ICE STUDY, By Maria V. Snyder

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ICE STUDY

Part 1

The scent of lavender woke me.

Kiki what’s wrong? I asked my horse through our magical connection.

Bad smell, she thought.

Keeping my eyes closed, I reached out with my senses, searching for trouble. A man crept along the side of my house. Since it was the middle of the night, I doubted he had come for a social visit. His surface emotions flipped from nervous energy to anticipation.

I dug a little deeper into his thoughts and encountered a strong barrier. He was a magician. Opening my eyes, I rolled over to wake Valek. He was already gone. The blanket settling to the mattress and his musky scent were the only evidence of his recent presence. How does he do that without magic?

Thanks, Kiki. We’ll take care of the intruder, I said as I slipped out of bed and into my red silk robe. A gift from Valek. Made from the finest Sitian silk, he had it designed just for me--sized to fit my body, hand embroidered, reversible and included various hidden weapons.

Smells, Kiki said with alarm. Many bad smells.

How many? I asked. A sudden barrage of scents filled my mind. Sharp. Tangy. Rank. Earthy. Grain. Five intruders not one. I pushed my awareness out further, past the barn and pasture and into the woods surrounding my cottage. An owl. A raccoon. A mouse. No others. Which meant…

I snapped my focus back to the man and concentrated. He protected his companions with a null shield, which blocked my magic. An icy wave flushed through me. This was no longer a simple problem. I raced down the stairs.

Metal picks scraped in the lock, I grabbed my switchblade and took a position next to the door. Between the faint moonlight and the glow from the embers in the hearth, there was enough light to discern the bigger shapes in my living room. A couch. An overstuffed chair. An end table. No Valek. Good. If I could see him, they could as well.

The door swung toward me. I waited as the five snuck in. They didn’t talk to each other as they fanned out. My heart did a little foxtrot in my chest. The last one was the magician. When he reached to shut the door, I moved.

Stepping in close behind him, I triggered my weapon. No snick sounded—another one of Valek’s gifts. I grabbed the man’s hair, pulled back hard and pressed the blade against his neck.

“Don’t move or I’ll slit your throat,” I whispered in his ear.

The man froze, but called out, “Found her.”

The others spun, but didn’t draw weapons. In fact, they held their hands out and away from their bodies.

“Easy Yelena,” my hostage said. “We’re not here to hurt you. We have some business to discuss with you.” He must be the leader of the group.

“In the middle of the night? And cloaked with a null shield? Try again.” The comment about the shields was for Valek’s benefit. He had to be nearby, waiting to see what develops.

“Both are precautions. We don’t want anyone to see us here.”

“And the null shield?” I asked.

“To protect my men. If I had wanted to surprise you, I would be behind the shield as well.”

Good point. “But your thoughts are blocked from me. All I’m getting is surface emotions.” Which were rather calm for a man with a knife against his throat. I could search his soul, but that seemed extreme right now. Perhaps later.

“I will reveal everything in time. Is the Ixian assassin here?”

“You’re not in the position to ask questions.” I felt a swell of magic, and before I could react, the handle of my switchblade turned red hot. I yelped as it seared my skin, dropping the smoking weapon.

He twisted away and drew his sword, aiming at my chest. The other men pulled their weapons.

“I know you don’t realize it yet, but I am in charge. Answer my question.”

Instead, I stretched to claim his soul and encountered an obstruction. He had moved the shield and now stood behind it. Magic could not pierce a null shield from either direction. I was safe from his magic and he from mine, but physical objects, like the tip of his blade remained unaffected. Breathing became harder and beads of sweat rolled down my chest.

I crossed my arms, and located the darts hidden in the fabric of my robe with my fingertips. “Valek isn’t here.”

“She could be lying,” one of the men said. “How do we know for sure?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “Put two fingers on your neck, here.” I demonstrated with my left hand while my right palmed a dart. “Can you feel your pulse? That means Valek isn’t here, because if he was, you’d be dead. No pulse.”

One of the younger men blanched and glanced over his shoulder.

“You can split up and search the house if you don’t believe me,” I suggested.

“No,” the magician said. “We stay together.”

Too bad. Valek would have enjoyed picking them off one by one.

The magician gestured to the couch. “Sit down, Yelena.”

I considered for a moment. My dart was filled with Curare. One jab and the magician would be paralyzed and his magic neutralized. Yet, I was curious about their reasons for being here. Valek’s influence no doubt. I obeyed and settled on the middle cushion.

The magician sat next to me. His short dark hair and pale skin reminded me of a Moon Clan member. He ordered a man to add wood to the embers. Soon a bright fire lit the room, and I studied the man’s face. Brownish-green eyes with a downward slant stared back at me. He was in his forties and his all black clothes covered a powerful build.

“All right, I’ll ask. What do you want?”

He quirked a smile. “I want you to help me rescue the Ice Moon from Ixia.”

I laughed, but his expression remained the same. “You’re serious? That’s the Commander’s.”

“It’s ours. He stole it from Sitia.” Fury radiated from him.

Obviously a touchy subject. “It’s hidden under the Soul Mountains. Only the Commander knows the location. And besides, why would I help you?”

He pointed to his men surrounding the couch then to his chest.

“You’ll need more incentive,” I said.

“Than preserving your own life?”

“Trying to steal the Ice Moon is suicide. Die now or die later. I’d rather save myself the trouble.”

“Good thing I anticipated your…reluctance.”

His smug smile sent a cold knife of dread into my heart.

“How about preserving your brother’s life for incentive?”


Part 2


“You? Have Leif?” Doubt laced my voice.

“Oh yes. He’s in a secured location with my men,” the magician said. “If you don’t help me recover the Ice Moon from Ixia, he will die.”

I considered. The magician lounged on my couch. Confidence radiated from him, yet he remained behind a null shield protected from my magic.

“Do you have any proof?” I asked him.

“Of course. But first, a warning. If I don’t send a message to my men every day, they will kill your brother.” He held out a glass turtle.

The inner core of the sculpture glowed with the magic that had been trapped inside. With the glass messenger, the magician could communicate telepathically over vast distances to another magician.

Did he steal the turtle from Leif? “Is that your proof?”

“No. This is for my safety. If you harm me, then I won’t send a message, and you won’t have any time to find your brother before my men carry out their orders. My proof lies in my memories. Go on, Yelena. I’ve moved the null shield. Take a look.”

I projected my awareness toward him, seeking his thoughts. The image of Leif bound and gagged and furious floated in his mind. My own anger bubbled, but I suppressed it. For now. He would pay for every mark on Leif’s body. I promised.

The magician had instructed his men to hide my brother without telling him the location. They set up a complicated message system to ensure their boss’s life and his freedom during the mission.

Digging a little deeper into his mind, I learned his name, Owen Moon. And I discovered he had a warped sense of honor. He would keep his word not to harm Leif if I agreed to his demands and help him steal the Commander’s Ice Moon. He would also not hesitate to order my brother’s death if I failed. I tried to find Leif’s current location to no avail. With a sudden snap, my connection to Owen broke.

“That’s enough. Do you believe me?” Owen asked.

“Yes.”

