Back to Stories.
*A PREQUEL TO SHADOW STUDY
PROLOGUE - LEIF
Rusalka's gait changed, waking Leif from a light doze. He straightened in the saddle and peered around. Distant lantern lights flickered in the cold night wind. Fulgor, the capital of Moon Clan's lands, appeared to be about an hour's ride away.
Leif petted Rusalka's sweaty neck. "Well done, girl." If she'd been another breed of horse and not a Sandseed, they wouldn't have reached Fulgor for another full day at least. "Extra milk oats for you."
His stomach grumbled. "And for me..." He mulled over the inns and taverns in Fulgor, comparing cooks and chefs. Most of his favorites would be asleep by now, but Reilly might still be awake. "The Weir Inn, please, Ru."
Only a few souls braved the icy breeze snaking through the cobblestone streets of Fulgor. The smell of burning coal, wood smoke, and manure laced the air. Three more weeks until the cold season started. Having grown up in the steamy Illiais Jungle, far to the south, Leif disliked this bitter weather. He pulled his cloak tighter as they passed the jumble of businesses, factories, and houses that lined the road.
Halfway to the inn, he dismounted and walked beside Rusalka to cool her down before they entered the clean stables behind the inn. Waving off the stable boy, Leif rubbed Rusalka down, fed her the promised milk oats, and filled the buckets in her stall with water and feed.
"Will you be staying long, sir?" the stable boy asked.
"Just a couple days." Leif flipped him a silver coin. "Take extra good care of her, will ya?"
He draped his saddlebags over his shoulder and headed inside. A couple people lingered in the main dining room, drinking ale and talking in low voices.
The innkeeper smiled at him. "Mister Leif, so nice to see you again."
"Hello, Sarah, do you have an empty room I can rent?"
"Oh, yes." She took his bags and his cloak and handed him a key.
"Is Reilly in the kitchen?"
"I believe so, but you'd better hurry."
He didn't hesitate. Pushing through the wooden doors, Leif entered the pulsing warmth. A bouquet of divine smells greeted him. Spicy, tangy, sweet, and sharp odors floated on the air. Leif breathed in deeply and his stomach rumbled in anticipation.
The chef, Reilly Moon, mixed batter in a large silver bowl. He glanced up at the sound. "Kitchen's closed."
"In my opinion, closing a kitchen should be a crime," Leif said.
"Go tell that to the Sitian Council, then."
"I did, but they wouldn't grant my request." Leif huffed. "Not much of a surprise, considering their chef overcooks everything and has no clue there are spices other than salt. I suppose the Councilors view closing the kitchen as a matter of self-defense for their stomachs."
Reilly laughed. "You're such a snob, Leif."
"I prefer ‘connoisseur.' And if you ever wish to relocate to the Citadel, I could arrange for you to be hired in the Magician's Keep's kitchens."
The chef grunted in amusement over the old argument. His stocky build matched Leif's, but the man was about twenty years older than Leif's twenty-five. He pulled a pan from one of the ovens, filled a plate with slices of roast beef, heaped on potatoes, and set it down on the counter. "Pull up a stool."
"I thought you'd never ask." Leif crossed the room in two strides, found a fork and dug in.
Moaning in pleasure, Leif said, "Now that's a perfect combination of flavors."
"Did you come all this way for a meal?"
"No. I'm here at Councilor Moon's request. Seems they caught a killer and need me to interrogate him." Leif's unique magic allowed him to sense a person's moods and feelings. His abilities also included, smelling lies, guilt and evil in others. It was hard to explain, but if a person was angry, Leif's nose would burn with the scent of red pepper.
"Really? I haven't heard anything about a capture. Do you know who it is?"
"No. Just that he murdered a number of victims."
"That doesn't sound familiar."
"Not everything is widely publicized, Reilly. If you knew half the things I did..." Leif shuddered. "You'd never leave your kitchen."
"Like that Daviian and Fire Warper stuff two years ago?"
"Exactly." Not many people had been aware just how close the Warpers had come to overthrowing the Sitian Council and ruling Sitia. Good thing Leif's sister, Yelena, had realized the full extent of her powers as the Soulfinder. Without her, they wouldn't have won.
Leif changed the subject. "Have you created any new recipes lately?"
Reilly perked up. They discussed food and cooking and recipes--three of his favorite subjects. Leif sampled several of Reilly's experiments, giving his opinion on the various flavors. When dawn arrived, the chef mixed up sweet cakes for breakfast.
Sarah entered soon after he finished the stack. "My goodness, have you two boys been up all night?"
"Uh..." Leif looked everywhere but at her.
"You're bound to pay for it later. In the meantime, there's four Fulgor guardsmen here for you."
Odd. He wasn't expected at the Council Hall until later. "All right."
Sure enough, four large men waited for him in the common room. They fidgeted with the collars on their white and silver uniforms, and tugged at the sleeves. Leif's magic flared as he sensed their discomfort. From the way the people in the room stared at them, Leif guessed they didn't like the scrutiny. Another faint scent emanated from them, but Leif couldn't put a finger on the emotion unless he moved closer and sniffed their clothes, which most people considered to be odd behavior.
"Is something wrong?" Leif asked instead.
A muscular man on his right who wore sergeant's insignia on a tunic whose buttons strained to keep the fabric together, said, "There's been a development, sir. We've been ordered to fetch you."
The big bruiser glanced around. "Councilor Moon will update you, sir."
Interesting. "All right, Sergeant. Give me a minute to grab my cloak." Leif bounded up the stairs and retrieved his cloak, machete, and a few extra darts, which he tucked into various hidden pockets. Four guardsmen seemed excessive to escort him to the Council Hall. Did the Councilor think he was in danger?
