From the Gemmell Award-shortlisted author of The Tethered Mage, The Obsidian Tower launches a bold new epic fantasy trilogy in which one woman’s powers and choices may save – or destroy – a continent.
There are two kinds of magic.
There is the kind that lifts you up and fills you with wonder, saving you when all is lost or opening doors to new worlds of possibility. And there is the kind that wrecks you, that shatters you, bitter in your mouth and jagged in your hand, breaking everything you touch.
Mine was the second kind.
My father’s magic could revive blighted fields, turning them lush and green again, and coax apples from barren boughs in the dead of winter. Grass withered beneath my footsteps. My cousins kept the flocks in their villages healthy and strong, and turned the wolves away to hunt elsewhere; I couldn’t enter the stables of my own castle without bringing mortal danger to the horses.
I should have been like the others. Ours was a line of royal vivomancers; life magic flowed in our veins, ancient as the rain that washed down from the hills and nurtured the green valleys of Morgrain. My grandmother was the immortal Witch Lord of Morgrain, the Lady of Owls herself, whose magic coursed so deep through her domain that she could feel the step of every rabbit and the fall of every leaf. And I was Exalted Ryxander, a royal atheling, inheritor of an echo of my grandmother’s profound connection to the land and her magical power. Except that I was also Ryx, the family embarrassment, with magic so twisted it was unusably dangerous.
The rest of my family had their place in the cycle, weavers of a great pattern. I’d been born to snarl things up—or more like it, to break the loom and set the tapestry on fire, given my luck.
So I’d made my own place.
At the moment, that place was on the castle roof. One gloved hand clamped onto the delicate bone-carved railing of a nearby balcony for balance, to keep my boots from skidding on the sharply angled shale; the other held the wind-whipped tendrils of dark hair that had escaped my braid back from my face.
“This is a disaster,” I muttered.
“I don’t see any reason it needs to be, Exalted Warden.” Odan, the castle steward—a compact and muscular old man with an extravagant mustache—stood with unruffled dignity on the balcony beside me. I’d clambered over its railing to make room for him, since I couldn’t safely share a space that small. “We still have time to prepare guest quarters and make room in the stables.”
“That’s not the problem. No so‑called diplomat arrives a full day early without warning unless they’re up to trouble.” I glared down at the puffs of dust rising from the northern trade road. Distance obscured the details, but I made out at least thirty riders accompanying the Alevaran envoy’s carriage. “And that’s too large an escort. They said they were bringing a dozen.”
Odan’s bristly gray brows descended the broad dome of his forehead. “It’s true that I wouldn’t expect an ambassador to take so much trouble to be rude.”
“They wouldn’t. Not if they were planning to negotiate in good faith.” And that was what made this a far more serious issue than the mere inconvenience of an early guest. “The Shrike Lord of Alevar is playing games.”
Odan blew a breath through his mustache. “Reckless of him, given the fleet of imperial warships sitting off his coast.”
“Rather.” I hunkered down close to the slate to get under the chill edge that had come into the wind in the past few days, heralding the end of summer. “I worked hard to set up these talks between Alevar and the Serene Empire. What in the Nine Hells is he trying to accomplish?”
The line of riders drew closer along the gray strip of road that wound between bright green farms and swaths of dark forest, approaching the grassy sun-mottled hill that lifted Gloamingard Castle toward a banner-blue sky. The sun winked off the silver-tipped antlers of six proud stags drawing the carriage, a clear announcement that the coach’s occupant could bend wildlife to their will—displaying magic in the same way a dignitary of the Serene Empire of Raverra to the south might display wealth, as a sign of status and power.
Another gleam caught my eye, however: the metallic flash of sabers and muskets.
“Pox,” I swore. “Those are all soldiers.”
Odan scowled down at them. “I’m no diplomat like you, Warden, but it does seem odd to bring an armed platoon to sign a peace treaty.”
I almost retorted that I wasn’t a diplomat, either. But it was as good a word as any for the role I’d carved out for myself.
Diplomacy wasn’t part of a Warden’s job. Wardens were mages; it was their duty to use their magic to nurture and sustain life in the area they protected. But my broken magic couldn’t nurture. It only destroyed. When my grandmother followed family tradition and named me the Warden of Gloamingard Castle—her own seat of power—on my sixteenth birthday, it had seemed like a cruel joke.
I’d found other ways. If I couldn’t increase the bounty of the crops or the health of the flocks with life magic, I could use my Raverran mother’s connections to the Serene Empire to enrich our domain with favorable trade agreements. If I couldn’t protect Morgrain by rousing the land against bandits or invaders, I could cultivate good relations with Raverra, securing my domain a powerful ally. I’d spent the past five years building that relationship, despite muttering from traditionalists in the family about being too friendly with a nation we’d warred with countless times in centuries past.
I’d done such a good job, in fact, that the Serene Empire had agreed to accept our mediation of an incident with Alevar that threatened to escalate into war.
“I can’t let them sabotage these negotiations before they’ve even started.” It wasn’t simply a matter of pride; Morgrain lay directly between Alevar and the Serene Empire. If the Shrike Lord wanted to attack the Empire, he’d have to go through us.
The disapproving gaze Odan dropped downhill at the Alevarans could have frozen a lake. “How should we greet them, Warden?”
My gloved fingers dug against the unyielding slate beneath me. “Form an honor guard from some of our nastiest-looking battle chimeras to welcome them. If they’re going to make a show of force, we have to answer it.” That was Vaskandran politics, all display and spectacle—a stark contrast to the subtle, hidden machinations of Raverrans.