“And your answer?”

“When do we leave?” I asked.

He smirked with satisfaction. “Now. Go pack a small bag. Reed, go with her.”

A young man with short dark hair stepped forward. I allowed him to follow me upstairs, but at my bedroom door I stopped. “Stay here,” I ordered.

“But--”

“I need to change my clothes.”

His shoulders stiffened. “I’ll turn my back.”

“No. You’ll stay here. What do you think I’ll do? Your boss has my brother.” I shut the door and drew in a breath before pushing my awareness to Reed. As I suspected, he wasn’t covered by the null shield. Owen’s confidence in my cooperation could be used to my advantage. Too bad Reed didn’t know anything useful. I capitalized on his fatigue, and eventually my escort couldn’t resist lying down in the hallway for a little nap.

Valek coalesced from the shadows and wrapped me in his long lean arms. I soaked in his musky smell, listening to his heart beat. Strong and steady. No indication that he had been sneaking around.

“What do you want me to do, love?” he asked in a low whisper. “Find Leif or smooth the way for your trip north?”

“How about both?”

“It’s Ixia. Messages take forever compared to Sitia, but if you drag the trip out a few days, I could have a couple helpers in place.”

“Leif first.”

“Right.” His sigh vibrated through my chest. “So much for our vacation.” He pulled back and I recognized the eagerness in his blue eyes. “Interesting problem, though. Could be a bit tricky.”

“Free Leif and then you can play,” I said.

He grinned. “Promise?”

“If I don’t get to them first.”

“That’s my girl.” He released me.

While I changed, Valek packed my bag. In order to travel in Ixia without drawing attention, we would have to leave Kiki and the rest of the horses behind. I swung my gray cloak around my shoulders. The cooling season in Ixia, meant icy winds and freezing nights. Valek would have to find Leif before the cold season’s blizzards began or we would be stuck in Ixia for two months.

Valek handed me the backpack. “Directly north of us there’s a safe house near the Ixian border.”

“You’re not suppose--”

“We can argue about it later. It’s stocked with Ixian uniforms, money and papers. You’ll still have to sneak across the border, but it’ll help once you’re inside.” He gave me directions to the house. “Then head for Military District 3 and find the Commander’s diamond mine--the one he grew up in. Its designation is MD-3-13 and it’s in the foothills of the Soul Mountains near the northern ice sheet. I’ll meet you there.” He rested his hands on my shoulders. “Stay safe, love.”

I reached and pulled him close, rising up on the balls of me feet to kiss him. Heat pulsed in my chest, and I wanted to melt into his skin. But I sensed Reed waking up. We broke apart.

Valek said, “I doubt you’ll get close to the Ice Moon, but if some odd twist of fate leads you to it, do not let that magician get his hands on it. Not even in exchange for Leif’s life. The consequences--”

“I know.”

“How?”

“Master Magician Bain Bloodgood told me.”

“Good.”

The knob on the door turned and Valek moved, disappearing into the shadows. Reed entered the room, glaring in suspicion.

“I’m ready,” I said as I breezed pass him. I joined Owen and the other three men in the living room. Without waiting for Owen to give the order, I said, “Let’s go.”

Leading them outside, I turned north. I was sure Owen knew how powerful the Ice Moon was. But I’d bet my butterfly pendant, he had no idea that it had been given--not stolen--to the Commander by the Master Magicians for safe keeping.

Part 3



Valek watched Yelena, Owen Moon and his four men head north toward Ixia. The cold wind rattled the bare branches of the trees and a shiver zipped over his skin. She was out numbered and the magician could protect himself with a null shield. Worry swirled in his chest as they disappeared over a slight rise. Yelena led the men on an impossible quest—to recover the Ice Moon from the Commander's mine. The only reason Valek hadn't killed the five of them was her brother, Leif. They held his life in their hands, forcing Yelena to help them.

Time to fix that problem, Valek thought. He roused the stable boy, asking the lad to saddle his horse, Onyx. Kiki stuck her head out of her stall and gave him a morose look. Because horses were only ridden by the Generals and special officers in Ixia, she had to stay behind and wait for Yelena to return. She would miss Onyx's presence, but that couldn't be helped. He needed to get to the Citadel as fast as possible.

He fed Kiki a few milk oats and scratched her behind the ears before mounting his pure black horse. For a moment, he wished he could communicate with the horses the same way Yelena could, but he knew they were smart. He asked Onyx to hurry to the Citadel and the horse broke into a fast gallop.

They arrived at the northern gate of the Citadel just as the first rays of dawn shone over the white marble of the outer walls. Onyx headed straight for the Magician's Keep in the northeast quadrant of the city. Valek wondered how Yelena fared. Was she tired? Worried? But when he reached the Keep's gate, he shoved his concerns deep within his heart. No time to be subtle, he informed the guard in the gatehouse he needed to see Master Magician Irys Jewelrose. Valek didn't wait for permission to enter. Onyx hopped the wooden barrier with ease and they crossed to the administration building.

If Irys wasn't in her office, she soon would be. There was always a magician stationed in the gatehouse and he or she would inform the second most powerful magician in Ixia he waited for her. Having a reputation is handy in certain situations, he thought wryly.

Valek hopped off Onyx and entered the building, finding Irys's office without encountering anyone. He wasn't too surprised to find her working at her desk. Her normally tidy hair hung to her shoulders as if she'd given up on keeping it pulled back.

“What's wrong?” she asked.

“Where's Leif?”

She eyed his dusty travel clothes. “I asked first.”

He huffed in annoyance. Yes he could find out where Leif's last known location was without her help, but he didn't want to waste anymore time. Besides Irys may have information on this Owen Moon. He explained the midnight ambush to her.

“I remember Owen,” she said. “Cocky little twerp who came from a rich family. His strongest ability is mental communication. The only magician I know who can lie to another magician in his mind. Most people can't lie when you're linked mind to mind, but he can.”

“Where's Leif?” he asked again.

“Councilor Moon requested his help to interrogate a murderer. Not all of his victims have been found and they wanted to use Leif's magic to locate their remains.”

“Have you heard from him recently?”

“No and I was beginning to worry. Last time he made contact was three days ago. He reported that he had reached Fulgor late at night and would go to the Councilor's Hall in the morning.”

“Can you contact one of the Councilor's people?” he asked.

Irys nodded and pulled a glass statue from her pocket. He guessed the red tailed hawk glowed with magic, but he couldn't see it. She stared into the depths of the messenger.

“Ask if Leif checked in with Tama Moon,” he said. He needed to know if Owen's men had ambushed Leif before or after he talked to the Councilor.

Irys frowned. “We'll have to wait. My contact will ask the Councilor and report back. Get some sleep, Valek. You look exhausted.”

It was a good idea, but sleeping now seemed impossible. Valek desired action. His hands itched to squeeze the life out of the people who held Leif. Instead, he stabled Onyx and then joined the morning training session, working out with the students until Irys appeared and waved him over.

“Councilor Moon never requested Leif. She hasn't seen him at all,” she said.

