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The Brumal Star

Summary

 Juvenile delinquent Lorica and ex-sorcerer-bounty hunter Jamison team up to find the Brumal Star, a giant crystal rumored to have mystical powers. Their bat friend Scout flies along trying to keep them from killing each other on the way. Can the Brumal Star help fix their messed up lives, or will vengeful wizard Broderick interfere with their plans?

Notes

© 2016 T.Q. Walton. All rights reserved.

Cover design by T.Q. Walton

First Edition

ISBN-13: 978-0-9984753-0-1

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

This work was originally published through Amazon KDP, but I have decided to offer this updated version here in its entirety. 

{1}

Jamison Undrand awaited his death. A binding curse flowed through his bloodstream like hot poison. Every beat of his heart pulled and thickened its dark magic inside of him as he swayed within the circle of his old comrades, the Ablete Calare of Reathe.

The Calare had found him guilty of murdering his wife. His joke of a trial had been a month ago. The Lawgivers had used his words against him, then threw him into a prison cell until they were ready for him to face his doom. 

That was today.

His accusers dragged him here like a disobedient dog to carry out the most severe punishment of magic users' society: the Darkening Ritual, where they would put a convicted magic user through torments of the mind and body to purge them of their magic.

The Calare stayed bowed in deference to their leader, Broderick Cordale, as he finished preparing the ritual. He gave the signal to Durriken, a thuggish young man he'd chosen to tie Jamison's blindfold.

A razor wire of alarm stung Durriken's gut as his reptilian eyes locked with Jamison's, catching a desperate flash of anger and fear in them.

He grasped Jamison's shoulders and shoved him into position, slipping the black cloth over his eyes and yanking it with expert savageness.

Jamison's sight blotted to darkness. The rough sackcloth fabric of the ceremonial death robes scratched and stung his infected skin sores. He sweated under them in spite of the late autumn chill. The back of his head began to ache from the blindfold's knot pressing into it.

What are those bastards waiting for? Why can't they just get this over with?

"The Ablete Calare of Reathe is gathered on this day to carry out punishment as decided by our Lawgivers. If anyone wishes to speak on behalf of the condemned, he'll do it now," said  Broderick.

No words would save Jamison. His breath had been wasted during the trial, and his strength was gone from the journey here. He could only guess what was to come.

Somebody say something! They won't. No, they won't. They could, but they wouldn't dare. Bunch of cowards, every single one of them.

"To undergo the Darkening Ritual is a fate worse than death, because a magus without magic is nothing. Let it begin," Broderick said.

The Calare raised their arms above them like conductors of a malevolent orchestra. Streams of gray light emanated from their fingers and formed a gelatinous, writhing mass. It was alive, animated by their magic. 

They aimed it above Jamison.

The blood pulse in his ears muted their chanted words and jumbled them together in his mind. Heaviness closed out his thoughts. He teetered and sunk on the flat, dead grass.

Cold slime spattered onto his neck. It smelled like something fetid they had dredged up from a sewer. Sticky tendrils stretched from the orb and trailed, fingerlike, along his exposed skin. They left a burn like frostbite across his cheek. He tried to shrink away from their touch, but his body would not obey.

His bowels clenched as it crawled over his lips and slipped inside his mouth. He tried to spit it back out, but every part of his physical body had been made docile by their enchantments.

The blindfold was a small mercy; it blocked the sight of it, but it allowed the rest of his senses to become engorged with overmastering fear.

It bubbled in a thickened glob and inched down his throat. His coughing and retching spread it further inside of him. He struggled to breathe through his nose in short, stifling breaths that didn't fill his lungs up all the way while the nameless horror slid all the way down and pooled at the bottom of his stomach.

A watery churning spread through his guts, along with searing jolts of pain. It stung him now from within, hot and sharp.

More oozed under his robes and wrapped around his skin like a freezing wet sheet. The cold sank into every cell and nerve and went beyond physical. It invaded his mind and soul.

Chattering teeth rattled his skull like machinery, making him bite his tongue, as blood and drool leaked out the side of his mouth.

Gods, make it end. Make it end. I don't care who answers.

The gods, if they existed, had forgotten to concern themselves with the day-to-day happenings on Ransara and were unmoved by his pleas.

The sorcerers' chanting swelled. A pressure settled on his chest, as if someone was sitting on him.

Conjured-up images of his wife filled his mind. They seemed even more vivid than reality.

Her light fingers stroked his hair and whispered his name.

"Taryn!" he went to say, but his mouth would not form the words.

"Speak to me through your thoughts," she said.

In his mind, he saw her kneeling in front of him, her golden hair cascading over her shoulders.

Taryn, help me. Help me!

"I can't," she said.

Oh gods, please help. Make it stop.

The stink of decay surrounded her. "You never believed in any of the gods. What makes you think they would deliver you from this?"

No, no, don't do this—

He gagged on the stench and tried to pull away, but he was still immobilized by their magic.

No Taryn, not you. It's a lie!

"I thought we'd grow old together." Her nails dug into his wrists, her hands sticky and clammy against his skin. "This is for your own good, Jamison. It's your purification."

She vanished, but she appeared again and again as a tainted version of herself, as indifferent to his agony as everyone else.

Jamison couldn't guess how long it went on for. It might have been minutes or hours—a waking dream of grotesque imagery and pain until he vomited up the globby mass, now marbled with black. It spurted out of him onto the ground, where it twisted and coiled into thick, ropey strands and crumbled away to soot.

Broderick's hands sliced the air in a quick slashing movement. The chanting stopped.

Jamison lay upon the frost-heaved ground, his broken body mended and free from the enchantments.

Broderick towered over him. "This was less than you deserved, swine!" 

He slammed his boot into Jamison's ribs and strode away.

The sorcerers slunk back to the forest. Unknown to them, a silent watcher bore witness from within the safety of the pines along the edge of the field.

{2}

The watcher's name was Elira Kennt, though some from the older generation called her the Witch of the Larches. She was a physician who had made her home on the edge of the wilderness for decades.

It was peaceful here on the outskirts, placid in its desolation of soft rolling hills and wide forests, which was why the Calare had chosen this spot for their ritual.

She waited until the sorcerers had left, though they wouldn't have given her, in her bird-form as a lone red cardinal perched above their heads, a second thought.

They probably would not care what she did on his behalf, or if he'd even survived. If she left him there, he'd be a welcome change from deer and elk for the carrion birds.

She flew home and returned in human form with two ponies pulling a reed sledge.

The first few raindrops spilled out of the sky as she rolled his limp body onto the sledge and started back to her farmhouse.

{3}

Lorica Warde thundered down the hallway stairs. She made sure to land extra hard on the bottom landing. Her double-footed boot stomp shook the floorboards and shivered the bannister under her splintering death grip.

"Come back here!" Fiene shouted down to her stepdaughter. "Get that filthy little demon out of here immediately!"

Fiene had just opened the closet door in Lorica's bedroom and gotten a nasty shock when she discovered the demon roosting on a clothes rack. He stretched his leathery wings and yawned, revealing two gleaming rows of sharp teeth.

It might as well have been the gaping, murderous jaws of a hell beast from the netherworld to Lorica's stepmother. She whipped a shoe at him, and he barely escaped out the window without a concussion.

Lorica shook her head, already sick of this conversation. "Scout is a bat, and he isn't filthy. Anyways, he wouldn't even be here if it weren't for one of your pukes breaking his wing with a rock."

Fiene stopped on the upstairs landing and held her belly. She couldn't keep up with Lorica on a good day, let alone right now. She was only four months along and barely looked pregnant, but from the dramatic way she heaved herself around, Lorica thought the baby might drop out at any moment just to escape.

"It doesn't belong in my house, and you watch what you say about my boys. Get back up here and start helping me with the baby's room!"

"I won't throw my friend out like a piece of garbage. Why don't you go toss yourself on a dung heap? It'd be a good place for you. Besides, it's my room, and I don't appreciate getting kicked out of it," Lorica said.

Fiene smacked the wall with her palm, though Lorica knew her stepmother wished it were her face. "You aren't 'friends' with vermin. Wait until your father comes home. I'll have him beat some respect into your ungrateful hide."

"You try it," Lorica said. "I was here before you were, so we'll see who you can get to beat me, you heifer."

Her stepmother swept a black curl of hair away from her face. "Such a display of immature behavior. At your age, you should be thinking about your future and finding yourself a husband instead of bringing home dirty little beasts and other ridiculous, childish nonsense."

"The day I go and chase down a husband to become someone's property is the day I grow donkey ears." Lorica said. "Or worse...get myself knocked up to trap one!"

She flew out the front door and slammed it so hard that a family portrait of them fell off the wall and cracked the frame, but it didn't matter because Lorica's mother wasn't in it. They didn't have those around anymore. Her father had put them all away a long time ago.

#

Lorica kicked gravel and fallen autumn leaves as she stormed down the pathway to search for Scout.

At least Nate and Theodore, her six-year-old twin half brothers, were nowhere in sight. They often threw acorns at her from within the sprawling branches of the giant oak tree in their front yard. They imagined they were cleverly hidden, but were as obvious as a huge red pimple on the tip of a nose.

That bitch! Who is she to call me immature? She's the one who drives me to it. Let's see how much she likes finding bat dung under her pillow.

Planning revenge so consumed Lorica that she didn't notice her father heading right towards her.

Edmund Warde was Captain of Reathe Guard, their province's law enforcement, which required him to have no sense of humor, at least in Lorica's opinion. The men in his command called him "Captain" or "Sir," but to Lorica, he was Edmund. She'd been calling him that forever.

"Hold up!" Edmund said.

She froze in her tracks. His drawn face told her everything she needed to know. He needed to catch up on sleep after his exhausting hours at the barracks or else the household would feel the brunt of it.

"Lorica! How's the baby's room coming?"

"It's coming." She glared at his scuffed boots. He'll make me shine those later on.

Edmund raised her chin with his leather gloved hand. It stank like dirt and sweat. "Where are you rushing off to? Stand up straight and look at me when you speak to me."

"A walk." She took a step, but his firm hand on her shoulder stopped her.

"Don't walk away from me, Lorica. I won't tolerate disrespect from you."

She swerved out of his grip. "I'm not one of your guard subordinates, Edmund. And why am I being kicked out of my room for the second time? The twins get to keep theirs."

Her father stiffened. "Who the hell do you think you are? You're very much one of my subordinates, and if you were smart, you'd hold your tongue. Your attitude is worse than ever."

She ground pebbles under her boot heel. "I wouldn't have an attitude if you didn't treat me like one of your barracks underlings and if I wasn't being forced out of my room."

Puffs of white breath accentuated Edmund's short, cruel laugh. "Come to work with me for a day, and you'll be glad to know your place in my household. You know we need to make room for the baby, so be grateful you still have a place to live."

She sighed. "Why can't you just put the baby in Meree's old—"

Meree was Lorica's nickname for her mother, Lisette, until the bad times came and took her away from them forever.

"Don't you even say it, Lorica! Your mother's old bedroom isn't an option."

Her foot swiped at the gravel. "I don't see that it makes a difference. That room is just going to waste."

Fiene shuffled up the path like a winded ox.

"Edmund, you're home! Your daughter ran out on me as she was supposed to be helping me inside the house. The mouth on her too. Did you know she's been keeping a bat for a pet in her closet? In our house!"

"Is that so?" he said to Lorica. He grabbed her by the back of her coat and marched her up the path. "You're too old to be acting like such a disobedient brat. My home isn't a dump for pathetic strays. Get your sorry ass inside, get rid of that creature, and get on with what you're supposed to be doing!"

"Donkey ears would be an improvement on you," Fiene said. "The baby's room has to wait for now, since it's time to get dinner ready. That is, if you aren't above doing even that for your father."

Lorica ground her teeth and resigned herself to peel and cut up carrots and potatoes for the mutton stew that she hated because it stunk up the whole house.

Giving me a sharp knife isn't the brightest idea. They're lucky I have some self-controlI have better things to do than be treated like a servant.

Lorica cleaved the vegetables into submission and pelted the cut up bits into the pot to join the greasy, gray slab of mutton. She imagined Fiene's head in the pot instead of the meat and smiled at her maliciously. Her stepmother glowered with the usual disapproval.

When she finished, Lorica went upstairs to gather and move some of her things like Edmund had ordered, but she set them aside as another plan came to her.

{4}

The sound of weeping drew Broderick Cordale out of bed. It came from beyond his house's front gate, which seemed to pull further away as he moved down the brick walkway.

A fog appeared, drifting in low and wraithlike. He needed to cross it to reach the gate. Each time he looked towards it, the mist grew and spread along the grass.

A raven sidled in front of him on the walkway, croaking and gurgling. It peered at him with black, beady eyes. The weeping grew louder.

Broderick kicked at the raven. The bird vanished, but he still heard its calls.

He waded inside the fog. Darkness engulfed him like a void punched into their world. It seemed to be filled with writhing, agonized figures, yet empty, as if the air had been sucked from it. He fought against the sensation that he was becoming part of the fog itself.

In the darkness, the weeping grew distant, then closer. Then there was a voice, distorted and strained in the chaotic vacuum.

NoPlease, don't let it be her.

Nausea and dread welled up inside him. "Taryn?"

"Is someone there?" Her voice tugged at Broderick's consciousness.

Broderick's heart plunged. "It's your father, Taryn. I'm here, where are you?"

"It's so dark," she said, her voice choked with terror. "I don't know where I am. I can't find the way out!"

"Don't move! Let me come to you." He edged his way along in the darkness. Unseen things brushed past his face, touched his hair, and pulled at his clothes. He swatted them away, but his hands pushed away at nothing.

Gray light penetrated the darkness. Broderick caught a flicking movement in the pallid light.

"Taryn?" he said, then froze mid-step.

A giant, slug-like creature lay coiled in a cesspool, surrounded by drifting fog. 

The creature's front had misshapen faces with the appearance of having melted together. Sets of serrated teeth joined its segmented body together.

Its shriveled, gray-red skin resembled a slab of raw meat that had begun to dry out. Knobby outcroppings lined its back in pairs. 

Broderick realized they were all human-like heads.

"She can't hear you, wizard. But I'm pleased you came," said the Canthaelag.

Shudders rampaged through him. "It's you." Realization came to him. "I'm asleep. This is a dream."

An amused smile lurched across the Canthaelag's many mouths. "Perhaps to your perception, but not to mine."

Broderick frowned in confusion. Fog drifted and curled around his feet.

"You're here in some form or another," said the creature. "But I'm not here to discuss human consciousness and the dreaming mind."

The raven perched above Broderick's head on the damp, craggy wall. It bobbed its head and snapped its beak.

"It's a trick," Broderick said.

"If you insist," the Canthaelag said. "I can't convince you if you're unwilling to believe. Go back where you came from."

Broderick turned and saw the unlatched front gate and the brick path beyond it.

"I can't find it," Taryn said, her voice heavy and detached. "There's nothing."

"She's searching for a way out," the Canthaelag said. "If you leave, you won't be able to help her."

He clutched at his hair, a flash of anger tempering his fear. "Then it's true. You have her. A monstrosity. That's what you are."

"Of course it's true," said the Canthaelag.

Broderick's face distorted in anguish. "You took her from me!"

The creature rolled his shoulders, unconcerned. "I didn't want the other one."

"Who? What are you talking about?" He hugged himself to fight the chill seeping into him.

The Canthaelag tilted his head. "You know who I'm talking about. The one that you were trying to help."

"Jamison?" he spat.

"That's the one," the Canthaelag said. "Jamison."

"But why? Why did you take my daughter?"

"She gave me the kind of sustenance I needed. For a little while, at least, while I'm stuck here hiding."

"What does that mean?"

The creature tucked its spindly arms underneath its withered girth. "What do you think it means? There are many kinds of sustenance."

"You're lying," he said.

"Maybe," said the Canthaelag. "She's just a spirit, after all. They can't give much."

"You took her," Broderick said. The words hung limp.

"I didn't. You don't understand how this works as well as you think you do," said the creature in grating voices. He sat up and ran his dehydrated tongues over rows of craggy teeth.

"I understand enough." Convulsive chills ran though him. "You're a deceiver."

The creature laughed and slithered out of the cesspool. "You say that as though you expect me to play fair, but that's a reflection of your own naivety. You've been deceived only by yourself. Here's a parcel of truth. You won't get her without giving me what I desire: a way out."

Broderick made a choking sound. "A w-way out? Why do you need a way out? What are you going to do out here?"

"This is an in-between place for me," the Canthaelag said. "You think that I'm a monstrosity, but there are those on this side that want me for their own purposes. I've been hiding here for a long time...four thousand years of hiding from them."

"Them? I don't care how long you've been here or why. You took Taryn."

The weeping began again. "Taryn!" Broderick searched the impenetrable darkness. Her voice seemed to come from behind the air itself. "Where is she?"

The raven hopped off the wall and clung to his shirt. He swatted at the bird as it clawed and pecked his throat and face.

It tumbled to the ground and disappeared. Broderick wiped where he'd been attacked, but his hand came away clean and unbloodied.

"You'll care when you realize you have no choice but to cooperate with me," the Canthaelag said.

"Wake up, wake up." He stood paralyzed in the shadow of the Canthaelag. The shadow grew larger and darker around him, like a shroud.

The Canthaelag brought his whip tail down with lightning speed, but Broderick felt nothing.

He awoke slick with sweat, tangled in the sheets. The pale fingernail of the waning moon stared in through the slits of the wood blinds.

{5}

Rain lashed against the bedroom window. Everything Jamison looked at was drab, like the weather had come inside and washed it all out.

Elira put down a tray bearing oat bread and ginger tea. "Something light."

Jamison huddled in a lump under the covers, just like the day before and the day before that, and so on, wearing a rut in the mattress. He stared at the wall, which he did so often he could pick out faces in the floral pattern of the wallpaper.

"You should've left me there." The raindrops plonked from the gables onto the glass pane as if to agree with him.

She drew the curtains back. "You would've died."

He pulled the blankets over his head. "Maybe that's what I wanted. They should've killed me and been done with it."

"They must have thought this a worse punishment. I'm glad you're speaking, at least." She left him alone again with the late afternoon shadows creeping around his room.

#

Jamison had woken up at Elira's, confused, nauseous, and aching. He knew in his gut that the power was gone. The connection had been severed like scissors snipping a thread.

Losing his magic was nothing compared to losing Taryn. But the loss of his magical gift was a second death.

The power came to him on an afternoon in late summer when he was six years old. He and his nine-year-old sister, Nathalie, were in the garden picking pole beans.

Jamison closed his eyes against the sun's agonies. It blasted through him in waves, scorching his eyelids. An uncomfortable buzzing hummed under his skin. It knotted in his stomach and spread to his fingers.

"Lazy!" Nathalie said, poking his side. "Get back to work."

He glared at her and threw the beans clutched in his sweaty hands into the bucket.

A stray calico cat slunk by through the tall grass, trying to avoid the attention of the Undrand siblings. She was leery of people now that she had a litter of kittens to protect.

"There she is again," Nathalie said. "I wish we could see her babies."

"Watch," Jamison said to his sister. "She's going to come over this time."

The baked earth radiated heat through his knees where he knelt. He made slow, rhythmic movements with his hands and used strange words that Nathalie had never heard before to call out to the cat.

The cat froze in place, tail out like an arrow, her eyes like green glass marbles. Not even her whiskers quivered. 

Nathalie's eyebrows furrowed. "What are you doing? What did you just say?"

"Shh! This is what they said to do." He beckoned to the cat again and repeated the words.

"What who said to do?" 

"Them," said Jamison. "The people who talk to me. You can't hear them. Just watch."

The cat blinked, as if she were waking up from a nap, and strolled over to the shed. She grasped each of her three kittens by the scruff of their necks, and carried them out into the blazing sunlight.

Jamison and Nathalie looked at each other in surprise and excitement.

The calico and her kittens toddled up to them. The kittens kneaded their tiny claws as they scrambled over the children, head butting and purring.

"I told you she'd come over," he said. "I made her do it."

Nathalie rolled her eyes. "Maybe she just felt like being friendly this time. I doubt you had anything to do with it."

Scratching and meowing on the fence bordering their yard caught the children's attention. 

Cats in every size and color—a scrappy little black one with a single, yellow eye, a litter of four tabbies and their mother, a scrawny gray one with bent whiskers, a double-pawed marmalade, an elegant, fluffy white one, an impish-looking tortoiseshell, a black and white fighter with half a tail and chewed-up ears, and dozens more—crowded themselves along the top of the fence rails.

More cats stalked through the grass to the fence, their tails raised in question marks.

"Look!" Nathalie pointed. "Where did they all come from?"

Jamison stood up, his heart skipping. "I don't know."

The mob of cats began yowling and shrieking. Starlings and kooras birds screeched from every tree branch in the neighborhood.

Then, just as suddenly as they'd begun, they fell silent.

An oppressive, eerie hush smothered every sound.

Berinon, the Undrands' large hound, vaulted across the yard, barking in a frenzy. The cats scrambled over the fence, up trees, and anywhere else they could hide. The birds flashed from the trees in a flurry of wings and screams. Berinon pressed his shaggy body against Jamison and gazed up at him with deep brown eyes.

Jamison stroked the hound's floppy ears. 

No, I did it. 

The tingling ebbed, but a part of himself had been awakened. It had been asleep, but now it remembered itself, as if it had always known.

Nathalie fled inside the house to tell their mother.

"I don't have time for your stories," said Mrs. Undrand. She was a hard, sensible woman with striking looks and dark hair that fell past her waist. "Get back outside and finish up with the pole beans!"

#

The next week, he changed a skein of yarn into a tangle of worms. He couldn't explain how it had happened, other than his skin crawling and the voices telling him how, and it made perfect sense to try.

He heard his mother coming, so in his panic, he left the basket sitting in the hallway. He ran to the kitchen and plunked into a chair at the table next to Nathalie. Mrs. Undrand's disgusted scream told him she'd found it.

She appeared in the doorway. "Who put worms into my knitting basket?" 

Nathalie pointed at her brother.

Their mother steered him out to the yard. She flung the worms over the garden fence and thrashed him on the back with the basket.

Days later, he sat cross-legged in his tiny bedroom closet, scratching at the scabbed-over welts on his back. He wiped his runny nose and tried to figure out what to do about the scorch marks on his bedroom floor from his mostly-successful fire spell. The odor of smoke hung in the air.

His mother would kill him.

She'd probably hit him with more than just the knitting basket. This time, it might be his father's straight razor strop, like when he forgot to bring in some gardening tools and they rusted from the rain.

Or worse, like when she'd chased him to Mr. Undrand's blacksmith forge. She snatched an unfinished fireplace poker handle from her husband's hand and pressed its red-hot end to the back of Jamison's neck like a brand. That was for breaking a porcelain figurine of a woman holding her baby.

The decorative braided design would be forever imprinted on his nape, but at least it was in a place where he couldn't see it and be reminded of their intolerance.

Jamison didn't want to cause trouble. But this new, faint glow that began the day of the cats had grown into an ember burning a hole in his stomach. His blood simmered until he felt his veins and skin would erupt. It invaded his dreams and jolted him awake at night.

It told him things. It gave him strange ideas and urges.

He had to do something, and the only way to soothe his prickly skin and cool the hotness in his belly was to obey the voices tugging at his head.

Make the fire, the voices told him. You can control it. Hold out your hands...

Jamison didn't hear his father stomping up the stairs until it was too late.

Mr. Undrand kicked open the bedroom door and threw aside the blanket Jamison used to cover the scorch marks. He pulled him out of the closet by his shirt.

"What have you done? Playing with fire; are you trying to get us all killed?" 

He backhanded his son before he could answer.

Jamison left small, sooty handprints along the walls and all over his father's clothes as his father dragged him down the stairs.

"No Da, I can't help it! It hurts. It's too hot inside me. It's the magic; it's them. They make me do it. Please don't put me down here, Da!"

Mr. Undrand shoved his son into the cellar with bared teeth. "You are a very sick child, and you won't be able to do much fire damage if you're surrounded by damp stone!"

Jamison squeezed himself into a ball on the chilly stone steps, sobbing and hiccupping. "Please Da, let me out! I promise I won't do it again. I'm sorry!" He wailed and pounded his tiny fists on the door.

The sun dropped lower and lower in the sky through the cellar's tiny, cobwebbed window until he was plunged into darkness. His stomach gnawed in hunger.

He sat sniffling and shivering with his knees drawn up tight against his chest, his face sticky with dried tears. His family hated him. They probably meant to leave him down here forever.

Voices came from the kitchen on the other side of the door: his parents' and one other, a man's who sounded unfamiliar, yet melodic. Jamison pressed his ear into the door to listen.

"Where is the boy?" asked the melodic-sounding man.

"Locked in the cellar," said Jamison's father.

"Why did you put him down there?" asked the man, his voice rising like angry chimes.

"Because he could have burnt the house down with that last trick he played!" said Mr. Undrand. "I was trying to keep the rest of my family safe."

The door swung open. Jamison squinted into the lantern-lit brightness. At the threshold stood a man with silver hair that draped over his shoulders. His piercing eyes caught Jamison's like a snake with its prey.

The stranger flashed a pearly smile at him. "Come here, child. My name is Jarin Crewe. I've been watching you."

Jamison sat frozen with fear.

Jarin grinned. "Don't be afraid. You're quite a talent. You aren't in trouble, but we have some things to talk about."

#

Jarin took him to the Araskolsa, or mage school. It was in Reathe, which was closest to Jamison's home province of Caunlie. There he would study under him until he could prove he was worthy and capable of possessing his power.

Tears dampened Jamison's pillow every night for the first week, crying for his parents who had allowed the strange man with midnight blue robes to take him away, though they gave him no reason to love them, with the abuse they inflicted on him.

Emeline, the stout, graying sorceress who was a den mother to the children in Cildra-khus, or House for Children, sat beside his bed to explain again why he was here and why he couldn't go home.

"Because you were becoming dangerous, Jamison. You need to be taught how to use your power safely. You're very young for it to have found you," she said, smoothing her hand in circles on his back.

Jamison described the urgent, insistent voices and the terrible, painful sensations, wondering if they would ever go away. 

Emeline told him the voices and those painful feelings were normal. They came from the part of himself that is connected to the magic, but that they would fade as he grew stronger. 

The power sprang from a part of Jamison's mind that would need to be molded, exercised, and developed until the skill became second nature. Nobody else in his family carried such ability, not that he was aware of.

In time, he got used to life at the Araskolsa. He discovered the powers he was most adept at were transmutation and communicating with nature. The discomfort faded, just as Emeline said it would, and he learned how to control his magic.

He never expected it could be snatched away so easily.

{6}

Rain turned to snow, which piled up in drifts around the farm.Days went by, and Jamison still picked at his food and didn't move from his bed. 

 He spent hours immersing himself in memories of Taryn. The sadness couldn't sneak up on him if he was thinking about it all the time.

His thoughts lingered on the red clapboard house they'd shared and the lazy mornings they spent drinking sweet coffee from the southern country of Chetain in their kitchen. 

Whenever he was leaving for a job, Taryn clung to him, planted kisses on his neck, and made him promise to be "triple careful and come home to me, Jamie."

Sometimes he'd fall asleep reading in the old leather chair in the sunroom. She'd scare him awake by sneaking in and pinching him on the sides or by making farting noises on his belly. He didn't know what was worse, the pinches or her cackling with laughter after he yelped. She could be such a mischievous pain in the ass sometimes.

Jamison swallowed the knot in his throat and punched the pillow. He didn't dare punch the wall again, after Elira came running the last time.

He could never go back and live there again, even if he wanted to. The Calare had seized it along with all the rest of his assets. They'd even prevented him from attending her funerary rites. He mourned her alone in the darkness of the tiny bedroom.

{7}

Broderick patted the earth around the purple hyacinth as he knelt at his daughter's grave. The spikes of star-shaped purple clusters seemed too cheerful next to the somber coldness of the headstone.

He hadn't done commoner labor like this since he was a child. Then the magic had come, a warm current coursing through him the way a glowing ember consumed a stick of incense.

Ordinarily, this was work for the men who tended the plots, but he wouldn't have someone else do the planting for Taryn. The fawning groundskeeper had taken the point when Broderick snatched the trowel out of his hands.

The Cordales had commissioned a headstone with a scrolled arch, crafted of fine, white marble, with a relief of two hands, palms facing up, to honor her gift as an empathic healer. Taryn would've laughed at anything ostentatious, like some of the ridiculous, grandiose statues that dwarfed the rest of the monuments at St. Rende Cemetery.

The marble radiated light from within as the sun shone behind it, accentuating the delicate veins of the stone. Broderick dusted his hands on his robes and joined his wife on the bench.

"She would have liked the hyacinth," Catherine said, twining her fingers in his. "Especially purple."

He nodded. "She always liked that color."

"I can hardly believe it's been almost a year," she said. "I keep expecting her to come home. To walk through the door."

Broderick squeezed her hand. "I know."

"Do you think she's at peace?" she asked. "I worry sometimes. You know, if she got lost somehow, along the way because of the way it happened, her dying. Do you think that's silly?"

Broderick slipped his arms around her, and she rested her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat. He stroked her flaxen braids, surprised and pleased that Catherine had found the strength to join him.

As the months since Taryn's death went by, the lines of fatigue and sorrow in Catherine's regal face grew more deeply etched. In thirty years of marriage, Broderick had always seen his wife carry herself with an air of nobility, even after the sudden passing of their first child, an infant boy named Adam.

Losing Taryn was the tragedy that broke her. She wandered around the house numb and distracted.

But today, she emerged from the womb of the house with the slow caution of a hermit crab without a shell.

Broderick brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. "No, my love. We have to believe she's at peace. I don't want to think about—" 

He swallowed. "I don't dare believe she's not safe."

Catherine traced her finger on the silver clasp of his robes. It was shaped like a strange, wormlike creature with a forked serpent's tongue. He'd started wearing it recently and only told her it was from The Black Mirror, a shop selling mage wares when asked where it came from. She found it grotesque but told him she felt as though touching its leering face took away its power to unsettle her.

"But is there a chance she didn't find her way? What if she's lost out there?"

He kissed her hair. "Taryn wouldn't want you to consume yourself with worry about this. I'm sure she's at rest, wherever it is that we go. Don't trouble yourself about it anymore."

She trailed her finger along the clasp. "I wish we knew for sure."

Just then, she caught her fingertip on the clasp's forked tongue. She jerked her hand away and licked away the bead of blood.

{8}

Spring arrived. 

One bright afternoon, Lorica and her best friend Cole cut between the hedges growing next the stone foundation of her house. As they sneaked by, her parents' voices drifted out an open window. They were in the sitting room discussing something about stolen livestock. 

The two friends crouched on the ground behind the newly blossomed forsythia to listen.

"That's what they reported. They had two sheep go missing the first night and five the next," her father was saying. He rustled some papers. "Another farm reported missing goats. If it's raiders as we suspect, they'll be hanged when they're caught."

There were shuffling noises as he flipped through the rest of the file. "Then there's the boy, Owen, who allegedly went missing from the Reathe Araskolsa."

"The magic school?" Fiene asked.

"Get this: there was a death in the family, and the boy was unavailable to attend the funeral services because he was traveling with some teacher, taking a test or whatever they do. His parents were livid. They took a good chunk of my afternoon screaming about how the magic users kidnapped their son."

"You can't blame his parents for being angry," she said. "It must have been upsetting to find out their son was off doing magic someplace and not where they expected him to be."

"They ought to prepare themselves for the worst as it is, having a child who's training to be a sorcerer," he said.

"I can't say I disagree. It's a dangerous livelihood."

"I'm sure they know the risks," he said. "Magic is a road that leads to bad ends. And I'm not sending my men on a wild goose chase looking for a boy who isn't missing. It's a waste of resources."

"I hope the boy's family stays on their good side," Fiene said. "You know how magic users can be."

He grunted. "I know well enough. I'd rather not engage with magic users at all if I can help it. They think that two hundred years is enough time to excuse their treachery against our citizens."

"That was a long time ago, Edmund. A lot has changed."

Edmund's voice rose. "St. Rende Cemetery is filled with innocent people who died at the hands of magic users during their purge, and I still wouldn't trust one as far as I could throw them. But enough of that. How are you feeling today, my love?"

"This baby is bruising me from the insides with all the kicking! At least it's not too much longer now," she said.

"One more month," Edmund said. "Very soon."

"It'd make my life easier if your daughter contributed more around the house, though. How does she get away with not helping?"

Cole crossed his eyes at Lorica. She mock-punched him on the shoulder and strained her ear a little harder.

"It's since she found out she's getting another sibling. Remember, we went through this the last time when the twins came," Edmund said.

"She's worse this time around. She's become a disgruntled old harpy," Fiene said.

Disgruntled old harpy? That's a new one! Lorica balled her fists inside her sleeves.

Cole squeezed her arm. His shoulders shook, and he was trying not to laugh. She tweaked him on the ear.

"I don't disagree with you. Remember when I said I'd gladly marry her off to the next single male who came along, even if it happened to be a mule?" he said.

"I think even a mule might be unhappy with that arrangement," she said. 

They both laughed.

Lorica punched the ground and startled a daddy longlegs who startled her back. Her parents didn't hear the noise and continued talking.

"I considered matching her up with a potential future husband," Edmund said. "There's Dex Hartford. Do you know the family? He's a law clerk from the village. But then I had a far better idea."

"What is it?" Fiene asked. "Uh oh, you have that look on your face!"

He smiled and said, "I decided it was in Lorica's best interests if she leaves us for a while to gain some practical experience in the world."

"Where?" she asked.

"To the Sisters of Durainne," said Edmund, "in Kelvirre."

Lorica and Cole gaped at each other.

Fiene gasped. "That's not what I expected. She won't take this well."

"I know, but I'm at my wit's end with her," Edmund sighed. "I'm hoping that sending her to them will straighten her out."

"If they don't, nothing will."

"Agreed." He crumpled up the papers and tossed them into the wastebasket. "I have a meeting with their head priestess next week."

The rest of her father's words were lost in the blood pounding in her ears. Tangy bile mixed with her pork pie supper rose up and reached the back of Lorica's dry mouth. Chills coursed through her and then, sweeping, white-hot rage.

How dare Edmund even think of sending her to those fanatics in Kelvirre!

Lorica sprang up and crashed through the bushes. Cole ran after her.

She scrambled over the low stone wall at the far end of their meadow out back, down the grassy hill and through the thicket of pricker bushes to their secret place, an ancient weeping willow tree. Its arching, bell-shaped branches swept the ground, offering a private refuge from the world's unkindness.

Cole sat next to her, between the cradling roots of the willow tree, and waited until she was done swearing and crying and kicking up dirt clods.

He held his tongue. Twelve years of friendship had taught him that offering words of comfort to her would get them thrown back in his face, like the rocks she was hurling through the curtain of leaves.

"That bastard!" she screamed. "My mother would never have allowed this to happen!"

Cole looked stricken. "Lorica, what are you going to do?"

She stood up and paced back and forth, shaking her hands. "I have to get out. I'm going to leave. I've been planning on doing that anyway. He can't do this to me!"

"Where will you go?" asked Cole in dismay. "You've never been anywhere."

Lorica shot him a look that would have withered the leaves off the entire Dreya Forest. "What, you think I can't?"

"You always threaten to run away, but then you never do. Will they even take you seriously?"

Her body trembled. "I'm not telling them I'm leaving! And I mean it this time."

"Can't you just talk to your father first?"

"Cole, how do you think that will turn out? He has his head up his ass, and his hog beast wife has him wrapped around her finger. Of course I can't just talk to him. And now I can't stay here."

"Where will you go?" he asked.

She sighed and scuffed her boot heels into the ground. "I don't know. I'm not even sure when, but it'll have to be soon. Before next week when he has that meeting."

