Chapter Eleven

After Magiere ordered Chap into their cabin, he lay in misery upon the floor until the storm began to abate. Leesil appeared in very poor shape again and had remained lying on the bunk with his eyes closed. Staring at the ceiling and equally quiet, Magiere rested on the other bunk, though he could not tell whether she was seasick as well.

When the Cloud Queen began riding more smoothly, Chap rose a bit wobbly legged. The very thought of food made his stomach roll. Just the same, he pawed open the cabin door. Neither Leesil nor Magiere said anything as he peered down the passage toward Brot’an’s door.

His nauseous misery was forgotten as that other door cracked open. Brot’an stuck his head out and glanced both ways before noticing Chap.

“Standing guard?” the aging elf asked dryly, and then he raised his eyes once to the passage’s ceiling before looking back into his cabin. “The weather has turned again. I am going up for a while.”

The last of that had to have been for Leanâlhâm, and Chap wondered what effect the storm had on the girl. Brot’an stepped out, closed the door, and walked right by Chap to vanish up the far steep steps to the deck.

Chap waited until he heard the hatch door open and then he followed.

Outside, the sky was still dark gray, but the wind had faded to a bluster and the ship no longer rocked as it had in that sudden squall. Brot’an stood off at the port rail and gripped it with one hand to steady himself. None of the sailors shouted any orders for Brot’an to return below, so Chap stepped farther out into the open.

Without a companion to advise or manipulate, he had little chance of prodding secrets from Brot’an. Obviously the old assassin knew this too well.

Staring lazily toward the distant shore, Brot’an leaned upon the rail. “I am going to enjoy the fresh air while I can,” he said. “You are welcome to enjoy my company while I do so.”

Chap knew better than to be baited but could not suppress a snarl. Changing his mind, he headed below, knowing that was what Brot’an likely wanted, but he went to Brot’an’s cabin instead of his own. Pausing there, he hesitated at scratching.

Likely Leanâlhâm was not up to being disturbed, let alone being used to get Brot’an talking. Perhaps he should rouse Magiere, if not Leesil. On second thought, Magiere was not a good choice, as pitting her against Brot’an was what the aging assassin would want. And Leesil had little to offer in coaxing Brot’an further.

It was frustrating not being able to go at Brot’an directly. Chap was determined to find out what Brot’an was after—and it certainly was not some selfless intention to protect Magiere. Brot’an was not Sgäile by any measure.

Chap returned to his own cabin and pushed his nose through the cracked door. It creaked open enough for him to stick his head inside.

Leesil was still on the left bunk, but now his eyes were half-open in his sickly pale face. The way he stared at the ceiling made Chap wonder whether there was something wrong other than seasickness. On impulse Chap reached out to dip any memory that fixated his longtime companion.

He nearly pulled out at what filled his head.

Chap—Leesil—saw Magiere’s black irises fully expanded to swallow the whites of her eyes. Tears from the glare of the white plain rolled down to half crystallize on her cheeks. He saw fangs between her lips, driven apart by the change of her teeth.

Chap—Leesil—looked upon his wife, and horror-driven anger made him shout, “Where have you brought us?”

The memory vanished as Leesil sat up too quickly—and glared at Chap. His angry expression vanished, and he glanced away.

The shock of that memory caught Chap off guard, though he’d been there in that past moment. It was something else to experience how vivid it had been for Leesil.

As Leesil lay back down, Magiere elbowed up on her bunk. She looked first to Chap and then her husband.

“What?” she asked sharply. “What’s wrong?”

Before Chap could call up memory-words, Leesil answered tiredly, “It’s nothing.”

* * *

It seemed only moments had passed since Magiere had heard Leesil’s sharp retort just as the storm had hit the ship. His words still hung in her mind.

That you know of . . . and only because you don’t have the orb to . . .

She wondered whether in that moment he had been thinking back to . . .

Magiere cringed under Chap’s steady gaze, and Leesil wouldn’t look at her. The guilt she felt, the weary resignation in her husband, and the dog’s continued fearful wariness made her want to hide.

Since their night in Berhtburh, when she’d regained a little closeness with Leesil, she’d hoped he might put some of the past behind them. She was trying so hard to control herself, trying not to let what had changed within her gain any more hold upon her.

Now Leesil wouldn’t look at her, and Chap wouldn’t stop watching her. She knew what they were thinking—what they feared—and she clambered off the bunk.

“Where are you going?” Leesil asked.

“I need some air.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“No,” she answered, more harshly than intended, and there was Chap in the doorway. “Just . . . just let me get some air,” she told him.

Chap backed out of the half-open door.

Magiere fled the cabin and rushed along the passage to the stairs and up on deck. A snap of wind tossed her hair across her eyes, and she had to push it back. The crew was busy expanding more sails, though judging by the ship’s rocking, the sea hadn’t settled completely. Then she spotted Brot’an at the portside rail.

It took three breaths before he looked her way.

His hair appeared even more age-streaked today, or maybe it was just the dark gray sky that made it look so, but the fine lines around his eyes looked deeper. Perhaps he’d just noticed her, or maybe not. One could never tell how much Brot’an was aware of even when he wasn’t looking.

Unable to find a way to escape him without returning below to the others, she went to join him.

“How is Leanâlhâm?” she asked.

“Still resting,” Brot’an answered. “I assume the same for your companions, though before the storm they were intensely inquisitive.”

“I know.”

He raised his right eyebrow, stretching those scars that skipped over it. “I told them as much as I wished to . . . less than they wanted . . . yet more than you have told me, which is nothing.”

At his accusation, Magiere’s misplaced anger at Leesil and Chap faded. In fairness, back on the isle, Brot’an had told her something of what made the rift between him and Most Aged Father widen to an extreme. She hadn’t offered anything in turn, but it wasn’t as simple as just telling him.

How could she? She’d only recently been able to look back on any of it. There were some parts she could remember barely, if at all.

“What do you want to know,” she asked Brot’an, “to really know? And don’t just ask me what happened up in the Wastes. There was too much.”

He appeared thoughtful, as if considering what specific information he wanted most.

