Read a sample from THE RELUCTANT MAGE by Karen Miller
Return to the world of Karen Miller's bestselling The Reluctant Mage . . .
Because he was Doranen, and a Garrick, Arlin refused to avert his gaze.
Of all the ways a man can die, I have to think this is the worst.
Worse even than drowning in the chaos of a whirlpool.
Kneeling on cold, glimlit flagstones, Morg’s latest victim trembled and keened as his little life was slowly extinguished.
Arlin shivered. The first time he’d seen Morg kill like this, with magic, the victim was Father’s dear friend Sarle Baden, who’d wept so hard at Rodyn Garrick’s empty-coffined funeral he’d made himself vomit.
Since Sarle there’d been three other killings — well, four, counting this one — all of them as gruesome, and he had to believe there would be many more. As many as it took for Morg to absorb the scattered pieces of himself until he was whole again, and entirely unstoppable.
But Asher sundered him years ago. I wonder why it’s taken him so long to attempt this rejoining? I wonder how long it will take him to succeed?
He didn’t have any answers. He wasn’t sure he wanted them.
The morning after Sarle Baden’s murder Morg had ordered him to kneel. Then, glancing at Fernel Pintte and the idiot Goose Martin and the other captives, bound and gagged, he’d smiled.
“You are Doranen, Arlin. I would not treat you like these cattle. You are free to ride behind me, unbound — provided, of course, that you behave yourself. Will you?”
He wasn’t a fool. Swearing obedience, staring into Rafel’s haughty face, he’d seen no hint of the man whose body Morg had stolen. But then, as Morg gestured for him to stand, he’d thought he caught a glimpse of something familiar and desperate in the sorcerer’s dark Olken eyes.
Angry with himself, he’d smothered the surge of pity and did not look for Rafel again.
For the next five months Morg led them through the wilderness beyond Barl’s Mountains, often willy-nilly it seemed, but always edging north, league after league, over fallow fields, through woodland and across sluggish rivers. If there were villages or townships in the lands they travelled, the sorcerer kept well clear of them — and the few unbidden souls they encountered on their journey he captured and yoked to Pintte and the rest.
But the bidden souls? The men Morg summoned with mysterious arcane ritual because they carried a small, sundered part of himself?
Those men he killed.
Twice, the possessed had come to them out of the night, haggard and half-mindless, and once the sorcerer had hunted his quarry to ground as though he was a harrier hound and could scent the man’s terror. Or perhaps he was simply scenting himself. Like calling to like, evil to evil. Each time Morg sucked his victims dry and moved on, but where he’d abandoned Sarle Baden, leaving the aged Doranen’s broken body behind to rot, he did not abandon Rafel. And with each death, each swallowed morsel of himself, Morg grew stronger and more confident.
At long last, ragged and dirty and exhausted, they’d reached Lost Dorana — that almost mythical land for which his dead father had spent a lifetime pining. And twenty-four days after crossing his ancestral land’s almost extinct magical border they reached Elvado, the city of mages, Dorana’s cradle of knowledge.
It was a wasteland, smashed to ruins in the great mage war and never rebuilt. There’d been no one left to rebuild it. Morg said, carelessly, “I killed everyone who opposed me, you see. In the end there was no one left.” He’d shrugged. “It was better that way. I do my best work alone.”
Arlin rode through the haunted silence with his eyes closed.
Unmoved by Elvado’s profligate destruction, Morg took his captives to an ancient, magically preserved mansion some three leagues distant from the city. “My once and future home,” he called it. There he set them to airing and cleaning the chambers and corridors, grooming the estate’s grounds and taming its fields and orchards. Forbidden to use magic, Arlin toiled alongside the other prisoners and made sure to keep his offended feelings hidden.
Nine days later, just after sunrise, another witless soul arrived, answering Morg’s summons like a dog obeying its master’s shrill whistle.
And now the man was dying.
This one was young, barely escaped from boyhood, with light brown hair and not much chin, peach fuzz on his cheeks and a voice that remained lodged in his throat . . . though by the time Morg was done with him, like all the others he’d have screamed it right out.