"Look, they're going to wonder where you've gone. Edmund is going to be really upset—"

She threw another rock into the pricker bushes. "I don't give a flying fig how Edmund feels. Do you think he's considered my feelings in any of this? Anyways, they'll be too busy with their precious new baby whenever it comes along. They won't even notice I've left."

He ran his hands over his hair. "They're going to notice, Lorica."

"No, the only thing they notice is when I do something wrong, that's all. They'll probably be glad I'm gone." 

He stood up and brushed the dirt off his hands onto his pants. "I'm coming with you."

She grabbed his arm. "No! No, you aren't, and you also won't tell anybody that I've gone. Promise me you won't say anything, Cole!"

"What am I supposed to tell them?" His eyes were round and scared behind his glasses.

She put her hands on her hips. "I don't know. Just say you haven't seen me."

"That's not going to work," Cole snorted. "Edmund is going to know I'm lying."

"No he won't; you'll only know I've left but not where I went. Look, Cole, you're going to have to say something. You're the one who's around me the most."

"It's going to look suspicious. Why don't you want me to go, anyways?" He picked up a twig and began breaking it into smaller pieces, flicking them to the ground.

"Because," she said.

"That's not an answer. Why don't you want me to go?"

"Because this is something I'm going to do on my own, Cole."

"I bet you take Scout with you, though." He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose.

Lorica scraped deeper furrows into the ground with her boot heel. "Scout's different; he's a bat, and he can be responsible for himself."

"You think I'm not capable of being responsible for myself?" He plucked some leaves off a branch and twisted them into coils. "That's insulting."

"I didn't say that! I just said he's different from us and can do things on his own, that's all. Sorry if you took it personally."

"I don't know. It sounded like an insult to me," he said. "And I don't appreciate the false apology either."

Lorica stopped scuffing the dirt. "False apology? What's that supposed to mean?"

"'Sorry if you took it personally.' That's a false apology. It means you aren't sincere about being sorry."

She slapped her legs. "Come on, Cole! What should I have said, then? This isn't even about how bad I might've made you feel anyway. It's about my father intending to get rid of me by shipping me off to a cult of religious fanatics!"

"Okay, I'm sorry if I upset you," he said. "I still think you're being an idiot and not thinking this all the way through, as usual."

"You know what? I wouldn't want you to tag along because I know there'd be constant drama and I'd be trying to make sure your feelings aren't hurt all the time. You'll just slow me down."

"You know what, Lorica? You're really hard to be friends with sometimes. And I'm not going to cover for you because it's a terrible idea." He turned and stalked through the leafy fringe.

"Thanks for your help!" she yelled.

{9}

As soon as Cole left, Lorica raced home, sneaked past her parents and up the back stairs.

Stupid Cole. I might have known he'd pick a fight. "Just talk to your father." He's out of his mind!

She never should've expected him to understand. It's not like he ever had problems with his own parents. Cole, the brainiac goody two shoes, who got perfect grades and never had to try, who always went out of his way to please the adults.

What would he know about being carted away to an all-girls religious order, anyway? Nothing, that's what, because he's a boy, and boys don't have to deal with things like this.

Her fingers burned as she rolled up some blankets, including one of her old baby ones, and shoved them to the bottom of Edmund's old canvas military bag. He'd given it to her when he'd been appointed Captain of Reathe Guard, since he no longer needed it for long army campaigns. Inside it was a canteen, another gift from him.

She stuffed in some clothes that would be suitable for the early spring weather—shirts and trousers, some wool socks and undergarments, and her favorite teal blue extra-long gloves with the fancy brass buttons her aunt had knitted for her.

Later that evening, after everyone went to bed, she crept into the pantry for some food to fill her pack with. It wasn't really stealing if it belonged to her family, she reasoned. They wouldn't want her to starve, would they?

Inside the ice box, she found a slab of cured ham wrapped in paper and a hunk of cheese. She took some dried turkey and brown crusty bread from the cupboard. Then she grabbed some hard biscuits, which were dry but would be good in case she ran out of food, plus a jar of raspberry preserves to go with the bread. Lorica had to admit to herself that aside from Fiene's obvious failings, she did make tasty jam. There were also some dried figs and raisins, which would be a nice treat.

Next, she rifled through a wooden chest in Edmund's study. The chest had a secret compartment inside the lid accessed by swinging down a wooden panel.

Edmund had no idea that Lorica knew of the compartment's existence. She found out while spying on him late one evening, not long after her mother died.

She'd hid behind his oversized wingback chair and watched him shuffle through some papers, sighing as read them before he stuffed the bundle behind the panel. Later, Lorica discovered they were letters her mother had written to him when he was in the Cailreth Army, when his station was moved to Fevrith from her homeland of Cirreket.

Lorica took a map of the province out of the compartment, nestled among the others that depicted different parts of Ransara. It looked like it had been dropped in the mud at one time. Dirt and grit still clung to it.

Hmm, I wonder who wrote all these notes all over it. It's not Edmund's writing.

There was nothing else besides the letters in the space, so she clicked the panel back, refolded the map the best she could, and set it aside.

Now for the main part of the chestLooks like a bunch of boring legal documents and books.

Under some papers laid a small dagger and its sheath. She was surprised at how light it was in her hand.

The knife was crafted of dark-colored metal, and the blade was of a conical shape with a hammered finish. There was an enormous, silky white gemstone set into the pommel, with cottony-tufted fibrous crystals encased within its smooth, domed shape.

Its hilt was carved from shimmering blue stone, deep and vivid as though part of a galaxy had been trapped inside of it.

She read the inscription on the knife's hilt.

The empty vessel must be filled.

Lorica didn't want to meet any goblin-kin unarmed on her journey, so she slipped the dagger into her coat. Then she pocketed some silver diret coins from Edmund's desk drawer.

His fault for not locking it.

She headed upstairs to her bedroom and called for Scout from the window.

"We're leaving early," she said. "Tomorrow, before they all wake up."

"That soon? I promise, I'll be ready," he said. "Just don't forget about me hiding in your jacket sleeve!"

"I'll be careful not to knock you out when I put it on," she said.

Scout flew off to enjoy the rest of his evening.

Lorica unhooked the small portrait of her mother, Lisette, off the bent nail on the wall. It hadn't moved from its spot next to the window since an artist drew it at a fair when Lorica was a young child.

"I'm coming to find you, Meree." She kissed the picture and placed it at the bottom of her pack, wrapped in a blanket.

{10}

"Mr. Cordale, the library is closing, but you may stay as late you'd like," said Fira, the junior library assistant, just as she'd been instructed to say by the head librarian. He's an important personage, a respected member of the community, a magic user, so be accommodating, even if it means staying here all night. Blah, blah, blah! She'd been hearing that spiel for days now.

"Accommodating" meant staying out of his way and giving him space, but it didn't mean she had to hide from him. It must be truly interesting, whatever it was he was doing that made him keep such long hours that his ass had probably carved an impression of itself into the seat he occupied almost daily. The Ballard Library staff had a running joke about whether they'd find him the next morning covered in cobwebs, in the same position they'd left him in the night before.

Broderick nodded, his face buried in the musty text that had been unearthed from its storage vault. Piles of books about ancient Ransaran religions and histories of magic were scattered on the table, along with his journals filled with notes, clues, and half-formed ideas, all in his search for the right kind of magic needed to finish opening the Brumal Star.

The leading theory, at least according to the limited information that had been revealed to him during his research, was that the Star acted like an energy amplifier device. The right combination of spells, words, or tones could "activate" it, causing it to become a portal through which spirits could pass through.

Or other creatures, like the ones who lived in realms beyond the Star.

Like the Canthaelag.

Broderick shuddered. That vile creature was the uninvited guest that showed up when Broderick smashed the first metaphysical lock that shuttered the Brumal Star's invisible, magicked gate. Four thousand years ago, a group of warrior-mages known as the Wirre-sortis crafted many layers of spell work to seal it closed, after a trouble making sorcerer known as Ruare had let the Canthaelag escape.

But what was the next step? He'd started to break it. Now he needed to open the channel all the way to allow beings to travel through.

The first time in the cave with Taryn and Jamison was a fluke; no, an unexpected, appalling disaster that had caused him and his wife Catherine unimaginable pain. 

As for Jamison. Even the name caused an involuntary spasm in his gut. To the hell realms with him, wherever he ended up. Hopefully the talentless maggot was eating dung somewhere.

Broderick heaved an aggravated sigh and pinched his forehead. He should be focusing on research, not dwelling on thoughts of his ex-son-in-law out there alive somewhere, even if the worm was half-starved and hiding in a rat hole.

Why hadn't the Calare and the Lawgivers agreed to an execution? It was Broderick's daughter Taryn—he and Catherine's only child—who was dead in a grave. How conveniently certain council members seemed to forget they'd known her since birth.

They'd seen Taryn as an infant, bouncing on her father's lap at the Calare meeting house, taking her first steps, her halo of blonde ringlets shaking as she toppled over into his protective arms, and leaving for the Araskolsa, excited for her future.

And years later, coming home on a visit, giddy with happiness, saying "I've met someone. His name is Jamison; I can't wait for you to meet him!"

Clouded with rage, he kicked the library bench with the heel of his foot and hoped he'd cracked the wood. Killing Jamison outright would've been the decent, fair thing to do, but instead, they'd outvoted him nine to three in favor of the Darkening Ritual.

Broderick would've loved chaining him to a post and coating him with honey so that sorvas, the carnivorous spiders, would sting him with paralyzing venom and then eat him alive. 

Or sealing him an iron furnace over hot coals to roast him, or slicing his belly wide open and strangling him with his own intestines instead of robbing him of his powers and seizing his bank accounts.

He swore that the Calare, for a group of geniuses who could command the elements as well as matter itself, were actually a bunch of pansies who didn't want to get their hands dirty, and that he alone possessed any nerve.

Fira pushed her book cart out from one of the stacks close by. "Mr. Cordale, is everything all right? I heard a noise, like a bang."

She and Tim, another junior library assistant, had a wager of twenty silver direts for whomever got closest to Broderick to figure out what he was doing. The wager would double if one of them got evidence from the sorcerer himself—something like a page from his notes. Neither of them thought it would be too difficult. Even magic users needed to use the bathroom at some point.

What was he doing at Ballard Library, of all places? Surely wizards had their own collection of advanced, arcane writing.

Broderick forced a smile. This girl had a knack for showing up at inconvenient times. "Everything is fine. I'm sure you're busy, so you don't need to concern yourself with what I'm doing."

She clicked her fingernails on the cart handle. "Of course, Mr. Cordale, just checking." She caught a whiff of a nauseating, unidentifiable odor lingering in the air. "Do you smell that?"

"I smell old books and stale basement air." He looked down at his book again.

"Sir?" said Fira. "Could I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"Can you see the future?"

"No." His forced smile vanished. "Come here. What's your name?"

She took a hesitant step toward him. "Fira."

"Closer."

She rolled the cart closer and wrinkled her nose. That stink was definitely coming from him. His robes smelled like something had died and was rotting in one of his pockets.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

She pressed her fist against her mouth. "Uh, no."

"I didn't catch that," he said.

"No," she said, a little louder.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a shriveled brown object with bits of lint stuck to it. "Is this what's bothering you?"

"Ugh!" Fira clamped her hand over her mouth again and gagged on the putrid odor. "What is that?"

"A hobgoblin foot," he said, as if everyone carried around severed hobgoblin feet in their pockets.

She coughed through her fingers. "What's it for?"

He shrugged. "Different things. I got so used to the smell, I almost forgot I had it." He put it back in his pocket. "There, now you'll be able to breathe easier."

Fira turned and gulped air untainted by decomposing feet. She turned to see him watching her and smirking.

"How old are you?" he asked.

She shrank under his scrutinizing gaze. "Fourteen years."

"I had a daughter," Broderick said. "She was a bit older than you. She's gone now."

"Oh?" Fira said. "Gone?"

"She's dead."

Fira broke free from his unyielding stare, or perhaps he released her. She couldn't tell.

"Oh! I'm sorry." Twenty silver direts might not be worth this awkwardness.

"I am too." He tilted his head. "You seemed so curious a moment ago."

"I was." Her hand shook as she smoothed her hair. "But I'm not so much anymore."

"I apologize if I made you uncomfortable just now."

"Oh, that's okay, Mr. Cordale." 

"I'll let you get back to whatever it is you're supposed to be doing." He tapped his pencil. "Unless you'd like a very special job."

She fidgeted with the frayed binding of an almanac on the cart. "What do you mean?"

"Working as my research assistant," he said.

"What would I need to do?" She hoped it didn't involve rotting body parts.

"If I gave you a list of books, do you think you could get them for me?" he asked. "And then transcribe some notes for me after?"

"Really?" she said.

"Unless the hobgoblin foot is a deal breaker."

Broderick Cordale's research assistant! Tim would flip. She wouldn't even need to sneak around to try and figure out what he was doing. This changed everything.

"Not at all, Mr. Cordale. It would be an honor!" she said. "What're you working on, anyway?"

He handed her the list. "Let's take care of this first. Then I'll tell you all about it."

"Oh, some of these are in the Religious Studies section," Fira said. "I'll start there."

Broderick smiled. "Thank you, Fira. I appreciate your help. I think we're going to be a great team."

She grinned over her shoulder.

He watched her disappear around the corner. Young people were always so easily impressed with magic users.

#

Ballard Library had a remarkable collection of historical texts dating back to the time of the Old Religion, when trying to summon their evil deities was a game and forceful conversion for the non-believers was a blood sport for the ecclesiastics. Back then, it seemed that the denizens of other planes of existence were particularly nasty, arrogant, and demanding in their worship.

"I bet it was the worshippers themselves who were more bloodthirsty," Broderick said. "Any excuse to throw a virgin onto a burning pyre."

The library had a half-hearted interest in preserving these relics, so down into the basement they went to gather dust and crumble away.

"Why did Wrykirk's old biddy throw out his journals?" he said to himself. "Who knows what knowledge was tossed away! I'm sure it was more than classification of rocks and eyeless cave lizards." 

His frustration with Everard Wrykirk's widow made him want to kick the bench again.

But then Broderick's luck changed. Soon after Fira left, he found something useful on page eighty-nine in a thin, unassuming archaeology book on the second shelf from the bottom. It was the closest to what he'd been searching for.

The long-dead author described an incantation used for opening gateways, except it was transcribed in the original language—an archaic magical dialect—without the translation. Nobody had spoken it in Ransara in thousands of years. It even predated the Wirre-sortis.

Whether this language had been deliberately lost or not was a mystery, but Broderick wouldn't have been surprised if the magic-users had obscured everything on purpose.

Although its original translation has been lost to the ages, what follows is believed to be a verse found inscribed on a fragment of clay pottery unearthed by a farmer plowing his field. It is surmised that the pottery was once part of an urn used in sacrificial rites, probably to contain blood or other offerings. A second example was found on a whetstone in Dorien.

Another, similar verse can be seen etched on a bone flute found in Brestle, Soalnne. Although a curiosity now, the verse is thought to have been used by sects that predated even Old Religion cults, such as those who worshipped the demon L'are, to open the gateway to his realm.

The authenticity of the verse has been questioned within historical circles, since these cults are known for keeping an oral tradition rather than written records, Broderick read. Attempts to prove the veracity of this verse are either undocumented, or none have been found.

The persons working with such powerful forces must be highly competent, strong in body and mind, with the correct combination of factors in place. Furthermore, the opening of such rifts between worlds is forbidden by the magic councils of Ransara. Readers of this volume are cautioned against

"Some gutless non-magical must've written that," he muttered.

It'd take more work than another spell for Broderick to decipher the ancient script. He'd take it right to Portnoy for that, along with anything else he needed. The walrus might not look too bright on the outside, but he was a minor miracle worker. Together, they'd cobble together something that might work.

#

Fira pulled Mysteries of the Dreaming Mind out of the stacks and plunked it on top of her growing pile: Destinies of Individual SoulsThe Gazetteer of Anomalous Events in CailrethA Compendium of Religious Traditions in RansaraRansaran Religious Cults in Antiquity, Volumes I-IVVisitations from Ghosts, Demons, and Other Entities, and The Human Experience After Death.

Tim would never believe it, but the twenty direts was nothing compared to spending her shift as Broderick Cordale's personal research assistant. She still couldn't believe her luck, and it was all because of her little wager.

Broderick didn't seem scary at all now that she was helping him, even if he did keep dismembered body parts in his robes. Other magic users probably kept worse things. She scoffed at herself for having been such a coward.

She gathered the rest of the books on the list and brought them to Broderick. Some were ancient. Nobody had looked at them in centuries, it seemed.

"Good job," he said. "This looks like everything. That's all I need you to do for now."

Praise from Broderick was even better than praise from her professional academic parents, each of whom had written books in their respective fields—one on geography, the other on mathematics.

"You're welcome, Mr. Cordale." She tapped her fingers on the cart with expectation.

"What is it, my dear?" he asked.

She surveyed the cluttered table. "What's all this for? You said you'd tell me when I brought you the books."

"So I did." He smiled and beckoned her closer with a conspiratorial hand wave. "I mentioned earlier that I had a daughter who died."

Fira nodded. She wouldn't forget that awkward conversation any time soon.

"She was murdered," he said.

"Oh, my gods," Fira said. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Cordale."

"Thank you," Broderick said. "It's much worse than that, though."

"It is?" Fira asked. How much worse could being murdered possibly get? Maybe the killer was still at large!

"Her ghost is being held captive by the demon-creature who killed her. I'm trying to figure out how to rescue her," he said in a tone so matter-of-fact, he might have been chatting about the weather.

Fira searched his face for any hint that he might be joking, but he gazed at her with a placid expression.

Oh no. It was going to happen. She was about to be seized in a fit of Laughing at the Wrong Time.

"I'm getting closer to finding a way to get her out," Broderick said.

Her lip quivered. Mr. Cordale was even stranger than she imagined.

Don't laugh, Fira. Don't laugh!

Suddenly she remembered her great-grandmother Dimia laying in her casket at the wake. Her family approached the casket in a solemn procession and were greeted by the sight of what appeared to be the oldest clown in Cailreth.

Their dearly departed matriarch wore a mass of tight shellacked curls, a harsh smear of crimson lips, blue-powdered lids, and vulgar pink cheeks. Whoever did her makeup had taken serious liberties with the cosmetics palette. Fira and her brother, Eric, ducked into a tiny sitting room at the funeral parlor and broke into gales of laughter.

Broderick waited for her to answer.

Fira broke out into a grin. "Mr. Cordale, you have a weird sense of humor!"

His expression remained impassive. "Is something funny, Fira? You wouldn't think so if it was your child."

She screwed up her face as she tried to compose herself. But as anyone who's gotten the giggles at inappropriate times knows that the harder you try to stop them, the funnier everything becomes.

And this was hilarious. His daughter's ghost kidnapped by a demon? Broderick was obviously one hundred percent certifiably crazy!

She ran her hand through her hair. "Okay. That's your research project?"

"You wanted to know," he said. "I hope I satisfied your curiosity."

"You did. You did." She picked up an oversized gardening book and held it close to her face to conceal her grin.

"And you still think this is funny," Broderick said.

"You know, Mr. Cordale," she said, "I should get going so I can finish putting these books away." She wasn't that gullible!

"That's a good idea, Fira," Broderick said. "I don't know if I can have a research assistant laughing at my work."

"I'm sorry," she said. Broderick might be a complete weirdo, but she hadn't meant to offend him. "It's just that wasn't what I expected to hear."

"What did you think I was doing?" he asked. "Look at what I asked you to get."

"I don't know," she said. "I thought maybe you were writing a paper or something."

Broderick shrugged. "Maybe I will, after this is through."

Fira smirked again and readjusted the book in her arms. Now she needed to find a place to hide until he left.

"Thank you for your help, Fira. Maybe the next time you'll take your work a little more seriously. Good night."

"Good night, Mr. Cordale." She wheeled the cart onto the hydraulic elevator. "Good luck with your research." The doors closed behind her.

Broderick chuckled. "Poor silly, sheltered girl. I'm halfway sorry I left all of those things for her to put away. At least she has a decent work ethic."

He gave a humorless smile to the tarnished sign above the doorframe: The Contents of This Room Are for Reference Only and Are Not to Be Removed from the LibraryAnyone Caught Stealing Said Contents Shall Be Prosecuted According to Reathe Law.

"I'm sure an exception can be made for the Leader of Ablete Calare," he said.

He glanced at the library's small collection of marble busts depicting Reathe's brightest thinkers, including Acelin Ballard, founder of the library, and naturalist/cave explorer Everard Wrykirk. They'd been brought down for temporary storage while their display room was under repairs.

Broderick swiped his thumb along Acelin's long nose and flicked the dust between his fingers. Then he pinched Everard's ridiculous, curlicue mustache and pretended to twirl it. "Shh, don't tell anyone, gentlemen."

He slipped the archaeology book into one of the deep pockets of his robes and walked out.

{11}

Elira banged into Jamison's room, sleeves rolled up and dusted with hay. "One of the cows is ready to give birth, but she's having a difficult time. You need to come help me with the delivery."

Jamison ground his teeth and growled into his pillow.

Elira, Exalted Queen of Pains in His Ass and Grand Interrupter of Naps. She always managed to wake him as soon as he was drifting off so she could force him to eat, even when his stomach wrenched inside out with nausea and grief, or to make him walk around the house so his muscles wouldn't atrophy.

If he'd still had his powers, he would've turned her into an ant long ago and stuck her under a glass jar in direct sunlight.

She had good intentions in spite of her rough bedside manner. She didn't tiptoe around the wounded, or those who'd been given a second chance at life.

But Jamison didn't want to live. He was content to float along in the in-between state known as existing. And sleeping filled the time in between existing.

He lay like a corpse and hoped she'd soon become aggravated with his non-compliance. Unfortunately for him, Elira was a professional harasser with years of experience at jump-starting lazy farm hands.

She stood in the doorway. "I'll need some boiling water and towels."

Jamison didn't move.

"The next step is for me to dump cold water all over your head if you keep ignoring me," she said. "And I don't want to ruin a perfectly good mattress."

He didn't react to that either.

"You think I have no idea how distraught you are." The floor creaked as she stepped closer. "I know a dreadful injustice has been done to you."

"Dreadful injustice doesn't even begin to describe it."

"Jamison, you can't stay like this forever. You've spent all winter curled up in the same position."

"All winter? You made me walk laps around your house. I haven't been in bed this whole time," he said.

Jamison growled again as Elira jerked the blankets off of him. "Mr. Undrand, I've given you clothes, fed you, and given you a place to stay. But now I'm asking you for help. Go get boiling water and towels and get your ass out to the barn. I'm sure your soft wizard hands can manage that!"

"You don't know what these hands did before you found me. I didn't ask you to save me, so quit the pious act." He grabbed at the blankets, but she yanked them out of his hands and tossed them into the bedroom corner.

"Get up and get dressed. Go to work, it'll do you some good."

Jamison fished the blankets off the floor and whipped them over his head. "Not today!"

"Have it your way, jackass," she said.

"Is that an appropriate way to speak to a patient?" he called after her.

She rushed down the stairs and returned a few minutes later with slower footsteps. Was that water sloshing around inside a bucket?

Jamison peeked out from under the blanket. He had to give her credit; the old girl really knew how to make a show of things.

Elira was right next to the bed. "Last chance."

"You wouldn't dare," he said. "What about your precious mattress?"

"I decided I don't give a damn about a soaked mattress, because it'll be you sleeping on it later on," she said. "Or I can put you in the barn."

He rolled over onto his back and stretched out luxuriously like a cat. "You wouldn't turn me out to share a room with a bunch of cows. Not in my fragile state."

The last thing Jamison saw before the cascade of icy water drenched him was a smile twisting across Elira's imperious face.

He howled and vaulted out of bed to the bathroom closet for a towel.

She hurled the bucket at him. "You're going to need this! See you in the barn!"

{12}

"Ha ha ha, Lorica's running away from home!" yelled one of the twins from the upper branches of the oak in the Warde's front yard. 

His grubby face peered out at her from the green, caterpillar-like buds. Of all the days for the terror twins to be up extra early! Fiene and Edmund were still asleep.

Nate and Theodore weren't nicknamed the terror twins for nothing. They caused no end of trouble for their father and half-sister, but they were Fiene's pride and joy.

They filled the salt shakers with baking powder and the pepper shakers with sand. They made stink bombs out of old eggs and curdled milk mixed together inside their mother's canning jars and hid them around the house. They spread butter on doorknobs and dumped globs of cold mud on unsuspecting passersby from their oak tree command center.

Lorica shushed the twins, but they chattered on like busybody kooras birds.

"Where ya going? The land of ugly red-haired girls?" taunted the other. 

Lorica noticed they only seemed to scream out insults at her from the safety of the tree's upper branches.

"Nowhere special," she said. "You two, mind your business."

"We'll tell Edmund," Nate said.

"How do you know I'm not running an errand for him?" 

"Because ya look like you're running away, and ya don't do errands for anybody!" Theodore yelled.

"I'll shake you both out of that tree!" she shouted, but they laughed and threw rocks at her since there were no more acorns. 

She rushed around the corner to the quiet, leafy avenue. There were a few stops she needed to make before her trip to the Cave of Wrykirk.

#

If you hadn't heard stories about the Cave of Wrykirk, then you were living under a rock. Every child in Cailreth knew about the fantastical cavern that was home to an enormous crystal formation called the Brumal Star.

The cave had been named for the man who'd discovered it by accident. Everard Wrykirk was chasing a rare specimen of beetle and blundered into the place. He spent the next several years exploring and mapping its branching network of tunnels.

Wrykirk died before his work was complete, and the map was destroyed when an archivist spilled a bottle of ink all over it. The loss was compounded when they found out nobody had made a copy of the map. To make matters worse, Everard's widow threw his journals into the fireplace, calling his writings "the delusional scribblings of a wacky old bug chaser."

Rumors had swirled for generations about the Star and the alleged mysterious powers it granted to those brave enough—or foolish, depending on whom you asked—to seek it out.

Lorica didn't know if it really let you talk to spirits or gave you the ability to read people's thoughts or move things without touching them, but she was going to find out, come netherworld or neck breaks, because either of those were preferable to being suckered into joining a cult with a labor camp.

If the stories were true, then she figured she'd be able to contact her mother somehow. Maybe by "communing"—she'd heard her mother use that word—with the Brumal Star, and if she asked very nicely, it would allow Lorica to speak to her again.

Eight years had passed since an illness had taken Lisette's life. Lorica found out that the pain never really went away, but you learned to live with it, especially when other forms of pain came to replace it.

They—whoever they were—always said that Time was the great healer. How much Time had to pass until you felt better? Lots of it had gone by and Lorica was still miserable. There seemed to be no schedule it abided by. She suspected that sometimes it accidentally left people behind or forgot about them altogether.

#

By mid-morning, Lorica had been swatted in the face by a swishy tree branch, accosted by some mockingbirds nesting nearby, and had almost lost one of her boots in deep, squishy mud.

She plunked herself onto a fallen log at the side of the dirt trail. It seemed like the right way to go according to the map, which she had spread across her lap like an oversized dinner napkin. She massaged a welt on her shoulder where one of the twins had pegged her with a stone and traced her finger along the blue line marked Azulie River.

Lorica planned to follow the river because it led to Raven Falls, which was right near the Cave of Wrykirk. She'd heard stories about Dreya Forest, where people wandered in but they didn't come out, and Bracken Swamps, where if you fell in the peat bogs, you were gone for good.

But there were even some places on the map she'd never even heard of. Perhaps if she hadn't ditched geography lessons so often, they wouldn't be a mystery to her.

As long as I don't run into any goblin-kin. That was why she bought the goblin bite antidote at D.S. Scott Apothecary. She touched the reassuring shape of the glass vial in her pocket and started back down the trail.

{13}

Enchanted coluire globes cast a weak, jaundiced glow from their iron sconces over the interior of The Black Mirror mage shop, as if the wares being sold within preferred to lurk in the shadows. That's what things tended to do here, including the proprietor, Portnoy Dechamp.

If a magic user couldn't find it in Portnoy's shop, they either weren't looking hard enough or it didn't exist, unless he could make it. That was a different story.

Dusty books lined the shelves, their dark bindings cracked with age. Scrolls were thrust into honeycomb-like compartments behind the rosewood counter, along with a collection of milky green chrymmil stone tiles that could tell the future.

A case to the side held statuettes made of pitch mixed with blood and powders molded in the shape of birds and animals: bears, eagles, snakes, spiders, and others, that could be burned and inhaled to help the sorcerer take on the animals' characteristics.

Jewelry, both elegant and hideous in extremes, laid side by side on draped velvet inside the counter's display case. There was a necklace with a fragile-looking glass orb that could capture and imprison a person's essence inside of it, and a bracelet inlaid with lapis that enabled the wearer to speak and understand any language on Ransara.

Flasks and ampules containing horrors crowded a cabinet in the back: potions and unguents designed to feign death, turn living things to dust, or make them burst into flames.

Portnoy appeared behind the counter. He was a corpulent man with a well-padded face. The floorboards creaked under his waddling weight. His robes did little to cover the extra fleshy baggage.

He held his head high and thrust his chin out in an attempt to look refined, except several day's growth of stubble, thinning hair, and fish egg eyes gave him the unfortunate appearance of a tuskless walrus with a neck cramp.

"Broderick! How good it is to see you. A visit from our esteemed Calare leader is always an honor. And may I inquire about your wife?" the walrus said.

"Portnoy, you look as though life has been treating you well. Catherine is managing. I'll send along your greetings."

"Very good. But all courtesies aside, I'm sure you're anxious to see what you've come for."

He pulled out a parcel wrapped in black silken cloth. His meaty fingers unwrapped the soft folds to reveal the object inside.

Broderick drew in a breath and traced his fingers over the piece's beveled edges and the knobby figure carved into one end. "Dechamp, you've outdone yourself."

"So, you're pleased! It's exquisite, isn't it? I believe I captured his likeness."

Portnoy's neyse, Finley, a rust-colored, catlike creature, perched on the counter and entwined himself under Broderick's arms for petting.

The walrus grinned, stubby and gap toothed. "The figurine is the Drawingstone. Go on, Finley, we're conducting business!"    

"Clever. Hello, you old wretch," Broderick said to the neyse, offering him the gentlest of head butts. Finley hopped upon his shoulders and draped himself there. "So the Drawingstone will work?"

"It will, with the help of the blade. The Drawingstone compels whatever is inside to come out. You cracked some of the Wirre-sortis' magical locks on the Brumal Star with the device you used the last time, though you didn't mean to."

"I know." Broderick touched the carved Drawingstone, an ash colored gem with dark, smoky whorls. The figurine itself was set into a black, metallic blade of striated crystal, which tapered to a deadly point. "It's beautiful."

Finley wrapped his fluffy tail around his neck and trilled as if to agree.

"The blade part comes from another Soeruecen site," Portnoy said. "The one that was in the city of Dorien, Earahare. You're holding history in your hands."

"The one situated near a volcano, of all things. I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did, through all the eruptions. How can I be sure this'll be successful?"

Portnoy smiled without humor. "You can't be. This is many layers of old magic you're cutting through. The Wirre-sortis were powerful."

Broderick frowned. "So am I."

"I don't doubt your abilities in the slightest, but you should take care to remember what happened to Ruare."

"According to the histories, Ruare was a fool who dared to challenge a creature far stronger than he was," Broderick said. "He proved himself unworthy."

"And according to the same histories, it took a group warrior-mages to drive back the creature he let out," Portnoy said.

"What are you insinuating, Dechamp?"

He waved his hand. "Don't mind me."

Broderick's gray eyes turned icy. "I don't."

"I mean no disrespect. I'm trying to make clear what you're up against. What the risks are, especially without a faerstone to close the gate with. I would feel better if we had one, rather than relying on the dagger to banish him."

"Thank you for your concern," he said in a tight voice, "but I'm aware of what the risks are. Otherwise, why would I bother, considering what this is costing me, in more than just coin."

"If this is what you think it is, like I've said many times before, if you were to be wrong—"

Broderick banged his fist on the counter. "I am not wrong!"

Finley leapt down from his shoulder with an affronted chirp.

"I've received too many messages in the dreams." Broderick looked at the figurine and shuddered. "I saw him that day, in that place. How could I forget that misshapen lump of flesh with all those faces melted together?"

Portnoy propped himself against the counter, which creaked in protest. "I don't disbelieve you. I hope I've proven my willingness to help you in any way possible, though I feel I should warn you one last time before you go through with it."

He sighed. "You have, Portnoy. That's why I came to you, knowing how ludicrous it sounded. This isn't something I'm taking lightly. Too much is at stake. I don't dare not take the chance. I don't dare. Wouldn't you do the same, if it was you?"

"I would hope that I'd never have to make such a decision in the first place. Although I'm very concerned about the lack of a faerstone for this undertaking."

"I can't believe that you couldn't even procure one."

"Some things are beyond my capacity." Portnoy shrugged. "It's not like they're common."

Broderick glowered. "Does that mean I get to blame you if this fails?"

Portnoy put his meaty hands up. "I did the best job I could with what I could get. I wish to see your success as much as you do."

Broderick wrapped the dagger in its velvet cloth. "Of course you do. Why wouldn't you? Besides, we found a workaround with the figurine."

"Are you sure you don't require my further assistance?" He'd be glad if his part in it ended as soon as he was paid for his blade-forging services.

He gave him a weak smile. "No," he said, much to Portnoy's thinly veiled relief. "It would do us no good if we both were to end up dead at his hands."

Portnoy laughed in his unconvincing manner. "One of us has to carry on the magical-artifact-creating business."

"Indeed. And so I thank you again. As always, you've done an exemplary job." He took a bag of coins from within his robes and clanked it onto the counter. "There's more in there than what we agreed on. One thousand direts extra, to be specific. As buyer's insurance, shall we say?"

The walrus ogled the bag. "Of course," he said, and hoped he hadn't snatched it into his hands too quickly. "Buyer's insurance. A sound idea."

Broderick looked down his nose in disdain. "In the event that something goes wrong."

"Of course. Just in case. Thank you, and I wish you a safe journey, whatever happens. I trust your strength and skill will ensure your success."

"So do I."

Portnoy's head snapped up. "Broderick!"

The Calare leader turned.

"Don't forget to close the gate. Remember, to banish him, you must twist the figurine so it faces away from you."

"Of course," Broderick said, slipping out the door in a swirl of dark robes.

Finley chirped and buried his face under Portnoy's chin. He stroked the neyse's long, tufted ears. "At best, he'll find out that not every nightmare is a portent of disaster. At worst, we'll know if the creature makes a grand entrance into Ransara."

{14}

Edmund took his place at the kitchen table. His left elbow landed in something sticky. "Fiene, where's Lorica?"

Fiene fanned herself with a sheaf of letters from yesterday's post. "I heard her banging around upstairs in her room last night, but I haven't seen her yet this morning. She must have gotten up early."

The twins stampeded through the kitchen, whipping each other with grass switches. Edmund bellowed at them to slow down and collared them both in his arms. They clambered onto his lap like monkeys and helped themselves to his toast and eggs.

He looked with dismay at his emptying plate. "Boys, where's your sister?"

"We saw her leave this morning with a big bag. She said she was running an errand for you, but we think she was lying!" Theodore said.

"And I bet she had that dirty ole rat-bird with her too!" Nate nodded with the force of a woodpecker drilling into a tree, so that his dark hair flopped in his face.

"An errand?" Edmund said. "I never sent her on any errand for me. What else did she say?"

"She said she was gonna shake us out of our tree!" crowed Nate into his ear, which began to ring.

They scampered off before Fiene could finish scrubbing their faces with a dish cloth.

"She's probably off with Cole somewhere. I'm sure she'll be back for dinner," she said.

"Hmmm," Edmund said. "I have to get to the barracks. I'll try to check in, but no guarantees."

