Amist appeared, rising from the ground, curling and moving with dark purpose. Gray pulled on his reins, stopping short. The oth- ers slowed at his side, tense and wary. Their destination loomed in the distance: Vaster, the city of sun with its golden turrets and glassy spires, but then the mist rolled in and shrouded it from sight.
“What’s happening?” Darius asked, his bay charger dancing nervously beneath him. Darius rode at Gray’s side. His brown hair was its usual matted mess, though his discerning, tan-colored eyes flicked from left
to right, as if creatures were about leap from their ashen surroundings. The rogue’s cloak wavered behind him, its shade of green matching the sword on his back: Masamune—the leaf blade and sword of the Ronin of Leaf. Though sheathed in a dull brown scabbard, the steel within pulsed, issuing a soft emerald glow. Ayva was to Gray’s left, riding a cormac, and Hannah and Zane—brother and sister—rode close by, near one another as usual.
Luckily the cormacs—elven mounts with silken hair, long necks and sloping backs—that Gray and Ayva rode, merely stamped lightly at the ground with cloven translucent hooves, calm as their elven kin.
Gray reached into his memories as Kirin—his old self.
Heaviness in the air.
Black, anvil-shaped clouds in the sky.
Then he rolled back his sleeve, reaching out. The mist curled about
his arm, and he watched as goosebumps trickled up his skin and his hairs stood on end, confirming his fears.
“A storm is coming,” Gray announced.
“A sparkstorm?” Darius asked, gulping.
He was rightfully fearful. Sparkstorms were fierce thunderstorms of
lightning, rain and lashing wind that lasted for days. They were fueled by the magic of Farhaven, the land itself. In their journey thus far, they’d already been waylaid by them twice. Gray shook his head. Something felt different this time. Each time he’d felt a sparkstorm in their jour- ney, despite the charge in the air, and the heaviness, he’d felt alive with magic—a vibrant sense of urgency, life and power filling his veins. This time, however, he felt a gnawing hole in his chest, as if his energy were being drained, carved away by merely standing in the thickening mist. This time, instead of life, he felt death.
“Something tells me this is different,” Gray said simply, making his voice even, not wanting to worry the others.
“Whatever it is, it’s magic,” Zane said, lip curling in disdain. For a man who threaded the flow, the essence of all magic, Zane had an odd contempt for it, though Gray doubted his spirited friend would see the irony.
“If it’s not a sparkstorm, what is it?” Darius asked.
“I’m not sure.”
Hannah ushered her steed closer, her shy white mare whinnying as
the mist crept closer. “Um, can we talk later and move now? I don’t like this place.”
Gray nodded. “Best we do.”
They continued, Ayva at his side, the others close behind. They rode in silence, Gray watching the mist, his skin prickling at its touch. It wasn’t wet or cold, but oddly warm. The mist reminded him far too much of the battle upon the sands. Of Faye. Of Darkwalkers and of death.
Gray glimpsed a gleaming turret of glass in the distance, peaking above the mist, and found a sliver of comfort. At least it’s still there. They’d been so close... If he squinted before he almost felt as if he could see guards walking the lacy bridges that spanned between towers. But now? The Great Kingdom of Sun seemed a thousand leagues away.
Through the ki, Gray’s ability to empathetically feel another’s emo- tions, he sensed Ayva’s wariness and some other emotion he couldn’t
quite identify, like a gnawing uncertainty. Gray edged closer to Ayva. “Do you know what’s happening? Do your books or Faye’s knowledge say anything about this?” It felt odd to hear his voice, muffled by the wall of fog on all sides, but he was glad to fill the silence.
Ayva shook her head, her short-cropped blonde hair swaying. “Far- haven is like a book with no beginning or end whose words can be amended at any point. There’s no predicting it.”
“I’ve heard of this,” Hannah said.
“You have?” Zane, her brother, asked. Broad, but not tall, Zane looked like he was built out of brick and mortar. His face was bluff, his brows thick and heavy over his hooded eyes. His blond hair was kept short and spikey, and he moved with a surprising amount of slyness for one so heavily muscled—perhaps a trait gained from his life as a chari- table thief. As it turned out, Zane’s past life had involved robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, and that life had seemed to ingrain a sort of burning anger, Gray had noticed, in his friend’s soul. He always bore a residual ire behind his eyes, except when looking at his sister as he did now.
“It’s just a story,” Hannah said, but her eyes said differently. She looked afraid.
“Even stories have merit,” Gray said, wiping the mist that clung to his arm. Did it just slither? No, just his mind playing tricks. “Go on.”
They continued to ride as Hannah spoke.
“It was a tale from this group of traders. They were a wretched-look- ing lot. Four men, older than us, with silver rings and gold threading on their cloaks, merchants I guessed, but they had this look in their eyes... that look someone gets when they’ve seen too much, you know?”
Gray knew that look well.