Arlin felt unwelcome fingers pluck at his sleeve, stirring him from memory and sour contemplations.
The whisperer was Fernel Pintte, who insisted on treating him with a loathsome familiarity — and was so afraid of Morg he had no fear to spare for anyone else, which meant there was no way to stop him from being familiar, short of murder.
But murdering Fernel Pintte was out of the question. Morg had a use for him, so Pintte must stay alive.
He snatched his arm free. “What?”
Fernel Pintte wasn’t faring well. After so many months of strenuous captivity he was a loose collection of bones draped in folds of sallow skin. Being Olken, and inferior, even though he was useful he was not treated kindly.
“Arlin,” Pintte whispered, “how much stronger will this new death make the sorcerer?”
“How should I know?” he said, making sure to keep his voice soft. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Fernel Pintte flinched as though he’d been struck with a whip. “You’re a bastard.”
“Pintte, be quiet,” he said, impatient. “You think because he’s killing someone he won’t hear your rattling tongue?”
Flinching again, Pintte shut his mouth.
They stood in the underground chamber below the mansion that Morg had chosen for his arcane slaughters. For some reason the sorcerer liked them to witness these monstrous deaths, him and Fernel Pintte and the other three Olken, whose names he’d not bothered to learn, and Rafel’s idiot friend Goose. Why Morg kept that halfwit alive he couldn’t begin to understand.
Unless it’s to torment Rafel.
And torment him it would, if he truly was still alive and aware within the cage of his body.
But I’ll not lose sleep over that. If anyone deserves some torment, it’s Rafel. And why would Morg be merciful? Rafel’s father murdered him. He must want his sweet revenge.
Peach-fuzz’s skin was peeling off his naked body now, rotting strips of human hide sliding from blood-and-pus slicked muscle as though he were already a week-old corpse. Pintte was retching. He always did at this point. Rafel’s idiot friend was grunting like a pig. The others controlled their bellies, but they were snuffling. Weeping.
Good thing I’m made of sterner stuff. As the last surviving Doranen in this forsaken place I do have a position to maintain.
Morg’s stolen face was a mask of physical pleasure as he consumed another lost and found sliver of his sundered soul. If he had a soul. If he was even human. Did he know how many more pieces of himself were out there in the wider world, waiting to be found and harvested? If he did, he never said so. On the whole Morg said very little — or very little to the point, at least — and Arlin knew better than to ask impertinent questions. Not of this mage.
For I’m anything but a fool. And Father had thrashed the impertinence out of me by the time I was six.
Fernel Pintte began moaning under his ragged breath. “Finish it, finish it, for the love of Barl just finish it.”
Pintte was a maggot, but even maggots could be right. Morg’s lascivious lingering over what was, at its heart, a simple, straightforward task? Revolting. Obscene.
I know why we’re here. He’s reminding us that we’re his chattels. His slaves. We’re to remember, waking and sleeping, that we breathe because our breathing amuses. And the moment we cease to be amusing . . .
Dead at last — what a blessing— the young man slid from Morg’s embrace and struck the chamber’s stone floor with a wet slapping sound. Pintte gagged and turned away.
Ignoring him, Arlin watched Morg instead. Spine and shoulders pressed to the wall, the sorcerer shuddered and quivered, the chamber’s cool air rasping in his throat as he absorbed his reclaimed powers. Just like every other time, something peculiar happened to his face, a shifting of feature upon feature, Morg’s and Rafel’s strangely combined. Blue eyes masking brown, a nose at once both straight and crooked. As though the mind inside the body wasn’t sure whose face to wear.
And then the mind settled, and there was Rafel again. More or less. Morg indulged in a luxurious stretch, blithely oblivious to the bloody smears staining his forest-green silk tunic with its gold-and-obsidian buttons. He’d let Rafel’s hair grow so it brushed his shoulders in a thick, black mane. Very dashing. Rafel surely must hate it.