{15}

Lorica wasn't sure how far she'd hiked since the break of day, but she wanted to cover as many miles as possible before making camp for the night.

Night, ugh

She hadn't spent too much time thinking about that part of the trip. She pushed thoughts of the setting sun and spooky, shadowy woodlands out of her head.

Edmund had told her once that she could keep demons at bay with her scowl alone, and she held onto that thought for years until it occurred to her that he was being sarcastic. She wouldn't be able to fight anything off with just her bad attitude.

It made her feel a little extra brave that she had Scout to keep her company, even though he'd be off hunting for most of the night.

Good old Scout. He was a real friend, just about the only one she had left. The rest fell away when their parents forbade them from seeing her after she was kicked out of school, except for her old childhood comrade, Cole, even though they weren't on speaking terms now.

Lorica's expulsion came as a shock to no-one, and it was a close contest as to who was more relieved about it: herself or her teachers. Before the end of her first year at Reathe Upper Academy, she'd earned the Student of Distinction mark in the headmaster's little black book, and not in a good way. Her classmates were either afraid of her or cheered her on as the hero they wished they could be.

If there was trouble, Lorica was usually at the center of it, and even if she didn't happen to be the instigator of RUA's latest drama, she'd be accused of it. Food fights in the dining hall, stealing exams, leading a litter of pigs into an assembly, sending a giant boxful of marbles rolling down the hallways and stairs—where in Ransara did she get that many marbles, the students wondered—paying others to complete her assignments, and incurring the wrath of the preceptors were among her accomplishments.

One of her favorite acts of dissent had been sticking a large, fake rat—made from an ugly fur wrap she'd stolen from Fiene, stuffed with straw, then tied on a thin rope tail—under a pile of papers on the arithmetic preceptor's desk.

The arithmetic preceptor was a sour, pinched-face woman with hair pulled back into a severe bun. Lorica often wondered if half the woman's problem was that she might be suffering from a bad headache, and that if she let her hair down, she might loosen up.

Unfortunately, Lorica said so out loud, and Pinch Face chased her out of class with a long wooden cane.

The final offense was the day she arrived late to history lessons. She flung open the classroom door and breezed in.

"Look who decided to grace us with her presence today, class! Can I help you, Miss Warde?" said the preceptor, a man named Mr. Daniels with a high voice that didn't match the rest of his burly features. "You must be lost, to have accidentally wandered into an actual classroom."

Her classmates waited in silence to see what she would do. Nobody arriving late was to be admitted to class once the door was closed, under penalty of detention.

Detentions didn't scare Lorica.

She shrugged."I had nothing better to do." 

Mr. Daniels peered at her from behind thick-lensed glasses. "Are you certain you still go to school here, Miss Warde? You haven't been around much this quarter."

"I've been busy." She headed to her seat.

"Miss Warde, it's against my policy to admit any students who can't be bothered to show up on time. You are rude, and you are interrupting my time with the rest of my pupils, who take their education seriously. Now, get out," Mr. Daniels said.

"You can't kick me out. I have a right to an education, so educate me! Plus, my father pays good money to this place."

"If you were so concerned with your father's wallet, you might try showing up for class once in a while," huffed Mr. Daniels. His right eye began to twitch. "On time," he added.

"Then get on with what you're supposed to be doing, since our parents pay your salary," she said.

Her classmates' heads swiveled from Lorica to Mr. Daniels. This was far more entertaining than learning about the Siege of Amaranta that happened three hundred years ago.

Hot redness crept up Mr. Daniels's neck and ears. "Miss Warde, I'm not asking you to leave. I'm telling you to leave!"

She plopped into her seat and thumped her books onto her desk. "No, I think I'll stay."

The class held its breath, waiting for Mr. Daniels to react.

His piggish eyes bulged. "Miss Warde, for the last time. Get out of my classroom."

Lorica sat poker straight with her hands folded. "Make me."

Mr. Daniels jabbed his sausage-like thumb towards the door. "Out!"

"I don't understand," said Lorica with mock exaggeration. "You complain when students don't come to class on time, and then when they show up, you want to kick them out. Do you want us to learn or not?"

His face strained like a pressure cooker ready to explode. "You, you menace!" he sputtered, and threw a clunky, wood bathroom pass at her head. 

The class gasped. 

Her face burning, Lorica picked up the pass and chucked it back. Mr. Daniels and the students scattered and dove under their seats. The bathroom pass whizzed by and clattered on the wall behind him.

Of all the things the student body and faculty had seen Lorica do, assaulting a preceptor was a first.

"Your father will hear about this, you impudent, carrot-topped gremlin! Get out! Get out of this classroom and don't come back!" he screamed from behind his desk.

In the letter sent home—that she'd tried and failed to hide from her father—the headmaster had proclaimed that her "insolent behavior and vulgar tongue besmirches our fine institution and is a reprehensible example to our impressionable younger students. Lorica Warde is hereby dismissed from further instruction at Reathe Upper Academy, effective immediately."

Lorica had read and reread the letter in perfect mimicry of the headmaster's withered old man voice; she performed it for Scout and Cole many times.

So what if the pranks and practical jokes had embarrassed her father, and that getting expelled was the greatest embarrassment for him yet? Attention was attention, even the negative kind.

Lorica didn't give a pig's rump about the boring trade history of the Wonew Islands, or the silly wars between the people of the Plains of Avarrah, or how their own continent of Cailreth had come to be settled. She didn't care about mathematical equations or formulas or names and dates and places.

And she certainly didn't want to participate in the other part of the girls' curriculum, which was learning how to be a good wife. 

School was a memory growing as distant as the miles she traveled from her father's house.

{16}

The mattress dipped with the gentle weight of Broderick settling on the edge of the bed. Catherine lay with her back to him.

"My love?" He kissed the back of her neck and stroked her pearl blonde hair. "It's time for me to go."

She turned her head. Her husband wore his traveling robes. "You're leaving, then?" Her eyes were empty and shadowed like darkened windows.

"You know I have to," he said. "Owen and I have a lot of work to do."

Catherine seethed. He was leaving her alone in their large, silent house, with memories skulking about like phantoms hiding in the corners. It felt like abandonment.

"How long will you be gone?" 

"For as long as I need to. These things take time. I'm sure you remember your experience as apprentice," he said.

How could she forget? She'd been apprenticed to Broderick's sister. That was how they met.

"Of course I do," she said in a low voice.

On the mantle, an automaton clock in the shape of a dragon flapped its gilded wings and uncoiled its tail, roaring at the hour.

"Then you understand that this is important to Owen and to me," he said.

Catherine sighed. "I still don't see why it can't be put off for just a little while, especially after everything we've been through. You're never home as it is."

"Making Owen wait would be unfair to him. This is a chance to rise above our personal tragedy and do something for the magical community," he said.

She squeezed the embroidered comforter. "It's always what's good for them and not about what's good for us. Can't you get someone else to apprentice him?"

"You know that I personally chose the boy. And I don't trust the others to do it." 

Catherine buried her face into the pillow. "Then go! I know where your loyalty lies."

Broderick's face paled. "Don't you dare say that. My loyalty lies with you first, but also with the Calare."

She let the tears roll down her cheeks. "This hurts, Broderick. This on top of all the other agony. I can't stand it."

"You don't have to be alone," he said. "You could have our friends over to visit. There are people who would like to see you."

"I don't know if I'll ever be ready for that." 

"I think you will, my love. Someday, maybe sooner than you think." He kissed her hair again and rose from the bed. "I love you, Catherine."

"I love you, Broderick."

"Even if you are disappointed with my decision?" he asked.

She managed a weak smile. "Even then."

Broderick paused in the doorway, torn with guilt for leaving.

No, this must be done. I don't dare wait any longer.

 

{17}

The longer Lorica walked, the more uncertain she felt they were on the right path. Things on the map weren't matching up. Where was the giant stone sundial that was supposed to be here? 

And she'd passed lots of things that weren't even plotted. All of the woods, hills, and fields were alike.

Onward she trudged, feeling more tired and frustrated by the minute. Her pack felt as though her clothing and supplies had been replaced with rocks.

No matter how wilted her limbs were, she had to keep going. Her early morning head start wouldn't buy her much time before somebody became suspicious and came looking for her.

Swarms of gnats clouded her face, too many to swat away, so they crawled into her nose and eyes. She pressed her lips together so they wouldn't fly in. They bit her anyway, and itchy, defiant little welts erupted down her neck and inside her ears.

Soon, she heard twigs snapping and the crunch of dry leaves in the tree line. She walked a few paces and the noises did too. They stopped when she did.

The sun began to dip towards the western horizon. Her heartbeat quickened.

She walked down the trail, trying to keep her steps light, but there were just as many dry leaves on her side, so she ended up making more noise than ever.

The mystery crunching began again, closer this time. She peered into the woods, but the fading afternoon light showed only shadows and silhouettes of the overgrowth. The hairs of the back of her neck stood up.

"Scout," she whispered. "Scout, wake up! What's that sound?"

"Mmmph, prob'ly an owl," he mumbled.

"Please don't let it be goblin-kin, oh please don't let it be goblin-kin," she prayed to nobody in particular.

"Not goblins. You can smell 'em before you hear 'em," he muttered.

"What is it, then? What do I do? I can't stop now because of some weird noises."

Her legs were jelly, but still she pressed on. After she tripped over another stone, the fifth in just as many minutes, Scout urged her to give up and pick a spot for the night. The crunching stopped.

She fished through her pack for her fire kit, slapping away gnats and scratching the bites, but the dimness made it difficult to see.

"Wait! A fire might make it easier to find you! I'd hold off on building one for now," Scout said.

"But—"

"Don't worry, I'll be by to check on you." He flew away to hunt for his dinner, leaving her alone with long shadows and unfamiliar sounds of the woods at night.

What are you more afraid of, getting dragged off by wild animals or being forced to join the crazy Sisters of Durainne? Even Edmund would say not to be such a baby.

Lorica wrapped herself in a blanket and huddled against a tree by the edge of the river to scan the darkness. She jittered at each snap and rustle until the long day's hike took its toll. She dozed off.

#

In her dream, she was back home at the kitchen table eating a grand breakfast with eggs, jam filled pastries, dripping spicy sausage, bacon still snapping and popping from the skillet, hot buttered bread, and potatoes steaming from the clay oven piled up on her plate, but there was a strange, chuffing sound—

Lorica awoke face to snout with a wild dog, so close she could make out the leathery texture of his nose in the dim light. She sprang backwards and threw off the blanket.

"Go away!" she shouted. 

The dog pinned his ears back. She grabbed a small stone and whipped it at him. Lorica hated to do it, but knew she'd be no match if he or the three others behind him were to attack. It hit him square on the chest and bounced off as if it were a tiny pebble. He barked and didn't move.

They were yellow-eyed, peevish looking animals, generations removed from their more domestic ancestors. These dogs had never experienced the luxury of laying by a warm hearth or a gentle hand ruffling their fur. Meals weren't always easy to come by for them, especially after a winter like the one Cailreth had finally thawed from, so they'd come prowling around Lorica's camp for scraps.

They crept closer, yipping and calling to each other.

She hurled sticks at them. They scrambled back into the brush, but the lead dog stood his ground, growling.

"Scout!" she screamed.

The lead dog took a few cautious steps towards Lorica's pack and sniffed.

"Don't you dare!" She flung another stick at him, which landed at his feet.

He darted forward and seized her pack, dragging it into the woods before she could grab it.

"NO!" she shrieked and started to go after them, but one of the other dogs charged at her. 

She scrambled backwards and swung herself into the low, twisted branches of a hornbeam tree on the riverbank. She hoisted herself onto a thicker limb and slid along the smooth bark, just out of reach from the dog's snapping teeth.

The other dogs followed the alpha into the woods.

"Damn it!" she yelled.

Scout swooped in and landed on her coat. "What happened?"

"My pack! They took it. They were after the food. I can't go get it now; they'll attack. They'll destroy everything!"

They listened to the dogs grunt and tear through the fabric, while Lorica ripped catkins and twigs from the branches and threw them to the ground in frustration.

#

Hours later, Lorica awoke from her light doze and remembered the events of last evening. Her stomach sank.

She crawled down from her perch, shook off the buds from her clothes, and walked into the woods. The sound of her boots tramping through leftover autumn leaves shattered the thin silence of the forest. Scout clung to her coat.

They found scraps of gray canvas smeared with dried saliva on it snagged on some bushes. They had chewed off one of the leather straps.

The rest of the pack lay in a sad, torn bundle still wet with drool and covered with burrs, twigs, and dirt. The greasy wrapping from the ham lay shredded nearby. The dogs had eaten all the food except for the jar of jam and the hard biscuits.

"Figures," she said.

It took her a while to find the rest of her belongings, which were for the most part unharmed but scattered among the leaves on the forest floor. She sighed with relief. Her mother's portrait was undamaged, and her father's map was damp and torn, but readable.

Lorica salvaged what she could and carried it out wrapped inside of a blanket, and consoled herself with the thought that if the dogs had eaten the raisins, they would get very sick.

{18}

Lorica sat under the hornbeam by the river and ate the biscuits and jam for breakfast. Scout had gone back to sleep for the day. She splashed water on her face, filled her canteen, and started on her way along the water's edge.

The sun climbed across the sky. It was mid-afternoon by her estimation. The gnats had stopped pursuing her. She came to the top of a small hill, and beyond that, she spotted a small farm.

"Thank the gods," she said.

As she neared the property, she heard an aggravated voice coming from behind the barn. An immense black and white goat with four pairs of outlandish, twisted horns galloped around the corner and skidded to a stop in front of her.

"Stop right there, you devil!" the voice yelled. 

A dark-haired man stepped into view. The goat stood almost to the man's shoulder in height. The man's arms bulging in rolled-up shirt sleeves suggested that he might bench press the goat for fun.

The goat sprung himself into the air on knobby legs. He waggled his tail and tossed his wicked, horned head. Lorica was shocked at how high he could jump at his size. She backed away to avoid getting trampled.

The man pointed at her. He had a bit of murrgam root sticking out the side of his mouth, which made his s's sound like shh's. "You, stay still. I'm going to need your help catching him," he said through his teeth. "Please," he added.

He pulled some feed out of his pocket and poured some into Lorica's hand. "Now call him."

The goat lowered his head and shook his eight horns, ready to duel with them.

"Excuse me, what?" Lorica looked at the murrgam root with disgust. Some of the men in Edmund's command chewed it, and it made them spit a lot. "No, I can't stay. I just wanted some help with directions."

"Directions? Hold on, he's getting away," the man said. "Damn it!"

She clutched the fistful of goat feed. "Listen, I don't have a lot of time. I have to get going. Can't you just take a look at my map and tell me if I'm going the right way or not?"

The man stared. "You know what? I said please, but never mind." He reached for the feed in her hand.

Lorica recoiled from the spicy smell of the murrgam and knitted her brows together in irritation.

The last thing I need is to get caught up in goat shenanigans, but what if there are no more houses or anybody I can ask for a while?

"Wait, I'm sorry," she said. "So if I help you catch your goat, can you look at my map?"

"Fine, I'll take a look, but we're wasting time talking about it."

Lorica clicked her tongue. "I don't think he'll listen to me, but I'll try. I've never had to catch a goat before. I don't know what I should be doing."

"Offer him the food!" the man said, as it were the most obvious thing in the world.

"You don't have to have such an attitude about it." She held out her hand. "Here, goat, want a treat?" she said in an unconvincing baby voice.

The curious goat tiptoed up to Lorica and to her dismay, stood many heads taller than her. He lowered his craggy skull. His bearded chin tickled her forehead. The massive horns hovered near her face.

The man strode over behind him. Lorica did not move a muscle. But as the man went to grab the goat, a now-awakened Scout pinched her through her shirt with his claws.

"OW!" she yelped. The feed scattered onto the grass.

"What's going on out there?" Scout asked. The startled goat pivoted and skipped away.

"You imp!" yelled the man. He spat on the dusty ground. "Not you," he said to Lorica, who was busy shushing Scout.

Lorica noticed an older woman with long, gray-streaked braids coiled upon her head near the corral fence. The woman watched the scene with amusement.

"I don't think he respects you. Maybe you shouldn't scold him so much," Lorica said. "I dropped the goat food."

The man rolled his eyes and gave her another handful of feed. "Try it again."

"C'mere, goat!" Once again, the goat traipsed over to inspect her outstretched palm.

The man crept up behind him while he sniffed the food and slipped a rope collar around his neck. The goat kicked and flailed trying to avenge himself.

"Stop that now!" the man said. "No more escaping for you, hellion." He unlatched the gate of the corral and shooed him inside to join the rest of the herd.

"We have an apprentice goat-wrangler here, Jamison," said the woman.

"I'm much obliged to you for your help, even if it came with a side of sass," Jamison said.

"I'm surprised he listened to me, but maybe that's because I didn't call him mean names," Lorica said. "You're welcome, though."

"Thanks for the commentary. You look like you've been roughing it," he said.

"How can you tell?" she said, embarrassed by her dirty traveling coat and muddy boots. 

The spring thaw and spending the night in a tree had left its mark on her clothes. Her father would have a fit over the damaged coat. It wasn't that she didn't take care of her things. The great outdoors just wasn't being very cooperative.

"So, you said something about directions?" Jamison said.

Lorica unwrapped the blanket and unfolded the map. Don't give anything away. "So, can you tell me where uh—" she scanned the map— "where Raven Falls is?" Close enough.

"Raven Falls? You're kind of a ways off. What're you going there for? It's muddy this time of year, and the water's cold enough to freeze your bones if you fall in," he said.

"We're sightseeing."

Jamison twisted the murrgam root between his fingers. "Who's we?"

"We is me and a friend. Do you know how to get there?"

"Where's your friend?" he asked.

"Listen," Scout said, from nestled inside her jacket. "We're trying to find a cave. It's supposed to have this gigantic crystal in the middle of it, and people say you can talk to ghosts."

Jamison's eyes narrowed. "Where's that voice coming from?"

"Be quiet, Scout," Lorica said. "Why don't you just invite him along? You talk too much!"

"Is that why you're going? You fancy yourself some kind of ghost hunter?" The corner of his mouth turned up. "Or a thrill seeker?" He spat, and this time it landed near her boot toe.

Her lip curled in revulsion. "I don't see how it concerns you."

"People have died inside that cave. It's not a nature walk," he said.

"Maybe they weren't being careful." She tossed her ponytail.

"I don't think you're being careful. Someone your age shouldn't be trying to go there all alone, or at all," Jamison said.

"Gods, that's insulting. I'm turning fifteen years old this summer, and for what it's worth, I've made it this far without anyone's help."

Scout poked his scowling little face out. "Excuse me! Without any help whatsoever?"

"Scout, mind your own business." Lorica hated when he acted like this, as if he were another adult.

"Pardon me, but it is my business. Who agreed to come with you in the first place? Me! Who goes out on recon missions, gathering information from the other nocturnal creatures? Me, that's who."

Jamison tried to hide a grin by wiping his face with his shirt.

Scout continued his tirade. "Who flies high with his wings spread wide, soaring up among the stars but always with his ears perked up, using his amazing powers of echolocation? Me."

"Stop exaggerating," she said. "Most of the time you're out gorging yourself on bugs."

"Which reminds me," Scout said. "Who can eat up to three thousand insects in a single night, doing my duty to help keep their population in check and control diseases they might carry? Me! You are going to ruin my reputation."

"Your friend has quite a way with words," he said.

"Aha! This man knows the right way to speak to a bat! Scout Pipistrellus, at your service. That's Lorica," he said, pointing with his wing.

"Nice to meet you." Jamison shook his wing. The corner of his mouth quivered. "I'm Jamison Undrand. This is Elira Kennt. Lorica, that's an interesting name."

"My father came up with it." And you're a bit rude.

"Where do you two hail from?" he asked.

"She comes from the town area, but I was born under a stone bridge, and I've made my home in the province of Reathe ever since," chirped Scout.

Scout babbled on, oblivious to Lorica's dismay. She wasn't pleased to share histories with these strangers. Scout, on the other hand, would make best friends with a prisoner in the town pillory.

"C'mon Scout, let's go. He's probably not going to give us any useful directions anyway." She knelt down to repack and tried to ignore the growling in her belly.

"Jamison," Elira said. 

Lorica was busy fumbling with the map.

He glanced over at her.

"Stop her!" Elira mouthed.

He cringed and shook his head.

"Jamison, surely you can be of assistance to this young lady."

"I don't know about that," he said.

"Really?" Elira said. "I thought you were a man of many accomplishments."

He paused before answering. "You could say that, but—"

"Then put your knowledge to good use," she said. "Or don't and make your bed in the cow barn."

"Is that a threat?" He flung the chewed up murrgam into the grass. "I've had worse places than cow barns. You can do better than that."

"That's true," she agreed. "The cow barn is a step up from some of the places you've slept in."

Lorica made a disparaging face as she knelt on the ground. She was beginning to feel violated by these two strangers airing their private drama right in front of her.

"I bet if she had a price on her head you'd be willing to help," she said.

Lorica turned her head to look at them. That was a strange thing to say! She couldn't wait to get away from these people and their weird conversations and monster goats.

"That's enough," Jamison said through gritted teeth.

Elira went back to raking, but Lorica caught her self-satisfied smile.

"I'm gonna go," Lorica said.

Jamison ground his teeth and stepped forward. "Hold on, I think I can help you."

She rolled up the ends of the blanket and knotted them together. "Do you, now?"

"Yes, since I'm familiar with this territory. And I guess you need some camping advice too," he said.

She wrinkled her nose. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"He means you look like you haven't camped a single day in your life and you have no idea where you are going," Scout said.

"Scout!" Lorica shouted, about to strangle him.

"Jamison, you might do one better and show her where it is," Elira said with the ghost of a smile.

"Now you're volunteering me as tour guide, Elira? When I said help, I meant I'd assist with the map," he said.

"Don't be silly. I'd never just volunteer any old person," she said. "Only people with previous experience."

Lorica appraised his farming attire. "I don't know. He doesn't seem like the type who has gone adventuring before."

Jamison made a noise somewhere between a boar snort and wildcat growl. He jammed another murrgam into his mouth.

"Don't be fooled by appearances," said Elira, but nobody seemed to hear.

"Oh, and you have, Lorica?" squeaked Scout. "I fly more miles in a night than you walk all month! The farthest distance you ever go is back and forth to the pantry and when you're trying to escape your stepmother's chores. And you can't ever fold that ridiculous map back up the right way!"

"Whose side are you on, anyway?" Lorica said. "The longer I stand here, the more insults I get. I thought we agreed to travel just the two of us. You can stay here with them, and I'll find the cave on my own. I'm going before it starts getting dark out."

"Aren't you forgetting? Those wild dogs stole all your food," Scout said. "And you spent last night in a tree!"

"I'll figure it out." She pulled the blanket's knot so tight she wondered if she'd be able to undo it later on.

The corners of Elira's mouth twitched as she raked a patch of ground near the gate close by.

"Don't you need me here? There's a lot to be done," Jamison said.

"Oh, now you're interested in helping me work," Elira said. "But since you find your absence so concerning, I'll be fine for the two weeks or so you'll be gone. I was doing this long before you arrived, between this and physician's duties. Besides, there are always youngsters from the village who'll gladly take farmhand work."

Jamison spat out a piece of the murrgam root. "You're serious!"

"I'm quite serious, Mr. Undrand," she said.

"This is wonderful!" said Scout. "We could use a backup guy. There might be goblin-kin, Lorica. You know how much you hate goblin-kin."

Jamison gritted his teeth. "I'll have it known that I am not, nor have I ever been, a backup guy."

Her cheeks flushed. "We haven't seen any. In fact, I heard there haven't been any goblin-kin sightings around here in years. They're probably extinct."

Scout waved his wings. "Just because we haven't seen any doesn't mean they're not lurking out there somewhere. And besides, you're the one who stopped to buy goblin bite antidote."

Lorica thought she heard Elira snicker, but it might've been a sniffle.

"How do I know you aren't a crazy axe-murderer?" Lorica asked.

He raised his eyebrows. "Likewise."

"Oh, he isn't any crazier than the goats," Elira said. "But it'll do him some good to be out of the house for a while. I can attest to his good character, and he's a professional. You might be better working as a team, if you can stand each other's company."

"I suppose I can attest to her good character too," Scout said. "Some of the time, at least. C'mon, Lorica. Let's give him a chance."

"Now wait just a minute," Jamison said. "I don't think I even agreed—"

"But we don't even know him. We just met," Lorica said.

"Everyone is a stranger until you get to know them. And they're offering to help, so who are we to refuse?" Scout said.

"I never—" Jamison said.

Lorica glared at the ground. As much as she hated to admit it, Scout was right. She had no food and no clue where she was going, at least according to the map. A guide might be nice, as long as he didn't ask too many questions.

"Fine, we can go together. But I don't take orders from a goat herder," she said.

Jamison ran his hands through his hair. "I wouldn't dream of it."

She put on the snottiest look she could muster. "Just so you know, I wouldn't even let my other best friend come along. And I'm only agreeing to this arrangement to make Scout happy. It's not because I'm desperate or anything." Her voice dripped with such acidic disdain, it might have burned holes in the lawn.

Elira's shoulders quivered as she raked and re-raked the same patch of grass while trying hard to mind her business.

"I think you've raked it enough," Jamison said.

"I don't take directions from a goat herder either," she said to him. She turned to Lorica. "I can hear your stomach making noises from over here. Let's get dinner started while Jamison finishes feeding the animals. You can leave on a good night's sleep and with some fresh supplies. You're better off doing it this way, my dear."

Lorica bristled at being called "dear," but the promise of a hot bath, a warm, cozy bed, and a full stomach was enough to convince her to go along with this plan. The jam and biscuit breakfast had been hours ago. These people seemed decent enough. A bit peculiar, but decent. Besides, she could always ditch the goat herder if he became too much of a pain in the ass.

{19}

They enjoyed a dinner of roasted herbed chicken with crispy skin, baked potatoes from the root cellar, hot buttered bread, and glasses of goat's milk. Lorica had second helpings of everything.

After they ate and cleared away the dishes, Jamison and Lorica settled themselves in the sitting room to discuss their plans. Elira had gone to take a bath.

"So, let's see what's left of your pack," he said. "What the severed serpent's tongue happened to it, anyways?"

"Hey, that's my private stuff!"

"If I'm going with you, I need to know what you've got and what we need. That's a perfectly reasonable request," he said.

He pulled out her map and studied it, a grin spreading across his face. "This is the most amusing thing I've seen in a while."

She peered over the top of the map. "What's so funny?"

"You do realize this is fake?" Jamison said.

"What? But I got it from my father's collection!"

"Wherever it came from, it's of no use to you. There are some real places on here, but you might have gone in circles avoiding these swamps 'where giant, sticklike creatures have been seen'—those're real, seen 'em, and they blend right in with their surroundings—or this Lake of Ten Thousand Goldfish—ha! —which does not exist. No wonder you were confused."

Jamison pushed aside some of her clothing until his fingers brushed against something flat and smooth. He pulled out the small portrait of her mother in its ornate frame of inlaid shell floral design and regarded it before shifting his gaze to Lorica.

"Who is this?" he asked, though the resemblance was unmistakable. Lorica and Lisette shared the same fan-brush smattering of freckles and copper-red hair the color of a newly minted copre coin.

And the eyes: gold-flecked brown, like the setting-sunlit glass bottle of Martin's Headache Remedy on the windowsill. In Lorica's case, just as sharp and bitter. Lisette's were softer, kinder.

She looked from the picture to her pile of belongings on the table. "That's my mother. She's why I'm going on this trip."

Jamison said nothing, but he peered at her with a hawk's gaze.

"I want to see if I can contact her. Her spirit." Color rushed to her cheeks, but it was hidden by the lengthening shadows in the room. She waited to hear what he would say to that, but he put the picture back without comment.

He finished taking inventory of her belongings. "You were off to a good start, but I'll fill in the gaps with some of the things you're missing. Go get ready for bed, and we'll head out early in the morning."

#

Scout flicked his ears. "I'm so glad you agreed to let Jamison travel with us. I know that you, shall I say, tend to have a bit of a problem with authority."

Lorica snuggled into the quilts on the spare bed, relaxed from her hot bath. "I don't have a problem with authority, just overbearing people who think they know what's best for me. He's not the boss of me anyhow. And did you see the way he was chewing on that stuff? It's revolting!"

He propped himself up onto his wings. "Hmph. Don't have a problem with authority, eh? That's debatable. Anyways, they don't seem too bad at all. They're just trying to help."

"Because Elira goaded him into it! I hope we can trust them. You know, as in 'they might have an ulterior motive'?" She blew out the bedside candle.

Scout shrugged and hopped onto the windowsill. He'd always prided himself on his instinctual perception of others, and he hoped to continue his unblemished track record.

"You ate their food, so if it was poisoned, it's too late. And they haven't locked us in any root cellar dungeon yet. Anyways, he knows where the cave is. Elira even said so. I think this is going to be great fun! See you in the morning." He flew off into the night.

Lorica pulled the quilts over her head and wondered why Jamison had gone to the Cave of Wrykirk.

{20}

Elira and Jamison sat in the flickering candlelight of the den after Lorica went to bed. He tilted back in his seat, balancing on two chair legs with his bare feet propped on Elira's writing desk—the one that had been in her family for eight generations.

"Is it too much to ask to keep your sweaty feet on the floor?" she asked.

With a dead-eyed stare, he swung his feet down and let the chair legs crash forward to the floor. He made a show of avoiding the throw rug and scraped the chair across the wide pine planks.

"Happy?"

"Shh! You'll wake up Lorica, and you're going to ruin my floors!"

He clacked the chair closer to the table. "They're banged up as it is."

"I miss the days when you sulked quietly," she said. "What are you so pissy about?"

"Let's start with the ridiculous way you corralled me into bringing that twit to Wrykirk." He thudded his feet.

She grinned as though she was pulling the biggest prank in Ransaran history. "Since when have you lost your taste for adventure?"

He slammed his fist on the table. "Has it occurred to you that the cave might be the last place I want to be?"

"Mr. Undrand, if you break my table, I can always find another unpleasant project for you."

"Other than playing tour guide for an ungrateful, mouthy kid, to Wrykirk of all places? Because I don't owe her a thing," he said.

"No, but let's not forget who you are indebted to." 

They glared at each other across the table.

"How silly of me, to think you rescued me out of the kindness of your heart," he said.

"I did, but can you blame me for seeing the opportunity for free labor?" She winked. "Besides, I can make this trip worth your while. Why else would I have volunteered you? Speaking of which, you aren't truly being volunteered, but we'll discuss that later."

Jamison frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"First things first." From her pocket, she drew out a small flask crafted of gray-green glass with a matching stopper. A thin, gold band of metal encircled the lip of the bottle.

Jamison watched her with equal parts wariness and curiosity.

"I've been waiting for months to give this to you, and now I think you're ready." She handed it to him. "Hold it away from you, and turn the band around the neck. Inside you will find the instructions."

"What's this?" He touched the surface of the glass as though it might break apart in his hands. "What does it do?"

"Open it like I said. You'll see, but remember to hold it away from you."

He carefully uncapped the flask and turned the golden band. The band made a tinny sound as he moved it, and then a needle-sharp spike sprung out from within the bottle with a soft click. A narrow paper came uncoiled from around the spike.

"See why I told you to hold it away from you?" 

"Hmm," Jamison said. "Interesting design. But what—"

Elira waved her hand at him. "Read it."

The ticking of the pendulum clock filled the silence as she waited for him to finish.

His eyebrows drew together. "This is a joke, right?"

"I wouldn't joke about this, Jamison."

"It's impossible." He skimmed the paper again and half-expected the words "just kidding!" to pop out at him.

"So you'd rather not take a chance to be restored to your former glory?" she said.

"Elira, this isn't going to work. The Darkening is permanent. You can't just—"

"Mr. Undrand, it's better to try and fail than fail because you didn't try. You won't get anywhere if you don't take any action at all!"

"You don't understand. The kind of magic they used comes from another place," he said.

"Ha, are you lecturing me on the arcane? Many kinds of magic originate from other places," she said.

"No, but what was in me is gone. I knew it the second I woke up here," Jamison said.

"There's still a chance," Elira said. "There's always a chance."

He shook his head. "No, there isn't. I'd know. I'd be able to feel it, just under the surface. But now, there's nothing. It's snuffed out."

"I'm shocked you aren't jumping at this," Elira said. "It's the least you could do for yourself, after everything."

He touched the tip of the spike with his forefinger. "Where did you get this, anyway?"

"A friend," she said.

"If you say Portnoy—"

"Gods no, Jamison! He's no friend of mine. I can't believe you'd say that."

"Can't be too sure. No offense. Then who?" He wound the paper into a tight roll around the spike and clicked it back inside the flask.

Outside, an owl hooted.

"Listen, it's a sign," she said.

Jamison rolled his eyes. "I'll take your word for it since you're the expert. Who gave this to you?"

"Someone who prefers to remain anonymous, but who came to see you when you were still very sick," she said. "Someone who felt you deserved the chance."

"I didn't realize I had any allies," he said.

"More than you know. It could have been dangerous for them to come see you at all," said Elira. "The Ablete Calare doesn't pay attention to me, but there are others who don't escape their notice as easily."

He sighed. If nothing else got to him, the guilt and sense of obligation might. "Where's this mystery person now?"

"I'd presume they're back to council business," she said.

"You seem pretty convinced that this will work."

Elira steepled her fingers together. "This trip will be beneficial for you and for Lorica. It's convenient that the two of you met up like this; it's quite a fortunate set of circumstances."

"Not for me, it isn't," he said. "If it wasn't for the damned goat—"

"Stop grumbling and listen to me. It's too dangerous to venture into Wrykirk alone. Only a fool would attempt to wander around in there by themselves," she said.

Yet I was the bigger fool to go there with Broderick and my wife. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Everyone knows that."

"Would you rather she gets hurt, or even killed, and have that on your conscience too? Anyways, she'd never be convinced not to go; she'd end up running off by herself. I'm sure her parents have their hands full with her," Elira said.

Jamison shrugged. "Sounds like that's their problem."

"I see you still have no idea who she is. Her father is Edmund Warde, Captain of Reathe Guard. I delivered her twin brothers, though she doesn't seem to remember me. She shut herself in her bedroom and didn't come out until after I'd left."

"Why would I know her?" Jamison drummed his fingers on the table. "This is quite an inconvenience. And that's an understatement!"

"I could've said the same about you. She had a phony map, to give you an idea how in over her head she is. She's lucky to have even made it this far, and she's barely ten miles from her father's house."

A disingenuous smile crept across his face. "I should take her home. Maybe I'll get a nice fat monetary reward for her safe return."

"Not a chance. You're a banished ex-sorcerer; don't look at me like that, Jamison Undrand. Go with her. She deserves to see it, unless her father decides to go out searching for her and thinks you have bad intentions, in which case he might dismember you first and ask questions later. And then stick your head on the end of a pike as a warning to others."

"I'm going upstairs." He rose from the table.

"Jamison."

He half turned to her.

She handed him the flask. "Don't forget this. And try not to let in anything that can't properly be turned away."

{21}

Edmund surveyed the disarray from the doorway of Lorica's bedroom. The tell-tale signs of a hasty departure he often saw at crime scenes were no different than the usual, disorganized state of her room: the closet door flung wide open, the dresser drawers pulled out, and clothing strewn onto the floor and bed.

"What in Ransara? Lorica?" He peeked under the alcove bed just in case, but nothing was there except dust bunnies and a forgotten, crumb-covered plate.

People were always surprised to learn how often folks hid under beds to avoid getting in trouble. Usually children did this, but sometimes it was criminals, including a jewelry thief Reathe Guard arrested not six months earlier.

Edmund grunted as he slid the plate from under the bed and placed it on her dresser. "She doesn't take after me, that's for sure."

