The third novel in the Ascendant Kingdoms saga – a tale of war, heroism and sorcery from one of the most popular fantasy writers of recent years
“Tell me again why we left a perfectly good army back at the camp?” Piran Rowse grumbled as the small group followed their guide on a rocky trail to the foothills behind Quillarth Castle.
“For the same reason we left most of the mages behind,” Blaine McFadden replied. “The fewer people who know, the better.” He paused. “Besides, the soldiers needed time to secure the perimeter and spring any nasty traps Reese and Pollard left for us.”
Blaine knew that Piran’s real complaint was being out in the open without cover from the soldiers. It had taken half a candlemark’s argument to point out that stealth with a contingent of twenty soldiers was impossible. Their goal was to find where the Knights of Esthrane had left magical items for safekeeping, items that might help the mages begin to reverse the damage of the Great Fire. And bringing a large force was sure to tip their hand and complicate matters.
“It’s here somewhere,” Dillon, their guide, muttered as he moved inch by inch down what appeared to be the solid rock face of the cliff. The wind ruffled Dillon’s short-cropped, dark hair. To Blaine’s eye, Dillon looked like he belonged in a counting house, and before the Cataclysm, that was exactly where he had been. It made him an unlikely adventurer. Dillon’s hands played over the rough stone, lightly skimming the surface.
“It’s a big cliff, mate. I hope you remember where the door is,” Piran said.
“We’re close,” Dillon said, paying scant attention to Piran. “Just a little farther—here!”
He pressed his fingers against the rock with his hands held in an unnatural position, and what had appeared a moment earlier to be solid stone shifted enough to allow careful passage inside.
“When was the last time you went in there?” Blaine asked. At a few inches over six feet tall, Blaine stood taller than both Dillon and Piran. Blaine’s dark chestnut hair was tied back, revealing intelligent, sea-blue eyes. He was tall and rangy, but years of hard labor had built both muscle and resolve, and months of nearly constant skirmishing had further honed his swordsmanship. Piran was shorter and stockier, and he kept his bald head shaved clean, even in the icy cold. What he lacked in height he made up for in muscle, and in the fighting skills that came with years of soldiering.
Dillon chuckled. “Me? Months ago. Sir Alrik showed me the entrance, and told me that if I went in against his orders, I’d never come out.”
“That’s comforting,” Piran grumbled.
Dillon looked at Piran with exasperation. “I took his meaning straightaway. He meant that the items weren’t for me. In fact, he gave strict instructions that I was to tell no one except Blaine McFadden or Lanyon Penhallow what I knew, and then he sent me away and told me to stay away until the war was decided, one way or the other.”
“Alrik must have suspected that Reese and Pollard would come calling,” Blaine said grimly. “You were his inside man.”
“Let’s see what Alrik thought was so important,” Piran said. He stepped in front of Blaine. “Sorry, mate. I go first. Thick skull, tough skin,” he said with a grin that made it clear he relished courting trouble.
“And I’ve got your back,” Kestel Falke said with a jaunty grin. She had a dagger in each hand, better than swords for fighting in the close quarters of the crypt and its tunnels.
“You’ll need me somewhere near the front, since I’m the one with the directions,” Dillon remarked.
“We need to go in and get out as quickly as possible. The dreams were clear about the danger, and it grows the longer we stay.” Zaryae’s voice was quiet, meant to avoid attracting the attention of the two university mages in the back of the group. Blaine nodded to acknowledge her warning.
“Just make sure your light shines enough to show the way. I’ve got no desire to bang into the rocks.” Xaffert’s curt tone managed to convey both displeasure and impatience.
“Stop fussing. I’ve got a lantern. And keep your voice down.” Dagur brought up the rear, holding his partially shuttered lantern aloft.
“Now, wait just a minute, lad! Where do you—”
“Shut up, or by the gods, I’ll put one of these blades in your throat.” Kestel turned so that Xaffert could see the glint of her knives and the intensity of her glare. Xaffert looked as if he wanted to say more, then thought better of it. Dagur was barely hiding a snicker.