“Anyway, after a bit of prodding and a lot of silence, they told me what happened to them.” Her smile faltered and Hannah looked away.
“What happened?” Gray asked.
Hannah explained how the merchants had been traveling for weeks when they got caught in a terrible Farhaven sparkstorm. They’d sur- vived, but they’d been at the brink of death, starved and half-mad from dehydration. So when the merchants stumbled upon a Node—a magi- cal oasis that Farhaven spawned for those in need, often providing water, food and shelter for the wayward traveler—they said they could scarcely believe their luck.
“They saw it in the dead of night. Glowing blue, ‘like an omen from the Messiah himself’,” Hannah recounted. “I’ll never forget the way they described it: crackling, violent, but utterly silent, like lightning without thunder.” She went on, describing how inside they discovered skeleton trees, scorched, cracked earth, rotting vegetation, and...” Hannah swal- lowed, looking about, “Clinging fog. Like it was death’s breath.”
Gray shivered, and he noticed Darius and Ayva did too, itching in their clothes as they skirted a particularly dense batch of mist, but it seemed to swirl and follow.
“What happened then?” Darius asked as they rode.
Hannah shook her head. “I only got bits and pieces, but over and over again, when they had the courage to speak at least, I realized the merchants said ‘us five’. But there were only four of them. I... I didn’t have the stomach to ask any more and I don’t think they had the stom- ach to answer. But they did call the place something,” Hannah said. “Among a dozen other curse words, they called it one thing above all else—a Void.”
Voids... Gray distantly remembered that name.
“Places without magic.” Ayva scratched her arm as if her skin crawled. “I can sense a lack of magic within these mists, something draining and pulling at my soul.”
Again, Gray felt it too, and sensed it in the others with the ki.
The ki was an ability Gray possessed to sift into another’s body and sense their emotions. Whether it was fear or anger, love or hate, Gray could feel nearby persons’ feelings. The more powerful the ki, the more intricate the emotion Gray could detect and decipher. The ki had its limits, of course: he still had trouble sensing certain people’s emotions. In some people Gray could only sense their basest emotion. Those who’d been trained could block his ki altogether. But right now, in his friends, Gray felt their fear and a profound emptiness at losing touch with their magic.
Ahead, Gray saw something.
Stone, he realized. It looked like a white stone wall, shrouded in mist.
“It’s a little hard to see. Someone mind clearing this damned fog?” Darius asked.
Gray raised his hand, trying to touch his nexus—an imagined swirl- ing ball of air that sat in his mind. It was the source of his flow, his
power. But as Gray reached for it, his nexus flickered, a pale imitation of its usual self. “It seems it goes for the flow, my power is next to useless here,” he confessed.
“Together then,” Ayva said, and fits of fire, sparks of light and erratic wind laid into the mist. Gray suddenly felt completely exhausted, as if he’d run a dozen miles, but luckily his work cleared some of the fog to show sand and ruins. Stone walls of an ancient city crumbling around them. The land directly under their feet was cracked. A gnarled tree hung over him, the only sign of life, but it was dead, withered and crook- ed and reminded Gray of a wizard’s finger casting a nefarious spell. The land itself was dark and the clouds above looked stormy and angry. Silver lightning forked through the roiling thunderheads. Bits of orange shone through, however, indicating daytime beyond the mist.
Unexpectedly, Ayva dismounted.
She ignored Gray.
He kneed his cormac closer and saw what she was looking at. Her
hand played over symbols scratched in one of the larger shattered walls. Moss and vines crawled over the stone, but where the words lay it was bare, as if exposed by magic.
[SYMBOLS OF ELVES – ‘VOID’]
“What’s it say?” Hannah asked.
Zane grunted. “It’s not the common tongue. Old Language? Or Sand Tongue?”
“It’s Elvish,” said Ayva before Gray could. “But my Elvish is...rough at best. I can’t read it.”
“Nor I,” Gray admitted. He knew a few words in Elvish, but reading the strange, sharp glyphs was something altogether different.
All turned to Darius, and the rogue grudgingly dismounted. “I’m the scribe now, am I?” he joked half-heartedly, then squinted at the strange text. “It’s old. It feels familiar.”
“What’s it say?” Gray asked.
“Beware. Magic holds no sway here, and all who enter the realm of
the Void will die.”
“A Void,” Ayva echoed.
“I don’t like this...” Zane said. “We should leave.”
At Zane’s words, the sand shifted all around them.
“Algasi!” Gray shouted.
The sands broke and two dozen warriors leapt from beneath. Gray
reached out with his nexus, readying blows. A pitiful sphere of fire burst forth and crashed into a wall—stone littered the air, creating a cloud of dust. The Algasi warriors wore sand-colored rags, their faces covered
in midnight black shrouds save for their dark eyes, each wielding spears and bladed staves. As the fire burst, several Algasi were blown back, but a dozen more took their place, sand sloughing from their dark clothing. Their eyes, the only distinguishable feature on their face, blazed with fury, and their cries cut the silence.
