Sayan--/ˈsaɪən/ adj.-- of or relating to a specific follower of the goddess, Kitsaya. One who bears ancient Kenazi blood and a fragment of Kitsaya's soul. Descended from Jarren. Specific persons who willingly assume the form of the wolf and are not beholden to the lycanthropic disease as a rule. related: Wolfen, Varulf
Chapter 1: The Book of Dawn
“Two great armies warred above, disturbing the slumber of the great fire wyrm. The earth was torn asunder as the beast escaped the underground, leaving behind a great scar, a reminder that when a dragon wakes, the world is never the same.” ~ The Book of Dawn~
Far away from Andruain’s mighty walled cities and hillside fortresses that keep the eerie monsters of the nighttime forest at bay, a raven perched above the city of Brazelton in the early hours of the morning. Her gaze fixed upon a singular curiosity—a gem so rare it pained her tiny heart to set eyes upon it. A creature that walked like a man, but whose aura glowed with a preternatural opalescence. Like a rushing river’s whorls of foam, the spirit of the newcomer blared in the darkness of the slum. His pace suggested he was in a hurry, and the raven, interest piqued, followed.
A blustery, frigid wind heralded in the approaching dawn as Leomere trudged through the muddy streets of Brazelton. He tried to see the best in human settlements, despite their overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, but Brazelton appeared nothing more than a stinking blight on the world. Streets ran rank with rubbish, and buildings were wedged together until their roofs overlapped. If a fire were to start, the slum would be gone in the blink of an eye.
Leomere stepped around an old man’s frail and naked body lying in the road. The unfortunate street-dweller likely froze to death during the long night. Rats had begun to gnaw at the soles of his feet, suggesting he’d been there more than a few hours.
A raven landed in the street, employing an emphatic shrug to fold away it’s wings. In the contradictory stateliness such birds exhibit, it strutted in black raiment, not rushing for the corpse but seemingly more interested in Leomere. It examined him with one eye and then switched perspectives to favor its other black orb.
More irritated than unnerved, Leomere hurried on, intent on finding Jarren so he could be away from the diseased city and its vermin as soon as possible. Elves had a hard enough time passing for human in the dark hours—he had no chance of avoiding attention after daybreak.
Shabby roads littered with animal waste gave way to cobblestones, yards with pleasant gardens, and mortared rock walls. Scattered public houses sat nestled between merchants’ shops with apartments above them, and a tree-lined park spanned the block on one side. The Full Moon Lodge came into view—a timber-frame building with a slate roof and sturdy shutters.
It took an inordinate amount of time before his pounding on the door met with success. The man who answered wasn’t youthful, but he wasn’t mature like Jarren, either. His hair hung in unruly, dark curls—a compliment to his askew doublet and wrinkled linen shirt. He didn’t resemble Jarren as a son might his father, but his eyes were the same vivid green and scrutinized with a familiar intensity. “We’ve no vacancies, traveler,” he said with a yawn. “Perhaps you’ll find room at the inn down the street. Up a block, on your left.”
“I’m here to see Jarren.”
The fellow’s broad shoulders pulled back slightly. “And you are?” He kept one big hand on the door’s frame and the other behind, barring entry.
Leomere, in no mood to be turned away at the end of his inauspicious journey, lowered his hood enough to reveal his distinguishing features—long ears, and the tawny skin and bark-brown, braided locks of the woodland folk. “Pardon my early morning arrival; perhaps you could simply tell Jarren a friend waits for him.”
Despite Leomere’s petite stature, the stranger stood aside—and promptly fixed his gaze on the wall—not even offering a word. It appeared the same expression an elf donned when communing with nature spirits. A tingle of uneasiness chipped away at Leomere’s resolve as he, for the dozenth time, questioned his purpose in seeking out Jarren in the port city.
“He’ll be right down,” the bedraggled fellow said, indicating the stairs with a nod before he closed the door and left the room in the opposite direction.
Leomere removed his muddy boots before treading on the rug, and hung his cloak on a hook. The interior of the lodge greeted Leomere with a welcome warmth. Tidy and clean, it almost reminded him of his own home, with its rustic charm. Wood wainscoting crept up the walls to chest height, and above, whitewashed plaster and dark timbers reached to a vaulted ceiling. Reminiscent of one of Mist’s country cottages, it was complete with the odors of dried herbs and fireplace soot.
“I expected a letter,” Jarren said, descending the stairs in a hurried shuffle, as he tied a loose robe about his waist. His pleasant smile revealed crooked teeth framed in a short, graying beard.
Leomere set his backpack at his feet and extended his hand in the custom of human folk, who greeted with a sturdy shake of hands clasped on wrists. “After you conveyed to me your suspicions about the missing copy of The Book of Dawn, I found myself preoccupied with the notion of a warmonger learning this world’s deepest secrets—especially if he’s searching for a dragon. What I’ve come to tell you isn’t fit for a letter, Jarren. In fact, all care should be taken to ensure it never leaves this room.”
Smoke hung thick in the air as looters picked through manuscripts in the library’s central chamber while the west wing burned. “What are they going to do with us?” a young scholar asked, crouching behind a desk. His face was shadowy from smoke and ash.
“They’ll kill us if we give them cause,” Roan replied in a voice barely audible over the frightened cries of the other prisoners. The scholar’s eyes went wide and Roan felt a momentary pity for him. It appeared the conquerors’ bloody rampage against the learned was only beginning.
Glass shattered as mercenaries broke open a locked case. An aged priest reached to seize a holy manuscript away from one of the gruff brutes, and a calamitous blast rang out, causing Roan to flinch. Kenaz brought ships loaded with marauders, but alone they wouldn’t have been able to rout Andruain’s formidable army from the walled city. They brought more that just a convincing number of brutal swords for hire, though. A significant number were armed with guns—one of the few things even Roan had to fear.
The cleric slumped to the ground, gagging. A dark puddle spread beneath him and Roan wiped sweaty palms on his wool trousers. The invaders were taking Liltha’s treasures and citizens as their own, burning anything they found lacked purpose—or anyone.
