plan.”

But the damned magic paid no attention to his orders. It had a plan of its own and to hell with what he wanted. Sarn gnashed his teeth in frustration to keep from vomiting. His stomach heaved each time he came within ten feet of the rat.

“Stop it!”

“Why’s it taking us down? Down is bad.” Ran pointed to the stone arms holding onto them.

“I don’t know.” And Sarn had no idea what to do about it. If his magic refused to help him, then he was trapped.

“It’s okay. Papa will get us out of here.” Ran patted the stone hand fisted in his tunic and it quivered.

A barrage of images shot through Sarn’s head from the connection his feet maintained with the wall. It wasn’t his magic fighting him. It was Mount Eredren.

A command broke free from the tumult—destroy it.

“How?” Sarn asked not at all surprised when he received silence from the mountain.

Abomination—commented his magic.

Yes, it was, but what the hell could he do about it? “Hold really tight,” Sarn said to his son as the stone arms stilled.

“Why?”

“Because I’m about to do something really stupid.” Nothing was ever fair when magic was involved, but there was no use complaining about it.

“Why?”

Because being a spectacle was his special skill in life, but Sarn refrained from pointing that out. Instead, he said, “on three, I need you to hold as tight as you can to me.”

“Okay.”

“One.”

A section of wall pushed out providing Sarn with a platform.

“Two.” Magic rushed to his feet encasing them in emerald fire.

“Three.”

The mountain let go. Sarn jumped, tucked and tumbled backward piledriving both feet into the abomination’s head. Emerald fire edged in silver bored into the creature breaking the bonds holding it together. It shrieked as it shook, sending billions of insects flying in all directions.

Overcome by a sudden wave of dizziness, Sarn fell. Before his feet hit a floor free of insects, he bent his knees to absorb the impact. But the green magic kicked in the instant before he landed and the stone floor turned springy. Sarn sank into it and tipped forward toward a nearby crate. Twisting, he missed a date with unconsciousness by mere inches and landed on his side, so he didn’t squash his son.

Ran patted him seeking injuries. “Are you hurt?”

“No just a little lightheaded.” Sarn sat up and almost blacked out. He blinked until the gray haze cleared, but Jallister had either stopped talking or fled the area. Sarn cursed and tried to rise, but Ran was still attached to him, and his son’s scant weight overbalanced him, and he planted his rear.

“What now?”

“We get out of here.”

The how eluded Sarn as he glared at the trapdoor forty feet overhead then he shrugged. Too dizzy to climb, he crawled to the nearest wall and hoped he could reprise his spider impersonation from yesterday. All he needed was skin contact, and it should work. Sarn paused and rested his head against the wall. He’d play spider in a moment when he felt less light and floaty.

Magic, or maybe it was the mountain, took the decision out of his hands. Green light leaked out of his eyes and inched up the wall and across the ceiling. A detailed image of the rope contraption balled up at the trapdoor’s corner flashed across Sarn’s mind along with a silent query—[_what now? _]

Indeed, his magic had asked a good question. Sarn studied the bundle. “Please let that be a net of some kind.”

“Papa? What are you doing?” Ran squirmed out of the make-shift harness and stood next to him.

“Trying to figure out how to unhook it.” Sarn pointed at the trapdoor.

Ran squinted at it and produced a slingshot from his pocket. After lining up a shot, Ran fired. The first projectile missed by a hand-span, but the second, third and fourth, struck the bundle, jiggling it and revealing the problem.

“Huh, the damned thing is caught in the door.” As Sarn realized this, so did his magic and it lifted the trapdoor so the net could cascade down.

“Do we climb now?” Ran bounced in anticipation.

“Yes.” Sarn pulled his boots on and using the wall as an aid, he rose. Thank Fate something had worked out in his favor. The bottom of the net dangled ten feet from the ground, and he was six foot six. Escape was no longer a problem.

“Climb as fast and carefully as you can.” Sarn held Ran above his head, and his grinning son grabbed hold of the net. Its square holes were wide enough to fit an adult’s boot but Ran scampered up the net enjoying the climb. It was the first bright spot in the debacle this morning had turned into.

As soon as Ran had climbed a few feet, Sarn jumped and seized a handful of the net. His body protested when he chinned himself up, but he ignored it. He felt a key apply itself to the lock Dirk had left, and his sixth sense warned of the hasp’s imminent release. Damn, he’d hoped for a longer head start.

Reaching the top as voices faded and the door handle jiggled, Sarn swung himself up and gathered the net into a bundle. Ran reached out to help. They left the net bunched up on the floor. With luck, Dirk and company would take time figuring out where they had gone.

Where indeed, Sarn closed his eyes, shuttering their glow and reached for his map unsurprised to find it blank. Ran leaned against his leg shivering in the sudden darkness, and he laid a hand on his son’s head to reassure him. Had they escaped one danger only to climb into another?

Letting his senses stray from his side, Sarn waited, but they sent back no information. He gave up on invisibility and opened his eyes. But as their emerald glow increased, so did the chamber—not helpful. This cavern was parked inside a mountain, so there were walls. Fate only knew where though. Why me? Why today? With a shake of the head, Sarn shelved those nonproductive thoughts for after he’d escaped.

“Why’s it so dark?” Ran gripped Sarn’s pant leg and tugged on it.

“Because there’s no lumir here.” Sarn clamped a hand to his waist to prevent his trousers from slipping.

“Why?”

Indeed, why? The Litherians had an obsession for that luminous stone. Lumir striped every level because the mountain had rich deposits of it everywhere except here. There must be a reason for the lack, but was it germane to their current circumstance?

“I don’t know.” And the not knowing was driving Sarn crazy. Every hour added more ill-fitting pieces to an already complicated puzzle. But he never gave up, so he picked a direction.

“Can we do it again?”

“Do what?” Sarn glanced at his son. Had the boy lost his mind?

“The climbing part—I liked it.” A smile tugged at Ran’s lips but slid away as the darkness pressed in around them, contracting the green nimbus cast by Sarn’s eyes.

Was it getting darker in here? Sarn pivoted to check, but it was hard to tell. The amount of light his eyes put out varied in intensity depending on the magic’s whims, not his. “Another time maybe.”

“You promise?”

Sarn sighed. “Sure, someday we’ll do it again.” Though the next time, there’d be sunshine too. His son deserved that.

“Food now?”

“Yeah as soon as I figure out where the hell we are.” Sarn triggered his mental map, but the damned thing was busy sketching in what little information he had about this cavern. Sarn bit off a curse. What was the point in having magic if half the time it ignored him?

He took his son’s hand and led Ran away from the trapdoor. Best if they put some distance between them and their former captors. He could feel them coming, but they were still some distance away.

“Come on let’s walk a bit and see where this ramp goes.”

Ran followed, but the darkness oppressed him. “Can I have a light? I won’t drop it.”

Sarn heard the quaver in his son’s voice and removed his pendant. The crystal had been a gift, and it had lit many dark places before his eyes had taken up their glow. As Sarn held the finger-long crystal up, it threw a radiant white net around his son. Ran relaxed.

A niggling feeling he’d missed something yesterday worked its way free as Sarn stared at the pendant. One of the rarest types of lumir, it could only be given from one bearer to the next. All other types of lumir could be bought or stolen, but not the one dangling from his hand. With nearly all the wood in Shayari enchanted against fire, lumir was the light source of choice.

Everyone carried nuggets of it. Lumir was so ubiquitous, no one would bother stealing it. So why had he sensed no lumir at either murder site yesterday? That lack bothered Sarn. It meant something.

Ran’s eager fingers reached for the pendant swinging above his head. So too did a disembodied hand as the ghost boy tried to manifest. Spectral parts popped into existence and drifted toward the ghost’s torso. Each time a limb rejoined, a shadow scythed through the connection, breaking it.

Sarn gaped at the ghost. It was at the heart of everything that had gone wrong in the last day and a half. How could he even begin to put this right?

Stretching up on his toes, Ran snatched the pendant. As its leather thong slid through Sarn’s fingers, nausea walloped him, and he folded around his heaving stomach.

Ran held up the crystal, and its white light flared, driving away the shadow knifing the ghost to pieces. Shocked at the sight, Ran backpedaled and collided with Sarn’s legs.

The ghost boy fixed grateful eyes on them, then it too vanished. Maybe it wanted to pull itself together in private.

“What was it?”

“I don’t know, but I will find out.” After they got out of there, of course. Sarn took his son’s hand and froze. Five lumir crystals headed this way in the hands of the five men he’d fought before. Sarn bit off a curse and hurried in the opposite direction.

At his side, Ran turned the pendant in his hands, fingering the grooves carved into its widest face. Sarn braced himself for a barrage of questions but Ran stayed quiet, and his sudden quietude unnerved Sarn. His son was a talker, like his brother.

No doubt their predicament preyed on his son’s mind. It was his fault. Sarn ground his teeth in frustration and fought the urge to douse the pendant’s light. Ran needed its comforting glow.

How could he help a ghost when he struggled to safeguard his own son? The question pursued Sarn as he sought a way out of the endless cavern

“What is that? Why’s it glowing?” Ran pointed to the sunlight knifing through the dark.

And it was a welcome sight. Relief made Sarn giddy and laughter fizzed just under the surface. “We finally found a wall which makes that a door.” With luck, it was their exit.

Was it extending brilliant hands? Sarn rubbed his eyes, but the image refused to fade.

“It’s for going outside?” Ran ventured, sounding hopeful.

Sarn nodded distracted by the luminous white filaments extending from his body. They drank in the sunlight and his gut cramped with hunger. For a moment, everything grayed. Sarn leaned into the wall as the world rocked around him.

What magic was this? It wasn’t the rock-loving green one lighting up his eyes. What magic was white? Before everything blackened, the filaments receded, and he stopped his floor-ward slide.

“Papa?” Ran tugged his pant leg until he received a response.

“I’m—okay—”

Sarn ruffled his son’s hair, distracting the boy for a heartbeat. Scowling, Ran finger-combed his locks back into their preferred state of disorder.

“Can we go out that door?”

“Maybe,” Sarn played the glow of his eyes over it but found no handle or hasp. He put his shoulder to the door and pushed, but it refused to budge. “It’s locked from the other side. We have to find another way out.” Could he pick the lock from the reverse side with his magic? Sarn’s head hurt just thinking about it.

“I know you’re up here. There’s no escape from this level. Come out and talk to me,” Dirk shouted ending Sarn’s internal debate. “We won’t harm you or your son. I swear it.”

Only a fool would believe that. “Give me the pendant.” Sarn held out his hand.

After a moment’s hesitation, Ran handed it over. Sarn settled the pendant under his tunic again, and the light cut off leaving them bathed in the green glow of his eyes until he closed them. Ran clung to him, scared of the dark.

Crouching down behind a stalagmite, Sarn pulled his shivering son into a one-armed embrace. “I’ll get us out of here,” Sarn whispered to his son who nodded. “Just be silent as sleeping stone.” An image of thirteen rock piles broke across the sullen green star poking at his closed eyes then faded, leaving Sarn shaken. What had he just seen—a memory or a magic-born hallucination? And why did everything come in sets of thirteen?

“Come out and talk to me.”

Hell no, Sarn tightened his arm around his son. He still had a fix on Dirk and his men. The fools never should have let him touch them. He had maybe five minutes before they converged on this location.

Update—demanded his magic as it pushed against his clothes.

Sarn yearned for the cold touch of stone and the deep well of information flowing through in it—no. If he gave in, he’d black out and leave his son vulnerable. Sarn held tight to his son until the urge to strip off his clothes and embrace the stalagmite hiding them abated.

Ran stood on tiptoe and whispered into Sarn’s good ear. “What now?”

“We find a way out of here.” Before he lost control of the magic. Hunger tended to erode his concentration making his mind malleable to the magic’s manipulation.

Sarn rubbed his aching head then resumed studying his map. It didn’t line up properly with the levels above since the mountain tapered and his exact location was still hazy. Ran laid his head on Sarn’s thigh, and he stroked the boy’s greasy locks with his free hand. Where had Dirk and his friends come from? If he could find where they entered, he could leave the same way.

Distant chatter startled Sarn. Lowering his hood, he put his good ear to the wall and concentrated. How could he hear the door wardens from here? They should be on the other side of the mountain. Magic trickled out of his ear and crawled up the wall, dragging his consciousness with it until he jerked his head away breaking the connection.

“What’s this?”

“What is what?” Sarn cracked his eyes open and played a thin beam of green light over his son’s fingers. Under them, a square block sunk into the wall.

“What did you do?”

Ran shrugged and backed away as a section of the wall swung in. Sarn’ smiled as he opened his eyes all the way and their emerald glow revealed a staircase twisting into darkness—of course. The Litherians were a race of paranoid misanthropes. They had hidden all manner of rooms, traps, tunnels and staircases all over the mountain.

Sarn patted Ran on the back. “Good job, you found an exit.”

“No more stairs. Now, I’ll never eat.” Ran kicked the bottom step then squeaked as a rat darted past.

It was the spy from earlier. Was it heading toward its mistress?

“No more rats.” Ran fixed scared eyes on Sarn and clutched his pants when he started up the stairs in pursuit.

Those tiny hands stopped Sarn. Ran wasn’t growing up on the streets like he had. “I’m sorry, but we have to go.” Sarn waved to the stairs. “The rats won’t hurt us, but those men will.”

Dirk chose that moment to comment. “Not true, we just want to talk to you.”

And sell him into slavery, no thank you—Sarn’s hands tightened into fists. Indentured servitude was better. At least it offered the promise of freedom when his debt was paid.

A warning flashed on Sarn’s map, and he turned in time to deflect a punch with his forearm. These guys were so predictable.

“Papa!”

“Go! Run up the stairs. I’ll be right behind you.”

A fist slammed into Sarn’s side sending him crashing into the stairwell. Magic softened his landing, saving him from a concussion. He sprawled across six steps willing his frozen son to move. His body only blocked half of the staircase leaving plenty of room for Dirk to climb past him.

“Leave my son alone.” Sarn seized Dirk’s ankle and twisted it, bringing the man down.

“Get out of my way! I’ll grab the little imp!” shouted one of Dirk’s men, the widest one, what’s his name. Sarn recognized the voice as he latched onto Dirk’s waist and yanked the man down and away.

Dirk strained to reach Ran, but the boy ducked around a bend in the stairway, and his hands closed on air. Sarn rolled, pulling Dirk under him.

On top now, Sarn punched Dirk. “You lied.”

“Not about hurting the boy. For god’s sake, he’s Beku’s son.” And sincerity might have softened Dirk’s eyes for a second before their situation registered. Dirk smiled and went for the jugular. But Sarn had expected that, so he fended off the chokehold with a well-placed elbow.

An arm wrapped around Sarn’s throat from behind and squeezed, reminding him there were four more combatants. Not again, this was the third time this move had caught him unawares in the last forty-eight hours. With his luck, it was Villar reprising his earlier role. Thank Fate none of the Rangers were here to see this, or he’d be the laughing stock of their order.

Dirk punched Sarn, and he saw stars for a moment. Long enough to lose his chokehold on the magic. Green light clawed at his eyes and his skin seeking to escape. Instead of accepting its help, Sarn kicked Dirk and bones crunched. He couldn’t see where his foot had landed because his vision had contracted to a hairy arm choking him.

Ran screamed, and his terror paused the fight. Sarn got his feet under him and slammed the back of his head into his choker. Pain radiated out from the blow, and he staggered when his dazed captor released him. Tripping over legs, Sarn landed on the stairs beside Dirk, who gripped his broken arm.

Ran screamed again and his terror shredded Sarn, leaving no room for speech, only action. Before the strange détente ended, he crabbed toward his son, dividing his attention between what was above and the men below. Magic leaked out of his hands and charged up the stairs like an army of glowing green ants. Finding his son, they wrapped a shield around the shuddering boy, and some of his magic continued past Ran, seeking the source of his son’s fear. Information punched Sarn, and the world grayed out as he pulled his son into his arms and lay there too dizzy to move.

Rats poured down the stairs and over his body. Each little foot was a caress. Ran screamed and cried into his chest, but Sarn was with the magic, flowing ever upwards through the channels the Litherians had made heading toward—

“Papa?”

Sarn blinked, and his awareness receded until it stopped at his skin. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We’re okay. Look what the rats did.” Ran pointed but Sarn had to lever himself up to see. He laughed at the five men screaming and swatting at the rats climbing their bodies.

“You were right.”

Thirteen rats broke off their attack and blurred as they converged on the threshold, revealing Rat Woman. Wiry hair framed a doughy, unfinished face. She looked like a clumsy child’s attempt at doll making, not a living, breathing being. Clad in a cloak stitched together from rat skins, she stood there staring with those mirrored eyes. And they weren’t empty. A spark of personality fired and caught in their silver depths before she turned.

“Thank you.” Ran waved to her.

“Why did you help us?” Sarn struggled to his feet and swayed when the world took a step to the right without him. He leaned into the wall enclosing the stairwell. Thirteen rats had formed her. That could not be a coincidence. Somehow, she was part of this.

But the lipless woman remained silent as she touched the wall and the secret panel closed off the stairwell.

“Who are you?” Sarn asked of the blank wall separating them.

“She helped us.”

“I know. I just wish I knew why she helped us and why she spied on us.” And a great many other things too disturbing to mention to his son. Sarn pulled himself together, and he blinked as his map appeared. A yellow arrow pointed at a welcome spot—the Middle Kitchen. All he had to do was climb one hundred twenty steps. Thank Fate for small miracles.

“When did she spy on us?”

Sarn waved the question away. When didn’t matter but why did. Was this Rat Woman an ally? How did she fit into the general weirdness of the last day and a half? None of it made any sense, and he needed to fix that soon.

“I’m hungry.”

“I know. I still owe you breakfast.”

“We’ll get breakfast now?”

“Yes, but you have to climb for it.”

Ran’s shoulders slumped. “I hate stairs.”

“You and me both. Come on. Stairs are good for you. They’ll give you strong legs.”

“Mama said that about milk.”

Sarn fought a smile. “Yes, they both do.”

Unconvinced, Ran kicked the step again.

“Look you wanted to climb some more—” Sarn gestured to the stairs.

“No, I want to climb nets, not stairs. Nets are fun. Stairs are boring.” Ran folded his arms over his chest and scowled.

“Stairs are all I’ve got. Come on.”

Resigned, Ran mounted the stairs, and Sarn followed. Every step away from here unraveled the secrecy protecting his son, and that was unacceptable. Sarn’s hands curled into fists at his sides. He refused to lose the boy who gave his life meaning. Dirk had better keep his mouth shut.

Chapter 16

“Food now,” Ran pounded a fist against Sarn’s bicep as the bells tolled thirteen times.

Damn, lunch time had come and gone, and they still needed breakfast. Ran had a legitimate gripe and breakfast might help him figure out what to do about the ghost, the murders, corrupted enchantments, killer trees, spying vermin, strange symbols, Rat Woman—had he left anything out? Sarn sighed. The mystery kept growing the longer it went unsolved, and he still had no idea what to do about it. If things would stop chasing him, maybe he could figure out an answer.

In the silence after the bells finished dooming him, Sarn’s stomach growled. He set his son down and teetered as the world grayed out. Instead of fading to black, the grayness took on human proportions and approached him. Sarn blinked at Shade, whose mask symbol flashed on the translucent map hanging in front of his face.

Sarn pressed a shoulder into the nearest wall. Litherians had carved heroes doing all manner of heroic things in high relief right on this spot. Why couldn’t one of them peel themselves off the wall and lend a hand? Instead, lots of protrusions poked into his arm as Sarn let the mountain hold him up. His head felt like it might float away without the rest of him—not a good sign.

Shade regarded Sarn with concerned eyes. “Are you okay?”

Sarn nodded and pushed off the wall. Enough with the delays, it was time he fetched something to eat before another crisis dropped into his lap. Or had a new problem arrived wearing Shade’s cloak and cowl? He eyed Shade. What did his friend want?

No one sought him out for company anymore not since his best friend had discovered angels’ dust. Well almost no one, Sarn amended as Ran tugged on his pant leg again. Sarn grabbed the belt cinching his too-wide pants around his lean hips. And he made sure it did its job despite the forty pounds of unhappy child yanking on it.

“I know you’re hungry. I am too. I’m working on breakfast,” Sarn told his son as he extricated his pants from Ran’s fingers.

“And lunch?”

“Yes.”

“Problems?” Shade hazarded, speaking for once without rhyming or adopting a singsong tone.

“We missed breakfast—”

“And lunch—” Ran glared up at Sarn, who held both hands up in defeat.

“—and lunch. I’m about to get both. Want to join us?”

Shade gestured for Sarn to lead on and he did, right to the Middle Kitchen’s double doors. There he stopped on the far side of the twenty-foot wide corridor.

“Watch my son. I’ll be right back.”

Shade gave him an incredulous look, but Sarn ignored it. He stole food from here twice a day. Since he’d missed one meal, he’d take both now and save himself a return trip. So nice of Fate to provide an extra pair of hands to carry things because he would need the help. He had to steal enough food to feed his family and the Foundlings too, then he would find a way to help the ghost boy.

“Stay with Shade,” Sarn told his son before crossing to the doorway to get a better glimpse of the goings-on.

At this hour, the cooks’ helpers lined every available surface. Knives chopped, hands kneaded, and younger assistants ferried bowls of cut vegetables and chopped meat to the line of aproned cooks stirring pots. Red lumir glowed in the wall-mounted banks of ovens, dying the bakers red with their light.

Aproned youngsters seized bottles of herbs from a shelving unit and passed them down the line. A door opened in the wall opposite the ovens and a blue glow spilled out. Inside, blue lumir pumped cold into the air to keep the perishables from rotting. Next to it, a door led to the pantry, which would satisfy all his alimentary needs if he could reach it unseen.

Sarn made certain his hood hid his too remarkable features before darting into the kitchen. His magic turned his limbs into lead weights causing him to stumble. One of the helpers turned. Pink stained his apron from the beets he’d diced. Sarn ducked behind an island and shut his glowing eyes.

[_Don’t see me; I’m not here. _]Sarn repeated the command, willing the youth to keep walking until sound became form. The six words stretched and twisted. Each took on circular shapes against the green glow imprisoned by his closed eyes.

Sarn pushed up to a crouch. Staying close to the kitchen’s periphery, he skulked to the next station in line from memory. Don’t see me; I’m not here. Each word hooked the magic and yanked it out, changing its prerogative from stopping to helping him. Don’t see me; I’m not here.

Dropping to the tiled floor, Sarn slid behind a butcher’s block topped island. He nabbed a sticky bun and devoured it in two bites. The remaining eleven dropped into a sack he produced from his pocket. With his eyes tight shut, he squatted there and searched with his sixth sense for more portable food.

Don’t see me; I’m not here. _]Slower and slower the words repeated—consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel—[_Don’t see me; I’m not here. Six beats for six words and the magic danced to its tune. It wove between the word-shapes building a framework.

Salivating for the freshly baked bread cooling somewhere nearby, Sarn ducked behind two wine casks. He slipped on spilled water as magic burst from him in a blaze of white light. Sarn went down in a sprawl. Magic settled over him, merging his forest green cloak with the shadows behind the counter.

What had he done? No one screamed as Sarn gathered himself to rise. Runners crisscrossed the kitchen fetching and carrying. Had anyone even looked up from their assigned tasks? He’d have to open his eyes to check, but they’d see him if he did.

Sarn rubbed his closed eyes to remove the afterimage of a twisted ellipse. Magic poured into the drunken circle spinning around on a tilted axis, but not a power he recognized. His magic always shined green like his eyes but not this—whatever the hell it was. The thing hung above his head reminding him of something he’d seen within the last day or so.

It had to be a spell but what was its aim? And most important of all—how could he shut it down? Sarn ground his molars and fought the urge to punch the floor.

Why did the magic pick now to interfere? He stared at it—this accidental thing he’d conjured remembering the circles chasing him in his dream. The skin on his arms prickled and the temperature dropped from stifling to subzero, flash freezing the puddle at his feet. Something dark was coming, and its gaze had just fixed on him. Sarn shuddered and pushed up from his crouch. He had to fetch what he’d come for and get the hell out of here fast.

Ran crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Papa creeping across the twenty statue-choked feet to a doorway. [_Hurry up, Papa. I’m hungry. _]But Ran knew better than to voice his complaints aloud.

Papa’s attention had fixed on the goal of food finally. Why it had taken all morning to aim him in breakfast’s direction mystified Ran. Mama had been more reliable about meal times, but Mama was gone. Only Papa was still here, and Papa operated on his own timetable. Most of the time it matched up with Ran’s. Not today though and the missed meal made him cross.

His stomach gurgled again. Papa continued his statue impersonation as he studied the kitchen’s interior. [_Go inside. _]What was taking Papa so long? Ran had smelt hunger’s fruity scent on Papa’s breath.

Finally, Papa went in. A light flared up inside Ran’s head marking Papa, and he smiled. Papa might be out of sight but not out of mind. Behind him, Shade shifted from foot to foot in nervous agitation. Ran moved out of knee range. Big People tended to forget he was there, not Papa, but Papa had magical reminders.

Ran glanced over his shoulder to gauge the distance between himself and Shade’s shifting appendages and froze. Shade’s clothes bulged in odd places as melons rolled around under the gray cloth. Ran moved sideways, stopping when his back bumped a statue’s braided base. Something was wrong with Shade.

Doubling over, Ran groaned as nausea crawled into his tummy, twisting it into knots. A translucent hand pointed toward a narrow aisle between the statue and Shade. Ran shook his head at the not-boy-thing. Frantic now, the hand semaphored his danger.

“Papa said I have to stay with Shade.”

Intense cold gripped Ran’s wrist. Papa had made him promise to be quiet, so he clapped his free hand over his mouth to silence his whimpering. The cold crept up Ran’s arm as the not-boy-thing’s hand dragged him out of the alcove formed by two catty-cornered statues. Lumir crystal eyes scowled at Ran for disobeying Papa.

The disembodied hand yanked Ran into the corridor proper and let go when they’d reached its middle. By then, its touch had numbed Ran’s entire right arm. Tears stung his eyes as feeling tingled back into his fingers.

White light exploded from the kitchen blinding Ran. Shade screamed, and a breeze rustled Ran’s clothes. After rubbing his eyes, Ran searched the corridor for Shade and the floating hand but saw only gathering shadows. They extruded whipping tendrils. Ran backpedaled. If he stayed here, a shadow monster would eat him.

Scary things always fled from Papa and his magic. Ran darted through the door toward the beckoning afterimages left by the light show.

Winding around giant slabs, he slipped through a forest of legs, tripping up a rotund fellow. As Ran scrambled, heart in mouth, he shivered from fear and cold. Where was Papa?

Ran popped up beside Sarn, startling him. “Why’s it so cold in here?”

“I told you to stay with Shade.”

“I got scared, then I saw a bright light.”

Sarn put an arm around his shaking son. “Shh, you have to whisper.”

Feeling eyes boring into him from the corner, Sarn pulled Ran behind a cart draped in white cloth. A broom rested against the stone wall, and two beady eyes peered around its bristles. Just a rat, thank fate—the sight slowed the jackhammer beating of his heart.

“Did anyone see you?”

Ran shook his head and bumped a sore rib, making Sarn wince. “What made the light? It hurt.”

“Where are you hurt?” Sarn checked his son who turned in a circle looking at everything and everyone. The boy seemed fine though Ran’s right arm was chilled. Rubbing his hands over the affected area, Sarn held onto his son until the boy stopped shivering.

“What’s the hanging thing for?” Ran pointed at a rod suspended from the ceiling, dangling hooks.

A fly buzzed them, turning tight circles around their reflection in a copper pot until Sarn swatted it.

“It’s where they hang pots and pans.”

The unnatural interest the fly and rat had taken in them, discomfited Sarn. He still had no idea whose side Rat Woman was on.

“And what’s that?” Ran pointed to the luminous thing revolving over their heads.

“A spell maybe I don’t know.”

A roach darted out from under a nearby counter. Sarn yanked his cloak aside before it could snag a ride and stomped down, missing the vile creature.

“What’s a spell?”

“It’s something mages do in the old tales.” But not him, this was a fluke, and it was drawing too much attention. Sarn swiped the loaves of bread tempting him from a nearby counter. He bit into its flaky crust savoring each bite as he darted behind an island.

“What are those red boxy things?”

Sarn pulled his distracted son into the shadows next to him. “They’re ovens. We use red lumir to cook because all the wood in the forest is enchanted, so its wood refuses to burn.”

Sarn slipped behind a column, scanning the bustle. He kept a hand on his son’s shoulder, ensuring Ran moved when he did. A dark blur followed them. It was that damn rat—its gaze never wavered as it staggered on two legs after them. Something about it raised Sarn’s hackles. Was it one of Rat Woman’s minions? Whose side was she on?

“There’s no such thing as an evil overlord,” Sarn muttered.

No archmage watched them through the rat’s eyes because the Seekers had killed them all. Ran coughed interrupting his speculation. Staying low, Sarn carried his son to a line of sinks.

Snatching a cup from a stack, Sarn held it under the stream dripping off a U-bend. Beside him, a youngish man washed dishes without ever glancing away from his sudsy pan.

Between sips, Ran coughed and probed the leaky pipe with curious fingers.

“What are those and—” Ran slid off his lap and turned in a circle of questions and curiosity, pointing at everything in sight. His voice rose to be heard above the clamor until Sarn shushed him.

At the other end of the kitchen revolved a shining white ellipse casting its spell, ignored by all. Was the spell dampening any sounds they made? Sarn glanced around and met the malevolent eyes of the rat. There was something unnatural about it.

“I’ll explain later,” he whispered in his son’s ear. “Stay with me and be quiet, okay?”

Ran nodded, but his eyes tracked a tray sailing their way. “Saw-sages—you said I could have two.”

“No, I said you could have one. Come on.”

Sarn’s stomach gurgled and propelled him on to the next patch of cover. Licking his lips for a taste of those sausages, Ran hurried at his side.

A quick tug sent a dozen sausages sliding off the rack. Into his sack, Sarn dropped ten of the sausages, after handing his son one. Sarn ate the other sausage before nabbing more. Everyone loved sausages, and he spied no convenient roasts left out to cool.

The temperature dropped, and nausea cramped his stomach. Sarn glanced at the rat. Its eyes swelled into twin black marbles and fell. Hitting the floor rolling, they sprang open releasing piles of roaches that marched toward him. Jerlo’s orders echoed in Sarn’s head—stay out of sight—and[_ _]pushed him toward the door. But his bag was only a third full.

A tray of hard-boiled eggs lay cooling in their shells on the next counter and on another, a basket stacked high with fruit had caught his son’s attention. They’d have to do.

“I left the bread here to cool. Did someone send it out?”

“I didn’t. Ask Fieman if he saw it.”

Cursing his ill-luck, Sarn plotted a zigzag course to the exit, knocking every edible thing he passed into his sack. Shouts followed his progress, but he ignored them since no fingers pointed in his direction.

The exit beckoned. Sarn gave the spell writhing in the kitchen’s middle one last glance. It flickered as its revolving slowed. Would it cover their escape?

Jerlo’s orders would not allow him to chance it. They weighed Sarn down keeping him low and under cover while he scanned the corridor. When he sensed a gap in the passersby, he shot through the exit towing his son.

Seeing no sign of Shade, Sarn bit off a curse. He’d left his friend right next to that centaur statue, but there were only shadows there now.

“Shade left.” Juice sprayed as Ran bit into a miniature All-Fruit.

“I know, but I hoped he’d come back.” Sarn turned away, anger burning his belly. His friend would pay for this.

Behind them the clamor of pots diminished. Glass shards tinkled. White light exploded out of the kitchen and slammed into Sarn. He leaned against the marble centaur, gleaming eye to disapproving one, as his body reabsorbed a magic, he should not possess.

Sarn struggled to stand upright. Power crackled in the air around him making his hair and his son’s stand on end. Ran turned wide eyes on him and opened his mouth to ask if he was okay.

Sarn nodded and bent to pick up the sack he’d dropped. Lightning crawled across his knuckles, mapping the back of his hand. Biting off a curse, he swung their lunch over his shoulder. Unincorporated magic bounced around his muscles making them twitch. At least there was no sign of the rat or whatever it was becoming, but the corridor wouldn’t stay clear for long.

“Come on. We have to go.” Sarn hurried his son down the corridor taking the first turning he passed.

Footsteps resounded, echoing as two men pelted toward the kitchen. Sarn stuffed his haul behind a statue of a winged creature. Flattening himself against the wall, he peered between the sculpture’s legs and caught a flash of blue when two more guards ran past his hiding spot.

Ran tried to peer around him. “Are we in trouble?”

“Not if we get out of here fast.”

Another set of guards flashed past the mouth of the tunnel. Six guards were four too many. Something valuable must have gone missing, not by his hand. This was another mystery but one he could consider later when he was not on the verge of being discovered red handed.

“Who’re they looking for?” Ran stood on tiptoe and peeked over the statue’s base.

“A better question is what are they looking for—not bread and sausages that’s for sure.”

Ran elbowed his thigh. “You said I could have two.”

“No, I didn’t.” Sarn hefted his sack and ushered his son toward the nearest staircase. Those six guards had a lot of ground to cover unless they called in reinforcements—would they? What the hell had gone missing?

He glanced at his son, but he sensed only the slingshot and the metal balls in Ran’s bulging pockets. Besides, the countertops had been well out of Ran’s reach.

The need to know what this was all about warred with the desire to slip away unseen. Too many odd things had happened in the last couple of days, more than was normal in his chaotic life. Was this a new mystery or a new dimension to the batch he still needed to solve? The question pursued Sarn as he hooked a left at a ‘T’ intersection, but no answer came as he led his son through a warren of lesser used tunnels.

Footsteps echoed out of sync with his and his son’s as they ducked down another ornate corridor. Someone was following them. Had the Guards begun their search already?

Dust choked this tunnel, and they sneezed as they wended around statues poised for flight. Sarn shook the errant thought away. The statues weren’t extinct mythological creatures turned to stone by some magical calamity. Hunger was skewing his reasoning toward fantasy.

Ahead, a dark void resolved into a staircase. As Sarn neared it, the glow of his eyes sparred with the shadows concealing it. Ran stopped at the first step.

“I can’t carry you and the food too.” Sarn hefted the sack a little higher on his shoulder so it could dig into a new spot. Nolo might be right about him being too lean. He had broad shoulders, but they could use a layer of padding.

As Ran gave him a forlorn look, Sarn felt something touch his spine and slide up it. Magic lashed out, shoving Shade’s hand away as revulsion pushed Sarn to take two steps forward.

“Don’t touch me.” Pivoting to face his attacker, Sarn clamped a hand on his son’s head and yanked Ran behind him.

Shade held both hands up in surrender revealing a livid burn on one of them.

“Papa doesn’t want [_an-y-one _]to touch him.” Ran stepped between them, his gaze fixed on Shade as he patted his father’s knee.

Magic wove around Ran in a protective emerald circle, snarling at Shade. What the hell was going on? Sarn rubbed the bridge of his nose where a headache stabbed him. His magic had never rejected anyone but the healers’ touch. Had it adopted his preferences?

Shade held up both hands in surrender. “No harm meant.”

“Don’t touch me. You know I don’t like it.” Anger tore through Sarn.

“But I can.”

And his magic welcomed the tiny hand touching his hairy leg through a tear in his pants.

“Yeah but you’re my son, so you don’t count.” And Sarn received no impressions or other troubling insights from his son’s touch.

Ran scowled at this intelligence until Sarn patted his son’s head and steered the boy behind him.

“Why did you abandon my son?”

Why had the magic interpreted Shade’s hand as a threat? Sarn studied his friend while he waited for an answer. But Shade’s head to toe gray regalia did a better job of hiding everything than Sarn’s did and he felt a twinge of envy. Maybe he should swap his green cloak for the gray wool most of the Indentured favored. He touched its once fine weave—proof someone had once given a damn whether he survived and knew he couldn’t part with it.

“Forget it. I don’t care why you left. Just go away. I can’t deal with you right now,” because Sarn might strangle his oldest friend. Also, those guards must be combing this level by now.

“They saw you fall, and they told all you walked tall with no scrape at all. Tale spread like a ball tossed through the sprawl. Now one and all say fly not fall. Even gangs call you angel all. Thought you stay hid, not do ‘less bid—”

“Enough—” Sarn turned, cutting his friend off mid-babble, “You told me all of this last night. Leave us alone.”

Bending, Sarn picked up the sack and caught a good look at Shade’s bloodshot eyes. His short friend squinted and struggled to achieve proper focus with his swollen pupils. Shade was high as the lumir mosaic overhead.

“Damn you. You promised you’d quit.”

But the promise had been a lie all along. Sarn slung the sack over his shoulder and descended the stairs. At least one question had an answer. His magic had rejected Shade because it hated drugs, and it was determined to keep them away from him. If only his friend subscribed to the same idea.

“Angel flies and falls. Broken-winged, he still calls.”

“Go away. I don’t want you around my son when you’re like this.”

Ignoring the curious glances Ran sent him, Sarn hustled the boy down the twisting steps.

“Have to tell you all, before the last call.”

“Go away.”

Two hundred steps more and they’d reach the Lower Quarters. Shade continued to spout nonsense, but Sarn ignored it as he stepped onto a landing and steered his son down the first turning determined to lose Shade. He had enough on his mind without adding the rantings of an addict to the pile.

Sliding down his door into a puddle of elbows and knees, Sarn regarded the overfull sack. He should divide it up and leave the lion’s share for the Foundlings next door. Before he could move, Ran’s head and shoulders vanished inside the bag.

Cold air buffeted Sarn as the ghost boy coalesced and this time, it had all its parts. The ghost’s pale green eyes pleaded with Sarn to get up and do something.

“What do you want? Other than finding out what happened to you, there’s not much I can do.”

The ghost made no attempt at speech. It just stared at Sarn from the other side of the Mortal Veil, beyond the reach of speech and his magic too.

Smiling, Ran backed out of the bag holding a sausage and padded over, his attention riveted on the ghost. Ran extended his hand. The ghost backed away and faded out as a shadow leaped up from the floor. It passed through the spot the ghost had occupied, extruding tentacles as it dove at his frowning son.

Seizing Ran, Sarn pulled the boy to him. The shadow hit the floor and vanished as magic increased his eyes’ glow.

“What was the dark thing?” Ran pointed with the sausage half in his other hand.

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”

“Can I help?” Ran finished his snack.

“Not right now.”

Thirst forced Sarn to get up and slake it with a tin cup he held under a dripping stalactite. After he had drunk his fill, he handed the full cup to his son grimacing at the sticky state of his offspring. Wetting a section of his tunic, Sarn wiped Ran’s face clean. He should supervise his son’s snacking. Instead, Sarn staggered to the mattress and cast himself down on it. He had a lot to think about, and he was so damned tired. Every part of him cried out for rest. Surely the mystery could wait a few hours more.

Bells chimed the hour, ringing fourteen times as Ran joined him. His son smelled of dust, sausages and fruit juice as the boy pillowed his head on Sarn’s shoulder. He hugged Ran close.

“You’re not okay.”

“I’m tired. It’s been an eventful day.”

And he had to report to Nolo soon. Sarn suppressed a groan. None of his heroes had to go to work while they were righting wrongs. But none of them were Indentured, and he was. Promises he’d made years ago, manacled Sarn to his word. He would go to work and find some way to work on the ghost boy’s problem while there. Because, he had no other options.

“Papa, what was that thing?”

“What thing?”

“It’s not a real boy ‘cause I saw through it. What was it?”

Sarn looked around but saw no spooks. “It’s a boy’s ghost.”

“What’s a ghost?”

Indeed, what was a ghost? Was it a spark of personality or was it something more? And how had the shadow moved independently of the light source throwing it? What about the Insectoid Abomination and all the other weird things that had chased him? Sarn rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“I don’t know.”

“Why does it run away from me?”

“I don’t know.” Sarn tightened his grip on his son. Ran had no magic. It must be something about the ghost boy making it impossible for the two children to coexist in the same place. But was it germane to the specter’s problem? “I just don’t know.”

Ran fingered his stuffed bear’s ears. “Bear and I saw it—the ghost I mean.”

“When?”

“When you were sleeping. Uncle Miren didn’t see it. It showed up and went away two times.” Ran held up two fingers to make his point.

“Did it do anything?” Sarn shifted his grip so he could see his son’s pensive face. Let the answer be ‘no.’

Ran shook his head. “It looked at me. I asked it things, but it won’t talk to me.” His son hugged his bear. “What does it want?”

“I thought I knew, but now I don’t know. Did it do anything else?”

Ran held out his arm. “It made me cold here.”

“When?” Sarn rubbed the affected spot, but the flesh was warm now.

“When you left me with Shade.” Ran reclaimed his arm and squeezed his bear. “And I saw a shadow monster.”

“You saw a what?”

This was Shayari. There were no monsters here—until yesterday. How could the death of one child lead to all of this? It couldn’t. There had to be more to it.

“And where was Shade when this happened?”

Ran shrugged.

Sarn rubbed his son’s back. “I’m sorry you had such a scare.”

Silence blanketed them. Had the ghost dropped in to warn him? Was his murder only the beginning of something far worse? If only the specter could speak what it knew, but Death had gagged it.

Sarn rubbed eyes pricked by tears at the thought of some fiend killing his sweet son. Until he’d untangled this mess, he couldn’t discount the possibility. In fact, he couldn’t discount anything. Everything was bloody likely.

“If the ghost shows up again, you stay away from it, okay.”

“What about Bear?” Ran gripped his only toy.

“You both hide from it.”

“Okay, but he’s not right.”

“What do you mean?”

Ran shrugged, unable to explain. But Sarn had felt it too. The ghost was incomplete. Other than a body, what could it be missing? He needed answers but who could he ask for them?

Ran squirmed free of his grip and returned holding a slim volume.

“What are you doing with Miren’s book?”

Ran hugged the book to his chest. Bound in brown leather, it was wider than his son’s torso and just as long.

“I want to see it. It might help.”

Doubtful since neither he nor his son could read, but he owed the boy sending pleading looks his way. “All right but you have to sit here by me and be careful. Don’t tell my brother I let you look at it, okay?”

Ran flopped down where indicated, settled Bear so his toy could see and opened the book.

“Be careful with the pages. If you tear or crease them, Miren’ll know, and we’ll both be in trouble.”

Ran nodded as his fingertips slid over the lines in the drawings, memorizing them.

Sarn yawned and sleep beckoned. [_No, _]he told it. He crossed his arms behind his head. After he’d sorted out what he knew, he could figure out where to go from here. Beneath the mattress, the mountain slumbered, and he shivered, recalling the touch of its alien consciousness and the cancer eating at its roots. Something about that cancer niggled at him. It was like something else he’d run into. If only he weren’t so tired, he could call it to mind.

Bear’s button eyes focused on him and in their depths, intelligence flickered. Sarn blinked, and Bear was just a toy again.

“You figured it out?” Ran gave him a hopeful look.

“No,” the ghost of an idea had fled before it had fully formed. Sarn rolled onto his side and tried to recapture it. Ran’s fingers revealed a Guardian’s face in slow increments. He wasn’t one Sarn recognized from the stories his brother had read to them.

Something about the book teased his memory. The Rangers had one filled with signatures, dates, and notes about people’s travel plans. No one sane would head into the hinterland without leaving some record behind.

What if one or both murdered groups had departed from Mount Eredren? They’d all died within four miles of here. One of them might have left a note. Maybe it would tell him something about the boy or his traveling companions. Sarn sat up drawing his son’s gaze away from the illustration.

“You stay. It’s not time to go.”

“I know. I’m not leaving you.”

Satisfied with his answer, Ran resumed his interrupted tracing.

Those killers had ignored the rules for a reason. It had to be the Shera Kai. The stupid law had legalized the killing of mages centuries ago. What else could motivate murder in a forest prejudiced against fools? Such law-abiding citizens would want to leave a record of what they’d done. Something to illuminate why the forest had allowed the boy’s death in the first place and kicked off all this insanity.

The harbormaster kept records too. If the Seekers had stopped at Mount Eredren, they’d show up in his ledger. Will could look at any time he wanted. It was a place to start, and with luck, it would lead to answers.

“Next time can we have a nice ad-ven-ture?”

“Yeah, I’ll try. I’m sorry today was such a disaster.” Sarn yawned, and guilt stuck hundreds of needles into his heart. “I should make a safe place for you to play.” Sarn turned the idea over as he stared at the crenelated wall.

“With nets to climb.”

Sarn nodded to his son’s suggestion. What would it take to create such a haven? He fell asleep imagining a place for children echoing with laughter fast turning to screams. Blood splashed the walls and children’s corpses littered the floor. Rocks fell, blanketing them in rubble as an icy black curtain dropped, hiding thirteen graves. A thirteen-pointed star ghosted out of the shadows, and a voice whispered, eam’meye erator.

A hand shook his shoulder, startling Sarn out of a nightmare.

Eam’meye erator. The phrase persisted, growing more ominous with each repetition. A warning vibrated in his bones as Sarn blinked bleary eyes at his brother.

“What time do you have to go to work tonight?”

“What time is it?”

“Nineteenth bell just rang.”

Something bad was coming, and it was connected to the murders and the ghost boy somehow. “Do you still have them?” he whispered into his son’s ear.

Ran had curled up in his arms sans Miren’s book. With luck, the clever child had put it back where he’d found it, and his brother would be none the wiser.

“Have what?”

“The seeds.”

Ran pressed on his stuffed bear’s belly until the edges of a pouch appeared. Soft white light shined from within.

“Keep them close.” Sarn hugged his mystified son once and laid him down on the mattress. [_Stay safe, _]he thought at the sleepy boy dwarfed by the giant mattress.

“What was that all about?” Miren glared daggers at Sarn’s back.

Sleep still fogged his mind and hunger clamped his belly, but nineteenth bell had already rung. He had sixty minutes to find his master. Sarn yanked open the door and pulled his cowl down to shade his face.

“Sarn? Answer me.”

“I can’t,” because I don’t know. Sarn closed the door on his brother’s sputtered reply and rushed toward the danger thrumming in his veins.

Chapter 17

As Sarn hurried, the skin between his shoulder blades prickled. Warnings buzzed through his head in a wordless jumble. He turned, but there was only sculpted rock and stairs vanishing around bends in both directions. Something had tweaked his magic senses. If something were happening tonight, the commander would be hip deep in it. He closed his eyes and merged with the crowds navigating the statue-choked transept.

Raised voices halted Sarn by a statue of a rearing lion. Diagonally across from him stood the open doors of the Middle Kitchen. He should move on. His dark green cloak and cowl were conspicuous against the white and gray stonework. But the voices—their timbre sent a warning skittering up his spine.

Before he could move closer, a silent summons turned him away from the kitchen. Catching his hand, it tugged Sarn south. He slid through the crowd like a somnambulist deeper into a dream, and they parted for him.

The north-south transept ended at a W-intersection, and he hooked a left into a maze. Time dilated as he wound through the labyrinthine gloom, negotiating its hidden traps and murder holes. Past the door wardens, he staggered until a hand clasped his shoulder and spun him around.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Gregori shook Sarn breaking the enchantment.

Sarn blinked at a sky dyed orange by the setting sun. The Queen of All Trees stood halfway down Mount Shayar’s east face, calling to him. He must run the intervening miles to her.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Gregori shook him again.

Sarn glared at the burly Ranger blocking his path. “You left me for dead.”

Or for the Seekers to find—which was it? Sarn swallowed the question. Now was not the time. When he tried to brush past Gregori, the man pivoted, taking up the entire ledge.

“What are you looking at?” Sarn demanded hands fisted at his sides.

Gregori shook his head and clapped an arm around Sarn’s shoulders. It made his skin crawl, and he sought to evade the stronger Ranger.

“You’re all right Kid. Didn’t think you’d make it, but you did.”

Had he just heard an admission of guilt? Sarn studied Gregori, but the man’s face held his usual smug expression free of any cracks. “No thanks to you.”

“Don’t be such a child.”

Sarn rolled his eyes. Ahead the trail wended through a narrow rock cut. To fit, the broad-shouldered Ranger would have to let go of him. “Why do you hate me?”

Gregori gaped at him for a moment then the big fool laughed off his surprise. “I don’t hate you, and you don’t hate me.”

“Why did you do it? Why did you leave me out there?”

Gregori looked away and caved into himself. The sight unsettled Sarn so much he stumbled on the damned gravel littering the trail. “You’re a smart Kid. I’m sure you can figure it out.” Gregori shook his shoulders out and liberated himself from whatever emotion had gripped him.

Had he seen some evidence of regret or guilt? Likely neither given Gregori’s temperament. The Ranger’s ego rooted out all such sentiments before they could take hold.

“Why don’t you tell me?”

To Sarn’s left, the ground dropped away from a precipice—one of his favorites due to its stunning views of the Nirthal River Valley.

“Because I don’t have to.”

No answers, no apologies, not even a congratu-fucking-lations for surviving yet another pointless test. And what had Gregori tested him on—his ability to dead reckon? Or had the man hoped he’d blunder into the Seekers?

Something glinted in Gregori’s eye. Maybe it was the setting sun. Maybe it was a spark of amusement or a warning to tread with care. Whatever it was, it made Sarn pull free of the man’s grasp and slip past him when the trail widened. He left Gregori standing there as incomprehensible as always.

But Gregori refused to stay behind. The damned man caught up with Sarn and spun him around. “I asked you a question Kid, and you haven’t answered it. Where are you going?”

To answer the Queen of All Trees’ summons, but she was gone leaving only deepening twilight. Night’s purple veils blanketed the enchanted forest, hiding it and her.

Eam’meye erator—the phrase whispered on the wind, fouling the air with the stench of death. Each syllable was a warning, striking deep chords.

“This isn’t a trick question. I’ll give you a hint—nowhere except to Jerlo’s office. The commander’s looking for you.”

“Why’s he looking for me?”

Anger tightened Sarn’s hands into fists. But the forty-something bruiser stood there, waiting. His eyes taunted Sarn, but he shook his fists out instead.

“Why do you think. You okay Kid? You look a little green—I mean aside from your funny eyes.”

Like Gregori cared what happened to him. Sarn spun on his heel and stalked off toward Jerlo’s office, but the Ranger stopped him a third time.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Gregori nodded to the rock wall next to a strip of runes outlining the mountain’s main doors.

Using quartz and lumir chips, the Litherians had inlaid a glittering welcome, unintelligible to the mountain’s current residents. It glowed in night’s falling gloom, extending a shining invitation to all in sight. The doors were another ornate mystery thankfully unconnected to the others he was solving. Steel-backed, the two solid lumir crystals stood at least forty feet tall and half as wide, and all they did was glow.

“Come on Kid, let’s not make an issue out of this. Stand up against the wall, feet shoulder-width apart, hands on the stonework. You know the drill.”

“But I—” Sarn gestured to the two Rangers dwarfed by the doors they guarded. Neither spoke up on his behalf. And why would they—he was a freak and a thorn in all their sides.

“No ‘buts’ assume the position. I must search you before you enter. You know the rules.” Gregori pointed to the wall.

Indeed, he did and when to break them. Sarn ran part way up the wall, tucked and tumbled over Gregori’s head. Landing in a crouch, he sprang to his feet and sidestepped the warden who rushed him. His buddy threw out an arm to stop Sarn, but he dropped into a slide, bypassing the obstruction. Gravel abraded his pants, tearing it in places but Sarn ignored the sensation as he rose and raced into the maze.