He rejoined them. The sergeant led them outside and through the still-quiet streets. Leif tried to question the man and his companions further, but they kept to the script, saying the Councilor would brief him when they arrived.
Halfway to the Hall, the men detoured down a side street.
"Shortcut," the sergeant said.
Except Leif was quite certain it led away from the Hall. He mulled over Reilly's comments. The best place to get information was always at the local inns and taverns. So why hadn't Reilly known about this killer?
The clues clicked together in his mind.
Stupid, Leif. Real stupid. As his heart rate climbed, Leif considered his options. Four against one, but he'd have the element of surprise. For about a second. Could be enough. Or not. Better than letting them led you into an ambush.
When they neared an alley, he feigned a sneeze, palming a couple darts. Then, without warning, Leif broke into a run. Sergeant Muscles shouted for him to stop. To the man's surprise, Leif halted, spun around and threw the darts, aiming at the two closest men's necks. One flew wide, but the other pierced skin.
One down. Leif yanked his machete from its sheath. The guardsmen hesitated. Most swordsmen didn't have any experience fighting against a machete. Compared to a sword, the thicker, wider blade of Leif's weapon lent it a more threatening presence. Their longer blades gave them the advantage, but Leif wasn't going to be around long enough for them to test that theory. He hoped.
The man who'd been hit with the sleeping potion collapsed, providing a distraction. Pulling another dart, Leif sent it at Sergeant Muscles, who ducked. Damn. The sergeant drew his sword and advanced, lunging at Leif's midsection. Metal clanged as Leif blocked the thrust. Concentrating on keeping the man's blade from skewering him, Leif stayed on the defense, managing a few shallow cuts. But Leif wouldn't last long. Muscles was skilled.
Time to set his stolen uniform on fire. Leif gathered power. His only other magical skill had its uses at times.
"Selene," Sergeant Muscles shouted.
A null shield slammed down between them, blocking Leif's magic. Surprised, Leif parried too late and two moves later, the sergeant disarmed him. The other two bruisers grabbed his arms and hustled him into the alley. Waiting at the entrance of a building near the middle, a woman gestured for them to hurry.
Leif knew that once they had him inside, all hope would be lost. With the added fuel of fear pumping through his body, he summoned his considerable strength and broke free. Punching Muscles in the face, he kicked the man on his right before slamming his heel down on the bruiser to his left.
More men streamed from the building. Outnumbered, Leif turned to run, but he was tackled from behind. They dragged him inside a dimly lit warehouse and dumped him onto the ground. The door closed with a thud that vibrated in his chest.
"Show him what happens when he tries to resist," the woman ordered.
Leif had a second to brace before they attacked with fists and boots. The assault seemed to last forever. Pain radiated from every muscle. His world blurred into a painful vision of dark flying shapes.
Just before he passed out, the woman said, "That's enough. He's no good to us dead."
PART 1 - YELENA
Kiki's voice interrupted my dream. Lavender Lady wake up!
Kiki, what's wrong? I asked my horse through our magical mental 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. It'd been crafted from the finest Sitian silk, and he'd had it designed just for me--sized to fit my body, hand embroidered, reversible, and concealing various weapons hidden within its folds and seams.
Smells, Kiki said with alarm. Many bad smells.
How many? I asked. A sudden barrage of scents filled my mind. Sharp. Tangy. Rank. Earthy. Grainy. 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 rushed through me. This was no longer a simple problem. I raced down the stairs.
Metal picks scraped in the lock as 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 would 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 switchblade. No tell-tale snick sounded--Valek had modified it. I grabbed the man's hair, yanked his head 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 shield was for Valek's benefit. He had to be nearby, waiting to see what developed.
"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 a position to ask questions." Magic swelled, and 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 as well.
"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 unexpected 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 back.
I crossed my arms and discreetly fingered the darts hidden in the fabric of my robe. "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, his magic neutralized. Yet I hesitated, curious about their reasons for being here. Valek's influence, no doubt. So I complied and settled on the middle cushion.
The magician sat next to me. With his short dark hair and pale skin, he resembled a member of the Moon Clan. 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 emphasized his powerful build.
"All right, I'll bite. What do you want?"
He quirked a smile. "I want you to help me rescue the Ice Moon from Ixia."
I laughed. "You're serious? That's the Commander's."
"It's ours. He stole it from Sitia." The smile disappeared as 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 at his men surrounding the couch, then to himself.
"You'll need to provide 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?"
"You have Leif?" Doubt laced my voice, hiding the fear that threatened to make it quiver.
"Oh, yes. He's in a secure location with my men," the magician said. "But if you don't help me recover the Ice Moon from Ixia, he will die."
I considered the possibility of Leif's capture. The magician lounged on my couch, watching me. 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. One of Opal's glass messengers. With it, the magician could communicate telepathically with another magician over vast distances.
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. That I promised my brother.
The magician had instructed his men to hide my brother without telling him the location. They'd 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 sensed that he would keep his word not to harm Leif if I agreed to his demands and helped him steal the Commander's Ice Moon. He also wouldn't hesitate to order my brother's death if I failed. I tried to discover Leif's current location, but to no avail. With a sudden snap, my connection to Owen broke.
"That's enough. Do you believe me?" Owen asked.
"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 I stopped outside my bedroom door. "Stay here," I ordered.
"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 toward Reed. As I'd suspected, he was no longer 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 ceased resisting and lay down in the hallway for a little nap.
Valek coalesced from the shadows and wrapped me in his long, lean arms. I breathed in his musky smell, listening to his heartbeat. 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."
"Right." His sigh vibrated through me. "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.
"Promise?" An eagerness lightened his tone.