“You,” one of the pillagers demanded, pointing his firearm at Roan and the scholar beside him. “Come here, both of you.” His dark mane appeared unwashed for months, and the staleness emanating from his clothing confirmed it.
Roan stepped forward. He had no desire to test the cutthroat reloading his pistol. Gunshots presented more problems than just pain—he couldn’t rely on his magic to heal them.
“You tell me the names for the books,” the man said, in a thick but intelligible accent.
Roan kept a nervous eye on the body bleeding out on the rug. “I can’t read,” he said, gesturing to his dull-green uniform and an embroidered patch on his shoulder. “I’m only a guard.” He returned his gaze to the mercenary in time to catch a glimpse of his wavering aura—the yellow-orange of waning patience.
The foreigner turned to the scholar.
Without hesitation, the young man picked a book out of the broken glass case and began reading, “Codex Alistairi, Doctrina Draconi, Lussonian Book of Hours…”
The foreigner held up his hand to halt the young man. “Draconi, mean dragon?”
Mouth falling open, the scholar muttered, “Uh...uh...yes?”
Roan couldn’t understand the mercenary’s native tongue as he spoke to his comrades but the word dragon came across plain enough. His patched trousers were flecked with browned bloodstains up to the hip and a draping coat hung open over a tatty shirt. The arrogant bastards weren’t even wearing armor. He approached the scholar. “Book says where to find dragons?”
Perhaps attempting to conceal his terror, the scholar let out a shaky laugh. “Legends. These manuscripts are preserved for their historical value and artwork, not because...”
Metal barrel glinting in the sunlight, the mercenary lost what remained of his patience and raised his pistol.
The scholar put up his hand as if to stop a bullet with it. “No, wait,” he cried. “We have one such book.” He dumped the books from the broken display case onto the floor. “There’s an account of the fire dragon, Tiraconis. In the inner sanctum.”
The gun lowered.
Caught up in his relief, the scholar continued, “It was written by the elves. Some call The Book of Dawn the most impartial and complete history of the world, and it mentions Tiraconis and the Scar. If you want to know about dragons…”
Roan ground his molars, cursing the desperate half-wit, foolish enough to hand Liltha’s secrets over for momentary safety. Did he really think the mercenary was interested in a riveting history lesson? Idiot.
“Show me,” the mercenary snarled, a lusty grin rearranging his demeanor.
As the scholar scrambled to obey, Roan closed his eyes, concentrating. If the invaders found out he wasn’t authentically human, he wouldn’t leave Liltha alive. He had to reach out, to let someone know what he’d seen. When he felt his mind enter Jarren’s consciousness, he relayed his message. Liltha is fallen and the conquerors are searching for Tiraconis with the help of an elvish text called The Book of Dawn.
Before Roan could say more, something jabbed him in the chest, breaking his telepathic link. A tall mercenary, with a poorly healed scar running down the side of his face, stood before him. His hair was probably once blonde, but lightened by age. His two fingers pressed into Roan’s sternum. Cold, blue eyes dug deep, searching. “You’re a long way from home, son.”
Roan held his breath. The mercenary’s aura shone with a familiar brightness—indicative of a shape-shifter. His words were clear, unlike the foreignness of his comrades’ accents.
One corner of the stranger’s mouth turned up in a hint of a smile. “Hrodmarr,” he called over his shoulder. “Take this man outside.”
Leomere leaned his elbows on the table, while Jarren hovered over a squealing kettle on the stove. He fidgeted with a ring on his middle finger—a star sapphire gripped in the spreading branches of an oak tree that formed the band. “When first we met, you asked me about a passage I wrote in The Book of Dawn, mentioning the fire dragon, Tiraconis. While I was honest in my answers, I may not have been entirely complete in my explanation.”
Jarren worked a knife around the edge of a glass jar, separating the metal top. “My house keeps secrets like a dead priest. Speak freely—preferably before our coffee gets cold.”
“I already explained that I didn’t write anything of the dragon’s resting place. There is, however, another…issue with the book going missing.” A door slammed elsewhere in the rustic inn. Leomere tented his fingers. “The Book of Dawn is an ancient text, as you know. It preserves our history for posterity and serves the greatest centers of learning on the continent.”
“You made certain that before I left you in Mist, I knew how important is was,” Jarren said with a smile as he set down two ceramic mugs containing some sort of hot beverage.
“The enchantment that allows us to amend the book’s copies is maintained by spirits tasked with preserving the ancient magic set forth by our ancestors.”
Jarren sipped his drink and squinted. “You do realize the sun isn’t up. If you want that to make sense to me, you’ll have to simplify it.”
“If Andruain’s copy was removed from the library and the spirit guardian that feeds its arcane power, the spell will fail in time, and it could compromise all the books.”
Jarren’s heavy lids and tousled gray hair only amplified his skeptical expression. “So…”
“I’ve decided to destroy the Andruain copy.”
“How do you propose to destroy it, when we can’t even find it?”
“By making an amendment and sending it to the keepers of the remaining four books. It’s no small task, but I’ve assembled a number of scribes and they’re nearing completion....”
“Why?” Jarren asked, cutting Leomere off. “What prompted you to go to such lengths? Something’s changed since I visited you in Mist and first mentioned the invaders on the hunt for the dragon.”
Leomere chose that exact moment to sample Jarren’s bitter-smelling beverage, and immediately regretted it as scalding fluid made its way to his empty stomach. “You spoke of a contact in Andruain who witnessed the book’s theft.”
“Roan.” Jarren leaned forward to place his elbows on his knees and clasp his hands. The sleeves of his loose robe slid down, exposing a mark on his forearm—a brand, Leomere decided. “I lost contact with my nephew after a very brief message, and haven’t heard from him since.” The sincerity painted on his face was authentic. Leomere wasn’t sure anything about Jarren was forthright, but in their short acquaintance he’d learned a fair deal about trust.
There were only two kinds of people who bore brands—and only in the east, where the practice wasn’t outlawed—prisoners facing execution and slaves. Of the two, it was clear which Jarren had been. Just another curious detail about the man who introduced himself as a priest.