Gregori shouted something, but the labyrinth swallowed the echoes of his words. Sarn pelted around another bend and jumped over a pit lined with sharpened staves. A sense of urgency nudged him to run faster.

Gregori smiled as he replayed the Kid’s latest stunt. The incident proved his point. If you pushed the Kid, magic happened. Screw Jerlo’s edicts. Someone had to test the Kid and find out what he could do.

Gregori squeezed the file in his hands. Branches and other bits of foliage caught on his trousers. People took the novelty of plants growing under lumir light a little too far. Next time he’d bring a machete.

After a few minutes of batting branches aside, he stepped up to a plain wood affair. Inside he heard raised voices and judged the occupants, a Mr. and Mrs. Fredanya, were at home. Applying his fist to the door, Gregori announced his visit. He listened between knocks for footfalls. As he raised his fist to deliver another rap, the door wrenched open. An angry youth glared at him.

Six foot two, dark hair and eyes—Gregori checked off the details as his gaze skimmed what he could see of the youth. Square-jawed, clean shaven and smelling of soap—this kid was ready to hit the taverns. And he was closing in on twenty-one same as the other missing kids this year except this one wasn’t missing.

“What do you want?” Tall, dark and attitude asked.

“You’re Purfoy Fredanya?”

“Are you a tax collector or a census taker?” Mr. Attitude folded his arms and narrowed his intense eyes. A two-inch height differential in Gregori’s favor ruined the effect.

“Neither I’m a concerned citizen.”

“Yeah well, I didn’t do whatever you think I did.”

“You’re a Scorpio, right?” Gregori’s question knocked the attitude out of the kid.

Surprise blanked Purfoy’s face. “How’d you guess?”

A smile tugged at Gregori’s lips. “You remind me of someone.” A six foot six nightly annoyance known as Sarn. Of course, the Scorpio thing only went so far in explaining the Kid’s attitude problem. Frustration at his situation and the abuse he’d suffered accounted for the rest. Still, it was no excuse. With some quality time, he could eradicate the brat’s attitude.

Wasn’t Nolo due some time off for good behavior? Yes, he should take some of Nolo’s shifts, spend some quality time with the Kid and keep a psycho from finding him. “Would you fetch the lady of the house so I can conclude my business here?”

“Fetch her yourself.” Purfoy donned his attitude again and stepped outside.

Maybe it was his shield, and under the gruff exterior, a gentle heart dwelt. It did in Sarn’s case. Slamming the door behind him, Mr. Attitude went for a shoulder check. Gregori sidestepped the punk and let him storm off in a swirl of well-worn brown fabric.

Gregori raised his fist to try again but the door cracked open, and a woman’s face appeared in the gap. She blinked at him from a feminized version of Purfoy’s face. Age, worry or raising Mr. Attitude had creased the skin around her eyes.

“I’m sorry for bothering you, but I need to talk to you. This’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”

Instead of inviting him inside, she stepped into the corridor and closed the door behind her. Despite the late hour, she wore a plain homespun dress and a stained apron. Some of the globules dotting it looked fresh.

“Am I interrupting something?”

She shook her head, and he noticed the rag draped over one shoulder. “No, I was just cleaning up. What did you want to talk about?”

“Your son ma’am. You reported him missing five days ago.”

Her face fell, and she dry washed her hands. “Yes, he came back last night. I had intended to go to the Guard Captain to explain, but it’s been a trying time. And I’ve had my hands full just keeping the peace. He and my husband don’t see eye to eye. But no harm was done. He’s back safe and sound.”

“Did he say where he’d been?”

“He went up to Racine looking for work, but he didn’t tell us in case it didn’t pan out. You know how it is. Jobs are hard to find for regular folk. And he was so angry the accountancy hired the bastard son of a minor noble who had no experience.”

“Mmm, Nepotism’s hard on the younger set, but that’s the way of things here.”

“Yes, the titled class has every advantage,” Mrs. Fredanya folded thin arms over her chest. “Those without trundle through life doing the jobs the titled class rejects. It isn’t fair.”

“Mmm, and education only factors so far into the equation.” Gregori shifted his weight from foot to foot seeking a way out of this conversation. He hadn’t come here to discuss Shayari’s employment problems, but he’d given her an opening, and she was bent on exercising it.

“Exactly, without a title, breaking into the professional class is impossible without a sponsor.”

And Mr. Attitude had none, poor dear, but that wasn’t Gregori’s problem. “I’ll pass the word along that your son’s been found, but you should stop in and make it official. Have a good night and thank you for speaking to me.”

Gregori had cut across her latest rant bemoaning Shayari’s economic system. And he made no apology for it either. All his life he’d heard variations of the same diatribe, but not one word of complaint had ever changed it. It was better to aim for careers the nobles avoided like joining the Guards or the Rangers.

“Tell your son there’s no lines, no waiting for positions with Guards or Rangers,” Gregori said because he couldn’t help himself.

Mrs. Fredanya’s words tumbled to a stop, and she nodded having just caught the dismissal in his voice. “I will. Thank you.”

Of course, she wouldn’t, but she was too polite to say so.

Gregori wished her a good night once more and left. He walked away wondering just what was going on. Killers and kidnappers didn’t change their patterns. There was a twenty-seventh victim out there either already taken or in the kidnapper’s sights. And he’d let Sarn run off alone into a bloody maze. Cursing, he crashed through the branches in his path and passed a shadow on the stairs.

Anger burned through Sarn fueling his run. They were hiding something from him about the murders. Taking the hairpin turns at breakneck speed, his boots whispered across the carvings, and his outrage coalesced into a boy’s face. A dead child whose dull green eyes hadn’t taken up their glow and never would. The ghost reached out to Sarn from beyond a dark veil until he blinked the image away.

Sarn opened Jerlo’s door without knocking and dropped into a chair facing his diminutive master. Minutes crawled by, but Gregori didn’t arrive. The Ranger must have had someone else to bother.

“Something on your mind, Kid?”

“Yeah, those people who died.”

Jerlo sat with his hands tented in front of him, his dark eyes intense. Good, he had the commander’s full attention—now to pry out whatever the man was hiding.

“Not your concern.”

“Bullshit.”

“Watch your language. You won’t get another warning. Do you hear me?”

Sarn nodded, but he fixed his gaze on the blue dragon alighting on the tapestry behind Jerlo.

“What’s bothering you? Don’t tell me a bunch of strangers losing their lives has got you so worked up because I don’t believe it.”

“There was a boy who died, and he was like me.”

“Like you how? Explain.”

In answer, Sarn pointed to his glowing eyes. “I want to know why he died and why I had to see it. Don’t tell me there isn’t a reason because I don’t believe it.” Sarn pushed up from the chair. He needed to do something. But the feeling faded as his words reverberated in his skull.

Shock stopped Sarn mid-step—why I had to see it. Who had wanted him to see those dead bodies? Judging by Jerlo’s disapproving glare, not the Rangers. Why would a bunch of enchanted trees want him to witness the homicides—one of which they had committed? How had the forest even known the Rangers would bring him along?

“Easy lad, calm down. I see where you’re coming from.”

“No, you don’t.” How could the commander understand? His green-eyed boy gave him a perspective no one else shared. Sarn fought down the urge to throw the chair he’d vacated at the nearest wall in frustration.

Magic leaped, aiming for the two slim exits his eyes provided, flooding the room with emerald radiance.

Cold water slapped Sarn in the face, snuffing the fire in his eyes. His magic reared back, and Sarn had to take an involuntary step to the side to keep from falling. He rubbed itchy eyes as the water dried and a familiar green glow ringed his sight again.

An empty glass clattered as Jerlo set it down on his desk. “Sit down and talk to me. Anger never solves anything. It only makes things worse.”

“Nolo says something similar.” And both men were right. He’d get no answers if he didn’t calm down.

“I’m glad you listen to what I say,” Nolo replied as the door swung in to admit him. His gaze took the scene in with a glance and a nod.

What had the Black Ranger seen? A screwed-up kid Lord Joranth’s retinue had pulled feverish and frozen out of a snowbank seven years ago? No, he’d met Nolo later when he’d tried to escape Hadrovel. Thoughts of the psycho made his blood run cold, and his bladder unclench. Thank Fate he’d pissed it empty before rushing in here.

Sarn could still feel the net tangling his feet as it caught. Miren’s frightened questions still echoed in his ears. He blinked away the memory and put his back to the nearest wall keeping both his masters in sight.

He was just as caught now, ensnared by a fates-damned promise to do whatever they ordered. Even if they commanded him to drop this.

Thirteen faceless corpses loomed, hands grasping for him. Their unnaturalness socked Sarn in the gut, crushing him against the wall.

Eam’meye erator, whispered a voice he was beginning to hate. The specters advanced as he scrambled toward the sole exit to Jerlo’s inner office. He shoved the door open as the ghosts faded into the marble dragons of Jerlo’s menagerie.

Sarn leaned into the door frame at a loss for what to do next. The ghost boy lingered, its translucent hands outstretched, then it too vanished.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Nolo glared at Sarn.

Too shocked to speak, Sarn shook his head. No one else was rattled by the thirteen ghosts, meaning only he had seen them.

“The Kid claims there was a boy like him—you know when we had the disturbance the other day.” Jerlo slouched in his chair and stared at a dragon-shaped inkwell squatting between two towers of paperwork. “The sight must have unhinged him.”

“And you want answers, but I don’t have any since the forest destroyed all the evidence.”

“You must have a theory.” Anything would be better than what he had now, which was nothing.

“Truthfully I haven’t given it much thought. One group killed the other then the forest killed them—it’s an open and shut case. I don’t know why you’re obsessing over it when you should be thinking about the forest’s strange behavior toward you. It has me far more worried than those deaths, and it should worry you too.” Nolo’s dark eyes targeted Sarn with their concern.

What was this some half-assed attempt at deflection? Everything reacted to him. It was part of his everyday existence and not worth discussing. “It’s not open and shut. If it were, the forest wouldn’t have freaked out. The entire thing is wrong—unnatural even.” Sarn ran out of floor to pace and words to throw. All he had were a bunch of ghostly appearances and bizarre occurrences but nothing concrete to back up his gut feeling the murders were part of a larger problem.

He squeezed his eyes closed, forcing away the image of a shadow leaping at his son. [_I saw a shadow monster, _]Ran had confided only hours before. He still didn’t believe it.

“How many died?”

“I didn’t have time to count. The forest tossed the remains into a deep hole, remember?” Nolo folded his arms over his chest. His dark eyes bored into Sarn.

“Thirteen counting the boy,” Sarn supplied. “Don’t ask me how I know.” The number bothered him. It was one digit off from twelve, the original members of the Guardians. Thirteen was the number of their nemesis, but both groups were dead and dusted long ago.

And neither of his masters cared. Sarn read the ambivalence in their eyes and fled to escape it. After slipping into Jerlo’s outer office, he stalked into a short hallway, turned a corner and ended up back in the north-south transept with even more questions than before.

“Where are you going?” Nolo yelled from behind him.

To find answers, but where should he look? Sarn stopped. Anger had made him forget he was Indentured. He had no right, not even to answers.

“Why did you walk out? Do you know how much trouble you’re in?”

“People died out there. Don’t you want to find out why?” Sarn turned to face Nolo needing to see the man’s reaction.

“And they’ll die out there tonight and tomorrow too. The enchanted forest is dangerous. You can’t trust it or turn your back on it.”

“Next, you’ll say there’s nothing we can do about it, but you’re wrong.”

“You can’t save him. He’s already dead.”

Nolo’s words hurt. A gray shape separated from the statue throwing it and slouched forward. Sarn met the blank eyes of the dead boy who extended a hand in mute entreaty. Pale lips shaped a silent plea: help me.

How do I help you? Sarn just managed to cage the question before it could escape. He squeezed his eyes closed, banishing the ghost from his sight, but not his senses. Bile crawled up the back of his throat the longer the ghost lingered.

Nolo’s hands grasped his upper arms and shook him. “Sarn—did you hear what I said?” Nolo shook him again receiving a head shake in response. “I said you have to let go. He’s dead, but you’re not. You weren’t there when it happened. You didn’t even know him. Let it go.”

If only it would let him go. Instead, it sunk him deeper into something he didn’t understand. Sarn slipped out of Nolo’s grasp and stalked a few paces away.

“We prevent the tragedies we can and mourn the ones we can’t. Obsessing over what happened will drive you crazy, but it won’t bring them back. Nothing you do can bring them back. Let them go.” Nolo held both hands out to Sarn in entreaty.

Or was it an offering but of what—absolution? Sarn turned away, his gaze falling on a frieze depicting one of his heroes—a Guardian of Shayari. What would a Guardian do?

“Did you check the book?” Sarn asked without turning.

“What book—oh the log—no why would I?”

“Neither group crossed the border. They either stayed here or were on their way here. If it was the former, they might have written something in the book.”

“And you want me to check it.”

“Yes, we can go right now. We’re supposed to be out there.”

Sarn pivoted, but there was no window, only sculpted stone. Out there, where the fallout of one boy’s death had infected plants and turned them against their enchantments. Wizards, blizzards and bloody damned gizzards—how had he forgotten about his run through the gauntlet of warring trees? He’d been outside less than an hour ago, and he hadn’t spared the forest a single glance. Damn Gregori for interfering.

“Not we. The commander and I agree you should stay away from the forest for a while.”

“What? Why?” Sarn stared at Nolo, who regarded him as if he’d lost his mind.

“The forest kidnapped you, remember? Until we know why you’re not going anywhere near it.”

“But we discussed that—it wanted me to see those bodies.”

There was no point in arguing. Nolo folded his arms over his chest and shook his head at every word he uttered. Sarn’s shoulders slumped. Logic would do no good here. Neither would staying inside, but he was Indentured and had to do as he was bid.

“Will you check the entries from the day before, and the day we found both the bodies and tell me what it says?” Maybe there was a clue in the log to the identity or motivations of those specters he’d just seen.

Interest kindled in Nolo’s eyes. “Alright if you have to know, I’ll check but only on one condition.” Nolo held up a long black finger to make his point, and his sleeve fell back exposing a green glow.

A low murmur startled Sarn. It was those damned stones on Nolo’s bracelet talking again. Sounds tumbled, slipping and sliding at the edge of comprehension. The central bead emitted a bright flash, leaving an afterimage behind—a star bounded by a circle.

[_Eam’meye erator, _]echoed as the stones’ muttering died away.

Am I losing my mind? Sarn scrubbed away the image, banishing what was either a clue or a red herring. At this point, it could be either.

“No matter what I find—whether it’s something or nothing—will you abide by my decision?” A dark eyebrow winged up, midnight against his master’s dark skin. “Well? I don’t have all night. If you want me to look at the log, then you agree to drop this thing if I tell you to. Do we have an accord?”

Sarn nodded. “I’ll drop it if you say so.” His magic lay quiet, held down by his will where nothing he said could activate it. He’d let no promises bind him which might impede his search for the truth.

“Good, now put these on.” Nolo tossed two items at Sarn—gloves and a blindfold.

Sarn caught and donned both articles before his magic could protest. Instead, it oozed out of his skin and crawled around under his clothes seeking contact with the outside world. For some reason, cloth barred his magic. He was glad it did until his magic concentrated on his remaining senses. It wreaked havoc on his inner ear, threw off his balance and caused Sarn to stagger.

“This way,” Nolo said, turning Sarn to the left and taking his arm to lead him.

“Where are we going?” Toward answers or deeper into the conspiracy, his superiors were weaving?

Chapter 18

Thirty minutes later, Nolo untied the blindfold. It fell away revealing piles of waybread, oats, nuts, smoked meat and dried fruits.

“When are you going out with these?” Sarn gestured to the piles of buckles. Now would be awesome, but Nolo’s sour expression killed all hope of that.

“Soon, we haven’t set a date yet. We’re waiting for a fair-weather report. The last augury called for storms and gale force winds, but you know how it goes. Tomorrow morning, they might have a different prediction. So, I need these made up.”

Sarn nodded and opened his mouth to ask the question burning on his tongue. But Nolo held up a hand forestalling him.

“You said you’d abide by my decision.”

“Yes but—”

“No ‘buts,’ let’s see what our book says.”

“If there’s something in one of the other books, tell me please, I need to know.”

Nolo was silent for a beat. His master ran a hand through his braids making the beads on their ends click together. “Alright, I’ll tell you once we receive all the copies and update the master log. But you need to stop obsessing over this. It’s not healthy, and it could take a while to collect all the information. In the meantime, you have to drop it and move on with life.”

How could he move on when a ghost child haunted his steps and monsters threatened his son? Sarn rounded the table stacked with goods in silence aware he had to say something to mollify Nolo. In the end, he just nodded, and that satisfied his master.

“You remember how to pack these?” Nolo lifted a jumble of cloth and buckles from the pile.

Sarn nodded again and rattled off the packing list. He’d done this so many times, he could assemble the packs in his sleep, and Nolo knew it. If Nolo would go and stay gone until morning, he could sneak outside and—do what? Stare at evidence of a spreading infection?

“Good, I’ll leave you to it and check on you later.” Nolo walked out then stuck his head back in. “If you get hungry, there’s some stew in back. It might still be warm, and my wife made biscuits to go with it. Help yourself. Make sure you eat something before I see you again. You’re too thin.”

Damn, Nolo intended to check on him, and he’d better be here when the man showed up. Sarn squeezed a sack of oats in frustration at the implied threat. This left only one viable avenue to gain information, one he’d used too often already today—magic. Too much magicking led to blackouts. If Nolo happened by during one of those, he’d end the night with a visit to the damned infirmary.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yes—stew’s in back, eat something—I heard you.”

Sarn pushed some of the items over to make space, but his eyes kept catching on the unkindled lumir. Why had he sensed none at either murder site? What had those hikers used for light and heat? Sarn plucked a crystal from the pile. Holding it between his thumb and forefinger, he felt its cold roughness and the shadow coiled in its belly.

[_Impure, _]complained his magic, then it went on to list all the inclusions until Sarn dropped the rock.

It bounced off its mates causing the pile to slide towards the edge. Closing his eyes, he ran his ungloved palm over the table and felt nothing until he touched those stones. Only then did his other senses break down their composition.

Sarn recalled the cold darkness blanketing both murder sites. Could it extinguish lumir? He seized a crystal, but it lit on contact. Kindling lumir had become a reflex action over the years—damn the Rangers. Cursing, he grabbed another and dammed the magic, slowing its flow to a trickle. He narrowed his awareness down to the stone in his hand, burrowing into its heart to a waiting cavity. The rock blazed as he withdrew his senses.

Still too fast, Sarn cursed and picked up another. He drilled down, attenuating his magic until it struck a filament. It would cast its light down through the ages, radiant until its internal store of magic depleted. He kindled another and another, each time watching the process. Nolo could keep him out of the forest but not the mystery haunting it.

After an hour, Sarn set a luminous pink rock aside and staggered to the stew pot to ease the hunger cramping his gut. He was on the cusp of something, but avoiding a blackout took precedence.

While shoveling stew into his mouth with a biscuit, Sarn turned over everything he knew about lumir and its luminosity. Could the ignition process be reversed? What could strip lumir of its light and magic?

Sitting on a pile of straw dummies, Sarn surveyed the cluttered cave for an answer. Unstrung bows of every length and construction hung from pegs on the wall. One of them called to Sarn, and his magic slid along his hands yearning to touch the bow staves. It had been months since they’d let him shoot.

Three bowlfuls and four biscuits later, he left his dishes to soak in a pan of soapy water before confronting the lumir again. Sarn touched one of the lit stones and tried to withdraw the magic he’d gifted it. Nothing happened. His magic remained ensconced in the rock.

Voices caught his attention. Sarn grabbed an unlit lumir stone and drifted out of the cave fingering the stone in his hand. Magic flowed over its nooks and crannies as he listened hard. What was going on out there?

Was the Queen of All Trees still waiting for him? Was she in danger? He imagined her silver splendor surrounded by infected trees and rivers of an oily black contagion until a polite cough startled him. Dropping his gaze ten inches to the crown of a head, Sarn goggled at the radiant face of Inari then backpedaled out of the danger zone.

There were women, and there was Inari. Beautiful failed to describe her; incandescent came closer to the mark. There was an extra dimension she alone possessed. And he was staring at her like a fool. He had to look away. She was Nolo’s wife for hell’s sake.

But his eyes refused to stray from her face. Red light burst out of a lumir stone resembling congealed blood. Casting a rosy hue to her café au lait features, the stone warmed Sarn’s hand as his magic dampened its fiery touch.

“I overheard my husband talking and figured I’d give you a hand.” Inari shrugged a toned shoulder.

“A hand?” Sarn repeated unable to make sense of her explanation.

“Yes, with the packs.” Inari stepped past Sarn into the chamber leaving him flabbergasted and excited.

Inari was older than him as was every woman he’d ever crushed on. She had a decade on him, which put her around thirty.

“You’ll—” Sarn trailed off as words abandoned him. Flailing about in search of something to say, he found nothing and shut his mouth.

What could he talk about with this angel? He was the dirt under her well-tailored boot heel—a whore’s unwanted bastard. Worse still, he had a bastard of his own—one he adored. But still, a child subject to the same stigma. Sarn glared at the stone in his hand feeling dirty and empty.

Thank fate his propensity for cloaks and deep hoods hid his greasy hair and filthy clothes. But his eyes glowed, showering his unwashed, stubble covered face in unflattering emerald light. He stank too, and he’d worn the same clothes for a couple of days. Soap, water, and a razor—he needed to make a date with all three the next time he had five minutes of peace.

Embarrassment burned Sarn’s face as he turned away from her sparkling cleanliness. Inari had pulled her hair into a waist-length braid, and she smelled fresh as a summer flower. He was dirt, and she was a polished diamond, so bright and beautiful it hurt to look at her.

“I can make them up myself,” he said when the silence became unbearable.

If she helped, they’d find him some other busy work to do farther from the doors. At least here he could overhear something. Sarn placed the red lumir stone into a lead-lined box.

“I have an ulterior motive for helping you.”

Sarn heard the smile in her voice and clamped down hard on the reaction her words produced. He was only twenty, and it had been awhile since— Sarn picked up a jumble of cloth and buckles and fumbled it into something resembling a pack. There was a good reason why it had been awhile since he’d slept with anyone, and the reason was a precocious child named Ran. Oh Fates, how he missed the lovable rascal.

Cramming a handful of oats into the pocket meant for them, Sarn pinned his eyes to the table and its offerings. It was safer to regard what his fingers assembled than to look at Inari. She was everything he’d ever wanted, but she was married to one of his masters.

“What did you have in mind?” Sarn asked failing to mask his inner turmoil. Now would be a terrific time for a ghost to show up or the fates-damned forest to have a tantrum. Anything to get out of this cave.

“Practice—specifically archery practice,” Inari heaved a one-shouldered shrug, oblivious to his discomfort. “I want to keep my skills sharp, and I prefer to shoot with a partner. I figured you could use the practice, and I wanted to make sure you’re okay. You didn’t look well when I last saw you.”

Well, archery practice explained the leathers clinging to her curves. Thank fate his baggy clothes hid how much he liked them. Her dark eyes probed him. What was she looking for? Oh right, signs of illness since he’d passed out at her feet yesterday.

“I don’t need a healer.” Spotting a dark stone amid the pile, Sarn reached for it. But a spark jumped from his finger to the stone turning its glow on before he made contact. Sarn gritted his teeth at more evidence of his freakishness and shoved it into a pack. If his face got any redder, he’d make a tomato jealous. Time for a topic change.

“I didn’t say you should. I know you don’t like them.”

“Doesn’t Nolo shoot with you?”

Inari shook her head as she threaded a strap through a buckle. “He doesn’t approve of my interest in such sports.”

Her casual response caught Sarn off guard. He knocked over a stack of bandages and bent to collect them and his wits too. Shadows melted into the south wall as if some force drew them from the mountain. They left behind a void making the cave and the piles of gear scattered about lose one of its dimensions.

When Inari bent to pick up a few stragglers, he stopped her. Something strange was happening. Better if she remained ignorant of it.

“I dropped them. I’ll fetch them. It’s only fair.”

“Alright, I’ll keep the assembly line going.”

He nodded even though she couldn’t see it from her side of the table. Extending a hand, he touched the ground, and his magic crawled down the tunnel and out of the main doors.

“How’s your brother doing?”

“He’s fine.” Since he followed Miren’s academic progress like a sport, Sarn rattled off his brother’s test scores, paper grades, and the theses of his assignments without taking his mind off his magic. It was flowing across the meadow now. Maybe he could send it past the menhirs into the forest and—

His magic washed over the spectral feet of the ghost boy and recoiled, snapping back so fast it gave Sarn whiplash. He landed on his butt, as his head spun and pain punched him. A purple afterimage of a thirteen-pointed star in a circle danced before his eyes. Blood dripped from his nose, and he wiped it on his sleeve. Then he heard it—that foul whisper, eam’meye erator. And he still had no fricking clue what it meant.

“You’ve done a good job raising your brother,” Inari said, oblivious to his painful spill.

Cold buffeted Sarn as he rose and came eye to eye with the ghost child. Fear clouded those milky green orbs. What could frighten a ghost?

“Don’t be embarrassed. You should be proud of him. You’ve earned the right.” Inari squeezed his shoulder, having interpreted his silence as humility. She let go before drifting back to the table and those packs.

Quite a pile had formed while he’d mucked about with head-ache inducing magic. He still had no answers, just a feeling things were wrong and growing more so by the minute while he was stuck assembling kit bags.

Sarn nodded to Inari, thanking her without words for her support because it seemed the right thing to do. It also bought him time to regroup. With shaking fingers, he resumed stuffing whatever came to hand into the first pocket his fingers found. They were almost done.

Inari’s slender fingers stilled when the warden’s voices swelled.

“You can hear them?”

Inari nodded, and her face softened as she noted his surprise.

Sarn touched his bad ear, then let his hand fall back to the pile of ribbons he’d sorted. Each pack carried the same items but in different proportions depending on the campsite.

“They’re talking about you.” Her smile slipped and flipped into a frown of concentration.

They? There was only one voice he kept hearing. Oh right, the wardens—Sarn had forgotten they were nearby. Echoes of stamping feet interrupted a mumbled monologue.

Inari laid a warm hand over his. Before Sarn could stop it, his magic scanned her, throwing a barrage of information at him, none of it sensible.

“What are they saying?”

Inari’s eyes answered his question—nothing good. Sarn nodded, and she squeezed his hand before letting go. Her warmth lingered on his skin, and it felt good—too good. The magic had welcomed her touch, and so had he. She was his master’s wife for hell’s sake. He should not like her, but Fates damn him, he did.

“I know what they’re saying about me.” He needed to drive a wedge between them, to make her see him for what he was. “I’m a freak, and you know what? They’re right.” Sarn slammed the last pack down, fluttering its blue ribbon.

“You’re unique, but you’re not a freak. You’ve lived a hard life, yes, but you’ve got a good heart, and it’s always in the right place.” Her words applied a soothing balm to the cuts her husband’s remarks had made earlier. “They’re talking about what Gregori did, and they’re angry he dragged you off somewhere and ditched you.” And her eyes urged him to believe it. But dare he?

Sarn shook his head. “They don’t like me—” He found this reversal in attitude hard to swallow. But her dark eyes, so earnest in their attention, tipped unbelief into belief and knocked Sarn to a sit on the edge of the table as his world rocked around him.

She linked her arm through his and tugged him toward the door. “Come on. We’re finished here. Its Dreamer’s hour and I fancy a bit of shooting and maybe a little competition before I retire. I’ve heard you’re a natural.”

The ghost boy flashed to the cave’s entrance, arms outstretched, head shaking in terror. As if cued, the bells of Mount Eredren tolled twenty-four times, marking the hour as midnight. They echoed in the preternatural silence of the maze.

Sarn gave the ghost a reassuring look as he walked through its arm and stopped. A rat stared at him—the same one from the kitchen. The malevolence leaking off the creature made him wonder. Was there something watching him through the rat’s eyes? Was this watcher Rat Woman or someone else?

Cold, spectral fingers dug into his thigh, numbing the muscles there as the ghost pulled and failed to budge him. Sarn closed his eyes and let Inari lead him to the stronghold’s doors. If there was something bad enough to scare a ghost out there, then he had to warn Nolo, even if it meant endangering the man’s wife. Inari wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Rangers on guard stopped talking. For a moment, Sarn feared they’d seen the specter huddled against his leg or the creepy rat scurrying after them.

“Heard you knocked Gregori down flat,” commented Cyril, “you can open your eyes, Kid. There’s no one around except us to see ‘em, and we know what they look like.”

Sarn did as bid and played the emerald glow of his eyes over the lanky Cyril. To his credit, the mohawk-sporting Ranger ignored the light as he searched the man’s face for anything amiss.

“Well he deserved it,” Cyril continued when Sarn failed to comment.

Maybe being the victim of Gregori’s test had earned him a measure of respect by accident. Another time, he could think on this, but right now he scanned the moonlit meadow below. Something was out there, but it waited beyond his line of sight.

“The moon’s a full one tonight,” added Bisheen from the opposite side of the giant doors showering them in pale gold light. “It’s a good night for a bit of shooting if you’re minded.”

Cyril flashed a smile at Inari. “We might have bet a small wager on our Kid beating you nine times out of ten. No disrespect meant ma’am, but the Kid’s got talent.”

And now they were complimenting him in a backhanded manner. But still, it was praise nonetheless. His face heated up. Embarrassed, Sarn nodded to the two Rangers then hightailed it to the switchback trail leading down the mountain. His gaze locked onto the impenetrable darkness blotting out the enchanted forest. Not a single leaf glowed tonight. Something had snuffed out the forest’s bioluminescence. Was it the same thing that had caused it to turn on him yesterday?

[_Unnatural, _]commented his magic.

[_I figured. Tell me something I don’t know like how to fix it. _]But his magic didn’t.

Instead, his magic increased his eyes’ glow until a green nimbus encased him, turning him into a walking target. Fan-fricking-tastic, Sarn gritted his teeth. He was a beacon calling to whatever wrongness had gripped his land.

But his radiance highlighted trip hazards, making the descent less treacherous. Inari’s grateful smile warmed Sarn all the way to his toes until the ghost boy’s icy fingers recalled his attention. Now wasn’t the time to revel in her company.

At the bottom of the trail, they stepped onto the meadow. Nothing stirred the long grasses, not even the wind. Thickets of arrows stuck point first into the ground a hundred yards from their respective targets. Inari unslung a leather tube and removed a recurve bow. She strung it and waited while Sarn did the same with a longbow someone had left for him.

Someday he would teach his son to shoot, but he put the thought out of his mind so he could concentrate on calling out the wrongness. Holding the bow in his right hand, Sarn withdrew an arrow from the ground. Stop dicking around and show yourself. I dare you. You don’t frighten me.

But it should, and the thought gave Sarn pause. His gaze strayed to the shuddering ghost boy hiding its face in his pant leg. The specter peeked at Sarn, and its pale, terrified eyes pleaded with him to stop.

“I can’t,” he whispered to the ghost. “I have to do this.”

Magic rolled over the flint arrowhead in his hand turning it a radiant green. Connection established, Sarn nocked, sighted and drew on the bow feeling muscles in his upper back pull tight. He released the arrow, and it sped past the standing stones into the darkness beyond. His will flew with the shaft and its sensory payload. The string slapped his right forearm, but he ignored its sting.

Landing point first in the dirt, a remnant of his magic dispersed into the ground and dashed back to him, sending flashes of roots, rocks, and leaves—all of them motionless. Why were they still? Their immobility raised his hackles.

To keep up the ruse, Sarn fired two arrows at the target hitting it dead center. He grabbed another arrow and shot it south toward the river. Nothing there either—was he losing his mind?

A blur dashed up Common Rock and perched on its top. Its beady eyes glared at Sarn as its body tensed, readying for something. It was too far away to attack him or Inari and too small to do much harm. Aiming high, Sarn fired two more arrows targeting other sections of the forest. Had something broken its enchantment? What the hell was he mixed up in?

A nudge here or there kept the two projectiles defying gravity far longer than any arrow should, as he curved their trajectories. Sarn fired off three more at the straw target planting them in a tight cluster to satisfy the Rangers watching from the cliff then resumed sending arrows into the forest hunting for information.

His last arrow bounced off a tree rousing it, proving its enchantments still held—thank Fate. The arrow plummeted until something plucked it out of the air and snapped the shaft in half. After dropping the broken arrow, a blurry figure ground it under his boot and advanced.

Moonlight fell on Hadrovel as the man stepped out of the forest. Those miserable eyes locked onto Sarn as the psycho lumbered toward him.

With shaking hands, Sarn snatched an arrow, nocked, sighted and drew so fast he blurred. Thunk. The arrow passed through Hadrovel’s chest, but the man kept coming.

“You’re dead—I saw—” Sarn seized another arrow and fitted it to the string.

[_“He’s dead Kid. He can’t hurt you anymore,” _]Jerlo assured Sarn from the depths of his memory, but the commander had lied.

Sarn shot two more arrows. Hadrovel swelled until the psycho loomed over him. Every arrow found its mark decorating the psycho’s chest with a death’s head of fletching, grim smile included. But Hadrovel refused to die. He just kept coming.

Sarn reached for an arrow, but his hand closed on empty air, and his back slammed into Common Rock. The damned thing was the size of a giant’s boot. Gripping the longbow in both hands, Sarn swung it. Green lightning snaked along the bow, but it splintered against Hadrovel’s chest, raining embers, and twinkling sawdust.

Sarn reversed his grip on the now-sharpened stave and stabbed, but the psycho didn’t even flinch when the magic-riddled wood punctured his chest. One good slap knocked the stave loose leaving no blood or wound behind.

Recognizing the glint in Hadrovel’s eye, rage consumed Sarn. Not this time, the psycho would not bind his will to compliance. Magic leaked out of every pore. It ripped rocks out of the earth and hurled them at Hadrovel before the beast could utter a single word. The projectiles landed in a screaming pile and the thing masquerading as Hadrovel flickered like a guttering flame. He was not Hadrovel.

The realization knocked Sarn to his knees so profound was his relief. Or perhaps it was exhaustion sapping his strength. He had done far more magicking in the last few hours than he could remember ever doing before. Pain probed at the spot between his eyes presaging a headache.

“What are you?”

The doppelganger grinned baring yellowed teeth then shattered sending red sparks to dance on the breeze. An invisible force spun the fragments into a thirteen-pointed star right before it shot Sarn between the eyes. He collapsed in screaming pain as the star cut through his mind, raising memories in its wake.

Through a chink in the stone wall, Sarn caught the dark eyes of a slender figure. Swathed in a white cloak and cowl, the sacrifice stepped into a forest of candles and took Hadrovel’s hand.

The youth held his gaze as incantations in a guttural language assaulted his ears and scratched at his sanity. Pressure built, almost flattening Sarn as something ground against reality’s thin veil.

Thirteen cairns surrounded his narrow prison. Fingers poked out of the one nearest, and they twitched. Oh Fate, there was an orphan entombed in it—in all of them. The dying children’s screams turned into hacking coughs as a sulfurous stink choked the air.

“You killed them!” Sarn shouted at Hadrovel as the memory shattered. He rocked as pain stabbed him in each eye.

Inari’s rose-scented arm wrapped around his shaking shoulders and her breath tickled his ear. “It’s all right. I’m here.”

And Sarn wanted her to hold him forever. But this was wrong. She belonged to another, so he pushed her away. Once he was vertical, he stumbled, putting some distance between them.

“Stay out of this or someone you love dies,” said Hadrovel’s doppelganger. Sarn pivoted, but the creature was gone. Only his warning remained, echoing with each heartbeat.

[_‘I saw a shadow monster,’ _]Ran had confessed, his little face screwed up in fear. And Sarn’s arms ached to hold his son, to protect the boy from everything.

Nolo’s words from earlier echoed: ‘you have to let it go.’

How could he? Sarn met the frightened eyes of the ghost boy. No, he would see this through to the bitter end. He had no choice now. His son was in danger, and it was his fault. But he was more lost than before. Where could he turn for answers?

[_Look inside you, _]whispered the magic.

Sarn reeled at the possibility. How could the answer be inside him?

“What the hell are you doing?” Jerlo demanded as he rounded common rock.

Inari started at the commander’s sudden appearance, but Sarn stared at the blood dripping down his throbbing arm. A crimson drop splashed onto the earthen lips opening to catch it. The ground shook, and something shot out of it. Catching it on reflex, Sarn held a bloodstone keyed to him. Inside the reddish stone, a spark of his magic waited for direction.

“What the hell?” Sarn looked to Jerlo for an answer, but his master’s brows drew down in consternation, presaging a lecture, not an explanation.

“Let me clean this.”

Inari wiped at the blood and the dozens of raised welts along the inside of Sarn’s right arm. And her silken touch made his loins itch for some amorous action.

Fates damn him to hell, he wanted her warm hands elsewhere on his anatomy. It had been too long, and the magic wanted another Ran. Its demand pounded with his heart, but Ran had to stay an only child.

After applying a salve she produced from a pocket, Inari wrapped his sore arm in gauze then stepped back. “Keep the wound clean, so it heals all right.”

Sarn nodded.

“What the hell happened here?” Jerlo glared at Sarn.

How could he even begin to answer that question? Sarn looked at the grinning skull outlined in fletching and shivered. How many arrows had he shot? Too many, no wonder Jerlo looked ready to strangle him. His latest bout of insanity had destroyed a target and created a six-foot cairn.

“Get inside now. Go to my office and sit there while I decide what to do with you.” Jerlo pointed at the mountain. Command laced his voice, and it tugged on the compulsion, turning Sarn toward the doors beckoning from the mountainside.

Before Sarn could blink, he was halfway up the mountain’s winding trail. The air had a cold bite and a hint of putrefaction to it, one reminiscent of the two murder sites. But he could not stop to investigate. Jerlo’s orders left no leeway this time.

For uncounted miles in all directions, save south where the river flowed, the enchanted forest stood like ranks of spent candles. Their lack of brilliance grated on his nerves until she blazed in the distance on Mount Shayar. Raising her refulgent branches, she extended them toward Sarn. And her summons reverberated in his bones.

He must go to the Queen of All Trees. Staggering forward, Sarn stepped onto an inconvenient bluff and crossed it, only to crash into invisible chains. Promises pulled tight, tripping Sarn and he went down on one knee as Jerlo’s last words echoed in his skull: ‘go to my office and sit there.’

He had sworn to obey Jerlo, and his master had issued an order. Each word flayed Sarn, abrading his will the longer he knelt there. He must do as Master bids.

But she had called. Sarn stared at the clumps of grass clinging to the precipice while two desires strove for mastery. White light caressed his face igniting a memory of a white-robed youth surrounded by a blaze. The image sharpened until the candles separated into a circle winding around a star with thirteen rays. Somehow the event in his past and the murders were connected.

“Thank you,” he whispered, letting the breeze carry his words to the Queen of All Trees.

Her light winked out, breaking the enchantment and his mind cleared enough for Jerlo’s objective to gain the upper hand. Sarn stood up, dazed but determined, and stumbled back onto the trail. Waving its hands in a shooing motion, the ghost boy appeared, urging Sarn to go back.

“Not you too. I can’t go to her. She knows I have orders.”

But the specter shook its head and motioned him to turn around. Curiosity spun Sarn, and he blinked at the tenebrous vista spreading beyond the circle of menhirs. The Queen of All Trees had vanished into the enchanted forest, and its unnatural darkness had swallowed her. No hint of her radiance remained, not even an afterimage.

“Is she in trouble?”

The ghost pointed to where she had stood, and its pale lips moved in silent speech.

“Is she?”

The ghost ignored his question.

Sarn folded his arms over his chest. “What are you afraid of? You’re already dead.”

Far off, a voice whispered, eam’meye erator. Sarn shuddered.

The ghost raised one spectral finger to its wide eyes then dissipated in a gust of wind, leaving Sarn alone with the night and too many questions without answers. He kicked a stone, sending it clattering down the mountain.

Jerlo’s icon on his head map moved, spurring Sarn into action. He pivoted and continued up the trail. But as the gravel path bent to climb between two rock formations, Sarn felt a malevolent presence. His head map added a marker for this new menace and then subtracted it a moment later as a rat darted across his path. It turned beady eyes on him, and the force of its hatred pushed Sarn back a step. Was it one of Rat Woman’s attendants?

For a long, tense moment, he and the entity looking out through the rat’s eyes remained locked in a standoff. Something held its hatred in check—was it Rat Woman or someone else? Had Hadrovel distracted him from a larger problem?

It was possible, and the possibility frightened him. Rocks crumbled where he gripped an outcropping in frustration. The rat fled into the shadows lining the trail. Sarn shivered at the close call before plodding onward up the mountain’s more scenic face.

Around the next bend, Sarn found Cyril and Bisheen still guarding the doors. The former whistled and the latter clapped Sarn on the back, spinning him around. An apology wrote itself across Bisheen’s blocky features right before the Ranger rammed Sarn up against a rock wall and pinned him there.

“Sorry Kid, I have to search you. Don’t make this any harder than it has to be. Orders are orders.”

Before he’d even stopped speaking, Bisheen kicked his feet apart. Maybe they’d heard about his earlier evasion. Rumor traveled at the speed of thought in the mountain stronghold especially when it pertained to him. Sarn gnashed his teeth.

From their vantage high on Mount Eredren’s shoulder, Bisheen had a perfect view of his loss of control. Fear made their sweat stink and their breath catch as they prodded Sarn seeking concealed weapons. Cyril had joined in too, crowding Sarn. It made him laugh because the only weapon he possessed was magic and he avoided wielding it when he could.

Keep your hands off me. Sarn bit down hard on those words, swallowing them. But his magic reared up and lashed out with a whip of crackling green energy, knocking both men away from him.

Turning his back on their stricken looks, Sarn pulled his cowl low over his freakish eyes. He ran inside, but the fear on their faces accompanied Sarn, portending trouble to come.

An emerald glow caught Nolo’s eye, and he turned, his gut clenching with dread. Sarn should be in the training room still assembling packs. There had been enough to keep the Kid busy and out of sight all night unless someone lent a hand.

Charging across the meadow, he repeated the word “No” between breaths. But the wind swallowed his negation.

The Kid stood cloaked and cowled as always, but his eyes blazed, throwing emerald light for a half mile in every direction. In the Kid’s hands, magic flowed through a longbow lighting up the wood. An arrow pulled free of the ground and sailed toward the Kid’s open palm. Its flint head fluoresced green as the Kid nocked, sighted and drew so fast he blurred. As the arrow flew, emerald lightning crackled around it.

A thicket of arrows outlined a grinning skull on the decimated target. Repeated pummeling had splintered one if its supports. Unperturbed, the Kid held out his hand again, but no arrow rose to meet it. The Kid swung his bow at the target, splintering it.

Nolo slammed into an invisible wall and bounced off it. He punched the barrier, but the damned thing refused to yield. “Sarn!” he shouted, but magic continued to rise, charging the air, so each lungful delivered a painful zap to his insides. “Stop it Sarn! Listen to me!”

Rage rattled the chains of Nolo’s sanity. Who had caused this? Was it Ranispara? Had she disobeyed Jerlo’s edict? No, she knew why the Kid must never focus his attention, and by extension, his magic, on any task. Had Gregori orchestrated this tragedy? Dear God, it was possible after the stunt his friend had pulled yesterday. Nolo’s hands curled into fists. If Gregori had anything to do with this, he’d—

Stones lifted off the riverbank and hurtled toward Sarn, but the Kid just rocked, lost in his delusions. At the last second, the stones swept upwards describing a graceful arc. They remained suspended by will alone until gravity crashed them down, creating a cairn as tall as its creator.

Helpless, Nolo watched months of work crumble. And he screamed a negation along with the Kid. It was happening again, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Or was there? A familiar weight settled against his back. He could just reach up, seize an arrow and—no. Nolo laced his fingers together over his abdomen, but Death’s arrows tempted him.

You could mark him for a good end. Why let that capricious bitch Fate decide how he should die? Wouldn’t a peaceful death be better? Or do you want him to suffer?

[_No, _]Nolo told the black quiver. He would not shoot at a child for that’s what Sarn was—a boy stuck in a man’s body—one ill-equipped to handle life’s harsh realities. [_The Black Ranger does not mark children. _]Point taken, the black quiver of death, but he still carried the burden.

A lithe figure darted forward distracting Nolo. She was a familiar woman-shaped silhouette against the magic’s glow. Skidding on the grass, she went down on one knee and threw an arm around the Kid’s shoulders.

Sarn was shouting now. “You killed them—”

Someone was inside the cordon created by the Kid’s magic. Squinting, Nolo recognized the huntress pattern dyed into the woman’s back and the waist-length braid of black silk bisecting it. Inari had caused this drama. He’d expected her to ask Ranispara to shoot with her since the two women had been fast friends for nigh on a decade already. They did everything together. So why not archery?

Of all the people Inari could have chosen, why had she picked Sarn? Casting his eyes skywards, Nolo looked to the stars and God for answers. But those cold pinpricks hid behind clouds, and God kept his peace. Maybe Sarn vexed the Almighty too. Giving the radiant barrier one last punch, Nolo blinked as it shattered, freeing him.

He rushed forward, but Jerlo beat him to the Kid. Whatever emotional storm had caused this must have ended because rationality had returned. And with it came a stunned Sarn who stared at what he’d wrought under the magic’s influence.

“Inside now,” Jerlo pointed at the mountain. “Go to my office and sit there while I decide what to do with you,” said the commander.

Sarn left without saying a word. Nolo changed course to follow him. The Kid always had a seizure after magical displays. Someone should be with him because it promised to be a bad one. But when Nolo caught sight of his stricken wife, outrage detoured him to her side. How dare she stand there like she’d done nothing wrong.

Anger hardened Nolo’s voice into a truncheon he swung at her. “What were you thinking? We stopped giving him archery lessons because this is what happens.”

Inari rounded on him, anger coloring her cheeks. “Have you ever bothered to figure out why this happens? I didn’t think so. He has magic. You can’t hide it away or pretend it doesn’t exist. He’ll never learn to control it if you keep him away from everything that triggers it.” Inari’s eyes flashed, and her breasts heaved as she stabbed Nolo in the chest with a calloused finger. “And before you accuse me of anything—this wasn’t my intention. I didn’t know this would happen.”

Nolo glanced at his boss, but the commander had decided to play spectator for this argument. Inari seized his chin and turned his head back to her.

“All I know is you used to teach him archery, but those lessons stopped suddenly. When I suggested we shoot for a bit, he was happier than I’ve ever seen him.”

“I know what I’m doing.” Nolo folded his arms over his chest. Inari quirked a brow questioning his statement. The only person he needed to justify his actions to was Jerlo. He was responsible for the Kid’s well-being, not her.

Jerlo cleared his throat and pointed at the papers clutched in Nolo’s offhand. “What’ve you got there?”

“Something the Kid asked for.” Nolo passed the unread pages to his boss who perused them.

“I thought I told him to drop it.” Jerlo shook his head and stuffed the pages into his pocket. “Now I know what caused this.”

“Care to share that rationale?” Inari asked reminding them of her continued presence. She watched both men with her hawk eyes.

Nolo opened his mouth to give his standard reply of ‘Ranger’s business,’ but Jerlo spoke first.

“A sad affair involving some travelers which I told the Kid to forget about since there’s nothing we can do. We were a day late and a few lives short.”

Inari accepted Jerlo’s explanation with a grim nod. People died all too often in the wild due to ill luck, disease or unpreparedness.

Jerlo patted his frizz ball and sighed. “What will we do with him?”

“You can’t pawn him and his problems off on busy work. It won’t solve anything. And if you keep this up, you’ll alienate him completely.” Inari met both men’s gazes with a steely one of her own, then she retrieved her bow and returned to the mountain.

Jerlo whistled. “She’s some woman.”

“Yes, she is.” Nolo watched his wife until she vanished behind a rock formation. She was a whole lot more than he’d bargained for ten years ago when he’d wed her.

“We should have Sarn clean up this mess, but he’s been visible enough for one night.” Jerlo kicked a stone; his gaze rested on the target which had fallen on its side. “We can’t leave this mess until morning. I’ve got a meeting down here, and if anyone sees this, it’ll raise too many questions.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Burn it. Get those two,” Jerlo waved in the general direction of the door wardens, “to help you. Impress upon them the danger of speaking about this to anyone. Not even another Ranger, this goes no further.”

“Agreed. What about those pages? He’ll ask if I checked the book.” Nolo pulled out a lumir stone as a shadow fell over them. Gold light illuminated Jerlo, giving his boss a demonic aspect.

“You found nothing, so there’s nothing to tell.”

“You want me to lie to him.” Lie to a kid who could speak only the truth. The idea made Nolo’s heart clench with dread. But he’d lied to the Kid before to protect him.

“I want him to drop this and move on with life. It’s not healthy this obsession he’s nurturing. It stops tonight.”

“No argument here. Do you want me to take care of this now or deal with him?”

“I’ll deal with him. You’re on damage control.” Jerlo turned to go and stopped. “The sixteenth of July—are you planning to be around then?”

“Lord Grecial’s birthday celebration is scheduled for the sixteenth?”

“Yes, but I expect it will change. Don’t make any plans for the last two weeks of July. I’ll need you here for—oh hell, you don’t want to know. It’s madness this spectacle they’re planning. Sheer madness!” Jerlo stalked off grumbling about mad nobles and their ill-timed entertainments.

Whatever Lady Hira planned for her son, it would be a nightmare to secure. It could stay his boss’ headache for a few more weeks while he tried to figure out what to do with Sarn. Inari’s last words repeated like heartburn: [_you can’t pawn him and his problems off on busy work. It won’t solve anything. _]

What other choice was there? Nolo looked from the ravaged target to a cairn to the sky. Not even the moon offered any wisdom as she cast her silver eye down on him from a break in the clouds.

Would it help if he took the Kid with him on his rounds? It would give him more time to prize words from the laconic youth, and it might build up some trust. The Kid needed occupation. At this point, Nolo would try anything. But the forest and the Queen of All trees—could he trust either of those entities to leave the Kid alone?

Chapter 19

Sarn woke when two fingers touched his carotid, and swatted the hand away from him. “Don’t touch me.”

“Easy Kid, I’m just making sure you’re breathing. You were stiller than stone, and you look terrible. Don’t you sleep during the day?” Jerlo backed off and parked it on the arm of a flanking chair.

Embroidered dragons glared at Sarn. “Yes, I do.” But his body demanded more sleep than his son allowed.

Bells chimed four times, announcing the shift change. Jerlo’s brow winged up inviting the obvious question.

“It’s four in the morning. Can I go now?”

“You’re physically able to go anytime you wish but you won’t because I haven’t dismissed you. And I won’t until we clear up a few things.” Jerlo folded his arms over his chest and inclined his head.

“What do you want to know?” Sarn rubbed the bridge of his nose. His head felt odd—like someone had stuffed gauze into it after stirring the contents.