"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 supposed--"
"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 my feet to kiss him. Heat pulsed in my chest, and I wished 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--"
"Master Magician Bain Bloodgood told me."
The knob on the door turned and Valek moved, disappearing once again into the shadows. Reed entered the room, glaring in suspicion.
"I'm ready," I said as I breezed past 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 that he had no idea it had been given--not stolen--to the Commander by the Master Magicians for safekeeping.
PART 2 - VALEK
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 outnumbered, 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. If Leif's life hadn't been on the line, the five intruders would already be dead.
Time to fix that problem, Valek thought. He saddled 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 did, 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 once he reached the Keep's gate, he shoved his concerns deep within his heart.
With no time to be subtle, Valek informed the guard in the gatehouse that he needed to see Master Magician Irys Jewelrose. He didn't wait for permission to enter. Onyx hopped the wooden barrier with ease--a trick he'd learned from Kiki. They crossed the courtyard 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 that Valek, the Commander's assassin waited for her.
Having an infamous reputation is handy in certain situations.
Valek hopped off Onyx and entered the building, arriving at 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.
She eyed his dusty travel clothes. "I asked first."
He huffed in annoyance. Yes, he could discover Leif's last known location without her help, but he didn't want to waste any more time. Besides, Irys could have information on this Owen Moon. He recounted 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 of 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 the next day."
"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 was unable to 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're exhausted."
It was a good idea, but sleeping seemed impossible. Valek desired action. His hands itched to hurt the people who held Leif and Yelena. Instead, he stabled Onyx and then joined the morning training session, working on sword drills 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 had likely been 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 Valek 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 four-day journey turned into three and a half. Valek made sure to find a clean stable and rubbed the black horse down himself when they arrived.
"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 opened her mouth, about to launch into an update on what had been happening in the city, but he silenced her with a sharp wave of his hand.
"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. And a fire always burned in the hearth in case important documents needed to be destroyed. 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 during times like these.
"Sir, he was spotted entering the Weir Inn seven days ago, and two days ago, an agent noted that his horse remains 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 just a few minutes. The common room hummed with voices, and servers weaved through the tables. Valek sought the innkeeper and heard the same story. Here for one night and disappeared the next day. She figured Leif would return for his horse eventually.
"Did he talk with anyone?" Valek asked her.
"He spent a good deal of time with our chef. They're friends," she said.
The sizzling smell of grilled beef dominated the kitchen. Valek's stomach grumbled, reminding him he hadn't eaten since yesterday. The chef flipped beef steaks with an expert twist of his wrist.
"I stayed up all night with Leif," the chef said between tasks. "We talked food--no surprise there, the man has an excellent palate--and then I whipped him up some sweet cakes for breakfast. Afterwards, Sarah said there were guards asking for him." He shrugged. "He told me he was in town to help the guards, I think they all left together."
Valek thanked him and left the kitchen. 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 Councilor's Hall. In order to maintain the ruse long enough to lead Leif somewhere relatively deserted, the fake guards would have had 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 number of 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. Halfway down the alley, 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 anyone or anything 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 decipher 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 him. Guess it isn't going to be that easy.
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, sounding bored. "My, my." He tsked and spun his daggers in his hands. "Do you want to surrender to me now or later?"
The woman laughed--a deep, almost seductive 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.
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 as well.
His daggers wouldn't reach as far as their weapons. Leif's machete lay by his feet, but the thick blade still wouldn't be long enough. He considered the darts treated with Curare. tucked in his belt. They would even the odds a bit if he had 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?"
"You and Leif 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. She might think she had the upper hand, but Valek was in control.
"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.
He considered, taking his time just to piss her off. No doubt he'd escape, but why go to all that effort? They'd probably just take him to Leif. They weren't smart enough to keep him and Leif far apart, which was what he'd do in their place. Plus, if he escaped, they might use a glass messenger to report his involvement and then injure Leif before he could rescue him. And he'd yet to be locked in a prison that could hold him for long.
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 couple 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. 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, which meant no weapons and no lock picks.
"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.
The clang of a heavy bolt being pulled rang out. Fresh air swept in for a moment before the door slammed shut again. 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 catch a glimpse of her 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 watched 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 3 - YELENA
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 her mind, as she realized I had control of her body and soul. Score one for the Soulfinder.
But what I didn't have was time. I had expended a great deal of energy to reach her, and Owen was already trying 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?
Her panicked agreement flooded my senses through our connection.
With my last bit of strength, I compelled her to toss the switchblade to Valek, who caught it with ease, and then sent her and the guards to sleep. 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'd probably cracked a few with that hit. Being too weak to defend myself also meant I lacked the strength 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.
PART 4 - VALEK
The female magician, or rather, Yelena, who seemed to be controlling her body at the moment, tossed the switchblade to Valek. He snatched the weapon from the air as the magician collapsed.
"Move," he ordered Leif.
Leif didn't hesitate to bolt. The guards, whom Yelena had put to sleep with her power, began to stir. But once Leif slammed the cell door shut, 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 ignored him.
"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 the middle finger of her right hand, 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. He was followed by three armed men. The weak light glinted on the sharp blades of their swords.
Valek groaned inwardly. 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 ducked 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 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 disarmed the three guards and locked them in the cell.
"Are there any more above?" Valek asked Leif.
"I hope not. I'm hungry."
Valek and Leif crept up the prison's stairs. Although they were both armed with the guards' weapons, Valek wasn't taking any chances. An operation like this could easily employ a few more mercenaries. And 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 grudgingly 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 that 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 to join their comrades.
"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 needs to find a way to keep up.
"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 Selene and 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 he hoped would lead him to Yelena in time.