The group that was heading into the crypt was small but hardly defenseless. Piran was a soldier, and a damn good one before his court-martial. Prison and exile had honed his skills far beyond what the king’s army had taught him. Blaine McFadden, the disgraced lord of Glenreith, had learned a thing or two about combat fighting to survive in the brutal Velant prison colony where he, Piran, and Kestel had been exiled for their crimes. Kestel Falke had earned her exile as a spy and assassin, though her looks and wit made her best remembered as one of the most popular courtesans at court. She, Blaine, and Piran had forged their friendship watching each other’s backs long before they returned to their ruined homeland, and it was an old habit that still served them well.
Zaryae, a seer, had been part of a traveling troupe that had joined in Blaine’s quest. Dillon was the assistant to the king’s exchequer, back when such things as kings, kingdoms, and exchequers still existed. In the ruins of what remained, those days seemed a distant memory, or perhaps a half-forgotten dream. Xaffert and Dagur had been mages at the University before the Great Fire and before the kingdom fell, when the magic worked as it should. As a group, they were a most unusual delegation to be heading into the tombs of the ancient kings to steal back the keys to the future.
Now, in darkness, they moved toward what Blaine hoped might help them rebuild the kingdom. They had restored the magic that was broken in the war, or at least made it possible for the power to be harnessed once more. The Cataclysm that had leveled the castle and killed the rulers had left the kingdom in chaos and anarchy. Blaine believed it would be much easier to rebuild if they could bend the power of artifacts made before the Cataclysm to their will.
“By my reckoning, we’re moving back toward the castle. Given the steep angle, we could end up underneath it before too long,” Blaine murmured. They had each brought lanterns, making it possible for them to move through the dark and winding passageway.
Kestel had secured one of her knives and now held a lantern in her left hand and a knife in the right. Her red hair was bound up for battle, and her cuirass and plain-spun tunic and trews were the practical attire of a trained assassin. “Obviously, this wasn’t supposed to be the main entrance,” she said. “Too bad so much of the castle collapsed, or it would have been much easier to get there from inside, but there’s too much rubble in the way.”
They walked in silence, weapons ready, expecting ambush at every turn. Suddenly, Piran stopped and held up a hand in warning. “Do you hear that?”
Blaine listened carefully. “Voices. Up ahead.”
“We’re the only living things down here,” Zaryae said, breaking her silence.
“But the voices—” Piran protested.
Zaryae shook her head. “Not alive. But very strong.” Zaryae’s black hair was plaited into a long braid, framing angular features and large, dark eyes. Her dusky skin and faint accent hinted that her homeland had been the Lesser Kingdoms.
Blaine fingered the two amulets that hung on a leather strap around his neck. One was the inscribed obsidian disk that had helped him return magic to the control of men. The other was a passage token given to him by a long-dead soldier, one of the talishte Knights of Esthrane. For those with power, they were validation of Blaine’s identity, and safe passage among powerful friends.
The passageway ended in a solid wall of rock. Piran swore under his breath, and began to feel his way along the stone surface as Dillon had done outside. Suddenly, a section of the rock swung away, opening into darkness.
“I didn’t do that,” Piran said, taking a step back. “I swear, I didn’t do that.”
Blaine could feel the tingle of magic all around them. Before the Cataclysm, his own slight magic enhanced his dexterity in a fight, giving him better-than-mortal speed, but nothing nearly as quick as the talishte. His magic had come back, though the restored magic was unpredictable. Now he wished for all the advantages he could get. Old magic flowed around them here, and another power he could not name.
Zaryae placed a warning hand on Blaine’s arm. “The spirits are strong—can you sense it? Old and powerful. We must be very careful.”
“I think you’d better let me go first,” Blaine said, edging past Piran. “Let’s hope, between the disk and the Knights’ token, that I pass muster.”
He stepped out into an ornate tomb. The lantern’s flickering light revealed walls covered in an elaborate mural that told the story of the rise and fall of the mage-warrior Knights of Esthrane. One wall was blank, leaving the end of the story incomplete.
In the center of the tomb was a catafalque. Blaine held his lantern aloft and stepped closer for a better look. It was the bier of a warrior, clad in battle armor. The pediment and bier were austere, bearing only the carved figure, and a name: Torsten Almstedt.