“Destroying the book is a last resort,” Leomere said, “but I feel it imperative at this point to preserve the remaining copies in their respective kingdoms. That, I’m doing for the sake of many elves’ hard work. I do, however, owe you a great debt for bringing this to my attention before it was too late to salvage my ancestors’ research. Allow me to extend my further assistance to you, in hope of repaying that debt.”
Another loud door slam came from the adjoining room. “I appreciate your commitment to a friendly give-and-take, but if the book doesn’t reveal the dragon’s resting place, that’s my worries sorted. The invaders are from Kenaz, where dragons were enslaved, used to make war. Little chance of that happening here if no one knows where Tiraconis sleeps.”
“Ah…yes,” Leomere said, nervously. “There’s...more than a single passage that mentions dragons, though, and since you introduced yourself to me as a servant of the goddess, Kitsaya, Mistress of Dragons, I thought you might want the whole story.”
The door swung open and the young man entered the kitchen, split logs in his hands. “I’m starting breakfast,” he grumbled. “Who’s hungry?”
On the night The Book of Dawn left the city of Liltha, it lay in a plain wooden box, tied up in a rough burlap sack. A lone mercenary stuffed the parcel into a well-worn leather saddlebag and urged his mount to a trot through the city gates, burned and collapsed off their hinges. The invaders were preoccupied with their newfound treasures—hopefully too preoccupied to track a lone deserter and an old history tome.
Down a narrow path cut out by a cattle run, the mercenary rode, toward a small stream on the edge of a gaunt woody thicket. He came to a stone sewer channel running out from under the city. Double-thick steel bars stood at the opening and behind them, on the stone shelf, sat the young man who called himself Roan. He was trapped between two locked grates that could hold back even a werewolf.
“What are you going to do with me?” His uniform was dirty and sweat-soaked but other than weak from dehydration, he was unharmed and showed it in his venomous tone.
“I’m going to give you a choice,” Cyril replied, reaching with a gloved hand to release the steel door. “No sudden movements, you hear? I could have killed you if I wanted to.” The young guard mulled it over for a moment and then gave a swift nod, dirty hair hanging over his brow, half concealing his glare. “I know Jarren, the man you work for,” Cyril continued. “I know how you communicate with him.” He removed his glove and twisted a ring from his left hand.
Roan stood until he was almost eye level with Cyril. “If you know him, you also know you’re no less in danger than I am. We hunt rogue wolfen in these hills. Jarren’ll track you down even if you kill me.”
“He’ll do no such thing. Firstly, because I don’t present any threat to his way of life; I’m not wolfen. Secondly, I’m not interested in seeing your blood, Roan.” Cyril held up the ring. “But I can’t allow you to talk to Jarren until I’m far from here.”
“And you mean to bribe me with a paltry trinket?”
“Of course not.” Cyril stepped closer, his coat hem dragging in the wastewater. “Eat it.”
Under his breath, Roan growled—a warning that he wasn’t in the mood to cooperate, and might have just enough youthful pluck to consider brawling with a veteran mercenary who he’d called out as a fellow werewolf.
“Eat it, and I’ll leave you here to flee Andruain on your own. It’s a good deal. Much better than the alternative.” Above, in the city, there were plenty of former Kenazi reprobates: slavers settled in Liltha and the surrounding lands of Andruain. They aided their countrymen’s war efforts by taking able-bodied men from burned villages and shipping them back across the sea. “The Kenazi will happily arm you and send you home to fight in their civil war. You might even do well there—earn your freedom.”
Roan tried to spit at Cyril, before he realized he didn’t have any extra saliva. “I doubt they’d be able to keep me on their ship. I’ve something of a violent nature, I’m told.” His eyes shone with malice and though he had a weak jaw and boyish features, he was probably near enough to forty to know something about fighting.
Cyril grabbed the front of Roan’s shirt and held him uncomfortably close, where the cocky little shit was forced to look into his scarred eye. “They understand the word varulf well enough, son. They’ve dealt with our kind for centuries. Remember, we were once their kings.” He let a faint grin creep to his face, where it lingered in sinister pleasure. “They have ways of counteracting our magic. Ways of causing unspeakable pain. They can even force the transformation if they wish. How well can a wolf swim on the open sea, do you think?”
Roan took the bronze sigil ring between his pinched fingers. “What does it do?”
“It suppresses telepathy.” The calloused hand released Roan’s shirt. “Since I can’t trust you to wear it, I’ll ask you to swallow it. And so you see, we have a chance to save each other. You’ll allow me three days, or the length of your digestive tract, to run before Jarren can set his hounds on my trail if he dares, and I’ll release you from this city that would kill you in a heartbeat—load you full of bullets and throw you in a ditch.”
Roan set his jaw. “I don’t suppose you’d just initiate a telepathic link so you can verify I’m wearing the ring for the next three days.”
“You suppose correctly,” Cyril said with a genuine smile. “I’m no fool. I don’t want you in my head, tinkering about when you think you’re being sly. All you need to know about me is that I’m the Kenazi mercenary who set you free instead of killing you.”
Roan shook his head, slowly, in disgust. He opened his mouth and tossed the ring in, choking it down after a valiant effort.
Cyril watched, saying, “I’d offer you something to wash it down, but I think you’d only use my kind gesture to vomit.” He pointed at the seeping foulness beneath his feet. “I’ll leave you to decide how badly you want to be rid of my ring.”
“Not that badly,” Roan replied.
“Ah, well then. No hard feelings.” The mercenary turned. “I wish you the best, young one.” He lifted a battered leather belt and scabbarded sword from his saddle pommel, and dropped them on the ground, before mounting up.
“Is that it, then?” Roan sloshed out of the sewer tunnel.
Cyril watched as Roan looped the belt around his waist and checked the hilt and edge of his new weapon. “I’d consider carefully what you want to say to Jarren before you contact him again. His hands are soft when his children do right, but when they do wrong…”
A sharp nudge, and his horse started off, away from Liltha’s stinking sewer drain, and away from the bewildered young man who’d had an undeniably bad day.
Cyril wore the darkness of the plains like a protective shroud, blending into the nighttime grass, high as his stirrups. With each passing moon, his need grew. Curses weren’t cheap to have removed. It was time to call on a friend who owed him a favor. He certainly wasn’t going to get the highest price if he tried to fence the elf book alone. Besides, the bloke he had in mind was a cut-rate wizard who wouldn’t ask the uncomfortable questions.