PART 5 - JANCO
Janco stared at the pile of reports on his desk. Ugh. He hated reading reports. In fact, he'd rather fight a magician...no, scratch that, he'd rather deal with reports than magic. Tapping the scar where the lower half of his right ear used to be with the end of the stylus he held, Janco considered the top three things he hated the most in life.
There were plenty of other things that bugged him as well, but those he could live quite happily without for a long, long time.
However, with Valek on vacation and Ari and Maren working undercover in MD-2, he was in charge of Ixia's security. Except the job wasn't near as glamorous as it had once sounded. Oh, no. It involved reading and writing reports, checking that the guards followed the proper procedures, giving orders to idiots, listening to complaints from idiots, and having nightly chats with the Commander. No wonder Valek kept going on missions. Being in charge was boring with a capital B!
He sighed. No amount of bellyaching would reduce the pile before him. Janco pulled the top report off the stack, opened it, and scanned the detailed account of a Sitian Council meeting where they bickered for hours over the wording of a new law that would regulate how close a saw mill could be constructed next to a river. Yawn.
The office door flew open with a bang. Janco leapt to his feet with a dagger in his hand. A young solider froze in the threshold.
"It's called knocking, and it might save your life someday," Janco said.
"Sorry, sir. I've an urgent message from Valek." The words rushed out, tumbling over each other.
Unease zinged along his spine, but he kept calm. "Come in and settle down, puppy dog." Janco cleaned off the chair in front of his desk. His side of the big office he shared with Ari was a bit...messier than Ari's. But despite what Ari claimed, there were no rat's nests anywhere in his stuff. He'd checked. Twice.
The private perched on the edge of the chair.
Janco resumed his seat. "Okay, spill."
As the young private relayed his message, Janco's unease tightened into alarm. By the time he finished, Janco was already standing. "You're dismissed, Private. I'll take it from here."
Janco headed to the Commander's war room. Even though Ixia wasn't engaged in a war, the room was the Commander's favorite. In the mornings, the Commander preferred to work in the round space. It didn't take a genius to figure out why. The morning sunlight streamed through the colorful stained glass windows that ringed three-quarters of the curved walls. Sitting in there was like being in the middle of a rainbow.
The two guards outside the war room straightened when they spotted Janco--a perk of his position. He knocked on the door and entered as soon as he heard the Commander give permission.
As expected, the Commander sat at the large oval conference table located in the middle. Open files, parchment, an ink pot, and a steaming cup of tea were spread before him. The two diamonds on his collar sparkled like a prism--a bright spot on the Commander's otherwise all-black uniform, which was nearly identical to the one Janco wore. Janco's uniform, however, had two red diamond shapes embroidered on the collar in lieu of the precious stones that adorned the Commander's.
The Commander's golden gaze pierced him. "Something's wrong." It wasn't a question.
"Yes, sir. I just received information from Valek."
Janco repeated the private's message. "I'd like your permission to take one of the horses and join Valek."
The Commander's demeanor remained impassive. "No. You're needed here. Assign someone else. You're dismissed." He returned to his work.
Janco fought the impulse to blurt out his objections. Instead, he drew in a breath and asked for permission to speak.
Setting his stylus down with more force than necessary, the Commander turned to Janco. "Make it quick."
He swallowed. "Since I have a...sensitivity to magic, sir, I believe I'm the best one to help Valek against this rogue magician in Ixia."
"And who will be in charge of security while you're gone?"
Names eluded him for a moment, but then he considered the upper level agents who'd returned from assignments. "Gita's been assisting me. She knows what to do."
The silence lengthened. Janco squelched the desire to squirm.
Finally, the Commander said, "All right. Report back as soon as the situation is handled. Understood?"
"Yes, sir." Janco bolted before the Commander changed his mind.
He raced around the castle, collecting supplies and packing a bag. Once he filled Gita in on his mission, Janco stopped at the stables. The Stable Master grumped about the short notice, but he saddled a dark brown horse with a white diamond blaze on his forehead.
"His name is Diamond Whiskey, but we all call him Whiskey for short. Take good care of him."
"Yes, sir." Janco tied on his bags, mounted, and headed northeast, hoping to catch up to Valek.
PART 6 - YELENA
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 then 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 had a good reason to state the obvious. Too bad I couldn't figure out what Owen might be lying about.
The day passed and, although Owen's men gave me food and water, my energy level remained low. The tension between the men grew. I considered ways to increase the friction, including prolonging 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, then 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 growing beard. "I'll share my strength with you. Heal your ribs only."
So much for my plan. Owen grabbed my hands, allowing me to tap into his considerable magic. I pulled threads of power 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 a small cell. His expression was devoid of emotion--a bad sign. Perhaps escape 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 any more 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?"
More curses. "How many?"
"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. Not that I minded the idea of Owen and his goons being locked behind bars, but that wouldn't help Leif or Valek.
The soldiers entered the shelter and took up defensive positions around us. It was time to find out if our paperwork would pass inspection.
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. Yet I had been hoping he'd 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 one or two 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 right now.
The papers that might or might not pass 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 the ones 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 asked Owen 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 had learned from Valek to just answer the question that was 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, then blanked for a moment before returning to normal.
"Your papers are in order. You may go," the Lieutenant said.
Despite my warning, Owen had used his magic to influence the man. But the risk had 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. But before he could dismiss the strange incident, I planted a seed of doubt, hoping the man might report this strange incident.
PART 7 - VALEK
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 spend more time in Ixia. A shave and a haircut would probably help, 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 corps used in case they ran into trouble.
"Those are two weeks old. You're under arrest. Bon, 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 a problem---he worried more that his disappearing act would cause a widespread commotion that might reach Owen, tipping him off. And the Lieutenant couldn't be faulted for doing his job. Despite his 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 station house.