Piran gave Xaffert a shove to move him forward out of the passageway. Dagur followed cautiously, gesturing to Kestel and Zaryae that it was safe to step out. Kestel began to walk slowly around the room, taking in the story of the murals. On the other side of the room was a door, and beyond that, Blaine guessed, lay passageways that led farther down beneath the castle.
“Knight Alrik had us hide the items down here right after Penhallow and his servant, Connor, left,” Dillon said, glancing around himself as if afraid someone else might overhear. “The Knight said Penhallow had already been through some of the items down here and figured out which ones were most important. Alrik had us bring down any magic items that were left above.”
“Where did you put them?” Piran asked, looking around the room, which was bare except for the catafalque.
“There’s a library, down the hall that’s outside that door,” Dillon said nervously, and pointed to the closed door on the other side of the tomb.
“So the Knights had already hidden the big stuff before Reese captured Lynge,” Blaine mused. “Do you think Lynge betrayed them before Reese killed him?”
Dillon drew a long breath. “I doubt it. No, Lynge didn’t know what the Knights had done. Reese and Pollard destroyed a lot of the castle, but that closed off the inside passageways to the crypts underneath. When I fled the castle, I kept a watch on the cliffside passageway we just came through. I never saw Reese or Pollard or any of their men near it.”
“From what’s here, I’d say that Almstedt must have founded the Knights of Esthrane,” Kestel mused. “But from the murals, it looks as if he died before they were betrayed.”
“Don’t touch anything,” Zaryae warned. “Our host is watching us, deciding what to make of us.”
“Our host?” Piran questioned.
Zaryae nodded, and inclined her head toward the catafalque. “Torsten Almstedt.”
The room grew suddenly cold. Outside the door, Blaine heard the low rumble of voices and the clatter of boot steps. He reached for his sword, sure they were about to be attacked.
“Your sword is no use here,” Dagur said. He lifted his face to the magic like a hound scenting his quarry. “Not against the dead.”
A fine mist appeared from nothing, coalescing between the catafalque and the door to the hallway into the translucent image of a man dressed like the figure atop the bier. The ghost was a man in his middle years with the bearing and stance of a warrior. Almstedt’s form may have appeared insubstantial, but here in the crypts, in his place of power, Blaine was certain the ghost could be dangerous. He was just as sure that the sword in Almstedt’s hand would be as deadly as any blade in the world of the living.
“We’ve come to reclaim the items Sir Alrik left here for safekeeping,” Blaine said, stepping forward.
Almstedt’s sword swung through the air, narrowly missing Blaine. The blade barred Blaine from moving closer to the door. Almstedt’s gaze swept over Blaine. His gaze lingered on the two amulets at Blaine’s throat, the disk and the passage token.
“My name is Blaine McFadden, Lord of Glenreith,” Blaine replied, willing himself to meet the ghost’s gaze. “Nidhud, one of the Knights of Esthrane, is our ally. He gave me this token when I traveled to Valshoa to bring back the magic. Some of the Knights took sanctuary there.”
Almstedt listened without showing emotion. He died long before King Merrill’s ancestor betrayed the Knights. In his time, the Knights were the left hand of the king. They had no need of sanctuary, Blaine thought. If he exists as a ghost, does he know what’s happened in the world he left behind?
“Tell him why you’ve come,” Zaryae urged.
“We brought the magic back—almost,” Blaine told the ghost. “It’s not like it was before the war. The magic that returned can be harnessed, but it’s brittle . . . not quite right.”
“I fail to see what’s causing the delay,” Xaffert fussed. He was a sallow-looking man with thinning brown hair and a monocle, and right now he was indignant. “Alrik was the rightful owner of the pieces, and we’re acting in his stead.” He moved as if to go around Almstedt’s sword, but the ghost shifted once more to block his path.
“I think it would be best to wait until our host wants us to proceed,” Dagur cautioned. “And from the sound of it, the corridor’s not a healthy place to be right now.” Shouts and footsteps echoed from the rock, as well as the clang of swords.
“I thought you said no one else can get in down here,” Piran whispered. “It sounds like there’s a battle going on just outside the door.”