“Three things,” Jerlo ticked each point off on his finger. “Why you disobeyed orders—”

“I didn’t. She helped me, and we finished packing them—”

Jerlo gave Sarn a look, silencing him. “I want to examine the stone—”

Sarn pulled the bloodstone out of his pocket and tossed it to his master. He never wanted to see the damned thing again. Its creation was too creepy to contemplate.

Jerlo caught it. “What did you mean when you said, ‘he killed them.’”

“You know who.” Sarn passed a hand over his face and shuddered.

“I wouldn’t ask if I did.”

Sarn struggled to name the nightmare still haunting him, but the syllables twisted on his tongue, changing from ‘Hadrovel’ to ‘I don’t know.’ Memories five years suppressed, ripped open old psychic wounds. Hands seized Sarn dropping him into darkness. Hadrovel’s face appeared framed in a hole in the wall.

“Hey Kid come back to the room. Whatever happened, happened already. Ruminating on it won’t change anything.”

Jerlo’s voice cut through the memory dragging the commander’s dragon-themed office back into view. Every reptilian eye fixed on Sarn and he shifted in his chair.

“Sarn, look at me and get your mind out of the past.”

Jerlo’s voice had taken on a compulsive quality and his dark gaze bored into Sarn, yanking out memories of cloaked men. Tenebrous hands gathered every fragment of the memory then withdrew.

When the gaze lock broke, Sarn blinked and slumped against the chair. What were they just discussing? Visits to Jerlo’s office always had an underlying reason. What had it been this time? The bells of Mount Eredren struck five startling Sarn.

Jerlo patted him on the shoulder. “Go get something to eat and some rest. You’ve told me what I wanted to know. I’m sure your brother’s missing you by now.”

Nodding, Sarn rose grateful to be vertical again since his backside had gone numb. How long had he sat there? Too long, so he staggered out, pausing when Jerlo called to him.

“Same time tomorrow, be back here.” Jerlo pointed to the floor, meaning his office.

“Twentieth bell?” Sarn hazarded. His head felt stuffed with wool. What the hell had he been doing last night?

“Yes, twentieth bell’s fine.”

Jerlo watched the lanky enigma stagger down a short hallway on unsteady legs. Feeling strange himself, Jerlo rubbed his temples. When he’d met the Kid’s glowing eyes, something had happened.

Memories crawled around inside his sieve of a mind, but these new additions belonged to the Kid he’d just dismissed. Could he slide the stolen memory into place and replay it? Something clicked, and his perspective changed.

Hadrovel’s miserable eye looked through a chink in a stone wall. “I’ll pull you out when they’re gone. Be silent as sleeping stone.” The psycho Orphan Master pushed a hand through the hole, but he dodged it. And the sudden movement made him dizzy, so he slid down the wall into a puddle of elbows and knees. Bread, cheese, and a full wineskin landed nearby along with a wadded-up blanket.

“Drink it all. You need the fluids. You have to replace—” Hadrovel broke off, glanced over his shoulder and cursed. But he never explained what the Kid had to replace.

Fitting a stone into the hole, the psycho sealed the Kid in and left him there. A child’s hand shot out, broke the loaf in half, and Miren’s piping voice offered it to his brother. Jerlo yelped and almost fell out of the memory.

Well, Miren’s presence explained how Hadrovel had lured Sarn in there. The stupid Kid would do anything for his ingrate of a brother. Jerlo shook his head, and the sudden movement knocked him out of the Kid’s perspective. Crouching down, Jerlo marveled at the verisimilitude.

A teenage Sarn drew back, close to his brother. The Kid had the unfinished look of a teenager, making him fourteen or fifteen at most.

“Who are you?” The Kid clutched his head and struggled to stay upright.

“Nobody important. I’ll regret asking this, but are you okay?” Jerlo gestured to the bandage peeking out of the Kid’s sleeve.

Sarn clammed up. Some things never changed. Why bleed a mage-gifted Kid? What had Hadrovel gained by such a vile act?

“Why don’t you stop them?”

Muffled voices passed through the inelegant stonework walling them in. Maybe even some drumming accompanied the sounds. Since a Kid with damaged hearing had recorded this scene, it was hard to tell.

“Because this already happened. Look, Kid, I didn’t find out you existed until you ran away. Don’t look so glum. You don’t remember this anymore. By some bizarre accident, I stole your memories of this whole event.” Jerlo rubbed his temples and pain etched new lines into his brow. “Now I’m stuck in your memory.”

“You can’t go back?”

“I don’t know what I did, so how can I reverse it?”

Chanting interrupted the contemplative silence punctuating his question. The Kid flinched, and their viewpoints merged giving Jerlo an eyeful of the uneven ground. He dug his fingers into the inexpert masonry and pulled himself up to peer through a chink in the cell wall.

Mage-sight rendered the cavern in shades of gray. A white-clad figure lit a forest of candles. Each wick blossomed with a tongue of orange magic. The veiled person finished with the candle-lighting portion of the show and stood up, making eye contact. A gulf of twenty feet separated them.

Bored, Jerlo felt around inside his mind for a way to advance the timeline. While he fiddled with stolen memories, no one was supervising his people. Nor would any of the paperwork piling up on his desk complete itself. All the mucking around pried him loose from the Kid’s viewpoint again.

Jerlo blinked. He stood outside the cylindrical cell in a chest-deep moat. A smart move since the Kid’s magic hated water and Sarn was too drained to knock down a wall.

Free now, Jerlo strolled around the cavern and stopped at one of the thirteen moaning cairns ringing the chamber. Twitching fingers poked out of one rock pile. An eye blinked at him from the heart of another.

Everything outside of the Kid’s point of view blurred as expected. This was Sarn’s memory, not a reenactment put on for his benefit. No matter how hard Jerlo squinted, he could not identify the object crowning each cairn. Likely it was a sigil since symbology played a key role here.

Someone had arranged the candles to form a thirteen-pointed star inside a circle. The symbol was unfamiliar, but the posse of black-robed chanters approaching the flaming sigil greeted it with glad eyes. They ringed the candle-forest as the white-clad sacrifice stepped into its center.

When the chanting reached its crescendo, a wall of sound shoved Jerlo. He fell back into Sarn’s perspective, and the alien words made his stomach crawl up his backbone. Unnatural magic rushed into the working and filth fountained out of it as the sacrifice threw back his or her head and screamed. Pressure built as the working neared its conclusion. Waves of vile magic washed through the cell pushing him down toward a waiting blackness.

Jerlo resisted its undertow and tore free of the Kid, but when he put his eye to the crack, he saw nothing because the Kid had stopped watching and curled into a ball of nauseated misery.

“Did you make him pay for this?” Sarn hissed through clenched teeth as he held to consciousness by a fraying thread.

“You mean Hadrovel?”

Sarn nodded, looking so frail and vulnerable. If only the Kid had fallen into his hands instead of Hadrovel’s. He could have molded such a malleable youngster.

“Yes, the real you saw most of it, though I wish you hadn’t.” Jerlo shivered at the mention. The execution had gone profoundly wrong. None of Hadrovel’s victims should have witnessed that travesty.

“How did they punish him?”

Jerlo caught the Kid’s green-on-green eyes, and everything spun around him. He came to in the doorway to his inner office with the words, “You don’t want to know,” still on his lips. What had he just witnessed?

Jerlo blinked as the real Sarn turned a corner without a backward glance and disappeared into the mountain. Replaying the Kid’s memory had taken no time at all. “Good day Kid. Stay out of trouble.” Shutting his door, Jerlo crossed to a bookcase intent on doing some research. But his gaze snagged on the pages his second had ripped out of the log. Sarn needed to forget the whole thing.

Jerlo picked up a metal bowl and opened the door connecting his inner office to his sitting room. Setting the bowl down on the sill, he cracked open the window and tore up those damn pages. They fell from his fingers into a snowy pile. After pulling on thick gloves, Jerlo removed one of the red lumir stones from the hearth. In less than a minute, a tiny fire bobbed in the breeze. Its orange tongues lapped at the confetti, consigning those pages, and their information, to oblivion’s hands.

Smoke curled out of the stained-glass window. Looking to the sky, Jerlo rested his eyes on heaven’s cloud-obscured face.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” He bowed his head, and a glimmer in the west caught his eye.

A silver glow rose as the Queen of All Trees summited a mountain. From miles away, she shook her luminous branches at him in mute protest. The enchanted forest shifted, rippling with her frustration.

“Sarn belongs to us you overgrown weed. Find another mage for your schemes.” Jerlo blew out the flames, shook the ashes into a westerly breeze and shut the window. May the wind toss those ashes in the Queen of All Trees’ bark-covered face.

Jerlo returned to his desk and slumped down into his padded chair. What the hell should he do with the Kid? And what should he do about the bizarre power gaze-locking the Kid had unlocked?

Sarn ghosted down the north-south transept. Someone or something had opened his skull and stirred the contents. Could it have been his magic? What had he been doing all night? He rubbed the bridge of his nose where an ache stabbed him right between the eyes.

Only long standing habit gave him a destination—the Middle Kitchen—and a directive—fetch breakfast. He could almost hear his son’s request for sausages, and it became a thread of sanity he clung to as memories of the last three days drifted through his mind. Stars, icy black veils, ghosts, the earth ripping open a mass grave, enchanted trees chasing him—or was that a dream? A whiskered snout poked out of a shadow. He stopped and searched for the rat spying on him, but it scurried between two statues and disappeared.

He remembered Rat Woman and fighting an abomination in a storeroom. Sarn leaned into the wall as his stomach growled. Food might clear out the mental cobwebs. He shoved off the wall and staggered toward breakfast.

Since no one else was stirring at this hour, Sarn kept his eyes open. The corridor passed in a blur of statuary and bas-relief until a section of wall caught his eye. Circles—whole, linked and interrupted—were inlaid in a mosaic ten feet on a side. Since Litherians had used lumir, all the circles glowed like the ones chasing him in his dream.

Circles were incised on the statues’ bases, the floor tiles, and the buttresses too. None of them wrapped around any stars though. They had to be a piece of the same strange puzzle.

Stay out of this or someone you love dies.

Stay away from what? What had he stumbled onto? Why had a creature appropriated Hadrovel’s likeness to warn him off? Whatever this was, it went beyond the murder of the boy and those hikers. They were part of something worse, and he still had no idea what that worse was.

Steeling himself, Sarn brushed a hesitant finger over a glowing curve, then two and finally his whole hand. He traced the circles, imitating his son’s study of the illustrations yesterday. Not a Fates-damned thing happened.

Disappointed, Sarn ran a hand through his greasy locks, dislodging his hood. He took a second to right his cowl and let his gaze play over nearby carvings for some inspiration. For all he knew, this could have been building since the Litherians occupied this place.

Doubtful since there were no magical menaces left in Shayari, not like in the old tales, thanks to the Seekers. Their centuries-long mage-killing spree had begun with the slaughter of his heroes, the Guardians of Shayari, and continued down through the ages. Extending his hand, he let his fingers hover close to their noble visages. In his heart, the Guardian’s Lament echoed:

On the Queen’s Road, they met their end

in an ambush by the usurper’s men.

They fought for hours on Shayari’s one road.

Too far off for enchanted trees to roam,

so the Guardians had to hold their own.

Outnumbered ten to one, they stained the snow

while on the border, an army knows

no one defends Shayari from their men

Leaving Shayari without a friend

Her borders lay open end to end

There’s no one to raise a sword and defend.

Sarn bowed his head. I would serve you if you’d have me. If only they were alive now. They would know how to untangle the mystery life had thrown at him. But they were gone, and he was stuck unraveling this knot on his own. He let his hand fall back to his side.

If the Seekers had killed all the mages, how could he have inherited magic? What was Rat Woman and who had regarded him through the rat’s eyes earlier? Could someone as riddled with magic as he was, be walking around out there causing problems? That would explain the Insect Man he’d dissolved yesterday.

Sarn fetched up against a wall. A gut-wrenching wrongness gripped him.

Unnatural, declared his magic as it rattled its cage. We could fix it.

[_How? _]As usual, his magic refused to answer.

A summons wrapped around Sarn. Her call drove out all thoughts save one—he must go to her, now. Everything blurred as he skidded around corners, dodged statues and cut through an arcade, stopping at a balustrade.

There she towered, the Queen of All Trees. Her crown cut through night’s retreating train as she approached. Enchanted trees stepped aside, making a hole so her refulgent presence could pass. Twin circles of menhirs bounded the meadow, barring her way. But her branches arched over them, reaching for him.

Sarn extended both arms to her, and her bark caressed his cheek as the distance between them shrank. Images cascaded across his mind’s eye—a veiled youth in white robes surrounded by a thirteen-pointed star made of candles. Thirteen cairns ringed the sacrifice, and in each one, a young life expired. The pictures shrank into a white pinpoint floating in Jerlo’s black eyes.

“Sarn!”

Who had called his name?

“Sarn get back from there!” A woman’s arms looped around his waist, yanking him backward.

Sarn landed in an awkward sprawl on top of Ranispara. Rolling off her, he sat with his back to a baluster and rubbed his temples. What had he almost done? His son waited for him and for the breakfast he still needed to fetch.

“Are you all right?” Ranispara levered herself up and slung an arm over one knee.

Sarn nodded, even though he was shaken. He remembered everything now thanks to the Queen of All Trees, including his half-baked plan, giving him one more rock to turn over.

“I saw you take off like a spooked deer. When you didn’t respond, I followed you.” Ranispara cocked her head to one side, narrowing her eyes at him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Sarn scrubbed a hand over his face. Was he? No, but if he admitted it, she’d drag him to the nearest healer.

“I saw her.”

“Who?” Startled, Sarn let his hand drop into his lap and knead his thigh.

She shot him a look. “You know who I mean.”

Indeed, he did.

“This was her doing, wasn’t it?” Ranispara mimed someone leaping off a balcony.

Had he been about to jump when she’d stopped him? Sarn shrugged.

“Thought so.” She rolled her shoulders and nodded to the arcade fronting the balcony. “C’mon. Let’s get you inside before she tries anything else.”

“Jerlo already dismissed me,” Sarn said preempting her next question.

“I figured.” She rose and extended a hand to him.

Because it was Ranispara offering, Sarn accepted her hand and let her pull him up. “Thank you.”

She shrugged off his gratitude. “No need, you’re one of us, and we look after our own.”

Did they? This ‘us’ had never applied to him in the past. “Could we keep this between the two of us?” Sarn regarded her. He needed a ‘yes’ otherwise tomorrow would feature an infirmary visit.

“I don’t see why not. No harm was done.”

“Thank you.” Sarn let out the breath he’d been holding and sprinted for the kitchen. He had less than a half hour to steal food and chase down his one remaining lead—if he was lucky.

Luck was not on his side this morning. Sarn cursed the baker kneading dough as if his life depended on it. Why was nothing ever easy? When the man turned to grab a pan, Sarn withdrew a burlap sack from his pocket and darted into the kitchen. He filched day old bread from one counter and sausages from another, before ducking behind a butcher-block-topped island.

The baker whistled while he worked and the sound grated on Sarn’s nerves. After another minute of punching the dough, the flour-covered man set it aside and approached the pantry. Sarn shadowed him, skulking from island to column to sheet-draped cart in the aproned man’s wake. Flattening himself next to the door, Sarn caught the handle before it slammed into his side. Once the baker passed his hiding spot, he darted inside and shoveled items into the sack. Ran would eat anything he brought so long as he filched at least one sausage. Thank Fate his son wasn’t a picky eater.

Sarn listened for the cold room’s door. After a moment, the lock clicked. Sarn timed his exit and slid inside before the door closed. Blue lumir lit the room and pumped out cold while he nabbed bottles of goat’s milk, wheels of cheese, boiled eggs and produce. When his bag could hold no more, Sarn cracked open the door. He waited for the baker to turn his ample back then slipped out and almost stepped on a rat.

The vermin darted behind a counter. Its eyes reminded Sarn of Rat Woman’s mirrored gaze. It must be one of her spies. He was too tired for games. So Sarn ignored the creature and disappeared into the transept.

This time no alarm sounded and no guards came running. At least one thing was going his way. Still, he stuffed the sack behind a bushy fern, before racing along the transept to the north exit. Where was everyone? He slowed and took in a corridor full of statues but no pedestrians. Was today a holiday? Shaking his head at this bit of good fortune, he broke into an all-out run.

The bells struck six as Sarn kicked the catch to operate the secret door. It louvered a section of wall aside revealing a staircase and he descended, taking the steps three at a time. One hundred twenty steps down, he touched the wall in the right place to trigger another door.

Outside the sun had already lifted its golden head, and Sarn flung himself down the mountain’s north trail while Nolo’s icon toiled up the southern one. Good, there’d be no run-ins with either master since Jerlo’s icon remained in his office. Let the man stay there for another hour. Stretching his senses out, he searched the meadow for Will.

“I need to talk to you.”

Will turned, his concerned eyes snapping to the bandage peeking out of Sarn’s sleeve. “Is something wrong?”

Sarn held his wounded arm behind his back. “I’m fine. I need some information.”

Will digested his statement with a couple of incredulous blinks. “You need something from me?”

“Yeah, I need you to look at the harbormaster’s books. I need to know about two groups of people and whether they passed through the harbor. Can you check?”

“Yes, sure, anything you need but when should I look? I mean what days or span of days? If you need me to go back more than a month, it might take me awhile to dig it up. Paytor—he’s the harbormaster—files away his books after a month and starts a new log.”

Sarn’s mouth dropped open. How far back should Will search? A week? A month? Three? Maybe he’d gone about this all wrong, but using magic had netted him more questions, not answers.

“There was a boy with one group. He’s older than my son—maybe eight years old. He had eyes like my son’s. They were washed out, but they were still green.”

“You mean he was like you?”

Sarn nodded and scuffed his boots on the rocky shore. “Yes, he was.”

“What happened to him?”

Trust Will to pick up on the obvious.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” And for a moment, words rose to Sarn’s lips and threatened to spill everything that had happened, but so much of it had involved magic. Sarn swallowed the words, letting the sun dawn on the third day of a problem that was his alone to solve.

Will must have sensed his exclusion because he cast hurt eyes toward the river. “You’re afraid whatever happened to this boy will happen to your son.”

“How did you know?”

Will shrugged. “I know you, and I know how much you love your son. Hell, we all love him. None of us—the Foundlings I mean—would ever let anyone harm him. You know that, right?”

Did he? Sarn shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Yeah, I guess I did, but thanks for confirming it.” How the hell had the conversation slipped so far from its original topic? “Am I that transparent?”

“About most things, yes, but I like that about you.” Will heaved another shrug. “So, I’m looking for a group with an unusual child. How many were in his party?”

Sarn shrugged. “I don’t know. There were two parties, and I think thirteen in all, but I don’t know how many were in each party. I didn’t get a good look at them.” At Will’s sharp look, Sarn raised both hands in defense. “What? I can count.”

“So can Ran. We can’t get him to stop counting thanks to you.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. When should I look for this group? From when to when?”

“I don’t know.” Sarn massaged his forehead to soothe the ache building with each question.

“You want me to look for an unknown number of people with one child—it was one child not two, right?”

Sarn shook his head. Was there another child? “I don’t know.”

Will gave him a skeptical look. Sarn regarded the sunlight spilling over the mountains. He should have questioned Nolo instead of arguing with him.

“I shouldn’t have bothered you. I’m sorry.” Sarn turned to go, but Will stopped him by grabbing a handful of his cloak.

“I’ll look, for you, as far back as I can even though I don’t know what I’m looking for.”

“Thanks, but you don’t have to. This was a fool’s errand. I just didn’t realize it until now.”

Nolo’s words came back to haunt him: [_You must drop this. It’s not healthy to obsess over it. _]Was his master right? No, giving up meant allowing the creature masquerading as Hadrovel to win.

“I’ll let you go, get on with your work. See you around.”

“Wait, I need to ask you something.”

“No, you don’t.” Sarn yanked his cloak out of Will’s hand and stalked away without saying another word.

Sarn fetched the sack of food and descended to the Lower Quarters, and the only person who loved him as the bells struck seven. If the answer was inside him, as the magic had insisted earlier, then he wanted to hold his son while he searched for it. Fates knew he missed the boy’s smiles.

Chapter 20

“No, Papa’s coming. I want to stay here.”

“Well, you can’t. You’re too young to stay by yourself.”

“Not by myself, Papa’s coming.”

“Yeah, well, he’s not here, and I have to leave for class so—”

“No!” Ran shouted as Sarn pushed open the door.

Miren froze.

“You’re back!” Smiling, Ran escaped his uncle’s grasp and rushed, arms extended for a hug.

“Yeah, and I brought breakfast.” Sarn pulled out a small bag he’d stopped to pack and tossed it to his brother. He set his sack down and caught his son in a tight embrace. All his cares melted away under the warmth of his son’s smile. “I missed you,” he whispered into his son’s downy hair.

Miren caught the peace offering but his gaze riveted to the gauze wrapping Sarn’s wrist. “What happened to you?”

“I forgot to don a bracer, so the bowstring flayed my arm.” Sarn shrugged.

“It hurts a lot?” Ran pointed to the bandage.

“No, a nice lady applied a salve, and it took the sting out of it.”

Ran leaned into his father, happy to be held.

“I know it was stupid. I don’t know how I forgot such a thing. It just felt good to hold a bow again. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.”

“Did you hit the target? Or were you so rusty all your shots went wide of the mark?” Miren set his bagged breakfast on the table and organized his books for school and his arguments too. A storm brewed in those dark eyes waiting for the opportune moment to unleash itself.

Even Ran sensed it, judging by the way the child clutched him. Decision time, did he want to send his son to the Foundlings for a few hours while he rested? Hell no, he wanted the boy’s company, his smiles and the soothing patter of his speech.

“You and I should do some shooting this Sunday. I’ll sneak some bows out of the Training Room. I found where they keep them. If you want to—” Because he had no idea when the Rangers would give him that day off.

Likely not anytime soon since to them, he was still that scrawny boy tangled in their net. Nolo and Gregori had taken turns dragging it without ever giving their quarry a single glance. Sarn blinked away the memory. Why hadn’t they looked?

[_Because they didn’t want to get involved. They wanted to hand you over to Hadrovel and be done with you. _]

Sarn shoved the angry voice of that trapped kid away and refocused on breakfast. The instant he set Ran down, the boy disappeared into the bag. A moment later, Ran emerged with a fistful of bread, an immature All-Fruit in his mouth, a triangle of cheese in his other hand and a sausage poking out of his pocket.

Sarn laughed at the amusing sight his son made. Even Miren’s lips twitched.

“You’ll divvy it up?” Miren waved to the food.

Sarn nodded. “And I’ll take the larger half to the Foundlings.”

“Good, I’ll take him so you can rest.”

By ‘him,’ Miren meant Ran. His brother wanted to take the boy to the Foundlings who would babysit him in exchange for food.

Sarn opened his mouth to argue the point then shut it when a shadow darted under the table. No whiskered snout met his hurried scan and no ghosts either. Had he imagined it? “What about this Sunday? Do you want to shoot, if I can nab two bows?”

“Let’s discuss that later. You need to sleep, and I need to take Ran to his babysitters. You look like a rag wrung out too many times. They’ll watch him, and he’ll be fine. You can fetch him when you wake up.”

“No, I stay here with Papa, and we have ad-ven-tures.” Ran folded his arms across his chest and pouted.

“It’s only for a few hours.” Concern shadowed Miren’s eyes when he cast them on Sarn.

Ran shook his head and shot Sarn pleading looks.

“You promise?”

“Yeah and we’ll have a small adventure—I mean outing—when I wake up.” His word change did nothing to mollify Miren whose face had mottled at the word ‘adventure.’

Miren slammed his books into his rucksack making Ran jump at the sudden noise. But the damage had been done. Nothing Sarn said now would soothe his brother’s jealousy, so he swallowed an apology before it could escape. Sarn covered his face for a moment and shook his head. He’d lost this round. Whatever he said or did, he always alienated one of them. There was no middle ground anymore.

Dragging his nephew, Miren headed for the door. Ran shot his father pleading looks, punching holes into his resolve until the door closed behind them.

Miren fumed as he hobbled. One hand held his crutch, and the other towed a recalcitrant child digging his heels into the ground.

“If you make me late for school, your father will be mad.”

Ran ceased fighting him and walked under his own power. About time too since eighth bell would ring any minute now. As soon as it did, Miren had to be on his way to school not dealing with his quarrelsome nephew.

When he reached the Foundlings’ door, Miren recalled a conversation about Metran. If the jerk sniffed around the Foundlings this morning, he’d see Ran. Miren stomped his good foot in frustration. Damn, he’d meant to come up with a brilliant plan to protect the brat. But a full day of school and a night spent writing essays had driven the problem from his mind.

Miren glanced at his nephew who kicked the door. He had to do something. Metran could walk off with Ran tucked under his arm. And the asshole would too if he ever laid eyes on Ran. Metran hated Sarn, and the enmity was mutual.

“Look at me, I have to tell you something important, but you can’t tell your father about it.”

His grave statement captured Ran’s full attention. “Why?”

“I need you to hide from anyone you don’t know, okay?”

“Why?” Ran tilted his head and regarded his uncle from a different perspective. But the new view failed to further the lad’s understanding. Maybe he should use smaller words to explain the situation.

“Do you remember what Will and I talked about the other night?” Miren waited for the boy’s perplexed nod before continuing. “Well, he said a bad man visits the Foundlings. If he comes, you hide, okay? You don’t let anyone you don’t know see you. Do you hear me?”

Scowling, Ran nodded. He received this exact instruction from his father about three times every day.

“You’ll do what I say?”

Ran delivered another kick to the door and shrugged.

Miren glanced down the hall, but Sarn remained in their cave. His brother was likely still dividing the food up and obsessing over the proportions. He should have done it and spared Sarn the grief.

“This is serious. The man Will mentioned is a bad person. He doesn’t like your father.”

“Why don’t he like Papa?”

“No, it’s—oh never mind promise me you’ll hide if someone you don’t know visits.”

Ran considered his request.

“You’ll be helping your father if you do this.”

“How can I help Papa?”

“By not letting this bad person see you. Oh, and you can’t tell your father. It’s a surprise.”

“Okay Uncle Miren, I’ll hide from the bad man.” Without uttering another word, Ran pushed on the door and slipped inside.

Hitching up his rucksack, Miren hobbled to the nearest staircase and his first class.

How many visits would it take to turn Metran from a stranger to an acquaintance? What if it had already happened?

Eighth bell rang. Miren cursed but kept plodding. Ran would have to be okay.

And if he isn’t—demanded Miren’s conscience.

Then it’s the Foundling’s problem, not mine. I promised Sarn I’d go to school and that’s where I’m going.

After collecting resentful looks for a few minutes, Ran shrugged and reached for the door handle. Nobody wanted him here. Uncle Miren would never know if he left. So why stay here?

“Where do you think you’re going?” asked Bevik as he entered, forcing Ran to backpedal or risk being stepped on.

“I’m going back to Papa now.” Ran edged toward the door. Papa always wanted him around.

“You’re supposed to stay with us.”

“Why?” Ran hid a smile. No one liked answering that question especially Uncle Miren’s friends.

“You just are,” Bevik turned Ran, so he faced a group of children and gave him a push in their direction. “Go play.”

Ran stopped when two boys scowled and shook their heads. Fine, he’d battle the new villains from yesterday’s adventure by himself. Smiling, Ran patted his pocket where his trusty slingshot waited, causing several metal balls to clink.

Putting out a monster’s eyes was okay, but what about the boys excluding him from their game? They were jealous yes, and big meanies, but not monsters.

“And I’m a good boy,” Ran muttered as he rooted around in a pile of discarded clothes. Scenting the funk of teenage boy, he zeroed in on several dirty socks. Some helpful soul had balled them up into the perfect ammunition—soft enough not to hurt but stinky enough to make a point.

Ran froze as Papa’s presence surrounded him. Uh-oh, Papa had sensed what he was up to. Ran scanned the cave’s thirteen inhabitants. How could he feel the warm touch of Papa’s magic, if Papa wasn’t here?

Perplexed, Ran turned taking in every inch of the cave from the spring at its back to the scattered groups of orphans—still no Papa.

A bare patch of granite sparkled. Dropping to his knees, Ran accepted the invitation to touch it and an image sprouted in his mind. Ran gasped. “That’s my face!”

But it was Papa’s too, and it was unscarred. Ran goggled.

Young Papa stood his ground despite the terror shortening each breath. Brilliant squiggly lines bound Young Papa so tightly, he could not move or speak. Behind him, a much younger Uncle Miren cowered, clutching Papa’s cloak.

A shiver raced up Ran’s spine. What could bind Papa like that? He scooted forward to find out, but spectral legs blocked his path. When Ran looked up, the frantic ghost boy signaled him to stop.

“But I want to know what could scare Papa. And who tied him up with words.”

A shadow rose behind the ghost, and its sad eyes fixed on Ran right before it kicked the ghost boy aside. The ghost collapsed into a pile of transparent limbs.

“Why’d you do that?”

Slingshot in hand, Ran pushed to his feet to confront the bad man congealing before him.

The ghost boy gave him one more frightened look as its head rolled by. Its lips shaped the word ‘run’ then the ghost boy, and all its limbs vanished.

Ignoring the ghost’s advice, Ran slipped a metallic ball into the slingshot’s pouch and fired, but the ball sailed right through the bad man. That was not supposed to happen. Backpedaling, Ran tangled his feet in a discarded blanket and fell.

Past and present comingled. For an instant, he and Young Papa occupied the same space until an invisible force shoved Ran hard. He grabbed hold of Young Papa and screamed when his fingers touched the shiny words binding him. They flickered and loosened enough for Young Papa to pivot and fall, shielding Uncle Miren with his body.

Ran landed on his belly, holding tight to the picture in his head. Young Papa was in trouble.

“I didn’t want to hurt him,” said the bad man with the bushy mustache squatting in front of Ran. His miserable eyes were unfocused.

Anger vibrated through the stones under Ran right before pain lit him up. Blows rained down, breaking Young Papa’s bones. But he could not move to block or dodge them. Tears pricked Ran’s eyes, and his body throbbed with phantom pains.

“Why’d you hurt my Papa?”

The bad man wrung his hands. “I did what I had to do.” A knife appeared in the bad man’s hand, and Papa’s blood dripped off its wicked edge.

“Papa!” Ran shouted through the tears half-blinding him, “help me!”

“Will you shut up and play quietly?” Bevik shouted from the other side of the cave.

Chapter 21

Sarn deposited a reduced sack outside the Foundlings’ door, rapped three times on the scarred wood then fled back to his cave. When he closed his eyes, he fell into the endless dark of nightmares—the only place neither his eyes nor his magic could light. Out of the blackness, the dead boy’s terrified face swam into view, and its pale green eyes pleaded for help.

“I’m trying, but there’s still so much I don’t know. I need more time.”

The ghost boy shook its head. In its eyes, two hourglasses ran down.

“As usual, you’re out of time boy,” Hadrovel said as the scene changed.

Sarn froze as obedience rendered him immobile. He should never have promised to obey the Orphan Master. It was too late for regret. The tip of a knife nicked the corner of his left eye and sliced down his cheek.

“I did what I had to do.” Hadrovel sat back on his heels, licking the blood from the knife in his hand.

“Papa!” Ran shouted from close by and his terrified voice shattered the psycho into a thousand black shards.

Sarn shot off the mattress and out of his cave. Ran was in danger. Where was his son? At the Foundlings’ cave—they were supposed to babysit him. Sarn collided with their door but the threshold resisted him, or maybe it was his psyche resisting the idea of returning to the place where he’d almost died. He shoved harder against the barrier and stumbled inside.

“Ran?” Sarn froze at the sight of his worst fear. Hadrovel loomed over his writhing son. “No—leave my son alone!” Sarn crossed the intervening distance and scooped Ran up. “It’s okay. I’m here now. I won’t let anyone harm you, not ever.”

No blood, no bruising—thank Fate for that small mercy. His son was okay, just frightened. Sarn cradled his son in his arms against his trip hammering heart as Ran sobbed into his tunic.

Hadrovel touched two fingers to his forehead and vanished without saying a word leaving Sarn to gape at the space his former torturer had occupied. Then he sat down hard and rocked his son and himself. “You’re okay. I’m so sorry.”

Sarn woke for the second time drenched in a cold sweat. Horrified, he shook for a long moment. As the bells struck noon, Sarn pushed off the mattress and stumbled into a run toward the Foundlings’ cave. Oh Fate, let that have been just a bad dream.

Skidding to a halt, he flung the door open. Ran rushed out, his little face pale and frightened.

“Are you okay?” Sarn dropped to his knees and tried to check his son over, but Ran hugged him hard.

“I’m okay now. The scary man’s gone.”

“The scary man—” Sarn began but his voice deserted him, and he tightened his grip on his son. So Hadrovel had been there. The psycho knew about his son. Terror consumed Sarn. The real Hadrovel was the one man he could not fight, not while he had to obey the psycho’s every command. Why hadn’t the Lord of the Mountain retracted that promise?

[_“He’s dead Kid. He can’t hurt you anymore unless you let him. Let it go,” _]Jerlo said from the depths of memory.

“If he’s dead then why do I keep seeing him?” Sarn stared into the commander’s impenetrable black eyes waiting for an answer.

“Who’re you talking to Papa? Why are there words on your face?”

A small finger brushed Sarn’s chin, but he barely felt it. Everything was draining into that unblinking gaze. But the commander was still in his office, or so the icon flashing on his map proclaimed right before it too vanished. Nothing existed outside of those impenetrable eyes.

“He’s dead and dusted Kid. He can’t hurt you anymore. You belong to us—the Rangers. Remember that. Believe it. Tell everyone who invokes the bastard’s name. Give this no further thought.”

No further thought—the words echoed and bore down on Sarn then the commander’s presence faded. Sarn blinked at a door he’d fashioned out of bits of discarded furniture. Voices called his son’s name, and footsteps approached the door. So did a trio of icons he’d rather not deal with right now. Sarn picked up his son and rushed around the nearest bend.

“It’s alright. I’ve got him,” Sarn called out so Ran’s babysitters would know he’d come for the boy. “Thanks for watching him.”

Garbled echoes followed Sarn, and they sounded annoyed. Oh well, Ran was his son, and he could walk off with the boy whenever he chose. It was his right as a parent, and he’d already paid them in food for the privilege.

Once they turned another bend, Sarn stopped and looked at his son who smothered laughter with his hands. Catching the waves of mirth radiating off the boy, Sarn laughed too at the absurdity of what he’d just done.

“Can we have an [_ad-ven-ture _]now?”

“I guess.”

What Sarn needed was answers, but he’d promised his son an outing so he’d better produce one. His head had that cottony feeling again, making it hard to think.

Ran’s face clouded as he set the boy down. “Why’d he hurt you?”

“Why did who hurt me?” But Sarn already knew who his son meant—Hadrovel. A vague memory of a nightmare ghosted up but dispersed before he caught more than a glimpse. “How do you know about him?”

“You fell on Uncle Miren when the scary man hit you. You saved him. I saw it.”

“How did you see it? That happened before you were born.”

“The rocks ‘membered. When I touched them, they showed me in here.” Ran pointed to his head. “Why did he hurt you? He kept saying he ‘had to do it.’ But he didn’t say why.”

“I don’t know.” Stunned, Sarn touched the scar on his cheek. It was the only visible reminder of that beating. “How much did you see?”

“He hurt you bad—hit you and kicked you a lot. And that hurt but then you were there, and he went away.”

“Did he hurt you?”

“No, but he hurt you and that hurt me.”

“How did that hurt you?” Sarn rubbed his forehead again perplexed at his son’s report. How could a past event cause physical pain to someone who hadn’t experienced it? It didn’t make sense.

Unable to explain, Ran shrugged. “It just did.”

“But not now?”

“No. It went away when you came the first time.”

“The first time?” Sarn leaned against the wall more confused than before. The last thing he recalled was leaving a sack of food outside the Foundling’s door then nothing until he’d run off with his son a moment before. Clearly, he had misplaced an important chunk of time, nor was this the first time that had happened. Had too much magic use degraded his memory?

“Did you count the bells today?”

Ran brightened. “Yes, I counted twelve bells right before you came the second time. Can we go on that ad-ven-ture now?” Ran bobbed up on his toes, his eagerness evident.

“Yes, let me just pick a destination.” And gather his scattered wits into some semblance of sanity. How could Hadrovel haunt them both from beyond the grave? Had his son met the fiend’s doppelganger? What the hell had he gotten himself and his son into?

In need of a diversion and a destination, Sarn pulled up his map. The damned thing scrolled over to those blank spots he’d discovered yesterday then zoomed out to display a giant arrow pointing to them. [_Why do you want me to go there, _]he asked his magic, but it remained mute. Maybe it shared his exhaustion.

Probably a bad idea to take his son to explore the unknown, or it was until a hazy icon appeared right in the middle of that inky nothingness. What the hell is that? When Sarn queried it, he slid down the wall gasping for breath and landed back in Dirk and friends’ custody. Not again—through the ripped fabric of his trousers, his bare knees touched stone creating a connection. Mount Eredren pushed something across their link then everything blackened.

“Papa!” Ran balled his little fists in Sarn’s tunic and broke the memory’s hold.

The darkness receded, releasing Sarn. He dragged in a deep breath and shuddered at how close he’d come to dying yesterday. Unbidden, his map rose, and that damned arrow blinked as it pointed to a gray blog. As he studied it, thirteen bumps appeared on its circumference. Message received. Mount Eredren wanted him to check this spot out.

“I’m okay.” Sarn patted his son’s shoulder and rose. “I know where we’re going.”

“Where?”

“Exploring. Come on.” Sarn took his son’s hand and headed east through twisting tunnels.

The corridor dog-legged before leaving them in a passage heading straight off his map. Water had carved this tunnel ages ago before an earthquake had diverted the river. The rough ceiling rolled on bare of stalactites for miles in a straight shot. Granite made up everything—the ground, the walls, and the ceiling.

There was nothing to look at—no inscriptions, pictograms, sculptures or crystals. Brown lumir striations provided little relief or light. Thank Fate he didn’t need to depend on lumir to see. Neither did his son, though Ran stayed inside the green nimbus thrown by Sarn’s eyes.

“I’m hungry.”

Go back or press on? They’d already covered several miles and not found a single thing of note. Was the cancer he’d sensed part of the wrongness assailing his corner of Shayari? How could it? The ghost boy had been murdered in the forest, not down here. Had Mount Eredren sent him on an unrelated errand?

“Yeah, I could eat too.” Sarn glared at a wall. “I’m sorry today’s adventure turned out to be so boring.”

“What’re those lines for?” Ran pointed to something a half foot up from the ground on a nearby wall.

Sarn stared at the symbol a root had scratched on the ground two days ago. As he brushed hesitant fingers over it, his magic lashed out, lighting up the linked circles before scaling the wall.

“No, oh shit—” he’d forgotten to put on gloves. He had to get his bare hand away from the stone wall. But magic locked his arm in place, freezing his joints.

“You said a bad word.”

“Sorry—”

Sarn swayed and collapsed as magic marched in a glowing emerald army, consuming the tunnel. Black spots danced in front of his eyes as his map updated at a rapid rate. The ground rose to meet him and cushioned his fall as it laid him out in the recovery position.

“Why are you hurting Papa?” Ran asked the magic swirling around them as Sarn pulled the boy into his arms.

“Did it answer?” Sarn tried to ask, but he was sliding away from his distraught son, pushed down by a parade of quartz molecules toward a lightless void.

Sarn’s head throbbed as if he’d taken a magical hammer blow to the back of his skull—maybe he had. Wincing, he probed for a bruise but found none.

Ran wriggled out of his grasp. “Papa, are you okay? You said a bad word and fell.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.” Sarn cupped his son’s face in his palm and Ran anchored him.

The map dropped a dark veil over everything, and a large yellow arrow flashed pointing to a red circle surrounding a star with thirteen rays. It was close, no more than a half mile or so. Sarn sat up so fast dizziness punched him in the face. When his sight steadied out, Ran’s worried face came into focus.

“I’m sorry I scared you, everything’s okay now.” Sarn rose, and the change in elevation cleared away some of the mental cobwebs.

“Can we go back?” Ran pointed toward their cave.

“Not yet.” Sarn captured his son’s hand.

“But I’m hungry.”

“We’ll get lunch in a little while.”

“You promise?”

Sarn nodded then bent to inspect another glyph. This one featured three interconnected circles, and beyond it, someone had carved two circles, each with different numbers of rays. The symbols were twelve paces apart pointing the way to answers. Sarn hurried east, excitement growing at each new symbol he passed. No two were the same.

“Papa? What’re you doing?”

“Following these,” Sarn pointed to the symbols. “They mean something important. Keep your eyes out for them.”

“Why’re they important?”

“I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

No, he wasn’t. Guilt slowed Sarn’s steps, allowing doubt to creep in. What if they were walking into a trap? Fear for his son arrested Sarn, but he saw only the ramp lazing its way into darkness. But every lead he’d followed had led to danger. He should return Ran to the Foundlings where his son would be safe before continuing.

Ran shook his head, guessing his thoughts. “No, if you go, I go too.” Ran squeezed his hand and headed for the next carved symbol.

“Okay, we’ll be careful. More careful than we’ve been.” No unnecessary risks, he’d just look at what Mount Eredren wanted him to see.

Ran shook his head; he’d go no further unless carried. Every line of his mute little body proclaimed it, and the boy’s intense emerald eyes added their own entreaty to the arms he raised above his head.

Sarn picked his son up, and the boy laid his head on his shoulder. He continued only to stop again a half mile onwards. Three tunnels, each of them narrow with low ceilings, interrupted the ramp.

Neither looked safe, and the crude cuts proved no Litherian had chiseled them. Arrows proliferated on his updated map, pointing in every direction and some looped around as if the damned thing couldn’t make up its mind. Sarn minimized his map before it could give him a headache. He was on his own.

“Can we go back now?”

“Not yet. There’s something I need to see just beyond those tunnels.”

“Then we have lunch?”

“Yes.”

Ran shifted into a more comfortable position, unhappy about the delay.

“It won’t be long now.”

Sarn steeled himself and confronted the tunnels, letting the magic stray from his side. Which way do I go?

First, his liberated magic swept backward scanning for trouble in case backtracking became necessary. Sarn relaxed when no people icons appeared nor any of Rat Woman’s minions. Maybe she’d quit spying on him for good.

“Ag-or-a-pho-bi-a,” Ran whispered. “You don’t like small places. Do you have a phobia?”

The question reminded Sarn he needed to do something about Dirk before word of his son reached Jerlo, or worse, the Lord of the Mountain. If any of those worthies found out, they’d take his son away from him. Sarn tightened his grip on the boy. He could not let that happen.

“I’m just cautious. Don’t tell anyone.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want people to know.”

“Why?”

Sarn fell silent; Ran was in one of his inquisitive moods. Anything he said would trigger another ‘why’ instead of moving the conversation forward. Better to save this topic for when his son was more disposed toward listening.

The magic blew past Sarn in a cascade of green fire and divided as it dove into each of the three tunnels. Threads of emerald lightning attenuated and the effort of keeping them on three different courses made Sarn lightheaded. He slumped against the nearest wall as the white magic still locked within rattled its cage. It wanted out, and it wasn’t taking no for an answer.

What did the white power do? It didn’t make or maintain his head map nor did it scan for threats. All the magic he routinely wielded was as green as his eyes. What did the white one do? How did he end up with two magics?

“I don’t want two,” Sarn said, or maybe he thought it; everything was blurring together as he fought to restrain the blinding white star lodged in his soul.

“Papa? What’s the magic doing?” Ran’s voice was a blade of worry stabbing Sarn in the heart.

“Which one?” Sarn slid down the wall into a puddle of elbows and knees.

Ran ended up sitting on the mountains his legs made as the three strands of emerald fire converged in a chamber. Magic investigated it, sending back a three-dimensional image of a curious object at its center.

Sarn studied a wire-frame of a vertical shaft with handles and a rotating center. And there was something written on it. He strained to make it out, but his body was so heavy. It anchored him to a cage of blood, breath, and bone requiring rest and sustenance, but he had no time for that.

Something terrible lingered just beyond his magic-enhanced sight, and its urgency pounded in his veins. White magic surged, blinding Sarn as he ripped at the constricting bonds of human weakness and tore free of them. White fire lifted him, and he flew, leaving a husk crumpled on the ground.

A groan startled Ran. He raised his head from his shoulder pillow. White fire devoured the pupil and sclera of Papa’s eyes.

“Papa? What’s wrong with your—”

A loud grinding sound drowned out the rest of his question. Dust rained down making Ran cough as he wriggled. Behind him, a section of tunnel rotated on its axis, sliding two new tunnels into place then they too were whisked away. The contraption paused when only one tunnel remained. Ran stared at a wall of green flames rushing at them. Before he could say anything, it collided with Papa in a blinding flash.

“This is not a nice ad-ven-ture.” Ran blinked to clear his sight of the purple afterimages. Exploring was not fun. Ran fingered one of the white filaments descending from a shimmering cloud floating over Papa’s head. “What are these for? What’s going on?” No answer. Ran sighed. “I should’ve brought Bear. He’d tell me what’s going on.”

The strings attached to Papa’s limbs and yanked him to his feet, and he wobbled until the magic stabilized him.

“Put me down. I want to walk.” And walking seemed a lot safer than being carried by a mindless body.

Instead of acquiescing to his request, two types of magic clashed—one green and one white—as Papa lurched forward. Both types of magic spun bubbles, but they collided, sending showers of sparks flying. All their jostling created friction making Ran’s hair stand on end, and it left him only half protected.

“Stop that. You can both protect me. You just have to share.” Ran glared until the bubbles quit fighting and meshed into a glowing ball striated in green and silver light. “That’s better.”

A rock formation full of enticing colors and textures sailed by as the magic grew more adept at piloting Papa’s body. Squirming got Ran nowhere. Papa and his magic were doing their overprotective thing again.

“Put me down. I want to walk.”

No answer. Ran fumed as a purple crystal sticking out of the wall as thick as Papa’s arm went by out of reach. He kicked Papa in the belly hard enough to make his point. No reaction, not even a flicker of acknowledgment from the magic.

Ran laid his hand on Papa’s heart. One good tug on the shining cord connecting them and Papa would come back to himself. Ran’s tummy growled. Breakfast was a long time ago. He curled his fingers around the link.

Light gathered into an approximation of an eye whose gaze trained itself on Ran. No malice emanated from it, but it was trying to figure him out. Good, let it try.

“I’ll bring Papa back. I can do it.” Ran tugged the link just enough to make his point and Papa’s body jerked to a stop.

A dip of Papa’s chin acknowledged Ran’s threat. The magic heard and understood, but a slight shake of the head advised against his plan.

“Why?”

A look Ran couldn’t read met his question. “Hurt,” the magic said in a voice full of gravel.

“Don’t you hurt my Papa.”

A slight shake of the head reassured Ran. If not the magic, who was hurting Papa?

Those fiery eyes, a clash of color and magic now, tried to signal something. Ran stared uncomprehending.

“You,” the magic said.

“Me?” Ran stabbed his chest with his thumb. “How can I hurt Papa? Papa is huge, strong and magical. I’m small, cute and a good boy.”

“Don’t,” continued the magic. But it stopped after its one-word injunction.

Ran waited for an explanation, but the magic spoke no more. What was he supposed to do? Wait for Papa to come back on his own? Papa would; he always did but he might take a while, and Ran’s tummy growled a warning. It wanted food now.

“Don’t call Papa?” Ran suggested.

A slight head shake for no. “Ad-ven-ture,” the magic slurred the word when it had trouble working Papa’s vocal chords.

“A nice ad-ven-ture?” Ran gave the magic his sternest gaze, “one with food?”

The magic gave only the faintest of nods.

“It better be very nice.”

The magic managed a full nod this time, before allowing Papa’s face to blank. He moved now in a mechanical way as the magic gave up all pretexts. Why fake human when no one was around to see it but one small boy?

Chapter 22

Circular designs festooned the cylindrical apparatus—the same ones those enchanted roots had sketched. What did this device do and why did it bear those symbols?

Sarn circled the device as his magic investigated its parts. Rows of clay wheels clicked as they turned on their spindles. Each wheel bore circular markings reminding him of a prayer wheel. But if it was, then the individual prayers were encoded into a language of circles. Why hide such an artifact in an out of the way tunnel in the Lower Quarters?

Sarn rolled a wheel at eye level remembering the mantra at the core of his heroes’ code. “Generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, determination, wisdom—” all the things he strived to instill in his son and himself.

Dust shook free as the mechanism made one revolution winding something—a winch perhaps. Gears ground and stone groaned as the device rotated clockwise three times, revolving the entire chamber. It slid a tunnel into view replacing the blank wall across from Sarn, and the profusion of arrows on his map merged into one pointing forward. And on every third step, someone had etched symbols like the ones on the device.

The mystery tugged Sarn onwards. Maybe this was the answer to everything, and maybe it was a new twist or a different mystery altogether. It didn’t matter. He raced up the broad steps and didn’t stop until the tunnel belled and branches interrupted his path.

“What the hell is this?”

A lumir mosaic depicting a sky shined down on an orchard. All manner of leafy vegetables carpeted the gallery in a swath of edible green, inside a mountain.

“So this is where all the food we eat comes from. Impressive.” He whistled at its sheer size. When Ran didn’t ask how this could all fit inside Mount Eredren, Sarn stopped in his tracks. Where was his son? He was just carrying the boy, wasn’t he?

Feeling as if he could blow away in a stiff breeze, Sarn looked down and through his boots. Was he turning into a ghost? Sensing his son coming toward him, Sarn turned and stared at a hooded wraith lumbering into the cavern. Ran’s green eyes bored into him. But the thing holding his son drew his attention, and its burning white eyes dragged Sarn down a shimmering tunnel.

Sarn opened his eyes and found himself standing in the middle of the farm holding an upset Ran. Wiggling his toes, he felt solid again, anchored back in flesh and blood. “What just happened?”

Had he been in two places at once? Such a thing was impossible. But the figure he’d seen had worn his boots, and he owned no spare pair. Had he just looked at himself? Was an extra tall wraith with burning eyes what people saw when they looked at him? No wonder they stared.

“Mirabilia,” Sarn said as he stood there trembling from the revelation.

Ran poked him. “Are you back now?”

Sarn nodded.

“Good, put me down. I want to walk.”

Sarn complied since plants surrounded them not people and they’d never tell anyone about his secret son. The instant Ran’s feet touched the ground, the boy shot into the greenery, trailing questions.

“What’s this? Ooo strawberries! I want one. Papa, I’m hungry.”

“Don’t touch anything. Something isn’t right about this place.”

Under constant lumir light in a windless environment, shadows shouldn’t move. But one had darted after his son. “Ran, come back here!” Sarn hurtled over a leafy mound and grabbed for his son but missed. So did the shadow because a thorny cane batted it aside. Thank Fate the foliage was on his side.

Ran stuffed a ripe strawberry into his mouth before he ducked into a raspberry thicket. Sarn cursed and circled the thirty-foot tangle, following the bobbing light his son cast on his head map. When his berry juice stained son exited, he seized the boy.

Sarn opened his mouth to scold Ran, but no words emerged as he sensed magic. It throbbed in the heart of this subterranean farm, calling to him. Sarn staggered toward it, stepping on the radish and carrot plants in his path.

“Papa?” Ran called as he padded after his father.