Valek's luck ran out upon reaching the station house.
Manacled to a chair in an interrogation room, Valek realized that escape was now his only option. The Lieutenant asked him a series of questions--who are you working for, do you have any accomplices--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 did 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've 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.
"Now let's talk, Lieutenant."
PART 8 - JANCO
Janco kept to the main roads. So far, all the patrols he'd encountered hadn't seen any sign of Valek or Yelena's group. After two days on the road, he passed a solider. It took him a couple seconds to realize the man must be a messenger. Janco turned Whiskey around to question him.
"The message is for Captain Penter," the private said, giving Janco a snide look. "Not you."
Janco slid from the saddle. "I outrank your captain. Now hand it over, puppy dog."
"You're just an adviser."
"I'm Valek's second-in-command."
The private laughed. "Good one."
Annoyed, Janco lamented the lack of...proof of his position. It wouldn't be that difficult to have badges made, or get tattoos, or make special uniforms. However, no one else thought it was needed.
Bah. Anonymity was useful--until it wasn't.
"Do you really think the Commander would let just an adviser ride his favorite horse? Look at the diamond on his forehead. Ya think that happens in nature?" His tone indicated that only an idiot would believe that. A little improvisation never hurt anyone. Right?
"Besides, I already know the gist of the message, anyway."
The man straightened as if he realized he'd been duped. "Sorry, sir, but I have my orders."
"It's about a strange group of citizens traveling north." He hoped.
A nose twitch gave the private away. Ah ha! "Just tell me where you encountered them and where they're headed, and I'll be out of your hair."
He glanced at the horse, then said, "You need to talk to Lieutenant Darren. He's at the station house. He's the one who saw them. This..." The messenger waved the parchment. "Is just asking if the captain knows anything about a diamond delivery for General Ute."
"Which station house? Two or three?"
Too bad, two was closer. Janco mounted. "Thanks." He spurred Whiskey into a gallop, heading east.
Two days later he arrived at the station house. Spotting Onyx tied up outside, Janco relaxed. If the black horse was here, then Valek had to be nearby. Onyx snorted a greeting to them. No surprise since both horses spent time together in the Commander's stables.
Janco entered the station.
A sergeant scrambled to his feet to intercept him. "Are you the messenger from the Commander?"
No, but he doubted they'd believe him. These guys tended to be a bit isolated out here in the boondocks. "Yes." Janco debated about mentioning Valek's name. Sometimes his boss preferred to remain incognito. Instead he asked, "Is Lieutenant Darren here?"
"He's interrogating a prisoner, but I'm sure he'll want to see you right away. Wait here." The solider hustled off.
Prisoner? Janco followed and when the sergeant entered a room, Janco moved to the side, staying out of sight, but able to hear the conversation.
"LT, a messenger from the Commander has arrived. He wishes to speak with you." A pause. "Oh!"
"Escort the messenger in here, or I'll skewer your lieutenant," Valek said.
Janco muffled a chuckle as he back-tracked to where he was supposed to wait.
With his face bright red, the sergeant ran to Janco. "The prisoner has the lieutenant at sword point! He wants you, but I have to alert the--"
"Don't alert anyone just yet. I'll handle this."
"But he's armed, and--"
"I'm the Commander's messenger. Did you think we only deliver messages?"
Janco tsked. "We are trained to handle any contingency." Wow, he was on a roll today. He strolled into the room and took in the situation. The frightened lieutenant sat in a chair. Valek stood nearby with a sword at the ready. His boss appeared happy to see Janco.
"Can you please tell this lieutenant who he has arrested?" Valek asked.
"Can do," Janco said with a smile and then he couldn't resist adding, "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."
Valek's expression darkened into a murderous glower. "Janco."
Oops. One lie too many. Although Darren's open-mouth gape was quite amusing.
"Sorry, boss. Just having a bit of fun," Janco said. "I can't believe these guys didn't recognize you. You wouldn't have had this problem if we had badges."
No response, only a hard gaze that promised pain if Janco continued. He hurried to explain to Darren who he'd "captured." After stammering out an apology, Darren filled them in on the group of six miners he'd encountered.
"They said they worked at Mine 3-19 in MD-3 and were headed north. That was five days ago," Darren said.
Valek shot to his feet. "Let's go."
"Now?" Janco was hoping to sleep in a bed and eat warm food tonight.
"Yes. Now. Although I doubt we'll make it in time."
"In time for what?"
"To help Yelena fight Owen once he gets his hands on the Ice Moon."
PART 9 - YELENA
We reached the border between MD-5 and MD-4 on the tenth 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. My unease could also be attributed to the daily images Owen showed me of Leif and Valek, who were still incarcerated in Sitia.
With nothing 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 still eluded me--they had to be critical to deciphering his whole message.
An MD-4 border patrol stopped us at midday. They scanned our party and papers with bored expressions. I searched their faces, looking for a recognizable feature or a hint of intelligence, but 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 of them 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's 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 possesses the single most powerful weapon he could possible have 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 kill? 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."
I blinked at Owen, sure I had heard wrong. His superior demeanor remained in place. Owen had no idea what the blanket of power was--the souls of all those who have reached the sky, also known as the world's soul. Not many did. I had told the Master Magicians, but we had 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?"
"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 adsorb 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 the smug expression off his face by grabbing his soul. But he held both Leif's and Valek's lives in his hands. Every day, he showed me an image of them. 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. 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 single person 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's connection with his men indicated that he was still being held prisoner. He looked miserable and pissed off, but he hadn't tried to signal me again. Which worried me along with the lack of Ixian soldiers over the last few days. I didn't know what I'd do once we reached the mine if I didn't have reinforcements.