Valek calculated. Leif was taken three days ago. He could still be in Moon Clan lands or in Cloud Mist's lands or even the Featherstone lands. He would need to travel to Fulgor, but Onyx required a few more hours rest before they could leave. With reluctance dragging at his feet, he finally took Irys's advice and slept.

#


By mid-afternoon, Valek and Onyx headed toward Fulgor. The horse seemed to sense his impatience and pushed himself harder than normal. The five day journey turned into four. Valek made sure to find a clean stable and rubbed the black horse down himself.

“You've been hanging out with those Sandseed horses too long,” Valek said to him, patting his neck in gratitude. With Onyx fed, watered and settled, Valek hurried to his safe house. He didn't care if anyone recognized him on the streets of Fulgor, but he made sure no one saw him enter the small nondescript townhouse a few blocks from the Councilor's Hall.

The agent on duty shot to her feet when Valek appeared. She would have launched into an update about what had been happening in the city, but he silenced her with a sharp wave.

“I need to know if any of our Fulgor agents has reported seeing Leif Liana Zaltana in the last ten days,” he said.

The young woman pulled a log book from the desk. Flipping through the pages, she scanned the entries. Valek paced the narrow room. A few armchairs had been set up near the window to give the appearance of a home. However the rest of the dwelling was used as an office and safe haven for his corps. The Commander had ordered him to set up and maintain one of these safe houses in each major city in Sitia, including the Citadel. All to keep track of the neighbors to the south. Yelena would be livid if she knew, but Valek couldn’t disobey a direct order from the Commander. Besides the houses came in handy.

“Sir, he was spotted entering the Weir Inn seven days ago, and two days ago an agent noted his horse is still at the inn’s stables. No one has seen him around town or at the Councilor’s Hall.”

Valek raced to the inn, beating the supper rush by a few minutes. The common room hummed with voices and servers weaved through the table. Valek sought out the inn’s owner and heard the same story. Here for one night and disappeared the next day. She figured Leif would return for his horse eventually.

“Did you notice if he talked to anyone?” Valek asked her.

“I’m too busy cleaning rooms in the morning, but you can ask our cook. He’s friends with Mr. Leif,” she said.

The sizzling smell of grilled beef dominated the kitchen. Valek’s stomach grumbled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten since yesterday. The cook flipped beef steaks with an expert twist of his wrist.

“I stayed up all night with Leif,” the cook said between tasks. “We talked food—no surprise there, the man has an excellent palette—and then I whipped him up some sweet cakes for breakfast. When I left that morning, I saw him talking to four security guards.” He shrugged. “He told me he was in town to help the guards, I think they all left together.”

Valek thanked the cook. Returning to the common room, he sat at a table in the back corner and ordered a beef steak. It didn’t take a genius to guess that those guards weren’t legit. After Valek finished his meal, he walked toward Fulgor’s security headquarters. In order to maintain the ruse long enough to lead Leif somewhere relatively deserted, the fake guards would have to start out in the right direction.

In the graying twilight, Valek scanned the street, searching for places he would use for an ambush. He peered into dark alleys and circled abandoned buildings. One alley a couple blocks away from the Inn had signs of a struggle scuffed on the cobblestones near the alley’s entrance. It could be from a street fight, but he needed to investigate before the light was gone. Half way down, he discovered drag marks leading to a warehouse door. Rust coated the hinges and knob, but not the lock.

Could it really be that easy? Not trusting the door, Valek climbed to the second floor and found an unlocked window. Ghosting inside the empty building, he didn’t encounter anything or anyone on the second floor. On the first floor, he found a machete in the corner of a big open room. Dried blood splattered the blade. Nearby, he spotted faint scratches on the brick wall, but it was too dark to read them.

“Need a light?” a woman’s voice asked.

As a fire blazed to life behind him, Valek spun and grabbed his daggers. Six black-clad figures fanned out in front of him, pointing their swords at his heart. Guess it isn’t going to be that easy.

Part 4



Valek was literally cornered. Six armed figures blocked his only escape route. He kept his expression neutral, but inside he chastised his own lack of judgment. “Only six?” he asked. “My, my.” He tsked, and spun the curved daggers in his hands. “Do you want to surrender to me now or later?”

The woman laughed—a deep almost sexy sound. She held the lantern aloft. Standing safely behind the semi-circle of fighters, she had pulled the hood of her long cloak up to conceal her face. “We’re well aware of your reputation. And I must say, I’m disappointed,” she said.

Magic brushed Valek’s skin. At least one of the ambushers was a magician. Even though he was immune to magic, he could feel it, and, if it was strong enough, it could slow him down.

The woman continued, “We expected you to show up at some point, but we never thought you would be this easy to catch.”

“Who says I’m caught?” he asked.

This time a chuckle rippled through the six fighters. Valek studied them. They wore tight-fitting black clothes that covered everything but their eyes. Sharp swords pointed at him with steady hands, and a few clutched short knives in their other hand.

His daggers wouldn’t reach as far as their weapons. Leif’s machete lay by his feet, but the thick blade would still not be long enough. He considered the darts treated with Curare tucked in his belt. They would even the odds a bit if he has time to use them.

“Enough banter,” the woman said. “Put down your weapons, and you will not be harmed.”

“Did you give Leif that choice as well?” he asked.

“No. In fact, if you manage to escape tonight, he will be harmed in retaliation for your attempt to interfere. Yelena will witness us cutting his arms off.”

So they did have him. “And if I surrender?”

“He will not be hurt, and you will provide more incentive for her to complete her mission successfully.”

“What if she doesn’t follow Owen’s orders?”

“Leif and you will suffer.”

“But you just said I wouldn’t be harmed.” Valek kept his tone reasonable as he suppressed a smile at the woman’s growing frustration.

“Yelena’s disobedience would hurt you. As long as she obeys, you will be fine.”

He noted the woman’s speech patterns. Her word choice reminded him of Moon Man. Strange. Most of the Sandseed clan had been killed and he couldn’t imagine one of the survivors working for Owen Moon.

“Drop your weapons, now,” she ordered.

Escape would be difficult, but not impossible. But there was no guarantee he would be able to follow them to Leif once he escaped. And what if they used a glass messenger to report his involvement and they cut Leif’s arms off before he could reach him? If he surrendered, they’d take him to Leif and then they’d both escape.

Valek slowly set his daggers on the floor and held his hands up.

“And the rest,” she said.

He removed a few more weapons, but left the darts, lock picks and a few other surprises in place. She ordered him to turn around and put his hands on the wall. Doing as instructed, Valek knew exactly what would happen next. Even though he braced for the blow, the impact sent him to his knees as blackness claimed him.

#


A dagger of pain stabbed him between the eyes. Valek groaned and touched the back of his head, fingering a tender fist-sized lump. Nausea churned in his stomach. He lay still to keep from losing his supper.

“At least you’re not dead,” Leif said. “Although after a few meals in here, you’ll wish you were.”

Valek opened his eyes. He was in a cell comprised of one stone wall with bars along the remaining three. Beyond his door was a wide walkway and another stone wall. The walkway ended at a set of metal doors on his left. Lanterns hung along the far wall, illuminating the narrow prison. From his location, he counted three cells in total. The configuration was unfamiliar.