A covering of fog hung over the grassland, wet and soft from a late summer rainstorm. Mosquitoes and a hundred other unnamed nuisances buzzed thick in the air, finding eyes and ears in a most annoying way. Whether Roan had taken Cyril’s words to heart or not, time was no longer a luxury. With each passing month, his plight grew worse. Soon, the hunger and bloodlust would consume him, and he’d be lost forever in a mad frenzy. The waxing moon was on the rise, so he urged the horse into a gallop and didn’t look back.
“Whatever you need to say, you can say in front of Logan,” Jarren said, indicating the young man stirring a pot of beans on the stove.
“No need,” Logan muttered, not turning. “I started you a fire in the common room. Brought in a good stack of logs, too. I’ll finish the cooking and I’m going back to bed.”
In the common room, between the crackling fire and the pleasant aroma of a meal boiling, Leomere almost felt relaxed. He took a seat next to Jarren, in a pair of velvet armchairs. “After you and I parted in Mist, I found myself preoccupied with the frightening possibility of a dragon being used for war. I examined The Book of Dawn, attempting to ease my concerns for what information the book’s thief might glean. I read for several days and nights before coming to a passage which mentioned a temple of Kitsaya that once guarded four sentinels, one for each element of earth, air, fire, and water.”
Jarren’s brow furrowed. “Is that supposed to sound familiar? Because, it doesn’t.”
Jarren laughed, perhaps demonstratively. “Have you come to give an old man a hernia? Tell me this is a legend and it can’t come back to bite us in the ass after the book’s destroyed.”
“They once lived in Kitsaya’s temple. The Book of Dawn tells of the temple’s destruction, but nothing of what became of the dragons. I came to you because I have a theory, and if it’s correct, I believe the dragons might still exist.”
That got Jarren’s attention, apparently, because he leaned back as if settling in for a story.
“Long ago, I was a youth seduced by adventure. I even had a partner, Daine, a friend of I believe, your great-grandmother. On one of our adventures, I attracted the attention of a pixie—a side effect of using elf magic. It draws them in like moths to a flame.
“Daine and I trudged through an ancient forest with my annoying pest in tow, until we came upon what remained of a temple. We might have walked straight through the ruin if it hadn’t been for the pesky pixie’s magic sight. You see, pixies are immune to invisibility magic of all kinds, and when she landed on a trio of dragon statues, they became visible to us.
“I now believe Kitsaya, before she was banished from this world, turned the sentinels into statues, to reclaim at a later time.”
Jarren took a sharp breath. “You’ve…seen these statues, then?”
“Three…but you said there were four sentinels. Four elements; four dragons.”
“Indeed. I haven’t proof, but I believe Tiraconis is the fire sentinel, escaped somehow from the spell, more than a millennium ago.”
Jarren’s brow wrinkled with the depth of his consideration. “And the others?”
Leomere tried to conceal his shame by lowering his voice. “Daine and Saroya took one, they brought one to the dwarves, and I kept the last. We thought them nothing but ancient art.”
Jarren leapt from his seat and paced on bare feet, turning every three steps. “It was two-hundred years ago,” Leomere insisted. “After Saroya’s death, Daine grew concerned for the safety of her life’s works, so he built a vault to house her treasures for their descendants.”
“The statue’s in a crypt?” Jarren stopped pacing and returned to his seat, raking his fingers through his uncombed hair. “In Mist, I gather?”
“Actually, there should be two. The dwarves returned their statue to Daine’s grandson.” Leomere lifted his backpack from the floor. “I’ve told you where the other two are, Jarren. I’ll do what I can to help you.” He set a cerulean dragon statue on the side table. Its shiny scales appeared fluid, like a stormy sea, a hint at the power bound within. “If there’s a chance this thing will wake, I want it as far from my forest as possible.”
“What makes you think this statue is an enchanted dragon?” Jarren’s voice grew quiet as Logan entered the common room.
“Ask him to place the tray on the table, here, where the statue sits,” Leomere said.
“Breakfast’s up,” Logan said, heading for them with a small tray containing two bowls.
Jarren’s mouth opened and closed, as if he didn’t want to speak the words. “Thank you, Logan. You can leave it here on the table between us.”
Logan looked at the small table and swept a shaggy dark lock of hair away from his eyes. He shrugged. “Sure.”
When he approached, Leomere knew what would happen.
Logan stopped just shy of the table and his arms twitched, but he didn’t set down the tray.
“Something wrong?” Leomere asked, stifling a smile.
“Perhaps this should cool more, and I’ll leave it on the counter,” Logan replied.
“Please, set it on the table,” Leomere insisted. “It can cool there.”
Again, Logan tried to move, and the expression that shaded his face certainly looked like evidence of his discomfort. Still, Leomere waited, with Jarren staring in what might have been utter disbelief. “Is there something in your way, Logan?” Jarren finally asked.
Logan eventually shoved the tray into Jarren’s hands, the bowls clinking together. “Fuck me, I’m tired. Sort it out yourselves. I’m off, back to bed.” And he headed up the stairs with bare feet stomping.
“He couldn’t see it and was being repelled by a spell.” Leomere tapped a finger on his chair’s wooden arm. “One constant about magic, Jarren. Enchantments break when their caster passes on. Elves don’t live thousands of years, so who cast it if not Kitsaya?”
“A sobering thought,” Jarren said, handing one of the bowls to Leomere.
Beans and toasted bread, a simple breakfast Leomere was happy to accept, considering he hadn’t eaten in a day. “I’m afraid there’s more. The hidden room Daine built is warded by a spell only their descendants can cross. I’m not about to go into the specifics of how blood magic works, since it’s now rather a touchy subject in council discussions, but back in their day, it was less…,” he blew on the spoonful of hot beans, “taboo.”
Jarren picked up the foot-and-a-half tall dragon. “Shit, this is where you tell me something went awry, right? Either the door’s already open or you don’t know where it is.”
“Daine trusted me with many things, but his decedents weren’t so…forthcoming. It’s in Mist University or on the immediate grounds…somewhere.”