“There is,” Dillon replied. “The ghosts of the people buried down here are restless. They relive the battles and the betrayals that killed them. Alrik told me that’s how Geddy, Lynge’s assistant, was killed.”
“Now you tell us this?” Piran said, eyes wide.
Dillon’s expression was somber. “The ghosts don’t reenact their battles all the time,” Dillon replied, keeping one eye on the ghost who blocked their path. “When we brought the pieces down here, Alrik was constantly fussing about the time. He must have known when the ghosts were likely to be active. Maybe he figured the spirits could protect the items better than we could.”
By the sound of it, the spectral battle beyond the door was drawing to a close, and in a few moments, the tomb was silent. Almstedt lifted his ghostly sword and gestured toward the entranceway, gliding effortlessly through the door.
“I guess he’s going with us,” Blaine commented.
They moved into the cool, dark passageway. Despite the sounds of pitched battle they had heard just moments ago, nothing in the corridor suggested that anyone had passed this way for quite a while. Almstedt’s ghost stood in a passageway to their left.
“He knows the way,” Dillon directed. “And keep your wits about you. There are ghosts aplenty. I’m glad I never knew that when I lived in the castle up above. I might not have slept well, knowing what goes on down here.”
Wide passageways carved into rock led in several directions, and it seemed to Blaine he had entered an underground city. As they passed the entrances to other chambers, Blaine glimpsed rooms filled with catafalques, and other, larger areas where it looked as if rooms from the castle above, and even whole sections of the city of Castle Reach, had been re‑created.
“Alrik told me that the kings and nobles weren’t sure they would pass on to the Sea of Souls, given their deeds,” Dillon whispered to Blaine. “So they made sure their accommodations here were comfortable and familiar—just in case.”
“Can you imagine the secrets buried here?” Kestel murmured, her green eyes shining. She pushed a strand of red hair back into the braid that kept it out of her way. “I wish we could explore.”
“The library’s just ahead,” Dillon interrupted.
“Let’s be quick about this,” Piran said. “I don’t like this place. The sooner we’re done and out of here, the better.”
“In here,” Dillon indicated, using a key from his satchel and opening the door to a room not far from Almstedt’s crypt. A warren of corridors led off into darkness. Blaine looked at the flickering light in his lantern and shuddered at the thought of being lost in those dark passageways among warring and treacherous ghosts.
“Let us handle this,” Xaffert said as they walked into the room. Xaffert was dressed in clothing that had seen better days. The richly woven brocade of his tunic was badly worn and snagged, stained in places, and his trews were mended awkwardly. Whether the clothing was what remained of his scholarly belongings or, more likely, something he had looted from a deserted villa, Blaine did not know. Xaffert wore his motley outfit with strained dignity, as if the loss of his status and the University itself was almost too much to bear.
Their lanterns illuminated a relatively large room with shelves lining the walls and a worktable with a few chairs. From the way the books and the odd collection of items were stacked on the tables and around the room, it was clear someone had already mined the library for information and then used every surface for the magical items gathered above. On one table lay four cloth sacks filled to the brim.
“Lynge and Geddy brought Connor and Penhallow down here to help you find those disks that you needed to bring back the magic,” Dillon said with a look toward Blaine. “I’m not sure what else they took with them, or whether it was helpful, but I’ll bet those sacks are full of the items they wanted to come back for.”
Blaine could guess. Lanyon Penhallow was a talishte, an immortal vampire who had existed for centuries. Bevin Connor, once the assistant to Lord Garnoc before the Cataclysm, had become Penhallow’s mortal servant. Both Connor and Penhallow had tracked down several of the obsidian disks that played an important role in helping Blaine restore the magic at Valshoa and bind it once more to the will of men. If Penhallow had gone to the trouble of gathering and safeguarding other artifacts, Blaine was willing to believe they were valuable enough to be worth the risk to retrieve them.
“Let’s see what we have,” Xaffert said, pushing past Blaine toward a cloth bundle on the nearest table.
“These crypts are full of old power,” Dagur said. “Maybe, since the magic remains rather brittle, we might be safest handling the items as little as possible.” Balding and thin, perhaps in his fourth decade, Dagur looked more like a tavern master than a scholar, clad as he was in a serviceable woolen jacket, homespun trews, and sturdy boots.