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 didn't recognize any of the men on patrol. A small...well, a huge part of me wished to see a familiar face or two.
No luck. Except for Owen. He was quite pleased with our progress, and we arrived near Mine 3-13 twenty-four days after we had left Sitia.
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 that the mine had been abandoned. No miners pushed wheelbarrows of rocks from the mine. No horses pulled wagons. Only the guards remained, patrolling and living 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 want to wait until his men were well rested, wanting 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. Hopefully they could mount a search for Valek and Leif before Owen's collaborators could kill them.
Dread pulled at 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, glittering with a bright blue, brilliant inner fire.
I stared at the Ice Moon in amazement. There had been no attempt to hide it or protect it, other than the eight guards outside the mine. Would the Commander really be that stupid?
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 had 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. Moving 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, but a null shield protected them. Owen must have trained the men on what to do when we reached the 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 placed a dart in one man's neck before they caught on.
"She's armed!" one yelled, diving for the floor. The others scattered.
Before I aimed 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 back almost where I'd started.
At least I had 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.
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 was 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. As 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."
I wrapped my arms around Valek, squeezing him tight.
"Easy, love." He pulled back slightly. "You weren't worried? You saw my signals. Right?"
"Uh...I saw your signal that Owen is a liar, but that didn't help."
"And the others? The ones where I warned you that he can lie with his mind."
"I guess someone needs a refresher course."
I snaked my hands under his shirt. "Yes, I definitely need to reacquaint myself."
He grinned, but gently disengaged. "Not now. Janco is waiting."
"How did he get involved in all this?" I asked as I followed Valek from the mine.
Valek explained about sending a message to the castle.
"What now? 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, and I soaked up the colorful sunlight. 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 it is?"
"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 stare 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've encountered so many things that are said to be impossible or unreachable, yet somehow someone always manages the impossible, and I'm sure that, eventually, someone will reach the unreachable."
"True." Valek considered. "These stained glass windows are beautiful. Aren't they?"
Confused, I glanced over at the windows in question. "What are you talking about?"
He gestured to one of them with a sly smile. "The colors are exquisite. Like this brilliant blue. You can see that color in all the panes. Don't you think it adds a certain depth and power to the pattern?"
I stood and examined the panes more closely. "Is that--?"
"Yes. It was cut into pieces and now decorates the Commander's war room. A fitting end, don't you think?"
EPILOGUE - YELENA
Three Months Later
The Sitian Council members filed into the great hall for their afternoon session. I'd just returned from Ixia, and Leif and I occupied a bench behind the large, U-shaped conference table that dominated the hall. The three Master Magicians sat along the bend, and the eleven Councilors, one for each Sitian clan, sat on the sides--five on the right and six on the left. A wooden podium faced the U, and behind that, rows of benches for spectators, witnesses, advisers, and other citizens.
Armed soldiers ringed the vast room. Long silk banners representing each clan hung from the ceiling and flowed down three stories to the floor. The white marble walls had slender windows that allowed in the sunlight. Overall, an impressive space.
First Magician Bain Bloodgood pounded a gavel to start the session. The most powerful magician in Sitia, Bain was also the leader of the Council. A hush fell over the assembled crowd. Bain consulted a parchment with the day's agenda and called the next item.
As I waited for my turn, I projected my magic throughout the room. Not dipping into people's thoughts, I just kept light contact, sensing emotions as I half-listened to the proceedings. I encountered various intensities of anxiety, worry, and fear, as well as boredom, amusement, annoyance, and curiosity. Then a smoldering anger snagged my full attention.
Sitting in the front row, a man met my gaze. The anger ignited into full-out hatred and fury. Tall, with black hair and brown eyes, he sat between a woman and an older couple. The elder woman fretted with a handkerchief, and the man stared at nothing, appearing dazed. The family resemblance between the three left no doubt that they were Owen Moon's parents and younger brother, Ben. They had come to the Citadel to hear my report. Unease stirred in my heart.
I glanced at the guards, seeking the one who was really a magician in disguise. Since the Daviian Warpers had attempted a coup, all Council meetings had extra security in place. When I found the magician, I tapped on her mental barrier. She opened her mind to me.
Man in the front row could cause trouble, I said.
I'll alert the others. Thanks, she said.
I signaled Leif as well, warning him. His bruises from the kidnapping had faded, and, aside from the extra hours of training, he'd put the entire incident behind him.
After a couple more issues were resolved, my name was called. When I approached the podium, I strengthened my connection to Ben, since he would be behind me. But then it cut off abruptly. Ah. Guess Owen wasn't the only one with power in his family. I relayed this information to the magician and Leif. My brother stood and inched along the walls, moving closer to me.
"Liaison Yelena, please tell us the details of your meeting with the Commander regarding Owen Moon's status," Bain said.
"I presented him with your request to extradite Owen to Sitia, so he could stand trial and be judged by the Sitian Council. I explained all the reasons Owen should be returned to Sitia, but the Commander refused your request." I kept my tone neutral, because at this moment, I wasn't a Sitian or an Ixian, but a bridge between the two. "The Commander wishes me to remind the Council and the magicians of Sitia that his intolerance of magic in Ixia is not negotiable. He has made it clear that any person with magic captured illegally inside the borders of Ixia will be executed."
"What about you?" An angry male voice demanded. "You have magic."
I turned. Ben Moon pointed an accusing finger at me.
"Are you exempt because you're the assassin's whore?" Ben asked.
Gasps erupted and voices murmured. Schooling my expression, I remained calm. Inside, the desire to punch him pushed up my throat.
Bain hammered his gavel and restored order.
"When does the Commander plan to execute Owen?" Councilor Moon asked.