When he did find Lorica, he'd shut her in here and make her clean this place from top to bottom. At least it didn't smell, or nothing he'd found did yet.

He shoved the dresser drawers shut and scanned inside the closet. She was probably long gone, wherever she went, but it didn't hurt to check.

The closet was deep and ran the length of the room, which made it a favorite hiding spot for Lorica when she was a child. Now it was jammed with boxes full of old toys, winter clothes, and school textbooks.

Colorful scribbles on the closet's left hand side caught his eye. Childish, scrawled graffiti covered the lower half of the wall. Some of it was crude drawings of people and animals, and the rest were names and poorly-spelled short sentences—WOLEFS HOWEL WEN THE MOON IS FUL I WENT A PET WOLEF and MY TECHERS BRETH STENCKS—with a few curse words here and there. Those were spelled correctly.

He traced his thumb on a green jumble of letters that spelled something rude, smearing them. Oil pastels, probably the fancy set in the wooden case her mother had given to her on her seventh birthday.

How did she even know these words, especially that green-lettered one? This had been there for years, and he'd just discovered it. It was never too late to wring her neck for defacing the wall.

He slammed the closet door shut and glared at the open window. Bad enough that her bedroom was such a mess, but to leave the window wide open? Anyone could just climb in! Hadn't she learned anything, being the child of a law enforcement officer?

"Damn it, Lorica! Why do you go out of your way to cause trouble?"

Something looked out of place. He frowned in thought, and then it dawned on him. 

The portrait of Lisette was missing from its spot on the wall near the window.

He strode across the room, kicking stray clothing out of his way. He touched the blank space where the picture, no larger than a pocket-sized journal, had once hung.

"You are going to be the death of me, Lorica."

The hollow smashing sound of breaking earthenware came from the kitchen.

"Edmund!" Fiene called in a strangled voice.

He flew down the stairs and found his wife on the floor among the cracked pieces.

"The baby; it's coming now!" A spasm of pain gripped her. "It's too soon!"

{22}

Jamison and Lorica stuffed their faces at breakfast the next morning. They finished packing some last minute supplies and left for their trip. Elira wished them good luck. Scout settled under Lorica's jacket with his belly full from last night's hunting.

Trees glowed green-gold with buds that seemed to have blossomed as they slept. The day had dawned chilly. Lorica pulled on her long knitted gloves.

Jamison carried an automatic crossbow crafted from the burnished, cinnamon-colored wood of a verrew tree. Lorica knew from her father that verrew was a resilient material used for making weapons. These days, it was mostly used in making firearms stocks, not slightly archaic weapons like the crossbow, which had fallen out in favor of newer flintlocks.

Undulating cursive that she didn't recognize decorated the bow's lathe and tiller.

"It's a protective charm to ensure it'll never fail." He had a fresh sprig of murrgam between his teeth. "It was like that when I got it. So, what's your story, besides this cave expedition?"

"It's time for me to get out of my parents' house. Things were getting crazy." 

His mouth turned up. "Ah. So, it's not a journey of self-discovery?"

She raised her eyebrows. "No! My father is so desperate to get rid of me that he's arranged to send me to the Sisters of Durainne, and my stepmother is about to give birth to another little monster."

Jamison whistled through his teeth and the murrgam. "The Sisters of Durainne! That's intense. I don't blame you for leaving. Tell me the truth. How soon can we expect the Guard to come galloping up behind us to capture and publicly execute me? And ground you for life?"

Lorica grimaced. "We have a few days' head start. I wonder if they've sent a search party yet, or if my father even bothered to organize one."Cole, I hope you came through for me.

He stopped and spat on a hedgerow. "This is bad news, Lorica. I ought to turn you right around and take you home like I wanted to. There's a strong possibility this'll end badly for the both of us."

She put up her hands. "No! I can pay you to take me, if that's what it takes. And do you have to spit? It's such a gross habit."

Annoyance stabbed at him. "My habits are none of your business, for starters. It's completely against my better judgment, but if you insist on going, I won't take your money. You'll see that the cave isn't what you expect. It's never what anyone expects. Trust me on that."

He'd had no trouble taking Elira's money though. She gave him half the evening before and said he would receive the other half upon their return. "For the inconvenience," she'd said.

They hiked along, surrounded by ambient sounds of birds chirping in the forest canopy and their boots tramping through the dewy grass. Jamison wore a pair of tall, black, intimidating ones with scuffed toes.

"Army specials," he said, when he caught Lorica admiring them.

"You're a veteran?" she asked.

"There's a lot you don't know about me," he said.

"There's a lot you don't know about me either," she replied.

"Obviously, since we both just met."

"No kidding. My father served too, as an officer, but he doesn't like to talk about it much."

They walked for a few more miles, ate lunch, and journeyed into late afternoon until they found a flat spot along the river where the trees had thinned out.

"This is a good place to make camp," Jamison said. "I'll assume you know how to start a fire?"

She shook her head. Her single, backyard camping experience ended when she awoke to discover grass spiders creeping all over the outside of her father's old waxed-canvas tent. There had been no campfire then, and she never learned how.

His eyes widened in surprise. "Your father was in the army, but you—never mind. Let's make this a teachable moment. First thing you do is dig a pit."

Jamison set to work digging a round depression in the earth. "Go get some rocks to line it with and some dry wood."

He was almost done by the time she came back. Next, he sent her to gather twigs, sticks, and pine needles for kindling while he finished preparing the pit. "Make sure they're dry, and find some bigger sticks plus some tiny ones."

"Yes, sir!" she said, giving a mock salute.

Jamison stared at her over his shoulder. She rolled her eyes about his dismal sense of humor and returned with an armload of sticks.

"Those'll work. Lay a few handfuls of the leaves and the pine needles in there. That's our tinder. Okay, now take those longer ones and put them crisscross on top of our pit, like so," he told her. "That ought to do it."

He took a sharp-edged piece of quartz and a C-shaped piece of metal out of his pocket. "This is a flint and a steel-striker. They're what we'll use to get it going."

Jamison struck the steel in a downward motion across the edge of the quartz. Molten sparks fell onto the dry needles and leaves in the pit. The embers ignited the tinder, and the orange glow spread. He blew onto it and told Lorica to do the same.

"Not bad for a goat herder, right?" he said.

Soon their fire was blazing. Jamison took a wooden match out of his pocket. "Of course, it might have been easier to use this to light it." 

He tossed it onto the flames.

"Where'd you get that?" Lorica asked. "I can't believe you had me do all that work and you could've just used a match."

"That's the lazy person's way." 

"Lazy?" Lorica said. "It's the easier way!"

He raised his eyebrows. "I didn't see you taking any initiative. And you need to practice taking orders, little red finch."

"Hey!" She flung some twigs into the fire. And what do you mean by 'little red finch'?"

Above them, a blue jay jeered.

"Your red hair speaks for itself. It's been a while since I've ordered anybody around. I bet you often weasel your way out of chores at home."

Lorica stuck her chin out. "Excuse me, but I helped out at home. One of my jobs was cutting up the vegetables. I can halfway cook, you know."

"Impressive that they trusted you with a sharp knife," he laughed. "What was your plan going to be? Were you hoping to find a tiny, pocket-sized dragon to help you out?"

"Wow, you're a comedian too. And I thought you had no sense of humor." A slow burn tinged her ears red, but at least Jamison couldn't see it.

"Like I said, there's a lot you don't know about me. Seriously though, how did you plan to make a campfire?" he asked.

"I had some matches, but they got lost."

"How'd they get lost?"

Lorica told him about her encounter with the wild dogs.

"What were you planning to do in case you didn't meet up with anybody on your trip?" asked Jamison. "You had to know there'd be nothing way out here."

She paused. "You'll think it's stupid."

"Try me," he said.

"It's called Instant Fire. I got it just in case, before I left."

He pursed his lips. "What in the world is Instant Fire? Let me see it."

Lorica handed him a small envelope from her coat pocket. He read the back of it aloud:

"Instant Fire (patent pending) may be used to start fires anywhere. Pour the contents of the package wherever you wish to start your fire and recite these words: Fire light, fire bright, I wish to set something alight."

He sniffed a pinch of the gray powder between his fingers. "This is just ash!"

"What?" She snatched the packet from him and shook the powder into her palm. "I can't believe this. What a dirty trick!"

"You should have known that only magic users can cast fire spells," he said. "The rest of us have to do it the old-fashioned way."

"How would I know that? How would you know that?"

"Isn't that common knowledge?" he asked.

"Not necessarily for me," Lorica said. "Even though my father always talks about how he can't stand magic users."

He handed the packet back to her. "Is that so?"

"Yeah. He says he wouldn't trust them as far as he could throw them. That's one of his favorite lines."

Jamison scratched the back of his neck. "Why does he feel that way?"

"He had some run-ins with them back in his army days." She tossed the empty packet into the fire and watched the envelope curl and burst into flame.

"Must have been serious, whatever happened," he said.

"He used to be a lot worse. When I was a kid he used to say they should have to wear a badge or something so that everyone will know they're a magic user."

"Those are some very strong opinions," he said.

Lorica shrugged. "They're his opinions, not mine."

"Fair enough," he said. "Let's get that nice sausage Elira gave us and be glad we didn't have to hunt for our dinner."

#

"How much do you know about the cave?" Jamison asked.

Lorica chewed the sausage. "My mother used to tell me stories when I was little. She told me about the giant crystal and how it's supposed to give you psychic powers and visions. And it lets you talk to ghosts. She said that a spirit guarded the cave and that you had to be worthy to enter. But I don't know if she just said that so I wouldn't try to find it." 

"So you're going to see if you can speak to her?" he asked.

"If it will let me. Do you think the stories are true?" She wiped away juice dribbling down her chin with her sleeve.

He handed her a mug of chamomile tea. "I'm not sure, but anything is possible. We'll find out soon enough. This should help you get to sleep and not worry so much about roving bands of goblin-kin."

She hugged her knees. "Thanks a lot! Just when I got them out of my head."

Jamison lounged on his back with his arms crossed behind his head. "How did you ever get such an idea in your head about being attacked by goblin-kin? This isn't more scare stories your mother told you, is it?"

"My Uncle Ralf—my father's brother—was out traveling on business with a friend. My father told me they were trying to fool people into buying fake magic scrolls."

Jamison frowned at this, but she didn't see it.

"Anyways, they had this scheme, and one night, they were turned away by a few inns because my father said 'their coins weren't the right color,' so they had to camp out, and they were attacked by some goblin-kin. That's what they claimed. Nobody believed him because Uncle Ralf was always making up kooky stories."

"Did your father ever say what he thought really happened?"

"He thinks they were busted by some magic users who broke up their scheme."

Jamison hid a smile behind his hand.

"After that, Uncle Ralf disappeared for a while, and then he moved on to some other racket when my father wouldn't lend him any more money."

He stuck a bit of murrgam in his mouth. "Where's your uncle now?"

"He died a few years ago. He drank a lot of strong grain alcohol, and it rotted him from the inside out." She eyed the root with distrust, expecting him to spit in her direction at any moment.

Jamison chewed the murrgam. "And so now you have a terror of goblin-kin."

"Not a terror, but their bite is venomous. But I guess we'll be OK because we have a fire going, plus I brought an antidote and a dagger, just in case." She tried to stifle a yawn, but it escaped her mouth. "And you're military, so you must know how to fight." She burrowed under her blanket. Her legs were leaden after miles of walking.

He grinned and unbuckled the leg holster that held his flintlock pistol and spring-loaded blade. "Have you ever met one? They're only about the size of a housecat. I'll bet you could probably beat one in a fight. They're cowards."

"I still don't want to meet any." She watched him sharpen the blade with a small whetstone.

"I wouldn't worry too much about the goblin-kin; we ran 'em out of the area years ago. During raids, we'd set them ablaze and watch them scatter." He smiled at the memory and spat into the fire. "They were like ugly, scaly little torches on legs! Gods, the smell though."

"That's disgusting!" She wanted to hear more stories, but the sausage dinner, the roaring flames, and the tea had made her warm and fuzzy.

He wondered what she found more distasteful, the flaming goblins or the spitting.

"Lorica, there are more things to be worried about than goblin-kin while we are out here, like actual human bandits and other people who would do harm to us."

He waited for her response, but she was drifting off. He spread out his bedroll and settled down to sleep, with only the trills of nearby chorus frogs to keep him company.

{23}

Morning came too soon, but with it, the smell of cooked fish. Jamison had been up for a while and caught some trout for breakfast.

"You're awake! Thought I'd have to come and shake you," he said.

"I'm sore all over." She groaned and rubbed away the bleariness. "It was like sleeping on a mattress of stones."

"You'll get used to it." Anyway, you've never slept on a cold, dirty jail cell floor that stank like piss.

After they finished eating, they washed the sticky fish grime from their hands at the river's edge and wiped them dry on their pants.

Lorica watched him slip his bracelet back onto his wrist. The wide band was fashioned of soft, dark brown leather, with lighter, braided strips woven crisscross through it. Its clasp was a miniature brass crossbow.

"What's that?" she asked.

"The bracelet? It was a gift from a friend," he said.

Lorica pointed to where she had seen a tiny, circular tattoo on his wrist. "No, that little mark under the bracelet, right there!"

He tied up his bedroll. "It's from my time in the military."

"Oh. What does your tattoo mean? Did anybody find out about it?"

"Find out? What are you talking about?" he said.

"My father told me once that nobody who's enlisted is supposed to have them."

Jamison grunted. "No, nobody found out I had it. The significance of my tattoo is personal and wouldn't make any sense to you. Finish getting ready. We have a long walk ahead of us, if your bat friend's directions are accurate." Jamison had agreed to let Scout "help" navigate.

"They most certainly are!" called Scout, who always pretended not to listen. He'd had a busy night filled with socializing, or as he called it, "making the bat rounds." He burrowed under Lorica's coat. "And you'll be pleased to know we're on the right track."

"We've been traveling for less than two days," Jamison said.

"Right, and we aren't lost yet!" chirped Scout.

#

"Why don't you tell me a bit about yourself, so I'm not walking along with a complete stranger," Jamison said.

"What do you want to know?" she asked.

"I don't know. Let's start with the basics. What do you want to do with your life?"

Lorica looked at him like he had just sprouted scaly wings and a tail. "I don't know. That's a pretty big basic question."

Scout snickered underneath her jacket.

"Shh! I thought you were asleep."

"Then, you don't know? No master plan?" Jamison said.

"Lorica's never planned anything in her life," offered Scout, his voice muffled by layers of clothing. "Except to cause trouble."

"Go to sleep, Scout, and stop interfering in our conversations!" It looked like she was scolding her jacket.

Scout's face popped out from between the jacket's buttons. "Excuse me, but I am just as much a part of this group as you are."

"I wish you'd keep your critical comments to yourself," she said. "If I'm not getting it from one, I'm getting it from the other."

"I'm not being critical, just truthful." He slunk back inside to sleep off his full belly.

"Okay, back to what you're going to do with your life," Jamison said.

"Nobody's ever asked me." It was mostly true; not many people besides her father had expressed any interest in her future or had taken her wants and needs into consideration.

"Nobody?" he asked, not quite believing it.

"Not really. They all expect me to get married and start having babies, and I'm not interested in doing that. All I know is that I don't want other people planning it out for me, whatever I wind up doing. Other than that, I don't know."

"That's a bit of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of approach," he said. "Lot different than what I experienced."

"Which was what?" A flock of tiny, beige kooras birds scattered at their approach, bobbing their feather-crowned heads from the treetops and chirping disapproval at having their breakfast interrupted. "I can't stand those birds; they're everywhere. They even get inside our house sometimes."

"Kooras birds? I think you can find them on every square foot of Ransara, at least all the parts I've visited. Sometimes they're called crown birds."

"We had them in our school," she said. "Some men had to come and take their nests out, but they came back almost as soon as they were removed. The birds, I mean."

"Persistent little pests," Jamison said. "But hardy and adaptable."

"What were we talking about?" Lorica wasn't eager to start discussing character traits of birds she found unattractive and dirty. "Oh yeah, you started telling me about how your experiences were a lot different or something."

He gave a short laugh. "I was sent away to boarding school at the age of six. They spit me out after graduation, then I joined Cailreth Army. There, how's that?"

Lorica made a sour face. "Boarding school and Cailreth Army. That sounds boring."

He peered down at her. "It was hardly boring. My experiences gave me plenty of interesting stories."

"Hmph," she said, with an air of smugness. "Studying at some stuffy private school and then joining up with a bunch of other men, with a drill sergeant yelling orders as you exercise 'til you pass out doesn't sound like fun to me."

A stern look crossed his face. "Excuse you. I bet you don't have half as many interesting stories as I have."

Lorica snatched some leaves off a bush as they passed and threw them to the ground. "Yes I do! You snore, by the way. You should sleep on your belly."

"I've been told that by plenty of people. Maybe the noise will keep wild animals away from our camp. Anyways, you haven't been alive long enough to have interesting stories. You're just a kid," he said.

"Excuse you, but a person's age has nothing to do with it. And how do you know what I've experienced besides what I've told you?" 

"Listen to you, the little red finch putting me in my place," he said.

Lorica bristled. "Do you want to hear them or not?"

"I have a feeling you're going to tell them whether I like it or not, so let's hear 'em," he said.

"So far," she said, "my life has been about being a kid who isn't allowed to do anything or go anywhere, and then I got kicked out of school, and then I left home, which brings us up to now. That and the terrible family stuff, which you already know about."

Jamison whistled low. "Kicked out of school? You're a live one. What are you smirking at?"

"What smirk?" said Lorica, attempting not to.

He snorted. "That one, that you're trying to hide."

"I was just thinking about the time I blasted Fifer Gale in the face with a rock covered in ice and snow, right here." She touched her left cheek.

Jamison gaped at her. "Who?"

Lorica described the trouble at Reathe Upper Academy she'd had with Fifer and his cronies, and their relentless teasing about her status as "half-orphan." 

She hated everything about Fifer: his nose, "which was like a big, round doorknob," the way he puffed out his chest when he walked, which was "weird and stiff, like he had pole up his ass."

"You should have heard the sound the ice-rock made when it hit him. It made this loud, satisfying smack!" She smashed her fist into the palm of her other hand to demonstrate the sound effect. "The whole school yard heard it."

"Whoa, you take no prisoners. And you hassled me about lighting goblins on fire."

"Yeah, but those were goblins," she said. "They deserved it."

Jamison shouldered his crossbow. "You might have seriously injured him."

She grinned. "He had a bruise on his cheek for days. What do you care, anyways? He was just a bully."

"Did you get in trouble?" he asked. "Or should I ask, how much trouble did you get into for that?"

"Of course I did. I got dragged into the headmaster's office. The old blowhard suspended me for two weeks. It was worth it."

"I can't believe you threw a rock hidden inside a snowball at another student," he said. "Hope you don't plan on throwing anything at me if you get pissed off."

Lorica beamed. "Don't give me a reason to. Want to hear about the time I snapped all my father's gaming chips in half?"

His eyes widened. "Lorica! Why would you do that?"

"I was only four or five years old." She mimed breaking the chips. "I liked the noise they made. Snap, snap, snap!"

"You're incorrigible. Fine example you set for your younger brothers."

"You know, that's just the thing. They're much worse than I am, yet everyone expects me to be the role model," she said, dropping her hands in exasperation.

"They're kids, Lorica. You can't expect them to know better at their age," Jamison said.

"They're six, and they should be following our parents' example, not mine. At least I didn't dump cooking oil all over the kitchen floor so that nobody could walk on it, right before guests arrived for dinner. My father had to bring in a huge bag of sand to soak it all up with," she said.

He shook his head again. "Oh my gods, what a headache."

"Oh! There was this other time at school, right after lunch. I had geometry, and I came to class still eating my sandwich, because I didn't have time to finish it. The preceptor told me to get rid of it, but the fathead was still busy eating his lunch behind the desk."

"And what'd you do?"

"I pretended I didn't hear him and kept on eating it, and then he took it out of my hand and dumped it in the trash. I challenged him on it because of the general hypocrisy, and he asked me to leave, which I was glad to do. But I kicked a chair down the stairs on my way out." She put on an innocent face. "I didn't hit anybody with it though."

Lorica regaled Jamison for the next hour with stories about the box of marbles, the fake rat, pigs, and other assorted animals at assemblies, phony For Sale signs in front of the school buildings, undergarments up the flagpole when dignitaries were visiting, the time she and Cole crafted together a glider out of sticks and a bedsheet and dared a student to jump off a shed roof to see how far he flew—a short distance before crashing and breaking his collarbone—clunking Mr. Daniels with the bathroom pass, and other examples of her exploits.

Jamison blinked. "I have to say, I'm a bit shocked by these revelations."

"Told you I had some good ones. So what about you?" she asked. "What other stories do you have, besides the goblin torches?"

"That was when I was enlisted." 

"Yeah, I know; I saw your tattoo. I always thought that only people in gangs got tattoos," she said. "Like those men who hang out in front of that alehouse downtown, next to Hargreaves Law Offices. They're covered in them."

"You mean Tunnis Street Tavern?" 

Tunnis Street Tavern was known for its colorful characters and rough crowds. Jamison found it peculiar that Ludwig Hargreaves hadn't chosen a better location for his practice, but supposed that for the amount of fights that broke out there, the tavern was probably giving him some business.

"Yeah, that's the one. My father calls that place The Piss Jug. Have you seen the people I'm talking about?" The corner of her mouth turned up.

"I have it on good authority that they're not in any gangs," he said. "People get tattoos for lots of reasons."

"I'd never get one." A haughty note crept into her voice. "They look all blobby and smudgy after you get old."

"That's an insult!" Jamison thwacked her on the head with a thin willow tree twig.

She swatted his hand away. "That's just my opinion. At least yours will be a very small smudgy blob."

Jamison thwacked her again. "You should get one that says 'Bad Influence'."

She grabbed at the twig but only ended up with a handful of leaves. "No, I don't think so. By the way, where were you stationed? My father was in Ferwith and Cirreket."

"They sent us all over...Isedhek, Ghenle, Vordmarre," he said.

"You've travelled a lot more than me. I've never been anywhere 'til now."

"You would've gotten to, if you'd gone to Kelvirre." 

"Ugh, don't remind me," she said.

"You ought to be thanking me. I saved you from that." Jamison placed his hand over his heart and looked extra proud.

Lorica stopped in the middle of the path and dropped her pack. "You did not save me, Jamison," she said. "I would've gone to Wrykirk with or without you."

He cackled. "You're too easy to get a rise out of!"

She crossed her arms. "I'm a capable person. Just so you understand."

"Of course, I don't doubt your abilities. Except for the Instant Fire bit."

"Oh, will you come off that?" she said. "So it was a stupid mistake. As if you've never made any stupid mistakes of your own."

"Rest assured, I have," he said. "But you've given me some ammunition, so be ready."

Lorica heaved her pack over her shoulders. "Fine, I'll be ready with some good comebacks."

"Okay then," he said, half smiling. "I'll consider myself warned."

They walked in silence, each surprised at their unexpected camaraderie. "So what did you do after you were discharged?" she asked after a bit.

"My life went in a different direction," he said.

A minute went by. The only sound came from their boots tramping on the soft sod of the trail.

"And?"

"And what?" said Jamison.

"What about all those interesting stories you said you had?" 

Memories of the Darkening and the chain of events that preceded it flashed through his mind. "Come to think of it, I think yours are much more entertaining. But I'm willing to bet you've never been on a werewolf hunt."

Lorica wrinkled her nose. "Liar. There are no werewolves, at least not around here."

"Excuse me, but there are," said Jamison with annoyance, "and there's a clan in Kerrin."

"What? That's the next township over. Why would there be werewolves living there?"

"Because that's where they choose to live," he said. "Do you have a problem with that?"

She kicked a stone along the path. "No, but I bet my father would if he knew. He has a problem with everything though."

"How can you be sure he doesn't know? They look just like you and me, except for when they're shifting, which, by the way, they have more control over than everyone thinks. As long as they aren't bothering anyone, it's no concern of his or anyone else's."

"Why were you hunting for werewolves, anyways?" Lorica couldn't believe that there were werewolves living so close to Reathe. That meant she could have met one and not even known.

"A werewolf," he said. "A rogue one, who betrayed his clan. They hired me to help find him so they could dish out their version of justice."

"Like what? What kind of justice?" She pictured the werewolves in their shaggy wolf forms, with fangs and pointy ears and wet-nosed snouts, wearing magisterial robes. The image reminded her of the time she tried to put a doll's sunhat on an indignant Scout.

"They can rip out their claws while they're in their wolf form." He reached over in front of her face and made a twisting motion. "Yank out their teeth. Or they can poison them with wolfsbane. Lots of different ways to punish a werewolf."

"Ew," Lorica said, though she secretly enjoyed being grossed out. "Did you find the one you were after?"

"I did. Shot him in the belly with a poisoned crossbow bolt and delivered him to his people, just as they'd requested. He didn't go down without a fight though." He parted his shirt to reveal scarred gouges on his shoulders and chest.

"Whoa! He got you good. Wait, you aren't—"

"Nope, not a werewolf," he said. "I learned from the clan that you have to be bitten by intent or be born one. Think of it, we'd be overrun with weres."

"Hmm, I always thought a good scratch would do it," Lorica said.

"I thought the same as you, but that's not the case. It just makes you sick. Matter of fact, this one said to me," Jamison switched to a deep, growling voice, "'I wouldn't waste a bite on someone like you, because it's a gift you don't deserve.' Or something like that. And they treated my wounds with medicine they had, just for that purpose. So, no sickness."

"So, this guy...what'd he do to betray them, anyway?" she asked.

"He turned a child, the daughter of a woman he was in love with," Jamison said. "He did it so she'd have to stay with him, even though she was married to another man who wasn't a werewolf. So much for the bite being a precious gift."

"That's creepy!"

"Mmhmm," he said. "Turning people against their will, especially children, is not a part of their clan's code of conduct."

"And what happened to the little girl?" she asked.

"They took her away from her parents, and she had to stay with the clan in order to learn their ways and stay safe," he said. "She was lucky they took her in. Some clans might not have agreed and just killed her."

"Wow," she said. "That's pretty awful. I don't know if I'd want to be a werewolf or not."

"Seems like there's a lot more to it than anyone would expect," he said. "Lots of clan rules, politics, customs. They aren't supposed to bite just anyone. There needs to be a really good reason."

"You worked for a clan of werewolves," she said, "and got slashed by the rogue one! You're a lot tougher than I gave you credit for, I guess."

"Thanks, I think," said Jamison. "If I still had it, I'd show you the pendant they gave me as a gift, in addition to what I got paid, of course, which is none of your business so don't even ask."

"Did you lose it or something?" asked Lorica. "That sounds like something too nice to lose."

He readjusted his pack. "I didn't mean to lose it."

"See, that's the type of thing I would have taken really good care of," she said. "Like the jewelry and books my mother gave me. I still have them and make sure they don't get lost. You should be more careful with your stuff."

An unwelcome image flew into Jamison's mind, of Broderick's thugs arriving at his home, dragging him away to prison in chains that were charged with their binding magic.

"Thanks for the advice," he said. 

Lorica didn't notice the darkness in his voice.

"So why did you stop hunting werewolves and lighting goblin-kin on fire?" she asked. "Being a goat herder at Elira's seems like a real boring change from that."

"I do a bit more than herding goats there, you know. You happened to stroll by when Archie decided to make a break for it," he said.

Lorica burst out laughing. "That goat's name is Archie?"

"Yeah, Archibald," said Jamison. "He's the oldest. They all have names. There's Gus and Greta, the twin babies, their mother, Fiona, and their father, Reggie. Then there's Carl, Susannah, Tilly, Lenore, Clarence, Irene, Winnie, and Wanda."

"Ha, I like those names. But I want to know how you went from adventuring to working for Elira," she said. "You still didn't answer my question."

"I've answered all one thousand others you've asked me, though," he said. "Aren't we on an adventure right now?"

"Right now, it's a lot of hiking," Lorica said. "It feels like we're never going to get there."

A few moments passed. "Don't you miss what you were doing before?"

Jamison paused in front of a verrew tree. A flock of kooras birds swooped out of its branches behind him, chirping wheezily as they went. "I do. I miss it a lot. But I had to make certain sacrifices. Without getting into it too much, my life is a lot different now than it used to be."

He sighed. "I suppose the gods, or the universe or whatever you believe is out there interfering with our lives, must have decided it was time for a change."

Lorica poked a stick in the leaves of the verrew's lower branches. "I don't think there are gods in charge of anything. People are the ones that cause things to happen."

"I suppose I can't argue with that. How'd you come to that conclusion?" 

She flung the stick over a stone wall. "I just think the idea that there are a bunch of all-powerful beings that decide what goes on here is stupid. Why would they be even remotely interested in Ransara anyways?"

"C'mon, there has to be a reason why you don't believe in any of it," he said. "You're too young to have such a bleak outlook."

"First of all, it's dumb if you just blindly believe in something that nobody's ever seen. It's not like the gods ever show up and prove that they're real," she said.

"I'm not saying I disagree with you, but some people call that having faith," he said. "Just because we can't see something, that doesn't mean it isn't there. And I'm not saying I believe in omnipotent beings, but you have to say that our disbelief doesn't negate their existence. We can't see the air, but we know it's there because we're breathing it in all the time."

"Faith is just a way of saying they don't have a better answer to explain any of it," Lorica said. "And air is different. That's not gods; it's a natural thing, like thunderstorms. That's not even an argument."

"I'm trying to be rational about it," he said. "Get you to see multiple viewpoints."

"That's like saying it's the gods' fault when lightning hits a tree and knocks it through a window instead of realizing that it's just nature," she said. "We had this old neighbor, and when his barn got blown down in a storm and all his cows escaped, he screamed for days about how the gods were against him."

"Must have been painful for you to listen to," said Jamison.

"And the other thing that ticks me off is when people use the gods to blame things on when they make bad decisions, instead of taking responsibility for themselves," she said.

"What about you? Did you take responsibility when you got thrown out of school?" 

Lorica whipped around and stared daggers at him. "Excuse me?"

"Did you get kicked out on purpose?"

A strange look crossed her face. "What gave you that idea? I would have just stopped showing up if I didn't want to be there."

He smirked. "Sorry, did I offend you?"

"No," she said.

"Obviously I did," he said.

"Let's go," she said, walking ahead of him.

He trotted to catch up with her. "Look, I'm just trying to have a little fun."

She sighed. "You don't know how difficult it was for me. I lost all my friends except for Cole."

"How about we steer the conversation back to Ransara's questionably existing pantheon?" he said.

"Fine," Lorica said. She grinned, remembering something. "So my friend Cole, who I just mentioned. He's my best friend, next to Scout. He's the one who's supposed to be covering for me in the event that my father decides to come looking for me."

"Oh?" Jamison said. "Out of curiosity, how do you think that's going to turn out?"

"I have no idea," she said. "My father really knows how to give the third degree. I wouldn't put it past him to drag Cole into his interrogation room at the barracks. And Cole is terrible at lying. I don't know why I left him in charge of my cover story, but I was desperate."

"The more I hear about your father, the more I hope never to meet him."

"Yeah, he's a real hard ass," she said. "Anyways, I was going to say that Cole's parents have these little statues of gods and goddesses in their house. They're old; I think they belonged to his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. I forget how many greats, but it's at least five or six. And his mother prays to them every night."

"What do you care what she does? That's her business."

"It's stupid," she said. "They're just little statues. Why pray to them? They can't do anything. Praying is just another dumb idea that doesn't work."

Jamison stuffed a murrgam root into his mouth and mumbled something she didn't catch.

"She's probably praying for me to stop hanging around Cole." She scrambled over a massive tree root sprawled across their path. "If she is, her prayers aren't being answered. When was the last time you prayed for something and had it come true?"

"I'd say, at some point in my recent past," he said. "Hasn't everyone had that experience?"

"I know I have," she scowled. "And like I said, they don't work."

A mischievous smile crept across his face. "Have you realized the delicious irony of you railing against gods and prayers and having faith while you're traveling to a cave to talk to a giant crystal in the hopes of contacting your mother's ghost?" He spat off to the side of the path.

Lorica's face went paler than a dead fish. She picked her way over rocks and tree roots while cursing under her breath.

"Why did I even tell you any of that?" she said. "I swore to myself that I wouldn't talk to you on this trip unless it was absolutely necessary. I shouldn't have said anything."

"I think you're incapable of silent treatments. You've been babbling since we left." 

Lorica elbowed her way through some long-stemmed, woody vines. "I can give a good silent treatment when I want to."

"No, you can't." He grabbed the vines before they swung back and whipped him in the face. "You're the type who has to fill all the gaps in conversation with mindless prattle or else the silences become too awkward."

"You make me want to punch you," she said. "With both fists, and then you'd have matching black eyes."

"What?" he cried with feigned horror. "Then I won't be able to complete my mission escorting you to the Cave of Wrykirk!"

"Then I'll just have to go by myself," she smiled. "Wouldn't that be awful."

"It'd be pretty reckless," he said. "But I'm here, so I guess I'll tag along."

"Hooray! I have my big, strong, protective goat herder to save me from my recklessness."

"You making fun of me?" He pretended to wipe away a tear. "I'm more than a goat herder, in case you've forgotten."

"Yep, the guy who retired from a career of adventuring, fighting goblin-kin, and hunting werewolves to a more domestic life of chasing goats around Elira's farm. Quite a step down, career wise," she said.

"More than can be said for you, she who is embarking on a career of professional lie-about," Jamison said. "At least it's better than what you were doing before, pegging kids in the face with ice-rocks and tormenting the preceptors."

She smoothed her braid. "Do you ever think about what else you could be doing with your life instead of crawling around after dirty farm animals? How boring it must be for you."

"I was just wondering how bored you must be yourself, hanging around the house all day since you threw away your education." He waited for her to continue her next round of verbal abuse.

"I didn't throw anything away, and you'd agree if you saw the numbnuts who ran my old school. Now I have more time to do the things I want to do."

"As long as we're criticizing each other's life choices, how is all that turning out for you?" he asked. "Running away from home on a stupid, pointless mission to play ghost hunter?"

"You tell me. You're the loser who got volunteered to come with me," she smirked.

Jamison nodded. "Loser, okay. Just remember that I'm the one with the honest job."

"You must be getting old before your time, to settle the way you did," she said. "At least I still have my whole life ahead of me."

Jamison laughed. "You think I was settling? Worse, you think I'm old?"

"How else does someone like you go from one extreme to the other? So what happened?" she asked. "Did you get in trouble and have to disappear?"

"You'd love it if that were the case. It'd probably make you feel better about your own, go-nowhere life."

"Are you always this much of an ass? I wonder how Elira puts up with you and your attitude."

"If you only knew," he said. "I used to be much worse."

Lorica tossed a pinecone at him. "Really? You're bad enough now. I can hardly imagine a worse version of you."

He caught the pinecone and tossed it back at her. "Believe me, he existed. Before my 'step down, career-wise'."

"So what was it? Dishonorable discharge, like desertion? Assault? Did you kill someone?" She didn't expect to be enjoying their banter as much as she was.

Suddenly, Jamison stepped in front of her and blocked her path. He had to squat down a little to be at eye level with her. "I have heard enough out of you, Lorica. You ought to be more respectful of a person's privacy before you make crazy assumptions, so mind your business."

The hairs on the back of her neck prickled at his sharp voice, and the hundred other insults she was about to launch at him with shriveled up and died in her mouth.

Damnit, damnit, damnit! Now she'd never find out what happened, and that was going to drive her crazy.

"Sorry," she mumbled into her jacket. At least Scout had gone to sleep, otherwise she'd never hear the end of it.

{24}

Edmund sat stiff-backed in the glass-walled conservatory at Glasam Inn. He looked out of place: the unshaven Captain of Reathe Guard on three hours of sleep, sweating in his leather armor, perched on the edge of a sateen chair cushion of the most delicate pink.