As two more Algasi sprang from the sand, Gray’s cormac reared up as spears jabbed toward its chest. Gray unsheathed Morrowil, the legend- ary Sword of Wind with a ring, cutting the first spear from the air. But the second came down, aiming for his cormac’s throat.
Gray cried out, grabbing his nexus, and power rushed forth. Gray summoned a gust of wind and knocked the man from his feet. But as the man fell, his spear veered to the side and cut Gray’s saddle. Gray was upended and thrown to the sands. His head struck something hard, ringing dully, but he managed to find his feet. Rage and power roared through him like a tempest, lifting his hands, white wind swirling at his fingertips, ready to level anything that stood in his way.
There was a strangled cry, and the fighting stopped as suddenly as it had started. Gray’s breath caught when he saw why. Hannah’s hair was in the grip of one Algasi. Another held a spear to her throat, ready to kill her.
Zane growled, taking a step forward. As his foot fell, the Algasi’s spear pressed closer to Hannah’s throat, drawing a pinpoint of blood. Hannah made a small moan of pain and Zane’s eyes went wide with rage.
Gray’s blood ran cold. No... He called out for his friend, but it was too late.
Zane roared and leapt towards Hannah. His fist connected, smash- ing an Algasi in the face—one of the two holding Hannah. The Algasi crumpled beneath Zane’s blow. The other Algasi holding Hannah watched his compatriot collapse in disbelief. Zane, looming over the
Algasi, reached for the hilt of his blade. Metal rung, but before the blade was free of its scabbard, a half-dozen Algasi leapt upon him. Zane struggled, growling, kicking and roaring with primal fury, trying to wres- tle free. But Gray knew it was a losing fight—and he watched, teeth grit, as an Algasi slammed his fist into Zane’s jaw, dazing the muscled youth. Another Algasi stripped Zane free of his blade, while two more pinned Zane’s arm’s behind his back and the last few placed spears to the hollow of Zane’s throat.
It all happened in a matter of moments. Gray wouldn’t have been able to help had he wanted to, and he knew if he had, it would have been a useless fight. There were twenty Algasi and only five of them. Still, his grip tightened on Morrowil.
“Drop your blades,” a voice thundered.
Gray turned to see a familiar white shroud and cunning blue eyes. Another Algasi stalked forward, appearing out of the dark ruins, but this one was different: tall, broad-shouldered, and foreboding as ever. His banded spear was gripped loosely in one hand. Four Algasi flanked him.
No, Gray realized, not just Algasi—Mundasi as well. Algasi was a race—a nomadic desert tribe that much of the world feared. That sen- timent, as a Ronin, Gray empathized with deeply. But to be an Algasi was also, he’d discovered, a name attributed to a rank within the tribe. And while Algasi-ranked members seemed to be sufficiently skilled with various weapons, from knives to spears to nunsais, to be a Mundasi was an echelon all of its own. Gray knew little about Mundasi aside from the fact they bore a single blue band on their spears as testament to their superior rank. And an even sharper fear burned into his brain was the memory of what a particular Mundasi had done to Faye—making the highly skilled woman look like a toddler with a sword during the pair’s duel to the death. The Mundasi had nearly killed her without breaking a sweat. Gray knew a single-banded Mundasi was every bit a match for a Devari.
And the speaker’s spear bore not one stripe, but two.
“Dalic,” Gray said.
“Greetings, liars and betrayers,” Dalic, the Algasi leader replied. He
stopped and rolled his broad, heavy shoulders as if preparing to fight while his cold blue eyes, like icy daggers, scanned Gray’s party with brooding intensity.
Dalic was the same Mundasi who’d fought Faye. Faye was danger
incarnate, only wrapped in leather and topped off with a sly smile and haunted eyes. She’d easily bested Gray during their first encounter, but Dalic? The Algasi leader had somehow made Faye look tame and weak. The two-striped Mundasi had almost killed Faye, running her through with his spear until Gray had broken their Honor Duel, grabbed Faye from Dalic’s killing blow, and fled in order to survive.
Gray had worried they’d cross paths with Dalic and his Algasi even- tually. He’d heard rumors of the desert warriors roaming closer and closer during their journey, but he hadn’t imagined it’d be here, so near to their goal. He eyed the glimmer of Vaster’s translucent towers, pillars of light rising out of the darkness, and felt as if he could almost shout and attract the guards. It was just wishful thinking—they were still hours from Vaster, and it felt like leagues.
“Let my sister go and I promise not to kill all of you,” Zane growled, still pinned by multiple Algasi, but Gray saw his eyes—they burned with fire.
Dalic approached Zane. The Algasi leader put his spear to Zane’s throat, lifting his chin. “There’s fire in your eyes. The fire of anger and pain. You are a man who wishes to die, aren’t you?”