“You found the first orb in a castle,” he began, “and in the journal Wynn sent to me, she alluded to an ancient guardian. What of the second orb, where you found it? Was it guarded as well? If we face the same possibility in seeking another orb, I need to know.”

Magiere wavered. He hadn’t asked about the hardest part she’d have to tell. It wasn’t the worst for her, Leesil, and Chap, but that part she wouldn’t ever share.

At her hesitation, Brot’an pressed further. “I have tried to answer your questions. I have come here to protect you from my caste. When you found the second orb in the north, was there a guardian?”

Damn Wynn for her relentless scribbling! That was the only way Brot’an could know or guess this much. Magiere looked out over the rail at the water smashing against the ship’s hull only to roll away in broken foam, all white.

“Yes,” she whispered. “There was a guardian.”

Quietly she began to speak. . . .

* * *

Magiere didn’t even remember pulling her falchion as she led the way across the last stretch of the white plain.

Her jaws ached under the change in her teeth, and her eyes burned worse than ever before in the glare. All she saw was a low, dark opening in the brilliant white crags ahead of her. It was all she needed to find her way. When she stepped into the mouth of darkness, the tunnel beyond was as bright as a normal day to her—a relief compared to the blinding glare outside.

Only then did she hear the soft echo of feet and paws following behind her. Only then did she become half-aware of Leesil and Chap still with her.

Fierce hunger burned up her throat and into the back of her mouth with the urge to hunt. She couldn’t stop—didn’t want to—as she stalked onward, watching for any movement, listening for any new sound . . . sniffing the air for something not quite alive.

Down the broad ice passage, a shimmer of light played upon the glistening walls around her and out ahead. She slowed, peering about, until her eyes fixed on Leesil’s amulet, which was exposed atop his coat.

Its amber glow burned her sight as though she’d looked too long into a lantern, and she flinched away from it. He stepped past her down the tunnel, and she made to follow him as the shimmering light upon the walls caught on dimmer spots.

There was something locked in the ice of the walls.

Magiere stared through misted ice at the twisted face of a Wastelander native. Only his head, mouth still gaping and eyes stretched open in the moment of his death, was frozen inside the wall.

A shuddering, keening whine echoed in the tunnel.

Magiere spun, her grip tightening on the falchion’s hilt before she spotted Chap behind her. He was looking beyond her, up the passage, and she turned the other way.

Leesil stood farther ahead, close to the tunnel’s left wall and staring at it. He held his amulet closer to the ice and curled his other hand to catch his coat’s cuff and wipe a patch of wall with his sleeve.

The light from Leesil’s amulet revealed a shadow in the ice before his face.

Magiere took only two steps before she made out another head . . . and then another. There were more, frozen inside the walls along the passage. Open, dead eyes stared out at her. Much later she would wonder how long they had been there, and about Ti’kwäg’s stories.

Natives of the Wastes had gone in search of their lost ones, and shadows had moved within the blizzards upon the white plains.

“Seven hells,” Leesil whispered, and he turned up the tunnel, as if not wanting to meet those eyes staring out of the walls.

The heads should have horrified Magiere as well, but they didn’t. They sparked only a dull awareness, some faraway memory.

These frozen heads meant even less to her now than when she’d seen human and inhuman skeletons curled in hollows all along the tunnel down into the great cavern below the six-towered castle. With their skulls down, foreheads pressed to the floor in submission, they spent eternity cowering in death before the emissary of their god.

There was a name for that thing: Li’kän.

That naked, near-white, and deceptively frail woman had been left alone there for a thousand years to watch over the first orb. She was one of the first that the world had ever known among the Noble Dead. The ones the world forgot.

And there was another like her somewhere in here. Magiere felt it. She should’ve felt the anger-driven fear in Leesil’s eyes, heard it in Chap’s noise, but there was only hunger now burrowed into her bones, until . . .

She wanted something to tear apart.

Between that drive and the pain of Leesil’s blinding amulet, Magiere was vaguely aware that they could be reliving something similar to what they’d encountered in the Pock Peaks. Leesil stood ahead, his back to her, and it was all she could do not to rush past him. Finally he stepped onward, and, hearing Chap’s claws coming nearer, she closed on Leesil from behind.

Leesil stepped into an intersection before she caught up.

Instinct—a warning—surged through Magiere.

He stopped amid the openings on all four sides of him. He was too far out of reach to grab, and she shouted at him. All that came out was an echoing screech that smothered Chap’s sharp, sudden snarl.

Leesil spun at Magiere’s shout, and a dark blur dropped out of—from—the ice ceiling above him.

Magiere charged, her boots slipping on the frozen tunnel floor. Leesil didn’t even look up and . . . he ducked and rolled aside.

Before the shadow landed in the intersection, Magiere saw it as a man dressed in fur garb. Leesil pulled both of his winged blades as Magiere rushed the figure from behind and raised her falchion with one hand.

Another—and one more again—came out of the side tunnels.

Leesil came off one knee to swing at their nearest attacker rushing in from the left. The one in the intersection went straight at him. Magiere lost sight of all else as Chap’s howl echoed loudly, as if from everywhere, and the one going at Leesil stalled and turned.

The assailant’s face caught in the swinging light of Leesil’s amulet.

This time instinct made Magiere falter; a sliver of reason slipped in.

He was shorter than she was, and had the black hair and rounded features and slit-like eyes of the nomadic Wastelanders. But his skin looked bleached compared to their dark tones, as if half his color had been bled away. Dressed in only pants and a makeshift cloak, both of fur, his torso was as pallid as his face, but he didn’t shiver in the frigid air. No vapor escaped his mouth with his breath, and his lips opened slightly, exposing elongated fangs.

There was no madness of hunger to match her own in his eyes—not as she’d seen in the feral vampires she’d faced in the Pock Peaks before Li’kän had appeared.

He carried no weapon at all.

When Magiere’s blade came down, he twisted his head aside and slapped the steel away. Her balance faltered as the falchion’s tip cracked the icy floor. All she could do was claw for his throat with her free hand. When her grip closed on his neck, she tried to grind her hardened fingernails through skin and muscle.

One of his hands latched on to her wrist.