“Pintte,” he said, with a sleepy, half-lidded smile at peach-fuzz’s corpse. “You and your friends clean this up. And once you’ve done that you can butcher the latest kill and prepare it for roasting. Arlin, walk with me.”
At the crooking of Morg’s finger Arlin abandoned Pintte and the other Olken to their filthy tasks and fell into step beside the sorcerer, permitted that indulgence because he was Doranen, a novelty, and something like kin.
And because he knows I have no hope of hurting him.
They wandered out of the stinking chamber, along a wide corridor and up a flight of stairs to the mansion’s ground floor. From there they made their way through its echoing stillness and outside to the newly tended gardens, shy with autumn blooms and lavish with as-yet-uncut grass. The sky was a pale milkish blue, the early morning sun thinly veiled by cloud.
Waiting for the sorcerer to speak, Arlin took refuge from recent horrors in the surrounding countryside.
Morg’s mansion stood on a gentle rise overlooking wild woodland thick with birds and game, a larder on their doorstep. Beyond the woodland, Elvado’s surviving magic-twisted spires winked and glittered in the rising light. Seeing them, Arlin felt a pang of grief for the ruined city. Once it had been thriving and beautiful, with Doranen magic soaked into its bones. Riding its empty streets behind Morg he’d heard the faded power whisper, felt it sigh against his skin. Elvado had been colourful, as Lur’s Dorana City was colourful. Now only hints and echoes of its brightness remained, bleached by the long years to a mournful memory of joy.
I’m glad Father never saw it. Ruined Elvado would have crushed him.
It was odd to feel such a detached compassion. If the wearisome, wandering journey from the blighted lands to Lost Dorana had done nothing else, it had given him ample time to reflect on his life. On his father and their brutal, unloving relationship. On Rafel and his father, and why seeing them together had made him sick with rage.
Not that it matters any more. My father is dead. Doubtless Asher is dead now too. And Rafel, well, he can’t survive in there forever. Sooner or later Morg will crowd him out.
Drifting on a light breeze was the sound of Fernel Pintte’s grating voice barking orders at the other Olken as they disposed of peach-fuzz’s emptied body. It seemed he’d chosen a patch of field beyond the stables for a graveyard, and now wanted the idiot Goose to scrounge stray rocks for a headstone — an impulse of decency that must be foreign to this place.
I wonder how many stray rocks there’ll be in that field before Morg is done here, one way or another?
As though the sorcerer could read his thoughts, Morg rested a heavy hand on his shoulder. “I must confess, Arlin, you intrigue me,” he said, fingers briefly dabbling. “I thought you’d be more curious. About me. About my plans. Months and months of travelling — and there were no questions. We’ve been here for days and still you ask no questions. Was I mistaken? Are you a dullard? Is there nothing you wish to know?”
When Morg wore Sarle Baden he’d been half-mad, unable to decide if he was a me or a we. But since clothing himself in Rafel the sorcerer had adopted a light, bantering tone and there was never so much as a hint of madness in him. Remarkable, given there was more of Morg in Rafel now than there’d been in poor old Sarle.
So why is he not raving? Because he needed more of himself to be sane? Or because Rafel is truly a mage like no other, able to contain the spiteful power of this . . . man?
“Arlin,” said Morg, with a bite in his fingers, “do you really think it wise to ignore me?”
He stopped breathing, just for a moment. The sound of his racing heart boomed in his ears.
Show no fear. Show no fear.
“Master,” he said — on pain of death they were required to call Morg “master” — “forgive me. I wasn’t ignoring you. I was merely contemplating my reply.”
“Which is what?” said Morg, letting his hand drop.
“I’ve asked no questions because I didn’t want to anger you. If I need to know something, I trust you’ll tell me.”
Morg stared at him with Rafel’s wide and honest eyes. “Sink me bloody sideways, Arlin! I never took you for a prosy fool.”
Arlin’s surprise was so great he took a step back. “Rafel?”