“So there’s no way to open the treasure room that you can’t find?”
Leomere sighed. “Not by me, no. There are, however, limitations to blood magic—the most pertinent being that once the blood is spent, the spell ends.”
Confusion creased Jarren’s brow and turned down the corners of his mouth. He set down the statue and placed his feet nearer the heat emanating from the fireplace. “And that means?”
“We have to find someone of their bloodline. I thought they were all deceased but I just came from Mist after scouring every inch of hallway and classroom in the university, and the vault isn’t visible. The spell is still engaged—someone can open it.
“Saroya’s crypt has become a thing of legend—spoken about like a treasure trove awaiting a thief cunning enough to liberate its secrets. If it were opened…”
“News would have spread like venereal disease.”
Leomere cleared his throat. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“So the door’s still shut, and we need to get in,” Jarren said, spooning beans onto his toast. “You think someone’s looking for the statues. What makes you so sure?”
“I’m not certain anyone’s specifically after the dragons, but I suspect someone is trying to find the vault. A unique item was recently stolen from the Mage Council Tower—The Eye of Trent. It’s a looking glass that shows a person’s face, should you hold a lock of their hair near it.”
“How would that help a thief break into the hidden crypt?”
After I turned up no trace of the door, I began a thorough search for Saroya’s remaining descendant. Using all the magic I possess, I learned a many-times great-granddaughter headed to Brazelton when she left her village. I couldn’t, however, find her name. Animal spirits are rather unreliable like that.”
“The heiress might be here?” Jarren asked.
“It’s a place to start. Unfortunately, whomever broke into the council vault knows about her, too. I found a stone cairn belonging to the heiress’ grandmother, and it’s customary to leave a lock of hair and small, symbolic gifts on grave markers of loved ones. The thieves spoke with Brazelton accents, according to the desk clerk who checked their credentials as visiting wizards. They stole the mirror and killed one of the acolytes to get it.”
“Time is of the essence,” Jarren said, his face taking on a pained expression. “At least we have a clue who might be behind the theft.”
“There’s no mage guild here, which means they weren’t authentic wizards.”
“Thieves in Brazelton work in a guild, too; they’re more like carpenters than thugs. If a guild thief stole an item and was caught, he’d get away any way he could. First choice, with the object, second choice without it, but last—and I mean dead-fucking-last—leaving a body behind. Breaking the rules is worse than being jailed, it’s worse than losing a hand to the city guard, it’s worse than death. Expulsion and reputation ruination. We’re not looking for a professional.”
“So an amateur thief overcame the magical barriers in the council tower?”
“Maybe not. My guess is one of Brazelton’s crime bosses is behind the theft. If the girl we’re looking for is here, they might come looking for her.”
“Let’s hope not,” Leomere said. “I must return home to destroy our missing book before it can do any more damage. Once complete, the Andruain copy will unbind and then begin to wither. The writing will fade and the pages will crumble to dust. It should take only a few days, but I can’t in the meantime help you to find her.”
“Don’t worry,” Jarren said. “I’m good at tracking people, and besides, I have Logan’s help. He’s been downright morose since Roan’s brother left for Andruain. The two of us will look around and if we find the girl, we’ll let you know.”
Leomere raised an excited finger. “She isn’t a girl. In fact, the woman we seek is of middle age, forty or forty-five.”
Jarren chewed and swallowed his last bite of bread. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
When the door opened, a faint glow flooded the alley behind the inn. The curious wayfarer, with his hood pulled up and his backpack on his shoulder, was visible for a brief moment—long enough for raven eyes to spy him.
The first golden rays of a winter morning crested a rise in the east—signaling a crucial need to return home, yet curiosity rippled her flight feathers in the most annoying way. Whether it was the mere thought of losing sight of such an unusual creature, or some animal instinct that portended the man’s trouble, the raven wasn’t keen to lose her quarry. She gave chase, maybe just enthralled by the magical glow of his spirit, or maybe spurred on by the gods who wanted her to witness his imminent death.
On the edge of the city slum, where she’d originally met him, she counted three men trailing behind. Before the odd, short fellow reached the field, he’d picked up a fourth. The last man on his tail practically gleamed in the dark—his aura filled with lively vibrancy. He didn’t appear to be armed like the others, but he moved with a surety that bespoke a purpose.
A brief handshake was all Leomere needed, though Jarren offered a bed and hospitality for the coming day. He made his polite excuses and traveled west. Unburdened by the weight of the dragon, he felt lighter on his feet and content in his choice to journey to Jarren’s home—until he entered the grimmer side of town again.
Men in rough woolen coats huddled outside a closed and dark gambling house, pretending to sleep. A barefoot girl in a ragged frock stood next to a crumbling wall, a tin cup clasped between her hands. “Spare a coin, sir?”
The men watched the girl—bait to lure in generous travelers. Leomere wasn’t timid, though he considered himself peaceful. He didn’t fear many things, but the dimly lit streets of Brazelton felt akin to a cave of snakes—something deadly serious lurking in the shadows.
As the forest came into view past dilapidated hovels, oddly placed footfalls trailed behind him—someone being intentionally quiet. He quickened his pace as he entered a darkened field beyond the city’s perimeter. Three…no, four followed.
Sprinting, Leomere tried to reach out with his mind. He searched the immediate area with his eyes closed, watching for the faint glow of spirit energy emanating from any recently deceased woodland creature or nature spirit that might aid him. None were present.
A raven flew above. He should have known better than to drop his guard. As soon as he caught sight of the pernicious avian, he sensed its power—a spell of some kind, setting it apart from a typically resourceful, yet mundane, creature. A scout to track him.
Leomere couldn’t summon the wind while running, so he stopped, ducking into waist-high grain. He’d never be able to outrun a bird in flight; it was better to do away with it so he had a slim chance to evade his pursuers.
Pulling with his mind more than his hands, he drew the air up around him, making sweeping gestures and then forming the captured air into a ball, squeezing it into his grip.
With a mighty toss, he lobbed the compact ball of magical wind at the black shape circling above. It must have struck or got close enough to do damage, because the bird let out a muffled squawk and it plummeted into the swaying crops. The men were coming closer, though. Leomere resumed his canter.