Reason held beneath Magiere’s hunger. She tried to jerk the falchion up, and her prey wrapped his other hand over hers on the blade’s hilt. She caught only fleeting glimpses of what was happening all around her.

Chap rolled along the floor; the fur strapped around his body made him slide away as the one at whom he’d leaped slammed down on his back. A crack echoed off the walls as Chap’s head hit the floor, and he barely righted himself as his opponent flopped over and scrambled up. Chap rushed again, leaping to strike the creature’s chest and head with all of his snarling mass.

Leesil swung hard as he dropped low, barely clipping the thigh of the one who’d entered from the left. He had to roll and slide away as his opponent stumbled but quickly righted to come at him again.

The one to whom Magiere clung lurched forward. His bare feet didn’t slip like her boots. She heard a thump nearby, like bodies striking something hard, and then Leesil’s grunting exhale. Chap’s growl sharpened to a yelping bark, deafening in her ears, and Magiere felt her back hit a wall.

Her prey’s strength matched her own, and a flash of fear rose inside her.

Hunger and rage swallowed fear—and reason.

She shoved hard with her grip on her opponent’s neck and jerked back on his hold upon her sword hand. That twist of two forces turned him halfway, and she slammed his head into the icy tunnel wall. She didn’t wait for him to go down as she spun.

Leesil was on his back near the left passage’s mouth. The undead he fought was on all fours and trying to get a grip on one of his legs as he kicked the attacker repeatedly in the face. And then that undead got a hold on him.

Leesil arched up, slashing a winged blade at the undead’s face.

Chap yelped again, and Magiere had to choose.

She rushed the one clawing up Leesil’s body, and swung. Her falchion’s tip clipped the assailant’s collarbone. He shrieked as if burned and lurched back onto his knees. Leesil rolled away to his feet as the high-pitched noise pierced Magiere’s ears. Her fury broke for an instant.

The undead—another male like the one she’d faced—spun away with a spasm of pain. Somewhere within, she remembered that her sword caused the undead pain—left scars on them—like no other weapon could. A guttural mumble behind her made her turn.

Her first prey was up again and charging her.

Off to the intersection’s other side, Magiere glimpsed Chap’s attacker, a woman dressed like the other two. All looked like Wastelanders paled by death and unbearable cold, except their eyes weren’t black but crystalline and colorless.

Magiere drew her falchion back as the first one came at her again.

Leesil rushed into its path and shouted at her, “Chap—now!”

Magiere instantly turned away. Chap was bleeding from one shoulder. The female closed on him too quickly as Magiere went for her.

Chap wouldn’t retreat and, trying to leap at the woman, dashed straight into his prey.

Her hand slammed down on his head as he launched. Hardened nails raked him, and as he dropped hard, his right forepaw struck her thigh. His claws tore through her fur legging.

These were not normal undead—not even like the ferals that they’d faced in the six-towered castle. No matter how skilled Leesil and Chap might be, they were all in danger here.

Magiere let hunger flood her to the bones, and she roared as she lunged at the female.

The pallid woman’s head whipped, hair flying, as she looked straight at Magiere with colorless eyes.

“N��m’ajhuhk! Yihk!”

The woman halted and looked away at that deep shout ringing off the walls.

Magiere faltered as well, looking about for any new threat. She followed the sudden glance.

All three fur-clad undead had gone still. Even Chap backed away, still rumbling. Leesil retreated to the mouth of the tunnel they’d first followed and passed out of Magiere’s sight line, though she heard him panting.

All three small undead dropped onto their knees, leaned down, and pressed their foreheads to the frozen floor, as . . .

A tall man strode toward Magiere from the tunnel that led straight ahead, deeper into the mountain.

At first she wasn’t certain whether he was like the other three, though he was too tall, apparent even in the darkness up that passage. As he neared, her eyes made him out before the light of Leesil’s amulet truly revealed him.

He was no Wastelander—never had been. His hair was dark brown, near-black, but wavy, almost tightly curling, and his features, longer and narrower, were different from those of the other three. His eyebrows were dark colored as well but thick and shiny like his locks. He was bare chested, and his shoulders were wide. He wore pants made of treated hide and a cloak sewn from dozens of strips of varied furs.

He ignored all the others and stared only at Magiere with an emotionless expression.

She had seen the like of his slender features, prominent cheekbones, and full lips before. Aside from his pallor, he was much like the few Sumans whom she’d spotted in the ports of her homeland. And he was so pallid as to be nearly white like the one Magiere had faced upon finding the first orb . . . like Li’kän.

Magiere looked to his long neck, his throat, before realizing why. He wasn’t wearing a thôrhk, an orb handle, like Li’kän had. He slowed his approach and studied her face, maybe her eyes, perhaps her mouth in the slow drop of his gaze.

Magiere half raised the falchion, but her other hand came up toward her throat. She felt for where her coat had broken open at the neck, and then her fingertips touched one knobbed end of her thôrhk.

His eyes widened slightly.

He stepped into the intersection’s space, and Magiere tensed to rush him. Chap’s sharp snarl halted her. The dog looked between her and the pallid Suman in quick glances. Blood matted the fur of his right foreleg below the shredded part of his fur wrap.

“Don’t do anything . . . yet!” Leesil whispered from behind.

As Magiere fought to remain still, an image—a memory—sharpened in her head.

She envisioned Li’kän at the time the ancient undead first appeared in the six-towered castle. That frail-looking undead’s eyes had been as crystalline as those of the man before her. Li’kän was utterly savage, tearing apart anything, even another undead, that got in her way or crossed her sight. She cast them aside, broken, without thought or notice. And she’d never said a word.

This one—this pale, tall Suman—had spoken.

Reason sharpened in Magiere as she realized what Chap was trying to tell her by that memory. They faced another who was like but unlike Li’kän. This one hadn’t gone mad after a thousand years alone in silence.

With his eyes still on Magiere, the man raised one hand. He barked a single unrecognizable word like a command, and the three undead, heads still bowed with eyes down, rose to their feet. They backed only a few steps into the shadows and went still.

“Magiere?” Leesil asked, his voice tense with warning.

She tried to force her mind to work harder, to gain back her wits. The orb had led her here for a reason, but had it been a deceit? Was it trying a different way to use her, as had that thing in her dreams that led her to the six-towered castle?