Sarn heard his son’s voice, but it was a whisper on the wind, and the magic’s call drowned it out with promises. Columns as wide as a house supported the ceiling. They too bore those damned circle glyphs, but he ignored them as he headed toward a radiant crystalline structure.

Shadows fled from his path and rippled across the plants infecting them with their dark purpose. The same thing had happened in the forest the other day, but that wasn’t important now. Only the magic beckoning to him was. He must go to it.

Vines shot out and wrapped around Sarn’s ankles, but he broke their grip and stumbled on. Ran followed in his wake, gripping the edge of his cloak, calling him back. But the light was so attractive, and his son’s voice was fading away. Sarn touched the crystal’s cold face, and it ignited, blinding him.

“The magic in me greets the magic in you,” _]said a disembodied voice, “[_Eam’maya rayar.”

Light erupted, and Sarn tumbled into its purifying heart. Shapes formed, twisted, broke apart and remade themselves in the white fire surrounding him. Magic crashed through Sarn, lighting him up from the inside. Thin bands of colored symbols comprised his innards, but they faded before he could study them. What did they mean?

A blue-green sphere revolved out of the light, and he plummeted through noctilucent clouds toward the enchanted forest. As the ground rushed up to meet him, it revealed a riot of symbols in complicated chains. They made up everything including Mount Eredren’s bent cone, and its snow cap sparkling in the sunlight.

Sarn blinked at a crystal fifty-feet tall and a quarter as wide. His hand still pressed against its cold, unyielding face inside which power churned, vomiting shapes out of its blinding depths.

First, a ring and beside it stood a solid circle. Next two halves, one concave, and the other convex added themselves to the other two. The fourth symbol, a circle with eight curves radiating off it, landed beside the other three. Sarn stared at a line of familiar symbols and tumbled back to a time when he was younger than his son.

Sunlight spilled through a slit window making the polished table shine. Nearby, a rag and pot lay discarded on a ladder backed chair. Humming as she swayed, a woman held him in the crook of one arm. Her washed out green eyes stared off as she traced four symbols into the wax. Sarn recognized the same four from before—a ring, a solid circle, two crescents facing away from each other and a circle with eight rays.

[]

S A R N

Over and over she traced those four symbols. After each repetition, she said his name: Sarn. The memory twisted and turned itself inside out as the years piled in, and another memory wriggled free. It tackled Sarn, dragging him to a balcony. As the rising dawn bathed him in gold light, he’d traced three symbols in the dust covering a coping: two crescents facing away from each other, a solid circle, and a ring with eight rays. He’d drawn them while repeating the name his son had chosen, Ran.

R A N

The memory rolled itself up as pain drilled his skull. Something tickled his face, and Sarn tasted blood. He wiped his sleeve under his nose, and it came away bloody. But his gaze caught on chains of luminous symbols covering his hand.

A woman appeared in the light. She was a dark sketch against the white, but her features were drawn along the same lines as his son’s and his own. She pushed him, and he stumbled, breaking the connection.

For one glorious moment, everything from the plants to the trees to the crystal ribs holding the ceiling aloft became symbols in a chain, forming a great pattern—no—a great chain of being. There was a design to the natural world and both he, and his magic, fit into it. His knees buckled, and Sarn fell poleaxed by the realization.

Ran stood over him, his face anxious and those three symbols flashed on the boy’s brow—the two crescents facing away from each other, a solid circle and a ring with eight rays.

If magic was light and color, what was its opposite? The question dissolved into unconsciousness as his mind dropped the key to the mystery.

Something was wrong with Papa. He was breaking all the rules of adventuring. “Papa stop! Touching strange objects is bad.”

Ran wrapped his arms around one of Papa’s legs and tugged, but nothing happened. Light exploded from the crystal, blinding him and shaking the ground.

“Papa stop! Touching glowing things is bad!” Why had Papa touched the bright rock? Ran pulled harder on Papa’s leg, but still, couldn’t budge it.

A man arrived in flowing robes and locked his arms around Papa’s waist. One good tug pried Papa away from the crystal spire, and he folded into a pile of cloth and limbs on the grass.

“Papa? Are you ok?” Ran patted but received no answer. Was Papa sleeping?

Magic hugged Ran—the emerald one he often played with. Holding him tight, it relieved some of his fears. No one could hurt him while Papa’s magic cupped him in its protective warmth and light. Through its fuzzy edge, he saw a woman wearing a softer version of Papa’s face. She offered him a tense smile before vanishing.

Ran blinked. Who was the woman? Papa had one annoying brother but no sisters.

“Shit,” said the robed man shaking his head.

“You said a bad word.”

“Sorry kid, I didn’t know you were there.”

Milky eyes turned in Ran’s direction as the man patted the air around Ran, but the magic shoved his hands away. It was doing its protective thing again and Ran appreciated it.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?”

The man stopped examining his hands. No doubt they tingled from the magic’s rejection. “Hmm? Oh, I’m blind lad. Means I can’t see.”

“How’d you know we’re here?”

“I felt it. The ground quaked, and I heard something. Do you know what happened?”

Ran wanted to say no, but the truth bubbled up and wanted out. What would happen if the stranger found out Papa touched something bad? All hope of a nice adventure would disappear.

Ran wrapped his arms around his complaining belly. “I’m hungry.”

“Well, we’ve got plenty of food. Let me pick up your—Papa, is it?”

“Yes.”

The blind man felt around to confirm the location of Papa’s head then with a grunt. He slung Papa over his shoulder. “He’s a big one, isn’t he?”

“Yes, Papa’s very tall.” And Ran would be too. When he was big like Papa, he would avoid random crystals. Maybe Papa had learned his lesson. If not, he would make sure the lesson stuck.

Smiling, Ran followed the man carrying rag doll Papa toward the promise of food. The other magic had been right about one thing. This adventure did include food, though it had yet to qualify as nice. Maybe the ‘nice’ part would come later when Papa woke up. Catching Papa’s dangling hand, Ran held on to it as he walked in the stranger’s wake.

Chapter 23

He woke to afterimages of those goddamned circles bouncing around. With tentative fingers, Sarn probed his overstuffed head while Ran sat on his chest, drumming his heels. Crumbs fell as his son munched on something and hummed between bites.

What the hell was the boy eating? Where did Ran even find food? Sarn shifted his son to his lap as he sat up to find out. His senses tried to stretch past his skin, but someone had opened his skull and stirred the contents, leaving a headache behind.

Ran glared, arms crossed in consternation.

He must have missed something. “What?”

“Why’d you fall? Why’d all the plants act weird when you went to the light? Why won’t you let me eat?” Ran pointed to a round table and a platter piled high with slices of fruits, vegetables, cheese, and bread. A lumir chandelier dripped silver light on the spread.

“Where are we?”

“The nice man brought us here after you fell.” Ran narrowed his eyes. “You touched a bad thing.”

“What nice man? I told you not to talk to strangers.” Sarn gifted his son with a glare of his own.

Ran shrugged and bit into a ripe strawberry. “And you’re not s’posed to touch glowing things.”

Laughter bubbled up at the absurdity of being scolded by a four-year-old, but Sarn crushed it. He’d never get anywhere if he gave into mirth now. “Did he give you the food?”

Ran nodded and snatched a wedge of soft cheese. Someone had cut the rind off and replaced it with crackers, making it safer, though messier, for a child to eat.

“What did you mean when you said the plants acted weird?” Sarn surveyed the platter seeing more evidence of a caring hand at work. Someone had removed stems, deseeded, skinned and cored the fruits and vegetables safeguarding a small child who would eat anything put in front of him. Maybe life had cut him a well-deserved break.

“Don’t you ‘member? They tried to stop you.”

“Oh. Still, they shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s a ring of standing stones encircling this mountain,” Sarn waved toward the ceiling, “and there are no enchanted plants inside their cordon.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. That’s just how the Litherians set things up.”

“They built this place?”

Sarn nodded then started at the sound of approaching footsteps.

“The nice man comes,” Ran announced as he polished off his cheese and cracker sandwich.

Each footfall prodded Sarn to take his son and flee, but there was nowhere to go. This chamber had only one entrance, and a stranger approached it. Squeezing his eyes shut to hide their glow, he hung his head and pulled his cowl down until it almost touched the bridge of his nose. His heart pounded, beating twice as fast as the newcomer’s slow gait.

Ran’s fingers grasped his hood and pulled. “Why do you hide?”

“Because I have to.”

“No, you don’t.”

The approaching tap-scrape-scrape-tap rhythm struck Sarn as odd. Did the man walk with a cane?

“Why? He can’t see.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s blind.” Ran yanked hard and succeeded in dislodging Sarn’s hood.

The implications of his son’s statement staggered Sarn, and he opened his eyes. Could he sit here and take a bite of the orange wedge tempting him from the platter? It looked like a roasted potato if said spuds came with orange flesh.

His stomach growled its own reminder about lunch. Sarn looked from the orange wedge to his son. What if someone other than the blind man was coming toward them?

The tap-scrape-scrape-tap of approaching doom catapulted Sarn from the bench. He refused to risk his son on a ‘what if.’

Ran opened his mouth to protest, but Sarn covered it, silencing the boy as he backed away from the table. Books’ spines pressed into the backs of his shoulders as Sarn leaned into them, squeezing his eyes closed. Some of his fear must have leaked into his son because the boy quit squirming—until Ran saw who entered.

“Did you leave any food for me? Boy, why are you so quiet? Is everything alright?”

Tap-scrape-scrape-tap-thud—the sound repeated then changed to creaking. “Child? I know you’re there. I can hear you breathing. Has your father woken up yet? I think he has. I hear him too. Why don’t you both join me.” The newcomer tapped his fingers on the table.

Surprised at the invitation, Sarn slackened his grip on his son.

“I told you he’s blind.” Ran kicked the air in frustration. “But you don’t listen.”

“I’m sorry.” Sarn set his son down. Distrusting the man’s blindness, he kept his eyes closed and felt for the back of the padded bench. Finding it, Sarn slid into place, Ran at his side.

When the plate of colorful food came within reach, Ran resumed stuffing his face.

Polite society had rules but which ones applied to this situation? Flummoxed, Sarn sat there kneading a handful of his cloak.

Sensing his unease, Ran paused in his feeding frenzy, and his head knocked into a bruise left by one of Dirk’s friends. Had the fight in the storeroom taken place only yesterday? It felt like a lifetime ago.

“Why don’t you eat?” A note of worry crept into Ran’s voice right before he shoved something at Sarn.

Cracker crumbs decorated Sarn’s lap and cheese squished against his chin. Sarn wiped it away with his sleeve and gave sight a try. Meal time with his eyes closed had turned into a disaster.

No one screamed when he opened his eyes—a good sign. Sarn relaxed and met his son’s surprised eyes for an instant before they flicked away.

Ran looked at his hand holding the remnant of the cheese and cracker sandwich and sniffed. “Sorry—”

Sarn shrugged, “nothing to be sorry for.”

A tear squeezed out of Ran’s left eye, but he blinked it away, mumbling “sorry,” to his toes. Another tear had fallen before it clicked.

“This would have upset your mother, right?”

Ran nodded and turned his head, so his tears soaked into Sarn’s tunic. He gathered the boy in, not caring about the cheese smearing on his tunic. What was another stain? He couldn’t remember when he’d changed his clothes last—a situation he should rectify and soon.

“It doesn’t bother me. Your heart was in the right place.”

Ran nodded and mumbled ‘momma’ in a voice broken by grief. Nothing Sarn could do would take away the hurt of her leaving. So he said nothing and just held his son. Beku’s abandonment set his teeth on edge.

She had called him selfish, but he was the one who’d stayed. What kind of mother abandoned her child two weeks before his fourth birthday? She should have left before Ran had a chance to remember her. It would have been better for all.

“The death of a loved one is hard on a child,” said the blind man reminding Sarn of his presence.

Great his spectacular parenting failure had an audience. Sarn gritted his teeth to keep the scathing reply trapped behind his teeth. Yes, he was a terrible parent. Yes, he was too young, too damaged and too ignorant to take proper care of such a precocious child. But he was all Ran had, and he loved his son.

“You don’t talk much, do you?”

“No, Papa thinks much and talks little,” Ran said between sniffs. A smile broke through at the word ‘little’ applied to his giant of a father.

“You feel better now?” Sarn asked his son.

Ran nodded and sat down on Sarn’s lap, using his abs as a backrest.

A smile, warm with understanding, turned Sarn’s attention to the blind man. Milky eyes, gray beard, flowing robes—had he stumbled onto a religious retreat? No insignia adorned the man’s sable robes.

“You make a good father, son.”

The ‘son’ part knocked the breath from Sarn’s lungs. He hadn’t been called ‘son’ by anyone since his mother died eleven years ago. This man wasn’t his father. The magic gave a big head shake to that. The ‘son’ thing had been meant as a stand-in for a name, like the ‘boy’ and ‘kid’ tags the Rangers employed.

“I’m the son.” Ran stabbed his chest with his thumb then pointed to Sarn. “He’s my Papa.” A frown signaled a subject change. “Why don’t you eat?”

What Ran meant was—why do I have to remind you to eat? His pointed look made his opinion on the matter quite clear.

“You sound like my brother.”

Ran made no reply because anything the child said would complement his uncle and their rivalry left no room for it.

Sarn snatched an orange wedge and bit into it, satisfying his hunger and his son. Potato starchiness met sweetness and what a heavenly marriage they made on his tongue. Who knew potatoes could be sweet and orange at the same time? Good thing there were eight more wedges to enjoy.

“Yes, do eat before the child eats it all.”

“This is where all the food is grown for Mount Eredren, right?” Sarn asked between bites.

“Yes.”

“Are there more places like this?”

“No, just this one—it’s enough to manage.” The blind man shook his head, and the movement caused his beard to shift revealing a flat disc of obsidian bearing interlocking circles.

Sarn dropped a piece of hard cheese and stared at the plaque behind the blind man’s head. It was those goddamned circles again—they were etched into plaques on all four walls and inlaid on the tile floor as well.

His shock must have shown because Ran sat up and looked around too.

“How did you find this place? It’s pretty well hidden.”

“What do the circles mean?” Sarn asked in a voice scraped so thin it almost broke. There was a logical explanation. Only in tales did symbols stalk people, not in the reality he inhabited.

“What circles?”

“The intertwining ones—” Sarn swallowed a lump of fear. Words jumped into his mouth and burned as they fought free leaving questions instead of sense. “Chains within chains—”

His consciousness flickered for a moment interrupted by a vision of circles splashed with blood burning in a black fire as screams tore at his sanity. Sarn rubbed both eyes, but the last image remained seared into his retinas. They were connected somehow to the murders and everything else he’d dealt with over the last two days. He just had to figure out how.

“Are you alright?”

No, he wasn’t alright and hadn’t been for a long time. Since there was no fix for it, Sarn asked the question driving him mad. “What do they mean—circles whole and broken and the ones enclosing stars?”

The blind man opened his mouth, but a disembodied voice replied instead.

“Messages hidden in light—”

Its tone compelled Sarn to repeat its words. They made no sense to him or the blind man judging by the fellow’s furrowed brow.

“Circles you say?”

“Yes, like the pendant you wear. What does it mean?”

The blind man traced the etching, face clearing as something dawned on him. “Life—it means life.”

“The broken circle means death,” which should have been obvious from the damned vision. Sarn rubbed a hand over his face. Sometimes he was every bit the moron the Rangers thought him to be.

Footsteps approached, and his sixth sense fired off a warning. Sarn winced and rubbed his aching head. “Someone’s coming.”

“Who?” Ran asked.

“I don’t know.” Sarn shook his head. The icons on his map were unfamiliar.

“You have to go. Don’t go out the way I entered.” The blind man’s chair scraped back. He fumbled with the books on a nearby shelf until the whole unit swung in on silent hinges. “Tell no one you were ever here.”

Well, that settled the secret issue. “Only if you keep quiet about my son.”

The blind man nodded. “Your secret’s safe with me. Go now. They can’t find you here.”

“Thank you for your hospitality.” Sarn gave the chamber one last glance. Had he missed anything? Like the cancerous rot, Mount Eredren had sent him to find? His sixth sense radiated out making one last check. No, this verdant place was an oasis of life. The cancer he’d sensed had been the utter opposite. Sarn pulled his sixth sense back in before it could kick off another headache but stopped when one of the books felt wrong—sick somehow. He skimmed its blank spine with his finger, and an image flashed across his mind’s eye—a circle with a thirteen-pointed star bleeding inside it. Hadrovel’s miserable eye peered through the bloody star.

A voice whispered, Eam’meye erator, and pain shattered Sarn. Images ricocheted across his mind’s eye accreting into fragments of memories. Hadrovel loomed over his frightened son. Cairns moaned and a white-clad sacrifice lit candles arranged to form a thirteen-pointed star. A dead boy opened pale green, unseeing eyes.

All the fragments fell into the black pools of Jerlo’s eyes. Sarn caught as many forgotten memories as he could and held onto them as he fell through the mote in the commander’s eye. Reality broadsided him, sending Sarn stumbling into a wall. His stomach twisted with sudden nausea. Bits and pieces of things floated in his mind. Maybe they were recovered memories. He could piece them together later.

Right now, he had to get that book. The answer to everything lay within its pages. Sarn reached through the closing door toward that book, but it flew off the shelf before he could grab it. A shadowy creature dropping the thick volume into Rat Woman’s hands before vanishing. Her mirrored eyes met his as Sarn pushed against the secret panel. But he couldn’t stop it from closing.

“No! How do you open the door?” Sarn felt along the wall seeking a trigger, inside his head, his magic screamed at him to run. But the answer was in there, so he pounded on the wall. Magic coated his hand turning it luminous as it repelled him. Sarn stumbled into the blind man who seized a handful of his tunic and shook it.

“You must come with me. They’ll kill you if they find you here.”

“What? Why?”

“Don’t ask me. Ask the Lord of the Mountain. It’s his law.” The blind man shrugged and swung his cane to check for obstacles.

“But there’s a book in there I need to see.”

Ran tugged on his pant leg. “Papa, I want to go home now.

A familiar rat darted out and trod on Sarn’s boot.

“What does your mistress want with that book?”

“Which book?” Ran asked. “There were lots in there.”

“Never mind. I’m sure I’ll run into her again.”

“Who?”

“Rat Woman.”

“She was here? Where?” Ran looked around but there was nothing but tons of granite surrounding them.

“Rat who?” asked the blind man.

Rat Woman’s spy rose on two legs and chittered at Sarn as it brandished its paw.

“What do you want?”

“Us to go away. Come on Papa. It’s time to go.” Ran clasped Sarn’s hand and started walking. He gave the blind man’s leg a gentle shove to get their guide moving.

Sarn let his son tug him away from the closed door as Rat Woman’s icon vanished. She’d absconded with the book and all hope of answers—damn her. Maybe all wasn’t lost. When he’d touched the book, he’d seen things. Sarn sifted through those fragmented images swirling about his mind until a voice called him.

It sang a song of power and Sarn followed it around a bend. Everything glowed. Crystals crisscrossed forming a web of arteries carrying magic of all colors and types. They each hummed a different chord in a great symphony, and the magic in his blood danced to its beat.

Toward a rainbow-hued latticework pulsing with hundreds of gradations of color and magic, Sarn drifted. He extended his hand to touch a fat green crystal whose basso profundo rumble invoked images of stone, shelter, and safety. The three things he craved. Its song strummed his veins making them vibrate with need.

One touch would tell him where the power in the pipeline went and what it did. Then he could explore its neighbors and discover what magic was sky blue, crimson, gold—

“No Papa!” Ran jumped into his path, arms outstretched. “Touching glowing things is bad. No touching!” Ran wrapped his arms around Sarn’s legs and shook his head.

“What glowing things?” The blind man bumbled into Sarn’s path patting empty air.

Sarn bent and pried at his son’s arms, but Ran fought him, and the magic’s light made the tears spilling down his son’s face glitter. The sight broke the enchantment, freeing Sarn.

“I’m sorry I scared you. You’re right. I won’t touch them. I don’t know what I was thinking.” The magic had hijacked his good sense again. Why did it tempt him so much? Because he was as inquisitive as the boy he held close to his heart. He had enough magic running amok inside him complicating his life. He did not need more of the stuff.

Ran nodded and wiped his tears on Sarn’s tunic.

“Lead on,” Sarn said to the blind man.

“These glowing things you mentioned—do you think they’re conduits for magic?”

“That’s my guess. They must be something left over from the Litherians.”

Lumir provided the light for the farm cavern, and Mount Eredren had plenty of fresh water. So what did it need magic for? But the question, like so many others he’d stumbled upon over the last few days, might not be germane to the problem he was supposed to be solving. Sarn cast it aside until a six-sided crystal came into view.

Standing twelve feet on a side on a bejeweled pedestal, the giant stone blazed with raw power. Its pure white light wrapped around Sarn drawing him close. Symbols flared, combined and disintegrated in a shower of sparks in the crystal’s center. They formed new patterns faster than he could identify them. Sometimes they flashed by as individuals and at others, in long chains flowing into the crystals branching off its crown and base. The subordinate crystals were conduits, and this was a magical hub of some kind. What was all this power fueling?

“No Papa, you promised.” Ran smacked his father, hitting him square in the jaw. “No touching glowing things. Touching them is bad. We talked about this.”

Shock dropped his gaze to meet his son’s. Before now, Ran had hit only inanimate objects like stairs never people.

Sarn opened his mouth to scold his son, but Ran was staring in shock at his hand. A tear rolled down his son’s cheek.

Rat woman’s spy darted into the chamber a second before a warning flashed on Sarn’s map. Someone was coming, and it wasn’t the rat’s mistress.

“Come, we must go.” The blind man tugged on Sarn’s arm, and he heard what had spooked his guide—footsteps.

This chamber’s secrets would have to wait for another day. For now, Sarn followed the blind man around another bend toward more crystalline structures transporting magic to who knew where for who knew what purpose. The mystery begged to be solved, but Ran might be in danger.

“Take the left turnings, and you should find a staircase. From there you can ascend to the upper levels. Go quickly now.”

“Who are you and who approaches?”

Shaking his head, the blind man urged Sarn to go. His arthritic hands pushed Sarn’s shoulder trying to turn him. “No time, go. Don’t let the guards catch you. It’s your death if they do. This place is forbidden.”

A rat chittered at Sarn and pointed its paws at the exit. Of course, it was one of Rat Woman’s spies

“What is this place?”

“The heart of the mountain—now go!”

“Thank you for—” the ground shook cutting Sarn off. Damn it, he still hadn’t found the cancer eating at Mount Eredren. Was the mountain about to deliver another ultimatum?

The ground trembled, but the floor attracted Sarn’s boots, allowing the rest of him to sway. He crashed into a stone wall jarring his son. Magic leaped to his defense too late to stop the rock from tearing his tunic and scratching his skin. Blood welled, and a drop splashed onto the stone under his feet.

Mount Eredren let loose a deafening roar as its foundations vibrated, shaking its cone. Rocks fell, and Sarn broke into a run aiming for a more stable section of the tunnel.

Far above, the quake knocked over a chair dumping Gregori onto a shag rug. Several corridors down, a cup shimmied off a low table, and its breaking jarred Nolo from sleep.

A half mile away on the same level, the quake shivered the stacks of paperwork on Jerlo’s desk tipping them over in domino fashion. Papers swirled. A dragon-shaped ink-well and the Ranger’s seal toppled off the desk.

Jerlo opened the door of his private quarters and peered at the mess. At least the inkwell had survived its fall. The opposite door opened revealing Nolo still in his dressing gown. Gregori shoved in behind him. They met Jerlo’s gaze, and he nodded.

“Find the Kid before the damned mountain shakes itself to pieces and us with it.” Jerlo shut his door. He left his second in command to figure out how to find a Kid who did everything he could to avoid being found, damn Sarn and his secretive ways.

Nolo and Gregori exchanged a glance. Gregori shrugged and clapped his friend on the back. “Guess we’d better look. I’ll take the library.”

“No, you check the rest of this level. I’ll take the library.” Nolo removed Gregori’s hand from his person. Forgiving what the man had done to Sarn would condone kidnapping and Nolo couldn’t do that.

Classes would still be in session for another hour or so, and he could check up on his son. Sarn would do the same since his brother also had class right now.

“You don’t trust me?”

Nolo spun on his heel and faced the man who had stood by him when he’d married Inari. “Don’t make me order you to go because I will. Jerlo might be willing to let your actions slide, but I’m not.”

Hurt flashed in his friend’s eyes, but it fled as the wise guy mask descended again. Gregori twitched his shoulders in a lazy shrug. “Fine, I’ll get on it right now, sir.” Gregori backed out of the doorway and stalked off.

Nolo tightened his sash and followed until he reached the end of a short corridor and broke right.

Chapter 24

Sarn put his back to a wall and listened. No footsteps, no earthshaking—their situation had improved. His sixth sense could tell him more but triggering it might give all the magic back there a hold over him. Maybe he should lay off on the magic for a while.

“No more glowing things?” Ran’s head swiveled his eyes on alert for them.

“No, we left them behind.” Sarn waved his free hand at the fallen rocks. They blocked part of the tunnel back to the farm creating a waist-high obstacle. Where was Rat Woman’s long-tailed minion?

Sarn scanned his map, but the area they’d left was still sketchy leaving plenty of dark spots for a rodent to hide in. Damn it, and he didn’t have a fix on Rat Woman yet. What about those crystals? If he gazed deep enough into their light, might he find answers there?

“Can we go home now?” Ran looked to Sarn for an answer.

The poor boy had enough adventuring for one day. Best he returned his son to familiar surroundings and then he’d find Rat Woman and get his hands on that book. Miren would be done with classes in a few hours and could read it to him.

“I know why you’re so quiet,” Ran said reminding Sarn of his son’s presence. “You want to go back there, but it’s a bad place.”

“It’s different, but it’s not dangerous.”

“It’s bad for you. You do bad things there.”

Doubt mauled Sarn. Had those crystals offered the answers he sought or had he deluded himself? Was it the power of the place luring him back? It might be, and the thought chilled Sarn. He turned his back on the tunnel and took the left turn the blind man had suggested. It was time he showed the magic he made the decisions.

Ran nodded at the change in direction. “You know I’m right.”

“Because you’re never wrong?” Sarn hazarded trying not to laugh.

Ran rolled the idea around but shook his head rejecting it.

When Sarn reached for words to thank his son for anchoring him, they abandoned him. Instead, he held Ran close to his heart, contenting the boy. Maybe his son knew he was a gift. One Sarn appreciated always.

“What’s happening?” Ran’s breath misted the air as the temperature dropped.

“I don’t know.”

Nausea curdled his stomach as Sarn pivoted, but there were just endless miles of tunnel interspersed with the occasional rock formation to break up the monotony. There weren’t even any pictograms.

A disembodied arm popped into view pointing back to the magical hub.

“No, it’s a bad place. We’re not going back,” Ran swatted the arm away, but stopped when the ghost boy’s head appeared and fixed pleading eyes on them.

“The answer is back there in a book, right?”

The ghost boy shook his head. In frustration, Sarn kicked the nearest wall. There was a slight delay before his magic cushioned the blow, reminding him he’d done too much magicking today. Then a crash shattered the silence, sending Sarn running. He knew that sound all too well.

“I’m sorry,” he said over his shoulder to the ghost. Panic beat frantic wings as it sought to master Sarn. One word echoed in his head over and over in a metronome of doom—cave-in. Which tunnel was collapsing? Was it this one?

A boom shook the ground under Sarn’s feet rattling the mountain. Dust sifted onto their heads. Sarn squeezed out a breath as claustrophobia tackled him. Was the ceiling caving in? Was the floor buckling? Were they over the mines right now?

“Everything will be okay.”

Sarn willed his son to believe it as he tore around the bend. He had to get his son away from the mountain. Nothing else mattered.

Screams and sounds of a violent altercation echoed off the stone walls. Had the denizens of this underground hellhole started looting and rioting already? Ran trembled in his arms and cringed at every sound.

“I’ll get us out of here. We’ll be okay,” Sarn murmured between breaths.

Echoes distorted sound making it impossible to tell where the trouble originated. Sarn called up his sixth sense, his head map—anything to help him elude danger. But his thoughts spun in a tight circle of fear.

Memories of a cave-in returned, raising the ghosts of countless child miners. They had died seven years ago, but their shades floated after him, and their empty eyes asked why he had survived. Why had a stranger pulled him out and left them to die?

One heart-shaped face stood out from the crowd—Jorick—his first friend, his first for a lot of things, but she was dead and gone like all the rest. Her gaze stabbed the deepest, and her whispered questions turned the knife.

[_‘You liked me, why didn’t you save me? _]

“Let me see your eyes boy. [_I know you aren’t like the others. You’re worth something,” _]said the vagabond who’d pulled him blinking and coughing into the sunlight because of his magic-promising green eyes. Had the cave been better lit, his savior would have left his brown-eyed brother to die like all the rest.

A cold tear slid down Sarn’s cheek for all those who’d perished. But A life more precious than his own rested in his arms trusting him to get them both out of this alive.

[_You’re all dead, and I’m sorry you’re dead, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Go away and leave me alone. _]As Sarn picked up the pace, he left the specters of his past behind.

Sarn skidded to a halt before a shoulder-high pile of debris bisecting his path. In his blind panic, he’d run to his cave. A stupid move indeed, but it was too late for regret. Rumbling off in the distance made Sarn turn and fumble for his head map. It spawned, but the map shook. So did the ground, and the resulting double vision made his stomach heave.

“I want Bear,” Ran said through tears.

“Okay, we’ll get him.”

But they’d have to pass the Foundlings’ door. The Foundlings—oh Fate—he had to warn them. They had to evacuate right now. Sarn stepped onto a pile of broken stone created when a column had collapsed in a previous earthquake and rushed across it.

After Sarn had hurtled the last obstacle, he turned a corner and halted at a closed door. Maybe they’d already gone. No, his head map exploded into view showing eighteen people icons before it shattered. Three of them he recognized in the split-second view.

“Stay by my side,” Sarn said as he put his son down so he could hammer on the door.

“Who’s out there?” asked a woman who could have been Morraina.

“You have to get out now. There’s a—cav—”

The word ‘cave-in’ twisted on his tongue and slithered around in his mouth. Each time Sarn tried to force the word past his lips, it changed from ‘cave-in’ to ‘earthquake’ as the word writhed on his tongue. Maybe the geas binding him to the truth had trouble identifying what was going on. Sarn shook his head and spat out the troublesome word.

“You said we’d be safe here.”

“Nowhere is completely safe. You have to—”

“So you lied to us?

“I can’t lie. Look we’re wasting time. You must leave right now. Will you get out here?”

“No, you said we’d be safe here, and since you can’t lie, we’re perfectly safe, aren’t we?”

She spewed more screwed up logic, but Sarn ignored it. He could think of no counter for her argument except to punch a door he refused to open in frustration. No lock hindered him except memory, but it was enough. The Foundlings’ part of his life was over. He’d crossed their threshold for the last time the day he’d left them for good.

“You’re paranoid,” she continued. “You weren’t this bad when you lived here. You should move back in with us. Living on your own has put funny ideas in your head.”

The slap of bare feet against stone took her away from the door and ended the discussion. The cavern’s walls were thick enough to mute any further protests, so Sarn saved his breath. He turned to apologize to his son, but he sensed the boy was a hundred feet down and around a bend in the tunnel.

Hurrying to his cave, Sarn found the door ajar and a blanket covered lump shivering on the mattress. He scooped up boy, bear, and blanket and fled as the ground shook under his feet. Cave-ins were quick things with everything collapsing in a matter of minutes. But this prolonged quaking meant something else was going on.

Could there be many cave-ins or a series of tremors? Or worse, was this part of the fallout from the ghost boy’s death? The quickest route to the surface would take him close enough to the mines to answer his first two questions, so Sarn headed for it.

Ten minutes later, dusty miners joined the throng hustling toward a glimmer of daylight ahead. Closing his eyes, Sarn joined their ranks, holding tight to his silent son. Just another half mile and he’d be outside. Two thousand six hundred and forty feet and dwindling separated him from clean air and sunshine.

His magic reached out for it, wanting to be free and he lost his balance. The wall Sarn bumped into as the crowd jostled him felt solid against his shoulder, not crumbling. In fact, the ground had ceased quaking some time ago. Had he been wrong about a cave-in? Surprised, Sarn pushed off the wall.

“Go back to your homes. There’s nothing to see here,” shouted a guardsman from up ahead.

Opening his eyes for a moment, Sarn glimpsed a fellow with a pointy helm standing on a fold of rock above the crowd. Behind the lead guardsman, a line of blue-uniformed men held spears at the ready.

“The mountain isn’t falling down on your heads. It was an earthquake, and it’s over now,” continued the head guardsman. “Go back to your homes or places of work. The danger’s passed.”

Voices swelled as the crowd discussed this bit of news.

“There’s been too many these last six or seven years. Weren’t no quakes before, mark my words,” said a woman reeking of chemicals shuffling along in front of Sarn.

A man nearby grunted assent to the washerwoman’s report. Fear iced Sarn’s insides. Six years ago, the Lord of the Mountain had found him half dead in a snow bank and brought him here.

Could there be a connection? Had he somehow caused every quake in the last six years? Sarn stumbled and caught himself on a boulder. Leaning against its comforting bulk, Sarn remembered the alien press of the mountain on his mind. He might have just endangered tens of thousands of people—oh dear Fate, it was possible. His magic knew how to use him, and he’d become its instrument.

“I want to go outside,” Ran said in a shaky voice.

“I know. I’m working on it.”

Sarn wore the Green—the woodland shade worn only by the Rangers. In theory, he could walk up to the guards and show them. They’d have to let him through. He belonged to Jerlo when the Lord of the Mountain was away, and the commander had the papers to prove it.

Sarn chewed his lip as he considered. If he walked up to a guard now, they’d see his son. He was the only Indentured Ranger, so word would reach Jerlo within the hour of the boy’s existence. Hugging his son tighter, Sarn turned away.

No, the Rangers could never find out about Ran. If they ever did, they’d take his son away from him because, in their eyes, he was mentally deficient.

Violence broke out ahead when some residents made an issue out of the guards’ presence. Everyone else fled back toward their squalid hovels. To escape the flow, Sarn slipped down a passage.

There were other ways out of the Lower Quarters. After all, this place had as many tunnels as there were people. Sarn loped toward the underground castle and the staircase hidden in its tower.

“You said we’re going outside. I saw the sun that way.” Ran pointed over Sarn’s shoulder.

“We are. We need to go another way. The other way isn’t safe right now.” Sarn checked his map as he sprinted. Yes, he was still ahead of the crowd. Good, then he could take that next right and cut across the Lower Quarters via the most direct route.

“Oh, okay.”

One more turn dumped them into the expansive cavern where the castle crouched in its far end holding up the cathedral ceiling. The old fort was still abandoned, but not for long. Sarn’s map tracked five icons on an intercept course, likely for the same reason, the staircase to the surface hidden in the north tower. But he’d be gone before they arrived if he kept running.

Ice sliced through Sarn staggering him. He held tight to his son as he tripped and went down on both knees. His magic rushed to protect his delicate skin and arrived a second too late. Since he’d forgotten to change his ripped trousers, rocks scraped his bare knees drawing a bead of blood.

“No!” Sarn rose, over balanced and sat down hard on a large piece of debris. A thin green film shimmered over the scratch, preventing any more blood from falling.

Ran, ever inquisitive, touched it. “It’s warm. Does it hurt?”

Sarn shook his head.

“Why’d you trip my Papa?” Ran glared at the ghost boy crouching in front of them. It had managed to pull half its body back together, but the ghost’s right arm and leg still floated nearby. Gray filaments strained to reconnect both appendages. The ghost raised stricken eyes full of apology to meet Sarn’s then pointed back the way they had come.

“No. We go out now. Papa said, and Bear agrees.”

Ran squirmed free of Sarn’s grasp and held his stuffed toy up, so its button eyes met the ghost’s.

The specter shattered and vanished. After shooting Sarn a guilty look, Ran lowered his bear.

“Why does that keep happening?”

“I wish I knew.” Sarn pushed to a stand. Those incoming icons had multiplied from five to ten, and they were two turnings away and closing. It was time to go. “Come on, outside is at the top of that tower.” Sarn picked his son up and headed for it wondering what he’d find on the surface.

Chapter 25

Sarn climbed through a vertical shaft of light into a golden afternoon. A westering sun hung three finger widths above the serrated horizon. He still had time before he had to meet the Rangers, but not much.

Ran choked his stuffed bear as he blinked at the sky overhead from his supine position in Sarn’s arms.

“We’re outside now. We’re safe.” Sarn turned in a full circle as he considered what to do now. So much had happened, but his head felt light enough to float off without him. Was hunger making him faint? A handful of sweet potato wedges made a snack not a meal, but repeated run-ins with unnatural creatures had curdled his stomach.

Something niggled at the back of Sarn’s mind, something he’d overlooked, but he couldn’t call it forward. Sarn glanced at the forest beyond the menhirs standing dark and impenetrable under the westering sun and shivered. Not a single leaf moved. Tonight, he’d have to go in there but not now while he had his son with him.

Above, Mount Eredren’s snow-capped peak sparkled in the sun. Angling his steps toward the north side of the mountain, Sarn struck out for the secret entrance. No one trod the trail leading up to it and no one would if he ascended quickly.

“We’ll check on my brother,” Sarn said to his son, who sucked his thumb. “Everything’s alright. I’ll find you both somewhere safe to wait while I work tonight.” Somewhere close so he could slip away and check on them.

Ran nodded and clutched a handful of his tunic at the mention of ‘work.’.

Sarn hiked up the trail, legs burning from all the walking he’d done today. No time for the lie down his body craved, not until after work. Shrubbery hid the trigger for its secret entrance, but his sixth sense directed his foot to an igneous lump, and a section of the rock wall slid aside.

“How’d you move it?” Ran pointed to the rock.

“It’s a secret.”

The north stairwell had no helpful lumir crystals embedded in its enclosing wall. So the entrance framed a slice of darkness until Sarn stepped over the threshold. Lots of narrow twisting stairs appeared as his eyes’ glow peeled back the shadows.

“You’ll tell Bear and me the secret?” Ran lifted his stuffed companion so Bear’s button eyes could add their plea.

“I don’t know if I can.”

“Why not?”

“You’re not a Ranger or a Guard.”

Ran lowered Bear and fingered Sarn’s sleeve. “Are you?”

“No, and I’m not supposed to know.”

“But you know, and you’ll tell me.”

“Maybe someday.”

Taking the stairs three at a time, Sarn emerged onto the third floor. Pulling up his head map, he checked for people nearby as he lingered on the landing. Gregori’s icon flashed red as the man approached. No doubt the burly fool headed for the staircase he’d just vacated.

Cursing his ill-luck, Sarn ducked into an alcove seconds before Gregori turned the corner. He backed as far as he could into the shadows, eyes squeezed tight shut until he bumped into something hard. Freeing a hand, Sarn felt around behind his back, and his fingers closed on a handle just as a buzzing assaulted his ears. A mass of squirming things looped around his chest and pulled. Sarn stumbled over a threshold as his gorge rose.

Between him and the now closed door was a man-shaped thing made of an uncountable number of insects. An invisible field held the unnatural thing together. It blinked large compound eyes at Sarn.

“Don’t let him see you.”

“Him who—Gregori?” That worthy’s icon passed the storeroom and kept right on going.

The creature shook its head. Nausea punched Sarn in the gut. Black energy crackled as the creature shoved him aside. This time his magic got between him and the ground in time to cushion his fall.

“He’s coming,” the creature said before diving into a palm-sized hole in the false floor.

“Who’s coming?” Ran asked as he wriggled free from Sarn.

“I wish I knew. I’m so sick of these riddles.” Dropping to his knees, Sarn peered through the hole at the knights swatting at the receding horde of insects. In an eye blink, they were gone without a trace leaving the knights free to resume their interrupted sparring.

“Me too.” Ran leaned against him.

Fascinated by their deadly dance, Sarn stretched out full length on the ground ignoring the dust. The events of the past couple of hours receded from his mind as a dozen knights squared off. Wearing leather jerkins to protect their organs, they all dueled with wooden practice blades. Their real swords rested outside his view, but he felt their bejeweled scabbards and hilts.

“I want to be one of them. A man noble in heart and mind like the legendary Guardians were.” Sarn sighed and put his impossible dream away. Below sparred men who were as close to his ultimate heroes as one could get. The Guardians were centuries dead, but their code lived on in Shayari’s chivalric orders. And those ranks were closed to a bastard son of a whore even if he worked off his indenture.

“One of who?” Ran sat down hugging his Bear and looked from his father to the hole mesmerizing him and back again. “What’re we watching?”

“A knight of Shayari—they’re training below.”

“Why aren’t you one of them?”

“I wanted to squire for them. I was old enough when I—” Sarn stopped talking. He’d almost said when I traded my freedom for my brother’s education. “I mean I was almost sixteen, and there were squires around the same age as me. I thought—but he gave me to the Rangers instead.”

The injustice of the Lord of the Mountain’s decision still angered Sarn. He’d be too old to squire for a knight when Lord Joranth released him from his indenture. Squiring was the only way to learn sword fighting.

Sarn laid there, arms crossed under his chin, staring at what he’d always dreamed of becoming. Ran lay next to him, using his back as a pillow. Wrapped in his blanket, his son sucked his thumb and listened.

“Before you were born I used to come here and watch them for hours.” Sarn had no idea why he was telling his son this when talking about his crushed dreams tore open old wounds. “I wanted to be like them. I thought if I watched them enough I might learn something but the angle’s bad.”

Sarn fell silent. He’d run out of words. Instead, he watched, and his imagination erased the plain stone of the training room and replaced the straw bales with monsters. Legendary battles played out inside his head, but they mutated into his encounters with mud and insect creatures, warring trees, Rat Woman and Hadrovel.

How would his heroes solve this? In his mind, Sarn took out all the pieces and examined them, but after a half hour, he was no closer to a solution. There were still pieces missing. He needed to go back to the beginning to where the murders had taken place, but this time, he would look through the magic’s eyes. Maybe it would reveal something to make sense out of this jumble. To go there, he’d need to elude his masters for an hour, but how?

Bells rang, but Sarn ignored them until his sixth sense sent a warning. Miren had left the library and would, if not intercepted, head down to their cave. Peeling himself up off the floor, Sarn picked up his dozing son and his stuffed bear. After a longing glance at the practice session still in progress, he closed the door and hurried to catch his brother.

Ran’s fingers twitched as his son counted the ringing bells. When the task required two hands, his son removed his thumb from his mouth. In the silence after the bells finished tolling, Ran whispered, “sixteen.” He turned his face into his father’s chest unhappy at the number and the hour it signified.

The countdown had begun; Sarn had four hours until he had to meet his master. There was nothing he could do about the time dwindling away except to make better use of it. Statue-choked corridors flashed past as Sarn ran. At least he had a plan. It was a little light on details, but it was a place to start. Who knew what he would find in the forest.

“Why’d you lead me here?” Miren gestured to the storeroom. “Did something happen?”

Sarn ignored the question since he had no good answer for it. Instead, he concentrated on finding a soft place to lay his napping son. Those bolts of cloth looked promising. He kicked one at random until it rolled off a pile and lay flat. Ran cracked an eye open to see what he was doing.

“Rest, I’m not going anywhere yet.” He smoothed his son’s hair away from his face and Ran closed his eyes.

“Did you sleep at all? You look terrible,” Miren commented from where he stood next to the door.

“Not much, I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“When did you last eat something? You did eat something since you came home from work, right? No, you didn’t. I can always tell. You get funny about things when you starve yourself.” Miren folded his arms over his chest.

“What are you talking about?” Sarn glanced at his brother over his shoulder. Though come to think of it, he did feel lightheaded. Maybe he should fetch some food. But doing so required more energy, so Sarn sat and his makeshift chair crunched.

Miren pulled something off a nearby shelf and handed it to Sarn, who regarded the parcel in confusion.

“Relax, it’s trail mix—you know dried fruits and nuts. I read the label.”

“Thanks.” Sarn untied the string holding the bag closed and dug a hand inside. A tug on his pant leg shifted his attention from stuffing his face to his son, who held out a hand for some.

Ran picked dried berries from his hand and a flash of Hadrovel looming over the boy made Sarn’s breath catch.

[_‘The bad man hurt you, and that hurt me,’ _]Ran had said.

More images tumbled together into an ugly whole. Sarn squeezed his son’s shoulder and Ran gave him a curious look. How had those dreams slipped his mind so completely it took a brush with a strange book to return them? Had all the magicking he’d done over the last couple days degraded his memory?

Appetite killed by the depressive thoughts looping through his mind, Sarn closed the sack and set it aside. The Rangers were always pushing food on him. And right now, he needed the reassurance cradling his son offered. Ran sucked his thumb and curled into him, clinging to his bear in much the same way he clung to his son.

“Talk to me. Tell me what happened. You wouldn’t have come here if everything was ok.” Miren perched on a crate opposite Sarn, hands resting on his crutch.

Trust Miren to ask the most uncomfortable question first. “There was an earthquake, and the aftershocks scared my son. So, we came here.” Sarn froze as a disembodied hand reached through the door and waved.

Not this again. Sarn glared at the specter. [_I just need a few hours to settle my family then I can help you. _]But despite his mental reassurance, the arm kept manifesting. Maybe ghosts couldn’t hear thoughts.

“What else happened?”

“I tried to get the Foundlings to come with us but—” Sarn shook his head. “We argued. They refused. Then some folks decided to make an issue out of the Guards’ presence, but we made it outside. It just took a while.”

“Are they all right?”

“I think so. We didn’t see any damage from the earthquake, just a lot of scared people.”

But their rejection still stung. For six years, the Foundlings were a dysfunctional family for Sarn and his brother. Was it their fault they wanted the attention and affection he reserved for his son? Maybe, but he still owed them for not treating him like a freak.

“Where are we staying tonight?” Miren looked around, but the ghost boy had retracted its hand.

“Not here,” Sarn confirmed. Until he knew whose side the Insect Man was on, this place wasn’t safe. So where was? “Things might still be unsettled downstairs, but I think it’s our best bet.”

“Or I can take him with me to the library and get some work done. No one will see us. I promise.”

Ran perked up at this news. “Yes, can we go?” and to his uncle, he said, “you’ll read me stories there?”

“Sure, there are lots of books in the library. There’s bound to be one you’d like—if that’s okay with your father.”

They both turned pleading eyes on Sarn, but he was staring at the spectral foot pushing through the closed door. What the hell did the ghost boy want now? He checked his map, but the corridor was empty save for the ghost.

“We should go back downstairs.” And they should go before anything else manifested through that door. Sarn rose still holding his son as the bells of Mount Eredren chimed the hour.

Using two hands, Ran counted the peals on his fingers. “Seventeen,” the boy said then buried his face in Sarn’s chest.

Sarn rubbed his son’s back. “You still have me for two more hours.” Then he had to report to Jerlo. Or was it Nolo? Damn, he had to pay closer attention to such details from now on.

Realizing there’d be no trip to the library, Miren’s face fell. “We should check on the Foundlings.”

“Yeah, there’s just enough time if we leave now.” Sarn headed for the door but stopped when their location registered. “Are any of those edible with minimal cooking?” Sarn nodded to the overstuffed shelves. Some of the packages looked familiar. Were those rolled oats over there?

Scanning the labels, Miren smiled and pulled a head-sized jar down. Red jelly quivered in its belly. “You won’t believe this.”

“What won’t I believe?” but even as Sarn asked the question, he was already smiling.

“Get your sack out. We hit the motherlode.” Miren tapped the jar with his free hand, “this is strawberry preserves.”

“I like strawberries.” Smiling, Ran reached for the jar.

“Then you’ll have strawberry preserve tonight.” Sarn set his son down so he could fish a burlap sack out of his pocket.

He kept a small supply of them always on his person in case fate provided and this afternoon it had.

“Here catch,” Miren tossed another jar.

Sarn slipped it inside and closed the bag. “It won’t hold anymore.”

“Good, let’s get out of here. It’s really cold.” Miren shivered.

Sarn glanced at the door. No spectral body parts poked through it, but the temperature was dropping. Was nausea next?

“Can we go now?” Miren glared at Sarn.

Before he could speak, Ran tugged on his pant leg.

“Bear wants to see where we’re going.”

Of course, Bear did. How had he forgotten? Sarn rearranged the smaller sack until Bear sat on the jam jar. After the day’s frights, Ran had earned some concessions.

“How does the bag feel? Is it too heavy?”

“Can Bear see?” Ran twisted his head around and smiled when Bear’s button eyes met his.

“Yes, are you sure it’s not too heavy?” Sarn supported the bag with one hand, afraid his son would topple if he let go.

Ran looked so small and fragile with such a large jar weighing him down. But once Ran took possession of something, he didn’t give it up. The sight roused Sarn’s magic, and it wrapped around the sack, taking some of the weight. Sarn let go and Ran stayed on his feet.

“It’s okay. I can carry it.” Ran settled the magically lightened bag higher on his shoulder.

“Alright but if it gets too heavy, you tell me, and I’ll add it to mine.”

“Can we go now?”

Nausea made his bile rise as Sarn resisted the urge to snarl something mean at his brother. Something unnatural was nearby. Maybe he should throw Miren at it. Since the brat returned from school, Sarn had received nothing but attitude. Had he been that bad at fourteen? You were worse. The reminder downgraded Sarn’s ire to mere annoyance at the brat.

“We go down now?” Ran looked up at Sarn but there was no fear in his son’s eyes, just eagerness to eat those preserves.

Maybe Ran had forgotten all about the whole earth-shaking thing. Or more likely, thoughts of dinner had distracted Ran. In fact, a simple meal of boiled oats and jam sounded good. Sarn relaxed. One less meal to fret over, thank Fate for small favors.

Now he had two plans queued up for execution. The night was looking up. Now he just needed to get his family away from here before something happened.

“Yes, are you okay with going back down there?”

“He’s fine with it. Let’s get this over with I have a report to write.” Miren hobbled past Sarn and pushed open the door before he could stop the angry teen.

“Wait—Miren—damn it,” Sarn said as he engaged his head map and scanned for danger. No one traversed the hallway or the nearest staircase. And the Rangers—Sarn sorted through the map’s iconography for them until Ran tugged on his pant leg.

“What’s wrong?”

Ran pointed at the hole in the floor and the insects crawling out of it. They grouped together forming a mouth.

“Go now. Don’t let him find you,” said a voice like a thousand bees buzzing in concert.

“Who’s coming?”

“Go!” The lips dissolved into a pile of insects fast fleeing this place.

“Come on,” Sarn swung a much larger sack over his shoulder and shepherded his son into the corridor. No one had ever replaced the broken hasp, so he left the door unlocked. A quick map check verified the closest staircase was still free of pedestrians save for Miren of course. It turned up nothing else, but the nauseous feeling remained coiled tight in his belly as they departed and it set his teeth on edge.

Ran grimaced at yet another narrow, spiral affair curving into darkness, but he squared his little shoulders and descended, keeping a hand on the enclosing wall. Sarn followed aware he’d used this staircase too often in the last three days. Ran’s safety hinged on secrecy and unpredictability—two things he’d let slide since meeting the ghost boy. When he reached the Lower Quarters, he’d have to vary their route.