Oh, boy. This wouldn't be pleasant. "I request a private meeting with Owen's family before divulging that information."
"No," Ben said. "Tell us now."
I met Bain's gaze. He nodded his approval. Summoning my courage, I walked over to Owen's family and crouched in front of his parents, so that we were eye level. "I'm so sorry, but the Commander has already executed your son."
Their shocked horror slammed into me. Movement and a strangled cry alerted me just in time to catch a glimpse of Ben as he knocked me to the ground. His fists connected, striking my shoulder, ribs, and chin before Leif and the guards pulled him off me.
Bain called a recess. My lip bled, and the areas he hit were tender to the touch, but I'd had worse injuries from sparring with Ari and Janco. Leif offered me a hand up.
As they escorted Owen's family from the great hall, his father turned to me and asked, "What about his...body?"
I hated to tell him. "Buried in Ixia." Just like all the other magicians the Commander had caught in Ixia.
He nodded. They had been warned this could happen, but nothing could prepare a parent for a child's death. Nothing.
After the Council session ended, I walked back to the Magician's Keep with Leif. Even though it was the beginning of the warm season, a cold breeze touched the back of my neck, sending a shiver through me.
"Owen was the one who caused his family pain. Not you," Leif said. "He didn't think about them when he decided to break the law. Every magician knows the danger when they enter Ixia uninvited."
"But your heart isn't convinced. Is it?"
"No, and I don't want to discuss it either. I've been debating it with Valek, the Commander, and the Council for the last three months."
"Fine by me."
The silence didn't last long.
"What is your next assignment?" Leif asked.
"Probably delivering a strongly worded response to the Commander about Owen's execution, which he will ignore. You?"
"Finding out who is stealing exams from Professor Compton's office."
Leif sounded as unenthusiastic as I felt, despite the opportunity to see Valek when I visited Ixia. A hollowness pulsed in my chest, and I craved a certain soft touch like a baby who needed a favorite blanket in order to sleep.
"Want to play hooky?" I asked.
"Yes, please! What do you have in mind?"
"Visiting Mother and Father."
Leif shot me a knowing look. "Can we stop in Booruby and visit Mara?"
"How about on the way home?"
"Deal." A dopey grin spread on his square face.
"You've been dating her for two years, when are you going to ask her to marry you?"
"Oh, look, there's Irys, I'd better tell her to find someone else to booby-trap Compton's office." Leif hurried away.
"Coward!" I shouted after him.
Three Weeks Later
The city of Booruby teemed with life. Unable to endure another day of Leif mooning over Mara, I decided to take a shopping trip in town. I left Kiki at Opal and Mara's parent's house and glass factory. We'd been staying there as guests for the last three days, and Mara's mother cooked so much food that I desperately needed the exercise.
Leif and I had a lovely seven-day visit with our parents in the Illiais Jungle. Built in the lush tree canopy, the Zaltana homestead blended in with the surroundings. The combination of the remote location and difficult-to-attack position in the trees allowed me to relax like no other place in Sitia. Too bad it was a five-day trip from the Citadel, or I would visit more often.
A shopping list was tucked into my pocket. We planned to leave Booruby in two days and needed travel supplies, as well as a birthday gift for Irys. Uncertain what to buy her, I wandered through the busy downtown shopping district. Beautiful glass creations in a rainbow of colors sparkled in almost every window. Booruby was known for being the glassmaking capital of Sitia. I peered at the various displays, seeking a unique piece. Something...different from the vases, paperweights, figurines, and bowls that populated the shelves.
Along a side street with only two shops, I spotted the perfect gift. It was a series of glass hawks. The first hawk on the left stood on the ground, the next opened its wings as if to lift off. The third, with its wings extended, had been mounted on a short rod, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth took the hawk higher and higher on longer rods. From a distance, the series was a life-like resemblance of a hawk taking flight.
Happy with my purchase, I left the store to complete the more mundane tasks on my list. I didn't go far before the sound of kids fighting reached me. Down an alley, four boys wrestled. About to continue on, I paused. No. Three large boys were beating on the smaller, fourth boy.
I hurried down the alley, yelling at them to stop. When they ignored me, I used my magic to send the three bullies to sleep. They wobbled on their feet, their punches swung wide, and they stumbled to the filthy ground that smelled of rotten fish.
The remaining boy stared at me like a rabbit stared at the jaws of a wolf inches away. Gasping for air, he wiped the blood from his lip. I sensed the bruises and lumps would soon darken his pale face. Before I healed him, I needed to calm him down.
"Are you all right?" I asked, directing a thin tendril of my magic to soothe his soul. I estimated his age at twelve years old.
"Uh...yeah...uh...what...what...?" He glanced at his tormentors.
"Don't worry. They're just sleeping. What happened?"
"I...I..." He smoothed his tunic and swiped his brown hair from his sweaty forehead.
I increased my efforts to steady his heart rate.
Drawing in a breath, he said in a rush, "I was making a delivery when they jumped me."
"A delivery here?"
"No. On Clymer Street. They grabbed me and pulled me in here." His gaze scanned the narrow alley. "Oh, no!" The boy ran to a dented package. When he picked it up, it jangled. He groaned. "It's broken."
"I can't fix it, but I can heal you. You're going to have a black eye."
Biting his lip, he turned the parcel over in his hands. "No. That's okay. My boss won't believe me if I don't have any cuts." He met my gaze. "Thanks, though. You saved my life!"
"I doubt they would have gone that far."
"They could have robbed me and taken off, but they...taunted me for awhile, blocking my path and not letting me go. And then...bam. They got serious." He rubbed his hand over his jaw.
I pulled a few of the bruises from him with my power. He'd still have plenty of marks for proof. My right cheek and left temple ached. Concentrating, I healed myself. The pain disappeared, leaving a bit of fatigue behind--nothing a hot meal won't cure.