Leif stood in the adjoining cell on his right, watching him with a semi-amused expression. Purple bruises and half-healed cuts marked his face. He wore a blue coverall that resembled a prison uniform.

“If you’re my knight in shining armor, I’m screwed,” Leif said.

Careful not to jar his head, Valek pushed into a sitting position. He was getting too old for this nonsense. Valek also wore a blue coverall, and a quick check confirmed that none of his own clothing remained. Leif may have a point about being screwed.

“They’re professionals,” Leif said. “Terrible cooks, but they’re smart.”

“What about your magic?” Valek asked.

“I have the deluxe accommodations. Slop pot, damp walls, straw bedding and a null shield.”

“Considerate of them.” He scanned the small area, searching for possible ways to escape.

“They won’t tell me anything. What’s going on?” Leif asked.

By the time Valek finished explaining, Leif paced his cell in agitation. “She can’t give him the Ice Moon. She knows that. Right?”

Concerned about listeners, Valek tapped his ear then switched to the sign language he had taught Leif. He motioned that Yelena was well aware of the danger. Worry over her reaction to the news of his capture flared. Even if they escaped, Owen could still lie to her.

We have to get out of here, Leif replied.

That’s the idea.

Do you have a plan?

I’m working on it.

Leif didn’t look reassured. Work faster.

A clang of a heavy bolt being pulled rang out. Fresh air swept in for a moment before the door slammed shut. Valek jumped to his feet and moved close to the bars of his cell. Five armed guards preceded a familiar cloaked figure. The woman held a glass fox.

He cursed those magical communication devices under his breath. Not only did they put Ixia at a major disadvantage, but they complicated this situation.

The guards kept well out of his reach. Damn. Valek strained to see the woman's face, but couldn’t.

“Your heart mate will not believe us about your capture,” she said. “Seeing is believing.”

With the magic inside the glass, Valek guessed Yelena could see him through the woman’s eyes. He crossed his arms and scowled, drumming his fingers on his biceps. His actions weren’t random, and he hoped Yelena remembered the signals.

After a few moments, she snapped her fingers. The guards unlocked Leif’s cell door and rushed him. They pinned him to the wall as the woman entered. She pulled a switchblade from her pocket.

Triggering the blade, she advanced on Leif. “Now to show Yelena what happens when she questions us.”

Part 5


Seeing Valek through Owen’s mind, I stifled my desire to throttle the magician. Owen had been telling the truth. Valek had been caught and he looked really pissed off. He tapped his fingers on his arm, signaling me. Since I was connected through Owen, I would have to decipher Valek’s message later.

Owen used his glass turtle to reach the other magician—a woman who held another one of Opal’s glass messengers. Through this strange double link I could “see” what she did. It was bad enough to learn of Valek’s capture, but when she triggered her switchblade and advanced on my brother, I lost it.

It meaning my temper. I projected my awareness into the woman before Owen could sever the connection. Taking over her physical body, I stopped her thrust just in time. Her confusion lasted mere seconds before horror and fear flooded as she realized I had control of her body and soul. Score one for the Soulfinder.

However what I didn’t have was time. I had expended a great deal of energy to reach her and I felt Owen’s efforts to break the link. He would soon succeed.

I turned the blade and rested the cold steel on her neck. I could kill you right now, but I won’t, I said to her. Instead, I’ll spare your life and in exchange you will not harm my brother or Valek. If they’re injured in any way while in your care, I will find you, kill you, and send your soul to the fire world. Understand?

She did.

With my last bit of strength, I sent her and the guards to sleep and tossed the switchblade to Valek. They would all wake as soon as I left, but I hoped it would be long enough to give Leif and Valek a slight advantage.

I returned to my own body with an audible snap. Exhaustion liquefied my muscles, and I slumped to the floor. We had stopped for the night in a travel shelter located near the middle of Military District 5 (MD—5) in Ixia. My old stomping grounds.

From my prone position I had an up—close view of Owen’s boots.

“That was unwise,” he said. Fury spiked his words.

“It was instinct,” I whispered.

“How sweet. But it didn’t save your brother or Valek. It angered me and now you’re unable to defend yourself. What did you hope to accomplish?”

“I liked angering you.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I’d pay for my smart remark.

Owen didn’t disappoint. The tip of his boot rammed into my ribs. Pain raced along the bones of my ribcage. He probably cracked a few. The whole unable to defend myself also meant I was unable to heal myself. And Owen didn’t stop with one kick. Oh no. He wanted to prove his point. After what seemed like a lifetime of blows to my ribs, stomach and back, he did. Passing out was the best thing to happen to me all day.

#


Consciousness swelled and died. During my lucid times, snippets of conversation reached me.

“…dangerous delay…what were you thinking?”

“…can’t do anything…Selene’s terrified…”

When I no longer drifted in and out, I assessed my situation. I remained on the floor of the travel shelter with two cracked ribs and one broken. All three ribs stabbed me with white hot fire every time I moved. The bruised muscles around my torso throbbed with pain. And I didn’t have enough strength to heal myself. Not yet.

With no other option available, I kept still. I reviewed the whole encounter with the woman who had threatened Leif and I remembered Valek’s signal. It was hard to decipher through the haze of pain, but I dredged up the memories of his lessons.

Leif had been the better student, learning all the signals. I had memorized the basics—handy when we had a mission requiring silence, but now I mourned my lack of foresight.

Puzzling out the different gestures, I pieced together most of his message. He seemed confident that they would escape and he warned me about Owen lying. Not exactly earth—shattering news, but he must have a good reason to state the obvious. Too bad I couldn’t translate what Owen might be lying about.

A day passed and, even though Owen’s men gave me food and water, my energy level stayed low. The tension between the men grew. I considered ways to increase the friction, including drawing out my recovery time.

Finally, Owen knelt next to me. “We need to go. Now.”

“Can’t move,” I said.

He studied my expression. I shifted and winced as pain tore through my ribcage.

“How long?” he asked.

“A couple days.” My answer alarmed his men. Good.

“We don’t have that much time. Someone is bound to grow suspicious and alert the local soldiers.” He rubbed a hand over the dark stubble on his cheeks. White hairs flecked his soon—to—be beard. “I’ll share my strength with you. Heal your ribs only.”

So much for my plan. Owen grabbed my hands with his, letting me tap into his considerable magic. I pulled threads of magic and repaired the damage to my body. When I finished, I yanked my hands back, but he held on.

“I communicated with my other team today,” he said. “Despite your interference, nothing has changed.”

Through his memories, I saw Valek pacing in the small cell. His expression devoid of emotion�a bad sign. Perhaps escaping was no longer an option. The view changed to Leif. He lay on the straw bedding either asleep or unconscious. The bruises on his face stood out against his unnaturally pale skin. Blood soaked the fabric of his jumper on his right shoulder and chest.

“He’ll live,” Owen said. “For now. But anymore tricks and I’ll order Selene to stab him again. But this time she won’t miss.”

Anger mixed with fear and I reached for Owen’s soul. If I controlled his body—

He dropped my hands and erected a null shield between us. “Oh no. You don't.” The magician blinked at me as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “What did I just say?”