People icons popped up on his map, freezing Sarn mid-step. Where had they come from? He watched their icons move away from here before continuing.

Miren remained silent taking those two hundred and forty steps at a fast hobble, which was fine. Miren could take care of himself. Only Ran required protecting, so Sarn hunted for the safest route.

A burst of intense cold punched Sarn in the back, and he slammed a shoulder into the enclosing wall to stay upright. Magic cushioned the impact, but he collapsed, limbs spasming, as the ghost boy tore out of his chest. It clutched a handful of silver filaments, but they faded away.

Warnings sounded in Sarn’s mind as Ran screamed and tipped forward. He must have kneed the poor child when the ghost boy hit him.

“No!” Sarn shouted as his son fell toward stairs spiraling into the bowels of the earth.

Grabbing hold of the familiar green magic, Sarn flung it, willing the magic to catch his son. A bright emerald bubble flared around Ran, and he stopped falling. But his sack hit the stairs and Bear cartwheeled around a bend. Its button eyes widened in surprise.

“Bear!” Ran shrieked as he landed on the radiant bubble’s floor and bounced. His tiny hands reached for his falling friend.

Sarn lashed out a second time releasing a cloud of green motes. They gathered into a bright net which sailed around a bend and returned cradling Bear.

“Are you okay?” Sarn asked as his magic floated his son into his arms and he hugged the child.

Ran extended his arms. “Bear!”

“Bear’s okay, but are you?”

Ran nodded as the magic carried his furry friend into his arms. Squeezing Bear, Ran turned his tear streaked face into Sarn’s chest. And he held his son tight against his racing heart.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

His son’s eyes said, no more stairs.

And Sarn agreed, but the change in plan left him with a problem. One his magic rectified. Luminous green hands lifted his bag from the step he’d dropped it on. With luck, nothing had broken.

The magic sent another shimmering tendril to seize his son’s bag from where it had fallen. Magic removed the jar of preserves and turned it for inspection. By some miracle, it had remained intact despite its tumble.

“Wow.” Ran stared at the show.

Sarn nodded unable to stop or speak. New muscles stretched as they worked. How was he doing this?

After displaying the unbroken jar, his magic added it to his load. Sarn rubbed his shoulder. It felt dented from bearing the weight of their dinner. Relieved of his burden, he watched the sack swing around a bend in the stair. Pain slashed across Sarn’s brow, and his sight dimmed as a spectral hand darted into the magic’s flow.

For a heartbeat, the ghost boy gained solidity. It looked at him with frightened eyes then turned its hand diverting an emerald beam into the gathering shadows. They vanished the instant his magic touched them.

“Why did you do that?”

The ghost pointed to its eyes then to where the shadows had been.

“Are you saying the shadows have eyes?”

The ghost boy nodded.

“How can that be?”

The specter shrugged its thin shoulders then winked out when Ran stuck his hand into the magic’s stream.

Slumped against the wall, Sarn compacted the magic into a shining bubble around them. If there was something in the shadows, it would see nothing but green light now. And this was one more thing he needed to sort out after work if there was a later.

“Are you okay?”

“I am now,” Ran said, but still clung to him. And after the scares of the day, the boy deserved some coddling, so Sarn held his son tight.

“Yeah, because the magic saved you.” Magic could protect his son far better than he could. Sarn rubbed the bridge of his nose. Why hadn’t he slept when he’d had the chance?

“No, you saved me. The magic does what you tell it.” Ran poked Sarn in the belly eliciting a grunt.

“Yeah, but I don’t know what I’m doing with it. It’s all guesswork and good luck, and I’m sick of it.” And whose fault was that? His, of course, it was his magic. Sarn rubbed his eyes. As soon as everyone ceased chasing him, he needed to figure out how the magic worked and what he could do with it.

“’Cause you don’t play with it.” Ran gave him a pointed glare.

“The magic?”

Ran nodded.

Sarn leaned his head back against the wall.

“We should do that tomorrow.” Ran nodded, liking the idea a whole lot more than Sarn did.

“We’ll see.” Sarn gained his feet still holding his son, who was ignoring him. He sighed. Ran had a one-track mind at times.

“That’ll be our ad-ven-ture.” Ran nodded, satisfied with his plan until he noticed the elevation change. “No more stairs. I don’t like them.”

“Neither do I.” Sarn gave the spiral affair a baleful glare then hurried to the Lower Quarters to collect their dinner.

“They’re okay.” Miren dumped his books on the table and gave the bubbling pot a suspicious glance. “What are you cooking? I’m only asking because your cooking skills are limited to reheating things.”

Sarn nodded and sat back on his heels to let the oats cook. If they needed stirring, he’d be in trouble. “I thought we could use the preserves to flavor it.”

“Sounds good,” Miren sank onto the stool, rubbing his knee.

“Are you okay?”

“It’s the damp of this place.” Miren indicated Ran with a wave. “What’s wrong with him? Is he tired?”

Ran clutched his bear and curled in close.

“Yeah, he’s okay.” Sarn stroked his son’s greasy hair, grimacing when his fingers tangled in it. Tomorrow he’d have to make bathing a priority for them both.

Miren’s expression soured as he opened his mouth to ask the question they all dreaded, but Sarn preempted him.

“I’ll go when nineteenth bell rings.”

They said nothing more as Sarn divided up and decorated the oats without a spoon. He added silverware to his list of items he needed to procure. Though Ran dug his fingers into their shared portion with gusto, no scare was bad enough to depress his appetite.

But Sarn left his untouched. Something about his cave felt off. Piles of dirty clothes competed for floor space with books and papers, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. Sarn gave it up as a lost cause. Only the Foundlings knew where he lived, but that cast of shady characters changed more often than his clothes. Still, it niggled at him, so he consulted his map to see which Foundlings were in residence tonight.

A bell rang nineteen times startling Sarn. He started to rise but stopped when Ran clutched his leg.

“I have to go now, but I’ll be back.” Sarn pried Ran’s sticky fingers from his pants leaving pink smears behind.

“Don’t go.” Ran fixed desperate eyes on Sarn.

“I have to go.”

All the shocks of the day rebounded and Ran dissolved into tears.

Sarn hugged him tight. “Listen to me. I’ll be back soon. I can only speak the truth.” When his magic allowed those words to pass unchanged, a weight slid off Sarn’s shoulders, and he felt lightheaded for a moment. “I will be back.”

But Ran’s fears remained unchanged thanks to his mother’s abandonment. Meeting his son’s eyes, Sarn spoke to that fear. Maybe his words could soothe it away. “I’ll never leave you.”

“You promise?” Ran sniffed and rubbed at his bloodshot eyes.

[_Sly child, _]Sarn tweaked his son’s nose. “You know what I mean. If I go, I’ll always come back.”

The implications of what he’d said staggered Sarn. Could it mean what he thought it did? But how could it unless he and his son died together someday. Logic screamed a denial at Sarn. He was sixteen years older than his son. But his magic would not allow him to lie thus confirming, he and his son would die together someday. Or he would outlive his son, in defiance of the natural order.

Miren said something, but his complaint hit Sarn’s ears as a burst of static as his world shattered around him. The word ‘no’ kept ringing in his ears. Fuck Fate, he would not fail his son, ever.

Judging by his furrowed brow, even Ran sensed something significant had passed. Fear no longer clouded his eyes. Worse, curiosity lit them, portending complicated questions.

Maybe he should go to work and avoid them. “I have to go now—” Sarn groped for words. His mouth was dry, and each syllable he uttered rubbed sandpaper across his throat. “Will you be okay until I return?”

Ran nodded and held out his arms for one last squeeze. Sarn gathered him in as the ghost boy poked his head through the door and touched a book Miren had dropped on the way in. Before Sarn could glance away, images flashed across his mind’s eye—Hadrovel, a thirteen-pointed star bleeding and a shadow looming over his son.

Sarn squeezed his eyes closed, breaking the connection. A book thudded to the ground, and the low-level nausea he’d been feeling since leaving the storeroom vanished with the specter.

“Do you still have those seeds?” Sarn said into his son’s greasy hair.

“The ones from the Queen Tree?”

“Yes, keep them close tonight.”

“Okay.”

A mystified Ran rushed to fetch them and returned with his bear. A silver glow shined from Bear’s belly flap spreading The Queen of All Trees’ soothing presence throughout their cave, easing some of Sarn’s fears.

Had one of Bear’s button eyes winked at him? Sarn rubbed tired eyes. His body tingled with apprehension, but there was nothing else he could do to protect his son except trust in her power. As long as her light shined, Ran would be ok.

Since he was out of time, Sarn pushed to his feet ignoring his torn and filthy clothes. No one would see him anyway, so it didn’t matter if he went one more night without changing them.

“Lock this door and keep it locked until you wake up.” Sarn paused on the threshold still unable to go. There was still something wrong, but he’d failed to turn up anything. The first stabs of the promises he’d made compelled him to pull the door shut and go. But he held back, needing to hear the lock sliding home before he broke into a run and raced against time. But not even he could outpace the questions boiling in his mind.

Chapter 26

“Sarn! Stop!” Nolo shouted, and his command slammed Sarn to a halt, but the questions kept firing.

How could his son not outlive him? Sarn replayed the conversation for the tenth time. There was a flaw in this somewhere, and his sanity depended on finding it.

Nolo trotted over, and Sarn pointed to the ceiling where metal tubes piped the bells’ chiming into every level.

“I’m not late.”

“No, you’re not,” Nolo studied him. “Are you all right?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Sarn’s brow puckered in confusion. Was his unsettled mental state visible? In truth, he was about as far from all right as he could get and still be breathing. But if he admitted that, he’d spend the night fending off flesh-menders. No thank you, I have answers to find.

“The mountain shook, and we thought—”

“It had something to do with me.” Perhaps it had. Tonight, was full of revelations, none of them good ones. Sarn gestured to himself. “Well, I’m standing here aren’t I?”

“It’s the second time in two days, and you’re telling me it had nothing to do with you?” Astounded, Nolo’s eyes searched Sarn, and he did his best to cover his shock.

When was the second quake? Oh right, during the scuffle in the storeroom, he had forgotten about that. Not good since Dirk was unlikely to return the favor.

“Was anyone hurt?”.

Nolo shook his head. “No, both quakes were minor from what I can tell. Are you certain you’re alright? You look wrung out.”

Because he was, and he’d continue to be until he resolved whatever the ghost boy’s death had set into motion. Sarn glanced at his numb arm. The ghost boy let go, but it stayed close even though he couldn’t help it right now.

Why did Nolo care? Where was this concern when the Rangers had captured him and handed him over to his personal torturer? Unable to bear his master’s scrutiny any longer, Sarn turned his back on Nolo. He knew what selfishness lurked in the Ranger’s heart.

“I’m not late, and I never skip work. So why were you looking for me?”

“I know, I called out because there’s something I need you to do.”

One of his masters needed him to do something? Stunned, Sarn stared at Nolo until a black hand held out a blindfold.

“And put this on before someone sees you.”

Sarn wound the blindfold around his eyes trapping his hood underneath in his haste to go. Nolo turned Sarn toward a residential corridor.

“Where are we going?”

“To get you cleaned up. You’re a mess, and I need you presentable.”

“For what?” Since when did the Rangers ever let anyone see him? The question slipped out before realization hit Sarn. There was only one person who would want to see him—his owner. So, the Lord of the Mountain had requested an audience. “He’s here?”

“Yes, and he wants to see you.”

“Tonight? Why?”

“I don’t know.” But Nolo disproved of the visit, his sharp tone made that clear as he listed what not to do. “No cursing, no attitude—in fact, it’s better if you don’t speak at all. Just stand there and let him see you. He just wants to make sure you’re still breathing.”

Why did Lord Nalshira pick tonight for his yearly inspection? Sarn wanted to punch something. He had too many things he needed to do instead of wasting his time playing produce for his purchaser to admire.

A door opened on quiet hinges a half hour later. They were in freeman’s territory—another blank spot on his map. But not one Sarn could fill in anytime soon since the Indentured were not allowed in these tunnels.

“You can take off the blindfold now.”

Sarn picked at the knot until it fell out then let the black strip flutter to the tiled floor.

As he spoke, Nolo touched each item in turn. “Towels are here. Soap is there. Clean clothes are over there. In half an hour, you and your clothes had better be clean. Consider it a damned order.” Nolo shot Sarn a glare before slamming the door.

Sarn regarded the stone basin full of water and the cake of soap lying on its rim. Removing the layers of dirt and grime would rob him of an essential part of his disguise. No good would come of this and his gut churned with foreboding. What if he skipped the whole bath routine and met his noble master as he was?

Dust clung to his clothes, and it had worked itself into the greasy mess of his hair too. Food stains, courtesy of his son, decorated his tunic and trousers. Both knees were torn out of his trousers exposing a generous amount of hairy leg. Yeah, he was a frightful mess, but he owed Lord Joranth nothing but contempt.

The bastard had handed him over to Hadrovel the psychopath Orphan Master. At the time, he’d been fourteen and sickly thanks to exposure. Sarn sat on the tub’s wide brim. Part of him wished Joranth’s men had not spotted his damned luminous eyes and pulled him out of that snowbank six years ago.

What would it have taken—another couple of hours? And he might have slipped into sleep, cocooned in snow never to reawaken. Miren would have died too, and Ran would never have been born. No first word, no first step, no first smile, and Sarn had his answer. For one of Ran’s smiles, he’d do it all over again.

Dipping his hand into the pool, he relaxed at its warm touch. Red lumir stones glowed heating the water. Before he could get any more annoyed, Sarn pulled off his boots but left his clothes on as he submerged. His magic retreated as he lathered his tunic and the scarred skin underneath.

A translucent head popped up over the rim of the tub, and the specter plunged its hand into the water chilling it. For the second time, a shadow separated from the ghost, and it turned frightened eyes on Sarn. Cramps wracked Sarn’s gut, and he doubled over as a wrongness wrenched his insides.

Black tentacles shot out of the blobby shadow, and they seized the specter. The ghost boy struggled to break free, and Sarn sought some way to help, but the magic ignored his summons. He was neck deep in water whose touch had driven it deep into the core of his being, and it refused to come out. Watery hands seized Sarn, and he flailed as his limbs refused to work. Both the ghost and the shadow vanished as a wave of water washed over them—a wave wearing Hadrovel’s face.

“I told you to stay out of this.”

An invisible force whipped the bathwater into a funnel then toppled it. Water slammed into Sarn knocking him out of the tub. He hit the floor shoulder first and managed to keep his right arm between his head and the wet tiles. Magic sparked on his skin but recoiled from his sodden clothing.

“If you persist in this, he’ll see you. And everything I’ve done will come to nothing.” A Hadrovel-shaped geyser lifted the tub and threw it.

As Sarn rolled under the projectile, white magic pushed down the water-hating green one and lashed out, sending a bolt of lightning at Hadrovel.

“No, it’s too soon. You shouldn’t be able to do that, not yet. No good will come of this. Mark my words.” The water-borne creature borrowing Hadrovel’s likeness collapsed into a puddle.

There were so many questions he should have asked instead of throwing an unknown power at his attacker. But he hadn’t, so Sarn sat there staring at the white flames dancing across his knuckles. It was the same power that had made a grab for him in the river two days ago, and in all that time, he still had no answers.

“What are you talking about?”

His question echoed in the flooded chamber reinforcing how lost and alone he was. Even the white magic abandoned him. It receded back to wherever it went when not in use vanishing from his perceptions. Sarn punched the nearest puddle sending water flying and pain shooting across his knuckles when no magic softened the blow.

Warning of an incoming visitor roused Sarn. His map tried to form but fizzled out since it was maintained by his earth-loving green magic, which refused to come out until he dried off. All at once, everything flooded back—Nolo’s orders, the impending visit with Lord Joranth and the mess surrounding him.

“Oh shit.”

Rising took some doing since Sarn was wearing five pounds of sodden cloth thanks to his cloak. It would take hours to dry, but there was nothing he could do except wring the thing out with extreme prejudice.

Cold air kissed his wet skin when he traded soaked garments for damp ones, and he shuddered. Green magic uncurled in response to his unease, and his head map reappeared. Though it stayed minimized at the edge of his vision, he could keep an eye on his approaching visitor.

A touch to his face confirmed he could forgo shaving for another fortnight at least. Thankfully, his hair grew an inch every two to three years. A good thing too, since he didn’t see a razor anywhere. The Rangers still didn’t trust him with sharp objects. But he found his saturated boots and had to pour out their contents before he could stuff his foot into them.

Inari’s sun-in-glory image replaced the generic person icon on his map, and Sarn shot to his feet. Fan-fricking-tastic, of course, she’d show up after he’d made a frigging mess.

Sarn dove for a towel to sop up the water, but it was no use. Hadrovel’s tantrum had wet everything, including the clothes on his body. For a solid minute Inari’s golden, woman-shaped avatar stood there listening, hand upraised to knock before she finally did.

“I came to see if you needed anything.”

What could have made the unflappable Inari nervous? Was she okay? His head map had no information about her state of being since his magic was still protesting his damp clothes. Sarn confined all the wet things to a pile in the farthest corner then pulled open the door. For one glorious moment, he forgot she was the wife of one of his masters.

Inari was beautiful, and the sight of her standing there in a shaft of lumir light took his breath away. Her eyes were soft and warm as a blanket, and Sarn wanted to fall into them and never climb out. But she saw what the Rangers saw: a screwed up fifteen-year-old in a body cast. Never mind he’d healed and grown up in the five years since then.

Pity flowered in her breast, Sarn could see it in her eyes. Anger flared, and he shoved his hands into his pockets, waiting for her to speak.

“I thought you might need a comb.” Inari held one up, and it took a moment for her words to register.

Sarn ran a hand through his wet hair and snagged it in half a dozen places. Maybe she had a point. He yanked his hand free, tearing out a handful of strands in his haste.

“Here, let me.”

And before Sarn could say anything, she reached up and applied the comb to the tangled mess crowning his head. It only took a moment for her to tidy his hair then she stepped back, and her smile rivaled the sun. He wanted to grab her and kiss her, but Sarn turned away and put some distance between them instead. She’s Nolo’s wife, reminded his conscience[_. _]

He had to stop liking her. Sarn wrestled with his attraction, but it twisted out of his grasp. There was something about her drawing him in. He was a moth, and she was the flame captivating him.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll let them know you’re ready unless you need something else?”

Sarn shook his head, not daring to speak. Water and soap had stripped him of more than dirt and grime; they’d removed his mask, leaving him vulnerable in his clean skin. Thank Fate he didn’t sparkle.

Relief warred with longing as the whisper of her tread faded from his hearing. Sarn propped himself against a wall, and a lock of damp hair flopped into his eyes. Since he wasn’t wearing his cowl, stone cradled the back of his head, and his magic rippled along the wall, following in Inari’s wake. Information flooded back, but he shunted it to his inner cartographer without examining it. Only one detail mattered—Inari’s safety.

[_Stop this, _]urged his conscience.

[_No, there’s too many weird things running around. _]

But he did stop, the instant she stepped unmolested across her threshold. He let his magic crawl across the door checking its soundness before withdrawing it. Fates damn him, he’d wanted to know where she lived and now he knew.

“Well, you’re looking good. You shined up like a new coin. I’ll be your escort tonight.” Ranispara said as she rounded a bend and waved him to follow.

“Where’s Nolo?”

Ranispara’s smile flipped into a frown. “Dealing with the Branchers, a delegation showed up, but Jerlo’s in a meeting.” She shrugged.

Since Nolo was the commander’s second, that made sense. But what did the bunch of tree-loving Branchers want? “Why’d they come here?”

“For conclave, they’re interested in holding it here sometime in the fall. They have high hopes his Lordship will take their petition to the Council. At least I think conclave is their motivation. With them, who knows?”

True, the Branchers were an insular bunch. But they also built treehouses in the enchanted forest, so sanity was not one of their strengths. Still, Sarn wished them much luck with their endeavor. They’d have better luck getting face time with Lord Joranth in Jacora where his lordship spent most of his time. But no one had asked him.

“You remember the rules, right?”

Sarn rolled his eyes. “Yes.”

“Repeat them so when Nolo asks if I reminded you, I could say yes with a clear conscience.”

“Look at the floor. Don’t speak unless spoken to, kneel—” Sarn broke off and thought back to Nolo’s earlier recitation. Had he missed anything?

“You forgot one.”

Sarn glanced at Ranispara and noted her amusement. “What did I miss?”

Doing her best Jerlo impersonation, Ranispara said, “And say good things about the Rangers.” She laughed and wiped tears of mirth from her eyes. “As if you’d speak ill of us. Sometimes the commander’s paranoia shows.”

“I guess I can do that.”

Ranispara elbowed him. “You don’t want to get us in trouble, do you? Look I know my husband’s a pain, but his heart’s usually in the right place. I say ‘usually’ because the jury’s still out over his last stunt.”

So much had happened in the last two days. Sarn had forgotten about Gregori’s test and Dirk. He had to do something about that jerk and his cronies. They were a threat to his son. But now she’d reminded him, the anger came roaring back, and it targeted Gregori. He’d make the man pay, somehow, some day. That was a promise.

Ranispara shot him a knowing look, no doubt she’d guessed the drift of his thoughts. “Just remember we’re the good guys. Come on, we’d best get a move on. His Lordship’s waiting.”

Sarn’s gut clenched with dread at the thought, until his vision doubled and fire punched him in the face. Emerald light exploded from his eyes then dimmed to a less blinding level.

“You okay?”.

Sarn nodded and straightened. Already the double vision and pain were subsiding, though his eyes felt a bit scorched thanks to his magic.

“It’s this way.” She gestured to the left.

“No blindfold?”

Ranispara shook her head. “Where we’re going, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

What did Lord Joranth hold over her head? Something she didn’t want to lose judging by the nervous tension riding her.

“Lead on.”

And she did, deep into the most ornate part of the stronghold where only the nobles ever went. A dim place where shadows extended from every crevice or had Sarn imagined that?

Chapter 27

Sarn steeled himself. Without a backward glance, he entered a spartan antechamber leaving Ranispara in the corridor. Every muscle in his body locked up the instant he crossed the threshold and ceded control. Behind him, Ranispara’s footsteps faded into silence, leaving him alone with a man he despised.

Promises chained his eyes to the ground, magnified by his proximity to Lord Joranth—the man who owned him, body and magic too. With nothing else to do but wait, Sarn glared at the floor, and the damned thing wriggled. What the—the thought cut off as he blinked several times, stilling the mass of snakes

Sarn recoiled from the verisimilitude. Only a Litherian could have incised those snakes mid-writhe giving them the appearance of motion. They’re not real—though, something about the sinuous design was wrong. A voice sliced through his thoughts silencing them—Lord Joranth was coming.

Each step the Lord of the Mountain took sent one command ricocheting through Sarn’s skull: Obey. Obey. Obey—Yes, he must do what Master commands. Obey, obey, obey—the word cut Sarn’s legs out from under him, and his knees hit the wriggling ground. [_No, they’re not real—just a lifelike carving. _]But they were moving—he felt it through the thin material of his trousers.

Magic ground against his will, but Sarn refused to bend or break. An image sparked in his mind—a silver flame standing against the darkness. Yes, he was like her—The Queen of All Trees—and his will held against the tide pushing on it.

[I want custody of my brother, and I want him to go to school, _]said an echo of his fifteen-year-old self[. _]

‘You will obey whoever I designate as your master in my stead as if he were me. And you will do so without question. Swear it.’

“I swear.”

An invisible force shoved Sarn’s head down until his forehead touched cold writhing stone. [_Stop it, they’re not real. Exhaustion’s making you hallucinate. There are no snakes here. _]Tell that to the scales undulating under his knees.

Through the cross-shaped cutouts of a floor to ceiling partition, Lord Joranth Nalshira watched him. Sarn felt the man’s gaze rake him, but he could not return the glare because his Lordship always sat in deep shadow. Perhaps his Lordship’s penchant for invisibility derived from his exalted status since he was a scion from one of the Great Houses. Or maybe it had more to do with the curse staining the Nalshira line.

Sarn swallowed, but his throat had gone dry. A descendant of his heroes’ murderer owned him and his magic. If the Guardians of old could see him now, they’d laugh at the cruel irony.

“Come closer into the light, so I can see you and take off that cloak. I want to see your face.”

Oaths he’d sworn spun chains around Sarn, squeezing the breath from his lungs as it unfolded his long limbs and stretched him out. With shaking fingers, Sarn undid the oak leaf catch, and his cloak pooled around his boots. He felt naked without its shadowy folds until his spine complained about his rail-straight posture, distracting him.

Behind the wood partition, Lord Joranth’s silhouette shifted on his high-backed chair. “You look ill. Are you feeling all right?”

“I don’t sleep much,” Sarn said before the question extracted a truth he could never admit to anyone without losing his son. In silence, Sarn begged the spirits of his heroes to stop Joranth from asking anything else on this topic.

A chair creaked, but Lord Joranth’s silhouette looked the same since it had merged with his throne-like chair, hiding the man. Rumor claimed Joranth was a tall man, broad as an ox and crafty enough to survive three decades of political intrigue.

“Sit, there’s a chair behind you.”

The compulsion was an invisible string operating his limbs, and Sarn was the puppet, unable to do anything but trip over his cloak in his haste to comply. As he sat, the pressure eased.

Joranth sighed. “I know this is uncomfortable for you and I’m sorry. I went too far with the oaths I had you swear. But it is what it is. So we’ll just have to make the best of it.”

Sarn blinked at the shadow of his owner. An apology was the last thing he’d expected. Why tender it now? Joranth had never evinced any hint of regret before. What made tonight different? Dread coiled in Sarn’s stomach. What did his Lordship want?

A door opened behind Sarn, and his sixth sense bounced off the newcomer, sending no information. So, someone covered by the oaths he’d sworn five years ago had entered. Since they only included two people, the newcomer had to be Lord Joranth’s seneschal, Olav. Indeed, Olav appeared carrying a ceramic basin. But Sarn’s eyes fastened on the silver goblet and the ceremonial knife.

“On my desk, there’s a letter. It’s addressed to the dean of the University of Shayari at Jacora. You still desire your brother to attend, yes?”

Sarn nodded, and his stomach sank. He knew where this headed—another Faustian bargain. What would be the repercussions this time?

“I’ll sign it, but I require something from you in exchange. Listen carefully because I’ll only make this offer once.” Something clicked on the far side of the screen. “Before we discuss the details, you must swear to never tell anyone about this. You may speak freely.”

The compulsion looping around Sarn’s throat disappeared, taking its enforced silence with it. But the rest of his body was under Lord Joranth’s control.

“Do you so swear?”

Sarn relaxed a hair when the question hung there, and nothing compelled him to answer it. Did this mean he had an actual choice? Could he say no if he chose? Though, why would he? Joranth dangled the one thing he’d wanted for his brother. Without a college degree, Miren would fall back into poverty. Money was a wheel cycling through prosperity and loss. Only an education could break the cycle and guarantee stability.

Of course, Miren would also be away for months at a time. Maybe the separation would allow his brother to work through his anger. Several months without a cranky teenager on his case sounded like paradise, but Sarn squashed such selfish thoughts. Yes, Miren was a pain in the ass, but he was family.

“Can I still decline if I do?”

Sarn wanted to massage away the ache building behind his eyes. He had no skill for this kind of thing. Even his son was a better bargainer. Where was Jerlo when he needed the man? Now would be the perfect time for the commander to pop up and do his tactical thing.

Joranth considered in silence for a moment. But it was Olav who answered from somewhere behind Sarn.

“Yes, you can. We won’t force you to do anything.”

Yeah right, but let the man think so if such lies kept his conscience clear. No way was he getting out of here without doing something he detested. Sarn glared at the bejeweled goblet again, and its gems winked at him.

“Fine, I swear I’ll tell no one about this.”

Screw civility, they had dangled the thing he wanted most, so they’d earned a little attitude. And the compulsion left enough leeway to allow some resistance.

Sarn had an agreement with them, and he’d lived up to every damned letter of it for five years. They owed him some respect and a little recognition.

His attitude rolled off Joranth like water off a tarpaulin. Maybe the man had expected it. Anger usually made Sarn’s magic beat against its cage, but the oaths he’d sworn had immobilized it.

“Calm down. My cousin’s right. This is a negotiation, not an ultimatum. We both want something, but neither of us can have what we want unless we come to an accord. Do you understand?”

Sarn nodded because the compulsion forced a physical response when he gave no verbal one.

“Alright let’s move on. I’ll sign the letter and hand-deliver it to the dean. I have a meeting with him next month. In return—”

“I know what you want.” Sarn regarded the goblet out of the corner of one eye. “Why do you want it?”

“The oaths you swore constrain you because you’re powerful and you chafe at that control. I can order you to do this, but we both know it won’t work. You must give it of your own free will otherwise it won’t do what I need it to do. Magic is fickle like that.”

“What do you need it to do? It won’t give you access to magic.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Joranth sighed in frustration. “Let’s say a friend of a friend contracted the Fade.”

Rumor claimed magic-infused blood cured the disease if it was harvested a certain way. Sarn had never seen any proof. Neither had he ever met anyone suffering from the Fade. But plenty of people had forced him into such bargains in the past. Though this time he could refuse and walk away with his life.

“This person is highly placed in the government, and his loss would be catastrophic. You could buy him some time if this works.”

“And if it doesn’t work?” Sarn had never heard of this working. His magic shook mountains and drove him crazy on a regular basis. If any magic could help, it would be healing magic, not his screwed-up brand. [_But there aren’t any true healers anymore, _]reminded his conscience. Because the Seekers had killed them too.

“A deal is a deal, and the terms are these. For a goblet of magic, I will sign and deliver the letter. It recommends one Miren no last name be accepted as a fellow of the University at Jacora. But it must be potent.” Sarn felt Joranth’s gaze on him even though shadows hid the man’s eyes. “You have to will the magic to flow—you have to want it. Take your time deciding. You aren’t expected back for some time yet.”

Silence fell, and Sarn sat there with his back rail straight and hurting as mirth bubbled up. What choice did he have? He needed that letter. It was Miren’s sole shot at a university education.

“What about tuition for the university? Are you offering a scholarship as part of the deal?”

If so, he might acquire his freedom before he was an old man. Maybe even before Ran needed to start school. And what interesting possibilities that eventuality raised.

“What are you offering?”

What was he offering? Regular transfusions? No, he needed to retain something of himself for his son. “I don’t know,” Sarn admitted.

“Let’s table the issue for now. Your brother won’t start university for over a year yet, and much could change in a year. Let’s stay focused on the issue at hand, one goblet for one letter. What say you?”

In his mind’s eye, Sarn saw his son shake his head. Ran’s eyes were anxious, and they willed him not to do this thing. It was unnatural, and the request made Sarn’s skin crawl and his magic revolt inside him but—

“Read me the letter.”

In a clear voice, Olav recited the words which would save his brother from poverty. “I, Joranth of the house of Nalshira, Lord of Mount Eredren, representative to the Council of Twelve recommend my vassal, a Miren no last name, to the University of Shayari—”

The letter highlighted his brother’s academic achievements and guaranteed his tuition. Somewhere inside Sarn, the fifteen-year-old boy who had forged this deal rested easy. His mission had come to fruition, but it was a hollow victory—one he might regret.

When Olav finished reading the letter aloud, Sarn opened his eyes again. “I’ll do it, but you have to sign and seal it first.”

“Done and done, Olav show him.”

Since he’d spent a lot of time in Jerlo’s office over the years, Sarn had a fair idea what the letter should look like. The commander received stacks of missives every day, and he’d always made a point of glancing at them. So when Olav presented the letter, Sarn scrutinized it.

Five years ago, before he’d made the original bargain, he’d asked Inari to write out his name and Miren’s too. He’d traced those seven letters until their shapes had imprinted themselves on his mind and now he called them forward.

Scanning the letter, Sarn picked out Miren’s name and a word or two containing the seven letters he could read. The numbers in today’s date confirmed the letter was current. But he had more than hope to rely on, he had magic too. While Olav had read the letter, he’d repeated the contents word for word under his breath. And every word had passed his lips without a struggle confirming the deal was genuine.

Still, Sarn gave the missive one more glance. In his mind’s eye, he called up an image of the formal letters the commander received and compared them. This letter appeared to have all the right components including a wax seal bearing the howling wolf emblem of the Nalshira clan making it official.

Sarn stared at the red mark of the Usurper. A cold dread crawled into his belly and dug its claws into him. Why was he associating with the descendants of his heroes’ murderer? Because he had no money and no choice.

“Thank you,” Sarn said, and Olav removed the letter.

“You can move freely now.”

At Joranth’s words, the invisible bonds vanished, and Sarn rubbed his temples, his eyes and the bridge of his nose. But neither soothed the ache pounding in his skull. What they’d asked of him was wrong, and they all knew it.

The wood screen with its cross-shaped cutouts was a web, and behind it, a bloodthirsty spider waited. Sarn let his gaze fall to his lap. If he did this, he’d throw away the five years he’d spent defining who he was outside of the magic. He’d be the kid with a power everyone except him coveted. And he’d disappoint his son by breaking the promise he made to the boy every day.

A better man would say no and find another way, but he was like everyone else, grasping after the easy answer, the simple fix. Or in this case, the knife catching the glow of his eyes.

If he did this, they’d have him. But Miren had to go to university, and this was the easiest way to send him there. So Sarn rolled up his sleeve, exposing thick scar tissue.

At Hadrovel’s execution, he’d believed he’d put the bleedings behind him. Hope died as he gripped the knife. Someone would always want what was inside him. Then Ran was airborne and frightened as the boy headed for certain death. Sarn closed his eyes, remembering his magic tearing free to catch his son and return the scared boy to him. And for the first time in his life, he wanted to keep the magic in his veins.

[_Don’t do this, _]whispered the magic, or maybe he hallucinated it talking in his head.

[_They only want a cupful. Besides, you always come back whether I want you or not. _]Except this time, Sarn wanted it to come roaring back twice as strong. Sarn dug the knife into his arm, ending his internal debate. Because the scar tissue had no receptors left to fire off painful warnings, he felt nothing but cold until the knife warmed.

Blood welled red and dull as the magic contracted into his chest, burning his insides. When Sarn called it, it didn’t come because it too had to obey.

[_You can move freely, _]his Lordship had said, but the bastard had not relinquished control of his magic.

Five years ago, Hadrovel had tried this, and it had nearly killed Sarn. He stared into the shadows veiling his master and words failed him.

“Don’t move,” Joranth said. His voice was a thunderclap, and it sprang invisible bonds trapping Sarn.

A bell rang as Olav took the knife and cut lengthwise along an artery, parting the skin from wrist to elbow. Blood flowed into the basin too fast and too red without even a glimmer of magic as the bells ceased tolling the twenty-second hour.

A door opened, followed by the whisper of soft soled shoes. Who had entered now? Sarn struggled to focus, but everything was blurring. His head map flickered meaning whoever had entered was not covered by the oaths he’d sworn.

Was it Jerlo? No, this presence was odd, and the more he focused on it, the more unnatural it became. Nausea spiked as the newcomer’s wrongness socked him hard in the stomach. None of the Rangers ever registered as unnatural. So, who had entered and why did this person feel both foul and familiar?

A second shadow appeared behind the ornamental screen, and a voice from Sarn’s darkest nightmares hissed through a mouthful of gravel. “Why is he awake? He’ll fight you if you don’t knock him out.”

But Hadrovel was five years’ dead, so this was that same imposter again. Why was Hadrovel’s doppelganger here and how did it know Lord Joranth? Were they in league?

“He can’t do anything but lie there and bleed. He can’t move unless I give him leave to and I will not.”

No, his Lordship would give no such command until the emerald radiance flowed. And his magic had no intention of doing that unless forced. Instead, it coiled around his organs cocooning them. Warmth blossomed behind his eyes and nose as it encased whatever lay behind them and it made Sarn sleepy. He struggled to stay conscious. He’d promised his son he would return and he intended to keep that promise.

“Then I’ll do it,” hissed a new voice, this one female.

Stomach acid burned the back of Sarn’s throat making him wish he’d eaten more of those oats as something snaked into view.

“What the—?” Olav let go of his arm and backed away from the woman-shaped mass of writhing snakes.

She regarded Sarn with pitiless reptilian eyes and lowered a claw-tipped hand toward his throat.

Olav shoved between them, brandishing a bloody knife. “Get away from him, demon!”

Snake woman dipped her head and extended a forked tongue to lick the blade clean. “Mmm, mage blood is so much sweeter than regular human blood.”

“Back off bitch.” Then to Hadrovel’s doppelganger, Olav said, “Call off your creature.”

“No!” shouted someone who was not Hadrovel or his evil, magical twin. A body collided with the partition, shaking it. Gray gloved fingers pushed through the cross-shaped holes and in the shadows, two sorrowful eyes caught Sarn’s. A gaze lock pulled at him until the shadowed figure stepped back.

“Don’t hurt him.”

The newcomer’s husky voice was wracked with pain and so damned familiar, but Sarn couldn’t place it. Sleep was calling, and he was losing the fight.

“Very well,” said Hadrovel’s doppelganger and the snake woman slithered aside but remained on the periphery.

“Banish her,” Joranth demanded, “or our deal’s off.”

“Fine.”

Snake woman grayed as she melted, releasing a tangle of snakes. They writhed back into the carvings she’d drawn them from. So, their earlier writhing was real and not a hallucination. What the hell had he gotten himself into?

“Sorry Kid,” Olav said as he covered Sarn’s nose and mouth with a cloth.

Its sweet scent dropkicked Sarn into a gray haze. Something held him to a shred of consciousness. Maybe it was the magic. Or, maybe it was the small spectral hand freezing his arm.

Sarn met the ghost boy’s scared eyes. A chain of shadows leashed the dead child to someone behind the screen. Interesting, because Sarn sensed only one being back there not covered by his oath of obedience, but two voices had issued. What did that mean?

The ghost struggled and the tar weeping off the chains binding it made Sarn’s stomach roil.

[_Unnatural, _]screamed his magic as it roused, ready to scour the wrongness but it slammed into an invisible wall.

The room spun around Sarn, or maybe he was spinning. Only the specter was still. Ice slid up his bleeding arm and lead flowed into his chest as Sarn struggled to breathe.

“If you want it to be potent, you have to bleed him out. Only then will the magic run like maple sap in February,” said the thing that was not Hadrovel.

Unless Hadrovel had somehow morphed into something else after death. Would his former tormentor register as unnatural then? The ghost boy did. But his thoughts were fragmenting and merging with disjointed memories. Sarn blinked, but they refused to go away.

The last five years vanished in a snap leaving him blinking hard at the noon sun and elbowing his way through a jostling crowd. He leaned on crutches, dragging his broken leg behind him because the thigh-high cast refused to bend. A whip cracked against a broad back as those miserable eyes targeted him and blinked out an apology. The steak knife in his pocket beat a cold tattoo against his good leg.

Jerlo’s midnight eyes had fixed on him, and the commander had said, “executions are no place for children.”

[_“I’m not a child—” _]he’d started to say, but everything had faded into the commander’s black eyes. Their rapacious hunger had sucked everything in, leaving nothing but unconsciousness behind.

The memory grayed and blew away like so much ash. Sarn blinked, but the chamber was becoming fuzzy around the edges. Even the ghost’s icy hand could not stop his slide towards oblivion. The blessed dark of unconsciousness was calling, and its siren song was so hard to ignore. If only he had permission to move even a fraction of an inch, he could hold on for a little longer.

“Won’t losing so much blood kill him?” The voice sounded like Olav’s. A smooth hand touched his forehead then retracted it. “He’s gone cold.”

The bargain, yes, Sarn was still in that chamber with Joranth and his cohorts, at their mercy. [_I’m no one’s victim, not anymore. _]Anger started a slow burn in Sarn’s belly, and for a moment, it pushed back the Gray Between Life and Death.

“He’s not like you or I. Bleed him, and he doesn’t die. The magic won’t allow its host to perish when it can replace the loss—” rasped a familiar voice as it drew close, but stayed out of sight. Its owner stank of urine soaked dust, body odor and the sweet reek of an aliel eater.

“Why isn’t it flowing—the magic I mean? If you cut a mage, they bleed magic, so why isn’t he bleeding magic? “ Joranth asked in a worried tone. Why should his owner worry? His Lordship had made this infernal offer.

A shadow crouched beside Sarn, but he could not turn his head to see more than a blurry shape. One that was heartbreakingly familiar. Who the hell was this creep?

“Why do you think? Magic is an organism, and like any living thing, it wants to survive.” Lumir light glinted off a knife blade nearing Sarn’s eye in an eerie repeat of the past. Five years ago, a last-minute intervention had saved his eye, as the scar on his face attested. But no one would come to his rescue this time.

“I need him undamaged.”

“I was just checking if he’s still with us.” The knife withdrew, but the hand remained. Gloved fingers traced the scar down the left side of his face. And Sarn caught a flash of a symbol he’d seen before—a thirteen-pointed star inside a circle.

Footsteps approached, then Olav seized the shadow and shook it. “How would the magic know what we intended unless—he’s done this before.”

Sarn tried to throw off the compulsion gagging him, but he was losing focus.

“Of course, he has. How else would I know what to do? You need the magic to flow free and untainted. If you want a shot at a cure,” said not the shadow to his left but Hadrovel’s imposter.

The brute would know since he’d been the last one to trick him into this. Sarn seethed at the injustice.

“How can you be certain?”

The answer was obvious. And Sarn thought nothing more as breathing required all his concentration. His heart pounded, pumping a dwindling blood supply into veins threatening to collapse. The ghost child slipped a little closer to the creep standing over Sarn. Its eyes begged for help. But he also needed a rescue.

“Now, release his magic. It will flow. It has no choice. He’ll die if it doesn’t.”

A hand touched Sarn’s face, and in his mind’s eye, a red line bloomed. As it curved, the line was intersected by thirteen lines forming a star. A voice he’d heard too many times in the last three days shouted: eam’meye erator!

Sarn stared into the empty eyes of a veiled killer. His magic rose in a feeble attempt to push the creep’s hand away.

The jerk leaned close and whispered, “I’m truly sorry for this,” then slid a blade between Sarn’s ribs puncturing an organ made to store magic.

A door closed and for a moment, a familiar icon flickered in the hall before vanishing, but unconsciousness stole the identity of his newest tormentor. Sarn’s heart stopped, and his body seized, sending a black tide to carry him into Death’s embrace.

“I give you back your magic. Save yourself,” commanded his master.

Both types of magic burst from their separate cages and scorched new pathways. Sarn sucked in a breath, and his heart pounded a runner’s tattoo as it pumped magic to supply his body’s demands. Liquid light poured out of the gash in his arm into the goblet waiting to receive it until a luminous clot plugged the wound.

Magic screamed as it leaped and slammed against the lowering lid trapping it inside the goblet.

Run, _]whispered the magic still inside Sarn, jolting him back to full consciousness. [_Get away. Don’t let them steal us. We are you, and you are us. We cannot be separated.

[_What? _]Sarn reeled from the magic’s pleas as the chair splintered, dropping him. The stone floor pushed up at an angle, so he landed on his feet, but he still could not move. His Lordship had not ceded control of his body, just his magic. So Sarn toppled until stone arms caught him.

Why was it so cold in here? Sarn shivered. Something bad had just happened, but each convulsion sent his thoughts skittering away. His cloak rose and enfolded him, but he was still shaking. Fire raced through his veins warming him as his magic sought a way to break his invisible bonds. But it couldn’t.

Something scanned Sarn from head to toe. Green lightning snaked across his body pulling at the bonds created by one stupid promise made five years ago. But his promises were binding and not even Mount Eredren—if it was the mountain doing this—could free him.

A bellow shook Mount Eredren and something shattered. A crimson wave rolled towards Sarn and hundreds of reptilian heads pushed up from the plaster. They surrounded a spreading pool of his blood.

[_Stop them, _]shouted his magic, and Sarn would have but—

[_I’m under a compulsion. I can’t do anything until he releases me. Why don’t you do something? _]

No answer. Great, the magic was ignoring him, but maybe that was a good thing. He was not clearheaded enough to direct the magic. And the stronghold might collapse if Mount Eredren kept shaking.

[_Stop. I’m okay, _]Sarn thought hard at the mountain, and it stilled. But the lightning remained, adding to the intense glow of his eyes bathing the blood-drinking snakes in green. Sarn glared at Joranth who still sat behind the screen, waiting for someone else to deal with the problem. _Free me. _

Movement in Sarn’s peripheral vision made him wish he could turn his head. All he could do was shout, [_free me, _]inside his head and hope his glower convinced his Lordship to release him.

“Do something! Stop this!” Olav shouted, proving he was still here.

“I release you.”

At Joranth’s words, the compulsion shattered and Sarn staggered toward the engorged snakes until a whispered plea halted him. Magic called—his magic—it wanted to rejoin its brethren. Sarn stretched out a hand, and the goblet flew to him.

“Listen to me Sarn. We had a deal, remember? One letter for one goblet. I did my part. Now it’s time you do yours. I order you to stop and repeat after me.”

Paper rustled and the word ‘deal’ reverberated in Sarn’s head, but it failed to shake loose anything. Invisible bonds snapped into place, trapping him in a prison of flesh.

[_Wrong, wrong, wrong, _]harped a voice in Sarn’s head as his remaining magic raged against his shackles. Pressure built until his bones creaked. If Sarn could have, he would have thrown back his head and screamed.

“Release him. It must be of his own accord. You can’t force this. Remember what [_he _]said. If you try to coerce him, his magic will tear him apart and us with him.” Olav took the goblet and set it aside. “Easy lad, I know you’re confused. We were warned you might be. Take a minute to think.”

“You can move and speak freely but no magic. You cannot use magic in here.”

A third of the controls vanished, freeing Sarn. The goblet rested on the table next to the remains of the chair. Beyond it, bloody snakes flattened so they could slither under the door. Should he stop them? Putting two thoughts together was so hard while lightheaded and dizzy. Another snake escape. Was it important?

“Sarn!”[_ _]

The goblet called his name.

Olav stepped into his path holding both hands out in entreaty. The top of the seneschal’s head was level with Sarn’s eyes, and his features were too familiar. Who had worn a variation on them within the last day? The memory swam away back into the confusing morass thrashing around inside his skull.

Olav lifted a sheet of vellum covered in writing but Sarn’s gaze fixed on the Usurper’s seal—the broken sword. Legacy had shattered at the Usurper’s touch, and the tinkling of its shards had set the curse on the Nalshira line—and his master too.

With his index finger, Sarn traced the imprint of a hilt and cross guard—the last Guardian blade. The only one which could restore the order. The pendant under his tunic heated up until the crystal shard threatened to scorch his skin. Through his tunic, Sarn gripped the rough-cut jewel, and as it cooled, his head cleared.

“You and Lord Joranth came to an arrangement. Do you remember?”

Sarn blinked at Olav. The agreement—Lord Joranth—the indenture—yes, he had agreed for his brother’s sake. But this was not part of the deal. Sarn opened his mouth, but no words emerged.

[_Mine _]whispered the magic.

[_Yes, _]cried a voice from the depths of his soul, one Sarn didn’t recognize. But it startled him enough to break the circle of his thoughts.

“You two came to a separate arrangement. Here let me read this to you. Let’s see if it refreshes your memory.” Olav read aloud from the letter in his hand.

After the first sentence, it all came flooding back to Sarn. But they had taken something from him, and the magic urged him to take it back.

Sarn resisted. The letter was worth any price. Turning his back on the goblet of his magic, he scrubbed both hands over his face. Conflict raged inside him. His magic cared about itself and his son but not his brother.

Sarn leaned into the nearest wall while his head pounded and the magic ramped up its wordless objections. “Get it away from me. It’s yours. I give it freely. Do with it as you will.”

As his words fell into the silence, the storm inside Sarn quieted. “Can I go now?” Or did his lordship require something more from him? He had to get out of here to clear his head, but those snakes—where had they gone? Sarn lowered his hands. Bloody streaks marked their egress, but not one remained.

“Are you all right?”

No, the magic was running riot in his system, sensitizing him to every damned thing. Two forces pulled on Sarn, and each one wanted something different. Damn the fates for giving him two types of magic. “Let me go. I’ve done what you asked.”

Joranth’s silhouette waved. “Go and say nothing of this to anyone.”

Sarn nodded again, spun on his heel and stalked away. Magic punched the door, opening it before his hand touched the handle. Pristine marble met his startled gaze. Not a single bloody smear remained to show where those snakes had gone. They were full of his blood. He should be able to track them, but when he checked his map, there was no snake icon.

Then again, not much was registering except the need to get away from here fast. A sudden wave of dizziness sent Sarn crashing into a wall. Magic shielded his shoulder from harm. Beads of light marched up the back of his hand as he put away the map. Later, he’d do a more thorough check when his ears weren’t ringing.

Right now, just staying upright was a challenge. Sarn held his glowing hands in front of him, searching the blurs for obstacles as he tottered away.

Chapter 28

Sarn squeezed between two statues of armored men clobbering each other. Damn those Litherians and their quirky design ideas. In his veins, magic flowed undiluted, lighting them up. It powered every step and fueled every thought.

What am I?

[_A mage, _]said the magic.

But what did that really mean? Sarn careened past more statues as the questions kept coming. How could he still be staggering around after what they’d done to him? Was he even human anymore?

Yes, whispered the magic.

Relief stopped Sarn in his tracks, and he pressed a hand to his aching brow. [_I’m still human. _]Thank Fate because he’d started to wonder after the day he’d had.

Yes, but enhanced.

[Enhanced how? _]Sarn asked, but the magic had said all it wanted to on this subject. Silence was its reply. He slowed and kicked a statue in frustration.[ _]Why did the magic always clam up after a couple questions?

“I come bearing gifts,” Ranispara said from around the next bend.

Sarn almost jumped out of his skin. Instead, he took cover behind the statue of a centaur trampling someone. His meandering route had taken him where he didn’t belong—into a residential area. Inari’s icon shined, calling to him, but he fought the urge to go to her.

Inari laughed. “Avoiding your husband still?”

“What? Can’t I stop by to chat? Must I have a motive for my visit? All right you caught me. My sister’s place is a zoo what with her expanding brood and all. Can I crash on your couch? I brought a sweet red wine. Want to help me drink it?” Ranispara’s archer icon lifted her arm.

“What else are you offering?”

“Maybe a bit of news to sweeten the deal?”

“It depends on the news.”

“I might have a few juicy tidbits to share if you still have some of those cookies left.”

“Come on in. I baked a fresh batch. Nerule’s already in bed so keep your voice down.” Inari’s icon waved, and his heart leaped. Sarn slid between the dueling statues then stopped when he realized she had waved to her friend, not to him. Neither woman knew he was there.

As their icons moved into a dark space not included on his head map, Sarn regarded a door now triple starred in his memory. The scent of fresh baked cookies made his mouth water and his stomach rumble, but he held back.

Two statues flanked her door. Both sat with their heads bowed, though one held an infant and the other a dying man. Gold circles fashioned out of lumir crowned all four statues’ heads. So this was where Inari lived.

Hearing footsteps, Sarn backtracked to an intersecting corridor then staggered to a stop when dizziness overcame him. What had he done? Inari was a married woman. Just knowing her address was a betrayal of Nolo and it made his conscience squirm. He had to delete her home from his map—but how? Places added themselves to his map all the time, but none ever fell off. There had to be an eraser somewhere inside his head.