Zane said nothing, but his eyes smoldered with anger.
“What do you want with us?” Hannah asked, eyes wide, watching the spear to her throat.
“Your friends have not told you, have they? You’ve chosen poor trav- eling companions, girl, for you journey with liars.”
“We never lied,” Darius snapped.
“What’s going on? What’s he’s talking about?” Hannah asked. “This is not our first meeting,” Dalic said. “Your friends promised a
duel of honor the last we met, a sacred thing among my people, only to break it and flee. An act unheard of by my kind, and by the laws of an Algasi, punishable by death. For if there is no honor in this world, then we are nothing more than beasts.”
“You wanted to kill us all!” Darius exclaimed. “Why would we follow your laws, your supposed holy path?”
Dalic snorted as sand blew across the stalemate, catching in Gray’s lashes. “Our path is holy. It is the way of balance. We seek the sword and the sword will restore order to Farhaven. It will bring balance to a world cast in shadows. There is no greater reason than that.”
Gray spoke, drawing eyes at last. “Let her go.”
“Why should I, Windspeaker?”
Dalic was furious, but there was something else. Gray reached out with the ki again, hoping the warrior couldn’t sense it. He felt Dal-
ic’s terrible anger. No, there had to be more to this man. And Gray searched and... he felt it. Guilt. Hesitation. He smiled. Now he could play on it.
But before he could, Gray saw Zane begin to rise, subtly reaching for his sword nearby. The fire in Zane’s eyes grew and it danced at his fingertips. Gray knew what he was planning to do. His own will like a heated blade, Gray slammed his thoughts into Zane’s. Enough, Zane, he commanded. If you do that, they’ll kill her. We’ll all die for your rage. It isn’t worth it.
Zane seethed in reply. What does it matter? They will kill her and us anyway. Algasi murderer without conscience. All the world knows it, and I’d rather die fighting than have my throat slit while on my knees.
No, a reply came, sharp and confident. It wasn’t Gray. They both turned to see Ayva, standing calmly. She sheathed her translucent dag- ger. I’ve a plan, Zane. Trust me.
Zane sighed but fortunately, he remained where he was.
He hesitates, Gray told Ayva. Dalic’s not a bad man. He just doesn’t know if he can trust us yet, and he fears for something. If you can discover his fear and make him trust us—
Make him trust us? We betrayed him, at least in his mind, Darius replied. If you remember, we trounced his men and ran away from his sacred Honor Duel.
Ayva can do it, Gray said. He looked to her. I trust you.
Ayva nodded. First, lower your sword, Darius.
Lower my what? You’re kidding, right? That’s the only thing keeping us
alive at the moment.
There’s two dozen of them and five of us. If they wish to kill us, they
can do so at any moment. Your sword would do us little good. If you drop it, it will show a sign of faith. You too, Gray—don’t fight. They may still kill us, but I can promise you your swords won’t save us.
Grudgingly, Darius obeyed. Masamune fell and the Algasi he was holding slowly pulled away, puzzled. Gray saw Dalic watching. It was working. But then Dalic looked to Ayva, as if recognizing her at last.
“You...” Dalic flicked two fingers, and the waiting dozen Algasi flowed in at them from all directions, raising spears, brandishing steel to
their throats. Two Mundasi approached Gray. Dalic raised his hands and they kicked, buckling Gray’s knees, and he fell with a grimace. Another backhanded him hard; pain and blackness blotted out his vi- sion. His mouth stung and he tasted blood. His vision slowly returned. Despite his rage, Gray knew a losing battle when he saw one. He had one last idea: Morrowil. The blade, like all of the Ronin’s swords, would cause excruciating pain to any but its destined wielder. Gray dropped Morrowil, feigning reluctance. A door-wide Mundasi sheathed his spear and reached for the blade, but then noticed the look in Gray’s eyes, his hand a breath away from Morrowil, and froze. The big Mundasi snorted contemptuously, rising, ignoring the fallen blade. Gray cursed himself, realizing he’d been too attentive, too eager-looking.
Zane laughed. “What’re you waiting for?”
“A valid question,” Dalic answered, then waved his hand. “Finish it.” “Wait,” Ayva shouted, stalling them. “You don’t want to kill us.” Dalic’s eyes never shifted, but he did raise three fingers on his right
hand. The spears remained where they were. “Why should I listen
to you? I named you Lightspeaker. I name you again. False-tongued, Breaker of Words. You led me to an Honor Duel and then broke your oath and fled. Tell me now, why would I not want to kill oathbreakers such as yourself?”
“Because,” Ayva replied, “I know how to get your sword.” Dalic’s white cloth shroud tilted inquisitively.
Even Gray felt a stab of curiosity, but he remained silent, spear
pressed to the hollow of his throat.