Before he’d gotten far into the field, pain shot through the side of his left thigh and he fell to the ground, a wooden shaft about two hand spans long lodged into cloth and skin.
With the forest out of reach and pursuers fast approaching, Leomere struggled to his feet. Unable to run, he prepared to pit his reflexes against armed men, wheeling to face his assailants. Three? Where was the fourth he’d heard?
The crossbowman reached into his quiver for another bolt while two others wielding curved blades approached. Twenty meters, ten. Leomere put up his empty hands. “I haven’t got any money.” He kept his eyes on the man setting another bolt in its channel.
Panting and grunts sounded to Leomere’s left, four feet hitting the ground. A mounted city guard? Before Leomere had time to contemplate the absence of hoof beats, a great silvery-grey animal leapt from out of the shadows, pouncing on the bowman taking aim more than thirty yards away. It grabbed the bowman from behind and flung him to the ground—a flurry of silver fur and black clothing.
Leomere prepared to cast the only spells he could muster at a moment’s notice, fighting dizziness from pain coupled with fear. His spell took effect; his image blurred as a shadow crept over him. It wouldn’t hide him completely but he’d be harder to hit.
A howl split the night as a sword sliced through fur and into the animal’s ribs. Leomere limped back a step, away from the awful sound. Pain seared clear from hip to knee. Too much pain; he couldn’t even hobble away.
The nearest swordsman swung at Leomere, whose hands were still pressed against his leg. Nowhere to dodge, he threw himself to the ground.
The creature stood fully eight feet tall and wrenched the blade out of its shaggy side. It lashed out with a massive clawed paw at the swordsman. Screams emanated from the wounded rogue clutching his neck or shoulder, his voice growing hoarse with the effort. Palpable, primal terror.
Wolfen, they were called in Mist. Varulf, in the northwest. Whatever one called it, the werewolf turned its great canine muzzle to Leomere. Tendrils of saliva hung from its jowls.
Ears laid flat, it glared with green eyes, and a bestial voice growled, “Get back, you fool.”
Claws flashed in the moonlight and tore into the other swordsman, close enough to stain Leomere’s shirt with warm red flecks. A sickening gurgle came out before the man died.
The screaming swordsman lay moaning in the mud. and the beast took a long look at Leomere and wrinkled its nose. Panting and bloody, it headed back in the direction of the city, through swaying winter wheat.
Leomere’s stomach lurched. Gingerly, he sat in the mud next to the crippled attacker, wondering how long the broken man could linger. Pink bubbles issued from his open mouth.
Adrenaline faded and the pain in Leomere’s leg caught up with him. His limbs shook violently, aggravating the bolt catching on his trousers. He opened his backpack, searching for anything to staunch the bleeding. Pulling free his spare shirt, he blotted at the wound.
No bandages, none of his wife’s herbal concoctions. Leomere wound the shirt around the wood shaft and prepared to pull it.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Jarren said, emerging from the grass.
Startled, Leomere let go of the shaft and hissed in pain.
Blood edged Jarren’s face, though he looked to have tried to wipe it with his tattered sleeve. “Leave it until we get home.” He knelt level with the blood-soaked swordsman. The man’s eyes went wide as Jarren twisted his neck, letting the body fall to the ground.
“You didn’t need to kill him,” Leomere said, softly. “He was going to die anyway.”
Jarren squared his shoulders. “Whatever else I am, I’m a man who abhors suffering. Now let’s get you up.” He helped Leomere to his feet and accepted most of his weight. “Logan can patch you up and when you’re on the mend, we’ll hire you an escort home.”
“You’re…,” Leomere said, unsure how to finish his thought. “The transformation,” he decided, though he already knew the answer, “it isn’t an enchantment or illusion, is it?”
Jarren half growled his response. “This isn’t the time for that discussion.”
Indicating the bodies, Leomere asked, “Who are they?”
“Blackguards who chose the wrong target to rob.”
“You don’t think they knew about the statue?” Leomere asked.
“How could they have? I can hardly believe it myself.”
“They had a raven watching me—perhaps a familiar of some sort. I use a similar sphere of magic when I set animal spirit guardians to protect my home.” He groaned in pain as Jarren urged him a step forward.
“These men are common ruffians, not witches from the swampland. If there was a bird, it was a pet, not an informant.” He scoffed. “Teach it to talk; it’s still a dumb bird.”
Jarren pulled Leomere’s arm over his own shoulders. “Right now all we have are questions. I can try to get answers, but it takes time we don’t seem to have. We’ll focus on the most pressing matter. Our lady’s got more than one person on her trail, and Brazelton’s a dangerous place. Whoever this heiress is, we need to make sure we find her first.”
Chapter 2: The Lion’s Lady
The Axe, The Shadow, The Lion, and Jackal…all walked into a tavern…
And every last boozer who wasn’t too drunk, wisely abandoned his flagon…
Or they would have, if Brazelton’s four crime bosses ever met in public—It’d be a hell of a fight.
There were certainly better ways to traverse Brazelton’s poor district, than bare-footed and naked, but that morning Raisa didn’t have many options. She awoke in a muddy field, the sun as high in the sky as it dared rise so late in the year. The winter chill wrapped her skin like a wet towel, muck clinging to hair and skin all the same.
With vision bleary and distorted, she clambered to her feet, the pounding in her head an unwelcome distraction as she tried to gain her footing and bearing all at once. She stumbled and put her hands out, but fell headlong into some sort of grass—and more mud.
Trying again, she steadied herself on hands and knees first, and pushed herself up slower this time. Unsteady steps brought her toward a dark blur that was surely the shantytown outside Brazelton’s crumbling western wall.
“Fucking perfect,” she grumbled, wrapping her arms around herself, not to conceal her nudity, but because above the protective blanket of grain, the wind caused her to shiver. Whatever or whomever had brought her so far from home hadn’t stuck around. She was alone.