Leaning against a wall, Sarn searched until a familiar icon appeared—Rat Woman’s beady-eyed spy. He pushed off the wall and staggered toward it as the rat icon grew and took on female proportions. Maybe Fate was about to provide some much-needed answers.

Sarn skidded around three more bends before slowing his mad dash. Nausea crashed over him, and he stumbled to a halt. Rat Woman was there alright, standing in an alcove. Her mirrored eyes fixed on him and turned sad.

“Stay back,” she hissed, brandishing the book. Shadows described a heart pierced by thorns on its plain cover, but that could be a trick of the lighting.

“Only if you’ll tell me what’s in that book. Why does it feel so foul?” Sarn propped himself against a wall and fought the urge to throw up.

“You know what it is—a book of black magic.”

“Why do you want it?”

His other magic surfaced and didn’t like what it saw. [_Unnatural, _]it commented as if the nausea stirring his empty belly wasn’t clue enough. His veins glowed a green verging on white making Sarn look even more freakish than usual.

“I don’t want it. I’d destroy it if I could. I am as beholden to it as you are to your master.”

“And he wants it.”

She nodded.

Sarn had a feeling he’d already met her master. It wasn’t Insect Man or Snake Woman since both had acted as if they were taking orders. What about Hadrovel’s doppelganger? Or the masked man at the bloodletting? That fellow was also familiar and foul. Was he the one masterminding this? Why did his heartbreak at the question? What did that traitorous organ know that he didn’t?

A translucent hand jutted out of the wall and seized Sarn’s wrist, freezing it. The ghost boy pulled with all its spectral might dragging Sarn away from Rat Woman.

“Let go of me!” Sarn struggled, and the fabric of his magic tore leaving glowing filaments to drift in his wake.

The ghost boy’s head poked through the wall and shook in a vigorous negation. Its eyes were saucer wide and terrified as it tugged harder.

“Who is your master and why does he want it?” Sarn yelled over his shoulder. He struggled to break the ghost’s numbing grip, but the bloodletting had weakened him.

The floor undulated. Was it moving? Sarn tripped as a reptilian head erupted from the floor followed by at least a hundred others. He fell flat on his belly with the wind knocked out of him and almost missed Rat Woman’s quiet reply.

“To finish what was begun.”

Before he could ask what she meant, the snakes converged and whipped together into a strange amalgamation of reptile and woman. A peel of sibilant-tinged laughter issued from her parted lips exposing inch long fangs.

Well, at least he knew where those blood-drinking snakes had gone. Bile crawled up Sarn’s throat at the unnatural creature stalking toward the backpedaling Rat Woman. It took all his concentration to keep from throwing up.

“Give me the book.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m tired of taking orders.” The snake woman lunged, but her target dropped to the ground, and a horde of rats scurried away from her cloak.

“You bitch. You think he’ll reward you for this?” Snake woman raked the cloak with her claws until only gray ribbons remained. The book was gone. Somehow Rat Woman had spirited it away.

[_Get up damn it! _]Sarn tried, but his numb left arm refused to work. A familiar gray veil descended as a rat stopped inches from his face.

[_Stay away from the forest tonight. _]He thought Rat woman said, then her emissary raced into the shadows. A gray haze swallowed the ghost and the reptilian woman dissolving into a mass of wriggling snakes.

Sarn fought to remain conscious, but his body had taken all the punishment it could without respite. Fangs pierced his skin in multiple places, and his magic screamed. Or maybe he had. Oblivion took him as his body seized.

Sarn came to lying on his back looking up at a face shrouded in gray cloth. Shade, his son, abandoned—the nerve of his friend to sit there as if nothing had happened.

“I told you to stay away from me.”

Sarn rolled away from his friend toward a nice Litherian-carved monstrosity whose floral base offered plenty of handholds. With a firm grip on the warrior’s ankle, Sarn rose and leaned against the cold marble until the world ceased sloshing about.

“You’re hurt—” Shade said packing a wealth of meaning into those three words. His friend’s smoke ravaged voice raised the hairs on the back of Sarn’s neck.

“How did you—?”

Oh no, not Shade, no—but he had to know. Sarn stepped closer to his seated friend and sniffed, receiving a lungful of sweat, urine, feces and the honeyed decay of an aliel eater. Backing away, Sarn shook his head.

“You were there?” Sarn pointed to Lord Joranth’s private chamber. Had that flickering symbol been Shade’s?

“Aralore’s back. You remember her, right?”

Sarn shook his head. Who was Aralore? “What are you talking about? I asked you a question. Were you there in the room with—when I—” but Sarn’s voice trailed off when the words jammed in his throat.

“I’d never hurt you.” Shade wobbled to a stand.

Sarn studied his friend, taking in all the details he usually ignored—yes it could have been Shade. But why? A sick feeling erupted in the pit of his stomach. It always came down to greed. He had something everyone wanted. But when Sarn met his friend’s dark eyes and searched them, he found no avarice there.

“Why are you looking at me like I’m the enemy?” Shade backed away. “What happened? I found you passed out. Are you hurt?”

Yes, but Sarn refused to think about Lord Joranth, the promise, and the whole bloodletting thing. Later he’d have to deal with it, but right now he had more important matters to attend to like a missing ghost child.

The specter had been there when he’d blacked out, but a quick glance confirmed it was gone. The terror in its young eyes tore at Sarn even in memory. How could he find a ghost? Well, his head map was a good place to start. Maybe it had acquired a fix.

“Did you see anyone else when you arrived?” Sarn dimmed his map so he could see Shade through its overlay.

“No, was someone else here when you—” Shade’s voice trailed off.

“Never mind.” Sarn resumed studying his map, but he saw no icon for the ghost. “What are you doing in this part of the stronghold? This is freemen’s territory.”

Shade ignored the question and approached with worried eyes. “Did he hurt you?”

“How did you know he hurt me?”

But Shade didn’t need to answer. His friend’s dark eyes confessed it all, and that sick feeling in the pit of Sarn’s stomach blossomed into full on horror.

“You were there. How did you know what to do? Did you put him up to it?”

Shade continued with the head shaking. “It wasn’t me.”

But it was. The lie hung between them, exposed by the vial of aliel powder in his friend’s pocket. It was payment for helping Lord Joranth. To Sarn’s sixth sense, the white powder was an energy sinkhole. But there was even more damning evidence than the drugs.

“Just like it wasn’t you who abandoned my son earlier. Tell me another lie.” Sarn scrubbed both hands over his face. Every time he made a friend jealousy destroyed the relationship. “I owe a sadist a favor because of you. And you can’t admit you helped Joranth take something from me in exchange for drugs.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“Yes Shade, it was. You saw what Hadrovel did to me. Who better than my best friend to betray me?” Laughter bubbled up, but Sarn tamped it back down.

Shade made another feeble attempt at a protest, but Sarn cut his friend off by holding up his hand. A vial flew out of Shade’s pocket and inside it, a green liquid shined.

“It was you.” Sarn threw the bottle at his friend and missed. The glass shattered against a statue’s cuirass and his stolen magic dove into his upraised palm to rejoin its brethren.

“Next time Zaduke threatens to kill you, don’t knock on my door. Stay away from me and mine.” Turning on his heel, Sarn stalked away. He’d said his piece for now.

“But you don’t mean it, Sarn?” Shade’s voice broke on his name.

So did Sarn’s heart, until he hardened it and half-stumbled in his haste to escape. Repeated calls shoved the knife in deeper and twisted it. Six years of friendship had just ended in betrayal and lies and all for what—a vial of magic and drugs?

How far would Shade go for the next fix? Would his ex-friend report his son to Lord Joranth? What if his friend had already done so? Fear warred with anger until Sarn turned and punched a wall. Magic lit up his hand shielding it from the blow. He had to safeguard Ran from the person who had told him he had a son. It had all come full circle at last.

Sarn paused at a wall by a four-way intersection as a troubling thought struck him. Could it all boil down to drugs? He tapped a statue of an idealized woodsman while he examined that hypothesis for flaws. The statue’s glowing eyes glowered at Sarn, and he knew how aliel powder reached Mount Eredren. Someone hiked in with it. What better cover than to travel with a family?

His new hypothesis cast the murders in a whole new light. Had the ghost child died because of a drug deal gone wrong?

It was a place to start, but there had to be more to it than that. Rat Woman had mentioned black magic, and he believed her. Too many freaky things had happened. Could there be mages other than himself? He’d never met any, though he’d been in hiding since he was small. What could he do if a more powerful mage was somehow behind this? The question chilled him.

The ghost boy appeared, knocking Sarn from his thoughts. Black shackles bound the specter’s skinny ankles. It pointed an accusatory finger. Sarn turned and grimaced at his ex-best friend.

“Tell me you’re all right, and I’ll get out of your sight.” Shade’s dark eyes implored Sarn.

Damn, not only had Shade fallen back on rhyming everything, but the bastard had followed him. “I’ll be okay no thanks to you. I just have to—” Sarn trailed off feeling the tug of promises he’d sworn. Pain stabbed his brow. Damn, his other masters were looking for him.

“But you’re hurt.” Shade pointed to the caterpillar of emerald light crawling out from under Sarn’s sleeve.

Those three troublesome words almost made Sarn laugh. “I used to think life was pain but my son taught me otherwise.” He rolled up his sleeve and displayed a gash spanning from wrist to elbow. “This will heal but the rift between you and me won’t. Betrayal is a forever kind of offense.” Sarn ached to hug his son, to feel the boy’s smile and spend five minutes in the presence of someone who thought he could do no wrong. Another sharp jab reminded him of his priorities. His masters were waiting.

Sarn started as the ghost boy materialized between him and Shade with its little fists bared.

What the hell was going on? Sarn rubbed his temples. Why did the ghost think Shade was a threat? He could bench press Shade if so motivated.

Eam’meye erator, whispered a disembodied voice.

Was Shade involved in the murders? While he was at Lord Joranth’s mercy, Sarn had caught a flash of a thirteen-pointed star in a circle. But his friend was a user, not a dealer. Sarn took an involuntary step backward.

“What the hell are you involved in?”

Shade didn’t answer. Shadows leaped over his friend onto the silently screaming ghost boy.

Sarn’s magic flared, and its light knocked the shadows back—all except for one tentacle. It caught hold of the chain binding the ghost and pulled.

Unnatural—cried his magic. It pushed Sarn away from the specter and its mysterious captor. What made those chains? Was he staring at death’s shadow? Why did it stand with his ex-best friend?

“What have you done, Shade? Answer me.”

But Shade was gone. Only shadows remained where his ex-friend had stood. Frost-rimmed the nearby statues just like it had in the forest the night he’d found those bodies. The frigid touch of a strange magic repelled Sarn, and he backed away.

The ghost slipped a little more into the darkness winching its chain. Its scared eyes pleaded for help. Sarn tried to catch hold of the terrified ghost, but his hands passed right through the specter. He kept trying and failing until captor and captive dissolved into a wall.

Sarn punched the carving of a mythic creature battling a battalion of spear-toting men. It was in his way. “Just hold on, okay? The pieces are falling into place. I just need a little more time. I’ll find a way to help you—I promise.”

And his vow bound him to that end. Sarn scanned the corridor uncertain what to do now. Could Shade be involved? Not the Shade who’d tried to shield him from Hadrovel’s cruelties. Not the Shade who’d bound his wounds and stolen food when he couldn’t.

[_But is that the Shade you’re dealing with? _]

Sarn just didn’t know. His map unfurled pointing frantic arrows at Jerlo’s icon on the move. He was out of time. Jerlo was searching for him.

Sarn had to slow as he hit the sculpture-choked north-south transept or risk an injury. Dodging marble weapons raised in combat, he wove through the gauntlet until a statue caught the edge of his cloak. Sarn halted to free the still damp thing. As he straightened, the entwined circles carved into the statue’s base caught his eye. They were tucked here and there, each rounded glyph different from the last. Was he staring at a remnant of an ancient writing system?

Maybe, but none of the runes he recalled seeing in Miren’s textbooks looked anything like them. They had to be significant, or a bunch of enchanted trees wouldn’t have paused their battle long enough to draw them. He’d seen them in the heart of that crystal yesterday too, and those had been trying to tell him something.

Pain crashed into Sarn and sent him sprawling as Jerlo’s voice boomed in his head. [_Come to me now. _]Shit, he’d been summoned. There went all chance of finding answers tonight.

Sarn rolled onto his stomach and pushed up to his knees. Something wet crawled down the inside of his injured arm. Splat. He stared at a luminous puddle creeping toward his braced hands. His magic could do a lot of things, most of them annoying, but healing was beyond its capabilities. With a sigh, Sarn ripped a strip from his cloak and bound the wound.

His magic’s skill at clotting left something to be desired though it had no problem reweaving his cloak. Sarn fingered the healing tear. I wish I mended as easily. But he didn’t so he touched the puddle and the luminous fluid drained into his index finger. Warmth pulsed up his arm as the magic redistributed itself throughout his body.

Sarn gave those circular runes one last glance as the four symbols comprising his name wheeled past his mind’s eye presenting a key. He touched the nearest rune—an S, skipped the next two, then grazed an R. Over there on a spear-wielding ruffian, he spotted an A and an S amid a cluster of unreadable characters.[_ _]

Sarn traced those unknown characters wishing he could read them too. Maybe they held the one clue that eluded him, and maybe he was deluding himself. He still had no evidence those circle runes related to the ghost boy’s situation except a gut feeling. And there was no one to tell him how everything connected—or was there?

Three times the Queen of All Trees had summoned him, but each time he’d been prevented from reaching her. Sarn rose from his crouch. It was time he sought her out. She was the one being in Shayari who might know how to fix what was wrong. If only she’d call him. Her summons could drown out Jerlo’s.

A bell rang once and fell silent as Sarn staggered to his feet. [_Call me, _]he begged in that still small voice the magic used when it spoke to him. _I need to speak to you. _

She didn’t call. A compulsion shoved Sarn onto an intercept course with Jerlo.

_Call me. I just want an end to all of this, and I think you know how to end it. Call me, please. _

The Queen of All Trees’ power shot around a bend, caroming off statues. Silver rays wove around Sarn, muting Jerlo’s summons and replacing it with hers.

_Come to me Child of Magic. _

Yes, he must go to her, the Queen of All Trees. Sarn turned south toward the mountain’s main exit and the refulgent presence probing the trails for signs of him.

The North-South transept dumped Sarn into a dark labyrinth. Tunnels wandered off in all directions but most led to dead ends or sudden drops. Only one disjointed path swerved toward the doors after skirting a series of murder holes. There was a quicker way requiring agility and a touch of magic—two things he had in abundance.

Veering from the safe route the Rangers always trod, Sarn chose the middle fork. No light except the glow of his eyes lit the maze. Darkness shrouded its dangers by design. The Litherians had gone to impressive lengths to keep people out.

As he ran, the elevation rose, but his magic-infused muscles took the ascent in stride. When he reached its pinnacle, Sarn leaped over a pit. Old bones mixed with spikes marking where unlucky travelers had met their end. Landing on the far side, he skidded for a few feet on loose stones. The crown of his head brushed the ceiling.

Claustrophobia tackled Sarn. The tunnel narrowed, and its ceiling dropped forcing him to bend then drop to all fours. His breaths came fast and shallow as the back of his shoulders grazed stone.

_Come to me Child of Magic. _

Her summons smashed through the fear, and Sarn belly crawled until his hand struck open air instead of more tunnel. Relieved, he felt for a hand hold, and his fingers turned sticky. They gripped rock as he eased himself out until his feet dangled.

Sarn cursed as he felt Mount Eredren stir. Where the hell were his gloves? No doubt Nolo would add the cost of them to his ever-increasing debt. Damn, he had to find them before Nolo found him. Later he could berate himself over the loss. Right now, he had to descend to the trail proper and take his hands, and his magic, off the mountain before it reacted.

But it was too late. The rock wall Sarn clung to undulated until a section of it extruded far enough to provide a foothold. Her wordless call stopped the questions forming in his mind. Glancing over his shoulder, Sarn spotted her, the Queen of All Trees. Her refulgent crown cut through the night as she moved away from Mount Eredren on a north by northeast heading. Her trajectory, if it remained unchanged, would intersect with the murder sites.

Good, it was time he returned to where it had all began and took another look. Maybe this time, he’d find a clue. Sarn felt for the next foothold but a wild urge to just jump for it seized him, and he let go.

For a moment, the mountain held on, gripping his tunic and trousers with dozens of stone hands. When he resisted, it subsided, and each extrusion released him in turn. Sarn plummeted toward a ribbon of gravel zigzagging down the mountain’s southeast face. Letting his magic take the brunt of his fall, he landed in a crouch and took off in a sprint. Ahead lay the precipice where he’d paused last night. This time he vaulted off it and hit the ground running.

Grass crackled underfoot as he blew past Nolo. The Black Ranger called out, but Sarn ignored him and kept going.

Less than two minutes later, his boots struck gravel, and he bolted through the twin rings of menhirs feeling a vague tingle as he cleared them. Thank Fate they’d allowed him to pass.

Where was the Queen of All Trees? He checked his faithful map for her silver torch, but it was absent. Where had she gone?

Silver light blossomed around a beckoning branch. He rushed to the spot, but she had already moved on. What game was she playing? One he had no choice but to play.

An hour later, Sarn felt the trees’ focus on him, but they stayed out of his way as he wove between their massive trunks. Was that a good sign?

His head map jumped up front and center pointing out the spot where it had all begun. He stood where the first group of bodies had been found. Was it only three days ago?

No sign remained, but that was okay since things hadn’t gotten weird until he’d reached the second murder site. And that one was about a half mile to his left, so after a cursory glance, he headed for it.

“Sarn!” Nolo shouted.

Damn it, the Black Ranger was a half mile behind and struggling to narrow the gap. Sarn increased his pace. Better he saw what he needed to before Nolo arrived.

Leafy crowns hid a sprinkling of stars plunging the forest into darkness, not even his glowing eyes could eradicate. A black shroud lingered over the place where he’d found the dead boy, absorbing the light his eyes put out.

Or maybe blood loss and exhaustion were making him see what he expected to see instead of what was there. Sarn scrubbed both hands over his eyes. How could he tell the difference? He was functioning off less than four hours of sleep.

Sarn circled an ankle-deep pile of leaves covering the resting place of the ghost boy. The specter didn’t appear neither did the Queen of All Trees. Either entity could have clued him in, but they stayed away.

Squatting down, Sarn fingered a gleaming leaf, proof the Queen of All Trees had been and gone. Had he missed his one chance to gain the answers he so badly needed?

Sarn cursed when her leaf shriveled up and lost its glow. Perhaps even her august presence had limits. If so, then how was she muting Jerlo’s summons? He could still feel the compulsion seeking a way around her shield, whispering commands he didn’t want to follow—[_shut up! _]

It was all in his head. He had to focus, to find whatever he was meant to find before she let go.

Sarn turned taking in the small clearing. Dead leaves crunched under his boots. Most of the trees had frost striating their peeling bark. Since this was a warm May evening, the frost was—

Unnatural—complained his magic, and Sarn agreed with it.

He felt a soul deep urge to fix it. Since there was no arguing with a gut reaction, Sarn stepped up to the worst affected tree. It listed. Ice had burrowed under long swaths of bark splitting it. If the magic had any ideas about how to help, it kept quiet about them.

Stealing himself, Sarn extended his hand. But before he could touch it, a branch swatted him aside. Sarn stumbled but caught himself on a frost-rimmed rock.

Invisible eyes watched him, and it made his skin crawl. Someone other than the enchanted trees surveilled him.

Sarn spun seeking the watcher, but it eluded even his sharp eyes. “Who are you? Show yourself!”

Something evil focused all its attention on Sarn sending a black wave crashing down on him, but he pulled on the light inside him and shoved it back.

“Don’t you fucking look at me.”

“Why not?” hissed a female voice right before her arm wrapped around his throat and pain pierced his shoulder. Fangs broke through his skin as he threw himself backward against a tree.

She groaned and backed off, clutching her bloody mouth. One of her fangs remained lodged in his shoulder until he yanked it out. Green light wept from the puncture wound, but Sarn ignored it since his magic was already clotting it.

“You bastard! You broke my tooth.”

It was the snake woman again. What was with her and sneak attacks?

“What do you want?”

[_Eam’meye erator, _]replied a hoarse voice he hadn’t heard in a while.

That fell phrase rendered the snake woman incapable of speech. Her body convulsed, shaking loose snakes. They slithered a few feet then vanished.

Still feeling eyes on him, Sarn pivoted and scanned the clearing. There was something he was not seeing. What was it?

[_Show me what’s here. _]Sarn concentrated. The glow of his eyes increased as his magic spun up a shining half dome revealing gray man-shapes. Were they ghosts too? Did everyone who died return as a shambling mute?

Under their translucent feet, darkness boiled spitting black chains from its heart. They manacled the twelve haunts circling the strange magical construct. One disconnected chain flailed about in search of the thirteenth specter. No doubt it was meant for the ghost boy.

Thirteen ghosts, thirteen cairns—a disjointed memory flickered just out of reach. The two couldn’t be related.

A veil dropped in front of the figures becoming more opaque as it pumped out bitter cold air.

Sarn’s teeth chattered as he made another circuit of the mysterious working. Who had done this and how? Could a drug lord have a mage on retainer? Or worse, enslaved to his will?

Sarn shuddered only partly from the cold. Zaduke would do such a thing. Hell, any of the gang lords in the Lower Quarters would. Which was why he’d avoided them until Shade had gotten into trouble.

The central mound pulsated. Nausea punched Sarn in the gut, and he doubled over vomiting stomach acid. Between one heave of his angry stomach and the next, the entire tableau contracted into a black pinpoint and winked out.

A hand seized Sarn and spun him to face a livid Nolo. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and waited for an overdue reprimand.

“Why did you run off? I could have you whipped.”

“I had to see this place again.” Sarn pulled free of Nolo’s grasp and staggered around feeling for what he’d just seen and sensed. Nausea continued to unsettle his stomach, but the intense cold had departed. Had he imagined that fell working?

It had felt real but so did every dream and hallucination. Not ready to give up yet, Sarn scanned the ground seeking proof. But what he’d seen was gone as if it had never been. He felt for a puncture wound, but his index finger slid over undamaged skin.

Once before he’d gotten a flash of something that had already happened. Both then and now, his magic had been riding high. So maybe that’s what had just happened. And yet, something still didn’t feel right about this clearing.

Squatting down, Sarn zeroed in on a shadow his luminous eyes couldn’t banish. It was a black oval inscribed with broken circles—the symbol of death. He froze, hand hovering over the thing as the urge to throw up overwhelmed him. Swiveling, he managed to vomit away from the item.

“Don’t touch it.” Nolo batted Sarn away from the black cabochon.

Another random piece tumbled into place as Sarn wiped his lips on his sleeve. The blind man had worn the twin of that foul gem, but the circles had been whole on his. A sinking feeling he’d asked all the wrong questions made Sarn punch the ground. The blind man from the subterranean farm was part of this making it more than a drug deal gone sour.

“Are you all right?” Nolo shook his head answering his own question. “No, you’re not all right. You’re pale, and you just vomited.”

Throwing himself to one side, Sarn dodged the hand Nolo threw out to grab him. He refused to go to the infirmary.

“Do you know what this thing is?” Sarn pointed willing Nolo to say yes, to explain why the damned mark was stalking him.

“It’s the mark of the Seekers of Truth.”

“The Seekers—”

Sarn shot to his feet and scrubbed both hands over his face. Too shocked to speak, he paced in a tight circle then slammed his boot heel on the cabochon. He ground it into the earth burying his drug deal hypothesis. So those zealots had killed an innocent child and everyone with him. He should have known.

But how could they be involved? The Seekers hated magic. Their order existed to eradicate it, and he had proof of magical involvement.

“Look out!” Nolo shoved Sarn out of the way.

The ground spat the Seeker’s pendant out, and it ricocheted off a rock before rolling to a stop at their feet. Nolo wrapped the pendant in a handkerchief before placing it into his pocket for safe keeping, of course.

“Jerlo needs to see this, and I need to get you back to the mountain. You can’t be out here if there are Seekers around.”

“They’re not.”

“Not what?” Nolo turned, and his dark eyes bored into Sarn.

He broke from the Black Ranger’s intense gaze and fidgeted. Inside everything churned, stirred up by the look. No one cared for him save his son and sometimes his brother. Sarn dragged the toe of his boot through the decaying leaves. Frost edged them with spikes.

But he’d seen a spark of something in Nolo’s eyes, concern perhaps. Sarn shoved the thought aside. He knew what he was: a walking, talking inconvenience. One the Rangers, especially his superiors, wished had come mute, mindless and mundane.

“Stop pacing and talk to me. This is not the time for silence.” Nolo’s words cut across the mental chatter dragging Sarn back to the conversation. “What are they not?”

“Around. I saw them a couple of days ago.” Sarn kicked a rock. Its path curved away as if it had struck an invisible barrier. But when he felt around for it, his hand encountered nothing but cool air. There was something hidden here. Maybe it was what he’d seen, and maybe it was something else.

“You saw Seekers, and you lived to tell about it?” Astounded, Nolo stared at Sarn.

Sarn nodded. “They didn’t see me.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” Nolo shook Sarn in the hopes of gaining answers or sense. His eyes claimed either would do.

Sarn pried Nolo’s hands off him and rubbed his shoulder. It still smarted from when he’d banged it earlier. Nolo’s hawk eyes zeroed in on the bruise and tried to peel back the cloth layers covering it.

“You’re hurt.” The man reached out, but Sarn turned away.

“I don’t need a fu—”

“Don’t push me. You’re in enough trouble as it is. Don’t make it worse by cursing at me.”

Sarn took a minute to rephrase his protest and clamp down on the anger targeting Nolo. His skin felt two sizes too small for the magic pushing against it. Calm lay out of reach but not civility. That would have to do.

“I don’t need a healer.” Sarn glanced at his master to gauge the impact of his refusal.

Nolo gave him an assessing look. Sarn stood straight, shoulders squared, arms crossed under his cloak and waited. Let Nolo see no outward mark of his inner issues. Let the man believe he was all right. Even though ‘okay’ had eluded him since the magic had exploded out of his eyes and washed his world in green light. Let the Black Ranger drop the whole healer thing. In the mood Sarn was in, he’d deck the benighted healer.

Time dilated as the assessment continued. Finally, Nolo nodded his head, and Sarn relaxed. There’d be no infirmary visit tonight, thank Fate.

“Why didn’t you say something about the Seekers?”

“I saw Gregori, and I forgot. He did leave me out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Tell me about the Seekers. Where did you see them? What were they doing?”

“I saw them twenty miles from here on the north bank of the Nirthal near Racine. They had a boat, which they boarded and sailed away.”

“They were near but not at Racine? Did you go to Racine?”

“I don’t know if they went there. I saw them maybe a mile east from there. And no I avoided Racine. I’m not stupid.”

Nolo accepted his answer with a nod and narrowed eyes giving nothing away. What was the man thinking?

“How many were there?”

Sarn shrugged. He should have counted them, but at the time, their numbers had seemed unimportant. “I don’t know. A lot—enough to carry a large crate and row their craft.”

“Their boat—was it a trireme?”

Sarn shook his head. “No, it was shaped like a fingernail with one large sail.”

“Come on.”

Nolo waved toward their back trail.

“Where are we going?”

“To Jerlo, he needs to know about this right now. Seekers are serious business. I don’t like hearing they’re on the move.” Nolo stopped and turned to face Sarn. Concern wrote itself all over his black face.

“They killed the boy and the people with him.” Sarn dropped his gaze to the ground under his feet. It had become the final resting place of the boy, his companions, and his murderers.

“We don’t know that for certain.”

“I know it.” Sarn tapped his fist against his chest and left it there over his heart. But a niggling doubt tempted him to retract his last statement. There were still pieces which refused to fit into a logical whole. Maybe his drug deal theory still held water.

“We don’t know. This—” Nolo pulled out a wadded-up cloth. “Might be something they give out to sympathizers.” Nolo put the totem away.

Sarn blinked as he absorbed this new explanation and slotted it into his theory. Damn, but it fit, especially if their sycophants moonlighted in the drug trade. If they had supporters who carried their mission forward, then anyone could be in league with the Seekers. Even one of the Rangers—

Fear froze Sarn, sheathing him in a cold terror which stole the breath from his lungs. Staggering, he fetched up against a tree, and more pieces tumbled into place to form an even uglier whole. Had Gregori left him for the Seekers because the fool had been too much of a coward to kill him?

And what of his precious son? Dirk and his cronies had discovered Ran’s existence yesterday. Were they sympathizers? Sarn ransacked his memory, but he could not recall what any of those five men had worn. Of course, the Seekers’ helpers likely circulated about incognito. All the better to find new prey to eradicate if no one guessed their allegiance.

And earlier today at the farm, had those footsteps heralded the arrival of Seekers? Was the blind man part of a sympathetic order? No, the man had worn sable instead of Seeker orange and the circles on his pendant had been whole not broken. But there had been something off about the whole incident. He’d sensed it before but only in passing as he’d run for his life.

Still, the man knew about his son. Ran—oh Fate—what if the Seekers had sycophants among the Indentured? Too many people in the Lower Quarters knew about him because he was an idiot show-off when the magic was on him. If the Seekers trafficked drugs, then every addict could be an informant. Under the mountain, users and pushers were so ubiquitous he no longer saw them. Nor did he make any effort to avoid them unless Ran accompanied him.

Shade’s garbled warning echoed in Sarn’s ears. Had his friend come the other night to warn him about his fellow addicts? Shade was part of the drug culture. Had the Seekers seduced his androgynous ex-friend into informing on him? The question he’d wondered earlier repeated, beating an awful tattoo in Sarn’s brain. How low would Shade go for his next fix? The answer scared him.

Sarn spun ready to flee back to the son he refused to lose. But Nolo appeared right in front of him as if summoned. Sarn had forgotten Nolo’s presence despite the clear marker on his map representing the man. His master grasped his upper arms and held on forcing Sarn to pay attention.

“Sarn, look at me. The Seekers won’t find you. The Rangers—we—I—” Nolo broke off and released Sarn. Perturbed by the topic, the Ranger stalked a few feet away leaving a stunned Sarn behind. Unsaid words filled the space between them, stretching the silence until it broke.

“I won’t let them.” Nolo turned to face Sarn, and his black eyes blazed with righteousness. “I won’t let them. Do you hear me?”

Too numb to speak, Sarn nodded. Nolo gestured for them to leave. Sarn followed as silence walled them in with their separate worries.

Chapter 29

Questions piled up weighing Sarn down as he trailed Nolo. Before he’d been too distracted to think much about the Seekers and now he couldn’t stop wondering about them. Why were they here? What was in their crate? Had Gregori left him for the Seekers?

Magic brushed hesitant fingers along his cheek. Sarn froze as her sparkling power wound around the trees towering over him. What was the Queen of All Trees doing?

Beneath her magic, something vile pulsed. Eam’meye erator, whispered the wind as a thirteen-pointed star enclosed in a bleeding circle appeared on the bark. The tree struggled harder to break her hold.

Sarn snatched his hand away and backed into Nolo.

“Why’d you stop?”

“We have to go now.” Sarn shoved Nolo to get him moving. Could she hold back the entire forest? “Run!” he shouted dragging Nolo along in his wake.

“What are we running from?”

“No time to explain just run.”

And Nolo did, though not fast enough. Sarn slowed his ground devouring pace, so he didn’t leave his master behind. Why give Jerlo more fodder for lectures?

The Queen of All Trees’ power started to fray. His magic shouted a warning, but Sarn was already diving for cover and pulling Nolo down next to him.

“What the hell is going on?” Nolo glared at him, but Sarn shook his head and concentrated on the map in his head.

Not all the trees were infected. Those that were grayed as they broke free. If he and Nolo ran fast on a path that zigzagged like so—

“Follow me, I see a way through.”

“A way through what—the dark forest? What do you see that I don’t?”

“Later. Break left now.” Sarn rolled right and hoped his master had gone left. Three feet away, a branch stabbed a boulder, cracking it.

“What the—”

Sarn dodged its mate, keeping his magic coiled tight inside him. Now was not the time for a brilliant display. “No time, this way.”

Catching Nolo’s sleeve as he passed, Sarn directed his boss down and around a giant rock spur. More branches slashed at them, but they stayed low and the uncoordinated branches tangled, missing them altogether.

Nolo crossed the gravel line dividing the circle of menhirs from the forest first. But Sarn didn’t follow. He held his ground and waited. There was one thing he needed to confirm. A branch swung at him and missed. It dragged a furrow in the dirt as it nudged Sarn toward the menhirs and their protective circle.

“You’re not trying to hurt me?”

Another branch shoved Sarn hard in the small of his back, proving his theory. He turned a fall into a forward roll then lay flat between the two circles of standing stones. The air felt heavier there, or maybe it was exhaustion weighing him down.

“What the hell was that all about?” Nolo rounded on Sarn, but he ignored his superior.

Suppressing waves of laughter, Sarn lay there staring up at the stars. He’d forgotten the forest’s damned rules. It could scare and herd folks, but never harm them if they hadn’t harmed someone first. But what about the dead boy—what rule had he broken?

Movement on his minimized map snapped Sarn out of his reverie. He zeroed in on the white star representing his son. It burned in his cave. Ran was safe. Though at this hour, the boy should be fast asleep, not moving around. A nightmare must have woken him.

Sarn pictured a wide-eyed Ran huddled under a blanket, squeezing his stuffed bear and the image hurt his heart. He should be there reassuring his son not running around an enchanted forest. He was a terrible parent.

Papa? You come back now.

[_I can’t. _]Sarn covered his face with his hands.

“Why did they attack us? What did you do in there?” Nolo shook his shoulder.

No respite for the weary, damn and he had no answers to give, double damn. Sarn elbowed himself up.

“Sarn, answer me. This isn’t a game. Pissing off the forest is a serious offense.”

“Relax, I didn’t break any of the three rules.”

Nolo gave him a disbelieving look. “Then why did they attack? They wouldn’t do that without a compelling reason.”

“They didn’t attack us. They were herding us. I jumped to conclusions.” Sarn turned to avoid seeing Nolo’s reaction. What was the forest hiding? Maybe the black thing he’d glimpsed in that clearing was not a hallucination. Would the forest protect such a vile thing?

When the silence dragged on too long, he glanced over his shoulder. Nolo stood frozen in shock and behind him, a shaft of white light cleaved through the darkness. She’d come at last to face him. Sarn rushed toward her until the Queen of All Trees held up a scarred branch, halting him within the bounds of the circle. Her bark was peeling in places, and her silver luster had tarnished. She looked like she’d survived a war.

“Who did this to you? How can I fix this?” Because he had to try. A soul-deep urge to right this wrong fired him up. Sarn stretched a hand out to touch her, but she withdrew. “Why won’t you answer me?”

[_Because I can’t. I am bound by rules, same as you, _]the Queen of All Trees said softly in his head. Between one blink and the next, she was gone leaving a trail of flickering leaves behind her.

“What are you staring at now?” Nolo snapped his fingers in front of Sarn’s face.

Nothing he wanted to talk about, so Sarn shook his head.

“Fine, you can explain all this to Jerlo. He’s been expecting you. Let’s go.” Nolo glared at the forest, but it had stilled.

The Queen of All Trees was keeping it calm and quiet, but by the looks of her, she couldn’t hold them forever. Nor would she have to. Sarn glanced at the sky. It couldn’t be more than an hour or two until his shift ended unless Jerlo was really pissed at him.

[_Hold on until then. I’ll come back and do whatever it takes to fix this. _]Sarn vowed in the silence of his own heart then he jogged past Nolo heading for a place he didn’t want to go and a master who was always annoyed with him for something.

While Nolo talked, Sarn leaned against the wall next to a tapestry of two dragons eating each other’s tails. Two flanking dragons strained to connect, and the gap between their heads bothered Sarn so much he lost track of the conversation between his masters.

“Pay attention boy, this is serious,” Jerlo said from his bureaucratic throne.

“I already told you everything. I saw the Seekers. They didn’t see me. They left, and I came back here. There’s nothing more to say.” Sarn hid his clenched fists under his cloak. Neither of his masters cared about the strange doings of the forest. Maybe that was a good thing.

“I don’t like your attitude or your assumptions.” Jerlo gave Sarn the ‘would you stop being so difficult look.’

Sarn rolled his eyes. The Seekers had left and taken their danger with them. This conversation had no point or purpose but to avoid the fact they should be considering.

“They killed those people.” Sarn gripped his upper arms, pinching the skin to keep from punching the nearest wall.

“And they forfeited their lives to do it,” Jerlo reminded him.

“We don’t know it was the Seekers,” Nolo put in, and a long-suffering sigh escaped with his words.

“Then you’re saying the killing was related to something else.” Silence met Sarn’s statement confirming his supposition. “Two factions ripped into each other in an enchanted forest for a reason. And you wanted me to drop it so I’d stay away from the reason. “

“I don’t like your tone.” Jerlo bristled.

“And I don’t like mysteries or unanswered questions. They drive me crazy.” Sarn whirled and slammed his palms down on the commander’s desk. Careful not to make eye contact, he glared at Jerlo. It was time to trot out the drug deal scenario and see if it held together.

“And your point is?” Jerlo raised a bushy brow challenging Sarn.

“Aliel—they call it angel’s dust in the Lower Quarters. It’s not grown around here, is it?”

“And how do you know that?” Jerlo leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his narrow chest. Your move, his eyes said.

“Because they smuggle it in. I know about the searches of incoming vessels. My friend works for the harbormaster.”

“The young one—what’s his name?”

“Will,” Sarn supplied, nodding. “I’ve known him for years.” And he’d listened to Will’s complaints about those searches. Who knew those rants would come in handy.

“It figures.” But what exactly figured into what Jerlo left unsaid.

Sarn searched for words to make his point wishing his brother was here. Miren had a gift for gab. How much of his theory should he admit?

Nolo gripped Sarn’s shoulder and pried him away from Jerlo’s desk. “What are you saying?”

“Hikers smuggle aliel close to the mountain. I think a drug deal went wrong in the forest but with a twist. The dealers were sympathetic to the Seeker’s cause. So they turned and killed the boy because he had eyes like mine. I guess things deteriorated from there.”

Nolo looked poleaxed, but Jerlo whistled.

“Interesting theory. Where’s your proof?”

“It’s right there.” Sarn pointed to the item wrapped in Nolo’s handkerchief.

“This is not proof.” Jerlo unwrapped the cabochon and laid it on his desk. “It’s a clue.”

“And it points right back to my theory.”

“Who died and appointed you lead investigator?” Jerlo tossed Sarn a warning look. He’d overstepped his bounds.

“Well someone has to be, and none of you are.” Sarn gifted both of his masters with a glare.

As the black oval settled on the desk, Sarn’s world contracted. Waves of blackness washed out of the foul stone. Sarn backpedaled as a voice intoned:

Eam’meye erator!

An eye peered through the cabochon and for one heart-stopping moment, all the circles carved into the stone connected. Then the eye winked out. Buzzing cut through the silence as a swarm of angry bees homed in on them, but Sarn was already moving.

“I have to connect the circles—I have to make them whole.”

Images caromed inside Sarn’s head. Roots inscribed circles in the earth. His mother traced circles in the wax. All those circles had connected forming chains within chains encompassed by a greater circle.

Everything connected except for the ghosts. Their connections had been severed by a violent death leaving their ends dangling. There never was a mystery. He’d been too dense to understand what had been staring him in the face all along. The warp and weft of life’s pattern had torn, and somehow, he could fix it.

A shutter crashed in the next room. The rhythmic droning grew louder as the door to Jerlo’s living quarters swung open revealing a man-shaped swarm of bees. It locked compound eyes on Sarn, and its lips shaped one word, “go.” Then insects swooped down on the cabochon. After seizing its prize, it reversed course heading for the open window in Jerlo’s study.

“What in the name of God was that?” Jerlo demanded.

“I don’t know.” And time didn’t allow Sarn to guess either. He rushed for the opposite door, the one leading to the transept.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Nolo dove but Sarn dodged a flying tackle. Pulling his hood down and holding it in place as he ran, Sarn took the most direct route out of the mountain. Echoes of Nolo’s shouts to stop trailed behind him, but he ignored them since they weren’t phrased as orders.

His sixth sense fired off a warning as man-shapes popped up on his map. The transept wasn’t deserted anymore. But when he shut his eyes, his damned map unfolded in three-dimensions, rendering as he ran. Sarn cursed the magic for complicating his escape. All he needed was a simple line drawing with enough symbols to keep him from crashing into anything. But no, his overactive magic had to get fancy.

Swerving around servants, breakfast carts, statues, and foliage, he headed toward a balcony—anyone would do. He just had to get outside.

Shouts caught the attention of the few people Sarn passed. One enterprising woman and three men, all retired Rangers of course, tried to block his path. At least their symbols did, but Sarn ran partway up a wall and somersaulted over them.

Since there were no more people between him and his goal, Sarn opened his eyes. His wire-framed map shattered and reformed as its usual transparent overlay. But he didn’t need it. Ahead two columns framed the night sky.

Sarn slowed as he approached a waist-high balustrade. He couldn’t see the swarm, but he sensed its unnaturalness heading northeast. There was only one place it could be going—back to where the ghost boy had lost his life. Everything would come full circle there if only he could reach it without hindrance.

Fat chance of that happening with Gregori tooling around on the level below. Accompanying Gregori’s man-bear symbol was a female archer.

Damn, Ranispara was with the big lug. She was the second fastest runner on the Rangers’ roster. Outrunning her would be tough. Sarn searched his map for an alternative route. Behind him, a posse of retired Rangers had joined Nolo and Jerlo to cut off his escape.

Jumping was his only option. But Ranispara had taught him everything he knew about evasion. If he landed anywhere near her, she’d tackle him. Sarn chewed his lip.

He had one shot at this. Seizing his magic, Sarn rushed across a bench and hit the coping without breaking stride. He jumped aiming not for the level below but the ground and tucked into a ball.

The earth sensed him coming and attracted his booted feet. It was eager to catch him. Magic wrapped him in bright emerald coils as it curved his trajectory.

Unfortunately, each balcony overlapped the one below it by at least ten feet to prevent what Sarn had planned. So despite the magic’s aid, his arc was just a hair too shallow, and he banged his shoulder on the lowest balcony, throwing off his landing.

Sarn cursed and stumbled into a limping run. Pain shot up his ankle followed by a soothing heat that dialed down the ache to a manageable level. But it did nothing for his throbbing arm. He wiggled the fingers of his right hand while he hobbled.

Thank Fate neither his arm nor his ankle was broken. One was badly sprained and the other bruised, but both still functioned despite the teeth-clenching pain wracking them. Would his ankle hold up for the four-mile trek?

It had to, so Sarn put the question out of his mind. Though next time, he’d find a damned staircase and exit the stronghold like normal folk. Movement on his map made him curse. His superiors were en route to the north exit. Unless he squeezed a little more speed out of his aching body, they would catch him before he reached the murder site. How the hell could he prevent that? He couldn’t outrun even the worst runner right now.

Nolo skidded to a halt. Where had the Kid gone? Other than plants and statues, no one else occupied the balcony. How had Sarn eluded him? There was nowhere to run. Dread pulled Nolo to the parapet.

A green glow spread out from a silhouette limping across the meadow. Nolo cursed. Estimating the distance, he shook his head. How had the Kid survived the fall without breaking his foolish neck? Nolo met Gregori’s startled gaze from the balcony below and read the same question in his eyes. They both stared at the ten additional feet the balcony below stuck out.

“How the fuck did he pull off such a stunt?”

Nolo shook his head and bit back on his knee jerk reply. But the unsaid word filled the stunned silence between them. Gregori threw his head back and laughed.

“Magic,” Jerlo shook his head. Annoyance sharpened his tone.

Giving the balcony his back, Nolo strode toward his boss. “But the Kid can’t fly.”

“Nothing is impossible when magic’s involved.” A giant stone eagle dwarfed the commander. Leaving his cryptic statement to hang there, Jerlo headed for the arcade.

His parting words haunted Nolo. After one last glance at the Kid racing across the meadow, Nolo followed. He knew where the stupid kid headed—back to the site where a dozen or so people had lost their lives.

“I told him to drop it,” Nolo muttered as his longer strides brought him even with his boss. He had to turn sideways to pass between two statues and a cart full of linens.

“I know. The Kid has selective hearing. When I catch him, he’ll have to deal with the consequences of his actions.” And Jerlo’s tone made it clear those consequences would be unpleasant.

“You won’t whip him.”

Jerlo shook his head. “I’m not a monster, and a whip is a poor teacher. No, I’ve thought of a better punishment.”

“Updating your wall map?”

Jerlo’s lips twitched, and the man almost smiled at the mention of his pride and joy. The commander’s map was the most accurate map of Shayari in existence. To prevent its theft, Jerlo kept it under lock and key.

Nolo relaxed. Updating Jerlo’s map would keep Sarn busy and out of trouble. It would also frustrate the hell out of the Kid. “How did the inspection go? Have you heard anything yet?”

“No, but I don’t expect to since the Kid’s still breathing.”

Nolo nodded, but doubt niggled at him. Why indenture a mage if his Lordship intended to hide him away? The Kid was languishing for want of occupation. Lord Joranth must have plans for Sarn, but what did those plans entail?

They walked in silence past white and gray liveried servants polishing the marble statues. Wielding mops, they swabbed the miles of flooring making them shine. And the sharp odor of their cleansers made Nolo sneeze as he slipped and squeaked on the wet tiles. With luck, the damn things would dry before the rest of the mountain’s denizens rose.

Each lumir inlaid eye seemed to target them, but it was only his imagination. Guilt played with his perceptions and made the statues appear to watch them. Ahead loomed the grand staircase. An army of teenagers swarmed the marble affair spiraling between floors. They attacked its twenty-foot wide steps with rags. Statues bearing silver staves guarded them while they cleaned. And those helmed heads turned in Nolo’s peripheral vision. When he glanced back, the statues faced forward again.

Nolo shook his head and fixed his eyes on the middle distance. He had to find Sarn before worry chewed up his insides.

Chapter 30

Halting just outside the last circle of menhirs, Sarn stared at an impassible wall of trees. They stood trunk to trunk leaving no gaps for an enterprising Ranger to squeeze through.

Undaunted, he confronted the nearest tree. “You have to let me in.”

After a long moment, the oak tree crawled aside and branches gestured for Sarn to enter. Would they allow the Rangers to follow?

Sarn looked up at the tree towering five hundred feet over his head for the answer, but it gave none. Leaning against the Shayarin oak, he glanced at the meadow and checked his pursuers’ progress. Damn, they had reached the north exit and were now hurrying down the trail to the meadow.

Pushing off the tree, Sarn took a step and pain stabbed his ankle. No more running, he’d have to settle for a fast hobble. Perhaps taking a flying leap off a balcony had been a dumb idea.

A branch shoved Sarn, and he stumbled forward biting his lip to keep from crying out. Her power rolled by him in a sparkling mass, and he turned. A solid wall of trunks greeted him thanks to the Queen of All Trees’ intervention. She would slow his masters down perhaps long enough for him to fix things.

“Thank you,” he said into a passing breeze. With luck, it would carry his gratitude to her.

Sarn hopped forward on his good foot into darkness thick enough to cut. Since he’d used a lot of magic for his last stunt, it was at a low ebb now, reducing his eyes’ emerald glow. Oh, they still put out more than enough lumens to light his path, but not much beyond it. And there was something or someone hiding in the undergrowth, watching him.

The skin between his shoulder blades itched as if an arrow was trained on his back, but he didn’t stop or turn. The feeling of unease seeped into his gut nauseating him, and that narrowed down the list of possible spies to three beings. No rat icon on his map crossed Rat Woman off the list. More than likely it was the snake woman since he’d encountered her out here earlier. So, he’d best be on his guard.

Sarn pulled on his familiar green magic to extend his senses, but it was slow to respond. Meanwhile, the white magic flowed through his veins but did nothing to help him. Maybe the green magic would replenish while he limped.

No such luck. By a mile in, the level of green magic at his disposal had not changed. But the stabbing pain in his ankle had increased, forcing Sarn to stop. The sprain was worse than he’d thought.

What lead he’d had was gone now, swallowed up by his slow hobbling. Jerlo and Nolo had just crossed the first circle of menhirs.

How long could the Queen of All Trees keep them out? Not long, judging by how battered she had looked earlier. And it was his fault. If only he’d figured out what was going on sooner.

A branch fell at his feet. Sarn picked it up and was surprised to find it was the perfect height and shape for a crutch. Without any padding, it would chafe, but it would take his weight off his bad ankle and speed up the hike. Emerald magic flowed from the earth into the wood lighting up the bark’s whirls. Then it sank into his hand as he limped onward, restoring the magic he’d spent.

“Thank you.” More than a crutch, they’d given him a conduit and a much-needed recharge. Through the crutch, his sixth sense shot out in all directions identifying every rock and root within twenty feet of him. And there, peeking over a boulder fifteen feet away was an unnatural figure mashed together from snakes. So, it was her spying. What was her part in this?

Sarn’s theory felt less solid as his luminous eyes lit the trees around him, making their bark glow. Somehow, they had escaped the infection sweeping through the forest. Under his scrutiny, they stood straight, like an honor guard should. Their leaves twinkled forming rival constellations.

How could one child’s murder affect so much? Was he still missing something?

Nausea curdled Sarn’s stomach, and he fought the urge to vomit. Something bad was happening, and he had to stop it. Alert for trouble, Sarn slipped between two listing trees. Their gray, flaking bark repelled him and killed the naïve hope that had sent him out here.

A familiar mask symbol popped up on his map and Sarn stared at it in confusion. What the hell was Shade doing here?

Breaking cover, Sarn crashed into a wall of intense cold air fogging the clearing. Where was Shade?

Before he could recheck his map, a white noise turned it into a wavy mess, and he banished it. Sarn swallowed bile, and his senses screamed one word in a painful litany: unnatural.

An icy hand seized him, and Sarn met the dead boy’s fearful eyes. Then he wrenched his gaze away from the question which had plagued him for years. Death muted all specters, but survivor’s guilt gave it voice.

Why me and not you?

“Because they haven’t found me yet.”

But ‘they’ would. It was only a matter of time. Sarn couldn’t hide from the Seekers and their informants forever.

A black chain clamped around the Ghost Boy’s ankle and jerked the transparent child from his grasp. It dragged the silently screaming ghost toward a ripple in the air.

“No!” Sarn hobbled after it. No way was he losing the ghost he’d come to save.

The other side of the clearing shivered like a reflection as the ghost plunged through it. Sarn followed a moment later shattering the illusion. In front of him, a heart the size of a bear pulsated. It shortened the Ghost Boy’s tether until the scared specter fell in line with the twelve others shambling around that foul organ.

“What the hell is that?”

Not something he could fix by himself. But he had to try because no one else would. All his heroes were dead and dusted. But the syncopated beat of that foul organ crescendoed. Sarn reeled until his heart quit trying to match the arrhythmic tattoo of the foul working.

“It’s something I didn’t want you to see.”