“Company’s coming,” Reed called from his post by the front window.

Owen cursed. “Who?”

“Ixian soldiers.”

More curses. “How many?”

“A dozen.”

“Colors?”

“They’re wearing green and black.”

MD—5 uniforms. Not as concerning as the Commander’s soldiers. Owen pulled me to my feet. I wiped dirt from my shirt and pants. We all wore the purple and black uniforms of MD—3. Posing as miners returning to MD—3 from a delivery, we had the paperwork to prove our story. However, I hoped the forms we carried hadn’t been changed recently. Standard forms were altered on a regular basis to avoid forgeries. If they didn’t match the current form, we would be arrested.

The soldiers entered the shelter and took up defensive positions around us. It was time to find out if our paperwork would pass inspection.


Part 6


The Lieutenant scanned our uniforms and our faces. I kept my expression neutral even though disappointment settled in my chest. Logically, I knew Valek had been caught by Owen’s collaborator, Selene. The same woman who also held my brother, Leif. Yet I had been hoping he had time to send me a few Ixian reinforcements. But I didn’t recognize any of the seven soldiers surrounding us or the Lieutenant who checked our papers with care. Perhaps a few of the five men the Lieutenant had left outside the travel shelter would turn out to be allies. Small chance, but I’d take any bit of optimism I could.

We were in MD-5, and our group wore the purple and black uniforms of MD-3. The papers that might or might not pass inspection said we were miners returning to our home after a delivery. I had warned Owen and his five men to keep quiet. Their accents might give them away. And I had asked Owen not to use magic because some Ixians could detect its presence.

I wondered what Owen would do if they tried to arrest us. We were outnumbered and his magic seemed limited to null shields and mental communication. Would a fight result in the end of his quest to steal the Ice Moon? Would it also be the end of Leif and Valek? Impotent fury simmered in my blood. Owen would pay for threatening those I love.

Even though he looked young, the blond haired Lieutenant’s blue eyes held a sharpness that indicated he might be hard to fool. He looked at Owen as he asked what goods we had delivered.

“Diamonds for General Ute,” I said.

His gaze focused on me. “Really? I hadn’t heard about it.”

“Of course not. We don’t like to announce we’re walking around with expensive diamonds.”

“Is that why your companions are armed?”

“Yes, sir.” I learned from Valek to just answer the question that is asked and not to expand.

“Why did the General need them?” he asked.

“I don’t know, sir. I just follow orders.”

“I see. Where do you work?”

“Mine 3-19, sir,” I said.

Once again the Lieutenant studied us. He gestured to my side. “What happened to you?”

I glanced down. My shirt was ripped and a large bruise could be seen through the hole. “I fell.”

As the Lieutenant peered at me with suspicion, Owen stiffened. The Lieutenant’s expression smoothed and it blanked out for a moment before returning to normal.

“You’re papers are in order, you may go,” the Lieutenant said.

Despite my warning, Owen had used his magic to influence the man. The risk paid off. We gathered our things and left the shelter, heading north. Once we were well out of sight of the Ixian soldiers, I sent a thin tendril of magic back to the Lieutenant. Scanning his surface thoughts, I sensed his befuddlement clearing. And before he could dismiss the strange incident, I planted a seed of doubt.

#


We reached the border between MD-5 and MD-4 on the twelfth day of our trip and four days after the encounter with the Lieutenant. The cold air blowing from the west sent shivers down my spine despite my heavy cloak. Or my unease could be due to the daily images Owen showed me of Leif and Valek still incarcerated in Sitia.

With nothing else but worry to occupy my mind, I replayed over and over the first time Owen had shown me Valek. He had signaled a message to me then, but hadn’t since. He warned of Owen lying to me, which wasn’t earth-shattering news. So what had he meant? I cursed myself daily for not memorizing all of Valek’s hand signals. Two motions eluded me. They had to be critical.

The MD-4 border patrol stopped us at mid-day. They scanned our party and papers with bored expressions. I searched their faces, looking for a recognizable feature or a hint of intelligence and was disappointed.

That night as the wind wailed through the many cracks in the travel shelter and we all huddled close to the campfire, I asked Owen about the Ice Moon.

I chose my words with care. “How did you know the Commander…stole it? Not many do.”

“My great-great-grandfather created it,” Owen said. “Perhaps you’ve heard about Master Magician Ellis Moon?”

“Bain Bloodgood was my history teacher at the Keep.”

A rare smile flashed on his face. “Bain is a stickler for history, but I’m sure he didn’t tell you the truth about the Ice Moon.”

“He said it was a desperate measure when Master Magician Sefton Cowan had gathered the power blanket. A measure that was never used.”

“True. But did he tell you why they never used it?”

“They didn’t need to. The other six Masters found Sefton’s hiding place and attacked along with every magician in Sitia not working for Sefton.”

“And almost all died. Of the Masters, only Ellis and Rivana survived. Had they deployed the Ice Moon, not a single soul would have been lost.”

“Bain indicated that there had been a great risk in using the Ice Moon. It could have backfired.”

“There was no danger.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I found Ellis’ notes and read through them. He was a genius. The other Masters were cowards. And now the Commander has the Ice Moon, believing he is keeping Ixia safe by preventing us from using it against Ixia. He has no idea that he has the single most powerful weapon against magicians.”

“Since he doesn’t know, it’s safe with him,” I said.

Owen scoffed. “Would you give a knife to a small child who doesn’t know it can cut skin? No. The Commander could accidently trigger the Ice Moon. Or he could learn its true nature and do what he most desires-rid the world of magic.”


Part 7


Locked in the prison cell, Valek couldn’t do anything to help Leif. He watched as the female magician lunged at him with her switchblade. But she stopped her knife’s thrust in mid-motion, then placed the blade on her own throat. By the quaver in her arms, Valek guessed Yelena had taken control of the female magician’s body and soul. Handy to have a Soulfinder as a heart mate.

Leif exhaled and shot Valek a pointed look. Valek knew his concern. Yelena wouldn’t be able to last long. When the guards slumped to the floor, appearing to be asleep, he knew they would have only seconds to act. The magician, or rather, Yelena threw the switchblade toward him. He snatched it as she collapsed.

“Move,” he ordered Leif.

Leif didn’t hesitate to bolt. The guards already stirred. Once Leif slammed the cell door, they surged to their feet, yelling.

“Here.” Through his bars, Valek handed Leif the switchblade. “Jam the tip in the lock and break it off. Quickly”

“Why?” Leif asked.

“They have keys.”

“Oh.” He grunted with the effort, but managed to wedge the steel tip inside the locking mechanism before the magician could use her key. A temporary measure.

Valek expected her to attack Leif with her magic, but remembered the null shield around Leif’s cell. About time one of those blasted things worked in his favor.

Leif looked at Valek’s cell. “How do we-”

“Go find my clothes,” Valek said. “I have a full set of lock picks in them.”

“Shirt or pants?”

He smiled. “Either one.”

Laughing, Leif went to search. He left the door to the small prison ajar. Valek breathed in the fresh air for a moment as he considered his new neighbors. A couple of the guards tried to unlock the cell door, but the magician sat on Leif’s mattress. During the ruckus, her hood had fallen back.