“No,” said Morg, amused. “But his speech is so quaint, don’t you think? I wanted to try it. And I was curious, to see what you’d do if you thought he’d returned.”
What would I do? I don’t know. Beg him to save us, probably.
A lowering thought. “Can he return?” he said, careful to sound disinterested. “I wasn’t sure. In truth, I thought he must be dead.”
“Not yet,” said Morg. Gloating malice fattened his voice. “There’s too much pleasure to be gained from his pain.”
So Rafel was aware. “I see.”
Morg considered him closely. “Does it please you, that he’s suffering? And he is suffering, Arlin. I’m making certain of that.”
Does it please me? Yes. But . . .
He shrugged. “Rafel’s no friend of mine.”
That made Morg laugh. “I know. And so does Rafel. Would it astonish you to learn he bears no grudge against you? Your father’s death haunts him, Arlin. Asher’s son is soaked in grief and drowning in regret for the loss of Rodyn Garrick.” Another laugh. “When he’s not screaming, that is.”
It was easier to do this if he didn’t look at Morg, so he kept his gaze pinned firmly on Elvado’s few, distant spires. “Master, I tell you honestly, what Rafel feels means nothing to me. He means nothing. How could he? Rafel’s an Olken. He comes from common stock. He’s inferior — and a liar.”
“Really?” Now Morg was mocking. “And yet I chose him and not you to sustain me. Tell me you’re disappointed, Arlin. Tell me how devastated you were when I passed you by and chose him for my vessel.”
How can I? I was never so relieved in my life.
Morg cuffed the back of his head. Rafel’s loutish strength meant the blow hurt. “Look at me, Arlin Garrick, and tell me that’s so.”
Slowly, his heart thudding again, he turned and looked at the sorcerer. Was this it? The moment of his death?
If it is, I will not die craven. I am a Garrick, and a Garrick does not beg.
“I can’t. And you know I can’t.”
“Arlin, Arlin.” Morg’s soft laughter was frightening. “You are such a Doranen. So proud. So arrogant. I’ve missed that. It’s been far too long since I kept company with my own kind.”
Uncertain, Arlin stared at him. This was a Morg he’d not seen before. As they journeyed through the miserable, blighted lands that stood between themselves and Lost Dorana, collecting a man here, a woman there, as he’d been forced to witness the deaths of those few poor knaves who’d hosted Morg’s shredded essence, the sorcerer had kept himself aloof. And though Morg had spent the days since their arrival at this estate supervising his prisoners, still he’d not spoken a word save for giving orders or uttering spells.
This Morg was . . . unexpected.
And though he was frightened, he was also curious. Filled to the brim with questions he never thought he’d ask. Perhaps then, with Morg in a talkative mood, he might take a small risk.
“Does that mean I am allowed a question, Master?”
Morg tipped his face to the pallid sun. “Yes, Arlin. You’re allowed. And since I’m feeling expansive I might even answer it.”
He found it unsettling to see the small changes in Rafel’s face, now that a different intelligence ruled the Olken’s body. A quirked eyebrow here, a thin sneer of lips there, a head tilt . . . Even his voice was changed. It was less brusque. More mellifluous. No hint of pain showed in him anywhere.
Forget Rafel, you fool. Forget him and his screaming. Think of him as dead.
“Master, are there truly none of us left, save for the descendants of those mages who fled Dorana with Barl?”
Morg slid his fingers through his hair, a languid gesture so at odds with Rafel’s blunt muscularity. “You’re wrong, you know,” he said, musing. “Rafel never lied. He had no idea of the power that’s in him. His father kept it a secret. If you could feel his resentment — his rage — about that?” Another laugh. “One might almost feel sorry for him.”
Arlin had no desire to talk of Rafel or his misbegotten father. “Well, if you say he was truthful then of course I must believe it. Master — the Doranen?”
Morg’s expression tightened, and he tutted impatiently. “Why does it matter?”
“Because Dorana’s mages are a part of me, Master. They were my distant family, some of them. I used to think that if ever I found my way to this place I might meet someone whose face looked like mine.”