“What do you mean?” Dalic asked. “And if you lie to me I will kill
“The Sword of Sun is what you seek, is it not? I can retrieve it for
you.” She turned to Darius, then Gray. “You explained recently how you found your sword, Darius—tucked in the folds of a tree. But how did you find yours, Gray?”
He shook his head, baffled. “Ayva—is this really the time?”
Gray sighed. The memory was still painful, but he could recount it. “I...” The words nearly followed: I walked in on my sister impaled with a sword in her gut and dark wings sprouting from her body. That sword was Morrowil. But he knew now wasn’t the time for the full truth. Instead he answered, “I found it in Farbs long ago. I stumbled upon it, much
Ayva nodded, excited. Did she realize that they were surrounded by
a dozen ruthless warriors who were moments from cutting their throats? “Precisely,” she exclaimed. “That’s just it.” She grabbed Dalic’s dusty sleeve, sand falling away. Surprisingly, the fearsome warrior eyed her hand but made no move. “I know how to get your sword.”
“Speak,” said the two-banded warrior.
“You see, we’re...” she began then stopped, seeing Gray’s eyes. He shook his head slightly, feeling the spear on his throat scratch, but he suffered the pain. No, Ayva. They’re not ready to hear that. “We’re more than we seem.”
She shook her head. “For now it doesn’t matter. But I know what you’re looking for. You’re seeking the Riddle of Sun, aren’t you? The prophecy.”
Dalic’s eyes hardened, the only feature not covered by his white shroud. “Who told you of the prophecy?”
“No one told us,” Darius said, “We found one already, a riddle, that is, and—”
A Mundasi jabbed him in the arm and Darius cried out in pain. “Si- lence, dog,” growled the one-banded Mundasi who held Darius. “You were not told to speak.”
“Stop,” Ayva called, adding quickly, “he’s right. We found the Riddle of Fire. It led us to what we needed. In the same way you’re looking for this Riddle of Sun because you believe it will lead you to the Sword of Sun.” Dalic said nothing. His blue eyes narrowed to dagger-like slits, and Gray could only assume that was Dalic’s version of curious and rapt. Ayva continued. “More than that, we can find your sword because... I’m not sure how to make you believe this, but we’re meant to find it. I’m meant to find it. You see my friend’s sword?” She pointed to Darius’ Masamune. “And his?” She pointed to Gray, to Morrowil glowing silver upon the ground. “They are not normal weapons. My friends were pulled to their blades, and their blades were pulled to them. I believe the missing Sword of Sun will be the same for me.”
“The Sword of Sun is beholden to no man or woman,” an Algasi said in his clipped speech. “Not even the Lightspeaker.”
Dalic raised two fingers, silencing his brethren. He tilted his head, a customary trait of his, Gray was beginning to realize. “Why you?” he
asked. “What is so special about you that the Sword of Sun is bound to you, girl?”
Other Algasi grunted like beasts, as if supporting his words. “Because,” Ayva began, taking a nervous breath.
Gray shook his head. Please, Ayva, no. The world is not ready. He
knew even if they believed her, they very well may blame her as Omni’s successor, and Omni’s failure to secure the blade would be Ayva’s as well. And all the guilt and pain that the Algasi bore would fall upon her head.
“I...” Ayva swallowed, then said more firmly, “I can’t tell you, but you’ll just have to trust that I’m not lying. Trust the truth in my voice. Besides, how do you plan to enter that, anyway?” She pointed to the gleaming bastion of light, built upon a green rise, gilded walls, pillars, gold-capped domes and spires like glass flutes. It sat above the mist like a dream. “If I’m not mistaken, if you step foot inside that city you will be surrounded by a thousand Vasterian guards and slaughtered quicker than a hen in a den of foxes.”
“Your words make no sense. Phoxes? They are beings of wind who do not kill unless it is a Darkwalker. And what is this hen you speak of?” Dalic questioned.
Gray winced, realizing while Farhaven had thousands of magical creatures, they did not have some of the creatures Daerval had.
“She means you will all die,” Darius answered, earning another sharp jab and a snarl.
“Algasi do not die so easily,” Dalic replied angrily.
“No, they do not,” Ayva agreed, “but they will. And what then? Your death serves no one. Most importantly, it gets you no closer to your goal, and only enforces the claim that you and your people are wild, that you deserve death. And we both know that’s not true.”
“A good death in search of the Sword of Sun is all any Algasi can wish for.”
Ayva sighed. “Don’t be the blind savage they try to label you as, Dalic—”
Dalic moved so quickly that Gray’s eyes could barely follow. The Al- gasi leader backhanded Ayva hard, spraying blood. Gray lunged forward but a spear stopped him, pressing to his throat. He didn’t care. Despite the void sapping his flow, he felt his power swirl around his palm, eddies of wind curling at his fingertips and—
Ayva raised a hand. Her words resonated in his mind. No, Gray. If you fight here, we all die. Let me handle this. Please.