With nothing more than a brief memory of the previous night, Raisa headed for the slum, intent on finding if nothing more, some clothing. She recalled sharing a drink with the city’s youngest crime boss, Shadow, but everything after was a blank. It certainly felt like a terrible hangover wringing the strength from her limbs. Hopefully she’d just drunk too much, or even been drugged—both were more comforting thoughts than the alternative. The last time she woke in a strange place without clothing, she almost died...in a dream.
With her eyes adjusting to the brightness, but not yet clear, she found a row of canvas tents, where smoke billowed from community fires and the poorest residents of the city made a breakfast of boiled oats before reporting for their day shifts in the soil yard. If any of them thought it unusual for a woman to walk through the camp dressed only in mud, they didn’t say anything. Unfortunately, there was no sign of a neglected drying line or forgotten wash basket.
Discarding what little modesty she retained, Raisa let her arms fall to her sides as she strode east, hurrying for a building that never closed its doors, a brothel she owned in secret, where she would find her wardrobe waiting.
The jeers started as she exited the slum, though she took the side streets. There was no point trying to hide behind carts or slink through alleys. The noonday sun was working to bake her costume to her legs and rear, and all she wanted to do was get out of broad daylight and clean up. Figuring out why she’d slept in a field was secondary on her mind.
“Hey now,” a man in a dusty, knee-length coat said, stepping into her path. “Either I missed a hell of a party last night, or you’re dressed for the wrong weather, darlin’.”
“In a hurry, is what I am,” Raisa said, changing directions to go around him.
He stepped in her way. “Well pardon me, then.” He leered, his eyes lingering long enough to make her uncomfortable. “You don’t talk like you’re from round here. If you’re in such a hurry, whatcha doin’ in our little neighborhood…without your clothes?”
She’d never been flattered by the attention she drew from men—almost inexplicably. She wasn’t plump enough to be a wealthy lady, or pretty enough to be a well-married merchant’s wife. In fact, she might be called downright plain without jewelry adorning her ears and neck, and velvet and silk draping her form—both curiously absent that morning.
Kneeing him in the groin certainly was tempting, but it seemed an imprudent response. Instead, she took a step back and leveled a steely gaze of her own on the dockworker. Yes, she decided, he had the physique of a man who lifted crates and it made sense that he was on his way to the port district, since he wore oilskin trousers and tall boots. “I don’t suppose you’d lend me your coat for a few blocks,” she eventually said.
“My coat?” He fingered the shabby garment. “Oh now, this is me best winter rag. I couldn’t think of parting with it for less than, say, a pretty lady.”
Raisa narrowed her eyes. His meaning was twofold, probably the lout’s best attempt at a joke. She chose to respond to his referencing a silver coin that depicted the head of the mayor’s wife. “A Lorraine? Done.”
The dockworker raised a brow.
“A fair price for the rental.” Actually, it was a ludicrous amount, more than enough to buy a much nicer coat. “As you can see, though, I haven’t any money. If you’ll follow me a few blocks, I’ll get you the coin and you’ll have your coat back.”
After a brief stop in a brothel known as The Scarlet Spicehouse, Raisa left, one silver Lorraine lighter and dressed in one of her favorite velvet dresses, with embroidery running up the tight sleeves. It was early afternoon and she hired a coach bound for the center of town, where the river bisected the east and west, and the narrow streets struggled to cope with Brazelton’s rising population. She asked the driver to let her out a few blocks from the market, and on foot, she traveled through a shadowy alley that ended at the rear of an apothecary.
The door was locked, so Raisa pounded with her fist, loud enough for even an old woman to hear. Four crones tended the store, reputed sisters, but so far gone with wrinkles it was hard to decide whether they looked alike at all.
The tallest one, Giselle, admitted Raisa, saying, “Back so soon?” She smiled, showing a lack-o-lantern grin, most of her teeth missing. “You either got one hellish husband, or he’s built like an ox, if you need more nightroot already. Can’t keep ‘im sedated forever; might be time to just castrate him. We have herbs for that, too!”
She cackled at her own humor and Isabella, the bubbly, plump sister entered the back room of the shop—where they kept their more precious and interesting herbs. “Nightroot’s unavailable right now, sorry.”
“I’m not here for nightroot,” Raisa said, before they could presume anything more about her visit. “Good to know though; I’ll use what I have left sparingly.” She strode to a hutch with glass doors, and perused the assortment of jars and bottles the women reserved for preferred clientele. “I’m in need of a blood cleanser—one I hear you recommend for Elixir addicts.”
Isabella blinked and grinned, her cheeks rosy and her blue eyes turning into friendly crescents. “Oh, darling, there’s no quick cure for that one. How long ago did you take it?”
“Let’s assume for the purpose of this conversation that I’m not sure what I took, but it wasn’t Elixir, and it wasn’t simply too much wine. I know you make a cleanser that flushes everything out in a day, so that’s what I’m looking for. No intervention, no counsel.” She pressed a handful of coins into Giselle’s hand. “Just the concoction, please.”
Ten minutes later, and with her precious parcel tucked safely in her palm, Raisa headed down the street, to the marketplace, where she could flag another carriage to take her home. The sooner she could swallow the undoubtedly foul potion, the better. Her head was pounding and nausea lingered on her every movement, causing her stomach to pitch and surge. Whatever had happened at Shadow’s house the previous night, he’d be answering her questions—just as soon as she had a few to ask. All she remembered was that it began with a conversation about Shezalia’s—an upper-class drug den in the Pleasure District.
When Raisa had entered Shadow’s chamber the previous evening, she possessed a simple plan—one that didn’t involve succumbing to the effect his tight trousers and roguish good looks had on most women. Her business practices were simple: play both sides, play them well, and always have a contingency plan for when things went ass up.
Shadow, who she’d always called by his given name, Arras, leaned back in his chair with one boot planted on the table as he laughed. His mask was off, exposing his youthful charm— unruly blonde locks and stubble that he maintained perhaps to prove he wasn’t too young to run a gang. Dressed to impress, in a deep emerald corset and bustled skirt, Raisa smirked, playing up the effect of her dark eye powder and red lip coloring. “You’re just lucky you have powerful friends,” she said. “Lion won’t be happy when he hears you’re making a play for his territory.”