“Family?” Morg shook his head. “It’s unimportant, Arlin. You’ve missed nothing. And no. None survived.”
He did his best to hide his grief. “I see. Master — another question?”
Morg sighed. “If you must.”
“Are we — were we — the only mages in the world?”
“Counting the Olken?”
The Olken? “Do you count them, Master?” he said, shocked.
“The only counting of Olken I intend,” said Morg, this time with a smile of greedy anticipation, “is the counting of skulls as they pile higher than Barl’s Mountains.”
Arlin looked at the grass. Once that might have been something he would say. Even now, after everything, a part of him responded to the raw and ugly threat. But a greater part of him recoiled from it. The Olken were a peasant race, good for nothing but grubbing in the dirt. But even so . . .
Morg was watching him closely again. “We could count skulls together.”
“We could, Master,” he said, his throat dry. “So, there are no other mages?”
Which meant no hope of an alliance against him. “Master, there is another question I’d ask you.”
“One more,” said Morg, dangerous. “My patience wears thin.”
Such casual menace. He felt his belly churn. “Master, where is everyone? You rid Dorana of its mages, but did no one else live here? Is our homeland empty of people? Is the world empty?”
“It’s true, the world is emptier than once it was,” said Morg, drifting to the nearest half-weeded flowerbed. He plucked a bronze blossom from its stem and brushed stubby petals over his cheek. “When I was myself, before, so long ago, even after I destroyed the Doranen, I ruled people. I ruled nations. Every land we travelled through, Arlin, and lands you’ve not seen, I ruled them all. And though eventually I left crude flesh behind, still I ruled. There were people and there were creatures. Fantastic beasts of my devising.” His face clenched in a scowl. “They perished when Asher murdered me.”
“And the people? What happened to them when you . . . fell?”
“I assume those in Dorana fled,” said Morg, shrugging. “Back to the lands whence their ancestors came.” Then he smiled, caressing his lips with the flower. “Where now they hide with their countrymen, thinking I’ll not notice them — the fools.”
Arlin swallowed. “So you remember what happened? You remember your life? Even though you were—”
“Dead?” Morg let the plucked blossom slip from his fingers. “I was never dead, Lord Garrick. I can’t be killed. At least — not for long.”
Lord Garrick. The tone of Morg’s voice made the formal address an insult. “Master, all mortal things die.”
“Yes, Arlin, but I am immortal,” Morg said gently. “I transmuted myself. And when I am whole again, then will I transmute again. I will leave this sorry prison of flesh and blood and bone — ruined, of course, for it’s the least Asher deserves — and once more I will spread myself upon the wind. The nations and kingdoms and principalities that once served me, they will be punished and then serve me again.”
“And what of Lur? What of the Doranen there?”
“Lur . . .” Morg said the name caressingly. “Barl’s unlikely refuge. The bitch whore was always lucky.” He shrugged. “Lur is dying. You know it. Rafel knows it. Rafel is sick with grief for that. Are you?”
Was he? He’d grown up despising Lur as an unwanted place of exile, but was his contempt for the kingdom anything more than a habit? Had he only longed for Lost Dorana out of self-preservation, so he’d not be thrashed for disobedience and disloyalty?
I don’t know.
But this wasn’t the time or place to admit his doubt out loud.
“Lur was a pretty place, once,” he said, with care. “Abundant. Peaceful. Overrun with Olken, but you can’t have everything. Even so, it was never our home. Dorana is our true home. Many Doranen harbour secret hopes of finding their way back.”
“Tell me . . .” Morg plucked another flower, a yellow one this time, and petal by petal began to shred it. “If I spared their lives, Arlin — the Doranen of Lur. Would they agree to serve me? Bow down and do my bidding?”
“Many would, Master,” he said, thinking of his father’s friends. Their greed for magic, their yearning for more. Given the chance to become true mages he had no doubt the Doranen like them would serve. “But some wouldn’t. You know they turned Barl into an object of worship? There are clerics and churches. They think she intercedes.”