Xaffert fixed his colleague with a glare. “I’m not going to let a few ghosts send me screaming,” he said with a sniff. “We’re better served knowing what Lord Penhallow and Alrik thought valuable enough to hide down here. That way, if we run into difficulties on the way back, we know what tools are at our disposal.”
“I agree with Dagur,” Zaryae said. “Even if the artifacts still work as they were intended, using them down here might attract unwanted attention.”
Xaffert’s contempt was clear in his face. “That’s probably prudent for you. What magic you have is untrained. Dagur and I are scholars and adepts, formally educated in the magic arts by the most powerful mages of our era. We’re quite well prepared to handle whatever arises.”
Blaine was not so sure that Dagur agreed with the older mage. Dagur remained a pace back from the table, and seemed happy to allow Xaffert to take the items out of the sacks as he surveyed the other items in the room.
“Take a look if you have to, but don’t spend all day doing it,” Piran grumbled. “I want to get aboveground.”
Xaffert examined the items from one of the sacks. Blaine stayed back a bit, as did the others, but from what he could see, the magical artifacts did not appear unusual. Half a dozen pieces now lay on the table: a silver chalice, a flat piece of burnished wood carved with sigils, a white-handled boline knife with a curved blade, a dark scrying mirror, a lavishly engraved bell, and a stone censer with carvings. By the lantern light, they looked quite ordinary.
“I find nothing wrong with these pieces, nothing at all,” Xaffert announced after a few moments. “In fact, I suspect that such basic tools cannot be subverted even by broken magic. It will be a pleasure to have these fine items in our study.”
“Just put the bloody things back in the sack and let’s get going,” Piran said. “We’ve been down here long enough already.”
Zaryae hung back. “The items may have been altered,” she said. “We must be careful.”
Dagur carefully gathered up the few small items that had spilled from the sacks. Even with the small amount of magic Blaine possessed, he could feel the jangle of power from the items in the room. Yet to him, the magic felt . . . out of kilter, like a painting hung askew. Piran, with no magic at all, kept his knife and sword at the ready, watching the door to the hallway. It seemed to Blaine that the shadows crowded more closely around them as they retreated to the corridor. Several times, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of motion, only to find nothing when he looked again. Blaine was on edge, and he wondered if the rest of his companions felt the same worrisome tingle in the air, which had grown icy cold.
“What in Raka is that?” Piran growled. Blue-green orbs of light bounced and bobbed, hurtling down the corridor toward the central rotunda, where several corridors led into a larger, open area. The sound of running footsteps echoed from the rock walls. Almstedt moved to stand in the doorway, and beckoned them to come.
“Something that isn’t ‘in’ Raka or the Sea of Souls anymore,” Kestel murmured, daggers raised. “And there are a lot of them, blocking the way back to Almstedt’s crypt.”
The orbs stretched into thin tendrils of light that swirled and shifted, taking on the forms of men, until two spectral armies faced off against each other in the wide chamber. Battle cries rang out as the ghostly soldiers hurtled toward each other, swords and axes raised, colliding with the muffled clang of armor. The combatants might be long dead, but the battle that played out in front of them was as fierce as any waged by living men.
Almstedt’s ghost stopped, barring them from approaching the fight. His raised sword made it clear that Almstedt intended to stand his ground. Going back the way they came was not an option.
“I was afraid of this,” Piran muttered. “Now what?”
“Dillon—any chance the entrance you and Alrik used to bring the items here is still open?” Blaine asked.
“The upper level where we entered has completely collapsed.”
“There’s got to be another way out,” Blaine said. He looked to Kestel. “How about you? You’re the spy. Any great ideas?”
“I heard rumors about secret passageways to the crypts, but I never personally found any,” she replied. “I didn’t know about the one we used to enter. As for others, even if we found them, are they passable, given how badly the castle was damaged?”
“Let’s see what we can find, and worry about the rest later,” Blaine said. “Gather up the sacks and whatever items Zaryae and Dagur thought worthy—let’s get moving.” Xaffert, Dagur, Dillon, and Zaryae gingerly loaded the artifacts into the satchels they had brought, leaving the others free to wield their swords if necessary.