A prissy-looking girl in white robes stopped at the doorway. Her hair was done in a lattice of braids with silk ribbons woven throughout and wrapped in a gauzy linen veil. She looked to be around Lorica's age.

He had a sudden image of Lorica dressed the same manner and turned his head to hide a laugh as a sharp cough.

"Her Most Holy Representative of the Goddess, Galatea, High Priestess of the Sisters of Durainne," the girl announced in a pompous voice.

Galatea swept into the room. She was a matronly woman clad in flowing white garments that made her look like she had been swallowed by a cloud.

Edmund rose to meet her and bowed. "My lady."

"I'm impressed! A gesture of reverence from Reathe Guard's commanding officer," she said with a feline smile.

A temporary relief for my back, thanks to that awful excuse for a chair. I won't give you the satisfaction again.

"My lady, I don't have a lot of time to chat with you. I have some alarming news. Two days ago, Lorica disappeared," Edmund said.

"What do you mean, she's disappeared?" asked the priestess.

He tugged at his collar. "That's what I said. She's run off, it seems."

"Where did she go?" asked Galatea, spreading her white-swaddled arms like a pair of oversized goose wings. She didn't seem affected by the warmth in the least.

An entire family could have been clothed with the fabric from just one sleeveHow does she stand the heat?

He looked up at the ceiling. "If I knew that, I would've brought her back by now. As it is, I've been dealing with my infant's one-month premature birth, two wild sons, and running my entire command, what with the crimes that have been plaguing us."

"You sound a little defensive, Captain. How do we know you aren't hiding her?" she said.

His jaw dropped. "Defens—hiding—gods no, that isn't the case!" he said. "Not that I owe you an explanation, but her room looked like it'd been ransacked, and we have no idea which direction she went. There's a search party out now, but nothing has turned up."

Galatea frowned, wrinkling her nose as though a pig fart had just wafted by. "Mr. Warde, need I remind you that the gods disapprove of those who take their name in vain," she said.

Edmund set his steely eyes on her. She had a wiry hair growing out of a mole on her left cheek, which he longed to pluck out with force. "I should think they have more important things to be concerned about, such as my daughter who's missing. Speaking of—"

"She has to be somewhere!" the priestess interrupted. "She can't have gone far."

"Thanks for your concern, my lady." Edmund wiped his brow. "I assure you, we are doing all we can. Nobody wants her safe return more than me."

"Excuse my impertinence, but why aren't you out there with them?" she asked.

He coughed in surprise. "I have three small children at home, one of whom is a very sick infant, and a wife who's exhausted. Lorica will be of legal age in two months. Tell me where your priorities would be if you were in this predicament."

"Of course, Captain, this must be difficult for you," she said. "I have never had children, except the Sisters, who are like daughters to me. What reason would she have to run away?"

He shoved open a few of the conservatory's louvered windows. "I don't know! She's angry, unhappy? I don't know what's going through her head half the time."

"Are you feeling guilty that she ran away?" she asked.

Edmund tensed. He'd sworn to himself he would remain calm during this meeting, but so far, this woman knew exactly which of his buttons to press. "Guilty? Why?"

Galatea shrugged. "Many parents blame themselves when their children act out like this."

He opened his mouth to say something disparaging but thought better of it. "My lady, I've been up for three days and nights worrying myself into a frenzy about where my daughter is."

"Then you ought to be doubling your efforts to find her. I traveled a long way to personally escort her to Kelvirre. I could've stayed in the city to oversee preparations for the fertility festival."

"I'm sorry for the trouble," he said in a tight voice.

"The Connubia is a thousand-year-old tradition. The goddess demands her presence." Galatea spoke as though the success of the festival depended on Lorica alone, and the fact that she was missing was a personal inconvenience.

The whooshing breeze created by her sweeping hand gestures rushed by Edmund's face. He stepped back. "Be that as it may, your festival will have to go without her if she doesn't turn up in time. In the meantime, you might ask your goddess to see to it my daughter comes home safely."

"I'll be sure to include Lorica in my prayers. Perhaps Durainne will be merciful enough to intervene on our behalf," she said. "On the other hand, we'd hate if the goddess was displeased because your daughter got ideas in her head."

Edmund clenched his teeth. "My lady, I find your tone and attitude offensive. My child is missing. This isn't a joke. She could be dead in a ditch, for all we know."

Galatea glanced her acolyte, who looked nervous as she hovered near the doorway.

He cracked his knuckles. "I have the option of having you escorted to the province borders if you continue to insult me."

She blanched. "Forgive me, Captain. The Sisters have had instances of people getting cold feet before, but I can see this must be serious."

"Serious?" Edmund laughed with displeasure. "Yes, it's something like that." He shouldered past her and slammed the conservatory door shut, rattling the glass in its copper frame.

{25}

Lorica wiped sweat from her forehead. "How'd it get so hot outside?" Loose strands of her braid stuck to her sweaty face.

Jamison waited as she stuffed her jacket into her pack. "That's spring in Cailreth. I bet the temperature will drop twenty degrees by tonight."

"If only we didn't have to take the long way around these bogs," she said, swinging the pack over her shoulder. "They stink in this heat."

"It was either this or scale the rock cliffs at Hilse Gorge, and I left my rappelling equipment at home," he said.

She turned and rolled her eyes at him.

"Preserved bodies of people have been found in these bogs," he said. "Thousands of years old. They'd had their heads bashed in."

"Gross!" She tore a cattail out of the spongey earth and trailed it along the grass as she walked. "Is that why it smells so disgusting here?"

Jamison laughed. "It's true. They have some on display at the museum in the city area. Didn't you ever go on a field trip with your class?"

Lorica looked away. "No."

A coal black insect with a barbed stinger flew in front of her face.

"Sloe wasps. I hate them!" She swatted it away with the cattail but it buzzed closer than ever. Sloe wasps were only the size of a thumbtack, but they were aggressive.

"Don't do that," Jamison said. "You'll just piss it off and it'll sting you."

She ducked as the wasp dove at her again. "I've been stung by them before."

"Then you know how painful it is," he said.

An uprooted marsh pine with an enormously wide trunk blocked the path ahead of them. Its bark was peeling away in thick, dry sloughs, exposing the sun bleached trunk beneath it.

Jamison whistled. "Bet this was one of the tallest in the forest until it fell. Go around or climb over?"

She surveyed the tree. They'd have to hike for a distance on either side in order to avoid climbing, and wade into the swampland.

They used the rough, peeling bark as hand and footholds. Ants crawled over their arms and hands as they hoisted themselves over the trunk. When they reached the top, they brushed their clothes to flick the ants off. More wasps flew around them.

"Let's get out of here," she said. "These bugs are driving me crazy."

Lorica started down the other side of the trunk. A strip of dusty bark broke off in her hand. She scrabbled to hold on but slid down the rest of the way. At the bottom, she landed on something that crumpled like a paper bag, hidden in the tall grass and brambles.

"What was that?" she asked, searching the ground.

"Look out!" Jamison shouted.

Hundreds of sloe wasps poured out of their crushed nest and swarmed angrily around Jamison and Lorica.

She swore and stumbled around flailing her arms in a deranged marionette dance but they continued to attack like a mini cyclone. Getting stung was like getting stabbed with miniature fiery swords of a thousand tiny, winged devils wearing shiny black armor.

"Get your jacket, pull it over your head!" Jamison yelled.

The air vibrated with their wingbeats. She hardly heard him over the deafening hum. Bursts of pain flared up where they stung her neck, shoulders, belly, back, and arms.

Jamison clambered halfway down and then jumped off the trunk. He landed on his knees and accidentally squished some of the wasps. Streams of them flew out of the wrecked nest.

Lorica covered her head with her arms and ran, while the wasps followed her in a stingered cloud.

"Don't run!" Jamison shouted. He pulled his tunic over his head and was trying to navigate his way to Lorica through a tiny peephole. Wasps crawled over his jacket, searching for bare skin to sting.

She howled with each new sting and blundered further from the path, stumbling and tripping over rocks and tree roots.

Scout woke up to her screams. "Lorica, stop moving! Get down on the ground!"

He shot out of her pack and screeched at the wasps in warning. He perched on Lorica's head, beating his wings and baring his teeth.

"Retreat!" he ordered the wasps. "Retreat, you filthy scum!"

The insects scattered but soon regrouped and dive bombed Lorica.

"Get back inside the pack, Scout!" she shouted. "You'll be killed!"

"And leave the battle?" he cried. "I would never forsake my duties!"

He blasted through the swarm, snatching them in his claws and hurling them to the ground. Their bodies made hard pelting noises as they hit the earth. Crushed wasps lay in heaps, stunned by Scout's attack.

Jamison curled in a ball to make himself as small a target as possible but the wasps stung him through his tunic. "Lorica, drop to the ground and cover yourself!"

She zigzagged in a panic. Her pack slid off her shoulders and fell somewhere in the brambles. Scout killed many of the wasps, but more and more seemed to take their place. There was nowhere to hide from them.

Her stings throbbed.

The edge of the bog loomed closer. She had lost track of the path. Jamison's shouts came from somewhere to the left.

More wasps appeared. They circled in wide arcs around Lorica, looking for an opportunity to strike again. Scout's wings were a blur as he tore through the new swarm.

Lorica crawled along the spongey ground, which rippled as she moved across it. Mud bubbled up and sloshed up to her elbows. She pulled her arms out of the mud and staggered to her feet.

The wasps dove and dove.

She slipped and plunged headfirst into the bog. The splash drenched some of the wasps, and they were unable to fly. They fell in with small plops and sank. The rest flew off.

Lorica coughed and sputtered as the swampy water pooled around her waist. Muck squelched like wet cement around her ankles. It sucked her feet down as she struggled to lift them up.

"Don't get any of that water in your nose!" Jamison raced to the edge of the bog, with Scout clinging to his tunic with one foot. His other foot was curled and tucked into his body.

"Get me out!" she yelled. "I'm sinking!"

"Hold on!" Jamison said. "Don't struggle."

He searched for a branch long enough for Lorica to hang on to.

"Right there!" called Scout, pointing with his wing.

The water lapped at her armpits. "Hurry!"

Jamison held the branch out to Lorica, and pulled her out the bog. Muddy, stagnant water oozed off her. Algae streaked her hair and clothes.

She spat out a mouthful of water. "Th-thanks."

"Geez, Lorica," Scout said. "You're a mess. I didn't think you'd jump into the bog."

She sneezed violently six times. "I didn't mean to. Fell in. Oh, Jamison, your eye! It's swelled shut."

"I'll be okay," Jamison said. "It probably looks worse than it feels."

"Are they gone?" she wheezed, rubbing her nose and looking all round.

"Yeah, Scout did a number on them, plus the ones you accidentally drowned," Jamison said. "You didn't breathe in any of that water though, did you?"

"I don't know, probably," she coughed. "Why?"

"Maybe I oughta not tell you," Jamison said.

She sneezed three more times. "Why?"

"Forget it," he said.

The pain from the stings came rolling back in a fiery wave. "Ohh, ow!" she moaned.

"Let's find someplace to wash up and treat our stings," he said.

They limped out of the bogs until they came to a stream, where they washed up with lye soap and changed into fresh clothes. Lorica went first. Jamison started a fire while he waited for her to finish bathing.

Dozens of red welts dotted them from head to toe. Removing the stingers was like plucking out a red-hot barbed fishhook and then dressing the wound with caustic acid. It took them two hours to scrape them out using Jamison's spring-loaded blade. Scout had already pulled the stinger out of his foot and two from his wings with his teeth before they reached the stream.

"At least they die after they sting you," Lorica said through a fat lip that had been swelled with a sting, "because they leave their guts behind when the stinger comes off."

"Yep," Jamison said. He squinted with his one good eye. "Like tiny sacrifices to the great wasp god."

"I feel like the sacrifice," she groaned.

Jamison smeared red clay he'd gathered from the stream's bank on their stings. "It has antiseptic properties. It'll draw the venom out and the swelling will go down."

The damp clay's chill helped soothe the stings' biting heat, but they still throbbed.

Lorica picked at the leftover wild hen from the evening before. "I can't eat. Hurts everywhere."

"I've got something that'll chase the pain away so we can sleep tonight," Jamison said.

"What?"

He brought out a small tin and opened it.

"Eoesu flower!" Lorica exclaimed in mock outrage. "Jamison Undrand!"

He snickered. "Give me a break. Like you've never done this before."

She gave him a sly grin.

Usually, eoesu was made into pain tablets. Apothecaries dried the yellow flower blossoms and pulverized them to a fine powder. The powder was mixed with gelatin and other fillers to bind it all together and stamped into pills with a pressing machine. The tablets were tiny because they were potent.

Jamison took a pipe made of burnished dark wood out of his pack. It had the face of a laughing, fanged creature with bulging eyes and outstretched claws carved around the bowl. Its scaly tail curled up the handle.

"What is that thing on the pipe?" Lorica asked.

"That's the spirit of the pipe," he said, putting a few pinches of the eoesu into it. "Don't worry, he's friendly."

The pain of their stings ebbed away and pleasant, floaty relaxation settled over them as they passed the pipe back and forth.

Lorica exhaled a plume of the pungent smoke. "Why did you ask earlier if I got any swamp water in my nose?"

Jamison took a long pull from the pipe and breathed it out in rings. "You sure you want to hear this?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Because I heard about someone back from my army days who hiked through some swampland with his company. Near Helantha, I think. In the southern continent." Jamison paused and drank some chamomile tea. "So he went to sleep and they had a hard time waking him up. The guy was practically a zombie after that."

Lorica almost fell over laughing. Everything was funnier after eoesu. "I bet that's not true."

Jamison snorted. "They had to send him to an asylum. All he did was stare and drool."

"Did he try to eat anybody?" she cackled.

"I wonder if you'll be zombie by tomorrow morning," he said. "We'll just have to wait and see."

"Don't freak me out, Jamison!" she said. "I don't want to lose my mind like that other guy."

"You have to have one first before you can lose it," he said. "So you're probably safe."

She whipped a pinecone at him and missed.

He gave her a lopsided grin. "You'd make a good zombie. It'd be a no-brainer for you."

"Ahhh, stop!" she said, covering her face.

"You'd be very dead-icated," he snorted.

They laughed and told each other terrible jokes until they drifted into heavy sleep, unaware of the presence of another figure watching them close by.

{26}

The walls of the labyrinthine world inside the Brumal Star were as though they were formed from ice. Some were smooth and rounded like billowing clouds, yet others sharp and jagged, as if they would slice apart Taryn's skin. She brushed her fingers against the glassy surface and felt bone cold under them.

Every turn led her to a dead end where she'd be forced to turn around. There was something to be avoided that lurked around someplace, but she was never sure where it was. Better to keep moving so it couldn't track her.

Her footsteps made no noise as she wandered down a passageway. The ground disappeared and reappeared, covered in darkness or the fog that rose up from it.

This place felt too suffocating, too close, even in the rooms that were large. Everything seemed the same, like repeated images.

There were others inside here. Taryn sensed the other presences and wondered who they were and if they could sense her too. They appeared as fleeting shadows, rushing past in a blur. All of them were running from something, probably the same thing she was trying to avoid.

An unsettled feeling nagged her, like she was forgetting something. There were places she could go here that felt safer than others, places that felt out of reach to the other, bigger, more threatening presence that was in here with her. She needed to get to one of those places now.

A shuffling sound, like something large being dragged along the floor, came from close by. She didn't dare go further.

An enormous face, made up of other faces, slithered around the corner. Taryn pressed herself against the wall, gaping up at the creature in terror.

"Taryn," he said, "Your father is looking for you."

{27}

Lorica ambled along behind Jamison, enchanted by the scenery. It reminded her of the landscapes she'd seen as a child hanging in her great-aunt's house in the country: oil-painted images depicting idyllic moments caught in time.

A warm, earth-scented breeze ruffled over the sprawling grasslands. Prynnia grew in unruly clumps on the trail, unlike the manicured topiaries that were the fashion back home. The star-shaped purple flowers were one of Reathe's earliest blooms.

She plucked a prynnia stem off the bush. "Are we getting close to Wrykirk?"

"We still have some ways to go. You'll see why it isn't exactly a tourist destination." 

Not exactly a tourist destination. No kidding. He loved saying that.

"Did you know," she said, "that there's supposed to be a rock formation that looks like a giant cat looking at its reflection in a lake? Cole told me about it once."

"That cat," Jamison said. "I know the one he's talking about. That's the other way past Reathe, in Ennis. If you went south, instead of west, like we did."

She watched a pair of hawks wheeling about in the sky. "I wonder where their nest is."

"Mmm hmm." He gazed off towards the green hills.

Lorica studied his face. She couldn't tell if he was distracted or bored by her conversation.

#

In truth, Jamison's thoughts centered on the gray-green flask tucked away in his jacket and who had given it to him. It was someone he knew from the Calare who wanted to keep their identity hidden.

Whoever it was possessed enough magical knowledge, strength, and skill to have created the artifact and written its advanced spell. That put a few mages on Jamison's "maybe" list.

The spell needed to be strong enough to achieve what it was intended to: draw the power of what lay beneath the Brumal Star. This was big time magic, leagues ahead of spells to boil water or pick a lock.

Taking his powers away had been no mean feat. Restoring them with the flask seemed like it would be too easy. Elira had put great confidence in whoever had arranged this. Even though she had a strange sense of humor, she was serious about helping Jamison get his powers back.

If the spell was successful, it could bring him a whole new set of problems, like how strong his powers would be and if he'd have to hide them.

And if the Calare found out...he was probably getting too far ahead of himself. Until he got to the cave, all Jamison could do was wonder.

{28}

"You dare show up here empty-handed!" The Canthaelag uncoiled his body to almost full length inside the Star. "You know that you are only delaying things, magus."

Prickly cold settled over Broderick as the Canthaelag's anger rolled over him, though it was trapped inside of the Brumal Star. He hadn't even seen the creature camouflaged against the crystal walls until he moved. It was like looking at some savage, alien specimen displayed in a glass enclosure—strange and deadly, yet contained.

"You didn't tell me to bring anyone this time; I thought you were just going to explain some things to me," Broderick said.

The creature draped himself along a crystalline ledge. "You came here expecting tea and a chat."

"I don't want to do things like this. There must be some other way. Let her go. Let me give you something else. Please!"

"Like you?" said the creature. His many eyes swam about in their sockets.

Broderick gulped the stale cave air. "No."

The Canthaelag pursed his lips. Cracks lined them like the fissures on the cave wall. "I need to know you won't try to cheat me."

"The way you cheated my wife and I of a child?" He took a small step toward the slug-like creature, emboldened by desperation. "You would never have gotten hold of Taryn if I had not been here on other business, and I never would have agreed to help Jamison had I known you would show up and interfere. You killed her."

The Canthaelag's mouths split into deranged, clownish grins. "I didn't kill her, magus. It was the force of the invocation—your invocation that you wrote—that broke the seal put there by the Wirre-sortis. Those sons of whores ruined my chance the first time around. You wrenched open the gate. That was what killed your daughter. After that, she wandered in here on her own."

Broderick steadied himself on a limestone pillar and blinked through a blurry haze of vertigo and nausea. "No. It wasn't my fault. I didn't even intend to call for you. How are you here? Why are you here?"

"Simple," he said. "Though that incantation that you found—impressive detective work, by the way—was good, if unnecessary."

"Unnecessary?" said Broderick. "I spent hours in that sinkhole of a library looking for a way to find you, to ask you to release her, and you tell me it was unnecessary?"

"I was here," the creature said. "I didn't need to be summoned, and I could not respect myself if I did. Any demon who does has an inferiority complex."

"All I want to do is get my daughter out of there. She can't spend an eternity in there with you."

"Why not?" rasped the Canthaelag. "She can't go home with you." He inched forward. "She's too great a prize to give up for nothing."

"Taryn is my daughter, not a prize!" growled Broderick.

"To me, she's a means to leave this prison," he said. "I can show her the way out. But I need to become stronger before we can leave. You know what you need to do, if you wish to release your daughter's spirit."

"And if I don't?"

"That's your choice. If I don't leave, she doesn't leave. That's the truth that you cannot comes to terms with," said the Canthaelag. "And I'm ready to leave. I'm tired of hiding."

"You, hiding?" said Broderick, incredulous. "From who?"

"The Slukhtis, another race from my realm. They're immune to much of our magic. They're tiny, but they are large in number, and they chase until what they're hunting die of exhaustion. We're trophies to them; our flesh makes them strong. They've continued this practice for time longer than you can count. We are old races, created long before humans walked Ransara," the Canthaelag said.

"How have you managed to evade them for so long?" Broderick asked.

"I can disguise myself as many things. It's a survival trait of our species."

"And if you get out, what will you do? Roam around Ransara? Your presence won't go unnoticed."

The Canthaelag shrugged. "That doesn't matter, as long as I am away from them."

"I'm not sympathetic to your situation; I would help them if I could," spat Broderick. Something as monstrous as the Canthaelag holding his daughter as a bargaining chip didn't deserve to live with freedom.

"You wouldn't be saying that if you met them," the Canthaelag said. "The Wirre-sortis didn't realize they gave me a good hiding place when they locked me in, but I don't want to stay here forever."

"You know you need my help to come all the way through. I know it has been a long time since you have last fed," Broderick said.

The creature raised a sickle-claw. "Careful! I can last a long time. And I showed myself to you because I thought that a powerful wizard such as yourself would be in a position to help me."

"Meaning you're desperate," Broderick said.

"So are you," said the creature.

Taryn's screams pierced the wet stillness of the cave.

The Canthaelag's lopsided grins creased its faces. Dark liquid oozed down his chin. "Sometimes she catches a glimpse of me and remembers where she is. I wonder if she knows she's dead."

Tightness closed Broderick's throat.

The creature stretched his barbed front legs. "It's within your power to rescue her."

Broderick clenched the folds of his robes. "Then what do I need to do?"

"What we talked about in our first meeting," he said. "The gateway from here to your realm opens as a channel, but it only goes one way at a time. When things enter, none may exit. When things exit, none may enter. You must open the gate one way, but it needs to be more than just the incantation you've been using to speak to me. This time, it needs to be able to pierce through the rest of the barrier that keeps me here."

Taryn's voice calling for help echoed through the chamber and died away.

Broderick wiped his sweaty palms on his robes. "I'm willing, because I would die before letting Taryn be trapped in there with you for an eternity."

{29}

Jamison had been snoring for three hours now. Lorica groaned and pressed her elbows against her ears. His heavy, honking breaths were going to cause an earthquake. She nudged him with her foot, but he mumbled and snored louder than ever.

She couldn't take it anymore. Tomorrow's hiking would be awful if she didn't get at least a couple hours of sleep.

"Damn it, forget this!" She snatched her bedroll and blankets and marched away a fair distance from the tent. Threats of goblins, bears, wildcats, or even people were nothing compared to Jamison's death snores, which would probably cause them to go deaf anyways.

She didn't care that the ground was littered with stones and tree roots, not after enduring the last three hours of that ridiculous, eardrum-bursting cacophony. It was trading one discomfort for another. She lay on her back and gazed at the constellations Jamison had taught her to identify.

There was The Sea Serpent, which had a red star for an eye. And there was The Giant, who carried a club formed of five tiny pinpoints and another massive star, which was the head of his slain enemy. In the northern sky was The Elk, that guided lost travelers.

"At least we know where we're going," she said.

Her thoughts floated to the Cave of Wrykirk and what she would say to her mother if she was fortunate enough to speak with her. They'd be there in a few days, if everything went smoothly. Of all the things Lorica ever had to worry about, appropriate conversations with the deceased wasn't one of them, until she took off for this trip.

Lorica had not seen her mother, Lisette, since she was seven years old, when a sudden illness had taken her life. Delirious from fever, her mother had pointed in terror at grotesque creatures she insisted were watching her from under the dresser.

The panicked maid brought Lisette cool water and rushed to change the dirty bed linens, boiling them to rid them of diseased sweat.

Plenty of people tried to help, but whatever afflicted her wouldn't respond to the treatments they tried. Edmund was picky about who he let into their house to visit, especially after the two women wearing embroidered robes and beaded headdresses came to the house.

Their names were Avice and Rohesia. Their eyes were ringed heavy with black, and the bridge of their noses were pierced, denoting they were of the Ghaadek, the healer cult of Cirreket. That's what they told Edmund, at least.

They stroked Lorica's tangled hair and tear-streaked cheeks and pretended not to notice her dirty bare feet. "What a brave child you've been," they said. And to Edmund, "Let us help your wife. She's one of our people."

They went upstairs and she heard the women in her parents' bedroom speaking in Cirreken, Lisette's native language. Lorica only recognized a handful of words. The heavy, resinous scent of boiled hende root, a medicinal plant native to their land, floated under the door.

Avice and Rohesia chanted over Lisette, touching her hands, her arms and shoulders, her forehead, and her neck as they sang. They got her to drink the tea they made from the hende.

They went downstairs to the kitchen, where they shared Cirreken red tea they'd brought with them. The women spoke with Edmund about Cirreket and the time he'd spent there in the army. After a while, the women noticed Lorica spying on them through the doorway.

"She looks like her mother," Rohesia said.

Edmund half-smiled and nodded. "She's my beautiful girl."

"Do you know your mother's language?" Avice asked.

"E leu," said Lorica, which meant "a little".

"That's a shame," Avice said. "She should be learning her mother's language and customs."

Edmund raised his eyebrows. "How do you know she isn't? Lisette and I are raising her the way we see fit."

Avice ignored his comments and said, "If you were my daughter, I would make sure you understood your heritage. Where you came from."

"When was she last in school?" asked Rohesia.

Edmund scowled. "Not since her mother got sick. A month. It's not my choice. The school asked us not to send her until Lisette is recovered."

Avice looked around the kitchen. "It doesn't look like a Cirreken woman lives here," she said to Rohesia in their language. "I don't see her influence in this house at all."

"They're raising a little half-barbarian," Rohesia smirked.

"Half? But surely not the Cirreken half, right?" Edmund answered with a mirthless smile.

The women stared, taken aback.

"You assume I don't know my wife's tongue," he said. "How else do you think we communicated before she knew the language of Cailreth?"

"Please excuse us, Captain. We misspoke," they said.

Lisette began coughing, worse than she had in days. Edmund and the women raced upstairs. Blood and phlegm crackled in her throat and chest. He helped his wife to sit upright, even as she struggled against his grip.

He cradled his wife's head in his lap, wiping the sweat away with a damp cloth, stroking her face and kissing her forehead. Lisette shuddered and relaxed into his arms. He tossed the blood-flecked the pillow onto the floor and placed a clean one under her head. Soon she slipped back into uneasy sleep.

Edmund herded the women back downstairs.

"I thought the medicine you gave her was supposed to alleviate the cough," he growled. "She seems worse!"

"You need to give it time," Rohesia said. "Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day."

"What if it doesn't?" he asked, settling into a kitchen chair.

"Not everything is a guarantee," said Avice, "except death."

"That's not what I wanted to hear," he said.

"We never promised anything," Rohesia said. "We can't. There's still a chance she could improve."

"She doesn't look like she's improving," said Edmund.

"The infirmary?" Rohesia asked.

"She was there. She insisted on being at home."

"Have you thought about what will happen to your daughter," Avice asked, "in case your wife doesn't get better?"

Edmund stared at them, stone-faced. "What do you think? I'll raise Lorica myself."

The two women looked at each other. How would he would raise this dirt-smudged, barefoot child alone?

"But what about your post with Reathe Guard? You have an entire command to run," Avice said. "How will you manage?"

Rohesia peered at the dark circles under Edmund's eyes. Worry lines creased his forehead. "You'll be run ragged," she said.

"We have a girl who helps," he started to say.

Rohesia looked at the pile of unwashed dishes piled up on the counter, the un-swept floor, the clothes needing to be laundered still in the hamper, and the unopened letters tossed onto the sideboard. "She doesn't look like she helps much."

"We all have our hands full." He caught Lorica peeking around the doorframe with serious eyes that seemed older than her seven years. "Go take a bath, my little baby."

The women watched her scamper upstairs and shook their heads. "What a shame," they said.

"What does that mean?" Edmund said. "Lisette is still alive; in case you haven't noticed."

"There's a way we could help, if it comes to it," said Avice.

He gave them a condescending smile. "How?"

"We could take her with us," she suggested. "To Cirreket."

"What? NO! You're not taking my daughter anywhere!"

"Why not?" Avice asked. "She'd get a proper education; she'd be taught good manners. She would learn our culture."

"Lorica is doing those things here, where she belongs," he said. "With me."

"There's no reason to be upset," Rohesia said. "It was just an offer."

"We just ask you to consider it," said Avice. "We'd hate for Lorica to grow up missing any opportunities."

"Or be starved for attention while you're busy taking care of your duties at the barracks, Captain," added Rohesia. "A child left to her own devices will surely find trouble."

"Opportunities? Attention? I assure you, Lorica will not miss anything with me," he snarled. "Get out of my house."

The women rose to leave.

"Of course, Captain. You must do what you feel is best," said Avice.

He motioned for them to hurry up and go.

Upstairs, Lisette began coughing again.

"Edmund?" came Lorica's small voice from the stairs. Rohesia and Avice both turned as if to make their way to the bedroom, but Edmund blocked them.

"Leave," he said. "I will handle it."

Rohesia paused at the doorway. "Such a sad end to one of our own," she said to Avice. "This wouldn't have happened if she hadn't fallen in love with the handsome army commander who was occupying her country and followed him here to his land."

"But now he'll be stuck rearing his half-breed offspring who will make him miserable," Avice said.

"GET OUT!" he shouted, "before I send you both back to Cirreket in caskets!"

Rohesia and Avice fled.

#

The physicians knew it was hopeless. Edmund refused to accept the help of any more outsiders, to the despair of Lorica and the maid. There were no healers, not real ones, anyway.

At the end, Lisette didn't recognize her daughter.

When it was all over, Edmund dragged the mattress outside and burned it, a ceremonial purging of the shared matrimonial bed and the infection that slipped in when nobody expected it. Then he locked the door to that room forever and set himself up down the hall in the spare one.

Lorica had so many questions for her mother. She wanted to know what it was like being dead, and if dead people missed being alive.

She wondered if Lisette knew Edmund had gotten remarried. Maybe dead people didn't even care about those things, because according to everything she'd ever heard about it, the afterlife was supposed to be a beautiful, serene place without pain or terror.

Maybe that's what people said because they didn't know. At least, nobody she knew of had come back and said so.

But Lorica needed to brace herself for the possibility that no matter how badly she wanted the stories to be true, there was a very good chance they weren't.

{30}

The forest stirred with new life, awakening after a long winter spent slumbering in a deep freeze. New green leaves unfurled as the crimson buds dropped off the branches.

One morning, Jamison and Lorica watched a mother black bear stroll across their path with two cubs. They knelt behind a tree after he shushed and pointed. He had to clamp his hand over her mouth to prevent her from shouting in excitement since she'd never seen one, except for a picture in a book.

At night, they camped underneath the open sky. Lorica watched the stars twinkle until she fell asleep. By now, she was used to the uneven ground beneath her and the sounds of the forest at night.

Scout swooped in and out of their camp, making friends and catching insects. "Great newsmmmfff!" he announced one night, through a mouthful of beetle. He settled on Lorica's shirt, licking the whitish, creamy guts oozing down the sides of his mouth. "Mmm, that was a crunchy one!"

"Gross, Scout! What's your news?" she asked.

"I've been out on my rounds, and I met some bats who know some bats, who know some other bats who supposedly roosted in the Cave of Wrykirk!" he said.

Lorica broke out into a huge grin. "What did they say?"

"It might be just a rumor," said Scout. "It pains me to admit it, but sometimes bats can be embarrassingly—"

"Unreliable?" supplied Jamison.

"I wouldn't say unreliable as much as given to flights of fancy," said Scout. "Must have something to do with having wings and all."

"I never realized how misunderstood bats were," Jamison said.

Scout crawled down to Lorica's shoulder. "Oh, we're misunderstood, all right. Let me tell you about the time Lorica's stepmother chucked a shoe at me. I was bunking in Lorica's closet, and Fiene wasn't too pleased when she found out. It was the closest I've come to dying yet!"

"Sounds like it must have been a narrow miss," Jamison said.

"Even with her poor aim." He scratched his head. "It couldn't have been a bedroom slipper, oh no! She threw one of Edmund's army boots!"

Jamison whistled. "Yeah, those aren't meant to be projectiles."

"Hold on, Scout," Lorica said. "What did they say about the cave? Are we close?"

"We've still got some ways to go. They told me the cave is easy to miss, and you won't find it when it's dark out. But they promised they'd try to get in touch with those other bats and get back to me if there's anything we should know."

"Where are the Wrykirk bats now?" she asked.

Scout shrugged his wings. "I have no idea, but it doesn't seem like anyone lives there anymore."

"Maybe they found some closets to live in," Lorica joked.

"I doubt that! Bats move around all the time for all kinds of reasons. I have to go. I'm starving!" He zipped off into the darkness.

{31}

 

The Canthaelag scratched his shriveled hide with a hook-like claw and waited. Nobody would ever have seen him except as a darker shadow within the dim Star.

The sour stench of terror and anxiety drifting off the two human reached his slit nostrils. His shrunken stomach clenched. The hunger hadn't bothered the Canthaelag until recently. He'd gone centuries without a proper feeding and could go on longer, sustained by his own powers. The last time he'd eaten was—

He slid his tongues over jagged teeth, remembering. It was some doltish traveler, thinking he was alone in the wilds outside Dreya Forest. He never saw the Canthaelag coming. The man's head and torso were in the creature's jaws before the bottom half of his corpse hit the ground.

The Wirre-sortis surrounded him. Arcs of blue-white lightning crackled from the warrior-mages' magically-charged bayonets and jerked him from heavy sleep. Their weapons' scorching bolts of energy coiled around his bloated body. They'd been waiting and watching, just like he had stalked the unwary traveler.

The Canthaelag cursed himself again at the memory of letting his guard down while he'd indulged in the sated bliss of digesting human meat. He should have put up defenses, but he'd grown arrogant. That wouldn't happen again.

Broderick finished the incantation with the dagger that would open the gateway, allowing thing to enter, but not exit. He'd broken the seal binding the Star's portal abilities, thanks to a lot of research and an etched-stone cylinder he and Portnoy had made just for that purpose.

Many layers of heavy, strong, ancient magic secured the Brumal Star, to ensure that anything that came from the realms beyond the Star could not come and go as they pleased.

Breaking the Wirre-sortis' seal to the gate was akin to cracking a magic safe. One incantation opened the gate, and yet another closed it. Once the magic was activated to allow passage one way, nothing could pass from another way. Broderick and Portnoy together had authored new incantations, which so far had shattered the warrior-mages' magic like fragile champagne flutes.

Broderick led the man toward the Star.

"Talk to the Spirit of the Cave," he told the man. "Tell him your story, and ask if he might help you. Just like we talked about."

The man shuffled forward. The Star basked in silence, except for the faraway trickling of water. He looked back at Broderick as if the sorcerer would feed him his lines, but Broderick only nodded at him in encouragement.

"Spirit of the Cave," the man said in the feeble, strained voice of a person who spent much of his time screaming at the walls of his room at the asylum.

Broderick hid his clasped his hands inside the folds of his robes and waited. He projected an eerie calm but was grateful the Canthaelag could not detect his racing heartbeat.

"Speak," said the Canthaelag.

"Spirit of the Cave," the man began again, "I come to you seeking..." His voice trailed off as he searched for the words. He looked back again at Broderick, who seemed to have melted into the shadows.

The fearful stench enveloped the Canthaelag like a cloud and raised pinpricks on his shriveled hide. His throats and stomach spasmed.