Morg sneered. “Interferes, more like it. Or she did. Yes, I remember. That creaking old woman — what was his name? Barlsman Holze. Loved the bitch like a moonsick calf, that one. But she’s dead, Arlin. And unlike me, she’s never coming back.” A sharp glance. “Rafel says you’re not a believer.”
What an odd conversation this was proving to be. Arlin Garrick and the sorcerer Morg, chatting like old friends. Discussing theology. It had to be a dream.
“No, Master,” he said, and meant it. “I’m not. Barl was a mage. There was nothing divine about her.”
Never in his life had he seen Rafel smile the way Morg was using him to smile now. “Nothing whatever. Arlin, I think I like you.”
Really? In that case, I think I’m going to be sick.
“Master,” he said, after a moment. When he could trust himself. “The Doranen of Lur. Will you spare them?”
Morg smiled, swift and sly. “I might.” Bits and pieces of yellow petals littered the grass at his feet. “If you behave yourself.”
“And the Olken, Master?” His empty belly was churning again. “You’ll really slaughter them all?”
This time Morg’s laughter was soft, and sinister. “Arlin, you’re too gullible. I promise you, the peasants are perfectly safe. I have plans for them.”
Staring at the sorcerer, Arlin thought he saw Rafel trapped behind his own eyes and screaming. “Plans?”
“I can feel them, you know,” Morg murmured, and tossed aside the petal-stripped flower. His chilly gaze turned soft and warm, lingering on distant Elvado. “Those scattered, tattered pieces of my self. If you were me, Arlin, you’d surely go mad. I was a mirror, and I shattered, and each shard contains me.”
“Then am I truly speaking to Morg?” he said, after another long hesitation. “If I ventured back into the world beyond Dorana, would I meet you in the wilderness? Would we then have this same conversation? If you’re sundered how many Morgs are out there?”
“Arlin . . .” Morg patted his cheek. “You know, Rafel thinks you’re quite the mage but I’m not so sure. Think, my doughty little Doranen. Put you in a room full of mirrors and how many Lord Garricks exist?”
“One,” he said. “Just one.”
“Exactly,” said Morg. This time the pat on his cheek was more like a slap. “Now don’t ask me any more stupid questions or I’ll change my mind about talking to you. And I enjoy talking to you, Arlin. After centuries of silence and these past years of incompletion I find this return to humanity surprisingly refreshing.” He grimaced. “Well, now I do. Now that I’ve a body worth wearing. Although Conroyd was a good fit. For a while. “Till he betrayed me. He was better than Durm, at least. That fat old fool was gross.”
“Master, why didn’t you choose me?”
The question was slipped off his tongue before he could swallow it. Not that he regretted Morg’s choice, but there was no use in denying his pricked pride. That Morg had chosen Rafel, an Olken, over one of his own kind . . .
If Father had a grave he’d be spinning in it.
“I had my reasons,” said Morg, his voice flat and cold.
“Master,” he said quickly, and made sure to bow his head. Morg might have kept himself mostly separate on the journey here, but that wasn’t the same as keeping his nature secret. The sorcerer was capricious and nasty and thought nothing of using magic to punish in ways that made sight and hearing a curse.
Silence, as Morg closed his eyes and tasted the world. “There’s another one coming,” he murmured. “Only a small piece of me in her. She’s a whisper, this vessel. Weak and faltering, like all women.” His eyes opened. “I have work to do here. You can fetch her to me, Arlin.”
He felt his jaw sag. “Me?”
“Yes, Arlin. You,” said Morg, mildly enough. “This is a world of flesh we live in. Until I transmute I must live in it as flesh, which means I cannot be in many places at once. So you will fetch myself to me, Lord Garrick, and you will safely bring me home.”
“Master, you’d trust me to—”
“Trust?” Morg struck him, hard. “No. Not yet. You’ll be warded and escorted. I am not a fool.”
Face burning, Arlin bowed his head again. “Master.”
“Come,” said Morg, and turned for the mansion. “It won’t hurt for you to see this.”