He glanced over. Darius and Zane had witnessed Dalic’s blow as well. He saw they had tried to fight their captors, but Zane was on his knees pressed to the ground. They’d heard as well. At Ayva’s words, Darius and Zane settled slightly. Zane still growled fiercely, spitting at the feet of his captor.
Ayva lifted her head. She put a hand to the corner of her mouth, wiping away a small trickle of blood. “Forgive my rudeness,” she whis- pered, her voice tight with pain, but her eyes blazed. “The simple truth is this—you will die if you enter Vaster, and then you, your men, and your quest will fail, and the sword will remain lost for all time.”
Dalic lifted his chin, looking down on her warily. “And what do you propose, wise one?”
“You can never enter the City of Sun, but we can. We’ll enter Vaster, find the Riddle of Sun, decipher its contents, and return. Then, as promised, we’ll retrieve the Sword of Sun and set all in its proper place.”
“The Algasi are not evil and never were. You aren’t the wandering murderers the world believes. I know this. I—we,” she corrected and pointed to Gray and the others, “can help you prove that.”
“Truly a bold and wise plan,” Dalic said, musing. He rubbed at his jaw through his white shroud then shook his head. “But it will never work. The Riddle of Sun is guarded, restricted to only those blind fools who call themselves leaders of the fallen city, placed high inside their precious Apex, a turret so tall and well-defended it is said to be...” He squinted, as if searching for a word. “Un-sailable.”
“Unassailable?” Ayva asked.
Dalic nodded, unperturbed by the correction. His thick forearm pointed to the highest gleaming tower, peaking above the mist. “Even a wandering murderer like me, as you say, knows this. You will never get close enough to the riddle. Not like we can.”
Gray spoke up and nearly choked on the spear at his throat. “You’re wrong.” Dalic twisted. Gray risked the wrath of the Algasi who held him to speak up. “We’ve a letter. With it we can get farther than you ever could,” he answered defiantly. He hoped his words sounded more confident than angry, but the metal point scratching against his throat was planting a seed of wrath inside him to rival Zane’s ire.
The two-banded Mundasi looked back to Ayva. “Does the Wind- speaker speak truth?”
“He does,” she said. “His grandfather is a very powerful threader of the spark. A good man and a leader much like you. He gave us a letter for the leaders of the city.” Ayva neared and after a subtle gesture, her eyes speaking for her, the Mundasi stepped back. How did she...? Gray wondered but didn’t ask, prying the slip of paper Ezrah had given him from his sleeve.
Ayva lifted the paper into the air. “This will get us to where we need to go.”
“And if not?” Dalic queried sharply.
Her face was stone, matching Dalic’s eyes and conviction. Blue eyes like icy daggers. Gray nearly swallowed, knowing that look. Omni. It was Omni’s look, Ayva’s predecessor and the previous Ronin of Sun. “It will,” she said. “And if not, I will find a way to convince them.”
“Kara,” Dalic uttered. Gray knew kara meant fire in the Sand Tongue, for he’d heard Faye speak it before. The Algasi leader tilted his head, eyeing Ayva, judging her carefully. “But is it enough fire to see the duty done, or will you fail once more?”
Ayva stood her ground, straight-backed and defiant. Only a small movement in her throat showed Gray that she was the least bit nervous. Tension built as Dalic’s eyes gauged her. His men behind him tight- ened their grip on their weapons, ready for the command, ready to kill.
Gray choked on the increasing pressure of the spear at his throat. He stared his captor in the eyes, but regretted it as the Mundasi looked into his soul with eyes like orbs of coal. Morrowil was close, lying upon the sand, but not close enough. Besides, even if he killed the guard holding him, what could he do to stop the rest?
At last Dalic spoke. “Tas un varisu un salus.”
The Algasi made sharp grunting sounds, ushering Gray and his friends to their feet. “What’re they doing?” Hannah asked fearfully. “Are they...are they going to kill us?”
They were met only with silence and more prodding.
Together they were pushed out of the fog, weaving through the ruins, stepping over strange black fissures in the sand. With every step, Gray felt his power return. He inhaled deeper and easier with every footfall. Darius, Ayva, and Zane did the same, taking deep inhales and looking about in confusion as if emerging from a dark pit. Gray glanced back
at the ruins only to see a pervasive mist. He couldn’t explain it, but it felt as if being inside the Void, the black ruined plot of ground where no magic could be used, had been draining his life force. And perhaps it had.
He inhaled again, relishing the suddenly warm air of the Paragon Steppes.
Gray felt as though he was waking from a nightmare.
He turned, embracing the nexus, power flooding his limb and sensed the others do the same. As he did, the spear tips dropped.
Gray turned, facing Dalic and, for the first time, saw the man fully.