Between one slow blink and the next, Shade appeared holding a fading black veil in gloved hands. So that was how the construct had been hidden, behind a simple illusion. A better mage would have noticed that, but Sarn let the bitter thought go. He was doing the best he could despite being untrained.

Sarn staggered into a half-dead tree and leaned against it unable to find his equilibrium. Some of his magic seeped into the tree to fight the infection, and in response, a thick root rose to provide a foot rest.

“Shade—What are you doing here?”

“Soft speech I crave, give me kind words.”

“No more poetry, tell me who did this and how.”

“Don’t you want to know why?” Shade’s shapeless gray robes billowed in the breeze.

Sarn leaned his head against the tree and closed his eyes as more pieces fell into place. Extra Rangers had patrolled the night of the murders. Now he knew why

“You tipped off the Rangers about the drugs.”

“Yes, so they’d keep you away.”

“Yeah well, that didn’t happen.” Sarn felt like laughing, but he bottled it up. When this was all over, he’d sit in the sun and laugh with his son.

“Sorrow seen can never be unseen. I’m sorry you saw that.” Shade shifted from foot to foot then turned to regard that vile heart.

Sarn rubbed his arms. The cold stung his skin and numbed his muscles despite the magic rushing around to warm him. “You met the smugglers and got the drugs. Seven men waited below the rock cut on the north side. You were supposed to drop the goods to them.”

Shade nodded. “Brilliant you are, not just of eye, but of mind too.”

Sarn willed his stomach to settle, but his gorge rose in time to the heart’s pulsations. He cast his mind back to the night in question. There was one more odd coincidence. If the scenario had played out right, the seven men would have followed the river back to their den. He’d also run into Zaduke’s people on its shore soon after encountering the first group. Had they been on hand to steal the drugs from the seven or escort them? Zaduke—the name ignited a powerful anger, and Sarn hurled at it Shade.

“You’re working for Zaduke? I made a deal with him to keep you alive. How could you?” Sarn pushed off the tree he’d leaned against, fists clenched and ready to punch his ex-friend. But his ankle buckled and he stumbled, landing on his knees. Shade rushed to his side but backed off when Sarn shoved his ex-friend’s hands away.

“Not Zaduke, never him, I know what you sacrificed for me.”

At last, his ex-friend had dropped the poetry.

“Then what did you do? Who are you working for?”

“Myself,” Shade crossed one ankle behind the other and gave Sarn a courtly bow.

“What did you do?”

Shade held out a gloved hand. Dark eyes pleaded with him to accept help. Sarn relented and grasped the hand offered but his magic shocked Shade into letting go. Eyes wide, Shade backed away.

Unnatural, shrieked the magic, but it offered no explanation, as usual.

Sarn reached for his walking stick, and it flew to his hand. Digging its point into the earth, he rose and swayed. The events of the night were finally catching up to him. He staggered to a boulder and sat down.

“You played both sides against each other.” Sarn thought back to the conversation he’d had several nights ago with one of Zaduke’s men. Whose territory had the man claimed it was? “You pitted Zaduke against Rade.”

Shade nodded and peeked under the glove to check for damage. “Your magic burned me.”

Feeling eyes on him, Sarn searched for them. Thirteen ghosts—one child, one teen, five women and six men—watched him with blank eyes. He shuddered.

The whole ugly thing had stared him in the face for three days, and he’d ignored it because magic objected to drugs. They were mutually exclusive. So how had this vile thing come to pass? The ghost boy pointed at Shade.

But how had Shade done this? His ex-friend must have had magical help but from who? Sarn rubbed his temples. He was still missing the most important piece of this puzzle.

“Does Zaduke or Rade have a mage in their employ?” Even as Sarn asked the question, he knew the answer was no. If either had a mage, he’d have heard about it. Rumors were the lifeblood of the Indentured.

Shade approached but stopped an arm’s length away, head shaking in negation.

Then how had this tragedy come to pass? Sarn’s gaze bounced to the ghosts and the heart then back to Shade in confusion. Someone had created the organ and the chains binding the ghosts. None of it had occurred naturally.

“But you were there.” Sarn let the statement hang suspended on an awful truth. “What happened?”

“I wanted to be beautiful, so you’d love me.”

“What does love have to do with this?” Sarn stared at his ex-friend dumbfounded.

“It has everything to do with it.” Having nothing left to lose, Shade doffed cowl and veil revealing a face melted by fire and hardened by self-loathing. It was not an ugly face, just one scarred by a hard life. “I wanted you to love me the way I love you.”

“You love drugs and the high they give you. You don’t love me. This isn’t love. It’s selfishness.” Sarn gestured to the ghosts tethered by black chains. Anger surged against his control eroding it.

Turning the veil in gloved hands, Shade’s lips twisted into a pained line. “Everything I’ve done is for you. I found you when they took you away. I stayed with you when the pain was worst. I told you about your son. And when she treated you like trash I convinced you to leave her. I did all this because I love you.”

Sarn shook his head, remembering the stiff way his ex-friend had held his son the other night. At no time had Shade ever talked to Ran or acknowledged the boy. How had he missed such an obvious sign? Because Shade often disappeared for months at a time.

“I know what love is.”

Shade gave Sarn a skeptical look.

“My son taught me how to love. What your actions show is not love. Love doesn’t abandon my son. Love doesn’t participate in abuse, and it doesn’t lie.”

“I’ve never lied to you.”

“You promised after I intervened with Zaduke you’d quit doing drugs but you didn’t. I offered to help you.”

“I tried, but I needed the drugs to—” Shade’s face softened and flowed reforming into a demonic mask. Horns pushed up through Shade’s scarred pate.

Eam’meye erator, insisted a bodiless voice and Sarn finally understood.

“To keep me down—” Shade’s voice had dropped into the same register as thunder. Talons tore through Shade’s gloved hands as the creature possessing his ex-friend ripped free.

Dropping the meat puppet Shade had become to one side, the creature faced Sarn. It grinned a mouthful of jagged yellow teeth. As the thing locked gazes with Sarn, his magic uncoiled. Time slowed to a crawl freezing him as he stared into the black chasm of the creature’s eyes. Magic flicked outwards in entwining emerald ribbons tying them together. The air around Sarn thickened until it walled him in place.

Memories blossomed in the pits of those hellish eyes, and they swarmed over Sarn, overtaking his sight. Candles were arranged to form a thirteen-pointed star enclosed by a circle. He blinked at the thirteen hooded and robed figures ringing him. All in black, they swayed as they chanted in a guttural language full of fricatives and growls.

A jewel flashed in the light of one hundred and sixty-nine candles. The crystal crowned a dagger protruding from his—no Shade’s—chest. This was Shade’s memory he was reliving.

Shade stood in the middle of the candles, and blood stained his ex-friend’s white robe.

A shiny black claw ripped through reality’s fabric. Through the tear, a horned demon fell on Shade, and his ex-friend welcomed the creature in. Chanting changed from syncopated nonsense to polyphonic wailing as the thing merged with Shade.

Angered by the pain of the knife wound, Shade’s passenger expelled the blade and threw it at the chanters. The knife hit the leader in the heart, shattering the working.

Power without form or direction hung in the air, charging it. Sensing the danger, the creature wearing Shade’s body kicked the candles and scattered them to break the pattern. But it was too little too late. Black clouds hugged the ceiling, readying for a deadly strike.

[_My Angel, we must save him, _]Shade shrieked, and the creature paused its rampage. Its interest was piqued.

Explain.

[_I’ll show you. _]Shade made a bid for control and won, then slammed their combined body into a brick wall until it collapsed. Reaching inside, Shade pulled a skinny, long-legged youth out. When Miren scrambled out afterward, Sarn knew whose unconscious body his ex-friend cradled. The trio fled the cave as lightning struck down one of the remaining chanters leaving a pile of ash behind.

Sarn broke the gaze lock and sagged, exhausted by the revelation. But a gaze-lock was a two-way conduit functioning on a logic all its own. What had the thing those black-robed loons brought into this world seen in his eyes?

The creature crouched down in front of Sarn. “Don’t make this difficult. I don’t want to hurt you. I’ve come to like you.”

Its black-on-black eyes drank Sarn in and rearranged its features into a parody of his. The thing, for it was more beast than man, stared at him. If evil could incarnate, the thing in front of Sarn would be its servant. Its lust for the power in his veins slapped Sarn across the face delivering a timely reality check.

“You know what I want.”

“Yeah, you want to trade up.”

The creature nodded and hooked a finger in Shade’s direction. “My host is sterile, but you’re not, and you already have a son.” The creature’s lips split in a predator’s grin while its body melted into a man-shaped shadow. “Just think of what we could become together. You have so much power and no idea how to use it.”

A cold finger of foreboding dragged up Sarn’s spine. Could this thing harm Ran from a distance? Its eyes claimed it could. Shade had been in his cave the other night, and so had this vile thing. What if it had left a mark or spell on his cave allowing its brethren to enter? Oh Fates no, his son was unprotected, and there was nothing he could do about it. If he’d had blood running in his veins instead of magic, it would have run cold at the thought.

“Ran should be here. He’s such a little darling, and this is a family event. I should fetch him.” The creature laughed and flung out its arms.

“Leave my son alone.”

Hands seized Sarn, and he went down struggling with a man made of insects. His attacker sprouted more arms until it had Sarn pinned to the ground. He freed his head from the squirming mass and searched for the horned devil. Had it gone after his son?

A gray-clad figure stepped into his line of sight holding an open book. It was Rat Woman, and she was conferring with the enemy. He should have known she was part of this.

“Don’t struggle. I don’t want to hurt you,” said a buzzing in Sarn’s ears.

“Why?”

“Why do you think? The one who made us loved you and doesn’t want you hurt.”

So, Shade had made them with the creature’s power. “Why did Shade make you?”

“Why does anyone make a rough draft?”

[_I wanted to be beautiful, so you’d love me, _]Shade had said.

What other depraved acts had his ex-friend committed in pursuit of that goal? Just thinking about it made Sarn sick. His jailer loosened his hold so Sarn could roll onto his belly and vomit.

Between bouts, he caught glimpses of the author of all this unnaturalness. It had thrown back its horned head in manic glee and unleashed a flood of necrotic power into the heart, quickening it. Severed arteries belched man-sized, three-dimensional shadows bristling with spikes. They floated up out of the clearing and headed for Mount Eredren and his son.

Fear clenched Sarn’s heart and stopped the dry heaves, but his captor tightened his hold. The insects massed together into an approximation of a head, and it leaned against the back of Sarn’s shoulder.

“Please don’t struggle.”

“But my son’s in danger—”

Rat Woman had been backing away from the creature during its laughing fit. She turned now, and her silver eyes met Sarn’s then she melted. The book in her hands dropped to the ground and landed on her discarded cloak. Rats scurried across the clearing. One stopped to nuzzle his cheek before dashing off.

A gray snake struck down one of the rats. More reptilian heads burst from the leaf mold to attack the fleeing rats.

“No—” Sarn started to shout, but a hand covered his mouth. It was more leathery than human flesh, and so was the body pinning him.

“Don’t distract Zail—the horned one. Don’t remind it you’re still here. I don’t want to hurt you.”

But Rat Woman’s horde needed help. Half had been wounded or killed by the snakes. And Sarn wasn’t out of the game yet. His cheek pressed into the ground, and his magic had always been fond of Ran. Seeping through his skin into the earth, his magic dove down under the pollution then raced toward the Lower Quarters. I will save you, son.

Curled up under his blanket, Ran hugged Bear and stared at the door wishing Papa would return.

“And they rode into the dawn gilding their armor with their heads and swords held high. They’d done what was right and righted the wrongs.” Uncle Miren closed the book and sighed. “What’s wrong? I thought you liked the story of Sir Alec and the Silent Bell.”

Ran did like the story, but there was something wrong with their cave. Shadows massed in the corners whispering and gnashing their teeth. They were boiling up out of the mark Shade had scratched into the floor. He’d forgotten to tell Papa about that, and now it was too late.

What were they planning? They crept closer with every breath. Ran squeezed Bear. Papa come back. Make the shadows go away.

“What is it? What’s wrong? Talk to me.” Uncle Miren ruffled Ran’s hair.

Ran shook his head and bit his lip. Uncle Miren had no magic, and only magic’s light could defeat the monster growing in their cave. Ran turned his face into Bear’s soft head, and his fur caught a stray tear. He sniffed and shivered. The monsters had come to take him away. Fear squeezed out more tears, and his thin shoulders shook until Miren pulled him into a hug.

“You’ve heard this story before. Why tonight did it upset you?”

Because there were monsters, Uncle Miren couldn’t see or fight coming toward them. But Ran just cried into his uncle’s shoulder unable to explain.

Hurt by his nephew’s silence, Miren rolled himself up in his blanket facing away from Ran. “Your father will be home soon. You can tell him what’s wrong since you won’t talk to me.”

Stung by his uncle’s rejection, Ran curled up in a tight ball of misery to wait for Papa. After a while, his uncle’s breathing deepened and slowed. Peeking over Uncle Miren’s shoulder, Ran spied on the shadows. Oh no, the one by the door had swelled up to man-sized. It flowed toward Ran on a tide of darkness.

Cowering on the mattress, Ran reached inside him. He grasped hold of the shining cord connecting him to Papa and pulled with all his might. Promises had created the cord and woven it out of love. He gave those promises a good yank.

Bear hugged Ran, and his button eyes promised safety. But how could Bear protect him? Light blossomed from Bear’s belly and gathered into an emerald dome. Ran wiped his eyes on his sleeve. Papa’s magic and his love shined out of Bear and enfolded Ran in a luminous bubble.

Ran looked at Bear stunned by the display, and he smiled. Scanning the cave, he searched for Papa. His eyes landed on the book covered table, the stool, the chest, the dripping stalactite and the bucket. But Papa had yet to return from work.

Bear’s stitched lips quirked into a smile, and one of his button eyes winked. The shadow charged full speed into the shield causing it to flare, momentarily blinding Ran. As the last shadow monster disintegrated, it shrieked.

Uncle Miren thrashed his way out of sleep, and his arm bounced off the shield. “What the hell was all that noise and light?”

Ran shrugged, and a yawn caught him unawares. He’d tell Papa about the shadow monster and Bear’s magic trick in the morning. Papa could explain everything. If the answers eluded Papa, then they’d just have to go on an ad-ven-ture to find them. And the thought made Ran smile. He loved adventuring with Papa and Papa had promised a nice ad-ven-ture.

Whispering a thank you into Bear’s soft fur, Ran pillowed his head on Bear’s tummy. Bear must have stored up some of Papa’s magic. He gazed into the magic’s light entranced by the soothing dance of shapes and gradations of green.

Remembering the seeds Papa had brought him the other day, Ran slipped his hand into Bear’s belly pouch. Skimming a finger over their shiny filaments, he giggled at their ticklish touch. Ran fell asleep wrapped in the remnants of Bear’s magic while listening to his uncle grumble.

Pain punched Sarn in the face, but he kept reaching out until his magic brushed against her power and was rebuffed. Why would the Queen of All Trees prevent him from saving his son?

Sarn opened his eyes to find a battered Rat Woman slumped against a tree. Gaping holes marred her limbs, but none bled because she was a collective being wearing a human face, not an actual human being. Her defeated eyes refused to meet his. The snakes ringing her collided together, and Snake Woman popped into being.

Wearing nothing but scales and a pair of protruding fangs, she was every man’s nightmare, but her shapely arms were empty. Without access to his head map, that would have to do as proof Ran was still safe in his cave.

“Let me up.” Sarn tried to rise, but his captor refused to budge.

“Not yet.”

“What are you waiting for?”

Insect Man remained silent because the answer was obvious.

“You want that thing—Zail—to succeed?”

Of course, his captor did. He was made using Zail’s power and therefore owed the horned thing some loyalty. But Sarn didn’t. He’d broken the bonds holding the Insect Man together once before using the white magic. But that power was ignoring him. How could he get its attention?

“What have we here?” Snake Woman’s clawed toes stopped an inch from Sarn’s face. The ground shook knocking her back a step.

“What did you do?” the Insect Man’s grip loosened.

Sarn squirmed free but stayed on his knees as another series of tremors shook the ground. “It’s not me. It’s that thing.”

Indeed, the giant heart had slowed its frenetic beating to a slow earth-shaking throb. Each contraction dragged its prisoners closer to it. At the end of his tether, the ghost boy huddled, and his frightened eyes begged Sarn for help. As the temperature dropped still lower, sheets of black ice rose.

Sarn pushed to his feet and dove across the barrier before it walled off the clearing. A swarm of insects followed him.

[_Unnatural, _]screamed his magic.

Need called the white power from its den, and it pushed out the familiar green one. Ice pellets floated in the air reflecting the silver light pouring out of his eyes.

[_Purge it, _]ordered the white magic.

[_How? _]Sarn waited for an answer then smiled when white light limned his bladed hands.

Use me to purge the evil.

_Gladly. _

Sarn slashed the coalescing man-shape to his right scattering the insects so they couldn’t fuse. A familiar branch clattered to the ground as the swarm dispersed.

“I would have helped you.”

“Can’t risk it.” Sarn picked up his crutch, and white light silvered it. His ankle was a fiery ball of pain thanks to all the grappling.

“Well done!” Zail said as the creature clapped its hands. “But it’ll just reform and return. It’s not gone for good. Oh, but you didn’t know that, did you?”

No Sarn hadn’t, but it made sense since he’d banished Insect Man once before.

“Do you know what the worst thing is? Here you are trying to stop me, but you have no idea what I’m doing.”

That was true, and it gave Sarn pause. “You’re not going to tell me.”

“I might. You did find the book I was looking for and this—” Zail tossed a black cabochon into the air and caught it. “Every spell needs a focal point, and obsidian will work just fine for this.”

“But it absorbs negative energies—how could—that’s what you want.”

“Exactly.”

The creature’s lower half blurred, blending with the night as it flung itself at him. Sarn staggered aside, wincing as he put weight on his weak ankle and it gave way. A branch shot out catching him under the arm before he collapsed. Magic welled around his injured ankle bracing it. Sarn raised the crutch to meet the blade sailing toward him.

Zail sliced the stick in half and left a shallow cut along his ribs. Magic spilled out, white and brilliant as it ran down his torso. Sarn looked up in time to see the pulsing organ eat the last links and sucked the ghost boy in. Transparent hands and feet poked out of the heart belonging to the other twelve ghosts it had devoured.

Sarn blinked. Thirteen black robed people plus the vessel had attended the summoning. The creature had captured thirteen ghosts and tethered it to what? A power source? He had the uneasy feeling the magic Shade had bled out of him had powered the summoning. But his memories of the night almost six years ago were patchy. What was this thing’s purpose?

In answer, the organ pumped out a wave of tar submerging the struggling ghost boy. As a gust of wind sped past, a gash opened in Sarn’s left side, and a leg swept his feet out from under him. Sarn crashed down, bleeding light and magic into last year’s leaves. When his attacker solidified, it grabbed a handful of his hair.

“You never had a chance kid. You inherited power but not the knowledge to use it.”

A cold edge touched Sarn’s throat. Magic bled from a cut under his left eye and dripped onto Zail’s foot. The creature screamed as white magic negated black.

“What the fuck are you?” Zail hopped on smoking feet out of striking range.

“Your worst nightmare.” Sarn gained his knees but had to stop there when the world spun, and dizziness almost coldcocked him. For the moment, he had the advantage. Magic was light and color, and this thing was the antithesis of both. There had to be a way to leverage that.

Behind Zail, the organ expanded, looming up as it writhed into a doorway. Sarn stared at it in morbid fascination until the stygian darkness lightened to reveal a giant eye.

Zail flashed Sarn a manic smile then pivoted and tossed the cabochon into the doorway. Air rushed toward that gaping maw as it sucked loose stones and leaves into its void. Trees bent, and Sarn scrabbled for a handhold, but there were only layers upon layers of dead leaves.

[_Wrong, wrong, wrong, _]screamed Sarn’s magic in response. Words bubbled up forcing their way into his mouth then out of his lips. Just before the vacuum sucked him into it, a root leaped out of the soil and wrapped around his wrist. Sarn jerked to a painful halt until something reared out of the doorway and seized his ankle. Not the sprained one, thank Fate for that small mercy.

Another root tapped Sarn’s shoulder. He grabbed it and tried to tug his ankle free. A third root, this one silvered and losing its glow, traced a circle in the light weeping from his wounded side.

Yes, circles contain things and the doorway, needed containment ASAP. A fourth root wrapped around Sarn’s waist and a fifth root stabbed at the thing tugging on his ankle. More of the Queen of All Trees’ roots dove under the black wall and battled whatever was trying to enter their world. Something howled in anguish and let go of his ankle, freeing Sarn up to try the Queen of All Trees’ crazy plan.

He dipped his fingers into the magic bleeding out of his abused body and drew one hundred forty-three interconnected circles all enclosed by one greater circle. Words bubbled up from his soul and fell out of his mouth. Each of them had their own symbol. They linked together binding the circle and imbuing it with one purpose—cleanse.

The doorway shuddered and began to collapse into a thrashing blob through which a pale hand strained. Without thinking, Sarn reached into the icy morass and grasped the ghost’s hand. He pulled, and the Ghost Boy rose out of the roiling murk. Clasped in the boy’s hand was another ghost’s arm. The killers and the slain became a chain, and his magic flowed through them.

A scream deafened Sarn. As he pulled the last ghost free, the foul working lost cohesion and exploded in a shower of black sparks.

“I’ll kill you for this whelp!” Zail charged him.

Too spent to fight, Sarn scrambled out of the way as a searing heat burned his uninjured side. White fire erupted from the burn, and a woman materialized wearing a worn gray dress and a feminized version of his features. She head-butted Zail, and black blood gushed from the creature’s broken nose.

Her lips moved. Death had stolen her voice, but a vague memory of a twin sister floated free, and his heart translated her words.

Leave my brother alone.

Her hand fell cold as ice on his shoulder. He was the sheath, and his magic changed into a blade she withdrew. Whirling, she swung a shining sword and sliced his adversary in half. Zail screamed then its two halves extruded writhing worms and wove itself back together.

With the blade of pure light in her hands, she parried the creature’s next thrust. But whatever deal she’d struck expired after three strokes. Her soft brown eyes held an apology. She’d bought Sarn all the time she could. The blade in her hands liquefied and the power arced back into Sarn.

He’d forgotten her name and her existence because she’d died when he was a few years older than his son. Sarn met her gaze. Her eyes forgave him, and they urged him to give himself completely over to the magic.

She vanished as Zail passed right through the spot where she had stood. Three burly ghosts threw themselves into the creature’s path. Laughing, Zail smacked them aside.

Sarn looked for anything he could use as a weapon. His gaze landed on the leaves crunching under his boots as he backed up and tripped. He went down, landing on something hard and rolled aside just in time. A blade missed spearing him by inches, but a foot caught him in the ribs.

With the black heart gone, his head map functioned again. The map overtook his sight to blink a warning. Jerlo and Nolo would reach here in the next ten minutes unless delayed.

Throwing his arm out, Sarn knocked the blade driving down toward his chest aside with his forearm. It hurt like hell, but Gregori would be proud he’d remembered the block.

Shit, he had to vanquish this creep before the Rangers arrived but how? Maybe his dead sister could hammer magic into a weapon, but when Sarn tried, the magic ignored him.

Zail howled as a gleaming stake drove through its black heart. A second one punched through its right eye. Pissed now, Zail ripped the meat puppet formerly known as Shade and flung it at a tree.

But his ex-friend’s final act of bravery gave Sarn an idea. He palmed the only edge he possessed. Yanking the cord over his head, Sarn held the finger-long white crystal in his left hand. Harder than diamond, the crystal shined with the ferocity of the sun at midday. He drove its point into the creature’s neck, and the thing exploded in a shower of black sparks. No longer supported by anything, the two halves of the walking stick fell to the ground. It was too short to use as a crutch now.

Sarn dropped the cord around his neck and the pendant settled over his heart where such a gift belonged. Exhaustion mauled Sarn, and he collapsed. Pushing up to his hands and knees, he crawled to where Shade had fallen.

Blood leaked from misshapen lips, and Shade’s chest rose and fell with difficulty. His ex-friend was dying. Taking Shade’s hand in his, Sarn removed the glove and squeezed. This time, the magic allowed the skin contact without complaint.

“I just wanted you—”

“You wanted me all to yourself. I know. So does everyone who sees me. It’s the fucking magic’s doing, and I hate it. It wrecks everything.”

Shade glanced away confirming his suspicion. “I love you—wanted you to love me.”

Sarn squeezed his ex-friend’s hand again. “I did love you just not the way you wanted. Don’t look so surprised. I don’t make deals with gang lords for just anyone.” And the deal would bite him in the ass one day soon. But he’d worry about it tomorrow.

“It refused to make me beautiful. It said beauty alone wouldn’t win you over. Told me you’d need proof of my love.” Shade coughed up blood, and it rolled down to stain his ex-friend’s gray robes.

Dread leaned hard on Sarn. Something still felt undone. “What did you do?”

But he already knew. The cabochon with the Seeker’s symbol incised on it flashed through his mind. Motion drew his gaze to the ghosts, and the ground dropped out from under Sarn.

“Shade? What did you do?” Sarn shook his one-time friend when no answer came.

Shade’s miserable eyes tracked him, and his ex-friend laid a bloody hand against his cheek. His magic lay quiet and allowed the touch since Shade’s passenger had fled.

“Shade answer me, please. I need to know what you did so I can undo it.”

Shade’s scarred head turned away and then back. Tearing black eyes met his emerald ones, caught, held and their gazes locked. Magic rose in a tide washing over and through Sarn firming the connection. Images blossomed, but there was no sound, scent or feeling beyond an overwhelming urgency.

The black cabochon hung on a cord around a fellow’s bull neck. Wearing a skeptical expression on his bearded face, he listened to Shade’s proposal. Behind the man, the river Nirthal sparkled in the midday sun.

Shade’s hand slid around to the back of Sarn’s neck and exerted pressure on it. But Sarn was lost in the gaze lock and oblivious to everything outside it.

The scene cut to a group of people in a clearing all dressed in sturdy boots and clothes meant for hiking. Some of the hikers sat on the grass snacking while a couple sunned themselves on a pair of boulders. Two women stood talking to Shade. As one spread white powder on a plate for Shade to test its potency, a child darted past. Smiling, he played a game with an older boy who must have been his brother.

It was the ghost child and seeing him alive in Shade’s memory tore the veil of Sarn’s sanity in two. Lips touched his, and Sarn tasted blood as he broke the gaze lock. Sarn shoved himself away from Shade and the enormity of what his ex-friend had done.

“Why did you do it?” His voice shook from the shock crashing his world down around him. Sarn wiped Shade’s blood from his lips.

“To give you what you want most in the world.” Shade coughed and spat up more blood.

How could thirteen ghosts give him a family? Sarn sat there stunned. “But I have what I want most—a family. My son gave it to me.”

“No, you want to get rid of the magic, and it will. All you need to do is walk into it. The spell will do the rest.”

“No, it won’t. It’s gone Shade. I destroyed it.”

But Shade didn’t hear him. His ex-friend’s eyes had glazed over. Death stilled the ungloved hand grasping after his.

Tears scalded a path down Sarn’s face. Why the hell was he crying? Shade deserved scorn, but he had no anger left only sorrow. A cold hand froze his shaking shoulder. Sarn looked through tears at the ghost of a child who would never grow up. The other ghosts stayed a respectful distance away allowing him space to grieve.

“I don’t know what to do.”

The creature had gone, but treachery and murder still tainted this place. It made Sarn’s skin crawl and his soul sick. Milling ghosts kept catching his eyes. They too waited for something to happen. Where do the dead go when their lives have ended?

“How do I fix this?” Sarn asked the enchanted trees clustered around him. Their bark bore scars under the unnatural frost covering their boles. The ice crystals resisted melting despite the rising temperature. Without the creature and its foul magery, the night’s warmth was seeping back in.

While the trees kept their counsel, random snatches of things floated back to Sarn. The blind man had said circles represented a great chain of being, of life itself. The Seekers’ totem had broken rings to signify the death they meted out. But there was more to this. Everything he’d experienced in the last three days had fit into this mystery. What pieces did he have left? Circles. The breaking of the portal-spell-thing had wiped out the last set he’d drawn.

Sarn met the hopeful eyes of the ghost boy, and he started drawing. Without lifting his finger, he curved the line from the border inward. As he worked, Sarn saw what had bugged him. There was a pattern in everything and Shade’s actions had disrupted it. Each time he bent the line to begin another circle, he fixed its pattern and reconnected it to the forest. The creature had severed this clearing from life’s fabric. Sarn drew one hundred forty-three more circles with one continuous line. The dead child looked on as he worked.

When Sarn had finished, he slumped against a tree and touched the outer ring. White light spilled from his fingers into the design, making it shine. The wind whispered a phrase—eam’maya rayar.

Every muscle in Sarn’s body pulled taut as magic poured into the working imbuing it with purpose. Each circle became a radiant brand burning out the taint left by black magic. Enchanted trees straightened stretching their limbs higher into the beckoning sky. The wind’s murmurs clarified as its echoes died away. Two words hung in the quiet, naming him, eam’maya rayar—[_curse breaker. _]

Sarn glanced at Shade’s crumpled body. Not even magic could give life to the dead. A tear welled up, but he blinked it away. He could break down later. Before the drugs, Shade had been a protector, a mentor, and then a friend. At fourteen, Shade had been his whole world. But there had always been a firm line drawn by abuse. Another tear tracked down Sarn’s cheek.

Light pierced the canopy and stabbed the sky, pulling his mind out of the past. Magic connected the earth to a rippling heaven and whatever lay beyond that starry predawn expanse. Sarn shuddered and focused on things he could understand like that lone pinecone by his boot and its mundanity anchored him.

The living world was complicated enough. If there were other worlds, they should leave him in peace. He wanted no part of them.

Trees moved aside making a hole, and Sarn felt her gaze before he saw her light-chased bark. As the Queen of All trees regarded him, her crown shined. One of her gleaming branches touched the outer ring igniting it with her refulgence and her scars melted away. She was once again whole and vital.

Thirteen ghosts gravitated to her pure radiance. Murderers mixed with the slain as they passed into the column of light spanning from earth to heaven. With a sigh, they floated toward whatever came after life.

Only the Ghost Boy remained. “You survive because you have to,” he said, or maybe Sarn imagined the piping voice so like his son’s.

After one last glance and a freezing hug, the Ghost Boy vanished into the light. A flash half blinded Sarn, and the white magic receded into the shimmering pattern on the ground. The Queen of All Trees dipped a gleaming root into the pattern and changed it.

Images sprouted in Sarn’s mind before he could see how she’d altered things. A mixed group of people walked. The dead child, alive in this rendering, looked up and up at the megalithic trees dwarfing him. A man jumped out and snatched at a pack a woman carried. Her headscarf ripped free as she struggled to retain her property. Scared but wanting to help, the boy willed the rocks to rise and pummel the man.

A hail of stones flew at the woman’s attacker, but by now others had joined him. A rock struck the first man coldcocking him and ending the struggle. The rest dropped to the ground when another woman backhanded the child, sending him flying. His head cracked against a tree.

Sarn saw the moment recognition turned to murder. The bull-necked man wearing the Seeker’s token picked up a rock and bashed the boy’s head in. The shocked green eyes of the child dimmed as a branch swung down and stabbed his killer through the heart. Flailing about to dislodge the body, it had sent him tumbling to land at his comrades’ feet.

Sarn shut his eyes against the barrage of images. But they played on recounting the retaliation which had killed the child’s family. When the last body hit the ground, Sarn expected the images to leave him. But the Queen of All Trees had one more revelation.

Sarn buried his face in his hands as a gray-robed figure picked through the carnage. Shade kicked corpses aside until his ex-friend found a leather scrip. After withdrawing a wood box from it, Shade opened it and inhaled the aliel powder.

Tears sizzled as they drowned the magic. Unlike the green magic of earth, white magic had no issues with water. So Sarn’s eyes continued to pump out silver light.

He’d been wrong about everything and right too. Those fools had killed the boy because of his eyes and because the child had killed their leader. What a tangled mess this all was. No wonder the ghosts had been trapped on this plane upsetting the natural order. But had he just made things right or further screwed up a wrong?

The light died away leaving Sarn hurting, drained and battered by the night’s events. Fourteen lives wasted for nothing. His gaze fell on Shade’s mangled body, and tears stung his eyes anew.

Running feet pounded the earth—two sets and they belonged to the Rangers. The Queen of All Trees touched his shoulder, dimming the images. As her light enfolded him, his thoughts winged back to his cave where his son slept. In his mind’s eye, Ran roused, rubbed his eyes with one arm and strangled his stuff bear with the other. Ran opened his mouth, but the image faded before the child got a word out. No matter, his silent summons tugged at Sarn’s heart. His darling boy wanted another adventure.

Chapter 31

Nolo punched the tree blocking his path and kicked its neighbor. He wanted to throw his head back and howl his frustration to the setting moon. Trees hemmed him in. Why were they preventing him from continuing? What game were those enchanted monoliths playing?

“Let me pass goddamn you.” He kicked another tree, but it stood firm leaving no space between their massive trunks.

“Enough, you won’t convince them to stand aside by hitting them.” Jerlo refrained from violence as he studied their predicament with impassive eyes.

“We have to find a way through. Sarn is in there alone.”

“And the Kid’s probably fine.”

“We don’t know if he is.” Nolo turned in a circle but other than his boss, he saw more trees crowding around them the longer they stood there.

“Yes, we do. They wouldn’t be standing around impersonating a fence if the Kid was in any real danger. You said so yourself the Queen of All Trees has a vested interest in him. And this is her doing.” Jerlo gestured to their leafy jailors.

Nolo glared at his boss. “What are you saying?”

“Isn’t it obvious? They want a little quality time with the brat.”

“You mean they want the Kid to do something.” And the something likely involved magic since this was an enchanted forest.

Jerlo gave him a pained nod.

Good, the commander disliked the situation as much as he did. Nolo took another turn around their shrinking cell. Trailing a hand along their boles as he walked, he failed to pick up any clues about their plans. “Doesn’t their interest concern you?”

Jerlo threw him an aggrieved look. “Of course, it does. I’m responsible for the brat.”

“We have to do something. We can’t just stand here.”

“What choice do we have?”

None and Nolo knew it much as he hated to admit it. The next move was theirs. He transferred his glare to the behemoths jailing him. The wind whispered through their branches, and it carried the suggestion of a name—eam’maya rayar.

In his heart, Nolo knew the wind had called Sarn. His skin tingled as magic electrified the air. White light exploded, shooting a sparkling column into the sky connecting earth and heaven. Hold on Sarn. I’m coming as soon as these things get out of my way. Just as he finished thinking that, the light cut off and the trees parted. Nolo exchanged a worried look with his boss then broke into a run.

Sarn roused as fingers explored the bruise on his shoulder. He must have dozed off. Or had the Queen of All Trees sent him to sleep? Her radiance had receded, but she remained close by, and her gaze was a soothing balm on his hurting heart.

“Sit still I need to make sure you’re alright.” Nolo cursed as Sarn winced away from his ministrations. “You need to see a healer about this and your ankle.” Nolo gestured to the swollen ball lodged in Sarn’s boot.

Sarn shook his head. “No healers.” Exhaustion slurred his speech, making it necessary to repeat his assertion.

Nolo ignored his protest. Always prepared, the Ranger produced a roll of gauze from his pocket and half of his former crutch to use as a splint. “Hold still I need to immobilize that ankle.”

Sarn wanted to object but avoiding a trip to the infirmary had to take priority. “I don’t like healers.” The thought of a healer touching him made Sarn shudder.

“I know. You’ve made your opinion about them clear over the years, but you’re going to see one. And, you’re going to do whatever he tells you.” Nolo loosened the laces on Sarn’s boot.

“I won’t go.” Sarn squeezed his eyes closed. He sounded like his son. Time for a subject change, he could continue this argument later. Or he could just disappear the instant they dismissed him. The boot came off jarring his ankle, and he grimaced as pain stabbed the joint.

“You’ll do whatever I tell you to do.” Nolo explored the sprain with gentle fingers checking for broken bones. “I’ll brace it and wrap it, but you can’t walk on that ankle until the swelling goes down.”

Sarn nodded. He’d have to plan an outing for tomorrow involving little to no walking. Meaning, he’d have to find a safe way to entertain his son in the Lower Quarters. Ran would not be happy about that. Sarn recalled his idea of creating a safe play area and reviewed the materials he had on hand. Nope, not enough to make a start, damn there went plan A.

“Hold this here,” Nolo said lining up the walking stick’s two pieces on either side of Sarn’s ankle.

“Can’t you just strap it in place with the bandages?” Remembering Shade’s last stand, Sarn threw the sticks across the clearing as a tear slid down his cheek. _Damn you Shade. _

Turning a gray cloth in his hands, the commander approached. “What happened here?”

Sarn recognized it as part of Shade’s headdress. A second tear joined the first, and he dashed it away with his hand. When Sarn scanned the clearing, he found only disturbed earth and leaves. There was no sign of Shade’s body. For a moment, hope rose. Shade, the drug addict, would have bolted the moment the Rangers showed up. But not the Shade who’d tried to protect him from Hadrovel’s cruelty.

And it was the old Shade he missed, but that Shade had died five or six years back when the creature known as Zail had moved in. He could still feel those cooling eyes as he’d closed them. This time, Shade was gone for good.

“Shade tipped you off about the smugglers and the aliel powder.”

“You knew Shade.” Not a question, just a statement of fact. Jerlo squatted down studying Sarn.

What did the man see? Could the commander tell he was seconds from breaking apart? “Shade was the first friend I made here. The drugs came later.” Sarn swallowed, but grief had solidified into a lump in his throat. “You told me to drop it because of an ongoing investigation, a joint operation with the guards, right?”

Nolo checked his work and tied off the bandage before answering. “Yes, because it didn’t concern you. The illegal drug trade is our problem, not yours.” He nodded to Sarn’s ankle. “Did I strap it too tight or do I need to tighten it? Tell me if it’s cutting off blood flow.”

Sarn shook his head after testing it and pulled his boot back on. “It’s okay.”

“Now it’s your turn,” Jerlo bit off the word ‘Kid,’ but it hung between them because that’s how they’d always see him. “How’d you get mixed up in this? What happened here?” Jerlo’s interest focused on the disturbed earth.

“A drug deal went sour, and thirteen people died.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Sarn wished he’d listened to his masters and dropped the whole thing. Only the Queen of All Trees knew what would have happened if Zail had completed its spell. Sarn winced as Nolo manhandled his arm into place and shoved the end of the gauze into his hand.

“Hold still. I need to bandage that arm. I don’t think it’s broken, but the bruise likely goes to bone.”

“What are these?” Jerlo pointed to the circles. He held a cube of white lumir, and it silvered the dirt the same way the Queen of All Trees had, but she’d used more lumens. Brows beetling, Jerlo dragged a line through the circles erasing them.

“No,” Sarn tried to rise, but Nolo held him down with a hand on his non-bruised shoulder. Too tired to move, Sarn subsided and leaned against the tree serving as a backrest. “What’re you doing?”

Sarn felt the residual magic in the pattern change. It darkened to his sight, and Jerlo’s nod told him the commander had seen it too. Roots breached the earth, shoving Jerlo back. They erased the pattern and soaked up the lingering magic. When they receded, no trace remained of what had happened here.

“What did you do?” Jerlo held up a hand to forestall Sarn. “The truth please and let’s skip all the evasions. You did something, and I need to know what and why.”

But Sarn ignored the commander and fixed anxious eyes on Nolo, the believer. “What comes after death? Where do we go when we die?” He had to know because Shade wasn’t coming back, not from Death’s dark company.

The question startled Nolo, and he sat back on his haunches blinking at the unexpected turn their discussion had taken.

“Never mind,” Jerlo leaned forward, enunciating each word as if he spoke to a simpleton. “What did you do? Give me the truth or God help me I’ll take it out of your hide.”

“I can only speak the truth.” Sarn glanced at his other master, but Nolo remained shocked and silent.

Jerlo waited, but the man could out wait a glacier. His eyes bored into Sarn, who fretted a fallen leaf to pieces.

“My friend got involved with some people, and they brought something into this world. I don’t know what it was, but it was bad. And it caused the deaths. I had to draw circles. I don’t know why. I just knew I had to do it, and it fixed things.” Sarn looked from one perplexed master to the other. How could he explain what had happened when so much of it was inexplicable?

“And?” Nolo prompted.

“There is no ‘and.’ I told you what happened.” Sarn closed his eyes, and the deaths of fourteen people replayed. Leave me alone, he told them, but they refused to go. The images looped around again until a white flame devoured them. She took away the images leaving only soft-edged dreams behind.

White light blossomed behind Nolo. He glanced over his shoulder then shot to his feet. The Queen of All Trees was processing toward him again. This time, he held his ground and threw up a hand to stop her.

“You can’t have him!”

“Get back!”

Nolo dodged the arm Jerlo threw out to grab him.

“No, she’s come to—”

“I don’t think she has.”

“How do you know that?”

Jerlo didn’t answer neither did the Queen of All Trees make any move toward Sarn. No emerald glow from under his hood meant the Kid had passed out again. Given his sorry state, rest was the best thing for him. All bandaged up, the Kid looked younger than his twenty winters and vulnerable.

Nolo’s gaze came to a stop at his boss whose vulpine features reflected only curiosity, not the worry chewing on Nolo’s heart. Why did a mythic creature who avoided interference with mortals keep showing up? Had she made an exception in Sarn’s case? If so, she should drop it and leave the Kid alone. Sarn had enough problems without her added to the pile.

“You didn’t come to take him away, did you?” asked Jerlo.

The Queen of All Trees shook her crown in a clear negation raining coin-shaped leaves to drift on the predawn breeze. Some of them floated past Nolo, caressing his cheek and making it tingle from the kiss of her magic.

“Why is she here?”

“To help.” Jerlo’s assessing gaze drifted back to the Kid.

So did Nolo’s. He only hoped his boss was correct.

Chapter 32

“You come back now, Papa,” Ran said, his voice tinged with need.

The boy’s demand echoed in his heart lifting Sarn to his feet. When his weight fell on his sprained ankle, it gave, and he teetered. A branch dripping silver light caught him around the waist, and he thanked the Queen of All Trees for catching him with his eyes.

Under his feet, the ground raced away, but his boots stayed planted. When the earth stilled, his head map appeared warning him he’d traveled four miles closer to the son who called to him.

Sarn searched for words to thank her. She was a candle burning in the ebbing darkness shrouding her enchanted forest.

Someone on one of Mount Eredren’s many balconies spotted the Queen of All Trees and broke into a complex polyphony of praise:

[“The Queen of All Trees, heaven’s brightest star—
Fallen to Earth long ago to guard light.
Night has no hold o’er you, nor can it war
while you stand watch, glorious and e’er bright.]

[Queen of All Trees, your radiance lights paths
for lost travelers in your magicked wood.]

[Guide them to safe haven’s blessed, where all paths
tend evermore in your enchanted woods.]

[Queen of All Trees, take special care of young
ones in your midst. Look with a mother’s eye
at their faltering steps. Keep safe those young
hearts as they search for you beneath the sky.]

[Queen of All Trees come and bestow your grace
on all those who run life’s treacherous race.”]

Quiet cursing punctuated the song as it faded out. Damn, she’d also transported Nolo and Jerlo. Why hadn’t she ditched them? They would no doubt insist on a visit to the infirmary. Sarn shivered at the thought of the cold, draining touch of the healers and revulsion twisted his empty stomach. Visits to the infirmary never made him better, but his superiors believed the lies the healer told. The bandages swathing a third of his body would prove a strong argument, one he needed powerful aid to counter.

The Queen of All Trees lashed the ground with her roots until the earth fell away revealing a hatch. She extended a root, coiled it around a handle and swung the trapdoor open. Her light dove into the shaft lighting the tunnel.

Triggering his head map as he knelt, Sarn touched the ground, connecting to it. Emerald light cascaded into the hole. A counter added itself to the blind spot in his left eye, and it ticked over as the magic descended.

“What are you doing?” Nolo’s hand landed on Sarn’s shoulder. Squeezing it, Nolo anchored Sarn as information threatened to wash him away.

Sarn shook his head. He’d never told them he could map the area around him by magic. Admitting he owned such an ability now seemed like a bad idea.

“You know where this goes?” Jerlo crouched next to him.

Sarn nodded. His awareness rode the magic washing over his son’s sock clad feet. For a moment, Ran’s smiling face blocked everything else out. Then arms wrapped around the boy’s waist carrying him away from the magic’s eyes. Miren set his nephew down and admonished Ran likely about venturing out without permission. The door closed, but Sarn had confirmed his son was all right. No shadow-wrought monster had collected his bold little boy in his absence. Zail’s threats had been empty ones. Relaxing, Sarn allowed the magic to recede and return his consciousness back to his body.

On the return trip, he took note of where in the Lower Quarters the hole let out—nowhere near his cave. The Queen of All Trees had accessed a tunnel near the subterranean farm, and nearby, a thirteen-pointed star in a circle icon blinked red on his map.

Unclean, the magic complained as it rushed to exit the hole.

And Sarn agreed with it. Things still had to come full circle. But he could put off visiting the cavern where this all started until tomorrow when his hurting heart could better handle what he’d uncover. Besides, the place was a mile from his cave. Since he’d dealt with the immediate threats, it could stay a mystery until he’d caught up on some sleep.

[_Yes, we’ll cleanse it later. We must, _]urged the magic as Sarn straightened and lifted his hand away from the ground.

To cover his startlement, Sarn scrubbed both hands over his face. His magic was now talking to him in full sentences? Was he losing his mind? Auditory hallucinations were a symptom of madness, weren’t they? How long before he lost his mind to the magic’s mutterings?

“Where does the hole go?” Jerlo asked in a tone allowing no evasions.

“To the Lower Quarters.”

“Near where you live?”

“Near enough, it touches down 1.11 miles from my door.” The mileage popped out of Sarn’s mouth on reflex. A little over a mile would be easier to limp than the three miles the usual way took. But it would leave him steps from a problem he didn’t have the wherewithal to solve right now.

“You and I still need to talk.” Jerlo’s flat tone gave away nothing. When Sarn glanced at him, the commander had his card shark face on, and it offered no tells.

“I told you everything I can. There are things I still don’t understand.”

Jerlo nodded. “And you’re going to tell me about those things.”

“And see a healer,” Nolo put in as he moved to stand beside his boss.

“I don’t need a healer.” Sarn glared at Nolo.

His bruised ankle would heal up on its own or not. Hurrying the process along was unnecessary. His body repaired itself. Now if only it would plug up the holes in his sanity.

Sarn took another step toward the hole dividing him from the Rangers and his ankle held this time. Maybe proximity to the Queen of All Trees had reinforced the joint. Or maybe Nolo’s skill at bandaging had done the trick.

Last time such a hole had swallowed the dead, and now it meant to swallow the living. The thought raised doubts about his decision. Was he making the right choice?

As an inducement, the Queen of All Trees let down her branches and wove them into a make-shift ladder. Except that hole led to a problem likely requiring magical attention. The people who had summoned Zail remained at large, and so did its three creations. How many other people wandered around Mount Eredren with such wicked passengers?

[_Unclean, _]commented the magic.

Should he entrust his life to a hole in the ground’s promise and an entity who appeared benevolent? Or should he stick with the known?

Sarn regarded Mount Eredren’s bent cone. “I want to go—” he swallowed unable to say the word, to name a place he’d never had before. His eyes begged them to let him go, reducing him to the kid they called him. Let his youth work in his favor. He’d seen too much. Tomorrow he would find the people responsible for what had happened to Shade and turn them over to the commander. Tomorrow night was soon enough for questions and soul searching.

Jerlo’s shrewd gaze took all this in, and he nodded. No doubt the commander wanted an end to this spectacle before it drew a crowd. “You’ll let Su look at you, and we’ll talk. I’ll keep it short. I have meetings to attend.”

Su was the Rangers’ medic. Silent and imposing, the big teddy bear of a man was the utter opposite of Gregori in temperament. He possessed no magic, healing or otherwise to mend bodies.

“What the fuck is going on here?” Gregori shouted from halfway across the meadow.

The Queen of All Trees vibrated at the cursing. Her roots clenched, crumbling the ground under her.

“For the love of God, shut up and watch.” Nolo stepped toward his inbound friend and subordinate intent on intercepting him. Instead, he turned back to face Sarn and held out his hand. “Come on Kid you’re not in trouble. Jerlo’s not going to whip you. He’s just angry. You frustrate the hell out of him sometimes.”

“Too true number two, too true,” Jerlo said around a sigh.

Nolo’s eyes urged Sarn to take the hand offered and walk away from all this magical weirdness.

“You didn’t answer my question. Where do we go after we die?”

“To the Gray Between where a ship waits to take you to a far green country. What comes after that is a matter of faith.” Nolo’s outstretched hand shook.

“Thank you for telling me.” Sarn grasped Nolo’s hand and its offer of the normalcy he craved. He took Jerlo’s hand too, wincing as the move put pressure on his bruised arm. One large step set his boot on the opposite side of the chasm, and his ankle chose that moment to scream at him.

A radiant branch snaked around his waist, and her light surrounded him, soothing the pain away. Perhaps the Queen of All Trees had known what he’d decide. When her light backed off, she vanished, taking the chasm with her. Only undisturbed grass remained.

“Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” Gregori glanced from Jerlo to Nolo for answers.

Sarn sagged, relieved to be a nonentity again.

“Later, let’s get inside before something else happens.” Jerlo gestured to the lone mountain in the center of the meadow. Lumir globes glowed on its balconies as if stars had fallen to adorn them.

Sarn probed his shoulder. Angry red had changed to healing yellow, and his ankle felt sturdy and pain-free when he put weight on it though that could be due to Nolo’s expert strapping. He sent the Queen of All Trees a wordless thank you for her gift.

Sarn felt Nolo’s eyes on him again. Fighting back waves of self-consciousness, he displayed the bruise.

“You’re okay?”

Sarn maintained his silence as he unraveled the gauze. No one could fix what was wrong with him. But he knew not to utter such things within Nolo’s hearing.

“I didn’t know she could heal.” Nolo pocketed the wad of bandages Sarn handed him as they walked through the twin menhir rings, following Jerlo’s lead.

Questions buzzed around Sarn waiting to bite, but he avoided them by staring at the lightening sky. Why him? Why did all this weird shit have to happen to him? If the sky heard, it gave no reply. Neither did the grass crunching under four sets of boots or the River Nirthal lapping the shore.

As they neared one of the mountain’s many trails, Sarn closed his eyes. He kept his map minimized and ignored the information it sent as grass gave way to gravel and flat land to an incline. They were ascending the north face of Mount Eredren, no surprise there since it was the closest entrance.

His minders stopped on a bluff screened by bushes. Stone grated as a hidden door slid aside to reveal a stairway. Downwards led to his cave, his son, and unfinished business. Upwards led to Jerlo’s office and all the questions he wanted to avoid.

Sarn opened his eyes as the first rays of the new day stretched over Mount Crael and stabbed gold spears into the retreating shadows. Sarn stared at the taloned hands reaching out of those wine-dark waves.

[_I saw a shadow monster, _]Ran said in his memory, his eyes wide and fearful.

“No,” Sarn stared unable to do anything to stop the horrors climbing out of the river. Hands grasped his upper arms and shook Sarn.