Eager to move away from the spectral battle, Blaine and Piran headed in the opposite direction, back toward the vaults closer to the castle. Their lanterns barely lit their way in the gloom. Doorways opened on either side of the corridor, only to lead into crypts like Almstedt’s.
Finally, the corridor widened into another large rotunda filled with catafalques, some ancient and some much newer. The lanterns illuminated the figure that lay carved in marble atop the nearest tomb, and Kestel gasped. “Look,” she whispered, pointing. “It’s King Merrill.”
Merrill had been the king since before Blaine was born, and it was he who exiled them. But Merrill had probably never imagined that he would be the last king of Donderath, or that in his reign, the kingdom would burn, its magic would fail, and the people of an entire Continent would be reduced to desperate subsistence.
“We’ve got company,” Piran said in a low voice.
Blaine looked up to see a young man standing just beyond the torchlight. The man beckoned urgently even as the sounds of battle seemed to close in. Xaffert and Dagur started forward, but Blaine threw out a warning arm to halt them. “Wait. We don’t know whose side he’s on.”
Dillon maneuvered forward. “Yes we do,” he said triumphantly. “That’s Geddy. Thank the gods, it’s Geddy.” He turned to the others. “Seneschal Lynge’s assistant. He died down here. Now he’s come to help us.”
Blaine met Piran’s gaze and shrugged. Caught between threatening specters and a ghostly guide, they had little choice.
“Let’s hope he knows where we’re going, because those ghost soldiers are getting closer,” Blaine said. “Follow Geddy.”
Geddy’s ghost moved so quickly they were forced to run to keep him in sight. The ghost was tall and angular, with lank dark hair, all slender arms and legs, and although Blaine searched his memories, he could not recall having seen the young man at the castle. He hoped that they had read the ghost’s intentions correctly, and that he meant to get them to safety.
Geddy led them through the maze of corridors with confidence, while Blaine struggled to remember their course. The ground was rising under their feet, and they were moving in the right direction to be inside the castle, or at least the bailey walls.
The clang of metal against rock clattered through the empty corridors. Xaffert stood swearing over a jumble of artifacts that had spilled from his satchel. “Pick those things up and be quiet about it!” Blaine snapped.
“You’re loud enough to wake the dead, and down here, that’s a bad thing,” Piran muttered.
“Well, don’t just stand there—lend a hand!” Xaffert waved a hand at Dagur, whose expression made it clear he had no desire to handle the artifacts before their power was known. Reluctantly, Dagur withdrew a pair of gloves from his belt and gingerly helped place the objects once more into Xaffert’s satchel. Geddy’s ghost stood a little farther down the corridor, gesturing for them to hurry.
“Move faster, gents. Our guide’s a mite frantic for us to get going,” Piran urged. After a few more moments and another crash as Xaffert turned too quickly and his satchel hit the wall, Zaryae strode up to Xaffert. She pulled his bag away from him roughly enough to send his hat flying.
“By Torven’s horns! Just give it to me,” she demanded.
“You’re a disaster.” Xaffert’s protests were muted enough for Blaine to decide that the mage was quite happy having someone else carry the burden.
They had barely gone a dozen steps before Geddy’s ghost stopped beside a catafalque. He pointed toward the raised marble tomb, pantomiming moving its heavy carved lid aside.
“What’s he want us to do, climb in?” Piran’s skepticism was clear in his voice.
“I think that’s exactly what he means,” Kestel said. “Come on, get to it.”
Blaine, Piran, and Dillon set their shoulders to the heavy marble, and Blaine was surprised when it moved easily. He lifted his lantern and peered inside, expecting to see dry bones and rotted finery. Instead, he found stairs descending into darkness.
“In we go,” he said, stepping aside to allow Kestel and Zaryae to enter first.
“You expect me to climb into a crypt?” Xaffert huffed.
“You can do what you want,” Dillon said. “I’m saving my skin.”
Dagur pushed past Xaffert toward the escape route. “I don’t have a problem with it, actually,” he said. “Honestly, Xaffert, come along.”
“We’re not waiting on you,” Blaine warned. “Are you coming?”