While she might talk like a Sandseed, she resembled a Moon clan member. Blond hair so light, it could be mistaken for white matched her large silver-colored eyes. Her pale skin could easily blend in in Ixia. Fear lurked in her gaze, and he wondered what Yelena had said to her. Probably threatened to send her soul to the fire world. As far as threats went, Yelena couldn’t be outdone. People might risk pain and even death for a cause, but spending eternity in the fire world was just too big a price to pay.

The magician remained quiet, but Valek couldn’t contain his curiosity.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She wouldn’t answer.

“How did you get involved with Owen?” he tried.

Again she kept silent, but her gaze flicked to her hands. They were clasped together in her lap. She wore a bright ruby ring on her right middle finger and a heart-shaped diamond ring on the pinkie of her left.

“Are you and Owen Moon married or just heart mates?” he asked.

A slight movement in her shoulders revealed her surprise, but otherwise her expression stayed neutral. Impressive.

“You are married. Sitians are more apt to make their unions official, and they like to have an excuse to have a party.” He tapped a finger on his lips. “You’re a few years younger than him, but since you’re both magicians, you probably met him while attending the Magician’s Keep.”

Her body language once again betrayed her. Valek was three for three.

Footsteps shuffled and he turned his attention to the noise. Leif backed into view. He held his hands out.

“I told you they were professionals,” Leif said. Moving backward, he was followed by three men who aimed their swords at Leif’s chest.

Valek groaned inward. More problems and delays.

“Move back,” the man on the left ordered Valek. “Or I’ll skewer your friend.”

Valek considered the threat. “Do you plan to wound, maim or kill him?” he asked the guard. “Threats should be specific in order to have the maximum impact.”

The man just stared at him.

“Skewer is just too vague. I think if you say, ’Stand back or I’ll stab him in the stomach,’ then I have an idea about how serious you are. After all, Leif’s stomach is his favorite body part so that’s a decent threat.”

“Don’t give him any ideas,” Leif said in a low growl.

“Move,” the guard said.

“All right, I’m moving.” As Valek backed away he cupped his left elbow with his right hand.

When they opened the door, he said to Leif, “I should have let them skewer you.” He huffed. “It was a simple task. Did you surrender right away or did you at least find my clothes?”

“At least I managed to escape.” Leif shot back. He paused in the threshold of the cell. “Some legend you are. You let these guys get the drop on you.” He hooked a thumb at the guards.

“At least I didn’t walk blindly into a trap.” Valek stepped closer to Leif. “You let them kidnap you.” He snorted in derision. “You know why they call it kidnapping?” He moved until he was almost nose to nose with Leif. “Because only kids are stupid enough to get caught.”

Leif yelled and swung a wild fist at Valek. He duck and dove at the guard on Leif’s right, tackling him at the knees. Leif’s punch landed on the jaw of the man on his left. What looked like chaos erupted for a few moments, but Valek had already planned out every single move in his head, starting with the mock fight with Leif.

The three key components to a successful attack were surprise, speed, and intensity. Within a minute, Valek and Leif had unarmed the three guards and locked them in the cell.

“Are there any more above?” Valek asked Leif.

“I hope not. I’m hungry.”


Part 8


Valek and Leif crept up the prison’s stairs. So far, they had managed to capture eight of Owen’s men and Owen’s wife, who was a magician. Both were armed with the guard’s weapons, but Valek wasn’t taking any chances. An operation like this could easily employ a few more mercenaries. Plus Leif had said they were professionals.

He paused at the top, listening for any sounds. Behind him, Leif’s stomach growled.

“Sorry,” Leif whispered.

An ordinary house sat above the prison. Heavy curtains covered the windows in the front and back. Solid side walls meant the residence was part of a row or block of similar houses. Probably indistinguishable from its neighbors. Nothing like hiding in plain sight. Valek approved. It was how he picked his safe houses.

“Where did you run into the three guards?” Valek asked Leif.

“In the kitchen.”

Valek suppressed a sigh. Someday Leif’s stomach would get him into serious trouble.

Once they confirmed no one lurked on the ground floor, they searched the upper floors and surprised a group playing cards. It didn’t take long to subdue them and escort them down to the prison below.

“Wow. You’d think a dozen soldiers would be enough to keep us from escaping,” Leif said. Then he sobered. “The man who has Yelena isn’t fooling around is he?”

“No. And he’s quite adept at lying even when he’s linked with another magician mind to mind.” Concern for Yelena swirled around his heart.

“Can we send her a message, letting her know we’re free?” Leif asked.

“I signaled when Owen’s wife was linked to him, who was linked to Yelena.” Valek paused, marveling at the intricacies of magical communication. Ixia really needed to find a way to keep up.

“And?”

“If she remembers all the signals, she’ll know Owen can lie and to not trust what he shows her. I hope she’s leading him on a wild Valmur chase right now, waiting for me to catch up.”

“And if she doesn’t remember?”

“Then I need to rendezvous with her before she reaches the mines.” Valek calculated how much time Yelena had been on the road. Taking into account their slower pace due to having to keep a low profile and sneaking over the Ixian border, Valek guessed they were about half way through MD-5. They had to walk, but he had Onyx, which meant it would take him approximately seven days to catch up.

Valek wasted no time. He left Leif to inform the authorities, and to lead the soldiers back to the house so they could arrest Owen’s men. Returning to the Weir Inn, Valek saddled Onyx and headed north toward Ixia.

He arrived at the border between Ixia and Sitia a day and a half later. Ixian soldiers surrounded him as soon as he crossed into the Snake Forest, but they relaxed once they recognized him. He sent a message to the Commander’s castle. As the messenger raced to the northwest, Valek continued deeper into MD-5, following a smaller road that paralleled the main route through MD-5. He suspected Yelena would avoid the more popular road and keep to the side road.

Five days after leaving Fulgor, Valek encountered a squad patrolling the area. The soldiers blocked his path, forming a circle around him. A young, blond haired Lieutenant ordered Valek to dismount. None of the fourteen soldiers knew who he was. And to make it worse, he still wore his nondescript Sitian clothes under his cloak. I really need to spent more time in Ixia. A shave and a haircut would have probably helped, too.

Valek slid from the saddle.

“Papers.” The Lieutenant held out his hand.

When Valek introduced himself, the Lieutenant laughed. “And I’m the Commander of Ixia. Want to try that again?”

He tried the code words that his special corp. used in case they ran into trouble.

“Those are two weeks old. You’re under arrest. Ben, secure our guest so he doesn’t get any ideas.”

Valek eyed the big bruiser approaching him. He could easily slip past him and escape, but then the whole squad would give chase. Losing them wouldn’t be the problem, he worried more that his disappearing act would cause a wide spread commotion that might reach Owen, tipping him off. Plus the Lieutenant couldn’t be faulted for doing his job. Despite the Lieutenant’s flippant attitude, Valek sensed the young man possessed a keen intelligence.

Frustrated with the delay, but unable to think of a better solution, Valek allowed the squad to arrest him. He hoped someone would recognize him back at their headquarters. No luck.