Odan nodded. “Very good, Warden. Anything else?”
The Raverran envoy would arrive tomorrow with a double handful of clerks and advisers, prepared to sit down at a table and speak in a genteel fashion about peace, to find my castle already overrun with a bristling military presence of Alevaran soldiers. That would create a terrible first impression—especially since Alevar and Morgrain were both domains of the great nation of Vaskandar, the Empire’s historical enemy. I bit my lip a moment, thinking.
“Quarter no more than a dozen of their escort in the castle,” I said at last. “Put the rest in outbuildings or in the town. If the envoy raises a fuss, tell them it’s because they arrived so early and increased their party size without warning.”
A smile twitched the corners of Odan’s mustache. “I like it. And what will you do, Exalted Warden?”
I rose, dusting roof grit from my fine embroidered vestcoat, and tugged my thin leather gloves into place. “I’ll prepare to meet this envoy. I want to see if they’re deliberately making trouble, or if they’re just bad at their job.”
* * *
Gloamingard was really several castles caught in the act of devouring each other. Build the castle high and strong, the Gloaming Lore said, and each successive ruler had taken that as license to impose their own architectural fancies upon the place. The Black Tower reared up stark and ominous at the center, more ancient than the country of Vaskandar itself; an old stone keep surrounded it, buried in fantastical additions woven of living trees and vines. The stark curving ribs of the Bone Palace clawed at the sky on one side, and the perpetual scent of woodsmoke bathed the sharp-peaked roofs of the Great Lodge on the other; my grandmother’s predecessor had attempted to build a comfortable wood-paneled manor house smack in the front and center. Each new Witch Lord had run roughshod over the building plans of those who came before them, and the whole place was a glorious mess of hidden doors and dead-end staircases and windows opening onto blank walls.
This made the castle a confusing maze for visitors, but for me, it was perfect. I could navigate through the odd, leftover spaces and closed-off areas, keeping away from the main halls with their deadly risk of bumping into a sprinting page or distracted servant. I haunted my own castle like a ghost.
As I headed toward the Birch Gate to meet the Alevaran envoy, I opened a door in the back of a storage cabinet beneath a little-used stairway, hurried through a dim and dusty space between walls, and came out in a forgotten gallery under a latticework of artistically woven tree roots and stained glass. At the far end, a string of grinning animal faces adorned an arch of twisted wood; an unrolling scroll carved beneath them warned me to Give No Cunning Voices Heed. It was a bit of the Gloaming Lore, the old family wisdom passed down through the centuries in verse. Generations of mages had scribed pieces of it into every odd corner of Gloamingard.
I climbed through a window into the dusty old stone keep, which was half fallen to ruin. My grandmother had sealed the main door with thick thorny vines when she became the Witch Lord a hundred and forty years ago; sunbeams fell through holes in the roof onto damp, mossy walls. It still made for a good alternate route across the castle. I hurried down a dim, dust-choked hallway, taking advantage of the lack of people to move a little faster than I normally dared.
Yet I couldn’t help slowing almost to a stop when I came to the Door. It loomed all the way to the ceiling of its deep-set alcove, a flat shining rectangle of polished obsidian. Carved deep into its surface in smooth, precise lines was a circular seal, complex with runes and geometric patterns.
The air around it hung thick with power. The pressure of it made my pulse sound in my ears, a surging dull roar. A thrill of dread trickled down my spine, never mind that I’d passed it countless times.
It was the monster of my childhood stories, the haunt of my nightmares, the ominous crux of all the Gloaming Lore. Carved through the castle again and again, above windows and under crests, set into floors and wound about pillars, the same words appeared over and over. It was the chorus of the rhyme we learned in the cradle, recited at our adulthood ceremonies, and whispered on our deathbeds: Nothing must unseal the Door.
No one knew what lay in the Black Tower, but this was its sole entrance. And every time I walked past it, despite the unsettling aura of power that hung about it like a long bass note too low to hear, despite the warnings drilled into me since birth and scribed all over Gloamingard, curiosity prickled awake in my mind.
I wanted to open it—anyone would. But I wasn’t stupid. I kept going, a shiver skimming across my shoulders.
I climbed through another window and came out in the Hall of Chimes, a long corridor hung with swaying strands of white-bleached bones that clattered hollowly in a breeze channeled through cleverly placed windows. The Mantis Lord—my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandfather—had built the Bone Palace, and he’d apparently had rather morbid taste.
This wasn’t some forgotten space entombed by newer construction; I might encounter other people here. I dropped my pace to a brisk walk and kept to the right. On the opposite side of the hall, a slim tendril of leafy vine ran along the floor, dotted irregularly with tiny pale purple flowers. It was a reminder to everyone besides me who lived or worked in the castle to stay to that side, the safe side—life to life. I strained my atheling’s sense to its limit, aware of every spider nestled in a dusty corner, ready to slow down the second I detected anyone approaching. Bones clacked overhead as I strode through the hall; I wanted to get to the Birch Gate in time to make certain everything was in place to both welcome and warn the envoy.
I rounded a corner too fast and found myself staring into a pair of widening brown eyes. A dark-haired young woman hurried toward me with a tray of meat buns, nearly in arm’s reach, on the wrong side of the corridor.
My side. Death’s side.
Too close to stop before I ran into her.