This man had made himself servants, and Li’kän had not.

Perhaps that was only because such might be found here, even in this vast barren region. Li’kän had been trapped in the highest peaks of Magiere’s continent where no one had any reason to go until Magiere herself had gone after the orb.

This undead did not stare at her in hatred, as if she were an invader to be dispatched. He appeared . . . relieved . . . even pleased by the sight of her.

The barest hint of a smile spread across his mouth, and she instantly wanted to take his head. He took another step, and Leesil appeared on her right as Chap sidled in on her left. The tall, white ancient halted. He raised both empty hands outward, and then slowly pulled them in, gesturing to himself.

“Iàng qahhar’ur,” he said.

Magiere shook her head. He frowned, and then . . .

“Man’äm qahhar-ís . . . e ra’fi?”

At the last of this, he gestured to her. These words sounded different, almost musical in tone. Maybe some other language, though there was one word that seemed similar.

“I . . . do not . . . understand,” she struggled to get out in Numanese.

The tall undead tilted his head to one side and then straightened. He never even glanced at Chap or Leesil, and again he touched a hand to his chest.

“I . . . am . . . Qahhar,” he said, faltering over the words. “Well met . . . lost . . . grandchild.”

That cold place was deathly quiet for a long moment.

“We back out now,” Leesil whispered. “If we reach the tunnel’s mouth, we can keep them—”

Qahhar turned his eyes on Leesil, and all the pleading hope and the hint of a smile vanished from his face.

Magiere fought to keep her dhampir nature under control, though she wanted to let go, let instinct take her for the way this undead looked at her husband. Something inside her wouldn’t respond to that desire. Something held it down even as Leesil carefully swung out one forearm with its wing blade to block her way.

Qahhar looked at her again. A mournful sorrow flooded his features, as if he had begun to weep, though no tears rolled from his colorless eyes.

“My lost grandchild,” he said, taking another small, hesitant step. “Beloved . . . guided you to me. I waited so long to be forgiven for my sin . . . for my desire to stand alone.”

Magiere stiffened. What did he mean by his “beloved”?

Though, unlike Li’kän, he spoke and understood words, and he knew more than one language, what he said made no sense. Something hard and urgent flickered across his features.

“Alone,” he whispered. “I begged forgiveness for my pride . . . for thinking only I was worthy.”

At a soft pressure on Magiere’s leg, she looked down to find Chap close against her. Another memory swelled in her thoughts when he glanced up once at her.

She saw the orb, the one they had brought, where it had sat upon a stone pedestal in the great cavern below the six-towered castle. What was he trying to tell her now?

“You are beautiful to my eyes,” Qahhar said. “And I have . . . mourned my sins. In my regret, I thought to keep from being alone.”

He gestured weakly toward one of the three undead still standing in the shadows with their heads bowed, though he did not look at them.

“These did no good, and only now . . . Beloved has forgiven me for thinking that only I am a fit guardian . . . for destroying the others of the Children who were sent with me.”

Magiere stared at him. From what Wynn had learned about Li’kän, that undead had journeyed a long way to the Pock Peaks a thousand years ago with a horde of servants and two companions named Volyno and Häs’saun. Over the following centuries, somehow those other two had either perished or vanished, leaving Li’kän all alone in her endless silence.

Or had she destroyed them, as Qahhar just claimed he had done?

Had he then tried to make himself companions from Wastelanders who had wandered too near his prison, only to find later that these creations did not fill his need? Li’kän hadn’t tried that—either by choice or because no one was near enough by the time loneliness would have driven her to such an act. But, like her, Qahhar had survived in a place where there couldn’t have been enough life to sustain him.

And what had he meant by “fit guardian”? Magiere didn’t even want to guess.

The memory of the orb on its pedestal flashed again in her mind. This time she understood what Chap meant . . . what had sustained Qahhar for all these centuries.

“Show me what you guard,” she ordered.

“No!” Leesil hissed.

Qahhar’s cold eyes appeared to brighten with relief. Without a word, he turned smoothly and headed back the way he’d come. All three servants remained where they were, with their heads bowed. Magiere desperately wished she had an instant to speak with Leesil and Chap alone.

“We have to follow,” she said. “I have to see.”

Leesil’s features twisted into panicked anger, but Chap stepped onward after Qahhar. Magiere could only look away from Leesil and follow as well.

How many times would she do this to him and grow fearfully sick inside until she heard his footsteps come after her? How many times before she didn’t hear those footfalls?

Walking near Chap’s right haunch, Magiere kept back from Qahhar as he led them up the far icy tunnel. It was a while before she noticed how the tunnel darkened even more, lit only by the glow of Leesil’s amulet as he came behind her. Then she felt more than saw the steadily increasing slant of the floor.

They were going upward rather than into the depths. She kept her eyes on the back of Qahhar’s fur cloak as she followed. By his words and what Chap had shown her, she had no doubt of what she’d find at the end of this tunnel. She could hardly let herself believe it was possible, and she didn’t want to believe.

Magiere saw faint shimmers along the walls ahead of Qahhar that couldn’t be coming from Leesil’s amulet. However, their group couldn’t be approaching the top of the mountain ridge; by the size of the peaks that she’d seen outside, they hadn’t gone far or high enough. But they must be somewhere near the surface if light now seeped in through the ice. Or shouldn’t there be layers of rock to block it out?

Soon she made out more heads frozen inside the walls. Their dead eyes were turned toward the passage—toward Qahhar as he passed them without a returned glance.

Leesil hadn’t said a word along the way.

The passage leveled off, and Magiere spotted stronger light ahead. Qahhar stepped out of the tunnel into a vast cavern, and Magiere followed. It was so wide that she couldn’t have thrown a stone to its far side. Looking all around, she found other features familiar and unsettling.

They stood upon a broad ice shelf that circled the entire cavern. Four narrow walkways stretched from the shelf in the form of a cross, joining at a middle platform over the center of a chasm. But unlike the stone cavern below Li’kän’s castle, everything here was made of ice.