Shadow gulped his wine down and set the glass on the table. “Let him go piss up another tree. He’ll have to keep it quiet once Shezalia’s is mine, or he’ll lose face with the other dons and the rest of his pride.” His haughty tone only made him that much more endearing in his drunkenness. Perhaps it was foolish for Raisa to entertain a genuine soft spot for Shadow, but he reminded her of herself years earlier, when she’d come to Brazelton alone. She’d made her own career in the same manner Shadow was making his, and while she appreciated his tenacity, he just made it too easy to manipulate him—almost no challenge at all. “I’ll visit with Shezalia and bring her your…message.” Raisa winked and slipped the note and coins into her coat pocket.
His light eyes surveyed her and his smile vanished, leaving behind a contentedly amused expression on his face. “Lion’d be upset if he knew you were doing this for me.”
Raisa slid her hand over his knee and ran her fingers up the inside of his thigh. “He’d be downright livid.” She beamed. “Good thing he’s a trusting fool, or I might find myself scored by vicious claws. Don’t worry. In my hands, he’ll be a kitten searching for comfort when he finds out his most profitable Elixir den is under new management.”
“I think he’ll be looking for more than comfort.” He drew his finger across his throat.
“Give me a few days to talk to Shezalia and I’ll get my supplier to deliver our shipment.” They spoke of witchweed, the main component in the powerful drug known as Elixir. Of course, Lion was her supplier and he’d orchestrated the con to get Shadow to invest a sizable sum into a sham of an operation. As soon as the supplier had been contacted and Shezalia’s den procured from Lion’s protective interests, the prices would rise and the goods wouldn’t arrive as promised. Raisa would then advise Shadow to buy from Lion at an exorbitant price to fill his commitment, or suffer the blow to his reputation as a dealer. It was a tight plan, one Lion and Raisa had worked on for over a month. Shadow’s impetuousness made it easy. Raisa almost pitied him.
“Fine. Talk to Shezalia. Have your contact set up the drop. I’ll leave this in your hands.” His gaze swept from her fingers massaging his thigh, to her face, where it lingered.
Too easy indeed.
Raisa stood from her seat and leaned over him, bringing her mouth scant inches from his. “I’ll let you know where to bring the money.”
His sigh carried the sour taste of wine and the sweet scent of arousal. His lips gripped hers and hungrily demanded fulfillment of her unspoken promise. It was just the sort of reaction she expected. Playing the devoted sweetheart wasn’t altogether uncomfortable with Shadow. He wasn’t so hardened by the lifestyle of a crime lord that he’d embraced the customary selfishness the other dons openly flaunted. He was even generous in his affections—one of the reasons Raisa didn’t balk at pulling a con on him. If she had to seduce away someone’s trust, why not the handsome don? It was better than trying to win over a surly brute like Axe.
A knock sounded at the door. “I should go,” Raisa said, sighing as though distraught their dalliance drew to an end. “You’ll hear from me soon, Arras. I promise.”
He groaned his response. “Okay, but wait one minute. I need to kill someone at the door.”
Raisa underwent a transformation when she entered the alleyway that led up to the rear of Avery de Leon’s manor. Instead of a confused woman who woke in a field, she carried herself like a baroness with a bone to pick with anyone foolish enough to get in her way.
Her shoulders pulled back, adjusting her slouched posture to a dignified carriage. Her feet slowed to the proper gait. Even her face changed. She donned the cool indifference she wore like a set of steel plate armor whenever she entered the house.
With the herb parcel concealed within a fold of her skirt, she ascended the steps to the small courtyard that led into the parlor, and then bypassed the manor’s populated halls. She wasn’t in the mood to speak to anyone, still feeling out of sorts after the missing evening.
Once in the kitchen, she hovered her hand over kettles leftover from the noontime dinner, and found one that was still warm. Emptying a generous pinch from the herb packet into a mug, she poured the water and prepared for the drink’s vileness with a pastry from a nearby basket.
When footsteps entered, Raisa didn’t need to turn to address her visitor, the quick patter told her who approached. “Good afternoon,” she said, to Cherie.
The girl leaned against the counter, taking a pastry for herself. “You just come in?”
“Indeed,” Raisa said, after swallowing a gulp of the bitter tonic.
“Lion’s been lookin’ for you.”
Of course he was. Avery de Leon, or as he was known to most in Brazelton, Lion, had a certain degree of paranoia gripping him. For as much as he pretended to trust Raisa explicitly, he kept a close eye on her when she worked his associates. He’d be wondering where she was all night, and have all kinds of silly questions that he’d address in a roundabout way. With the truth of the circumstances being somewhat embarrassing, Raisa quickly concocted a handful of lies.
Cherie combed stray blonde wisps away from her face and grabbed a washcloth from the counter. “I suppose I’ll be startin’ on the dishes now, if you want to stay here and chat.”
Raisa appreciated the girl’s attempt to be a friend—in that cunning little way that made Raisa wonder whether Cherie was learning perhaps too much from her. “I’ll go up in a moment.”
“You sick?” Cherie asked, indicating the mug on the counter.
“Just a touch,” Raisa said. “Should be well by Longnight.”
“If you’re comin’ down with somethin’, stay away from the kitchen. I got a whole load of work these next few days, and Mairi’s drivin’ us hard enough. Can’t have anyone takin’ ill.” Cherie spooned soap flakes into the huge wash basin and worked the pump. “It’d take a miracle for us to get it all done in time for your party, Miss. Unless you got a wizard willin’ to bewitch the ovens to cook faster and our feet to move quicker.”
A wizard. The words set off a twitch in Raisa’s head, as a brief snippet of the previous night returned. Cherie kept babbling while Raisa tried to make sense of the random thoughts fighting for supremacy in her foggy mind. When she finally realized the reason for her sudden recollection, she gulped the last of her bitter tonic, and dumped the mug into Cherie’s basin.
“Hey now,” Cherie cried, “where you off to?”
“Tell Avery I’ll be back soon, if he asks. I’ve got to find a wizard.”
Raisa exited, with Cherie still sputtering her protests. She less interested in actually locating the wizard than in finding out what happened after she’d seen him. All she knew was that when she tried to leave Shadow’s manor the previous night, someone interrupted them. And that someone was a wizard that always found trouble.