"You need to report this. I'll wait here with them while you go to the station house." I offered.
"No. I'm not gonna get involved. Thanks again, lady." He waved and dashed away.
Lovely. I studied the three prone thugs. Would they be safe while I fetched the security officers? Would they remain asleep? As if answering my question, they stirred. I projected my magic to propel them into a deeper slumber, but encountered a barrier. Their thoughts and emotions had been cut off by a null shield, which meant another magician was nearby. Time to dash. I turned.
Three figures stepped from the shadows, preventing an escape to the street. I spun to exit the opposite way. The boys stood in a row, blocking my path. I'd been ambushed. My pulse jumped in my throat.
The shield remained around them, so I yanked my switchblade from its holder and triggered the blade. Flinching at the sight of my weapon, the boy on the far right took a half-step back. The weak link. I gauged the distance and--
Clang! A knife skated by my boot--a warning. I slid my feet into a fighting stance, moving so my back faced the alley's wall. From this position, all my opponents were visible, but I was unable to reach them with my magic. Fear swirled around my heart, which pumped harder, encouraging me to run.
The three approaching from the left wore all black. Hoods covered their faces, exposing only their eyes.
"Here." The man in the middle flipped a gold coin to the boy on the right. "Now get lost."
Catching the coin with ease, the boy said, "Pleasure doing business with you." They took off.
I now faced half the number of attackers--a mistake on their part, which gave me hope that they'd make more. The three formed a half-circle around me, but I still held my switchblade, plus the hundred or so hours of training in knife defense with Valek.
"Drop your weapon," Middle Man ordered.
I didn't recognize his voice. "Or what?" I asked, pleased that my words didn't tremble.
The figure to the right flashed a set of daggers.
Middle Man gestured to his companion. "He'll pin you to the wall."
I considered. "He missed last time."
A blur of movement, a swish of air, and a loud twang echoed. A dagger trapped the bottom corner of my cloak to the wall of the alley. Not good. Not good at all.
"The next one goes into your heart," Middle Man said.
"Okay." I slowly set my switchblade on the ground, making a show of it as I palmed a couple darts from the seam of my cloak. Then I removed the garment, freeing my arms. "What do you want?"
Middle Man deferred to the tall figure on the left. Pulling a long curved knife from the sheath at his belt, the person approached me. I braced for an attack. The person yanked his hood off--Ben Moon.
Ah. Now the ambush made sense. Too bad the sudden understanding didn't improve my situation. In fact, my fear transformed into terror as I realized he planned to kill me.
"How long have you been plotting your revenge?" I asked Ben, delaying the inevitable. Perhaps someone would see us and help. A girl could hope.
"Since the day you told us my brother was dead," he said. "But you didn't give me any opportunities to act until today." He smiled, but no humor shone in his cold brown eyes. "Today was perfect. No fancy horse, no friends, no family around. Walking by yourself in a city big enough to cover our presence. The boys sucked you right into our trap."
"Was the first boy part of it?"
"No. We couldn't risk you picking up on a fake fight."
At least I managed to help him--a bit of comfort. "You do realize Valek will hunt you down and kill you. Right?" I stepped to the side, putting Ben between me and the other two.
"I doubt it. You have so many enemies, he'll never figure it out."
A second mistake. "So you plan to kill your companions and those four boys as well?"
"Of course not."
"Then you're leaving a trail for Valek to find. "
A murmuring sounded behind Ben. He whipped around. "She's playing with your mind. He won't be a problem."
"Owen thought that, too," I said. "And look what happened to him."
Ben rushed me, aiming the knife at my neck. I dropped to the ground and stuck a dart into his leg. He tripped over me, slamming into the wall. I dove to the side, picked up my switchblade, and gained my feet. Ben's accomplices hesitated. He must have ordered them not to kill me. Third mistake.
"Kill her," Ben said, before the Curare in the dart paralyzed his body.
I ran at the knife-thrower, closing the distance between us. With no room to throw, the person had to engage me in a fight. As I suspected, the thug wasn't as skilled one on one, but the longer dagger had an advantage against my shorter switchblade. My lessons with Valek really paid off at first as I blocked and parried.
However, my opponent grew more confident as the cuts on my arms multiplied, and I knew I wouldn't last. I feinted left, stabbed right, and sliced a nasty gash on the person's upper arm. After another exchange, the knife-thrower stumbled and collapsed. Fourth mistake--not considering that my blade might be pre-treated with Curare.
Strong arms wrapped around me, trapping my own. Middle Man had snuck up behind me. He squeezed me tight. Confused, it took me until I couldn't draw a breath to realize his plan. Panic threatened, but I focused. My switchblade only scratched at his arms. Besides, the Curare had been used.
Think! I still held a dart. As my vision turned to snow, I twisted my wrist, but couldn't reach his skin.
Blackness crept in. My lungs burned for air. The world faded. Distant shouts thudded. Then the pressure around my stomach released. I dropped to the ground as I gasped for air. At this point, the smell of rotten fish equaled the finest aroma in the world.
When I regained my composure and straightened, I looked up. The boy I'd helped earlier crouched over me.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yes. I thought you said you didn't want to get involved."
"Well..." He glanced down. "I thought about how you helped me, and I didn't think it was right to leave you alone with those bullies. So I ran to the station house."
"Thank you. You saved my life."
He grinned, showing off a row of crooked teeth. "Now we're even."
All three Study Short Stories are now available in audio format and narrated by Gabra Zackman! They are a part of The Poison Study Short Story Audio Collection: Assassin Study, Power Study, Ice Study To download the audio collection, click HERE
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