Dalic was far more intimidating than Gray had originally thought. What he gazed upon wasn’t simply a warrior with a spear—he was a weapon of death. His broad shoulders rolled as if hungry for a fight, yet the rest of him was patience incarnate. He still wore tan cloth, but parts looked brushed with green grass to meld with their newfound surround- ings. His arms were exposed except for the heavy cloth and leather bracers on his thick forearms. As opposed to his ebony-skinned brothers, Dalic’s skin wasn’t charcoal but deeply tanned, a dark brown, and heav- ily scarred. Strange black markings ran up his right arm. The markings were visible again on his thick chest—a portion of it was exposed by a loose shirt. Gray couldn’t make sense of the glyphs. Even Kirin’s mem- ories didn’t know what they meant. A thick crimson sash was woven around Dalic’s waist. His starkest features were his sheer-blue eyes, the only visible feature gazing out from beneath his white-cloth shrouded face.
His men joined him at his side, a row of two-dozen fearsome, tan- clothed warriors with masks of darkest black. Where Dalic’s eyes were
a piercing blue, the others’ eyes were glinting pieces of obsidian peering out shrewdly from a dark cave. Gray saw wisps of light hair curling beneath those black shrouds. Their hands—the only flesh visible—were charcoal-skinned, much darker than anything he’d seen before. He wondered why Dalic looked different, but Gray simply set the difference aside, remembering to note it for later.
Dalic pointed to the city with his spear. “It’s two hours run or an hour upon your beasts. Once you reach the city, head to the Apex. That is where the prophecy will be. You have until the following dawn to retrieve the prophecy.”
“The dawn isn’t enough,” Ayva interjected.
“It is all you get,” the man said harshly, turning his head to face her. “If you try to run, we will find you and kill you. If you try to hide, we will find you and kill you. If you fail to find the prophecy—”
“—you will find us and kill us,” Darius finished. “I think we get it.” Dalic’s men stirred, lifting their weapons.
Gray wished that Darius could just hold his tongue sometimes, but
despite his friend’s rudeness, the warriors slowly lowered the spears. “So be it,” Gray answered.
“A final piece,” Dalic said, and gestured to a nearby Algasi who also
bore a red sash around his slender waist. The Algasi was as tall and broad-shouldered as Dalic, but where Dalic was compact muscle layered upon muscle, this man was slighter of build. Gray noticed he had only one arm, but he stood close to Dalic in a position of honor. The one- armed Algasi unsheathed a ceremonial dagger from his back. Roughly shaped, with a wooden handle wrapped in turquoise wiring, and fitted with a red blade, it looked like a relic of insurmountable value. Dalic lifted the dagger. It gleamed in the sun like one of the mirrors of Vaster which were shimmering in the distance. Then he pressed the blade to his palm, flesh peeling, raising a thin line of blood.
He did it so fast Gray couldn’t argue or oppose, but he knew what came next.
Dalic extended the dagger, hilt first.
Without thinking, Gray reached for it.
“No,” Ayva said. She grabbed his arm, turning him to face her.
“You’ve already committed to a bloodpact before with Faye and we’re just lucky it ended as well as it did. This time it’s my burden. After all, it’s my...” she hesitated, then said at length, “mission.” He knew she had wanted to say sword.
“No, Gray. I struck the bargain. It’s only fair that I see it through, or suffer the consequences.” Then she smiled and spoke softer so only he could hear, giving his hand a quick hidden squeeze. “We’re a team now. You don’t always have to carry the whole load.”
Gray knew she was right, but he didn’t like it. He wanted to argue, to take the onus, and yet he knew that relinquishing control was something a leader had to do, no matter how much he hated it. Let others share the weight. Kirin’s memories—those from his past life, when he’d just been Kirin, a young man with the simple life of a Devari warrior before
his grandfather had stripped away his memories and set him on the path as Gray—echoed the statement. A good leader knows when to lead, and when to let others lead as well.
Even so, Gray touched his stomach—it twisted painfully as he wit- nessed Ayva slice her palm. It turned his insides. She sucked in a small breath, and slapped her much smaller hand flush with Dalic’s large one.
“The bargain is struck,” the Algasi leader announced.
The other Algasi raised their spears, giving a chorus of grunts, then turned silent.
Again, Gray’s stomach churned hard, his gut wrenching as if he’d just eaten Mura’s month-old mushroom pie. No, he realized as his gut twisted again, and he clutched at it in pain. This was different. This pain was worse. Kirin, his old self, warned him as well. He ran through a thousand diseases in his head. Miswall, Wartgal, Vistal Syndrome.
But he cast each aside. No, no, no. He groaned in pain, louder than he expected.
Everyone turned towards him.
Ayva still held Dalic’s hand. “Gray? What is it?” Worry strained her voice.
“I’m not sure. It just started, as soon as he spoke those words and—” Suddenly, searing pain roared through his belly and he cried out, feeling as though a hot sword was piercing his flesh, and ripping out his entrails. Voices continued, muffled, as if Gray had been dunked in water and shouts rained above him.