Mutely compliant, all his fears rewoken, he followed the sorcerer back into the mansion and downstairs to the extensive honeycomb of cellars which were given over to housing both the Olken and the dribs and drabs of humanity they’d collected during the journey to Dorana. Twenty-two souls in all, eight women and the rest men, from three different lands with only an odd, cobbled-together muddle of the Doranen tongue between them. Morg had yoked each prisoner with severe compulsions, which made it safe to send the strongest, nimblest men into the woodland to hunt game. Those five men he left untouched, but six of the other men and four of the women he singled out.
“Come,” he said, and snapped his fingers. “Arlin, you can herd them from behind.”
Weeping, obedient to the magic branded in them, the chosen captives followed Morg upstairs to the mansion’s empty entrance hall where they huddled like sheep.
“Stand out of the way now, Arlin,” the sorcerer commanded. “I don’t want you caught in the nimbus. You’re far too pretty a man for this.”
Arlin backed against the nearest wall, feeling his palms slick and his breathing quicken. Something dark and dangerous curdled the air. Power was building, like a storm sweeping in. His exposed skin tingled. The hair stirred on his head. Morg was laughing as the snivelling captives cowered. One by one he touched them, and whispered, and moments later they changed.
Remembering the stories he’d heard of the day Asher killed Morg, Arlin felt his eyes stretch wide. Here was pure Doranen magic, savage and primal and unapologetic. Fascinated, revolted, he watched the chosen men and women sprout hides and scales and tails and horns. Watched their skin deepen to animal colours of grey, brown, chestnut, brindle. Heard them scream and grunt and snuffle, lose their speech and every vestige of humanity.
When he was finished, Morg turned. “Your escort,” he said. His eyes were shining, his face flushed. “And because I do like you, Arlin, here’s a word to the wise. Even if you knew the words to undo this working, you never could. Accustom yourself to the truth, my little lord. You’re mine, as they are mine. As the world was mine and will be again. You’ll ride to fetch the summoned vessel and your escort will run with you. Beware. My dravas never sleep. They do not tire. They obey me, and only me. Take the best horse and find the road we came in on. Follow it without turning. You’ll meet the woman within a day.”
He bowed. “Yes, Master. I’ll just fetch water and some food to—”
“No, Arlin,” said Morg, approaching. The men and women — the dravas— followed him slavishly with their inhumanly human eyes. “You won’t need them. And you’ll not flirt with the notion of running, either.”
The heat that seared through him as Morg sank a spell into his flesh was part pain and part pleasure. Stirred, humiliated, he stared at the floor.
“That will keep you,” said Morg, indifferent. “Go now. Don’t stop. And remember this, Arlin: I will see you through my dravas’ eyes. Should you displease me, on your return I will thrash you so hard you’ll think your father’s beatings were a kiss.”
He knows about that? How can he know about that? Rafel never knew.
Shamefully, his legs trembled. “Master,” he whispered, “there’ll be no need.”
He escaped from the entrance hall and the look in Morg’s eyes, retreating to the field behind the mansion where their motley horses were kept. There might be stables, but there was no straw for bedding and no corn for their feed. The dravas followed him, claws and hooves clicking on the mansion’s stone floor and then thudding and scratching on the grass. A kind of feral intelligence glowed in their sunken, bestial eyes. They had fangs and talons. They could kill him with a blow. Would Morg command them to kill him?
He might, if I lifted a hand against them. If I lifted a hand to him I’m certain he would. Watching them tear me to pieces would be more amusing than killing me himself. They are my keepers as he is my keeper. He’s diminished and I can’t touch him. He’s diminished . . . and I’m terrified.
And yet Asher had defeated him. Remembering that, for the first time in his life he felt admiration for Rafel’s father. Then, on the heels of admiration came a dreadful, crushing grief.
The world is lost again. The Innocent Mage has come and gone and now there’s no one. Morg is reborn and not a soul can defeat him.
Despairing, watched by the dravas, Arlin clung to the field’s crooked gatepost and wept.