Qahhar blocked Magiere’s view of the center platform as he stepped to where the ledge met the nearest walkway bridge. The path he trod was no wider than twice his shoulder width. When she went to follow, she paused and peered over the shelf’s lip.

The chasm was too deep to see the bottom. She looked into an endless fall from the light permeating the cavern into a pitch black far below. Along that descent was nothing but craggy walls of ice. She shut her eyes as vertigo made her dizzy.

When Magiere opened her eyes again to step onward, Chap had cut in front of her with a snarl as he stepped onto the bridge.

Qahhar stopped, turned about, and for the first time looked upon the dog.

Chap froze in place but didn’t retreat as Qahhar’s expression turned as blank and emotionless as his colorless eyes. The undead’s gaze lifted, and at the sight of Magiere, his mournful and grateful expression returned, and he moved on.

Magiere urged Chap onward, as there was no way to get around the dog on the narrow bridge. When Qahhar stepped onto the central platform and off to one side, Magiere was able to see what waited there, though she’d already imagined it.

Instead of stone like the last time, a four-legged stand of ice like a tall and narrow table rose from out of the platform’s frost-glazed surface. A perfectly round hole had been carved or had formed in the stand’s top.

A dark globe slightly larger than a great helm rested inside the opening. A spike, its broad tapered top larger than her fist, pierced down through the globe’s center. The spike’s pointed tip protruded through the globe’s bottom, showing between the stand’s legs. Both spike and globe appeared formed from a single piece.

As before, when she was near the first orb, Magiere’s hunger faded. That relief came like a curse, for hunger fueled her fury—and fury was her strength.

Another long-forgotten guardian kept another orb . . . in another cavern, this time in the heights instead of the depths. The orb they already possessed had led her, and it was the last thing she’d expected and would have ever hoped for.

Magiere wanted to flee this place but couldn’t bring herself to do so.

Qahhar turned his gaze from the pedestal to her—to the thôrhk around her neck.

“Mine is here,” he said. “Always safe. The others did not know how to guard the anchor.”

His last word made no sense, though at a guess he meant the orb. He headed to the walkway across from the one they’d used. At her footsteps, he looked back and smiled.

“Wait here,” he said.

Chap snarled and tried to rush forward. Magiere grabbed him with her free hand. Qahhar looked upon the dog, still snarling at him, and Magiere raised her falchion. The undead appeared confused at her action and shook his head.

“I will remain in your sight . . . and return quickly.”

With that, he stepped off along the far bridge.

Magiere watched him carefully. She had to tighten her grip on Chap’s scruff as he tried to assault her with memories of every undead that ever attacked or betrayed them.

“We’re leaving now . . . before that thing does something!”

Leesil’s harsh whisper startled Magiere after his long silence. She didn’t obey, and Chap finally settled to an endless rumble of breaths as she watched the guardian.

Qahhar reached the opposite side of the cavern’s ringed ledge and turned to a sidewall near the far tunnel opening. For a moment he appeared to close his eyes, and his lips moved, though Magiere didn’t hear anything.

When he reached toward—into—the wall’s ice, she sucked in a breath and held it. He withdrew his hand, and even from a distance she could tell what he held.

Another thôrhk . . . or orb handle.

How he’d hidden it there or why she couldn’t guess, other than the fact that it would be hard for anyone else to find, let alone reach, it. This also meant that Qahhar had skills to be wary of. More than once, Magiere, with Leesil and Chap, had faced an undead that knew magic. It never turned out well.

Returning to the platform, Qahhar held up his thôrhk, identical to the one Li’kän had possessed. He hung it around his neck, and his voice filled with relief.

“In sending you, Beloved has forgiven me.”

Magiere didn’t want to hear that again, but something inside her held on to a suspicion. What she’d done—what she’d felt—to find this place didn’t match the horror in her dreams that had guided her to the first orb.

“I will let no harm come to you,” Qahhar went on, “or those you choose to keep. I will guard you, as precious to me as you are to Beloved. You will stand with me, and neither of us shall ever be alone again . . . until Beloved calls for the anchors.”

With that, he reached out as if to touch her face.

Magiere back-stepped, pulling Chap before he lunged, but Leesil dodged around her and stopped barely out of the guardian’s reach.

Confusion spread across Qahhar’s pale face, but Magiere saw the malice on Leesil’s.

She instantly released Chap to grab Leesil’s coat and jerk him back. Chap shifted to her right as she reached behind and under her own coat with her free hand. Magiere felt for the hilt of her Chein’âs dagger at the small of her back.

“Illimasuktok e kisarpok!”

A shout coming from somewhere outside the cavern echoed off the walls. Qahhar’s widening eyes looked toward where they’d all first entered.

“What’s happening?” Leesil asked.

Magiere didn’t know. Qahhar looked at her as if she were suddenly a puzzle. Chap’s snarl rose to a pealing half yowl as a memory erupted in Magiere’s head.

She saw the sled outside with the chest holding the orb they’d brought, and Ti’kwäg standing beside it.

Magiere realized that shout had come from one of Qahhar’s servants. They must have gone outside and spotted the sled. She fought the urge to run for the passage. Leesil sucked a loud breath, and she knew Chap had raised a similar memory for him.

Magiere began to panic again as Leesil backed off to her left.

“Tell him you’ve been sent to guard it . . . this orb,” he whispered in Belaskian.

Magiere hoped that wasn’t a language that Qahhar knew.

“Tell him that you’re its guardian now,” Leesil added.

Leesil could bluff his way through a tangle better than anyone she knew, and she guessed at what he was up to. If those servants had gone to the sled, Qahhar might now know they’d arrived with an orb. Would he accept that she was somehow taking both?

Lying wasn’t one of Magiere’s skills, not like it was Leesil’s. She said either nothing or something, and if truth bothered those who heard it, that was their problem. This was different.

She looked Qahhar in the eyes and spoke clearly. “Beloved has forgiven you . . . and I have been sent to gather the orbs. There is no more waiting needed.”

Qahhar’s brow slowly wrinkled. “No, my grandchild, you have misunderstood. You are not of the Children.”

Magiere was lost again—children of what?

“Beloved would never accept one such as you as sole guardian,” Qahhar finished.