"I come to you seeking an end. An end to my trials. They locked me up because of my condition. They were following me, you know. The sorcerer brought me here." He gestured towards Broderick. "He said you could help."

"Go on," said the Canthaelag. 
"I told them a long time ago they were following me and watching me, and I asked for help, but they made me leave my home and my family, and they put me in a cement room, and I can still hear them outside," croaked the man.

The Canthaelag grunted.

The man swiped at his thin hair. "I thought they'd follow me here too, but I don't see them yet." He hugged himself with gangly, lesioned arms and shivered in the dank cold that seeped through his dun-colored asylum uniform.

Guilt gnawed at Broderick. He thought of grabbing the man and hauling him back to the asylum, but an image of Taryn, lost and terrified inside the giant crystal's labyrinth invaded his mind.

"Come closer," said the Canthaelag.

The man's legs weakened. Broderick slipped behind a rock column, thankful that the darkness hid his shaking.

"I said come closer," said the Canthaelag. His voice rose from within the depths of the Star. "What's your name?"

"Peter," the man said, his voice hushed. He took a hesitant step forward.

"Closer," said the Canthaelag.

Peter took another small step nearer to the Star, fear and misery on his face.

"Don't be afraid," said the Canthaelag. "I have heard your pleas; I know of your suffering. Let me help you."

"You want to help me?" Tears shone on his sunken cheeks. Who was the last person, besides the sorcerer, who had broken him out of the asylum, who'd offered to do such a thing? Not the wardens, who came with restraints but did nothing to drive away the things that slithered and scratched at the corners of his room and in his head.

Not the nurses, who promised to bring him another blanket, yet when he woke up raw and shivering, he knew they'd forgotten again, maybe on purpose. He could never tell.

And not the well-meaning people who visited the ward, peeking into the barred windows of patients' rooms, mumbling empty words of support. They moved to the next door as quickly as they could, as if each illness would follow them.

The worst were the ones who dragged their children along, teaching them to be thankful for their wits. "How grateful you should be," they said to the children, "that you are not in a place like this," as if he couldn't hear their patronizing words.

They all believed they were helping in some way or another, yet they somehow managed to bring more pain with them. But the Spirit of the Cave was someone who could help him, for the second time in his life.

Broderick held his breath and watched.

"I am ready to grant your request," croaked the Canthaelag. "Give me your hands."

Peter grinned with relief and anticipation.

"Go ahead, Peter," said Broderick. "Put your hands on the crystal."

He placed his shaking hands where Broderick directed him. They disappeared through the placid glass wall, as if he had put them through smoke.

"Now I am going to take your hands," said the Canthaelag.

Peter started in confusion at the many-headed shape lurking in the crystal. "What, what is this?"

Broderick stood behind him. The tang of bile stung his throat while chills and heat coursed through him.

"Now, magus," said the Canthaelag.

Broderick plunged the dagger into Peter's side. Peter howled as the blade tore through his dimpled flesh.

He whipped his head back and yanked his arms, but his hands stuck fast in the crystal. Broderick heard the wet crunch of bone and muscle as the Canthaelag bit Peter's hands off. His agonized screams echoed off the cave walls.

"Oh gods, sh-shut up, shut up, please, please stop screaming, make him s-stop," stammered Broderick, his voice lost in Peter's strangled noises. The dagger clattered to the ground.

"Push him in all the way," said the Canthaelag through blood and gore.

Broderick shoved Peter, and the walls of the Star closed in on him. The crystal muffled his shrieks as the Canthaelag snapped down on him again and devoured his head.

Broderick collapsed against the side of the crystal. Waves of nausea crashed over him. He rolled onto his side and vomited, and then lay there shaking.

"Magus," said the Canthaelag. "You are closer to seeing your child again. But I need more to heal."

Broderick pressed his palms over his eye sockets against the vertigo.

"Magus," the creature said again.

The tang of vomit curled his tongue. "I'll bring more."

{32}

 

A few days later, the gathering clouds that had been threatening rain for hours unleashed a deluge. It lasted all day. Lorica and Jamison trudged on, dripping and spattered in mud.

The rain tapered off by late afternoon, so they stopped to make camp. They peeled off their wet things for dry ones and spread the sodden garments out in the heat of the campfire. Jamison snared a rabbit for their dinner.

Lorica watched Scout and another bat flitting around the treetops, chattering to each other. Usually, the bats communicated above the range of humans' ability to hear. Why were they being so boisterous? They zoomed down to her when they noticed her staring.

"This is my new friend, Skyler. She needs to talk to you. It's important; for Lorica's ears only!" he said, at Jamison's quizzical expression.

The bats led her to a secluded spot away from their camp.

Skyler said, "That guy you are traveling with. I knew he looked familiar! I'm sure I saw him at the Cave of Wrykirk."

"You're from Wrykirk?" said Lorica.

"Told you I'd find them," Scout said.

"I lived there. We can't go back because of the mischief the magic users caused," said Skyler. She sounded flat and dejected. "And a lot of us are missing."

"Mischief? What do you mean? What happened to all the other bats?" Lorica asked.

"Scattered." Skyler's ears drooped. "Most of them were killed because the magic users were tampering with the Brumal Star." She pointed at Jamison. "The force of their spells."

"I'm sorry," Lorica said, knowing what it was like to be forced to leave your home. Her heart sank at the sight of Skyler's brimming tears. "It couldn't have been Jamison, though."

"I'm sure it was!" Skyler said. "He was with another, older wizard and a blonde haired lady. I'm not sure what they were doing in there or why, but it sounded like big-time magic to me."

"Jamison isn't a wizard," Lorica said. "He tends goats at a farm."

"How can you be sure he isn't one?" said the bat.

She glanced over at Jamison. He was humming an army campaigning song, while skinning the rabbit and chomping on a sprig of murrgam.

"Jamison works for a lady named Elira Kennt," Lorica said. "You probably have him confused for somebody else."

"I'm not blind, you know!" Skyler chirped. "I know what I think I saw! Do you want me to finish my story or not?"

"By all means," she said.

"The magic users were working with the Brumal Star, but something went wrong," Skyler said.

Lorica wondered if the giant crystal was still in one piece, but thought it would be insensitive to ask. Skyler's family was likely dead because of it. "Go on."

"I left before I got to see the whole thing," she continued. "But the crystal was getting brighter and brighter, and there was this buzz that kept getting louder and louder. All of the bats started panicking. We had to get out. We were afraid they were going to blow it up or something." Her whiskers quivered. "My mother and father were lost in all the chaos, between the noise and everyone trying to escape. They were looking for my little sister."

Lorica fidgeted with her hands. "I'm sorry," she said again. "What happened after that?"

"There was this huge cracking noise, and then the two men were outside the cave with the blonde haired lady. She was dead!" she squeaked. "I don't know if it happened on purpose."

"Are you sure she was dead?" asked Lorica, hoping the little bat was just confused.

Skyler's voice shook. "Her body was all floppy, and the men...they were screaming at each other. 'You killed her!' and so on, accusing each other. She was definitely dead. That's all I saw because I went to look for my family. But they're still missing."

"Is there a chance?" Lorica started to say. "I mean, your family might have gone far away, or..."

"I would have found them by now," said Skyler. "Be on your guard, Lorica. You don't know if you can trust magic users, even if they seem nice."

She flew off, leaving Lorica standing in the darkness.

Scout clung to her shirt. "Lorica, this is all hearsay. We have no idea who she saw. Jamison's been decent to us so far, and we don't know what happened without asking him." He left to join Skyler.

Lorica walked back to their campsite with her clammy palms clasped under her armpits, more unsure of anything than she'd ever been in her life.

Jamison held a sharpened stick with the rabbit skewered onto it. Juices dripped from the carcass onto the fire. They hissed as they hit the flames.

"Everything okay?" He spat off to the side.

Drip, drip, hiss, hiss. The smell coated the back of her throat. Her mouth filled with saliva. Oh gods, I'm going to throw up, right in front of him.

She sat on her hands to stop their trembling. "Yeah, sure...fine." She cringed at her wobbly voice which did not make her sound like things were fine at all.

Stupid nerves!

"The bats sounded excited tonight." He tore off a roasted leg. "You OK? You don't look too good."

"Mmhm." She breathed through the head-swimmy, stomach-sloshy feeling.

Lorica stared into the flames as he detailed the next day's route, as he and Scout had discussed. I don't dare ask him what he was up to at the cave. If I open my mouth, I'll puke.

"Why are you sitting on your hands?" He tossed the murrgam into the fire. It sizzled, and Lorica tasted the tang of its spicy essence.

She looked away. "They're cold."

"Then put on your gloves," he said.

"Still damp from the rain," Lorica said.

"What's going on? You're a bit distant."

"N-nothing. Tired!" Her hands had pins and needles.

"You know, my wife used to say that too when something was wrong and she didn't want to talk about it."

Lorica stood up and wrung out her hands. "Don't feel good, g'night!" The words came out like a scared cat's paws scrambling on a slippery floor.

"Okay, but you'll have to settle for cold rabbit in the morning," he said.

She scooted to her bedroll in the tent and wrapped a blanket in a cocoon around her. Frantic thoughts swirled around her brain.

Wizard?! There's no way. He couldn't even catch a goat, for crying out loud! He's been to the cave and didn't say why. But what if...NO. It's ridiculous. Stop it, Lorica! But still, who's the other man Skyler was talking about? And what happened to the lady? Who was she, anyways? Augh, I knew it asinine to journey into the wilderness with someone we barely knew!

So much for Scout's knack for reading people; he was to blame. He'd been the one to arrange for Jamison to be their guide!

As soon as Scout comes back from hunting, he is gonna get it for insisting Jamison come with us.

It was too far away for her to head back for home, but she could still get to the cavern by herself if she left early enough while he slept.

She pulled her blanket over her head and hoped she still had the guts to stick with her plan when she woke up.

{33}

The countryside was still awash in the indigo light of predawn when Lorica awoke with stiff, crampy limbs. The humid scent of wet soil filled her nose.

She slung on her borrowed pack, with Scout ensconced in her coat.

The little bat had tried talking some sense into her. "You're being a complete idgit, as usual."

"I've been called worse, and by scarier people," she said.

Once again, Lorica was faced with the agony of tip-toeing through ankle-deep leaves.

Before she took a step, Jamison's voice broke the silence of the forest.

"Where are you off to, little red finch?"

Jamison was right behind her.

She jumped and spun around. The words died in her throat at the intense look on his face. It rivaled the looks Edmund gave her whenever he was disappointed.

Somewhere over their heads, a chickadee called fee-bee for her mate.

"Lorica, where are you going? I'm thinking you're not headed off looking for breakfast."

"How did you know?" she asked.

"You make about as much noise as barbarian invaders," he said. "And as the guide, it's my job to be on high alert."

"You mean to be paranoid?" she said.

"You're one to talk about paranoia. So what's going on? You have some questions for me, I believe," he said.

"What questions?" she asked. Is he a mind reader or something?

"Give me a break, Lorica. I'm not stupid."

"What?" she said. Damn it! Damnit, damnit, damnit! "I was just—"

"You were leaving," he said, an accusatory note in his words.

"N-No! Why would I leave? I mean, that's—"

"Stupid? Come on, Lorica. Don't play games." He thudded his boot down on a fallen tree to lace it.

She backed away a few paces. "No, I'm not—"

He tightened the other bootlace. "Don't take another step until you explain yourself. Let's hear it."

Prickles of unease ran down her spine. "No, it's dumb."

He dug around in his pocket for a piece of murrgam. "Dumb or not, I want to know what the problem is."

She stared at the ground, crafting the questions in her head. "Jamison, you've been to the cave before, right? I mean, inside of it; the part with the crystal?"

"You know I've been there. What's this about?" He spat into some bushes.

Lorica's heart raced in her chest. She was sorry there was no way to trick herself into feeling braver. "Why were you there? You've never told me."

"It was military-related and therefore private business. Now you can tell me where you were going," Jamison said.

"Military-related?" She squeezed her pack's strap. "Yeah, right."

"Yes," he said. "You civs aren't entitled to know everything."

Fine, so he's not going to come clean. But who's he to take that tone with me?

"I think Scout and I would be better off going to the cave alone. Like we originally planned," she blurted. Too late to reel the words back in now.

He snorted. "I see. Back to this again? The bats, what did they say to you? I'm guessing this is because of them. You've been acting weird since your chat with them last evening."

Lorica glared at the ground with her tangled hair hanging in her face, wishing this would all go away. "What do you mean by weird?"

"I know that conversation wasn't meant for me to hear, so I didn't eavesdrop. But you came back to the camp and hardly spoke to me. You were sitting on your hands looking like you expected to be struck by lightning. And you turned down supper."

She glared even harder at the ground.

"You know that you look like an angry red tomato when you make that face?" he said.

"I do not look like an angry red tomato!" she said.

Scout slunk around inside of her coat, not making a sound.

Now would be a good time for you to back me up, Scout, seeing as you always pick the wrong times to open your yap.

Jamison shook his head. "Neither of us are getting the answers we want. I don't know what is going on with you, but you have no idea what you're getting yourself into. You can't just go running into the cave alone. You don't know what's down there."

"Gods, stop patronizing me, Jamison!"

He laced his fingers on top of his head. "Lorica, what is making you so upset that you want to drop everything and run off?" he said, the murrgam still between his teeth.

She was quiet for several moments. Her shoulder ached with the weight of the still-damp pack. "You'll think it's ridiculous. And you'll just deny it."

"Not as ridiculous as this sudden change in attitude," he said.

"No, really ridiculous. You have no idea," Lorica said.

"Try me," he said.

"Fine. The bat said she saw you there doing magic with some other people. And something bad happened there, but she didn't know what." It did sound preposterous when she said it out loud.

Jamison laughed, and not a nice laugh either. It was mean; the kind she would have done if some kid dropped their lunch in the dining hall.

"So let me get this straight," he said in a slow and deliberate tone, as if she were five years old. "You're running away because some bat shows up with a wild story about something happening in the cave, involving me, but she couldn't get any more specific than that?"

He jabbed his finger near her ear. "Lorica, get this through your head. I do not practice magic."

She shoved his hand away. "Yeah? Then what about the blonde haired lady?"

"Blonde haired lady?" said Jamison. "Go on."

"Scout's friend said she saw you and another man arguing because one of you killed her," Lorica said. "How do I know I won't end up like her, whatever happened?"

He flicked the wet, chewed up murrgam over her shoulder. It landed with a damp plip behind her. "I guess that's it then."

Lorica whipped her head around to see where the murrgam landed. For a second, she imagined flinging it back at him, but the idea of holding the tooth-marked, spit-slimy twig made her want to retch.

She turned again to face him and saw a storm raging behind his eyes. She'd seen that storm before, when Elira had volunteered him for this trip.

"What is it?" Lorica said.

"My secret is out," he said. "I'm a cold-blooded killer."

Her stomach heaved.

"Scout's friend must be an investigative reporter for the bat tabloids," he said. "She found me out!"

"What?" Lorica asked in a faint voice.

He smirked. "Why isn't she here interviewing me? She's missing her chance; this could be her big break!"

"Jamison, stop—"

He relished her look of confused horror. "I wonder what they'll call me? The Reathe Slasher? The Wrykirk Strangler?"

"Jamison!"

He held out his arms, wrists together. "You should be making a citizen's arrest. Isn't your father Captain of Reathe Guard? You ought to be taking me into custody right now!"

She clapped her hand over her mouth.

Jamison shook his arms at her. "Hurry, before I escape!"

"You sound crazy." The sapling she half-hid behind did not offer her as much protection as she would have liked. She debated between either calmly walking away, as if none of this was happening, or slamming him on the head with her pack and bolting.

"Crazy? You're the one who's in the company of a murderer!" He tilted his head back and yelled, "Nobody is safe; run for your lives! The Wrykirk Strangler is on the loose!" He winked at her. "I like that nickname."

"Jamison, enough!" she said.

He put on an exaggerated sad face. "Aww, we're not playing anymore? But I was just getting started!"

"Too bad for you then."

"No, too bad for you," he said. "You might be camping with a homicidal maniac."

"Are you planning on explaining that, or are you going to keep acting like an idiot?" she asked.

Jamison chuckled and shook his head. "Oh, Lorica, you make me want to wring your skinny little neck. People—and bats—think they see things all the time. I don't owe you an explanation for the bat's cave story, because I have no explanation to give. Got it?"

Lorica touched her neck. "It still sounds suspicious. Let's go Scout; we're leaving. Please don't try to follow us, Jamison."

"Right. Go ahead, I won't keep you hostage," Jamison said. "But if you're going to take the word of some silly bat who didn't actually witness anybody getting murdered and decide not trust me, I can't help you anymore. Good luck to you, Finchy."

"Good luck to you too, weirdo!"

"Weirdo, that's a good one," he said.

"It suits you."

"You know; I wasn't even as hard on you as I could have been. I never physically kicked you in the ass like I did my army recruits, though I've been tempted to many times on this trip," he said.

"There have been plenty of times I wanted to kick you in the ass too."

"Is that right? You wouldn't have survived ten minutes if this had been real boot camp, what with the psychological torture I'd have subjected you to."

"I can take whatever you dish out," Lorica said.

"I'm not sure about that," he said. "You'd only make it through boot camp if you could be doing the screaming instead of getting screamed at."

"At least now I won't have to watch you spitting all over the place anymore," she said.

"Why don't you get on your way then, Finchy? They're waiting to hand you the Incompetent Camper Award at the end of the trail."

Lorica's eyes blazed at him with such burning ferocity, he suspected he might go up in flames at any second.

"Shut up!" she said.

His shoulders shook. "Along with free boxes of matches and treats for wild dogs."

"To hell with you."

He collapsed against a tree laughing.

"Stop laughing at me, jerk," she growled.

"You keep trying to get the last word in, don't you? That's just like you, Finchy."

"Stop calling me Finchy," she said. "And what about you? You keep on talking, too. You're just as bad."

"Finchy, Finchy, FINCHY!" Jamison said. "Finchy keeps on chirping!"

"I'll knock your lights out if you don't cut the crap with the Finchy stuff," she said.

"Try it," he said. "I'll give you one good shot."

"One good shot?" she said.

"Yeah," he said. "One punch. Let's see what you've got."

"Fine!" Lorica threw down her pack and ran at him with her fists raised.

Jamison grabbed her by the arms, twisted her around, and hoisted her up over his head all in one swift motion.

"What are you doing? You're cheating! Put me down! PUT ME DOWN NOW!" Lorica shouted between strings of profanities that would have made even the most hardened combat veteran blush.

Scout scrambled out of Lorica's jacket, startled by all the noise. "What in Ransara is going on?"

"He cheats!" she yelled. "He said I could punch him and this is what he does!"

Jamison carried her a short way down the path to the riverbank. She swore and fought like a wildcat but he gripped her even tighter. "Do you talk like that in front of your father?"

Lorica's hollers and swears carried into the forest, now awake with early morning sounds of birds and squirrels. Her vicious kicks sliced the air. Scout launched off her jacket to a nearby tree to avoid her booted feet.

"If Lorica screams in a forest and there's no-one around to hear, does she still make a sound?" asked Jamison. "Probably."

"Where are you going with Lorica?" Scout asked. "What are you doing with her?"

Jamison stopped on the grassy bank. The water flowed by in a peaceful swathe in contrast to the scene taking place on the shore.

"Sorry to have woken you up Scout, but Lorica and I were just having a little discussion about whether my services are still needed for your trip. She wants to settle the matter by using me as a punching bag."

"You tricked me!" she said.

"Did you really think I was going to allow you to hit me in the face?"

Scout groaned from his upside-down position. "Punching bag? Lorica, I didn't think this would descend into violence!"

"Neither did I," Jamison said to him. "Now Lorica, do I have to toss you into the river to get you to cool off? Or do you think you can behave?"

"No, NO!" she said. "Don't throw me in!"

"Do you promise not to threaten me with your fists?" he asked. "My arms are getting tired, so say yes."

Scout preened his wings. "You'd better say yes, Lorica."

"FINE!" she said. "I promise; just put me down!"

He thumped her to the ground and grinned at her ruined braid, rumpled clothes, and crimson face. "Phew, that was a close one."

"I hate you." She began re-braiding her hair.

Jamison grinned at her.

"What? What are you smiling at?" she frowned.

He kept grinning. "You're a mess."

She yanked her hair into position. "You caused the mess."

"Half your problem is blaming others for your problems," Jamison said.

"Half of your problem is that you're a jerk," said Lorica, "and probably a murderer."

"Is that so?" He stuck another murrgam in his mouth. "Maybe I should have given you that dunking."

Lorica made a face and finished braiding her hair.

He took the murrgam out of his mouth and biffed her on the nose with it, delighting at the disgust that crossed her face.

"Gross!" She scrubbed her nose with her sleeve. "You're disgusting."

"I'm so insulted!" said Jamison. "Too bad there's no ice-rocks to throw at me."

"Don't tempt me," she said.

Scout flew down from the tree and landed on Lorica's shoulder. "Can you two stop before this escalates? I've seen Lorica escalate, and it's not pretty."

"I think you owe me an apology for tricking me and almost putting me in the river," Lorica said.

Jamison scratched his neck. "Fine. I'm sorry for manhandling you, even if it was to teach you a lesson in not being so quick with your fists. And for bopping you on the nose."

"What about calling me Finchy?" she said.

"I don't know. That name is perfect for you," he said.

Lorica crossed her arms.

Jamison grinned. "Fine, I won't call you Finchy anymore."

"Good. That's all I wanted, besides not getting drowned."

"Wait a second. How about your apology to me?" Jamison said.

She picked up a rock and lobbed it into the river. It landed with a distant plop. "For what?"

"How about for trying to run off on me?" he said.

She looked at him, puzzled by the sudden, sad weariness on his face. "Well, I thought you might've been a murderer. Can you blame me? Skyler's story sounded convincing."

"You'll have to take my word in good faith that I'm not," Jamison said.

"Look, Lorica," Scout said. "About Jamison and Wrykirk. Can we agree that it's none of our business? If he doesn't want to talk about it, we'll have to be content with that. Anyways, he's gotten us this far, and we're both still okay! We need each other," he said, with hope all over his tiny face.

"I appreciate that, Scout," Jamison said. He stood with his hand held out. "We have each other's backs?"

Heat rose to her face. She put out her hand.

"We have each other's backs," she agreed, and they shook on it. The storminess was still on his face, but the clouds were parting.

"You can trust me," Jamison said. "I don't know what I else I can say to convince you of that."

"You mean except to pretend you're a maniac," she muttered.

"You know what I meant. Why don't we eat? I think some breakfast will help us both feel a little more human again."

He pulled out the remainder of last night's meal. "Come on, now. Can I tempt you with some rabbit leftovers?"

#

They sat around the smoldering ring of the campfire, picking at the greasy carcass.

Lorica twisted her sleeves. "Jamison, I'm sorry I have such a bad temper sometimes. And for, you know, being quick with my fists. My father says the same thing all the time."

"Okay," he said.

"Scout is right. You've been great. And I overreacted. I just...I think about things too much. Or I don't think things all the way through."

"Apology accepted," he said. "I'm sorry again too. And I shouldn't have laughed at you. A small word of warning: our trip is going to get more difficult, so we'll need to support each other now more than ever."

A huge shadow glided over their heads, blotting out the silver disc of moonlight for a moment before disappearing into the still-darkened sky.

{34}

The sun hung low in the sky.

"Let's stop here and get some rest," Jamison said.

Lorica agreed with relief. She'd had a tiring day slogging through puddles while recovering from the aftermath of their argument the day before.

"Go get some sticks and get a fire started," he said. "I'm going to see what I can hunt for dinner."

Damp earth and conifers perfumed the air. So far, there was nothing dry enough to use as kindling.

Maybe I'll have better luck a little further in.

The forest sounds died down, except for some rustling noises far above her head.

Ahead of her lay a thick copse of hickory trees, blanketed in shadow. There'd probably be drier sticks under their dense canopy.

A dark, thin stick poking from a mess of brambles on the ground caught her eye. She bent to pick it up.

And it's dry!

Suddenly the stick yanked forward and dragged her deep into the brambles. It stung her hands as it whipped out of her grasp. She tripped and landed spread-eagled on a cluster of melon-sized seed pods. They were dark brown and covered in rough, hairy filaments.

A sharp jab poked at her fingers. She sat up in confusion and quickly withdrew her hand. A sticklike creature, several inches long, was clawing out of one of the pods.

It was a clutch of eggs, and one was hatching. Lorica frowned in disgust and jumped to her feet.

Something hissed behind her.

She whirled around. "Jamison?"

A spindly, two-legged creature with a thorny, mantis-like face crouched next to her. It had a dead opossum in its beaky mouth. Lorica would never have seen it if it hadn't made the noise. Its lanky frame and gangly limbs were perfectly camouflaged against the tree branches.

Lidless, orange eyes peered at her as if she were a tiny alien specimen. It dropped the opossum at Lorica's feet and hissed again. Serrated teeth lined its jaws.

"A niaph," Jamison had told her. "That's what those giant, sticklike creatures on your father's map are called."

Her head swam.

"Get away from me!" She grabbed a stick and scrambled back.

The niaph crept closer. Its claws made no noise as it stepped through slimy leaves and mud. It stretched its neck until it was inches away from her face. Razor sharp mandibles clicked together. Rotting carnivore breath stung her nose and the back of her mouth.

"Get away," Lorica whispered, while prickly terror pooled in her stomach.

The niaph lunged at her, snapping its jaws. Lorica shrieked.

She swung at it with the stick. The niaph snatched the end of it in its teeth and snapped it like a toothpick. It reared up to its full height, making creaking sounds in its throat.

Lorica flung the broken stick at it and fled.

Twigs and leaves slapped at her face as she trampled through the dense undergrowth. She risked a glance behind her. The niaph moved with graceful, loping strides.

It was closing in quickly.

Lorica's feet flew, dodging stones, roots, and chipmunk holes. Loud creaks came from somewhere to her right, and then again behind her. More niaphs, hidden from her sight but watching her. She glanced back again.

The niaph was losing ground. Maybe it only wanted to chase her away from its eggs.

Lorica skidded on wet pine needles and crashed onto her back. The force of the fall stunned her for a moment. She rolled onto her knees, gasping for breath.

Mandibles grazed her neck. Lorica coughed on its foul breath as it creaked and clicked into her ear. Shudders trembled down her spine.

She turned. This niaph was larger and lighter colored than the first. Its eyes were yellow.

Lorica grabbed handfuls of mud and leaves and hurled them into its eyes.

Several lengths away was an outcropping of huge granite boulders. She raced across the distance but the niaph didn't try to follow her while it was still blinded by the mud attack.

Lorica dashed behind the boulders. She found another stick and snapped it in half under her boot, angry that she'd left her dagger in her jacket at their camp.

Above her was a narrow crevice between two of the boulders. It was going to be a tight squeeze.

Her boots slipped and scraped against the rocks as she crawled sideways into the narrow space.

The bumpy edges of rock pressed into her sides. There was barely enough space to turn around.

Silence filled the woods.

Where is Jamison? Didn't he hear me scream?

A clicking noise came from her left, just out of her line of sight. She sucked in her breath.

What if he didn't hear anything?

She inched further inside the crevice on her hands and knees.

What if the niaph got to him first?

More clicks, closer this time. Lorica tightened her shaky grip on the broken stick.

The niaph's yellow eye loomed at the crevice opening.

Lorica's stomach lurched. She lunged towards the niaph and stabbed its eye with the stick. Blood spurted out all over her tunic. The creature collapsed, writhing and screeching.

She slid past the niaph to the ground and crashed into Jamison. He stomped on the niaph's neck. The creature lay still.

"There's another!" she pointed. "Back there, with eggs!"

"Already got that one." He aimed his crossbow at the niaph.

"No!" she said. "Let me."

Jamison raised his eyebrows but handed her the crossbow. "Point the stirrup—"

"I've done this before," she said. "In my backyard, with Edmund's."

Jamison shrugged.

"It's got a charm to ensure it'll never fail, right?" She lifted up the crossbow with shaking arms.

"You can't miss with how close you're standing," he said.

Lorica scowled at him and pulled the trigger. The bolt whistled and struck the niaph in the head. "Let's go smash those eggs."

{35}

The woods had closed in on them again. There was no path here.

"Oof!" Lorica stumbled into a low stone wall. Its weathered form bumped against her shins. A whole series of them crisscrossed among the dense trees and shrubs.

"They must have marked borders of farmlands," Jamison said.

She gazed up into the new-leafed treetops. Whoever had lived here had been gone for a long, long time—enough time for nature to reclaim the land.

"Look!" Jamison said, gesturing ahead. Hazy green mounds protruded out of the forest floor.

They wandered over to investigate. A stone foundation lay hidden among the ferns, its blocky shape softened by the greenery.

The solemn, decrepit ruins of what had once been a formidable edifice surrounded them. Lonely, battered by the elements and left to crumble, it was now littered with leaves and squirrel nests.

"What was this place?" she asked.

Jamison's hand grazed the tangled vines climbing up the stone entrance. "I don't know. Let's take a peek around."

They scraped open a semi-circular gateway of stout oak boards, miraculously not rotted away, and wandered into a leafy round space with a domed ceiling. A shaft of sunlight shone in through an oculus at the top of the dome.

A row of fluted columns lined the chamber. Birches, alders, and lady ferns grew between fractures of paving slabs, and the cracked plaster on the walls revealed old brickwork underneath.

"I think this place might have been a monastery," Jamison said.

"Hey, what's this?" Lorica pointed to a sculpture set high up into grotto recessed into the wall. "It looks like a worm or a slug. Something weird."

The statue crouched in the lichen-crusted alcove on stubby, insect-like legs. It stood about five feet tall, with yellow-brown stains spotting its pale surface. Most of the paint had flaked off centuries ago.

Knobby pairs of ridges rose along the length of its body. Looking closer, she saw they were heads. The sculpture had one main head with different faces fused together. Teeth lined each of its body segments.

Its bestial face snarled in the dappled shadows, a sentinel standing guard over the lily-of-the-valley taking root at its feet.

"I'm not sure," he said. "It looks familiar, but I couldn't tell you anything about it; some kind of a creature from one of the old mythologies maybe? Could be a relic from the Old Religion. I'm surprised it's still in one piece."

"The Old Religion? I heard they ran around with no clothes on and ate raw meat," Lorica said.

"Could be, but I suppose it was human meat," Jamison said.

"They ate each other? Gross!"

"From what I know about it, they had many strange practices. You're lucky you weren't around, otherwise you may have ended up on a sacrificial altar somewhere!"

She recoiled. "Nasty."

"The New Religion was no better; they came along with a whole different set of gods and devils. And they made the Old Religioners convert."

"Pff, I would never convert if I had a religion," Lorica said.

"You would if their priests came to your house. Or else you'd be punished, and then you'd be begging to."

"Punished? How?" She pictured the Old Religioners standing in some sort of stocks with people pelting rotten vegetables at them.

He scratched his chin. "Let's see if I can remember. The Boiling Baptism was one. That was immersing a person in boiling oil. And then another way was to pry open a person's mouth, grab their tongue with pliers, and then take a red-hot metal spike, and--"

"EW! Jamison, I don't want to hear any more!" she exclaimed.

"Hey, you asked," he said with a grin. "Don't you like being grossed out?"

"Sometimes," she admitted. "But that was a little much."

"Didn't you learn about any of this in school?"

"Maybe. School didn't agree with me, remember? And then I had a tutor, but she never told me about any of this. We don't practice any sort of religion at home. What do you suppose happened to the ones who lived here?" she asked, looking around.

"That's anyone's guess. Considering the violent history, you'd think this place would be more vandalized. Maybe they escaped, unless we stumble upon their desiccated corpses!" He made a grotesque face at her.

Lorica made one back.

They crept on, passing colonnades and smaller rooms. Soon they came to a wide staircase, littered in centuries of grit.

Footprints grazed the dust leading up the stairs.

"Looks like someone was here ahead of us, but not for quite some time. Probably just exploring, like us. Want to go upstairs?" he asked, peering up. Dust motes floated in the sun rays streaming through the trefoil window. In the window perched a blue jay, gazing down at them.

Lorica bit her lip. "Sure, why not?"

She looked back to the window. The jay seemed to be mocking them with his small, glittering eyes. "What are you looking at?" she said to the bird.

Their feet scuffed through inches of dust. The staircase opened into a hallway, with rows of small rooms on either side. A flock of starlings took flight at their arrival.

At the end of the hall, they turned to face a large, circular bell tower. Chunks of the ashlar had broken off and fallen away, leaving a gaping hole. They stepped inside, gazing around at the decaying splendor.

"Ew!" Lorica caught herself from stepping into a mountainous pile of what looked like mud. Beetles glinted in the dimness as they swarmed over it. "What in Ransara?"

A jumble of clean-picked bones lay on the floor, pale in the weak light.

Lorica gasped. She covered her mouth and pointed up.

Hulking, dark-furred shapes roosted from the masonry work far above their heads, clinging to the rib vaulted ceiling. The creatures were asleep, oblivious to their presence.

The pungent, musty odor of their guano invaded her nose. Lorica stepped back on jelly legs to lean against the wall so she wouldn't faint into the messy pile.

"So it's true! Elira was right. They're huge!" whispered Jamison. He waved away the acrid stink.

Lorica pinched her nose. "Jamison, you know about these things? How is this possible? Bats aren't supposed to grow that big!"

"These ones did." His jaw tightened. "We need to leave now."

"Why, you don't think they'd do anything to us, do you?" she asked. "Those are just animal bones, right?"

"I doubt they would, but I'd prefer not to stick around to find out," he said.

Scout wiggled out from beneath Lorica's jacket. Before they could warn him, he trilled. The sharp, ringing chirp bounced off the tower's round walls.

The giant bats stirred in their sleep. Lorica swore and squeezed her jacket over Scout. They fled down the stairs back into the primeval forest.

{36}

"Why, Scout?" Lorica said, once they had put enough distance between themselves and the colony of giant bats at the ruins. "Why did you make that noise? You could have gotten us all killed!"

She plunked herself down on the ground and craned her neck skyward, in case the bats had noticed their presence in the tower and decided to follow. So far, it looked like they hadn't been seen.

"I...I don't know!" Scout's voice cracked. "It just came out. It never occurred to me that they might be dangerous to people, because you know, they're bats!" 

His face wrinkled into the sorriest, most remorseful expression a bat ever had. Lorica was afraid he was going to burst into tears.

"It's OK. Don't cry, Scout." She scritched his ears as he buried his face into her coat lapel, sniffling.

"I can't believe how big they were," Jamison said. "At least the size of a shire horse."

Lorica shuddered. "And that giant, stinky pile of dung, and the bones! Please tell me those were just animal bones. You don't think there were any human ones in there, do you?"

"I have no idea." Jamison ran his hand through his hair. "It looked like animal bones, but we didn't get that close, and we didn't stick around long enough to make sure."

"They looked large enough to carry off a small person. Jamison, where are we going to sleep tonight? I don't want to be eaten by a mutant bat!" she said.

Scout put his wings over her shoulders. "Oh, no! Bats would never eat people, not even giant bats, I'm sure of it!"

"I don't know, Scout. The bigger the bat, the bigger the appetite!" Lorica said.

"They might be the reason why we haven't seen as many deer as I thought we would," Jamison said. "We can sleep in the tent tonight if you want. Don't worry."

"The tent? Why don't we just put a giant sign on it that says HERE WE ARE! TASTY HUMANS INSIDE!" she said.

Jamison laughed. "Except for when it rains, we've been sleeping in the open air and haven't bothered with the tent. Don't you think we were more exposed then?"

Her face darkened. "Jamison, I just remembered something. Before I left, I overheard Edmund talking about some reports of livestock gone missing. Do you think maybe they were responsible for that?"

He looked thoughtful. "I wouldn't be surprised. Your father didn't get any reports of people going missing, did he?"