Manacled to a chair in an interrogation room, Valek realized escape was his only option. The Lieutenant asked him a series of questions—who are you working for, do you have any accomplices, etc… All of which Valek ignored. Instead he worked on unlocking the metal cuffs around his wrists.

Then the Lieutenant asked, “Are you connected in any way with those six miners who passed through here, claiming they were delivering diamonds to General Ute?”

That wasn’t a standard question. Valek leaned forward. “When do you see them?” he asked.

“I knew they were trouble. Something about them…” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Answer my question.”

“No. You wasted enough of my time.” Valek dropped the manacles on the table between them and stood.

The Lieutenant scrambled to his feet, but by the time he reached for his weapon, Valek had already taken it from him. He pressed the tip of the sword against the man’s throat. Before Valek could do anything, the door banged open.

A soldier bustled in. “LT, a messenger from the Commander has arrived. He wishes to speak with you.” The man was so intent on delivering his news, he didn’t noticed that Valek held his boss at sword point until the Lieutenant failed to respond. Then he skidded to a stop and gaped.

This squad is in dire need of more training. “Escort the messenger in here, or I’ll skewer your Lieutenant,” Valek said. When the soldier didn’t move, he increased the pressure on the Lieutenant’s neck.

The Lieutenant hissed at his man to fetch the messenger without delay. Definitely more training. Valek relaxed and gestured with the sword for the Lieutenant to sit. It didn’t take long for the messenger to arrive.

Suppressing his relief, Valek asked, “Can you please tell this Lieutenant who he has arrested?”

“Can do,” Janco said with a smile. “Lieutenant Darren, let me be the first to congratulate you on capturing the elusive and legendary Kelav. He’s been wanted in Ixia for years on multiple counts of espionage.”


Part 9


The Ice Moon could rid the world of magic? I blinked at Owen Moon sure I had heard wrong. His superior smirk remained in place. The magician claimed his two times great grandfather invented the Ice Moon, but Owen had no idea what the blanket of power was—the world's soul. Not many did. I had told the Master Magicians, but we agreed to keep the knowledge to ourselves for now.

I studied the arrogant man sitting next to me. The icy wind keened through the travel shelter's cracks, causing the flames in the hearth to pulse.

"I don't believe you," I said to him. "Nothing can destroy the power blanket. Magicians can mangle it, rip holes, in it, and move it, but not erase it."

Owen eased from the warmth of the fire, leaning back on an elbow. "Have you ever wondered why diamonds can hold magic?"

"No."

"Me either. But my ancestor made it his life's work. In his laboratory near the Soul Mountains, he experimented with a number of different colors, sizes, and cuts of diamonds, measuring the amount of magic each diamond could hold. He discovered that bigger diamonds trap more power." Owen held up a hand, indicating patience. "Yes, it's textbook. What's not well known is that the amount isn't linear. A diamond twice as big as another doesn't hold twice as much power, but four times as much. The quantity of magic stored increases exponentially."

"Interesting. However the power blanket covers the entire world. In order for one diamond to absorb that much energy it would—"

"Need to weigh approximately 1666 carats," Owen said. "Roughly the size of the biggest blue diamond ever found. Otherwise known as the Ice Moon."

I considered. "Even if it is big enough, a magician still has to draw the magic. No one is strong enough to pull it all."

"And therein lies the beauty of the Ice Moon. My great-great-grandfather cut the stone. Ellis aligned the facets in such a way that all a magician has to do is start filling the diamond. After that, the Ice Moon does the rest of the work until there is no more power left. As I said before, he was a genius."

Insane, would be my preferred word choice. "But you said there was no danger if they had used the Ice Moon. Ridding the world of magic would be considered a catastrophe."

"In the hands of a weaker magician, yes. But Ellis could have stopped the power drain once Stefton had been neutralized."

Sounded a bit dodgy to me. "What would have happened to the charged Ice Moon? That's a ton of magic accessible in one place."

"The Master Magicians would have shared it, of course." Owen acted as if my question offended him.

I pressed on anyway. "If this is all true, then keeping the Ice Moon in Ixia would be the safest action."

"Until the Commander touches it, triggering the draw."

"But the Commander doesn't..." Except the Commander did have magical powers. Well, sort of. It was complicated. And how did Owen know?

Owen smirked. "Care to try that again?"

I suppressed the urge to wipe that smirk off his face by grabbing his soul. But he held both my brother and Valek's lives in his hands. Every day, he showed me them locked in cells guarded by his men. Every day, my heart twisted with worry and the chance of outsmarting Owen grew dimmer.

"How do you know about the Commander?" I asked.

"I had the pleasure of meeting him when he visited after the Daviian mess. One handshake with him revealed the depth of his souls."

His audacity had no limit. "You not only broke protocol, but also the ethical code and plain moral decency by reading his thoughts with your magic!"

Owen shrugged. "Despite the treaties and your bogus liaison duties, the Commander is an enemy of Sitia and should be treated as such."

"That's not your..." I shut my mouth. Nothing I could say would alter his opinion. Actions would be a better incentive. Unfortunately, until Leif and Valek were safe, my hands were tied.

I shivered through the night in the cold shelter. In the morning, gray clouds obscured the sky and the scent of damp earth rode the breeze. I cursed under my breath. The cold season would arrive in a few days along with a storm. We could get either snow or sleet or rain or a combinations of all three. Yippee. At least the weather matched my mood.

Owen set a fast pace through MD-4. As expected, a messy mix of precipitation arrived during our fourth day in General Tesso's Military District. The nasty weather proved to be beneficial for Owen and his men. No one stopped to question us. In fact, we didn't see a soul for the next two days, and spotted only a few people after the storm passed.

My anxiety increased with every mile. Valek had seemed confident he would escape, but Owen kept showing me him. He looked miserable and pissed off, but he hadn't tried to signal me again. Which worried me. Combine that with the lack of Ixian soldiers, and I didn't know what I'd do once we reached the mine.

Actually, I knew I couldn't let Owen get his hands on the Ice Moon, but I had been hoping not to sacrifice Valek and Leif in the process.

When we reached the border of MD-3 ten days after crossing into MD-4, the guards let us through with hardly a glance at our papers. And to make matters worse, I failed to recognize any of the patrol. A small...well, huge part of me wished to see a familiar face or two.

No luck. Owen, though was quite pleased with our progress, and we arrived near Mine 3-13 twenty-four days after we had left.

The large entrance, or rather the big hole disappearing under the foothills of the Soul Mountains was guarded. Owen and I watched the two teams of four soldiers as they took turns manning the entrance. We quickly discovered the mine had been abandoned. No miners pushed wheelbarrows of rocks from the mine. Only the guards worked and stayed in a small building nearby.

I wondered why the Commander hadn't just sealed this entrance. There was a labyrinth of connecting tunnels under the mountains and I was sure there was more than one way to get to the Ice Moon.

Owen felt confident that the six of us could handle eight Ixian guards. He wanted to attack during the next shift change. Then I would use my magic to discover the location of the Ice Moon. He didn't wait until his men were well rested to surprise the guards. He acted as if time was an issue.