A memory rose in Magiere of Li’kän in the library of the Pock Peaks. The scribbled writing of her “story” covered all the walls. Chap was feeding Magiere notions, and she guessed at what he wanted her to say.

“Li’kän, Volyno, and Häs’saun gave me their orb,” she said. “Hand over yours, as Beloved wishes.”

She hoped Qahhar had no way to know that Volyno and Häs’saun were long gone, and that Li’kän had been forever locked away in the cavern beneath her castle. Qahhar became very quiet, still watching, and then slowly shook his head.

“If Beloved had you take the anchor of Water from Häs’saun, it was only to bring it to me, to show me that Beloved has forgiven me . . . and sent you to me, Grandchild. You will stay, as you are for me.”

“No, she isn’t,” Leesil rasped.

Qahhar fixed on Leesil, and his face drained of all emotion. In a blink, he rushed and struck with his hand for Leesil’s throat. Leesil jerked one arm up almost as quickly as Qahhar could strike. The punching blade barely got in the way. It shielded his throat, but not the arm that held the blade up.

Qahhar’s hardened nails raked across Leesil’s forearm and screeched off the wing of his blade.

Droplets of red spattered away from Leesil’s arm and the undead’s fingers.

Magiere threw herself at Qahhar. . . .

* * *


Chap stood in the Cloud Queen’s aftcastle doorway, having trailed Magiere up to the deck. At that one memory-word raised in her head, she stiffened upright and looked about until she spotted him.

He had expected to find her with Brot’an and had even hoped to use her to extract more information, but he’d not anticipated finding her telling Brot’an this part of their journey.

—What—are you—doing?—

Magiere winced, still looking at Chap.

Chap’s concern was not about Magiere reliving the second ugliest moment of their journey into the Wastes. Or the third ugliest for him. In truth, from what he had seen in her rising memories compared to what he had heard her say, she had not been detailed in her account. But she shared things that Brot’an should not know, such as the orbs’ influences upon her, other details of their appearance . . . and of thôrhks or “handles.”

What Brot’an might piece together from such scattered bits was one of Chap’s greatest concerns.

Brot’an looked only at Magiere, as if Chap’s sudden presence was nothing but a pause.

“Continue,” he told her flatly.

Magiere didn’t utter a word, but as Chap saw the cascade of memories in her mind, he could not stop his own from returning. . . .

* * *

Magiere’s shrieking roar echoed in the ice cavern and assaulted Chap’s ears as, pulling her falchion, she rushed at Qahhar. Leesil spun clear as droplets of his blood spattered the platform from out of his shredded coat sleeve. Magiere’s other hand whipped out from behind her back with the silver-white dagger as her falchion swept for Qahhar’s neck.

The ancient undead dodged aside, reaching for Leesil more quickly than Chap could follow. Chap launched to snap at Qahhar’s hand, but his jaws closed on empty air. Something smashed against the side of his head.

Everything turned white and then instantly black before Chap’s eyes.

Clarity did not return until he hit the platform hard and started sliding. He writhed blindly to right himself before slipping over the platform’s edge. His claws bit into the ice, but he still kept sliding. He felt his tail drop over the edge when he finally stopped.

Chap saw Leesil trying to reach him, but Leesil was limping badly.

Leesil had been behind him or out of direct sight since they’d followed Qahhar up the final passage. Leesil must have been injured during the clash with the three minions. More blood dripped between his fingers clutching his wounded arm.

Chap scrambled up; the cavern was still blurred and shifting under the ringing in his head. As he stumbled forward to get between Leesil and the ancient undead . . .

Magiere swung the falchion backhanded, low and across as Qahhar came at her. He tilted easily away from the heavy blade’s arc, as if the ice beneath his bare feet were as sure as rough stone.

The falchion swung clear, and Qahhar lunged in. Magiere followed, slashing downward with the Chein’âs dagger.

Chap had only an instant to hear the sizzle in the cold air. Any hard motion of that white metal blade made its black and hair-thin center seam ignite with orange-red light.

Qahhar gave the white blade no notice, hooked his fingers, and went for Magiere’s throat.

The blade’s lead edge and tip sliced his collarbone and down across his ribs.

His scream was drowned by the sizzling crackle of his flesh. Smoke rose into his face and eyes along the blade’s charred path as Magiere jerked the dagger back up. But she didn’t strike again.

Chap got around Leesil as Qahhar took a wobbling step back, and Magiere kicked out with one foot. Her boot struck Qahhar’s seared chest, and with a cry of pain, he stumbled away, teetering toward the platform’s edge.

Magiere didn’t follow her prey, and before she shouted, “Run!” Chap knew what they had to do.

They already had one orb to get away from this place; they had to forgo seizing the second. Magiere grabbed the back of Leesil’s coat, and Chap swerved, bolting along the narrow walkway they’d traversed on their way in.

If Qahhar’s minions were closing, he could not let them catch Magiere and Leesil on the narrow bridge. After reaching the ledge, he slowed partway to the passage’s entrance and remained watching until his companions caught up. Once they did, he rushed on, glancing back often.

Leesil had sheathed both winged blades, or Magiere had done it for him. He tried to squeeze his coat sleeve against his arm but stumbled and limped as Magiere pulled him along. In the light of his still-glowing amulet, a thin trail of blood on the ice followed his every step.

Leesil was losing too much blood. Soon the cold would get to him even before blood loss dropped him and killed him. But even in panic Chap could not stop now.

When he reached the intersection of the passages, no one was there. Instead of turning to relief, his panic increased. Where were Qahhar’s followers?

Chap looked all ways, and then peered down the tunnel that led outside. An echoing howl of rage flowed into the intersection from the way they had come, and Chap spun about.

Qahhar had not fallen into the chasm.

“Go!” Magiere ordered, shoving Leesil onward.

Leesil released his wounded arm and reached for a winged blade with his blood-soaked hand. Magiere slapped his hand away.

“No!” he choked out. “I’m not leaving!”

Through her elongated teeth, all she got out as she pushed him again was a garbled snarl.

Chap hated the thought of leaving her to guard their retreat, but he had no idea what had become of their own orb. Snatching the back of Leesil’s coat in his teeth, he called up Leesil’s memory of the orb upon the sled.