Muttering, Xaffert followed the others. Piran waved Blaine on ahead of him.
Blaine paused in front of Geddy’s spirit. Up close, he could see the dark stains on the young man’s clothing where a sword had dealt a deathblow. “Thank you,” he said. Geddy inclined his head, then gestured toward the catafalque. Blaine climbed inside with Piran right behind him.
Behind them, Blaine heard the thud of boots on the stone floor and the clash of swords. A blue-white light flared, blindingly bright in the gloom of the crypt.
“Help me close this before the ghosts catch up.” Blaine nodded toward the handles carved in the bottom of the heavy lid. Together, he and Piran wrested the lid shut, sealing their spectral pursuers behind them.
“Let’s hope those ghosts can’t walk through walls,” Piran said, casting a wary glance overhead. He looked around. “Did anyone notice that Geddy didn’t come down with us?”
The catafalque steps led down to a narrow passage. A little maneuvering allowed Piran and Blaine to go first, with the mages taking up the rear.
Dillon, just behind Blaine, held his lantern aloft. “I think I know where this leads,” he said. “And besides, there’s only one way to go.”
They ran along the passageway, stumbling on the uneven floor. The bulky satchels of artifacts were an encumbrance, but too many lives had been lost protecting the items for Blaine to be willing to leave them behind. He ran, expecting any moment to feel a ghostly sword in his back. But the noise of battle receded as they got farther from the crypts, replaced by the sound of their labored breathing.
After a few hundred steps, the passage came to an abrupt end, facing a stone wall with jutting stones offering a ladder upward. “Do you know where we’ll come out?” Blaine asked.
Dillon looked uncertain. “Maybe. Late one night, I saw Sir Alrik in the hallway by the exchequer’s office. I had to go in the same direction, and when I turned the corner, he was gone. All the doors were locked and the hallway ended in a storage room, so he shouldn’t have been able to disappear like that.”
He paused. “I think there’s a panel, somewhere in that corridor, that opens into a hidden passage.”
“Yeah, but there’s no telling whether it’s this hidden passage,” Piran said.
“Or whether we’re coming up under a portion of the castle that’s collapsed,” Blaine added.
“We’ll know soon enough,” Kestel said from behind him. “Just climb.”
A dark landing at the top of the ladder ended in a blank wooden wall. Dillon edged to the front, and he began to run his hands over the wood. A quiet snick of a latch opening brought a smile of triumph. “Got it,” he said, and pushed on the door. It stuck, barely a hand’s width open. “It’s blocked,” Dillon said. Blaine and Piran squeezed forward and put their shoulders against the door. The first shove won an additional inch as the sound of wood grating on rock made it clear what was barring their progress. On the next push, Dagur and Dillon added their weight, shoving the door open far enough that Kestel could slip through.
“It looks like a butler’s closet,” she said, sheathing her knife and holding aloft the lantern Blaine passed to her. “There’s no one here—and it looks like no one’s been here for quite a while.” She pushed against the wooden crate that blocked the door, and managed to dislodge it, letting the door open to nearly its full span.
“Come on in,” she said with a grin as the others stepped out.
Blaine glanced around the room at the shelves that had once held neat stacks of linens for the castle housekeepers. The closet was now a ransacked mess.
“A lot of manors have hiding places—even whole hidden rooms—in case of attack,” Kestel said. “Looks like we’ve stumbled upon one of Glenreith’s secrets.”
Dillon nodded. “This is where I lost sight of Sir Alrik that night,” he said. “It doesn’t look as if anyone’s been in here, so I doubt Reese and Pollard found it.” He smiled. “What do you know? Geddy got us out.”
Piran had crossed to the pantry’s door and into the corridor,only to find their way blocked by rubble where part of the ceiling had collapsed. “We’ve got another problem,” he said with a sigh. “Since no one knows we’re here, no one’s going to come dig us out.”
“If we straighten up the things that fell, we should have room to move a lot of rock out of the way,” Kestel said. She placed the lantern on one of the shelves and then bent to pick up a stack of linens, which she thrust against Xaffert’s chest.
“Here,” she said. “Be useful. Put those on the shelves, and come back for another load.”