At least he was right about overwhelming the guards. After a short skirmish, we disarmed the eight soldiers. I made a show of reading their minds. However, I had no intention of learning the location of the Ice Moon. I would lead Owen and the others around the shafts until I could pick them off one by one.

Perhaps then I could use Owen's glass animal to contact the authorities in Fulgor to mount a search for Valek and Leif before Owen's collaborators could kill them.

Dread pulled on me as I entered the mine. Owen lit a handful of torches, and they illuminated a large cavern with abandoned equipment scattered on the floor and stacked in the corners. He fussed over my slow pace, but in the end it didn't matter.

I continued down the main shaft. In the middle of the next cavern, the Ice Moon sat on top of a squat stalagmite.

It sparkled with a bright blue brilliance.


Part 10


I stared at the Ice Moon. Perched on a stalagmite, it glittered with blue fire. There had been no attempt to hide it or protect it other than the eight guards outside the mine. Owen and his four men fanned out behind me. They drew their swords. I didn't blame them. This smelled like a trap. Heck, it reeked.

We waited for the ambush, but nothing happened. They searched all the dark corners, adjoining caverns, and tunnels. Nothing. However, they failed to check the ceiling for spiders. I wasn't about to do anything, magical or otherwise to tip them off. Besides, the way my luck has been going, there would be nothing up there but real spiders.

Eventually, Owen laughed. The sound echoed off the black walls. "Your Commander has lost his touch." He strode to the Ice Moon.

I couldn't let him pick it up. Even with the stone walls surrounding us, it would be too dangerous. Stepping to follow, I stopped as Owen's men rushed to get between me and their boss. Their swords aimed at my middle. I reached with my magic to find another barrier. A null shield protected them. Owen must have trained the men what to do when we reached the 666 carat blue diamond.

Owen's face glowed with a greedy victory as he peered at the Ice Moon. I yanked a few Curare-filled darts from the lining in the pocket of my cloak--another useful and practical gift from Valek. In one quick motion, I place a dart in a neck before they caught on.

"She's armed!" one yelled, diving for the floor. The others scattered.

Before I could aim another, Owen's magic heated the darts to red-hot in my hand. I dropped them, then attacked with my magic. But he had anticipated my next move and, once again, blocked me with a null shield. The men quickly reformed and I was almost back where I started.

At least, I managed to disable one. Four more to go. My cloak held a few other weapons, but a knife against one sword never worked out well for me. Three were well beyond my skill set.

Owen shook his head. "You would sacrifice your bother and heart mate to keep me from obtaining what is rightfully mine?"

"Obviously." Frustration and fear twisted tight inside me. "You've claimed you want to keep the power blanket safe from the Commander, but I don't need to read your soul to know you just desire all the world's magic for yourself." And would trap millions of peaceful souls. "That I cannot allow."

"Too bad you've no recourse to stop me," he said, turning back to the diamond.

Time for desperate measures. "Come on, Owen. Do you really think obtaining the Ice Moon would be this easy?"

He paused, but didn't look at me.

"You missed a critical defensive position."

"Your attempt to delay me is pathetic, Yelena." He reached to take the Ice Moon.

"You forgot to check the ceiling for guards. Captain Nytik attack!"

As expected, everyone looked up but me. I dove between two of the men. Rolling past the null shield, I raced toward Owen.

He grabbed the Ice Moon and held it high. "Stop or I'll drain the world's magic."

I didn't hesitate. Launching myself at him, I hit him square in the chest. We slammed to the floor. The Ice Moon flew from his hands. It shattered against the wall, exploding into thousands of blue shards. That was...unexpected.

Owen scrambled to his feet. Shock turned to fury. "That wasn't the Ice Moon." He seized my shoulders, digging his fingers into my flesh. "You tricked me."

A slow clapping sounded behind him. Owen spun, reaching for his sword.

"Bravo," Valek said still clapping. He wore all black. A rope hung from the ceiling.

Relief and joy washed through me. I suppressed the desire to crush him in a hug.

"That was entertaining," Valek continued. "Although Yelena didn't trick you. That would have been the Commander's doing a long time ago."

Owen opened his mouth to speak, but, in one fluid motion, Valek hit him with a Curare-filled dart. When the drug paralyzed Owen's muscles, he toppled to the ground and his men bolted from the cavern.

When Valek didn't move, I gestured to the exit. "Shouldn't we--"

"No. It'll give Janco something to do. Otherwise he'll whine that he waited outside all this time and didn't have any fun."

"And Leif?"

"He's fine."

I wrapped my arms around Valek, squeezing him tight.

"Easy, love." He pulled back slightly. "You weren't worried? You saw my signs. Right?"

"Uh... I saw your signal that Owen is a liar, but that didn't help."

"And the other ones? The ones where I warned you that he can lie with his mind."

"Uh..."

"I guess someone needs a refresher course."

I snaked my hands under his shirt. "Yes, I definitely need to reacquaint myself."

"Not now. Janco is waiting."

"How did he get involved in all this?" I asked as I followed Valek from the mine.

Valek explained. "A lieutenant out on patrol sent a message to his superior officer about an odd group of travelers. Janco intercepted this messenger. He'd been on his way to MD-5 because he had felt something..."strange." Ari didn't come with him since he thought Janco's nausea was from overindulging at the pub."

I considered. "Janco's ability to sense magic is getting stronger the more he's exposed to it."

"Don't tell him that or he'll never leave Ixia."

I laughed, but sobered when I spotted Janco gleefully fighting Owen's men. "And what about Owen?"

"He won't leave Ixia alive."

#


Valek and I stopped at the Commander's Castle before returning to Sitia to finish our interrupted vacation. The Commander invited us into his war room. I hadn't been inside the round chamber in ages. The morning sun shone through the tall, thin stained glass windows that covered three-quarters of the round wall, painting the table and chairs with colorful light.

The Commander was impeccably dressed in his tailored uniform. More gray streaked his short hair since the last time I'd visited. We sat and chatted about mundane things for a while.

"Yelena, I wanted to thank you for stopping Owen Moon," the Commander said.

"What about the next person who wants to find the diamond?" I asked in concern. "You don't have the fake one anymore."

"I assure you the Ice Moon is in a safe and secure place."

I laced my fingers together. "Do you know how dangerous is it?"

"Yes. I'm well aware of its power. That's why it's unreachable. Don't worry, Yelena. Go and enjoy your time with my Security Chief. We have lots to do when he returns." The Commander gave Valek a pointed look before leaving the room.

Valek jumped to his feet. "I don't need to be told twice. Let's go."

But I remained sitting.

"What's wrong, love?"

"We had thought those glass prisons were safe and unreachable. And you know what happened to them."

"True." Valek considered. "These stained glass windows are beautiful. Aren't they?"

Confused, I glanced at him. "What are you talking about?"

He gestured to one of them. "The colors are exquisite. Like this brilliant blue. You can see that color in all the panes and adds a certain depth and power to the pattern."

I stood and examined the windows. "Is that--?"

"Yes. It was cut into pieces and now decorates the Commander's war room. A fitting end, don't you think?"


THE END!

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