Leesil struggled, almost toppling backward, and Chap ducked out of the way. As Leesil righted himself, Chap saw Qahhar coming at them out of the passage behind them.

Magiere turned, lunging into the mouth of that tunnel.

Chap barked once at Leesil before turning to race off the other way. All the way to the outside world, Chap heard Leesil struggling to catch up, but at least he’d listened and followed. It wasn’t until Chap was down the snow-crusted slope that he was certain of what he saw.

Out on the endless white plain, what had been the speck of the sled was now a patch of dark red, almost black in the cold dusk. Racing across the snow, he spotted the first corpse.

The dogs were dead, slaughtered with their bodies scattered in pieces. He did not see Ti’kwäg anywhere, but one of Qahhar’s servants—the female—was lifting the orb’s chest off the sled. The two others rose from beyond the sled’s back, and Chap knew their guide had been lost like the dog team.

All three undead were smeared in blood, already crystallizing on their faces, hands, and torsos. All three turned their heads and spotted him.

A screeching shout carried over the plain from behind Chap.

Either Magiere or Qahhar had escaped the mountain, and by Magiere’s sound, the other had followed. Both still survived.

Chap couldn’t look back, not even for Leesil, and fixed upon the undead woman as he charged. She simply dropped the chest and crouched to face him.

He had one chance, only one way to take at least two of these things with him. He’d once done something desperate when they’d been overwhelmed by feral undead in the six-towered castle.

He would give these three something to feed upon.

As Chap charged, he called upon Air from the wind, Water within the ice, the Earth beneath the crusted plain, and Fire from the heat of his own body. He mingled these with his own Spirit, bonded to the elements of Existence that his kin, the Fay, had created so they would not wander in a timeless void.

Only Wynn, with her mantic sight, would have seen the trails of phosphorescent blue-white vapor flickering over his body like ghostly flames. Chap swallowed the sorrowful thought that he might never see her again and threw himself into the female undead.

She only stumbled instead of toppling. Clawing and snapping at any part of her that he could reach, Chap finally latched his jaws onto her shoulder. He ground his fangs deep to the bone, and she screamed.

Magiere’s weapons were the only other things that could cause the undead as much pain as his teeth and claws. He held on with his jaws as the woman’s acrid, oily black fluids leaked into his mouth. She tried to tear him off, but he wouldn’t let go.

Her screeching snarls deafened his ears as she thrashed and tore at the fur wrap around his torso. The sharp stench of her fear thickened until it drove her to her last resort.

Teeth—fangs—sank sharply through Chap’s fur and skin at the back of his neck.

Pain turned the world to a blur before his eyes. In barely two breaths after his lunge, he was falling. A jarring impact flattened him against the woman, and her teeth were gone from his neck. She shuddered in spasms beneath him, and, still only half-aware, he broke away from her. One of the other two vampires was near—and charging.

Chap stumbled as he saw the thing rushing at him.

Leesil flashed by, ramming straight into Chap’s attacker. Both rolled and flopped across the snow-crusted ice.

Chap had to turn away as the third undead rushed from behind the sled’s back and spotted him. The undead’s gaze quickly shifted as he looked to the woman. Chap already knew what the male saw.

Spidering lines would already be spreading over her skin, splitting and rupturing into cracks that bled black fluids. Her eyes and ears would begin to leak the same to stain the snow like oily ink. Chap heard her last scream, and the sound of thrashing upon the snow ceased.

No undead so far could survive feeding upon a Fay born into the flesh. He was more life than they could consume—but it cost him. In his weakness, the cold was eating into his body.

The third undead turned his eyes on Chap—and then shuddered and stiffened. He was not looking at Chap . . . but beyond him. That one’s eyes widened, along with his blood-crusted mouth, and he retreated one step.

Chap risked one look back as he charged at Leesil’s opponent.

Magiere and Qahhar were barely beyond the pieces of the dogs. She’d dropped her falchion somewhere along the way, and they went at each other with bare hands, screaming and clawing.

Chap didn’t know whether Magiere could stand against something as ancient and powerful as Qahhar. They were both a mess, he covered in smears of black and she in bloodred.

Chap grew frantic as his thoughts raced.

There were still two more Wastelander undead, Leesil was wounded, and Chap felt his strength waning. They were all going to die out here, and that would leave not one but two of the Ancient Enemy’s devices in the hands of these minions.

Qahhar was more dangerous than Li’kän, for he wasn’t mad, or at least had retained his reason, unlike her. But Chap could not turn to help Magiere.

He charged past the one staring at her and went straight at the one atop Leesil.

Leesil had managed to pull out a winged blade with his good hand. But the undead attacking him had that hand pinned down and had wrapped his other hand around Leesil’s throat.

Chap landed on the attacker’s back, and they both collapsed on Leesil. Chap sank his teeth into the back of the creature’s neck. The undead arched with a howl, and something, perhaps an elbow, rammed back into Chap’s side.

He felt something crack.

Breath shot out of him in a whimper between his clenched teeth. He held on to the male’s neck as the undead thrashed, rolled away, and pinned him against the cold, crusted plain. The thing screamed and stiffened atop him for an instant before it tore free of his jaws and scrambled away.

Its quick escape tumbled Chap over, and the first thing he saw through pain-blurred eyes was a trail of black spatters in the snow. Then he saw the undead scrambling off, out onto the plain, as the falling snow began slanting in the rising wind.

Chap struggled onto his belly and tried to rise as he looked about. He saw no sign of the third undead who had been behind the sled. Instead there was only a still body lying awkwardly in a broad red stain upon the snow. Chap looked away from Ti’kwäg’s remains and struggled around to find Leesil on his side, looking at him.

Leesil’s eyes were barely open as his quick, shallow breaths puffed out vapor quickly torn apart by the wind. Next to his outstretched arm with that one winged blade was a pale-skinned severed hand upon the snow. Its owner had run off, but where was that third undead?

And why was everything so silent now, but for Leesil’s weak breaths and the rising, biting wind?

Chap squirmed around a little farther but could not get to his feet.

Out beyond the blurred stain of dog corpses, something moved through the curtain of slanting snowfall, coming closer, only one figure, not two. Its shape was still indistinct as it stepped through the dark stretch where the dogs had been torn apart.