"Actually, he did, but it doesn't have anything to do with the giant bats. There was a boy. My father said he was a student at a mage school," she said. "The one in Reathe."

Jamison scowled and shouldered his pack. "Go on."

"His parents turned up at the barracks. They were very upset that he had gone off with some wizard to take tests without their permission," she said. "I guess somebody in their family died, and he was going to miss the funeral. His parents wanted the Guard to go search for him."

Jamison snorted.

"What?" said Lorica.

"So did they go look for him?" he asked.

"Not that I know of. Probably not, though. My father said it was a waste of resources," she said. I wonder if they're out looking for me.

"He said that to the boy's parents?" he said.

"No. I overheard him telling the story to my stepmother."

They traveled until the first stars appeared in the periwinkle clouded sky and made camp in a temporary lean-to she helped Jamison build. It was more camouflaged and less obvious than the tent, but they weren't completely out in the open either.

Scout flew off in search of dinner without a word.

{37}

Scout's heart ached to think of what might have happened if the giant bats had been aware of them in the tower. They might have been seen as intruders—or worse. The thought of Jamison and Lorica becoming a meal filled him with horror.

They wouldn't eat people, would they?

Wind rushed through his wings as he spiraled up over the tree tops. Where were all the other bats? They had to be around. No place on Ransara was uninhabited by them. They lived in every corner of the world, even the northlands of Frore, where the white, thick-furred tundra bats lived.

He sent out signals that bounced off nearby objects so he could tell where he was going. There were the white oaks they had passed earlier and the stand of poplars in the crowded, old-growth forest.

Scout darted between the massive trunks of the oaks, diving through clouds of gnats and mosquitos and snapping up mouthfuls.

He sent out another signal, and the echo he received indicated something large was down below, shrouded in darkness—the gloomy monastery ruins.

Scout circled the tower before landing on the stone next to the crumbling hole and listened. Scratching and clicking noises came from inside.

"Good, they haven't left yet," he said. "This is the least I could do for my friends."

He prepared to enter the tower and introduce himself to the Chirelien.

{38}

"They were here. I saw them!" said one of the Chirelien. "Two humans, and they had a bat with them. A pipistrelle."

Scout's heart skipped. He edged closer to the hole in the side of the tower and peeked in. There were ten of them tucked up in the shadows.

"Humans!" the giant bats exclaimed.

"A man, and a younger girl," said the first bat, whose name was Sorrel.

"What were they doing here?" asked one named Milo. "What would have bought them so far out this way?"

Sorrel shrugged his enormous wings. "I didn't ask. They were very surprised to discover us, though the man claimed he knew about our existence."

"What! How?" Milo said.

Scout inched over the ledge into their lair.

"This location is supposed to be a secret," growled one called Varad. Scars crisscrossed his wings. "What if they tell other humans about us?"

"We can't be sure they won't," said Varad's brother Jase.

"Who would believe them?" Sorrel asked. "They saw the bones and wondered if some of them were human."

Varad licked his sharp teeth. "I'd like to know how they taste. Their flesh looks tender."

Scout muffled a squeak with his wing.

"Not enough flesh and too many bones," Jase said.

An older bat with a wizened face called Oneh spoke up. She was one of four females in the colony. "I say we get rid of them. We can't take any chance that they might come back. We should hunt for them now before they get too far!"

"You mean kill them?" said another young female, called Narie.

"It would not be a fair fight," grinned Varad, his teeth gleaming.

A Chirelien named Grim clicked his tongue. He was called that because had a dark patch of fur covering part of his eyes that made him look like he was frowning. "I am not in favor of killing them, nor eating them."

"Most of us aren't," Sorrel said.

"Will we have to find another place to live?" asked Grim's wife Danna, who was pregnant.

Sorrel scratched his head with the tip of his wing. "Why would we have to leave? This is our home. They are no threat to us, as far as I can see."

"I agree with Sorrel," Narie said.

"So do I," said Abitha, the youngest female.

The Chirelien all spoke out at once. It was difficult to tell one voice from the other as they argued.

Scout shrank into the shadows. His heart raced. If he flew away now, he'd have time to warn Jamison and Lorica.

The largest of the Chirelien beat his wings with such force, the wind almost knocked Scout off the ledge. His name was Aileron. He was Sorrel's father.

"Peace, Chirelien!" Aileron called. "I will not have this squabbling among my people."

The others quieted down, except for the angry muttering of Varad and Oneh.

"There is another among us tonight," Aileron said. "Show yourself."

Oneh swung down from the rafters in front of Scout. She shook her shaggy, black mane which flowed down her neck. Her dark claws scratched white streaks into the stone. "A trespasser! Who are you?"

Scout cringed as he imagined himself between her teeth, but bravely stepped forward. "My name is Scout."

"What are you doing here?" Oneh said. "Spying? Or did you come to gawk at the mutant bats?"

"No!" he squeaked.

"That's him!" Sorrel said. "The bat I was talking about." He dropped down from his perch and crouched next to Oneh.

Varad swooped down. "Looks like the fight came to us. This tiny one will be easy to pick off."

"Stop!" Narie cried. "Don't hurt him!"

"Those are my friends that you want to fight so badly." Scout puffed out his chest. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"

Varad's laugh rumbled in his throat. "You talk tough for one so small."

Scout bared his teeth. "I'm not scared of you."

Varad pressed his snout against Scout's chest and sniffed. "You smell afraid, Tiny. Where are your human friends?"

"And what is a bat doing with two humans?" Oneh asked.

"Stand down!" Aileron thundered. "Chirelien, you will give your word that you will not harm our guest, or you will give up your right to this sanctuary. He is one of our people. Let us not forget that our kind was born from his."

Varad and Oneh grumbled but made the promise. The others nodded their assent.

Aileron turned to Scout. "I offer you my protection, if you accept it."

Scout grinned and thanked him.

"Now you must tell us why have you come to our tower," Aileron said.

"We—Jamison, Lorica, and I—found you accidentally. They were curious about the ruins. We're journeying to the Cave of Wrykirk."

Again, the Chirelien's voices rose in a clamor.

"That name Jamison sounds familiar," Grim said.

"Wrykirk! What business do you have there?" Sorrel asked.

"We're seeking the Brumal Star," Scout said.

"What!" Milo shouted. "Don't you know the crystal is—"

"Milo, enough!" Danna said. "We shouldn't speak of it."

Scout twitched his ears. "What are you talking about?"

"Never mind," Danna said.

"How did your friend Jamison know about us?" Sorrel asked.

Scout turned to him. "Because a lady we know named Elira had told him. He said that she was right, or something like that. Nothing more. That's all I know, I swear."

The Chirelien all looked at Aileron.

Oneh wrinkled her nose. "What is this about, Aileron?"

"You said we would be safe here," Varad said, his eyes narrowing.

Aileron grunted. "We are. I trust the Witch of the Larches. She is the one who led us to this place."

"You can trust my friends, too!" Scout said. "As a matter of fact, they couldn't get away from here fast enough once they saw you."

Varad laughed. "Good. Let them stay away."

"What do you have against humans, anyways?" Scout asked.

"They meddle in the affairs of others," Varad snarled.

"He blames them for the circumstances we are in," Aileron said. "Instead of accepting what has been done."

"He's angry that so many of us died, and that we have to conceal ourselves," Narie said. She pressed her body against Varad and nuzzled his face. "I have to remind him that anger doesn't solve anything."

"You're the only one who can make me forget my anger," Varad said to her.

"But I still don't understand what happened to you," Scout asked. "How you got so big and why you look different."

Danna growled. "Don't tell him anything. He doesn't need to know."

"Why not?" Abitha said. "Like Aileron says, he's one of us."

Aileron waved his wing at Milo to speak. "Tell him."

"There was an incident with the Brumal Star at Wrykirk," Milo said. "We used to live there."

Scout's eyes widened. "I met another bat from Wrykirk!"

Grim flicked his tufted, serpentine tail. "When?"

"Just recently," Scout said. He recounted his and Lorica's conversation with Skyler to them.

The Chirelien's growls and murmurs echoed through the tower. Scout shivered as the fur around his neck stood on end.

"Now do you understand what happened to us?" Varad said. "It was the magic users. Their spells killed many of our people. It twisted us into this new form."

"You seem okay with being gigantic," Scout said to him. "I should think it would be great to be your size."

Varad pinned his ears back. "It's a difficult thing to get accustomed to, especially when you're been driven from your home."

"And now we must live in hiding," Oneh said.

"For how long?" Scout asked. "Sooner or later, someone else besides us will find you. Someone with bad intentions."

"We'll worry about that when the times comes," Oneh said.

"But I don't think it's right that you should have to hide," Scout said.

Grim made a deep sound in his chest. "What do you propose we do then, small one? Reveal our existence and leave ourselves wide open to attacks from humans, who would likely kill us and our children?"

"Or use us as pack animals," Milo said.

"Humans are afraid of even the smallest of our kind," Jase said. "How would they react to giant ones?"

"Especially if they knew that magic created us. Most people are mistrustful of magic as it is," Oneh said.

"I know," Scout said. "You should hear Lorica's father. He doesn't like magic users at all. Or bats, for that matter."

"There's been bad blood between magic users and ordinary people for centuries," Jase said, "if you know the histories."

"Even with a peace treaty between the magic users and the humans' law enforcement," Oneh said.

"I've heard Lorica's father mention that. How do you know all this?" Scout asked.

Aileron smiled. "You would be very surprised at what we know about humankind. So tell us, Scout. Why are your friends seeking the Brumal Star?"

{39}

There was a roaring sound above the river. The noise grew, and soon they came to the crest of a ridge. The Azulie River gushed beneath them over slick, black rocks and spilled far below into a deep, churning pool.

Raven Falls was a fitting name; high up on the cliff face and in crooked branches were their brambly stick nests. The black birds' throatycrrrucks drifted from far overhead as they called to one another, tumbling and diving through the air.

Jamison and Lorica walked down the other side of the ridge, picking their way around the bubbling edge of the water. A herd of deer streaked away at their presence. Another windswept bluff lay just beyond, dotted with enormous boulders that were scattered about like a giant's marbles.

They wound their way through the boulders until they reached the edge of a long rocky outcropping.

After several steps, Jamison stopped. "Here it is," he said, without much fanfare. "Welcome to the Cave of Wrykirk."

Lorica peered at the entrance. The mouth of the cave was unremarkable, and much smaller than she had envisioned. It was more a gouge cut out of the rock face.

"How did anybody even come to explore the inside of it at all? You could walk right by and completely miss it. Anyways, it doesn't look like much," she said. "I guess I didn't know what to expect."

"See why I said this isn't a touristy type of place?" Jamison said. "We'll leave our things out here. Don't worry. They'll be safe. All we need are the torches, the biscuits, and our canteens. There will be some tight squeezes in there, so we'll travel as streamlined as possible."

He laid the crossbow under his pack against the hill. Then he wrapped the essentials, including the stone flask, into a pouch and stowed them away in an inner pocket. The fire-making kit went into the chest pocket of his coat.

"Lorica, there's one more thing. It wasn't wise of us to come with only two people, so we need to move slow and careful. We should be OK, but you never know. It's dark and treacherous, so we're going to take our time."

"I know. I swear, I won't run off." She eyed the sharp crack in the rock face that looked more like a sideways, mocking grin. "I don't like the way it's looking at me."

"I'll go first." Jamison disappeared inside the dark opening, swallowed whole by the crack. She followed him, and in an instant, she stepped from the dazzling sunlight to the dimly lit world of the cavern.

Flashing motes of light dotted her vision as she became accustomed to the semi darkness. One of the first things she noticed when she got her bearings were the spiders, hairy ones with thick bodies, scurrying out of their way.

Her eyes darted around. "Ugh, if I had known there was going to be spiders..." 

Apparently there nowhere on Ransara where she could escape them.

Jamison walked in a slow circle around the room with a resin-topped torch. "Try to ignore them. They're more afraid of you anyways. Scout, wake up! You're on duty. This whole place is going to be a moving buffet for you."

Scout yawned and emerged from his spot under Lorica's coat. "Mmm, fat, juicy cave spiders. The bigger, the better!"

"Yeah, this place is filled with them. They're disgusting." She shook her head to rid herself of the heebie-jeebie feeling that they were creeping around in her hair.

Scout flicked his tiny tongue over his canines. "Are you kidding? This is going to be a feast!"

"Good, you'll be on spider patrol too." She examined her clothing to make sure there weren't any trying to hitch a ride.

Scout agreed this was a practical arrangement. "I'll take care of the centipedes and beetles too."

Lorica shuddered.

{40)

"There's a whole gigantic network of tunnels down here, or that's what some other bats told me, at least," Scout said. "But out of all the different routes we can take, this one is probably the easiest way to go."

"Remember that we're on two legs here and not two wings, okay?" Jamison said.

"Just leave it to me!" said the bat.

They trooped along in the torchlight until they came to a sort of hallway that branched off in two different directions. Scout had them take a left, so Jamison made an arrow on the ground with some rocks.

"To keep us on the correct path," he said.

They moved along until the ceiling got too low, so they had to inch along on all fours.

Every once in a while, Scout darted to one side, snapping up some unsuspecting insect. Lorica warned him not to get any bug guts in her hair.

The passageway narrowed again. They had to go along without torchlight in the cramped spaces because there was no way to safely hold it.

"What's that noise?" Lorica asked.

"I don't hear anything," Jamison said.

"It's a whispery sound. You don't hear it?" she said.

"No," said Scout.

Lorica clicked her tongue. "Not even with your hearing, Scout?"

"It might be air in the tunnel," Jamison said.

"I guess," she said, squinting into the murky gloom behind them.

The tunnel squeezed them onto a precarious ledge. Much to Lorica's relief, Jamison re-lit the torch. They had to drop a few feet onto a steep slope.

Jamison went first, swinging his legs and landing like a cat. Lorica followed. They slid on their butts, sending a small avalanche of dust and scree skittering down the slope. The torch flames pitched wildly.

"How's that for a ride?" said Jamison.

Now I have sand in my drawers, thought Lorica, and a scraped up butt.

They stepped along the natural boulder stairs to another tunnel that branched out.

Scout scratched his head. "Hmm, I'm not sure if it's this way or the other way, so I guess I'll fly ahead and check it out." He took off while Jamison and Lorica waited.

They quenched their dusty throats from the canteens and ate some of the biscuits in the dim silence of the passage. Lorica wished she still had the figs.

She folded and refolded the waxy paper the biscuits had been wrapped in. "Jamison, is this the same way you went the last time?"

"No," he said.

"How come you're taking us a different way?" She began tearing the paper into thin ragged strips, watching them curl and droop to the cave floor.

Jamison sighed and picked at his fraying bootlace. "Because it's not convenient." He glanced at the pile of paper strips. "You better pick those up and not leave them here."

Scowling, she did as he asked and stuffed them into her jacket pocket. "Okay...so did it take you long to get to the main cavern the last time?"

He sighed again and stretched, cracking his back. "No, not really."

"Wouldn't there be at least a few rock arrows from before?" She pinged tiny pebbles off the wall.    

"Not necessarily." He stared into the darkness. "Tunnels collapse, there are flash floods, things like that."

With a sharp rock, she scraped white chalky shapes and lines into the tunnel wall. "It doesn't make much sense to come a different way since you've already been here and everything. What was wrong with the other route?"

If it wasn't obvious she was the daughter of a law enforcement officer before, it was now. Her questioning was relentless. "Who says anything was wrong with the other route? Scout is helping us navigate the way that works out best for all of us."

"How many ways to get in are there?" she asked.

"A few," he said. "More than you know."

"What do you mean?" She finished writing Lorica was here with the rock on the wall.

Jamison looked down at his hands before he spoke. "Lorica, enough with the questions. I realize I have not been forthcoming with you, and I have my reasons why."

Because it's a hell of a lot easier to apport in and out of a place, but I'm not about to tell you that, Finchy.

 

{41}

Scout arrived. He read Lorica's scratched message on the cave wall. "Hey, what about us?"

"I knew you'd say something." She added in so were Scout and Jamison. "Better?"

"Much, but I don't think you'll like this next part," he warned, settling himself back onto Lorica's head.

"Why?" she asked.

Scout tucked his wings. "Let's just say pity you didn't bring a change of clothes."

#

The tunnel widened until it opened to a flooded amphitheater with sloping, rippled walls. Their torchlight glinted on the midnight blue water lapping at the wall's edges.

The room reminded Lorica of a pearlescent seashell that her mother had brought home from her travels to the Jhotu Islands. Lorica kept it in a wooden box along with her other collected treasures from childhood—feathers she found in her backyard, a copre coin flattened on train tracks, her mother's carved hlaea wood bracelet, a silver cat charm, a glass marble, one of her father's crossbow bolts.

"A cave pool!" she said. "How did water get all the way in here?"

"Remember what I said about flash floods? Good thing we weren't here when the water rushed in. It doesn't look deep, but hold onto me," said Jamison. He unbuckled his leg holster and held it above his head.

"What?" she said.

He plunged in, with Lorica grasping his coat and bobbing along behind him. Suddenly, she was in up to her waist.

Freezing water poured into their clothing. They'd never dry until they saw the warmth of the sun or a campfire.

They emerged on the opposite bank of the pool and poured the water out of their boots. Jamison fastened on his holster.

Lorica took off her socks and wrung them out. "I'll risk getting blisters."

Their boot steps squished as they tramped through the tunnels. Her boots chafed at her heels. The cold made her knees shake and her legs cramp up. She thought about how nice warm wool socks would feel and cursed herself for not bringing another pair.

Cave dust settled on their wet clothing in a gray film. They clambered over rocky shelves until Jamison halted in the middle of the passage.

She smacked into him. "Hey, why'd you stop so—oh, WOW!"

Jagged shadows from the torchlight danced along the cavern's arched walls.

The ceiling soared high above them. Stalactites and stalagmites grew from the floor and ceiling in glossy spikes. Limestone deposits cascaded in solid, frothy curves as if a giant ice cream cone had melted and refrozen.

Across the room, adorned with a crown of massive crystal spires, stood the fabled Brumal Star.

{42}

Lorica held herself back from dashing across the chamber to the Star. She didn't want to fall on her face like an idiot in front of this thing, which may or may not have an actual spirit inside of it watching her right now. She wound her way with reverence around columns and pillars jutting up from the floor.

The main part of the crystal grew out of an oval-shaped rock on the ground that stood almost twelve forearms in height and was twice as wide. Long before anyone had ever explored the cave, the front of the rock had cracked apart, revealing a magnificent, glasslike cabochon.

Beneath its warped surface laid feathery patterns of gray shadow and darkness.

It's like looking through a window at thunderclouds or a stormy sea, Lorica thought.

Towering, layered outcroppings of prismatic crystals fanned out from the cabochon's sides in a crystalline crown, piercing the cool damp air. Their iridescence was tinged with soot, as if they'd been hit with lightning.

That must be how the Star got its name, she thought. It's weird and creepy but beautiful, all at the same time.

A sharp crack marred one corner of the crystal's wide expanse. There were gaps like missing teeth where some of the shards of the halo had broken off. Chunky fragments of charred crystal lay scattered on the ground.

Jamison frowned as he approached it. Oh for the love of the gods, I should have known. It was too good to be true.

Lorica made a disgusted face and looked around her feet. "It smells like someone got sick."

He sniffed. "It does. Probably just the poor air quality down here."

"Is it supposed to look like this?" She reached over to touch one of the crystal's spars. "Look at all the broken pieces."

Dark, rust-colored spots were spattered on some of the crystals. "Wait, don't touch it!" he shouted.

She pulled her hand away as if she'd been stung. "Why, what's going on? Why do you have that look on your face?"

He shook his head. "Just confused." The Brumal Star appeared as though it had been consumed by some violent force. It looked even more destroyed than the last time he'd seen it.

"What?" Lorica said. "Jamison, what's wrong with the Star? What happened here?"

"It looks ravaged," he said, his mind transported back to that day.

{43}

Jamison, Broderick, and Broderick's daughter, Taryn had been gathered around the Star, ready to follow Broderick's invocations.

"This is the most potent way we can recharge your power," Broderick had assured Jamison. "If you are worthy, the Star will grant it. But don't look directly at it while we do this, and don't cover your ears, no matter how loud it gets. Just focus on raising its power and merging it with your own. Whatever happens, keep your energies aimed at the Star."

Broderick took out a device shaped like a flattened cylinder etched with arcane symbols, called an ourchova, and began chanting in a language the other two had never heard before. He rotated a disc within the ourchova, and a high-pitched tone floated out from it. Hostile light rippled through the Star, reflecting off each mirrored surface of the spars.

He turned the disc, and another, higher tone came from it and blended with the first. He repeated this several more times until a spectrum of tones sang out from the ourchova. Some were shrill enough to crack glass, and others were so deep, they felt the crushing pressure in their bodies.

An angry hum erupted from the ground and buzzed through them, like they had awoken a giant hornet's nest.

Taryn and Jamison glanced at Broderick, who waved for them to continue following his lead and pointed to the ground. His chanting became lost in the thrum.

Jamison gave into the temptation to peek at the crystal. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and saw a glimpse of— was that something looking at him? Or was it just a shadow or a trick of the light?

A blinding flash exploded. Something sharp and icy whipped across their legs. The Star grew silent, and Taryn was laying on the ground...

"Jamison, what are you looking at?" asked Lorica.

He stood rooted to the spot where his wife's stricken body had lain and saw her in his mind, arms and legs bent, her light hair spread out like a halo on the stony ground. At first they thought she'd just been knocked out, but then Broderick had tilted her face towards him and they both saw her open, vacant eyes.

Nausea clotted inside him. I did nothing wrong. It was him. Broderick.

"Try anyway," Scout was saying.

"Jamison. Jamison!" Lorica waved her hand in front of his face. "Anybody home?"

He breathed through the engulfing wave of guilt and sadness and cleared his throat.

Why'd I come? If I can't hold it together in front of them...

"Sorry. Just trying to figure things out," he said. "Give me a few minutes, okay? I'm going to take a look around."

He edged around the outside of the crystal, looking for something, anything. But it remained massive and silent, locking him out.

I should have known. I don't know what Elira expects me to put in this flask. There's nothing to fill it with! Whatever might have been here is gone. It's just a busted up crystal that I can't use anymore; nobody can, and I still don't know what happened to my Taryn.

Jamison clenched his fists and fought back the rising grief threatening to drown him until it began to recede. "Okay Lorica, whenever you're ready," he said in a low voice, to hide the emotion that might give him away. "Would you like us to give you some privacy?"

"No!" Lorica said. "Please stay with me. But what should I say? What would you say?" Suddenly, she couldn't remember all the things she wanted to ask, even though she rehearsed them in her mind a thousand times on the journey.

"I don't know," he said. "Whatever feels right, I suppose."

He and Scout decided to watch from the other side of the chamber to give her some space.

Scout perched on Jamison's shoulder. "I'm scared," he whispered.

"Don't be," he said. "She doesn't have the power to call anything."

Scout tilted his head. This adventure was reaching new heights in strangeness.

{44}

 

Lorica knelt in front of the Star with her hands on her knees. Her nail beds were blue with cold and coated with grime. She hated that she had to do this soaked and filthy.

I suppose Meree would understand, considering everything we had to go through to get here.

She peered into the crystal's gray depths.

"Meree? It's me, Lorica," she said in a quiet voice. "Meree?"

Long moments passed. The crystal remained dark in its suffocating silence. "Are you there?"

Dripping water plinked somewhere above her. She felt her friends' pitying gazes from all the way across the chamber.

"Please be here! I miss you." She shifted closer to the Star. Gravel scrunched under her shins and knees and pinched at her skin. "We came a long way to be here."

The Brumal Star remained silent.

"Where are you? Why won't you speak to me?" she said through the lump in her throat. "It isn't working! What am I doing wrong?"

"You aren't doing anything wrong," Jamison said. "The Star doesn't work that way, but you weren't prepared to listen to me say so. It's done, Lorica."

"Done? This was my one chance." Her voice trembled. "We came all this way for nothing. And you knew."

She didn't want to cry in front of them, but the harder she tried to stop herself, the more the tears wanted to come. She hid her face in her hands.

"Lorica?" said Jamison.

"It's broken!" she cried. "You're the one who wrecked it, aren't you?" Tears spilled over, running down through the dust on her face. "That's what you couldn't tell me." She scooped up a handful of the debris on the floor and whipped it past his feet. "You lied to me!"

He sidestepped the flying gravel. "Lorica, stop! There's no way to explain it all to you and expect you to understand. Did you really think there was going to be something here for you?"

She wiped away the tears with her grubby sleeve, leaving smears across her cheeks. "Do you think there's anything for me at home? I can't go back; I hate it there so much! Nothing is the same since my mother died. That's not even the worst of it."

"You need to go back, Lorica. What else are you going to do?" Jamison said.

She slammed her fists into the ground. "I don't know, but I can't go home. You don't understand, Jamison. You have control over your life. I don't!"

He shook his head. "I have less sovereignty than you'd think. Many of us do."

Lorica spoke through the painful lump choking her throat. "Are you being forced to go to Kelvirre with a bunch of religious nuts? That's what my father's doing to me. He said it would 'straighten me out.' But it isn't what I want, I don't even know what I want. I just can't do it. I won't do it. I'll be miserable."

More tears streaked down her face. Jamison looked on, not knowing what to do. Scout flew down and landed on her shoulder, and began nuzzling her face.

"And my stepmother, that cow. She's having another baby, and then they'll squeeze me out of their happy little family once and for all."

"I'm sure that isn't true," Jamison said.

"No, it is. It's been true for a long time. And now I've wasted your time. You probably think I'm an idiot," she said. "I wouldn't blame you if you did."

"I don't think you're an idiot," Jamison said.

She sniffled and shivered in a pitiful lump on the ground. "I wish you would have told me the Star was dead."

Jamison knelt and reached his hands towards Lorica, then put his arms around her in an awkward hug, expecting her to pull away. But she stayed on the ground, still shaking in his arms.

After a moment, he said, "Lorica, I didn't know about the Star, about it being dead. I would not have brought you here otherwise. I swear it."

"Fine," she said. "Let's say you didn't know. But now what do I do?"

"Maybe you ought to at least try to talk things through with your father. You never know, you might get him to see your side," he said.

"That's just what Cole said. Would I have come all this way if talking to him was the solution? He won't listen. You don't know Edmund," she said.

"C'mon, get up." He pulled her to her feet. "If it makes you feel better, my parents were unreasonable too."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Another story for another day," he said.

Lorica finished wiping her face and picked up a few pieces of the shattered crystal, polishing away the dust on the smoky facets. "Might as well leave with a souvenir," she said, and tucked them away into her tunic's pocket.

Jamison took the ocean-colored flask out of his pocket. "Listen, I know this is strange and sudden, but there's something I need to do. It shouldn't take long. And in order to do it, I need space, so back up a bit because I'm not sure how this is going to go. Whatever happens, and it most likely will be nothing, you and Scout must keep silent."

"Wait. What are you doing?" she asked.

"Something for Elira," he said.

"What's that?" asked Lorica. "In your hand?"

"A flask," he said.

"But what are you—" Lorica started to say.

He signaled for them to stand further back. "You'll see, perhaps. I'll explain later. Now I need silence so I can concentrate, please."

Lorica and Scout retreated to the opposite side of the chamber to let Jamison work, giving each other mystified looks.

"What's he doing?" she whispered.

"I have no idea!" chirped Scout. "Maybe he's collecting samples of cave dirt."

"That's ridiculous," she said. "What would Elira need cave dirt for?"

Scout shrugged.

Jamison remembered Elira's warning that this could only be done once. He read and re-read the incantation. The words were true magic, not a trick designed to give him false hope like he first suspected, but it didn't stop him from feeling like an imposter.

"How will I know if it's working?" he'd asked Elira.

"You won't feel it as though you would have in the past. There won't be the buzzing in your mind nor the tingling warmth in your blood. But it might recognize you, if you still carry the imprint inside of you. If it does, you'll feel it flowing through the spire. There's a hum, a vibration. But only if it decides to give itself to you," Elira had said.

"And if it doesn't?" Jamison asked.

Elira shrugged. "Then you'll be no worse off than you are now. Unless it kills you."

Jamison turned to Lorica and Scout. "Absolute silence," he said. They nodded in understanding.

He knelt in front of the Star, twisted the cap off and placed it on the ground. Holding the flask towards the Star, he rotated the golden band until the spire sprung forward, puncturing it at its base. The parchment unraveled itself and fluttered to the cave floor.

Behind him, Lorica and Scout hardly dared to breathe, but glanced at each other in confusion and curiosity.

He held the flask with one trembling hand and the parchment in the other and began speaking the supplicating passage in a low voice.

Words of magic seemed to float off the page whenever he spoke them in the past. But these ones were static. They felt heavy and false, even though he knew them to be authentic.

As he spoke, the words seemed to drop from his mouth like falling teeth. At least he knew how to pronounce them; he had that going for him.

The spell required him to open himself up and surrender to the magic, no matter what the outcome. It could make him very sick by flooding him beyond what his body and mind were capable of handling.

"It probably won't kill you outright, but burning you from the inside out is a slight possibility, but it might not be that extreme," Elira said to him before they left for the trip. "The Soeruecen will hear your petition and judge whether you earned the right to its magic."

It was far more likely to deny him altogether. All risks he was willing to take.

No humming had come yet. He was four lines into the incantation, and there was no sign of anything happening. The words were clumsy and stilted, almost as if they didn't want to be spoken. He couldn't tell if the feeling was coming from himself or if the magic was refusing to come forth.

Across the chamber, Lorica and Scout watched with fascination. Neither of them had ever witnessed anything like it.

Lorica jumped and accidentally knocked Scout into her lap. She turned to him and mouthed, "I know what he's doing."

Scout wrinkled his forehead and shrugged his wings. In bat language, that meant "I don't get it."

"He's doing magic," Lorica mouthed.

Scout frowned and shook his head. "No way."

Lorica nodded with enthusiasm. "He is; he has to be. I knew it! Which means he lied about being a wizard, which means he might have killed the blonde haired lady!"

He smacked his forehead with his wing. "You are ridiculous! Jamison never killed anyone. And you wouldn't know magic if it bit you on your nonexistent tail. You've never seen magic in your life."

She scowled. "How would you know? You've seen magic being done either."

Scout pointed. "That thing looks like a thermometer, and he's taking the temperature of the crystal."

She blinked. "Are you crazy? Why would he do that?"

He shrugged again. "You're crazy for thinking he murdered someone." He went back to watching Jamison.

Jamison continue to read. He was halfway through. There was not a single glimmer that this was working. The words on the paper were flat and empty, without any spark or vitality in them. He may as well have been reading the agricultural classified ads in the Reathe daily paper.

Despair settled over him. He felt Lorica and Scout's scrutinizing gaze from across the chamber. No doubt they'd demand an explanation when it was over.

A sliver of his mind told him that if Elira felt he had no chance, she never would have sent him here, nor would his mystery benefactor have given the flask to him in the first place.

A sense of urgency spurred him to read it through to the end and ignore the annoying voice in his head telling him how ridiculous this whole thing was, along with the other rude things he didn't want to hear.

He spoke the final line. The glass flask carried the same chill of the cave.

And then there came the very faintest of hums vibrating through his fingertips.

Am I feeling that, or is it just nerves?

A crackling echoed through the tunnel. The humming vanished. The three of them jumped.

Jamison retracted the spire from the crystal, screwed the cap back onto the flask with shaky hands, and put it inside his jacket. He turned towards the entrance of the chamber. "Did you hear that? That crackling noise?"

Lorica strained to listen. She heard the plinking of dripping water, and beyond that, voices echoing down in the tunnel.

"Both of you, go around the other side of the Star and hide, quick! Don't make a sound," Jamison told her in a low voice. He pulled his flintlock pistol out of the holster.

"What, why-"

"NOW!" he hissed.

She sprinted across the chamber and wedged herself between the crystal and the wall. Scout buried himself inside her jacket. She searched across the dimness of the room, trying to read Jamison's face. It was a mix of fear and anger.

The last person she'd seen wear such an expression was her father, right before Lisette died.

{45}

 

Broderick appeared at the chamber entrance. There was a boy who looked to be around twelve or thirteen years of age with him, wearing pale blue robes. Jamison recognized them with dread. They were ones worn by Ablete Calare apprentices. Their clothes were dry.

"You survived the Ritual, and here you are, Jamison, crawling around like a cockroach," Broderick said.

The expression on Jamison's face was that of a person who'd been the butt of some awful practical joke.

"Likewise, speaking of cockroaches." He pointed the pistol at Broderick. "What's your business here?"

"Put down the gun, Jamison," Broderick said. He didn't seem alarmed in the least at having the gun muzzle facing his direction. "You wouldn't want to accidentally shoot this boy, would you?"

"I'm not aiming at him, and I'll put it down when you tell me what you're doing here," he said.

"We have come for the crystal. By order of the Ablete Calare of Reathe, this cave is now our property, and you are trespassing. Now you can put the gun away."

His finger tensed on the trigger. "Private property? You can't claim this place as your own."

Broderick muttered a string of words and the flintlock fell into several, disorganized pieces to the cave floor.

"Damn it!" Jamison yelled.

Broderick kicked the pieces and they scattered into the gravel. "You of all people should know you can't fight magic with ordinary weapons."

"Then I should have gotten my shot in when I had the chance," Jamison said, "ethics be damned."

#

Chills shuddered through Lorica as she watched from her hiding spot. Who were these people? What Ritual? She wrapped her arms around herself and buried her face in her jacket.

"I can't see while I'm stuck in here!" chirped Scout, loud enough to wake the dead.

"No, Scout! Shut up and get back in," Lorica whispered. She tried to squash him back underneath her jacket as he clawed his way to her shoulder.

The three fixed their attention in the direction of the Star.

"What was that?" asked Broderick.

"It's just a bat," Jamison said.

"I don't think so."

The echo of Scout's cries hung in the musty air. Lorica scrunched herself down further, sandwiched in between the crystal and the craggy wall. Spikey tips poked her arms, legs, and rear.

Broderick strode over to the Star. "I cannot say I'm surprised. Come out of there."

"No," she said. Scout struggled over her jacket and pinched her neck.

"Lorica, don't fight!" Jamison said.

Broderick knelt in front of Lorica. "This is not a place for you to be. Come out of there now."

She braced herself between two jagged columns of spar. "I don't know who you are, but leave me alone!"

"Lorica, I am serious; please listen to him," Jamison said.

"You should know your place, Lorica." Broderick yanked her out by the hair, as if he was uprooting a carrot.

"Get away from her; she hasn't done anything wrong!" Jamison tried to race to her side.

Broderick held one hand up. "Don't. I was expecting this."

Jamison stopped dead in his tracks.

She screamed and struggled in his grip. Pain streaked through her scalp, and she thought for sure it would peel away from her skull.

He dropped her to the ground. "You are a very interesting young woman."

Pangs of terror curdled through her. Her blood went to ice, and she knew he was savoring all the dark thoughts she kept locked away in her mind, away from everyone, even Scout and Cole.

She curled herself in a ball. "What is happening? Who are these people?" Her anguished voice rebounded off the walls in a spooky echo.

"Let us leave in peace," Jamison said. "Please." He didn't dare take a step closer.

Scout shot out of her jacket and swooped down on Broderick, beating his wings and jabbing with his clawed feet. "This is war!" he screeched.

He swiped at Broderick's cheek. A scratch appeared against his pale skin like a quill flick of red ink.

"Scout, stop!" Lorica screamed.

He swatted the bat away, but Scout dove at his face again and again until he grabbed the bat in his fist. He squealed and nipped at his fingers as he fought to free himself.

Broderick's fingers tightened around him in a deadly squeeze. "How do you like that, rat with wings!"