“Heal him!” Zane said.
Through his agony, he saw Hannah’s terrified face. Sweat broke out across her brow as she concentrated on Gray, then she opened her eyes in confusion. “I don’t sense anything... there’s nothing wrong with him...”
“What do you mean you don’t sense anything?” Ayva said.
“That’s just it—I tried to heal him, but I don’t sense anything wrong with him. It’s as if—”
The voices continued.
Then the pain abated for a small moment. Gray took a huge gasp- ing breath and looked up at his friends through blurry eyes, trying to speak to tell them it was all right, to not worry. But as he did, the pain spiked again, as if a Darkwalker’s black claws tore through him, only to tug roughly, ripping at his entrails. He gasped in agony, grasping at the
ground, tearing up grass and soil as something continued to tear at his insides, pain reducing his surroundings to a dull blur. Images and words sparked inside his head like fire against a dark sky.
Si’tu’ah... Sword... Blood dripping from his hand... Clasping...
The words rattled in his skull, echoing down the chambers of his very soul.
He tried to speak, hearing shouts above him, hands upon his body, but no words came. The darkness, the agony, clawed higher in his body—from his belly to his chest. Something was inside him. Some- thing foreign, like a creature trying to get out. Whatever it was, it was killing him. His hands followed the clawing thing, terror making sweat emerge from every pore. The clawing thing reached his neck, slither- ing higher. He felt his throat bulge, his eyes swell with terror, the grass beneath his hands becoming a smear of green and brown. He gagged, strangling as something thick and wet wriggled out of his throat. He was choking, dying. He couldn’t breathe. He coughed and spat violently, blood splattering the ground around him, until at last the thing dis- lodged from his throat, falling to the earth.
He saw it distantly through his agony.
An inky darkness, like a poisonous black slug, oozing across the ground. Hissing eerily, it slithered on the grass turning black in its wake. The others backed away horror struck until a sunburst destroyed the living darkness. It disappeared into the air as a necrotic black smoke.
“What in the seven hells was that?” Darius asked, breaking the si- lence in a mortified voice.
“Death,” Dalic answered from above.
And with that, Gray succumbed to darkness.
When Gray awoke the world was still a haze, and he felt as if stuck between dream and reality. He tried to open his eyes, but they only opened halfway. Even so, his sleep-crusted lids lifted to reveal fuzzy
figures standing in a circle around him. He saw spears, and a bright sun high above. He thought he heard the cry of birds and the musky smell of wet wood, but everything seemed so faint he felt that it was surely his imagination.
“Where...?” he muttered, but the word came out, soft and garbled. Incoherent.
They were speaking, their voices clear.
“Your friend is not well.”
“We can see that. What in the seven hells is wrong with him?” “Magic.”
“What do you mean magic? Who did this to him?” The voice be-
came angry, wild. Zane, Gray knew.
“Do not threaten me, Firespeaker. It was not my doing. It was Farhav-
“Farhaven?” Another softer voice asked. Hannah.
“The magic he spat forth is a darkness that Vasterians and Algasi know
well, the enemy of all elements. It is the balance of life, a pure darkness. Sungarsi. It is the blood of our enemy. Darkwalkers are born from this. It is the end of all life. As such, no human did this to your friend. This darkness is a thing of the land. It is Farhaven’s doing.”
Gray continued to groan, wishing to speak, but he felt worlds away.
“This blasted land can have its magic and all—” Darius. Gray recog- nized the rogue’s sharp, angry tone.
Another interrupted Darius. “How can we help him?” the voice pleaded. The voice was softer and it was a familiar comfort to his ears. Ayva, he knew. “There must be some way. Please. Tell us.”
“Only he who broke the law of Farhaven, who twisted its rules, knows how he can amend his error. Your friend is the only one who knows.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Darius asked in frustration.
“The malady he suffers from cannot be cured by anyone but the victim. He must fulfill his bloodpact. That is the law of magic.”
“Or what?” Ayva asked, breathless with panic. “What will happen to him if he fails?”
“He’ll die. If not now, then soon.”
Gray tried to speak, to tell them... something, anything. But all he could utter was a groan.
Someone turned to him. A slender figure... Through his narrowed
eyes he saw her kneel beside him, taking his hand. He felt warmth radiating throughout his entire body. Yet his heart felt cold, as if there was a splinter of ice inside it. He tried to touch his chest, to feel for the splinter and pull it free, but the hand that held him was stronger.
She clutched his palm with both of hers, whispering something. But
the pain screamed so loudly inside him that it was hard to hear anything else.
He strained to hear her whisper.
“It’s all right, Gray. We’ll fix this. We’ll find help...” her words con- tinued, soft assurances. He tried to rise, to speak again, but sleep dragged him down, pulling him into its dark depths. And the last thing he heard was Ayva’s voice, issuing words of comfort, thick with empathy and terror as darkness washed over him like a wave.