Chap looked all about in fright, at a loss for why the two male undead had run off, and fearful that one of them now returned. And what of Qahhar?

Amid the snowfall, Magiere took shape in Chap’s blurred sight. And relief was short-lived as, looking for Qahhar, he tried to see beyond her. Something was wrong with Magiere’s face . . . something more than her change in facing the ancient undead. She clutched something round in one hand.

The bottom half of her face was smeared in wet black liquid, dripping from her chin, though the rest of her features appeared marred here and there with her own blood. Her pure black eyes shone with madness above her stained mouth . . . lips . . . parted.

More black fluid flowed down her chin, turning into a stream that dribbled down her coat and spattered the icy ground in the wind.

Chap was too weak to turn away and he looked again to the thing in her hand.

Magiere’s fingers were curled like claws in the snarled hair of Qahhar’s head. His eyes were open and slack like his gaping mouth. The stump of his neck was raggedly torn off, flesh clinging to dangling vertebrae as it still dripped . . . like Magiere’s mouth.

What had she done?

Chap panicked, cowering from the answer, and struggled up to all fours. When he hobbled toward Magiere, she just stood there, staring at him. He snapped his jaws in a sharp bark, and pain filled his whole chest and took his breath, but she flinched.

Magiere’s irises began to recede a little.

With that, she started shuddering in the freezing wind as she looked about in confusion at the bodies of the dogs, at what was left of Ti’kwäg, and then back to Chap. Horrified fear spread over her face when she realized what she gripped in her hand.

She half dropped, half threw the head aside and nearly stumbled back over the sled. Heaving in one strong breath, she started gagging and choking, and then collapsed on her knees.

Chap sickened inside as Magiere dropped forward on all fours, arched her back, and vomited black fluid. In spite of this horror—what it might mean—Chap tried to fill her head with memories of Leesil. Chap barked and snapped, spasming in pain each time.

Magiere flopped back on her knees against the sled, and Chap kept barking as he wheeled to stumble toward Leesil. She finally scrambled after him without even rising to her feet.

They found Leesil with his eyes closed.

Magiere grabbed hold of his coat’s left shoulder as Chap took the other in his jaws, and they dragged him to the sled. By the time Magiere finished ripping open the shelter hide and canvas strapped over their gear, Chap was shaking from the bitter cold. She hauled Leesil onto the sled into the space she had made, and then turned to heave the orb’s chest back up onto the sled’s front end.

Chap watched without interfering as she did all these things. He had no idea what else they could do. Even the passages within the ice crags might not be safe, as they did not know where Qahhar’s remaining followers had gone.

Weary and spent, half of her face still covered in black, Magiere leaned on the chest.

The only thing Chap could do was try to climb up. Magiere grabbed his haunches to help, and he burrowed in next to Leesil to share body heat . . . what little they had.

To Chap’s shock, Magiere turned away.

She stumbled off, first back to the place she’d fought Qahhar, and she picked up something from the ground. Then she kept on instead of turning back.

Chap sat up, barking at her, until the pain and coughing were too much to bear. He tried to raise memories in her of home, or forests, or anywhere but here. She didn’t stop, and soon vanished amid the falling snow. He huddled next to Leesil and listened to his oldest friend’s shallow breaths, and he tried to lick Leesil’s face, anything to rouse him. In the end all Chap could do was grab the shelter’s hide with his teeth and try to pull it up over both their heads.

He lay there, knowing where Magiere had gone. It seemed too long until the sled rocked under a sudden weight dropped on its front end.

Chap wriggled his head out from under the tarp.

There was Magiere, lashing down the second orb along with Qahhar’s thôrhk. Her falchion was back in its sheath; as to the Chein’âs dagger always carried at her back, he did not know. She dug under the tarp and into one of their packs, and took out her spare shirt to shred it in her teeth. As she wrapped it tightly around Leesil’s torn forearm, Chap made out her face.

Her irises were pure black again.

Even the bandages ended up stained with black smears from her hands. She had been cut as well: there were smears of blood on her hands and upper face. As she worked on Leesil, Chap’s fears only grew worse.

Close to her now, he could not see an open wound anywhere on her, even where the bloodstains were thickest.

When she finished, she stood there, no longer shuddering in the cold, though he could still see sickness and revulsion in her face. She reached out to gently push his head down and pull the cover over him and Leesil . . . without looking at either of them.

Chap lay wondering what Magiere could be doing now. And then the sled lurched, turning and turning, until it began to slide along its rails. He took one last look.

Magiere was out beyond the sled and pulling it by the remains of the rigging. Chap wondered from where she’d found the strength—and then he did not want to know.

* * *

“Port of Chathburh ahead!” called a sailor from the crow’s nest.

Chap stood with Magiere watching him as if this time it was she who caught his memories.

“So, there was another guardian,” Brot’an reiterated. “You have said you acquired the second orb, but did you kill this guardian?”

Magiere dropped her eyes and swallowed.

“Yes,” she answered flatly.

If only that had been the end, had been the worst of it for her . . . for all of them.

“Nothing’s going to prepare you, Brot’an,” Magiere half whispered, “nothing, if we have to face something like that . . . thing again.”

Chap wanted her to stop, for if he had his way, Brot’an would not be there if and when they found a fourth orb. But he raised no memory-words in her mind.

“And Chap later hid both orbs?” Brot’an asked. “How and where?”

—No—more— . . . —You’ve given—him—enough—

Magiere didn’t look at Chap. Neither did she confirm Brot’an’s assumptions or give him anything else. The truth was, she didn’t know where. Instead she closed her eyes briefly.

“We’ll reach port soon,” she said. “I’m going to tell Leesil and Leanâlhâm.”

Abruptly Magiere pushed off the rail. Brot’an said nothing more nor tried to stop her.

As she passed, Chap waited for any acknowledgment from her, but it never came as she descended below. And when he turned back, Brot’an was watching him.

Magiere had given the old assassin all he would get. With a twitch of his jowls, Chap headed below.

Brot’an would never learn where those orbs were hidden, not ever. Chap would see him dead first.