“What do you see?” Jerlo asked. The commander stood on a rock eye level with Sarn. “Tell me.”

Sarn shook his head. His eyes stayed glued to the multi-headed thing ambling up the rocky beach, as his son’s claim echoed in his ears.

“Look at me. Not out there, at me.” Command laced Jerlo’s voice weaving chains out of his words.

They pulled Sarn’s gaze to meet his master’s. Everything outside of the commander’s black eyes blurred until the whole of his perception narrowed down to the mote in Jerlo’s eye. It pulsed in an entrancing pattern sucking his consciousness down into it.

“What did you see?”

The compulsion pulled tight. He must do as Master asks. Sarn’s mouth opened, and the truth fell out. “Monsters in the dark, they’re coming for me.”

Jerlo risked a glance over his shoulder, freeing Sarn. Then Jerlo regarded him, his puzzlement evident. The commander had not seen any monsters.

Was there something out there invisible to those without magic? Or had he hallucinated the whole thing?

“There’s nothing there,” Gregori reported. “You’re imagining things.”

Nolo looked at him with concern. “Are you alright?”

“It’s dawn, can I go now?” Sarn looked to his superiors for confirmation. His gaze settled on Jerlo, who was the most likely to give consent.

“First tell us what happened out there. Give me a summary then you can go.” Jerlo crossed his arms over his chest and remained on the boulder creeping Sarn out by looking him in the eye.

Sarn averted his gaze and leaning against the mountain, he told them about a friend he’d lost to drugs. “I don’t know who helped Shade pick up a passenger. Or what the creature was or how they summoned it.”

But he’d figure it out. The Queen of All Trees had shown him where to look, near the subterranean farm. Then he recalled the book.

“Did you find a book when you found me?”

Jerlo and Nolo exchanged glances, then the commander shook his head. “What book?”

“I think the summoner used it.” And Sarn had last seen it resting on Rat Woman’s discarded cloak. After that, he’d been too busy to keep track of it. Likely it was in the hands of one of Shade’s creations. He’d have to do something about that tomorrow. His eyes felt sandblasted. Sleep would help, but he needed a dismissal first.

“Go on Kid. There are a couple of things I need to check out. We’ll talk some more tomorrow.” Jerlo nodded to the stairs twisting as they descended into the gloom. “Go rest. Be at my office tomorrow at twentieth bell, sharp.”

Sarn nodded, but he paused on the threshold as he recalled the storeroom and the crate containing aliel powder. If he reported Dirk and his posse, they’d be arrested and maybe even jailed. Would doing so safeguard his son? Or would those fools report the boy to his masters? Sarn chewed the inside of his lip.

Jerlo’s eyes narrowed on him. “What’s on your mind?” The commander left off ‘Kid,’ but the unsaid word floated between them.

He was still a kid in their eyes even after all this, and for some reason, Sarn found the situation hilarious, but he didn’t laugh.

“If you received a tip about where to find some contraband, would you pass it on to the Guards or investigate it yourselves?”

“It depends on where this contraband is located,” Nolo said answering for his boss.

“What are you saying? If you know something, you’d better tell me right now.” Jerlo looked ready to bite someone.

“What if it’s inside the mountain? Will you tell the Guards?”

“Of course, we have no jurisdiction inside Mount Eredren.” Nolo gestured to the stairwell.

Sarn relaxed as he heard the answer he’d been waiting for. “Then I know where you can find some aliel powder. I stumbled across it yesterday by accident.” And he told them about the storeroom on the level above the Lower Quarters. A weight lifted off his shoulders. In a few hours, Dirk and his cronies would no longer be a threat to his son.

Sarn had to repeat his story a couple more times before Jerlo and Nolo were satisfied. When he’d finished his final recitation, Nolo clasped his shoulder and met his emerald gaze. For once, Sarn felt nothing, no pull of a gaze lock, and it was a relief to make eye contact and see nothing in his master’s eyes except pride.

“You did well.” Nolo stopped before saying ‘Kid,’ but Sarn knew his superiors would revert to type tomorrow night, and he’d be the ‘Kid’ again. And strange enough, he looked forward to it because it was normal.

“Go on and get some sleep. You look like hell.” Jerlo nodded to the stairs. “And remember—my office at twentieth bell tomorrow. Be there.”

Sarn nodded. He needed no further inducement. Taking the reprieve offered, he rushed out of sight with a much lighter heart.

Nolo turned on his boss. “What are we going to do with him tomorrow night?”

“I don’t know, but I’m sure you’ll come up with something.” Jerlo climbed down from the boulder and gave it a pat. “I need to schedule a meeting with Nulthir to discuss what the Kid just reported. This is the break he’s been hunting for.”

“Are you sure it was wise to let him go without seeing someone?”

“I still can’t believe—” Gregori shut up at a glance from Jerlo.

“The Kid looked a little out of sorts but who wouldn’t be after what he went through.” Jerlo nodded to where Sarn had vanished. Echoes faded as the mountain swallowed him.

Nolo’s gaze strayed to the night’s starry retreat. “Did we make the right decision to leave him out of this?”

Jerlo sighed. He’d wondered the same thing. Since magic objected to drugs, it had seemed wise to keep the Kid as far from the aliel trade as possible. “We didn’t know he had a personal connection to the case. Hell, we never actually had a case. Everyone died in the woods and the trees buried them if you recall.”

Jerlo rubbed the bridge of his nose in an uncharacteristic show of fatigue. Fighting a war on narcotics required more manpower than he had at his disposal. He also had to uphold the Rangers’ charter and safeguard hikers. Did the Council of Twelve care? Of course not, they handed down their mandates and expected immediate execution. Even from the backside of the mountain, he could spot incoming vessels. Mount Eredren’s tiny port did a brisk business with the capital hence the crackdown.

Nolo nodded in response to his statement as a shadow fell over Jerlo.

His attention snapped to the man towering over him. “Don’t you have somewhere you’re supposed to be right now? Yes,” Jerlo stroked his goatee, “I recall handing you an assignment. Have you finished it already?”

Gregori reddened, and rushed through the portal, heading in the opposite direction from Sarn.

“Would this assignment be the punishment you promised to mete out?” Nolo waited for an answer.

Jerlo said nothing until the echoes of Gregori’s heavier tread had faded. His thoughts had turned to the assignment and proof an uglier danger targeted the Kid.

“What do you think?”

“You’re not going to tell me.”

“And spoil the surprise? Never. You’ll have to ask Gregori. In fact, I urge you to.” A satisfied smile sprouted and died on Jerlo’s lips. The fleeting expression was too alien to survive his temperament.

“And the Kid? Why’d you let him go?”

“You think I made a mistake.”

Nolo shook his head.

Jerlo allowed his tired eyes to wander over the land he protected, and the purpling ripple of the enchanted forest caught his gaze. A pale flame rose in its retreating darkness. He felt the Queen of All Trees’ gaze, but there was no challenge in her stance.

For a moment, she posed cloaked in the morning’s peace. Then her silver crown sailed away into the lightening morning. She was the personification of hope and everything magical and wonderful about Shayari. But she was also a gigantic pain in the ass.

Nolo roused from his contemplation and picked up the thread of their discussion. “No, you made the right decision. The Kid was too frazzled. I’m curious about what changed your mind, but I think I can guess.”

“I’ll bet you can.”

Jerlo regarded Shayari’s departing Queen. She left a trail of silver luminance as her sister trees picked up the torch she passed to them. But there was still darkness hovering out there waiting to descend. It wore the eye blinding orange robes of the Seekers, and they were coming. Every day that order of fanatics stayed away gave them one more day to prepare.

“Will it keep until tomorrow? There were some troubling elements in his tale.”

Jerlo followed his subordinate’s gaze. Yes, and those elements smacked of black magic. If there was a ring of such foolishness here, he’d deal with it but not before he understood the problem better. The memories he’d stolen from Sarn crawled back to the fore of his mind. Jerlo brushed them aside. If he had to talk to that monster Hadrovel, he would.

“It has to. A body and a book are unaccounted for. Send Ranispara out there to correct that.”

“Are you certain this can wait?”

Jerlo nodded. “If it couldn’t, she wouldn’t have offered the Kid a way out. Let the Kid stew for a little while. If he speaks of what happened, listen but don’t lead the conversation.”

They both knew Sarn would maintain his silence without direct questioning.

“What did this buy us time for?”

“To act, of course.” Jerlo rubbed his hands together eager to get started on his research project. “Find out if anyone else has seen those orange-robed lunatics abroad. Put the word out there’s money for reliable intel on their movements. Oh, and find out if anyone unusual is missing.” Jerlo’s lips twisted at the euphemism. “Put out feelers in all the settlements within sixty miles of here. If a Seeker shat on a grass blade, I want to know when and where.”

“Only sixty? Why not further?”

“You can put out feelers further afield, but we may not have time to wait for their response.”

“You think they know about the Kid—”

“It’s best we assume they do and act accordingly.”

“Consider it done. I’ll track down Jallister to help.”

“Good man. Don’t forget to send Ranispara out. I want those loose ends tied up before this afternoon.”

Nolo nodded, but neither left the bluff. Their gazes caught on the luminous Queen of All Trees ascending Mount Lireth in the distance.

“Back to spy on us, eh?” Jerlo muttered under his breath.

She paused, and her sightless gaze targeted him, then her crown bobbed, approving their plan.

Unnerved by her canniness, they bolted inside, with Jerlo a fraction of a second behind his subordinate. His boot triggered the door, and it slid back into place removing her from sight.

From her mountain perch, the Queen of All Trees surveyed her kingdom. Enchanted trees stretched on for miles uncounted. Parts of it still needed to be cleansed of the demon’s taint, but that would have to wait. She had business elsewhere this morning.

Chapter 33

Sarn vaulted over the last few stairs and hit the ground running. Skidding on rubble, he almost plowed into Will but managed to stop in time. Unfortunately, that put him face to face with the younger man and the question he’d been avoiding for months now.

“Can we talk another time? I have to go,” Sarn gestured to his cave and his waiting son.

Will mashed his lips into a thin line while that fates-damned question loomed over Sarn. How much longer could he dodge it?

Realization clobbered Will, and he struggled to absorb it. “You’re not coming back.”

Sarn folded his arms and shook his head. Maybe he should soften the blow. But the words rising to his lips recounted the night’s events, not his reasons for leaving the Foundlings. He should go before he alienated Will. But as Sarn edged around his troubled friend, grief overwhelmed him. Damn Will for reminding him he’d lost a friend this morning.

“Shade’s dead.” The words burst out before Sarn could stop them. The Foundlings had never known what to make of the androgynous Shade, and their unease had often led to ridicule. But they deserved to know even if the news failed to grieve them.

“I’m sorry. I know you two were close.”

“We were once, but then Shade got into drugs and—” Sarn let the sentence hang as he leaned against the wall opposite Will. Aliel powder opened a whole new world for Shade, but magic had barred Sarn from following.

That night kept replaying—Jallister’s invitation, his acceptance, wine and spirits making the rounds. Memories slipped and slid in and out of focus. They framed a packet of white powder, the doorway into Shade’s world.

Sarn shoved the memories away. “Magic objects to drugs.”

“I know. You almost died. Beku was irate about it for months.” Will studied him. “Did you try it because of Shade?”

“Yeah, I was losing my best friend to aliel—Angel’s Dust. I thought if I did it too, we’d be close again.” Sarn looked at the floor. He’d never told anyone this. Why was he admitting it now? Maybe he’d held in too much for too long. Even silence must have an expiration date. “But the magic rejected it.” And its rejection had flayed him from the inside.

“I remember. It was only three years ago. You scared the hell out of us, but Beku said you’d live, and she was right.”

“Did she?”

“Yeah, she was determined to make you well. I guess whatever she did worked because you’re still here.”

And Shade was gone. It was the final rejection. First drugs had taken his friend away, and now death. There would never be a reconciliation. All he had was the year and a half they’d both lived under Hadrovel’s cruelty. Not all friendships were made to last. Maybe he’d clung to this one for too long.

“Yeah well, I was screwed up for a while, but I’m better now.” And Sarn was. With his first word, his son had opened the door to a new world and Sarn had walked through it with the magic’s blessing. To his son, he turned now as he pushed off the wall. “Thanks for listening. I know you and my brother are close, but would you keep this to yourself? He’s never liked Shade.” And Sarn had no intention of telling Miren any of this.

Will nodded and kicked a loose stone. “Of course. You know I’m closer in age to you than your brother, right? So anytime you want to talk, you know where to find me.”

Sarn did know, but more than age divided them. So he squeezed Will’s shoulder as he passed.

After taking his leave, the Lower Quarters seemed darker than usual. Was the lumir dimmer today? Not his problem if it was. People icons cropped up as Sarn veered around another bend. Instead of the usual gold, the map cast these folks in a putrid shade of brown. It was time he stopped ignoring them. Shade had called him an angel. Maybe he could be their angel, their symbol of hope this morning. It seemed a fitting memorial to his friend, so Sarn steeled himself.

As he entered another gallery, his luminous gaze played over rags and bone-thin limbs. Maybe he should go back. Who was he kidding? He was a freak, not a savior. Turning, Sarn gave the addicts his back.

A voice cut across his doubts. Steady and clear it recited Shade’s words from yesterday stopping Sarn in his tracks.

“Angel flies and falls. Broken-winged, he still calls.” She continued, her voice growing stronger with each word. “Send forth your angels, brighten their wide eyes. Let those the world forgot, see your angels.”

Such an invitation deserved an answer. Taking a deep breath, Sarn picked a path to the filthy woman.

Through stringy hair she regarded him. “You’re the angel.” She grinned yellowed teeth at him and elbowed the air next to her. “I told you there were angels among us.”

He could have asked her about Shade, but he let the moment pass. Shade was gone, and he respected his friend’s privacy. After wishing her a good day, Sarn crossed the cavern and left without speaking to anyone else.

Sarn barreled on, weaving around the rubble, columns, and stalagmites. His eyes scraped back the shadows seeking a scarred and pitted door. Finding it, he threw it open, rushed in and shut the world out.

Sarn bolted the door then slid down it, waiting for the nightmare to end, but it was his new reality. Shade was dead, and his friend had conspired with the Seeker’s allies. Now he had proof men would kill because of the color and luminosity of his eyes and the magic in his blood. And there might be other people walking around with psychic passengers. What a mess his friend had left behind.

Tentative footsteps approached Sarn, and he opened his eyes to find Ran standing there holding his stuffed bear. Ran poked him in the ribs.

“Papa? Are you here?”

“Yes, I’m back.” Sarn held out both arms.

Ran dropped Bear and walked into the hug he’d waited all night to receive. Smiling into his shoulder, Ran returned the squeeze. “You have to finish the story.”

“What story?”

Ran squirmed and pointed to two glowing spots of white on the floor.

“The one about the seeds and the Queen Tree.”

“I finished that story a few days ago.”

Ran plucked a glowing leaf out of Sarn’s hair and smiled in triumph.

“It’s not finished yet.” Sarn leaned his head against the door’s reassuring solidity. This story was unsuitable for a young child’s ears and yet, he wanted to tell it, but grief robbed him of words.

“Why’s it not finished?” Ran’s eyes lit up. “Can we go on an ad-ven-ture to finish it?”

Sarn blinked at the connection his son had drawn. How had—never mind. He brushed the Queen of All Trees’ leaves from his hair and clothes.

“I’m hungry. Can we have breakfast first?”

“Of course, breakfast sounds like a great idea.” Sarn’s stomach growled its answer, and he stepped over a pile of shining leaves in search of breakfast. But all he found was an empty sack and a bag of oats. Sarn held both items up.

Ran grimaced. “Uncle Miren’s friends came over.” He had tossed silver leaves into the air, then ticked off their names on his fingers and smiled as he ended with, “—and Saveen. He and I played knights and dragons.”

From there Ran launched into a full report, but Sarn had already caught the most salient points. Miren’s friends had eaten the rest of the food leaving him with one option—the subterranean farm where the Queen of All Trees had tried to send him earlier.

“Get your cloak and boots but be quiet. Miren needs his sleep.”

“Why? You said we’d have breakfast first.”

“And we will, but we have to fetch breakfast before we can eat it.”

“Oh,” Ran scampered off and rushed back half tripping over his laces.

Sarn dropped to one knee and tied them while his son fumbled his cloak into place. Two quick knots later and his son was ready to go, but Sarn wasn’t.

Miren slept on unaware of his return or the events of the night. Sarn envied his ignorance, but not enough to ruin it. There would be time enough to talk everything over with his brother later. So he unlocked the door and walked out with his son at his side. His heart knew the way, and each step broke it.

Stopping at the waist-high pile of debris which had distressed his son only yesterday, Sarn steeled himself for an argument.

“We climb?”

Sarn nodded and waited for a tantrum, but Ran just started climbing. Perhaps his son had forgotten where this tunnel led.

Once on the other side, they followed a tunnel and still, Ran didn’t recognize it. Sarn paused at a shoulder-high pillar festooned with rows of clay cylinders. He touched one and spun the wheel. As it revolved clockwise, his fingers skimmed its surface, and his magic read the raised circular runes.

“What is it?”

“They’re prayer wheels. Each cylinder is a different prayer. This is how the old races—the Magic Kind—remembered the good things and prayed for them.” Sarn swallowed the sob ripping up his windpipe. Shade had told him about the prayer wheels when he was too scared of Hadrovel to sleep.

Copying him, Ran turned the wheels on the lower rows and giggled despite a heroic effort to be serious. Sarn basked in the warmth of his son’s smile; it was a balm on his hurting heart. His son was such a gift, and so too was Miren in his own way.

After they had spun all the wheels once, Sarn led his son onward. Crystals glowed on the ceiling as they branched off heading toward a magical hub. But Sarn ignored them. They’d already given him what knowledge they possessed. Their light no longer attracted him.

Recognizing the route, at last, Ran frowned. “Where’re we going, Papa?”

Sarn sighed. “To where it all started before you were born, come on. I’ll behave.”

Ran scowled up at him uncomprehending. “You don’t touch glowing things.”

“Okay, I won’t.” Sarn tugged on his son’s hand.

The tunnel curved past the farm toward the book-lined chamber where he and the blind man had spoken. Sarn was about to bypass it too, but sounds of a scuffle convinced him otherwise. Where there was one book on black magic, there might be more.

“Stay behind me.”

“Why?”

“So I can protect you.”

“There are bad things in there,” Ran stated as he tugged on Sarn’s hand. “Don’t go in there.”

“I have to, but you stay out here. I won’t be long.” And he had a fair idea who was inside—one or more of Shade’s creations judging by the nausea stirring his gut. No doubt they were searching for books on magic. It made sense since they were magical creations.

Ran didn’t like his reasoning but he was the parent, and the doorway wasn’t wide enough for two.

Sarn swung the door open, revealing chaos. Books littered the floor, and more fell to join the expanding pile. At least fifty rats speed-chewed through the pages, consigning all that knowledge to their digestive tracts.

An enraged reptilian creature swiped at the rats with her needle-sharp claws. Her very existence offended his magic. White light flickered around his fist right before he drove it through the Snake Woman’s chest.

Her torso dissolved as he reclaimed the power holding her together. She melted into a steaming gray puddle at his feet, and he felt better. A greenish orb rested on his palm then it sank into his skin to rejoin its brethren, and his magic was whole again.

“What’s happening?”

Ran tried to squirm past him, but magic leaped off Sarn’s hand and curved around his son, distracting the boy.

“Everything’s okay. I just took back something that was mine.” He patted his son on the head and met the eyes of the man shaping himself out of—spiders? Had Insect Man run out of ants and flies already?

Insect Man held up both hands in surrender. “It’s over.”

“Is it? It feels like this is just beginning.”

Shade’s creation stared at his glowing fist. Sarn relaxed his hand, but the white magic clung to his fingers unwilling to let go. “Will she return?”

Insect man turned compound eyes on the puddle in question. “I don’t know. The rules of our existence are rather ill-defined.”

“Understandable given the situation. Why’re they eating the pages?”

“How else can we destroy them?”

“Don’t you need those books?” Sarn touched the wall, and his magic spread over every surface. On his head map, multiple thirteen-pointed star icons faded as the rats chewed.

Insect Man shrugged. “Too risky, remember who made us. There are things in those books that could hurt you.”

Their warped loyalty was hard to swallow, so Sarn ignored it. “What will you do now?”

All the rats stopped chewing and fixed beady eyes on Sarn. As the last summoner’s symbol winked out, the rats scattered. They scrambled up the shelves and disappeared through gaps in the collection. An army of spiders followed.

A second later, no trace of either construct remained. White flames melted back into Sarn’s hand since they were no longer needed.

Ran tugged on his trouser leg. “Can we go now? You promised me breakfast.”

“Yeah,” Sarn said, still shocked they’d interpreted his question as a threat. Had he meant it as one?

Moaning interrupted his introspection. Not his son, Ran was okay and scowling at the delay. Then who was hurt and in need of aid?

Sarn followed the moaning to another cave and stopped on its threshold repelled by the evil miasma assaulting him. It stank of blood and death. His sixth sense skittered away from that chamber and refused to enter. But he had to go inside. Someone was hurt in there.

Ran dug his heels in and shook his head. “This is a bad place. We have to go back.” Ran looked around with fearful eyes and shuddered. “I don’t like it here.”

“I know, and we will go, but I have to do something first.”

“What do you have to do?”

“Something bad happened to Shade here, and I have to fix this place so what happened to Shade can’t happen to someone else. It’s so wrong here.” Sarn echoed his son’s shudder.

[_Unnatural, _]corrected his magic and it was that too.

“This is where Shade got claws?”

Ran’s question caught Sarn off guard. He swung around to face his bemused son.

“When did you see claws?”

Ran looked at his toes and shrugged. “When you were sleeping. Shade told a nice story. But it didn’t end right.”

Sarn massaged his temples, but it did nothing for the ache stabbing him between the eyes. He’d forgotten about that night. His magic had tried to warn him then too, but he hadn’t listened. From now on, he would. It was a better judge of character than he was.

“Help me,” said a male voice Sarn recognized.

Swallowing his misgivings, Sarn entered. He found the blind man he’d talked to less than twenty-four hours ago bleeding out by a cairn.

“So, it was you. I wasn’t sure when you came the first time,” said the blind man. Blood seeped from a dozen scratches crisscrossing his torso. It looked like Snake Woman’s work, and he was glad he’d slagged her.

“I’d have told you more, but I didn’t know it was you.”

“By ‘he’ you mean Hadrovel?”

The blind man nodded. “I didn’t think you were still alive. Mages, especially male ones, die young and childless.”

“Why?” Ran had perked up at the mention of ‘father’ and ‘children.’

“I don’t know. Bear in mind, I’m basing my theory on myths and legends, so it might have a few flaws.”

Sarn digested the blind man’s response and set it aside for later consideration. “If I’d asked the right questions, what would you have told me?”

“What do you remember about the incident?”

Sarn rubbed the heel of his hand over his heart where the pain of Shade’s betrayal still throbbed. What Shade had lived with for six years boggled his mind. “Just bits and pieces—I wasn’t well at the time.”

“In deference to the boy, I’ll keep my narrative factual. You don’t need all the gory details. They’ve haunted me for six years.” The blind man paused as he felt for his cane. His hand landed on a cairn, and he grimaced. “There was a group of us. Black magic is easier to access for the non-magically gifted because it’s derived from pain, blood, theft—you get the idea. Since it comes from without not within, it’s usually a group effort.”

Ran retreated until he backed into Sarn’s legs. Sarn laid a hand on his son’s head.

The blind man’s fingers grazed his cane and closed around it. He probed the ground around him in search of his interlocutor. But Sarn had stayed close to the door just in case this was a trap. So far nothing had convinced him it wasn’t.

“But we wanted more power than what the group of us could pull together.”

“There are thirteen of you.”

“Yes, there were, but I’ll get to them in a moment. One of us came up with the idea of harnessing demons. You know what a demon is?” His sightless gaze settled on another cairn.

“No, but I can guess.”

Sarn counted thirteen cairns arranged in a loose circle. Beyond them, stood a crumbling enclosure. Sarn stepped over the blind man’s swinging cane and rested his hand on the broken wall. Ran clung to his pants, hiding his face.

“Well, it’s a nasty creature. The lowest order of them is naught but shadow and will.”

“Where do they come from?”

Sarn circled the remnants of the cell and pushed his index finger through a chink in its masonry. This was where they had kept him and Miren during the ritual. Ten feet away from it, Sarn squatted down and scratched at the wax puddles. Candles had stood here, one hundred and sixty-nine of them or thirteen squared.

As he ran his hand over the hardened wax, his hand numbed from the cold. Shade had stood here. Sarn blinked, but a tear rolled down his cheek, tracing the scar Hadrovel had left. It dripped onto the spot and froze. Fell magic, antithetic to his, lingered in the stones breaking their pattern.

“Another plane of existence, a lower one than ours according to the lore. But no one knows for certain.”

“Why did you summon one?”

The blind man picked at his robes. A thread had come loose. Twisting it around his index finger, he yanked. It broke, and so did the blind man’s voice. “Since we couldn’t use your magic, we used you as bait. We knew an innocent lad like you would be irresistible to such a creature. If you weren’t enough of an inducement, we had your brother too.”

“You hurt my Papa?” Ran looked back and forth between them and clenched his little fists.

“I didn’t, but we needed blood for the ceremony—” the blind man’s voice trailed off, and his unfocused gaze turned sorrowful.

“I’m all right. I recovered. This happened years ago.” Sarn patted his son on the head, but Ran remained tense. “Go on. What happened next?”

“One of your friends must have seen us grab you. This friend found out about our plan and switched places with the host we’d prepared. But we didn’t find out until halfway through the ceremony when all hell broke loose. Before I lost my sight in the backlash, I saw the demon break down the walls and carry you off. You were unconscious by then. We had to drain you pretty far to power the spell.”

“What do you mean by backlash?” Maybe Sarn sensed a fell echo of the spell’s final act of destruction in the stones.

“There must be balance. Otherwise, the magic tries to equalize itself with disastrous consequences.”

Balance, Sarn liked the word. So did his magic. Both types sat up and took notice.

“What happened to the others?”

“Most died in the backlash. Your friend was supposed to die so the demon could inherit the body.”

“And those who survived?”

The blind man shook his head. “The experience broke their minds. I cared for them as best I could to atone for my part, but they died of the Fade.” He tapped his cane but stopped when it thwacked a boulder. “Why did you come here?”

“Because I have to cleanse this place.” And Sarn knew how to do it, with her light.

He drew her calling card using the tears streaming down his face as a shimmering ink. Glowing motes floated in his tears lending their power to the summons. Sarn traced one hundred forty-three circles inside a greater circle.

When he’d finished, he had drawn one hundred forty-four circles over the spot where the candles had stood using one infinite curving line. For she was life and the great chain of being.

Sitting back on his heels, Sarn looked up as the ceiling parted and her silver light filled the chamber. Thirteen cairns sighed as thirteen ghosts rose from them into her brilliance. The Queen of All Trees’ let down her roots in a luminous cascade, and they slithered along the floor. With the tip of one, she brushed a tear from his cheek.

“It’s the Queen Tree.” Ran chanted as he threw his arms around a root as thick as his torso. “The one from your story Papa.”

“Yes, she is.”

“What Queen?”

“He means the Queen of All Trees.”

“She’s here?”

“Yes.” Before Sarn could rise and guide the blind man to her, she found him.

Breaking into a beatific smile, the blind man dropped his cane and felt along her root. He followed it to the chamber’s wall where she curled a root into a stirrup. The blind man stepped onto it, and she raised him, allowing his hands to graze her refulgent bark.

“Wait, where are you going?” Sarn pushed to his feet.

“To complete my atonement,” the blind man tilted his head back and basked in her light, smiling. “It’s time I moved on to the next world.”

“What next world?”

“Death is a doorway I’ve longed to walk through. On its far side, even I can find absolution. And this lovely psychopomp has come to lead me on.” The blind man took hold of the branch she brought within reach then climbed on.

“I don’t understand.” Sarn shaded his eyes. The blind man was a silhouette against the Queen of All Trees’ radiance.

“Someday you will. Time answers all questions.”

Her crown flared until it rivaled the sun. When her effulgence backed off, the blind man was gone. Sarn blinked tearing eyes then snatched Ran away from the Queen of All Trees.

“But I want to climb her.”

“You can’t. You have to stay with me.” Sarn hugged his squirming son.

“Why? She won’t hurt me.”

“Because I can’t lose you.” Sarn would go mad if he did.

Ran had no counter for that argument.

The Queen of All Trees bowed to him, then her roots receded.

“Bye bye, I’ll see you soon,” Ran waved to her retreating profile as the two halves of the ceiling rushed back together. A white flash erased the seam leaving the ceiling whole again. Ran twisted around to look at his father. “This was a nice ad-ven-ture. But can we have breakfast now?”

Sarn laughed and set his son down. He should have seen that one coming. Pivoting, Sarn scanned the chamber. Had he fixed everything? The place felt cleansed, so maybe he had.

Ran tugged on his pant leg. “Breakfast Papa, you promised. We had our ad-ven-ture. Now we eat.”

“Okay, let’s go raid the farm.”

Ran’s eyes lit up, and the boy charged out of the chamber. “I ‘member where it is. Come on Papa. I’ll race you.”

“Wait, you have to stay by my side.”

As he chased his son, Sarn withdrew a sack from his pocket and checked his map for witnesses. He jogged passed the decimated library but didn’t look inside. He didn’t see the hand reaching out of the silver blob nor the fanged mouth surfacing. It was parted in silent laughter.

Ran ricocheted around the farm picking all his favorites. With luck, all the back and forth would tire the boy out. When the sack could hold no more, Sarn signaled his son to stop, and they headed for their cave. Something about it still felt off, and the feeling increased as Sarn pushed open the door.

Miren was still sound asleep, and he felt a pang of guilt for keeping his brother in the dark about things. But the grief was still too fresh. He needed a few days to grieve then they’d talk.

After removing a new collection of the Queen of All Trees’ leaves, Sarn boiled the rest of the oats in a pot. He scanned the cave seeking anything Shade’s passenger might have left behind. But everywhere his eye landed looked as it always did.

Sarn breakfasted with his son on fruit and oats, leaving the rest for his brother. Afterward, he washed out the bowls and made a circuit of his domain. What the hell was different? Sarn glanced at his son about to ask the question when he saw it—a circle enclosing a star with thirteen rays. Shade had scratched it into the rock under a pile of Miren’s clothes. Anger boiled in his gut. His son had been in danger. Sarn rose and stamped his heel on the symbol.

Black splashed across his vision as its fell power touched him. Eam’meye erator, whispered the voice as if he needed further confirmation of its evil intent. Curse-Maker.

[_Unnatural, _]complained his magic, and Sarn told it to shut up.

“What are you doing?” Ran sat by a pile of the Queen of All Trees’ leaves.

“I found something I need to fix.”

“You have to finish the story.”

“What story?” Sarn glanced at his son, perplexed at the sudden turn their conversation had taken.

“The one about the Queen Tree.”

“You saw the end back at the farm.”

“You saw her before. I want to know where and why.” Ran threw a handful of luminous leaves at him.

“It’s a sad story.” Sarn rubbed his burning eyes, and grief tightened his chest.

“No, not sad, you came back.” Ran fetched his bear and blanket in anticipation of story time.

“But other people didn’t.”

The Queen of All Trees’ leaves formed a shining half-moon around Sarn thanks to his son flinging them about the cave. He fingered one of them, and an idea took shape. He knew how to cleanse his cave.

“Why?” Ran asked when the silence went on for too long.

“Bad people hurt them.”

“You hurt the bad people?”

“No, the forest hurt the bad people.”

Ran blinked and tried to wrap his mind around that and failed since no magicked trees grew on or in the mountain.

“When did you see the Queen Tree? Before the farm, I mean.”

The glow of her leaves comforted Sarn. It felt like she was right there listening. Maybe the smallest part of her stayed connected to her august presence despite the separation. Sarn pushed the leaves until they formed a circle. He wanted her sign on his cave to drive out whatever Shade had left behind and protect his loved ones.

Ran joined him, and a delicate, lacy pattern emerged on top of the symbol Shade had made. When Sarn joined the one hundred and forty-fourth circle, his magic infused the design.

Ran’s eyes shone with joy and excitement as Sarn held him away from the light shooting up from the leaves. A smile tugged his lips as her power flooded the room and burned out the taint left by the demon, Zair. The Queen of All Trees’ blessing settled on his cave replacing sorrow with joy.

Ran tried to touch the bright columns uniting the floor and the ceiling, but Sarn maintained his grip.

“Why can’t I touch it?” Ran twisted around to glare at Sarn until the light entranced him again.

“Because you’ll interrupt it, and I don’t think you should.”

“Why?”

Sarn sighed, not this again. He thought he’d exhausted his son’s inquisitiveness earlier.

“It’s not a bad thing.” Ran renewed his squirming.

“No, it’s a good thing.”

“Then I can touch it.”

Great logic but no, this working needed to stay as it was. Her light rippled then revealed the Queen of All Trees on a beach. Behind her, a swath of green marched up a hill. Before her, an ocean blurred into a distant horizon, and a ship plied its waters. Twenty-five ghosts plus the blind man waited on shore.

The dead boy climbed down one of the Queen of All Trees’ branches and rushed to stand with his family.

Shade also perched on one of her branches. Still veiled in gray, his friend raised a hand in greeting, and their gazes met for one last time.

“Why didn’t you tell me what was going on? I could have helped you.” Sarn let go of his son to wipe away the tear sliding down his scarred cheek.

Death silenced any reply Shade might have made, but his former friend’s eyes begged for forgiveness.

Sarn nodded. “Of course, I forgive you, you stupid fool. You were my best friend.”

Ran hugged him, and Sarn returned the embrace until no more tears fell.

“Why does Shade get to climb on her?” Ran slid off his lap and his knee broke the circle and shut off the projection.

“Because Shade’s gone.” Sarn wiped his eyes on his sleeve. Knowing Shade was with the Queen of All Trees made him feel better. The hurt remained, but at least his friend was at peace now.

A yawn caught Sarn off guard, reminding him it had been a long night. Gathering up his son, and Ran’s blanket and Bear too, Sarn stepped to the mattress. Surprise made him pause. There lay Miren still asleep and ignorant of the deal he’d struck or its price. But that could all wait. When the time was right, he would tell his brother about the university thing.

Ran fiddled with the catch at his throat, and Sarn’s cloak fell off his shoulders. But he dragged it over them as he laid down holding his son.

“Uncle Miren won’t unner—udder—” Ran whispered into Sarn’s right ear.

“Understand?”

“Yes, I mean no. He won’t get it. So, it’s a secret,” Ran smiled, “our secret.”

Yes, it was, like so many others involving the magic. Guilt gnawed on Sarn as he stretched out, and his son pillowed his head on his chest. He had to stop adding to his collection of secrets before they crushed him.

As he lay there staring at a ceiling, Sarn realized he’d forgotten to ask the blind man how many demons had they summoned. Were there others walking around wearing human skins? He recalled the vision he’d had before Jerlo dismissed him. He should make sure nothing untoward stirred, for his son’s sake.

Sarn slid a hand off the mattress and lowered it until it touched the stone floor. Magic spread through the mountain in concentric green spheres. His map changed into a three-dimensional wire-frame as it plotted the icons of every person he scanned.

Still, there was no sign of Shade’s two remaining constructs. Both must have fled the mountain. Tomorrow he could figure out what to do about that.

Magic flowed in two directions. One streamed out of his hand enlarging and detailing his map while more magic welled up from the ground replenishing what he spent. The net cost of his reconnoiter was a piercing pain between his eyes. But Sarn had received his answer. Only human icons littered head map.

The monster had been nothing more than a hallucination brought on by stress. Sarn reeled in his tingling arm and rubbed it.

“Papa?” Ran’s head came into view. The boy had forgotten to ask his usual question.

“Mmm?”

“When you wake up—we’ll have an ad-ven-ture?”

“Yes, but I have to sleep for a while first.”

Sarn froze as his magic confirmed he’d get more danger, more worry, more of what had driven him crazy for the last three days.

“Okay,” Ran grinned, then snuggled down hugging his bear. All was right in his son’s little world.

But not for Sarn nor would it be for some time to come. Sleep finally gave him the Queen of All Trees’ last gift—sweet dreams filled with her light.

Chapter 34

Plying the River Nirthal’s waters, a longship bore the orange and gold sail of the Seekers. Aralore stood on its deck, quill in hand. Her rust-colored robes billowed in the freshening breeze. Above her veiled head, night collected its stars and furled its velvet darkness.

An acolyte held the map steady as she drew an orange star over Mount Eredren. She tapped the spot with her finger and smiled as she replayed the column of white magic shooting up into the stratosphere. The preceptor would commend her when he heard the news. A white mage was a rarity indeed. When she severed the mage’s head from his shoulders, she’d be one of a select few to take down such a powerhouse.

Excitement made her sword hand tingle as she laid it over the hilt protruding from her belt. She nodded for acolytes to remove the map and writing implements. They whisked them away so she could rest her hand on a crate three feet on a side. Inside it pulsed the answer to Shayari’s magical problem.

Movement drew her eye to the east, but she saw no sun sparkle presaging dawn. No, her gaze snagged on the Queen of All Trees as the repulsive creature ascended a mountainside. Its eyeless gaze fixed on Aralore in disapproval. She fought the urge to break open the crate and give the bitch plant queen a taste of the cure for magic. Instead, she patted the box. Soon she’d depose magic’s queen and lead the charge in the last war against magic.

To piss off the symbol of all that was wrong with Shayari, she belted out the Seeker’s anthem:

“Magic lies, on truth we rely.

In brotherhood, we survive.

For our sisters, we thrive.

For Shayari, we fight,

seek truth with our might,

protect humanity,

and destroy magery.

In truth, we’re born

To death, we’re sworn

to seek the truth.”

Aralore laughed as the radiant tyrant shook her branches in protest.

[_To be continued in Curse Breaker: Darkens. Read on for a preview. _]

[* *]

[][]Curse Breaker: Darkens[]

Into Darkness

Hello darkness my old friend,
I’ve come to speak to you again.
Under your cover, I bend,
a light-loving boy to your end.

My lord’s throne he’ll then ascend
and force the world to descend
into madness, my old friend—
so the maggots can attend

the putrid feast we will send.

—Prayer to the Dark One

“Will it keep until tomorrow? There were some troubling elements in his tale.”

Nolo’s question repeated like heartburn as Jerlo turned the page and stared at it. That conversation, which happened two weeks ago, kept playing in the back of Jerlo’s mind despite his best efforts to shut it out.

[_Some troubling elements in his tale, heh. When aren’t there? _]Jerlo scribbled his name on another form and set it aside. Sarn could only speak the truth as he knew it, but not all of it. That boy had been tailoring his speech since way before he’d become Jerlo’s problem. So that wild tale about a dark creature from another realm wreaking all manner of trouble was likely just the tip of an even larger, nastier problem. One the Kid would never reveal.

Jerlo sighed and turned the page. His eyes skimmed the courtesy report sent from Mount Racine’s head Ranger, but not a single word registered.

“Will it keep until tomorrow?” Nolo’s disembodied voice asked from the shadowed corners of his office.

Jerlo dropped his head into his hands and gave in. “It has to. A body and a book are unaccounted for,” he said, supplying the next line to his mute audience. Dragon statues ringed his desk. Their glowing crystal eyes reminded him of Sarn.

“I don’t know who helped Shade pick up a passenger. Or what that creature was or how they summoned it,” Sarn said two weeks ago on that goddamned bluff while staring into the rising dawn—a clear sign he was editing his tale for his superiors.

Jerlo rubbed his aching eyes as the conversation looped back to the beginning again.

“Will it keep until tomorrow?” Nolo’s voice echoed in the windowless office.

“You’re not here.” Jerlo laid his head down on a pile of papers in defeat. Maybe it was his conscience replaying the conversation to prod him into action. _A body and a book are unaccounted for. A body and a book. _

The body had belonged to a demon-ridden youngster named Shade, and the book likely contained spells for summoning Shade’s vanquished rider. Neither were found despite a thorough search of the enchanted forest. What did his conscience expect him to do about that? Commanding Mount Eredren’s contingent of Rangers was his job not finding lost articles, even if they were magically significant.

“Are you certain it can wait?”

Jerlo started. This time the voice spoke not from memory but the doorway. His second in command, Nolo, regarded him with worried eyes.

“Which problem are we talking about? Please tell me Sarn’s staying out of trouble.”

“He is.” Nolo didn’t say ‘for now,’ but his tone implied it. His second shifted his weight from foot to foot, and for a moment, he doubled.

Jerlo blinked. Two Nolos now crowded the doorway. One was a man of middle-thirties with skin the color of rich earth wearing the forest green uniform of the Rangers and the other was a black smudge holding a bow and a full quiver. Death’s Marksman gave Jerlo a nod then faded into Nolo’s shadow. Nolo shook himself, and the beads at the ends of his braids clicked together.

“You creep me out when you go all Black Ranger like that.” Jerlo suppressed a shudder.

“I don’t know why it keeps coming out. For years I’ve barely felt its touch, but lately, the black quiver is always at my back, waiting.”

“I bring out the best in everyone,” Jerlo muttered as he leaned back in his chair.

“Very funny, but off topic.”

“How is it out there? All quiet on the enchanted forest front?”

“Yes, too quiet after the mayhem of two weeks’ ago.” Nolo searched for a chair then gave up.

Jerlo sat on the largest, most comfortable chair and the spare boasted a pile of books about an order of magic-hating monks called the Seekers. Always best to know your enemy before he comes a-knocking. That was Jerlo’s motto even if legends and rumors made up most of his intel.

Nolo leaned against the lintel and yawned. “Still no sign of the body or the book, though the former must have decomposed or been buried by now. Nothing discarded in the enchanted forest lasts for long.”

“I’d feel better if we had proof one way or the other.”

“What if there are more of those things running around out there? Shouldn’t we look for them?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing.” Jerlo lifted a book from the top of the stack and tossed it to his second.

“What’s this?” Nolo caught the book and cracked it open, grimacing at the smell and the grotesque imagery.

“A book about demons written by a monk five hundred years ago. It’s the closest match I can find to the horned thing the Kid described.”

“Are there more of them running around?”

“I don’t know.” Jerlo threw up his hands, but he intended to find out. His continued sanity might depend on it. “Is there anything else I need to deal with?”

“No, tonight’s watch was a quiet one. I had the Kid straighten up the training room. He wasn’t happy about it, but he didn’t argue. It’s not like him to acquiesce like that. He’s been different since that thing went down.”

“Different how?” Jerlo sat up straight in his chair.

“Less argumentative and more distracted—it’s like the bulk of his attention is focused elsewhere on something I can’t see. I don’t like it.” Nolo’s grip on the book tightened until his knuckles paled.

Neither did Jerlo, but the conversation died, and the ‘M-word’ echoed in the silence. It was a subject neither would broach because the Kid might be the only living mage left thanks to the Seekers. What a frightening thought that was and one he and his second tried hard to ignore.

Nolo backed away from the dreaded ‘M-word’ until his back touched the door. He was god-touched by an aspect of Death, but not a mage. What he did wasn’t magic. It was a skill with deadly consequences.

“We all grieve in our own ways. Maybe that’s all it is. He said he knew Shade for years before that worthy’s death.” Nolo scrubbed a hand over his face.

“Go rest. I need you sharp tonight. And I should finish some paperwork.” Jerlo gave the never-ending pile a glum look. It would take an ocean of ink and years to make a dent in it.

“May I hold onto this?” Nolo held up the book on demonology, and the moaning face etched into its cover stared at Jerlo with hollow, eyeless pits.

“If you’re seeking a little light reading try the Shayarin legal code. I guarantee you’ll pass out before the end of chapter one. But that tome in your hands is likely to induce nightmares.”

“If you don’t need it, I’d like to give it a read to see what we’re up against. There could be more of those things.”

“Go for it, just don’t blame me if you wake up screaming from night terrors.”

“I won’t. You should try to get some rest too.”

Jerlo waved off his second’s concern, and his gaze landed on a half-finished letter. What had he meant to write? Not anything important or he’d remember.

“Have a good morning.” Nolo went out and closed the door.

[_Heh, a good morning would bring answers. So far this one’s brought only questions. _]Jerlo set the letter aside and leaned back in his chair. Outside his windowless office, the sun was preparing to ascend to its throne. Even though he couldn’t see it, he felt its rise and imagined its first pink rays striking Mount Eredren’s craggy face. Through its thick stone walls, that light pushed into his body warming his bones. Jerlo laced his fingers together over his flat stomach and closed his eyes.

Something had niggled at Jerlo before Nolo entered. Now he groped after it, but the thought fled through the holes in his mind. He gave chase. As he wrestled it into submission, his vision grew wavy, shading to gray then green as the view steadied. He now peered out of the eyes of a fourteen-year-old mage-gifted child. It was Sarn’s memory, stolen during a strange interview—by accident, of course, Jerlo was no thief. It had become part of the flotsam and jetsam cluttering his mind until something had reminded him of it.

Every element was the same as the last time he’d viewed this memory. Hadrovel’s miserable eye looked through a chink in a stone wall—not a welcome sight.

“I’ll pull you out when they’re gone. Be silent as sleeping stone,” said the psycho Orphan Master as he pushed a hand through the hole. But he and Sarn—they dodged it. And the sudden movement made them dizzy, so they slid down the wall into a puddle of elbows and knees.

Jerlo froze the memory and stepped outside of Sarn’s body and the windowless cell imprisoning the Kid. There were the thirteen cairns. Inside their ring, a forest of white candles formed a thirteen-pointed star circumscribed by a circle. The white-clad sacrifice—Shade, was it? —bent to light their wicks.

Jerlo turned, scanning the candle-lit cave. [_Where are you Hadrovel? What part did you play in this monstrous endeavor? _]

But this had already happened, and the viewpoint was fixed on what Sarn could see through a chink in his cell. All else was flickering shadows on stone.

Thirteen black-robed people chanted as they marched in. Deep cowls swallowed their faces leaving their identities a mystery he could not probe. Was one of them Hadrovel? Was the psycho Orphan Master their ringleader? Was Shade the recipient of the first demon this group of nutcases summoned or the thirteenth?

Jerlo rewound the memory. Hadrovel’s black eye peered in. Was there a wicked gleam in its depths? Was the psycho’s voice saccharine against the grating chant? Or was constantly replaying the scene somehow changing it? Jerlo pressed his thumbs into his eyes. Could his perceptions color someone else’s memory?

It was possible. Jerlo had excised this memory two weeks ago through an accident. One he had not dared to repeat.

“I’ll pull you out when they’re gone. Be silent as sleeping stone,” said the psycho Orphan Master in the memory.

[_‘Be as silent as sleeping stone.’ _]The phrase looped through Jerlo’s mind as he leaned over and rifled through the books stacked on the chair beside his desk. One of them had referenced ‘sleeping stones.’ But which one?

Twelve tomes stared back at him. Most were histories he’d skimmed for accounts of the Seekers and anything that might be demonic activity. The thirteenth, he’d lent to Nolo. Discomfited by the eerie repetition of the number thirteen, Jerlo pushed up from his chair. There was one way to find out what role Hadrovel had played in the demon summoning thing.

Jerlo strode through half-deserted tunnels as the bells of Mount Eredren struck five. Servants hustled by carrying trays of food and ewers of water. Steam curled up from a passing server pushing a cart. Its covered dishes reflected the sprawling lumir mosaic overhead that lit their way.

I was a fool to put off this meeting. Jerlo rapped his fist against the wide banister of the Grand Stair looping between ornate levels. His hands were small for a man of exactly five feet but proportional to his small stature and quite capable of dealing damage when needed.

A dozen stave-wielding statues turned their heads as he strode by. Each gleaming crystal eye hurled an accusation at him. Jerlo blinked, and they faced forward again. He rubbed his eyes, and his bushy brows tickled his fingers. Exhaustion mauled him. Lights twinkled in the black spangled tide reaching out for him, but he shoved the need to sleep down. I won’t rest until I’ve faced that monster and extracted some much-needed answers.[_ _]Stepping off the stairs, he hurried to an office and knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” asked a woman.

Jerlo didn’t recognize her voice. Where was Lord Olav? This was his office. Maybe he’d hired a secretary since his last visit. Nobles did such things all the time. Their staff tended to change with their moods.

“Jerlo, the commander of the Rangers.”

The door swung in framing a middle-aged woman clad in purple.

“Is Lord Olav Nalshira in?” Jerlo tried to see past the handsome woman, but her curvy body blocked the door. In her heeled sandals, she stood a half foot taller than him, putting her ample bust at eye level.

She shook her head. Wisps of black hair escaped her chignon and stirred in the Mountain’s quiet breathing. “No, he’s in the capital with his cousin, the Lord of the Mountain. They’re not due back until the summer session closes. Is there something I can help you with?”

“That depends on whether you have a key to the oubliette.”

Her face blanched and she clutched her throat. “Why would you want to go to that godforsaken place?”

“There’s someone there I need to talk to.”

She shook her head. “Oh no, there’s only one monster incarcerated there. You can’t possibly need to speak to him.”

“If there were any other, I’d take it. Do you have a key to that place?”

Her hand dropped from her throat to the chain around her neck. Through the violet of her dress, she gripped a slender object. “If I don’t have this key, what then?”

“Then I’ll wait, but I’d rather not. This issue is important. It affects Lord Joranth’s personal property. An object he’d be quite angered to find damaged if you catch my meaning.” Jerlo threw in a wink because his bald statement demanded it.

She nodded, though her face remained bloodless. “I know something about the object you referenced. How does talking to that monster safeguard it?”

“By helping me eliminate a threat that’s long been festering. One this monster played a role in unleashing.” Jerlo’s lips twisted in disgust at the thought of Hadrovel being helpful.

She took that all in with a couple of startled blinks then nodded. “I don’t like this, but I can’t refuse your request either. If talking to that monster will safeguard that object, then I must help you. But I warn you. He’s been incarcerated for almost five years. Being so long in solitary confinement does strange things to the mind. Don’t expect to get much from him.”

“Thanks for the warning. I’ll keep that in mind. Shall we go?” Jerlo gestured to the deserted hallway behind him. He felt the crystalline glares of the statues parked there.

She debated for a moment then darted inside, leaving the door cracked open. “Let me just grab a light. It’s best we go in daylight when the tide’s out.”

“And why is that?”

“You’ll see.”

Her ominous promise echoed in the sudden quiet.

Jerlo patted his pockets for his chunk of lumir. He had a feeling he’d need its light where he was going. [_What have you gotten yourself into? _]Trouble most likely, but he pushed that thought away.

She reappeared before he could brood overmuch and slipped past him into the corridor.

Jerlo rushed to catch up. She had a long stride accentuated by her divided skirt flaring behind her. “You could just give me the key. I’m not going to release him, just talk to him.”

“Do you even know where the oubliette is?” She didn’t bother to look at him. Her long legs kept churning despite her impractical garb as she entered a stairwell and descended without a backward glance.

“It’s not in the dungeon, is it?”

She paused and leaned against the enclosing wall. The staircase wound around a central pillar that had been left undecorated by the Litherians. Maybe they’d missed it during their last decorating spree. The bluish glow of th