Xaffert stammered indignantly. “Now, see here—”
Before he could complete his outburst, Kestel dropped the linens and pressed one of her knives against the mage’s throat. “No, you see here,” she said in a dangerously pleasant voice. “Either you pull your weight and help move the rocks or we seal you back in that passage and leave you to the ghost soldiers.” Her smile was jarringly at odds with her words. “And since no one else knows about the passageway, no one will find you.”
Xaffert paled. “All right,” he said, “but I must protest your methods.”
Kestel sheathed her knife and shoved the linens into his arms. “Protest away. Just keep moving.”
Dillon and Zaryae moved to help get the closet’s contents back onto the shelves and out of the way. Blaine, Piran, and Dagur created a human chain, handing one stone after another into the room to be stacked against the far wall. After several candlemarks, they had cleared an opening large enough for each of them to hand out the satchels of artifacts and then wiggle through to the other side. It was nearly morning by the time they made their way back to camp.
Kestel seemed to take it all in stride and dusted herself off matter‑of‑factly, while Zaryae murmured a prayer to the gods. Dagur looked pale and flustered by the ordeal. Xaffert was still sulking. Piran was regaling Dillon with jokes, each one bawdier than the last. Blaine breathed a sigh of relief and turned to Xaffert and Dagur.
“Call the rest of your mages together and let’s get an idea of why Penhallow and Alrik thought these artifacts were important,” Blaine said. “I just want to know whether or not they still work and whether they’re safe to take back to Glenreith.”
“Must we work with them immediately?” Dagur asked. “My books and scrolls are at Glenreith. I’d feel safer working on them there.”
“How many times do I have to tell you that, for a mage of power, these items simply pose no danger, even with the new magic?” Xaffert said, exasperation edging his voice. He snatched one of the bags from Dillon and thrust his hand inside, coming up with the dark scrying mirror.
“I really don’t think—” Dagur began.
“Take this, for example.” Xaffert brandished the mirror like a trophy. “Perhaps you’d like to know whether our road will be clear? Let me have a look.”
Zaryae tried to intervene. “Don’t! I can feel the power—it’s all wrong.”
“Nonsense,” Xaffert said with a dismissive gesture. “That’s like saying that a hammer doesn’t work the way it used to. These are mere tools. What matters is the skill of the user.”
“The items may be damaged,” Zaryae cautioned. “We should be careful.”
Xaffert regarded Zaryae before speaking. “My colleagues and I mastered all manner of magical items at the University. I’m quite certain that we can handle the pieces safely, even if the Cataclysm altered them.”
“Perhaps we should take this slowly,” Dagur cautioned. “We should set a warded circle for protection.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Xaffert replied. He held the dark mirror in front of him in both hands, and his lips moved silently. Blaine felt the tingle of power grow to a roar and it coalesced around the mage, but the magic felt brittle and wild. The air crackled and sparked around Xaffert, who laughed. As the mirror’s images changed, his laughter grew fraught with tension until it became heaving breaths.
The mirror’s surface glowed, illuminating Xaffert’s face caught in an expression of absolute horror. Blood streamed from his nose, mouth, and ears and his laughter changed to a shriek of pain. Before anyone had a chance to intervene, Xaffert fell to the ground, the mirror still clutched in his hand.
Dagur and Zaryae rushed toward Xaffert, while Piran used a stick to knock the mirror from Xaffert’s fingers. “Is he dead?” Blaine asked. He felt disoriented and light-headed as his head pounded. He swayed on his feet before steadying himself against the wall, while trying to keep a worried eye on the mirror, which now lay dim and inert beside the mage.
Dagur knelt beside Xaffert, and his expression grew queasy. “Most definitely. It looks as if his eyes and everything behind them have been burned out.”
“Let me make something very clear,” Blaine said, fixing Dagur with a look. “I’m willing to give you and your mages sanctuary in exchange for your expertise. But I need to be able to trust you—and that means that you’d better be right when you give me your word on whether or not something is safe to use.”
Dagur stood and squared his shoulders. “Unlike Xaffert, when I give you my word, you can stake your life on it.”
“I am,” Blaine replied. “We all are. And that’s why you’d damn well better be right.”