"Leave Scout alone!" Before she knew what she was doing, Lorica rushed over to Broderick and kicked him in the leg.

"Lorica! No!" yelled Jamison.

Broderick turned and stared her down. His face was an alabaster mask, white and expressionless.

She faced him, dumbstruck with horror.

He bared his teeth and shoved her to the cave floor. Pain splintered through her smashed right wrist.

Broderick hurled Scout against the wall with a hideous smack. The bat flopped to the ground with crumpled wings.

"SCOUT!" she screamed. He could not have survived that; he's dead, he's dead, oh gods, Scout, please don't be dead.

She crawled over to him, stroking the soft fur around his face with her good hand. His tiny heart still beat beneath her fingertips. She let him lay on the cave floor, fearful of injuring him worse if she moved him.

"Bastard!" she hissed at Broderick. "How dare you!"

He cuffed Lorica across the mouth. "Watch your tongue, runt!"

Blood trickled from her cut lip. She tasted salty tingling as it swelled.

The blue robed boy ran and hid behind a limestone column.

"Stop it!" Jamison said. "What are you trying to prove by beating up a kid? She can't defend herself against you."

He pinioned her arms behind her. "This kid assaulted me first. She isn't my daughter's replacement, is she? Isn't she a little young for you?"

"Don't be disgusting," Jamison said. "She's my traveling companion, that's all. I escorted her here as a favor."

Broderick pulled her closer. A strange, intoxicating spiciness clung to his robes—smoke mixed with powders and oils, and other things he used for spellcasting. "Do you know anything about the man you are traveling with? He has quite a colorful past."

She twisted away from his hot, angry breath in her ear. The scent from his robes crept up her nose and clouded her head. "What does that mean?"

"It means you should choose your friends more wisely," Broderick said. "Even a half-wit like him knew better than to bring you here."

Lorica shook her head against the fog. "I just wanted to use the crystal."

She fought against his forceful grip, but she was like a kitten battling a tiger. How could he be so strong when he seemed twice as old as Jamison?

"I'm sure it didn't cooperate with you," Broderick said.

He released her, and she tumbled to the ground. She landed flat on her stomach and got the wind knocked out of her.

"Elira sent him as a guide—" she started to say between coughs, but Jamison shook his head at her.

Broderick stared. "Elira, the witch? She should know better than to interfere in other's people's business. What were you doing with her?" He towered over her, then fixed his gaze on Jamison while muttering more strange words.

"Stop!" Jamison started to say, but stood frozen in place and unable to talk.

A strange expression came over Broderick's face. "No matter. I can see that it didn't work out." He drew a symbol in the air and Jamison dropped to the cave floor.

The glass flask clinked against the rocks. Jamison rose on unsteady legs. Lorica saw blood through the rips in his shirt and trousers.

Broderick held out his hand. "Give it to me." He spoke as he would to a naughty child.

Jamison glared. "Give you what?"

He fished the glass flask out of Jamison's coat. He read the parchment scroll and threw the flask to the ground, shattering it beyond repair.

"Pathetic, even for you, Undrand," he said.

"Son of a bitch," Jamison snarled. "Haven't you had enough?"

"No. Have you?" asked Broderick.

Lorica lay pressed into the ground, tears streaming down her face. All of this is my fault.

As if in response, she heard whispering in the chamber.

It's back. What is that?

Nobody else seemed to hear it.

"I can guarantee that neither of you is important enough to stop the world from turning in your absence," Broderick said.

"So finish me off instead of talking about it," Jamison said. "What are you waiting for?"

"You're right, I should," he said. "The Calare voted not to kill you then, so I had to settle for the next best thing. And here you are, alive and returning to the scene of the crime."

"Your crime, not mine," Jamison said.

"Somebody tell me what's happening!" said Lorica.

"He was here because he dared to work with magic that was beyond his capability. His incompetence killed my daughter, so he was dealt with," Broderick said.

"He's lying, Lorica! That isn't how it happened," Jamison said. "And Taryn was my wife. You conveniently leave that part out."

Broderick grabbed Jamison's wrist, quick as a striking viper. He tore off the leather bracelet and wrenched his arm upwards so that Lorica could see. "Of course it's still here. You can no longer use magic, yet you still have a sorcerer's mark. The gods must be having a laugh."

"No," she said, in a voice so faint she wondered if they heard. The shame and agony on Jamison's face showed otherwise. "You told me it was from the army."

Broderick laughed, bitter and angry. "The tattoo is his personal emblem of the Ablete Calare. We are a group of magic users, or at least he was until he was banished from our society. I do not know why the Ritual didn't erase it. I should just cut it off him!"

"Scout's friend was right about everything, after all," she said. "You told me you don't use magic. You said you were here on some army mission, and like an idiot, I believed you! All this time I wondered and wondered after Skyler told me the story that night, but I didn't dare ask you about it again."

She crouched lower over Scout. "What really happened down here Jamison, just say it. I don't care. I need to hear the truth!"

"Just say it, Jamison," Broderick said. "The little red finch needs to hear it."

A sour taste rose in Jamison's mouth. "What did you say?"

"The little red finch needs to hear the truth," he said.

"How could you know he called me that?" said Lorica.

"Perhaps you weren't always alone during your travels," he said.

Her faced burned with rage. She longed to tear Broderick's hair out, but all she could manage to do was clench her un-fractured fist and feel her tears trickle down her face. "Please tell me, Jamison."

"I was a magic-user once. My powers were taken from me as a punishment. That part is true. But my wife's death was an accident," Jamison said, "which my ex-father-in law knows and has known all along. If he thinks for a second that I'll admit any wrongdoing on my part other than trusting him, he's crazy."

Broderick spat on the floor. "Go on, tell her the rest. Nobody believed you then, and they wouldn't believe you now."

Lorica wanted to break all of Broderick's fingers.

"I was a convenient scapegoat," Jamison continued, "because you couldn't bear to face the fact that you killed Taryn, so you set me up. You stood up there and lied to the Calare and the Lawgivers because you didn't have the guts to tell them what happened, even though some of them live in terror of you, and because you hated me because your daughter chose me."

"Tell her about the crystal. You brought her all the way here to see it," said Broderick.

Jamison swore under his breath. "The Brumal Star doesn't have any powers. It never did. Not on its own, anyway."

"No, but it's what the Star is sitting on top of that does," Broderick said to her. "The Soeruecen. An energy pool that is a path to other realms. Jamison knows. And it is the gateway to those that can grant far greater powers than the two of you could ever conceive to those who are strong enough to handle it. But not to either of you. The Soeruecen and the creature that haunts the plane beyond it would never allow that."

The enormity of what they said hit her like a gut punch.

"What creature?" asked Jamison.

They watched Broderick take a long, slender object from within his robes that glinted as it caught the torchlight. It was a metallic crystal blade with a pommel in the shape of a hideous, snarling creature. Lorica recognized it as the same statue from the monastery ruins. The miniature version decorating the crystal dagger was just as repugnant.

Dread crept over her. "That thing on the knife!"

"It's custom made," he said. "You remember Portnoy, don't you, Jamison? This is his handiwork." He traced his fingers along the blade's edge. "This 'thing' is the Canthaelag—one of a very old race who visited Ransara long ago. Some call him the Spirit of the Cave."

Jamison shook his head. "This is insane."

"You've seen it yourself."

"I've never seen anything like that."

"Think back to that day," Broderick said. "I know you thought you saw something."

Jamison mind sifted through the pieces of memory; the humming, buzzing, shimmering crystal, the flicking movement, the flash and the noise. "No, it was just a shadow."

"Not quite."

"How do you know all this?"

"The creature told me. I'm not the first," Broderick said. "The more I read, the more it made sense how the Star worked. He told me what I had to do. I needed to open the gateway to rescue her."

"What gateway? Rescue who?"

Broderick continued talking as if he hadn't heard. "I'd broken the seal put in place by the warrior-mages, the Wirre-sortis. The device was the key that allowed me to begin opening what they shut. That was what caused the first explosion."

He turned to Lorica. "It's a shame. They don't teach you what you really need to know at your schools—not that a delinquent like yourself knows about getting educated."

She glared but kept her mouth shut.

"Powers such as those that come from the Soeruecen come at a price," Broderick said. "Jamison, you know that. You must be either very daring or very stupid to try accessing it again with that little magic bottle trick. Elira and Harris should've known better. That bottle had his mark all over it."

Harris, Jamison's old school mate. So that's who it was from. He owed him one for trying to help, if he made it out of here alive.

Hollowness spread outwards from his stomach. "You knew all this, and yet you led me down here with the promise of fixing what was wrong with my powers! You never said anything about creatures from other dimensions!"

Darkness shadowed Broderick's face. "No. I didn't expect the Canthaelag to show up. I didn't know he was there, hiding and waiting. But he was, and he took Taryn. Don't forget, you're the one who wanted to play around with the Soeruecen for help with your waning powers. It got my daughter killed!"

"But nobody believes in those demons or whatever they are anymore," Lorica said. "They're not real!" It was a brave thing to say, and she wanted to believe it, but doubt burrowed in her mind like a parasite.

"They don't care whether or not you believe," said Broderick, "but if denial makes you feel safer, so be it." He turned the crystal blade over in his hands. "If your child's spirit was held captive by the Canthaelag, you'd go to any lengths to free them. That's why I'm here."

"You're delusional," he said. "Taryn isn't trapped in there."

Lorica turned away, nausea congealing inside her gut. Again came the whispering, a little louder and more insistent this time. That's not just wind in the tunnel. It's something else.

Broderick held the crystal up, touching his fingertip to the blade's point. The Canthaelag's pale head peeked over his knuckles. "I had to give it many gifts."

"What kind of gifts?" Jamison asked, suspecting the answer.

"Once I tried to give it a sheep. A sheep. I thought that would be acceptable. But it wasn't, not to the Canthaelag. He laughed at me. Do you know what it feels like to be mocked by a creature like that?"

Jamison and Lorica remained silent.

"No, you don't. It sent me away to bring it something else," said Broderick. "If I'd been able to go to the Calare for help, it could have been avoided, but the Canthaelag had stated its terms. So I had to choose something that wouldn't attract a lot of attention, that people wouldn't notice had gone missing. Prisoners rotting in jail cells, destitute people, living on the street."

Jamison and Lorica sweated in the damp chill, letting this fresh horror roll over them.

"The blood," said Jamison. "That's why there's blood on some of the crystals. How could you have done such a thing? You're sick!"

Broderick had the look of a cornered animal. "They were condemned anyway. We did them a favor by giving them a purpose. I didn't care—I couldn't care—if I wanted to free Taryn. What bothered me were the very young ones it wanted. Orphaned children. Infants. I brought them down here, but I couldn't go through with it."

Lorica moaned and turned away.

The color drained from Jamison's face.

"I think it was testing me, seeing how far I would go. It knew I was desperate to save her. It told me I only had to speak to it once more, and then it would release her to me. It will have to after everything I've done for it. You saved this boy's life today. In my mind, you're a much more fitting exchange for my daughter."

"Like hell," Jamison said.

"You," Broderick said to the blue-robed boy, still behind the pillar, "don't get in the way. Our business is concluded."

"What do you mean, he saved my life?" asked the boy. His tongue felt thick and heavy in his mouth, his feet rooted to where he stood. "Master Broderick, you aren't really—"

Jamison reached for the spring-loaded knife. "He was going to kill you, idiot! Get out of the way! Run!"

{46}

 

The boy fled to the tunnel entrance.

Jamison clicked open the knife. "Don't come any closer."

"Again? When did you become so well-armed?" Broderick began chanting under his breath. 

The knife glowed red.

Jamison gasped. He dropped the knife and clutched his blistered hand.

"You should know better." Broderick kicked away the spring-loaded blade and advanced toward him.

"What's the matter? Are you afraid to fight me without magic?"

He dodged the crystal dagger whooshing by his stomach as Broderick slashed. Jamison kept one eye on him while scanning the cave floor for anything to use as a weapon.

Nearby lay a shard of broken crystal.

Broderick charged before he could grab it. Jamison whipped his arm up, deflected the blow, and kneed him in the stomach.

Broderick doubled up and almost lost the knife.

Jamison darted forward to grab the shard. He knew it was stupid to turn his back on the older man, even for a second.

He saw stars as Broderick's boot slammed down on his hand. The shard's edge dug into his palm.

Reaching around with his other hand, Jamison gouged the back of Broderick's knee and yanked his leg out from under him.

Broderick's legs folded, and he toppled back, striking a boulder. Bones crunched. Jolts of pain rocked through him. The crystal dagger clanged to the ground as he grabbed his vertebrae.

Jamison pounced on top of him, clutching the broken crystal. Blood squeezed out between his fingers. He pressed the shard against Broderick's throat. "Give it up!"

Broderick wheezed and scrabbled for his blade on the dusty ground.

"No more. Let me, Lorica, and the boy walk away."

Broderick's fingers found the blade and raised it up behind Jamison.

"Jamison!" Lorica screamed. "Behind you!"

The dagger punctured Jamison into his side as he rolled out of the way.

The men scrambled to their feet.

Jamison grunted and pressed his blistered hand to the wound. He crossed his other arm in front of his body with the broken shard.

They eyed each other like caged animals and lunged. Jamison darted out of the blade's path.

He slashed Broderick's arm and shoved him into a rock column. The force sent him sprawling to his knees.

Broderick spun and came at him again. Their knives clinked and sliced.

Jamison kicked at his hands and clubbed him on the ear with his booted foot.

Suddenly, Broderick curled into a ball with his arms wrapped around his head. "Stop! I can't fight anymore. I want to make a deal."

"What kind of deal?" Jamison asked, frowning.

"I will surrender myself to the Calare. You can bring me to them and go on your way with the boy and Lorica."

Jamison coughed. "I don't trust you."

Blood matted his hair and leaked from his kicked ear. "Please. I can't do this anymore."

"Toss the dagger toward me, then."

Broderick obeyed.

Jamison knelt for the dagger, still watching him. "Now back up against that column. Keep your hands in the air."

Broderick reached into his sleeve, but Jamison caught the movement too late.

{47}

 

 White hot sparks flared and sizzled in Jamison's face. He screamed and stumbled backwards, blinded by the searing flashes of heat.

Broderick grabbed the crystal dagger. He thrust it into Jamison's stomach and drew it back out, wet and crimson. It made a soft schlucking sound, as if it was piercing a piece of overripe fruit.

"Now you won't fight," he said. "And your death will be long and painful."

Jamison collapsed. Blood seeped across his grimy shirt.

Lorica could not scream; the noise strangled in her throat and came out a series of panicked uhnuhnuhns. Black spots swam in her vision.

Right now, she didn't care whether she lived another day. She couldn't do anything but lay weeping on the dusty ground and wait for the next terrible thing to happen.

She'd never see her home or her father again. Chances were slim he'd ever find out what happened to her.

Worst of all, her friends were going to die over a smashed crystal whose powers were a hoax. Seeking her mother's ghost hadn't even been their mission, but hers.

Broderick's boots appeared in her tilted, blurry vision. She wondered how long it would take her to die, as she surely would. The whispering came again, even more urgent this time. Goose bumps sprang up all over her.

He caressed her cheek, wiping away her tears. Lorica flinched at his touch. "I know why you've come." His voice trembled with the pain of his injuries. "I've lost people that I love too."

He touched her forehead, and a vivid image coalesced in her mind. The sweet fragrance of her mother's attar of rose perfume drifted all around her. She was nestled on her mother's lap in their sunlit sitting room, a book of fairy stories spread open.

It was her favorite; antique, leather-bound, and decorated with lavish, colorful illustrations. She'd insisted on hearing her mother tell the stories over and over, even after she had learned how to read.

The image dissolved, and a new scene formed. Lisette had come back from a visit to her homeland of Cirreket and brought Lorica a pair of amethyst earrings, carved into crescent moons. The soft velvet of the indigo blue pouch brushed against her fingers as she lifted the earrings out of it in delight.

The scene vanished. She saw her mother, pale with glassy eyes and cracked lips, stricken in her bed. She covered her ears to block out her mother's fevered muttering through the shut bedroom door.

Lorica's head and her chest hurt from crying, and Edmund was arguing with the housemaid and the physicians. She ran from the house to escape the smell of sickness and the noise and the hopelessness.

She heard Broderick's shallow, pained breaths behind her. "You could be with her again."

Pain exploded in her shoulder blade, snapping her out of her reverie. He pulled the crystal knife out of the wound and pushed her aside.

"That will slow you down," he said. "I'm sorry I had to do it, but you don't know what I've gone through."

In agony, she couldn't reach behind her to touch the injury. Warm blood trickled down her back. She heard Broderick say something about the boy getting lost in the tunnels, but his words tumbled down around her, in between the pulsing of the wounds.

Ignoring his own injuries, Broderick flicked droplets of blood onto the Star. His own blood thrilled with satisfaction watching the flecks spatter the crystalline facets.

He never anticipated that he would experience this feeling, considering that the first one, the man from the asylum, had ended in him collapsing, covered in his own vomit. Now he was so close, he couldn't stop. Taryn would be free soon.

He held the crystal out in front of him and began to chant, low at first and then his voice changed in pitch. The magical language defied Lorica's description. The words crept around inside her mind like maggots wriggling into rotten meat.

Broderick cut through the dank air with the crystal, making sometimes sharp, other times flowing movements with it. The figurine on the blade took on a glossy sheen, while the blade glinted with its own generated power.

The Brumal Star was flickering to life.

Broderick gestured to Jamison and Lorica with the crystal blade, still caught up in the working of his invocation. "Please accept these final two, though I cannot guide them in. I now open the channel to release my daughter."

A furious blast stabbed Lorica's side, shocking her from the other pain. She reached into her coat pocket and grabbed what was causing it. Her father's dagger.

The hilt's translucent gem glowed. Its handle burned as if she were holding onto an icicle bare-handed. A torrent of voices flooded her mind, but she could not make sense of what they said.

Her own thoughts cut through the clamor of voices. Stop him. I have to stop him.

She fumbled around inside her jacket. Her hands shook as she uncorked the goblin bite antidote.

Don't spill it, don't spill it!

"Broderick, you maniac! Hey, heeeeeey!" she shouted.

Broderick turned, angry at the interruption. She flung the liquid into his eyes. He cursed and staggered forward, rubbing away the sting.

A familiar smell filled the damp air. The antidote had been nothing but ordinary vinegar.

She lunged forward and slashed below Broderick's waist with her knife, and again twice more. Her left arm arced in clumsy swoops, crippled by her knife wound and right-handedness.

Go for the legs, her father had taught her. And the groin. That's how you incapacitate your enemies.

Broderick screamed and clutched at the gashes.

Lorica belly flopped away from him and crawled on her elbows towards the Brumal Star. She swallowed lungsful of stale air.

The whispering surged and pushed away her own thoughts as she inched forward. She wasn't sure if she was the only one hearing it, and she didn't dare turn around to see.

Broderick's furious, pained screams came from somewhere in the background, muffled and distorted. She ignored them and forced herself towards the glare of the Star, afraid he'd grab her at any second.

The Star's brilliance grew. Its shivery light strobed as if to pull her inside. A white vapor ran off the formation in rivulets and crept along the ground.

She only had a few more feet to go. The sibilant voices grew louder.

The Star loomed just ahead. Its crystal points threw out rays that glowed with grim harshness against the rocks. She put down her dagger. The icy burning in her hand dulled.

The whispering stopped.

A shadow hovered inside the glassy cabochon. "Lorica," said a voice, pleasant and comforting.

This was the voice that had read to her, sung to her, scolded her, and said I love you.

She stared transfixed at the nebulous shape. It seemed to her as though she were viewing it through a hazy prism.

"Meree?" Lorica whispered.

The shadow strained to come in clearer.

"My darling," said Lisette. "You've grown."

{48}

 

Elated longing constricted in Lorica's chest. She rose on wobbly knees and reached for the center of the Star. For a moment, the pain of her injuries vanished.

"Meree! You're here, you're here, I knew it. I-I wasn't sure it was real. I gave up when you didn't come before, but you did... I love you." The words tumbled out in mess of joy and disbelief, words that had been stuck inside of her for eight years.

Her mother was here. It had happened, in spite of what Broderick and Jamison told her. Everything would be alright. Lisette would know what to do.

Lorica's wound flared and pulsed. The edges of her vision dimmed, and the room skewed sideways. She rested against the crystal. "I miss you so much."

"Of course I'm here, my Lorica. You're hurt," her mother said. She knelt and put her hand up to the inside wall of the Star. "What has happened to you?"

"That man, Broderick...he had a knife and," she stopped to catch her breath, "we were attacked. My friends might die. I don't know what to do." She sank onto her heels and drifted. I have to lie down for a little while. Just until the pain isn't as bad...

"Lorica." Her mother's voice hovered at the side of Lorica's consciousness.

You're dreaming, dummy. She's not really here.

"Lorica, wake up!" said Lisette.

Her eyes flew open. She hardly noticed the sharp points of the Star poking her as she slumped against it. "Why did you have to die? Why did you leave me and Edmund?"

"Sometimes terrible things happen for no reason," said Lisette.

Lorica's face twisted in grief. "I don't like that answer. I want you to come back and live with us again."

"I'm sorry, my daughter. But you know that isn't possible."

"It's not fair," Lorica said.

"I know," said Lisette. "Life seldom is."

"Meree, it hurts so much to breathe," Lorica groaned. Her senses slurred together. "We came here to find you. I just wanted to speak to you again. And you came."

Lisette nodded.

"Jamison and Scout. I have to find someone," Lorica said in a dull voice.

"You can't do anything for them," said her mother. "It's too late."

Lorica pressed her face into the Star. "No," she said. A new ache lodged itself into her chest.

She slunk back onto her belly and tried to touch the stab wound again. It stung as she peeled the soaked fabric away from the gash. She wondered how much more she would bleed.

"You have to get up," said Lisette.

"I can't," she said. The cave spun.

"Lorica, get up! I don't want to lose you," Lisette said.

"It hurts to move," Lorica moaned.

"You have to, so you can help me," said her mother, "and the others that are trapped in here. There's a way for you to release them."

"There is? How?" Lorica asked.

"You have to break through the barrier that holds us in here. Get Broderick's crystal blade; it's the only way we can leave."

"Leave?" asked Lorica.

"Lorica, there's something here. Something unfriendly. I—we're hiding in here from them. They might be still far away, but it's only a matter of time before they find us."

"Why are you hiding? From who?" asked Lorica.

"They've been hunting for us for a long time," her mother said. "For sustenance."

"Sustenance? But, you're dead. Why do they need that?" Nothing made sense. Her breaths became shallower.

"Lorica, the dagger," said Lisette. "Please!"

She looked over her shoulder. The blade lay on the ground, just out of Broderick's grasp. He looked too injured to do anything. It wasn't far; all she had to do was turn around and crawl back a short distance. She swallowed and tasted salty dirt.

"You must do it now; you're fading!" said Lisette.

Lorica twisted around stretched behind her. Just go slow. Slow, slow. She inched over rock and grit while pain streaked through her.

She scrabbled in the dirt for the handle and hooked her fingertips around the sticky edge. The room threatened to fall away again at the sight of her own blood and the eerie feeling of the carved figure smeared with red.

Something unpleasant leeched into her. This was not a thing she should be touching or holding. The whispering rushed back in her head.

She turned back to the Star. Desperation lined her mother's face.

"Good girl. I can tell you how to do it, but you have to hurry," her mother said. "Come closer. Point the dagger toward the center and repeat these words: with the dagger I cut the strands that bind those behind the gate."

Lorica lifted the blade up to the empty space between the shards. The hot, sickening twinge reached her head. What a relief it would be to get the blade out of her hand. "With the dagger, I cut the strands that bind those behind the gate," she said, her voice heavy with exhaustion and pain.

"Again, twice more," Lisette said. "With the dagger, I cut the strands that bind those bind the gate."

Lorica repeated the words. Her head pounded.

"I open the channel to release the unbound. Say the words three times, Lorica."

A wave of revulsion rose from Lorica's guts. She swayed on her feet and felt she might vomit.

"Why are you just standing there? Say the words!" Lisette said.

"I can't," said Lorica. Her voice cracked. "Please don't make me do it anymore, it's too much."

"It's just a little bit more," Lisette said. "Broderick did most of the work. You just need to do a little more to open the channel all the way. Please, Lorica. I can't be released without you." She looked over her shoulder. "Hurry, before they come."

"It hurts too much."

"Hurry!" The sharpness in her voice raised cold pinpricks on the back of Lorica's neck.

"No." She ignored the ghastly feeling and held the crystal knife close to her.

"Don't be afraid, daughter," said the new, hostile voice.

"Meree, why do you sound like that?" She wheezed through hot pain and couldn't remember being so thirsty.

"Isn't this the way you remember me?"

"I don't know." The sick feeling crept through her bloodstream and made her thoughts sluggish. How easy it would be just to lay down and go to sleep, to leave behind this pain and horror. Nothing wrong with surrendering...

"Lorica, there is going to be a lot of trouble for you if you don't do as I say," said Lisette.

"Meree, what is happening? Why are you getting so angry?"

"Because I thought I could count on you, but you're letting me down, just as you always let everyone down," Lisette said. "You and your friends will all be dead, and it will be because of you."

Agony rolled over Lorica. It was true. She was a monumental failure at school, at home, at life, at everything. And now this, the worst failure of them all.

Jamison and Scout would die; her mother would be trapped in there forever. It was her own foolhardiness that led them down here, and now she couldn't even finish what her mother had asked her to do.

"Meree, stop!"

Lisette swayed like a coiled snake ready to strike. "I did not raise you to be disobedient!"

"Wait!" said Lorica. "Let me try again!"

"Then finish it!" said Lisette. The edges of her body began to bubble outward.

She watched in horrified fascination as her mother's body stretched out and heads sprouted along her back.

"What is happening to you?" she screamed.

"You acted too late, idiot!" Lisette swiped at her daughter, and her hand became scaly and black-clawed.

Lorica slashed at the sickle-clawed hand, and the Canthaelag screamed.

{49} (new)

 

Lisette's specter became monstrous, his form wavering between the broken shards of his crystalline prison, existing half there and half in his own realm.

Terror seized Lorica, so deep and primal she wished to flee her own skin to escape it.

The statue at the monastery and the figure on the pommel had only been a glimpse of its true shape—cartoonish effigies that were tame in comparison to the shape caught in the Star.

This creature with human-like heads running along its back like tumors was worse than anything that ever lived in her imagination, worse than goblin-kin or being expelled or being forced to join the Sisters of Durainne. It was the monster that out-monstered them all.

The Canthaelag's bulbous faces leered at her. Notched teeth lined each segment of his body. Lorica saw herself reflected in the smeary depths of his dark, oily eyes.

She'd been tricked by a creature who saw her as just another pathetic human, whose lowly desires could be twisted for its own gain.

Lorica cast Broderick's crystal blade aside and picked up her father's dagger. The pommel's gem flared. Whispering roared in her head like a rising tide. This time, the cold did not burn as fierce. The sick feeling receded.

The Canthaelag hissed at the beam's glow. "What are you doing with that?" His segmented-body-teeth rolled open one after the other like a wave.

Lorica squeezed her father's dagger. "This?"

"Why don't you put it down," said the Canthaelag. "I just want to talk."

"You're disgusting," she said. "And you tried to trick me."

"It was necessary. Put down the knife, Lorica. You don't know how to use it."

The white gem glowed with a dazzling brightness, as if a piece of the sun had been captured inside of it.

The Canthaelag's form wavered. "You're making it very difficult for the both of us."

The light. It doesn't like the light.

"Too bad then, I guess," she said.

The Canthaelag's fleshy lips drew back in a grin. "You remember what it was like to be the only child, before your mother choked to death on her own spit, before your father moved on with his life like you have been unable to do."

Lorica shook with cold and pain. "Shut up, you ugly worm!" The gem flared again.

She held the dagger up higher. Blinding rays of light beamed out from the pommel's gem and lit up the back wall of the cave.

The Canthaelag reared up, hissing and cackling. "You don't realize what you're doing. You're too weak to go on, and you know it."

Her muscles burned and twitched and shook. The dagger was a lead weight in her hands.

"You're condemning them," the Canthaelag said. "You need my help."

"No," Lorica said. The stab wound and her fractured wrist throbbed without mercy.

"I can take your pain away. What's it worth to you, Lorica?" the Canthaelag said. "Your friends are dying, but you can still make it out."

She said nothing.

"I know you are in agony," he said. "We both want something. Let us help each other."

"No! How can I trust you? You killed all those people Broderick brought you. You pretended to be my mother."

"You'd offer something to me in an instant if it meant getting your mother back, if you had something to give," said the Canthaelag. "But the more time you waste, the less likely you'll make it out of here alive, so it doesn't matter."

"No, I'm getting out of here."

The Canthaelag laughed. "And go back to what? The twins and the new infant will continue to steal your father away from you. Your stepmother has no love for you either. And why should she? What have you done for your family except cause them shame? Soon they'll be free from you."

"What do you know about it? You're a liar." The nausea and the maggot feeling returned in a sickening wave.

"Jamison the failed magician lied to you too," the Canthaelag said. "He'd be in good company with the other dregs Broderick led down here."

Lorica's heart shriveled.

I can't do it. I can't hold it up anymore, but I can't put down the dagger.

The Canthaelag said, "If you finish piercing the barrier, I'll go right past you, although if you keep pointing that gem at me, I might slit your belly open and savor whatever spills out instead of releasing Taryn. Unless you want to cooperate."

"No!"

Her dagger's light beam grew wider as it shone further away from the gem, strobing outward to the cave's wall above the Star. The Canthaelag hissed and recoiled out of the beam's path.

The light shone brighter over the crystal's own sharp brilliance, filtering through it like a moonbeam through a cloud. It lit up the wall and ceiling with a sublime glow, and then Lorica saw them—thin, wiggly lines carved into it where the light hit, like the rock-etched message she'd left back in one of the tunnels.

The lines were arranged in fourteen rows of white, sticklike scratches, propped up against one another in an upright jumble.

Just grooves in the rock from water.

The scratches began to waver.

They're not moving, I'm seeing things again.

They shifted into words. The pommel gemstone linked up with the inscription, making the etched words glow.

Our words hidden

But for the travelers

Who possess the faerstone

Together shining like a beacon

Through the darkness and despair

Speak our tongue thrice times four

Call upon the Faer Ones to drive out the creature

That haunts the plane between Star and their realm

Darkens its light and threatens the world with poisoned death

Ji epaesahs Faer Yuls weas te worikep (I entreat to the Faer Ones with these words)

Swahr, coruah, baehd, ehreu domyne (contain, banish, enfeeble what dwells inside)

Queil tuo jhu whai ahr corui saire taih veituan (harrow, destroy, and swallow the creature)

Huirires eiborue te faerstone weas te Soeruecen (on the last unite the faerstone with the Soeruecen)

Porues dus te empuire hulhwysse veassaid yul saetr fead fylljen (one of many vessels waiting to be filled)

A torrent of pressure rushed into Lorica's head. The blade hummed in her grip.

What vessel? What does it mean?

"Don't dare say those words. You don't know how long I have been pursued! Don't say them!" shouted the Canthaelag.

She broke her gaze from the etchings. His faces twisted in terror and rage.

"They are not meant for you; you have no right!"

Lorica's arms burned, and her muscles strained and shook with the effort of holding the dagger above her head. "To do what?"

"The faerstone. You have no right to the Wirre-sortis' magic! You don't know how it works."

Faerstone? Wirre-sortis?

"How do you know?" asked Lorica.

The gem's light surged and surrounded the Canthaelag in a ring.

"I know why you're here. You came to find your mother. You weren't sent to finish their work!"

Lorica gripped the dagger tighter. Cords of light wound around the Star.

The creature shrank away as though the beams were a red hot fireplace poker. "To think that a worthless, untalented girl could come here and try to use the stone! You do not even know what you have!"

He's right. I have no idea what I'm doing.

The Star trembled.

"Stop!" he shrieked, his voices as one. The ring around him grew brighter. "Don't speak the words! The words call them!"

Lorica closed her eyes, but the image of the fourteen lines burned on the back of her eyelids.

Who does he mean?

The Canthaelag slithered out of the light and pushed against the side of the crystal. "You will regret it if you don't listen to me!"

They can't be worse than him. They couldn't be.

She peeked at the wall. The lines remained, glowing and beckoning.

Behind her, Jamison, Scout, and Broderick lay unmoving.

I have to say the words; I know that's what I have to do. It's the only way.

Lorica began to recite the strange, archaic language of long dead magic users.

{50} (new)

 

The Canthaelag lashed his whip tail against the invisible barrier. "Lorica, stop! Before it's too late for everyone here!"

He's lying again. Keep saying it. What if he breaks it down? I can't do this, and I don't know if I'm saying it right. How do I know if I'm saying it the right way?

The light wrapped around the Star like a luminescent spider web. A storm of flashes raged inside of it.

A splintering crack shattered inside the room, like thawing ice on a lake.

The Canthaelag's shadow wavered. "NO, NO! STOP! THEY WILL COME, THEY WILL COME!"

Just six more times, halfway through. It hurts so much. Oh no, why did it crack? Please don't let him escape!

Lorica stumbled over the old language. It was as unnatural to her as if she'd woken up in another person's body.

The Canthaelag twisted away from the light ray bonds lashed around him. "STOP! I WILL TEAR OUT YOUR TONGUE!"

Lorica spoke louder. She tried not to look at the creature inside the Star and focused on the lines of verse.

A whirring noise rose over the Canthaelag's panicked screams. "THEY ARE HERE!"

Round, white tick-like creatures poured into the Star. They swarmed all over the Canthaelag until they ensnared his entire body.

He thrashed and swatted them away, but wave after wave of them crawled into every orifice of his body: his mouth, eyes, teeth, tongues, and underneath his skin. They were eating him alive.

Only twice more. He's dying. It's them; they're doing that to him.

His voices died as the swarm feasted upon his throats. Bits of his shriveled body broke off and crumbled. In under five minutes, they had completely consumed the Canthaelag.

Their whirring drowned out the crystal's hum. The tiny creatures started evolving from their larval state into a humanoid one.

Their bodies lengthened and took on a blue-black sheen. Spindly, barbed limbs sprouted from them. Insect-like wings with iridescent scales unfolded from their backs.

Lorica watched them change, riveted with terror and fascination. They stared back with black predatory eyes, like bottomless pools that reflected no light.

The whirring filled the Star as they beat their wings in unison. They drifted up as one, as though they were of a single mind, and disappeared into the crystal's void.

Suddenly, Lorica remembered what she was supposed to be doing.

On the last unite the faerstone with the Soeruecen.

The Soeruecen is underneath that's what Broderick said.

She braced herself for intense pain and struck the Star, right where the root of it met the Soeruecen, just like she'd seen Jamison do with the spire. The dagger yielded as if there was a perfect space for it to fit into.

A caustic jolt shot through the blade and into her arm.

Things beyond her reason and understanding flooded her mind. A moment later, everything it told her was gone, like a dream that faded upon awakening.

{51} (new)

 

Another ear-splitting crack filled the chamber. The cabochon in the rock shattered like fragile ice. The layered crystal outcroppings creaked and split apart into three giant pieces.

One of them toppled over towards Lorica like a massive tree felled by an axe. The rumble shook the chamber and rattled the stone formations.

She dove out of the way before it crashed sideways into the cave wall. Showers of sharp crystals drew blood as they pelted her.

With a groan, the second piece tumbled backwards and struck the wall behind it.

The third seemed to fall in slow motion in the direction of Scout, Jamison, and Broderick. Lorica hid her face and sobbed into the rocks. She couldn't accept that her final memory of Jamison and Scout would be of them getting crushed.

An avalanche of chunks and shards bounced and skidded across the room, knocking off the larger pieces as they came apart. The chamber trembled from the shock of the Brumal Star's death.